"Elizabeth!" Lady D boomed from the sitting room. "I hear you!"

"She hears everything," Elizabeth muttered.

"I heard that, too!"

Elizabeth lifted her brows and mouthed, "See?" in Caroline's direction.

Caroline opened her mouth to say something, then stopped with a panicked glance toward the sitting room. She grabbed her notebook out of Elizabeth's hands, snatched a quill off the writing table that sat in the hall, and scribbled something.

Elizabeth looked down and read:

She terrifies me.

She nodded. "She does that to most people."

"Elizabeth!"

"Maw."

Elizabeth shook her head. "I can't believe she brought her cat."

"ELIZABETH!”

“I think you had better go in and see to her," Caroline whispered.

Elizabeth sighed, walking toward the sitting room with the slowest steps possible. Lady Danbury would surely have an opinion on the humiliating events of the previous evening, and Elizabeth would surely have to sit still while >he gave it. Her only consolation was that she was dragging Caroline along with her.

"I'll wait here," Caroline whispered.

"Oh, no, you don't," Elizabeth shot back. "I listened to your lecture. Now you have to listen to hers."

Caroline's mouth dropped open in consternation.

"You're coming with me," Elizabeth ground out, clamping her hand around Caroline's arm, "and that is final."

"But—"

"Good day, Lady Danbury," Elizabeth said, smiling though clenched teeth as she poked her head into the sitting room. "This is certainly a surprise."

"Where have you been?" Lady Danbury demanded, shifting her weight in Elizabeth's favorite threadbare chair. "I have been waiting for hours."

Elizabeth raised a brow. "I've only been gone for fifteen minutes, Lady Danbury."

"Hmmph. You grow cheekier every day, Elizabeth Hotchkiss."

"Yes," Elizabeth said with a hint of a smile, "I do, don't I?"

"Hmmph. Where's my cat?"

“Maaaaaaawwwwwww!''

Elizabeth turned around to see a flash of ecru fur streak down the hall, followed by two squealing children. "I believe he's currently occupied, Lady Danbury."

"Hmmph. Bother the cat. I'll deal with him later. I need to speak with you, Elizabeth."

Elizabeth yanked Caroline into the room. "Have you met Mrs. Ravenscroft, Lady Danbury?''

"That Blake fellow's wife, eh?"

Caroline nodded.

"Nice enough fellow, I suppose," Lady D allowed.

"Friends with my nephew. Came to visit as a child."

"Yes," Caroline replied. "He's terrified of you."

"Hmmph. Smart man. You should be, too."

"Oh, absolutely."

Lady Danbury's eyes narrowed. "Are you funning me?"

"As if she would dare," Elizabeth cut in. "The only one you don't terrify is me, Lady Danbury."

"Well, I'm going to give it my best attempt right now, Elizabeth Hotchkiss. I need to speak with you, and it's urgent."

"Yes," Elizabeth said warily, perching on the edge of the sofa. "I feared as much. You've never called upon our cottage before."

As Lady Danbury cleared her throat, Elizabeth let out a long exhale, waiting for the lecture she was sure to receive. Lady Danbury had an opinion on everything, and Elizabeth was certain that the events of the previous night were no exception. Since James was her nephew, she would surely take his side, and Elizabeth would be forced to endure a long list of his many positive attributes, punctuated by the occasional mention of Lady Danbury's positive attributes.

"You," Lady D said dramatically, pointing her finger in Elizabeth's direction, "did not attend my masquerade ball last night."

Elizabeth's jaw dropped. "That's what you wanted to ask me about?"

"I'm most displeased. You"—she jabbed her finger in Caroline's direction—"I saw. The pumpkin, yes? A most barbaric fruit."

"I believe it's a vegetable," Caroline murmured.

“Nonsense, it's a fruit. If it has seeds in the fleshy bit, it's a fruit. Where did you learn your biology, girl?"

"It's a gourd," Elizabeth ground out. "May we leave it at that?"

Lady Danbury waved her hand dismissively. "Whatever it is, it doesn't grow in England. Therefore I have no use for it."

Elizabeth felt herself begin to slouch. Lady Danbury was exhausting.

The countess in question whipped her head around to face her. "I'm not through with you, Elizabeth."

Elizabeth would have groaned, had she had time before Lady D sharply added, "And sit up straight."

Elizabeth stood.

"Now, then," Lady Danbury continued, "I worked very hard to convince you to attend my party. I obtained a costume for you—a very becoming costume, I might add—and you repay me by not even paying your respects in the receiving line? I was most insulted. Most—"

“Maaaaaawwwwwww!''

Lady Danbury looked up in time to see Lucas and Jane run screaming down the hail. "What are they doing to my cat?'' she demanded.

Elizabeth craned her neck. "I'm not certain if they are chasing Malcolm or if he is chasing them.'"

Caroline perked up. "I'd be happy to go and investigate."

Elizabeth let one of her hands land heavily on Caroline's arm. "Please," she said too sweetly, "stay."

"Elizabeth," Lady Danbury barked, "are you going to answer me?" <

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