Jake's brows lifted at that. "Can't say as I ever noticed you took the petticoat set in aversion," he remarked, thinking of the women who'd warmed Ian's bed in the last two years some with titles of their own.

"Speaking of debutantes," Jake continued cautiously when Ian remained silent, "what about the one upstairs? Do you dislike her especially, or just on general principle?"

Ian walked over to the table and poured some Scotch into a glass. He took a swallow, shrugged, and said, "Miss Cameron was more inventive than some of her vapid little friends. She accosted me in a garden at a party."

"I can see how bothersome that musta been," Jake joked, "having someone like her, with a face that men dream about, tryin' to seduce you, usin' feminine wiles on you. Did they work?"

Slamming the glass down on the table, Ian said curtly, "They worked." Coldly dismissing Elizabeth from his mind, be opened the deerskin case on the table, removed some papers he needed to review, and sat down in front of the fire.

Trying to suppress his avid curiosity, Jake waited a few minutes before asking, "Then what happened?"

Already engrossed in reading the documents in his hand, Ian said absently and without looking up, "I asked her to marry me; she sent me a note inviting me to meet her in the greenhouse; I went there; her brother barged in on us and informed me she was a countess, and that she was already betrothed."

The topic thrust from his mind, Ian reached for the quill lying on the small table beside his chair and made a note in the margin of the contract.

"And?" Jake demanded avidly.

"And what?"

"And then what happened-after the brother barged in?" "He took exception to my having contemplated marrying so far above myself and challenged me to a duel," Ian replied in a preoccupied voice as he made another note on the contract.

"So what's the girl doin' here now?" Jake asked, scratching his head in bafflement over the doings of the Quality.

"Who the hell knows," Ian murmured irritably. "Based on her behavior with me, my guess is she finally got caught in some sleazy affair or another, and her reputation's beyond repair."

"What's that got to do with you?" Ian expelled his breath in a long. irritated sigh and glanced at Jake with an expression that made it clear he was finished answering questions. "I assume," be bit out, "that her family, recalling my absurd obsession with her two years ago, hoped I'd come up to scratch again and take her off their bands."

"You think it's got somethin' to do with the old duke ?talking about you bein' his natural grandson and wantin' to make you his heir?" He waited expectantly, hoping for more information, but Ian ignored him, reading his documents. Left with no other choice and no prospect for further confidences, Jake picked up a candle, gathered up some blankets, and started for the barn. He paused at the door, Struck by a sudden thought. "She said she didn't send you any note about meetin' her in the greenhouse."

"She's a liar and an excellent little actress," Ian said icily, without taking his gaze from the papers. "Tomorrow I'll think of some way to get her out of here and off my hands."

Something in Ian's face made Jake ask, "Why the hurry? You afraid of fallin' fer her wiles again?"

"Hardly." "Then you must be made of stone," he teased. "That woman's so beautiful she'd tempt any man who was alone with her for an hour includin' me, and you know I ain't in the petticoat line at all."

"Don't let her catch you alone," Ian replied mildly. "I don't think I'd mind." Jake laughed as he left.

Upstairs in the bedchamber at the end of the hall over the kitchen, Elizabeth had wearily pulled off her clothes. climbed into bed, and fallen into an exhausted slumber.

In the bedchamber that opened off the landing above the parlor where the two men talked, Lucinda Throckmorton-Jones had seen no reason to break her normal retiring routine. Refusing to yield to weariness merely because she'd been jounced about on the back of a wagon, ignobly ejected from a dirty cottage into the rain, where she'd contemplated the feeding habits of predatory beasts, and then been rudely forced to retire without so much as a morsel of bread for sustenance, she nevertheless prepared for bed exactly as she would have done had she spent the day over her embroidery. After removing and folding her black bombazine gown she had unpinned her hair, given it the requisite one hundred slow strokes, and then carefully braided it and tucked it beneath her white nightcap."

Two things, however, put Lucinda so out of countenance .I that once she had climbed into bed and pulled the scratchy blankets up to her chin she actually could not sleep. First and foremost, there had not been a ewer and basin in her crude bedchamber that she could use to wash her face and body, which she always did before retiring. Second, the bed upon which her bony frame was expected to repose had lumps in it.

Those two things had resulted in her still being awake when the men below began to talk, and their voices had drifted up between the floorboards, muted but distinct. Because of that she had been forced to be an eavesdropper. In her entire fifty-six years Lucinda Throckmorton-Jones had never stooped to eavesdropping. She deplored eavesdroppers, a fact of which the servants in every house where she had ever dwelt were well aware. She ruthlessly reported any servant, no matter how high in the household hierarchy, if she caught him or her listening at doors or looking through keyholes.

Now, however, she had been relegated to their lowly level, for she had listened. She had heard. And now she was mentally going over every word Ian Thornton had spoken, examining it for truth, weighing each thing he'd said to that socially inept man who'd mistaken her for a menial. Despite her inner turmoil, as she lay upon her pallet Lucinda was perfectly composed, perfectly still. Her eyes were closed, her soft white hands folded across her fiat bosom atop the coverlet. She did not fidget or pluck at the covers, she did not glower and frown at the ceiling. So still was she that had anyone peeked into the moonlit room and seen her lying there they might well have expected to find candles lit at her feet and a crucifix in her hands.

That impression, however, was no reflection on the activity in her mind. With scientific precision she was examining everything she'd heard and considering what, if anything, could or ought to be done. She knew it was possible that Ian Thornton had been lying to Jake Wiley-that he had been professing to have cared about Elizabeth, to have wanted to ?? her-merely to cast himself in a better light. Robert Cameron had insisted that Thornton was nothing but a dissolute fortune hunter and an unprincipled rake; he'd specifically said that Thornton had admitted he'd been trying to seduce Elizabeth merely for sport. In this instance Lucinda was inclined to think Robert had been lying out of a desire to justify his shameful actions at the duel. Furthermore, although Lucinda had witnessed a certain fraternal devotion in Robert's attitude toward Elizabeth, his disappearance from England had proven him a coward.


Tags: Judith McNaught Sequels Billionaire Romance
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