"I'm beyond help."

He chuckled, the rich sound warming Elizabeth right to her very toes. "Now, now," he said, "don't be pessimistic."

"Why are you reading that?" she asked. Heavens above, what could this or any handsome, charming man possibly find interesting in such a book? If one wanted to put the plainest face possible on it, it was a treatise for desperate women. And didn't men tend to equate desperate women with hemlock, food poisoning, and the bubonic plague?

"Call it my insatiable curiosity," he replied. "How could I resist, after being forced to go to such heroic lengths to retrieve the book earlier this morning?"

"Heroic lengths?" she exclaimed. "You yanked it out from under me!"

"The word 'heroic' is always open to interpretation," he said blithely, flashing her yet another of those dangerously masculine smiles.

Elizabeth closed her eyes and let out a weary and bewildered sigh. This had to be the strangest conversation of her life, and yet somehow it seemed quite natural.

The most bizarre part was that she didn't really feel embarrassed. Oh, certainly her cheeks were a bit pink, and she couldn't quite believe some of the words coming from her mouth, but by all rights, she should have perished of acute mortification by now.

It was James, she realized. Something about him put her at ease. He had such an easy smile, a comforting laugh. He might have a dangerous and downright mysterious side to him, and sometimes he did look at her in an oddly hot sort of way that made the air positively thick, but other than that it was nearly impossible to feel uncomfortable in his company.

"What are you thinking about?" she heard him ask.

She opened her eyes. "I was thinking that I cannot remember the last time I felt so ridiculous."

"Don't be silly."

"Sometimes," she said with a self-deprecating shake of her head, "I just can't help it."

He ignored her comment and held up the book, shaking it with little flips of his wrist. "This has problems."

"HOW TO MARRY A MARQUIS?"

"Many problems."

"I'm thrilled to hear it. I must say it seems prodigiously difficult to live up to her edicts."

James began to pace back and forth, his warm brown eyes clearly lost in thought. "It is obvious to me," he announced, "that Mrs. Seeton—if that is indeed her real name—never once consulted a man when drawing up her edicts."

Elizabeth found this so interesting she sat down.

"She can offer as many rules and regulations as she likes," he expounded, "but her methodology is flawed. She asserts that if you follow her edicts, you will marry a marquis—"

"By 'marquis,' I think she merely meant an eligible gentleman," Elizabeth interrupted. "I imagine she was just aiming for alliteration in the book title."

He shook his head. “It makes no difference. Marquis, eligible gentleman—we're all men."

"Yes," she said slowly, just barely resisting the urge to verify this fact by letting her gaze wander up and down his form, "one would hope."

James leaned in, staring intently at her face. “I ask you this: How, pray tell, is Mrs. Seeton—if that is indeed her real name—to judge whether or not her rules are appropriate?”

"Well," Elizabeth stalled, "I suppose she might have chaperoned a few young ladies and—"

"Faulty logic," he interrupted. "The only person who can truly judge whether or not her rules are appropriate is a marquis."

"Or an eligible gentleman," she put in.

"Or an eligible gentleman," he conceded with a slightly sideways nod of his head. "But I can assure you, as a moderately eligible gentleman, if a woman approached me, following all of these edicts—''

"But she wouldn't approach you," Elizabeth cut in. "Not if she was following Mrs. Seeton's instructions. It would be against the rules. A lady must wait until a gentleman approaches her. I can't remember which edict that is, but I know it's in there."

“Which only goes to show how asinine most of this is. The point I was trying to make, however, is that if I met a protégée of our dear Mrs. Seeton—if that is indeed her real name—''

"Why do you keep saying that?"

James thought about that for a moment. Must have been all those years as a spy. All he said, however, was, "I haven't the foggiest. But as I was saying, if I met one of her protégées, I would run screaming in the other direction."

There was a beat of silence, and then Elizabeth said, with a hint of a mischievous smile, "You didn't run from me."

James's head snapped up. "What do you mean?"

Her smiled widened, and she looked almost feline in her pleasure at having unnerved him. "Didn't you read the edict about practicing the edicts?" She leaned forward to peer into the pages of HOW TO MARRY A MARQUIS, through which he was now rifling, looking for the aforementioned edict. "I think it's number seventeen," she added.

He stared at her in disbelief for a full ten seconds before asking, "You practiced on me?"

"It sounds rather cold-blooded, I know, and I did have a twinge or two of guilt about it, but I really didn't have any choice. After all, if not you, who?''

"Who, indeed," James muttered, not precisely certain why he was irritated. It wasn't because she'd been practicing upon him; that was rather amusing, actually. Rather, he thought it might be that he hadn't realized she'd been practicing upon him.

For a man who prided himself on his instinct and perception, that was rather galling, indeed.

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