Growing up, he'd known all along that he would leave this place, that he would make his own way in the world, and he'd succeeded. Yet he always came back here, looking for something he still hadn't found, some elusive thing to cure his restlessness. Now he led a life of power and wealth, a life that suited him in most ways. He'd gone too far, seen too much, changed too much to try to live here. He'd accepted that when he decided to marry Christina. She would never like this place, but she would preside over all his other homes with grace and poise.
She was beautiful, sophisticated, and passionate. She suited him perfectly, or he wouldn't have offered for her. Before doing so, he'd considered it with the same combination of dispassionate logic and unfailing instinct that marked all his business decisions-he'd calculated the odds for success, made his decision swiftly, and then acted. In fact, the only rash, ill-advised thing of any import he'd done in recent years was his behavior the weekend he'd met Elizabeth Cameron.
"It was poor-spirited of you in the extreme," Elizabeth smilingly informed him after dinner as she cleared away the dishes, "to make me cook this morning, when you are so very good at it."
"Not really," Ian said mildly as he poured brandy into two glasses and carried them over to the chairs by the fire. "The only thing I know how to cook is fish-exactly the way we just ate it." He handed one to Duncan, then he sat down and lifted the lid off a box on the table beside him, removing one of the thin cheroots that were made especially for him by a London tobacconist. He looked at Elizabeth and, with automatic courtesy, asked, "Do you mind?"
Elizabeth glanced at the cigar, smiled, and started to shake her head, then she stopped, assailed by a memory of him standing in a garden nearly two years ago. He'd been about to light one of those cheroots when he saw her standing there, watching him. She remembered it so clearly, she could still see the golden flame illuminating his chiseled features as he cupped his hands around it, lighting the cigar. Her smile wobbled a little with the piercing memory, and she lifted her eyes from the unlit cigar to Ian's face, wondering if he remembered it, too.
His eyes met hers in polite inquiry, flicked to the unlit cigar, and moved back to her face. He did not remember; she could see that he didn't. "No, I don't mind at all," she said, hiding her disappointment behind a smile.
The vicar, who had observed the exchange and noticed Elizabeth's overbright smile, found the incident as puzzling as Ian's treatment of Elizabeth during the meal. He lifted his brandy to his lips, surreptitiously watching Elizabeth, then he glanced at Ian, who was lighting his cigar.
It was Ian's attitude that struck Duncan as extremely odd. Women routinely found Ian almost irresistibly attractive, and as the vicar well knew, Ian had never felt morally compelled to decline what was freely and flagrantly offered to him. In the past, however, Ian had always treated the women who fell into his arms with a combination of amused tolerance and relaxed indulgence. To his credit, even after he lost interest in the female, he continued to treat her with unfailing charm and courtesy, regardless of whether she was a village maid or an earl's daughter.
Given all that, Duncan found it understandably surprising, even suspect, that two hours ago Ian had been holding Elizabeth Cameron in his arms as if he never intended to let her go, and now he was ignoring her. True, there'd been nothing to criticize about the way he was doing it, but ignoring her he was.
He continued to study Ian, half expecting to see him steal a glance at Elizabeth, but his nephew had picked up a book and was reading it as if he'd dismissed Elizabeth Cameron completely from his mind. After casting about for a conversational gambit, the vicar said to Ian, "Things have gone well for you this year, I gather?"
Glancing up, Ian said with a brief smile, "Not quite as well as I expected, but well enough."
"Your gambles didn't entirely payoff?" "Not all of them."
Elizabeth stilled a moment, then picked up a towel and began to dry a plate, helpless to ignore what she'd heard. Two years ago Ian had told her that if things went well for him he'd be able to provide for her. Evidently they hadn't, which would explain why he lived here. Her heart filled with sympathy for what she imagined had been his grand dreams that had not come to fruition. On the other hand, he was not nearly so bad off as he might believe, she decided, thinking of the wild beauty of the hills all around and the coziness of the cottage, with its large windows overlooking the valley. It was not Havenhurst by any stretch of the imagination, but it had an untamed splendor of its own. Furthermore, it did not cost a fortune in upkeep and servants, as Havenhurst did, which was vastly to its credit. She did not own Havenhurst, not really; it owned her. This beautiful little cottage, with its quaint thatched roof and few spacious rooms, was rather wonderful in that regard. It gave shelter and warmth without requiring whoever lived here to lie awake at night, worrying about mortar coming loose from its stones and the cost of repairing its eleven chimneys.
Obviously Ian didn't realize how truly lucky he was, or he wouldn't waste his time in gentlemen's clubs or wherever he gambled in hopes of making his fortune. He'd stay here, in this rugged, beautiful place where he looked so completely at ease, where he belonged. . . . So intent was she on her thoughts that it did not occur to her that she was close to wishing she lived here.
When everything was dried and put away, Elizabeth decided to go upstairs. At supper she'd learned that Ian hadn't seen his uncle in a long while, and she felt the proper thing to do was leave them alone so they might talk privately.
Hanging the towel on a peg, she untied her makeshift apron and went to bid the men good night. The vicar smiled and wished her pleasant dreams. Ian glanced up and said a preoccupied "Good night."
After Elizabeth went upstairs, Duncan watched his nephew reading, remembering the lessons in the vicarage that he'd given Ian as a boy. Like Ian's father, Duncan was intelligent and university-educated, yet by the time Ian was thirteen he'd already read and absorbed all their university textbooks and was looking for more answers. His thirst for knowledge was unquenchable; his mind was so brilliant that Duncan and Ian's father had both been more than a little awed. Without requiring quill and parchment, Ian could calculate complicated mathematical probabilities and equations in his head, producing the answer before Duncan had decided how to go about finding it.
Among other things, that rare mathematical ability had enabled Ian to amass a fortune gaming; he could calculate the odds for or against a particular hand or a spin of the roulette wheel with frightening accuracy-something the vicar had long ago decried as a misuse of his God-given genius, to absolutely no avail. Ian had the calm arrogance of his noble British forebears, the hot temper and the proud intractability of his Scots ancestors; and the combination had produced a brilliant man who made his own decisions and who never permitted anyone to sway him when his mind was made up. And why would he, the vicar thought with an unhappy premonition of doom as he contemplated the topic he needed to discuss with his nephew. Ian's judgment in most things was as close to infallible as was human, and he relied on it, rather than on the opinions of anyone else.