"When you're finished itemizing my transgressions, Duncan," Ian cut in, "I'll introduce you to my companion."
Instead of being irate at Ian's tone, the vicar looked satisfied. "By all means, Ian," he said smoothly. "We should always observe all the proprieties." At that moment Elizabeth realized with a jolt that the shaming tirade she'd expected the vicar to deliver when he first saw them had been delivered after all-skillfully and subtly. The only difference was that the kindly vicar had aimed it solely at Ian, absolving her from blame and sparing her any further humiliation.
Ian evidently realized it, too; reaching out to shake his uncle's hand, he said dryly, "You're looking well, Duncan despite your flattened knees. And," he added, "I can assure you that your sermons are equally eloquent whether I'm standing up or sitting down."
"That is because you have a lamentable tendency to doze off in the middle of them either way," the vicar replied a little irritably, shaking Ian's hand.
Ian turned to introduce Elizabeth. "May I present Lady Elizabeth Cameron, my house guest."
Elizabeth thought that explanation sounded more damning than being seen kissing Ian, and she hastily shook her head. "Not exactly. I'm something of a-a-" Her mind went blank, and the vicar again came to her rescue.
"A stranded traveler," he provided. Smiling, he took her hand in his. "I understand perfectly-I've had the pleasure of meeting your Miss Throckmorton-Jones, and she is the one who dispatched me here posthaste, as I said. I promised to remain until tomorrow or the next day, when she can return."
"Tomorrow or the day after? But they were to return today."
"There's been an unfortunate accident-a minor one," he hastened to assure. "That evil-tempered horse she was riding has a tendency to kick, Jake tells me."
"Was Lucinda badly hurt?" Elizabeth asked, already trying to think of a way to go to her.
"The horse kicked Mr. Wiley," the vicar corrected, "and the only thing that was hurt was Mr. Wiley's pride and his. . . ah . . . nether region. However, Miss Throckmorton-Jones, rightly feeling that some form of discipline was due the horse, retaliated with the only means at her disposal, since she said her umbrella was unfortunately on the ground. She kicked the horse," he explained, "which unfortunately resulted in a severely sprained ankle for that worthy lady. She's been given laudanum, and my housekeeper is tending her injury. She should be well enough to put her foot in a stirrup in a day or two at the most."
Turning to Ian, he said, "I'm fully aware I've taken you by surprise, Ian. However, if you mean to retaliate by depriving me of a glass of your excellent Madeira, I may decide to remain here for months, rather than until Miss Throckmorton-Jones returns."
"I'll go ahead and...and get the glasses down," Elizabeth said, politely trying to leave them some privacy. As Elizabeth turned toward the house she heard Ian say, "If you're hoping for a good meal, you've come to the wrong place. Miss Cameron has already attempted to sacrifice herself on the altar of domesticity this morning, and we both narrowly escaped death from her efforts. I'm cooking supper," he finished, "and it may not be much better."
"I'll try my hand at breakfast," the vicar volunteered good-naturedly.
When Elizabeth was out of earshot, Ian said quietly, "How badly is the woman hurt?"
"It's hard to say, considering that she was almost too angry to be coherent. Or it might have been the laudanum that did it."
"Did what?" The vicar paused a moment to watch a bird hop about in the rustling leaves overhead, then he said, "She was in a rare state. Quite confused. Angry, too. On the one hand, she was afraid you might decide to express your ?tender regard' for Lady Cameron, undoubtedly in much the way you were doing it when I arrived." When his gibe evoked nothing but a quirked eyebrow from his imperturbable nephew, Duncan sighed and continued, "At the same time, she was equally convinced that her young lady might try to shoot you with your own gun, which I distinctly understood her to say the young lady had already tried to do. It is that which I feared when I heard the gunshots that sent me galloping up here."
"We were shooting at targets." The vicar nodded, but he was studying Ian with an intent frown.
"Is something else bothering you?" Ian asked, noting the look.
The vicar hesitated, then shook his head slightly, as if trying to dismiss something from his mind. "Miss Throckmorton-Jones had more to say, but I can scarcely credit it."
"No doubt it was the laudanum," Ian said, dismissing the matter with a shrug.
"Perhaps," he said, his frown returning. "Yet I have not taken laudanum, and I was under the impression you are about to betroth yourself to a young woman named Christina Taylor."
His face turned censorious. "Then what excuse can you have for the scene I just witnessed a few minutes ago?"
Ian's voice was clipped. "Insanity." They walked back to the house, the vicar silent and thoughtful, Ian grim. Duncan's untimely arrival had not bothered him, but now that his passion had finally cooled he was irritated as hell with his body's uncontrollable reaction to Elizabeth Cameron. The moment his mouth touched hers it was as if his brain went dead. Even though he knew exactly what she was, in his arms she became an alluring angel. Those tears she'd shed today were because she'd been tricked by a friend. Yet two years ago she'd virtually cuckolded poor Mondevale without a qualm. Today she had calmly talked about wedding old Belhaven or John Marchman and within the same hour had pressed her eager little body against Ian's, kissing him with desperate ardor. Disgust replaced his anger. She ought to marry Belhaven, he decided with grim humor. The old letch was perfect for her; they were a matched pair in everything but their ages. Marchman, on the other hand, deserved much better than Elizabeth's indiscriminate, well-used little body. She'd make his life a living hell.
Despite that angelic face of hers, Elizabeth Cameron was still what she had always been a spoiled brat, a skillful flirt with more passion than sense.
With a glass of Scotch in his hand and the stars twinkling in the inky sky, Ian watched the fish cooking on the little fire he'd built. The quiet of the night, combined with his drink, had soothed him. Now, as he watched the cheery little fire, his only regret was that Elizabeth's arrival had deprived him of the badly needed peace and quiet he'd been seeking when he came here. He'd been working at a killing pace for almost a year, and he'd counted on finding the same peace he always found here whenever he returned.