Lord Howard shook his head and kept walking. "I only returned to get my carriage."

"Then I'll see you out," Elizabeth persisted. She walked him to the door, and for a moment she thought he actually meant to leave without even saying good day. Standing in the open doorway, he hesitated and then turned back to her. "Good-bye, Lady Elizabeth," he said in an odd, regretful voice, and then he left.

Elizabeth scarcely noticed his tone or even his departure. She realized for the first time that this morning-perhaps at this very minute-a surgeon somewhere was digging a ball out of Ian's arm. Sagging against the door, she swallowed convulsively, fighting the urge to vomit at the thought of the pain she'd caused him. Last night she'd been too terrified by the prospect of a duel to consider how Ian must have felt when Robert told him she was engaged. Now it was finally beginning to hit her, and her stomach clenched. Ian had spoken of marrying her, had kissed and held her with tender, possessive passion and told her he was falling in love with her. In return for that, Robert had barged in on him and contemptuously told him she was beyond his touch socially and already engaged besides. And this morning he had shot him for daring to reach too high.

Leaning her head back against the door, Elizabeth stilted a moan of contrition. Ian might not have a title nor any claim to being a gentleman in the ton's interpretation of the events, but Elizabeth sensed instinctively that he was a proud man. That pride had been stamped on his bronzed features, in the way he carried himself, in his every movement-and she and Robert had trampled it to pieces. They had made a fool of him in the greenhouse last night and forced him into a duel today.

At that moment, if Elizabeth had known where to find him, she really thought she would have braved his anger and gone to him to explain about Havenhurst and all her responsibilities, to try to make him understand that it was those things, not any lack in him, that had made it impossible for her to consider marrying him.

Shoving herself away from the door, Elizabeth walked slowly down the hall and into the drawing room where Robert was sitting with his head in his hands. "This isn't finished," Robert gritted, lifting his head to look at her. "I'll kill him one day for this!"

"No you will not!", Elizabeth said, her words shaking with alarm. "Bobby, listen to me-you don't understand about Ian Thornton. He didn't do anything wrong, not really. You see," she said in a suffocated voice, "he thought he was well, falling in love with me. He wanted to marry me-"

Robert's sharp bark of derisive laughter rang through the room. "Is that what he told you?" he sneered, his face purpling with fury at her lack of familial loyalty. "Well, then let me set you straight, you little idiot! To put it bluntly and in his own words, all he wanted from you was a tumble between the sheets!"

Elizabeth felt the blood drain from her face, then she slowly shook her head in denial. "No, you're wrong. When you first found us he said his intentions were honorable, remember?"

"He changed his mind damned quick when I told him you are penniless," Robert flung back, looking at her with a mixture of pity and scorn.

Too weak to continue standing, Elizabeth sank down on the sofa beside her brother, crushed by the full weight of responsibility for her stupidity, her gullibility, and all that those two traits had brought down on them. "I'm sorry," she whispered helplessly. "I'm so sorry. You risked your life for me this morning, and I haven't even thanked you for caring enough to do that." Because she couldn't think of anything else to say or do, she put her arm around his slumped shoulders. "Things will work out for us-they always have," she promised unconvincingly.

"Not this time," he said, his eyes harsh with despair. "I think we're ruined, Elizabeth."

"I can't believe it's as bad as that. There's a chance none this will come out," she continued, not believing her own words. "And Lord Mondevale cares for me, I think. Surely he'll listen to reason."

"In the meantime," Lucinda said at last, with typical cool practicality, "Elizabeth must go out as usual-as if nothing untoward has happened. If she hides in the house, gossip will feed on itself. You, sir, will have to escort her."

"It won't matter, I tell you!" Robert said. "We're ruined." He was right. That night, while Elizabeth bravely attended a ball with her fiance, who seemed to be blessedly unaware of her weekend debacle, lurid versions of her activities were already spreading like wildfire throughout the ton. The story of the episode in the greenhouse was circulated, along with the added slander that she had purportedly sent him a note inviting him to join her there. More damning by far was the titillating gossip that she'd spent an afternoon with Ian Thornton alone in a secluded cottage.

"That bastard is the one who's spreading those stories," Robert had raged the next day when the tales reached his ears. "He's trying to whiten his own hands by saying you sent him a note inviting him to the greenhouse, and that you were pursuing him. You're not the first female to lose your head over him, you know. You're just the youngest and the most naive. This year alone there've been Charise Dumont and several others whose names have been linked with his. None of them, however, was unsophisticated enough to  behave with such wanton indiscretion." Elizabeth was too humiliated to argue or protest. Now that she was no longer under the influence of Ian Thornton's sensual magnetism she realized that his actions were, in retrospect, exactly what one would expect of an unscrupulous rake who was bent on seduction. After only a few hours' acquaintance he'd claimed to be half in love with her and to want to marry her-just the sort of impossible lie a libertine would tell to his victim. She'd read enough novels to know that fortune hunters and dissolute libertines intent on seduction often claimed to be in love with their victims when all they wanted was another conquest. Like an utter fool, Elizabeth had thought of him as a victim of unfair social prejudice.

Now she realized too late that the social prejudices that would have excluded him from respectable ton activities had existed to protect her from men like him,

Elizabeth didn't have a great deal of time to devote to her private misery, however. Friends of Viscount Mondevale, upon learning of his betrothal in the papers, finally felt it incumbent upon them to disclose to the happy bridegroom the gossip about the female to whom he'd offered his hand.

The next morning he called at the town house on Ripple Street and withdrew his offer. Since Robert had not been at home, Elizabeth had met with him in the drawing room. One look at his rigid stance and unsmiling mouth and Elizabeth had felt as if the floor was falling away from beneath her.


Tags: Judith McNaught Sequels Billionaire Romance
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