Her brother's arrogance in refusing her suitors two years ago would be recalled, and they would point out that only Sir Francis would have her now, and they would laugh. And in some ways, Elizabeth couldn't blame them. So utterly shamed was she that even the occasional faces that looked at her with sympathy and puzzlement, instead of contempt and condemnation, seemed vaguely threatening.
As she neared the Townsendes she noted that Sir Francis, clad in absurd pink britches and yellow satin jacket, was now carrying on an animated discussion with Alex and the Duke of Hawthorne. Elizabeth glanced about, looking for somewhere to hide until he went away, when she suddenly recognized a group of faces she had hoped never to see again. Less than twenty feet away Viscount Mondevale was watching her, and on both sides of him were several men and the girls Elizabeth had once called her friends. Elizabeth looked right through him and changed direction, then gave a start of surprise when he intercepted her just as she came to Alex and her husband. Short of walking over him, Elizabeth had no choice but to stop.
He looked very handsome, very sincere, and slightly ill at ease. "Elizabeth," he said quietly, "you are looking lovelier than ever."
He was the last person in the world she'd have expected to take pity on her plight, and Elizabeth wasn't certain whether she was grateful or angry, since the abrupt withdrawal of his offer had vastly contributed to it. "Thank you, my lord," she said in a noncommittal voice.
"I wanted to say," he began again, his eyes searching her composed features, "that I-I'm sorry."
That did it! Annoyance lifted Elizabeth's delicate chin an inch higher. "For what, sir?"
He swallowed, standing so close to her that his sleeve touched hers when he lifted his hand and then dropped it to his side. "For my part in what's happened to you."
"What am I to say to that?" she asked, and she honestly did not know.
"In your position," he said with a grim smile, "I think I'd slap my face for the belated apology."
A touch of Elizabeth's humor returned, and with a regal nod of her head she said, "I should like that very much."
Amazingly, the admiration in his eyes doubled. When he showed an inclination to linger at her side, Elizabeth had no choice but to turn and introduce him to the Townsendes with whom, she discovered, he was already acquainted.
While he and Jordan exchanged pleasantries, however, Elizabeth watched with growing horror as Valerie, evidently resentful of Mondevale's brief desertion, began moving , forward. Walking with her as if they were moving as one, were Penelope, Georgina, and all the others, closing in on a panicking Elizabeth. In a combined effort to sidle away from them and simultaneously rescue Alex from Sir Francis's boring monologue and roving eyes, Elizabeth turned to try to speak to her, but Sir Francis would not be silenced. By the time he finally finished his story Valerie had already arrived, and Elizabeth was trapped. Reeking with malice, Valerie cast a contemptuous look over Elizabeth's pale face and said, "Well, if it isn't Elizabeth Cameron. We certainly never expected to see you at a place like this."
"I'm sure you never did," Elizabeth managed to say in a controlled voice, but she was beginning to break under the strain. "No, indeed," said Georgina with a twittering laugh. Elizabeth felt as if she were suffocating, and the room began to undulate around her. The Townsende group had been like an isolated island all night; now people were turning to see who'd had the daring to go near them. The waltz was building to a roaring crescendo; the voices were getting louder; people were pouring down the staircase a few yards away; and the butler's endless monotone chant rose above the deafening din: "The Count and Countess of Marsant!" he boomed. "The Earl of Norris!. . . Lord Wilson! . . . Lady Millicent Montgomery! . . ."
Valerie and Georgina were looking at her pale face with amusement, saying words that were receding from Elizabeth's mind, drowned by the roaring in her ears and the butler's rhythmic calls: "Sir William Fitzhugh!. . . Lord and Lady Enderly!..."
Turning her back on Valerie's and Georgina's scorching hatred, Elizabeth said in a ragged whisper, "Alex, I'm not feeling well!" But Alex couldn't hear her because Sir Francis was droning on again.
"The Baron and Baroness of Littlefield! . . . Sir Henry ?? arum!?"
Elizabeth turned in desperation to the dowager, feeling as if she was going to either scream or faint if she couldn't get out of there, not caring that Valerie and Georgina and everyone else in the room would know that she had fled from her own disgrace. "I have to leave," she told the dowager.
"The Earl of Titchley! . . . The Count and Countess of Rindell!. . ."
The dowager held up her hand to silence one of her friends and leaned toward Elizabeth. "What did you say, Elizabeth?"
"His Grace, the Duke of Stanhope! . . . The Marquess of Kensington!"
"I said," Elizabeth began, but the dowager's eyes had snapped to the landing where the butler was stationed, and her face was blanching. "I wish to leave!" Elizabeth cried, but an odd silence was sweeping over the room, and her voice was unnaturally loud.
Instead of replying to Elizabeth's statement, the dowager was doing what everyone else was doing, staring at the landing. "Tonight only wanted this!" the older woman said in a furious voice.
"I-I beg your pardon?" Elizabeth asked. "Do you swoon?" the duchess demanded, dragging her eyes from the landing and pinning Elizabeth with the direst of looks"
"No, not in the past, but I really don't feel well." Behind her Valerie and Georgina erupted into laughter.
"Do not even consider leaving until I say you may," the dowager said tersely, sending a speaking look to Lord Anthony Townsende, a pleasant, unaffected man who'd been her escort tonight, and who suddenly clamped Elizabeth's elbow in a supporting grip. The entire crowd in the ballroom seemed to be pressing infinitesimally closer to the staircase, and the ones who weren't were turning to look at Elizabeth with raised brows. Elizabeth had been the cynosure of so many eyes tonight that she took no notice of the hundreds of pairs glancing her way now. But she felt the sudden tension growing in the room, the excitement building, and she glanced uncertainly in the direction of whatever seemed to be causing it. The vision she beheld made her knees tremble violently and a scream rise in her throat; for a split second she thought she was having a distorted double vision, and she blinked, but the vision didn't clear. Descending the staircase side by side were two men of identical height, clad in matching black evening clothes, wearing matching expressions of mild amusement on their very similar faces. And one of them was Ian Thornton.