All of Elizabeth's confusion and anguish exploded in a burst of tempestuous, sobbing fury that was directed at herself, but which she hurtled at him. Tearing free of his grasp, she whirled around. "Provide for me," she cried. "Provide what? A-a hovel in Scotland where I'II stay while you dress the part of an English gentleman so you can gamble away everything-"
"If things go on as I expect," he interrupted her in a voice of taut calm, "I'll be one of the richest men in England within a year two at the most. If they don't, you'll still be well provided for."
Elizabeth snatched her bonnet and backed away from him in a fear that was partly of him and partly of her own weakness. "This is madness. Utter madness." Turning. she headed for the door.
"I know," he said gently. She reached for the door handle and jerked the door open. Behind her, his voice stopped her in midstep. "If you change your mind after we leave in the morning, you can reach me at Hammund's town house in Upper Brook Street until Wednesday. After that I'd intended to leave for India. I'll be gone until winter."
"I-I hope you have a safe voyage," she said, too overwrought to wonder about the sharp tug of loss she felt at the realization he was leaving.
"If you change your mind in time," he teased, "I'll take you with me."
Elizabeth fled in sheer terror from the gentle confidence she'd heard in his smiling voice. As she galloped through the thick fog and wet underbrush she was no longer the sensible, confident young lady she'd been before; instead she was a terrified, bewildered girl with a mountain of responsibilities and an upbringing that convinced her the wild attraction she felt for Ian Thornton was sordid and unforgivable.
As she left the horse in the stable and saw with sinking horror that the party had already returned from the village jaunt, she didn't think of anything except sending Robert a note begging him to fetch her that night, instead of in the morning.
Elizabeth had supper in her room while Berta packed, and she scrupulously avoided the window of her bedchamber, which happened to look out over the gardens below. Twice she'd glanced outside, and both times she'd seen Ian. The first time he'd been standing alone on the terrace, a cheroot clamped between his teeth, staring out across the lawns, and his solitary stance ,made her heart ache because he seemed lonely somehow. The next time she saw him, he was surrounded by females who'd not been there last night new arrivals at the house party, Elizabeth supposed and all five of them seemed to find him irresistible. She told herself it didn't matter, could not matter to her. She had responsibilities to Robert and Havenhurst, and they had to come first. Despite what Ian obviously thought, she could not link her future with that of a reckless gambler, even if he was probably the handsomest Scotsman ever born and the gentlest
Elizabeth closed her eyes, trying to shut out these thoughts. It was incredibly silly to think of Ian in this way. Silly and dangerous, for Valerie and some of the others seemed to suspect where she'd been all afternoon, and with whom. Wrapping her arms around herself, Elizabeth shivered as she remembered how neatly she'd been trapped by her own guilt that afternoon as soon as she'd walked into the house.
"Good heavens, you're wet," Valerie had exclaimed in a cry of sympathy. "The stable said you've been gone all afternoon. Don't say you were lost and in the rain all that time!"
"No, I-I came upon a cottage in the woods and stayed there until the rain let up a little while ago." It had seemed the wisest thing to say, since Ian's horse had been nowhere in sight and hers had been perfectly visible, should anyone have cared to look.
"What time was that?"
"Close to one o'clock, I think,"
"Did you happen to come upon Mr. Thornton while you were out?" Valerie inquired with a malicious smile, and everyone in the salon seemed to stop talking and turn toward them. "The gamekeeper said he saw a tall, dark man mounted on a big sorrel stallion go into the cottage. He assumed the man was a guest, and so he didn't challenge his presence."
"I-I didn't see him," Elizabeth said. "It was . . . very foggy. I hope nothing untoward happened to him."
"We aren't certain. He isn't back yet. Charise is concerned, although," Valerie continued, watching Elizabeth closely, "I told her she needn't be. The scullery maids gave him a luncheon a deux to take with him."
Stepping aside to let a couple pass, Elizabeth explained to Valerie that she'd decided to leave tonight instead of tomorrow, and without giving Valerie an opportunity to question her reason she quickly excused herself to change out of her wet clothing.
Berta had taken one look at Elizabeth's pale face and guessed at once that something was terribly wrong, particularly when Elizabeth insisted on sending word to Robert to fetch them home tonight. By the time Elizabeth had sent the note off Berta had managed to pry most of the story out of Elizabeth, and Elizabeth was forced to spend the rest of her afternoon and early evening trying to soothe her maid.
It won't do you a bit of good to wear a path through the carpet," Berta told her. "We'll both be spending time enough on the carpet when that Miss Throckmorton-Jones hears what you've been about."
"She won't hear anything," Elizabeth said with more determination than conviction, and she sank into a chair, nervously plucking at the skirt of her bright green traveling costume. Her bonnet and gloves were on the bed beside their packed valises, waiting to be brought downstairs when Robert arrived. Even though she'd been expecting it. the knock on her door made her nerves jump. Instead of telling her that her brother had arrived, the footman handed her a note when she opened the door.
With clammy hands she unfolded it, praying that it wasn't news from London that Robert couldn't be found to fetch them. For a moment she frowned in blank incomprehension at the hastily scrawled, almost illegible note that said "Meet me in greenhowse. Must talk to you."
The footman had already started down the hall, and Elizabeth called after him, "Who gave you this note?"
"Miss Valerie, my lady." Elizabeth's relief that it wasn't from Ian was immediately replaced by guilty terror that Valerie had somehow discovered more about Elizabeth's disappearance this afternoon. "Valerie wants me to meet her in the greenhouse right away," she told Berta.
Berta's color drained. "She knows what happened. doesn't she? Is that why she wants to see you? It's not my place to say it, but I can't like that girl. She has mean eyes."
Elizabeth had never in her life been embroiled in intrigue or deceit, and everything that was happening seemed unbearably complicated and tinged with malice. Without replying to Berta's comment about her friend she looked at the clock and realized it was only six. "Robert can't possibly be here for at least an hour. In the meantime I'll go and find out why Valerie needs to see me."