"No," he mused, "but one would think that many a man would wish to marry into the local gentry, especially a titled branch. And you have the added bonus of being quite beautiful."
She looked up sharply. "Please don't patronize me."
He smiled in disbelief. She clearly had no idea of her charms.
"I've been told I'm reasonably pretty—" she began.
Well, perhaps some idea.
"—but beautiful is quite a stretch."
He waved his hand, dismissing her protest. "You'll have to trust me on this measure. As I was saying, I'm certain there must be several men in the district who'd like to marry you."
"There's one," she said distastefully. "A local squire. But he's old, fat, and mean. My younger sister has already said that she will run away to a workhouse if I marry him."
"I see." James rubbed his chin, searching for a solution to her dilemma. It seemed a crime that she would have to marry some disgusting old squire twice her age. Perhaps there was something he could do. He had enough money to send her brother to Eton a thousand times over.
Or rather, the Marquis of Riverdale did. James Siddons, a Mere Mister, wasn't supposed to have anything other than the clothes on his back.
But perhaps he could arrange for some sort of anonymous gift. Surely Elizabeth wouldn't be so proud as to ignore an unexpected windfall. He didn't doubt that she'd refuse a gift for her own sake, but not when the welfare of her family was at stake.
James made a mental note to contact his solicitor as soon as possible.
"So," she said with an uncomfortable laugh, "unless you've a fortune tucked away, I really don't see how you can help me."
"Well," he said, avoiding an outright lie, "I'd thought to aid you in a different manner."
"What do you mean?"
He chose his words carefully. “I know a bit about the art of flirtation. Before I sought employment, I was... not precisely active, but I did participate in the social scene."
"In London?" she asked dubiously. "With the ton?"
“I will never understand the complexities of a London season," he said, quite emphatically.
"Oh. Well, that's no matter, I suppose, as I lack the funds for a season." She looked back up and offered him a rueful smile. "And even if I didn't, it would all go toward Lucas's education, anyway."
He stared at her, taking in the sight of that delicate oval face and big blue eyes. She had to be the least selfish person he'd ever met. "You're a good sister, Elizabeth Hotchkiss," he said quietly.
"Not really," she said in a sad voice. Sometimes I feel so resentful. If I were a better person I'd—"
"Nonsense," he interrupted. "There is nothing wrong with anger over injustice."
She laughed. "It's not injustice, James, it's just poverty. I'm sure you understand."
In his entire life, James had never had to do without. When his father had been alive, he'd been granted a monstrously huge allowance. And then, upon gaining the title, he'd inherited an even more monstrously huge fortune.
Elizabeth tilted her head and gazed out the window, where a soft breeze was ruffling the leaves of Lady Danbury's favorite elm. "Sometimes," she whispered, "I wish..."
"What do you wish?" James asked intently.
She gave her head a little shake. "It doesn't matter. And I really do have to see to Lady Danbury. She'll be arriving at the sitting room any minute now and is sure to need me."
"Elizabeth!" came the loud bellow from across the hall.
"See? Do you see how well I know her?"
James inclined his head respectfully and murmured, "Most impressive."
"Heavens above," Elizabeth said, "what can she possibly need?"
"Company," James replied. "That's all she really needs. Company."
"Where is that ridiculous cat when I need it?" She turned and made to leave.
"Elizabeth!" James called out.
She turned back. "Yes?"
"The book." He pointed at the small red volume, still tucked under her arm. "You don't want to take that to the drawing room, do you?"
"Oh! No!" She shoved it into his hands. "Thank you. I'd completely forgotten that I was holding it."
"I'll put it back for you."
"It goes on that shelf over there," she said, pointing across the room. "Sideways. Facedown. You need to make sure you leave it exactly as I say."
He smiled indulgently. "Would you feel better if you put it back yourself?"
She paused, then said, "Yes, actually, I would," and grabbed the book back. James watched as she dashed across the room and carefully placed the book on the proper shelf. She inspected her handiwork for a moment, then tapped it on the bottom, moving it slightly to the left. Twisting her mouth in thought, she regarded it for another moment, then tapped it back to the right.
"I'm certain Lady Danbury won't notice if the book is an inch or so off."
But she ignored him, dashing across the room with only an "I'll have to see you later" in his direction.
James poked his head out the door, watching as she disappeared into Agatha's sitting room. Then he shut the library door, crossed the room, picked up the book, and began to read.
“You want to do what!"
Elizabeth stood in front of Lady Danbury, her mouth hanging open in surprise.
"I told you, I'm going to take a nap."
"But you never take naps."
Lady Danbury raised a brow. "I took one just two days ago."
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