Elizabeth edged a little closer, trying to make out Lady D's words so that she could interrupt at the least disruptful moment. It wasn't very difficult to follow the conversation; it was more of a monologue than anything else, with Lady Danbury as the star player.
She was just about to step forward and try to catch Lady Danbury's attention when she felt someone grasp her elbow. Whirling around, she found herself face-to-face with the most beautiful man she'd ever seen. Golden hair, cerulean eyes—"handsome" was far too rugged an adjective to describe him. This man had the face of an angel.
"More punch, if you please," he said, handing her his cup.
"Oh, no, I'm sorry, you don't understand. I—"
"Now." He smacked her on the rump.
Elizabeth felt her color rise, and she thrust his punch glass back at him. "You are mistaken. If you'll excuse me."
The blond man's eyes narrowed dangerously, and Elizabeth felt a wary shiver scoot down her spine. This wasn't a man to cross—although one had to think that even the most ill-tempered sorts couldn't get that upset over a glass of punch.
With a little shrug, she dismissed the incident from her mind and made her way to Lady Danbury, who looked up at her in surprise. "Elizabeth!" she exclaimed. "Whatever are you doing here?"
Elizabeth schooled her features into what she hoped was a winsome, apologetic sort of smile. After all, she had an audience. "I'm terribly sorry to disturb you, Lady Danbury."
"Nonsense. What is the matter? Is there a problem at home?"
"No, no, it's nothing so dreadful." She stole a glance at the gentleman at Lady Danbury's side. His coloring was rather like James's, and they seemed to be of a similar age, but his eyes somehow looked years younger.
James had seen things. Dark things. It was there in his eyes, when he thought she wasn't watching him.
But she had to stop fantasizing about James. There was nothing wrong with this gentleman here. Looking at him objectively, she had to admit that he was devastatingly handsome. And he definitely didn't stoop.
He just wasn't James.
Elizabeth gave her head a mental shake. "I fear I've left my notebook here," she said, looking back at Lady Danbury. "Have you seen it? I do require it before Monday."
Lady D shook her head as she sank her hand into Malcolm's copious ecru fur and rubbed his belly. "I cannot say that I have. Are you certain you brought it? I've never known you to bring that sort of thing before."
"I'm certain." Elizabeth swallowed, wondering why the truth felt so much like a lie.
"I wish I could help you," Lady Danbury said, "but I do have guests. Perhaps you would like to conduct a search on your own. There cannot be more than five or six rooms where you are likely to find it. And the servants know you have free rein of the house."
Elizabeth straightened and nodded. She'd been dismissed. "I'll go look right now."
Suddenly the man standing next to Lady Danbury jumped forward. "I'd be happy to assist."
"But you can't leave," one of the ladies whined.
Elizabeth watched the tableau with interest. It was clear why the ladies had been so interested in remaining at Lady D's side.
"Dunford," Lady Danbury barked, "I was just telling you about my audience with the Russian countess."
"Oh, I've met her already," he said with a wicked grin.
Elizabeth's mouth fell open. She'd never met anyone who couldn't be cowed into submission by Lady Danbury. And that smile—good God, she'd never seen anything like it. This man had clearly broken many hearts.
"Besides," he continued, "I rather fancy a good treasure hunt."
Lady Danbury frowned. “I suppose I had better introduce you, then. Mr. Dunford, this is my companion, Miss Hotchkiss. And these two ladies are Miss and Mrs. Corbishley."
Dunford looped his arm through Elizabeth's. "Excellent. I'm sure we shall find that errant notebook in no time."
"You really needn't—"
"Nonsense. I cannot resist a damsel in distress."
"It's hardly distress," Miss Corbishley said in a waspish voice. "She lost her notebook, for goodness' sake."
But Dunford had already whisked Elizabeth away, through the terrace doors and into the house.
Lady Danbury frowned.
Miss Corbishley glared at the terrace doors as if she were trying to set the house on fire.
Mrs. Corbishley, who rarely saw reason to hold her tongue, said, "I'd dismiss that woman, were I you. She's far too forward."
Lady Danbury fixed her with a scathing glance. "And on what do you base that assumption?"
"Why, just look at the way—"
"I have known Miss Hotchkiss longer than I have known you, Mrs. Corbishley."
"Yes," she replied, the corners of her mouth pinching in a most unattractive manner, "but I am a Corbishley. You know my people."
"Yes," Lady Danbury snapped, "and I never liked your people. Hand me my cane."
Mrs. Corbishley was too shocked to comply, but her daughter had the presence of mind to grab the cane and thrust it into Lady Danbury's hands.
"Well, I never!" Mrs. Corbishley sputtered.
Thump! Lady Danbury rose to her feet.
"Where are you going?" Miss Corbishley asked.
When Lady Danbury answered, her voice sounded distracted. “I have to talk with someone. I have to talk with someone right away."
And then she hobbled off, moving faster than she had in years.
* * *
"You do realize," Mr. Dunford said, "that I shall be in your debt until the day I die?''
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