Instead of peering through the hedge Elizabeth glanced around the end of it, scanning the garden, which was filled with gorgeously garbed men and women who were laughing and chatting as they moved languidly toward the ballroom where dancing would take place followed by a late supper. Her gaze drifted idly over the men in pastel satin breeches and colorful waistcoats and jackets which made them resemble bright peacocks and flashy macaws. "Who am I supposed to see?"

"Mr. Ian Thornton, silly! No, wait, you can't see him now. He moved away from the torches."

"Who is Ian Thornton?"

"That's just it; nobody knows, not really!" In the tone of one imparting delicious and startling news she added, "Some say he's the grandson of the Duke of Stanhope."

Like all young debutantes, Elizabeth had been required to study Debrett's Peerage, a book the ton revered with almost as much fervor as a devout Presbyterian felt for his Bible. "The Duke of Stanhope is an old man," she remarked after thoughtful consideration, "and he has no heir."

"Yes, everyone knows that. But it's said Ian Thornton is his "Valerie's voice dropped to a whisper" illegitimate grandson."

"You see," Penelope contributed authoritatively, "the Duke of Stanhope did have a son, but he disowned him years ago. My mama told me all about it was quite a scandal." At the word "scandal" they all turned inquisitively, and she continued, "The old duke's son married the daughter of a Scottish peasant who was part Irish to boot! She was a perfectly dreadful person of no consequence whatsoever. So this could be his grandson."

"People think that's who he is simply because of his surname," Georgina provided with typical practicality, "yet it's a common enough name."

"I heard he's so rich," Valerie put in, "that he wagered 25,000 pounds on a single hand of cards one night at a polite gaming hall in Paris."

"Oh, for heaven's sake," said Georgina with derision, " he didn't do that because he's rich, he did it because he's a gambler! My brother knows him, and he said Ian Thornton is a common gambler a person without background, breeding, connections, or wealth!"

"I've heard that, too," Valerie admitted, peering through the hedge. "Look," she broke off ? "you can see him now. Lady Mary Watterly is practically throwing herself at him!"

The girls leaned so far forward they almost fell into the shrubbery.

"I know I'd melt if he looked at me."

"I'm sure you would not," Elizabeth said with a wry smile, because she felt she ought to contribute something to the conversation.

"You haven't seen him yet!" Elizabeth didn't need to look at him; she knew exactly the sort of handsome young men who made all her friends swoon blond, blue-eyed Corinthians between twenty-one and twenty-four.

"I suppose Elizabeth has too many wealthy beaux of her own to care about a mere mister, no matter how handsome or intriguing he might be," Valerie said when Elizabeth remained politely aloof, and it seemed to Elizabeth the compliment was coated with a layer of envy and malice. The suspicion was so unpleasant that she quickly rejected it. She'd done nothing to Valerie, or to anyone, to deserve animosity. Not once since she'd come to London had she uttered an unkind word against anyone; in fact, she never took part in gossip that turned malicious or repeated a word of it to anyone else. Even now she was extremely uneasy with some of the things they were saying about the man they were watching. It seemed to Elizabeth that a person had a right to dignity regardless of his rank or lack thereof. That, of course, was a minority opinion that verged on heresy in the ton's eyes, and so she kept her odd notions to herself.

At the time Elizabeth had felt such thoughts were disloyal to her friends, and, moreover, that she was probably being churlish by not joining in their fun and trying to share their excitement with Mr. Ian Thornton. Trying to throw herself into the spirit of the moment, she smiled at Valerie and said, "I don't have as many beaux as that, and I'm sure if I could see him, I'd be as intrigued as everyone else."

For some reason Elizabeth's words caused Valerie and Penelope to exchange pleased, conspiratorial glances, then Valerie explained the reason for it: "Thank heavens you agree, Elizabeth, because the three of us are in a bit of a coil. We were counting on you to help us out of it."

"What sort of coil?" "Well, you see," Valerie explained with a breathless exuberance that Elizabeth blamed on the glasses of heady wine the servants had been pressing on all the guests, including them, "I had to wheedle forever before Charise would agree to let us be here this weekend."

Since she already knew that, Elizabeth nodded and waited.

"The thing is, when Charise said earlier today that Ian Thornton was really going to be here, we were all up in the boughs about it. But she said he wouldn't pay any of us the slightest notice, because we're too young and not at all in his style-"

"She's probably correct," Elizabeth said with an unconcerned smile.

"Oh, but he must!" Glancing at the other girls as if for reinforcement, Valerie finished eagerly, "He absolutely must, because the three of us wagered our entire quarter's allowance with Charise that he would ask one of us to dance tonight. And he's not likely to do that unless his interest is piqued beforehand."

"Your entire allowance?" Elizabeth said, horrified at such an extravagant gamble. "But you were planning to use it to buy those amethysts you saw at the jeweler's on Westpool Street."

"And I intended to use mine," Penelope added as she turned to peer through the hedge again, "to buy that marvelous little mare Papa has refused me."

"I-I could probably withdraw from the wager," Georgina put in, looking acutely uneasy about more than the money. "I don't think-" she started, but Penelope burst out eagerly, "He's starting across the garden in this direction, and he's alone! There'll never be a better opportunity to try to attract his notice than right now, if he doesn't change direction."

Suddenly the outrageous wager did seem like forbidden fun, and Elizabeth chuckled. "In that case, I nominate Valerie for the task of piquing his interest, since it was her idea and she particularly admires him."

"We nominate you," Valerie said in a giddy, determined voice.

"Me? Why should it be me?"

"Because you're the one who's already received fourteen offers, so it's perfectly obvious you're the most likely to succeed. Besides," she added when Elizabeth balked, "Viscount Mondevale cannot help but be impressed when he hears that Ian Thornton a mysterious older man at whom Mary Jane Morrison flung herself last year to no avail asked you to dance and paid you particular' attention. As soon as Mondevale hears about it he'll come up to scratch in a trice!"

Tags: Judith McNaught Sequels Billionaire Romance