"And that is?" Elizabeth asked disdainfully.

"That you marry your damned marquis!"

She was silent for a long moment, her blue eyes holding his, and then, in a movement that sliced his gut in two, she turned away.

“He said he would help me learn how to catch a husband," she said to the Ravenscrofts. "But he never told me who he was. He never told me he was a bloody marquis."

No one made a response, so Elizabeth just let out a bitter breath and said, "And now you know the entire tale. How he poked fun at me and my unfortunate circumstances."

James crossed the room in a heartbeat. "I never laughed at you, Elizabeth," he said, his eyes intent upon her face. "You must believe that. I never intended to hurt you."

"Well, you did," she said.

"Then marry me. Let me spend a lifetime making it up to you."

A fat tear squeezed out of the corner of her eye. "You don't want to marry me."

"I have asked you repeatedly," he said with an impatient exhale. “What more proof do you need?''

"Am I not allowed to have my pride? Or is that an emotion reserved for the elite?''

"Am I such a terrible person?" The question was punctuated by a vaguely bewildered exhale. "So I didn't tell you who I was. I'm sorry. Excuse me for enjoying— no, reveling—in the fact that you fell in love with me, not my title, not my money, not my anything. Just me."

A choking sound emerged from her throat. “It was a test?"

"No!" he practically yelled. "Of course it wasn't a test. I told you, I had very important reasons for concealing my identity. But... but..." He fought for words, having no idea how to express what was in his heart. “But it still felt good. You have no idea, Elizabeth. No idea at all."

"No," she said quietly, "I don't."

"Don't punish me, Elizabeth."

His voice was thick with emotion, and Elizabeth felt that warm baritone all the way down to her soul. She had to get out of here, had to escape before he spun any more lies around her heart.

Yanking her hands away from his, she hurried toward the door. "I have to go," she said, panic rising in her voice. "I can't be with you right now."

"Where are you going?" James asked, slowly following her.

"Home."

His arm came out to prevent her from leaving. "You are not walking home by yourself. It is dark, and the district is full of drunken revelers."

"But—"

"I don't care if you hate me," he said in a voice that brooked no protest. "I will not permit you to leave this room by yourself."

She looked entreatingly at Blake. "Then you can do it. Will you see me home? Please?"

Blake stood, and his eyes met with James's for a brief moment before nodding. "I would be honored."

"Take care of her," James said gruffly.

Blake nodded again. "You know I will." He took Elizabeth's arm and escorted her out of the room.

James watched them go, then leaned against the wall, his body shaking with all the emotion he'd been trying to keep in check all evening. The fury, the pain, the exasperation, even the damned frustration—after all, he had not found his own pleasure in the woods with Elizabeth.

They all rocked within him, eating him up, making it difficult to breathe.

He heard a little clucking sound and looked up. Blast, he'd completely forgotten that Caroline was still in the room.

"Oh, James," she sighed. "How could you?" "Save it, Caroline," he snapped. "Just save it." And then he stormed off, crashing heedlessly through the crowds in the hall. There was a bottle of whiskey in his cottage that promised to be the evening's best companion.

Chapter 19

It didn't take long for Elizabeth to decide that Blake Ravenscroft—despite his being bosom bows with James—was a very wise man. He didn't, as he drove her home, attempt to make conversation, or ask prying questions, or do anything other than offer her a comforting pat on the arm and say, "If you need someone, I'm certain Caroline would be happy to talk with you."

It took a smart man indeed to know when to keep his mouth shut.

The drive home was conducted in silence, save for Elizabeth's occasional directions to her home.

As they drove up to the Hotchkiss cottage, however, Elizabeth was surprised to see the small structure ablaze with light. "Heavens," she murmured. "They must have lit every candle in the house."

And then, of course, habit kicked in, and she began to mentally tally the cost of those tapers and pray that they hadn't used any of the expensive beeswax candles she normally reserved for company.

Blake took his eyes off the road to look at her. "Is something wrong?"

"I hope not. I can't imagine—"

The curricle drew to a halt, and Elizabeth jumped down without waiting for assistance from Blake. There was no reason why the Hotchkiss cottage should be so abuzz with activity, no reason whatsoever. There was enough noise spilling from the house to wake the dead, and while it sounded like a raucous, happy sort of noise, Elizabeth could not stem the panic rising in her chest.

She burst through the door and followed the loud squeals and laughter into the sitting room. Susan, Jane, and Lucas were holding hands and spinning in a circle, laughing and singing bawdy songs at the top of their lungs.

Elizabeth was completely dumbstruck. She'd never seen her siblings act this way. She liked to think that she'd managed to shoulder most of their worries for the past five years, and that they'd had a lovely and reasonably carefree childhood, but she'd never seen them so completely drunk with happiness.

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