Elizabeth felt a warmth creep through her veins and steal up her cheeks as she remembered his handsome, tanned face and the way his smile had glinted and softened his features as he looked at her. "I don't actually remember what we spoke of." That much was true. All she could remember was the odd way her knees had shaken and her heart had beaten when he looked at her.
"Well, what was he like?"
"Handsome," Elizabeth said a little dreamily before she could catch herself. "Charming. He has a beautiful voice."
"And, no doubt," Valerie said with a thread of sarcasm, "he's even now trying to discover your brother's whereabouts so that he can dash over there and apply for your hand."
That notion was so absurd that Elizabeth would have burst out laughing if she weren't so embarrassed and oddly let down by the way he'd left her in the garden. "My brother's evening is safe from any interruption in that quarter, I can promise you. In fact," she added with a rueful smile, "I fear you've all lost your quarterly allowances as well, for there isn't the slightest chance he'll ask me to dance." With an apologetic wave she left to change her gown for the ball that was already underway on the third floor.
Once Elizabeth had gained the privacy of her bedchamber, however, the breezy smile she'd worn in front of the other girls faded to an expression of thoughtful bewilderment. Wandering over to the bed, she sat down, idly tracing the golden threads of the rose brocade coverlet with the tip of her finger, trying to understand the feelings she'd experienced in the presence of Ian Thornton.
Standing with him in the garden, she'd felt frightened and exhilarated at the same time-drawn to him against her very will by a compelling magnetism that he seemed to radiate. Out there she'd felt almost driven to win his approval, alarmed when she'd failed, joyous when she'd succeeded. Even now, just the memory of the way he smiled, of the intimacy of his heavy-lidded gaze, made her feel hot and cold all over.
Music drifted from the ballroom on another floor, and Elizabeth finally shook herself from her reverie and rang for Berta to help her dress.
"What do you think?" she asked Berta a half hour later as she pirouetted before the mirror for the inspection of her nursemaid-turned-lady's maid.
Berta twisted her plump hands as she stood back, nervously surveying her glowing young mistress's more sophisticated appearance, unable to suppress her affectionate smile. Elizabeth's hair had been caught up into an elegant chignon at the crown with soft tendrils framing her face, and her mother's sapphire and diamond eardrops sparkled at her ears.
Unlike Elizabeth's other gowns, which were nearly all pastel and high-waisted, this one was a sapphire blue, by far the most unusual and alluring of them all. Panels of blue silk drifted from a flattened bow upon her left shoulder and fell straight to the floor, leaving her other shoulder bare. Despite the fact that the gown was little more than a straight tube of silk, it flattered her figure, emphasizing her breasts and hinting at the narrow waist beneath. "I think," Berta said finally, "it's a wonder Mrs. Porter ordered such a gown for you. It's not a bit like your others."
Elizabeth tossed her a jaunty, conspiratorial smile as she pulled on the sapphire gloves that encased her arms to above the elbows. "It's the only one Mrs. Porter didn't choose," she admitted. "And Lucinda hasn't seen it either."
"I don't doubt it."
Elizabeth turned back to the mirror, frowning as she surveyed her appearance. "The other girls are barely seventeen, but I'll be eighteen in a few months. Besides," she explained, picking up her mother's sapphire and diamond bracelet and fastening it over the glove on her left wrist, ??as I tried to tell Mrs. Porter, it's a great waste to spend so much for gowns that won't be at all suitable for me next year or the year after. I'll be able to wear this one even when I'm twenty."
Berta rolled her eyes and shook her head, setting the streamers on her cap bobbing. "I doubt your Viscount Mondevale will want you wearin' the same gown more'n twice, let alone until you wear it out," she said as she bent over to straighten the hem on the blue gown.
Berta's reminder that she was virtually betrothed had a distinctly sobering effect on Elizabeth, and the mood stayed with her as she walked toward the flight of steps leading down to the ballroom. The prospect of confronting Mr. Ian Thornton no longer made her pulse race, and she refused to regret his refusal to dance with her, or even to think of him. With natural grace she started down to the ballroom, where couples were dancing. but most seemed to be clustered about in groups, talking and laughing.
A few steps from the bottom she paused momentarily to scan the guests, wondering where her friends had gathered. She saw them only a few yards away, and when Penelope lifted her hand in a beckoning wave Elizabeth nodded and smiled.
The smile still on her lips, she started to look away, then froze as her gaze locked with a pair of startled amber eyes. Standing with a group of men near the foot of the staircase, Ian Thornton was staring at her, his wineglass arrested halfway to his lips. His bold gaze swept from the top of her shining blond hair, over her breasts and hips, right down to her blue satin slippers, then it lifted abruptly to her face, and there was a smile of frank admiration gleaming in his eyes. As if to confirm it, he cocked an eyebrow very slightly and lifted his glass in the merest subtle gesture of a toast before he drank his wine.
Somehow Elizabeth managed to keep her expression serene as she continued gracefully down the stairs, but her treacherous pulse was racing double-time, and her mind was in complete confusion. Had any other man looked at her or behaved to her the way Ian Thornton just had, she would have been indignant, amused, or both. Instead the smile in his eyes the mocking little toast had made her feel as if they were sharing some private, intimate conversation, and she had returned his smile.
Lord Howard, who was Viscount Mondevale's cousin, was waiting at the bottom of the stairs. An urbane man with pleasing manners, he had never been one of her beaux, but he had become something of a friend, and he'd always done his utmost to further Viscount Mondevale's suit with her. Beside him was Lord Everly, one of Elizabeth's most determined suitors, a rash, handsome young man who, like Elizabeth, had inherited his title and lands as a youth. Unlike Elizabeth, he'd inherited a fortune along with them. "I say!" Lord Everly burst out, offering Elizabeth his arm. "We heard you were here. You're looking ravishing tonight."
"Ravishing." echoed Lord Howard. With a meaningful grin at Thomas Everly's outstretched arm he said, "Everly, one usually asks a lady for the honor of escorting her forward-he does not thrust his arm in her way." Turning to Elizabeth, he bowed, said, "May I?" and offered his arm.