"You spoiled my shot," she countered.

"Take it again," he said, looking at her with a mixture of derision, disbelief, and amusement.

"No, I can't shoot with you laughing. And I'll thank you to wipe that smirk off your face. Lord Marchman is a very nice man."

"He is indeed," said Ian with an irritating grin. "And it's a damned good thing you like to shoot, because he sleeps with his guns and fishing poles. You'll spend the rest of your life slogging through streams and trudging through the woods."

"I happen to like to fish," she informed him, striving unsuccessfully not to lose her composure. "And Sir Francis may be a trifle older than I, but an elderly husband might be more kind and tolerant than a younger one."

"He'll have to be tolerant," Ian said a little shortly, turning his attention back to the guns, "or else a damned good shot."

It angered Elizabeth that he was suddenly attacking her when she had just worked it out in her mind that they were supposed to be dealing with what had happened in a light, sophisticated fashion. "I must say, you aren't being very mature or very consistent!"

His dark brows snapped together as their truce began to disintegrate. "What the hell is that supposed to mean?"

Elizabeth bridled, looking at him like the haughty, disdainful young aristocrat she was born to be. "It means," she informed him, making a monumental effort to speak clearly and coolly, "that you have no right to act as if I did something evil, when in truth you yourself regarded it as nothing but a-a meaningless dalliance. You said as much, so there's no point in denying it!"

He finished loading the gun before he spoke. In contrast to his grim expression, his voice was perfectly bland. "My memory apparently isn't as good as yours. To whom did I say that?"

"My brother, for one," she said, impatient with his pretense.

"Ah, yes, the honorable Robert," he replied, putting sarcastic emphasis on the word "honorable." He turned to the target and fired, but the shot was wide of the mark.

"You didn't even hit the right tree.  Elizabeth said in surprise. "I thought you said you were going to clean the guns," she added when he began methodically sliding them into leather cases, his expression preoccupied.

He looked up at her, but she had the feeling he'd almost forgotten she was there. "I've decided to do it tomorrow instead." Ian went into the house, automatically putting the guns back on the mantel; then he wandered over to the table, frowning thoughtfully as he reached for the bottle of Madeira and poured some into his glass. He told himself it made no difference how she might have felt when her brother told her that falsehood. For one thing, she was already engaged at the time, and, by her own admission, she'd regarded their relationship as a flirtation. Her pride might have suffered a richly deserved blow, but nothing worse than that. Furthermore, Ian reminded himself irritably, he was technically betrothed, and to a beautiful woman who deserved better from him than this stupid preoccupation with Elizabeth Cameron.

"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'd said.

Her fiance had evidently cried off because of him, and Ian felt an uneasy pang of guilt he couldn't completely banish. Idly he reached for the bottle of Madeira, thinking of offering Elizabeth a glass. Lying beside the bottle was a note Elizabeth had been writing. It began, "Dearest Alex . . ." But it was not the words that made his jaw clench; it was the handwriting. Neat, scholarly, and precise. Suited to a monk. It was not a girlish, illegible scrawl like that note he'd had to decipher before he understood she wanted to see him in the greenhouse. He picked it up, staring at it in disbelief, his conscience beginning to smite him with a vengeance. He saw himself stalking her in that damned greenhouse, and guilt poured through him like acid.

Ian downed the Madeira as if it could wash away his self-disgust, then he turned and walked slowly outdoors. Elizabeth was standing at the edge of the grassy plateau, a few yards beyond where they'd held their shooting match. Wind ruffled through the trees, blowing her magnificent hair about her shoulders like a shimmering veil. He stopped a few steps away from her, looking at her, but seeing her as she had looked long ago-a young goddess in royal blue, descending a staircase, aloof, untouchable; an angry angel defying a roomful of men in a card room; a beguiling temptress in a woodcutter's cottage, lifting her wet hair in front of the fire-and at the end, a frightened girl thrusting flowerpots into his hands to keep him from kissing her. He drew in a deep breath and shoved his hands into his pockets to keep from reaching for her.

"It's a magnificent view," she commented, glancing at him.

Instead of replying to her remark, Ian drew a long, harsh breath and said curtly, "I'd like you to tell me again what happened that last night. Why were you in the greenhouse?"

Elizabeth suppressed her frustration. "You know why I was there. You sent me a note. I thought it was from Valerie-Charise's sister-and I went to the greenhouse."

"Elizabeth, I did not send you a note, but I did receive one."

Sighing with irritation, Elizabeth leaned her shoulders against the tree behind her. "I don't see why we have to go through this again. You won't believe me, and I can't believe you." She expected an angry outburst; instead he said, "I do believe you. I saw the letter you left on the table in the cottage. You have a lovely handwriting."

Caught completely off balance by his solemn tone and his quiet compliment, she stared at him. "Thank you," she said uncertainly.

"The note you received," he continued. "What was the handwriting like?"

"Awful," she replied, and she added with raised brows, "You misspelled greenhouse."

His lips quirked with a mirthless smile. "I assure you I can spell it, and while my handwriting may not be as attractive as yours, it's hardly an illegible scrawl. If you doubt me, I'll be happy to prove it inside."

Elizabeth realized at that moment he was not lying, and an awful feeling of betrayal began to seep through her as he finished, "We both received notes that neither of us wrote. Someone intended us to go there and, I think, to be discovered."

"No one could be so cruel!" Elizabeth burst out, shaking her head, her heart trying to deny what her mind was realizing must be true.

"Someone was." "Don't tell me that," she cried, unable to endure one more betrayal in her life. "I won't believe it! It must have been a mistake," she said fiercely, but scenes from that weekend were already parading through her memory. Valerie insisting that Elizabeth be the one to try to entice Ian Thornton into asking her for a dance. . . Valerie asking pointed questions after Elizabeth had gone to the woodcutter's cottage. . . the footman handing her a note he said was from Valerie. Valerie, whom she'd believed was her friend. Valerie with the pretty face and watchful eyes. . .


Tags: Judith McNaught Sequels Billionaire Romance
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