Adding insult to injury, the cat nodded.

Chapter 10

James arrived at the front gate at a quarter past four, knowing he was ridiculously early, but somehow unable to stop his feet from carrying him to the appointed meeting site. He had felt restless all afternoon, constantly drumming his fingers on tables and pacing across rooms. He had tried to sit down and write out the lesson plan he had bragged about, but the words would not come.

He had no experience in training a young lady for society. The only young lady he really knew was the wife of his best friend, Blake Ravenscroft. And Caroline hadn't precisely been trained for society herself. As for all of his other female acquaintances—they were just the sort Mrs. Seeton was trying to mold Elizabeth into. Just the sort that had prompted his overwhelming relief at leaving London.

What was it he wanted in a woman? His quest to help Elizabeth seemed to beg the question. What was it he wanted in a wife? He had to marry; there was no arguing fate in that respect. But it had been so damned hard to imagine spending the rest of his life with a shy flower who was afraid to express an opinion.

Or worse, a shy flower who didn't even possess an opinion.

And the final twist of the bayonet was that those opinionless young ladies invariably came with extremely opinionated mothers.

He wasn't being fair, he forced himself to concede. He'd met a few young ladies who were interesting. Not many, but a few. One or two of them he even could have married without fearing that he was ruining his life. It wouldn't have been a love match, and there would have been no grand passion, but he could have been passably content.

So what was it these ladies—the ones who had fleetingly caught his attention—had possessed? It was a certain joie de vivre, a love for life, a smile that seemed real, a light in the eyes. James was fairly certain he wasn't the only man who had seen these things—all of the young ladies in question had been quickly snapped up into marriage, usually by men whom he liked and respected.

Love for life. Maybe that was what this was all about. He'd spent the morning reading HOW TO MARRY A MARQUIS, and with each edict, he'd pictured a little bit more of that incomparable sapphire light melting away from Elizabeth's eyes.

He didn't want her molded into some predetermined ideal of young English womanhood. He didn't want her walking with her eyes downcast, trying to be mysterious and demure. He just wanted her to be herself.

Elizabeth shut the door to Danbury House behind her and set off down the main drive. Her heart was racing, her hands were clammy, and while she didn't feel precisely embarrassed that James had discovered her desperate secret, she was as nervous as could be.

She had spent all afternoon berating herself for accepting his offer. Hadn't she spent the previous night sobbing herself to sleep, all because she thought she could love him—a man she could never marry? And now she was purposely putting herself in his company, allowing him to tease her, to flirt with her, and—

Good God, what if he wanted to kiss her again? He said he was going to train her to attract other men. Did that entail kissing? And if it did, should she let him do it?

She groaned. As if she'd be able to stop him. Every time they were in the same room together, her eyes wandered to his mouth, and she remembered what it felt like to have those lips on hers. And God help her, she wanted that again.

A final glimpse of bliss. Maybe that was what this was all about. She was going to have to marry someone she didn't love, maybe even someone she didn't much like. Was it so wrong to want a few last days of laughter, of secret glances, of that heady tingle of newborn desire?

As she walked toward the front gate she suspected that she was courting heartbreak by agreeing to meet James, but her heart wouldn't let her do anything else. She'd read enough Shakespeare to trust the Bard, and if he said it was better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all—she believed him.

He was waiting for her, just out of sight of Danbury House, and his eyes lit up when he saw her.

"Elizabeth," he called out, striding toward her.

She paused, content to just watch him approach, the light breeze ruffling his dark hair. She'd never met anyone who seemed more comfortable in his skin as James Siddons. He had such an easy stride, a smooth gait. She thought about the innumerable times she'd tripped over a rug or swung her hand into a wall and sighed in envy.

He reached her side and said simply, "You're here."

"Didn't you think I would be?"

"I had thought you might have second thoughts."

“Of course I have second thoughts. This is quite the most irregular thing I've ever done."

"How admirable of you," he murmured.

"But it wouldn't matter if I'd had second, third, or even fourth thoughts." She smiled helplessly. "I have to walk right by here to get home, so I couldn't avoid you if I tried."

"How fortunate for me."

"I have a feeling that fortune often smiles upon you."

He cocked his head. "Now, why would you say that?"

She shrugged. "I don't know. You just seem the sort who always lands on his feet."

"I suspect you are a survivor, too."

"In a certain sense, I suppose. I could have given up on my family years ago, you know. Relatives did offer to take in Lucas."

"But not the rest of you?"

She smiled wryly. "The rest of us aren't in possession of titles."

"I see." He took her arm and motioned to the south. "Is it this way?"

She nodded. "Yes, about a mile down the road, then about a quarter of a mile down the side lane."

They walked for a few paces, and then he turned to her and said, "You said you were a survivor 'in a certain sense.' What did you mean by that?"

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