"I got some milk-" Jake began, then he stopped abruptly as the stench hit him. His gaze snapped from Ian and Elizabeth, who were just rushing inside, to Lucinda, who was sitting exactly where she had been, serenely indifferent to the smell of burning bacon and incinerated eggs as she fanned herself with a black silk fan. "I took the liberty of removing the utensil from the stove," she informed them. "However, I was not in time to save its contents, which I sincerely doubt were worth saving in any case."
"Couldn't you have moved' em before they burned?" Jake burst out.
"I cannot cook, sir."
"Can you smell?" Ian demanded.
"Ian, there's nothing for it-I'll have to ride to the village and hire a pair o' wenches to come up here and get this place in order for us or we'll starve."
"My thoughts exactly," Lucinda seconded promptly, already standing up. "I shall accompany you."
"Whaat?" Elizabeth burst out. "What? Why?" Jake echoed, looking balky. "Because selecting good female servants is best done by a woman. How far must we go?"
If Elizabeth weren't so appalled, she'd have laughed at Jake Wiley's expression. "We can be back late this afternoon, assumin' there's anyone in the village to do the work. But I-"
"Then we'd best be about it." Lucinda paused and turned to Ian, passing a look of calculating consideration over him; then she glanced at Elizabeth. Giving her a look that clearly said "Trust me and do not argue," she said, "Elizabeth, if you would be so good as to excuse us, I'd like a word alone with Mr. Thornton." With no choice but to do as bidden, Elizabeth went out the front door and stared in utter confusion at the trees, wondering what bizarre scheme Lucinda might have hatched to solve their problems.
In the cottage Ian watched through narrowed eyes as the gray-haired harpy fixed him with her basilisk stare. "Mr. Thornton," she said finally, "I have decided you are a gentleman."
She made that pronouncement as if she were a queen bestowing knighthood on a lowly, possibly undeserving serf. Fascinated and irritated at the same time, Ian leaned his hip against the table, waiting to discover what game she was playing by leaving Elizabeth alone here, unchaperoned. "Don't keep me in suspense," he said coolly. "What have I done to earn your good opinion?"
"Absolutely nothing," she said without hesitation. "I'm basing my decision on my own excellent intuitive powers and on the fact that you were born a gentleman."
"What gave you that idea?" he inquired in a bored tone. "I am not a fool. I'm acquainted with your grandsire, the
Duke of Stanhope. I was a member of his niece's household when news of your parents' unsanctioned marriage caused a furor. Other, less informed persons may need to conjecture on your ancestry, but I do not. It's apparent in your face, your height, your voice, even your mannerisms. You are his grandson."
Ian was accustomed to having the English study his features circumspectly and, on rare occasions, to ask a probing question or two; he knew they wondered and debated and whispered among themselves, but it was the first time anyone had ever had the effrontery to tell him who he was. Reining in his mounting anger, he replied in a voice that implied she was deluding herself, "If you say so, it must be true."
"That is exactly the sort of patronizing tone your grandfather would use," she informed him on a note of pleased triumph. "However, that is not to the point."
"May I inquire what is the point?" he snapped impatiently.
"Indeed you may," Lucinda said, thinking madly for some way to prod him into remembering his long-ago desire for Elizabeth and to prick his conscience. "The point is that I am then apprised of all that transpired between Elizabeth and yourself when you were last together. I, however," she decreed grandly, "am inclined to place the blame for your behavior not on a lack of character, but rather a lack of judgment." He raised his brows but said nothing. Taking his silence as assent, she reiterated meaningfully, "A lack of judgment on both your parts."
"Really?" he drawled.
"Of course," she said, reaching out and brushing the dust from the back of a chair, then rubbing her fingers together and grimacing with disapproval. "What else except lack of judgment could have caused a seventeen-year-old girl to rush to the defense of a notorious gambler and bring down censure upon herself for doing it?"
"What indeed?" he asked with growing impatience. Lucinda dusted off her hands, avoiding his gaze. "Who can possibly know except you and she? No doubt it was the same thing that prompted her to remain in the woodcutter's cottage rather than leaving it the instant she discovered your presence." Satisfied that she'd done the best she was able to on that score, she .became brusque again-an attitude that was more normal and, therefore, far more convincing. "In any case, that is all water under the bridge. She has paid dearly for her lack of judgment, which is only right, and even though she is now in the most dire straits because of it, that, too, is justice."
She smiled to herself when his eyes narrowed with what she hoped was guilt, or at least concern. His next words disabused her of that hope: "Madam, I do not have all day to waste in aimless conversation. If you have something to say, say it and be done!"
"Very well," Lucinda said, gritting her teeth to stop herself from losing control of her temper. "My point is that it is my duty, my obligation to see to Lady Cameron's physical well-being as well as to chaperon her. In this case, given the condition of your dwelling, the former obligation seems more pressing than the latter, particularly since it is obvious to me that the two of you are not in the least need of a chaperon to keep you from behaving with impropriety. You may need a referee to keep you from murdering each other, but a chaperon is entirely superfluous. Therefore, I feel duty-bound to now ensure that adequate servants are brought here at once. In keeping with that, I would like your word as a gentleman not to abuse her verbally or physically while I am gone. She has already been ill-used by her uncle. I will not permit anyone else to make this terrible time in her life more difficult than it already is."
"Exactly what," Ian asked in spite of himself, "do you mean by a ?terrible time'?"
"I am not at liberty to discuss that, of course," she said, fighting to keep her triumph from her voice. "I am merely concerned that you behave as a gentleman. Will you give me your word?"