Since Ian had no intention of laying a finger on her, or even spending time with her, he didn't hesitate to nod. "She's perfectly safe from me."

"That is exactly what I hoped to hear," Lucinda lied ruthlessly.

A few minutes later Elizabeth watched Lucinda emerge from the cottage with Ian, but there was no way to guess from their closed expressions what they'd discussed.

In fact, the only person betraying any emotion at all was Jake Wiley as he led two horses into the yard. And his face, Elizabeth noted with confusion-which had been stormy when he went off to saddle the horses-was now wreathed in a smile of unrestrained glee. With a sweep of his arm and a bow he gestured toward a swaybacked black horse with an old sidesaddle upon its back. "Here's your mount, ma'am," he told Lucinda, grinning. "His name's Attila."

Lucinda cast a disdainful eye over the beast as she transferred her umbrella to her right hand and pulled on her black gloves. "Have you nothing better?"

"No, ma'am. Ian's horse has a hurt foot."

"Oh, very well," said Lucinda, walking briskly forward, but as she came within reach the black suddenly bared his teeth and lunged. Lucinda struck him between the ears with her umbrella without so much as a pause in her step.

"Cease!" she commanded, and, ignoring the animal's startled grunt of pain, she continued around to his other side to mount. "You brought it on yourself," she told the horse as Jake held Attila's head, and Ian Thornton helped her into the sidesaddle. The whites of Attila's eyes showed as he warily watched her land in his saddle and settle herself. The moment Jake handed Lucinda the reins Attila began to leap sideways and twist around in restless annoyance. "I do not countenance ill-tempered animals," she warned the horse in her severest tone, and when he refused to heed her and continued his threatening antics she hauled up sharply on his reins and simultaneously gave him a sharp jab in the flank with her umbrella. Attila let out a yelping complaint, broke into a quick, animated trot, and headed obediently down the drive.

"If that don't beat all!" Jake said furiously, glowering after the pair, and then at Ian. "That animal doesn't know the meaning of the word loyalty!" Without waiting for a reply Jake swung into his saddle and cantered down the lane after them.

Absolutely baffled over everyone's behavior this morning, Elizabeth cast a puzzled, sideways glance at the silent man beside her, then gaped at him in amazement. The unpredictable man was staring after Lucinda, his hands shoved into his pockets, a cigar clamped between his white teeth, his face transformed by a sweeping grin. Drawing the obvious conclusion that these odd reactions from the men were somehow related to Lucinda's skillful handling of an obstinate horse, Elizabeth commented, "Lucinda's uncle raised horses, I believe."

Almost reluctantly, Ian transferred his admiring gaze from Lucinda's rigid back to Elizabeth. His brows rose. "An amazing woman," he stated. "Is there any situation of which she can't take charge?"

"None that I've ever seen," Elizabeth said with a chuckle; then she felt self-conscious because his smile faded abruptly, and his manner became detached and cool.

Drawing a long breath, Elizabeth clasped her shaking hands behind her back and decided to try for a truce. "Mr. Thornton," she began quietly, "must there be enmity between us? I realize my coming here is an . . . an inconvenience but it was your fault. . . your mistake," she corrected cautiously, "that brought us here. And you must surely see that we have been even more inconvenienced than you." Encouraged by his lack of argument, she continued. "Therefore, the obvious solution is that we should both try to make the best of things."

"The obvious solution," he countered, "is that I should apologize for ?inconveniencing' you, and then you should leave as soon as I can get you to a carriage or a wagon."

"I can't!" she cried, fighting to recover her calm. "Why the hell not?"

"Because-well-my uncle is a harsh man who won't like having his instructions countermanded. I was supposed to stay a full sennight."

"I'll write him a letter and explain."

"No!" Elizabeth burst out, imagining her uncle's reaction if the third man also sent her packing straightaway. He was no fool. He'd suspect. "He'll blame me, you see."

Despite Ian's resolution not to give a damn what her problems were, he was a little unnerved by her visible fright and by her description of her uncle as "harsh." Based on her behavior two years ago, he had no doubt Elizabeth Cameron had done much to earn a well-deserved beating from her unfortunate guardian. Even so, Ian had no wish to be the cause of the old man laying a strap to that smooth white skin of hers. What had happened between them was folly on his part, but it had been over long ago. He was about to wed a beautiful, sensual woman who wanted him and who suited him perfectly. Why should he treat Elizabeth as if he harbored any feelings for her, including anger?

Elizabeth sensed that he was wavering a little, and she pressed home her advantage, using calm reason: "Surely nothing that happened between us should make us behave badly to each other now. I mean, when you think on it, it was nothing to us but a harmless weekend flirtation, wasn't it?"

"Obviously."

"Neither of us was hurt, were we?" "No."

"Well then, there's no reason why we should not be cordial to each other now, is there?" she demanded with a bright, beguiling smile. "Good heavens, if every flirtation ended in enmity, no one in the ton would be speaking to anyone else!"

She had neatly managed to put him in the position of either agreeing with her or else, by disagreeing, admitting that she had been something more to him than a flirtation, and Ian realized it. He'd guessed where her calm arguments were leading, but even so, be was reluctantly impressed with how skillfully she was maneuvering him into having to agree with her. "Flirtations," he reminded her smoothly, "don't normally end in duels."

?I know, and I am sorry my brother shot you."

Ian was simply not proof against the appeal in those huge green eyes of hers. "Forget it," he said with an irritated sigh, capitulating to all she was asking. "Stay the seven days."

Suppressing the urge to twirl around with relief, she smiled into his eyes. "Then could we have a truce for the time I'm here?"

"That depends." "On what?"

His brows lifted in mocking challenge. "On whether or not you can make a decent breakfast."


Tags: Judith McNaught Sequels Billionaire Romance
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