The fifteenth applicant for her hand filled all his requirements. Extremely wealthy, handsome, and personable, Viscount Mondevale, at twenty-five, was unquestionably one of the season's best catches. Robert knew it, and as he told Elizabeth that evening, he'd been so excited that he had nearly forgotten himself and leapt across his desk to congratulate the young viscount on his impending nuptials.

Elizabeth had been very pleased and touched that the gentleman she had most particularly admired was the very one who had offered for her and been chosen. "Oh, Robert, he's excessively nice. I-I wasn't entirely certain he liked me enough to offer for me."

Robert had pressed an affectionate kiss on her forehead. "Princess," he'd teased, "any man who takes a look at you loses his head entirely. It's only a matter of time."

Elizabeth had given him a brief smile and shrugged. She was heartily sick of people talking about her face as if there were no mind behind it. Moreover, all the frantic activities and brittle gaiety of the season, which had originally enthralled her, were rapidly beginning to pall. In fact, the strongest emotion she felt at Robert's announcement was relief that her marriage was settled.

"Mondevale plans to call on you this afternoon," Robert had continued, "but I don't mean to give him my answer for a week or two. Waiting will only strengthen his resolve, and besides, you deserve another few days of freedom before you become an engaged woman."

An engaged woman. Elizabeth felt an oddly queasy and distinctly uneasy feeling at the sound of that, though she realized she was being very foolish.

"I confess I dreaded telling him that your dowry is only 5,000 pounds, but he didn't seem to care. Said as much. Said all he wanted was you. Told me he meant to shower you with rubies the size of your palm."

"That's. . . wonderful," Elizabeth said weakly, trying very hard to feel something more than relief and an inexplicable twinge of apprehension.

"You're wonderful," he said, rumpling her hair. "You've pulled Father, me, and Havenhurst out of the briars."

At three o'clock Viscount Mondevale arrived. Elizabeth met with him in the yellow salon. He walked in, glanced around the room, then took her hands in his and smiled warmly into her eyes. "The answer is yes, isn't it?" he said, but it was more a statement than a question.

"You've already spoken to my brother?" Elizabeth said in surprise.

"No, I haven't." "Then how do you know the answer is yes?" she asked, smiling and mystified.

"Because," he said, "the ever-present, eagle-eyed Miss Lucinda Throckmorton-Jones is absent from your side for the first time in a month!" He pressed a brief kiss to her forehead, which caught her off-guard, and she blushed. "Do you have any idea how beautiful you are?" he asked.

Elizabeth had a vague idea since everyone was always telling her, and she suppressed a worried impulse to reply, "Do you have any idea how intelligent I am?" It wasn't that she was an intellectual by any stretch of the imagination, but she did like to read and think and even debate issues, and she wasn't at all certain he would like that in her. He never expressed an opinion on anything except the most trivial generalities and he never asked for hers.

"You're enchanting." he whispered, and Elizabeth wondered, very seriously, why he thought that. He didn't know how much she loved to fish, or to laugh, or that she could shoot a pistol so well she was almost a marksman. He didn't know she'd once had chariot races across the yard at Havenhurst, or that flowers seemed to bloom especially well for her. She didn't even know if he'd like to hear all the wonderful tales of Havenhurst and its colorful former inhabitants. He knew so little of her; she knew even less about him,

She wished she could ask Lucinda's advice, but Lucinda was ill with a high fever, raw throat, and bad digestion that had kept her in her chamber since the day before.

Elizabeth was still a little worried about all those things late the next afternoon when she left to attend the weekend party that would put her in the way of Ian Thornton and change her life. The party took place at the lovely country house belonging to Valerie's older sister, Lady Charise Dumont. By the time Elizabeth arrived the grounds of the estate were already filled with guests who were flirting and laughing and drinking liberal quantities of the champagne that gurgled forth from crystal fountains in the garden. By London standards, the gathering at this party was small; no more than one hundred fifty guests were present, and only twenty-five of them, including Elizabeth and her three friends, were actually staying the full weekend. If she hadn't been so sheltered and so naive, she'd have recognized "the fast set" when she saw it that evening; she'd have realized at a glance that the guests at this party were much older, more experienced, and far more freewheeling than any she'd ever been around. And she'd have left.

Now, as Elizabeth sat in the salon at Havenhurst, reflecting on her disastrous folly that weekend, she marveled at her gullibility and naivet?

Leaning her head back against the sofa, she closed her eyes, swallowing against the painful lump of humiliation that swelled in her throat. Why, she wondered despairingly, did happy memories fade and blur until one could scarcely recall them at all, while horrible memories seemed to retain their blinding clarity and painful sharpness? Even now she could remember that night-see it, hear it, smell it.

Flowers had been blooming riotously in the formal gardens when she walked outside looking for her friends. Roses. Everywhere there had been the intoxicating fragrance of roses. In the ballroom the orchestra was tuning up, and suddenly the opening strains of a lovely waltz drifted into the garden, filling it with music. Twilight was descending, and servants moved about the terraced garden paths lighting gay torches. Not all the paths would be lit, of course-those below the terraced steps would be left in convenient darkness for couples who later wished for intimacy in the hedge maze or the greenhouse, but Elizabeth hadn't realized that until later.

It had taken her nearly a half hour to find her friends, because they had gathered for a gay gossip at the far end of the garden where they were partially concealed from view by a high, clipped hedge. As she neared the girls she realized they weren't standing by the hedge, they were peeking through it, chattering excitedly about someone they were watching-someone who seemed to be sending them into raptures of excitement and speculation. "Now that," Valerie giggled, peering through the hedge, "is what my sister calls ?manly allure'!" In brief, reverent silence all three of the girls studied this paragon of masculinity who had earned such high praise from Valerie's gorgeous and very discerning sister, Charise. Elizabeth had just noticed a grass stain on her lavender slipper and was unhappily contemplating the exorbitant cost of a new pair while wondering if it was possible to buy only one shoe. "I still can't believe it's him!" Valerie whispered. "Charise said he might be here, but I wouldn't credit it. Won't everyone simply die when we return to London and tell them we've seen him?" Valerie added, then she noticed Elizabeth and beckoned her to the hedge. "Look, Elizabeth, isn't he divine' in a sort of mysterious, wicked way?"

Tags: Judith McNaught Sequels Billionaire Romance