Lady Berta curtsied again, and Elizabeth nudged her sharply with her elbow. "How do!" burst out the plump lady.
"My aunt is a trifle-er-shy with strangers," Elizabeth managed weakly.
The sound of Elizabeth Cameron's soft, musical voice made Sir Francis's blood sing. He turned with unhidden eagerness to his future bride and realized that it was a bust of himself that Elizabeth was clutching so protectively, so very affectionately to her bosom. He could scarcely contain his delight. "I knew it would be this way between us-no pretense, no maidenly shyness," he burst out, beaming at her blank, wary expression as he gently took the bust of himself from Elizabeth's arms. "But my lovely, there's no need for you to caress a hunk of clay when I am here in the flesh.
Momentarily struck dumb, Elizabeth gaped at the bust she'd been holding as he first set it gently upon its stand, then turned expectantly to her, leaving her with the horrifying-and accurate-thought that he now expected her to reach out and draw his balding head to her bosom. She stared at him, her mind in paralyzed chaos. "I-I would ask a favor of you, Sir Francis," she burst out finally.
"Anything, my dear," he said huskily.
"I would like to-to rest before supper,"
He stepped back, looking disappointed, but then he recalled his manners and reluctantly nodded. "We don't keep country hours. Supper is at eight-thirty." For the first time he took a moment to really look at her. His memories of her exquisite face and delicious body had been so strong, so clear, that until then he'd been seeing the Lady Elizabeth Cameron he'd met long ago. Now he belatedly registered the stark, unattractive gown she wore and the severe way her hair was dressed. His gaze dropped to the ugly iron cross that hung about her neck, and he recoiled in shock. "Oh, and my dear, I've invited a few guests," he added pointedly, his eyes on her unattractive gown. "I thought you would want to know, in order to attire yourself more appropriately."
Elizabeth suffered that insult with the same numb paralysis she'd felt since she set eyes on him. Not until the door closed behind him did she feel able to move. "Berta," she burst out, flopping disconsolately onto the chair beside her, "how could you curtsy like that-he'll know you for a lady's maid before the night is out! We'll never pull this off."
"Well" Berta exclaimed, hurt and indignant. "Twasn't I who was clutching his head to my bosom when he came in."
"We'll do better after this," Elizabeth vowed with an apologetic glance over her shoulder, and the trepidation was gone from her voice, replaced by steely determination and urgency. "We have to do better. I want us both out of here tomorrow. The day after at the very latest."
"The butler stared at my bosom," Berta complained. "I saw him!"
Elizabeth sent her awry, mirthless smile. "The footman stared at mine. No woman is safe in this place. We only had a bit of-of stage fright just now. We're new to playacting, but tonight I'll carry it off. You'll see. No matter what it takes, I'll do it."
When Elizabeth finally descended the stairs on her way to the dining room she was two hours late. Deliberately.
"Good heavens, you're tardy, my dear!" Sir Francis said, shoving back his chair and rushing to the doorway where Elizabeth had been standing, trying to gather her courage to do what needed to be done. "Come and meet my guests," he ,said, drawing her forward after a swift, disappointed look at her drab attire and severe coiffure. "We did as you suggested in your note and went ahead with supper. What kept you abovestairs so long?"
"I was at prayer," Elizabeth said, managing to look him straight in the eye.
Sir Francis recovered from his surprise in time to introduce her to the three other people at the table-two men who resembled him in age and features and two women of perhaps five and thirty who were both attired in the most shockingly revealing gowns Elizabeth had ever seen.
Elizabeth accepted a helping of cold meat to silence her protesting stomach while both women studied her with unbidden scorn. "That is a most unusual ensemble you're wearing, I must say," remarked the woman named Eloise. ?Is it the custom where you come from to dress so . . . simply?"
Elizabeth took a dainty bite of meat. "Not really. I disapprove of too much personal adornment." She turned to Sir Francis with an innocent stare. "Gowns are expensive. I consider them a great waste of money."
Sir Francis was suddenly inclined to agree, particularly since he intended to keep her naked as much as possible. "Quite right!" he beamed, eyeing the other ladies with pointed disapproval. "No sense in spending all that money on gowns. No point in spending money at all."
"My sentiments exactly," Elizabeth said, nodding. "I prefer to give every shilling I can find to charity instead."
"Give it away?" he said in a muted roar, half rising out of his chair. Then he forced himself to sit back down and reconsider the wisdom of wedding her. She was lovely-her face more mature than he remembered it, but not even the black veil and scraped-back hair could detract from the beauty of her emerald-green eyes with their long, sooty lashes. Her eyes had dark circles beneath them-shadows he didn't recall seeing there earlier in the day. He put the shadows down to her far-too-serious nature. Her dowry was creditable, and her body beneath that shapeless black gown . . . he wished he could see her shape. Perhaps it, too, had changed, and not for the better, in the past few years.
"I had hoped, my dear," Sir Francis said, covering her hand with his and squeezing it affectionately, "that you might wear something else down to supper, as I suggested you should."
Elizabeth gave him an innocent stare. "This is all I brought." "All you brought?" he uttered. "B-But I distinctly saw my footmen carrying several trunks upstairs."
"They belong to my aunt-only one of them is mine," she fabricated hastily, already anticipating his next question and thinking madly for some satisfactory answer.
"Really?" He continued to eye her gown with great dissatisfaction, and then he asked exactly the question she'd expected: "What, may I ask, does your one trunk contain if not gowns?"
Inspiration struck, and Elizabeth smiled radiantly. "Something of great value. Priceless value," she confided.
All faces at the table watched her with alert fascination particularly the greedy Sir Francis. "Well, don't keep us in suspense, love. What's in it?"
"The mortal remains of Saint Jacob." Lady Eloise and Lady Mortand screamed in unison, Sir William choked on his wine, and Sir Francis gaped at her in horror, but Elizabeth wasn't quite finished. She saved the coup de grace until the meal was over. As soon as everyone arose she insisted that they sit back down so a proper prayer of gratitude could be said. Raising her hands heavenward, Elizabeth turned a simple grace into a stinging tirade against the sins of lust and promiscuity that rose to a crescendo as she called down the vengeance of doomsday on all transgressors and culminated in a terrifyingly lurid description of the terrors that awaited all who strayed down the path of lechery-terrors that combined dragon lore with mythology, a smattering of religion, and a liberal dash of her own vivid imagination. When it was done Elizabeth dropped her eyes, praying in earnest that tonight would loose her from her predicament. There was no more she could do; she'd played out her hand with all her might; she'd given it her all.