His smile widened, and he leaned back in his chair, beaming thoughtfully at her. "Apparently there is," he answered, looking positively delighted. "And I, for one, am vastly pleased."

Elizabeth was beginning to wonder if a tiny streak of insanity ran in the family, and only good manners prevented her from remarking on it. Instead she stood up and began clearing the dishes.

When the dishes were washed and put away, she ignored the vicar's protest and went to work tidying the lower floor of the cottage and polishing the furniture. She stopped to have dinner with him and finished her house-keeping tasks in mid-afternoon. Her spirits buoyed up with a sense of grand accomplishment, she stood in the center of the cottage, admiring the results of her efforts.

"You've wrought wonders," he told her. "Now that you're finished, however, I insist you enjoy what's left of the fine day." Elizabeth would have loved a hot bath, but since that was impossible under the circumstances, she accepted his suggestion as her second choice and did just that. Outdoors the sky was bright blue, the air soft and balmy, and Elizabeth looked longingly at the stream below. As soon as Ian came home she'd go down there and bathe in the stream-her very first time to bathe anywhere but in the privacy of her own chamber. For the present, though, she'd have to wait, since she couldn't risk having him come upon her while she bathed.

She wandered about the yard, enjoying the view, but the day seemed oddly flat with Ian gone. Whenever he was around the air seemed to vibrate with his presence, and her emotions fluctuated crazily. Cleaning his house this morning, which she'd decided to do out of a mixture of boredom and gratitude, had become an almost intimate act.

Standing at the edge of the ridge, she wrapped her arms around herself, gazing into the distance, seeing his ruggedly handsome face and amber eyes, remembering the tenderness in his deep voice and the way he had held her yesterday. She wondered what it would be like to be married, and to have a cozy home like this one that overlooked such breathtaking scenery. She wondered what sort of female Ian would bring here as his wife and imagined the two of them sitting side by side on the sofa near the fire, talking and dreaming together.

Mentally, Elizabeth gave herself a hard shake. She was thinking like-like a madwoman! It was herself she'd just imagined sitting on that sofa beside him. Shoving such outrageous ruminations aside, she looked about for something to occupy her time and her mind. She turned in a complete, aimless circle, glanced up at a rustling in the tree overhead. . . and then she saw it! A large tree house was almost completely concealed from view by the ancient branches of the huge tree. Her eyes alight with fascination, she gazed up at the tree house, then she called to the vicar, who'd stepped outside. "It's a tree house," she explained, in case he didn't know what was up there. "Do you think it would be all right if I have a look? I imagine the view from up there must be spectacular."

The vicar crossed the yard and studied the haphazard "steps," which were old boards nailed to the huge tree. "It might not be safe to step on those boards."

"Don't worry about that," Elizabeth said cheerfully. "Elbert always said I was half monkey."

"Who is Elbert?" "One of our grooms," she explained. "He and two of our carpenters built a tree house for me at home."

The vicar looked at her shining face and could not deny her such a small pleasure. "I suppose it's all right, if you promise you'll take care."

"Oh, I will. I promise." He watched her kick off her slippers. For several minutes she circled the tree, and then she vanished to the far side where there were no steps. To Duncan's shock, he saw a flash of jonquil skirts and realized she was climbing the tree without aid of the old boards. He started to callout a warning to her, then realized it wasn't necessary-with carefree abandon she'd already gained the middle branches and was edging her way along toward the tree house.

Elizabeth reached the floor of the tree house and bent over to get inside. Once through the door, however, the ceiling was high enough for her to stand without stooping-which made her think Ian Thornton must have been tall even in his youth. She glanced around with interest at the old table, chair, and large, flat wooden box that were the only items in the tree house. Dusting off her bands, she looked through the window in the side of the tree house and breathed in the splendor of the valley and hills, decked out in bright hawthorn, cherry, and bluebells, then she turned back to inspect the little room. Her gaze slid to the white-painted box, and she reached down to brush the grime and dust off the lid. Etched across the top were the words "Private property of Ian Thornton. Open at your own peril!" As if the young boy had felt that written warning was insufficient, he'd etched a gruesome skull and crossbones below the words.

Elizabeth stared at it, remembering her tree house at home, where she'd held lavish and lonely tea parties with her dolls. She'd had her own "treasure chest," too, although she hadn't needed to put a skull and crossbones across it. A smile touched her lips as she tried to remember exactly what treasures she'd kept in that large chest with the shiny brass hinges and latches. . . a necklace, she remembered, given to her by her father when she was six. . . and the miniature porcelain tea set her parents had given her for her dolls when she was seven. . . and ribbons for her dolls' hair.

Her gaze was drawn again to the battered box on the table while she accepted the evidence that. the virile, indomitable male she knew had actually been a youth who had secret treasures and perhaps played make-believe as she had done. Against her will and the dictates of her conscience Elizabeth put her hand on the latch. The box would probably be empty, she told herself, so it wasn't really snooping. . . .

She raised the lid, then stared in smiling bafflement at the contents. On top was a bright green feather-from a parrot, she thought. There were three ordinary-looking gray stones, that, for some reason, must have been special to the boy Ian had been, because they'd been painstakingly polished and smoothed. Beside the stones was a large seashell with a smooth pink interior. Recalling the seashell her parents had once brought her, Elizabeth lifted the shell and held it to her ear, listening to the muted roaring of the sea; then she carefully laid it aside and picked up the drawing pencils strewn across the bottom of the box. Beneath them was something that looked like a small sketchbook. Elizabeth picked up the pad and lifted the cover. Her eyes widened with admiration as she beheld a skillfully executed pencil sketch of a beautiful young girl with long hair blowing in the wind, the sea in the background. She was seated on the sand, her legs curled beneath her, her head bent as she examined a large seashell that looked exactly like the shell in the box. The next sketch was of the same girl, looking sideways at the artist, smiling as if they shared some funny secret. Elizabeth was awed by the zest and sparkle Ian had captured with a pencil, as well as the detail. Even the locket the girl wore around her neck was finely drawn.


Tags: Judith McNaught Sequels Billionaire Romance
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