But this was Elizabeth, and she was different, and James was completely undone. Her hair was so blond that it seemed almost invisible where it met her skin. And the scent of her was tantalizing, a gentle mix of soap and roses, and something else—something that was uniquely this woman.
He trailed his mouth down the neck, stopping to pay homage to the delicate line of her collarbone. The top buttons of her frock were undone; he had no memory of slipping them open, but he must have, and he reveled in the small strip of skin that was bared to him.
He heard her breathing, felt it whisper across his hair as he moved back up to kiss the underside of her chin. She was gasping now, moaning between breaths, and James's body tightened even more at the evidence of her desire. She wanted him. She wanted him more than she could ever understand, but he knew the truth. This was . one thing she could not hide.
Reluctantly, he pulled away, forcing himself to set a foot of space between them even as his hands rested on her shoulders. They were both shaking, breathing hard, and still needed the support of each other. James wasn't certain he trusted his own balance, and she looked no better.
His eyes raked over her, taking in every inch of her dishevelment. Her hair had escaped the confines of her bun, and each strand seemed to tease him, begging to be drawn over his lips. His body was drawn into a tight coil, and it took every ounce of James's control not to pull her back against him.
He wanted to tear the clothes from her body, lay her down on the soft grass, and claim her as his own in the most primitive way possible. And then when he was done, when she could have no doubt that she belonged completely and irrevocably to him, he wanted to do it again, this time slowly, exploring every inch of her with his hands, and then with his lips, and then, when she was hot and arching with need—
Abruptly, he yanked his hands away from her shoulders. He couldn't touch her when his mind was racing into such dangerous territory.
Elizabeth sagged against the tree, raising huge blue eyes to meet his. Her tongue darted out to wet her lips, and James felt that little flick straight in his gut.
He took another step away. With each move she made, each tiny, barely audible breath, he lost another piece of his control. He no longer trusted his hands; they itched to reach for her.
"When you admit that this is why you want me," he bit off, his voice hot and intense, "then I'll marry you."
* * *
Two days later, the memory of that last kiss still made Elizabeth shake. She had stood by the tree, dazed and stunned, and watched him walk away. Then she had remained in place for another ten minutes, her eyes fixed on the horizon, staring blankly at the last spot where she'd seen him. And then, when her mind had finally woken from the passionate shock of his touch, she had -at down and cried.
She had been dishonest when she had tried to convince •wrestle that she wanted to many him because he was a wealthy marquis. It was ironic, really. She'd spent the last month resigning herself to the fate of marrying for money, and now she'd fallen in love, and he was wealthy enough to give her family a better life, but everything was all wrong.
She loved him. Or rather, she loved a man who looked just like him. Elizabeth didn't care what Lady Danbury or the Ravenscrofts told her; humble James Siddons could not be the same man inside as the lofty Marquis of Riverdale. It simply wasn't possible. Everyone had his place in British society; this was something people were taught early, especially people like Elizabeth, daughters of minor gentry who lived on the fringes of the ton.
It seemed that she could solve all of her problems by going to him and telling him she wanted him, not his money. She'd be married to the man she loved, with ample resources to support her family. But she could not shake the nagging suspicion that she did not know him.
The pragmatist inside reminded her that she probably wouldn't know any man she chose to marry, or at least that she would not know him well. Men and women rarely conducted courtships beyond the most superficial of levels.
But with James, it was different. Just as he said he could not tolerate a marriage of convenience with her, she did not think she could withstand a union without trust. Maybe with someone else, but not with him.
Elizabeth squeezed her eyes shut and lay back upon her bed. She'd spent much of the past few days holed up in her room. After the first few attempts, her siblings had given up on trying to talk with her and had taken to leaving trays of food outside her door. Susan had prepared all of Elizabeth's favorite dishes, but most of the food had gone untouched. Heartbreak, apparently, did little to build an appetite.
A tentative knock sounded at the door, and Elizabeth turned her head to look out the window. Judging from the level of the sun, it was about the right time for the evening meal. If she ignored the knock, they would just leave the tray and go away.
But the knock persisted, and so Elizabeth sighed and forced herself to her feet. She crossed the small room in three steps and pulled open the door, revealing all three younger Hotchkisses.
"This came for you," Susan said, holding out a creamy envelope. "It's from Lady Danbury. She wants to see you."
Elizabeth raised a brow. "You've taken to reading my correspondence?"
"Of course not! The footman she sent over told me."
"It's true," Jane put in. "I was there."
Elizabeth reached out and took the envelope. She looked at her siblings. They looked back.
"Aren't you going to read it?" Lucas finally said.
Jane nudged her brother in the ribs. "Lucas, don't be rude." She glanced up at Elizabeth. "Are you?"
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