Elizabeth rolled her eyes. "Doesn't everyone?"

"I have plenty," Lady D said.

Her two employees whipped their heads around in unison and glared at her.

"Well, it's the truth," she said, hmmphing loudly.

"Why do you need money?" Mr. Siddons asked softly.

"That is none of your concern!"

But Lady Danbury obviously thought it was, because she said, "It all started when—"

"Lady Danbury, please!" Elizabeth shot her a pleading look. It was hard enough to be so pressed for funds. To have the countess shame her in front of a stranger...

Lady Danbury seemed to realize—for once—that she had overstepped herself and closed her mouth.

Elizabeth closed her eyes and let out a breath. ' Thank you," she whispered.

"I'm thirsty," Lady D stated.

"Right," Elizabeth said, mostly to herself, although her words were loud enough for everyone to hear. "The tea."

"What are you waiting for?" Lady Danbury demanded, thumping her cane.

"A sainthood," Elizabeth muttered under her breath.

Mr. Siddons's eyes widened. Oh, blast, he'd heard her. She'd grown so used to being alone with Lady Danbury that she'd forgotten to watch what she whispered to herself.

But Mr. Siddons, to her great surprise, abruptly let go of her arm and started to cough. And then, just when any normal person would have ceased, he doubled over, collapsed against the wall, and started coughing even more violently.

Elizabeth's antagonism gave way to concern as she leaned down. "Are you all right?"

He nodded hurriedly, without removing his hand from his mouth.

*      *      *

"Has he something stuck in his throat?" Lady Danbury yelled.

"I can't imagine what," Elizabeth replied. "He wasn't eating anything."

"Whack his back," Lady D said. "Whack it hard."

Mr. Siddons shook his head and dashed out of the room.

"Perhaps you should follow," Lady Danbury suggested. "And don't forget to whack him."

Elizabeth blinked twice, shrugged her shoulders, and quit the room, thinking that whacking him on the back might prove to be a rather satisfying endeavor. “Mr. Siddons?" She looked left and right but didn't see him. "Mr. Siddons?"

And then she heard it. Great big roars of laughter coming from around the corner. She shut the door with alacrity.

By the time she rounded the corner, Mr. Siddons was sitting on a cushioned bench, gasping for air.

"Mr. Siddons? James?"

He looked up, and suddenly he didn't seem quite as dangerous as he had the day before. "A sainthood," he squeaked. "Good God, yes, we all deserve one."

"Well, you've only been here a few days," Elizabeth pointed out. "You've a couple more years in her company, I think, before you could even be considered for martyr."

Mr. Siddons tried to hold back his laughter, but it burst out of him in a great big rush of air. When he regained control of himself he said, "It's the quiet ones like you who are the most dangerous and cunning."

"Me?" Elizabeth asked in disbelief. "I'm not the least bit quiet."

"Perhaps not, but you do choose your words carefully."

"Well, yes," she said with an unconscious tilt of her head. "I'm clumsy enough in body without tossing my mouth into the mixture."

James decided then and there that she couldn't possibly be the blackmailer. Oh, he knew that he hadn't gathered enough facts to make this pronouncement, but his instincts had been telling him for days that she had to be innocent. He just hadn't been smart enough to listen.

He regarded her for a moment, then asked, "Shall I help you fetch the tea?''

"Surely you have more important things to do than accompanying a lady's companion to the kitchen."

"I have often noticed that ladies' companions are the ones most in need of companionship."

Her lips curved into a reluctant smile. "Now, now, Lady Danbury is a good sort."

James watched her mouth with unabashed interest. He wanted to kiss her, he realized. This wasn't surprising in and of itself—he'd thought of very little in the past day besides kissing her. What was odd was that he wanted to do it right then and there in the hall. He was usually much more discreet.

"Mr. Siddons?"

He blinked, a touch embarrassed to have been caught staring at her.

“Who is blackmailing Lady Danbury?''

"If I knew that, I'd hardly have been accusing you."

"Hmmph. Don't think I've forgiven you for that."

"Good God," he said, startled. "You're beginning to sound like her."

Elizabeth's eyes widened in horror. "Lady Danbury?"

He nodded and hmmphed in a perfect imitation of Elizabeth imitating Lady D.

She gasped. "I didn't do that, did I?"

He nodded again, his eyes dancing with amusement.

She groaned. "I'm going to get the tea."

"Then you've forgiven me for suspecting you of blackmail?"

"I suppose I must. It's not as if you knew enough of my character to clear me immediately."

"Very broad-minded of you."

She shot him a look that told him she didn't much appreciate his flip comment. "But what I don't understand is, what on earth could Lady Danbury have done to warrant blackmail?"

"That is not for me to say," he said quietly.

Elizabeth nodded. "I'll get the tea."

"I'll come with you."

She put up a hand. "No. You won't."

***

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