James grinned. "Both. Now, then, just tell me where to put my things. Oh, and Aunt Agatha"—he leaned down and kissed her cheek—"it's damned fine to see you."
She smiled. "I love you, too, James."
* * *
By the time Elizabeth reached her home, she was out of breath and covered with mud. She'd been so anxious to be away from Danbury House that she'd practically run the first quarter mile. Unfortunately, it had been a particularly wet summer in Surrey, and Elizabeth had never been especially coordinated. And as for that protruding tree root—well, there was really no way to avoid it, and so, with a splat, Elizabeth saw her best dress ruined.
Not that her best dress was in particularly good condition. There certainly wasn't enough money in the Hotchkiss coffers for new clothing unless one had completely outgrown one's old garments. But still, Elizabeth had some pride, and if she couldn't dress her family in the first stare of fashion, at the very least she could make certain they were all neat and clean.
Now there was mud caked onto her velvet sash, and even worse, she'd actually stolen a book from Lady Danbury. And not just any book. She'd stolen what had to be the stupidest, most asinine book in the history of bookbinding. And all because she had to auction herself off to the highest bidder.
She swallowed as tears formed in her eyes. What if there were no bidders? Then where would she be?
Elizabeth stamped her feet on the front stoop to shake off the mud, then pushed her way through the front door of her small house. She tried to sneak through the hall and up the stairs to her room without anyone seeing her, but Susan was too fast.
"Good heavens! What happened to you?"
"I slipped," Elizabeth ground out, never taking her eyes off of the stairs.
That was enough to make her twist around and stab her sister with a murderous glare. “What do you mean, again?"
Susan coughed. "Nothing."
Elizabeth swung back around with every intention of marching to and up the stairs, but her hand connected with a side table. "Owwwww!" she howled.
"Ooh," Susan said, wincing in sympathy. "I'll bet that hurts."
Elizabeth just stared at her, eyes narrowing into angry slits.
"Terribly sorry," Susan said quickly, clearly recognizing her sister's bad mood.
"I am going to my room," Elizabeth said, enunciating every word as if careful diction would somehow remove her to her private chamber more quickly. "And then I am going to lie down and take a nap. And if anyone bothers me, I shall not answer to the consequences."
Susan nodded. “Jane and Lucas are out playing in the garden. I shall make certain they are quiet if they return."
"Good, I— Owwwwwwww!"
Susan winced. "What now?"
Elizabeth bent down and picked up a small metal object. One of Lucas's toy soldiers. "Is there any reason," she said, "that this is sitting on the floor where anyone may step upon it?"
"None that I can think of," Susan said with a halfhearted attempt at a smile.
Elizabeth just sighed. "I am not having a good day."
"No, I didn't think you were."
Elizabeth tried to smile, but all she did was stretch her lips. She just couldn't manage to get the corners to turn up.
“Would you like me to bring you a cup of tea?'' Susan asked gently.
Elizabeth nodded. "That would be lovely, thank you."
"It's my pleasure. I'll just— What's that in your bag?"
Elizabeth cursed under her breath and shoved the book down under a handkerchief. "It's nothing."
"Did you borrow a book from Lady Danbury?"
"In a manner of speaking."
"Oh, good. I've read everything we possess. Not that we possess much any longer."
Elizabeth just nodded and tried to dash past her.
"I know it broke your heart to sell off the books," Susan said, "but it did pay for Lucas's Latin lessons."
"I really must go—"
"Can I see the book? I should like to read it."
"You can't," Elizabeth snapped, her voice coming out much louder than she'd have liked.
Susan drew back. "I beg your pardon."
"I have to return it tomorrow. That's all. You won't have time to read it."
"Can't I just look at it?"
Susan lunged forward. "I want to see it."
"I said no!" Elizabeth hopped to the right, just barely managing to elude her sister's grasp, and then dashed toward the stairs. But just as her foot hit the first step, she felt Susan's hand grabbing the fabric of her skirts.
"I have you!" Susan grunted.
"Let me go!"
"Not until you show me that book."
"Susan, I am your guardian and I order you to—"
"You're my sister, and I want to see what you're hiding."
Reason wasn't going to work, Elizabeth decided, so she grabbed her skirt and yanked hard, which only resulted in her slipping off the step and her bag tumbling to the floor.
"Aha!" Susan yelled triumphantly, snatching up the book.
“HOW TO MARRY A MARQUIS?” Susan looked up, her expression somewhat puzzled and wholly amused.
"It's just a silly book." Elizabeth felt her cheeks grow
warm. "I just thought... that is, I thought I—"
"A marquis?" Susan asked dubiously. "Setting rather lofty goals for ourselves, aren't we?"
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