There was a long pause. A really long pause. Finally James blurted out, "He stoops."
Another pause. "You're ruling him out because he stoops?" she asked incredulously.
"It's a sign of inner weakness."
James realized that Andrien was going to have to do more than stoop. "Not to mention," he added, stalling while he tried to think up a suitable fib, “that I once saw him yell at his mother in public."
Elizabeth clearly couldn't manage a reply. Whether that was due to suppressed laughter or utter stupefaction, James didn't know.
And he wasn't entirely certain he wanted to find out.
"Er, it was most disrespectful," he added.
Without warning, she reached out and touched his forehead. "Do you have a fever? I think you have a fever."
"I don't have a fever."
"You're acting like you have a fever."
"Are you going to put me to bed and tend to me with loving kindness if I have a fever?''
"Then I don't have a fever."
She took a step back. "In that case, I had better go."
James sagged against the wall, utterly worn out. She did this to him, he realized. If he wasn't grinning like an idiot, he was furious. If he wasn't furious, he was overcome with lust. If he wasn't overcome with lust—
Well, that was a moot question, wasn't it?
He watched her as she swung the door open, mesmerized by the delicate curve of her gloved hand.
Startled, he lifted his head.
"Are you certain Captain Andrien stoops?"
He nodded, knowing he'd be proven a liar the next day but hoping he could devise another, more clever lie to patch up this one.
She pursed her lips.
His gut clenched, then did a flip.
"Doesn't that seem odd to you? A military man who stoops?"
He shrugged helplessly. "I told you not to marry him."
She made a funny little sound from the back of her throat. "I can improve his posture."
He could only shake his head. "You're a remarkable woman, Elizabeth Hotchkiss."
She gave him a nod, then walked out the door. Before she shut it, however, she poked her head back in. "Oh, James?"
He looked up.
"Stand up straight."
The following afternoon found Elizabeth skulking near the front gates of Danbury House, cursing at herself first for her idiocy, then for her cowardice, and finally just because.
She'd followed Susan's advice and left her notebook— the one in which she scribbled all of her household accounts—at Danbury House the day before. Since the notebook was so essential to everyday life, she was required to retrieve it during the garden party.
"There is nothing suspicious about my presence here," she said to herself. "I forgot my notebook. I need my notebook. I can't possibly survive until Monday without it."
Of course that didn't explain why she had brought the notebook—which had never before left the Hotchkiss cottage—with her in the first place.
She'd waited until nearly four, when the guests would probably be outside enjoying the warm country sunshine. Lady Danbury had mentioned tennis and tea on the south lawn. It wasn't precisely on the route Elizabeth would need to take in order to retrieve her notebook, but there was no reason that she could not make a special trip to find Lady Danbury to ask her if she'd seen the notebook.
No reason except her pride.
God, Elizabeth hated this. She felt so desperate, so grasping. Every time the wind blew, she was certain it was her parents up in heaven, retching as they watched her debase herself. How horrified they would be to see her this way, making up flimsy excuses just to attend a party to which she had not been invited.
And all this just to make the acquaintance of a man who probably stooped.
She groaned. She'd been standing at the front gate, leaning her head against the bars for twenty minutes. If she waited here much longer, she was liable to slip through and get her head stuck, just like Cedric Danbury at WindsorCastle.
There could be no more putting it off. Holding her chin up and shoulders back, she marched forward, purposefully skirting the area near James's cottage. The last thing she needed right now was an audience with him.
She slipped through the front door of Danbury House, her ears perked for party noise, but all she heard was silence. The notebook was in the library, but she was pretending she didn't know that, so she moved through the house to the French doors leading out to the back terrace.
Sure enough, a dozen or so stylishly clad ladies and gentlemen were milling about on the lawn. A couple of them were holding tennis racquets, some were sipping punch, and they all were laughing and chattering away.
Elizabeth bit her lip. Even their voices sounded elegant.
She nudged out onto the terrace. She had a feeling she looked as timid as a mouse, but that was really of no matter. No one would expect Lady Danbury's companion to stride brazenly into the party.
Lady D was holding court at the far side of the terrace,
sitting in an overstuffed chair that Elizabeth recognized as belonging to the blue room. The velvet-covered monstrosity was the only piece of indoor furniture that had been removed to the terrace, and it definitely played the part of a throne, which Elizabeth imagined was Lady D's intention. Two ladies and a gentleman sat with her. The ladies were nodding attentively at every word, the gentleman's eyes were glazed over, and no one seemed to think it odd that Malcolm was laying on Lady D's lap, belly up with his paws splayed out like an X. He looked like a little kitty corpse, but Lady Danbury had assured Elizabeth time and again that his spine was fantastically flexible and that he actually liked the position.
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