"We signed the contracts today," Robert gritted. "Mondevale and I had no difficulty agreeing on your settlement-he was extremely generous, by the way. The proud bridegroom was eager to send an announcement to the papers, and I saw no reason why he should not. It will be in the Gazette tomorrow."
That piece of alarming news made Berta let out a muted sob before she lapsed again to sniffling and blowing her nose. Elizabeth squeezed her eyes closed and held back her own tears while her mind tormented her with more pressing problems than her handsome young fiance.
In bed Elizabeth lay awake for hours, tortured with memories of the weekend and with terror that she might not be able to dissuade Robert from dueling with Ian Thornton, which she was almost certain he still meant to do. Staring up at the ceiling, she feared alternately for Robert and then for Ian. Lord Howard had made it sound as if Ian was a deadly duelist, yet Ian had refused to defend his honor when Lord Everly called him a cheat-an act many might view as cowardice. Perhaps gossip about Ian's skill was totally wrong. Robert was a fair shot, and Elizabeth's body grew clammy thinking of Ian, proud and alone, being felled by a ball from Robert's pistol. No. She told herself she was thinking hysterically. The possibility of either of them actually shooting the other was outlandish.
Dueling was illegal, and in this instance the code of honor would dictate that Ian appear-which he'd already agreed to do in the greenhouse-and that Robert would delope fire in the air. In so doing, Ian would be tentatively admitting his guilt by putting his life in Robert's hands, which would give Robert the satisfaction a duel provided without the bloodshed, and Robert could then delope. That was the way gentlemen usually dealt with such matters these days.
Usually. Elizabeth's terrified mind reminded her, but Robert's temper was explosive, and he was so infuriated tonight that instead of raging he'd been coldly, murderously silent-and that alarmed Elizabeth more than his outburst would have done.
Shortly before dawn she fell into an uneasy slumber, only to wake what seemed like minutes later to the sound of someone moving down the hall. A servant, she thought, glancing at the window where pale rays of gray were tinting the inky night sky. She was about to drift off to sleep again when she heard the front door downstairs open and then close.
Dawn-duels. Robert had promised to talk to her today before doing anything, she thought hysterically, and for once Elizabeth had no trouble waking up. Fear sent her bolting from beneath the covers. Still pulling on a dressing robe, she ran flying down the stairs and jerked open the front door in time to see Robert's carriage rounding the comer.
"Oh my God!" she said to the empty hall, and because she was too overwrought to wait and wonder alone, she went upstairs to awaken the one person whose good judgment could be depended upon no matter how chaotic the world became. Lucinda had been waiting up for them last night, and she knew most of what had happened this weekend, with the exception, of course, of the interlude in the gamekeeper's cottage.
"Lucinda," she whispered, and the gray-haired woman's eyes opened, their pale hazel orbs alert and unclouded. "Robert has just left the house. I'm certain he means to duel with Mr. Thornton."
Miss Lucinda Throckmorton-Jones, whose career as a duenna had heretofore included the unblemished chaperonage of the daughters of three dukes, eleven earls, and six viscounts, pushed herself upright against the pillows and gazed narrowly at the young lady who had just spoiled her brilliant record. "Inasmuch as Robert is not an early riser," she said. "that would seem to be an obvious conclusion."
"Whatever shall I do?" "For a start. I suggest you cease wringing your hands in that unbecoming fashion and then go to the kitchen and make some tea."
"I don't want any tea." "I shall require some tea if we are to wait downstairs for your brother's return. which I foresee is what you wish to do."
"Oh, Lucy," Elizabeth said, looking at the gruff spinster with love and gratitude, "whatever would I do without you?"
"You would get yourself into a deal of trouble, which you have already done." Seeing the torment in Elizabeth's face, she relented slightly as she climbed out of bed. "Custom dictates that Thornton present himself and that your brother have the satisfaction of seeing him do it, and then Robert must delope. There's nothing else that can happen."
It was the first time in Elizabeth's acquaintance with Lucinda that the stalwart duenna was wrong.
The clock was just chiming the hour of eight A.M. when Robert returned with Lord Howard. He stalked past the
drawing room, saw Elizabeth huddled on the sofa across from Lucinda, who was doing needlework, paused, and stepped back. "What are you doing up so early?" he asked her tersely.
"Waiting for you," Elizabeth told him, hurtling out of her chair. Lord Howard's presence confused her for a moment, and then it hit her-Robert would have needed a second to attend the duel. "You dueled with him, didn't you, Robert?"
Elizabeth's voice was a strangled whisper. "Is he hurt?" Robert stalked over to the side table and poured whiskey in a glass.
"Robert," she cried, grabbing him by the arms. "What happened?"
"I shot him in the arm," Robert snapped savagely. "I was aiming for his black heart, and I missed! That's what happened." Shaking off Elizabeth's hands, he downed the contents of his glass, then turned to refill it.
Sensing that there was more, Elizabeth searched his face. "Is that all?"
"No, that's not all!" Robert exploded. "After I wounded him, that bastard lifted his pistol and stood there, making me sweat. Then he blew the tassel off the top of my goddamned boot!"
"He-he what?" Elizabeth said, recognizing Robert's roiling fury and unable to understand it. "Surely you aren't angry because he missed!"
"Damn it, don't you understand anything? He didn't miss! It was an insult. He stood there with blood pouring down his arm, his pistol aimed at my heart, then he changed his aim at the last possible second and shot the tassel off my boot instead. He meant to show me he could have killed me if he'd chosen, and everyone who was there saw it! It was the final insult, damn his rotten soul!"
"You not only refused to delope," Lord Howard bit out, sounding as angry as Robert, "you fired before the call was given. You disgraced yourself and me. Moreover, if word of this duel becomes public, you'll have the lot of us arrested for participating. Thornton gave you satisfaction by appearing this morning and refusing to raise his pistol. He admitted guilt. What more did you expect?" As if unable to bear the sight of Robert any longer, Lord Howard turned on his heel. Elizabeth followed him helplessly into the hall, desperately trying to think of something eloquent to say in Robert's defense. "You must be cold and weary," she began, stalling for time. "Won't you at least stay for some tea?"