Elizabeth stared at the three of them in disbelief. Watching them interact was exhausting.

"We're confusing you, aren't we?" Caroline asked.

Elizabeth was quite without words.

"It's really a rather remarkable story," Blake said with a shrug. "I'd write a book about it, except no one would believe me."

"Do you think?" Caroline asked, her eyes lighting with delight. "What would you call it?"

"Not sure," Blake said, scratching his chin. "Perhaps something about catching oneself an heiress."

James shoved his furious face up close to Blake. “Why not HOW TO DRIVE YOUR FRIENDS COMPLETELY AND IRREVOCABLY INSANE?"

Elizabeth shook her head. "You're all mad. I'm sure of it."

Blake shrugged. "I'm sure of it half the time, too."

"May I please have a word with Elizabeth?" James snapped.

"So sorry," Blake said in a voice that was clearly designed to annoy. "I'd quite forgotten why we were here."

James sank his left hand into the hair right above his forehead and pulled; it seemed the only way to keep from wrapping his hand around Blake's neck. "I'm starting to realize,'' he growled, “why courtships are best conducted in private."

Blake raised a brow. "Meaning?"

"Meaning that you have ruined everything."

"Why?" Elizabeth countered. "Because he inadvertently revealed your identity?"

"I was going to tell you everything tomorrow."

"I don't believe you."

"I don't care if you believe me!" James shouted. "It's the truth."

"Pardon my interruption," Caroline put in, "but shouldn't you care if she believes you? After all, you did ask her to be your wife."

James started to shake, desperate to strangle someone in the room but not certain with whom he was the most furious. There was Blake, with his mocking stares; Caroline, who had to be the meddlingist woman in all creation; and Elizabeth...

Elizabeth. Yes, she had to be the one he really wanted to light into, because just the thought of her name made his temperature rise by several degrees. And this was not due merely to passion.

He was furious. Bone-shaking, teeth-rattling, muscles-about-to-jump-from-his-skin furious. And his three current companions clearly did not realize what danger they were courting each time they cracked another asinine joke.

"I am going to speak now," he said, keeping his voice painfully slow and steady. "And the person who interrupts me will be tossed out the window. Is that clear?''

No one said anything.

"Is that clear?"

"I thought you wanted us to be quiet," Blake said.

Which turned out to be all the incentive Caroline needed to open her mouth and say, "Do you think he realizes that the window isn't open?"

Elizabeth clapped her hand over her mouth. James glared at her. God help her if she laughed.

He drew a deep breath and stared hard into her blue eyes. "I did not tell you who I was because I was called here to investigate the blackmail of my aunt."

"Someone is blackmailing your aunt?" Caroline breathed.

"Good God!" Blake exclaimed. "The cretin must have a death wish." He looked over at Elizabeth. "I, for one, am terrified by the old dragon."

James looked at the Ravenscrofts, then looked markedly at the window, then looked back at Elizabeth. "It would not have been prudent to inform you of my true purposes here at Danbury House, because, if you recall, you were the prime suspect."

"You suspected Elizabeth?" Caroline interrupted. "Are you completely insane?"

"He did," Elizabeth affirmed. "And he is. Insane, I mean."

James took a steadying breath. He was about two steps away from spontaneous combustion. "I quickly cleared Elizabeth of suspicion," he ground out.

"That's when you should have told me who you were," Elizabeth said. "Before—" She cut herself off and stared purposefully at the ground.

"Before what?" Caroline asked.

"The window, my dear," Blake said, patting his wife on the arm. "Remember the window."

She nodded and turned back to James and Elizabeth, her expression expectant.

James purposefully ignored her, focusing his entire being on Elizabeth. She was sitting in a chair, her back ramrod straight, and her face looked so tense he thought that the merest caress might cause her to shatter. He tried to remember what she'd looked like just an hour earlier, flushed with passion and delight. To his great horror, he could not.

"I did not reveal myself to you at that time," he continued, "because I felt that my first duty must be to my aunt. She has been ..." He fought for words that might explain the depth of his devotion for the crotchety old lady, but then he remembered that Elizabeth knew of his past. In fact, she was the only person to whom he'd ever told the entire story of his childhood. Even Blake knew only bits and pieces.

"She has been very important to me over the years," he finally said. "I couldn't—"

"You don't have to explain your love for Lady Danbury," Elizabeth said quietly, not raising her eyes to meet his.

"Thank you." He cleared his throat. "I did not know—I still do not know—the identity of her blackmailer. Furthermore, I have no way of determining whether or not this individual might prove dangerous. I saw no reason to draw you into the matter any further."

Elizabeth looked up suddenly, and the expression in her eyes was heartbreaking. "Surely you know that I would never have done anything to harm Lady Danbury."


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