Elizabeth reached the bottom of the steps and unlinked her arm from Caroline's. "It's a promise." Then, with a smile and a wave, she dashed away from the ballroom. Lady Danbury would be out front receiving her guests, and it would be easier to scoot outside the house than to try to battle the crowds within.
* * *
"What the hell?" James followed that query with considerably darker and louder curses as he steered his horse around the crush of carriages slowly rolling toward Danbury House.
The masquerade ball. The bloody, annoying, inconvenient masquerade ball. He'd forgotten all about it.
He'd planned the evening to the last detail. He was going to go to his aunt, tell her that he'd failed, that he hadn't been able to flush out her blackmailer, and promise her that he would continue to try, but that he could not put his life on hold while doing so.
Then he would ride out to Elizabeth's cottage and ask her to marry him. He'd been grinning like an idiot the entire ride home, planning his every word. He had thought to take Lucas aside and ask him for his sister's hand. Not that James planned to let an eight-year-old dictate his life, but somehow the thought of including the little boy left his heart warm.
Plus he had a feeling that Elizabeth would be charmed by the gesture, which was probably his true motive in the entire affair.
But he was not going to be able to escape Danbury House this evening, and he certainly wasn't going to be able to gain a private audience with his aunt.
Frustrated with the clog of carriages, he nudged his horse off of the main road and cut through the lightly forested field that ran alongside the main lawn of Danbury House. The moon was full, and enough light spilled through the many windows of the mansion to light his trail, so he didn't have to slow down overmuch as he made his way to the stables.
He took care of his horse and trudged into his little cottage, smiling as he remembered the time he'd caught Elizabeth snooping there weeks earlier. He still hadn't told her about that. No matter; he'd have a lifetime to share and make memories with her.
He tried to ignore the sounds of the party, preferring the peace and seclusion of his temporary home, but he could not ignore the rumblings of his empty stomach. He'd rushed back to Surrey, eager to see Elizabeth, and hadn't stopped for so much as a bite of bread. His cottage, of course, held nothing edible, so he allowed himself one loud curse, and then trudged back outside. With any luck, he could make it to the kitchen without being recognized or waylaid by a drunken reveler.
He kept his head down as he weaved through the crowds spilling out onto the lawns. If he acted like a servant, Agatha's guests would see a servant and, with luck, leave him alone. Lord knew, they wouldn't expect the Marquis of Riverdale to be quite so dusty and rumpled.
He'd passed the edge of the crowd, and was about halfway to his destination, when out of the corner of his eye he saw a blond shepherdess trip over a rock, wave her left arm wildly for balance, and then finally right herself by jamming her crook into the ground.
Elizabeth. It had to be. No other blond shepherdess could be quite so enchantingly clumsy.
She seemed to be scooting along the perimeter of Danbury House, heading for the front. James changed tack slightly and headed in her direction, his heart soaring with the knowledge that she would soon be in his arms.
When had he grown into such a romantic fool?
Who knew? Who cared? He was in love. He had finally found the one woman who could complete his heart, and if that made him a fool, so be it.
He crept up behind her as she scurried toward the front of the house, and before she could hear his footsteps crunching along the gravel, he reached out and grasped her wrist.
She whirled around with a shocked gasp. James watched with delight as her eyes melted from panic to joy.
"James!" she cried out, her free hand reaching out to grab his. "You're back."
He lifted her hands to his lips and kissed them in turn. "I couldn't stay away."
Their time apart had made her shy, and she didn't quite meet his eyes when she whispered, "I missed you."
Propriety be damned. He gathered her into his arms and kissed her. And then, when he could actually force himself to tear his lips from hers, he whispered, "Come with me."
The night was hung with magic. The moon glowed bright, the air was dusted with the delicate scent of wildflowers, and the wind was a romantic whisper against the skin.
Elizabeth thought she must be a princess. The woman tearing across the field, hair streaming like a golden ribbon, could not be plain and ordinary Elizabeth Hotchkiss. For one night, she was transformed. For one night, her heart held no worries, no burdens. She was bathed in laughter and passion, enveloped by pure joy.
Hand in hand, they ran. Danbury House dipped out of sight, although the sounds of the party still drifted through the air. The trees around them grew more dense, and finally James stopped, his breathing heavy from exertion and excitement.
"Oh, my goodness," Elizabeth gasped, nearly crashing into him. "I haven't run so fast since—"
His arms snaked around her, and her breath stopped. "Kiss me," he ordered.
Elizabeth was lost to the night's enchantment, and any hesitations she might have had, any notions of what was proper and what was scandal, melted away. She arched her neck, offering him her lips, and he took them, his mouth capturing hers in the sweetest mix of tenderness and primitive need.
"I won't take you. Not now—not yet," he vowed against her skin. "But let me love you."
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