She stood there, looking at her brother's trembling face. He was trying so hard to keep his upper lip stiff and not show his disappointment. His little arms were rigid sticks at his sides, and his chin was jutted out, as if keeping his jaw still would somehow stem his tears.
Elizabeth looked at him and saw the price of her pride.
"I don't know about Eton," she said, leaning down to embrace him. "Maybe we can still make it work."
But Lucas pulled back. "We can't afford it. You try so hard to hide it, but I know the truth. I can't go. I'm never going to be able to go."
"That's not true. Maybe this"—she motioned vaguely to the letter—"means something different." She smiled weakly. Her words were utterly without conviction, and even an eight-year-old—especially an eight-year-old— could tell she was lying.
Lucas's eyes fixed on hers for the most agonizing, longest moment of her life. And then he just swallowed and said, "I'm going to bed."
Elizabeth didn't even try to stop him. There was nothing she could say.
Jane followed without a word, her little blond braid somehow looking decidedly limp.
Elizabeth looked at Susan. "Do you hate me?"
Susan shook her head. "But I don't understand you."
"We can't accept this, Susan. We'd be indebted to our benefactor for the rest of our lives."
"But why does it matter? We don't even know who he is!"
"I won't be indebted to him," Elizabeth said fiercely. "I won't."
Susan drew back a step, her eyes growing wide. “You know who it is," she whispered. "You know who sent this."
"No," Elizabeth said, but they both knew she was lying.
"You do. And that's why you won't accept it."
"Susan, I won't discuss this further."
Susan backed away, grasping the doorframe when she reached the hall. "I'm going to comfort Lucas," she said. "He needs a shoulder to cry on."
"A rather direct hit," Blake murmured, once Susan was up the stairs.
Elizabeth turned. She'd completely forgotten he was there. "I beg your pardon?"
He shook his head. "It doesn't bear repeating."
She sank against the back of the sofa, her legs refusing to hold her up a single second longer. "It seems you've been privy to all my private moments this evening."
She smiled humorlessly. "I suppose you're going to go back to the marquis and tell him everything."
"No. I'll tell my wife everything, but not James."
Elizabeth looked at him with confusion. "Then what will you tell him?"
Blake shrugged as he headed for the door. "That he's an idiot if he lets you go. But I suspect he knows that already."
* * *
Elizabeth woke up the following morning, knowing it was going to be a hideous day. There was no one she wanted to see, absolutely no one she had any desire to speak to, and that included herself.
She didn't want to face her siblings and their disappointed faces. She didn't want to see the Ravenscrofts—
total strangers who had witnessed her utter and complete humiliation. She refused to visit Lady Danbury; she didn't think she could spend the day in the countess's company without breaking down in tears and asking her how she could have participated in James's deception.
And she certainly didn't want to see James.
She rose, dressed, then just sat on her bed. A strange malaise had come over her. The previous day had been so exhausting in every way; her feet, her mind, her heart—everything refused to work now. She'd be happy if she could just sit there on the bed, not seeing anyone, not doing anything, for a week.
Well, not happy. Happy was a stretch. But what she was feeling was certainly better than what she'd be feeling if someone knocked on the door and—
Elizabeth looked up. "Just once," she grumbled at the ceiling, "just once couldn't You grant me one small favor?" She stood, took a step, then looked up again, her features slipping into a decidedly disgruntled expression. "As favors go, this one would have been very small."
She yanked open the door. Susan was standing in the hall, her hand raised to knock again. Elizabeth didn't say anything, mostly because she had a feeling she wouldn't be proud of her tone of voice if she did.
"You've a visitor," Susan said.
"I don't want to see him."
"It's not a 'him.' "
Elizabeth's entire face jutted forward in surprise. "It's not?"
"No." Susan held out a creamy white calling card. "She seems a rather nice lady."
Elizabeth looked down, absently noticing that the card was made of the finest, most expensive of papers.
Mrs. Blake Ravenscroft
"I assume she's the wife of the man we met yesterday?" Susan asked.
"Yes. Her name is Caroline." Elizabeth ran her hand through her hair, which she hadn't even managed to pin up yet. "She's a very nice person, but truly, I'm not up to visitors just now, and—''
"Pardon," Susan interrupted, "but I don't think she'll leave."
"I believe her exact words were, 'I imagine she doesn't want visitors, but I'm happy to wait until she feels otherwise.' Then she sat down, pulled out a book—"
"Dear God, it wasn't HOW TO MARRY A MARQUIS, was it?"
"No, it was black, actually, and I think it must have been some sort of journal because she started to write in it. But as I was saying," Susan added, "then she looked up at me and said, 'You needn't worry. I can entertain myself.' "
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