The vicar could scarcely conceal his joyous relief. "There are worse things than having to marry a wonderful young woman who also had the excellent judgment to fall in love with you," he pointed out.
Ian almost, but not quite, smiled at that. The impulse passed in an instant, however, as reality crushed down on him, infuriating and complicated. "Whatever she felt for me, it was a long time ago. All she wants now is independence."
The vicar's brows shot up, and he chuckled with surprise. "Independence? Really? What an odd notion for a female. I'm sure you'll be able to disabuse her of such fanciful ideas."
"Don't count on it." "Independence is vastly overrated. Give it to her and she'll hate it," he suggested.
Ian scarcely heard him; the fury at having to capitulate to his grandfather was building inside him again with terrible force. "Damn him!" he said in a murderous underbreath. "I'd have let him rot in hell, and his title with him."
Duncan's smile didn't fade as he said with asperity, "It's possible that it's fear of ?rotting in hell,' as you so picturesquely phrased it, that has made him so desperate to affirm you now as his heir. But consider that he has been trying to make amends for over a decade-long before his heart became weak."
"He was a decade too late," Ian gritted. "My father was the rightful heir, and that old bastard never relented until after he died."
"I'm well aware of that. However, that's not the point, Ian. You've lost the battle to remain distant from him. You must lose it with the grace and dignity of your noble lineage, as your father would have done. You are rightfully the next Duke of Stanhope. Nothing can really change that. Furthermore, I fervently believe your father would have forgiven the duke if he'd had the chance that you now have."
In restless fury Ian shoved away from the wall. "I am not my father," he snapped.
The vicar, fearing that Ian was vacillating, said pointedly, "There's no time to lose. There's every chance you may arrive at your grandfather's only to be told he's already done what he said he meant to do last week-name a new heir."
"There's an equally good chance I'll be told to go to hell after my last letter to him."
"Then, too," said the vicar, "if you tary, you may arrive after Elizabeth's wedding to this Belhaven."
Ian hesitated an endless moment, and then he nodded curtly, shoved his hands into his pockets, and started reluctantly up the stairs,
"Ian?" he called after him,
Ian stopped and turned. "Now what?" he asked irritably. "I'll need directions to Elizabeth's. You've changed brides, but I gather I'm still to have the honor of performing the ceremony in London?"
In answer his nephew nodded.
"You're doing the right thing," the vicar said quietly, unable to shake the fear that Ian's anger would cause him to deliberately alienate the old duke. "Regardless of how your marriage turns out, you have no choice. You wreaked havoc in her life."
"In more ways than you know," Ian said tersely. "What in God's name does that mean?"
"I'm the reason her uncle is now her guardian," he said with a harsh sigh. "Her brother didn't leave to avoid debts or scandal, as Elizabeth evidently thinks."
"You're the cause? How could that be?"
"He called me out, and when he couldn't kill me in a legitimate duel he tried twice more-on the road-and damned near accomplished his goal both times. I had him hauled aboard the Arianna and shipped off to the Indies to cool his heels."
The vicar paled and sank down upon the sofa. "How could you do a thing like that?"
Ian stiffened under the unfair rebuke. "There were only two other alternatives-I could have let him blow a hole through my back, or I could have handed him over to the authorities. I didn't want him hanged for his overzealous determination to avenge his sister; I just wanted him out of my way."
"But two years!"
"He would have been back in less than one year, but the Arianna was damaged in a storm and put into San Delora for repairs. He jumped ship there and vanished. I assumed he'd made his way back here somehow. I had no idea," he finished as he turned and started back up the stairs, "that he had never returned until you told me a few minutes ago."
"Good God!" said the vicar. "Elizabeth couldn't be blamed if she took it in her mind to hate you for this."
"I don't intend to give her the opportunity," Ian replied in an implacable voice that warned his uncle not to interfere. "I'll hire an investigator to trace him, and after I find out what's happened to him, I'll tell her."
Duncan's common sense went to battle with his conscience, and this time his conscience lost. "It's probably the best way," he agreed reluctantly, knowing how hard Elizabeth would undoubtedly find it to forgive Ian for yet another, and worse, transgression against her. "This all could have been so much easier," he added with a sigh, "if you'd known sooner what was happening to Elizabeth. You have many acquaintances in English society; how is it they never mentioned it to you?"
"In the first place, I was away from England for almost a year after the episode. In the second place," Ian added with contempt, "among what is amusingly called Polite Society, matters that concern you are never discussed with you. They're discussed with everyone else, directly behind your back if possible."
Ian watched an inexplicable smile trace its way across his uncle's face. "Putting their gossip aside, you find them an uncommonly proud, autocratic, self-assured group, is that it?"
"For the most part, yes," Ian said shortly as he turned and strode up the stairs. When his door closed the vicar spoke to the empty room. "Ian," he said, his shoulders beginning to shake with laughter, "you may as well have the title-you were born with the traits."
After a moment, however, he sobered and lifted his eyes to the beamed ceiling, his expression one of sublime contentment. "Thank You," he said in the direction of heaven. "It took You a rather long time to answer the first prayer," he added, referring to the reconciliation with Ian's grandfather, "but You were wonderfully prompt with the one for Elizabeth."
It was nearly midnight four days later when Ian finally reached the White Stallion Inn. Leaving his horse with a hostler, he strode into the inn, past the common room filled with peasants drinking ale. The innkeeper, a fat man with a soiled apron around his belly, cast an appraising eye over Mr. Thornton's expensively tailored charcoal jacket and dove-gray riding breeches, his hard face and powerful physique, and wisely decided it wasn't necessary to charge his guest for the room in advance something at which the gentry occasionally took offense.