"Has Thornton never mentioned this to you?" Shaking her head, Elizabeth added defensively, "Robert is something of a sore subject between us. We don't discuss him."
"You are not heeding me, my lady," he burst out in frustrated anger. "You are avoiding drawing obvious conclusions. I believe Thornton had your brother abducted. or worse. in order to prevent him from making additional attempts on his life."
"I'll ask him," Elizabeth cried as a tiny hammer of panic and pain began to pound in her head.
"Do not do any such thing." Wordsworth said, looking ready to shake her. "Our chances of discovering the truth lie in not alerting Thornton that we're seeking it. If all else fails, I may ask you to tell him what you know so that we can watch him, see where he goes, what he does next-not that he's likely to be overt about it. That is our last choice." Sympathetically, he finished, "I regret being the cause of your having to endure further gossip, but I felt you must be appraised before you actually married that murderous Scot!"
He sneered the word "Scot" again, and in the midst of all her turmoil and terror that foolish thing raised Elizabeth's hackles. "Stop saying ?Scot' in that insulting fashion," she cried. "And Ian-Lord Thornton-is half-English," she added a little wildly.
"That leaves him only half-barbarian," Wordsworth countered with scathing contempt. He softened his voice a little as he looked at the pale, beautiful girl who was glowering defiantly at him. "You cannot know the sort of people they can be, and usually are. My sister married one, and I cannot describe to you the hell he's made of her life."
"Ian Thornton is not your brother-in-law!" "No, he is not," Wordsworth snapped. "He is a man who made his early fortune gambling, and who was more than once accused of being a cheat! Twelve years ago-it's common knowledge-he won the title deed to a small gold mine in a game of cards with a colonial while he was in port there on his first voyage. The gold mine panned out, and the miner who'd worked half his life in that mine tried to bring charges against Thornton in the colonies. He swore your fiance cheated, and do you know what happened?"
Elizabeth shook her head. "Your half-Scot killed him in cold blood. Do you hear me? He killed him. It is common knowledge, I tell you."
Elizabeth began to tremble so violently that her whole body shook.
"They dueled, and that barbarian killed him." The word "duel" fell on Elizabeth's shattered senses like a numbing anesthetic. A duel was not quite murder. . . not really. "Was-was it a fair duel?"
Wordsworth shrugged. "Gossip has it that it was, but that is only gossip."
Elizabeth shot to her feet, but the angry accusation in her eyes didn't hide her own misgivings. "You dismiss something as gossip when it vindicates him, yet when it incriminates him you rely on it completely, and you expect me to do so as well!"
"Please, my lady," he said, looking truly desperate. "I'm only trying to show you the folly of proceeding with this wedding. Don't do it, I implore you. You must wait."
"I'll be the one to decide that," she said, hiding her fright behind proud anger.
His jaw tight with frustration, he said finally, "If you are foolish enough to marry this man today, then I implore you not to tell him what I have learned, but to continue in whatever way you've been doing to avoid discussion of Robert Cameron. If you do not, " he said in a terrible voice, "you are putting your brother's life in jeopardy, if he is still alive."
Elizabeth was trying so hard to concentrate and not to collapse that she dug her nails into her palms. "What are you talking about?" she demanded in a choked cry. "You're not making sense. I have to ask Ian. He has to have a chance to deny this slander, to explain, to-"
That drove Wordsworth to actually grab her shoulders in alarm. "Listen to me," he barked. "If you do that, you may well get your own brother killed!" Embarrassed by his own vehemence, he dropped his hands, but his voice was still insistent to the point of pleading. "Consider the facts, if you won't consider conjecture. Your husband has just been named heir to one of the most important titles in Europe. He is going to marry you-a beautiful woman, a countess, who would have been above his touch until a few weeks ago. Do you think for a moment he'll risk all that by letting your brother be found and brought here to give evidence against him? If your brother wasn't killed, if Thornton only had him put to work in one of his mines, or impressed on one of his ships, and you start questioning him, Thornton will have little choice but to decide to dispose of the evidence. Are you listening to me, Lady Cameron? Do you understand?"
Elizabeth nodded. "Then I'll bid you good day and resume the search for your brother." He paused at the door and looked back at the girl in the middle of the room who was standing with her head bent, her face ghostly pale. "For your own sake, don't wed the man, at least until we know for sure."
"When will that be?" she asked in a shattered voice. "Who knows? In a month, perhaps, or in a year. Or never." He paused and drew a long, frustrated breath. "If you do act in defiance of all sense and wed him, then for your brother's sake, if not for your own, keep your silence. You, too, would be in danger if he's guilty and he thinks you're going to discover it and perhaps expose him."
When he left, Elizabeth sank back down on the sofa and closed her eyes, trying to keep her tears at bay. In her mind she heard Wordsworth's voice. In her heart she saw Ian smiling down at her, his voice husky and filled with need: "Love me, Elizabeth." And then she saw him as he'd confronted her uncle, a muscle jerking in his cheek, his body emanating rage. She remembered him in the greenhouse, too, when Robert barged in on them and said Elizabeth was already betrothed; Ian had looked at her with murder in his eyes.
But he hadn't harmed Robert in that duel. Despite his justifiable wrath, he'd acted with cold control. Swallowing convulsively, Elizabeth brushed a tear from the comer of her eye, feeling as if she was being tom to pieces.
She saw his face, that hard face that could be transformed to almost boyishness by one of his lazy smiles. She saw his eyes-icy in Scotland, blazing at her uncle. . . and smiling down at her the day he came to Havenhurst.
But it was his voice that revolved in her mind, overcoming the doubt, that rich, compelling, husky voice-"Love me, Elizabeth."
Slowly Elizabeth stood up, and though she was still deathly pale, she had made her decision. If he was innocent and she stopped this wedding, Ian would be made to look a fool; she couldn't even give him a reason for doing it, and he would never forgive her. She would lose him forever. If she married him, if she followed her instincts, she might never know what became of Robert. Or Ian would be vindicated. Or else she would find out that she was married to a monster, a murderer.