For more than an hour Lucinda lay awake, weighing everything she'd heard for truth. The only thing she accepted unequivocally was the one thing that other people of inferior knowledge and intuition had wondered about and refused to believe for years. She did not doubt for an instant that Ian Thornton was directly related to the Duke of Stanhope. As was often said, an impostor might be able to pass himself off as Quality to another gentleman in an exclusive club, but he'd better not present himself at the gentleman's home-for an observant butler would know him as an impostor at a glance.
That same ability extended to skilled duennas whose job it was to protect their charges from social impostors. Of course, Lucinda had the advantage of having been, ?during her early career, companion to the niece of the Duke of Stanhope, which was why she'd taken one took at Ian Thornton tonight and placed him immediately as a close descendant of the old man, to whom he bore an absolutely startling resemblance. Based on Ian Thornton's age and her recollection of the scandal surrounding the Marquess of Kensington's break with his family over his unsuitable marriage to a Scottish girl, Lucinda had guessed Ian Thornton to be the old duke's grandson within thirty seconds of clapping eyes on him. In fact, the only thing she hadn't been able to deduce within a moment of meeting him downstairs was whether or not he was legitimate-but only because she had not been present at his conception, and so could not know whether he had been conceived before or after his parents' unsanctioned marriage thirty years before. But if Stanhope was trying to make Ian Thornton his heir, which was the rumor she'd heard time and again, then there was no question whatever of Thornton's parentage.
Given all that, Lucinda had only two more matters to contemplate. The first was whether Elizabeth would benefit from marriage to a future peer of the realm-not a mere earl or count, but a man who would someday bear the title of duke, the loftiest of all noble titles. Since Lucinda had made it her life's work to ensure that her charges made the best possible matches, it took her less than two seconds to decide that the answer to that was an emphatic affirmative.
The second matter gave her a trifle more difficulty: As things stood, she was the only one in favor of the match. And time was her enemy. Unless she was wrong-and Lucinda was never wrong in such matters-Ian Thornton was about to become the most sought-after bachelor in all Europe. Although she'd been locked away with poor Elizabeth at Havenhurst, Lucinda kept up correspondence with two other duennas. Their letters had often included casual mentions of him at various social functions. His desirability, which apparently had been increasing apace with news of his wealth, would increase a hundredfold when he was called by the title that had been his father's-the Marquess of Kensington. That title was rightfully his, and considering the trouble he'd caused Lucinda's charge, Lucinda felt he owed it to Elizabeth to bestow a coronet and marriage ring upon her without further delay.
Having decided that, she was faced with only one remaining problem, and it posed something of a moral dilemma. After a lifetime devoted to keeping unmarried persons of the opposite sex apart, she was now considering bringing them together. She contemplated Jake Wiley's last remark about Elizabeth: "That woman's so beautiful she'd tempt any man who was alone with her for an hour." As Lucinda knew, Ian Thornton had once been "tempted" by Elizabeth, and although Elizabeth was no longer a young girl, she was even more beautiful now than she'd been then. Elizabeth was also wiser; therefore she would not be so foolish as to let him carry things too far, if and when they were left alone for a very few hours. Of that Lucinda was certain. In fact, the only things of which Lucinda wasn't certain were whether or not Ian Thornton was now as immune to Elizabeth as he'd claimed to be. . . and how on earth she was going to contrive to see that they had those few hours alone. She entrusted those last two difficulties to the equally capable hands of her Creator and finally fell into her usual peaceful slumber.
Jake opened one eye and blinked confusedly at the sunlight pouring through the window high above. Disoriented, he rolled over on a lumpy, unfamiliar bed and found himself staring up at an enormous black animal who flattened his ears, bared his teeth, and tried to bite him through the slats of his stall. "You damned cannibal!" he swore at the evil-tempered horse. "Spawn of Lucifer!" Jake added, and for good measure he aimed a hard kick at the wooden slats by way of retaliation for the attempted bite. "Ouch, dammit!" he swore as his bootless foot hit the board.
Shoving himself to a sitting position, he raked his hands through his thick red hair and grimaced at the hay that stuck between his fingers. His foot hurt, and his head ached from the bottle of wine he'd drunk last night.
Heaving himself to his feet, he pulled on his boots and brushed off his woolen shirt, shivering in the damp chill. Fifteen years ago, when he'd come to work on the little farm, he'd slept in this barn every night. Now, with Ian successfully investing the money Jake made when they sailed together, he'd learned to appreciate the comforts of feather mattresses and satin covers, and he missed them sorely.
"From palaces to a damned cowshed," he grumbled, walking out of the empty stall he'd slept in. As he passed Attila's stall, a hoof punched out with deadly aim, narrowly missing Jake's thigh. "That'll cost you an early breakfast, you miserable piece of living glue," he spat, and then he took considerable pleasure in feeding the other two horses while the black looked on. "You've put me in a sour mood," he said cheerfully as the jealous horse shifted angrily while the other two steeds were fed. "Maybe if it improves later on, I'll feed you-" He broke off in alarm as he noticed the way Ian's splendid chestnut gelding was standing with his right knee slightly bent. holding his right hoof off the ground. "Here now, Mayhem," he crooned softly, patting the horse's satiny neck, "let's see that hoof."
The well-trained animal, who'd won every race he'd ever run and who'd sired the winner of the last races at Heathton, put up no resistance when Jake lifted his hoof and bent over it. "You've picked up a stone," Jake told the animal, who was watching him with ears attentively forward. his brown eyes bright and intelligent. Jake paused. looking around for something to use as a pick, and found it on an old wooden ledge. "It's lodged in there good," he murmured to the horse as he lifted the hoof and crouched down, bracing the hoof on his knee. He picked away at the rock, leaning back against the slats of the next stall in an attempt to get leverage. "That's got it." The rock came loose, but Jake's satisfied grunt turned into a howl of outraged pain as a set of huge teeth in the next stall clamped into Jake's ample rear end. "You vicious bag of bones," he shouted, jumping to his feet and throwing himself half over the rail in an attempt to land a punch on Attila's body. As if the horse anticipated retribution, he sidled to the edge of his stall and regarded Jake from the comer of his eye with an expression that looked to Jake like complacent satisfaction. "I'll get you for that." Jake promised, and he started to shake his fist when he realized how absurd it was to threaten a dumb beast.