"Why not?" Alex asked.

"I have nothing to wear!"

"Yes, you do," Alex replied with a triumphant smile. "It's a gown I brought back from France."

She held up her hand to silence Elizabeth's cry of protest, "I cannot wear the gown," she said quietly. "My waist is enlarging already,"

Elizabeth cast a dubious glance at Alex's slim waist as her friend finished reasonably, "By next year it will be quite out of style, so it's only right that one of us enjoy it. I've already sent word to Bentner to bring Berta here along with anything else you'll need," Alex admitted with a sheepish grin. "I've no intention of letting you go back to Promenade Street, because I fear you would send me a note later today announcing you have a violent headache and have taken to your bed with your salts,"

Despite all the awful emotions warring in Elizabeth she had to bite back a guilty smile over that last astute remark. She'd already been thinking of doing exactly that. "I'll agree to the plan," she said slowly, her wide green eyes insistent, "but only if the dowager duchess has no reservations at all about sponsoring me tonight."

"Leave that to me," Alex said with a huge sigh of relief. She glanced up as the butler arrived in the doorway and grandly announced, "The dowager duchess has arrived, your grace. I've shown her into the yellow salon as you instructed." With a bright smile that displayed confidence she didn't completely feel, Alex stood up. "I just wanted to have a few words with her alone, to explain before she meets you," she said, already heading away. Partway across the room she stopped and turned back. "There's one small thing I ought to warn you about," she added hesitantly. "My husband's grandmother is occasionally a bit-brusque," she finished lamely.

The "few words" Alex needed with the dowager took considerably less than five minutes, but Elizabeth watched the clock in sublime misery, imagining the sort of indignant reluctance Alex must be confronting. When the drawing room door swung open Elizabeth was so tense that she shot to her feet and then had to stand there, feeling graceless and gauche, while the most formidable-looking woman she had ever beheld swept majestically into the room beside Alex.

Besides having the regal posture of a woman who was born with a ramrod down her back, the Dowager Duchess of Hawthorne was quite tall and possessed of a piercing pair of hazel eyes, an aristocratic nose, and an imperious expression that had been permanently stamped into her otherwise seamless white skin.

In aloof silence she waited while Alex performed the introductions, then she watched Elizabeth execute her curtsy and acknowledge the introduction. Still silent, the dowager then raised her lorgnette to her cold hazel eyes and inspected Elizabeth from the top of her hair to the tips of her toes, while Elizabeth mentally abandoned any notion that the old woman would lend her consequence tonight, willingly or otherwise.

When she finally deigned to speak, the dowager's voice had the cutting snap of a whip. "Young woman!" she said without preamble, "Alexandra has just explained to me that she is wishful of my assistance in reintroducing you to society this evening. However, as I told Alexandra, there was no need for her to describe to me the scandal that surrounded your association with a certain Mr. Ian Thornton the year before last; I am well aware of it-as is nearly everyone else in society." She let that unkind and unnecessary statement do its damage to Elizabeth's lacerated pride for a full moment before she demanded, "What I want to know is whether or not I can expect a repetition of it, if I were to agree with what Alexandra wants."

Drowning in angry mortification, Elizabeth nevertheless managed not to flinch or drop her gaze, and although her voice shook slightly, she managed to say calmly and clearly, "I have no control over wagging tongues, your grace. If I had, I would not have been the topic of scandal two years ago. However, I have no desire whatever to re-enter your society. I still have scars enough from my last sortie among the Quality." Having deliberately injected a liberal amount of derision into the word "Quality," Elizabeth closed her mouth and braced herself to be verbally filleted by the old woman whose white brows had snapped together over the bridge of her thin nose. An instant later, however, the pale hazel eyes registered something that might have been approval, then they shifted to Alexandra.

With a curt nod the dowager said, "I quite agree, Alexandra. She has spirit enough to endure what they will put her through. Amazing, is it not," continued the dowager to Elizabeth with a gruff smile, "that on the one hand we of the ton pride ourselves on our civilized manners, and yet many of us will dine on one another's reputations in preference to the most sumptuous meal." Leaving Elizabeth to sink slowly and dazedly into the chair she'd shot out of but moments before, the dowager then walked over to the sofa and seated herself, her eyes narrowed in thought. "The Willingtons' ball tonight will be a complete crush," she said after a moment. "That may be to our advantage-everyone of importance and otherwise will be there. Afterward there'll be less reason to gossip about Elizabeth's appearance, for everyone will have seen her for themselves."

"Your grace," Elizabeth said, flustered and feeling some expression of gratitude was surely in order for the trouble the dowager was about to be put to, "it-it's beyond kind of you to do this-"

"Nonsense," the woman interrupted, looking appalled. "I am rarely kind. Pleasant, at times," she continued while Alexandra tried to hide her amusement. "Even gracious when the occasion demands, but I wouldn't say ?kind.' ?Kind' is so very bland. Like lukewarm tea. Now, if you will take my advice, my girl," she added, looking at Elizabeth's strained features and pale skin, "you will immediately take yourself upstairs and have a long and restorative nap. You're alarmingly peaked. While you rest"-she turned to Alexandra-"Alexandra and I will make our plans."

Elizabeth reacted to this peremptory order to go to bed exactly as everyone reacted to the dowager duchess's orders. After a moment of shocked affront she did exactly as she was bidden.

Alex hastily excused herself to accompany Elizabeth to a guest chamber, and once inside, Alex hugged her tightly. "I'm sorry for that awful moment-she said she wanted to reassure herself you had courage, but I never imagined she meant to do it that way. In any case," she finished happily, "I knew she would like you excessively, and she does!"

She departed in a flurry of rose skirts, leaving Elizabeth to lean weakly against the door of her bed chamber and wonder how the dowager treated people she liked only slightly.

Tags: Judith McNaught Sequels Billionaire Romance
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