Elizabeth stood up slowly, her hands clenched into nervous fists at her sides as she gaped at Alexandra Townsende across the young duchess's sumptuous green-and-cream London drawing room. "Alex, this is madness!" she burst out in frustrated disbelief. "My uncle gave me until the twenty-fourth, and it's already the fifteenth! How can you possibly expect me to consider attending a ball tonight, when my life is practically coming to an end, and we haven't thought of a single solution!"
"It might be a solution," Alex reasoned. "And it is the only one I've been able to think of since you arrived."
Elizabeth paused in her pacing to roll her eyes and shake her head in a gesture that clearly implied Alex had taken leave of her senses. Elizabeth had come racing back from Scotland to England, hoping to reason with her uncle, only to have him gleefully inform her that he'd just received a near-offer from Lord Marchman as well. "I prefer to wait in hope Marchman comes up to scratch. His title is greater, and so is his wealth; therefore he's less likely to squander my money. I've written to him and asked him to make his decision by the twenty-fourth."
Elizabeth had kept her senses and used his good mood to convince him to let her go to London in the meantime. Now that he knew he was about to get her off his hands, Uncle Julius was uncharacteristically agreeable. "Very well. Today is the tenth; you may remain there until the twenty-fourth. I shall send a message to you if Marchman offers."
"I-I think I'd like Alexandra Townsende's advice on the formalities of a wedding," Elizabeth had prevaricated on an impulse, hoping that Alex might somehow help her find a way to avoid marrying either man. "She is in London for the Season, and I can stay with her."
"You may use my town house if you bring your own servants," he offered magnanimously. "If Belhaven wants to press his suit with you in person in the meantime, he may call upon you in the city. In fact, while you are there you may order a wedding gown. Nothing too expensive," he added with a dark frown. "There's no reason for a big town wedding when a small one here at Havenhurst will do as well and there's no reason for a wedding gown either, now that I reflect on it, since your mother's was only worn the one time."
Elizabeth didn't bother to remind him that her mother had been married in an elaborate ceremony at St. James's in a sumptuous, pearl-encrusted gown with a fifteen-foot train, and that such a gown for an intimate little wedding would look absurd. At the moment she was still hoping to avoid any ceremony at all, and she was much too anxious to flee to London to discuss finery. Now, after she'd spent five days with Alex, thinking of and discarding impossible solutions, Alex had suddenly decided it was imperative Elizabeth reenter society at a ball tonight. To make matters worse, in his excessive eagerness to continue his courtship, Sir Francis had arrived in London yesterday and was practically haunting Uncle Julius's town house on Promenade Street.
"Elizabeth." Alex's voice was filled with determination. "I'll admit I haven't had a great deal of time to work out all the details, since I only conceived of the plan three hours ago, but if you'll just sit down and have some of that tea, I'll try to explain the logic of it."
"Attending a ball tonight," Elizabeth said as she obediently sank down on a lovely little settee upholstered in green silk, "is not a solution, it's-it's a nightmare!"
"Will you just let me explain? There's no point arguing about it, because I've already set wheels in motion, and I absolutely refuse to be gainsaid."
Elizabeth raked her hair off her forehead in a nervous gesture and nodded reluctantly. When Alexandra glanced pointedly at the tea her butler had just carried in Elizabeth sighed, picked up the dainty cup, and took a sip. "Explain."
"Not to put too fine a point on it, we have nine days left of your reprieve. Nine days to find you a more desirable suitor."
Elizabeth choked on her tea. "Another suitor? You are joking!" she sputtered, caught somewhere between hilarity and horror.
"Not at all," said Alex practically, daintily sipping her tea. "When you made your debut you received fifteen offers in four weeks. If you could accumulate an average of half a suitor per day before, then, even allowing for the scandal hanging over your head, there's no reason in the world why we oughtn't be able to find at least one suitor you like in nine full days. You're more beautiful now than you were as a girl."
Elizabeth paled at the mention of the scandal. "I can't do it," she said shakily. "I cannot face everyone. Not yet!"
"Not alone, perhaps, but you won't be alone tonight." In her desperation to convince Elizabeth of the feasibility and the necessity of the plan Alex leaned forward, propping her elbows on her knees. "I've been busy these past three hours since I conceived the plan. Since the Season is just beginning, not everyone has arrived yet, but I've already sent a note to my husband's grandmother asking her to call on me here today the moment she arrives in town. My husband is still at Hawthorne, but he'd planned to return tonight and spend the early evening at one of his clubs. I've already sent him a long note explaining the entire situation and asking him to join us at the Willingtons' ball at ten-thirty. I've also sent a note to my brother-in-law, Anthony, and he will escort you. So far that makes four of us to stand by you. That may not seem like many to you, but you cannot fully imagine the enormous influence my husband and his grandmother have." With a reassuring, affectionate grin she explained, "The Dowager Duchess of Hawthorne is a lady of enormous consequence, and she shamelessly adores forcing society to bend to her will. You haven't met my husband yet," Alex finished, her smile turning tender, "but Jordan bas even more influence than the dowager, and he will not permit anyone to say an unkind word to you. They wouldn't even dare try if he is with us."
"Does he-does he know about me? Who I am, I mean, and what happened?"
"I explained in the note who you are-to me-and briefly what had happened to you two years ago. I would have told him before this, but I haven't seen him since I came to you at Havenhurst. He's been away, seeing to all the business and estate matters that were left to others for the year and a half we were traveling."
Elizabeth felt sick at the very real possibility that Alex's husband might return to London tonight and announce that Elizabeth was not a fit companion for his wife-or that he wanted nothing whatever to do with the scheme, The prospect was so repugnant that Elizabeth actually seized on an obstacle to the entire plan with enormous relief, "It won't work!" she said happily.