With that settled in her mind, Elizabeth stood up and headed for Lucinda's room, Lucinda was already dressed, her black gown brushed free of every speck of yesterday's dust, her gray hair in its neat bun. She was seated in a wooden chair near the window, her spine too rigid to require any support from the back of the chair, her expression thoughtful and preoccupied. "Good morning," Elizabeth said as she carefully closed the door behind her.
"Hmmm? Oh, good morning, Elizabeth."
"I wanted to tell you," Elizabeth began in a rush, "how very sorry .I am to have dragged you here and subjected you to such humiliation. Mr. Thornton's behavior was inexcusable, unforgivable."
"I daresay he was . . . surprised by our unexpected arrival."
"Surprised?" Elizabeth repeated, gaping at her. "He was demented! I know you must think-must be wondering what could have led me to have anything at all to do with him before," she began, "and I cannot honestly tell you what I could possibly have been thinking of."
"Oh, I don't find that much mystery," said Lucinda. "He's exceedingly handsome."
Elizabeth would not have been more shocked if Lucinda had called him the soul of amiability. "Handsome!" she began, then she shook her head, trying to clear it. "I must say you're being very tolerant and kind about all this."
Lucinda stood up and cast an appraising eye over Elizabeth. "I would not describe my attitude as kind," she thoughtfully replied. "Rather I would say it's one of practicality. The bodice on your gown is quite tight, but attractive for all that. Shall we go down to breakfast?"
"Good mornin" Jake boomed as Elizabeth and Lucinda walked downstairs.
"Good morning, Mr. Wiley," Elizabeth said with a gracious smile. Then, because she could think of nothing else to say, she added quickly, "Something smells wonderful. What is it?"
"Coffee," Ian replied bluntly, his gaze drifting over her. With her long, burnished honey hair tied back with a ribbon she looked extremely pretty and very young.
"Sit down, sit down!" Jake continued jovially. Someone had cleaned the chairs since last night, but he took out his handkerchief as Elizabeth approached and wiped off the chair seat again.
"Thank you," she said, bestowing a smile on him. "But the chair is just fine as it is." Deliberately she looked at the unsmiling man across from her and said, "Good morning."
In answer he lifted a brow, as if questioning her odd change in attitude. "You slept well, I take it?"
"Very well," Elizabeth said. "How ?bout some coffee?" Jake said as he hurried over to the coffee pot on the stove and filled a mug with the remainder of the steaming brew. When he got to the table with it. however, he stopped and looked helplessly from Lucinda to Elizabeth, obviously not certain who ought properly to be served first.
"Coffee," Lucinda informed him dampeningly when he took a step toward her, "is a heathen brew, unfit for civilized people. I prefer tea."
"I'll have coffee," Elizabeth said hastily. Jake gave her a grateful smile, put the mug before her, then returned to the stove. Rather than look at Ian, Elizabeth stared, as if fascinated, at Jake Wiley's back while she sipped her coffee.
For a moment he stood there, nervously rubbing the palms of his hands on the sides of his legs, looking uncertainly from the fresh eggs to the slab of bacon to the heavy iron skillet already starting to smoke near his elbow-as if he hadn't the faintest idea how to begin. "Mayas well get at it." he murmured, and he stretched his arms straight out in front of him, linked the fingers of both hands together, and made a horrible cracking sound with his knuckles. Then he snatched up the knife and began vigorously sawing at the bacon.
While Elizabeth watched in puzzled interest he tossed large chunks of bacon into the skillet until it was heaped with it. A minute later the delicious smell of bacon began to waft about the room, and Elizabeth felt her mouth water, thinking how good breakfast was going to be. Before the thought had fully formed she saw him pick up two eggs, crack them open on the edge of the stove, and dump them into the skillet full of raw bacon. Six more eggs followed in rapid succession, then he turned and looked over his shoulder. "D'you think I shoulda let the bacon cook a wee bit longer before I dumped in the eggs, Lady Elizabeth?"
"I-I'm not completely certain," Elizabeth admitted, scrupulously ignoring the smirking satisfaction on Ian's tanned face.
"D'you want to have a look at it and tell me what you think?" he asked, already sawing off chunks of bread.
With no choice but to offer her uneducated advice or submit to Ian's relentlessly mocking stare, Elizabeth chose the former, got up, and went to peer over Mr. Wiley's shoulder.
"How does it look to you?"
It looked to Elizabeth like large globs of eggs congealing in unappetizing bacon fat. "Delicious."
He grunted with satisfaction and turned to the skillet, this time with both hands loaded with bread chunks, which he was obviously considering adding to the mess. "What do you think?" he asked, his hands hovering over the pile of Cooking food. "Should I dump this in there?"
"No!" Elizabeth said hastily and with force. "I definitely think the bread should be served. . . well. . ."
"Alone," Ian Thornton said in an amused drawl, and when Elizabeth automatically looked toward his voice she discovered that he'd turned halfway around in his chair to watch her.
"Not entirely alone," Elizabeth put in, feeling as if she ought to contribute additional advice on the meal preparation rather than show herself as ignorant of cooking as she actually was. "We could serve it with-with butter?"
"Of course! I shoulda thought of that," he said with a sheepish grin at Elizabeth. "If you don't mind standin' here and keepin' your eye on what's happenin' in this skillet, I'll go fetch it from the cold keg."
"I don't mind in the least," Elizabeth assured him, absolutely refusing to acknowledge the fact that Ian's relentless gaze was boring holes through her back. Since little of import was likely to happen to the contents of the skillet for several minutes, Elizabeth regretfully faced the fact that she couldn't continue avoiding Ian Thornton-not when she desperately needed to smooth things over enough to convince him to let her and Lucinda remain for the allotted week.
Straightening reluctantly, she strolled about the room with forced nonchalance, her hands clasped behind her back, looking blindly at the cobwebs in the corner of the ceiling, trying to think what to say. And then inspiration struck. The solution was demeaning but practical, and properly presented, it could appear she was graciously doing him a favor. She paused a moment to arrange her features into what she hoped was the right expression of enthusiasm and compassion, then she wheeled around abruptly. "Mr. Thornton!" Her voice seemed to explode in the room at the same time his startled amber gaze riveted on her face, then drifted down her bodice, roving boldly over her ripened curves. Unnerved but determined, Elizabeth forged shakily ahead: "It appears as if no one has occupied this house in quite some time."