"Still, we each have our duty to perform," she informed him with sham solemnity. "And there's said to be great satisfaction in that."
"How do you view your ? er duty,' he countered, responding to her teasing tone with a lazy white smile.
"That's easy. It is a female's duty to be a wife who is an asset to her husband in every way. It is a male's duty to do whatever he wishes, whenever he wishes, so long as he is prepared to defend his country should the occasion demand it in his lifetime-which it very likely won't. Men," she informed him, "gain honor by sacrificing themselves on the field of battle while we sacrifice ourselves on the altar of matrimony"
He laughed aloud then, and Elizabeth smiled back at him, enjoying herself hugely. "Which, when one considers it. only proves that our sacrifice is by far the greater and more noble."
"How is that,' he asked. still chuckling;, "It's perfectly obvious-battles last mere days or weeks. months at the very most. While matrimony lasts a lifetime! Which brings to mind something else I've often wondered about," she continued gaily, giving full rein to her innermost thoughts.
"And that is?" he prompted, grinning, watching her as if he never wanted to stop.
"Why do you suppose, after all that, they call us the weaker sex?" Their laughing gazes held, and then Elizabeth realized how outrageous he must be finding some of her remarks. "I don't usually go off on such tangents," she said ruefully. "You must think I'm dreadfully ill-bred."
"I think." he softly said. "that you are magnificent." The husky sincerity in his deep voice snatched her breath away. She opened her mouth, thinking frantically for some light reply that could restore the easy camaraderie of a minute before, but instead of speaking she could only draw a long. shaky breath.
"And," he continued quietly, "I think you know it." This was not. not the sort of foolish, flirtatious repartee she was accustomed to from her London beaux, and it terrified her as much as the sensual look in those golden eyes. Pressing imperceptibly back against the arm of the sofa. she told herself she was only overreacting to what was nothing more than empty flattery. "I think," she managed with a light laugh that stuck in her throat, "that you must find whatever female you're with magnificent."
"Why would you say a thing like that?" Elizabeth shrugged. "Last night at supper, for one thing." When he frowned at her as if she were speaking in a foreign language, she prodded, "You remember Lady Charise Dumont, our hostess, the same lovely brunette on whose every word you were hanging at supper last night?"
His frown became a grin. "Jealous?" Elizabeth lifted her elegant little chin and shook her head. "No more than you were of Lord Howard."
She felt a small bit of satisfaction as his amusement vanished. "The fellow who couldn't seem to talk to you without touching your arm?" he inquired in a silky-soft voice. "That Lord Howard? As a matter of fact, my love, I spent most of my meal trying to decide whether I wanted to shove his nose under his right ear or his left."
Startled, musical laughter erupted from her before she could stop it. "You did nothing of the sort," she chuckled. "Besides, if you wouldn't duel with Lord Everly when he called you a cheat, you certainly wouldn't harm poor Lord
Howard merely for touching my arm." "Wouldn't I?" he asked softly. "Those are two very different issues."
Not for the first time, Elizabeth found herself at a loss to understand him. Suddenly his presence was vaguely threatening again; whenever he stopped playing the amusing" gallant he became a dark, mysterious stranger. Raking her hair off her forehead, she glanced out the window. "It must be after three already. I really must leave." She surged to her feet, smoothing her skirts. "Thank you for a lovely afternoon. I don't know why I remained. I shouldn't have, but I am glad I did. . . ."
She ran out of words and watched in wary alarm as he stood up. "Don't you?" he asked softly.
"Don't I what?" "Know why you're still here with me?" "I don't even know who you are?" she cried. "I know about places you've been, but not your family, your people. I know you gamble great sums of money at cards, and I disapprove of that."
"I also gamble great sums of money on ships and cargo will that improve my character in your eyes?"
"And I know," she continued desperately, watching his gaze turn warm and sensual, "I absolutely know you make me excessively uneasy when you look at me the way you're doing now."
"Elizabeth," he said in a tone of tender finality, "you're here because we're already half in love with each other."
"Whaaat?" she gasped. "And as to needing to know who I am, that's very simple to answer." His hand lifted, grazing her pale cheek, then smoothing backward, cupping her head. Gently he explained, "I am the man you're going to marry."
"Oh, my God!"
"I think it's too late to start praying," he teased huskily.
"You-you must be mad." she said. her voice quavering. "My thoughts exactly," he whispered. and, bending his head, he pressed his lips to her forehead. drawing her against his chest, holding her as if he knew she would struggle if he tried to do more than that. "You were not in my plans, Miss Cameron."
"Oh, please," Elizabeth implored helplessly, "don't do this to me. I don't understand any of this. I don't know what you want."
"I want you." He took her chin between his thumb and forefinger and lifted it, forcing her to meet his steady gaze as he quietly added. "And you want me."
Elizabeth's entire body started to tremble as his lips began descending to hers. and she sought to forestall what her heart knew was inevitable by reasoning with him. "A gently bred Englishwoman," she shakily quoted Lucinda's lecture. "feels nothing stronger than affection. We do not fall in love."
His warm lips covered hers. "I'm a Scot," he murmured huskily. "We do."
"A Scot!" she uttered when he lifted his mouth from hers. He laughed at her appalled expression. "I said ?Scot,' not ?ax murderer'." A Scot who was a gambler to boot! Havenhurst would land on the auction block, the servants turned off, and the world would fall apart. "I cannot, cannot marry you."
"Yes, Elizabeth," he whispered as his lips trailed a hot path over her cheek to her ear, "you can."