"Er-very well," he replied, casting an anxious look of appeal to Ian, who seemed to be momentarily enjoying Jake's futile efforts to create an atmosphere of conviviality. Disconcerted, Jake ran his hands through his disheveled hair and arranged a forced smile on his face. Nervously, he gestured about the untidy room. "Well, now, if we'd known we were going to have such. . . ah . . . gra . . . that is, illustrious company, we'd have-"
"Swept off the chairs?" Lucinda suggested acidly. "Shoveled off the floor?"
"Lucinda!" Elizabeth whispered desperately. "They didn't know we were coming."
"No respectable person would dwell in such a place even for a night," she snapped, and Elizabeth watched in mingled distress and admiration as the redoubtable woman turned around and directed her attack on their unwilling host. "The responsibility for our being here is yours, whether it was a mistake or not! I shall expect you to rout your servants from their hiding places and have them bring clean linens up to us at once. I shall also expect them to have this squalor remedied by morning! It is obvious from your behavior that you are no gentleman; however, we are ladies, and we shall expect to be treated as such."
From the corner of her eye Elizabeth had been watching Ian Thornton, who was listening to all of this, his jaw rigid, a muscle beginning to twitch dangerously in the side of his neck.
Lucinda, however, was either unaware of or unconcerned with his reaction, for, as she picked up her skirts and turned toward the stairs, she turned on Jake. "You may show us to our chambers. We wish to retire."
"Retire?" cried Jake, thunderstruck. "But-but what about supper?" he sputtered.
"You may bring it up to us." Elizabeth saw the blank look on Jake's face, and she endeavored to translate, politely, what the irate woman was saying to the startled red-haired man.
"What Miss Throckmorton-Jones means is that we're rather exhausted from our trip and not very good company, sir, and so we prefer to dine in our rooms."
"You will dine," Ian Thornton said in an awful voice that made Elizabeth freeze, "on what you cook for yourself, madam. If you want clean linens, you'll get them yourself from the cabinet. If you want clean rooms, clean them! Am I making myself clear?"
"Perfectly." Elizabeth began furiously, but Lucinda interrupted in a voice shaking with ire: "Are you suggesting, sirrah, that we are to do the work of servants?"
Ian's experience with the ton and with Elizabeth had given him a lively contempt for ambitious, shallow, self-indulgent young women whose single goal in life was to acquire as many gowns and jewels as possible with the least amount of effort, and he aimed his attack at Elizabeth. "I am suggesting that you look after yourself for the first time in your silly, aimless life. In return for that, I am willing to give you a roof over your head and to share our food with you until I can get you to the village. lf that is too overwhelming a task for you, then my original invitation still stands: There's the door. Use it!"
Elizabeth knew the man was irrational, and it wasn't worth riling herself to reply to him, so she turned instead to Lucinda. "Lucinda," she said with weary resignation, "do not upset yourself by trying to make Mr. Thornton understand that his mistake has inconvenienced us. not the other way around. You will only waste your time. A gentleman of breeding would be perfectly able to understand that he should be apologizing instead of ranting and raving. However, as I told you before we came here, Mr. Thornton is no gentleman. The simple fact is that he enjoys humiliating people, and he will continue trying to humiliate us for as long as we stand here."
Elizabeth cast a look of well-bred disdain over Ian and said, "Good night, Mr. Thornton." Turning, she softened her voice a little and said, "Good evening, Mr. Wiley."
When the ladies had both retired to their bedchambers Jake wandered over to the table and rummaged through the provisions. Taking out some cheese and bread, he listened to the sounds of their footsteps on the wooden floor as they went about opening cabinets and making up their beds. When he'd finished eating he had two glasses of Madeira, then he glanced at Ian. "You ought to eat something," he said.
"I'm not hungry," his friend replied shortly. Jake's eyes filled with puzzlement as he gazed at the enigmatic man who was staring out the window into the darkness, his profile taut.
Although there had been no sounds of movement from the bedchambers above for the last half hour, Jake felt guilty that the ladies hadn't eaten. Hesitantly, he said, "Shall I bring some of this up to them?"
"No," Ian said "If they want to eat, they can damn we'd come down here and feed themselves."
"We're not being very hospitable to ?em, Ian." "Not hospitable?" he repeated with a sarcastic glance over his shoulder. "In case you haven't realized it; they've taken two of the bedchambers, which means one of us will be sleeping on the sofa tonight."
"The sofa's too short. I'd sleep out in the barn, like I used to do. Don't mind it a bit. I like the way hay smells, and it's soft. Your caretaker's brought up a cow and some chickens, just like the note said, so we'd have fresh milk and eggs. Looks to me like the only thing he didn't do was have someone clean this place up."
When Ian made no reply to that but continued staring off into the dark, Jake said hesitantly, "Would you be willing to tell me how the ladies came to be here? I mean, who are they?"
Ian drew a long, impatient breath, tipped his head back. and absently massaged the muscles at the back of his neck. "I met Elizabeth a year and a half ago at a party. She'd just made her debut, was already betrothed to some unfortunate nobleman, and was eager to test her wiles on me."
"Test her wiles on you? I thought you said she was engaged to another."
Sighing irritably at his friend's naivet? Ian said curtly, "Debutantes are a different breed from any women you've known. Twice a year their mamas bring them to London to make their debut. They're paraded about during the Season like horses at an auction, then their parents sell them as wives to whoever bids the highest. The winning bidder is selected by the expedient measure of choosing whoever has the most important title and the most money."
"Barbaric!" said Jake indignantly. Ian shot him an ironic look. "Don't waste your pity. It suits them perfectly. All they want from marriage is jewels, gowns, and the freedom to have discreet liaisons with whomever they please, once they produce the requisite heir. They've no notion of fidelity or honest human feeling."