Her arms straightened into two angry sticks at her sides. "You told me he was a rake," she accused.

"He is. A pleasant rake."

Something was wrong here. Elizabeth was certain of it. James seemed a bit too unconcerned that she'd met Dunford. She wasn't sure what sort of reaction she'd been expecting, but complete dispassion was definitely not it. Her eyes narrowing, she asked, "You're not acquainted with the Marquis of Riverdale, are you?"

He started choking.

"James?" She rushed to his side.

"Just a bit of dust," he gasped.

She gave him a pat on the back, then crossed her arms, too lost in her own ponderings to spare him any more sympathies. "I think this Riverdale fellow is a relation of Lady Danbury's."

"You don't say."

She tapped her finger against her cheek. "I'm sure she's mentioned him. I want to say he's her cousin, but maybe he's actually a nephew. She has scads of siblings."

James forced one corner of his mouth into a smile, but he doubted it was convincing.

“I could ask her about him. I probably should ask her about him."

He had to change the subject, and fast.

"After all," Elizabeth continued, "she'll want to know why Dunford left so suddenly."

James doubted that. Agatha was the one who'd hunted him down and demanded he get Dunford—that unscrupulous rake, she'd called him—away from Elizabeth.

"Perhaps I ought to find her right now."

Without even a second's pause, he starting coughing again. The only other way to keep her from leaving the room was to grab her and ravish her on the floor, and he had a feeling she wouldn't consider that appropriate behavior.

Well, perhaps that wasn't the only other way, but it was certainly the one that held the most appeal.

"James?" she asked, concern clouding her sapphire eyes. "Are you certain you're all right?"

He nodded, wrenching out a few more coughs.

"You really don't sound well." She laid a warm, gentle hand on his cheek.

James sucked in his breath. She was standing close, far too close, and he could feel his body growing tight.

She moved her hand to his forehead. "You look rather queer," she murmured, "although you don't feel warm."

He said, "I'm fine," but it came out halfway on a gasp.

"I could ring for tea."

He shook his head quickly. "Not necessary. I'm—" He coughed. "I'll be fine." He smiled weakly. "See?"

"Are you sure?" She drew her hand back and studied him. With each blink, that cloudy, unfocused look disappeared from her eyes, to be replaced with a brisk air of utter competence.

Pity. The cloudy, unfocused look was a much better prelude to a kiss.

"You're well?" she reiterated.

James nodded.

"Well, if that's the case," she said, her voice exhibiting what he thought was a remarkable lack of concern, "I'm going home."

"So soon?"

One of her shoulders rose and fell in an oddly endearing shrug. "I'm not about to accomplish anything more today. Mr. Dunford has been called back to London by this mysterious marquis, and I doubt I'm going to wring a proposal from the blond Adonis who mistook me for a serving wench."

"Adonis?" Good God, was that his voice? He'd never known he could sound so peevish.

"Face of an angel," she elaborated. "Manners of an ox."

He nodded, feeling much better. "Fellport."

"Who?"

"Sir Bertram Fellport."

"Ah. The one who drinks too much."

"Precisely."

"How do you know these people?"

"I told you, I used to mix in higher circles."

"If you're such good friends with these people, don't you want to say hello?''

It was a good question, but James had a good answer. "And let them see how far I've fallen? Absolutely not."

Elizabeth sighed. She knew precisely how he felt. She'd endured all the village whispers, the pointed fingers and titters. Every Sunday she brought her family to church, and every Sunday she sat ramrod straight, trying to act as if she wanted to dress her siblings in outdated frocks and breeches that were perilously worn in the knees. "We have a lot in common, you and I," she said softly.

Something flickered in his eyes, something that looked like pain, or maybe shame. Elizabeth realized then that she had to leave, because all she wanted to do was wrap her arms around his shoulders and comfort him—as if a tiny woman like herself could somehow shield this big, strong man from the worries of the world.

It was ludicrous, of course. He didn't need her.

And she needed not to need him. Emotion was a luxury she couldn't afford at this point in her life.

"I'm going," she said quickly, horrified by the tang of huskiness she heard in her voice. She hurried past him, wincing as her shoulder brushed his arm. For the barest of seconds she thought he might reach out and stop her. She sensed him hesitate, felt him move, but in the end he just said, “I shall see you Monday?''

She nodded, and hurried out the door.

*      *      *

James stared at the empty doorway for several minutes. Elizabeth's scent still hung in the air, a vague mix of strawberries and soap. Innocent stuff, to be sure, but it was enough to set his body tightening and make him ache for the feel of her in his arms.

In his arms, hell. Who was he trying to fool? He wanted her under him, surrounding him. He wanted her on top of him, beside him.

He just wanted her. Period.

What the hell was he going to do about her?

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