"And I suppose," she added mischievously, "that you would also be lying if you said it was your pleasure."

"That would be a huge lie. Of proportions immense."

She laughed.

"If you don't start according me the proper respect," he muttered, "I may have to toss you in the lake along with me."

"Surely you can take a bit of teasing."

"I rather think I've taken all the teasing my body can stand already this evening."

She let out another peal of giggles. "I'm sorry," she gasped. "I don't mean to laugh at you, but—"

"Yes, you do." He tried not to grin, but he wasn't successful.

"All right, yes, I do, but it's only because^—" She stopped walking and reached up to touch his beloved face. "It's only because you make me so happy and free. I cannot remember the last time I felt so able to simply laugh."

"What about when you're with your family?" he asked. "I know you adore them."

"I do. But even when we are laughing and joking and having the loveliest of times, there is always a cloud hanging over me, constantly reminding me that it all could be taken away. That it all would be taken away the moment I found myself unable to support them."

"You will never have to worry about that again," he said, his voice a fierce vow. "Never."

"Oh, James," she said wistfully. "You're very sweet to say so, but I don't see how you can—"

"You'll have to trust me," he interrupted. "I have a few tricks up my sleeve. Besides, I thought you said that when you were with me that pesky gray cloud disappeared."

"When I'm with you I forget about my worries, but that doesn't mean they're gone."

He patted her hand. “I may surprise you yet, Elizabeth Hotchkiss."

They walked toward the house in companionable silence. As they drew near, the sounds of the party grew louder—music, mixed with chatter, and the occasional roar of raucous laughter.

"It sounds like quite a crush," Elizabeth commented.

"Lady Danbury would accept no less," James replied. He glanced at the stately stone mansion, which had come into view. Guests had spilled out onto the lawn, and he knew he was going to have to make his exit immediately. "Elizabeth," he said, "I must leave now, but I will call upon you tomorrow."

"No, please let's stay." She smiled up at him, her dark blue eyes heartbreakingly huge. "We've never danced." "I promise you that we shall." He kept his eye on the closest members of the crowd. He didn't see anyone he knew, but one could never be too careful. "I'll find you a mask, if that's your worry." "No, Elizabeth, I just can't. You must accept that." She frowned. "I don't see why you must—" "It's simply the way it must be. I— Ooof!" Something very large and padded crashed into James's back. Clearly they were not quite as far from the crowds as he'd thought. He turned around to dress down the clumsy partygoer—

And found himself staring straight into the aquamarine eyes of Caroline Ravenscroft.

*      *      *

Elizabeth watched the scene that unfolded with an increasing sense of disbelief and horror.

"James?" Caroline asked, her eyes growing round with delight. "Oh, James! It's so lovely to see you!"

Elizabeth's eyes flew from James to Caroline, trying to figure out how these two people knew each other. If Caroline knew James, surely she would have known he was the estate manager Elizabeth had mentioned earlier that evening.

"Caroline," James responded, his voice impossibly tight.

Caroline tried to throw her arms around him, but her pumpkin costume rendered hugs difficult. "Where have you been?" she demanded. "Blake and I are most displeased. He has been trying to reach you for— Elizabeth?"

James froze. "How do you know Elizabeth?" he asked, his words slow and careful.

"We met this evening," Caroline replied, giving him a dismissive wave before turning to her new best friend. "Elizabeth, I have been looking for you all night. Where did you disappear to? And how do you know James?"

"I—I—" Elizabeth couldn't get the words out, couldn't possibly verbalize what was becoming increasingly obvious.

"When did you meet Elizabeth?" Caroline flipped around to face James, her light brown braid clipping him in the shoulder. “I told her about you this afternoon and she said she didn't know you."

"You told me about him?" Elizabeth whispered. "No, you didn't. You didn't mention James. The only person you told me about was—''

"James," Caroline cut in. "The Marquis of Riverdale."

"No," Elizabeth said in a shaky voice, her mind suddenly filled with images of a little red book and endless edicts. HOW TO MARRY A MARQUIS. No, it was impossible. "This isn't—"

Caroline turned to James. "James?" Her eyes grew wide as she realized that she had unwittingly destroyed a secret. "Oh, no. I'm sorry. I never dreamed you would be working in disguise here at Danbury House. You told me you were through with all that."

"With all what?" Elizabeth asked, her voice slightly shrill.

"This isn't about the War Office," James bit off.

"What, then?" Caroline asked.

"The Marquis of Riverdale?" Elizabeth echoed. "You're a marquis?"

"Elizabeth," James said, all but ignoring Caroline. "Give me a moment to explain."

***

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