"I would like to see you cheat," Elizabeth said impulsively, smiling at him.

His hands stilled, his eyes intent on her face. "I beg your pardon?"

"What I meant," she hastily explained as he continued to idly shuffle the cards, watching her, "is that night in the card room at Charise's there was mention of someone being able to deal a card from the bottom of the deck, and I've always wondered if you could, if it could . ." She trailed off, belatedly realizing she was insulting him and that his narrowed, speculative gaze proved that she'd made it sound as if she believed him to be dishonest at cards. "I beg your pardon," she said quietly. "That was truly awful of me."

Ian accepted her apology with a curt nod, and when Alex hastily interjected, "Why don't we use the chips for a shilling each," he wordlessly and immediately dealt the cards.

Too embarrassed even to look at him, Elizabeth bit her lip and picked up her hand.

In it there were four kings.

Her gaze flew to Ian, but he was lounging back in his chair, studying his own cards.

She won three shillings and was pleased as could be. He passed the deck to her, but Elizabeth shook her bead. "I don't like to deal. I always drop the cards, which Celton says is very irritating. Would you mind dealing for me?"

"Not at all." Ian said dispassionately, and Elizabeth realized with a sinking heart that he was still annoyed with her.

"Who is Celton?" Jordan inquired. "Celton is a groom with whom I play cards," Elizabeth explained unhappily, picking up her hand.

In it there were four aces. She knew it then, and laughter and relief trembled on her lips as she lifted her face and stared at her betrothed. There was not a sign, not so much as a hint anywhere on his perfectly composed features that anything unusual had been happening.

Lounging indolently in his chair, he quirked an indifferent brow and said, "Do you want to discard and draw more cards, Elizabeth?"

"Yes," she replied, swallowing her mirth, "I would like one more ace to go with the ones I have."

"There are only four," be explained mildly, and with such convincing blandness that Elizabeth whooped with laughter and dropped her cards. "You are a complete charlatan!" she gasped when she could finally speak, but her face was aglow with admiration.

"Thank you, darling," he replied tenderly. "I'm happy to know your opinion of me is already improving."

The laughter froze in Elizabeth's chest, replaced by warmth that quaked through her from head to foot. Gentlemen did not speak such tender endearments in front of other people, if at all. "I'm a Scot," he'd whispered huskily to her long ago. "We do." The Townsendes had launched into swift, laughing conversation after a moment of stunned silence following his words, and it was just as well, because Elizabeth could not tear her gaze from Ian, could not seem to move. And in that endless moment when their gazes held, Elizabeth had an almost overwhelming desire to fling herself into his arms. He saw it, too, and the answering expression in his eyes made her feel she was melting.

"It occurs to me, Ian," Jordan joked a moment later, gently breaking their spell, "that we are wasting our time with honest pursuits."

Ian's gaze shifted reluctantly from Elizabeth's face, and then he smiled inquisitively at Jordan. "What did you have in mind?" he asked, shoving the deck toward Jordan while Elizabeth put back her unjustly won chips.

"With your skill at dealing whatever hand you want, we could gull half of London. If any of our victims had the temerity to object, Alex could run him through with her rapier, and Elizabeth could shoot him before he hit the ground."

Ian chuckled. "Not a bad idea. What would your role be?" "Breaking us out of Newgate!" Elizabeth laughed. "Exactly."

After Ian left for the Greenleaf Inn, where he planned to stop for the night before continuing the trip to his own home, Elizabeth stayed downstairs to put out the candles and tidy up the drawing room. In one of the guest chambers above, Jordan glanced at his wife's faint, preoccupied smile and suppressed a knowing grin. "Now what do you think of the Marquess of Kensington?" he asked.

Her eyes were shining as she lifted them to his. "I think," she softly said, "that unless he does something dreadful, I'm prepared to believe he could truly be your cousin."

"Thank you, darling," Jordan replied tenderly, paraphrasing Ian's words. "I'm happy to see your opinion of him is already improving."

Chapter 26

Elizabeth was undeniably eager to see Ian again, and more than a little curious about the sort of house he lived in. He'd told her he had purchased Montmayne last year with his own money, and, after being with him in Scotland, she rather imagined a ruggedly built manor house would suit him. On the one hand it seemed a foolish waste not to live at Havenhurst, which would offer them every convenience, but she understood that Ian's pride would suffer if he had to live with her in her home.

She'd left Lucinda behind at the inn where they'd spent the night, and the coach had been traveling for more than two hours when Aaron finally turned off the road and pulled to a smart stop at a pair of massive iron gates that blocked their entry. Elizabeth glanced nervously out the window, saw the imposing entry, and reached the obvious conclusion that either they were in the wrong place or Aaron had pulled into the drive to ask directions. A gatekeeper emerged from the ornate little house beside the gates, and Elizabeth waited to hear what Aaron said.

"The Countess of Havenhurst," Aaron was informing the gatekeeper.

In shock, Elizabeth watched through the open window of the coach as the gatekeeper nodded and then walked over to the gates. The massive iron portals opened soundlessly on well-oiled hinges, and Aaron drove through as the gatekeeper was swinging them closed. Twisting her gloves in her hands, Elizabeth gazed out the window as the coach made its way along an endless, curving drive that wound through manicured parkland, offering a scenic view of an estate that surpassed anything Elizabeth had ever seen. Rolling hills dotted with lush trees bounded the estate on three sides, and a beautiful stream bubbled merrily beneath a stone bridge as the horses clattered across it.

Ahead of her the house came into view, and Elizabeth could not stop her exclamation at the exquisite beauty she beheld spread out before her. A majestic three-story house with two wings angled forward on the sides stretched out before her. Sunlight glinted on the large panes of glass that marched across its front; wide flights of shallow, terraced brick steps led from the drive to the massive front door, with stone urns containing clipped shrubs on both sides of every four steps. Swans drifted lazily on the mirror surface of a lake on the far end of the lawn, and beside the lake was a Grecian-style gazebo with white columns that was so immense a quarter of her own home could have fit inside it The sheer magnitude of the grounds, combined with the precise positioning of every single scenic attribute, made it all seem both overwhelming and utterly breathtaking.


Tags: Judith McNaught Sequels Billionaire Romance
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