"Sir Francis Belhaven," he said shortly.

Elizabeth stared at him in stupefaction and shook her head. "I met hundreds of new people during my debut, but I don't recall that name at all."

"The second man is Lord John Marchman, Earl of Canford."

Again Elizabeth shook her head. "The name is somewhat familiar, but I can't recall a face to go with it."

Obviously disappointed in her reaction, her uncle said irritably, "You apparently have a poor memory. If you can't recall a knight or an earl," he added sarcastically, "I doubt you'll remember a mere mister."

Stung by his unprovoked remark, she said stiffly, "Who is the third?"

"Mr. Ian Thornton. He's-"

That name sent Elizabeth jolting to her feet while a blaze of animosity and a shock of terror erupted through her entire body. "Ian Thornton" she cried, leaning her palms on the desk to steady herself. "Ian Thornton!" she repeated, her voice rising with a mixture of anger and hysterical laughter. "Uncle, if Ian Thornton discussed marrying me, it was at the point of Robert's gun! His interest in me was never marriage, and Robert dueled with him over his behavior. In fact, Robert shot him!"

Instead of relenting or being upset, her uncle merely regarded her with blank indifference, and Elizabeth said fiercely, "Don't you understand?"

"What I understand," he said, glowering, "is that he replied to my message in the affirmative and was very cordial. Perhaps he regrets his earlier behavior and wishes to make amends."

"Amends!" she cried. "I've no idea whether he feels .loathing for me or merely contempt, but I can assure you he does not and has never wished to wed me! He's the reason I can't show my face in society!"

"In my opinion, you're better off away from that decadent London influence; however, that's not to the point. He has accepted my terms."

"What terms?"

Inured to Elizabeth's quaking alarm, Julius stated matter-of-factly, "Each of the three candidates has agreed that you will come to visit him briefly in order to allow you to decide if you suit. Lucinda will accompany you as chaperon. You're to leave in five days. Belhaven is first, then Marchman, then Thornton."

The room swam before Elizabeth's eyes. "I can't believe this!" she burst out, and in her misery she seized on the least of her problems. "Lucinda has taken her first holiday in years! She's in Devon visiting her sister."

"Then take Berta instead and have Lucinda join you later when you go to visit Thornton in Scotland."

"Berta! Berta is a maid. My reputation will be in shreds if I spend a week in the home of a man with no one but a maid for a chaperon."

"Then don't say she's a maid," he snapped. "Since I already referred to Lucinda Throckmorton-Jones as your chaperon in my letters, you can say that Berta is your aunt. No more objections, miss," he finished, "the matter is settled. That will be all for now. You may go."

"It's not settled! There's been some sort of horrible mistake, I tell you. Ian Thornton would never want to see me, any more than I wish to see him!"

"There's no mistake," Julius said with complete finality. "Ian Thornton received my letter and accepted our offer. He even sent directions to his place in Scotland."

"Your offer," Elizabeth cried, "not mine!"

"I'll not debate technicalities any further with you, Elizabeth. This discussion is at an end."

Chapter 4

Elizabeth walked slowly down the hall and turned a corner, intending to rejoin Alexandra, but her knees were shaking so violently that she had to stop and put her hand against the wall to steady herself. Ian Thornton. . . In a matter of days she would confront Ian Thornton.

His name whirled through her mind, making her head spin with a combination of loathing, humiliation, and dread, and she finally turned and walked into the small salon where she sank down onto the sofa, staring blankly at the bright patch of wallpaper where a painting by Rubens had once hung.

Not for one moment did Elizabeth believe Ian Thornton had ever wanted to marry her, and she could not imagine what possible motive he might now have for accepting her uncle's outrageous offer. She had been a naive, gullible fool where he was concerned.

Now, as she leaned her head back and closed her eyes, she could hardly believe she'd ever been as reckless-or as carefree-as she'd been the weekend she met him. She'd been so certain that her future would be bright, but then, she'd had no reason to think otherwise.

Her parents' death when she was eleven years old had been a dark time for her, but Robert had been there to comfort her and cheer her and promise her that everything would soon look bright again. Robert was eight years older than she, and although he was actually her half-brother her mother's son by her first marriage-Elizabeth had loved and relied on him for as long as she could remember. Her parents had been gone so often that they had seemed more like beautiful visitors who flitted in and out of her life three or four times a year, bringing her presents and then vanishing soon after in a wave of gay good-byes.

Except for the loss of her parents, Elizabeth's childhood had been very pleasant indeed. Her sunny disposition had made her a favorite with all the servants, who doted on her. Cook gave her sweets; the butler taught her to play chess; Aaron, the head coachman, taught her to play whist, and years later he taught her to use a pistol should the occasion ever occur when she needed to protect herself.

But of all her "friends" at Havenhurst, the one with whom Elizabeth spent the most time was Oliver, the head gardener who'd come to Havenhurst when she was eleven. A quiet man with gentle eyes, Oliver labored in Havenhurst's greenhouse and flowerbeds, talking softly to his cuttings and plants. "Plants need affection," he'd explained when she surprised him one day in the greenhouse, speaking encouragements to a wilting violet, "just like people. Go ahead," he'd invited her, nodding toward the drooping violet, "give that pretty violet an encouragin' word."

Elizabeth had felt a little foolish, but she had done as instructed, for Oliver's expertise as a gardener was unquestionable Havenhurst's gardens had improved dramatically in the months since he'd come there. And so she had leaned toward the violet and earnestly told it. "I hope you are soon completely recovered and your old lovely self again!" Then she had stepped back and waited expectantly for the yellowing drooping leaves to lift toward the sun.

"I've given her a dose of my special medicine," Oliver said as be carefully moved the potted plant to the benches where be kept all his ailing patients. "In a few days, you come back and see if she isn't anxious to show you how much better she feels." Oliver, Elizabeth later realized, regarded all flowering plants as "she," while all others were "he".

Tags: Judith McNaught Sequels Billionaire Romance
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