"I see," she said slowly.

Of course she didn't see, he thought angrily. How could she? But he could not tell her. It was unlikely that Agatha's blackmailer might turn violent, but James could not completely discount that possibility. The only way to fully safeguard Elizabeth was to leave her in the dark.

"I'll be back soon," he said. "I hope within a week."

"You're not planning to pursue Fellport, are you?"

she asked, worry creasing her brow. "Because if you are—"

He pressed his index finger gently against her soft lips. "I'm not planning to pursue Fellport."

Her expression remained uncertain. "If you attack him again, you will hang," she persisted. "Surely you know—"

James silenced her with a kiss that was brief and yet full of promise, "Don't worry over me," he murmured against the corner of her mouth. He drew back, taking both of her hands in his. "There are things I need to do, items I need to take care of before ..."

His words trailed off, and he saw the silent question resting in her eyes. "We will be together," he vowed. "I promise you."

In the end, he had to kiss her one last time. “The future looks very bright," he whispered, the words soft and sweet against her lips. "Very bright indeed."

*      *      *

Elizabeth held those words close to her heart ten days later, when there was still no sign of James. She wasn't certain why she was so optimistic about the future; she was still a lady's companion and James was still an estate manager, and neither of them possessed a cent, but somehow she trusted in his abilities to make the future, as he had put it, bright.

Maybe he was expecting an inheritance from a distant relative. Maybe he knew one of the masters at Eton and could arrange for Lucas to attend at a reduced rate. Maybe...

Maybe maybe maybe. Life was full of maybes, but suddenly "maybe" held a lot more promise.

After so many years of shouldering responsibility, she felt almost giddy at abandoning her constant sense of worry. If James said he could solve her problems, she believed him. Maybe she was foolish, thinking a man could swoop into her life and make everything perfect. After all, her father hadn't exactly been a model of dependability and rectitude.

But surely she deserved a little bit of magic in her life. Now that she had found James, she couldn't bring herself to look for pitfalls and dangers. Her heart felt lighter than it had in years, and she refused to think that anything might steal that bliss away.

Lady Danbury confirmed that James had been granted a brief leave to visit his family. It was a singular boon for an estate manager, but Elizabeth assumed that James was given greater latitude and consideration due to his family's slight connection to the Danburys.

What was odd, however, was Lady Danbury's near-constant state of irritability. She may have given James time to tend to his business, but she clearly had not done so with great grace and charity. Elizabeth could not count the number of times she'd caught Lady D grumbling about his absence.

Lately, though, Lady Danbury had been too preoccupied with her upcoming masquerade ball to defame James. It was to be the largest ball held at Danbury House in years, and the entire staff—plus the fifty extra servants brought in just for the event—was buzzing with activity. Elizabeth could barely make it from the sitting room to the library (which was only three doors down) without tripping over someone or other, racing to Lady Danbury with questions about the guest list, or the menu, or the Chinese lanterns, or the costumes, or...

Yes, costumes. Plural. Much to Elizabeth's shock, Lady Danbury had arranged for two costumes. Queen Elizabeth for herself, and a shepherdess girl for Elizabeth.

Elizabeth was not amused.

"I am not going to carry that crook around with me all night," she swore.

"Crook, ha. That's nothing," Lady D chortled. "Just wait until you see the sheep."

"Whaaaat?"

"I'm only kidding. Good heavens, girl, you must develop a better sense of humor."

Elizabeth spluttered a great deal of nonsense before finally managing to get out, "I beg your pardon!"

Lady D waved her hand dismissively. "I know, I know. Now you're going to tell me that anyone who has survived five years working for me must be in possession of an excellent sense of humor."

"Something like that," Elizabeth muttered.

"Or perhaps that if you didn't have a stellar sense of humor you'd by now have been killed by the torture of serving as my companion."

Elizabeth blinked. "Lady Danbury, I think you might be developing a sense of humor yourself."

"Euf. At my age one has to have a sense of humor. It's the only way to make it through the day."

Elizabeth only smiled.

"Where's my cat?"

"I have no idea, Lady Danbury. I haven't seen him this morning."

Lady D twisted her head this way and that, speaking as she scanned the room for Malcolm. "Still," she pontificated, "one would think I would receive at least a token more respect."

“I certainly don't know what you mean by such a comment."

Lady Danbury's expression was wry. "Between you and James, 1 shall never be allowed to grow too big for my britches."

Before Elizabeth could reply, Lady D turned back around and said, "At my age it's my right to be too big for my britches."

"And what age would that be today?"

Lady D wagged her finger. "Don't be sly. You know very well how old I am."

"I do my best to keep track of it."

***

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