"It's dark as a tomb in here," she said, unable to see more than shadows. "Will you light the candles, please," she asked, "assuming there are candles in here?"

"Aye, milady, right there, next to the bed." His shadow crossed before her, and Elizabeth focused on a large, oddly shaped object that she supposed could be a bed, given its size.

"Will you light them, please?" she urged. "I-I can't see a thing in here."

"His lordship don't like more'n one candle lit in the bedchambers," the, footman said. "He says it's a waste o' beeswax."

Elizabeth blinked in the darkness, tom somewhere between laughter and tears at her plight. "Oh," she said, nonplussed. The footman lit a small candle at the far end of the room and left, closing the door behind him. "Milady?" Berta whispered, peering through the dark, impenetrable gloom. "Where are you?"

"I'm over here," Elizabeth replied, walking cautiously forward, her arms outstretched, her hands groping about for possible obstructions in her path as she headed for what she hoped was the outside wall of the bedchamber, where there was bound to be a window with draperies hiding its light.

"Where?" Bert asked in a frightened whisper, and Elizabeth could hear the maid's teeth chattering halfway across the room.

"Here-on your left." Berta followed the sound of her mistress's voice and let out a terrified gasp at the sight of the ghostlike figure moving eerily through the darkness, arms outstretched. "Raise your arm," she said urgently, "so I'll know ?tis you."

Elizabeth, knowing Berta's timid nature, complied immediately. She raised her arm, which, while calming poor Berta, unfortunately caused Elizabeth to walk straight into a slender, fluted pillar with a marble bust upon it, and they both began to topple. "Good God!" Elizabeth burst out, wrapping her arms protectively around the pillar and the marble object upon it. "Berta!" she said urgently. "This is no time to be afraid of the dark. Help me, please. I've bumped into something-a bust and its stand, I think and I daren't let go of them until I can see how to set them upright. There are draperies over here, right in front of me. All you have to do is follow my voice and open them. Once we do, ?twill be bright as day in here."

"I'm coming, milady," Berta said bravely, and Elizabeth breathed a sigh of relief. "I've found them!" Berta cried softly a few minutes later. "They're heavy-velvet they are, with another panel behind them." Berta pulled one heavy panel back across the wall, and then, with renewed urgency and vigor, she yanked back the other and turned around to survey the room.

"Light at last!" Elizabeth said with relief. Dazzliing late afternoon sunlight poured into the windows directly in front of her, blinding her momentarily. "That's much better," she said, blinking. Satisfied that the pillar was quite sturdy enough to stand without her aid, Elizabeth was about to place the bust back upon it, but Berta's cry stopped her. "Saints preserve us!" With the fragile bust clutched protectively to her chest Elizabeth swung sharply around. There, spread out before her, furnished entirely in red and gold, was the most shocking room Elizabeth had ever beheld: Six enormous gold cupids seemed to hover in thin air above a gigantic bed clutching crimson velvet bed draperies in one pudgy fist and holding bows and arrows in the other; more cupids adorned the headboard. Elizabeth's eyes widened, first in disbelief, and a moment later in mirth. "Berta," she breathed on a smothered giggle, "will you look at this place!"

Mesmerized by the gilt ghastliness of it all, Elizabeth slowly turned in a full circle. Above the fireplace there was a gilt-framed painting of a lady attired in nothing whatsoever but a scrap of nearly-transparent red silk that had been draped across her hips. Elizabeth jerked her eyes away from that shocking display of nudity and found herself confronted by a veritable army of cavorting cupids. They reposed in chubby, gilt splendor atop the mantel and the bed tables; a cluster of them formed the tall candelabra beside the bed, which held twelve candles-one of which the footman had lit-and more cupids surrounded an enormous mirror;

"It's. . ." Berta uttered as she gazed through eyes the size of saucers, "it's. . . I can't find words," she breathed, but Elizabeth had passed through her own state of shock and was perilously close to hilarity.

"Unspeakable?" Elizabeth suggested helpfully, and a giggle bubbled up from her throat. "U-Unbelievable?" she volunteered, her shoulders beginning to shake with mirth.

Berta made a nervous, strangled sound, and suddenly it was too much for both of them. Days of relentless tension erupted into gales of hilarity, and they gave in to it with shared abandon. Great gusty shouts of laughter erupted from them, sending tears trickling down their cheeks. Berta snatched for her missing apron, then remembered her new, elevated station in life and instead withdrew a handkerchief from her sleeve, dabbing at the comers of her eyes; Elizabeth simply clutched the forgotten bust to her chest, perched her chin upon its smooth head, and laughed until she ached. So complete was their absorption that neither of them realized their host was entering the bedchamber until Sir Francis boomed enthusiastically, "Lady Elizabeth and Lady Berta!"

Berta let out a muffled scream of surprised alarm and quickly shifted her handkerchief from the comers of her eyes to her mouth.

Elizabeth took one look at the satin-clad figure who rather resembled the cupids he obviously admired, and the dire reality of her predicament hit her like a bucket of icy water, banishing all thoughts of laughter. She dropped her gaze to the floor, trying wildly to remember her plan and to believe she could make it work. She had to make it work, for if she failed, this aging rou?with the penchant for gilded cupids could very likely become her husband.

"My dear, dear ladies." Sir Francis ?? as he hastened forward, "what a long-awaited delight this is!" Courtesy demanded that he acknowledge the older lady first, and so he turned to her. Picking up Berta's limp hand from her side, he pressed his lips to it and said. "Permit me to introduce myself. I am Sir Francis Belhaven."

Lady Berta curtsied her fear-widened eyes fastened on his face, and continued to press her handkerchief to her lips. To his astonishment, she did not acknowledge him at all; she did not say she was charmed to meet him or inquire after his health. Instead, the woman curtsied again. And once again. "There's hardly a need for all that." he said. covering his puzzlement with forced joviality. "I'm only a knight, you know. Not a duke or even an earl."


Tags: Judith McNaught Sequels Billionaire Romance
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