"I trust there won't need to be an unpleasant scene over this," he'd said stiffly, without preamble.
Unable to speak past the tears of shame and sorrow choking her, Elizabeth had shaken her head. He turned and started for the door, but as he strode past her he swung around and grasped her by the shoulders. "Why, Elizabeth?" he demanded, his handsome face twisted with angry regret. "Tell me why. At least give me that."
"Why?" she repeated, stupidly longing to throw herself into his arms and beg his forgiveness.
"I can understand that you might have accidentally encountered him at some cottage in the woods in the rain, which is what my cousin, Lord Howard, tells me he believes happened. But why would you have sent him a note to meet you alone in the greenhouse?"
"I didn't," she cried, and only her stubborn pride kept her from collapsing in a sobbing heap at his feet.
"You're lying." he said flatly, his hands falling away. "Valerie saw the note after he tossed it away and went looking for you."
"She's mistaken," Elizabeth choked, but he was already walking out of the room.
Elizabeth had thought she could not feel more humiliated than she did at that moment, but she soon discovered she was mistaken. Viscount Mondevale's desertion was taken as proof that she was guilty, and from that day onward no more invitations or callers arrived at the town house on Ripple Street. At Lucinda's insistence Elizabeth finally got up the courage to attend the one function she'd been invited to before the scandal became public-a ball at Lord and Lady Hinton's home. She stayed for fifteen minutes, and then she left-because no one except the host and hostess, who had no choice, would speak to her or acknowledge her in any way.
In the eyes of the ton she was a shameless wanton, soiled and used, unfit company for unsullied young ladies and gullible young heirs, unfit to mingle in Polite Society. She had broken the rules governing moral conduct. and not even with someone of her own class, but with a man whose reputation was black, his social standing nonexistent. She hadn't merely broken the rules, she'd flung them in their faces.
One week after the duel Robert disappeared without word or warning. Elizabeth was terrified for his safety, unwilling to believe he would desert her because of what she'd done, and unable to think of any other, less tormenting explanation. The actual explanation, however, was not long in coming. While Elizabeth sat alone in the drawing room, waiting and praying for his return, news of his disappearance was spreading allover the city. Creditors began arriving on her doorstep, demanding payment for huge debts that had accrued not only for her debut, but over many years for Robert's gambling and even that of her father.
Three weeks after Charise Dumont's party, on a brilliantly sunny afternoon, Elizabeth and Lucinda closed the door on the rented town house for the last time and climbed into their carriage. As her carriage drove past the park the same people who had flattered her and sought her out saw her and coldly turned their backs. Through the blur of her hot, humiliated tears Elizabeth saw a handsome young man with a pretty girl in his carriage. Viscount Mondevale was taking Valerie for a drive, and the look she gave Elizabeth was meant to be pitying. But Elizabeth, in her private torment, thought it was tinged with triumph. Her fear that Robert had met with foul play had already given way to the far more believable possibility that he had fled to avoid debtors' gaol.
Elizabeth returned to Havenhurst and sold off every valuable she owned to payoff Robert's gaming debts, her father's gaming debts, and those from her debut. And then she picked up the threads of her life. With courage and determination she devoted herself to preserving Havenhurst and to the well-being of the eighteen servants who elected to stay with her for only a home, food, and new livery once each year.
Slowly her smiles returned and the guilt and confusion receded. She learned to avoid looking back on her grievous mistakes during her season, because it hurt too much to remember them and the awful retribution that had followed. At seventeen years old she was her own mistress, and she had come home, where she had always belonged. She resumed her chess games with Sentner and her target practice with Aaron; she lavished her love on this peculiar family of hers and on Havenhurst-and they returned it. She was contented and busy, and she adamantly refused to think of Ian Thornton or of the events that had led up to her self-imposed exile. Now her uncle's actions were forcing her not only to think of him but to see him. Without her uncle's modest financial support for two more years there was no way Elizabeth could avoid giving up Havenhurst. Until she could accumulate the money to have Havenhurst properly irrigated, as it should have been long ago, it could never be productive enough to attract cottagers and support itself.
With a reluctant sigh Elizabeth opened her eyes and gazed blankly at the empty room, then she slowly stood up. She'd confronted more difficult problems than this. she told herself bracingly. Wherever there was a problem, there were solutions; one simply had to look carefully for the best one. And Alex was here now. Between the two of them they could surely think of a way to circumvent Uncle Julius.
She would take it as a challenge, she decided firmly as she headed off in search of Alex. At nineteen she still enjoyed challenges, and life at Havenhurst had become a little bit routine. A few short trips-two of the three, at least might be exciting.
By the time she finally located Alex in the garden, Elizabeth had almost convinced herself of all those things.
Alexandra took one look at Elizabeth's carefully composed features and fixed smile and was not fooled for a moment, nor was Bentner, who'd been entertaining Alex with stories about Elizabeth's efforts in the gardens. They both turned to her with matched expressions of alarm. "What's wrong?" Alex asked, anxiety already driving her to her feet.
"I don't quite know how to tell you," Elizabeth admitted frankly, sitting down beside Alex while Bentner hovered worriedly about, pretending to pluck withered roses from their stems so that he might hear and, if needed, lend advice or assistance. The more Elizabeth considered what she had to tell Alex, the more bizarre-almost comical it began to seem to her dazed mind. "My uncle," she explained. "has endeavored to find a willing husband for me,"
"Really?" Alex said. her gaze searching Elizabeth's bemused expression.
"Yes. In fact, I think it's safe to say he's gone to rather extraordinary lengths to accomplish that feat."
"What do you mean?" Elizabeth swallowed a completely unexpected bubble of hysterical laughter. "He sent messages to all fifteen of my former suitors, asking if they were still interested in marrying me-"