She blinked, startled by the sudden change of subject. “Lady Danbury has it. I could bring it to you later in the afternoon."
"I'll get it myself."
His tone didn't invite further comment, so she left the room.
* * *
James had spent the entire morning scowling. He'd scowled at the servants, he'd scowled at Malcolm, he even scowled at the damned newspaper.
His normally easy stride was punctuated by stamps and tromps, and when he returned to Danbury House after a couple of hours in the fields, his boots made enough noise to wake the dead.
What he really needed was his aunt's bloody cane. It was childish of him, he knew, but there was something rather satisfying about taking out his frustration on the floor. But stamping his feet just wasn't enough. With the cane, he could pound a damned hole through the floor.
He barreled through the great hall, his ears unwillingly pricking up as he passed the slightly open door to the drawing room. Was Elizabeth in there? And what was she thinking as he stamped by? She had to know that he was there. She'd have to be stone cold deaf to miss the noise he was making.
But instead of Elizabeth's musical lilt of a voice, he heard his aunt's froggy boom. "James!"
James let out a nearly silent groan. If his aunt was calling him James, it meant that Elizabeth was not with her. And if Elizabeth was not with her, it meant that Agatha wanted to Speak With Him. Which never boded well.
He took a couple of steps backward and poked his head into the doorway. “Yes?''
"I need to speak with you."
How he managed not to groan he never knew. “Yes, I imagined as much."
She thumped her cane. "You needn't sound as if you're on your way to an execution."
"That depends on whose execution we're talking about," he muttered.
"Eh? What'd you say?" Thump thump thump.
He entered the room, his eyes doing a quick scan for Elizabeth. She wasn't there, but Malcolm was, and the cat quickly hopped off the windowsill and trotted to his side.
"I said," James lied, "that I want one of those canes."
Agatha's eyes narrowed. "What's wrong with your legs?"
"Nothing. I just want to make some noise."
“Couldn't just slam a door?''
"I've been outside," he said in a bland voice.
She chuckled. "Bad mood, eh?"
"Care to share why?"
"Not if you had a gun pointed at my heart."
That caused her to raise her brows. “You should know better than to raise my curiosity like that, James."
He smiled at her humorlessly and sat down in a chair opposite her. Malcolm followed and settled at his feet. "Did you need something, Agatha?" James asked.
"The pleasure of your company isn't enough?"
He wasn't in the mood to play games, so he stood back up. "If that's all, then I'll be going. I have duties I must carry out as your erstwhile estate manager."
He sat. He always obeyed his aunt when she used that tone of voice. Some habits were very hard to break.
Agatha cleared her throat—never a good sign. James resigned himself to a long lecture.
"My companion has been acting very oddly of late," she said.
She tapped the pads of her fingertips together. “Yes, quite unlike herself. Have you noticed?''
There was no way he was explaining the events of the past few days to his aunt. No way in hell. "I cannot say that I know Miss Hotchkiss very well," he replied, "so I cannot offer an opinion."
"Really?" she asked, her tone suspiciously casual. "I had thought the two of you had developed a friendship of sorts."
"We have. Of sorts. She's a most amiable young lady." The tips of his ears started to feel hot. If the blush spread to his cheeks, he decided, he'd have to leave the country. He hadn't blushed in a decade.
But then again, he hadn't been interrogated by his aunt in nearly that long.
"However," he continued, shaking his head slightly so that his hair would cover his ears, "it has been only a few days. Certainly not long enough to make a judgment on her behavior."
"Hmmph." There was an interminable moment of silence, and then Agatha's expression made an abrupt change and she asked, "How is your investigation proceeding?”
James blinked only once. He was well used to his aunt's sudden changes of subject. "It's not," he said bluntly. "There's little I can do until the blackmailer makes another demand. I've already spoken to you about your servants, and you assure me that they are all either too loyal or too illiterate to have hatched this scheme."
Her icy blue eyes narrowed. "You don't still hold Miss Hotchkiss in question, do you?''
"You will be happy to learn that I have eliminated her as a suspect."
"What else have you done?"
"Nothing," James admitted. "There is nothing to do. As I said, Pm afraid the next move is the blackmailer's."
Lady Danbury tapped the ends of her fingers together. "So what you're telling me is that you're forced to remain here at Danbury House until the blackmailer makes another demand?"
"I see." She settled deeper into her chair. "Then it seems all you can do is stay busy as my estate manager so no one guesses your true identity."
"Agatha," he said in a forbidding voice, "you didn't lure me here just to get an estate manager for free?'' At her offended look, he added, "I know how tightfisted you can be."
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