Her eyes lifted from his smiling lips, dropped to the enormous jewel on her finger, and then widened in shock. "Oh, but-" she exclaimed, staring at it and straightening in his arms. "It's glorious. I do mean that, but I couldn't let you-really, I couldn't. Ian," she burst out anxiously, sending a tremor through him when she called him by name, "I can't let you do this. You've been extravagantly generous already." She touched the huge stone almost reverently, then gave her head a practical shake. "I don't need jewels, really I don't. You're doing this because of that stupid remark I made about someone offering me jewels as large as my palm, and now you've bought one nearly that larger'
"Not quite," he chuckled.
"Why, a stone like this would pay for irrigating Havenhurst and all the servants' wages for years and years and years, and food to-"
She reached to slide it off her finger. "Don't!" he warned on a choked laugh, linking his hands behind her back. "I"-he thought madly for some way to stop her objections-"I cannot possibly return it," he said. "It's part of a matched set."
"You don't mean there's more?"
"I'm afraid so, though I meant to surprise you with them tonight. There's a necklace and bracelet and earrings."
"Oh, I see," she said, making a visible effort not to stare at her ring. "Well, I suppose. . . if it was a purchase of several pieces, the ring alone probably didn't cost as much as it would have. . . Do not tell me," she said severely, when his shoulders began to shake with suppressed mirth, "you actually paid full price for all of the pieces?"
Laughing, Ian put his forehead against hers, and he nodded.
"It's very fortunate," she said, protectively putting her fingers against the magnificent ring, "that I've agreed to marry you."
"If you hadn't," he laughed, "God knows what I would have bought."
"Or how much you would have paid for it," she chuckled, cuddling in his arms-for the first time of her own volition. "Do you really do that?" she asked a moment later.
"Do what?" he gasped, tears of mirth blurring his vision. "Spend money heedlessly when you're disturbed about
"Yes," he lied in a suffocated, laughing voice. "You'll have to stop doing it." "I'm going to try."
"I could help you." "Please do."
"You may place yourself entirely in my hands."
"I'm very much looking forward to that."
It was the first time Ian had ever kissed a woman while he was laughing.
The afternoon passed as if it were minutes, not hours, and he kept glancing at the clock, willing it to stop. When there was no way to avoid it, he escorted her out to her carriage. "I'll see you in London tomorrow night at the ball. And don't worry. It will be fine."
"I know it will," she answered with complete confidence.
Five nights before, when she'd arrived at the Willingtons' ball, she'd been terrified and ashamed. Tonight, as the butler called out her name, Elizabeth felt neither dread nor even concern as she walked gracefully across the balcony and began slowly descending the steps to the ballroom beside the dowager duchess. With Jordan and Alexandra behind them she saw people turning to watch her, only tonight Elizabeth cared nothing for what expression was on all six hundred faces. Wrapped in an incredibly sumptuous gown of golden broidered emerald silk, with Ian's emerald and diamond necklace at her throat and her hair caught up in intricate curls at her crown, she felt carefree and calm.
Partway down the steps she let her gaze pass across the crowd, looking for the only face that mattered. He was exactly where he had been two years ago when she'd walked into Charise's ballroom-standing not far from the foot of the steps, listening to some people who were talking to him.
And just as she had known would happen, he looked up the moment she saw him, as if he'd been watching for her, too. His bold, admiring gaze swept over her, then it returned slowly to her face-and then, in shared memory, he lifted his glass and made that same subtle toast to her.
It was all sweetly, poignantly familiar; they'd played this same scene two years ago, only then it had ended wrong. Tonight Elizabeth intended that it would end as it should have, and she didn't care a whit about any other reason for being here. The things he had said to her yesterday, the husky sound of his voice, the way he held her-they were like sweet music playing through her heart. He was daring and bold and passionate-he had always been those things -and Elizabeth was mightily tired of being fearful and prim and logical.
Ian's thoughts were also on the last time he'd watched her enter a ballroom-that is, they had been until he got a clear look at her and logical thinking fled his mind. The Elizabeth Cameron coming down the steps and passing within a few yards of him was not the beautiful girl in blue of two years ago.
A breathtaking vision in emerald silk, she was too exquisite to be flesh and blood; too regal and aloof to have ever let. him touch her. He drew a long, strangled breath and realized he hadn't been breathing as he watched her. Neither had the four men beside him. "Good Lord," Count Dillard breathed, turning clear around and staring at her, "she cannot possibly be real."
"Exactly my thoughts when I first saw her," Roddy Carstairs averred, walking up behind them.
"I don't care what gossip says," Dillard continued, so besotted with her face that he forgot that one of the men in their circle was a part of that gossip. "I want an introduction."
He handed his glass to Roddy instead of the servant beside him and went off to seek an introduction from Jordan Townsende.
Watching him, it took a physical effort for Ian to maintain his carefully bland expression, tear his gaze from Dillard's back, and pay attention to Roddy Carstairs, who'd just greeted him. In fact, it took several moments before Ian could even remember his name. "How are you, Carstairs?" Ian said, finally recollecting it.
"Besotted, like half the males in here, it would seem," Roddy replied, tipping his head toward Elizabeth but scrutinizing Ian's bland face and annoyed eyes. "In fact, I'm so besotted that for the second time in my jaded career I've done the gallant for a damsel in distress. Your damsel, unless my intuition deceives me, and it never does, actually."
Ian lifted his glass to his lips, watching Dillard bow to Elizabeth. "You'll have to be more specific," he said impatiently.
"Specifically, I've been saying that in my august opinion no one, but no one, has ever besmirched that exquisite creature. Including you." Hearing him talk about Elizabeth as if she were a morsel for public delectation sent a blaze of fury through Ian.