"In a sense." Alexandra's blue eyes began to spark with dangerous fire.
"You're a fine one to believe gossip, Roddy! You above all know it's usually lies, because you've started your share of it!"
"I didn't say I believe it," he drawled coolly. "In fact, I'd find it hard to believe that any man's hands, including Thornton's, have ever touched that porcelain skin of hers. However," he said, abruptly closing the lid on his snuffbox and tucking it away, "society is not as discerning as I, or, in this instance, as kind. They will cut her dead tonight, never fear, and not even the influential Townsendes or-my influential self could prevent it. Though I hate the thought of sinking any lower in your esteem than I can see I already have, I'm going to tell you an unlovely truth about myself, my sweet Alex," he added with a sardonic grin. "Tonight. any unattached bachelor who's foolish enough to show an interest in that girl is going to be the laughingstock of the Season, and I do not like being laughed at. I do not have the courage, which is why I am always the one to make jokes of others. Furthermore," he finished, reaching for his hat, "in society's eyes Elizabeth Cameron is used goods, Any bachelor who goes near her will be deemed a fool or a letch, and he'll suffer her fate."
At the door he stopped and turned, looking unperturbable and amused as usual, "For what it's worth, I shall make it a point to proclaim tonight that I for one don't believe she was with Thornton in a cottage or a greenhouse or anywhere else. That may slow down the tempest at first, but it won't stop it."
Less than an hour later, in the crowded, noisy, candlelit ballroom, Alexandra was painfully aware that all Roddy's predictions had been accurate. It was the first time in her recollection when she and Jordan were not completely surrounded by friends and acquaintances and even hangers on eager to incur Jordan's favor and influence. Tonight, however, everyone was avoiding them. In the mistaken belief that Jordan and Alexandra would be deeply chagrined when they discovered the truth about Elizabeth Cameron, the Townsendes' friends were politely trying to lessen their inevitable embarrassment by simply pretending not to notice that the Townsendes were present and in the company of Elizabeth Cameron. whose reputation had sunk beneath reproach during their absence from England. Although they ignored Jordan and Alexandra out of courtesy, they, like everyone else at the ball, didn't hesitate to cast scathing glances at Elizabeth whenever they could do so without being seen by the few people she'd evidently duped into befriending her. Standing near the dance floor where dancers were whirling about -and stealing smirking glances at Elizabeth-Alexandra was caught between tears and fury. As she looked at Elizabeth, who was making a magnificent effort to smile at her, her throat constricted with guilt and sympathy. The laughter and music were so noisy that Alex had to lean forward in order to hear what Elizabeth was saying.
"If you don't mind," Elizabeth told her in a suffocated voice that belied her smile and made it obvious to Alex that she was drowning in humiliation, "I-I think I'll just find a retiring room and see to my gown."
There was nothing whatever wrong with Elizabeth's gown, and they both knew it. "I'll go with you."
Elizabeth shook her head. "Alex, if you don't mind, I'd like to be alone for just a few moments. It's the noise," she lied bravely.
Elizabeth moved away, keeping her head high, threading her way through six hundred people who either avoided meeting her gaze or turned away to laugh and whisper.
Tony, Jordan, the duchess, and Alexandra all watched her as she walked gracefully up the stairs. Jordan spoke first, careful to keep the emotion out of his voice for fear that if he showed how infuriated he was with all six hundred people in the ballroom, Alexandra would lose her slender thread of control, and the tears shining in her eyes would fall down her flushed cheeks. Putting his arm around her waist, he smiled into her tear-brightened eyes, but he spoke quickly because, as Elizabeth walked away, the acquaintances who'd been giving the Townsendes a wide berth were beginning to . start their way.
"If it is any consolation, darling," Jordan told her, "I think Elizabeth Cameron is the most magnificently courageous young woman I've ever met. Except for you."
"Thank you." Alexandra tried to smile, but her gaze kept reaching for Elizabeth as she moved up the curving staircase.
"They will regret this!" the dowager said frigidly, and to ; prove it, she turned her back on two of her intimate friends who were now approaching her. The dowager's acquaintances had been the only ones to join the Townsendes tonight. because they were of her own age, and so several of them were unaware that Elizabeth Cameron was to be ridiculed, scorned, and snubbed.
Swallowing a lump of tears, Alex glanced at her husband. "At least," she said, trying to joke, "Elizabeth hasn't been completely without admirers. Belhaven's been hanging about her."
"Because," Jordan said without thinking, " he's on everybody's blacklist, and no one has condescended to share the gossip about Elizabeth with him-yet," he amended, watching with narrowed eyes as two elderly fops tugged Belhaven's sleeve, nodded toward Elizabeth's back, and began to speak rapidly.
Elizabeth spent the better part of a half hour standing alone in a small, dark salon, trying to compose herself. It was there that she heard the excited voices of guests discussing something that on any other night would at least have evoked a feeling of shock. Ian had just been named heir to the Duke of Stanhope. Elizabeth felt no emotion at all.
In her state of consuming misery she was incapable of feeling anything more. She remembered, though, Valerie's voice in the garden long ago as she looked through the hedge at Ian: "Some say he's the illegitimate grandson of the Duke of Stanhope." The memory drifted past Elizabeth's mind, aimless, meaningless. When she had no choice but to return to the ballroom she crossed the balcony and descended the stairs, wending her way through the crowd, avoiding the malicious eyes that made her skin burn and her heart contort. Despite her brief respite her head was pounding from the effort of maintaining her composure; the music she'd once loved blared discordantly in her ears, shouts of laughter and roars of conversation thundered around her, and above the din the butler, who was positioned at the top of the stairs leading down to the ballroom, called out the name of each new arrival like a sentry tolling the time. Many of the names he called out Elizabeth recalled from her debut, and each one identified another person who, she knew, was about to walk down the stairs and learn to their derision that Elizabeth Cameron was there. One more voice would repeat the old gossip; one more pair of ears would hear it; one more pair of cold eyes would look her way.