Ian glanced down at the hand he'd just turned over and actually felt a flush of embarrassment steal up his neck. "I have something on my mind," he explained.

"Whatever it is, it is assuredly not cards. Either that or you've lost your famous touch."

"I wouldn't be surprised," Ian said absently, stretching out his long legs and crossing them at the ankles.

"Do you want to play another hand?" "I don't think I can afford it," Ian joked wearily. Glancing over his shoulder, Jordan nodded to a footman to bring two more drinks to their table, then he shoved the cards aside. Leaning back in his chair, he stretched his own legs out, and the two men regarded each other, a portrait of indolent, masculine camaraderie. "I have time for only one drink," Jordan said, glancing at the ormolu clock on the opposite wall. "I've promised Alexandra to stand at her side at a ball tonight and beam approvingly at a friend of hers."

Whenever Jordan mentioned his wife's name, Ian noted with amusement, the other man's entire expression softened.

"Care to join us?" Ian shook his head and accepted his drink from the footman. "It sounds boring as hell."

"I don't think it'll be boring, precisely. My wife has taken it upon herself to defy the entire ton and sponsor the girl back into the ranks. Based on some of the things Alexandra said in her note, that will be no mean feat."

"Why is that?" Ian inquired with more courtesy than interest.

Jordan sighed and leaned his head back, weary from the hours he'd been working for the last several weeks and unexcited at the prospect of dancing attendance on a damsel in distress-one he'd never set eyes on. "The girl fell into the clutches of some man two years ago, and an ugly scandal ensued."

Thinking of Elizabeth .and himself, Ian said casually, "That's not an uncommon occurrence, evidently."

"From what Alex wrote me, it seems this case is rather extreme."

"In what way?" "For one thing, there's every chance the young woman will get the cut direct tonight from half the ton-and that's the half that will be willing to acknowledge her. Alex has retaliated by calling in the heavy guns-my grandmother, to be exact, and Tony and myself, to a lesser degree. The object is to try to brave it out, but I don't envy the girl. Unless I miss my guess, she's going to be flayed alive by the wagging tongues tonight. Whatever the bastard did," Jordan finished, downing his drink and starting to straighten in his chair, "it was damaging as hell. The girl-who's purported to be incredibly beautiful, by the way-has been a social outcast for nearly two years."

Ian stiffened, his glass arrested partway to his mouth, his sharpened gaze on Jordan, who was already starting to rise. "Who's the girl?" he demanded tautly.

"Elizabeth Cameron."

"Oh, Christ!" Ian exploded, surging out of his chair and snatching up his evening jacket. "Where are they?"

"At the Willingtons. Why?"

"Because," Ian bit out, impatiently shrugging into his jacket and tugging the frilled cuffs of his shirt into place, "I'm the bastard who did it."

An indescribable expression flashed across the Duke of Hawthorne's face as he, too, pulled on his evening jacket. "You are the man Alexandra described in her note as an ?unspeakable cad, vile libertine,' and ?despoiler of innocents'?"

"I'm all that and more," Ian replied grimly, stalking toward the door with Jordan Townsende beside him. "You go to the Willingtons' as quickly as you can," he instructed. "I'll be close behind you, but I've a stop to make first. And don't, for God's sake, tell Elizabeth I'm on my way."

Ian flung himself into his coach, snapped orders to his driver, and leaned back, counting minutes, telling himself it couldn't possibly be going as badly for her as he feared it would. And never once did he stop to think that Jordan Townsende had no idea what motives could possibly prompt Elizabeth Cameron's "despoiler" to be bent on meeting her at the Willingtons' ball.

His coach drew up before the Duke of Stanhope's townhouse, and Ian walked swiftly up the front steps, almost knocking poor Ormsley, who opened the door, on to his feet in his haste to get to his grandfather upstairs. A few minutes later he strode back down and into the library, where he flung himself into a chair, his eyes riveted on the clock. Upstairs the household was in an uproar as the duke called for his valet, his butler, and his footmen. Unlike Ian, however, the duke was ecstatic. "Ormsley, Ian needs me!" the duke said happily, stripping off his jacket and pulling off his neckcloth. "He walked right in here and said it."

Ormsley beamed. "He did indeed, your grace." "I feel twenty years younger."

Ormsley nodded. "This is a very great day." "What in hell is keeping Anderson? I need a shave. I want evening clothes-black, I think-a diamond stickpin and diamond studs. Stop thrusting that cane at me, man."

"You shouldn't overly exert yourself, your grace." "Ormsley," said the duke as he walked over to an armoire and flung the doors open, "if you think I'm going to be leaning on that damned cane on the greatest night of my life, you're out of your mind. I'll walk in there beside my grandson unaided, thank you very much. Where the devil is Anderson?"

"We are late, Alexandra," said the dowager duchess as she stood in Alex's drawing room idly examining a magnificent fourteenth-century sculpture reposing on a satinwood table. "And I don't mind telling you, now that the time is upon us, I have a worse feeling about this now than I did earlier. And my instincts are never wrong."

Alexandra bit her lip, trying to fight down her own growing trepidation. "The Willingtons are just around the comer," she said, dealing with the matter of lateness before she faced more grim details. "We can be there in a matter of minutes. Besides, I want everyone there when Elizabeth makes her entrance. I was also hoping that Roddy might yet answer my note."

As if in response to that, the butler appeared in the drawing room. "Roderick Carstairs wishes to be announced, your grace," he informed Alex.

"Thank heavens!" she burst out.

"I showed him in the drawing room." Alex mentally crossed her fingers.

"I have come, my lovely," Roddy said with his usual; sardonic grin as he swept her a deep bow, "in answer to your urgent summons-and, I might add," he continued, "before I presented myself at the Willingtons', exactly as your message instructed." At 5' 10" , Roddy Carstairs was a slender man of athletic build with thinning brown hair and light blue eyes. In fact, his only distinguishing characteristics were his fastidiously tailored clothes, a much envied ability to tie a neckcloth into magnificently intricate folds that never drooped, and an acid wit that accepted no boundaries when he chose a human target. "Did you hear about Kensington?" 

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