James's lips parted in surprise as she stalked off. Hang it all, he hadn't meant to offend her. "Elizabeth, wait!"
She stopped and turned around, probably more surprised by his use of her given name than she was by his outburst. Hell, he had surprised himself. It was just that she had occupied his thoughts for days, and he'd begun to think of her as Elizabeth, and—
"Yes?" she finally said.
"I'll come with you."
She gave him a rather annoyed look. “You do know how to be quiet, don't you? I don't want her catching us spying on her."
James's lips began to twitch, and it was all he could do not to burst out laughing. "You may feel confident that I shall not give us away," he said with full gravity. "I pride myself on being a rather good spy."
She scowled. "That's an odd statement. And— I say, are you all right?''
“Right as rain, why?''
"You look as if you're about to sneeze."
He caught sight of a floral arrangement and mentally latched on to it. "Flowers always make me sneeze."
"You didn't sneeze yesterday in the rose garden."
He cleared his throat and thought fast. "Those aren't roses," he said, pointing at the vase.
"Either way, I can't take you along," she said with a dismissive nod. "There are flowers all along the perimeter of the garden. I can't have you sneezing every two minutes."
"Oh, I won't," he said quickly. "Only cut flowers do this to me."
Her eyes narrowed suspiciously. “I have never heard of such an affliction."
“Neither have I. Never met anyone else who reacts the same way. It must be something in the stem. Something that... ah ... releases into the air when the stem is cut."
She gave him another dubious look, so he embellished the tale by saying, “It gives me a devil of a time when I'm courting a lady. God help me if I attempt to offer her flowers."
"Very well," she said briskly. "Come along. But if you botch this—"
"I won't," he assured her.
"If you botch this," she repeated, louder this time, "I shall never forgive you."
He let his head and shoulders dip slightly forward in a small bow. "Lead the way, Miss Hotchkiss."
She took a few steps, then stopped and turned around, her blue eyes turning just a little bit hesitant. "Earlier, you called me Elizabeth."
"Forgive me," he murmured. "I overstepped."
James watched the play of emotion across her face. She wasn't certain whether to allow him the liberty of her given name. He could see her naturally friendly nature battling with her need to keep him at arm's length. Finally she tightened the corners of her mouth and said, “It is of no great import. We servants are not terribly formal here at Danbury House. If the cook and butler call me Elizabeth, you may as well, too."
James felt his heart fill with a rather absurd satisfaction. "Then you must call me James," he replied.
"James." She tested it out on her tongue, then added, “I should never refer to you as such, of course, if someone asked after you."
"Of course not. But if we are alone, there is no need to stand on occasion."
She nodded. "Very well, Mr.—" She smiled sheepishly. "James. We should be on our way."
He followed her through a maze of hallways; she insisted on taking a circuitous route so as not to rouse Lady Danbury's suspicions. James didn't see how their presence in the ballroom, breakfast room, and hothouse all in one morning could cause anything but suspicion, but he kept his thoughts to himself. Elizabeth was clearly taking a quiet satisfaction in her position as leader, and besides, he was rather enjoying the view from the rear.
When they finally emerged in the open air, they were on the east side of the house, close to the front, about as far away from the garden as possible. "We could have exited through the French doors in the music room," Elizabeth explained, “but this way we can make our way behind those hedges and follow them all the way around."
"An excellent idea," he murmured, following her around the back of the hedges. The shrubbery stood twelve feet tall, completely shielding them from view of the house. To his great surprise, as soon as Elizabeth turned that corner around the back of the hedges, she started running. Well, perhaps not running, but she was certainly moving somewhere between a brisk walk and a trot.
His legs were much longer than hers, though, and all he needed to do to keep up was lengthen his stride. "Are we truly in such a rush?" he inquired.
She turned around but did not stop walking. "I'm very worried about Lady Danbury," she said, then resumed her hurried pace.
James viewed this time alone with Elizabeth as an excellent opportunity to study her, but his pragmatic sensibilities still forced him to comment, "Surely life at Danbury House is not so mundane that the oddest occurrence of the summer is a woman of six and sixty taking a nap."
She whirled around again. "I'm sorry if you find my company dull, but if you recall, you were not forced to accompany me."
"Oh, your company is anything but dull," he said, flashing her his smoothest smile. "I simply do not understand the gravity of the situation."
She skidded to a halt, planted her hands on her hips, and leveled at him her sternest stare.
"You'd make a rather good governess with a stance like that," he quipped.
"Lady Danbury never takes naps," she ground out, positively glaring at him after that comment. "She lives and breathes routine. Two eggs and three pieces of toast for breakfast. Every day. Thirty minutes of embroidery. Every day. Correspondence is sorted and answered at three in the afternoon. Every day. And—''
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