"I beg your pardon?"

"Stop, James. Oh, you must. You look like a little boy pretending to be a duke. I know, because my younger brother tries the same stunt on me all the time."

Pride stung, he said, “And how old is your brother?''

"He's eight, but—" Whatever she had meant to say was lost in her laughter.

James couldn't remember the last time someone had laughed at him, and he didn't particularly enjoy being compared to an eight-year-old boy. "I can assure you," he said, his voice pure ice, "that—"

"Don't say any more," she said, laughing. "Really, James, one shouldn't strut like an aristocrat if one cannot carry it off."

Never, in his entire career as an agent for the War Office, had he been more tempted to reveal his identity. He was itching to grab her and shake her and yell, "I'm a damned marquis, you little fool! I can be a perfectly good snob when I've a mind for it."

But on the other hand, there was something rather charming about her artless laughter. And when she turned to him and said, "Oh, please don't be insulted, James. It's a compliment, really. You're far too nice a person to be an aristocrat," he decided that this might actually be the most enchanting moment of his life.

His gaze was fixed upon an unremarkable patch of dirt, so she had to duck to move herself to his line of vision. "Forgive me?" she teased.

"I might find it in my heart...."

"If you don't forgive me, then I might have to practice my pugilism again."

He winced. "In that case, I definitely forgive you."

"I thought you might. Let's go home."

And he wondered why, when she said the word ''home," he actually thought it might apply to him as well.

Chapter 11

Elizabeth was surprised how unconcerned she was about the state of her home when she and James arrived at her doorstep. The green damask drapes were faded, and the moldings in need of a new coat of paint. The furniture was well-made but well-worn, with pillows strategically placed over the areas most in need of recovering. All in all, the house had a slightly spare look. There were precious few knickknacks; anything of any value had already made its way to pawnbroker or traveling peddler.

Usually she felt the need to explain how her family had fallen on hard times, and to make it clear that they had lived in a much bigger house before her parents died. Lucas was a baronet, after all, and it was embarrassing that they should be reduced to such circumstances.

But with James she simply opened her door with a smile, certain he would see her little cottage the way she did—as a warm, comfortable home. He'd alluded to a well-born background himself, but he'd also said that his family had lost whatever fortunes they had once possessed, so he would understand her inability to purchase new things, her need to economize.

The house was—thankfully!—tidy, and the: air smelled of warm biscuits. "You're in luck today," Elizabeth said with a smile. “Susan must have decided to do some baking."

"It smells delicious," James said.

"Ginger biscuits. Here, why don't you follow me into the kitchen? We're terribly informal here, I'm afraid." She pushed open the door to the kitchen and ushered him in. When he didn't immediately seat himself, she scolded him and said, "You mustn't stand on attention on my account. Your hip is bruised and must pain you terribly. Besides, it's silly for you to stand there while I prepare tea."

He pulled out a chair and sat down, then asked, "Are those your siblings in the garden?"

Elizabeth pushed aside a curtain and peered out the window. "Yes, those are Lucas and Jane. I'm not certain where Susan is, although she must have been here recently. These biscuits are still warm." With a smile, she deposited a plateful in front of him. "I'll call Lucas and Jane. I'm sure they will want to meet you."

James watched with interest as she knocked three times on the windowpane. Within seconds, the kitchen door flew open and two little urchins appeared.

"Oh, it's you, Elizabeth," the little boy said. "I thought you were Susan."

"No, it's just me, I'm afraid. Have you any idea where she's gone off to?"

"She went to the market," the little boy replied. "With any luck someone will give us some meat for those turnips."

"Pity is more like it," the little girl muttered. "Why anyone would give up a perfectly good piece of meat for a perfectly wretched turnip is quite beyond me."

"I hate turnips," James said.

All three Hotchkisses turned their blond heads in his direction.

He added, "A friend of mine once told me that one can learn quite a bit about diligence from a turnip, but I never could figure out what she meant."

Elizabeth started choking on air.

"That sounds like a lot of rubbish to me," the little girl said.

"Lucas, Jane," Elizabeth interrupted loudly. "I would like you to meet Mr. Siddons. He is my friend, and he also works at Danbury House. He is Lady Danbury's new estate manager."

James stood and shook Lucas's hand with all the gravity he would afford the prime minister. He then turned to Jane and kissed her hand. Her entire face lit up, but more importantly, when he looked up at Elizabeth for approval, she was beaming.

"How do you do?" he murmured.

"Very well, thank you," Lucas said.

Jane didn't say anything. She was too busy gazing at the hand he'd kissed.

"I have invited Mr. Siddons for tea and biscuits," Elizabeth said. "Would the two of you like to join us?"

Normally James would have regretted the loss of this time alone with Elizabeth, but there was something positively heartwarming about sitting here in the kitchen with this little threesome who so obviously knew what it meant to be a family.


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