"I know you will," he said. trying not to overwhelm her with avowals of love she wouldn't yet believe. With a grin he added, "Besides, as it turned out after our bargaining session, I'm the one who's governed by all the conditions, not you."
Her sideways glance was filled with laughter. "You were much too lenient at times, you know. Toward the end I was asking for concessions just to see how far you'd go."
Ian, who had been multiplying his fortune for the last four years by buying shipping and import-export companies, as well as sundry others, was regarded as an extremely tough negotiator. He heard her announcement with a smile of genuine surprise. ?"You gave me the impression that every single concession was of paramount importance to you, and that if I didn't agree, you might call the whole thing off."
She nodded with satisfaction. "I rather thought that was how I ought to do it. Why are you laughing?"
"Because," he admitted, chuckling, "obviously I was not in my best form yesterday. In addition to completely misreading your feelings, I managed to buy a house on Promenade Street for which I will undoubtedly pay five times its worth."
"Oh, I don't think so," she said, and, as if she was embarrassed and needed a way to avoid meeting his gaze, she reached up and pulled a leaf off an overhanging branch. In a voice of careful nonchalance, she explained, "In matters of bargaining, I believe in being reasonable, but my uncle would assuredly have tried to cheat you. He's perfectly dreadful about money."
Ian nodded, remembering the fortune Julius Cameron had gouged out of him in order to sign the betrothal agreement.
"And so," she admitted, uneasily studying the azure-blue sky with feigned absorption, "I sent him a note after you left itemizing all the repairs that were needed at the house. I told him it was in poor condition and absolutely in need of complete redecoration."
"And?" "And I told him you would consider paying a fair price for the house, but not one shilling more, because it needed all that. "
"And?" Ian prodded. "He has agreed to sell it for that figure." Ian's mirth exploded in shouts of laughter. Snatching her into his arms, he waited until he could finally catch his breath, then he tipped her face up to his. "Elizabeth," he said tenderly, "if you change your mind about marrying me, promise me you'll never represent the opposition at the bargaining table. I swear to God, I'd be lost." The temptation to kiss her was almost overwhelming, but the Townsende coach with its ducal crest was in the drive, and he had no idea where their chaperons might be. Elizabeth noticed the coach, too, and started toward the house.
"About the gowns," she said, stopping suddenly and looking up at him with an intensely earnest expression on her beautiful face. "I meant to thank you for your generosity as soon as you arrived, but I was so happy to-that is-" She realized she'd been about to blurt out that she was happy to see him, and she was so flustered by having admitted aloud what she hadn't admitted to herself that she completely lost her thought.
"Go on," Ian invited in a husky voice. "You were so happy to see me that you-"
"I forgot," she admitted lamely. "You shouldn't have done it, you know-ordered so very many things, and from her shop. Madame LaSalle is horribly expensive-I remember hearing about her when I made my debut. "
"You are not to consider that sort of thing," he said firmly. Trying to lessen her lingering guilt over the gowns, he added jokingly, "At least we'll have the gowns to show for the expenditure. The night before I ordered them for you, I lost 1,000 pounds on a hand of cards with Jordan Townsende."
"You're a gambler," she said curiously. "Don't you normally wager such sums on a hand?"
"Not," Ian said dryly, "when I'm not holding anything in that hand."
"You know," she told him gently as she led him across the lawn toward the front door, "if you persist in spending heedlessly, you'll end up just like my papa."
"How did he end up?"
"Up to his ears in debt. He liked to gamble, too."
When Ian was silent, Elizabeth ventured hesitantly, "We could always live here. There's no need for three establishments-it's very costly." She realized what she was saying and hastily said, "I didn't mean to imply I won't be perfectly comfortable wherever you live. I thought the cottage in Scotland was very beautiful, actually."
It delighted Ian that she evidently had no knowledge of the extent of his wealth and yet had still agreed to marry him, even if it meant living in a modest cottage or the town house on Promenade Street. If that was true, it gave him the proof that he desperately wanted-proof that she cared for him more than she was ready to admit.
"Let's decide the day after tomorrow when you see my house," he suggested mildly, already looking forward to what he hoped would be a shocked reaction.
"Do-do you think you could try to be more prudent with money?" she asked gently. "I could make out a budget, I'm quite good at that-"
Ian couldn't help it; he muffled a laugh and did what he'd been longing to do from the moment he saw her standing in the hall. He pulled her into his arms, covered her mouth with his, and kissed her with all the hungry ardor that being near her always evoked, and Elizabeth kissed him back with the same yielding sweetness that always drove him mad with desire.
When he reluctantly let her go, her face was flushed and her beautiful eyes were radiant. Lacing his fingers through hers, he walked slowly beside her toward the front door. Since he was in no hurry to join his chaperons, Ian diverted her by asking about a particularly interesting shrubbery, an unusual flower in the front bed, and even a perfectly ordinary rose.
Standing at the window overlooking the lawn, Jordan and Alexandra Townsende watched the couple heading toward them. "If you'd asked me to name the last man on earth I would have expected to fall head over heels for a slip of a girl, it would have been Ian Thornton," he told her.
His wife heard that with a sidewise look of extreme amusement. "If I'd been asked, I rather think I would have named you."
"I'm sure you would have," he said, grinning. He saw her smile fade, and he put his arm around her waist, instantly concerned that her pregnancy was causing her discomfort. "Is it the babe, darling?"
She burst out laughing and shook her head, but she sobered again almost instantly. "Do you think," she asked pensively, "he can be trusted not to hurt her? He's done so much damage that I-I just cannot like him, Jordan. He's handsome, I'll grant you that, extraordinarily handsome-"