James found himself really wanting to know what was in that book.

She cleared her throat about six times and said, "You're very kind to help me."

"It was no trouble, I assure you," he murmured, clearly trying to get a look at the book. But she'd already shoved it back into her reticule.

Elizabeth smiled nervously at him, letting her hand slip into her bag, just to reassure herself that the book was really there, hidden safely out of sight. If she was caught reading such a thing, she'd be mortified beyond words. It was a given that all unmarried women were looking for a husband, but only the most pathetic of females would actually be caught reading a manual on the subject.

He didn't say anything, just looked her over in an assessing sort of way that made her even more nervous. Finally she blurted out, "Are you the new estate manager?"

"Yes."

"I see." She cleared her throat. "Well, then 1 suppose I ought to introduce myself, as I'm sure our paths will cross. I am Miss Hotchkiss, Lady Danbury's companion."

"Ah. I am Mr. Siddons, recently of London."

"It was very nice meeting you, Mr. Siddons," she said with a smile that James found oddly engaging. "Terribly sorry about the accident, but I must be off."

She waited for his acknowledging nod, then dashed off down the drive, clutching her bag as if her very life depended on it.

James just stared as she ran off, strangely unable to take his eyes off of her retreating form.

Chapter 2

“James!" Agatha Danbury didn't often squeal, but James was her favorite nephew. Truth be told, she probably liked him better than any of her own children. He, at least, was smart enough not to stick his head between iron fence beams. "How lovely to see you!"

James dutifully bent down and offered his cheek for a kiss. "How lovely to see me?" he queried. "You almost sound surprised by my arrival. Come, now, you know I could no more ignore your summons than one sent by the Prince Regent himself."

"Oh, that."

He narrowed his eyes at her dismissive response. 'Agatha, you're not playing games with me, are you?"

Her posture suddenly became ramrod straight in her chair. "You would think that of me?"

"In a heartbeat," he said with an easy smile as he sat down. "I learned all my best tricks from you."

"Yes, well, someone had to take you under her wing," she replied. "Poor child. If I hadn't—"

"Agatha," James said sharply. He had no wish to involve himself in a discussion of his childhood. He owed his aunt everything—his very soul, even. But he didn't want to get into this now.

"As it happens," she said with a disdainful sniff, "I am not playing games. I am being blackmailed."

James leaned forward. Blackmailed? Agatha was a crafty old thing, but proper as anything, and he couldn't imagine her having done anything that might warrant blackmail.

"Can you even fathom it?" she demanded. "That someone would dare to blackmail me? Hmmph. Where is my cat?"

"Where is your cat?" he echoed.

"Malllllllllllcolmmmmmmm!"

James blinked and watched as a monstrously obese feline padded into the room. He walked over to James, sniffed, and hopped up onto his lap.

"Isn't he just the friendliest cat?" Agatha asked.

"I hate cats."

"You'll love Malcolm."

He decided that tolerating the cat was easier than arguing with his aunt. "Do you have any idea who your blackmailer might be?''

"None."

"May I ask why you are being blackmailed?"

"It is so very embarrassing," she said, her pale blue eyes growing bright with tears.

James grew concerned. Aunt Agatha never cried. There had been few things in his life that were completely and utterly constant, but one of them had been Agatha. She was sharp, she had a biting sense of humor, she loved him beyond measure, and she never cried. Never.

He started to go to her, then held back. She wouldn't want him to comfort her. She would only see it as an acknowledgment of her momentary display of weakness. Besides, the cat showed no inclination to get off his lap.

"Do you have the letter?" he asked gently. "I assume you received a letter."

She nodded, picked up a book that was sitting on the table next to her, and drew from its pages a single sheet of paper. Silently, she held it out to him.

James gently tossed the cat onto the carpet and stood. He took a few steps in his aunt's direction and took the letter. Still standing, he looked down at the paper in his hands and read.

Lady D—

I know your secrets. And I know your daughter's secrets. My silence will cost you.

James looked up. "Is that all?" Agatha shook her head and held out another sheet of paper. "I received this one as well." James took it.

Lady D—

Five hundred pounds for my silence. Leave it in a plain sack behind The Bag of Nails Friday at midnight. Tell no one. Do not disappoint me.

“The Bag of Nails?'' James asked with an arched eyebrow.

"It's the local public house."

"Did you leave the money?"

She nodded, shamefaced. "But only because I knew you couldn't be here by Friday."

James paused while he decided how best to frame his next statement. "I think," he said gently, "that you had better tell me about this secret."

Agatha shook her head. "It is too embarrassing. I cannot."

"Agatha, you know that I am discreet. And you know I love you like a mother. Whatever you tell me shall never go beyond these walls." When she did nothing other than bite her lip, he asked, "Which daughter shares this secret?"

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