"Now who's being rude?" Elizabeth countered.
"You might as well open it," Susan said. "If nothing else, it will take your mind off of—''
"Don't say it," Elizabeth warned.
"Well, you certainly cannot wallow in self-pity forever."
Elizabeth made a sheeshing sound on top of a sigh. "Aren't I entitled to at least a day or two?"
"Of course," Susan said conciliatorily. "But even by that schedule, your time is up."
Elizabeth groaned and tore open the envelope. She wondered how much her siblings knew of her situation. She had told them nothing, but they were little ferrets when it came to uncovering secrets, and she'd wager they knew over half the story by now.
"Aren't you going to open it?" Lucas asked excitedly.
Elizabeth raised her brows and looked over at her brother. He was actually jumping up and down. "I can't imagine why you're so excited to hear what Lady Danbury has to say," she said.
"I can't imagine, either," Susan growled, slamming a hand down on Lucas's shoulder to keep him still.
Elizabeth just shook her head. If the Hotchkisses were bickering, then life must be returning to normal, and that had to be a good thing.
Ignoring the grunts of protest Lucas was making at being manhandled by his sister, Elizabeth slipped the paper from the envelope and unfolded it. It took her eyes mere seconds to scan the lines, and a surprised "Me?" escaped her lips.
"Is something wrong?" Susan asked.
Elizabeth shook her head. "Not precisely. But Lady Danbury wants me to come see her."
"I thought you weren't working for her any longer," Jane said.
"I'm not, although I imagine I shall have to eat crow and ask for my position back. I don't see how else we're to have enough money to eat."
When Elizabeth looked up, all three younger Hotchkisses were chewing on their lower lips, obviously dying to point out that (A) Elizabeth could have married James or (B) she could have at least deposited the bank draft instead of tearing it into four neat pieces.
Elizabeth dropped to her hands and knees to grab her boots from under the bed, where she'd kicked them the day before. She found her reticule sitting beside it, and she snatched that up as well.
"Are you leaving right now?" Jane asked.
Elizabeth nodded as she sat on the braided rug to pull on her boots. "I shouldn't wait up for me," she said. "I don't know how long I'll be. I imagine Lady Danbury will have a carriage bring me home."
"You might even stay the night," Lucas said.
Jane walloped him in the shoulder. "Why would she do that?"
"It might be easier if it's dark," he returned with a glare, "and—"
"Either way," Elizabeth said loudly, finding the entire conversation somewhat bizarre, "you needn't wait up."
"We won't," Susan assured her, herding Lucas and Jane out of the way as Elizabeth stepped out into the hall. They watched as she dashed down the stairs and yanked open the front door. "Have a good time!" Susan called out.
Elizabeth threw her a sarcastic look over her shoulder. "I'm sure I won't, but thank you for the sentiment."
She pulled the door shut behind her, leaving Susan, Jane, and Lucas standing at the top of the stairs. “Oh, you might just be surprised, Elizabeth Hotchkiss," Susan said with a grin. "You might just be surprised yet."
* * *
The past few days would not rank among James Sidwell's finest. To deem his temper foul would be a gross understatement, and Lady Danbury's servants had long since started taking circuitous routes around the house just to avoid him.
His first inclination had been to get good and drunk, but he'd already done that once, on the night Elizabeth had discovered his true identity, and all it had left him with was a blistering hangover. And so the glass of whiskey he'd poured when he'd returned home from her cottage still sat on the desk in the library, sipped at no more than twice. Ordinarily, his aunt's well-trained servants would have swept away the half-filled glass; nothing upset their sensibilities more than a stale glass of liquor laying directly upon a polished tabletop. But James's ferocious expression the first time anyone had dared to knock on the locked library door had ensured his privacy, and now his haven—and his stale glass of whiskey— remained his own.
He was, of course, wallowing in self-pity, but it seemed to him that a man deserved a day or two of antisocial behavior after what he'd been through.
It would have been easier if he could have decided with whom he was more angry: Elizabeth or himself.
He picked up the glass of whiskey for the hundredth time that day, looked at it, and set it down. Across the room, HOW TO MARRY A MARQUIS sat on the shelf, its red leather spine silently daring him to look at anything else. James glared at the book, just barely suppressing the urge to hurl the whiskey at it.
Let's see ... if he doused it with whiskey, then tossed it into the fireplace ... the resulting inferno would be most satisfying.
He was actually considering it, trying to gauge how high the flames would reach, when a knock sounded at the door, this one considerably more forceful than the servants' paltry attempts.
"James! Open this door at once."
He groaned. Aunt Agatha. He rose to his feet and crossed the room to the door. He might as well get this over with. He knew that tone of voice; she'd pound the door until her fist turned bloody.
"Agatha," he said too sweetly, "how lovely to see you."
"You look like hell," she barked, then pushed past him to settle into one of the library's wing chairs.
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