Elizabeth chuckled, and now that she was betrothed she permitted herself to break a tiny rule of decorum. "Certainly, my lords," she replied, and she placed a gloved hand on each of their arms. "I hope you appreciate the lengths to which I'm going to prevent the two of you from coming to fisticuffs," she teased as they led her forward. "I look like an elderly lady, too weak to walk without someone on each side to hold her upright!"
The two gentlemen laughed, and so did Elizabeth-and that was the scene Ian Thornton witnessed as the trio strolled by the group he was with. Elizabeth managed to stop herself from so much as glancing his way until they were nearly past him, but then someone called out to Lord Howard, and he stopped momentarily to reply. Yielding to temptation, Elizabeth stole a split-second glance at the tall, broad-shouldered man in the midst of the group. His dark head was bent, and he appeared to be absorbed in listening to a laughing commentary from the only woman among them. If he was aware Elizabeth was standing there, he gave not the slightest indication of it.
"I must say," Lord Howard told her a moment later as he escorted her forward again, "I was a bit surprised to hear you were here."
"Why is that?" Elizabeth asked, adamantly vowing not to think of Ian Thornton again. She was becoming quite obsessed with a man who was a complete stranger, and moreover, she was very nearly an engaged woman!
"Because Charise Dumont runs with a bit of a fast set," he explained.
Startled, Elizabeth turned her full attention on the attractive blond man. "But Miss Throckmorton-Jones-my companion-has never raised the slightest objection in London to my visiting any member of the family. Besides, Charise's mama was a friend of my own mama's."
Lord Howard's smile was both concerned and reassuring. "In London," he emphasized, "Charise is a model hostess. In the country, however, her soirees tend to be, shall we say, somewhat less structured and restricted." He paused to stop a servant who was carrying a silver tray with glasses of champagne, then he handed one of the glasses to Elizabeth before continuing: "I never meant to imply your reputation would be ruined for being here. After all," he teased, "Everly and I are here, which indicates that at least a few of us are among the first stare of society."
"Unlike some of her other guests," Lord Everly put in contemptuously, tipping his head toward Ian Thornton, "who wouldn't be admitted to a respectable drawing room in all of London!"
Consumed with a mixture of curiosity and alarm, Elizabeth couldn't stop herself from asking, "Are you referring to Mr. Thornton?"
She took a sip of her champagne, using that as an excuse to study the tall, tanned man who'd occupied too many of her thoughts since the moment she'd first spoken to him. To Elizabeth he looked every inch the elegant, understated gentleman: His dark claret jacket and trousers setoff his broad shoulders and emphasized his long, muscular legs with a perfection that bespoke the finest London tailoring; his snowy white neckcloth was tied to perfection, and his dark hair was perfectly groomed. Even in his relaxed pose his tall body gave off the muscular power of a discus thrower, while his tanned features were stamped with the cool arrogance of nobility. "Is-is he as bad as that?" she asked, tearing her gaze from his chiseled profile.
She was caught up in her private impressions of his elegance, so it took a moment for Lord Everly's scathing answer to register on Elizabeth's brain: "He's worse! The man's a common gambler, a pirate, a blackguard, and worse!"
"I-I can't believe all that," Elizabeth said, too stunned and disappointed to keep silent.
Lord Howard shot a quelling glance at Everly. then smiled reassuringly at a stricken Elizabeth, misunderstanding the cause of her dismay. "Don't pay any heed to Lord Everly, my lady. He's merely put out because Thornton relieved him of 10,000 pounds two weeks ago in a polite gaming hall. Cease, Thorn!" he added when the irate earl started to protest. "You'll have Lady Elizabeth afraid to sleep in her bed tonight."
Her mind still on Ian Thornton, Elizabeth only half heard what her girlfriends were talking about when her two escorts led her to them. "I don't know what men see in her," Georgina was saying. "She's no prettier than any of us."
"Have you ever noticed," Penelope put in philosophically, "what sheep men are? Where one goes they all follow."
"I just wish she'd choose one to wed and leave the rest to us," said Georgina.
"I think she's attracted to him."
"She's wasting her time in that quarter," Valerie sneered, giving her rose gown an angry twitch. "As I told you earlier, Charise assured me he has no interest in innocent young things. Still," she said with an exasperated sigh, "it would be delightful if she did develop a tendre for him. A dance or two together, a few longing looks, and we'd be rid of her completely as soon as the gossip reached her adoring beaux good heavens, Elizabeth!" she exclaimed, finally noticing Elizabeth, who was standing beside and slightly behind her. "We thought you were dancing with Lord Howard."
" An excellent idea," Lord Howard seconded. "I'd claimed the next dance, Lady Cameron, but if you have no objection to this one instead?"
"Before you usurp her completely," Lord Everly cut in with a dark look at Lord Howard, whom he mistakenly deemed his rival for Elizabeth's hand. Turning to Elizabeth, he continued, "There's to be an all-day jaunt to the village tomorrow, leaving in the morning. Would you do me the honor of permitting me to be your escort?"
Uneasy around the sort of vicious gossip in which the girls had been indulging, Elizabeth gratefully accepted Lord Everly's offer and then agreed to Lord Howard's invitation to dance. On the dance floor he smiled down at her and said. "I understand we're to become cousins." Seeing her surprised reaction to his premature remark, he explained. "Mondevale confided in me that you're about to make him the happiest of men-assuming your brother doesn't decide there's a nonexistent skeleton in his closet."
Since Robert had specifically said he wished Viscount Mondevale to be kept waiting, Elizabeth said the only thing she could say: "The decision is in my brother's hands."
"Which is where it should be," he said approvingly.
An hour later Elizabeth realized that Lord Howard's almost continual presence at her side indicated that he'd evidently appointed himself her guardian at this gathering, which he deemed to be of questionable suitability for the young and innocent. She also realized, as he left to get her a glass of punch, that the male population of the ballroom, as well as some of the female, was dwindling by the moment as guests disappeared into the adjoining card room. Normally the card room was an exclusively male province at balls a place provided by hostesses for those men (usually married or of advancing years) who were forced to attend a ball, but who adamantly refused to spend an entire evening engaged in frivolous social discourse. Ian Thornton, she knew, had gone in there early in the evening and remained, and now even her girlfriends were looking longingly in that direction. "Is something special happening in the card room?" she asked Lord Howard when he returned with her punch and began guiding her over to her friends.