She felt Blake standing at her side, and when he whispered, "Do you know what happened?" she couldn't even formulate a reply.
After about five seconds, Susan caught sight of her sister standing in the doorway and gaping at them, and she yanked the dancing circle to a halt, causing Jane and Lucas to crash into each other in a laughing tangle of skinny arms and blond hair.
"Elizabeth!" Susan exclaimed. "You're home."
Elizabeth nodded slowly. "What is going on? I didn't expect you to be still awake."
"Oh, Elizabeth!" Jane cried out. "The most brilliant thing has happened. You'll never believe!"
"Wonderful," Elizabeth replied, her emotions still too battered to put much feeling into the word. But she tried. She didn't know what had happened to bring such bliss to her siblings, but she owed it to them to wipe some of the pain from her eyes and at least attempt to look excited.
Susan rushed over, holding a piece of paper she'd retrieved from a writing table. "Look what arrived while you were out. A messenger brought it."
"A liveried messenger," Jane added. "He was terribly handsome."
"He was a servant," Lucas told her.
"That doesn't mean he wasn't handsome," she retorted.
Elizabeth felt herself smile. Listening to Lucas and Jane bicker was so wonderfully normal. Not like the rest of this god-awful evening. She took the paper from Susan and looked down.
And then her hands began to shake.
"Isn't it brilliant?" Susan asked, her blue eyes lighting with wonder. "Who would have thought?"
Elizabeth said nothing, trying to fight the rising tide of nausea in her stomach.
"Who do you think it could be?" Jane asked. "It must be someone so very lovely. The kindest, loveliest person in all the world."
"May I?" Blake murmured.
Silently, she handed him the paper. When she looked up, Susan, Jane, and Lucas were staring at her with bewildered expressions.
"Aren't you happy?" Jane whispered.
Blake gave her back the paper and she looked down again, as if another reading would somehow change the offending message.
Sir Lucas Hotchkiss,
Miss Susan Hotchkiss,
Miss Jane Hotchkiss,
It gives me great pleasure to inform you that your family is the recipient of this charitable anonymous bank draft, in the amount of £5000.
Further arrangements have been made by your benefactor for Sir Lucas to attend Eton. He should report to the school at the beginning of the next term.
Shillingworth and Son, Solicitors
It was from James. It had to be. She turned to Blake, unable to keep the hardness from her eyes.
"He only meant to help you," Blake said softly.
“It's insulting,'' she just barely managed to say. “How can I accept this? How could I possibly—"
He placed his hand on her arm. "You're overwrought. Perhaps if you consider this in the morning—"
"Of course I'm overwrought! I—" Elizabeth caught sight of her siblings' stricken faces and covered her mouth with her hand, horrified by her outburst.
Three pairs of blue eyes were darting between her face and that of Mr. Ravenscroft, whom they didn't even know, and—
Mr. Ravenscroft. She should introduce him to the children. They had to be upset enough over her reaction, and at the very least they should know who was standing in their parlor.
"Susan, Jane, Lucas," she said, trying to keep her voice even, "this is Mr. Ravenscroft. He is a friend of—" She swallowed. She'd almost said "Mr. Siddons," but that wasn't even his real name, was it? "He is a friend of Lady Danbury's," she finished. "And he was kind enough to see me home."
Her siblings mumbled their greetings, and Elizabeth turned to Blake and said, “Mr. Ravenscroft, these are—'' She broke off, eyes narrowing. “I say, it is Mr. Ravenscroft, isn't it? You're not hiding some sort of title as well, are you?"
Blake shook his head, a hint of a smile touching the corners of his lips. "A mere mister, I'm afraid, although if full disclosure is necessary, my father is a viscount.''
Elizabeth wanted to smile, knowing his comments were meant to amuse, but she just couldn't summon one up. Instead^ she turned to her siblings, and with a heavy heart, said, "We can't accept this."
"We can't." Elizabeth didn't even know which of her siblings had voiced the objection, she jumped in so fast over the protest. "It is too much. We can't accept that kind of charity."
Jane apparently disagreed. "But don't you think whomever gave us the money wanted us to have it?"
Elizabeth swallowed against the lump in her throat. Who knew what James had intended? Was this all part of some grand scheme to mock her? After what he'd already done, who knew how his mind worked?
"I'm sure he did," she said carefully, "else it wouldn't be our names at the top of the letter. But that is irrelevant. We cannot accept this sort of money from a stranger."
"Maybe it's not a stranger," Susan said.
"Then that's even worse!" Elizabeth retorted. "My God, can you imagine? Some horrid person treating us like puppets, pulling our strings, thinking he can control our destiny? It's sick. Sick."
There was silence, followed by the most awful sound. Lucas, fighting back tears. He looked up at Elizabeth, his eyes heartbreakingly huge. "Does that mean I won't get to go to Eton?" he whispered.
Elizabeth's breath caught in her throat. She tried to tell Lucas that he couldn't go, knew she had to tell him that they could not accept James's money, but the words just wouldn't come out.
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