If the committee was surprised to see the formerly curt and irascible Marquess of Kensington stroll into their midst wearing a beatific smile worthy of a choir boy, they were doubtlessly shocked to see his wife's hands clamped over her face and her eyes tearing with mirth.
Elizabeth's concern that Ian might insult them, either intentionally or otherwise, soon gave way to admiration and then to helpless amusement as he sat for the next half-hour, charming them all with an occasional lazy smile or interjecting a gallant compliment, while they spent the entire time debating whether to sell the chocolates being donated by Gunther's for 5 or 6 pounds per box. Despite Ian's outwardly bland demeanor, Elizabeth waited uneasily for him to say he'd buy the damned cartload of chocolates for 10 pounds apiece, if it would get them on to the next problem, which she knew was what he was dying to say.
But she needn't have worried, for he continued to positively exude pleasant interest. Four times, the committee paused to solicit his advice; four times, he smilingly made excellent suggestions; four times, they ignored what he suggested. And four times, he seemed not to mind in the least or even to notice.
Making a mental note to thank him profusely for his incredible forbearance, Elizabeth kept her attention on her guests and the discussion, until she inadvertently glanced in his direction, and her breath caught. Seated on the opposite side of the gathering from her, he was now leaning back in his chair, his left ankle propped atop his right knee, and despite his apparent absorption in the topic being discussed, his heavy-lidded gaze was roving meaningfully over her breasts. One look at the smile tugging at his lips and Elizabeth realized that he wanted her to know it.
Obviously he'd decided that both she and he were wasting their time with the committee, and he was playing an amusing game designed to either divert her or discomfit her entirely, she wasn't certain which. Elizabeth drew a deep breath, ready to blast a warning look at him, and his gaze lifted slowly from her gently heaving bosom, traveled lazily up her throat, paused at her lips, and then lifted to her narrowed eyes. ?
Her quelling glance earned her nothing but a slight, challenging lift of his brows and a decidedly sensual smile, before his gaze reversed and began a lazy trip downward again.
Lady Wiltshire's voice rose, and she said for the second time, "Lady Thornton, what do you think?"
Elizabeth snapped her gaze from her provoking husband to Lady Wiltshire. "I-I agree," she said without the slightest idea of what she was agreeing with. For the next five minutes, she resisted the tug of Ian's caressing gaze, firmly refusing to even glance his way, but when the committee re-embarked on the chocolate issue again, she stole a look at him. The moment she did, he captured her gaze, holding it, while he, with an outward appearance of a man in thoughtful contemplation of some weighty problem, absently rubbed his forefinger against his mouth, his elbow propped on the arm of his chair. Elizabeth's body responded to the caress he was offering her as if his lips were actually on hers, and she drew a tong, steadying breath as he deliberately let his eyes slide to her breasts again. He knew exactly what his gaze was doing to her, and Elizabeth was thoroughly irate at her inability to ignore its effect.
The committee departed on schedule a half-hour later amid reminders that the next meeting would be held at Lady Wiltshire's house. Before the door closed behind them, Elizabeth rounded on her grinning, impenitent husband in the drawing room. "You wretch!" she exclaimed. "How could your' she demanded, but in the midst of her indignant protest, Ian shoved his hands into her hair, turned her face up, and smothered her words with a ravenous kiss.
"I haven't forgiven you," she warned him in bed an hour later, her cheek against his chest. Laughter, rich and deep, rumbled beneath her ear.
"No?" "Absolutely not. I'll repay you if it's the last thing I do." "I think you already have," he said huskily, deliberately
misunderstanding her meaning. Shortly afterward, they returned to Montmayne to spend September in the country, where it was cooler. For Ian, life with Elizabeth was everything he ever hoped it could be, and more. It was so perfect that he had to fight down the nagging fear that things could not go on like this-a fear which he tried to convince himself was mere superstition brought on by the fact that two years ago fate had snatched her from him. But in his heart, he knew it was more than that. His investigators had not yet been able to find a trace of Elizabeth's brother, and he lived in daily dread that hers would succeed where his had not. And so he waited to discover the extent of his offense against her and her brother, knowing he was going to have to beg her forgiveness for it, and that-in marrying her without telling her what he did know-he was as guilty of duplicity as he was of her brother's abduction.
In the rational part of his mind, he knew that by having Robert tossed aboard the Arianna, he had spared the hotheaded young fool a far worse fate at the hands of the authorities. But now, without knowing what fate had actually befallen him, he couldn't be certain that Elizabeth would see his actions in that light. He couldn't see them in that light himself anymore, because now he knew something he hadn't known at the time. He knew that her parents had been long dead by then and that Robert had been her only buffer against her uncle.
Fear, the one emotion he despised above all others, grew apace with his love for Elizabeth until he actually began to wish someone would find out something, so that he could confess to her whatever sins he was guilty of, and either be forgiven or cast out of her life. In that, he knew his thinking was irrational, but he couldn't help himself. He had found something he treasured beyond all bounds; he had found Elizabeth, and loving her made him more vulnerable than he'd been since his family's death. The threat of losing her haunted him until he began to wonder how long he could bear the torment of uncertainty.
Blissfully unaware of all that. Elizabeth continued to love him without reservation or guile, and as she grew more certain of his love, she became more confident and more enchanting to Ian. On those occasions when she saw his expression become inexplicably grim, she teased him or kissed him, and, if those ploys failed, she presented him with little gifts-a flower arrangement from Havenhurst's gardens, a single rose that she stuck behind his ear, or left upon his pillow. "Shall I have to resort to buying you a jewel to make you smile, my lord?" she joked one day three months after they were married. "I understand that is bow it is done when a lover begins to act distracted."
To Elizabeth's surprise, her remark made him snatch her into his arms in a suffocating embrace. "I am not losing interest in you, if that's what you're suggesting," be told her.