James gritted his teeth and took a step toward her, heedless of the way Caroline and Blake were gaping at him. "I will give you one day to get over your anger, Elizabeth. You have until this time tomorrow."

"And then what happens?"

His eyes grew hot as he leaned forward, purposefully intimidating her with his size. "And then you marry me."

Chapter 18

Elizabeth punched him again, this time catching him so off guard that he tumbled to the ground.

"That is a terrible thing to say!" she cried out.

"Elizabeth," Caroline said, grabbing her wrist and yanking her to her side. "I think he just asked you to marry him. That's a nice thing to say. A nice thing." She turned to her husband, who was looking at James and trying not to laugh. "Isn't that a nice thing?"

"He doesn't mean it," Elizabeth snapped. "He's only saying that because he feels guilty. He knows what he did was wrong and—"

"Wait a moment," Blake interjected. "I thought you said he didn't even know he'd done anything wrong."

"He didn't. He doesn't. I don't know!" Elizabeth swung around, her eyes narrowing on the darkly handsome gentleman. "And you weren't even there. How do you know what I said? Were you eavesdropping?''

Blake, who had worked with James at the War Office for many years, simply shrugged. "Second nature, I'm afraid."

"Well, it's a despicable habit. I—" She stopped short, motioning toward him with an impatient gesture. “Who are you?"

"Blake Ravenscroft," he said with a polite bow.

"My husband," Caroline supplied.

"Ah, yes, the one who has been Mends with him"— Elizabeth jerked her hand toward James, who was sitting on the ground, holding his nose—"for years. Pardon me if that connection does not recommend you."

Blake only smiled.

Elizabeth shook her head, feeling oddly off-kilter. Her world was crashing down around her with dizzying speed, everyone was talking at once, and the only thing she seemed able to hold on to for any length of time was her anger for James. She shook her finger at him, still glaring at Blake. "He's an aristocrat. A bloody marquis."

"Is that so bad?" Blake asked, raising his brows.

"He should have told me!"

"James," Caroline said, kneeling down next to him as far as her costume would let her. “Are you bleeding?''

Bleeding? Elizabeth hated that she cared, but she couldn't stop her gasp, and she immediately turned to James. She would never forgive him for what he'd done, and she certainly never wanted to see him again, but she didn't want him to be hurt.

"I'm not bleeding," James muttered.

Caroline looked up at her husband and said, "She hit him twice."

"Twice?" Blake grinned. "Really?"

"It's not funny," Caroline said.

Blake looked down at James. "You let her hit you twice?"

"Hell, I taught her."

“That, good friend, shows an incredible lack of foresight on your part."

James scowled at him. "I was trying to teach her to protect herself."

"From whom? You?"

"No! From— Oh, for the love of God, what does it matter, I—" James looked up, saw Elizabeth carefully inching away, and bounded to his feet. "You're not going anywhere," he growled, grabbing at the sash at the waist of her costume.

"Let me go! Ouch—oh—James!" She wiggled like a fish out of water, unsuccessfully trying to turn around so that she could glare at him. "Let. Me. GO!"

"Not in a million years."

Elizabeth looked at Caroline pleadingly. Surely another woman would be sympathetic to her plight. "Please tell him to let me go."

Caroline glanced from James to Blake and then back at Elizabeth. Clearly torn between her allegiance to her old friend and her sympathy for Elizabeth, she stammered, "I—I don't know what's going on, except he didn't tell you who he was."

“Isn't that enough?''

"Well," Caroline hedged, "James rarely tells people who he is."

"What?" Elizabeth squeaked, whirling around so she could shove James in his aristocratic shoulder. "You have done this before? You despicable, amoral—"

"Enough!" James roared.

Six costumed heads peeked out from around the corner.

"I really think we ought to move inside," Caroline said weakly.

"Unless you prefer an audience," Blake added.

"I want to go home," Elizabeth stated, but no one was listening to her. She didn't know why this surprised her; no one had been listening to her all night.

James nodded curtly at Blake and Caroline and then motioned to the house with a quick jerk of his head. His grip tightened on the sash of Elizabeth's dress, and when he started to walk inside the house, there was nothing she could do but follow.

A few moments later she found herself in the library, the crudest stroke of irony. HOW TO MARRY A MARQUIS was still laying on the shelf, just where she'd left it.

Elizabeth suppressed an irrational urge to laugh. Mrs. Seeton had been right; there was a marquis around every corner. Nobility everywhere, just laying in wait to humiliate poor, unsuspecting women.

And that was what James had done. Every time he'd given her a lesson on how to catch a husband—a marquis, damn him—he'd humiliated her. Every time he'd tried to teach her how to smile or flirt, she'd been demeaned. And when he'd kissed her, pretending to be nothing more than a humble estate manager, he'd soiled her with his lies.

If James hadn't been holding on to her sash, she probably would have grabbed the damned book and heaved it out the window—and then pushed him right along after it.

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