He'd already arranged to have a bank draft forwarded to her family—anonymously, of course. Elizabeth would never accept it otherwise. That ought to stop all this nonsense about her marrying the first able-bodied—and able-walleted—man she could get to propose.
But h would do nothing about the muddle he was in. When his aunt had chased him down earlier that afternoon and told him that Elizabeth had gone off with Dunford, he'd felt a rush of jealousy unlike anything he'd ever dreamed possible. It had squeezed around his heart, pounded through his blood, and left him half irrational, unable to think of anything other than getting Dunford out of Surrey and back to London.
London, hell. If he could have figured out a way to send Dunford to Constantinople he would have done it.
He was through trying to convince himself that she was just another woman. The thought of her in another man's arms made him physically ill, and he was not going to be able to carry off this charade of finding her a husband much longer. Not when every time he saw her he was nearly overcome with the desire to haul her off into a closet and ravish her.
James groaned with resignation. It was becoming clearer to him every day that he was going to have to marry the chit. That was certainly the only avenue that would offer his mind and body any measure of peace.
But before he could marry her, he was going to have to reveal his true identity, and he couldn't do that until he'd taken care of this blackmail business for Agatha. He owed his aunt this much. Surely he could put aside his own needs for one measly fortnight.
And if he couldn't solve this riddle within a fortnight—well, then, he didn't know what the hell he was going to do. He sincerely doubted he could last much longer than two weeks in his current state of distress.
With a loud and unapologetic curse, he turned on his heel and strode outside. He needed some fresh air.
* * *
Elizabeth tried not to think of James as she scooted past his cozy little cottage. She wasn't successful, of course, but at least she didn't have to worry about stumbling over him this afternoon. He was back in the sitting room, presumably laughing over the way she'd fled the scene.
No, she admitted to herself, he wasn't laughing at her. It would make things so much easier if he were. Then she could hate him.
As if the day weren't bad enough, Malcolm had apparently decided that torturing Elizabeth was more fun than listening to Lady Danbury lecture the Corbishleys, and the immense cat was presently trotting alongside her, hissing at regular intervals.
"Is this truly necessary?" Elizabeth demanded. "To follow me out just to hiss at me?''
Malcolm's reply was another hiss.
"Beast. No one believes you hiss at me, you know. You only do it when we're alone."
The cat smirked. Elizabeth would swear to it.
She was still arguing with the blasted cat when she drew alongside the stables. Malcolm was growling and hissing with complete abandon, and Elizabeth was jabbing her finger at him and demanding silence, which was probably why she did not hear the approaching footsteps.
Her head jerked up. Sir Bertram Fellport—the blond Adonis with the face of an angel—was standing in front of her. Rather too close, in her opinion. “Oh, good day, sir." She took a discreet and, she hoped, inoffensive step back.
He smiled, and Elizabeth half expected a gaggle of cherubs to appear about his head, singing of angels on high. "I am Fellport," he said.
She nodded. She knew that already, but she saw no reason to inform him of this. “I am pleased to make your acquaintance."
"Did you find your notebook?"
He must have been listening to her conversation with Lady Danbury. "No," she replied, "I did not. But I am certain it shall turn up. These things always do."
"Yes," he murmured, his sky-blue eyes regarding her with uncomfortable intensity. "Have you worked for Lady Danbury long?''
Elizabeth inched back another baby step. "Five years."
He reached out and stroked her cheek. "It must be a lonely existence."
"Not at all," she said stiffly. "If you'll excuse me."
His hand shot out and wrapped around her wrist with painful force. "I don't excuse you."
"Sir Bertram," she said, somehow keeping her voice even over the pounding of her heart, "may I remind you that you are a guest in Lady Danbury's home?"
He tugged on her wrist, forcing her to move closer to him. “And may I remind you that you are in Lady Danbury's employ, and thus obligated to see to her guests' comfort?"
Elizabeth looked up at those stunningly blue eyes and saw something very ugly and cold. Her stomach knotted, and she realized that she had to get away now. He was pulling her toward the stables, and once he had her out of sight, there would be no escape.
She let out a scream, but it was cut short by the vicious clamping of his hand over her mouth. “You're going to do what I say," he hissed in her ear, "and afterward, you're going to say, Thank you.' "
And then all of Elizabeth's worst fears were realized as she felt herself being dragged into the stables.
James had his hands shoved in his pockets as he made his way to the stables. He was indulging in a rare fit of sulkiness; it wasn't often that he had to deny himself anything he truly wanted, and putting off his pursuit of Elizabeth had left him in a bad mood.
The fresh air hadn't helped much, so he decided to take that idea to the next level and go for a ride. A breakneck, hell-for-leather, wind-whipping-one's-hair-into-knots-and-tangles sort of ride. As Agatha's estate manager he had free run of the stables, and if it was irregular for such a person to be galloping about like a wild man—well, James intended to be moving far too fast for anyone to recognize him.
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