Startled, John jerked his head in her direction and saw her charging at him as if Lucifer himself was on her heels, screaming, "Snake! Snake! Snnnaaaake!" And in that instant his concentration was broken; he let his line go slack, and the fish dislodged the hook, exactly as Elizabeth had hoped.
"I saw a snake," she lied, panting and stopping just short of the arms he'd stretched out to catch her-or strangle her, Elizabeth thought, smothering a smile. She stole a quick searching glance at the water, hoping for a glimpse of the magnificent trout he'd nearly caught, her hands itching to hold the pole and try her own luck.
Lord Marchman's disgruntled question snapped her attention back to him. "Would you like to fish, or would you rather sit and watch for a bit, until you recover from your flight from the serpent?"
Elizabeth looked around in feigned shock. "Goodness, sir, I don't fish!"
"Do you sit?" he asked with what might have been sarcasm.
Elizabeth lowered her lashes to hide her smile at the mounting impatience in his voice. "Of course I sit," she proudly told him. "Sitting is an excessively ladylike occupation, but fishing, in my opinion, is not. I shall adore watching you do it, however."
For the next two hours she sat on the boulder beside him, complaining about its hardness, the brightness of the sun and the dampness of the air, and when she ran out of matters to complain about she proceeded to completely spoil his morning by chattering his ears off about every inane topic she could think of while occasionally tossing rocks into the stream to scare off his fish.
When at last he finally hooked one, despite Elizabeth's best efforts to prevent it, she scrambled to her feet and backed up a step. "You-you're hurting it!" she cried as he pulled the hook from its mouth.
"Hurting what? The fish?" he asked in disbelief. "Yes!"
"Nonsense," said he, looking at her as If she was daft, then he tossed the fish on the bank.
"It can't breathe, I tell you!" she wailed, her eyes fixed on the flapping fish.
"It doesn't need to breathe." he retorted. "We're going to eat it for lunch."
"I certainly won't!" she cried, managing to look at him as if he were a cold-blooded murderer.
"Lady Cameron," he said sternly, "am Ito believe you've never eaten fish?"
"Well, of course I have."
" And where do you think the fish you've eaten came from?" he continued with irate logic.
"It came from a nice tidy package wrapped in paper," Elizabeth announced with a vacuous look. "They come in nice, tidy paper wrapping."
"Well, they weren't born in that tidy paper," he replied, and Elizabeth had a dreadful time hiding her admiration for his patience as well as for the firm tone he was finally taking with her. He was not, as she had originally thought, a fool or a namby-pamby. "Before that," he persisted, "where was the fish? How did that fish get to the market in the first place?"
Elizabeth gave her head a haughty toss, glanced sympathetically at the flapping fish, then gazed at him with haughty condemnation in her eyes. "I assume they used nets or something, but I'm perfectly certain they didn't do it this way."
"What way?" he demanded.
"The way you have-sneaking up on it in its own little watery home, tricking it by covering up your hook with that poor fuzzy thing, and then jerking the poor fish away from its family and tossing it on the bank to die. It's quite inhumane!" she said, and she gave her skirts an irate twitch.
Lord Marchman stared at her in frowning disbelief, then he shook his head as if trying to clear it. A few minutes later he escorted her home.
Elizabeth made him carry the basket containing the fish on the opposite side from where she walked. And when that didn't seem to discomfit the poor man she insisted he hold his arm straight out-to keep the basket even further from her person.
She was not at all surprised when Lord Marchman excused himself until supper, nor when he remained moody and thoughtful throughout their uncomfortable meal. She covered the silence, however, by chattering earnestly about the difference between French and English fashions and the importance of using only the best kid for gloves, and then she regaled him with detailed descriptions of every gown she could remember seeing. By the end of the meal Lord Marchman looked dazed and angry; Elizabeth was a little hoarse and very encouraged.
"I think," Berta remarked with a proud little smile when she was seated alone in the drawing room beside Elizabeth. "he's having second thoughts about proposing, milady."
"I think he was silently contemplating the easiest way to murder me at dinner," Elizabeth said, chuckling. She was about to say more when the butler interrupted them to announce that Lord Marchman wished to have a private word with Lady Cameron in his study.
Elizabeth prepared for another battle of wits-or witlessness, she thought with an inner smile-and dutifully followed the butler down a dark hall furnished in brown and into a very large study where the earl was seated in a maroon chair at a desk on her right.
"You wished to see-" she began as she stepped into his study, but something on the wall beside her brushed against her hair. Elizabeth turned her head, expecting to see a portrait hanging there, and instead found herself eye-to-fang with an enormous bear's head. The little scream that tore from her was very real this time, although it owed to shock, not to fear.
"It's quite dead," the earl said in a voice of weary resignation, watching her back away from his most prized hunting trophy with her hand over her mouth.
Elizabeth recovered instantly, her gaze sweeping over the wall of hunting trophies, then she turned around.
"You may take your hand away from your mouth," he stated. Elizabeth fixed him with another accusing glare, biting her lip to hide her smile. She would have dearly loved to hear how he had stalked that bear or where he had found that monstrous big boar, but she knew better than to ask. "Please, my lord," she said instead, "tell me these poor creatures didn't die at your hands."
"I'm afraid they did. Or more correctly, at the point of my gun. Please sit down." He nodded toward an overstuffed leather wingback chair in front of his desk, and Elizabeth settled into its enveloping comfort. "Tell me, if you will," he inquired, his eyes softening as he gazed upon her upturned face, "in the event we were wed, how would you envision our lives together?"
Elizabeth hadn't expected such a frontal attack. and she both respected him for it and was disconcerted by it. Taking a long breath, she tried systematically to describe the sort of life she knew he'd probably loathe: "Naturally, we'd live in London," she began, leaning forward in her chair in a pose of eager enthusiasm. "I do so adore the city and its amusements."