She was, however, not so lost as to the ramifications of her actions that she forgot about Robert's impending arrival, Unfortunately, she had never imagined Robert might have been on his way there before her note ever arrived.

"Please listen to me," she whispered desperately. "My brother is coming to take me home."

"Then I'll talk to him. Your father may have some objections, even after he understands that I'll be able to provide for your future-"

"My future!" Elizabeth interrupted in genuine terror at the way he was taking charge a gambler, just like her father. She thought of the rooms at Havenhurst, stripped almost bare of valuables, the servants counting on her, the ancestors counting on her. At that moment she would have said anything, anything to make him stop pursuing her before she lost control completely and gave in to the mindless, wicked weakness he seemed to inspire in her. She leaned back in his arms, trying to make her shaking voice sound cool and amused: "And what will you provide, sir? Will you promise me a ruby large enough to cover my palm, as Viscount Mondevale has? Sables to cover my shoulders and mink to carpet the floor, as Lord Seabury has?"

"Is that what you want?"

"Of course," she said with brittle gaiety, but she was choking back a sob. "Isn't that what all females want and all gentlemen promise?"

His face hardened into an expressionless mask, but his eyes were probing hers like daggers, looking for answers-as if he couldn't completely believe that jewels and furs mattered to her more than feelings.

"Oh, please let me go," she cried on a choked sob, shoving hard at his chest.

So intent were they that neither of them noticed the man striding swiftly down the aisle. "You miserable bastard," Robert thundered, "you heard what she said! Take your filthy hands off my sister!"

Ian's arms started to tighten protectively, but Elizabeth tore free of his grasp and ran to Robert, tears streaking down her face. "Robert, listen to me. It's not what you think." Robert put his arm around her shoulder, and Elizabeth started to launch into explanations. "This is Mr. Ian Thornton," she began, "and-"

"And despite the way this looks," Ian interrupted with amazing calm, "my intentions toward Miss Cameron are perfectly honorable."

"You arrogant son of a bitch!" Robert exploded, his voice vibrating with fury and contempt. "My sister is Countess Cameron to the likes of you! And I don't need an introduction. I know all about you. As to your intentions or should I say pretensions.  I wouldn't let her marry scum like you even if she weren't already betrothed."

At those words Ian's gaze jerked to Elizabeth. He saw the truth on her guilt-stricken face, and Elizabeth almost cried out at the cynical contempt blazing in his eyes.

"You've compromised my sister, you misbegotten pig and you'll answer for it!"

Pulling his gaze from Elizabeth, Ian looked at Robert, his hard face wiped clean of all expression now. Acceding to Robert's demand for a duel, he nodded curtly and said almost politely, "Of course." Then he moved as if to leave.

"No!" Elizabeth cried wildly, clutching at Robert's arm, and for the second time in twenty-four hours she found herself trying to stop someone from spilling Ian Thornton's blood. "I won't permit this, Robert, do you hear me? It wasn't all his-"

"This is none of your affair, Elizabeth!" Robert snapped, too enraged to listen to her. Removing her hand from his arm, he said, "Berta is already in my carriage in the drive. Go around the far side of the house and get in with her. This man," he said with scathing sarcasm, "and I have some things to discuss."

"You can't-" Elizabeth tried again, but Ian Thornton's murderous voice stopped her cold.

"Get out of here!" he said between his teeth, and while Elizabeth was willing to ignore Robert's order, Ian Thornton's made her quake. Her chest heaving with fright, she looked at his rigid face, at the muscle leaping in his jaw, and then at Robert. Not certain whether her presence was making things worse or forestalling a calamity, she tried once again to appeal to Robert, "Please promise me you won't do anything until tomorrow, when you've had time to think and we've talked."

Elizabeth watched him make a herculean effort not to further terrify her and to agree with what she asked. "Fine," he bit out. "I'll be only a moment behind you," he promised. "Now go on to my carriage before that crowd out there who's been watching this whole scene decides to come in here where they can hear as well as see."

Elizabeth felt physically ill when she stepped out of the greenhouse and saw many of the people from the ballroom gathered outdoors. Penelope was there, and Georgina and the others, and the expressions on their faces ranged from amusement among the older people to icy condemnation among the younger.

A short while later her brother strode to the chaise and climbed inside. His manner was more rigidly controlled than it had been. "The matter is settled," he said. but regardless of how much she pleaded, he would not say more.

In helpless misery Elizabeth leaned back against the squabs, listening to Berta, who was sniffling in anticipation of the blame she felt she would ultimately receive from Lucinda Throckmorton-Jones. "My note couldn't have reached you more than two hours ago," Elizabeth whispered after a few minutes. "How could you have gotten here so quickly?"

"I never got your note," he replied stiffly. "This afternoon Lucinda felt well enough to come downstairs for a bit. When I told her where you'd gone this weekend, she gave me some startling news about the sorts of goings-on your friend Charise permits at her country parties. I left three hours ago to fetch you and Berta home early. Unfortunately, I was too late."

"It's not as bad as you think," Elizabeth lied lamely. "We'll discuss it tomorrow!" he snapped, and she slumped with relief, thinking he meant to do nothing. at least until then. "Elizabeth, how could you be such a fool? Even you should have realized the man's a complete scoundrel! He's not fit to . . ." He broke off and drew a long breath, striving to get control of his temper. When he spoke again he seemed more composed. "The damage, whatever it may be, has already been done. I'm to blame for this you're too young and inexperienced to go anywhere without Lucinda to keep you out of harm's way. I can only pray that your affianced husband will take an equally understanding view of the matter."

It dawned on Elizabeth that this was the second time tonight that Robert had openly spoken of her engagement as if it was finalized. "Since it hasn't been settled or made public, I can't see why my actions should reflect on Viscount Mondevale," she said with more hope than conviction. "If there is a little scandal, he may want to delay announcing it for a while, Robert, but I can't think he'll be so very embarrassed."

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