She gave her head a little shake. "I'm not worried. A little nervous, perhaps, but not worried. I know that you will make this wonderful. You make everything wonderful."

"I will," he said, his words fervent against her lips. "I promise I will."

Elizabeth gasped as he nudged forward, entering her. It all felt so strange, and in an odd way, so right, as if she'd been made for this moment, crafted to receive this man in love.

His hands stole around to cup her buttocks, and he tilted her slightly. Elizabeth gasped at the difference that made as he slid easily in until he reached the proof of her innocence.

"After this moment," he said, his voice hot against her ear. "You will be mine." And then, without waiting for a response, he pushed forward, capturing her surprised "Oh!" with a deep kiss.

His hands still wrapped beneath her, he began to move. Elizabeth gasped with each thrust, and then, without consciously realizing it, she began to move as well, joining him in an ancient rhythm.

The tension that had been tickling her insides grew stronger, more urgent, and she felt as if she were straining against her own skin. And then something changed, and she felt as if she were falling off a cliff, and the world exploded around her. A second later, James gave a hoarse shout, and his hands clutched her shoulders with impossible force. For a moment he looked as if he were dying, and then his face was washed with a look of complete bliss, and he collapsed atop her.

Several moments passed, the only sound their breathing as it slowed to an even pace, and then James rolled over onto his side, pulling her against him and nestling against her like two spoons in a drawer. "This is it," he said, his voice drowsy. "This is what I've been searching for my entire life."

Elizabeth nodded against him, and they slept.

*      *      *

Several hours later, Elizabeth woke to the sound of James's feet moving across the wooden floors of the hunting lodge. She hadn't felt him leave the bed, but there he was, slipping back into the bedroom, naked as the day he was born.

She was torn between the urge to avert her eyes and the temptation to stare shamelessly. She ended up doing a little of both.

"Look what we forgot," James said, waving something in the air. "I found it on the floor."

"Lady Danbury's letter!"

He raised his brows and gifted her with his most rakish smile. "I must have dropped it in my haste to have my way with you."

Elizabeth thought that with all that had happened, he wouldn't still be able to make her blush, but apparently she was wrong. "Just open it," she mumbled.

He set a candle on the nightstand and crawled into bed beside her. When he didn't move quickly enough to open the envelope, Elizabeth grabbed it from him and yanked it open. Inside, she found another envelope, with the following words across the front:

You're cheating, aren't you? Do you really want to open this before you've reconciled?

Elizabeth clapped a hand over her mouth, and James didn't even bother to silence the chuckles that welled up in his throat. "Suspicious, isn't she?" he murmured.

"Probably with good reason," Elizabeth admitted. "We did almost open it before we ..."

"Reconciled?" he supplied with a devilish grin.

"Yes," she mumbled, "exactly."

He motioned to the envelope in her hands. “Are you going to open it?"

"Oh, yes, of course." Proceeding with a bit more decorum this time, she lifted the envelope flap and pulled out a delicately scented sheet of white paper, folded neatly in half. Elizabeth unfolded it, and, heads burrowed together in the candlelight, they read:

My dearest children,

Yes, it's true. My dearest children. That is how I think of you, after all.

James, I shall never forget the day I first brought you to Danbury House. You were so suspicious, so unwilling to believe that I might love you for yourself. Every day I hugged you, trying to show you what it means to be family, and then, one day, you hugged me back, and said, "I love you, Aunt Agatha. " And from that moment on, you were as a son to me. I would give my life for you, but I suspect you know that.

Elizabeth, you entered my life when the last of my children married and left me. From the first day, you have taught me what it means to be brave and loyal and true to one's beliefs. During these past few years it has been my delight to watch you blossom and grow. When you first came to Danbury House, you were so young and green and easy to fluster. But somewhere along the way, you developed a quiet poise and wit that any young woman would envy. You don't fawn over me, and you never allow me to bully you; that is probably the greatest gift a woman of my son can receive. I would give all that I own to call you my daughter, but I suspect you, too, know that.

So was it so very strange that I should dream of bringing you—my two favorite people—together? I knew I could not do it through conventional means. James would certainly resist any attempts on my part at matchmaking. He is a man, after all, and therefore stupidly proud. And I knew that I could never convince Elizabeth to travel to London for a season at my expense. She would never participate in any endeavor that would take so much time away from her family.

And so my little deception was born. It started with a note to James. You have always wanted to rescue me as I once rescued you, my boy. It was easy enough to devise a blackmail plot. (I must digress for a moment to assure you that the plot was a complete fabrication, and all of my children are legitimate and were, of course, sired by the late Lord Danbury. I am not the sort of woman who strays from her marital vows.)


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