The pain of betrayal almost doubled Elizabeth over, and she wrapped her arms around herself, feeling as if she were crumbling into pieces. "It was Valerie," she managed chokingly. "I asked the footman who'd given him the note, and he said Valerie had." The unspeakable malice of the deed made her shudder. "Later I assumed you'd entrusted it to her, and she'd given it to the footman."
"I'd never have done anything of the sort," he said shortly. "You were terrified we'd be discovered as it was."
His anger at what had been done only made the whole thing seem worse, because even he couldn't shrug it off with casual urbanity. Swallowing, Elizabeth closed her eyes and saw Valerie riding in the park with Viscount Mondevale. Elizabeth's life had been shattered-and all because someone she believed was her friend had coveted her fiance. Tears burned the backs of her eyes, and she said brokenly, "It was a trick. My life was ruined by a trick."
"Why?" he asked. "Why would she do a thing like that to you?"
"I think she wanted Mondevale, and-" Elizabeth knew she would cry if she tried to talk, and she shook her head and started to turn away, to find somewhere to weep out her anguish in privacy.
Helpless to let her go without at least trying to comfort her, Ian caught her shoulders and pulled her against his chest, tightening his arms when she tried to wrench free. "Don't, please," he whispered against her hair. "Don't go. She's not worth your tears."
The shock of being held in his arms again was almost as great as Elizabeth's misery, and the combination of emotions left her paralyzed. With her head bowed she stood silently in his arms, tears racing from her eyes, her body jerking with suppressed sobs.
Ian tightened his arms more, as if he could absorb her hurt by holding her closer, and when that didn't console her after several minutes, he began in sheer desperation to tease her. "If she'd known what a good shot you are," he whispered past the unfamiliar tightness in his throat, "she'd never have dared." His hand lifted to her wet cheek, holding it pressed against his chest. "You could always call her out, you know." The spasmodic shaking in Elizabeth's slender shoulders began to subside, and Ian added with forced tightness, "Better yet, Robert should stand in for you. He's not as fine a shot as you are, but he's a hell of a lot faster."
A teary giggle escaped the girl in his arms, and Ian continued, "On the other hand, if you're holding the pistol, you'll have some choices to make, and they're not easy. . .
When he didn't say more, Elizabeth drew a shaky breath. "What choices?" she finally whispered against his chest after a moment.
"What to shoot, for one thing," he joked, stroking her back. "Robert was wearing Hessians, so I had a tassel for a target. I suppose, though, you could always shoot the bow off Valerie's gown."
Elizabeth's shoulders gave a lurch, and a choked laugh escaped her.
Overwhelmed with relief, Ian kept his left arm around her and gently took her chin between his forefinger and thumb, tipping her face up to his. Her magnificent eyes were still wet with tears, but a smile was trembling on her rosy lips. Teasingly, he continued, "A bow isn't much of a challenge for an expert marksman like you. I suppose you could insist that she hold up an earring between her fingers so you could shoot that instead."
The image was so absurd that Elizabeth chuckled. Without being conscious of what he was doing, Ian moved his thumb from her chin to her lower lip, rubbing lightly against its inviting fullness. He finally realized what he was doing and stopped.
Elizabeth saw his jaw tighten. She drew a shuddering breath, sensing he'd been on the verge of kissing her, and had just decided not to do it. After the last shattering minutes, Elizabeth no longer knew who was friend or foe, she only knew she'd felt safe and secure in his arms, and at that moment his arms were already beginning to loosen, and his expression was turning aloof. Not certain what she was going to say or even what she wanted, she whispered a single, shaky word, filled with confusion and a plea for understanding, her green eyes searching his: "Please-"
Ian realized what she was asking for, but he responded with a questioning lift of his brows.
"I-" she began, uncomfortably aware of the knowing look in his eyes.
"Yes?" he prompted.
"I don't know-exactly," she admitted. All she knew for certain was that, for just a few minutes more, she would have liked to be in his arms.
"Elizabeth, if you want to be kissed, all you have to do is put your lips on mine."
"What!" "You heard me." "Of all the arrogant-" He shook his head in mild rebuke. "Spare me the maidenly protests. If you're suddenly as curious as I am to find out if it was as good between us as it now seems in retrospect, then say so. His own suggestion startled Ian, although having made it, he saw no great harm in exchanging a few kisses if that was what she wanted.
To Elizabeth, his statement that it had been "good between us" defused her ire and confused her at the same time. She stared at him in dazed wonder while his hands tightened imperceptibly on her arms. Self-conscious, she let her gaze drop to his finely molded lips, watching as a faint smile, a challenging smile lifted them at the corners, and inch by inch, the hands on her arms were drawing her closer.
"Afraid to find out?" he asked, and it was the trace of huskiness in his voice that she remembered, that worked its strange spell on her again, exactly as it had so long ago. His hands shifted to the curve of her waist. "Make up your mind," he whispered, and in her confused state of loneliness and longing, she made no protest when he bent his head. A shock jolted through her as his lips touched hers, warm, inviting-brushing slowly back and forth. Paralyzed, she waited for that shattering passion he'd shown her before, without realizing that her participation had done much to trigger it. Standing still and tense, she waited to experience that forbidden burst of exquisite delight? wanted to experience it, just once, just for a moment. Instead his kiss was feather-light, softly stroking. . . teasing!
She stiffened, pulling back an inch, and his gaze lifted lazily from her lips to her eyes. Dryly, he said, "That's not quite the way I remembered it."
"Nor I," Elizabeth admitted, unaware that he was referring to her lack of participation.
"Care to try it again?" Ian invited, still willing to indulge in a few pleasurable minutes of shared ardor, so long as there was no pretense that it was anything but that, and no loss of control on his part.