Chapter 21

By the time James had her out the front door, she was wiggling like an eel. An angry eel. But James had been modest when he'd described his pugilistic pursuits; his experience was extensive, and he'd had considerably more than a "few lessons." When in London, he made daily excursions to Gentleman Jackson's Boxing Establishment, and when out of London, he frequently alarmed and amused his servants by hopping gracefully from foot to foot and punching at bales of hay. As a result, his arm was strong, his body was hard, and Elizabeth, for all her squirming, wasn't going anywhere.

"Put me down!" she squealed.

He saw no reason to reply.

"My lord!" she said in protest.

"James," he snapped, widening their distance from the cottage with long, purposeful strides. "You've used my given name often enough."

"That was when I thought you were Mr. Siddons," she shot back. "And put me down."

James kept walking, his arm a vise under her ribs.

"James!"

He grunted. "That's more like it."

Elizabeth bucked a little harder, forcing him to wrap a second arm around her. She stilled almost immediately.

“You finally realize that escape is impossible?'' James asked mildly.

She scowled at him.

"I'll interpret that as a yes."

Finally, after another minute of silent journey, he set her down near an enormous tree. Her back was to the trunk, and her feet were boxed in by thick, gnarled roots. James stood in front of her, his stance wide and his arms crossed.

Elizabeth glared up at him and crossed her arms in return. She was perched on the raised ground that sloped into the tree trunk, so the difference between their heights was not as great as usual.

James shifted his weight slightly but did not say anything.

Elizabeth jutted her chin forward and tightened her jaw.

James raised a brow.

"Oh, for heaven's sake!" Elizabeth burst out. "Just say what you came here to say."

"Yesterday," he said, "I asked you to marry me."

She swallowed. "Yesterday I refused."

"And today?"

It was on the tip of her tongue to say, "You haven't asked me today," but the words died before they could cross her lips. That was the sort of remark she might have made to the man she'd known as James Siddons. This man—this marquis—was someone else entirely, and she had no idea how she was meant to act around him. It wasn't that she was unfamiliar with the idiosyncrasies of the nobility; she'd spent years in the company of Lady Danbury, after all.

She felt as if she were trapped in some strange little farce, and she didn't know the rules. All her life she'd been taught how to behave; every gently bred English girl was taught such things. But no one had ever told her what to do when one fell in love with a man who changed identities the way other people changed their clothes.

After a long minute of silence, she said, "You shouldn't have sent that bank draft."

He winced. "It arrived?"

"Last night."

He swore under his breath, muttering something about "bloody bad timing."

Elizabeth blinked back the moisture forming in her eyes. "Why would you do such a thing? Did you think I wanted charity? That I was some pathetic, helpless—"

"I thought," he cut in forcefully, "that it was a crime you should have to marry some gout-ridden old lecher to support your siblings. Furthermore, it nearly broke my heart watching you bend over backwards to try to live up to Mrs. Seeton's vision of womanhood."

"I don't want your pity," she said in a low voice.

"This isn't pity, Elizabeth. You don't need those damned edicts. All they did was smother your spirit." He raked a weary hand through his hair. “I couldn't bear it if you lost that spark that makes you so special. That quiet fire in your eyes or the secret smile when you're amused—she would have beaten that out of you, and I couldn't watch."

She swallowed, uncomfortable with the kindness of his words.

He stepped forward, halving the distance between them. "What I did, I did out of friendship."

"Then why the secrecy?" she whispered.

His brows lifted over a doubtful stare. "Are you telling me you would have accepted?'' He waited only a second before adding, "I thought not. Besides, I was still supposed to be James Siddons. Where was an estate manager meant to find that sort of money?''

"James, do you have any idea how demeaned I felt last night? When I came home, after all that had happened, to find an anonymous bank draft?"

"And how," he countered, "would you have felt if it had arrived two days earlier? Before you knew who I was. Before you had any reason to suspect I might have sent it."

She bit her lip. She probably would have been suspicious, but also elated. And she certainly would have accepted the gift. Pride was pride, but her siblings needed to eat. And Lucas needed to go to school. And if she accepted James's proposal...

“Do you have any idea how selfish you are?'' he demanded, thankfully cutting into her thoughts, which were leading her in a most dangerous direction.

"Don't you dare," she shot back, her voice shaking with rage. "Don't you dare call me that. I'll accept other insults as possibly true, but not that."

"Why, because you've spent the past five years slaving away for your family's well-being? Because you've passed every windfall on to them and taken nothing for yourself?''

His voice was mocking, and Elizabeth was too furious to reply.

"Oh, you've done all that," he said with cruel grandeur, “but the one chance you have to truly better your situation, the single opportunity to end your worries and give them the life I know you think they deserve, you throw it all away."

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