He took her fingers and kissed the very tips. "Yes. I will."

Elizabeth stared down at her hand. Dear Lord, the man had kissed her again! Right there in the hall. Too stunned to pull her hand back, she looked right and left, terrified that a servant might stumble upon them.

"You had never been kissed before yesterday," he murmured.

"Of course not!"

"Not even on the hand." He let her fingers drop, then took her other hand and kissed her knuckles.

"Mr. Siddons!" she gasped. "Are you mad?"

He smiled. "I'm glad you haven't been kissed before."

"You are mad. Utterly mad. And," she added defensively, "of course I've been kissed on the hand."

“Your father doesn't count.''

More than anything, Elizabeth wanted to find a hole in the ground and jump in it. She felt her cheeks burn, and she knew that she didn't have to say a word for him to know that he was right. There weren't very many unmarried men in her little village, and certainly none of them was urbane enough to kiss her on the hand.

"Who are you?" she whispered.

He looked at her oddly, his brown eyes narrowing. "James Siddons. You know that."

She shook her head. "You've never been an estate manager before. I'd bet my life on it."

"Would you like to see my references?"

"You carry yourself wrong. A servant would—"

"Ah, but I am not precisely a servant," he interrupted. "As you are not. I understand you're of the local gentry."

She nodded.

"Mine is an old family, as well," he continued. "Our pride, unfortunately, was not lost with our money."

"Unfortunately?"

One corner of his mouth turned up. “It makes for awkward moments."

"Like this one," Elizabeth said firmly. "You must return to the drawing room this instant. Lady Danbury is in there, wondering, I'm sure, why the devil I shut the door, and what we are doing, and while I don't profess to know your mind, / do not wish to make explanations."

James just stared at her, wondering why he suddenly felt as if he'd been dressed down by his governess. He grinned. "You're good at that."

Elizabeth had managed to take three steps toward the kitchen. She let out a frustrated breath and turned around. "At what?"

“At speaking to a grown man as if he were a child. I feel quite put in my place."

"You do not," she retorted, waving her hand toward him. "Just look at you. You don't look the least bit contrite. You're grinning like an idiot."

He cocked his head. "I know."

Elizabeth threw up her hands. "I have to go."

"You make me smile."

His words, soft and intense, stopped her in her tracks.

"Turn around, Elizabeth."

There was some sort of connection between the two of them. Elizabeth knew nothing of love, but she knew she could fall in love with this man. She felt it deep in her heart, and it terrified her. He wasn't a man she could marry. He had no money; he'd said so himself. How was she to send Lucas to Eton with an estate manager as a husband? How was she to feed and clothe Susan and Jane? Susan was only fourteen now, but soon she'd want to make her debut. London was out of the question, but even a small local debut would cost money.

And that was the one thing that neither Elizabeth nor the man standing in front of her—possibly the only man who could ever capture her heart—had.

Dear God, she'd thought that life had treated her unfairly before, but this ... this was nothing short of agony.

"Turn around, Elizabeth."

She kept walking. It was the hardest thing she'd ever done.

*      *      *

Late that night, Susan, Jane, and Lucas Hotchkiss huddled together on the cold floor of the upstairs hall, directly outside their older sister's bedchamber.

"I think she's crying," Lucas whispered.

"Of course she's crying," Jane hissed. "Any fool could tell she's crying."

"The question is," Susan cut in, "why is she crying?"

No one had an answer to that.

They flinched a moment later when they heard a slightly louder than usual sob, then swallowed uncomfortably when it was followed by a loud sniffle.

"She has been very worried about money of late," Lucas said hesitantly.

"She's always worried about money," Jane retorted.

"It's only natural," Susan added. "People who don't have money always worry about it."

The two younger Hotchkisses nodded in agreement.

"Do we really have nothing?" Jane whispered.

"I'm afraid so," Susan said.

Lucas's eyes began to glisten. "I'm not going to get to go to Eton, am I?"

"No, no," Susan said quickly, "of course you will. We just have to economize."

“How can we economize when we have nothing?'' he asked.

Susan didn't reply.

Jane nudged her in the ribs. “I think one of us should comfort her."

Before Susan could do so much as nod, they heard a loud crash, followed by the unbelievably astonishing sound of their proper older sister yelling, "Goddamn you to hell!"

Jane gasped.

Susan's mouth fell open.

"I can't believe she said that," Lucas breathed reverently. "I wonder who she was damning."

"It's not something to be proud of," Jane snapped, poking in the soft spot above his collarbone.

"Ow!"

"And don't say 'damn,' " Susan added.

“It is so something to be proud of. Even I have never said that."

***

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