* * *
She was wrong. So very, very wrong. He was waiting for her at the front door.
"Miss Hotchkiss," he said, his voice so amiable that Elizabeth couldn't quite trust it, "it is a pleasure to see you again."
Elizabeth found herself torn between the desire to flee into the house and the urge to wipe his confident smile right off of his face. Pride won out. She raised one of her blond brows in a supercilious gesture she'd learned from Lady Danbury and said, quite acidly, "Is it?"
One corner of his mouth tilted upward, but one couldn't really call it a smile. "You don't seem to believe me."
Elizabeth let out a long breath between pursed lips. What the devil was she supposed to do now? She'd sworn to herself that she wasn't going to practice any more HOW TO MARRY A MARQUIS edicts on this man. He was clearly far too well versed in the art of flirting to be taken in by any of her pathetic attempts.
And after yesterday's turnip debacle, he probably thought her a complete ninny. Which begged the question: What the devil did he want with her now?
"Miss Hotchkiss," he began, after waiting in vain for her to make a comment, "I had merely hoped that we might develop a friendship of sorts. After all, we will be working together here at Danbury House for some time to come. And we both occupy those governesslike in-between posts—a bit too well-bred to mingle with the servants, yet certainly not part of the family."
She considered his words—or, to be more precise, his tone, which was suspiciously friendly. Then she regarded his face, which appeared to be equally kind and amiable.
Except for his eyes. There was something lurking in those chocolaty depths. Something ... knowing.
“Why are you being so nice to me?'' she blurted out.
He started, letting out a little cough as he did so. "I'm sure I don't know what you mean."
She pointed her finger and wagged it slowly. “I know what you're about, so don't try to fool me."
That caused him to raise a brow, which annoyed her, because he had obviously mastered the look better than she had. He said, "I beg your pardon?"
"You're very charming, you know."
His lips parted slightly, and then, after a brief moment of silence, he said, “I find myself with nothing to say but 'thank you.' "
"It wasn't necessarily a compliment."
“But it might have been?'' he asked teasingly.
She shook her head. "You want something from me."
"Only your friendship."
"No, you want something, and you're trying to charm me into getting it."
"Is it working?"
He sighed. "Pity. It usually does."
"You admit it, then?"
"I suppose I must." He held up his hands in defeat. "But if you want me to answer your questions, you're required to humor me and stroll the grounds with me for a few minutes."
She shook her head. Going anywhere alone with this man was a huge mistake. “I can't. Lady Danbury is expecting me."
He flipped open his pocket watch. "Not for another quarter hour."
"And how do you know that?" she demanded.
“Perhaps you recall that I was hired to manage her affairs?''
"But you're not her secretary." Elizabeth crossed her arms. “Estate managers don't set schedules for their employers."
Perhaps she was imagining it, but his eyes seemed to grow warmer and more intense, "I have always found," he said, "that there is nothing so powerful as good information. Lady Danbury is an exacting woman. It seemed prudent to acquaint myself with her schedule so as not to disrupt it."
Elizabeth pursed her lips. He was right, drat the man! The very first thing she herself had done upon entering Lady D's employ was memorize her schedule.
"I can see you agree with me, reluctant though you are to compliment me by admitting it."
She glared at him. Really, this man was beyond arrogant.
"Come, now," he said coaxingly. "Surely you can spare a few moments to help a newcomer to the area."
"Very well," Elizabeth replied, quite unable to refuse when he phrased his request as a plea for help. She had never been able to turn away from anyone in need. "I shall walk with you. But you may only have ten minutes of my time."
"A most generous lady," he murmured, and took her arm.
Elizabeth swallowed as his hand looped around the crook of her elbow. She felt it again—that odd, breathy awareness that enveloped her whenever he was near. And the worst part was that he looked as cool and composed as ever.
"Perhaps we could take a short turn through the rose garden?" he suggested.
She nodded, quite unable to say anything else. The heat from his hand had traveled up her arm, and she seemed to have forgotten how to breathe.
She swallowed and found her voice. "Yes?"
"I hope I am not making you uncomfortable by seeking you out."
"Not at all," she squeaked.
"Good," James said with a smile. "It is merely that I did not know to whom else to turn." He glanced over at her. Her cheeks were stained delightfully pink.
They said nothing as their steps took them through the stone arch that led into the rose garden. James steered her to the right, past Danbury House's famous Scarlet Scotch Roses, which bloomed in a brilliant display of pink and yellow. He leaned down to smell one, stalling for time while he figured out how best to proceed from here.
He had thought about her all night and well into the morning. She was clever, and she was definitely up to something. He had spent enough time ferreting out secret plots to know when a person was acting suspiciously. And his every instinct told him that Miss Hotchkiss had been behaving out of character the day before.
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