"I shan't do it any longer," she promised. "It was probably rather unfair of me."
He set to pacing, tapping his finger against his jaw as he tried to decide how best to turn this situation to his advantage.
Aha! He whipped around in a blur of motion, his eyes lit with the thrill of a new idea. "Who were you practicing for?"
"I don't understand."
He sat down across from her and let his forearms rest on his thighs as he leaned in. Earlier that morning he'd sworn to himself that he would rid the look of desperation from her eyes. In all truth, that look wasn't there now, but he knew it would return just as soon as she remembered her three hungry siblings at home. And now he'd found a way to help her and have a brilliant time doing it.
He was going to tutor her. She wanted to snare some unsuspecting man into marriage—well, no one could know more about such traps than the Marquis of Riverdale. He'd had every trick sprung on him, from giggling debutantes following him into dark corners, to shockingly explicit love letters, to naked widows showing up in his bed.
It seemed to stand to reason that if he'd learned so well how to avoid marriage, he ought to be able to apply his knowledge in the opposite direction. With a little work, Elizabeth ought to be able to catch any man in the land.
It was that bit—the "work" part of it—that had his pulse quickening, and certain less-mentionable parts of his anatomy thickening. For any tutoring lesson would have to involve at least a cursory examination of the amorous arts. Nothing, of course, that would compromise the girl, but—
"Mr. Siddons? James?"
He looked up, aware that he'd been woolgathering. Good God, but she had the face of an angel. He found it nearly impossible to believe she thought she needed help in finding a husband. But she did think it, and that gave him the most splendid opportunity....
"When you were practicing on me," he asked in a low, focused voice, "who was your ultimate goal?"
"You mean to marry?"
She blinked and her mouth moved slightly before she said, "I—I don't know, actually. I hadn't gotten quite that far in my thinking. I was merely hoping to attend one of Lady Danbury's gatherings. It seemed as good a place as any to find an eligible gentleman."
"Has she one scheduled soon?"
"A gathering? Yes. It is to be Saturday, I believe. A small garden party."
James sat back. Damn. His aunt hadn't told him she was expecting company. If any of her guests were acquaintances of his, he'd have to make himself very scarce very fast. The last thing he needed was some London dandy slapping him on the back in front of Elizabeth and calling him Riverdale.
"I don't believe anyone is planning to stay the night, however," she added.
James nodded thoughtfully. “Then this will be an excellent opportunity for you."
"I see," she said, not sounding nearly as excited as he would have expected.
"All you need to do is determine which men are unmarried and choose the best of the lot."
"I have already looked over the guest list, and there are several unattached gentlemen expected. But"—she let out a frustrated laugh—"you've forgotten one thing, James. The gentleman in question must also choose me."
He waved off her protest, "Failure is not a possibility. By the time we're through with you—"
"I don't like the sound of that."
"—you'll be impossible to resist."
One of Elizabeth's hands unconsciously rose to her cheek as she stared at him in amazement. Was he offering to train her? To render her marriageable? She didn't know why she should be so surprised by this—after all, he had never made an indication—save for one sweet kiss—that he was interested in her for himself. And besides, she had made it clear that she could not marry a penniless estate manager.
So then why was she so depressed that he seemed so eager to marry her off to a wealthy, well-connected gentleman—exactly what she told him she wanted and needed out of life?
"What does this training entail?" she asked suspiciously.
"Well, we haven't much time," he mused, "and there's nothing we can do about your wardrobe."
"How kind of you to point that out," she muttered.
He shot her a vaguely remonstrating look. “If I recall, you had no compunction about insulting my wardrobe earlier."
He had her there, she allowed. Good manners forced her to say, somewhat grudgingly, "Your boots are very nice."
He grinned and regarded his footwear, which, though old, appeared very well-made. "Yes, they are, aren't they?"
"If a bit scuffed," she added.
"I shall polish them tomorrow," he promised, his somewhat superior look telling her that he refused to rise to her bait.
"I'm sorry," she said quietly. "That was uncalled for. Compliments should be freely given, without restrictions or qualifications."
He looked at her with an oddly assessing expression for a moment before asking, “Do you know what I like about you, Elizabeth?"
She couldn't even possibly imagine.
"You're as kind and good a person as they come," he continued, "but unlike most kind and good people, you don't preach or cloy, or try to make everyone else kind and good."
Her mouth dropped open. This was the most unbelievable speech.
"And underneath all that kindness and goodness, you seem to possess a wicked sense of humor, no matter how hard you occasionally try to suppress it."
Oh, dear Lord, if he said anything more, she was going to fall in love with him on the spot.
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