"Oh, that," Elizabeth said, laughing up at Ian as he walked past her carrying his mug. "So do I."
"But you do play whist?"
She nodded. "Aaron taught me to play when I was twelve, but he still trounces me regularly."
"Aaron?" the vicar asked, smiling at her.
"Our coachman," Elizabeth explained, always happy to speak of her "family" at Havenhurst. "I'm better at chess, however, which Bentner taught me to play."
"And he is?" "Our butler."
"I see," said the vicar, and something made him persevere. "Dominoes, by any chance?"
"That was Mrs. Bodley's specialty," Elizabeth told him with a smile. "Our housekeeper. We've played many times, but she takes it very seriously and has strategy. I can't seem to get much enthusiasm over flat pieces of ivory with dots on them. Chess pieces, you know, are more interesting. They invite serious play."
Ian finally added to the conversation. Sending his uncle an amused look, tie explained, "Lady Cameron is a very wealthy young woman, Duncan, in case you haven't guessed." His tone implied that she was actually an overindulged, spoiled brat whose every wish had been fulfilled by an army of servants.
Elizabeth stiffened. not certain whether the insult she'd sensed had been intentional or even real, and the vicar looked steadily at Ian as if he disapproved of the tone of the comment, if not its content.
Ian returned his gaze dispassionately, but inwardly he was startled by his verbal thrust and genuinely annoyed with himself for making it. Last night he'd decided to no longer feel anything whatsoever for Elizabeth, and that decision was final. Therefore, it followed that it could make no difference to him that she was a pampered, shallow little aristocrat. Yet he'd deliberately baited her just now, when she'd done nothing whatsoever to deserve it other than sitting across the table looking almost outrageously alluring, with her hair tied at the nape with a bright yellow bow that matched her gown. So irritated with himself was he that Ian realized he'd lost the thread of their conversation.
"What sorts of games did you play with your brothers and sisters?" Duncan was asking her.
"I had only one brother, and he was away at school or off in London most of the time."
"I imagine there were other children in the neighborhood however," the vicar suggested kindly.
She shook her head, sipping her tea. "There were only a few cottagers, and none of them had children my age. Havenhurst was never properly irrigated, you see. My father didn't think it was worth the expense, so most of our cottagers moved to more fertile ground."
"Then who were your companions?"
"The servants mostly," Elizabeth said. "We had grand times, however."
"And now?" he prompted. "What do you do for amusement there?"
He'd drawn her out so completely and so expertly that Elizabeth answered without choosing her words or considering what conclusions he might later draw. "I'm very busy most of the time just looking after the place."
"You sound as if you enjoy it," he said with a smile. "I do," she replied. "Very much. In fact," she confided, "do you know the part I enjoy most?"
"I can't imagine."
"The bargaining that goes with purchasing our foodstuffs and supplies. It's the most amazing thing, but Bentner-our butler-says I have a genius for it."
"The bargaining?" Duncan repeated, nonplussed.
"I think of it as being reasonable and helping someone else to see reason," she said ingenuously, warming to her subject. "For example, if the village baker were to make one single tart, it would take him, shall we say, an hour. Now, of that hour, half of his time would be used in getting out all his supplies and measuring everything out, and then putting everything away again."
The vicar nodded his tentative agreement, and Elizabeth continued. "However, if he were to make twelve tarts, it would not take him twelve times as long, would it-since he would put out all his supplies and measure everything only once?"
"No, it wouldn't take him nearly so long."
"Exactly my thinking!" Elizabeth said happily. "And so why should I be required to pay twelve times more for twelve tarts if it didn't take him twelve times longer to prepare them? And that's before one considers that by making things in great quantity, one buys one's supplies in quantity, and thus pays less for the single part. At least one should pay less," she finished, "if the other person is reasonable."
"That's amazing," the vicar stated honestly. "I never thought of it that way."
"Neither, unfortunately, has the village baker," Elizabeth chuckled. "I do think he's coming around, though. He's stopped hiding behind his flour bags when I come in." Belatedly, Elizabeth realized how revealing her commentary might be to an astute man like the vicar, and she quickly added, "Actually, it's not the cost. Not really. It's the principle. you understand?"
"Of course," Duncan said smoothly. "Your home must be a lovely place. You smile whenever you mention it."
"It is," Elizabeth said, her fond smile widening to encompass both the vicar and Ian. "It's a wondrous place, and wherever you look there is something beautiful to see. There are hills and a lovely parkland and extravagant gardens," she explained as Ian picked up his plate and mug and stood up.
"How large a place is it?" inquired the vicar sociably. "There are forty-one rooms," she began.
"And I'll wager that all of them," Ian put in smoothly as he put his plate and mug near the dishpan, "are carpeted with furs and filled with jewels the size of your palm." He stopped cold, glowering at his reflection in the window.
"Of course," Elizabeth replied with artificial gaiety, staring at Ian's rigid back, refusing to retreat from his unprovoked attack. "There are paintings by Rubens and Gainsborough, and chimneys by Adams. Carpets from Persia, too." That had been true, she told herself when her conscience pricked her for the lies, until she'd had to sell everything last year to pay her creditors.
To her complete bafflement, instead of continuing his attack, Ian Thornton turned around and met her stormy eyes, an odd expression on his handsome face. "I apologize, Elizabeth," he said grimly. "My remarks were uncalled for." And on that amazing note he strode off, saying that he intended to spend the day hunting.
Elizabeth tore her startled gaze from his departing back, but the vicar continued staring after him for several long moments. Then he turned and looked at Elizabeth. An odd, thoughtful smile slowly dawned across his face and lit his brown eyes as he continued gazing at her. "Is-is something amiss?" she asked.