"I cannot believe you would think that of me," she sniffed.
"That and more, dear aunt."
She smiled too sweetly. "It is always nice to have one's intelligence respected."
"Your cunning is one thing I would never underestimate."
She laughed. “Ah, I raised you well, James. I do love you."
He sighed as he rose to his feet again. She was a crafty old thing, and she had no compunction about meddling in his life and occasionally turning it into a living hell, but he did love her. "I'll return to my duties, then. We wouldn't want anyone thinking I'm an incompetent estate manager."
She shot him a look. Agatha never did appreciate sarcasm from persons other than herself.
James said, "You'll have to alert me if you receive another note from the blackmailer."
"The instant I get it," she assured him.
He paused at the door. "I understand you're having a gathering tomorrow?"
"Yes, a small garden party, why?" But before he could answer, she said, "Oh, of course. You don't want to be recognized. Here, let me get you the guest list." She pointed across the room. "Fetch me that box of papers on the desk."
James did as she bid.
"Good thing I made you change your name, eh? Wouldn't do for one of the servants to mention Mr. Sidwell."
James nodded as his aunt rifled through her papers. He was generally known as Riverdale, and had been since he'd ascended to the title at age twenty, but his family name was common enough knowledge.
Agatha let out an "Aha!" and pulled out a sheet of cream-colored paper. Before she handed it over, she scanned it, murmuring, "Oh dear. I can't imagine you don't know at least one of these people."
James read over the names, allowing his aunt to believe that his interest in the list lay with his desire to keep his identity a secret. The truth, however, was that he wanted to see the pool of men from whom he was supposed to choose a bloody husband for Elizabeth.
Sir Bertram Fellport. Drunk.
Lord Binsby. Inveterate gambler.
Daniel, Lord Harmon. Married.
Sir Christopher Gatcombe. Married.
Dr. Robert Gifford. Married.
Mr. William Dunford. Too rakish.
Captain Cynric Andrien. Too military.
"This won't do," James growled, just barely resisting the urge to crumple the paper into a pathetic little ball.
“Is there a problem?'' Agatha inquired.
He looked up in surprise. He'd completely forgotten that Agatha was in the room. “Do you mind if I make a copy of this?"
"I can't see why you would want to."
"Just for my records," he improvised. "It is very important to keep accurate records." In actuality, James was of the belief that the less put into writing, the better. There was nothing like written documents to incriminate a person.
Agatha shrugged and held out a piece of paper. "You'll find a quill and ink in the desk near the window."
A minute later, James had neatly copied the guest list and was waiting for the ink to dry. He walked back to his aunt, saying, "There is always the possibility that the blackmailer is among your guests."
"I find that highly doubtful, but you are the expert."
That caused him to raise his brows in amazement. "You're actually deferring to my judgment on a matter? Will wonders never cease."
"Sarcasm doesn't become you, m'boy." Agatha craned her neck to look at the paper in his hands. "Why did you leave off the women's names?"
More improvisation. "They are less likely as suspects."
“Hogwash. You yourself spent the first few days panting after Miss Hotchkiss, thinking—''
"I was not panting after her!"
"I was speaking metaphorically, of course. I merely intended to point out that you did originally suspect Miss Hotchkiss, so I do not understand why you should now eliminate all other women as suspects."
"I'll get to them once I go through the men," James muttered irritably. No one had the ability to corner him like his aunt. "I really need to get back to work."
"Go, go." Agatha waved her hand in the air dismissively. "Although it's a shock to see the Marquis of Riverdale tending to menial labor with such diligence."
James just shook his head.
"Besides, Elizabeth is due back any moment now. I'm sure she will be better company than you have been."
He went. In all truth, he didn't much relish the thought of running into Elizabeth just then, anyway. He wanted time to go over the list first, to prepare his arguments concerning the unsuitability of most—that is, of all—the men.
And that was going to take a bit of work, since two of them were men James had always called friends.
* * *
Elizabeth was walking home later that afternoon when she bumped into James, who was leaving his little cottage. She had been tempted to take an alternative route to the main drive but had dismissed that as cowardly. She always walked past the estate manager's cottage when she walked home, and she wasn't going to go out of her way on the off chance that James might be at home instead of in the fields or visiting a tenant, or doing one of the thousand duties he was contracted to perform.
And then there he was, opening the front door of his cottage, just as she walked on by.
Elizabeth made a mental note never again to depend upon luck.
"Elizabeth," he practically barked. "I've been looking for you."
She took one look at his thundercloud expression and decided that now was an excellent time to develop a life-or-death emergency at home. "I'd love to chat," she said, trying to breeze past him, "but Lucas is ill, and Jane—"
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