The little girl swept aside. "Of course. You should have asked."

James resisted the urge to comment further. Instead, he thanked Jane, kissed her hand again for good measure, and then strode off to the sitting room, where, much to his great surprise and slight amusement, he found Elizabeth on her hands and knees.

*      *      *

"Malcolm," Elizabeth hissed, "you get out from under that cabinet right now."

Malcolm sniffed.

"Right now, you miserable little kitty."

"Do not refer to my cat as a miserable little kitty," Lady Danbury boomed.

Elizabeth reached out and tried to grab the recalcitrant furball. The recalcitrant furball replied with a claw-filled swipe of his paw.

"Lady Danbury," Elizabeth announced without lifting her head, "this cat is a monster."

"Don't be ridiculous. Malcolm is nature's perfect kitty, and you know it."

"Malcolm," Elizabeth muttered, "is the spawn of the devil."

"Elizabeth Hotchkiss!"

"It's true."

"Just last week you said he was a wonderful cat."

"Last week he was being nice to me. If I recall, you called him a traitor."

Lady Danbury sniffed as she watched Elizabeth try to grab the cat again. "He is clearly overset because those beastly children were chasing him around the house."

That was it! Elizabeth hauled herself to her feet, fixed a deadly stare in Lady Danbury's direction, and growled, "No one calls Lucas and Jane beasts but me!"

What ensued wasn't quite utter silence. Blake was audibly laughing under his hand, and Lady Danbury was sputtering about, making strange gurgling noises, and blinking so hard that Elizabeth would swear she could hear her eyelids clamp shut.

But nothing would have prepared her for the sound of slow clapping coming from behind her. Elizabeth turned slowly around, twisting to face the doorway.

James. Standing there with an impressed half-smile and an arched eyebrow. He cocked his head at his aunt, saying, “I can't remember the last tune I heard anyone speak to you that way, Aunt."

"Except you!" Lady D retorted. Then, realizing he'd just called her "aunt," she started sputtering anew, jerking her head in Elizabeth's direction.

"It's all right," James said. "She knows everything."

"Since when?"

"Since last night."

Lady Danbury turned to Elizabeth and snapped, “And you didn't tell me?"

"You didn't ask!" Then Elizabeth turned back to James and growled, "How long have you been standing there?"

"I saw you crawling under the cabinet, if that's what you're asking."

Elizabeth fought an inner groan. She'd managed to grab hold of Jane and beg her to stall James, and she'd been hoping that Jane would have kept him in the hall at least until she'd managed to return the blooming cat to Lady Danbury.

She hadn't really wanted James's first view of her after last night's debacle to be of her swishing behind.

When she got her hands on that cat...

"Why," Lady Danbury shrilled, "did no one inform me of the change in James's public identity?"

"Blake," Caroline said, tugging on her husband's arm, "this might be our cue to leave."

He shook his head. "I wouldn't miss this for the world."

"Well, you're going to have to," James said forcefully. He crossed the room and grabbed hold of Elizabeth's hand. "You are all welcome to stay and enjoy your tea, but Elizabeth and I are leaving."

"Wait a moment," she protested, making an unsuccessful attempt to retrieve her hand. "You can't do this."

He stared at her blankly. "I can't do what?"

"This!" she retorted. "You have no rights over me—"

"I will," he said, flashing her a very confident, very male smile.

"Bad strategy on his part," Caroline whispered to Blake.

Elizabeth clawed her hands, trying desperately to contain her anger. "This is my house," she ground out. "If anyone is going to invite my guests to enjoy themselves, it will be I."

"Then do it," James returned.

"And you cannot order me to leave with you."

"I didn't. I told your assorted guests—all of whom I gather were uninvited—that we were leaving."

"He's bungling this badly," Caroline whispered to Blake.

Elizabeth crossed her arms. "I'm not going anywhere."

James's expression became positively menacing.

"If he'd only asked her nicely..." Caroline whispered to Blake.

"Blake," James said, "muzzle your wife."

Blake laughed, which earned him a rather solid punch in the arm from his wife.

"And you," James said to Elizabeth. "I've had all that my patience will allow. We need to talk. We can either do it outside or do it here, in front of my aunt, your siblings, and"—here he jerked a hand toward Caroline and Blake—"these two."

Elizabeth swallowed nervously, frozen with indecision.

James leaned in closer. "You decide, Elizabeth."

She did nothing, strangely unable to make her mouth form words.

"Very well, then," James snapped. "I'll decide for you." And then, without further ado, he grabbed Elizabeth around the waist, threw her over his shoulder, and hauled her out of the room.

Blake, who had been watching the unfolding drama with an amused smile on his face, turned to his wife and said, "Actually, darling, I'd have to disagree. All things considered, I think he handled that rather well."


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