A marquis. James was a marquis. And he must have been laughing at her for weeks. "You bastard," she hissed. And then, using every boxing lesson he'd ever given her, plus quite a bit of sheer instinct, she drew back her right arm and swung.
James stumbled. Caroline shrieked. Elizabeth stalked away.
"Elizabeth!" James boomed, striding after her. "Get back here this instant. You will listen to me."
His hand closed around her elbow. "Let go of me!" she cried out.
"Not until you listen to me."
"Oh, you must have had so much fun with me," she choked out. "So much fun pretending to teach me how to marry a marquis. You bastard. You filthy bastard."
He nearly flinched at the venom in her voice. "Elizabeth, I never once—"
"Did you laugh about me with your friends? Did you laugh about the poor little lady's companion who thought she might be able to marry a marquis?''
"Elizabeth, I had my reasons for keeping my identity a secret. You're jumping to conclusions."
"Don't patronize me," she spat out, trying to yank her arm free of his grip. "Don't ever even speak to me again."
"I will not let you run off without hearing me out."
"And I let you touch me," she whispered, her horror showing clearly on her face. "I let you touch me and it was all a lie."
He caught hold of her other arm and pulled her up against him until her breasts were flattened against his ribs. "Don't you ever," he hissed, "call that a lie."
"Then what was it? You don't love me. You don't even respect me enough to tell me who you are."
"You know that's not true." He looked up and saw that a small crowd had begun to form near Caroline, who was still standing openmouthed about ten yards away. "Come with me," he ordered, pulling her around the corner of Danbury House. "We'll discuss this in private."
"I'm not going anywhere with you." She dug her heels in, but she was no match for his greater strength. "I'm going home, and if you ever attempt to speak with me again, I shall not answer to the consequences."
"Elizabeth, you are being irrational."
She snapped. Whether it was his voice or his words, she never knew, but she just snapped. "Don't you tell me what I am!" she yelled, pounding her fists against his chest. "Don't you tell me anything!"
James just stood there, letting her hit him. He stood so still that eventually her arms, sensing no resistance, had to stop.
She pulled away, her body wracked by deep and violent breaths as she stared up at his face. "I hate you," she said in a low voice.
He said nothing.
"You have no idea what you've done," she whispered, shaking her head in disbelief. "You don't even think you've done anything wrong."
"Elizabeth." He'd never dreamed it could take such strength just to call forward one simple word.
Her eyes grew faintly pitying, as if she'd suddenly realized that he must be beneath her, that he would never be worthy of her love and respect. "I'm going home. You may inform Lady Danbury that I have resigned."
"You can't resign."
"And why not?"
"She needs you. And you need the—"
"The money?" she spat out. "Is that what you were going to say?"
He felt his cheeks grow warm, and he knew she could see his answer in his eyes.
"There are some things I won't do for money," she told him, "and if you think I'm going to come back here and work for your aunt— Oh, my God!" she gasped, as if just realizing what she'd said. "She's your aunt. She must have known. How could she do this to me?''
"Agatha had no knowledge of what was happening between us. Whatever blame you choose to assign, none can be heaped upon her shoulders."
"I trusted her," she whispered. "She was like a mother to me. Why would she let this happen?"
They both turned to see a very tentative pumpkin poking her head around the corner, followed by a somewhat irritable black-haired pirate, who was waving his arms in the opposite direction, yelling, "Go away! All of you! There is nothing to see."
"This is not a good time, Caroline," James said, his words clipped.
"Actually," Caroline said softly, "I fear it might be just the right time. Perhaps we could all adjourn inside? Somewhere private?"
Blake Ravenscroft, Caroline's husband and James's best friend, stepped forward. "She's right, James. Gossip is already flying. Half the party is going to be creeping around this corner within minutes."
Caroline nodded. "I'm afraid there is going to be a terrible scandal."
"I'm sure there already is one," Elizabeth retorted.
"Not that I care. I'm sure I will never see any of these people again."
James felt his fingernails bite into his palms. He was getting heartily sick of Elizabeth's stubbornness. Not once had she given him the opportunity to state his case. What was all that nonsense she'd said about trusting him? If she'd really trusted him, she might have let him get a word in edgewise.
"You will see these people again," he said in a dangerous voice.
"Oh, and when would that be?" she taunted. "I'm not of your ilk, as you have so capably—if rather underhandedly—pointed out."
"No," he said softly, "you're better."
That startled her into silence. Her mouth trembled, and her voice shook when she finally said, "No. You can't do this. What you did is unforgivable, and you can't use sweet words as absolution."
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