"You deny you sent me a note?" she snapped.

"Of course I deny it."

"Then what were you doing in the greenhouse?" she shot back at him.

"I came in response to that nearly illegible note you sent me," he said in a bored, insulting drawl. "May I suggest that in future you devote less of your time to theatrics and some of it to improving your handwriting?" His gaze shifted to the pistol. "Put the gun down before you hurt yourself."

Elizabeth raised it higher in her shaking hand. "You have insulted me and degraded me every time I've been in your presence. If my brother were here, he'd call you out! Since he is not here," she continued almost mindlessly, "I shall demand my own satisfaction. If I were a man, I'd have the right to satisfaction on the field of honor, and as a woman I refuse to be denied that right."

"You're ridiculous."

"Perhaps," Elizabeth said softly, "but I also happen to be an excellent shot. I'm a far worthier opponent for you on the dueling field than my brother. Now, will you meet me outside, or shall I-I finish you here?" she threatened, so beside herself with fury that she never stopped to think how reckless, how utterly empty her threat was. Her coachman had insisted she learn to fire a weapon for her own protection, but although her aim was excellent when she'd practiced with targets, she had never shot a living thing.

"I'll do no such silly damned thing."

Elizabeth raised the gun higher. "Then I'll have your apology right now."

"What am I to apologize for?" he asked, still infuriatingly calm.

"You may start by apologizing for luring me into the greenhouse with that note."

"I didn't write a note. I received a note from you."

"You have great difficulty sorting out the notes you send and don't send, do you not?" she said. Without waiting for a reply she continued, "Next, you can apologize for trying to seduce me in England, and for ruining my reputation-"

"Ian!" Jake said, thunderstruck. "It's one thing to insult a lady's handwriting, but spoilin' her reputation is another. A thing like that could ruin her whole life!"

Ian shot him an ironic glance. "Thank you, Jake, for that helpful bit of inflammatory information. Would you now like to help her pull the trigger?"

Elizabeth's emotions veered crazily from fury to mirth as the absurdity of the bizarre tableau suddenly struck her. Here she was, holding a gun on a man in his own home, while poor Lucinda held another man at umbrella-point-a man who was trying ineffectually to soothe matters by inadvertently heaping more fuel on the volatile situation. And then she recognized the stupid futility of it all, and that banished her flicker of mirth. Once again this unspeakable man had caused her to make a complete fool of herself, and the realization made her eyes blaze with renewed fury as she turned her head and looked at him.

Despite Ian's apparent nonchalance he had been watching her closely, and he stiffened, sensing instinctively that she was suddenly and inexplicably angrier than before. He nodded to the gun, and when he spoke there was no more mockery in his voice; instead it was carefully neutral. "I think there are a few things you ought to consider before you use that."

Though she had no intention of using it, Elizabeth listened attentively as he continued in that same helpful voice. "First of all, you'll have to be very fast and very calm if you intend to shoot me and reload before Jake there gets to you. Second. I think it's only fair to warn you that there's going to be a great deal of blood all over the place. I'm not complaining, you understand. but I think it's only right to warn you that you're never again going to be able to wear that charming gown you have on." Elizabeth felt her stomach lurch. "You'll hang. of course," he continued conversationally, "but that won't be nearly as distressing as the scandal you'll have to face first."

Too disgusted with herself and with him to react to that last mocking remark, Elizabeth put her chin up and managed to say with great dignity, "I've had enough of this, Mr. Thornton. I did not think-anything could equal your swinish behavior at our prior meetings, but you've managed to do it. Unfortunately, I am not so ill-bred as you and therefore have scruples against assaulting someone who is weaker than I, which is what I would be doing if I were to shoot an unarmed man. Lucinda, we are leaving," she said, then she glanced back at her silent adversary, who'd taken a threatening step, and she shook her head, saying with extreme, mocking civility, "No, please-do not bother to see us out, sir, there's no need. Besides, I wish to remember you just as you are at this moment-helpless and thwarted." It was odd, but now, at the low point of her life, Elizabeth felt almost exhilarated because she was finally doing something to avenge her pride instead of meekly accepting her fate. Lucinda had marched out onto the porch already, and Elizabeth tried to think of something to dissuade him from retrieving his gun when she threw it away outside. She decided to repeat his own advice, which she began to do as she backed away toward the door. "I know you're loath to see us leave like this," she said, her voice and her hand betraying a slight, fearful tremor. "However, before you consider coming after us, I beg you will take your own excellent advice and pause to consider if killing me is worth hanging for."

Whirling on her heel, Elizabeth took one running step, then cried out in pained surprise as she was jerked off her feet and a hard blow to her forearm sent the gun flying to the floor at the same time her arm was yanked up and twisted behind her back. "Yes," he said in an awful voice near her ear, "I actually think it would be worth it."

Just when she thought her arm would surely snap, her captor gave her a hard shove that sent her stumbling headlong out into the yard, and the door slammed shut behind her.

"Well! I never," Lucinda said, her bosom heaving with rage as she glowered at the closed door.

"Neither have I," said Elizabeth, shaking dirt off her hem and deciding to retreat with as much dignity as possible. "We can talk about what a madman he is once we're down the path, out of sight of the house. So if you'll please take that end of the trunk?"

With a black look Lucinda complied, and they marched down the path, both of them concentrating on keeping their backs as straight as possible.

In the house Jake above his hands deep in his pockets as he stood at the window watching the women, his expression a mixture of stupefaction and ire. "Gawd almighty," he breathed, glancing at Ian, who was scowling at the unopened note in his hand. "The women are chasin' you clear into Scotland! That'll stop soon as the news is out that yer betrothed." Reaching up, he idly scratched his bushy red hair and turned back to the window, peering down the path. The women had vanished from view, and he left the window. Unable to hide a tinge of admiration, he added, "Tell you one thing, that blond gel had spunk, you have to give her that. Cool as can be, she stood there tauntin' you with your own words and calling' you a swine. I don't know a man what would dare to do that."

Tags: Judith McNaught Sequels Billionaire Romance
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