Jane rolled her eyes. "Men."
"Stop bickering," Susan said distractedly. "I think I had better go in and see her."
"Yes," Jane replied, "as I was just saying—"
"Why does everything have to be your idea?" Lucas said sullenly. "You always—"
"This was my idea!"
"Quiet!" Susan practically barked. "Downstairs, the both of you. And if I find out that either one of you has disobeyed me, I shall overstarch your undergarments for a month."
The two small children nodded and ran down the stairs. Susan took a deep breath and knocked on Elizabeth's door.
Susan knocked again. "I know you're in there."
Footsteps, followed by a vicious yanking open of the door. "Of course you know I'm in here," Elizabeth snapped. "They can probably hear me all the way to Danbury House."
Susan opened her mouth, closed it, and then reopened it again to say, ”I was going to ask if something is wrong, but then I realized how ridiculous that sounded, so instead perhaps I might ask what is wrong?''
Elizabeth's reply was not verbal. Instead, she turned her head and glared at a red object laying in the corner.
"Dear God!" Susan exclaimed, scurrying across the room. "Was this the thud I heard?"
Elizabeth glanced disdainfully at HOW TO MARRY A MARQUIS, carefully held in her sister's hands.
"This book belongs to Lady Danbury!" Susan said. "You yourself made me promise not to even crack the spine. And you threw it across the room?''
"My priorities have changed. I don't care if that book burns. I don't care if Mrs. Seeton burns."
Susan's mouth formed a perfect circle. "Were you damning Mrs. Seeton to hell?"
"Perhaps I was," Elizabeth said in an insolent voice.
Susan clapped a hand to her face in shock. “Elizabeth, you don't sound like yourself."
"I don't feel like myself."
"You must tell me what has happened to make you so upset."
Elizabeth let out a short, shallow breath. "That book has ruined my life."
Susan blinked. "You have never been given to melodrama. ''
"Perhaps I've changed."
"Perhaps," Susan said, clearly growing a little irritated with her sister's evasions, "you would care to expound upon how this book has ruined your life."
Elizabeth looked away so Susan couldn't see how badly her face was trembling. "I wouldn't have flirted with him. I would never have approached him if I hadn't gotten it into my head to—''
"Dear God!" Susan cut in. "What did he do to you? Did he dishonor you in any way?''
"No!" Elizabeth cried out. "He would never."
"Then what happened?"
"Oh, Susan," Elizabeth replied, silent tears streaming down her face. "I could love him. I could truly love him."
"Then what's wrong?" Susan asked in a gentle whisper.
"Susan, he hasn't two coins to rub together! He's an estate manager!"
"But couldn't you be happy with a simple life?"
"Of course I could," Elizabeth snapped. "But what about Lucas's education? And your debut? And Jane's watercolors? Haven't you been listening to a word I've said this last week? Did you think I was looking for a husband for the fun of it? We need money, Susan. Money."
Susan couldn't even bring herself to look into her sister's eyes. "I'm sorry if you feel you have to sacrifice yourself."
* * *
"The funny part is, I didn't think it was such a sacrifice. Lots of women marry men they don't love. But now ..." She paused and wiped her eyes. "Now it's just hard. That's all it is. Hard."
Susan swallowed and softly said, "Maybe you should return the book."
Elizabeth nodded. "I'll do it tomorrow."
"We can—we can decide how to proceed later. I'm sure you can find a husband without having to practice on—''
Elizabeth held up a hand. "Let's not talk about it now."
Susan nodded, then smiled weakly as she held up the book. "I'll just go dust this off. You can return it tomorrow."
Elizabeth didn't move as she watched her sister leave the room. Then she crawled onto her bed and started to cry. But this time she held the pillow over her head, muffling the sounds of her sobs.
The last thing she wanted was more sympathy.
Elizabeth arrived at Danbury House earlier than usual the following morning, hoping to sneak into the library and replace the book before Lady Danbury finished breaking her fast. All she wanted was to get the dratted thing out of her sight and out of her possession forever.
She had played out the scene in her mind a hundred times. She would slide HOW TO MARRY A MARQUIS back onto the bookshelf and shut the library door firmly behind her. And that, she prayed, would be that.
"You have caused me nothing but grief," she whispered into her satchel.
Dear Lord, she was turning into the veriest idiot. She was talking to a book. A book! It didn't have any powers, it wasn't going to change her life, and it certainly wasn't going to answer her when she was stupid enough to send words in its direction.
It was just a book. An inanimate object. The only power it held was what she chose to give it. It could only be important in her life if she made it such.
Of course, that didn't explain why she half expected it to glow in the dark every time she peered into her satchel. ' She tiptoed down the hall, for once in her life blessedly thankful for Lady Danbury's firm adherence to routine.
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