A minute later, after Mr. Thornton had ordered a meal sent to his room, the innkeeper congratulated himself on the wisdom of that decision, because his new guest inquired about the magnificent estate belonging to an illustrious local noble.

"How far is it to Stanhope Park?" "Bout an hour's ride, gov'ner."

Ian hesitated, debating whether to arrive there in the morning unannounced and unexpected or to send a message. "I'll need a message brought there in the morning," he said after a hesitation.

"I'll have my boy take it there personal. What time will you be wantin' it taken over t' Stanhope Park?"

Ian hesitated again knowing there was no way to avoid it. "Ten o'clock."

Standing alone in the inn's private parlor the next morning, Ian ignored the breakfast that had been put out for him long ago and glanced at his watch. The messenger had been gone for three hours-almost a full hour more than it should have taken him to return with a message from Stanhope, if there was going to be a message. He put his watch away and walked over to the fireplace, moodily slapping his riding gloves against his thigh. He had no idea if his grandfather was at Stanhope or if the old man had already named another heir and would now refuse to see Ian in retaliation for all the gestures of reconciliation Ian had rebuffed in the last decade. With each minute that passed Ian was more inclined to believe the latter.

Behind him the innkeeper appeared in the doorway and said, "My boy hasn't yet returned, though there's been time aplenty. I'll have to charge ye extra. Mr. Thornton, if he don't return within the hour."

Ian glanced at the innkeeper over his shoulder and made a sublime effort not to snap the man's head off. "Have my horse saddled and brought round," he replied curtly, not certain exactly what he meant to do now. He'd actually have preferred a public flogging to writing that curt message to his grandfather in the first place. Now he was being brushed off like a supplicant, and that infuriated him.

Behind him the innkeeper frowned at Ian's back with narrowed, suspicious eyes. Ordinarily male travelers who arrived without private coach or even a valet were required to pay for their rooms when they arrived. In this instance the innkeeper hadn't demanded advance payment because this particular guest had spoken with the clipped, authoritative accents of a wealthy gentleman and because his riding clothes bore the unmistakable stamp of elegant cloth and custom tailoring. Now, however, with Stanhope Park refusing even to answer the man's summons, the innkeeper had revised his earlier estimation of the worth of his guest. and he was bent on stopping the man from trying to mount his horse and galloping off without paying his blunt.

Belatedly noting the innkeeper's continued presence. Ian pulled his scowling gaze from the empty grate. "Yes, what is it?"

"It's yer tick, gov'ner. I'll be wantin' payment now."

His greedy eyes widened in surprise as his guest extracted a fat roll of bills, yanked off enough to cover the cost of the night's lodgings, and thrust it at him.

Ian waited thirty minutes more and then faced the fact that his grandfather wasn't going to reply. Furious at having wasted valuable time, he strode out of the parlor, deciding to ride to London and try to buy Elizabeth's uncle's favor. His attention on pulling on his riding gloves, he strode through the common room without noticing the sudden tension sweeping across it as the rowdy peasants who'd been drinking ale at the scarred tables turned to gape in awed silence at the doorway. The innkeeper, who'd only moments before eyed Ian as if he might steal the pewter, was now standing a few feet away from the open front door, staring at Ian with slackened jaw. "My lord!" he burst out, and then, as if words had failed him completely, the stout man made a sweeping gesture toward the door.

Ian's gaze shifted from the last button on his glove to the innkeeper, who was now bowing reverently, then snapped to the doorway, where two footmen and a coachman stood at rigid attention, clad in formal livery of green and gold.

Unconcerned with the peasants' gaping stares, the coachman stepped forward, bowed deeply to Ian, and cleared his throat. In a grave, carrying voice he repeated a message from the duke that could leave no doubt in Ian's mind about his grandfather's feelings toward him or his unexpected visit: "His Grace the Duke of Stanhope bade me to extend his warmest greetings to the Marquess of Kensington. . . and to say that he is most eagerly awaiting your convenience at Stanhope Park."

By instructing the coachman to address Ian as the Marquess of Kensington the duke had just publicly informed Ian and everyone else in the inn that the title was now-and would continue to be-Ian's. The public gesture was beyond anything Ian had anticipated, and it proved two things to him simultaneously: first, that his grandfather bore him no ill will for repeatedly rejecting his peace offerings; second, that the wily old man was still keen enough in his mind to have sensed that victory was now in his grasp.

That irritated Ian, and with a curt nod at the coachman he strode past the gaping villagers, who were respectfully tipping their caps to the man who'd just been publicly identified as the duke's heir. The vehicle waiting in the inn yard was another testament to his grandfather's eagerness to welcome him home in style. Instead of a carriage and horse he'd sent the closed coach with a team of four handsome horses decked out in silver trappings.

It occurred to Ian that this grand gesture might be his grandfather's way of treating Ian as a long-awaited and much-loved guest, but he refused to dwell on that possibility. He had not come to be reunited with his grandfather; he had come to accept the title that had been his father's. Beyond that, he wanted nothing whatever to do with the old man.

Despite his cold detachment, Ian felt an odd sensation of unreality as the coach pulled through the gates and swept along the drive of the estate that his father had called home until his marriage at the age of twenty-three. Being here made him feel uncharacteristically nostalgic, and at the same time it increased his loathing for the tyrannical aristocrat who'd deliberately disowned his own son and cast him out of this place. With a critical eye he looked over the neatly tended parkland and the sprawling stone mansion with chimneys dotting the roof. To most people Stanhope Park would look very grand and impressive; to Ian it was an old, sprawling estate, probably badly in need of modernization, and not nearly as lovely as the least of his own.

The coach drew up before the front steps, and before Ian alighted, the front door was already being opened by an ancient, thin butler clad in the usual black. Ian's father had rarely spoken of his own father, nor of the estate and possessions he'd left behind, but he had talked often and freely of those servants of whom he was particularly fond. As he ascended the steps Ian looked at the butler and knew he had to be Ormsley. According to Ian's father, it was Ormsley who'd found him secretly sampling Stanhope's best French brandy in a hayloft when he was ten years old. It was also Ormsley who took the blame for the missing brandy-and its priceless decanter-by confessing to drinking it himself and misplacing the decanter in his inebriated state.


Tags: Judith McNaught Sequels Billionaire Romance
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