Elizabeth nodded graciously to a woman who greeted her, then she slowly reached for the glass, listening to him as he quietly said, "I never told your brother I didn't want to wed you."
Her hand stayed, then she took the glass from him and walked beside him as they made their slowest possible way back to their friends. "Thank you," she said softly, pausing to sip from her glass in another delaying tactic. "There's one more thing," he added irritably. "What's that?" she asked.
"I hate this damn ball. I'd give half what I own to be anywhere else with you."
To his surprise, his thrifty fiancee nodded complete agreement. "So would I."
"Half!" he chided, grinning at her in complete defiance of the rules of propriety. "Really?"
"Well-at least a fourth," she amended helplessly, giving him her hand for the obligatory kiss as she reached for her skirts, preparing to curtsy.
"Don't you dare curtsy to me," he warned in a laughing underbreath, kissing her gloved fingers. "Everywhere I go women are falling to the floor like collapsing rigging on a ship."
Elizabeth's shoulders shook with mirth as she disobediently sank into a deep throne-room curtsy that was a miracle of grace and exaggeration. Above her she heard his throaty chuckle.
In an utter turnabout of his earlier feelings, Ian suddenly decided this ball was immensely enjoyable. With perfect equanimity he danced with enough old and respected pillars of the ton to ensure that he was guaranteed to be regarded as a perfectly acceptable escort for Elizabeth later on. In the entire endless evening his serenity received a jolt only a few times. The first was when someone who didn't know who he was confided that only two months ago Lady Elizabeth's uncle had sent out invitations to all her former suitors offering her hand in marriage.
Suppressing his shock and loathing for her uncle, Ian had pinned an amused smile on his face and confided, "I'm acquainted with the lady's uncle, and I regret to say he's a little mad. As you know, that sort of thing runs," Ian had finished smoothly, "in our finest families." The reference to England's hopeless King George was unmistakable, and the man had laughed uproariously at the joke. "True," he agreed. "Lamentably true." Then he went off to spread the word that Elizabeth's uncle was a confirmed loose screw.
Ian's method of dealing with Sir Francis Belhaven-who, his grandfather had discovered, was boasting that Elizabeth had spent several days with him-was less subtle and even more effective. "Belhaven," Ian said after spending a half hour searching for the repulsive knight.
The stout man had whirled around in surprise, leaving his acquaintances straining to hear Ian's low conversation with him. "I find your presence repugnant," Ian had said in a dangerously quiet voice. "I dislike your coat, I dislike your shirt, and I dislike the knot in your neckcloth. In fact, I dislike you. Have I offended you enough yet, or shall I continue?"
Belhaven's mouth dropped open, his pasty face turning a deathly gray. "Are-are you trying to force a-duel?"
"Normally one doesn't bother shooting a repulsive toad, but in this instance I'm prepared to make an exception, since this toad doesn't know how to keep his mouth shut'"
"A duel, with you?" he gasped. "Why, it would be no contest-none at all. Everyone knows what sort of marks-man you are. It would be murder."
Ian leaned close, speaking between his clenched teeth. "It's going to be murder. you miserable little opium-eater, unless you suddenly remember very vocally that you've been joking about Elizabeth Cameron's visit."
At the mention of opium the glass slid from his fingers and crashed to the floor. "I have just realized I was joking."
"Good," Ian said, restraining the urge to strangle him. "Now start remembering it allover this ballroom'"
"Now that, Thornton," said an amused voice from Ian's shoulder as Belhaven scurried off to begin doing as bidden. "makes me hesitate to say that he is not lying." Still angry with Belhaven, Ian turned in surprise to see John Marchman standing there. "She was with me as well," Marchman said "All aboveboard, for God's sake, so don't look at me like I'm Belhaven. Her aunt Berta was there every moment."
"Her what?" Ian said. caught between fury and amusement.
"Her Aunt Berta. Stout little woman who doesn't say much."
"See that you follow her example," Ian warned darkly. John Marchman, who had been privileged to fish at Ian's marvelous stream in Scotland. gave his friend an offended look. "I daresay you've no business challenging my honor. I was considering marrying Elizabeth to keep her out of Belhaven's clutches; you were only going to shoot him. It seems to me that my sacrifice was-"
"You were what?" Ian said, feeling as if he'd walked in on a play in the middle of the second act and couldn't seem to hold onto the thread of the plot or the identity of the players.
"Her uncle turned me down. Got a better offer." "Your life will be more peaceful. believe me," Ian said dryly, and he left to find a footman with a tray of drinks.
The last encounter was one Ian enjoyed, because Elizabeth was with him after they'd had their second-and last permissible-dance. Viscount Mondevale had approached them with Valerie hanging on his arm, and the rest of their group fanned around them. The sight of the young woman who'd caused them both so much pain evoked almost as much ire in Ian as the sight of Mondevale watching Elizabeth like a lovelorn swain.
"Mondevale," Ian had said curtly, feeling the tension in Elizabeth's fingers when she looked at Valerie, "I applaud your taste. I'm certain Miss Jamison will make you a fine wife, if you ever get up the spine to ask her. If you do, however, take my advice, and hire her a tutor, because she can't write and she can't spell." Transferring his blistering gaze to the gaping young woman, Ian clipped, "?Greenhouse' has a ?u' in it. Shall I spell ?malice' for you as well?"
"Ian," Elizabeth chided gently as they walked away. "It doesn't matter anymore." She looked up at him and smiled, and Ian grinned back at her. Suddenly he felt completely in harmony with the world.
The feeling was so lasting that he managed to endure the remaining three weeks-with all the requisite social and courtship rituals and betrothal formalities-with equanimity while he mentally marked off each day before he could make her his and join his starving body with hers.
With a polite smile on his face Ian appeared at teas and mentally composed letters to his secretary; he sat through the opera and slowly undressed her in his mind; he endured eleven Venetian breakfasts where he mentally designed an entirely new kind of mast for his fleet of ships; he escorted her to eighteen balls and politely refrained from acting out his recurring fantasy of dismembering the fops who clustered around her, eyeing her lush curves and mouthing platitudes to her.