"Lady Danbury told me that you are helping to uncover her blackmailer, I should like to assist you."

"No."

"But—"

"I said no."

She glared at him, and then, when he didn't say anything further, she said, “Why not?''

"Because it might be dangerous, that's why not."

"You're doing it."

"I'm a man."

"Oh!" she exclaimed, fisting her hands at her side. "You are such a hypocrite! Everything you said yesterday about respecting me, and thinking I'm more intelligent than the average female—was that just a heap of nonsense to get me to trust you so you could—so you could—"

"Respect has nothing to do with this, Elizabeth." He planted his hands on his hips, and she actually took a step back at the strange expression in his eyes. It was almost as if he'd become another man right there in the space of five seconds—one who'd done dangerous things, known dangerous people.

"I'm leaving," she said. "You can stay here for all I care."

He caught her by the sash of her dress. "I don't think we've concluded this conversation."

"I'm not so certain I want your company."

He let out a long, frustrated breath, "Respect doesn't mean that I am willing to put you in danger."

"I find it difficult to believe that Lady Danbury's nemesis is a dangerous individual. It's not as if she's being blackmailed for state secrets or the like."

"How can you be sure of that?"

She gaped at him. "She is?"

"No, of course not," he snapped. "But you hardly know that, do you?"

"Of course I do! I've worked for her for over five years. Do you really think Lady Danbury could be carrying on in a suspicious manner without my noticing it? Good gracious, just look how I reacted when she started napping."

He glared at her, his dark eyes brooking no argument. "You are not joining the blackmail investigation, and that is final."

She crossed her arms in return and said nothing.

"Elizabeth?"

A more cautious woman might have heeded the hard warning in his voice, but Elizabeth wasn't feeling terribly prudent at that moment. "You cannot stop me from trying to help Lady Danbury. She has been as a mother to me, and—" She choked on her words as he backed her up against a table, his hands closing around her upper arms with stunning intensity.

"I will bind you, I will gag you. I'll tie you to a damn tree if that's what it takes to keep your meddling nose where it belongs."

Elizabeth gulped. She'd never seen a man so furious. His eyes were flashing, his hand was shaking, and his neck was held so tensely that it seemed the tiniest tap could snap his head right off.

"Well, now," she squeaked, trying to pry his fingers loose. He didn't seem to have any concept of how tightly he was holding her—or even that he was holding her at all. "I didn't say I would meddle exactly, just aid you in certain, completely safe endeavors, and—''

"Promise me, Elizabeth." His voice was low and intent, and it was nearly impossible not to melt at the ferocity of feeling in those three little words.

"I—ah—" Oh, where was Mrs. Seeton when she needed her? Elizabeth had tried cajoling him out of his temper—she was fairly certain that was included in Edict Number Twenty-six—but it hadn't had the least effect. James was still furious, his hands were still closed around her arms like twin vises, and God help her, but Elizabeth couldn't seem to take her eyes off his mouth.

"Promise me, Elizabeth," he repeated, and all she could do was watch his lips as he formed the words.

His hands tightened around her arms, and that, combined with some heavenly force, jolted her out of a trance, and she jerked her eyes up to meet his. "I won't do anything without consulting you first," she whispered.

"That's not good enough."

"It's going to have to be." She winced. "James, you're hurting me."

He looked down at his hands as if they were foreign objects, then abruptly released her. "I'm sorry," he said distractedly. "I didn't realize."

She took a step backward, rubbing her arms. "It's all right."

James stared at her for a long moment before swearing under his breath and turning away. He had been tense, and he had been frustrated, but he had never anticipated the violent flood of emotion she had unleashed. The merest hint of Elizabeth in danger, and he turned into a blithering idiot.

The irony was exquisite. Just last year he had laughed at his best friend when he'd been in a similar situation. Blake Ravenscroft had come completely unhinged when his future wife had attempted to take part in a War Office operation. James had found the entire situation vastly amusing. It had been clear to him that Caroline wouldn't be facing any real danger, and he'd thought Blake a besotted ass for raising such a fuss.

James could look at the present situation with enough objectivity to know that Elizabeth was facing even less danger here at Danbury House. And yet his blood coursed with fear and fury at the very mention of her involvement in the blackmail affair.

He had a feeling this was not a good sign.

This had to be some sort of sick obsession. He'd done nothing but think about Elizabeth Hotchkiss since he'd arrived at Danbury House earlier in the week. First he'd had to investigate her as a possible blackmailer, then he'd found himself thrust in the unlikely position of courtship tutor.

Actually, he'd thrust himself in that role, but he chose not to dwell on that point.

The fact was, it was only natural that he'd fear for her safety. He'd been cast as her protector of sorts, and she was such a tiny little thing; any man would feel protective.

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