"What do you mean?" Alex asked, wearily arising. "I mean that Elizabeth's prospects for success tonight were drastically reduced by Stanhope's announcement this morning." "Why?" "The reason is simple. Now that Thornton has a title to go with his wealth, what happened between him and Elizabeth will be overlooked by the ton as a ?gentleman's sport,' but it will continue to stain her reputation. And there's one more thing," she added in her most dire tone.

"I'm not certain I can bear it. What is It?"

"I," her grace announced, "do not have a good feeling about this evening!"

Neither did Alex at that moment. "Tony has agreed to escort Elizabeth tonight, and Sally is in accord," she said idly, referring to her brother-in-law and his wife, who was still at home in the country. "I wish, though, her escort was someone else-an eligible bachelor above reproach someone everyone looks up to, or better yet fears. Roddy Carstairs would have been the perfect one. I've sent him an urgent message to present himself to me here at his earliest convenience, but he is not expected back until tonight or tomorrow. He would be the perfect one, if I could convince him to do it. Why, most people in society positively tremble in fear of his cutting remarks."

"They tremble in fear of me," said the dowager with pride.

"Yes, I know," Alex said with a wan smile. "No one will dare to give Elizabeth the cut direct in front of you, but Roddy might be able to terrify everyone into actually accepting her."

"Perhaps. Perhaps not. When and where are we all to gather tonight for this ill-fated debacle?"

Alex rolled her eyes and smiled reassuringly. "We'll leave from here at ten-thirty. I asked Jordan to meet us at the Willingtons' receiving line so that we can all go down to the ballroom together."

Chapter 20

At eight-thirty that night Ian stood on the steps outside Elizabeth's uncle's town house suppressing an almost overwhelming desire to murder Elizabeth's butler, who seemed to be inexplicably fighting down the impulse to do bodily injury to Ian. "I will ask you again, in case you misunderstood me the last time," Ian enunciated in a silky, ominous tone that made ordinary men blanch. "Where is your mistress?"

Bentner didn't change color by so much as a shade. "Out!" he informed the man who'd ruined his young mistress's life and had now appeared on her doorstep, unexpected and uninvited, no doubt to try to ruin it again, when she was at this very moment attending her first ball in years and trying bravely to live down the gossip he had caused.

"She is out, but you do not know where she is?" "I did not say so, did I?" "Then where is she?"

"That is for me to know and you to ponder."

In the last several days Ian had been forced to do a great many unpleasant things, including riding across half of England, dealing with Christina's irate father, and finally dealing with Elizabeth's repugnant uncle, who had driven a bargain that still infuriated him. Ian had magnanimously declined her dowry as soon as the discussions began. Her uncle, however, had the finely honed bargaining instincts of a camel trader, and he immediately sensed Ian's determination to do whatever was necessary to get Julius's name on a betrothal contract. As a result, Ian was the first man to his knowledge who had ever been put in the position of purchasing his future wife for a ransom of 150,000 pounds.

Once he'd finished that repugnant ordeal he'd ridden off to Montmayne, where he'd stopped only long enough to switch his horse for a coach and get his valet out of bed. Then he'd charged off to London, stopped at his town house to bathe and change, and gone straight to the address Julius Cameron had given him. Now, after all that, Ian was not only confronted by Elizabeth's absence, he was confronted by the most insolent servant he'd ever had the misfortune to encounter. In angry silence he turned and walked down the steps. Behind him the door slammed shut with a thundering crash, and Ian paused a moment to turn back and contemplate the pleasure he was going to have when he sacked the butler tomorrow.

He climbed into his coach and instructed his driver to turn the horses back to his house in Upper Brook Street, and there he alighted. His own butler opened the door with proper respect, and Ian strode past him, scowling and restless. He was halfway up the staircase when he decided his evening would pass more quickly if he spent it somewhere other than here, contemplating the rebellion he'd probably face in Elizabeth tomorrow.

Twenty-five minutes later he emerged from the town house formally attired for an evening of faro, and instructed his coachman to take him to the Blackmore. He was still scowling when he strode into the dimly lit, exclusive gentlemen's club where he had gambled at high stakes for years. "Good evening, my lord," the head footman intoned, and Ian nodded curtly, suppressing a grimace at the obsequious use of my lord.

The card room was elegantly appointed and well populated by the creme de la creme of society who preferred straight gambling to the gossip that all too often made White's a dead bore, and by less illustrious but equally wealthy gentlemen who preferred to play for only the very high stakes that were required at the Blackmore. Pausing at the entrance to the card room, Ian started to leave and head for the faro room when a laughing voice remarked from his immediate left, "For a man who's just inherited a small empire, Ian, you have a remarkably sour expression on your face. Would you care to join me for a drink and a few hands of cards, my lord?"

An ironic smile twisted Ian's lips as he turned to acknowledge one of the few aristocrats he respected and regarded as a friend. "Certainly," he mocked, "Your Grace."

Jordan Townsende laughed. "It gets a little tedious, does it not?"

Grinning, the two men shook hands and sat down. Since Jordan had also just arrived at the club, they had to wait for a table. When they were seated a few minutes later they enjoyed a drink together, caught up on events of the past year and a half, and then got down to the more serious and pleasurable occupation of gaming, combined with desultory conversation. Normally the gaming would have been a pleasurable occupation, but tonight Ian was preoccupied, and every man who walked by the table felt it incumbent to pause and talk to one or both of them.

"It's our long absence from the city that makes us so popular," Jordan joked, tossing chips into the center of the table.

Ian scarcely heard him. His mind was on Elizabeth, who had been at the mercy of her loathsome uncle for two years. The man had bartered his own flesh and blood-and Ian was the purchaser. It wasn't true, of course, but he had an uneasy feeling Elizabeth would see it that way as soon as she discovered what had been done without her knowledge or consent. In Scotland she'd drawn a gun on him. In London he wouldn't blame her if she fired it. He was toying with the idea of trying to court her for a few days before he told her they were already betrothed, and simultaneously wondering if she was going to hate the idea of marrying him. Belhaven might be a repulsive toad, but Ian had grievously and repeatedly wronged her. "I don't mean to criticize your strategy, my friend"-Jordan's drawl drew Ian's wandering attention-"but you have just wagered 1,000 pounds on what appears to be a pair of absolutely nothing."

Tags: Judith McNaught Sequels Billionaire Romance
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