"And so I learned not to cry." He shook his head despairingly. “And after a while I pulled away from her embraces. If he couldn't catch her hugging me, maybe he would stop hitting her."

"But he didn't stop, did he?"

“No. There was always a reason she needed to be put in her place. And eventually—" His breath whooshed out on a raw and shaky exhale. “Eventually he decided her place was at the bottom of the stairs."

Elizabeth felt something hot on her cheeks, and it was only then that she realized she was crying. "What happened to you?"

"That," James replied, his voice growing slightly stronger, "is perhaps the only bright spot in the story. My aunt—my mother's sister—came and snatched me away. I think she'd always suspected that my mother was mistreated, but she'd never dreamed it was as bad as it was. Much later, she told me that she would be damned if she was going to let my father start in on me."

"Do you think he would have?"

"I don't know. I was still valuable. His only heir. But he needed someone to abuse, and with Mama gone ..." He shrugged.

"Your aunt must be a very special woman."

He looked over at her, wanting more than anything to tell her the truth, but he couldn't. Not yet. "She is," he said, his voice husky with emotion. "She saved me. As sure as if she pulled me from a burning building, she saved me."

Elizabeth touched his cheek. "She must have taught you how to be happy."

"She kept trying to hug me," he said. "That first year, she tried to show me love, and I kept pulling away. 1 thought my uncle would beat her if she held me." He raked his hand through his hair, a short, angry laugh escaping his lips. "Can you believe that?"

"How could you have thought anything else?" Elizabeth asked quietly. "Your .father was the only man you knew."

"She taught me how to love." He let out a short, staccato breath. "I'm still not up to snuff at forgiveness, but I do know love."

"Your father doesn't deserve forgiveness," she said. "I have always tried to follow God's sermons, and I know that we're meant to turn the other cheek, but your father doesn't deserve it."

James was silent for a moment, and then he turned to her and said, "He died when I was twenty. I didn't attend the funeral."

It was the ultimate insult a child could aim at a parent.

Elizabeth nodded with grim approval. “Did you see him as you were growing up?''

"I had to on occasion. It was unavoidable. I was his son. Legally, my aunt hadn't a leg to stand on. But she was strong, and she cowed him. He'd never met a woman who stood up to him before. He had no idea how to deal with her."

Elizabeth leaned forward and pressed a gentle kiss to his forehead. "I shall include your aunt in my prayers tonight." Her hand drifted to his cheek, and she gazed at him with wistful regret, wishing there was some way she could turn back the clock, some way to hold that long-ago little boy and show him that the world could be a safe and loving place.

He turned his face into her hand. His lips pressed against her palm, seeking the warmth of her skin and honoring the warmth of her heart. "Thank you," he whispered.

"For what?"

"For being here. For listening. For just being you."

"Thank you, then," she whispered back. "For all the same things."

Chapter 16

As James walked Elizabeth home, he felt his life fall into focus. Since he had been forced out of the War Office, he had been floating more than actually living. He had been caught by malaise, knowing he had to move forward with his life but dissatisfied with the options that had presented themselves. He knew he needed to marry, but his response to the women in London had been almost uniformly lukewarm. He needed to take a more active interest in his lands and estates, but it was difficult to call RiverdaleCastle home when he saw his father's shadow in every corner.

But in the space of a week, his life had assumed a new direction. For the first time in over a year, he wanted something.

He wanted someone.

He wanted Elizabeth.

He had been bewitched before this afternoon, enchanted and obsessed to the point where he'd decided he'd marry her. But something very strange and magical had occurred in the stable stall when he'd tried to comfort Elizabeth.

He'd found himself telling her things he'd held secret for years. And as the words had poured forth, he'd felt a hollow within him filling up. And he knew that he wasn't bewitched by Elizabeth. He wasn't enchanted, and he wasn't obsessed.

He needed her.

And he knew that he wouldn't find peace until he made her his, until he knew every inch of her body and every corner of her soul. If this was love, he gave himself up to it willingly.

But he could not abandon his responsibilities, and he would not break his promise to his aunt. He'd solve the mystery of this damned blackmailer. After all Agatha had done for him as a child, he'd solve this mystery for her.

Elizabeth loved Agatha. She would understand.

But that didn't mean that he would sit on his hands. He'd told Agatha that the best way to find the blackmailer was to wait for another note, and that was true, but he was tired of waiting.

He looked over at Elizabeth's face, took in those endless blue eyes and flawless skin, and made his decision. "I have to go to London tomorrow," he said abruptly.

Her head turned toward his in an instant. "London?" she echoed. "Why?"

"Some unpleasant family business," he replied, hating that he could not tell her the whole truth, but taking some comfort in the fact that his words were not precisely a lie.

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