"Oh, my God," Alex breathed. "-and, if they were, he volunteered to send me to them for a few days, properly chaperoned by Lucinda," Elizabeth recited in that same strangled tone, "so that we could both discover if we still suit."
"Oh, my God." Alex said again, with more force. "Twelve of them declined," she continued, and she watched Alex wince in embarrassed sympathy. "But three of them agreed, and now I am to be sent off to visit them. Since Lucinda can't return from Devon until I go to visit the third suitor, who's in Scotland," she said, almost choking on the word as she applied it to Ian Thornton, "I shall have to pass Berta off as my aunt to the first two."
"Berta!" Bentner burst out in disgust. "Your aunt? The silly widgeon's afraid of her shadow."
Threatened by another uncontrollable surge of mirth, Elizabeth looked at both her friends. "Berta is the least of my problems. However, do continue invoking God's name, for it's going to take a miracle to survive this."
"Who are the suitors?" Alex asked, her alarm increased by Elizabeth's odd smile as she replied, "I don't recall two of them. It's quite remarkable, isn't it," she continued with dazed mirth, "that two grown men could have met a young girl at her debut and hared off to her brother to ask for her hand, and she can't remember anything about them, except one of their names."
"No," Alex said cautiously, "it isn't remarkable. You were, are, very beautiful, and that is the way it's done. A young girl makes her debut at seventeen, and gentlemen look her over, often in the most cursory fashion, and decide if they want her. Then they apply for her hand. I can't think it is reasonable to just to betroth a young girl to someone with whom she's scarcely acquainted and then expect her to develop a lasting affection for him after she is wed, but the ton does regard it as the civilized way to manage marriages."
"It's actually quite the opposite-it's rather barbaric, when you reflect on it," Elizabeth stated, willing to be diverted from her personal calamity by a discussion of almost anything else.
"Elizabeth, who are the suitors? Perhaps I know of them and can help you remember."
Elizabeth sighed. "The first is Sir Francis Belhaven-" "You're joking!" Alex exploded, drawing an alarmed glance from Bentner. When Elizabeth merely lifted her delicate brows and waited for information, Alex continued angrily, "Why, he's-he's a dreadful old rou? There's no polite way to describe him. He's stout and balding. and his debauchery is a joke among the ton because he's so flagrant and foolish. He's an unparalleled pinchpenny to boot-a nipsqueeze!"
"At least we have that last in common," Elizabeth tried to tease, but her glance was on Bentner, who in his agitation was deflowering an entire healthy bush. "Bentner," she said gently, touched by how much he obviously cared for her plight, "you can tell the dead blooms from the live ones by their color."
"Who's the second suitor?" Alex persisted in growing alarm.
"Lord John Marchman." When Alex looked blank, Elizabeth added, "The Earl of Canford."
Comprehension dawned, and Alex nodded slowly. "I'm not acquainted with him, but I have heard of him."
"Well, don't keep me in suspense," Elizabeth said, choking back a laugh, because everything seemed more absurd, more unreal by the moment. "What do you know of him?"
"That's just it, I can't recall, but there was-wait, I have it! He's-" she shot a discouraged look at Elizabeth, "he's an inveterate sportsman who rarely comes near London. He's said to have entire walls of his home covered in the stuffed heads of animals he's hunted and fish he's caught. I remember some joking remarks being made that the reason he'd never married was that he couldn't tear himself away from his sport long enough to look for a wife. He doesn't sound at all suitable for you," Alex added miserably, glaring absently at the toe of her red kid slipper.
"Suitability hasn't anything to do with it, since I haven't any intention of wedding anyone if I can possibly avoid it. If I can just hold out for two more years. my grandmother's trust will come to me. With that money I should be able to manage here on my own for a long time. The problem is that I can't hold ends together until then without my uncle's support, and he threatens to withdraw it almost weekly. If I don't at least appear to go along with this mad scheme of his, I've no doubt he'll do exactly that."
"Elizabeth," Alex ventured cautiously, "I could help if you'd let me. My husband-"
"Don't, please," Elizabeth interrupted. "You know I could never take money from you. Among other things, I wouldn't be able to pay it back. The trust should cover Havenhurst's expenses, but only barely. For now, my most pressing problem is to find some way out of this coil my uncle has created."
"What I cannot understand is how your uncle could consider these two men suitable when they aren't. Not one whit."
"We know that," Elizabeth said wryly, bending down to pull a blade of grass from between the flagstones beneath the bench, "but evidently my ?suitors' do not, and that's the problem." As she said the words a thought began to form in her mind; her fingers touched the blade, and she went perfectly still. Beside her on the bench Alex drew a breath as if to speak, then stopped short, and in that pulsebeat of still silence the same idea was born in both their fertile minds.
"Alex," Elizabeth breathed, "all I have to-"
"Elizabeth," Alex whispered, "it's not as bad as it seems. All you have to-"
Elizabeth straightened slowly and turned. In that prolonged moment of silence two longtime friends sat in a rose garden, looking raptly at each other while time rolled back and they were girls again-lying awake in the dark, confiding their dreams and troubles and inventing schemes to solve them that always began with "If only. . ."
"If only," Elizabeth said as a smile dawned across her face and was matched by the one on Alex's, "I could convince them that we don't suit-"
"Which shouldn't be hard to do," Alex cried enthusiastically, "because it's true."
The joyous relief of having a plan, of being able to take control of a situation that minutes before had threatened her entire life, sent Elizabeth to her feet, her face aglow with laughter. "Poor Sir Francis," she chuckled, looking delightedly from Bentner to Alex as both grinned at her. "I greatly fear he's in for the most disagreeable surprise when he realizes what a-a"-she hesitated, thinking of everything an old rou? would most dislike in his future wife- "a complete prude I am!"