Ian was tempted to invite her to get out, in a slightly less wrathful tone than that in which he'd ordered Julius from the house, but he realized that what she was saying was lamentably true. "Last night you went to a deal of trouble to make it seem there had been little but flirtation between the two of you two years ago. Unless you go through the appropriate courtship rituals, which Elizabeth has every right to expect, no one will ever believe it."
"What do you have in mind?" Ian demanded shortly. "One month," she said without hesitation. "One month of calling on her properly, escorting her to the normal functions, and so on."
"Two weeks," he countered with strained patience. "Very well," she conceded, giving Ian the irritating certainty that two weeks was all she'd hoped for anyway. "Then you may announce your betrothal and be wed in two months!"
"Two weeks," Ian said implacably, reaching for the drink the butler had just put in front of him.
"As you wish," said the dowager. Then two things happened simultaneously: Lucinda Throckmorton-Jones let out a snort that Ian realized was a laugh, and Elizabeth swept Ian's drink from beneath his fingertips. "There's-a speck of lint in it." she explained nervously, handing the drink to Bentner with a severe shake of her head.
Ian reached for the sandwich on his plate. Elizabeth watched the satisfied look on Bentner's face and snatched that away, too. "A-a small insect seems to have gotten on it. " she explained to Ian.
"I don't see anything," Ian remarked, his puzzled glance on his betrothed. Having been deprived of tea and sustenance, he reached for the glass of wine the butler had set before him, then he realized how much stress Elizabeth had been under and offered it to her instead.
"Thank you." she said with a sigh, looking a little harassed. Bentner's arm swooped down, scooping the wine-glass out of her hand. "Another insect," he said.
"Bentner!" Elizabeth cried in exasperation, but her voice was drowned out by a peal of laughter from Alexandra Townsende, who slumped down on the settee, her shoulders shaking with unexplainable mirth.
Ian drew the only possible conclusion: They were all suffering from the strain of too much stress.
The dowager was of the opinion that the ritual of courtship should begin at once with a ball that very night, and Ian expected Elizabeth to look forward to such a prospect after almost two years of enforced rustication-particularly after she'd already conquered the highest hurdle last night. Instead, she evaded the issue by insisting that she wanted to show Havehurst to Ian, and perhaps attend a ball or two later on.
The dowager remained adamant, Elizabeth remained resistant, and Ian watched the interchange with mild confusion. Since Havenhurst was only an hour and a half's drive from London, he couldn't see why doing one thing would preclude the other. He even said as much, watching as Elizabeth looked uneasily at Alexandra and then shook her head, as if refusing something being silently offered. In the end it was decided that Ian would go to Havenhurst tomorrow, and that Alexandra Townsende and her husband would play chaperon there, a notion that pleased Ian vastly more than having to endure the frosty, gloating face of Lucinda Throckmorton-Jones.
He was on his way home, contemplating with considerable amusement what Jordan's reaction would be when he learned his wife had volunteered him to spend a day and evening playing duenna to Ian with whom he'd long ago gambled in most of London's polite, and impolite, gaming houses.
His smile faded, however, as his mind refused to stop wondering why Elizabeth wouldn't want to attend a ball after being banished to the country for so long. The logical answer finally bit him. and a fresh surge of pain stabbed at him, So convincingly had she played the frivolous socialite in Scotland that he still had difficulty remembering she'd been living in seclusion, pinching every shilling.
Leaning forward. Ian issued clipped instructions to his coachman, and a few minutes later be was striding swiftly into the establishment of London's most fashionable-and most discreet-modiste.
"It cannot be done, Monsieur Thornton," the proprietress gasped when he informed her be wanted a dozen ball gowns and an entire wardrobe designed and created for Lady Elizabeth Cameron at number fourteen Promenade Street within the week. "It would take two dozen experienced seamstresses a minimum of two weeks."
"Then hire four dozen," Monsieur Thornton replied in the politely impatient tone of one who was being forced to reason with an inferior intellect, "and you can do it in one. " He took the sting out of that by Dashing her a brief smile and writing her a bank draft in an amount that made her eyes widen. "Lady Cameron is leaving for the country early in the morning, which will give you all the rest of today and tonight to take whatever measurements you need," he continued. Tipping his quill toward the bolt of magnificent emerald silk embroidered with spidery golden threads lying on the counter beside his hand, he signed the draft and added, "And make the first of the ball gowns out of this. Have it ready on the twentieth.
Straightening, be thrust the bank draft at her. "That should cover it." It would have covered half again as much, and they both knew it. "If it doesn't. send the bills to me."
"Oui," the lady said in a slightly dazed voice, "but I cannot give you the emerald silk. That has already been selected by Lady Margaret Mitcham and promised to her," Ian's expression took on a look of surprised displeasure. "I'm surprised you allowed her to choose it, madame. It will make her complexion look sallow. Tell her I said so."
He turned and left the shop without the slightest idea of who Lady Margaret Mitcham was. Behind him an assistant came to lift the shimmering emerald silk and take it back to the seamstresses. "Non." the modiste said, her appreciative gaze on the tall, broad-shouldered man who was bounding into his carriage. "It is to be used for someone else."
"But Lady Mitcham chose it." With a last wistful glance at the handsome man who obviously appreciated exquisite cloth, she dismissed her assistant's objection. "Lord Mitcham is an old man with bad eyes; he cannot appreciate the gown I can make from this cloth."
"But what shall I tell Lady Mitcham?" the harassed assistant implored.
"Tell her," her mistress said wryly, "that Monsieur Thornton-no, Lord Kensington-said it would make her complexion sallow."
Havenhurst was a pretty estate, Ian thought as his carriage passed through the stone arch, but not nearly so imposing as Elizabeth's proud description had led him to expect. Mortar was missing from the portals, he noticed absently, and as the carriage swayed down the drive he realized that the paving was in need of repair, and the stately old trees dotting the lawns were badly in need of pruning. A moment later the house came into view, and Ian, who had a vast knowledge of architecture, identified it in a single glance as a random combination of Gothic and Tudor styles that somehow managed to be pleasing to the eye, despite the inconsistencies of structure that would have sent a modern architect straight to his drawing board.