The cool amber eyes warmed suddenly with a mixture of amusement and sympathy, and there was a smile in his deep voice as he asked, "And are you enjoying yourselves?"
"Yes, very much," Elizabeth said with a sigh of relief that he was finally participating a little in the conversation. "Miss Granger, though you couldn't see her at all well from here, is excessively pretty, with the sweetest manners imaginable. She has dozens of beaux."
"All titled, I imagine?"
Still thinking be might be longing for a ducal title he'd missed having, Elizabeth bit her lip and nodded in sublime discomfort. "I'm afraid so," she admitted abjectly, and to her astonishment, that made him grin-a slow, dazzling smile swept across his bronzed features, and its effect on his face was almost as dramatic as its effect on Elizabeth's nervous system. Her heart gave a hard bump, and she suddenly stood up, feeling unaccountably jumpy. "Miss Jamison is lovely also," she said, reverting to the discussion of her friends and smiling uncertainly at him.
"How many contenders have there been for her hand?" Elizabeth finally realized he was teasing and his irreverent view of what everyone else regarded as a matter of the utmost gravity startled an irrepressible, relieved chuckle from her. "I have it on the best authority," she replied, trying to match his grave, teasing tone, "that her beaux have paraded to her papa in record numbers."
His eyes warmed with laughter, and as she stood there, smiling back at him, her tension and nervousness evaporated. Suddenly and inexplicably she felt quite as if they were old friends sharing the same secret irreverence-only he was bold enough to admit his feelings, while she still tried to repress her own,
"And what about you?" "What about me?"
"How many offers have you had?"
A bubble of startled laughter escaped her, and she shook her head. To have told him proudly about her friends' achievements was acceptable, but to boast about her own was beyond all bounds, and she had no doubt he knew it. "Now that." she admonished with laughing severity, "was really too bad of you."
"I apologize," he said. inclining his head in a mocking little bow; the smile still lurking at his mouth.
Darkness had fallen over the garden, and Elizabeth realized she ought to go inside, yet she lingered, somehow reluctant to leave the enveloping intimacy of the garden. Clasping her hands lightly behind her back, she gazed up at the stars beginning to twinkle in the night sky. "This is my favorite time of day," she admitted softly. She glanced sideways at him to see if he was bored with the topic, but he'd turned slightly and was looking up at the sky as if he, too, found something of interest there.
She searched for the Big Dipper and located it. "Look," she said, nodding toward a particularly bright light in the sky. "There's Venus. Or is it Jupiter? I'm never completely certain."
"It's Jupiter. Over there is Ursa Major."
Elizabeth chuckled and shook her head, pulling her gaze from the sky and sending him a wry, sideways glance. "It may look like the Great Bear to you and everyone else, but to me all the constellations just look like a big bunch of scattered stars. In the spring I can find Cassiopeia, but not because it looks like a lion to me, and in the autumn I can pick out Arcturus, but how they ever saw an archer in all that clutter is quite beyond my comprehension. Do you suppose there are people up there anywhere?"
He turned his head, regarding her with fascinated amusement. "What do you think?"
"I think there are. In fact, I think it's rather arrogant to assume that out of all those thousands of stars and planets up there, we are the only ones who exist. It seems as arrogant as the old belief that the earth is the center of the entire universe and everything revolves around us. Although people didn't exactly thank Galileo for disproving it, did they? Imagine being hauled before the Inquisition and forced to renounce what you absolutely knew-and could prove was right!"
"When did debutantes start studying astronomy?" he asked as Elizabeth stepped over to the bench to retrieve her wineglass.
"I've had years and years to read," she admitted ingenuously. Unaware of the searching intensity of his gaze, she picked up her wineglass and turned back to him. "I really must go inside now and change for the evening."
He nodded in silence, and Elizabeth started to walk forward and step past him. Then she changed her mind and hesitated, remembering her friends' wagers and how much they were counting on her. "I have a rather odd request a favor to ask of you," she said slowly, praying that he felt, as she did, that they'd enjoyed a very brief and very pleasant sort of friendship out there. Smiling uncertainly into his inscrutable eyes, she said, "Could you possibly for reasons I can't explain. . ." she trailed off, suddenly and acutely embarrassed.
"What is the favor?"
Elizabeth expelled her breath in a rush. "Could you possibly ask me to dance this evening?" He looked neither shocked nor tattered by her bold request and she watched his firmly molded lips form his answer.
Elizabeth was mortified and shocked by his refusal, but she was even more stunned by the unmistakable regret she'd heard in his voice and glimpsed on his face. For a long moment she searched his shuttered features, and then the sound of laughing voices from somewhere nearby broke the spell. Trying to retreat from a predicament into which she should never have put herself in the first place, Elizabeth picked up her skirts, intending to leave. Making a conscious effort to keep all emotion from her voice, she said with calm dignity, "Good evening, Mr. Thornton."
He flipped the cheroot away and nodded. "Good evening, Miss Cameron." And then he left.
The rest of her friends had gone upstairs to change their gowns for the evening's dancing, but the moment Elizabeth entered the rooms set aside for them the conversation and laughter stopped abruptly leaving Elizabeth with a fleeting, uneasy feeling that they had been laughing and talking about her.
"Well?" Penelope asked with an expectant laugh. "Don't keep us in suspense. Did you make an impression?"
The uneasy sensation of being the brunt of some secret joke left Elizabeth as she looked about at their smiling, open faces. Only Valerie looked a little cool and aloof.
"I made an impression, to be sure," Elizabeth said with an embarrassed smile, "but ?twas not a particularly favorable one."
"He remained by your side for ever so long," another girl prodded her. "We were watching from the far end of the garden. What did you talk about?"