The countess would be about one-quarter of the way through breakfast right now, which meant that Elizabeth would have at least twenty more minutes before her employer appeared in the drawing room.

Two minutes to slip the book back into the library, and eighteen to calm herself down.

Elizabeth had her hand in her satchel and was clutching the book as she rounded the corner. The library door was ajar. Perfect. The less noise she made, the less likely it would be that anyone would stumble upon her. Not that there was much activity in this part of the house before Lady D finished her breakfast, but still, one couldn't be too careful.

She slid sideways through the door's opening, her gaze firmly fixed on the shelf where she'd found the book earlier that week. All she had to do was cross the room, put the book back, and leave. No detours, no unnecessary stops.

She pulled the book out, her eyes focused on the shelf. Two more steps, and—

"Good morning, Elizabeth."

She screamed.

James drew back slightly in surprise. "My deepest apologies for startling you."

"What are you doing here?" she demanded.

"You're shaking," he said in a concerned voice. "I really did startle you, didn't I?"

"No," she said, her voice overly loud. "It's just that I wasn't expecting anyone. The library is usually vacant this time of the morning."

He shrugged. "I like to read. Lady Danbury told me I may make free use of her collection. I say, what's that in your hand?''

Elizabeth followed his eyes to her hand and gasped. Good God, she was still holding the book. "It's nothing," she blurted out, trying to shove it back into her satchel. "Nothing." But her nerves made her fingers clumsy, and the book tumbled to the ground.

"It's that book you were trying to hide from me the other day," he said with a triumphant gleam in his eye.

"It's not!" she practically yelled, dropping to the floor to cover it. "It's just a silly novel I borrowed, and—"

"Is it any good?" he drawled. "I might like to read it."

"You'd hate it," she said quickly. "It's a romance."

"I like romance."

"Of course everybody likes romance," she blathered, "but do you really want to read about it? I think not. It's very melodramatic. You'd be bored silly."

“You think?'' he murmured, one corner of his mouth rising into a rather knowing sort of half-smile.

She nodded frantically. "When all is said and done, it's really a book for women."

"That's rather discriminatory, don't you think?"

"I'm just trying to save you some time."

He crouched down. "That's very thoughtful of you."

She shifted so that she was sitting squarely on the book. "It's good to be thoughtful."

He moved closer, his eyes glowing. "That's one of the things I like best about you, Elizabeth."

"What?" she squeaked.

"Your thoughtfulness."

"You couldn't possibly," she returned, practically jumping on his words. “Just yesterday you thought I was blackmailing Lady Danbury. How thoughtful is that?"

"You're trying to change the subject," he scolded, "but just for the record, I had already decided you weren't the blackmailer. It is true that you were the initial suspect—after all, you do have rather free access into Lady Danbury's belongings—but one doesn't require very much time in your company to make an accurate assessment of your character."

"How thoughtful of you," she said acerbically.

"Get off the book, Elizabeth," he ordered.

"No."

"Get off the book."

She groaned audibly. Her life couldn't have possibly come to this. "Mortification" couldn't even begin to describe the state of her mind. And "beet" couldn't begin to describe the state of her cheeks.

"You're only making it worse." He reached down, and somehow managed to grab the corner of the book.

She immediately hunkered down. "I'm not moving."

He leered at her and wiggled his fingers. "I'm not moving my hand."

"You lecher," she breathed. "Fondling a lady's backside."

He leaned in. "If I were fondling your backside, you'd be wearing a decidedly different facial expression."

She smacked him on the shoulder. It was probably no less than he deserved, James thought, but he was damned if he was leaving the library without getting a good look at her little red book.

"You can insult me all you want," she said in a lofty voice, "but it will have no effect. I am not moving."

"Elizabeth, you resemble nothing so much as a hen trying to hatch a book."

“If you were any kind of a gentleman—''

"Ah, but there's a time and place for gentlemanly behavior, and this isn't one of them." He jammed his fingers farther under her, getting a few more inches of the book under his hand. One more shove, and he ought to be able to hook his thumb around the edge of the book, and then it would be his!

Her jaw clenched. "Get your hand out from under me," she ground out.

He did the opposite, lurching his fingers forward yet another half inch. "A remarkable feat, really, saying all that between your teeth."

"James!"

He held up his free hand. “Just one moment, if you will. I'm concentrating."

As she glared at him, he hooked his thumb around the top edge of the book. His mouth spread into a lethal smile. "You're sunk now, Miss Hotchkiss."

"What do you— Aaaaaaaaccccccck!"

***

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