Elizabeth started violently at the sound of his voice. Snapping her head up, she stared off to the left, keeping her tear-streaked face averted from him. "Did you want something?"
"Dessert?" Ian suggested wryly, leaning slightly forward, trying to see her face. He thought he saw a morose smile touch her lips, and he added, "I thought we could whip up a batch of cream and put it on the biscuit. Afterward we can take whatever is left, mix it with the leftover eggs, and use it to patch the roof."
A teary chuckle escaped her, and she drew a shaky breath but still refused to look at him as she said, "I'm surprised you're being so pleasant about it."
"There's no sense crying over burnt bacon."
"I wasn't crying over that," she said, feeling sheepish and bewildered. A snowy handkerchief appeared before her face, and Elizabeth accepted it, dabbing at her wet cheeks.
"Then why were you crying!"
She gazed straight ahead, her eyes focused on the surrounding hills splashed with bluebells and hawthorn, the handkerchief clenched in her hand. "I was crying for my own ineptitude, and for my inability to control my life," she admitted.
The word "ineptitude" startled Ian, and it occurred to him that for the shallow little flirt he supposed her to be she had an exceptionally fine vocabulary. She glanced up at him then, and Ian found himself gazing into a pair of green eyes the amazing color of wet leaves. With tears still sparkling on her long russet lashes, her long hair tied back in a girlish bow, and her full breasts thrusting against the bodice of her gown, she was a picture of alluring innocence and intoxicating sensuality. Ian jerked his gaze from her breasts and said abruptly, "I'm going to cut some wood so we'll have it for a fire tonight. Afterward I'm going to do some fishing for our supper. I trust you'll find a way to amuse yourself in the meantime."
Startled by his sudden brusqueness, Elizabeth nodded and stood up, dimly aware that he did not offer his hand to assist her. He'd already started to walk away when he turned and added, "Don't try to clean the house. Jake will be back before evening with women to do that."
After he left, Elizabeth went into the house, looking for something to do that would divert her mind from her predicament and help use her pent up energy. Deciding the least she could do was to clean up the mess from the meal she'd made, she set to work doing that. As she scraped at the eggs in the blackened skillet she heard the rhythmic sound of an ax splitting wood. Reaching up to push a wisp of hair off her forehead, she glanced out the window and then stared, blushing. Without a semblance of modesty Ian Thornton was bare to the waist, his bronzed back tapering to narrow hips, his arms and shoulders rippling with thick bunched muscle as he swung the ax in a graceful arc. Elizabeth had never seen a man's bare arms before, let alone an entire naked male torso, and she was shocked and fascinated and appalled that she was looking. Yanking her gaze from the window, she absolutely refused to yield to the heathen temptation of stealing another glance at him. She wondered instead where he had learned to cut wood with such ease and skill. He'd looked so right at Charise's party, so at ease in his beautifully tailored evening clothes, that she'd assumed he'd spent all his life on the fringes of society, supporting himself with his gambling. Yet he seemed equally at home here in the wilds of Scotland. More so here, she decided. Besides his powerful physique there was a harsh vitality, an invulnerability about him that was perfectly suited to this untamed land.
At that moment she suddenly recalled something she had long ago chosen to forget. She recalled the way he had waltzed with her in the arbor and the effortless grace of his movements. Evidently he had the ability to belong in whatever setting he happened to be in. For some reason that realization was unsettling-either because it made him seem almost admirable, or because it suddenly made her doubt her former ability to judge him correctly. For the first time since that disastrous week that had culminated in a duel, Elizabeth allowed herself to reexamine what had happened between Ian Thornton and herself-not the events, but the causes. Until now, the only way she'd been able to endure her subsequent disgrace was to categorically blame Ian for it, exactly as Robert had done.
Now, having come face to face with him again when she was older and wiser, she couldn't seem to do that anymore. Not even Ian's current unkindness could make her see him as completely at fault for past events anymore.
As she slowly washed a dish she saw herself as she had really been foolish and dangerously infatuated and as guilty as he of breaking the rules.
Determined to be objective, Elizabeth reconsidered her actions and her own culpability two years before. And his. In the first place, she had been foolish beyond words to want so badly to protect him. . . and to be protected by him. At seventeen, when she should have been too frightened to consider meeting him at that cottage, she had only been frightened that she would yield to the irrational, nameless feelings he awakened in her with his voice, his eyes, his touch.
When she should rightfully have been terrified of him. she had only been terrified of herself, of throwing away Robert's future and Havenhurst. And she would have done it, Elizabeth realized bitterly. If she'd spent another day, a few more hours alone with Ian Thornton that weekend, she would have flung caution and reason to the winds and married him. She'd sensed it even then, and so she'd sent for Robert to come for her early.
No, Elizabeth corrected herself, she'd never really been in danger of marrying .Ian. Despite what he'd said two years before about wanting to marry her, marriage was not what he'd intended; he'd admitted that to Robert.
And just when that memory started to make her genuinely angry, she remembered something else that had an oddly calming effect. For the first time in almost two years, Elizabeth recalled the warnings Lucinda had given her before she made her debut. Lucinda had been emphatic that a female must, by her every action, make a gentleman understand that he would be expected to act like a gentleman in her presence. Obviously, Lucinda had realized that although the men Elizabeth was going to meet were technically gentlemen," their behavior could, on occasion, be ungentlemanly.
Allowing that Lucinda was right on both counts, Elizabeth began to wonder if she wasn't rather to blame for what had happened that weekend. After all, from their first meeting she'd certainly not given Ian the impression she was a proper and prim young lady who expected the highest standards of behavior from him. For one thing, she had asked him to request a dance from her.
Carrying that thought to its conclusion, she began to wonder if Ian hadn't perhaps done what many other socially acceptable "gentlemen" would have done. He had probably thought her more worldly than she was, and he had wanted a dalliance. If she had been wiser, more worldly, she undoubtedly would have known that and would have been able to act with the amused sophistication he must have expected of her. Now, with the belated understanding of a detached adult, Elizabeth realized that although Ian had not been as socially acceptable as many of the ton's flirts, he had actually behaved no worse than they. She had seen married women flirting at balls; she'd even inadvertently witnessed a stolen kiss or two, after which the gentleman received nothing worse than a slap on the arm from the lady's fan and a laughing warning that he must behave himself. She smiled at the realization that instead of a slap on the arm for his forwardness, Ian Thornton had gotten a ball from a pistol; she smiled-not with malicious satisfaction this time, but simply because it had a certain amusing irony to it. It also occurred to her that she might have survived the entire weekend with nothing worse than a mildly painful case of lingering infatuation for Ian Thornton-if only she hadn't been seen with him in the greenhouse.