Rubbing his offended backside, he turned to Mayhem and carefully put his own rump against the outside wall of the barn. He checked the hoof to make certain it was clean, but the moment his fingers touched the place where the rock had been lodged the chestnut jerked in pain. "Bruised you, did it?" Jake said sympathetically. "It's not surprisin', considering the size and shape of the rock. But you never gave a sip yesterday that you were hurtin'," he continued. Raising his voice and infusing it with a wealth of exaggerated admiration, he patted the chestnut's flank and glanced disdainfully at Attila while he spoke to Mayhem. "That's because you're a true aristocrat and a fine, brave animal-not a miserable, sneaky mule who's not fit to be your stallmate!"
If Attila cared one way or another for Jake's opinion, he was disappointingly careful not to show it, which only made Jake's mood more stormy when he stomped into the cottage.
Ian was sitting at the table, a cup of steaming coffee cradled between his palms. "Good morning," he said to Jake, studying the older man's thunderous frown.
"Mebbe you think so, but I can't see it. Course, I've spent the night freezin' out there, bedded down next to a horse that wants to make a meal of me, and who broke his fast with a bit of my arse already this mornin" And," he finished irately as he poured coffee from the tin pot into an earthenware mug and cast a quelling look at his amused friend, "your horse is lame!" Flinging himself into the chair beside Ian, he gulped down the scalding coffee without thinking what he was doing; his eyes bulged, and sweat popped out on his forehead. Ian's grin faded. "He's what?"
"Picked up a rock, and he's favoring his left foreleg." Ian's chair legs scraped against the wooden floor as he shoved his chair back and started to go out to the barn.
"There's no need. It's just a bruise."
As she finished washing, Elizabeth heard the indistinct murmur of masculine voices below. Wrapped in a thin towel, she went over to the trunks her unwilling host had carried upstairs and left outside her door this morning, along with two large pitchers of water. Even before she dragged them into her bedchamber she knew the gowns they contained were all a little fancy and fragile to wear in a place like this.
Elizabeth chose the least flamboyant-a high-waisted white lawn gown with a wide band of pink roses and green leaves embroidered at the hem and at the fitted cuffs of its full, billowy sleeves. A matching white ribbon with roses and leaves embroidered on it lay atop the gown, and she pulled it out, uncertain how to wear it, if at all.
Elizabeth struggled into the gown, smoothed it over her waist, and spent several minutes fighting to close the long row of tiny buttons down her back. She turned to survey her appearance in the small mirror above the washstand and nervously bit her lip. The rounded bodice, which had once been demure, now clung tightly to her ripened figure. "Wonderful," she said aloud with a grimace as she tugged on the bodice. No matter how she tried to pull it up, it persisted in falling lower as soon as she let it go, and she finally gave up the struggle. "They wore gowns cut lower than this during the season," she reminded the mirror in her own defense. Walking over to the bed, she retrieved the hair ribbon, debating what to do with her hair. In London, the last time she'd worn the gown, Berta had threaded the ribbon through Elizabeth's curls. At Havenhurst, however, her heavy hair was no longer twisted into elegant styles, but was left to hang partway down her back, where it ended in thick waves and curls.
With a shrug Elizabeth picked up her comb, parted her hair down the middle, and then caught it at the nape and gathered it together with the embroidered ribbon, which she tied in a simple bow; then she tugged two tendrils loose to soften the effect. She stood back to survey her appearance and sighed with resignation. Completely oblivious to the wide, bright green eyes looking back at her or the healthy glow of her skin, or any of the features that had made Jake say she had a face men dreamt of, Elizabeth looked for glaring flaws in her appearance, and when she didn't see anything out of the ordinary she lost interest. Turning away from the mirror, she sat down on the bed, going over last night's events as she'd been doing all morning. The thing that bothered her the most was relatively minor. Ian's claim that he'd received a note from her to meet her in the greenhouse. Of course, it was perfectly possible he was lying about that in an effort to acquit himself in front of Mr. Wiley. But Ian Thornton, as she well knew, was innately rude and blunt, so she couldn't quite see him bothering to shade the truth for his friend's sake. Closing her eyes, she tried to recall exactly what he'd said when he came to the greenhouse that night. Something like "Who were you expecting after that note-the prince regent?"
At the time she'd thought he was talking about the note he'd sent her. But he claimed he'd received one. And he had jabbed at her about her handwriting, which her tutors had described as both "scholarly and precise-a credit to an Oxford gentleman!" Why would Ian Thornton think he knew what her handwriting looked like unless he truly believed he'd received such a note from her? Perhaps he really was mad, but Elizabeth didn't think so. But then, she reminded herself impatiently, where he was concerned she had always been unable to see the truth. And no wonder! Even now, when she was older and hopefully wiser, it had not been easy to think clearly yesterday with those golden eyes raking over her. For the life of her she could not understand his attitude unless he was still angry because Robert had broken the rules and shot him. That must be it, she decided, turning her mind to the more difficult problem.
She and Lucinda were trapped there, only their host didn't realize it, and she couldn't bear the shame of explaining it. Therefore, she was going to have to find some way to remain here in relative harmony for the next week. In order to survive the ordeal she would simply have to ignore his inexplicable antagonism and take each moment as it came, never looking back or forward. And then it would all be over, and she and Lucinda could leave. But whatever happened during the next seven days, Elizabeth vowed, she would never again let him make her lose her composure as she had last night. The last time they'd been together he'd confused her so much that she scarcely knew right from wrong.
From this moment on, she vowed, things would be different. She would be poised and polite and completely imperturbable. no matter how rudely or outrageously he behaved. She was no longer an infatuated young girl whom he could seduce, hurt, or anger for his own amusement. She would prove it to him and also set an excellent example of how well-bred people behaved.