"Look what ya did to m’lady!" the shopkeeper's wife screeched as she raised the broom and brought it down towards the cowering child.

Even as he reached out to grab the broom, he prepared himself for Elizabeth's outburst. Her dress was completely ruined and he'd seen women go into hysterics over less. He really didn't want to deal with it, but maybe it would be for the best if she showed James exactly what he was in for, he thought as he caught the broom in his hand before it slammed into....

Elizabeth's back?

He'd been so focused on the shopkeeper's wife and the broom that he hadn't seen Elizabeth drop to the ground to cover the crying child with her body. As he ripped the broom away from the woman's grasp, he forced himself not to soften at the sight of the woman he once thought as a selfish brat protecting a helpless child. This changed nothing, he reminded himself, except that now for some reason he would rather die than see her married to James and it had nothing to do with hating her.

As James moved to have a very loud word with the shopkeeper and his wife, Robert helped Elizabeth to her feet, forcing himself to ignore the urge to pull her into his arms.

"Thank you," she murmured as she reached down to help the crying child to her feet, but he simply moved Elizabeth aside and picked up the small child. He headed for the door, pausing only long enough to grab the little boy by the scruff of his neck as he went to box the woman's ears for threatening his sister.

"Hey! Let me go!" the boy demanded as he tried to twist and turn out of his grasp.

"Be good," Robert said, sighing heavily as Elizabeth joined them and took the little boy's hand into hers.

"Let's go see if we can find something more filling than lemon drops for your stomach, shall we?" she asked with a cheerful smile as she headed down the street with the little boy running to keep up and probably expecting him to follow like some lap dog, he thought with disgust as he did just that.

"Why are you smiling?" the little girl in his arms asked, sounding both wary and curious.

"No reason, pet," he said even as he cursed himself for quickening his step to catch up with the overly cheerful woman that he hated, but couldn't stand to be away from.

Chapter 16

This was getting creepy, very creepy indeed. For the past three weeks in a row she’d woken up feeling alone. That was odd considering that she went to bed alone, so of course she should feel alone when she woke up in the morning. This was different. It felt like at some point during the night that she hadn’t been alone. It was the oddest sensation. Of course it might just be her nerves.

For the past month her father had been putting off her requests to leave and doing everything he could to keep her home. It wasn't exactly difficult to figure out the reason. They were hoping to marry her off before her birthday and were doing everything they could to make sure that it happened, including keeping her home and available for suitors when they called.

His decision probably also had something to do with the fact that he’d found out about her attempts to go visit Annabel’s niece without his permission. Finding out that she’d been planning on visiting a section of town that was strictly prohibited to her hadn’t exactly warmed him to the idea of allowing her to go to her estate on her own. It probably wouldn’t have been so bad if her mother hadn’t caught wind of her plans to bring food and clothing to a servant, who was carrying her old employer’s bastard, and gone into hysterics over Elizabeth embarrassing them by consorting with servants.

Then Jane, whom she was ninety-nine percent sure had been informing on her to her parents for some time now, decided to share the tale of the sweet shop and how Elizabeth had taken the two children to an inn for a hot meal. The maid had of course embellished the tale by stressing how everyone who was anyone saw the entire thing. After that rather eventful day, her father had announced that she was restricted to the house and grounds until further notice.

Now it seemed as though everyone but her had something to do. Well, that wasn’t entirely true. She had plenty to do, but she was being kept in the house against her protests. She spent most of her time trying not to be bored. Thankfully, James spent time with her during the day, reading with her and taking her for walks in the rose garden, which was lovely. A few years ago she would have blushed and probably hyperventilated under his attention. Now it was just nice to have another friend.

It was funny after all these years that feelings she thought she felt so deeply as a child, love, was nothing more than infatuation. She had no doubt that he would make a fine husband. He was kind, funny and easy to talk with. If she had met him before that night in the orangery, she would have undoubtedly fallen in love with him in truth.

Unfortunately that wasn’t how things occurred. Even though she had no plans on marrying, she’d never planned to live her life by taking lovers. Every time she thought back on that night, she was filled with humiliation now instead of the precious gift she once thought it was. She’d only kissed one man in her life before that night and that had been a quick peck on the lips and she’d known who she’d been kissing at the time. Not only had she kissed a man that she hadn’t known, but she’d also given her innocence to him, freely.

The fact that it turned out to be Robert, who’d been the boy she hated more than anything on earth, only made it worse. She tried not to dwell on what he must think of her or what he would do with that piece of knowledge if she pushed him too far. Did he think that she did that often?

No matter what she did or said, she did care what he thought. That time they spoke as strangers was one of the most enjoyable times in her life. She’d never felt so relaxed or comfortable with another living soul as she had with him that night. They connected, really connected that night and she wasn’t thinking about when she’d made love with him, that had been very pleasurable, but the way he spoke to her, smiled, and listened had melted her heart.

She didn’t want to like him or crave his touch. This was Robert after all. He was the little boy who once placed honey on her pillow and pushed her into a muddy pond when they were children. In spite of everything, she longed to be with him, near him. She often found herself pacing the upstairs landing late at night in the hopes of hearing his deep voice. She was pathetic, utterly pathetic.

At least she fought her feelings, she reassured herself. She purposely avoided him whenever he was in the house, which was not very often. It seemed that he was only here to sleep. She often wondered where he went. Was he at a club? Visiting friends? A woman? She pushed the last thought out of her mind. She did not like to think of him with other women even though she most certainly did not want him for herself. Not at all. It was this silly “ghost” that was putting her on edge.

She checked the pillow next to hers. It looked slept on. The only explanation that she could come up with was that she’d rolled over onto that side sometime during the night, because the bedclothes on that side were also wrinkled. It was the only thing that made sense.

Something caught her eye as she pulled the sheets back. Frowning, she picked it up and examined the pocketknife. Her breath caught in her throat and her stomach churned. Desperate to ease her stomach, she reached out for the tepid tea Jane had left her and took a small sip. That small sip triggered something unholy in her stomach. She dropped the cup and all but ran for the chamber pot.