She looked around. Was anyone coming?
She took a deep breath, and quick as lightning, the book found its way into her reticule.
Then she ran out of the house.
* * *
James Sidwell, Marquis of Riverdale, liked to go unnoticed. He liked nothing better than to blend into a crowd, his identity unknown, and ferret out plots and facts. It was probably why he'd so enjoyed his years of work for the War Office.
And he'd been damned good at it. The same face and body that commanded such attention in London ballrooms disappeared into crowds with startling success. James merely removed the confident gleam from his eyes, stooped his shoulders, and no one ever suspected that he was of noble lineage.
Of course the brown hair and brown eyes helped, too. It was always good to have common coloring. James doubted there were very many successful redheaded operatives.
But one year earlier, his cover had been blown when a Napoleonic spy had revealed his identity to the French. And now the War Office refused to assign him to any mission more exciting than the occasional rounding up of low-stakes smugglers.
James had accepted his boring fate with a heavy sigh and an air of resignation. It was probably time he devoted himself to his estates and title, anyway. He had to marry at some point—distasteful as the prospect might be—and produce an heir to the marquisate. And so he had turned his attention to the London social scene, where a marquis—especially one so young and handsome—never went unnoticed.
James had been alternately disgusted, bored, and amused. Disgusted because the young ladies—and their mamas—viewed him as nothing so much as a large fish to be hooked and reeled in. Bored because after years of political intrigue, the color of ribbons and the cut of a waistcoat just didn't strike him as fascinating topics of conversation. And amused because, to be frank, if he hadn't held on to his sense of humor throughout the ordeal he would have gone mad.
When the note from his aunt had arrived by special messenger, he had nearly whooped with joy. Now, as he approached her house in Surrey, he pulled it out of his pocket and reread it.
I need your help urgently. Please report to Danbury House with all possible haste. Do not travel in your best finery. I shall tell everyone that you are my new estate manager. Your new name is James Siddons.
Agatha, Lady Danbury
James had no idea what this was all about, but he knew it was just what he needed to alleviate his boredom and allow him to leave London without feeling guilty over shirking his duties. He traveled by hired coach, since an estate manager would not own horses as fine as his, and walked the last mile from the center of town to Danbury House. Everything he needed was packed in one bag.
In the eyes of the world, he became plain Mr. James Siddons, a gentleman, to be sure, but perhaps just a little down on funds. His clothing came from the back of his closet—well-made, but worn at the elbows and two years out of style. A few snips with the kitchen shears effectively marred the expert haircut he'd received just the week before. For all intents and purposes, the Marquis of Riverdale had disappeared, and James could not have been more pleased.
Of course his aunt's scheme did have a major flaw, but that was only to be expected when one let amateurs do the planning. James hadn't visited Danbury House in nearly a decade; his work for the War Office hadn't afforded him much time to visit family, and he certainly hadn't wanted to put his aunt in any kind of danger. But surely there was someone—some aging retainer, the butler, perhaps—who would recognize him. He had, after all, spent most of his childhood here.
But then again, people saw what they expected to see, and when James acted like an estate manager, people generally saw an estate manager.
He was nearly to Danbury House—practically on the front steps, actually—when the front door flew open and a petite blond woman came tearing out, head down, eyes to the ground, and moving just a fraction slower than a filly at full gallop. James didn't even have a chance to call out before she'd run right into him.
Their bodies connected with a dull thump, and the girl let out a feminine squeak of surprise as she bounced off of him and landed inelegantly on the ground. A clip or ribbon or whatever it was females called those things flew from her hair, causing a thick lock of white-gold hair to slip out of her coiffure and settle awkwardly on her shoulder.
"I beg your pardon," James said, holding out his hand to help her up.
"No, no," she replied, brushing off her skirts, "it was my fault entirely. I wasn't looking where I was going."
She didn't bother to take his hand, and James found himself oddly disappointed. She wasn't wearing gloves, and neither was he, and he felt a strange compulsion to feel the touch of her hand in his.
But he could not say such things out loud, and so he instead bent down to help her retrieve her things. Her reticule had flown open when it hit the ground, and her belongings were now strewn around their feet. He handed her her gloves, which caused her to blush.
"It's so hot," she explained, looking at the gloves with resignation.
"Don't don them on my account," he said with an easy smile. "As you can see, I have also chosen to use the fine weather as an excuse to leave mine off."
She stared at his hands for a moment before shaking her head and murmuring, "This is the oddest conversation."
She knelt to gather the rest of her things, and James followed suit. He picked up a handkerchief and was reaching for a book when she suddenly made the strangest noise—nothing so much as a strangled cry—and snatched it out from beneath his fingers.
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