"I hope," he teased, grinning, "that I'm not so ungrateful as to spoil all your handiwork in the card room by doing such a thing. Besides, it would be very impolite of me to kill him when you'd just made it very clear he'd already engaged himself to escort you tomorrow."
Elizabeth chuckled, her cheeks warm with embarrassment. "I know I sounded like the veriest peagoose, but it was the only thing I could think of to say. My brother is hot-tempered, too, you see. I discovered long ago that whenever he flies into the boughs, if I tease or cajole him, he recovers his spirits much more quickly than if I try to reason with him."
"I very much fear," Ian told her, "that you'll still be without Everly's escort tomorrow."
"Because he'll be angry at me for interfering, do you mean?"
"Because at this moment his beleaguered valet has probably been rudely awakened from his sleep and ordered to pack his lordship's bags. He won't want to stay here, Elizabeth, after what happened in the card room. I'm afraid you humiliated him in your effort to save his life, and I compounded it by refusing to duel with him."
Elizabeth's wide green eyes shadowed, and he added reassuringly, "Regardless of that, he's better off alive and humbled than dead and proud."
That, Elizabeth thought to herself, was probably the difference between a gentleman born, like Lord Everly, and a gentleman made, like Ian Thornton. A true gentleman preferred death to disgrace according to Robert, at least, who was forever pointing out the distinguishing factors of his own class.
Too immersed in her own thoughts to think bow her words would sound, she nodded and said, "Lord Everly is a gentleman and a noble-as such, he would probably prefer death to dishonor."
"Lord Everly," he contradicted mildly, "is a reckless young fool to risk his life over a game of cards. Life is too precious for that. He'll thank me some day for refusing him."
"It's a gentleman's code of honor," she repeated.
"Dying over an argument isn't honor, it's a waste of a man's life. A man volunteers to die for a cause he believes in, or to protect others he cares about. Any other reason is nothing more than stupidity."
"If I hadn't interfered, would you have accepted his challenge?"
"No? Do you mean," she uttered in surprise, "you'd have let him call you a cheat and not lifted a finger to defend your honor or your good name?"
"I don't think my ?honor' was at stake, and even if it was, I fail to see how murdering a boy would redeem it. As far as my ?good name' is concerned, it too, has been questioned more than once,"
"If so, why does the Duke of Hammund champion you in society, which he obviously has done tonight?"
His gaze lost its softness, and his smile faded. "Does it matter?"
Gazing up into those mesmerizing amber eyes, with his arms around her, Elizabeth couldn't think very clearly. She wasn't certain anything mattered at that moment except the sound of his deep, compelling voice. "I suppose not." she said shakily.
"If it will reassure you that I'm not a coward, I suppose I could rearrange his face." Quietly he added, "The music has ended," and for the first time Elizabeth realized they were no longer waltzing but were only swaying lightly together. With no other excuse to stand in his arms, Elizabeth tried to ignore her disappointment and step back, but just then the musicians began another melody, and their bodies began to move together in perfect time to the music.
"Since I've already deprived you of your escort for the outing to the village tomorrow," he said after a minute, "would you consider an alternative?"
Her heart soared, because she thought he was going to offer to escort her himself. Again he read her thoughts, but his words were dampening.
"I cannot escort you there," he said flatly. Her smile faded. "Why not?"
"Don't be a henwit. Being seen in my company is hardly the sort of thing to enhance a debutante's reputation."
Her mind whirled, trying to tally some sort of balance sheet that would disprove his claim. After all, he was a favorite of the Duke of Hammund's . . . but while the duke was considered a great matrimonial prize, his reputation as a libertine and rake made mamas fear him as much as they coveted him as a son-in-law. On the other hand, Charise Dumont was considered perfectly respectable by the ton. and so this country gathering was above reproach. Except it wasn't, according to Lord Howard. "Is that why you refused to dance with me when I asked you to earlier?"
"That was part of the reason."
"What was the rest of it?" she asked curiously.
His chuckle was grim. "Call it a well-developed instinct for self-preservation."
"Your eyes are more lethal than dueling pistols, my sweet," he said wryly. "They could make a saint forget his goal."
Elizabeth had heard many flowery praises sung to her beauty, and she endured them with polite disinterest, but Ian's blunt, almost reluctant flattery made her chuckle. Later she would realize that at this moment she had made her greatest mistake of all-she had been lulled into regarding him as an equal, a gently bred person whom she could trust, even relax with. "What sort of alternative were you going to suggest for tomorrow?"
"Luncheon," he said. "Somewhere private where we can talk, and where we won't be seen together."
A cozy picnic luncheon for two was definitely not on Lucinda's list of acceptable pastimes for London debutantes, but even so, Elizabeth was reluctant to refuse. "Outdoors. . . by the lake?" she speculated aloud, trying to justify the idea by making it public.
"I think it's going to rain tomorrow, and besides, we'd risk being seen together there."
"In the woods. I'll meet you at the woodcutters cottage at the south end of the property near the stream at eleven. There's a path that leads to it two miles from the gate off the main road." Elizabeth was too alarmed by such a prospect to stop to wonder how and when Ian Thornton had become so familiar with Charise's property and all its secluded haunts.
"Absolutely not," she said in a shaky, breathless voice. Even she was not naive enough to consider being alone with a man in a cottage, and she was terribly disappointed that he'd suggested it. Gentlemen didn't make such suggestions, and well-bred ladies never accepted them. Lucinda's warnings about such things had been eloquent and, Elizabeth felt, sensible. Elizabeth gave a sharp jerk, trying to pullout of his arms.