"I look ridiculous," she said to her reflection. "Utterly ridiculous." Her white dress was a mass of tucks and frills, adorned with more lace than any shepherdess could afford, and the bodice, while certainly not indecent, was cut lower than anything she'd ever worn before.

"As if any shepherdess could run through the fields wearing this," she muttered, tugging at the dress. Of course it was unlikely a shepherdess would be wearing a feathered mask, either, but that seemed neither here nor there compared to the expanse of bosom she was showing.

"Oh, I don't care," she declared. "No one will know who I am, anyway, and if anyone tries anything untoward, at least I have this blasted crook."

With that, Elizabeth grabbed the crook and jabbed it in the air like a sword. Satisfactorily armed, she marched out of the room and down the hall. Before she reached the stairs, however, a door swung open, and a woman dressed as a pumpkin came dashing out—right into Elizabeth.

They both hit the carpet with a thud and a flurry of apologies. Elizabeth clambered to her feet, then looked back down at the pumpkin, who was still sitting on her behind.

"Do you need a hand up?" Elizabeth asked.

The pumpkin, who was holding her green mask in her hand, nodded. "Thank you. I'm a bit ungainly these days, I'm afraid."

It took Elizabeth a couple of blinks, but then she realized what the pum—the lady! she had to stop thinking of her as a pumpkin—meant. "Oh, no!" Elizabeth said, dropping to her knees beside her. "Are you all right? Is your ..." She motioned to the lady's middle, although it was difficult to tell what was the middle under the pumpkin costume.

"I'm fine," the lady assured her. "Only my pride is bruised, I assure you."

"Here, let me help you up." It was difficult to maneuver the costume, but eventually Elizabeth managed to get the lady to her feet.

"I am terribly sorry for crashing into you," the lady apologized. "It's just that I was running so late, and I know my husband is downstairs tapping his foot, and—"

"It was no trouble. I assure you," Elizabeth said. And then, because the lady was such a friendly pumpkin, she added, "I'm rather grateful to you, actually. This might be the first time I haven't been the cause of such an accident. I'm terribly clumsy."

Elizabeth's new friend laughed. "Since we are so well-acquainted, please allow me to be terribly forward and introduce myself. I am Mrs. Blake Ravenscroft, but I would be most insulted if you called me anything but Caroline."

"I am Miss Elizabeth Hotchkiss, Lady Danbury's companion."

"Good gracious, really? I had heard she could be quite a dragon."

"She's really very sweet underneath. But I shouldn't like to get on her bad side."

Caroline nodded and patted her light brown hair. "Am I mussed?"

Elizabeth shook her head. “No more mussed than one would expect of a pumpkin."

"Yes, I suppose pumpkins can be allowed greater latitude in neatness of coiffure."

Elizabeth laughed again, liking this woman immensely.

Caroline held out her arm. "Shall we go down?"

Elizabeth nodded, and they made their way toward the stairs.

"My stem is definitely off to you," Caroline said with a laugh, lifting her green mask in salute. "My husband spent quite a bit of time here as a child, and he assures me that he is still terrified of Lady Danbury."

"Was your husband friends with her children?"

"Her nephew, actually. The Marquis of Riverdale. I hope to see him this evening, actually. He must be invited. Have you met him?"

"No. No, I haven't. But I heard a bit about him last week."

"Really?" Caroline began to step carefully down the stairs. "What is he up to? I haven't heard from him in over a month."

"I don't know, actually. Lady Danbury held a small garden party last week, and he sent a note asking one of the guests to meet him in London immediately."

"Oooh. How intriguing. And how very like James."

Elizabeth smiled at the mention of the name. She had her own James, and she couldn't wait to see him again.

Caroline stopped on a step and turned to Elizabeth with a very sisterly, and very nosy expression. “What is that about?"

"What?"

"That smile. And don't say you weren't. I saw it."

"Oh." Elizabeth felt her cheeks grow warm. "It's nothing. I have a suitor whose name is also James."

"Really?" Caroline's aquamarine eyes held the gleam of a born matchmaker. "You must introduce us."

"He isn't here, I'm afraid. He is Lady Danbury's new estate manager, but he was recently called to London. Some sort of family emergency, I believe."

"That's a pity. I already feel that we are the truest of friends. I should have liked to have met him."

Elizabeth felt her eyes grow misty. "That was such a lovely thing to say."

"Do you think so? I'm so glad you don't think me too forward. I wasn't raised in society, and I have the most appalling habit of speaking without thinking first. It drives my husband mad."

"I'm sure he adores you."

Caroline's eyes glowed, and Elizabeth knew that hers had been a love match. "I'm so late he's likely to bite my head off," Caroline admitted. "He can be such a worrier."

"Then we had best be on our way." "I cannot wait to introduce you to Blake." "That would be lovely. But first I must find Lady Danbury and make certain she doesn't need anything."

"Duty calls, I suppose. But you must promise that we shall meet up again later this evening." Caroline smiled wryly and motioned to her costume. "I'm fairly easy to spot."

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