His brows drew together at the mention of living in London. "What sort of amusements do you enjoy?"
"Amusements?" Elizabeth said brightly, considering. "Balls and routs and the opera. I adore giving balls and attending them. In fact, I simply cannot bear to miss a ball. Why, during my season there were days I managed to make it to as many as fifteen different balls! And I adore gambling," she added, trying to give him the impression that she would cost him a great deal more than the dowry she would bring. "I have dreadful luck, however, and am forever having to borrow money."
"I see," he said. "Is there anything else?" Elizabeth faltered, feeling she ought to think of more, his steady, speculative gaze was unnerving her. "What else matters in life," she said with forced gaiety, "other than balls and gaming and sophisticated companions?"
His face had grown so thoughtful that Elizabeth sensed he was working up the courage to cry off, and she waited in expectant silence so as not to distract him. The moment he began to speak, she knew he was going to do it because his speech became awkward, as it seemed to do whenever he addressed her on matters he perceived to be important. "Lady. . . er. . ." he began lamely, running his fingers around his neckcloth.
"Cameron," Elizabeth provided helpfully. "Yes-Cameron," he agreed, and he fell silent for a moment, regathering his thoughts. "Lady Cameron," he began, "I am a simple country lord without any aspirations to spend the season in London and cut a dash among the ton. I go there as seldom as possible. I can see that disappoints you."
Elizabeth nodded sadly.
"I greatly fear," he said, flushing at the neck, "that we won't suit, Lady. . . er . . ." He trailed off uneasily at his rudeness.
"Cameron," Elizabeth provided, eager to have him complete his thought.
"Yes, of course. Cameron. I knew that. What I was trying to say was that. . . ah . . ."
"We won't suit?" Elizabeth prodded helpfully.
"Exactly!" Misintepreting her last sentence as being her own thought instead of his, he sighed with relief and nodded emphatically. "I must say I'm happy to hear you agree with me."
"Naturally, I regret that this is so," Elizabeth added kindly, feeling that some sort of balm was due him for the emotional torment she'd put him through at the stream. "My uncle will be most disappointed also," she continued. It was all she could do not to leap to her feet and put the quill in his hand as she added, "Would you like to write to him now and explain your decision?"
"Our decision," he corrected gallantly.
"Yes, but. . ." She hesitated, framing her answer carefully. "My uncle will be so very disappointed, and I-I shouldn't like him to lay the blame at my door" Sir Francis might well have blamed her in his inevitable letter to her uncle, and she didn't dare risk having the earl do likewise. Uncle Julius was no fool, and she couldn't risk his retribution if he realized she'd bees deliberately discouraging her beaux and intentionally thwarting him.
"I see," he said, observing her with disturbing concentration, then he picked up a quill and trimmed it. A sigh of relief escaped Elizabeth as she watched him write his note. "Now that that distasteful matter is out of the way, may I ask you something?" he said, shoving the note aside.
Elizabeth nodded happily.
"Why did you come here-that is, why did you agree to reconsider my proposal?"
The question alarmed and startled her. Now that she'd seen him she had only the dimmest, possibly even erroneous recollection of having spoken to him at a ball. Moreover, she couldn't tell him she was in danger of being cut off by her uncle, for that whole explanation was too humiliating to bear mentioning.
He waited for her to reply, and when she seemed unable to give one he prompted, "Did I do or say something during our brief meetings the year before last to mislead you, perhaps, into believing I might yearn for the city life?"
"It's hard to say," Elizabeth said with absolute honesty. ."Lady Cameron, do you even remember our meeting?" "Oh, yes, of course. Certainly," Elizabeth replied, belatedly recalling a man who looked very like him being presented to her at Lady Markham's. That was it! "We met at Lady Markham's ball."
His gaze never left her face. "We met in the park."
"In the park?" Elizabeth repeated in sublime embarrassment.
"You had stopped to admire the flowers, and the young gentleman who was your escort that day introduced us."
"I see," Elizabeth replied. her gaze skating away from his. "Would you care to know what we discussed that day and the next day when I escorted you back to the park?" Curiosity and embarrassment warred, and curiosity won out.
"Yes, I would."
"F-Fishing?" Elizabeth gasped. He nodded. "Within minutes after we were introduced I mentioned that I had not come to London for the Season, as you supposed, but that I was on my way to Scotland to do some fishing and was leaving London the very next day."
An awful feeling of foreboding crept over Elizabeth as something stirred in her memory. "We had a charming chat," he continued. "You spoke enthusiastically of a particularly challenging trout you were once able to land."
Elizabeth's face felt as hot as red coals as he continued, "We quite forgot the time and your poor escort as we shared fishing stories."
He was quiet, waiting, and when Elizabeth couldn't endure the damning silence anymore she said uneasily, "Was there. . . more?"
"Very little. I did not leave for Scotland the next day but stayed instead to call upon you. You abandoned the half-dozen young bucks who'd come to escort you to some sort of fancy soiree and chose instead to go for another impromptu walk in the park with me."
Elizabeth swallowed audibly, unable to meet his eyes. "Would you like to know what we talked about that day?" "No, I don't think so."
He chuckled but ignored her reply. "You professed to be somewhat weary of the social whirl and confessed to a longing to be in the country that day-which is why we went to the park. We had a charming time, I thought."
When he fell silent, Elizabeth forced herself to meet his gaze and say with resignation, "And we talked of fishing?"
"No," he said. "Of boar hunting." Elizabeth closed her eyes in sublime shame. "You related an exciting tale of a wild boar your father had shot long ago, and of how you watched the hunt without permission-from the very tree below which the boar was ultimately felled. As I recall," he finished kindly, "you told me that it was your impulsive cheer that revealed your hiding place to the hunters-and that caused you to be seriously reprimanded by your father."