Her restraint in the face of his aunt's whimsies was nothing short of awe-inspiring. James would have lost his temper by noon. Miss Hotchkiss was still smiling when she left Danbury House at four in the afternoon.
James watched from the window as she strolled down the drive. Her head was bobbing slightly from side to side, and he had the strangest, warmest feeling that she was singing to herself. Without thinking, he started to whistle.
"What's that tune?"
He looked up. His aunt was standing in the doorway of her drawing room, leaning heavily on her cane.
"Nothing to which you'd want to know the words," he said with a rakish smile.
"Nonsense. If it's naughty, then I certainly want to know it."
James chuckled. "Aunt Agatha, I didn't tell you the words when you caught me humming that sailors' ditty when I was twelve, and I'm certainly not about to tell you the words to this one."
"Hmmph." She thumped her cane and turned around. "Come and keep me company while I have tea."
James followed her into the drawing room and took a seat across from her. "Actually," he began, "I'm pleased you invited me to join you. I've been meaning to talk to you about your companion."
"Yes," he said, trying to sound disinterested. "Petite, blond."
Agatha smiled knowingly, her pale blue eyes crafty as ever. "Ah, so you noticed."
James pretended not to understand. "That her hair is blond? It would be difficult to miss, Aunt."
"I meant that she is cute as a button and you know it."
"Miss Hotchkiss is certainly attractive," he said, "but—"
"But she isn't your sort of woman," she finished for him. "I know." She looked up. "I forget how you take your tea."
James narrowed his eyes. Aunt Agatha never forgot anything. "Milk, no sugar," he said suspiciously. "And why would you think Miss Hotchkiss isn't my sort of woman?''
Agatha shrugged delicately and poured. "She has a rather understated elegance, after all."
James paused. “I believe you may have just insulted me."
"Well, you must admit that other woman was a trifle ... ah, shall we say..." She handed him his tea. "Overblown?"
"What other woman?"
"You know. The one with the red hair and the ..." She lifted her hands to the level of her chest and started making vague, circular motions. "You know."
"Aunt Agatha, she was an opera singer!"
"Well," she sniffed. "You certainly shouldn't have introduced her to me."
"I didn't," James said tightly. "You came barreling down the street at me with all of the discretion of a cannonball."
"If you're going to insult me—"
"I tried to avoid you," he cut in. "I tried to escape, but no, you were having none of it."
She placed a dramatic hand on her breast. "Pardon me for being a concerned relative. We've been after you to marry for many years now, and I merely wondered after your companion."
James took a steadying breath, trying to unclench the muscles in his shoulders. No one had the ability to make him feel like a green boy of sixteen like his aunt. "I believe," he said firmly, "that we were discussing Miss Hotchkiss."
"Ah, yes!" Agatha took a sip of her tea and smiled. "Miss Hotchkiss. A lovely girl. And so levelheaded. Not like these flighty London misses I keep meeting at Almacks. To spend an evening there one would think that intelligence and common sense had been completely bred out of the British population.''
James agreed with her completely on that point, but now really wasn't the time to discuss it. "Miss Hotchkiss ... ?" he reminded her.
His aunt looked up, blinked once, and said, "I don't know where I would be without her."
"Perhaps five hundred, pounds wealthier?" he suggested.
Agatha's teacup clattered loudly in its saucer. "Surely you don't suspect Elizabeth."
"She does have access to your personal effects," he pointed out. “Could you have saved anything that might be incriminating? For all you know, she has been snooping through your things for years."
"No," she said in a quiet voice that somehow screamed authority. "Not Elizabeth. She would never do such a thing."
“Pardon me, Aunt, but how can you be certain?''
She impaled him with a glance. "I believe you are aware that I am a good judge of character, James. As proof, that should suffice."
"Of course you're a good judge of character, Agatha, but—"
She held up a hand. “Miss Hotchkiss is all that is good and kind and true, and I refuse to listen to another disparaging word."
"If you don't believe me, spend a little time with the girl. You will see that I am correct."
James sat back, satisfied. "I'll do just that."
* * *
He dreamed about her that night.
She was bent over that damned red book of hers, her long blond hair loose and shimmering like moonlight. She was wearing a virginal white nightgown that covered her from head to toe, but somehow he knew exactly what
she looked like underneath, and he wanted her so badly....
Then she was running from him, laughing over her shoulder as her hair streamed behind her, tickling his face whenever he drew close. But every time he reached out to touch her, she eluded his grasp. And every time he thought he was close enough to read the title on her little book, the gold-leaf lettering shifted and blurred, and he found himself stumbling and gasping for air.
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