"Lady Danbury!" Elizabeth exclaimed. She certainly hadn't spent the previous afternoon casting up her accounts, but still, there was no need to discuss such bodily functions.

Lady D shook her head. "Too modest by half. When did women get to be so prissy?"

"When we decided that vomit wasn't a pleasant topic of conversation," Elizabeth retorted.

"That's the spirit!" Lady Danbury chortled, clapping her hands together. “I declare, Elizabeth Hotchkiss, you sound more and more like myself every day."

"God help me," Elizabeth groaned.

"Even better. Exactly what I would have said." Lady Danbury sat back, tapped her index finger to her forehead, and frowned. "Now, then, what was I talking about? Oh, yes, we wanted to make sure that you wouldn't have to walk home in the rain. Don't fear, we'll find someone to drive you. My new estate manager, if need be. Lord knows he won't be able to get anything done in this weather."

Elizabeth gulped. "I'm certain the rain will let up soon."

Lightning forked through the sky—just to spite her, she was sure—followed by a clap of thunder so loud Elizabeth jumped a foot. "Ow!" she yelped.

"What did you do to yourself now?"

"Just my knee," she replied with a patently false smile. "Doesn't hurt a bit."

Lady Danbury snorted her disbelief.

"No, really," Elizabeth insisted. "Funny how I never noticed that end table there, though."

"Oh, that. Moved it there yesterday. Mr. Siddons suggested it."

"That figures," Elizabeth muttered.

"Beg pardon?"

"Nothing," she said, a little too loudly.

"Hmmph," was Lady Danbury's reply. "I'm thirsty."

Elizabeth immediately warmed to the prospect of having something to do besides stare out the window and worry that Mr. Siddons was going to make an appearance. "Would you care for tea, Lady Danbury? Or perhaps I can have Cook prepare some lemonade."

"Too early in the morning for lemonade," Lady D barked. "Too early for tea, as a matter of fact, but I'll have some anyway."

"Didn't you take tea with breakfast?" Elizabeth pointed out.

"That was breakfast tea. Different entirely."

"Ah." Someday, Elizabeth thought, she would receive a sainthood for this.

"Make sure Cook puts biscuits on the tray. And don't forget to ask her to fix something for Malcolm." Lady D craned her head this way and that. "Where is that cat?"

"Plotting his latest scheme to torture me, no doubt," Elizabeth muttered.

"Eh? What was that?"

Elizabeth turned toward the door, still looking over her shoulder at Lady Danbury. "Nothing at all, Lady Danbury. I'll just—"

Anything else she might have said was lost as her shoulder bumped into something large, warm, and decidedly human.

Elizabeth groaned. Mr. Siddons. It had to be. She had never been a particularly lucky woman.

"Steady, there," she heard him say, a split second before his hands gently grasped her upper arms.

"Mr. Siddons!" Lady Danbury trilled. "How lovely to see you so early in the morning."

"Indeed," Elizabeth muttered.

"Won't you join us for tea?" Lady D continued. "Elizabeth was just off to fetch a tray."

Elizabeth was still refusing—on principle, although she wasn't entirely certain which principle—to look at his face, but she felt his wolfish smile nonetheless.

"I'd be delighted," he said.

"Excellent," Lady Danbury replied. "Elizabeth, off with you, then. We'll need tea for three."

"I can't go anywhere," Elizabeth ground out, "while Mr. Siddons is holding on to my arms."

“Was I doing that?'' he said guilelessly, releasing his grip. "Didn't even realize it."

If she'd had any sort of fortune, Elizabeth decided grimly, she'd have bet it then and there that he was lying.

“I did have a few questions for our dear Miss Hotchkiss," Mr. Siddons said.

Elizabeth's lips parted in surprise.

"They can wait until she returns, I'm sure," he murmured.

Elizabeth's head darted back and forth between Mr. Siddons and Lady Danbury as she tried to comprehend the oddly quiet tension in the room. "If you're sure," she said. "I'd be happy to—"

"He thinks you're blackmailing me," Lady Danbury said bluntly.

"He thinks I'm doing what?" Elizabeth nearly screeched.

"Agatha!" Mr. Siddons burst out, sounding very much as if he wanted to curse the old lady to perdition. "Haven't you ever heard of the word 'subtlety'?"

"Hmmph. Has never worked for me."

"I'll say," he muttered.

"Did you just call her Agatha?" Elizabeth asked. She looked over at Lady Danbury in surprise. She'd been tending to the countess for five years and had never presumed to use her given name.

"I knew Mr. Siddons's mother," Lady Danbury said, as if that explained everything.

Elizabeth planted her hands on her hips and glowered up at the handsome estate manager. “How dare you think I would blackmail this sweet old lady!"

"Sweet?" Mr. Siddons echoed.

"Old?" Lady Danbury hollered.

"I would never stoop so low," Elizabeth said with a sniff. "Never. And shame on you for thinking so."

"That's what I told him," Lady D said with a shrug. "You do need the money, of course, but you're not the sort to—"

Mr. Siddons's hand closed around her arm again. "You need money?" he demanded.

***

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