"Hmmph. Where's my cat?"
Since she had already replied to that question, Elizabeth instead asked, "When, ah, do you expect Mr. Siddons to return?"
Lady Danbury's eyes were far too perceptive when she asked, “My errant estate manager?''
"I don't know, drat the man. We're falling into complete ruin here."
Elizabeth glanced through the window at the endless pristine lawns of Danbury House. "You might be overstating slightly."
Lady D started to say something, but Elizabeth held up her hand and said, "And don't tell me that at your age it's your prerogative to exaggerate."
"Well, it is. Hmmph. Malcolm!"
Elizabeth's eyes flicked to the door. The king of Danbury House was padding into the sitting room, his fat paws moving silently across the carpet.
"There you are, sweetie," Lady Danbury cooed. "Come to Mama."
But Malcolm didn't even flick his cafe au lait tail at her. While Lady D watched in horror, her cat trotted straight to Elizabeth and hopped up on her lap.
"Good kitty," Elizabeth purred.
"What is going on here?" Lady D demanded.
"Malcolm and I have come to a rapprochement of sorts."
"But he hates you!"
"Why, Lady Danbury," Elizabeth said, pretending to be shocked. "All these years you have insisted that he's a perfectly friendly kitty."
"He's certainly a perfect kitty," Lady D muttered.
"Not to mention all the times you told me this was all in my head."
Elizabeth slapped a hand against her cheek in mock disbelief. "No!"
"I want my cat back."
Elizabeth shrugged. Malcolm flipped over onto his back and stretched out with his paws over his head.
"Miserable traitorous feline."
Elizabeth smiled down at the cat as she rubbed the fur under his chin. “Life is good, eh, Malcolm? Life is very, very good."
Malcolm purred in agreement, and Elizabeth knew it had to be true.
* * *
Back in London, James was frustrated as hell. He'd spent well over a week investigating Agatha's life and had come up with nothing. He couldn't find a soul who even knew of anyone with a grudge against his aunt. Oh, plenty of people had plenty to say about her acerbic wit and direct manner, but no one truly hated her.
Furthermore, there was nary a hint of a whisper of scandal surrounding her past. As far as London was concerned, Agatha, Lady Danbury, had led an exemplary life. Upstanding and true, she was lauded the prime example of proper English womanhood.
Truth be told, he couldn't remember ever pursuing an investigation that was quite so boring.
He'd known that it was unlikely he'd find anything substantive; after all, the blackmailer had sought out his aunt in Surrey. But he'd unearthed no clues at Danbury House, and London had seemed the logical next step. If Agatha's enemy had learned of her secret past through the ton's brilliantly efficient gossip mill, then it stood to reason that someone in London would know something.
James had been bitterly disappointed.
There was nothing to do now except return to Danbury House and hope that the blackmailer had made another demand. This seemed unlikely, however; surely his aunt would have notified him if she'd received another threatening note. She knew where to reach him; he'd told her exactly where he was going and what he hoped to accomplish.
Agatha had argued bitterly against his leaving. She had been convinced that her blackmailer would be found in Surrey, skulking in the shadows of Danbury House. By the time James exited through the front door, Agatha had been in fine form, grumpy and sullen, more irritable than her cat.
James winced when he thought of poor Elizabeth, stuck in his aunt's surly company for the past week. But if anyone could draw Agatha out of her temper, he was convinced it was Elizabeth.
Three more days. He would devote no more time to his London investigation. Three days and then he would return to Danbury House, announce his failure to his aunt and his intentions to Elizabeth.
Three more days and he could begin his life anew.
* * *
By Friday afternoon, Danbury House was under siege. Elizabeth locked herself in the library for a full hour just to get away from the swarms of servants readying the mansion for that night's masquerade celebration. There was no escape from the frenzied activity, however; Lady Danbury had insisted that Elizabeth make her preparations at Danbury House. It was a sensible proposal, eliminating the need for Elizabeth to travel home and then return in full costume. But it also made it impossible for her to slip away for a few minutes of peace.
The time in the library didn't count. How could it count when no less than five servants banged on the door, requesting her opinion on the most inane of matters. Finally Elizabeth had to throw up her hands and yell, “Ask Lady Danbury!"
When the first of the carriages rolled down the drive, Elizabeth fled upstairs to the room Lady Danbury had assigned to her for the evening. The dreaded shepherdess costume hung in the wardrobe, accompanying crook leaning against the wall.
Elizabeth flopped onto the bed. She had no desire to arrive early. She fully expected to spend most of the evening by herself. She didn't mind her own company, but the last thing she wanted was to be noticeably by herself. Arriving while the party was a true crush meant that she could blend into the crowd. By then, Lady Danbury's guests ought to be too involved hi their own conversations to pay attention to her.
But the guests arrived in a flood rather than a trickle, and Elizabeth knew Lady Danbury well enough to know that the countess would drag her downstairs by the hair if she put off her appearance much longer. So she donned the shepherdess costume, affixed the feathered mask Lady D had also purchased for her, and stood in front of the mirror.
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