At first it had seemed odd that she should be the blackmailer. After all, she couldn't be very much older than twenty. She certainly wasn't older than Melissa, who was nearly thirty-two. So she couldn't have any firsthand knowledge of Lady Danbury's extramarital affair.

But she had lived her entire life in the region; she had said so herself. Perhaps her parents had passed on a confidence. Secrets had a way of lingering in small towns for years.

Not to mention that Miss Hotchkiss had free run of Danbury House. If Aunt Agatha had left any incriminating evidence about, no one was more likely to come across it than her companion.

No matter which way he turned, he was led back to Miss Elizabeth Hotchkiss.

But if he wanted to learn her secrets, he had to make her trust him. Or at the very least, lower her guard enough so that she might let the occasional confidence slip through those delectable pink lips of hers. It seemed to him that the best way to do this was to ask for her assistance. Her sort of woman was polite to a fault. There was no way she would say no if he asked her to help him acquaint himself with the neighborhood. Even if she was the blackmailer—and thus selfish to the core—she had appearances to maintain. Miss Elizabeth Hotchkiss, companion to the Countess of Danbury, could not afford to be seen as anything less than gracious and kind.

"Perhaps you realize that I am new to the area," he began.

She nodded slowly, her eyes wary.

"And you told me yesterday that you have lived in this village your entire life,"

"Yes..."

He smiled warmly. "I find myself in need of a guide of sorts. Someone to show me the sights. Or, at the very least, to tell me about them."

She blinked. "You want to see the sights? What sights?"

Damn. She had him there. It wasn't as if the village were brimming with culture and history. "Perhaps 'sights' isn't the best choice of words," he improvised. "But each village has its own little quirks, and if I am to be effective as manager of the largest estate in the district, I need to be aware of such things."

"That's true," she said, nodding thoughtfully. "Of course, I'm not certain what precisely you would need to know, as I've never managed an estate. And one would think that you, also, would be at a loss, since you have never managed an estate before, either."

He looked at her sharply. "I never said that."

She stopped walking. "Didn't you? Yesterday, when you said you were from London."

"I said I hadn't been managing estates in London. I did not say that I had not done so prior to that."

"I see." She turned her head to the side and looked at him assessingly. "And where were you managing estates, if not in London?''

She was testing him, the damnable chit. Why, he wasn't certain, but she was definitely testing him. But he wasn't about to let her trip him up. James Sidwell had immersed himself in disguise more times than he could count, and he had never slipped. "Buckinghamshire," he said. "That is where I grew up."

"I have heard it is beautiful there," she said politely. "Why did you leave?"

"The usual reasons."

"Which are?"

"Why are you so curious?"

She shrugged. "I'm always curious. Ask anyone."

He paused and plucked a rose. "These are beautiful, aren't they?"

"Mr. Siddons," she said with an exaggerated sigh, "I fear there is something you do not know about me."

James felt his body tense, waiting for whatever admission was forthcoming.

"I have three younger siblings."

He blinked. What the hell did that have to do with anything?

"Hence," she continued, smiling at him in such a way that he was no longer quite so sure that she was up to anything other than amusing conversation, "I am quite proficient in recognizing when a person is evading a question. In fact, my younger siblings would call me frighteningly proficient."

"I'm sure they would," he muttered.

"However," she continued personably, "you are not one of my siblings, and you are certainly under no obligation to share your past with me. We all have a right to our private feelings."

"Er, yes," he said, wondering if maybe she was nothing more than what she seemed—a nice young country-bred miss.

She smiled up at him again. "Have you any siblings, Mr. Siddons?"

"I? No. None. Why?"

"As I said, I am endlessly curious. A person's family can reveal a great deal about his character."

"And what does your family reveal about your character, Miss Hotchkiss?"

"That I am loyal, I suppose. And that I would do anything for my brother and sisters."

Including blackmail? He leaned toward her, barely an inch, but it was still enough to make her lower lip tremble. James took a primitive satisfaction in that.

She just stared at him, obviously too inexperienced to know how to handle such a predatory male. Her eyes were huge, and the clearest, darkest blue James had ever seen.

His heart began to beat faster.

"Mr. Siddons?"

His skin turned hot.

"Mr. Siddons?"

He was going to have to kiss her. That's all there was to it. It was the stupidest, most ill-advised idea he'd had in years, but there didn't seem to be anything he could do to stop himself. He moved in, closing the gap between them, savoring the anticipation of the moment his lips would land on hers, and—

"Eep!"

What the hell?

She made some sort of nervous chirping sound and jerked away, her arms flailing.

And then she slipped—in what, he didn't know, since the ground was dry as bone, but she waved her arms madly to keep from falling to the ground, and in the process smacked him under the chin. Hard.

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