Lightning streaked across the sky, illuminating the entire room, and thunder boomed until the windows shook. Elizabeth closed her eyes and prayed the jaunt to the village would take place, because the thought of spending the entire day in the same house with Ian Thornton-without being able to look at him or speak to him-was more than she wanted to contemplate. I'm almost obsessed, she thought to herself, and exhaustion overtook her,
She dreamed of wild storms, of strong arms reaching out to rescue her, drawing her forward, then pitching her into the storm-tossed sea. . . .
Watery sunlight filled the room, and Elizabeth rolled reluctantly onto her back. No matter how much or how little sleep she got, she was the sort of person who always woke up feeling dazed and disoriented. While Robert could bound out of bed feeling fit and alert, she had to drag herself up onto the pillows, where she usually spent a full half hour staring vacantly at the room, forcing herself to wakefulness. On the other hand, when Robert was stifling yawns at ten P.M., Elizabeth was wide awake and ready to play cards or billiards or read for hours more. For that reason she was ideally suited to the London season, during which one slept until noon at least and then stayed out until dawn. Last night had been the rare exception.
Her head felt like a leaden weight upon the pillow as she forced her eyes open. On the table beside her bed was a tray with her customary breakfast: a small pot of hot chocolate and a slice of buttered toast. Sighing, Elizabeth forced herself to go through the ritual of waking up. Bracing her hands on the bed, she shoved herself upright until she was sitting back against the pillows, then she stared blankly at her hands-willing them to reach for the pot of hot, restorative chocolate.
This morning it took more of an effort than ever; her head ached dully, and she had the uneasy feeling that something disturbing had happened.
Still caught somewhere between sleep and awareness, she removed the quilted cover from the porcelain pot and poured chocolate into the delicate cup beside it. And then she remembered, and her stomach plummeted. Today a dark-haired man would be waiting for her in the woodcutter's cottage. He would wait for an hour, and then he would leave-because Elizabeth wasn't going to be there. She couldn't. She absolutely could not!
Her hands trembled a little as she lifted the cup and saucer and raised it to her lips. Over the cup's rim she watched Berta bustle into the room with a worried look on her face that faded to a relieved smile. "Oh, good. I was worried you'd taken ill."
"Why?" Elizabeth asked as she took a sip of the chocolate. It was cold as ice!
"Because I couldn't wake-" "What time is it?" Elizabeth cried. "Nearly eleven."
"Eleven! But I told you to wake me at eight! How could you let me oversleep this way?" she said, her sleep drugged mind already groping wildly for a solution. She could dress quickly and catch up with everyone. Or . . .
"I did try," Berta exclaimed, hurt by the uncharacteristic sharpness in Elizabeth's tone, "but you didn't want to wake up"
"I never want to awaken, Berta, you know that!" "But you were worse this morning than normal. You said your head ached."
"I always say things like that. I don't know what I'm saying when I'm asleep. I'll say anything to bargain for a few minutes' more sleep. You've known that for years, and you always shake me awake anyway."
"But you said," Berta persisted, tugging unhappily at her apron, "that since it rained so much last night you were sure the trip to the village wouldn't take place, so you didn't have to arise at all."
"Berta, for heaven's sake!" Elizabeth cried, throwing off the covers and jumping out of bed with more energy than she'd ever shown after such a short period of wakefulness.
"I've told you I'm dying of diphtheria to make you go away, and that didn't succeed!"
"Well," Berta shot back, marching over to the bell pull and ringing for a bath to be brought up, "when you told me that, your face wasn't pale and your head didn't feel hot to my touch. And you hadn't dragged yourself into bed as if you could hardly stand when it was but half past one in the morning!"
Contrite, Elizabeth slumped down on the bed. "It's not your fault that I sleep like a hibernating bear. And besides, if they didn't go to the village, it makes no difference at all that I overslept." She was trying to resign herself to the notion of spending the day in the house with a man who could look at her across a roomful of diners and make her heart leap when Berta said, "They did go to the village. Last night's storm was more noise and threat than rain."
Closing her eyes for a brief moment, Elizabeth emitted a long sigh. It was already eleven, which meant Ian had already begun his useless vigil at the cottage. "Very well, I'll ride to the village and catch up with them there. There's no need to hurry," she said firmly when Berta rushed to the door to admit the maids carrying buckets of hot water for Elizabeth's bath.
It was already half past noon when Elizabeth descended the stairs clad in a festive peach riding habit. A matching bonnet with a feather curling at her right ear hid her hair, and riding gloves covered her hands to the wrists. A few masculine voices could be heard in the game room, testifying to the fact that not all the guests had chosen to make the jaunt to the village. Elizabeth's steps faltered in the hallway as she deliberated whether or not to take a peek into the room to see if Ian Thornton had already returned from the cottage. Certain that he had, and unwilling to see him, she turned in the opposite direction and left the house by the front door.
Elizabeth waited at the stable while the grooms saddled a horse for her, but her heart seemed to be beating in heavy time to the passing minutes, and her mind kept tormenting her with a picture of a solitary man who'd waited alone in the cottage for a woman who hadn't come.
"Will you be wantin' a groom ?tar ride wit' ye, milady?" the stablekeep asked. "We're shorthanded, what with so many o' them bein' needed by the party what went for the day's outin' to the village. Some of ?em ought to be comin' back here in an hour or less, if you'd want to wait. If not, the road is safe, and no harm will come t'you. Her ladyship rides alone to the village all the time."
The thing Elizabeth wanted most was to gallop hell-bent down a country lane and leave everything else behind her. "I'll go alone," she said, smiling at him with the same friendly candor to which she treated Havenhurst's grooms. "We passed the village the day we arrived it's straight down the main road about five miles, isn't it?"
"Aye," he said. A flash of heat lightning lit up the pale sky, and Elizabeth cast an anxious glance overhead. She did not want to stay there, yet the prospect of being caught in a summer downpour wasn't pleasant, either.