"She said that?"
Susan nodded and shrugged. "So I'm not worrying. She seems perfectly happy to scribble in her book. I did put a pot of tea on, though, just for good manners."
"She's really not going to leave, is she?"
Susan shook her head. "She seems a most stubborn woman. I don't think she's going to leave until she sees you. I wouldn't be surprised if she brought a change of clothing."
"I suppose I had better dress my hair and go down," Elizabeth said with a sigh.
Susan reached over to Elizabeth's small vanity table and picked up a hairbrush. "I'll help you."
Elizabeth assumed this was a ploy to get information out of her; Susan had never offered to dress her hair before. But the bristly brush felt so nice on her scalp, Elizabeth decided just to go along with it. It was a rare moment indeed when someone waited upon her.
Elizabeth counted the swipes the brush made through her hair before Susan started asking questions. One swipe, two swipes, three swipes, four—ah, she paused slightly before the fifth, she must be getting ready for something....
"Does Mrs. Ravenscroft's visit have anything to do with the events of last night?'' Susan asked.
Five swipes. Elizabeth was impressed. She'd never thought Susan would last past three.
Susan pulled the brush through Elizabeth's hair again. "Lizzie? Did you hear me?"
"I'm sure I don't know the reason for Mrs. Ravenscroft's visit," Elizabeth lied.
"Give me that!" Elizabeth snatched the brush away from her sister. "And the hairpins, too. I don't trust you with any sharp objects."
Susan stepped back, crossed her arms, and frowned.
"It's difficult to concentrate with you glowering at me like that," Elizabeth muttered.
"Susan Mary Hotchkiss!"
"Don't talk to me like you're my mother."
Elizabeth let out a long, weary breath, rubbing her hand over her brow. The morning only needed this. "Susan," she said quietly, "I will tell you what you need to know when I am able."
Susan stared at her for several moments, apparently weighing her words.
"That's the best I can do," Elizabeth added, jabbing the last hairpin into her coiffure. "So you might as well exhibit a bit of grace and try to understand my position."
Susan nodded, her eyes darkened with a touch of contrition. She stepped out of the way as Elizabeth exited the room, then she followed her down the stairs.
Caroline was perched on the sofa in the sitting room, scribbling away in a leather-bound notebook when Elizabeth entered.
At the sound of footsteps, Caroline looked up. "You're not terribly surprised to see me, I expect."
Elizabeth smiled very slightly. "I wasn't expecting you, but now that you're here, no, I cannot say I'm surprised."
Caroline snapped her book shut. "Blake told me everything."
"Yes, he said he would. I—" Elizabeth stopped, twisted her neck to look over her shoulder, and glared at Susan, who was loitering in the doorway. Susan made haste to depart after such a glower, but Elizabeth turned to her guest nonetheless and said, "Would you care to walk along the lane? I can't anticipate the nature of your conversation, but if you desire privacy, I strongly suggest we adjourn outside."
Caroline laughed. "I love families. They're so perfectly nosy." She stood, supporting her lower back as she did so. "I'm sure you wish yours in Greece right now—or farther!—but I never had a family growing up, and I can tell you it's lovely to have someone so interested that they want to eavesdrop."
"I suppose that depends on one's mood," Elizabeth allowed.
Caroline patted her stomach. "It's part of the reason I'm so looking forward to this child. I haven't a family behind me, so I might as well create one for the future."
They walked out the front door and strolled away from the house, Caroline still holding onto her little black book. When they were out of sight of the cottage, Caroline turned to Elizabeth and said, "I hope you do not feel insulted by James's actions regarding the bank draft."
"I don't see how else I might feel,"
Caroline looked as if she had a suggestion, but she closed her mouth, gave her head a tiny shake, and then continued in a different vein. "Perhaps he arranged for the bank draft because he didn't want you to feel forced into marrying against your heart."
Elizabeth said nothing.
"I'm sure I don't know the entire story," Caroline continued, "but I've been trying to piece it together as best as I am able, and I believe that you felt you had to marry well to support your family."
Elizabeth nodded sadly, "We have nothing. I can barely feed them."
"I'm certain James just wanted to give you the freedom to choose whom you wanted. Maybe even to choose a lowly estate manager."
Elizabeth's head whipped around to face her. "No," she said in a low, shaking voice, "he never wanted that."
"Didn't he? When I spoke to you before the party, it sounded as if you and your estate manager were nearing an agreement."
Elizabeth caught her lower lip between her teeth. When James had been plain Mr. Siddons, he had never mentioned marriage, but he had vowed that they would find a way to be together. Elizabeth had assumed his words were sincere, but how was she to trust such words when his very identity had been a lie?
Caroline cleared her throat. "I don't think you should accept James's charity."
"Then you understand how I feel—"
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