"Did you hit the target?" she asked, a little self-conscious at being caught watching him.
"Yes." Since she was stranded in the country and obviously knew how to load a gun, Ian realized good manners required that he at least offer her a little diversion. "Care to try your skill?"
"That depends on the size of the target," she answered. but Elizabeth was already walking forward, absurdly happy to have something to do besides write letters. She did not stop to consider-would never have let herself contemplate -that she enjoyed his company inordinately when he was pleasant.
"Who taught you to shoot?" he asked when she was standing beside him.
"Better the coachman than your brother," Ian mocked. handing her the loaded gun. "The target's that bare twig over there-the one with the leaf hanging off the middle of it."
Elizabeth flinched at his sarcastic reference to his duel with Robert. "I'm truly sorry about that duel," she said, then she concentrated all her attention for the moment on the small twig.
Propping his shoulder against the tree trunk, Ian watched with amusement as she grasped the heavy gun in both her hands and raised it, biting her lip in concentration. "Your brother was a very poor shot," he remarked.
She fired, nicking the leaf at its stem.
"I'm not," she said with a jaunty sidewise smile. And then, because the duel was finally out in the open and he seemed to want to joke about it, she tried to follow suit: "If I'd been there, I daresay I would have-"
His brows lifted. "Waited for the call to fire, I hope?" "Well, that, too," she said, her smile fading as she waited for him to reject her words.
And at that moment Ian rather believed she would have waited. Despite everything he knew her to be, when he looked at her he saw spirit and youthful courage. She handed the gun back to him, and he handed her another one he'd already loaded. "The last shot wasn't bad," he said, dropping the subject of the duel. "However, the target is the twig, not the leaves. The end of the twig," he added.
"You must have missed the twig yourself," she pointed out, lifting the gun and aiming it carefully, "since it's still there."
"True, but it's shorter than it was when I started." Elizabeth momentarily forgot what she was doing as she stared at him in disbelief and amazement. "Do you mean you've been clipping the end off it?"
"A bit at a time," he said, concentrating on her next shot. She hit another leaf on the twig and handed the gun back to him. "You're not bad," he complimented. She was an outstanding shot, and his smile said he knew it as he handed her a freshly loaded gun. Elizabeth shook her head. "I'd rather see you try it."
"You doubt my word?" "Let's merely say I'm a little skeptical." Taking the gun, Ian raised it in a swift arc, and without pausing to aim, he fired. Two inches of twig spun away and fell to the ground. Elizabeth was so impressed she laughed aloud. "Do you know," she exclaimed with an admiring smile, "I didn't entirely believe until this moment that you really meant to shoot the tassel off Robert's boot!"
He sent her an amused glance as he reloaded and handed her the gun. "At the time I was sorely tempted to aim for something more vulnerable."
"You wouldn't have, though," she reminded him, taking the gun and turning toward the twig.
"What makes you so certain?" "You told me yourself you didn't believe in killing people over disagreements." She raised the gun, aimed, and fired, missing the target completely. "I have a very good memory."
Ian picked up the other gun. "I'm surprised to hear it," he drawled, turning to the target, "inasmuch as when we met Elizabeth had been reloading a gun, and she paused imperceptibly, then returned to the task. His casual question proved she'd been right in her earlier reflections. Flirtations were obviously not taken seriously by those mature enough to indulge in them. Afterward, like now, it was apparently accepted procedure to tease one another about them. While Ian loaded the other two guns Elizabeth considered how much nicer it was to joke openly about it than to lie awake in the dark, consumed with confusion and bitterness, as she had done. How foolish she'd been. How foolish she'd seem now if she didn't treat the matter openly and lightly. It did seem, however, a little strange-and rather funny-to discuss it while blasting away with guns. She was smiling about that very thing when he handed her a gun. "Viscount Mondevale was anything but a ?fop'," she said, turning to aim.
He looked surprised, but his voice was bland. "Mondevale, was it?"
"Mmmm." Elizabeth blasted the end off the twig and laughed with delight. "I hit it! That's three for you and one for me." "That's six for me," he pointed out drolly.
"In any case, I'm catching up, so beware!" He handed gun to her, and Elizabeth squinted, taking careful aim.
"Why did you cry off?" She stiffened in surprise; then, trying to match his light, mocking tone, she said, "Viscount Mondevale proved to be a trifle high in the instep about things like his fiance cavorting about in cottages and greenhouses with you." She fired and missed.
"How many contenders are there this Season?" he asked conversationally as he turned to the target, pausing to wipe the gun.
She knew he meant contenders for her hand, and pride absolutely would not allow her to say there were none, nor had there been for a long time. "Well. . ." she said, suppressing a grimace as she thought of her stout suitor with a houseful of cherubs. Counting on the fact that he didn't move in the inner circles of the ton, she assumed he wouldn't know much about either suitor. He raised the gun as she said, "There's Sir Francis Belhaven, for one."
Instead of firing immediately as he had before, he seemed to require a long moment to adjust his aim. "Belhaven's an old man," he said. The gun exploded, and the twig snapped off.
When he looked at her his eyes had chilled, almost as if he thought less of her. Elizabeth told herself she was imagining that and determined to maintain their mood of light conviviality. Since it was her turn, she picked up a gun and lifted it.
"Who's the other one?"
Relieved that he couldn't possibly find fault with the age of her reclusive sportsman, she gave him a mildly haughty smile. "Lord John Marchman," she said, and she fired.
Ian's shout of laughter almost drowned out the report from the gun. "Marchman!" he said when she scowled at him and thrust the butt of the gun in his stomach. "You must be joking!"