His arms tightened just enough to keep her close, and his lips nearly brushed her hair as he said with amusement. "Didn't anyone ever tell you that a lady never deserts her partner before the dance is over?"
"It's over!" Elizabeth said in a choked whisper, and they both knew she referred to more than just the dancing. "I'm not nearly the greenhead you must take me for," she warned, frowning darkly at his frilled shirtfront. A ruby winked back at her from the folds of his white neckcloth.
"I give you my word," he said quietly, "not to force myself upon you tomorrow."
Oddly, Elizabeth believed him, but even so she knew she could never keep such an assignation.
"I give you my word as a gentleman," he said again. "If you were a gentleman, you'd never make me such a proposition," Elizabeth said, trying to ignore the dull ache of disappointment in her chest.
"Now there's an unarguable piece of logic," he replied grimly. "On the other hand, it's the only choice open to us."
"It's no choice at all. We shouldn't even be out here." "I'll wait for you at the cottage until noon tomorrow." "I won't be there."
"I'll wait until noon," he insisted. "You will be wasting your time. Let go of me, please. This has all been a mistake!"
"Then we may as well make two of them," he said harshly, and his arm abruptly tightened, bringing her closer to his body. "Look at me, Elizabeth," he whispered, and his warm breath stirred the hair at her temple.
Warning bells screamed through her, belated but loud. If she lifted her head, he was going to kiss her. "I do not want you to kiss me," she warned him, but it wasn't completely true.
"Then say good-bye to me now." Elizabeth lifted her head, dragging her eyes past his finely sculpted mouth to meet his gaze. "Good-bye," she told him,
amazed that her voice didn't shake. His eyes moved down her face as if he were memorizing it, then they fixed on her lips. His hands slid down her arms and abruptly released her as he stepped back. "Good-bye, Elizabeth."
Elizabeth turned and took a step, but the regret in his deep voice made her turn back. . . or perhaps it had been her own heart that had twisted as if she was leaving something behind-something she'd regret. Separated by less than two feet physically and a chasm socially, they
looked at each other in silence. "They've probably noticed I
our absence," she said lamely, and she wasn't certain whether she was making excuses for leaving him there or hoping he'd convince her to remain.
"Possibly." His expression was impassive, his voice coolly polite, as if he was already beyond her reach again.
"I really must go back." "Of course."
"You do understand, don't you. . ." Elizabeth's voice trailed off as she looked at the tall, handsome man whom society deemed unsuitable merely because he wasn't a blue blood, and suddenly she hated all the restrictions of the stupid social system that was trying to enslave her. Swallowing, she tried again, wishing that he'd either tell her to go or open his arms to her as he had when he'd asked her to dance. "You do understand that I can't possibly be with you tomorrow."
"Elizabeth," he interrupted in a husky whisper, and suddenly his eyes were smoldering as he held out his hand, sensing victory before Elizabeth ever realized she was defeated. "Come here."
Of its own accord Elizabeth's hand lifted, his fingers closed around it, and suddenly she was hauled forward; arms like steel bands encircled her, and a warm, searching mouth descended on hers. Parted lips, tender and insistent, stroked hers, molding and shaping them to fit his, and then the kiss deepened abruptly while hands tightened on her back and shoulders, caressing and possessive. A soft moan interrupted the silence, but Elizabeth didn't know the sound came from her; she was reaching up, her hands grasping broad shoulders, clinging to them for support in a world that had suddenly become dark and exquisitely sensual, where nothing mattered except the body and mouth locked hungrily to hers.
When he finally dragged his mouth from hers Ian kept his arms around her, and Elizabeth laid her cheek against his crisp white shirt, feeling his lips brush the hair atop her head. "That was an even bigger mistake than I feared it would be," he said, and then he added almost absently, "God help us both."
Strangely, it was that last remark that frightened Elizabeth back to her senses. The fact that he thought they'd gone so far that they'd both need some sort of divine assistance hit her like a bucket of ice water. She pulled out of his arms and began smoothing creases from her skirt. When she felt able, she lifted her face to his and said with a poise born of sheer terror, "None of this should have happened. However, if we both return to the ballroom and contrive to spend time with others, perhaps no one will think we were together out here. Good-bye, Mr. Thornton."
"Good night. Miss Cameron." Elizabeth was too desperate to escape to remark on his gentle emphasis on the words "good night," which he'd deliberately used instead of "good-bye," nor did she notice at the time that he didn't seem to realize she was correctly Lady Cameron, not Miss Cameron.
Choosing one of the side doors off the balcony rather than the ones entering directly into the ballroom, Elizabeth tried the handle and gave a sigh of relief when the door opened. She slipped into what looked to be a small salon with a door at the opposite end leading, she hoped, into an empty hallway. After the relative silence of the night the house seemed to be a crashing cacophony of laughter, voices, and music that rubbed on her raw nerves as she tiptoed across the little salon.
Luck seemed to be smiling on her, because the hall was deserted, and once there she changed her mind and decided to go to her chamber, where she could quickly freshen up. ,
She hurried up the staircase and had just crossed the landing when she heard Penelope ask in a puzzled voice from the lower landing, "Has anyone seen Elizabeth? We're going down to supper shortly, and Lord Howard wishes to escort her."
Inspired, Elizabeth hastily smoothed her hair, shook out her skirt, and uttered a silent prayer that she didn't look like someone who had been engaging in a forbidden assignation in the arbor only minutes before.
"I believe," Valerie said in a cool voice, "that she was last seen going out into the garden. And it appears Mr. Thornton has also vanished-" She broke off in astonishment as Elizabeth made her poised descent down the staircase she'd hurtled up only moments before.
"Heavens," Elizabeth said sheepishly, smiling at Penelope and then Valerie, "I don't know why the heat seems so oppressive this evening. I thought to escape it in the garden, and when that failed I went upstairs to lie down for a short while."