Yrs,

Agatha, Lady Danbury

Elizabeth couldn't imagine why Lady Danbury would think she possessed any pertinent information, but she had no reason to be suspicious of the note's authenticity. She knew Lady D's handwriting as well as her own, and this was no forgery.

She purposefully had not shared the note with her younger siblings, preferring to tell them that Lady Danbury needed to see her and leave it at that. They knew nothing of the blackmail plots, and Elizabeth hadn't wanted to worry them, especially since Lady D wanted to meet at such a late hour. It was still quite light out at eight, but unless the countess could conduct her business in mere minutes it would be dark when Elizabeth had to return home.

Elizabeth paused with her hand on the doorknob. There was no carriage in sight, and Lady Danbury's health did not allow her to walk such distances. If the countess had not yet arrived, then the door was probably locked, and.. .

The knob turned in her hand.

"How odd," she murmured, and entered the house.

There was a fire blazing in the hearth, and an elegant supper was laid on the table. Elizabeth walked farther into the room, turning in a slow circle as she took in the preparations. Why would Lady Danbury ...

"Lady Danbury?" she called out. "Are you here?"

Elizabeth sensed a presence in a doorway behind her and whirled around.

"No," James said. "Only me."

Elizabeth's hand flew to her mouth. "What are you doing here?" she gasped.

His smile was lopsided. “The same as you, I imagine. Did you receive a note from your brother?"

"Lucas?" she asked, startled. "No, from your aunt."

"Ah. Then they are all conspiring against us. Here ..." He held out a crumpled piece of paper. "Read this."

Elizabeth unfolded the note and read:

My lord—

Before you leave the district, I beg of you to grant me an audience. There is a matter of some sensitivity about which I should like to ask your advice. It is not something a man would like to discuss with his sisters.

Unless I hear otherwise, I shall expect to meet you at Lord Danbury's hunting lodge at eight this evening.

Sincerely,

Sir Lucas Hotchkiss

Elizabeth barely stifled a horrified giggle. "It's Lucas's handwriting, but the words are straight from Susan's mouth."

James smiled. "I thought it sounded a touch precocious."

"He is very bright, of course—"

"Of course."

"—but I cannot quite hear him use the phrase 'matter of some sensitivity.' "

"Not to mention," James added, "that at the age of eight, it is unlikely that he should even have a matter of some sensitivity."

Elizabeth nodded. "Oh! I'm sure you shall want to read this." She handed him the letter she'd received from Lady Danbury.

He scanned it, then said, "I'm not surprised. I arrived a few minutes before you did and found these." He held out two envelopes, one marked, Read immediately and one marked Read after you've reconciled.

Elizabeth choked back horrified laughter.

"My reaction precisely," he murmured, "although I doubt I looked half so fetching."

Her eyes flew to his face. He was staring at her with a quiet, burning intensity that robbed her of breath. And then, without diverting his gaze from hers, even for a second, he asked, "Shall we open them?"

It took Elizabeth a few moments to realize what he was talking about. "Oh, the envelopes. Yes, yes." She licked her lips, which had gone quite dry. "But both?"

He held up the one marked Read after you've reconciled and shook it slightly in the air. "I can save it, if you think we will have cause to read it shortly."

She swallowed convulsively and avoided the question by saying, "Why don't we open the other one and see what it says?"

"Very well." He nodded graciously and slid his finger under the envelope flap. He slipped a card out, and together they bent their heads down and read:

To the both of you—

Try, if you might, not to be complete idiots.

The note was unsigned, but there was no doubt who wrote it. The long, graceful handwriting was familiar to them both, but it was the words that definitively declared Lady Danbury the author. No one else could possibly be so delightfully rude.

James cocked his head to the side. "Ah, my loving aunt."

"I cannot believe she tricked me like this," Elizabeth grumbled.

"You can't?" he asked doubtfully.

"Well, yes, of course I can believe that. I just can't believe she would use the blackmail plot as bait. I was quite terrified for her."

"Ah, yes, the blackmail." James regarded the unopened envelope, the one marked Read after you've reconciled. "I have a sneaking suspicion we'll find something about that in here."

Elizabeth gasped. "Do you think she was making it up?"

“She certainly never seemed overly concerned by my lack of progress in solving the crime."

"Open it," Elizabeth ordered. "Immediately. Sooner than immediately."

James started to, then stopped and shook his head. "No," he said in a lazy voice, "I think I'll wait."

"You want to wait?"

He smiled down at her, slow and sensual. "We're not yet reconciled."

"James ..." she said, in a voice that was half warning and half longing.

"You know me," he said. "You know more of my soul than any other person alive, maybe even myself. If at first you didn't know my name ... well, all I can say is that you know why I didn't reveal myself to you right away. I had obligations to my aunt, and I owe her more than I could ever repay."

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