"Try it and you'll look a fool. I'll disclaim all knowledge of any relationship with you, and if you still persist, I'll let your title and your estates rot."
The four months had elapsed now, and there had been no more communications from the duke, but in London gossip was still rampant that Stanhope was about to name an heir. And that the heir would be his natural grandson, Ian Thornton. Now invitations to balls and soirees arrived in tidal waves from the same people who had long ago shunned him as an undesirable, and their hypocrisy alternately amused and disgusted him.
"That black horse we used for packin' up here is the most cantankerous beast alive," Jake grumbled, rubbing his arm.
Ian lifted his gaze from the initials on the tabletop and turned to Jake, making no attempt to hide his amusement. "Bit you, did he?"
"Damn right he bit me!" the older man said bitterly. "He's been after a chunk of me since we left the coach at Hayborn and loaded those sacks on his back to bring up here."
"I warned you he bites anything he can reach. Keep your arm out of his way when you're saddling him."
"If it weren't my arm he was after, it was my arse! Opened his mouth and went for it, only I saw him out ?ter the comer of my eye and swung around, so he missed." Jake's frown darkened when he saw the amusement in Ian's expression. "Can't see why you've bothered to feed him all these years. He doesn't deserve to share a stable with your other horses-beauties they are, every one but him."
"Try slinging packs over the backs of one of those and you'll see why I took him. He was suitable for using as a pack mule; none of my other cattle would have been," Ian said. frowning as he lifted his head and looked about at the months of accumulated dirt covering everything.
"He's slower'n a pack mule," Jake replied. "Mean and stubborn and slow," he concluded, but he, too, was frowning a little as he looked around at the thick layers of dust coating every surface. "Thought you said you'd arranged for some village wenches to come up here and clean and cook ?fer us. This place is a mess."
"I did, I dictated a message to Peters for the caretaker, . asking him to stock the place with food and to have two women come up here to clean and cook. The food is here, and there are chickens out in the barn. He must be having difficulty finding two women to stay up here."
"Comely women, I hope," Jake said. "Did you tell him to make the wenches comely?"
Ian paused in his study of the spiderwebs strewn across the ceiling and cast him an amused look. "You wanted me to tell a seventy-year-old caretaker who's half-blind to make certain the wenches were comely?"
"Couldn'ta hurt t' mention it," Jake grumbled, but he looked chastened.
"The village is only twelve miles away. You can always stroll down there if you've urgent need of a woman while we're here. Of course, the trip back up here may kill you," he joked referring to the winding path up the cliff that seemed to be almost vertical.
"Never mind women," Jake said in an abrupt change of heart, his tanned, weathered face breaking into a broad grin. "I'm here for a fortnight of fishin' and relaxin', and that's enough for any man. It'll be like the old days, Ian-peace and quiet and naught else. No hoity-toity servants hearin' every word what's spoke, no carriages and barouches and matchmaking mamas arrivin' at your house. I tell you, my boy, though I've not wanted to complain about the way you've been livin' this past year, I don't like these servants o' yours above half. That's why I didn't come t'visit you very often. Yer butler at Montmayne holds his nose so far in t'air, it's amazin' he gets any oxhegen, and that French chef o' yers practically threw me out of his kitchens. That what he called ?em-his kitchens, and-" The old seaman abruptly broke off, his expression going from irate to crestfallen, "Ian," he said anxiously, "did you ever learn t' cook while we was apart?"
"No, did you?"
"Hell and damnation, no!" Jake said, appalled at the prospect of having to eat anything he fixed himself.
"Lucinda," Elizabeth said for the third time in an hour, "I cannot tell you how sorry I am about this." Five days ago, Lucinda had arrived at the inn at the Scottish border where she joined Elizabeth for the journey to Ian Thornton's house. This morning, their hired coach broke an axle, and they were now ignominiously ensconced on the back of a hay wagon belonging to a farmer, their trunks and valises tipping precariously to and fro along the rutted path that evidently passed for a road in Scotland. The prospect of arriving in a hay wagon on Ian Thornton's doorstep was so horrible that Elizabeth preferred to concentrate on her guilt, rather than her forthcoming meeting with the monster who had ruined her life.
"As I said the last time you apologized. Elizabeth," Lucinda replied. "it is not your fault, and therefore not your responsibility to apologize, for the deplorable lack of roads and conveyances in this heathen country."
"Yes, but if it weren't for me you wouldn't be here." Lucinda sighed impatiently, clutched the side of the hay wagon as it made a particularly sharp lurch, and righted herself. "And as I have already admitted, if I hadn't been deceived into mentioning Mr. Thornton's name to your uncle, neither of us would be here. You are merely experiencing some nervousness at the disagreeable prospect of confronting the man, and there is no reason in the world-" The wagon tipped horribly and they both clutched at the sides of it for leverage. "-no reason in the world to continue apologizing. Your time would be better spent preparing yourself for the unhappy occasion."
"You're right, of course." "Of course," Lucinda agreed unhesitatingly. "I am always right, as you know. Nearly always," she amended, obviously thinking of how she had been misled by Julius Cameron into revealing the name of Ian Thornton as one of Elizabeth's former suitors. As she'd explained to Elizabeth as soon as she arrived at the inn, she'd only given his name as a suitor because Julius had begun asking questions about Elizabeth's reputation during her debut. and about whether she'd been popular or not. Thinking he'd heard some of the malicious gossip about Elizabeth's involvement with Ian Thornton, Lucinda had tried to put a better face on things by including his name among Elizabeth's many suitors.
"I would rather face the devil himself than that man," Elizabeth said with a repressed shudder.
"I daresay," Lucinda agreed, clutching her umbrella with one hand and the side of the cart with her other.
The nearer the time came, the more angry and confused Elizabeth became about this meeting. For the first four days of their journey, her tension had been greatly allayed by the scenic grandeur of Scotland with its rolling hills and deep valleys carpeted in bluebells and hawthorne. Now, however, as the hour of confronting him drew near, not even the sight of the mountains decked out in spring flowers or the bright blue lakes below could calm her mounting tension. "Furthermore, I cannot believe he has the slightest desire to see me."