"And," Alex added, "what a shocking spendthrift you are!"
"Exactly!" Elizabeth agreed, almost twirling around in her glee. Sunlight danced off her gilded hair and lit her green eyes as she looked delightedly at her friends. "I shall make perfectly certain to give him glaring evidence I am both. Now then, as to the Earl of Canford . . ."
"What a pity," Alex said in a voice of exaggerated gloom, "you won't be able to show him what a capital hand you are with a fishing pole."
"Fish?" Elizabeth returned with a mock shudder. "Why, the mere thought of those scaly creatures positively makes me swoon!"
"Except for that prime one you caught yesterday," Bentner put in wryly.
"You're right," she returned with an affectionate grin at the man who'd taught her to fish. "Will you find Berta and break the news to her about going with me? By the time we come back to the house she ought to be over her hysterics, and I'll reason with her." Bentner trotted off, his threadbare black coattails flapping behind him.
"That only leaves the third contender to discourage," Alex said happily. "Who is he, and what do we know of him? Do I know him?"
It was the moment Elizabeth had been dreading. "You never heard of him until a few weeks ago, when you returned."
"What?" she asked, nonplussed. Elizabeth drew a steadying breath and nervously rubbed her hands against the sides of her blue skirts. "I think," she said slowly, "I ought to tell you exactly what happened a year and a half ago-with Ian Thornton."
"There's no need to ever tell me if it will cause you unhappiness to speak of it. And right now, we surely ought to be thinking of the third man-" "The third man," Elizabeth interrupted tightly, "is Ian Thornton."
"Dear God!" Alex gasped in horror. "Why? I mean-" "I don't know why," Elizabeth admitted with angry confusion. "He accepted my uncle's proposition. So it is either some sort of complete misunderstanding or it is his idea of a joke, and neither makes much sense-"
"A joke! He ruined you. He must be a complete monster to find it amusing now."
"The last time I saw him, he did not find the situation amusing, believe me," Elizabeth said, and, sitting down, she told the whole story, trying desperately to keep her emotions under control so that she would be able to think clearly when she and Alex finalized their plans.
Berta, we've arrived," Elizabeth said as their traveling chaise drew up before the expansive estate belonging to Sir Francis Belhaven. Berta's eyes had been squeezed closed for the last hour, but Elizabeth saw her bosom rising and falling with rapid, shallow breaths and knew she was not asleep. Berta had been terrified at the prospect of playing the role of Elizabeth's aunt, and none of Elizabeth's soothing or promises had eased her fear one bit in the last several days. She had not wanted to come, and now that she was there, she was still praying for deliverance.
"Aunt Berta!" she said forcefully as the front door of the great, rambling house was swung open. The butler stepped aside, and footmen hurried forward. "Aunt Berta!" she said urgently, and in desperation Elizabeth reached for the maid's tightly clenched eyelid. She pried it open and looked straight into a frightened brown orb. "Please do not do this to me, Berta. I'm counting on you to act like an aunt, not a timid mouse. They're almost upon us."
Berta nodded, swallowed, and straightened in her seat, then she smoothed her black bombazine skirts.
"How do I look?" Elizabeth whispered urgently. "Dreadful," said Berta. eyeing the severe, high-necked black linen gown Elizabeth had carefully chosen to wear at this, her first meeting with the prospective husband whom Alexandra had described as a lecherous old rou? To add to her nunlike appearance, Elizabeth's hair was scraped back off her face, pinned into a bun a la Lucinda, and covered with a short veil. Around her neck she wore the only piece of "jewelry" she intended to wear for as long as she was here-a large, ugly iron crucifix she'd borrowed from the family chapel.
"Completely dreadful, milady," Berta added with more strength to her voice. Ever since Robert's disappearance, Berta had elected to address Elizabeth as her mistress instead of in the more familiar ways she'd used before.
"Excellent." Elizabeth said with an encouraging smile. "So do you."
The footman opened the door and let down the steps, and Elizabeth went first. followed by her "aunt." She let Berta step forward. then she turned and looked up at Aaron, who was atop the coach. Her uncle had permitted her to take six servants from Havenhurst, and Elizabeth had chosen them with care. "Don't forget," she warned Aaron needlessly. "Gossip freely about me with any servant who'll listen to you. You know what to say."
"Aye," he said with a devilish grin. "We'll tell them all what a skinny ogress you are-prim ?n proper enough to scare the devil himself into leading a holy life."
Elizabeth nodded and reluctantly turned toward the house. Fate had dealt her this hand, and she had no choice but to play it out as best she could. With head held high and knees shaking violently she walked forward until she drew even with Berta. The butler stood in the doorway, studying Elizabeth with bold interest, giving her the incredible impression that he was actually trying to locate her breasts beneath the shapeless black gown she wore. He stepped back from the door to permit them to enter. "My lord is with guests at the moment and will join you shortly," he explained. "In the meantime, Curbes will show you to your chambers." His eyes shifted to Berta and began to gleam appreciatively as they settled on her plump derriere, then he turned and nodded to the head footman.
With a white-faced, tight-lipped Berta beside her, Elizabeth climbed the long flight of stairs, glancing curiously about her at the gloomy hall and the crimson carpet on the steps. The carpet was thick and soft at the edges, attesting to its original cost, but it was threadbare beneath her feet and in immediate need of being replaced. There were gilt sconces on the wall with candles in them, but they had not been lit, and the staircase and landing above it were shrouded in darkness. So was the bedchamber she'd been assigned, Elizabeth realized as the footman opened the door and ushered them inside.
"Lady Berta's chamber is just through this door," the footman spoke up. Elizabeth squinted, peering in the darkness, and saw him walk over to what she assumed must be a wall. Hinges creaked slightly, hinting at the fact that a door had just been opened by the footman.