Her eyes widened and her lips parted as if to say something, but in the end, she just pulled away. “Lady Danbury has been very good to me," she said, her voice catching. “There is no way I could ever repay her many kindnesses."
James had never before heard his gruff, outspoken aunt referred to as kind. The ton respected her, feared her, even laughed at her cutting jokes, but never before had he seen the love he felt for the woman who had quite possibly saved his soul reflected in another's eyes.
And then his body became completely foreign to him and he felt himself moving forward. He wasn't controlling the motion; it was almost as if some higher power had entered his form, causing his hand to reach out and cup the back of Elizabeth's head, his fingers sliding into the silk of her hair as he pulled her to him, closer, closer, and then ...
And then his lips were on hers, and whatever mesmerizing force had caused him to kiss her fled, and all that was left was him—him and an overpowering need to possess her in every way a man could possess a woman.
As one hand sank ever deeper into her hair, the other snaked around her, settling into the delicate curve at the small of her back. He could feel her beginning to respond to him. She was a total innocent, but she was softening, and her heart was beginning to beat faster, and then his heart started to pound.
"My God, Elizabeth," he gasped, moving his mouth to her cheek, and then to her ear. "I want... I want..."
His voice must have woken up something within her, because she stiffened, and he heard her whisper, "Oh, no."
James wanted to hold on to her. He wanted to slide her to the ground and kiss her until she had lost all reason, but he must have been more honorable than he'd ever imagined, because he let her go the instant she began to pull away.
She stood across from him for several seconds, looking more shocked than anything else. One tiny hand was clasped over her mouth, and her eyes were wide and unblinking. "I never thought..." she murmured into her hand. "I can't believe ..."
"You can't believe what?"
She shook her head. "Oh, this is awful."
That was a bit more than his ego could bear. "Well, now, I wouldn't say—"
But she had already run off.
Elizabeth arrived at Danbury House the following morning with one overriding goal in mind: to stay as far away from James Siddons as humanly possible.
He had kissed her. He had actually kissed her. Worse, she had let him. And even worse, she had run off like a coward—all the way home. Only once in all her years as Lady Danbury "s companion had she ever cried off work early, and that was when she'd had a lung fever. Even then, she had tried to remain at her post, leaving only when Lady Danbury had threatened to care for her herself.
But this time all it took was one kiss from one handsome man, and she was sniveling like a ninny. Elizabeth had been so mortified by her actions that she'd sent Lucas back to Danbury House with a note for Lady D explaining that she was feeling quite ill. It wasn't entirely a lie, Elizabeth reasoned. She'd been hot and flushed, and her stomach had felt altogether queer.
Besides, the alternative to lying was death by mortification. All in all, it took Elizabeth very little time to decide that her little fib was entirely justified.
She'd spent the evening holed up in her room, obsessively poring over HOW TO MARRY A MARQUIS. There weren't too many references to kissing. Mrs. Seeton obviously thought that anyone who'd been smart enough to purchase her book was smart enough to know that one was not supposed to kiss a gentleman to whom one did not have a deep and potentially lasting connection.
And one certainly shouldn't enjoy it.
Elizabeth groaned, remembering all this. So far the day was progressing like any other, except for the fact that she had looked over her shoulder so many times that Lady Danbury had asked if she had developed a nervous tic.
Embarrassment forced her to stop twisting her neck, but she still jumped a little every time she heard footsteps.
She tried to tell herself that it shouldn't be terribly difficult to avoid him. Mr. Siddons must have a thousand duties as estate manager, nine hundred of which required his presence outside. So if Elizabeth just barricaded herself in Danbury House, she ought to be safe. And if he decided to pursue the odd task that took him indoors ... well, then, she was certain she could find some reason to leave the house and enjoy the warm English sunshine.
And then it started to rain.
Elizabeth's forehead fell against the glass of the sitting room window with a dull thud. "This can't be happening," she muttered. "This simply cannot be happening."
"What can't be happening?" Lady Danbury asked briskly. "The rain? Don't be a nodcock. This is England. Hence, it must be raining."
"But not today," Elizabeth sighed. "It was so sunny this morning when I walked over."
"Since when has that ever made a difference?"
"Since ..." She shut her eyes and swallowed a groan. Anyone who'd lived her whole life in Surrey ought to know that one could not depend on a sunny morning. "Oh, never mind. It's not important."
"Are you worried about getting home? Don't be. I'll have someone drive you home. You shouldn't expose yourself to the elements so soon after an illness." Lady Danbury's eyes narrowed. "Although I must say you look remarkably recovered."
"I don't feel remarkably recovered," Elizabeth said, quite honestly.
"What did you say was wrong with you?"
"My stomach," she mumbled. "I think it was something I ate."
"Hmmph. No one else fell sick. Can't imagine what you ate. But if you spent the afternoon casting up your accounts—"
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