Which was exactly how James felt when he sat up straight in his bed, the light of morning just beginning to touch the horizon. He was vaguely dizzy, breathing hard, and he had only one thing on his mind.
* * *
When Elizabeth arrived at Danbury House that morning, she was frowning. She had sworn that she wasn't going to do as much as look at the cover of HOW TO MARRY A MARQUIS, but when she'd arrived home the previous day, she'd found the book laying on her bed, its bright red binding practically daring her to open it.
Elizabeth had told herself she was just going to take one peek; all she wanted to do was see if there was something about being witty and making a man laugh, but before she knew it, she was sitting on the edge of her bed, engrossed.
And now she had so many rules and regulations floating around her head she was positively dizzy. She wasn't to flirt with married men, she wasn't supposed to try to give a man advice, but she was supposed to give a suitor the cut direct if he forgot her birthday.
"Thank heavens for small favors," she murmured to herself as she entered Danbury House's great hall. Her birthday was more than nine months away, far enough in the future so as not to disrupt courtships she might possibly—
Oh, for goodness' sake. What was she thinking? She'd told herself she wasn't going to let Mrs. Seeton tell her what to do, and here she was—
"You look rather serious this morning."
Elizabeth looked up with a start. "Mr. Siddons," she said, her voice squeaking a bit on the first syllable of his name. "How lovely to see you."
He bowed. "The feeling, I assure you, is mutual."
She smiled tightly, suddenly feeling very awkward in this man's presence. They had dealt together quite famously the day before, and Elizabeth had even felt that they might call themselves friends, but that was before ...
She coughed. That was before she'd stayed up half the night thinking about him.
He immediately held out his handkerchief.
Elizabeth felt herself blush and prayed it wasn't too obvious. "It's not necessary," she said quickly. "I was just clearing my throat."
"That would be Lady Danbury," Mr. Siddons murmured, not even bothering to turn toward the sound.
Elizabeth stifled a commiserating grin and turned her head. Sure enough, Lady Danbury was at the other end of the hall, thumping her cane. Malcolm was on the floor next to her, smirking.
"Good morning, Lady Danbury," Elizabeth said, immediately making her way toward the older woman. "How are you feeling?"
"Like I'm seventy-two years old," she retorted.
"Well, that's unfortunate," Elizabeth replied with a perfectly straight face, "since I have it on the best of accounts that you are no more than sixty-seven."
"Impertinent chit. You know very well I'm sixty-six."
Elizabeth hid her smile. "Do you need assistance getting to the drawing room? Have you eaten yet this morning?''
“Had two eggs already and three pieces of toast, and I don't want to sit in the drawing room this morning."
Elizabeth blinked in surprise. She and Lady Danbury spent every morning in the drawing room. And of Lady D's many lectures, her most favorite was on the prophylactic qualities of routine.
"I have decided to sit in the garden," Lady D announced.
"Oh," Elizabeth said. "I see. That's a lovely idea. The air is quite fresh this morning, and the breeze is rather—''
"I am going to take a nap."
That announcement completely robbed Elizabeth of speech. Lady Danbury frequently dozed off, but she never admitted to it, and she certainly never used the word "nap."
“Do you need assistance walking to the garden?'' Mr. Siddons asked. "I would be happy to accompany you."
Elizabeth jumped a few inches. She'd completely forgotten his presence.
"Not at all," Lady D said crisply. "I don't move very quickly these days, but I'm not dead. Come along, Malcolm." Then she hobbled away, Malcolm trotting along at her side.
Elizabeth just stared after them, one hand clapped to her cheek in shock.
"It's truly remarkable how well she's trained her cat," James said.
Elizabeth turned to him, a stunned look on her face. “Does she seem ill to you?"
She waved her arms awkwardly in the direction of Lady Danbury's retreating form, completely unable to verbalize the extent of her shock.
James regarded her with an amused expression. "Is it so very odd that she might wish to take a nap in the garden? The weather is fine."
"Yes!" she said, concern making her voice overloud. "This is very strange."
"Well, I'm sure she—"
"I tell you, it's strange." Elizabeth shook her head. "I don't like this. I don't like this one bit."
He cocked his head and gave her an assessing glance. "What do you propose we do?"
She squared her shoulders. "I'm going to spy on her."
"You're going to watch her sleep?" he asked dubiously.
“Do you have any better ideas?''
“Better than watching an elderly woman sleep? Well, yes, actually, if hard-pressed I believe I could come up with one or two pastimes that would be—''
"Oh, shush!" she said irritatedly. "I don't need your assistance, anyway."
James smiled. "Had you asked for it?"
"As you so kindly pointed out," she said with a lofty lift of her chin, "it isn't so terribly difficult to watch an old woman sleep. I'm sure you have other, more important duties. Good day."
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