There were other sketches, not only of the same girl, but of a couple Elizabeth presumed to be his parents, and more sketches of ships and mountains and even a dog. A Labrador retriever, Elizabeth knew at a glance, and she found herself smiling again at the dog. Its ears were forward, its head cocked to one side, its eyes bright-as if it were just waiting for the chance to run at its master's feet.

So dumbfounded was she by the sensitivity and skill evidenced by the sketches that she stood stock still, trying to assimilate this unexpected facet of Ian. It was several minutes before she snapped out of her reverie and considered the only other object in the box-a small leather bag. Regardless of what the vicar had said when he gave her permission to explore to her heart's content, she already felt like a trespasser into Ian's private life, and she knew she shouldn't compound that transgression now by opening the bag. On the other hand, the compulsion to learn more about the enigmatic man who'd turned her life upside down from the moment she'd set eyes on him long ago was so strong it couldn't be denied. Loosening the string on the leather bag, she turned it over, and a heavy ring dropped into her hand. Elizabeth studied it, not quite able to believe what she was seeing. In the center of the massive gold ring an enormous square-cut emerald glowed and winked, and embedded in the emerald itself was an intricate gold crest depicting a rampant lion. She was no expert on jewels, but she had little doubt that a ring of such splendid craftsmanship was real-and worth a ransom in value. She studied the crest, trying to match it up with the pictures of crests she'd been required to memorize before making her debut, but though it seemed vaguely familiar, she could not positively identify it. Deciding the crest was probably more ornamental than real, Elizabeth slid the ring back into the leather bag, pulled the drawstring tight, and made up her mind. Apparently Ian had placed no more value on it than he did on three stones and a seashell when he was a youth, but she knew better, and she felt certain that if he saw it now he'd recognize its value and realize it had to be put somewhere for safekeeping. With an inward grimace she anticipated his anger when he realized she'd been snooping through his things, but even so she had to at least bring it to his attention. She'd bring the sketchbook, too, she decided. Those sketches were so beautifully executed they deserved to be framed, not left outdoors to eventually crumble.

Closing the box, Elizabeth put it back beside the wall where she'd found it, smiling at the skull and crossbones. Without her realizing what had happened, her heart had softened yet more toward a boy who'd carried his dreams up here and hidden them in a treasure chest. And the fact that the boy had become a man who was frequently cold and distant had little effect on her tender heart. Untying the scarf from her hair, Elizabeth put it around her waist; then she slid the sketchbook between the makeshift belt and her gown and slid the ring onto her thumb, for want of anywhere else to keep it while she climbed down.

Ian, who'd been coming toward the yard from the woods to the west, had seen Elizabeth walk around the tree and vanish. Leaving the game he'd shot at the barn, he started for the house, then changed his direction and headed for the tree.

With his hands on his hips he stood beneath the tree, looking down the mossy slope that led to the stream, his forehead furrowed in a puzzled frown as he wondered how she'd scrambled down the incline fast enough to disappear. High overhead branches began to rustle and sway, and Ian glanced up. At first he saw nothing, and then what he did see made him doubt his vision. A long, shapely bare leg was poking out of the branches, toes feeling about for a sturdy branch on which to begin a descent. Another leg joined it, and the pair of them seemed to hang there, levitating.

Ian started to reach up for the hips to which the legs would surely be attached somewhere further up in the leaves, then he hesitated, since she seemed to be managing well enough on her own. "What in hell are you doing up there?" he demanded.

"Climbing down, of course," Elizabeth's voice said from among the leaves. Her right toes wiggled, reaching for the wooden step and finally touching it; then, as Ian looked on, still ready to catch her if she fell, she shimmied down the branch a bit more and got the toes of her left foot on the step.

Amazed by her daring, not to mention her agility, Ian was about to back away and let her finish descending unaided when the rotted step on which she stood gave way. "Help!" Elizabeth cried as she came plunging out of the tree into a pair of strong hands that caught her by the waist.

Her back to him, Elizabeth felt her body slide down Ian's hard chest, his flat stomach, and then his thighs. Embarrassed to the depths of her soul by her clumsy egress, by the boyhood treasures she'd discovered while snooping in the tree house, and by the odd feelings that shook through her at the intimate contact with him, Elizabeth drew a shaky breath and turned uneasily to face him. "I was snooping in your things," she confessed, lifting her green eyes to his. "I hope you won't be angry."

"Why should I be angry?"

"I saw your sketches," she admitted, and then, because her heart was still filled with the lingering tenderness of her discovery, she continued with smiling admiration, "They're wonderful, truly they are! You should never have taken up gambling. You should have been an artist!" She saw the confusion that narrowed his eyes, and in her eagerness to convince him of her sincerity she pulled the sketchbook from her "belt" and bent down, opening it carefully on the grass, smoothing the pages flat. "Just look at this!" she persisted, sitting down beside the sketches and smiling up at him.

After a moment's hesitation Ian crouched down beside her, his gaze on her entrancing smile, not the sketches.

"You aren't looking," she chided him gently, tapping the first sketch of the young girl with her tapered fingernail. "I can't believe how talented you are! You captured everything in the tiniest detail. Why, I can almost feel the wind blowing on her hair, and there's laughter in her eyes." His gaze shifted from her eyes to the open sketchbook, and Elizabeth watched in shock as he glanced at the sketch of the young girl and pain slashed across his tanned features.

Somehow Elizabeth knew from his expression that the girl was dead. "Who was she?" she asked softly. The pain she'd imagined vanished, and his features were already perfectly composed when he looked at her and quietly answered, "My sister." He hesitated, and for a moment Elizabeth thought he wasn't going to say more. When he did, his deep voice was strangely hesitant, almost as if he was testing his ability to talk about it: "She died in a fire when she was eleven."


Tags: Judith McNaught Sequels Billionaire Romance
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