Elizabeth felt his eyes on her face, burning into her skin, and when she looked up at him, she realized that he had followed her gaze to Mrs. Seeton's book.

"Don't say anything," she whispered, painfully aware of the presence of the Ravenscrofts. “Please don't mortify me like that."

James nodded curtly, and Elizabeth felt her entire body go limp with relief. She didn't know Blake, and she hardly knew Caroline, but she couldn't bear for them to know she'd been so pathetic as to turn to a guidebook to find a husband.

Blake shut the library door behind him, then looked up at the room's occupants with a blank expression. "Er," he said, his eyes darting back and forth between Elizabeth and James, "would you like us to leave?"

"Yes," James bit off.

"No!" Elizabeth practically yelled.

"I think we should go," Blake said to his wife.

"Elizabeth wants us to stay," Caroline pointed out, "and we can't leave her here alone with him."

"It wouldn't be proper," Elizabeth hastened to add. She didn't want to be alone with James. If they were alone, he would wear her down, make her forget her anger. He'd use soft words and gentle touches, and she'd lose sight of what was true and what was right. She knew he had that power, and she hated herself for it.

"I think we're well past propriety," James retorted.

Caroline sank against the edge of a table. "Oh, dear."

Blake gave her an amused glance. "Since when have you been so concerned with propriety?"

"Since— Oh, be quiet." And then, in a hushed voice she added, "Don't you want them to marry?"

"I didn't even know she existed until ten minutes ago."

"I'm not going to marry him," Elizabeth declared, trying not to notice that her voice broke on her words. "And I'd appreciate it if the two of you would not speak as if I weren't in the room."

Caroline's eyes slid to the floor. "Sorry," she mumbled. "I hate it when people do that to me."

"I want to go home," Elizabeth said yet again.

"I know, dear," Caroline murmured, "but we really should sort this out, and—"

Someone started banging on the door.

"Go away," Blake yelled.

"You'll feel much better in the morning if we sort this out now," Caroline continued. "I promise you that—"

"QUIET!"

James's voice shook the room with so much power that Elizabeth sat down. Unfortunately, his hand was still wrapped around her sash, so she found herself gasping for air as it cut into her ribs. "James," she wheezed, "let go."

He did, although probably more out of his desire to shake his fist at everyone than anything else. "For the love of God," he thundered, "how is a man meant to think with all of this noise? Can we possibly conduct a single conversation? Just one, that we all may follow?"

"Actually," Caroline put in, probably unwisely, "if one wants to place a fine point upon it, we were discussing a single topic. Of course we were all talking at once—"

Her husband yanked her to his side with enough authority to force out a little yelp. She made no sound after that.

"I need to speak with Elizabeth," James said. "Alone."

Elizabeth's response was sure and swift. "No."

Blake started walking toward the door, dragging Caroline after him. "It's time we left, darling."

"We can't leave her here against her will/' Caroline protested. "It isn't right, and in all conscience, I cannot—''

"He's not going to hurt her," Blake interrupted.

But Caroline just hooked one of her feet around the leg of a table. "I'm not leaving her," she ground out.

Elizabeth mouthed a heartfelt “thank you'' from across the room.

"Blake ..." James said, flicking his eyes over at Caroline, who had thrown her orange pumpkin arms around a wing chair.

Blake shrugged. "You'll soon learn, James, that there are times one just can't argue with one's wife."

"Well, he can learn that with some other wife," Elizabeth declared, "because I'm not marrying him."

"Fine!" James exploded, waving an angry arm at Blake and Caroline. "Stay and listen. You're likely to listen against the door, anyway. And as for you ..." He turned his furious gaze on Elizabeth. "You will listen to me and you will marry me."

"See?" Caroline whispered to Blake. "I knew he'd come around and let us stay."

James turned slowly around, his neck held so tightly that his jaw was shaking. "Ravenscroft," he said to Blake, his voice dangerously controlled, "don't you ever get the urge to strangle her?"

"Oh, all the time," Blake said cheerfully. "But for the most part, I'm glad she married me instead of you."

"What?" Elizabeth screeched. "He asked her to marry him?" Her head snapped back and forth for several seconds before she managed to stop moving and fix her eyes on Caroline. "He asked you to marry him?"

"Yes," Caroline replied with a dismissive shrug. "But he wasn't serious."

Elizabeth turned hard eyes to James. “Are you in the habit of extending insincere marriage proposals?''

James turned even harder eyes to Caroline. "You are not improving the situation."

Caroline turned limpid eyes to her husband.

"Don't look to me for help," he said.

"He would have married me if I'd said yes," Caroline explained with a loud sigh. "But he only asked to goad Blake into proposing. It was really quite thoughtful of him. He'll make you a wonderful husband, Elizabeth. I promise."

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