"That's a very long promise to make, Mr. Dunford," Elizabeth replied, her voice tinged with amusement.
"Just Dunford, if you please. I haven't been called Mister in years."
She couldn't help but smile. There was something uncommonly friendly about this man. It had been Elizabeth's experience that those blessed with amazingly good looks tended to be cursed with amazingly bad temperaments, but Dunford seemed to be the exception that proved the rule. He'd make a fine husband, she decided, if she could get him to ask her.
"Very well, then," she said. "Just Dunford. And who were you trying to escape? Lady Danbury?"
"Good God, no. Agatha is always good for an entertaining evening."
"Miss Corbishley? She did seem interested...."
Dunford shuddered. "Not half so interested as her mother."
He quirked a brow. "I gather you're acquainted with the type."
A little burst of horrified laughter escaped her lips. Good God, she was that type.
"I'd give an entire guinea for those thoughts," Dunford said.
Elizabeth shook her head, not certain whether to continue laughing or dig a hole—and jump in it. "Those thoughts are far too expensive for—" Her head jerked. Was that James's head she'd seen poking out from the blue room?
Dunford followed her stare. "Is something wrong?"
She waved an impatient hand at him. "Just one" moment. I thought I saw—''
“What?'' His brown eyes grew sharp. “Or who?''
She shook her head. “I must be mistaken. I thought I saw the estate manager."
He looked at her with a blank expression. "Is that so very odd?"
Elizabeth gave her head a little shake. There was no way she was even going to try to explain her situation. "I... ah ... believe I might have left the notebook in the sitting room. That is where Lady Danbury and I usually spend our days together."
"Lead on, then, my lady."
He followed her into the sitting room. Elizabeth made great pretense of opening drawers and the like. "A servant might have confused it with Lady Danbury's things," she explained, "and put it away."
Dunford stood by as she searched, clearly too much of a gentleman to pry too deeply into Lady Danbury's belongings. It didn't matter much if he did look, Elizabeth thought wryly. Lady D kept all of her important possessions locked away, and he certainly wasn't going to find the notebook, which was tucked away in the library.
"Perhaps it's in another room," Dunford suggested.
"It might be, although—"
A discreet knock at the open door interrupted her, Elizabeth, who'd had no idea how she was going to finish her sentence, gave swift and silent thanks to the servant standing in the doorway.
"Are you Mr. Dunford?" the footman asked.
"I have a note for you."
"A note?" Dunford reached out one hand and took the cream-colored envelope. As his eyes scanned the words, his lips settled into a frown.
"Not bad news, I hope," Elizabeth said.
"I must return to London."
"Immediately?" Elizabeth wasn't able to keep the disappointment from her voice. He didn't make her blood rush like James, but Dunford was certainly marriage material.
"I'm afraid so." He shook his head. "I'm going to kill Riverdale."
"The Marquis of Riverdale. A rather good friend of mine, but he can be so vague. Look at this!" He shook it in the air, not giving her any opportunity to look. "I can't tell if this is an emergency or if he wants to show me his new horse."
"Oh." There didn't seem to be much else to say.
"And how he found me, I'd like to know," Dunford continued. "The man dropped out of sight last week."
"It sounds serious," Elizabeth murmured.
"It will be," he said, "once I strangle him."
She gulped to keep from laughing, which she sensed would be very inappropriate.
He looked up, his eyes focusing on her face for the first time in several minutes. "I trust you can continue without me."
"Oh, of course." She smiled wryly. "I've done so for more than twenty years already."
Her comment caught him by surprise. "You're a good sort, Miss Hotchkiss. If you'll excuse me."
And then he was gone. "A good sort," Elizabeth mimicked. "A good sort. A bloody good sort." She groaned. "A boring good sort."
Men didn't marry "good sorts." They wanted beauty and fire and passion. They wanted, in the words of the infernal Mrs. Seeton, someone utterly unique.
Well, not too unique.
Elizabeth wondered if she'd go to hell for burning Mrs. Seeton in effigy.
She looked up to see James, grinning at her from the doorway.
"What are you doing?" he asked.
"Reflecting upon the sweet hereafter," she muttered.
"A noble pursuit, to be sure."
She looked up sharply. His voice struck her as a little too amiable. And why was it that his smile made her heart stop, when Dunford's—which, objectively speaking, had to be the most startling combination of lips and teeth in all creation—made her want to give him a sisterly pat on the arm?
"If you don't open your mouth soon," James said in an annoyingly bland voice, "you're going to grind your teeth to powder."
"I met your Mr. Dunford," she said.
He murmured, "Did you, now?"
"I found him quite pleasant."
"Yes, well, he's a pleasant sort."
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