In retrospect it seemed that her own naivet? was to blame for much of what had happened.

Somehow, all that made her feel better than she had in a very long time; it diffused the helpless anger that had been festering inside of her for nearly two years and left her feeling unburdened and almost weightless.

Elizabeth picked up a towel, then stood still, wondering if she was simply making excuses for the man. But why would she? she thought as she slowly dried the earthenware dishes. The answer was that she simply had more problems at the moment than she could deal with, and by ridding herself of her animosity for Ian Thornton she'd feel better able to cope. That seemed so sensible and so likely that Elizabeth decided it must be true.

When everything had been dried and put away she emptied the pan of water outside, then wandered about the house, looking for something to do that would divert her mind. She went upstairs, unpacked her writing things, and brought them down to the kitchen table to write to Alexandra, but after a few minutes she was too restless to continue. It was so lovely outdoors, and from the silence she knew Ian had finished cutting wood. Putting down her quill, she wandered outside, visited with the horse in the barn, and finally decided to attack the large patch of weeds and struggling flowers at the rear of the cottage that had once been a garden. She went back into the cottage, found an old pair of men's gloves and a towel to kneel upon, and went back outside.

With ruthless determination Elizabeth yanked out the weeds that were choking some brave little heartsease struggling for air and light. By the time the sun started its lazy descent she had cleared the worst of the weeds and dug up some bluebells, transplanting them to the garden in neat rows, to give the best show of color in the future.

Occasionally she paused with her spade in hand and looked down into the valley below, where a thin ribbon of sparkling blue wound through the trees. Sometimes she saw a flash of movement-his arm, as he cast his line. Other times he simply stood there, his legs braced slightly apart. ;; gazing up at the cliffs to the north.

It was late afternoon, and she was sitting back on her c heels, studying the effect of the bluebells she'd transplanted. Beside her was a small pile of compost she'd mixed using decayed leaves and the coffee grounds of the morning. "There now," she said to the flowers in an encouraging tone, "you have food and air. You'll be very happy and pretty in no time."

"Are you talking to the flowers?" Ian asked from behind her. Elizabeth started and turned around on an embarrassed laugh. "They like it when I talk to them." Knowing how peculiar that sounded, she reinforced it by adding, "our gardener used to say all living things need affection, and that includes flowers." Turning back to the garden, she shoveled the last of the compost around the Bowers, then she stood up and brushed off her hands. Her earlier ruminations about him had abolished so much of her antagonism that as she looked at him now she was able to regard him with perfect equanimity. It occurred to her, though, that it must seem odd to him that a guest was rooting about in his garden like a menial. "I hope you don't mind," she said, nodding toward the garden, "but the flowers couldn't breathe with so many weeds choking them. They were crying out for a little room and sustenance."

An indescribable expression flashed across his face. "You heard them?"

"Of course not," Elizabeth said with a chuckle. "But I did take the liberty of fixing a special meal-well, compost, actually-for them. It won't help them very much this year, but next year I think they'll be much happier. . . ."

She trailed off, belatedly noticing the worried look he gave the flowers when she mentioned fixing them "a meal." "You needn't look as if you expect them to collapse at my feet," she admonished, laughing. "They'll fare far better with their meal than we did with ours. I am a much better gardener than I am a cook."

Ian jerked his gaze from the flowers, then looked at her with an odd, contemplative expression. "I think I'll go inside and clean up." She walked away without looking back, and so she did not see Ian Thornton turn halfway around to watch her.

Stopping to fill a pitcher with the hot water she'd been heating on the stove, Elizabeth carried it upstairs, then made four more trips until she had enough water to use to bathe and wash her hair. Yesterday's travel and today's work in the garden had combined to make her feel positively grimy.

An hour later, her hair still damp, she put on a simple peach gown with short puffed sleeves and a narrow peach ribbon at the high waist. Sitting on the bed, she brushed her hair slowly, letting it dry, while she reflected with some amusement on how ill-suited her clothes were for this cottage in Scotland. When her hair was dry she stood at the mirror, gathering the mass at her nape, then shoving it high into a haphazard chignon she knew would come unbound in only the slightest breeze. With a light shrug she let go of it, and it fell over her shoulders; she decided to leave it that way. Her mood was still bright and cheerful, and she was inwardly convinced it might stay that way from now on.

Ian had started toward the back door with a blanket in his hand when Elizabeth came downstairs. "Since they aren't back yet," he said, "I thought we might as well eat something. We have cheese and bread outside."

He'd changed into a clean white shirt and fawn breeches, and as she followed him outside she saw that his dark hair was still damp at the nape.

Outside he spread a blanket on the grass, and she sat down on one side of it, gazing out across the hills. "What time do you suppose it is?" she asked several minutes after he'd sat down beside her.

"Around four, I imagine."

"Shouldn't they be back by now?"

"They probably had difficulty finding women who were willing to leave their own homes and come up here to work."

Elizabeth nodded and lost herself in the splendor of the view spread out before them. The cottage was situated on the back edge of a plateau, and where the backyard ended the plateau sloped sharply downward to a valley where a stream meandered among the trees. Surrounding the valley in the distance on all three sides were hills piled on top of one another, carpeted with wildflowers. The view was so beautiful, so wild and verdant, that Elizabeth sat for a long while, enthralled and strangely at peace. Finally a thought intruded, and she cast a worried look at him. "Did you catch any fish?"

"Several. I've already cleaned them."

"Yes, but can you cook them?" Elizabeth countered with a grin.

His lips twitched. "Yes."


Tags: Judith McNaught Sequels Billionaire Romance
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