"She's looked like that since last night," Susan said.

Lady D hooted with laughter. “I like your sister, Elizabeth. If you ever up and get married on me, I want her for my new companion."

"I'm not getting married," Elizabeth said, more out of habit than anything else.

Which caused both Ravenscrofts to turn and look at her with dubious expressions.

"I'm not!"

That was when the pounding began on the door.

Blake raised a brow. "And you say you're not getting married," he murmured.

"Elizabeth!" Lady Danbury barked. "Shouldn't you be answering the door?''

"I had considered ignoring it," Elizabeth mumbled.

Lucas and Jane chose that moment to appear in the doorway.

“Do you want me to answer the door?'' Jane asked.

"I think I lost Lady Danbury's cat," Lucas added.

Lady D dropped her teacup. "Where is my poor Malcolm?"

"Well, he ran into the kitchen, and then out into the garden, and then behind the turnip patch, and—"

"I could waltz to the doorknob," Jane added. "I need to practice."

"Malcolm!" Lady D howled. "Here, kitty kitty!"

Elizabeth turned around to scowl at Caroline and Blake, both of whom were shaking with uncontrollable silent laughter.

Lucas said, "I don't think he's going to hear you from here, Lady Danbury."

The banging grew louder. Apparently Jane had decided to circle around the hall before angling off to the front door.

Then James started to bellow Elizabeth's name, followed by a rather irritated, "Open this door at once!"

Elizabeth sagged onto a cushioned bench, fighting the absurd impulse to laugh. If the temperature in the room were only a few degrees hotter, she'd swear she was in hell.

*      *      *

James Sidwell, Marquis of Riverdale, was not in a good mood. His temperament couldn't even be classified as passably polite. He had been climbing the walls all morning, practically chaining himself to his bed to keep from going to Elizabeth.

He'd wanted to call upon her first thing, but no, both Caroline and Blake had insisted that he give her a little time. She was overwrought, they'd said. Better to wait until her emotions weren't running quite so high.

So he'd waited. Against his better judgment, and, more importantly as pertained to his temper, against his natural instinct, he'd waited. And then, when he'd finally gone to the Ravenscrofts' room to ask them if they thought he'd waited long enough, he'd found a note from Caroline to Blake, explaining that she'd gone out to the Hotchkiss cottage.

And then he'd found a note from Blake to himself, saying much the same thing.

And then, to add insult to injury, as he'd dashed through Danbury House's great hall, the butler had stopped him to mention that the countess had gone out to the Hotchkiss cottage.

The only damned creature who hadn't made the mile-long journey was the blasted cat.

"Elizabeth!" James bellowed, pounding his fist against the surprisingly well-made and sturdy door. "Let me in this instant or I swear I'll—"

The door abruptly swung open. James looked out into nothingness, then redirected his gaze several inches down. Little Jane Hotchkiss was standing in the doorway, beaming up at him. "Good day, Mr. Siddons," she chirped, extending her hand. "I'm learning to waltz."

James reluctantly faced the fact that he couldn't barrel past a nine-year-old girl and live with his conscience. "Miss Jane," he replied. "It's fine to see you again."

She wiggled her fingers.

He blinked.

She wiggled them again.

"Oh, right," he said quickly, leaning down to kiss her hand. Apparently once you'd kissed a little girl's hand, you were obligated to repeat the gesture for the rest of her childhood.

"It's a fine day, don't you think?" Jane asked, affecting her most grown-up accent.

"Yes, I..." His words trailed off as he glanced past her shoulder, trying to catch a glimpse of whatever was causing such a commotion in the sitting room. His aunt was bellowing about something, Lucas was yelling something else, and then Susan came tearing out, scooting across the hall and into the kitchen.

"I found him!" Susan yelled.

Then, much to James's astonishment, an obese ball of fur trotted out of the kitchen, crossed the hall, and sauntered into the sitting room.

Damn. Even the bloody cat had managed to get here before he had.

"Jane," he said with what he thought was a heroic measure of patience, "I really need to speak with your sister."

"Elizabeth?"

No, Susan. "Yes, Elizabeth," he said slowly.

"Oh. She's in the sitting room. But I should warn you"—Jane cocked her head flirtatiously—"she's very busy. We've had a lot of guests this afternoon."

"I know," James muttered, waiting for Jane to move so that he wouldn't run her over on his way to the sitting room.

"Maw!"

"That cat is not very well-behaved," Jane said primly, showing no signs of moving now that she had a new topic of conversation. "He has been whining like that all day."

James noticed that his hands had balled into impatient fists. "Really?" he asked, as politely as he was able. If he used a tone of voice that reflected how he was really feeling, the little girl would probably run screaming in the other direction.

And the path to Elizabeth's heart definitely did not include reducing her younger sister to tears.

Jane nodded. "He is a terrible cat."

"Jane," James said, squatting down to her level, “could I speak with Elizabeth now?''

***

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