"I'm sorry," Elizabeth whispered, and all the sympathy and warmth in her heart was mirrored in her eyes. "Truly sorry," she said, thinking of the beautiful girl with the laughing eyes. Reluctantly pulling her gaze from his, she tried lamely to lighten the mood by turning the page to a sketch that seemed to vibrate with life and exuberant joy. Seated on a large boulder by the sea was a man with his arm around a woman's shoulders; he was grinning at her upturned face, and her hand was resting on his arm in a way that somehow bespoke a wealth of love. "Who are these people?" Elizabeth asked, smiling as she pointed to the sketch.

"My parents," Ian replied, but there was something in his voice again that made her look sharply at him. "The same fire," he added calmly.

Elizabeth turned her face away, feeling a lump of constricting sorrow in her chest.

"It happened a long time ago," he said after a moment, and reaching out slowly, he turned to the next sketch. A black Labrador looked back from the pages. This time when he spoke there was a slight smile in his voice. "If I could shoot it, she could find it."

Her own emotions under control again, Elizabeth looked at the sketch. "You have an amazing way of capturing the. essence of things when you sketch, do you know that?"

His brows lifted in dubious amusement, then he reached out and turned the other pages, pausing when he came to a detailed sketch of a four-masted sailing ship. "I intended to build that one someday," he told her. "This is my own design."

"Really?" she said, looking as impressed as she felt. "Really," he confirmed, grinning back at her. Their faces only inches apart, they smiled at each other; then Ian's gaze dropped to her mouth, and Elizabeth felt her heart begin to pound with helpless anticipation. His head bent imperceptibly, and Elizabeth knew, she knew he was going to kiss her; her hand lifted of its own accord, reaching toward his nape as if to draw him down to her; then the moment was abruptly shattered. Ian's head lifted sharply, and he stood up in one smooth motion, his jaw rigid. Stunned, Elizabeth hastily turned to the sketchbook and carefully closed it. Then she, too, stood up. "It's getting late," she said to cover her awkward confusion. "I'd like to bathe in the stream before the air turns chilly. Oh, wait," she said, and carefully she pulled the ring from her thumb, holding it out to him. "I found this in the same box where the sketches were," she added, putting it in his outstretched palm.

"My father gave it to me when I was a boy," he said in an offhand voice. His long fingers closed around it, and he slipped it into his pocket.

"I think it may be very valuable," Elizabeth said. imagining the sorts of improvements he could make to his home and lands if he chose to sell the ring.

"As a matter of fact," Ian drawled blandly, "it's completely worthless."

Chapter 16

To Elizabeth the meal they shared with the vicar that night was a period of mystified torment. Ian conversed with his uncle as if absolutely nothing of import had happened between them, while Elizabeth's mind tortured her with feelings she could neither understand nor vanquish. Every time Ian's amber gaze flickered to her, her heart began to pound. Whenever he wasn't looking she found her gaze straying to his mouth, remembering the way those lips had felt locked to hers yesterday. He raised a wineglass to his lips, and she looked at the long, strong fingers that had slid with such aching tenderness over her cheek and twined in her hair.

Two years ago she'd fallen under his spell; she was wiser now. She knew he was a libertine, and even so her heart rebelled against believing it. Yesterday, in his arms, she'd felt as if she was special to him-as if he not only wanted her close but needed her there.

Very vain, Elizabeth, she warned herself severely, and very foolish. Skilled libertines and accomplished flirts probably made every woman feel that she was special. No doubt they kissed a woman with demanding passion one moment and then, when the passion was over, forgot she was alive.

As she'd heard long ago, a libertine pretended violent interest in his quarry, then dropped her without compunction the instant that interest waned-exactly as Ian had done now. That was not a comforting thought, and Elizabeth was sorely in need of comfort as twilight deepened into night and supper dragged on, with Ian seemingly oblivious to her existence. Finally the meal was finished; she was about to volunteer to clear the table when she glanced at Ian and watched in paralyzed surprise as his gaze roved over her cheek and jaw, then shifted to her mouth, lingering there. Abruptly he looked away, and Elizabeth stood up to clear the table.

"I'll help," the vicar volunteered. "It's only fair, since you and Ian have done everything else."

"I won't hear of it," Elizabeth teased him, and for the fourth time in her entire life she tied a towel around her waist and washed dishes. Behind her the men remained at the table, talking about people Ian had evidently known for years. Although they'd both forgotten her presence, she felt strangely happy and content listening to them talk.

When she finished she draped the dishtowel on the handle of the door and wandered over to sit in a chair near the fireplace. From there she could see Ian clearly without being observed. With no one to write to but Alex, and little she could risk saying in a letter that might be seen by Ian, Elizabeth tried to concentrate on descriptions of Scotland and the cottage, but she wrote desultorily, her mind was on Ian, not the letter. In some ways it seemed wrong that he lived here now, in this solitary place. At least part of the time he ought to be walking into ballrooms and strolling into gardens in his superbly tailored black evening clothes, making feminine heartbeats triple. With a wan inner smile at her attempted impartiality, Elizabeth told herself men like Ian Thornton probably performed a great service to society-he gave them something to stare at and admire and even fear. Without men like him, ladies would have nothing to dream about. And much less to regret, she reminded herself.

Ian had not so much as turned to glance her way, and so it was little wonder that she jumped in surprise when he said without looking at her, "It's a lovely evening, Elizabeth. If you can spare the time from your letter, would you like to go for a walk?"

"Walk?" she repeated, stunned by the discovery that he was evidently as aware of what she was doing as she had been aware of him, sitting at the table. "It's dark outside," she said mindlessly, searching his impassive features as he arose and walked over to-her chair. He stood there, towering over her, and there was nothing about the expression on his handsome face to indicate he had any real desire to go anywhere with her. She cast a hesitant glance at the vicar, who seconded Ian's suggestion. "A walk is just the thing," Duncan said. standing up. "It aids the digestion, you know."

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