A feeling of dread swept through Elizabeth as she stood up, and she rushed into the house where Aaron was waiting.
"Aaron?" she said. "What's wrong? How on earth did you get the coach up here?"
In answer to the first question he handed her a folded message. In answer to the second he said gruffly, "Your uncle was so anxious to have you start home that he told us to rent whatever we needed, just so's we'd get you back posthaste. There's a pair o' horses out there for you and Miss Throckmorton-Jones, and a carriage down at the road we can use to get back to the inn where yer coach is waitin' to take ye home."
Elizabeth nodded absently, opened the message, and stared at it in dawning horror.
"Elizabeth," her uncle had written, "Come home at once. Belhaven has offered for you. There's no reason to waste time in Scotland. Belhaven would have been my choice over Thornton, as you know." Obviously anticipating that she would try some tactic to stall, he'd added, "If you return within a sennight, you may participate in the betrothal negotiations. Otherwise I shall proceed without you, which, as your guardian, I have every right to do."
Elizabeth crumpled the note in her hand, staring at her fist while her heart began to thud in helpless misery. A disturbance in the front yard beyond the open door of the cottage made her look up. Lucinda and Mr. Wiley were returning at last, and she ran to Lucinda, hastily stepping around the black horse, who laid his ears back evilly in warning. "Lucy!" she burst out while Lucinda waited calmly for Mr. Wiley to help her down. "Lucy! Disaster has struck."
"A moment, if you please, Elizabeth," said the woman. "Whatever it is, it will surely wait until we're inside and can be comfortable. I declare, I feel as if I were born atop this horse. You cannot imagine the time we had finding suitable servants. . . ."
Elizabeth scarcely heard the rest of what she was saying. In a torment of frantic helplessness she had to wait while Lucinda dismounted, limped into the house, and sat down upon the sofa. "Now then," said Lucinda, flicking a speck of dust off her skirts, "what has happened?"
Oblivious to the vicar, who was standing by the fireplace looking mystified and alarmed on her behalf, Elizabeth handed Lucinda the note. "Read this. It-it sounds as if he's already accepted him."
As she read the brief missive Lucinda's face turned an awful gray with two bright splotches of angry color standing out on her hollow cheeks. "He'd accept an offer from the devil," Lucinda gritted wrathfully, "so long as he had a noble title and money. This shouldn't come as a surprise."
"I was so certain I'd persuaded Belhaven that we couldn't possibly suit!" Elizabeth almost wailed, twisting her blue skirt in her hands in her agitation. "I did everything, Lucy, everything I told you about, and more." Agitation drove Elizabeth to her feet. "If we make haste, we can be home by the allotted time, and perhaps I can find a way to dissuade Uncle Julius."
Lucinda did not leap to her feet as Elizabeth did; she did not race for the stairs, dash into her room, and vent her helpless rage by slamming a door, as Elizabeth did. Her body rigid, Lucinda stood up very slowly and turned to the vicar. "Where is he?" she snapped.
"Ian?" the vicar said distractedly, alarmed by her pallid color. "He's gone hunting."
Deprived of her real prey, Lucinda unleashed her fury upon the hapless vicar instead. When she finished her tirade she hurled the crumpled note into the cold fireplace and said in a voice that shook with wrath, "When that spawn of Lucifer returns, you tell him that if he ever crosses my path, he'd better be wearing a suit of armor!" So saying, she marched upstairs.
It was dusk when Ian returned, and the house seemed unnaturally quiet. His uncle was sitting near the fire, watching him with an odd expression on his face that was half anger, half speculation. Against his will Ian glanced about the room, expecting to see Elizabeth's shiny golden hair and entrancing face. When he didn't, he put his gun back on the rack above the fireplace and casually asked, "Where is everyone?"
"If you mean Jake," the vicar said, angered yet more by the way Ian deliberately avoided asking about Elizabeth, "he took a bottle of ale with him to the stable and said he was planning to drink it until the last two days were washed from his memory."
"They're back, then?"
"Jake is back," the vicar corrected as Ian walked over to the table and poured some Madeira into a glass. "The serving women will arrive in the mom. Elizabeth and Miss Throckmorton-Jones are gone, however."
Thinking Duncan meant they'd gone for a walk, Ian flicked a glance toward the front door. "Where have they gone at this hour?"
"Back to England."
The glass Ian's hand froze halfway to his lips. "Why?" he snapped.
"Because Miss Cameron's uncle has accepted an offer for her hand."
The vicar watched in angry satisfaction as Ian tossed down half the contents of his glass as if he wanted to wash away the bitterness of the news. When he spoke his voice was laced with cold sarcasm. "Who's the lucky bridegroom?"
"Sir Francis Belhaven, I believe."
Ian's lips twisted with excruciating distaste. "You don't admire him, I gather?"
Ian shrugged. "Belhaven is an old lecher whose sexual tastes reportedly run to the bizarre. He's also three times her age."
"That's a pity," the vicar said, trying unsuccessfully to keep his voice blank as he leaned back in his chair and propped his long legs upon the footstool in front of him. "Because that beautiful, innocent child will have no choice but to wed the old. . . lecher. If she doesn't, her uncle will withdraw his financial support, and she'll lose that home she loves so much. He's perfectly satisfied with Belhaven, since he possesses the prerequisites of title and wealth, which I gather are his only prerequisites. That lovely girl will have to wed that old man; she has no way to avoid it."
"That's absurd," Ian snapped, draining his glass. "Elizabeth Cameron was considered the biggest success of her season two years ago. It was public knowledge she'd had more than a dozen offers. If that's all he cares about, he can choose from dozens of others."
Duncan's voice was laced with uncharacteristic sarcasm. "That was before she encountered you at some party or other. Since then it's been public knowledge that she's used goods."
"What the hell is that supposed to mean?" "You tell me, Ian," the vicar bit out. "I only have the story in two parts from Miss Throckmorton-Jones. The first time she spoke she was under the influence of laudanum. Today she was under the influence of what I can only describe as the most formidable temper I've ever seen. However, while I may not have the complete story, I certainly have the gist of it, and if half what I've heard is true, then it's obvious that you are completely without either a heart or a conscience! My own heart breaks when I imagine Elizabeth enduring what she has for nearly two years. And when I think of how forgiving of you she has been-"