Elizabeth rose, walked over to the desk, and picked up the leather-bound ledger. "Here you are," she said, handing it to Lady Danbury.
The countess flipped the ledger open with military precision before looking back up at Elizabeth. “Thank you, my girl. I've a new estate manager arriving today and I want to get all these numbers memorized so I can be sure he isn't robbing me blind in a month's time."
"Lady Danbury," Elizabeth said with the utmost sincerity, "even the devil wouldn't dare to rob you blind."
Lady D thumped her cane by way of applause and laughed. "Well said, my girl. So nice to see a young one with a brain in the head. My own children— Well, bah, I'm not going to get into that now except to tell you that my son once got his head caught between the bars of the fence 'round WindsorCastle."
Elizabeth clapped her hand over her mouth in an effort to stifle a laugh.
"Oh, go ahead and giggle," Lady Danbury sighed. "I've found that the only way to avoid parental frustration is to view him as a source of amusement."
"Well," Elizabeth said carefully, "that does seem a wise course of action...."
"You'd make a fine diplomat, Lizzie Hotchkiss," Lady Danbury chortled. "Where's my baby?"
Elizabeth didn't even bat an eyelash. Lady D's abrupt changes of subject were legendary. "Your cat," she emphasized, "has been sleeping on the ottoman for the last hour," she said, pointing across the room.
Malcolm lifted his furry head, tried to focus his slightly crossed blue eyes, decided it wasn't worth the effort, and settled back down.
"Malcolm," Lady Danbury cooed, "come to Mama."
Malcolm ignored her.
"I have a treat for you."
The cat yawned, recognized Lady D as his primary source of food, and hopped down.
"Lady Danbury," Elizabeth scolded, "you know that cat is too fat."
Elizabeth shook her head. Malcolm weighed at least a stone, although a good portion of that was fur. She spent the better part of every evening after she returned home defurring her clothing.
Which was really quite remarkable, since the snobby beast hadn't deigned to let her hold him in five years.
"Good kitty," Lady D said, holding out her arms.
"Stupid cat," Elizabeth muttered as the ecru-colored feline stopped, stared at her, then went on his way.
"You're such a sweet thing." Lady D rubbed her hand against his furry belly. "Such a sweet thing."
The cat stretched out on Lady Danbury's lap, laying on his back with his paws hanging over his head.
"That isn't a cat," Elizabeth said. "It's a poor excuse for a rug."
Lady D raised a brow. "I know you don't mean that, Lizzie Hotchkiss."
"Yes, I do."
"Nonsense. You love Malcolm."
"Like I love Attila the Hun."
"Well, Malcolm loves you."
The cat lifted his head, and Elizabeth would swear he stuck his tongue out at her.
Elizabeth stood, letting out an indignant squeak. “That cat is a menace. I'm going to the library."
"Good idea. Go find me a new book."
Elizabeth headed for the door.
"And nothing with 'begat'!"
Elizabeth laughed in spite of herself and headed across the hall to the library. The clicking sound of her footsteps disappeared as she stepped onto the carpet, and she sighed. Good heavens, there were a lot of books here. Where on earth to start?
She selected a few novels, then pulled down a collection of Shakespeare's comedies. A slim volume of romantic poetry joined the pile, and then, just as she was about to cross the hall back to Lady D's drawing room, another book caught her eye.
It was very small, and bound in quite the brightest red leather Elizabeth had ever seen. But what was most odd about the book was that it was sitting sideways on a shelf in a library that gave new meaning to the word "order." Dust wouldn't dare settle on these shelves, and certainly no book would ever lie sideways.
Elizabeth set down her pile and picked up the little red book. It was upside down, so she had to flip it over to read the title.
HOW TO MARRY A MARQUIS
She dropped the book, half expecting lightning to strike her, right there in the library. Surely this had to be some kind of joke. She'd only decided that afternoon that she had to marry, and well.
"Susan?" she called out. "Lucas? Jane?"
She shook her head. She was being ridiculous. Her
siblings, cheeky as they may be, would not sneak into Lady Danbury's house and deposit a fake book, and—
Well, actually, she thought, turning the slim red volume over in her hand, when it came right down to it, the book didn't really look fake. The binding looked sturdy, and the leather on the cover appeared to be of high quality. She glanced around to make sure that no one was watching—although she wasn't quite certain why she should feel so embarrassed—and carefully opened it to the first page.
The author was a Mrs. Seeton, and the book had been printed in 1792, the year of Elizabeth's birth. A funny little coincidence, Elizabeth decided, but she wasn't a superstitious sort of person. And she certainly didn't need a little book to tell her how to live her life.
Besides, when it came right down to it, what did this Mrs. Seeton really know? After all, if she had married a marquis, wouldn't she be Lady Seeton?
Elizabeth slammed the book shut decisively and returned it to its spot on the shelf, making certain that it laid sideways, just the way she had found it. She didn't want anyone to think she'd actually been looking at the silly thing.
She picked up her stack of books and crossed back to the drawing room, where Lady Danbury was still sitting in her chair, stroking her cat and staring out the window as if she were waiting for someone.
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