"Of course," she'd replied. "Isn't that what all females want and all gentlemen promise?"

You had to give her credit, Ian thought to himself, fighting down a surge of disgust-at least she was honest about what mattered to her. In retrospect, he rather admired her courage, if not her standards.

He glanced down at Elizabeth and saw her watching him, her apprehensive green eyes soft and deceptively innocent. "Don't worry," he said flippantly, taking her arm and starting to walk back toward the house. "I'm not going to make the ritualistic proposal that followed our last encounters. Marriage is out of the question. Among other things, I'm fresh out of large rubies and expensive furs this season."

Despite his joking tone, Elizabeth felt ill at how ugly those words sounded now, even though her reasons for saying them at the time had nothing to do with a desire for jewels or furs. You had to give him credit, she decided miserably, because he obviously took no offense at it. Evidently, in sophisticated flirtations, the rule was -that no one took anything seriously.

"Who's the leading contender these days?" he asked in that same light tone as the cottage came into view. "There must be more than Belhaven and Marchman."

Elizabeth struggled valiantly to make the same transition from heated passion to flippancy that he seemed to find so easy. She wasn't quite so successful, however, and her light tone was threaded with confusion. "In my uncle's eyes, the leading contender is whoever has the most important title, followed by the most money."

"Of course," he said dryly. "In which case it sounds as if Marchman may be the lucky man."

His utter lack of caring made Elizabeth's heart squeeze in an awful, inexplicable way. Her chin lifted in self-defense. "Actually, I'm not in the market for a husband," she informed him, trying to sound as indifferent and as amused as he. "I may have to marry someone if I can't continue to outmaneuver my uncle, but I've come to the conclusion that I'd like to marry a much older man than I."

"Preferably a blind one," he said sardonically, "who'll not notice a little affair now and then?"

"I meant," she informed him with a dark glance, "that I want my freedom. Independence. And that is something a young husband isn't likely to give me, while an elderly one might."

"Independence is all an old man will be able to give you," Ian said bluntly.

"That's quite enough," she said. "I'm excessively tired of being forever pushed about by the men in my life. I'd like to care for Havenhurst and do as I wish to do."

"Marry an old man," Ian interjected smoothly, "and you may be the last of the Camerons."

She looked at him blankly.

"He won't be able to give you children."

"Oh, that," Elizabeth said, feeling a little defeated and nonplussed. "I haven't been able to work that out yet."

"Let me know when you do," Ian replied with biting sarcasm, no longer able to find her either amusing or admirable. "There's a fortune to be made from a discovery like that one."

Elizabeth ignored him. She hadn't worked it out yet because she'd only made that outrageous decision after being held tenderly in Ian Thornton's arms one moment and then, for no comprehensible reason, treated at first like an amusing diversion and now as if she were contemptible. It was all too bewildering, too painful, too baffling. She'd had little enough experience with the opposite sex, and she was finding them a completely unpredictable, unreliable group. From her father to her brother to Viscount Mondevale, who'd wanted to marry her, to Ian Thornton, who didn't. The only one she could depend upon to act in the same reliable way was her uncle. He at least was unfailingly heartless and cold.

In her eagerness to escape to the privacy of her bedchamber, Elizabeth bade Ian a cool good night the instant she stepped over the threshold of the cottage, and then she walked past the high, wing-backed chair without ever noticing that the vicar was seated in it and watching her with an expression of bafflement and concern. "I trust you had a pleasant walk, Ian," he said when her door closed upstairs.

Ian stiffened slightly in the act of pouring some leftover coffee into a mug and glanced over his shoulder. One look at his uncle's expression told him that the older man was well aware that desire, not a need for fresh air, had caused Ian to take Elizabeth for a walk. "What do you think?" he asked irritably.

"I think you've upset her, repeatedly and deliberately, which is not your ordinary behavior with women."

"There is nothing ordinary about Elizabeth Cameron." "I completely agree," said the vicar with a smile in his voice. Closing his book, he put it aside. "I also think she is strongly attracted to you and you are to her. That much is perfectly obvious."

Then it should be equally obvious to a man of your discernment," Ian said in a low, implacable voice, "that we are completely ill-suited to each other. It's a moot issue in any case; I'm marrying someone else."

Duncan opened his mouth to comment on that, saw the expression on Ian's face, and gave up.

Chapter 17

Ian left at first light the next morning to go hunting, and Duncan took advantage of his absence to try to glean from Elizabeth some answers to the problems that worried him. Repeatedly and without success he tried to question her about her original meeting with Ian in England, what sort of life she led there, and so on. By the time breakfast was over, however, he had received only the most offhand and superficial sort of replies-replies he sensed were designed to mislead him into believing her life was perfectly frivolous and very agreeable. Finally, she tried to divert him by asking about Ian's sketches.

In the hope that she would confide in him if she understood Ian better, Duncan went so far as to explain how Ian had dealt with his grief after his family's death and why he had banished the retriever. The ploy failed; although she exhibited sympathy and shock at the story, she was no more inclined to reveal anything about herself than she had been before.

For Elizabeth's part, she could scarcely wait for the meal to end so she could escape his steady gaze and probing questions. For all his kindness and Scots bluntness, he was also, she suspected, an extremely perceptive man who did not give up easily when he set his mind to get at the bottom of something. As soon as the dishes were put away she went to her work in the garden, only to have him appear at her side a few minutes later, a worried expression on his face. "Your coachman is here," he said. "He's brought an urgent message from your uncle."

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