Together the girls strolled through the ballroom, then past the card room, where several gentlemen were playing billiards. Elizabeth's pulse gave a nervous leap when she saw Ian Thornton leaning over the table closest to the door, a billiard cue poised in his hand. He glanced up and saw the three young ladies, two of whom were staring at him. With cool civility he nodded to all three of them, then he let fly with the cue stick. Elizabeth listened to the sound of balls flying against wood and dropping into pockets, followed by the Duke of Hammund's admiring laugh.

"He is wondrously handsome in a dark, frightening sort of way," admitted Georgina in a whisper. "There's something-well-dangerous about him, too," she added with a delicate shiver of delight.

"True," remarked Valerie with a shrug, "but you were right earlier-he is without background, breeding, or connections."

Elizabeth heard the gist of their whispered conversation, but she paid it little heed. Her miraculous good fortune of the last few minutes had convinced her that there was a God who watched over her now and then, and she was uttering a silent prayer of thanks to Him, along with a promise that she would never, ever put herself in such a compromising situation again. She had just said a silent "Amen" when it occurred to her that she'd counted four billiard balls dropping into the pockets after Ian had taken his shot. Four! When she played with Robert, the most he'd ever been able to drop was three, and he claimed to excel at billiards.

Elizabeth's sense of buoyant relief remained with her as she went down to supper on Lord Howard's arm. Oddly, it began to disintegrate as she talked with the gentlemen and ladies seated around them at their table. Despite their lively conversation, it took all Elizabeth's control to keep herself from looking about the lavishly decorated, huge room to at which of the blue-linen-covered tables Ian was seated. A footman who was serving lobster stopped at her elbow, offering to serve her, and Elizabeth looked up at him and nodded. Unable to endure the suspense any longer, she used the footman's presence as an excuse to idly glance about the room. She scanned the sea of jeweled coiffures that shifted and bobbed like brightly colored corks, the glasses beiD8 raised and lowered. and then she saw him-seated at the head table between the Duke of Hammund and Valerie's beautiful sister Charise. The duke was talking with a gorgeous blonde who was said to be his current mistress; Ian was listening attentively to Charise's animated discourse, a lazy grin on his tanned face, her hand resting possessively on the sleeve of his jacket. He laughed at something she said, and Elizabeth snapped her gaze from the pair, but her stomach felt as if she'd been punched. They seemed so right together both of them sophisticated, dark-haired, and striking; no doubt they had much in common, she thought a little dismally as she picked up her knife and fork and to work on her lobster.

Beside her, Lord Howard leaned close and teased, "It's dead, you know."

Elizabeth glanced blankly at him, and he nodded to the lobster she was still sawing needlessly upon. "It's dead," he repeated. "There's no need to try to kill it twice."

Mortified, Elizabeth smiled and sighed and thereafter' made an all-out effort to ingratiate herself with the rest of the party at their table. As Lord Howard had forewarned, the gentlemen, who by now had all seen or heard about her escapade in the card room, were noticeably cooler, and so Elizabeth tried ever harder to be her most engaging self. It was only the second time in her life she'd actually used the feminine wiles she was born with the first time being her first encounter with Ian Thornton in the garden and she was a little amazed by her easy success. One by one the men at the table unbent enough to talk and laugh with her. During that long, trying hour Elizabeth repeatedly had the strange feeling that Ian was watching her, and toward the end, when she could endure it no longer, she did glance at the place where he was seated. His narrowed amber eyes were leveled on her face, and Elizabeth couldn't tell whether he disapproved of this flirtatious side of her or whether he was puzzled by it.

"Would you permit me to offer to stand in for my cousin tomorrow," Lord Howard said as the endless meal came to an end and the guests began to arise, "and escort you to the village?"

It was the moment of reckoning, the moment when Elizabeth had to decide whether she was going to meet Ian at the cottage or not. Actually, there was no real decision to make, and she knew it. With a bright, artificial smile Elizabeth said, "Thank you."

"We're to leave at half past ten, and I understand there are to be the usual entertainments-shopping and a late luncheon at the local inn, followed by a ride to enjoy the various prospects of the local countryside."

It sounded horribly dull to Elizabeth at that moment. "It sounds lovely," she exclaimed with such fervor that Lord Howard shot her a startled look.

"Are you feeling well?" he asked, his worried gaze taking in her flushed cheeks and overbright eyes.

"I've never felt better," she said, her mind on getting away-upstairs to the sanity and quiet of her bedchamber. "And now, if you'll excuse me, I have the headache and should like to retire," she said, leaving behind her a baffled Lord Howard.

She was partway up the stairs before it dawned on her what she'd actually said. She stopped in midstep, then gave her head a shake and slowly continued on. She didn't particularly care what Lord Howard her fiance's own cousin thought. And she was too miserable to stop and consider how very odd that was.

"Wake me at eight, please, Berta," she said as her maid helped her undress. Without answering Berta bustled about, dropping objects onto the dressing table and floor-a sure sign the nervous maid was in a taking over something. "What's wrong?" Elizabeth asked, pausing as she brushed her hair.

"The whole staff is gossipin' about what you did in the card room, and that hatchet-faced duenna of yours is going to blame me for it, you'll see," Berta replied miserably. "She'll say the first time she let you out of her sight and left you in my charge you got yourself in the briars!"

"I'll explain to her what happened," Elizabeth promised wearily.

"Well, what did happen?" Berta cried, almost wringing her hands in dismayed anticipation of the tongue-lashing the anticipated from the formidable Miss Throckmorton-Jones.

Elizabeth wearily related the tale, and Berta's expression softened as her young mistress spoke. She turned back the rose brocade coverlet and helped Elizabeth into bed. "So you see," Elizabeth finished with a yawn, "I couldn't just keep quiet and let everyone think he'd cheated, which was what they would do, because he isn't one of them."

Tags: Judith McNaught Sequels Billionaire Romance