"I doubt it'll rain ?til tonight," the stablekeep told her when she hesitated. "We gets this kinda lightnin' hereabout this time o' year. Did it all night, it did, and nary a drop o' rain fell."

It was all the encouragement Elizabeth needed.

The first hard drops of rain fell when she'd ridden a mile down the main road. "Wonderful," she said aloud, reining her horse to a halt and scanning the sky. Then she dug her heel into the mare's side and sent her bolting onward toward the village. A few minutes later Elizabeth realized that the wind, which had been sighing through the trees, suddenly seemed to be whipping the branches about, and the temperature was dropping alarmingly. Rain began to fall in large, fat drops that soon became a steady downpour. By the time she saw the path leading off the main road into the woods, Elizabeth was half-drenched. Seeking some form of shelter among the trees, she reined her mare off the road and onto the path. Here at least the leaves acted like an umbrella, albeit a very leaky one.

Lightning streaked and forked above, followed by the ominous boom of thunder, and despite the stablekeep's prediction Elizabeth realized a full-fledged storm was brewing and about to break. The little mare sensed it, too, but though she flinched with the thunder, she remained docile and obedient. "What a little treasure you are," Elizabeth said softly, patting her satiny flank, but her mind was on the cottage she knew would be at the end of the path. She bit her lip with indecision, trying to judge the time. It was surely after one o'clock, so Ian Thornton would be long gone.

In the few additional moments Elizabeth sat there contemplating her alternatives she reached the obvious conclusion that she was vainly putting far too much emphasis on her importance to Ian. Last night she'd seen how easily he had been able to flirt with Charise only an hour after he'd kissed her in the arbor. No doubt she'd been nothing but a momentary diversion to him. How melodramatic and stupid she'd been to imagine him pacing the cottage floor, watching the door. He was a gambler, after all a gambler and probably a skilled flirt. No doubt he'd left at noon and gone back to the house in search of more willing company, which he'd be able to find without the slightest problem. On the other hand, if by some outlandish chance he was still there, she would be able to see his horse, and then she would simply turn around and ride back to the manor house.

The cottage came into view several minutes later. Set deep in the steamy woods, it was a welcome sight, and Elizabeth strained her eyes to see through the dense trees and rising fog, looking for signs of Ian's horse. Her heart began to pound in expectation and alarm as she scanned the front of the little thatched cottage; but. as she soon realized, she had no reason for excitement or alarm. The place was deserted. So much for the depth of his sudden attachment to her, she thought, refusing to acknowledge the funny little ache she felt.

She dismounted and walked her horse around the back, where she found a lean-to under which she could tie the little mare. "Did you ever notice how very fickle males are?" she asked the horse. "And how very foolish females are about them?" she added, aware of how inexplicably deflated she felt. She realized as well that she was being completely irrational-she had not intended to come here, had not wanted him to be waiting, and now she felt almost like crying because he wasn't!

Giving the ribbons of her bonnet an impatient jerk, she untied them. Pulling the bonnet off, she pushed the back door of the cottage open, stepped inside and froze in shock!

Standing at the opposite side of the small room, his back to her, was Ian Thornton. His dark head was slightly bent as he gazed at the cheery little fire crackling in the fireplace, his hands shoved into the back waistband of his gray riding breeches, his booted foot upon the grate. He'd taken off his jacket, and beneath his soft lawn shirt his muscles flexed as he withdrew his right hand and shoved it through the side of his hair. Elizabeth's gaze took in the sheer male beauty of his wide, masculine shoulders, his broad back and narrow waist.

Something in the somber way he was standing-added to the fact that he'd waited more than two hours for her made her doubt her earlier conviction that he hadn't truly cared whether she came or not. And that was before she glanced sideways and saw the table. Her heart turned over when she saw the trouble he'd taken. A cream linen tablecloth covered the crude boards, and two places had been set with blue and gold china, obviously borrowed from Charise's house. In the center of the table a candle was lit, and a half-empty bottle of wine stood beside a platter of cold meat and cheese.

In all her life Elizabeth had never known that a man could actually arrange a luncheon and set a table. Women did that. Women and servants. Not men who were so handsome they made one's pulse race. It seemed she'd been standing there for several minutes, not mere seconds, when he stiffened suddenly, as if sensing her presence. He turned, and his harsh face softened with a wry smile: "You aren't very punctual."

"I didn't intend to come," Elizabeth admitted, fighting to recover her balance and ignore the tug of his eyes and voice. "I got caught in the rain on my way to the village."

"You're wet." "I know."

"Come over by the fire." When she continued to watch him warily, he took his foot off the grate and walked over to her. Elizabeth stood rooted to the floor, while all of Lucinda's dark warnings about ??  shed through her mind. "What do you want?" she asked him breathlessly, feeling dwarfed by his towering height.

"Your jacket." "No-I think I'd like to keep it on." "Off," he insisted quietly. "It's wet." "Now see here!" she burst out backing toward the open door, clutching the edges of her jacket.

"Elizabeth," he said with reassuring calm, "I gave you my word you'd be safe if you came today."

Elizabeth briefly closed her eyes and nodded. "I know. I also know I shouldn't be here. I really ought to leave. I should, shouldn't I?" Opening her eyes again, she looked beseechingly into his-the seduced asking the seducer for advice.

"Under the circumstances, I don't think I'm the one you ought to ask."

"I'll stay," she said after a moment and saw the tension in his shoulders relax. Unbuttoning her jacket, she gave it to him, along with her bonnet, and he took them over to the fireplace, hanging them on the pegs in the wall. "Stand by the fire," he ordered, walking over to the table and filling two glasses with wine, watching as she obeyed.

The front of her hair that had not been covered by her bonnet was damp, and Elizabeth reached up automatically pulling out the combs that held it off her face on the sides and giving the mass a hard shake. Unconscious of the seductiveness of her gesture, she raised her hands, combing her fingers through the sides of it and lifting it.


Tags: Judith McNaught Sequels Billionaire Romance
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