The dowager was waiting in the drawing room when Alex returned, a bemused expression on her face. "Alexandra," she began at once, helping herself to tea, "it occurs to me there is something of which you may not be aware. . . ."
She broke off, glaring at the butler who appeared in the doorway and caused her to stop speaking. "Excuse me, your grace," he said to Alexandra, "but Mr. Bentner begs a word with you."
"Who is Mr. Bentner?" the dowager demanded irritably when Alexandra instantly agreed to see him in the drawing room.
"Elizabeth's butler," Alex explained with a smile. "He's the most delightful man-he's addicted to mystery novels."
A moment later, while the dowager looked on in sharp disapproval, a stout, white-haired man clad in slightly shabby black coat and trousers marched boldly into the drawing room and seated himself beside Alexandra without much as a by-your-leave. "Your note said you have a plan to help Miss Elizabeth , out of her coil, Miss Alex," he said eagerly. "I brought Berta myself so I could hear it." "It's a little vague yet, Bentner," Alex admitted. "Basically, if we're going to re-present her to society tonight and see if we can't live down that old scandal over Mr. Thornton."
"That blackguard!" Bentner spat. "The sound of his name makes my knuckles ache for a poke at him!" For emphasis, he shook his fist. "It has the same effect on me," Alex admitted wryly. "That's as far as we've planned." He stood up to leave, patted Alexandra's shoulder, and blithely informed the elderly noblewoman who terrified half he ton with her stony hauteur, and who was already glowering at him for his familiarity with Alex, "You've got yourself a fine girl here, your grace. We've known Miss Alex since she was a girl chasin' frogs at our pond with Miss Elizabeth." The dowager did not reply. She sat in frigid silence, and only her eyes moved, following his progress out the door. "Alexandra," she said awfully, but Alex laughed and held out her hand. "Don't berate me for familiarity with the servants, I beg you, Grandmama. I cannot change, and it only upsets you. Besides, you were about to tell me something that seemed important when Bentner arrived."
Diverted from her ire at indecorous servants, the dowager aid severely, "You were so concerned in the salon that we lot keep Elizabeth in an agony of doubt in here that you have me no time to discuss some pertinent facts that may cause you some grave concern-that is, if you aren't already ,ware of them." "What facts?" "Have you seen the newspaper today?" "Not yet. Why?" "According to the Times and the Gazette, Stanhope himself is here in London and has just affirmed Ian Thornton as his grandson and legal heir. Of course, it's been whispered for years that Thornton is his grandson, but only a few knew it for a fact."
"I had no idea," Alex said absently, thinking how grossly unfair it was that the unprincipled libertine who'd brought so much unhappiness into Elizabeth's life should be enjoying such good fortune at the same moment Elizabeth's future looked so bleak. "I never heard of him until six weeks ago, when we returned from our trip and someone mentioned his name in connection with the scandal over Elizabeth."
"That's hardly surprising. Prior to this past year he was rarely mentioned in polite drawing rooms. You and Jordan left on your trip before the scandal over Elizabeth occurred, so there's no reason you would have heard of him in connection with that, either."
"How could such a wretched blackguard convince someone to legitimize him as his heir?" Alex said angrily.
"I daresay he didn't need to be ?legitimized,' if I take your meaning. He is Stanhope's natural and legitimate grandson. Your husband told me that in confidence years ago. I also know," she added meaningfully, "that Jordan is one of the very few people to whom Thornton has ever admitted it."
Alexandra's feeling of disaster increased, and she slowly put her teacup back in the saucer. "Jordan?" she repeated in an alarmed voice. "Why on earth would a scoundrel like that have confided in Jordan, of all people?"
"As you well know, Alexandra," the duchess said bluntly, "your husband did not always live a life that was above reproach. He and Thornton ran with much the same crowd in their wilder days-gaming and drinking and doing whatever debauched things men do. It was this friendship of theirs that I feared you might not know of."
Alex closed her eyes in misery. "I was counting on Jordan's support to help us launch Elizabeth tonight. I've written to him explaining how dreadfully Elizabeth was treated by the most unspeakable cad alive, but I didn't mention his name. I never imagined Jordan would know of Ian Thornton, let alone be acquainted with such a person. I was so certain," she added heavily, "that if he met Elizabeth, he would do everything in his power to help put the right face on things tonight."
Reaching across the settee, the dowager squeezed her hand and said with a gruff smile, "We both know that Jordan would give you his full support if you wished to stand against foe or friend, my dear. However, in this instance you may not have his unconditional empathy when he finds out who the ?unspeakable cad' is. It is that which I wished to warn you about."
"Elizabeth mustn't know of this," Alex said fiercely. "She'll be so uneasy around Jordan-and I couldn't blame her. There is simply no justice in life!" she added, glowering at the unopened issue of the Times lying on the side table. "If there were, that-that despoiler of innocents would never be a marquess now, while Elizabeth has to be afraid to show her face in society. I don't suppose there's the slightest chance," she added hopefully, "that he didn't get a shilling or a piece of property with the title? I could endure it better if he were still a penniless Scots cottager or a down-at-the heel gambler."
The duchess snorted indelicately. "There's no chance of that, my dear, and if that's what Elizabeth believes he is, she's been duped."
"I don't think I want to hear this," Alex said with an angry sigh. "No, I have to know. Tell me, please."
"There's little to tell," the dowager said, reaching for her gloves and starting to draw them on. "Shortly after the scandal with Elizabeth, Thornton vanished. Then, less than a year ago, someone-whose name was not divulged for a long time-bought that splendid estate in Tilshire, named it Montmayne, and began renovations, with an army of carpenters employed to do the work. A few months later a magnificent town house in Brook Street was sold-again to an ?undivulged purchaser.' Massive renovations began the next week on it, too. Society was all agog, wondering who the owner was, and a few months ago Ian Thornton drew up in front of number eleven Upper Brook Street and walked into the house. Two years ago the rumor was that Thornton was a gambler and no more, and he was assuredly persona non grata in most respectable homes. Today, however, I have the sad task of telling you, he's said to be richer than Croesus, and he's welcome in almost any drawing room he cares to set foot in-not that he cares to very often, fortunately." Standing up to leave, she finished in a dire voice, "You may as well face the rest of it now, because you'll have to face it this evening."