"Still as tactful as ever," he murmured, leaning against a tabletop.

"Are you drunk?"

He shook his head and motioned to the whiskey. "Poured a glass but never drank it." He looked down at the amber liquid. "Hmmm. The surface is beginning to get dusty."

"I didn't come here to discuss spirits," Agatha said haughtily.

"You did inquire as to my sobriety," he pointed out.

She ignored his comment. "I hadn't realized you had become friendly with young Lucas Hotchkiss."

James blinked and stood up straight. Of all the non sequiturs his aunt might have chosen—and she was a master at changing the subject with no warning whatsoever—he certainly never expected this. "Lucas?" he echoed. "What about Lucas?"

Lady Danbury held out a folded piece of paper. “He sent you this letter."

James took it from her, noting the childish smudges on the paper. "I suppose you read this," he said.

"It was not sealed."

He decided not to press the matter and unfolded the paper. "How odd," he murmured.

"That he wants to see you? I don't think it's the least bit odd. The poor boy has not had a man in his life since he was three and his father died in that hunting accident."

James looked up sharply. Apparently Elizabeth's ruse had worked. If Agatha hadn't managed to discover the truth about Mr. Hotchkiss's death, then the secret was safe.

"He probably has a question for you," Agatha continued. "Something he'd be too embarrassed to ask his sisters. Boys are like that. And I'm sure he's confused about ill that has happened in the past few days."

James looked at her with curious eyes. His aunt was displaying a remarkable sensitivity to the little boy's plight.

And then Agatha said, softly, “He reminds me of you when you were that age."

James caught his breath.

"Oh, don't look so surprised. He is, of course, much happier than you were at the time." She reached down and gathered up her cat, who had slunk into the room. “But he has that lost expression boys get when they reach a certain age and they don't have a man to guide them." She stroked Malcolm's thick fur. "We women are, of course, extremely capable and, for the most part, far wiser than men, but even I must admit there are some things we cannot do."

While James was comprehending the fact that his aunt had actually admitted that there existed a task beyond her capabilities, she added, "You are going to see him, aren't you?"

James was insulted that she would even ask. Only an unfeeling monster could ignore such a request. "Of course I'm going to see him. I'm rather curious, however, about his choice of locale."

"Lord Danbury's hunting lodge?" Agatha shrugged. "It's not as odd as you'd think. After he died, no one had any use for it. Cedric isn't fond of hunting, and since he never leaves London, anyway, I offered it to Elizabeth. She refused, of course."

"Of course," James murmured.

"Oh, I know you're thinking her too proud, but the truth is, she has a five-year lease on her cottage, so the move wouldn't have saved her any money. And she didn't want to uproot her family." Lady Danbury lifted Malcolm up into a standing position on her lap and let him kiss her nose. "Isn't he just the most darling cat?"

"Depends on your definition of 'darling,' " James said, but only to needle his aunt. He owed the cat eternal gratitude for leading him to Elizabeth when Fellport had attacked her.

Lady D scowled at him. "As I was saying, Elizabeth refused, but she allowed that they might move there once her rent came due, so she brought the entire family out for a visit. Young Lucas was quite taken with it." She frowned thoughtfully. "I think it was the hunting trophies. Young boys love that sort of thing."

James glanced at a clock that was being used as a bookend. He'd need to leave in about a quarter of an hour if he wanted to be prompt for Lucas's requested meeting.

Agatha sniffed the air and stood, letting Malcolm vault onto an empty bookshelf. "I'll leave you to your own company," she said, leaning on her cane. "I'll tell the servants not to expect you for supper."

"I'm sure this won't take long."

"One never knows, and if the boy is troubled, you might need to spend some time with him. Besides"—she paused as she reached the doorway and turned around— "it's not as if you've graced the table with your illustrious presence these past few days, anyway."

A cutting comeback would spoil her magnificent exit, so James just smiled wryly and watched her walk slowly down the hall, her cane thumping softly in time with her footsteps. He'd long since learned that everyone was happier if Agatha got to have the last word at least half the time.

James walked slowly back into the library, picked up the whiskey glass, and tossed contents through the open window. Setting the glass back down on the table, he glanced around the room, and his eyes fell upon the little red book that had been haunting him for days.

He strode to the bookshelf and picked it up, tossing the slim volume from hand to hand. It weighed almost nothing, which seemed ironic, since it had done so much to change his life. And then, in a split-second decision he would never quite understand, he slipped it into his coat pocket.

Much as he detested the book, it somehow made him feel closer to her.

Chapter 22

As Elizabeth approached the late Lord Danbury's hunting lodge, she chewed nervously on her lower lip, and paused to reread Lady Danbury's unexpected missive.

Elizabeth—

As you are aware, I am being blackmailed. I believe you might have information that will unearth the villain who has chosen me as his target. Please meet me at Lord Danbury's hunting lodge at eight this evening.

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