"Are you certain?" Susan asked, her voice quiet.
"It's nothing," Elizabeth said quickly, turning away and looking out the window. Lucas and Jane were playing in the garden. They'd devised some game involving a piece of blue fabric tied to a stick and were squealing with glee.
Elizabeth swallowed, love and pride brimming within her. She ran her hand through her hair, her fingers stopping in place when she reached the top of her braid. "I'm sorry," she said to Susan. "I shouldn't have snapped at you like that."
"I don't mind," Susan said sympathetically. "You've been under a great deal of strain. I know that."
"It's just that I'm so worried." Elizabeth moved her hand to her forehead and rubbed. Suddenly she felt so tired and so very old. “What good is practicing my wiles upon Mr. Siddons when there aren't even any real marriage prospects to be found?"
"Lady Danbury invites visitors all the time," Susan said in an encouraging voice. "Doesn't she? And you told me that all her friends are rich and titled." .
"Yes, but she grants me my free days when she entertains. She says she has no need of my company when she has guests in residence."
"You'll just have to find a way around that. Concoct some reason why you need to visit. And what about this party at the end of the month? Didn't you say she always invites you to such functions?''
"It's to be a masquerade, actually. She informed me yesterday."
"Even better! We might not know enough to sew you a fashionable ball gown, but we can certainly manage a costume. You don't need to dress up as anyone fancy."
Susan moved her hands animatedly as she spoke, and for one odd moment Elizabeth thought she was looking at herself at fourteen—back when she'd thought anything was possible. Before her father had died and left her with mountains of responsibility. Before he had died and taken the innocence of her childhood along with him.
"We look so alike, you and I," she said in a small whisper.
Susan blinked. "I beg your pardon?"
"It's nothing. It's just..." Elizabeth paused and gave her sister a wistful smile. "It's just that sometimes our similar looks remind me how like you I used to be."
"And you're not any longer?"
"No, not really. Sometimes, just for a little bit, though." She leaned forward impulsively and kissed her sister's cheek. "Those are my very favorite moments."
Susan blinked back something that looked suspiciously like tears before assuming her usual businesslike mien. "We need to return to the matter at hand."
Elizabeth smiled. "I'd quite forgotten what that was."
"When," Susan asked with an impatient sigh, "is Lady Danbury next entertaining visitors? Not the masquerade. Just visitors."
"Oh, that," Elizabeth said grimly. "She's expecting people at the end of this week. I believe it is to be a small garden party. More of a gathering, really, than a formal party. I wrote out the invitations."
"How many will be arriving?"
“No more than ten or twelve, I think. It is only for the afternoon. We are close enough to London, after all, that people can make the trip to and from in one day."
"You must attend."
"Susan, I am not invited!"
"Surely that is only because she does not think you will accept. If you tell her—''
"I am not going to angle for an invitation," Elizabeth said hotly. "Even I have more pride than that."
"Can't you just leave something there by accident on Friday? Then you would have to return on Saturday to fetch it." Susan made a face that was more hopeful than convincing. "Maybe you would be invited to join in the festivities."
"And you don't think Lady Danbury will find that a trifle odd?" Elizabeth scoffed. "I've been her companion for five years now, and I've never forgotten any of my belongings before."
"Perhaps she will. Perhaps she won't." Susan shrugged. "But you won't know until you try. And you certainly won't find a husband if you hide yourself here all day."
"Oh, very well," Elizabeth said with great reluctance. "I shall do it. But only after I check the guest list, and then only if I can be certain that there will be an unmarried man in attendance. I'm not going to embarrass myself in front of Lady Danbury just to find that all of her guests are married."
Susan clapped her hands together. "Excellent! And in the meantime, you shall have to practice upon this Mr.—"
"No!" Elizabeth said loudly. "I will not."
"I said no. I will not seek this man out."
Susan raised her brows innocently. “Fine. There is no need for you to seek him out. Mrs. Seeton says one isn't supposed to do that sort of thing anyway. But if you should just happen upon him ..."
"That won't be likely, since I plan to avoid him as if he carried the plague."
"Just in case—"
"Susan!" Elizabeth leveled her sternest glare in her sister's direction.
“Very well, but if you—''
Elizabeth held up her hand. “Not another word, Susan. I am going to Danbury House right now, where 1 will attend to Lady Danbury, and only Lady Danbury. Have I made myself clear?"
Susan nodded, but she clearly didn't mean it.
"Good day, then. I am certain I shall have nothing to report when I return home." Elizabeth tramped to the front door and wrenched it open. “Today shall be so dull. Utterly, blessedly dull. I am sure of it. In fact, I probably will not see Mr. Siddons even from afar."
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