"How ... thoughtful of you."
"All I meant to say was that if you are truly looking for a husband, I would be happy to assist you in any way possible."
Elizabeth just stared at him, unable to believe the irony of the moment. Here she was, standing before the man she'd spent the entire previous night crying over, and he was offering to help her find another man to marry? "This can't be happening," she said to herself. "This just can't be happening."
"I don't see why not," he said smoothly. "I consider you a friend, and—"
"How on earth could you possibly help me?" she asked, wondering what devil was possessing her to even pursue the subject. "You're new to the district. You couldn't possibly introduce me to any suitable candidates. And," she added, gesturing toward him, "you clearly are not well-versed in the art of fashion."
He lurched backward. "I beg your pardon!"
"They're perfectly nice clothes, but they are several years past their prime."
"So are yours," he said with a smirk.
"I know," she shot back. "That's why I need help from someone who knows what he's talking about."
James tilted his head tensely to the side and then brought it back up, trying to suppress a retort. The impertinent chit ought to see his closet in London. Clothing galore, all in the first stare of fashion, and none of those ridiculous dandified stripes and frills. "Why are you so keen to marry?'' he asked, deciding that it was more important to assess her situation than it was to defend his attire.
"That's none of your concern.'.'
"I disagree. If I'm to aid you, it must be my concern."
"I haven't agreed to allow you to help me," she retorted.
His eyes fell on the book. “Does it have to be a marquis?"
She blinked, uncomprehending. "I beg your pardon?"
"Does it have to be a marquis?" he repeated. "Must you have a title? Is it so very important?''
She took a step back at his strident tone. "No."
James felt his muscles relax. He hadn't even realized how tense he'd been, or just how important her negative answer was to him. For his entire life, he'd been made painfully aware that it was his position that mattered, not his character. His father had never called him his son, only his heir. The previous marquis hadn't known how to relate to a child; he'd treated James as a miniature adult. Any childhood transgression was viewed as an insult to the title, and James had quickly learned to keep his normally exuberant personality cloaked under a mask of serious obedience—at least when he was in his father's company.
At school he'd been popular—boys of his charm and athletic ability usually were—but it had taken some time to weed out the true friends from those who saw him as a means to a better life and position.
And then in London—good God! He could have had two heads and the trunk of an elephant for all those ladies cared. "The marquis, the marquis," he'd heard whispered. "He's a marquis. He has a fortune. He lives in a castle." His looks and youth he'd heard referred to as a boon, but never once had he heard anyone make mention of his wit, his sense of humor, or even his smile.
When it came right down to it, Elizabeth Hotchkiss was the first woman he'd met in a long while who seemed to like him for himself.
He looked back at her. "No marquis?" he murmured. "Why, then, the book?"
Her fisted hands shook at her sides, and she looked as if she might stamp her foot at any moment. “Because it was here. Because it wasn't called HOW TO MARRY AN UNTITLED GENTLEMAN OF SOME FORTUNE AND REASONABLE GOOD HUMOR. I don't know."
James had to smile at that.
"But I doubt I could attract a titled gentleman in the first place," she added. "I have no dowry, and I'm certainly not a diamond of the first water."
They disagreed there, but he suspected she wouldn't believe him even if he said so. “Do you have any candidates in mind?'' he asked.
She paused for a long, telling moment before saying, "No."
"Then you do have a man in mind," he said with a grin.
Again, she remained silent for several seconds before saying, in a tone that told him his life would be in danger if he pursued the topic further, "He isn't suitable."
"And what constitutes suitable?"
She sighed wearily. "I don't want to be beaten, I'd rather not be abandoned—"
"My, my, we're aiming high."
"Forget I said anything," she snapped. "I don't know why I'm sharing this with you, anyway. You obviously have no idea how it feels to be desperate, to lack choices, to know that no matter what you do—"
"Elizabeth," he said softly, reaching out and grasping her fingers. "I'm sorry."
"He has to have money," she said dully, staring down at her hand in his. "I need money."
"I doubt you do, but it's probably enough for you to know that I'm destitute."
"Lady Danbury doesn't pay you enough to support yourself?" he asked quietly.
"She does, but it isn't enough to support my younger siblings. And Lucas must go to Eton."
"Yes," he said distractedly, "a boy should. He's a baronet, you say?"
"No, I didn't say, but yes, he is."
"Lady Danbury must have told me."
She shrugged and let out an exhale mixed with self-mocking laughter. "It's common knowledge. We're the district's official example of impoverished gentry. So you see, I'm not precisely marriageable. All I have to offer is my family's bloodlines. And even those aren't terribly impressive. It's not as if I spring from nobility."
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