In accordance with the dictates of Polite Society, Elizabeth had never allowed herself to show the slightest partiality for the viscount, and she was startled to learn that her friends had guessed her secret feelings. Of course, they couldn't know that the handsome young man had already made his offer and was about to be accepted.

"Make up your mind quickly, he's nearly here." Penelope implored amid a chorus of nervous giggles from Georgina,

"Well, will you do it?' Valerie demanded urgently as the other two girls began backing away and turning toward the house.

Elizabeth took her first swallow of the wine she'd been given as soon as she stepped from the house into the garden. She hesitated. "Very well, I suppose so," she said, flashing a smile at her friend.

"Excellent. Don't forget he has to dance with you tonight or we'll lose our allowances!" Laughing, she gave Elizabeth a light, encouraging shove, then turned on her satin-shod heels and fled after their laughing friends.

The clipped hedge the girls had been peering around and through blocked Elizabeth from view as she hastily walked down two wide brick steps onto the grass and glanced around, trying to decide whether to stand where she was or be seated upon the little white stone bench to her left. She darted to the bench and sat down just as booted heels struck the steps, once-twice, and there he was.

Oblivious to her presence for the moment, Ian Thornton walked forward another pace, then stopped near a lighted torch and withdrew a thin cheroot from his jacket pocket. Elizabeth watched him, suffused with trepidation and an unfamiliar, tingling excitement that was due as much to his appearance as to her secret assignment. He was nothing like she'd expected him to be. Besides being older than she'd imagined-she guessed him to be at least twenty-seven-he was startlingly tall, more than six feet, with powerful shoulders and long, muscular legs. His thick hair was not blond, but a rich brown-black that looked as if it had a tendency to curl. Instead of wearing the customary bright satin coat and white breeches that the other men wore he was clad in raven black from head to foot, with the exception of his snowy shirt and neckcloth, which were so white they seemed to gleam against the stark black of his jacket and waistcoat. Elizabeth had the uneasy thought that Ian Thornton was like a large, predatory hawk in the midst of a gathering of tame, colorful peacocks. As she studied him he lit the cheroot, bending his dark head and cupping his hands over the flame. White cuffs peeped from beneath his black jacket, and in the bright orange glow of the flame she saw that his hands and face were deeply tanned.

Elizabeth expelled the breath she hadn't realized she'd been bolding, and the tiny sound made him glance up sharply. His eyes narrowed in surprise or displeasure Elizabeth wasn't certain. Caught in the act of lurking in the shadows and staring at him. Elizabeth blurted the first idiotic thing that came to mind. "I've never seen a man smoke a cigar before. It-they always retire to another room."

His dark brows lifted a fraction in bland inquiry. "Do you mind?" he asked as he finished lighting the cigar.

Two things hit Elizabeth at once: His piercing eyes were the strange color of gleaming amber, while his voice was richly textured and deep; the combination sent a peculiar warmth up her spine. "Mind?" she repeated stupidly.

"The cigar," he said.

"Oh-no. No, I don't," she hastily assured him, but she had the oddest impression that he had come here seeking privacy and to enjoy a cigar, and that if she had said yes, she did mind, he would have turned around abruptly and left rather than extinguish his cigar so that he could remain in her presence. Fifty yards away, at the far end of the long, narrow grassy ledge on which they stood, girlish laughter sounded, and Elizabeth turned involuntarily, catching a glimpse in the torchlight of Valerie's pink gown and Georgina's yellow one before they darted around the hedge and were blocked from sight.

A flush stained her cheeks at the embarrassing way her friends were acting, and when she turned back she found her companion studying her, his hands shoved into his pockets, the cigar clamped between teeth as white as his shirt. With an imperceptible inclination of his head he indicated the place the girls had been. "Friends of yours?" he asked, and Elizabeth had the horrible, guilty feeling that he somehow knew the whole thing had been plotted in advance.

She considered telling a small fib, but she didn't like to lie, and those disturbing eyes of his were leveled on hers. "Yes, they are." Pausing to arrange her lavender skirts to their best advantage, she raised her face to his and smiled tentatively. It occurred to her that they hadn't been introduced, and since there was no one about to do the thing properly, she hastily and uneasily remedied the matter herself. "I am Elizabeth Cameron," she announced.

Inclining his head in the merest mockery of a bow, he acknowledged her by saying simply, "Miss Cameron."

Left with no other choice, Elizabeth prodded, "And you are?"

"Ian Thornton."

"How do you do, Mr. Thornton," she replied, and she extended her hand to him as was proper. The gesture made him smile suddenly, a slow, startlingly glamorous white smile as he did the only thing he could do-which was to step forward and take her hand. "A pleasure," he said, but his voice was lightly tinged with mockery.

Already beginning to regret ever agreeing to this plan, Elizabeth racked her brain for an opening, which in the past she'd left to the besotted boys who desperately wanted to engage her in conversation. The subject of whom one knew was always appropriate among the ton and Elizabeth seized on that with relief. Gesturing with her fan toward the place they'd last seen her friends, she said, "The young lady in the pink gown was Miss Valerie Jamison, and Miss Georgina Granger was in the yellow one." When he showed no sign of recognition, she provided helpfully, "Miss Jamison is the daughter of Lord and Lady Jamison." When he merely continued to watch her with mild interest. Elizabeth added a little desperately, "They are the Herfordshire Jamisons. You know-the earl and countess."

"Really?" he responded with amused indulgence.

"Yes indeed," Elizabeth rambled, feeling more ill at ease by the second, "and Miss Granger is the daughter of the Wiltshire Grangers-the Baron and Baroness of Grangerley."

"Really?" he mocked, watching her in speculative silence. It hit her then, what the girls had said about his questionable parentage, and she felt faint with shame for thoughtlessly speaking of titles to someone who might have been cheated of his own. The palms of her hands grew damp; she rubbed them against her knees, realized what she was doing and hastily stopped. Then she cleared her throat fanning herself vigorously. "We are all here for the Season," she finished lamely.

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