He was spared having to form a reply to Carstairs's remark by the arrival of yet another group of people eager to be introduced to him, and he endured, as he had been enduring all night, a flurry of curtsies, flirtatious smiles, inviting glances, and overeager handshakes and bows.
"How does it feel," Roddy inquired as that group departed and another bore down on Ian, "to have become, overnight, England's most eligible bachelor?"
Ian answered him and abruptly walked off, and in so doing dashed the hopes of the new group that had been heading toward him. The gentleman beside Roddy, who'd been admiring Ian's magnificently tailored claret jacket and trousers, leaned closer to Roddy and raised his voice to be heard above the din. "I say, Roddy, how did Kensington say it feels to be our most eligible?"
Roddy lowered his glass, a sardonic smile twisting his lips. "He said it is a pain in the ass." He slid a sideways glance at his staggered companion and added wryly, "With Hawthorne wed and Kensington soon to be-in my opinion the only remaining bachelor with a dukedom to offer is Clayton Westmoreland. Given the uproar Hawthorne and Kensington have both created with their courtships, one can only look forward with glee to observing Westmoreland's."
It took Ian twenty minutes to walk ten yards to his grandfather because he was interrupted at every step by someone else curtsying to him or insisting on a friendly word.
He spent the next hour on the same dance floor where Elizabeth danced with her own partners, and Ian realized she was now nearly as sought-after as he was. As the evening wore on, and he watched her laughing with her partners or listening to the compliments they lavished on her, he noted that while he found balls occasionally amusing but usually boring, Elizabeth thrived in their setting. She belonged here, he realized; this was the world, the setting where Elizabeth glowed and sparkled and reigned like a young queen. It was the world she obviously loved. Not once since she'd arrived had he seen her so much as glance his way, even though his gaze had constantly strayed to her. Which, he realized grimly as the time finally came to claim her for his waltz, put him among the majority of the men in the room. Like him, they were watching her, their eyes acquisitive, thoughtful.
In keeping with the farce he was forced to play, Ian approached the group around the Townsendes and went to Jordan first, who was standing between his wife and Elizabeth. After giving Ian a look of amused understanding Jordan dutifully turned aside to draw Elizabeth from her crowd of admirers into their own circle. "Lady Cameron," he said, playing his role with elan as he nodded toward Ian. "You recall our friend Lord Thornton, Marquess of Kensington, I hope?"
The radiant smile Elizabeth bestowed on Ian was not at all what the dowager had insisted ought to be "polite but impartial." It wasn't quite like any smile she'd ever given him. "Of course I remember you, my lord," Elizabeth said to Ian, graciously offering him her hand.
"I believe this waltz is mine," he said for the benefit of Elizabeth's avidly interested admirers. He waited until they were near the dancers, then he tried to sound more pleasant. "You seem to be enjoying yourself tonight."
"I am," she said idly, but when she looked up at his face she saw the coolness in his eyes; with her new understanding of her own feelings, she understood his more easily. A soft, knowing smile touched her lips as the musicians struck up a waltz; it stayed in her heart as Ian's arm slid around her waist, and his left hand closed around her fingers, engulfing them.
Overhead" hundred thousand candles burned in crystal chandeliers, but Elizabeth was back in a moonlit arbor long ago. Then as now, Ian moved to the music with effortless ease. That lovely waltz had begun something that had ended wrong, terribly wrong. Now, as she danced in his arms, she could make this waltz end much differently, and she knew it; the knowledge filled her with pride and a twinge of nervousness. She waited, expecting him to say something tender, as he had the last time.
"Belhaven's been devouring you with his eyes all night," Ian said instead. "So have half the men in this ballroom. For a country that prides itself on its delicate manners. they sure as hell don't extend to admiring beautiful women."
That, Elizabeth thought with a startled inner smile, was not the opening she'd been waiting for. With his current mood, Elizabeth realized, she was going to have to make her own opening. Lifting her eyes to his enigmatic golden ones, she said quietly, "Ian, have you ever wanted something very badly-something that was within your grasp-and yet you were afraid to reach out for it?"
Surprised by her grave question and her use of his name, Ian tried to ignore the jealousy that had been eating at him all night. "No," he said, scrupulously keeping the curtness from his voice as he gazed down at her alluring face. "Why do you ask? Is there something you want?"
Her gaze fell from his, and she nodded at his frilled white shirtfront.
"What is it you want?" "You."
Ian's breath froze in his chest, and he stared down at her lustrous hair. "What did you just say?"
She raised her eyes to his. "I said I want you, only I'm afraid that I-"
Ian's heart slammed into his chest, and his fingers dug reflexively into her back, starting to pull her to him. "Elizabeth." he said in a strained voice, glancing a little wildly at their avidly curious audience and resisting the impossible impulse to take her out onto the balcony, "why in God's name would you say a thing like that to me when we're in the middle of a damned dance floor in a crowded ballroom?"
Her radiant smile widened. "I thought it seemed like exactly the right place," she told him, watching his eyes darken with desire.
"Because it's safer?" Ian asked in disbelief, meaning safer from his ardent reaction.
"No, because this is how it all began two years ago. We were in the arbor, and a waltz was playing," she reminded him needlessly. "And you came up behind me and said, ?Dance with me, Elizabeth'. And-and I did," she said, her voice trailing off at the odd expression darkening his eyes. "Remember?" she added shakily when he said absolutely nothing.
His gaze held hers, and his voice was tender and rough. "Love me, Elizabeth."
Elizabeth felt a tremor run through her entire body, but she looked at him without flinching. "I do."
The waltz was dwindling away, and with a supreme effort he let her go. They walked through the crowd together, smiling politely at people who intercepted them without the slightest idea of anything that was said. When they neared the Townsendes' group Ian delayed her with a touch of his hand. "There's something I've wanted to tell you," he said. Scrupulously keeping up appearances, he reached out to take a drink from a tray being passed by a servant, using that to cover their having stopped. "I would have told you before, but until now you would have questioned my motives and not believed me."