The very next day Elizabeth went to the greenhouse, but the violet looked as miserable as ever. Five days later she'd all but forgotten the plant and had merely gone to the greenhouse to share some tarts with Oliver.

"You've a friend over there waiting to see you, missy," he told her.

Elizabeth had wandered over to the table with the ailing plants and discovered the violet, its delicate flowers standing sturdily on fragile little stems, its leaves perked up. "Oliver!" she'd cried delightedly. "How did you do that?"

" ?Twas your kind words and a bit o' my medicine what pulled her through," he said, and because he could see the glimmerings of genuine fascination-or perhaps because he wished to distract the newly orphaned girl from her woes he'd taken her through the greenhouse, naming the plants and showing her grafts he was trying to make. Afterward he'd asked if she would like a small garden for her own, and when Elizabeth nodded they'd strolled through the seedlings in the greenhouse, beginning to plan what flowers she ought to plant.

That day marked the beginning of Elizabeth's enduring love affair with growing things. Working at Oliver's side, an apron tied around her waist to protect her dress, she learned all he could tell her of his "medicines" and mulches and attempts to graft one plant to another.

And when Oliver had taught her ail he knew, Elizabeth began to teach him, for she had a distinct advantage Elizabeth could read, and Havenhurst's library had been the pride of her grandfather. Side by side they sat upon the garden bench until twilight made reading impossible, while Elizabeth read to him about ancient and modern methods of helping plants grow stronger and more vibrant. Within five years Elizabeth's "little" garden encompassed most of the main beds. Wherever she knelt with her small spade, flowers seemed to burst into bloom about her. "They know you love ?em," Oliver told her with one of his rare grins as she knelt in a bed of gaily colored pansies one day, "and they're showin' you they love you back by givin' you their very best."

When Oliver's health required he go to a warmer clime, Elizabeth missed him greatly and spent even more time in her gardens. There she gave full rein to her own ideas, sketching out planting arrangements and bringing them to life, recruiting footmen and grooms to help her enlarge the beds until they covered a newly terraced section that stretched across the entire back of the house.

In addition to her gardening and the companionship of the servants, Elizabeth took great pleasure in her friendship with Alexandra Lawrence. Alex was the closest neighbor of Elizabeth's approximate age, and although Alex was older, they shared the same exuberant pleasure in lying in bed at night, telling blood-chilling stories of ghosts until they were giggling with nervous fear, or sitting in Elizabeth's large tree house, confiding girlish secrets and private dreams.

Even after Alex had married and gone away, Elizabeth never regarded herself as lonely, because she had something else she loved that occupied all her plans and most of her time. She had Havenhurst. Originally a castle, complete with moat and high stone enclosures, Havenhurst had been the dower house of a twelfth-century grandmother of Elizabeth's. The husband of that particular grandmother had taken advantage of his influence with the king to have several unusual codicils attached to Havenhurst's entailment-codicils to ensure that it would belong to his wife and their successors for as long as they wished to keep it, be those successors male or female.

As a result, at the age of eleven when her father died, Elizabeth had become the Countess of Havenhurst, and although the title itself meant little to her, Havenhurst, with its colorful history, meant everything. By the time she was seventeen she was as familiar with that history as she was with her own. She knew everything about the sieges it had withstood, complete with the names of the attackers and the strategies the earls and countesses of Havenhurst had employed to keep it safe. She knew all there was to know of its former owners, their accomplishments and their foibles from the first earl, whose daring and skill in battle had made him a legend (but who was secretly terrified of his wife), to his son, who'd had his unfortunate horse shot when the young earl fell off while practicing at the quintain in Havenhurst's bailer.

The moat had been filled in centuries before, the castle walls removed, and the house itself enlarged and altered until it now looked like a picturesque, rambling country house that bore little or no resemblance to its original self. But even so, Elizabeth knew from parchments and paintings in the library exactly where everything had been, including the moat, the wall, and probably the quintain.

As a result of all that, by the time she was seventeen Elizabeth Cameron was very unlike most well-born young ladies. Extraordinarily well-read, poised, and with a streak of practicality that was evidencing itself more each day, she was already learning from the bailiff about the running of her own estate. Surrounded by trusted adults for all her life, she was naively optimistic that all people must be as nice and as dependable as she and everyone else at Havenhurst.

It was little wonder that on that fateful day when Robert unexpectedly arrived from London, dragged her away from the roses she was pruning, and, grinning broadly, informed her that she was going to make her debut in London in six months, Elizabeth had reacted with pleasure and no concern at all about encountering any difficulties.

"It's all arranged," he'd told her excitedly. "Lady Jamison has agreed to sponsor you-out of fondness for our mother's memory. The thing's going to cost a bloody fortune, but it'll be worth it."

Elizabeth had stared at him in surprise. "You've never mentioned the cost of anything before. We aren't in any sort of financial difficulty, are we, Robert?"

"Not anymore," he'd lied. "We have a fortune right here, only I didn't realize it."

"Where?" Elizabeth asked, completely baffled by everything she was hearing as well as by the uneasy feeling she had.

Laughing, he tugged her over to the mirror, cupped her face in his hands, and made her look at herself.

After casting him a puzzled glance she looked at her face in the mirror, then she laughed. "Why didn't you just say I had a smudge?" she said, rubbing at the small streak on her cheek with her fingertips.

"Elizabeth," he chuckled, "is that all you see in that mirror-a smudge on your cheek?"

"No, I see my face," she answered.

"How does it look to you?" "Like my face," she replied in amused exasperation. "Elizabeth, that face of yours is our fortune now!" he cried. "I never thought of it until yesterday, when Bertie Krandell told me about the splendid offer his sister just got from Lord Cheverley."


Tags: Judith McNaught Sequels Billionaire Romance
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