Not one haughty male face showed a change in expression, and in a moment of crystal clarity Elizabeth saw what was happening and realized why none of them would intercede. In a roomful of lords and knights who were supremely conscious of their mutual superiority, Ian Thornton was outranked and outnumbered. He was the outsider, Everly was one of them, and they would never side with an outsider against one of their own. Moreover, by blandly refusing to accept Everly's challenge Ian was subtly making it appear that the younger man wasn't worth his time or effort, and they were all taking that insult personally.
Lord Everly knew it, and it made him more angry and more reckless as he glared murderously at Ian. "If you won't agree to a duel tomorrow morning, I'll come looking for you, you low-"
"You can't, milord!" Elizabeth burst out. Everly tore his gaze from Ian to gape at her in angry surprise, and with a presence of mind she didn't know she possessed Elizabeth targeted the one male in the room likely to be vulnerable to her wiles-she smiled brightly at Thomas Everly, speaking to him in a light, flirtatious tone, counting on his infatuation with her to sway him. "What a silly you are, sir, to be contemplating a duel tomorrow when you're already promised to me for a jaunt into the village."
"Now, really, Lady Elizabeth, this is-"
"No, I'm very sorry, milord, but I insist," Elizabeth interrupted with a look of vapid innocence. "I shan't be pushed aside like a-like a-I shan't!" she finished desperately. "It is very provoking of you to consider treating me so shabbily. And I-I'm shocked you would consider breaking your word to me." He looked as if he were caught on the tines of a fork as Elizabeth focused the full force of her dazzling green gaze and entrancing smile on him.
In a strangled voice he said fiercely, "I'll escort you to the village after I have satisfaction at dawn from this cad."
"Dawn?" Elizabeth cried in feigned dismay. "You will be too weary to be cheerful company for me if you arise so early. And besides, there isn't going to be a duel unless Mr. Thornton chooses to call you out, which I'm certain he won't wish to do because"-she turned to Ian Thornton, as she finished triumphantly-"because he could not be so disagreeable as to shoot you when that would deprive me of your escort tomorrow!" Without giving Ian an opportunity to argue she turned to the other men in the room and exclaimed brightly, "There now, it's all settled. No one cheated at cards, and no one is going to shoot anyone."
For her efforts Elizabeth received angry, censorious looks from every male in the room but two the Duke of Hammund, who looked as if he was trying to decide if she were an imbecile or a gifted diplomat, and Ian, who was watching her with a cool, inscrutable expression, as if waiting to see what absurd stunt she might try next.
When no one else seemed capable of moving, Elizabeth took the rest of the matter into her own hands. "Lord Everly, I believe this is a waltz, and you did promise me a waltz." Male guffaws at the back of the room, which Lord Everly mistook for being aimed at him, not Elizabeth, made him turn almost scarlet. With a glance of furious contempt at her he turned on his heel and strode from the room, leaving her standing there feeling both ridiculous and relieved. Lord Howard, however, finally recovered from his private shock and calmly extended his arm to Elizabeth. "Allow me to stand in for Lord Everly," he said.
Not until they entered the ballroom did Elizabeth permit herself to react, and then it was all she could do to stand upright on her quaking limbs. "You're new to town," Lord Howard said gently, "and I hope you won't take me in dislike for telling you that what you did in there interfering in men's affairs is not at all the thing."
"I know," Elizabeth admitted with a sigh. "At least, I know it now. At the time I didn't stop to think."
"My cousin," Lord Howard said gently, referring to Viscount Mondevale, "is of an understanding nature. I'll make certain he hears the truth from me before he hears what is bound to be exaggerated gossip from everyone else."
When the dance ended Elizabeth excused herself and went to the withdrawing room, hoping to have a minute alone. Unfortunately, it was already occupied by several women who were talking about the events in the card room. She would have liked to retire to the safety of her bedchamber, skipping the late supper that would be served at midnight, but wisdom warned her that cowering would be the worst thing she could do. Left with no other choice, Elizabeth pinned a serene smile on her face and walked out on the terrace for a breath of air.
Moonlight spilled down the terrace steps and into the lantern-lit garden, and after a moment's blissful peace Elizabeth sought more of it. She wandered forward, nodding politely to the few couples she passed. At the edge of the garden she stopped and then turned to the right and stepped into the arbor. The voices died away, leaving only distant strains of soothing music. She had been standing there for several minutes when a husky voice like rough velvet spoke behind her: "Dance with me, Elizabeth."
Startled by Ian's silent arrival, Elizabeth whirled around and stared at him, her hand automatically at her throat. She'd thought he'd been angry with her in the card room, but the expression on his face was both somber and tender. The lilting notes of the waltz floated around her, and he opened his arms. "Dance with me," he repeated in that same husky voice.
Feeling as if she were in a dream, Elizabeth walked into his arms and felt his right arm slide around her waist, bringing her close against the solid strength of his body. His left hand closed around her fingers, engulfing them, and suddenly she was being whirled gently around in the arms of a man who danced to the waltz with the relaxed grace of one who has danced it a thousand times.
Beneath her gloved hand his shoulder was thick and broad with hard muscle, not padding, and the arm encircling her waist like a band of steel was holding her much closer than was seemly. She should have felt threatened, overpowered-especially out in the starlit darkness-but she felt safe and protected instead. She was, however, beginning to feel a little awkward, and she decided some form of conversation was in order. "I thought you were angry with me for interfering," she said to his shoulder.
There was a smile in his voice as he answered, "Not angry. Stunned."
"Well, I couldn't let them call you a cheat when I knew perfectly well you weren't."
"I imagine I've been called worse," he said mildly. "Particularly by your hotheaded young friend Everly."
Elizabeth wondered what could be worse than being called a cheat, but good manners forbade her asking. Lifting her head, she gazed apprehensively into his eyes and asked, "You don't mean to demand satisfaction from Lord Everly at a later date, do you?"