And all the time, his hands were moving, caressing her back, tickling the nape of her neck. His mouth moved to her ear, and when he whispered, she felt it every bit as much as she heard it.
"I'm going to pull you closer." His breath, and his words, were hot against her skin.
Some barely conscious part of Elizabeth realized that he was according her an uncommon respect, and she managed to find her voice long enough to say, “Why are you asking me?"
"To give you the chance to say no." His gaze—hot, heavy, and very male—swooped down over her face. "But you won't say no."
She hated that his confidence was not misplaced, hated that she could refuse him nothing when he held her in his arms. But she loved the crackling awareness that washed over her—a strange sense that for the first time in her life, she understood her own body.
And when he pulled her close, she loved that his heart was racing every bit as fast as hers.
His heat seared her, and she felt nothing but him, heard nothing but the rushing of her own blood, and a softly worded, "Damn."
He pulled away.
Damn. Elizabeth stumbled backward, plopping into a chair that got in her way.
"Do you hear that?" James whispered.
A murmur of voices. "That," he hissed.
Elizabeth shot up like a bullet. "Oh, no," she groaned. "It's Susan. And Lucas and Jane. Do I look presentable?"
"Er, almost," he lied. "You might want to..." He made vague "fixing" motions around his head.
"My hair?" She gasped. "My hair! What did you do to my hair?"
"Not as much as I would have liked," he muttered.
"Oh dear oh dear oh dear." She scurried over to the sink, pausing only to look over her shoulder to say, "I have to set an example. I swore to God five years ago I would set an example. And look at me."
He'd been doing little else all afternoon, James thought glumly, and all it had gotten him was frustration.
The front door slammed. Elizabeth jumped. “Does my hair truly look mussed?'' she asked frantically.
"Well, it doesn't look as it did when we arrived," he conceded.
She patted her head with quick, nervous movements. "I can't possibly fix it in time."
He chose not to answer. It was his experience that wise men did not interrupt a lady's toilet.
"There's only one thing to do," she said.
James watched with interest as she dunked her hands in a small pot of water that had been sitting on the counter. It was the same pot she'd used to wet the cloth for his eye.
The children's voices drew closer.
And then Elizabeth, whom he had previously considered a reasonably sober and rational human being, heaved her hands upward, splashing water all over her face, her bodice, and in all truth, all over him.
Her sanity, he decided as he slowly shook the water from his boots, was a question that clearly needed revisiting.
"Heavens to St. Peter," Susan exclaimed. "What happened to you?"
"Just a small accident," Elizabeth replied. Her lying must have been improving, because Susan didn't immediately roll her eyes and snort her disbelief. Flinging the water had been a flawed plan, but certainly inspired. If she couldn't make her hair look any better, she might as well make it look worse. At least then no one would suspect that her disarray was due to James's fingers.
Lucas's small blond head turned this way and that as he surveyed the damage. "It looks as if we've been visited by the great flood."
Elizabeth tried not to scowl at his interference. "I was preparing a wet cloth for Mr. Siddons, who injured his eye, and then I knocked over the pot, and—"
"How come the pot is still standing up?" he asked.
"Because I righted it," Elizabeth snapped.
Lucas blinked, and actually took a step back.
"I should probably be on my way," James said.
Elizabeth glanced in his direction. He was shaking the water from his hands, and looked remarkably patient, considering that she'd just doused him without a moment's notice.
Susan cleared her throat. Elizabeth ignored her. Susan cleared her throat again.
“If I might have a towel first?'' James murmured.
"Oh, yes, of course."
Susan cleared her throat again, a great big hacking sound that made one wish for a doctor, a surgeon, and a clean, well-lighted hospital. Not to mention a quarantine room.
"What is it, Susan?" Elizabeth hissed.
“You might introduce me?''
"Oh, yes." Elizabeth felt her cheeks grow warm at this obvious lapse of protocol. “Mr. Siddons, may I present my younger sister, Miss Susan Hotchkiss. Susan, this is—"
"Mr. Siddons?" Susan gasped.
He smiled and inclined his head in a most urbane manner. "You sound as if you know of me."
"Oh, not at all," Susan replied, so quickly that the veriest fool could tell she was lying. She smiled—a touch too broadly, in Elizabeth's opinion—and then quickly changed tack. "Elizabeth, have you done something new with your hair?''
"It's wet," Elizabeth ground out.
"I know, but it still looks—"
Susan shut her mouth, then somehow managed to say, "Sorry," without moving her lips.
"Mr. Siddons must be on his way," Elizabeth said desperately. She jolted forward and grabbed his arm.' I'll see you to the gate."
"It was a pleasure meeting you, Miss Hotchkiss," he said to Susan over his shoulder—he couldn't have done it any other way, since Elizabeth had hauled him past all three younger Hotchkisses and was presently maneuvering him through the door to the hall. “And you, as well,
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