James didn't think his eye was going to sport quite as splendid a bruise as she obviously hoped, but he was rather irritated with himself nonetheless for so seriously underestimating her. She was such a tiny thing; he'd never dreamed she'd get it right on the first punch. And even then, he'd figured she couldn't possibly possess enough strength to do more than stun her opponent. All he'd really been hoping for was to teach her enough to temporarily disarm a man while she made her escape.
But, he thought ruefully, giving his eye a gingerly pat, it appeared that her punches were anything but temporary. He looked up at her; she looked so damned proud of herself he had to smile and say, “I have created a monster."
"Do you think?" Her face lit up even more, which James hadn't thought possible. It was as if the very sun were pouring from her eyes.
Elizabeth started jabbing her fists in the air. "Perhaps you could teach me some advanced techniques."
"You're quite advanced enough, thank you."
She stopped jumping about, her face sobering. "Should we put something on that eye? It might not swell and bruise if we put something cooling on it."
James almost refused. His eye truly wasn't that bad off—it had been surprise more than anything that had knocked him to the ground. But Elizabeth had just invited him into her home, and this was an opportunity not to be missed. "Something cooling would be just the thing," he murmured.
"Follow me, then. Do you need a hand?"
James regarded her outstretched hand with a bit of chagrin. How feeble-bodied did she think he was? "You punched me in the eye," he said in a dry voice. "The rest of me works quite well, thank you."
She pulled her hand back. "I had merely thought— You did hit the ground rather hard, after all."
Damn. Another opportunity lost. His pride was getting deuced annoying. He could have leaned on her the entire way home. "Why don't I try it on my own and we'll see how it goes?" he suggested. Maybe he could sprain an ankle in twenty yards or so.
“That sounds a good idea. But be careful not to overtax yourself."
James took a few careful steps, trying to remember which side it was that had hit the ground. It wouldn't do to limp on the wrong side.
“Are you sure you're not in pain?
He had to be a complete cad to take advantage of the concern in her eyes, but clearly his conscience had departed for destinations unknown, because James sighed and said, "I think it's my hip."
She glanced down at his hip, which caused other, nearby regions to feel a bit of pain. “Is it bruised?''
"That is all I can think," he replied. "I'm sure it's nothing but—''
"But it hurts to walk," she said with a maternal nod. "You'll probably feel better by morning, but it does seem silly to overexert yourself." She scrunched her brow in thought. "Perhaps it would be best if you simply returned to Danbury House. If you walk to my cottage, you'd have to walk back, and—"
"Oh, I'm sure it's not as bad as that," he said quickly. "And I did say I would walk you home."
"James, I do walk home by myself every day."
"Nonetheless, I must keep my promises."
“I'm happy to release you from this one. After all, you could hardly have expected to be knocked to the ground."
"Truly, it's not that painful. I just cannot walk with my usual speed."
She looked uncertain.
"Besides," he added, thinking that he needed to reinforce his position, "we still have much to discuss concerning Lady Danbury's garden party on Saturday."
"Very well," she said reluctantly. "But you must promise to tell me if the pain becomes overwhelming."
A promise easily kept, since he wasn't in any pain at all. Well, not of the sort to which she referred.
They'd taken only a few steps before Elizabeth turned to him and asked, "Are you all right?"
"Perfectly," he assured her. "But now that you have mastered the art of self-defense, I do think we should move on to other aspects of your education."
She blushed. "You mean ..."
"Don't you think it would be wise to begin with flirting?"
"Elizabeth, I don't think you have anything to worry about on that score."
"But I haven't the slightest clue how to go about it!"
"I can only say that you are a natural."
"No!" she said forcefully. "I'm not. I haven't the faintest idea what to say to men."
"You seemed to know what to say to me. That is," he amended, "when you weren't trying to adhere to Mrs. Seeton's edicts."
"You don't count."
He coughed. "And why not?"
"I don't know," she said with a little shake of her head, "you just don't. You're different."
He coughed again. "Not so very different from the other members of my gender."
"If you must know, you're much easier to talk to."
James considered that. Prior to meeting Elizabeth, he'd prided himself on being able to render sniveling debutantes and their grasping mamas utterly speechless with one well-placed stare. It had always been a most effective tool—one of the only truly useful things he had ever learned from his father.
Out of curiosity, he fixed his most supercilious, I-am-the-Marquis-of-Riverdale stare on her—the one that routinely sent grown men scurrying into corners—and said, "What if I looked upon you like this?"
She burst out laughing. "Oh, stop! Stop! You look ridiculous."
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