The coach finally drew up before the terraced steps, and four footmen descended, garbed in burgundy and gold They helped a dazed Elizabeth to alight, and, positioning themselves on either side of her like an honor guard, they escorted her to the house.
A butler opened a massive front door and bowed to her and Elizabeth stepped into a magnificent marble entryway with a glass ceiling three stories above. Entranced, she looked about her, trying to assimilate what was happening. ,
"My lord is in his study with guests who arrived unexpectedly," the butler said, drawing Elizabeth's gaze from the graceful, curving Palladian staircases that swept upward on both sides of the great hall. "He asked that you be escorted to him the moment you arrived."
Elizabeth smiled uncertainly and followed him down a marble hallway, where he paused before a pair of polished double doors with ornate brass handles and knocked. Without waiting for an answer he opened the door. Elizabeth automatically started forward three steps, then halted, mesmerized. An acre of thick Aubusson carpet stretched across the book-lined room, and at the far end of it, seated behind a massive baronial desk with his shirtsleeves folded up on tanned forearms, was the man who had lived in the little cottage in Scotland and shot at a tree limb with her.
Oblivious to the other three men in the room who were politely coming to their feet, Elizabeth watched Ian arise with that same natural grace that seemed so much a part of him. With a growing sense of unreality she heard him excuse himself to his visitors, saw him move away from behind his desk, and watched him start toward her with long, purposeful strides. He grew larger as he neared, his broad shoulders blocking her view of the room, his amber eyes searching her face, his smile one of amusement and uncertainty. "Elizabeth?" he said.
Her eyes wide with embarrassed admiration, Elizabeth allowed him to lift her hand to his lips before she said softly, "I could kill you."
He grinned at the contrast between her words and her voice. "I know."
"You might have told me." "I hoped to surprise you." More correctly, he had hoped she didn't know, and now he had his proof. Just as he had thought, Elizabeth had agreed to marry him without knowing anything of his personal wealth. That expression of dazed disbelief on her face had been real. He'd needed to see it for himself, which was why he'd instructed his butler to bring her to him as soon as she arrived. Ian had his proof, and with it came the knowledge that no matter how much she refused to admit it to him or to herself, she loved him.
She could insist for now and all time that all she wanted from marriage was independence, and now Ian could endure it with equanimity. Because she loved him.
Elizabeth watched the expressions play across his face. Thinking he was waiting for her to say more about his splendid house, she gave him a jaunty smile and teasingly said, "?Twill be a sacrifice, to be sure, but I shall contrive to endure the hardship of living in such a place as this, How many rooms are there?" she asked.
His brows rose in mockery. "One hundred and eighty-two."
"A small place of modest proportions," she countered lightly. "I suppose we'll just have to make do."
Ian thought they were going to do very well.
He finished his meeting a few minutes later and almost rudely ejected his business acquaintances from his library, then he went in search of Elizabeth.
"She is out in the gardens, my lord," his butler informed him. A short while later Ian strolled out the French doors and started down the balcony steps to join her. She was bending down and snapping a withered rosebud from its stem. "It only hurts for a moment," she told the bush, "and it's for your own good. You'll see." With an embarrassed , little smile she looked up at him. "It's a habit," she explained.
"It obviously works," he said with a tender smile, looking at the way the flowers bloomed about her skirts. ; "How can you tell?"
"Because," he said quietly as she stood up, "until you walked into it, this was an ordinary garden." Puzzled, Elizabeth tipped her head. "What is it now?" "Heaven."
Elizabeth's breath caught in her chest at the husky timbre of his voice and the desire in his eyes. He held out his hand to her, and, without realizing what she was doing, she lifted her hand and gave it to him, then she walked straight into his arms. For one breathless moment his smoldering eyes studied her face feature by feature while the pressure of his arms slowly increased, and then he bent his head. His sensual mouth claimed hers in a kiss of violent tenderness and tormenting desire while his hands slid over the sides of her breasts, and Elizabeth felt all her resistance, all her will, begin to crumble and disintegrate, and she kissed him back with her whole heart.
All the love that had been accumulating through the lonely years of her childhood was in that kiss-Ian felt it in the soft lips parting willingly for his searching tongue, the delicate hands sliding through the hair at his nape. With unselfish ardor she offered it all to him, and Ian took it hungrily, feeling it moving from her to him, then flowing through his veins and mingling with his until the joy of it was shattering. She was everything he'd ever dreamed she could be and more.
With an effort that was almost painful he dragged his mouth from hers, his hand still cupping the rumpled satin of her hair, his other hand holding her pressed to his rigid body, and Elizabeth stayed in his arms, seeming neither frightened nor offended by his rigid erection. "I love you," he whispered, rubbing his jaw against her temple. "And you love me. I can feel it when you're in my arms." He felt her stiffen slightly and draw a shaky breath, but she either couldn't or wouldn't speak. She hadn't thrown the words back in his face, however, so Ian continued talking to her, his hand roving over her back. "I can feel it, Elizabeth, but if you don't admit it pretty soon, you're going to drive me out of my mind. I can't work. I can't think. I make decisions and then I change my mind. And," he teased, trying to lighten the mood by using the one topic sure to distract her, "that's nothing to the money I squander whenever I'm under this sort of violent stress. It wasn't just the gowns I bought, or the house on Promenade. . ."
Still talking to her, he tipped her chin up, glorying in the gentle passion in her eyes, overlooking the doubt in their green depths. "If you don't admit it pretty soon," he teased, "I'll spend us out of house and home." Her delicate brows drew together in blank confusion, and Ian grinned, taking her hand from his chest, the emerald betrothal ring he had bought her unnoticed in his fingers. "When I'm under stress," he emphasized, sliding the magnificent emerald onto her finger, "I buy everything in sight. It took my last ounce of control not to buy one of these in every color."