"My entire family is sitting in this room," Ian bit out. "I acknowledge no other."
"You're his only living heir," Duncan persisted doggedly. "That's his problem, not mine." "He's dying, Ian."
"I don't believe it."
"I do believe him. Furthermore, if your mother were alive, she would beg you to reconcile with him. It crushed her all her life that he disowned your father for marrying her. I shouldn't have to remind you that your mother was my only sister. I loved her, and if I can forgive the man for the hurt he dealt her by his actions. I don't see why you can't."
"You're in the business of forgiveness," Ian drawled with scathing sarcasm. "I'm not. I believe in an eye for an eye."
"He's dying, I tell you."
"And I tell you "-Ian enunciated each word with biting clarity-"I do not give a damn!"
"If you won't consider accepting the title for yourself, do it for your father. It was his by right, just as it is your future son's birthright. This is your last opportunity to relent, Ian.
Your grandfather allowed me a fortnight to sway you before he named another heir. Your arrival here was delayed for a full fortnight. It may be too late already-"
"It was too late eleven years ago," Ian replied with glacial calm, and then, while the vicar watched, Ian's expression underwent an abrupt and startling transformation. The rigidity left his jaw, and he began sliding papers back into their case. That finished, he glanced at Duncan and said with quiet amusement, "Your glass is empty, Vicar. Would you like another?"
Duncan sighed and shook his head. It was over, exactly as Duncan had anticipated and feared. Ian had mentally slammed the door on his grandfather, and nothing would ever change his mind. When he turned calm and pleasant like this, Duncan knew from experience, Ian was irrevocably beyond reach. Since he'd already ruined his first night with his nephew, Duncan decided there was nothing to be lost by broaching another sensitive subject that was bothering him. "Ian, about Elizabeth Cameron. Her duenna said some things-"
That alarmingly pleasant yet distant smile returned to Ian's face. "I'll spare you further conversation, Duncan. It's over,"
"The discussion or-" "All of it."
"It didn't look over to me," Duncan snapped, nudged to the edge by Ian's infuriating calm. "That scene I witnessed-"
"You witnessed the end."
He said that, Duncan noted, with the same deadly finality, the same amused calm with which he'd spoken of his grandfather, It was as if he'd resolved matters to his complete satisfaction in his own mind, and nothing and no one could ever invade the place where he put them to rest. Based on Ian's last reaction to the matter of Elizabeth Cameron, she was now relegated to the same category as the Duke of Stanhope. Frustrated, Duncan jerked the bottle of brandy off the table at Ian's elbow and splashed some into his glass, "There's something I've never told you," he said angrily.
"And that is?" Ian inquired.
"I hate it when you turn all pleasant and amused. I'd rather see you furious! At least then I know I still have a chance of reaching you."
To Duncan's boundless annoyance, Ian merely picked up his book and started reading again.
Ian, would you go out to the barn and see what's keeping Elizabeth?" the vicar asked as he expertly turned a piece of bacon frying in the skillet. "I sent her out there fifteen minutes ago to bring in some eggs."
Ian dumped an armload of wood beside the fireplace, dusted off his hands, and went searching for his house guest. The sight and sounds that greeted him when he reached the door of the barn halted him in his tracks. With her hands plunked upon her hips Elizabeth was glowering at the roosting hens, who were flapping and cackling furiously at her. "It's not my fault!" she was exclaiming. "I don't even like eggs. In fact, I don't even like the smell of chickens." As she spoke she started stealthily forward on tiptoe, her voice pleading and apologetic. "Now, if you'll just let me have four, I won't even eat any. Look," she added, reaching forward toward the flapping hen, "I won't disturb you for more than just one moment. I'll just slide my hand right in there-ouch!" she cried as the hen pecked furiously at her wrist.
Elizabeth jerked her hand free, then swung around in mortification at Ian's mocking voice: "You don't really need her permission, you know," he said, walking forward. "Just show her who's master by walking right up there like this. . . ."
And without further ado he stole two eggs from beneath the hen, who did not so much as try to attack him; then he did the same thing beneath two more hens. "Haven't you ever been in a henhouse before?" Ian asked, noting with detached impartiality that Elizabeth Cameron looked adorable with her hair mussed and her face flushed with ire.
"No," she said shortly. "I haven't. Chickens stink."
He chuckled. "That's it, then. They sense how you feel about them -animals do, you know."
Elizabeth slid him a swift, searching glance while an uneasy, inexplicable feeling of change hit her. He was smiling at her, even joking, but his eyes were blank. In the times they'd been together she'd seen passion in those golden eyes, and anger, and even coldness. But she'd never seen nothing.
She wasn't at all certain anymore how she wanted him to feel, but she was quite certain she didn't like being looked at like an amusing stranger.
"Thank heaven!" said the vicar when they walked into the house. "Unless you like your bacon burned, you'd better sit down at the table while I fix these."
"Elizabeth and I prefer burned bacon," Ian said drolly. Elizabeth returned his lazy smile, but her unease was growing.
"Do you perchance play cards?" the vicar asked her when breakfast was nearly over.
"I'm familiar with some card games," she replied.
"In that case, when Miss Throckmorton-Jones and Jake return, perhaps we could get up a game of whist one evening. Ian," he added, "would you join us?"
Ian glanced around from pouring coffee at the stove and said with a mocking smile, "Not a chance." Transferring his gaze to Elizabeth, he explained, "Duncan cheats."
The absurd notion of a vicar cheating at cards wrung a musical laugh from Elizabeth. "I'm sure he doesn't do anything of the sort."
"Ian is quite right, my dear," the vicar admitted, grinning sheepishly. "However, I never cheat when I'm playing against another person. I cheat when I play against the deck-you know, Napoleon at St. Helena."