"I commend you on that astute observation, Lady Cameron," Ian mocked lazily, watching the tension and emotion play across her expressive face. For the life of him he could not understand what she was doing here or why she seemed to be trying to ingratiate herself this morning. Last night the explanation he'd given Jake had made sense; now, looking at her, he couldn't quite believe any of it. Then he remembered that Elizabeth Cameron had always robbed him of the ability to think rationally.
"Houses do have a way of succumbing to dirt when no one looks after them," she stated with a bright look.
"Another creditable observation. You've certainly a quick mind."
"Must you make this so very difficult!" Elizabeth exclaimed.
"I apologize," he said with mocking gravity. "Do go on. You were saying?"
"Well, I was thinking, since we're quite stranded here Lucinda and I, I mean-with absolutely nothing but time on our hands, that this house could certainly use a woman's touch."
"Capital idea!" burst out Jake, returning from his mission to locate the butter and casting a highly hopeful look at Lucinda.
He was rewarded with a glare from her that could have pulverized rock. "It could use an army of servants carrying shovels and wearing masks on their faces," the duenna countered ruthlessly.
"You needn't help, Lucinda," Elizabeth explained, aghast. "I never meant to imply you should. But I could! I-" She whirled around as Ian Thornton surged to his feet and took her elbow in a none-too-gentle grasp.
"Lady Cameron," he said, "I think you and I have something to discuss that may be better spoken in private. Shall we?"
He gestured to the open door and then practically dragged her along in his wake. Outdoors in the sunlight he marched her forward several paces, then dropped her arm. "Let's hear it," he said.
"Hear what?" Elizabeth said nervously. "An explanation-the truth, if you're capable of it. Last night you drew a gun on me, and this morning you're awash with excitement over the prospect of cleaning my house. I want to know why."
"Well," Elizabeth burst out in defense of her actions with the gun, "you were extremely disagreeable!"
?I am still disagreeable," he pointed out shortly, ignoring Elizabeth's raised brows. "I haven't changed. I am not the one who's suddenly oozing goodwill this morning."
Elizabeth turned her head to the lane, trying desperately to think of an explanation that wouldn't reveal to him her humiliating circumstances.
"The silence is deafening, Lady Cameron, and somewhat surprising. As I recall, the last time we met you could scarcely contain all the edifying information you were trying to impart to me." Elizabeth knew he was referring to her monologue on the history of hyacinths in the greenhouse. "I just don't know where to begin," she admitted.
"Let's stick to the salient points. What are you doing here?"
"That's a little awkward to explain," Elizabeth said. So off balance from his reference to the hyacinths was she that her mind went blank, and she said disjointedly, "My uncle is acting as my guardian now. He is childless, so everything he has will go to my child. I can't have any until I'm married, and he wants the matter settled with the least possible exp-time," she amended hastily. "He's an impatient man, and he thinks I've taken too long to-well, settle down. He doesn't completely understand that you can't just pick out a few people and force someone-me-to make a choice from them."
"May I ask why the hell he would think I have any desire to marry you?"
Elizabeth wished she could sink into the ground and disappear. ?I think," she said, choosing her words with great care in hope of preserving what little was left of her pride, "it was because of the duel. He heard about it and misunderstood what precipitated it. I tried to convince him it was merely a-a weekend flirtation, which of course it was but he would not listen. He's rather stubborn and-well, old," she finished lamely. "In any case, when your message arrived inviting Lucinda and me to join you, he made me come here."
"It's a shame you wasted a trip, but it's hardly a tragedy. You can turn around and go right back."
She bent down, feigning absorption in picking up a twig and inspecting it. "I was rather hoping that, if it wouldn't be too much trouble, Lucinda and I could stay here for the agreed-upon time."
"It's out of the question," he said curtly, and Elizabeth's heart sank. "Besides, I seem to recall you were already betrothed the night we met-to a peer of the realm, no less."
Angry, frightened, and mortified, Elizabeth nevertheless managed to lift her chin and meet his speculative gaze. "He-we decided we didn't suit."
"I'm sure you're better off without him," he mocked. "Husbands can be very disagreeable to wives who indulge in ?weekend flirtations' with clandestine visits to secluded cottages and dark greenhouses."
Elizabeth clenched her fists, her eyes shooting green fire. "I did not invite you to meet me in that greenhouse, and you know it!"
He stared at her in bored disgust. "All right, let's play this farce out to its revolting conclusion. If you didn't send me a note, suppose you tell me what you were doing there."
"I told you, I received a note, which I thought was from my friend, Valerie, and I went to the greenhouse to discover why she wanted to see me. I didn't send you a note to meet me there, I received a note. Good God!" she exploded, almost stamping her foot in frustration when he continued to regard her with visible disbelief. "I was terrified of you that night!"
A poignant memory, as fresh as the moment it happened, came back to Ian. . . a bewitchingly lovely girl thrusting flowerpots into his hands to keep him from kissing her. . . and then, moments later, melting in his arms.
"Now do you believe me?"
Try as he might, Ian could not completely blame or acquit her. His instincts told him she was lying about something, keeping something back. Moreover, there was something very odd and entirely out of character in the way she seemed so eager to stay here. On the other hand, he knew desperation when he saw it, and for some incomprehensible reason Elizabeth Cameron seemed on the verge of desperation. ?What I believe doesn't matter." He broke off as the smell of smoke drifted into the yard from an open window and reached them both at the same time. "What the-" he began, already heading toward the house, with Elizabeth walking quickly beside him.
Ian opened the front door just as Jake came hurrying in from the back of the cottage.