"Malcolm?"

"He's on her lap."

"I don't care what the cat is doing."

His chin dipped down as he shot her a vaguely condescending look. "I didn't think you were."

"What is Lady Danbury doing?" Elizabeth ground out.

"Sleeping."

“Sleeping?''

"That is what she said she'd be doing, isn't it?"

She scowled at him. "I meant, is she sleeping normally? Is her breathing fitful? Does she seem to be moving about?"

"In her sleep?" he asked doubtfully.

"Don't be a nodcock. People move about in their sleep all the—" Her eyes narrowed. "Why are you smiling?"

James coughed to try to cover up his traitorous lips, and tried to remember the last time a woman had called him a nodcock. The ladies he'd met on his recent jaunt to London had been the simpering sort, complimenting him on his clothing, his face, his form. When one had actually gone so far as to compliment the slope of his forehead, he knew it was time to get away.

He'd never guessed, however, just how amusing it would be to be insulted by Elizabeth Hotchkiss.

"Why are you smiling?" she repeated impatiently.

"Was I smiling?"

"You know you were."

He leaned in far enough to cause her to catch her breath. "Do you want the truth?"

"Er, yes. The truth is almost always preferable."

"Almost?"

"Well, if the other choice is to needlessly hurt another's feelings," she explained, "then— Wait a moment! You're supposed to be answering my question."

"Ah, yes, the smile," he said. "It was the nodcock comment, actually."

"You're smiling because I insulted you?"

He shrugged and held out his hands in what he hoped was a rather charming gesture. "I'm not often insulted by women."

"Then you've been keeping company with the wrong sort of women," she muttered.

James let out a hoot of laughter.

"Be quiet," she hissed, yanking him away from the hedge. "She'll hear you."

"She's snoring loudly enough to summon a herd of sheep," he replied. "I doubt our little antics are going to rouse her."

Elizabeth shook her head, frowning. "I don't like this. She never takes naps. She always says it's unnatural."

James flashed her a grin, preparing to tease her yet again, but he held back when he saw the deep concern in her dark blue eyes. "Elizabeth," he said softly, "what is it you really fear?''

She let out a long sigh. “She might be ill. When people suddenly grow tired. .." She swallowed. "It can be a sign of illness."

He held silent for several moments before quietly asking, "Were your parents ill before they passed on?"

Her eyes flew to his, and he realized that she had been completely surprised by his question. "No," she said, blinking. "My mother was killed in a carriage accident, and my father..." She paused and looked away, her expression growing heartbreakingly strained until she finally said, "He wasn't ill."

More than anything he wanted to question her further, to find out why she wouldn't discuss her father's death. In a shocking flash, he realized he wanted to know everything about her.

He wanted to know her past, her present, and her future. He wanted to know if she spoke French, and did she like chocolates, and had she ever read Moliere.

Most of all, he wanted to know the secrets behind every tiny smile that crossed her face.

James almost took a step back at that. Never had he felt this kind of burning need to reach into the farthest corners of a woman's soul.

Elizabeth filled the awkward silence by asking, "Are your parents still living?''

"No," James replied. "My father died quite suddenly, actually. The doctor said it was his heart." He shrugged. "Or the lack thereof."

"Oh, dear," she blurted out.

"It's nothing," he said with a dismissive twist of his hand. "He wasn't a good man. I don't miss him and I don't mourn him."

The corners of her mouth tightened, but he thought he saw a hint of something—perhaps empathy?—in her eyes.

"My mother died when I was quite young," he added abruptly, not entirely certain why he was telling her this. "I barely remember her."

"I'm sorry," Elizabeth said softly. "I do hope it wasn't painful."

James feared that he hadn't been successful in keeping the answer from his eyes, because she just swallowed and said, "I'm sorry," again. He nodded in recognition of her sympathy but didn't say anything.

Elizabeth's eyes caught his for a. brief moment, and then she craned her neck to take another look at Lady Danbury. "It would kill me if Lady D were in pain. I just know she would never tell anyone. She can be insufferably proud. She'd never recognize affection and concern for what they are. All she'd see is pity."

James watched her watch his aunt and was suddenly struck by how petite Elizabeth was. The fields of DanburyPark stretched out behind her in an endless patchwork of green, and she seemed terribly small and alone against the vast expanse of land. The summer breeze lifted silky strands of blond hair from her bun, and without thinking James reached out and caught one, tucking it behind her ear.

Her breath caught, and she immediately raised a hand. Her fingers brushed against his knuckles, and he fought the most insane desire to clasp her hand in his. It would only take the tiniest movement of his fingers, and it was so exquisitely tempting, but he pulled his hand back and murmured, "Forgive me. The wind blew your hair."

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