"What did the woman tell you?" Ian interrupted shortly, turning and walking over to the window.
His apparent lack of concern so enraged the vicar that he surged to his feet and stalked over to Ian's side, glowering at his profile. "She told me you ruined Elizabeth Cameron's reputation beyond recall," he snapped bitterly. "She told me that you convinced that innocent girl-who'd never been away from her country home until a few weeks before meeting you-that she should meet you in a secluded cottage, and later in a greenhouse. She told me that the scene was witnessed by individuals who made great haste to spread the gossip, and that it was all over the city in a matter of days. She told me Elizabeth's fiance heard of it and withdrew his offer because of you. When he did that, society assumed Elizabeth's character must indeed be of the blackest nature, and she was summarily dropped by the ton. She told me that a few days later Elizabeth's brother fled England to escape their creditors, who would have been paid off when Elizabeth made an advantageous marriage, and that he's never returned." With grim satisfaction the vicar observed the muscle that was beginning to twitch in Ian's rigid jaw. "She told me the reason for Elizabeth's going to London in the first place had been the necessity for making such a marriage-and that you destroyed any chance of that ever happening. Which is why that child will now have to marry a man you describe as a lecher three times her age!" Satisfied that his verbal shots were finding their mark, he fired his final, most killing round. "As a result of everything you have done, that brave, beautiful girl has been living in shamed seclusion for nearly two years. Her house, of which she spoke with such love, has been stripped of its valuables by creditors. I congratulate you, Ian. You have made an innocent girl into an impoverished leper! And all because she fell in love with you on sight. Knowing what I now know of you, I can only wonder what she saw in you!"
A muscle moved spasmodically in Ian's throat, but he made no effort to defend himself to his enraged uncle. Bracing his hands on either side of the window, he stared out into the darkness, his uncle's revelations pounding in his brain like a thousand hammers, combining with the torment of his own cruelty to Elizabeth the past few days.
He saw her as she'd been in England, courageous and lovely and filled with innocent passion in his arms, and he heard her words from yesterday: "You told my brother it was nothing but a meaningless dalliance"; he saw her shooting at the target with jaunty skill while he mocked at her suitors. He saw her kneeling in the grass, looking at his sketches of his dead family. "I'm so sorry," she'd whispered, her glorious eyes filled with soft compassion. He remembered her crying in his arms because her friends had betrayed her, too.
With a fresh surge of remorse he recalled her incredible sweetness and unselfish passion in his arms last night. She had driven him mad with desire, and afterward he had said, "I'll spare us both the ritualistic proposal. Marriage is out of the question-I'm fresh out of large rubies and expensive furs."
He remembered other things he'd said before that. "Why the hell would your uncle think I have any desire to wed you?" "Lady Cameron is a very wealthy young lady, Duncan." "No doubt all the rooms at Havenhurst are covered with furs and filled with jewels."
And she'd been too proud to let him think anything else. Scolding rage at his own blindness and stupidity poured through Ian. He should have known-the minute she started talking about bargaining for price with tradesmen, he damned well should have known! Ever since he'd set eyes on Elizabeth Cameron he'd been blind-no, he corrected himself with furious self-disgust, in England he'd recognized instinctively what she was-gentle and proud, brave and innocent and. . . rare. He'd known damned well she wasn't a promiscuous little flirt, yet he'd later convinced himself she was, and then he'd treated her like one here-and she had endured it the entire time she'd been here! She had let him say those things to her and then tried to excuse his behavior by blaming herself for behaving like "a shameless wanton" in England!
Bile rose up in his throat, suffocating him, and he closed his eyes. She was so damned sweet, and so forgiving, that she even did that for him.
Duncan hadn't moved; in taut silence he watched his nephew standing at the window, his eyes clenched shut, his stance like that of a man who was being stretched on the rack.
Finally Ian spoke, and his voice was rough with emotion, as if the words were being gouged out of him: "Did the woman say that, or was that your own opinion?"
"About what?" Drawing a ragged breath, he asked, "Did she tell you that Elizabeth was in love with me two years ago, or was that your opinion?"
The answer to that obviously meant so much to Ian that Duncan almost smiled. At the moment, however, the vicar was more concerned with the two things he wanted above all else: He wanted Ian to wed Elizabeth and rectify the damage he'd done to her, and he wanted Ian to reconcile with his grandfather. In order to do the former, Ian would have to do the latter, for Elizabeth's uncle was evidently determined that her husband should have a title if possible. So badly did Duncan want those two things to happen that he almost lied to help his cause, but the precepts of his conscience forbade it. "It was Miss Throckmorton-Jones's opinion when she was under the influence of laudanum. It is also my opinion, based on everything I saw in Elizabeth's character and behavior to you."
He waited through another long moment of awful suspense, knowing exactly where Ian's thoughts would have to turn next, and then he plunged in, ready to press home his advantage with hard, systematic logic. "You have no choice except to rescue her from that repugnant marriage."
Taking Ian's silence as assent, he continued with more force. "In order to do it, you'll have to dissuade her uncle from giving her to this man. I know from what Miss Throckmorton-Jones told me, and from what I saw with my own eyes in that note over there, that the uncle wants a title for her and will favor the man who has it. I also know that's not uncommon among the nobility, so you've no hope of persuading the man he's being unreasonable, if that's what you're thinking of trying to do." Duncan watched his words hit home with enough force to make Ian's skin whiten, and he made his final push: "That title is within your power, Ian. I realize how deep your hatred for your grandfather goes, but it no longer signifies. Either you let Elizabeth wed this despicable man Belhaven, or you reconcile with the Duke of Stanhope. It's one or the other, and you know it."
Ian tensed, his mind locked in furious combat against the idea of reconciling with his grandfather. Duncan watched him, knowing the battle raging inside him, and he waited in an agony of suspense for Ian to make his decision. He saw Ian bend his dark head, saw him clench his hands into fists. When at last he spoke, his infuriated curse was aimed at his grandfather: "That miserable son of a bitch!" he bit out between clenched teeth. "After eleven years he's going to have it his way. And all because I couldn't keep my hands off her."