"Elizabeth," Tony whispered urgently. "Come with me. We're going to dance."
"Dance?" she uttered. "Dance," he averred, half pulling her toward the dance floor. Once there, Elizabeth's shock was superseded by a blissful sense of unreality. Rather than deal with the horrible fact that the gossip about her former relationship with Ian was now going to erupt like a full-fledged volcano, and the equally appalling fact that Ian was there, her mind simply went blank, oblivious. No longer did the noise in the ballroom pound in her ears; she scarcely heard it at all. No longer did the watchful eyes wound her; she saw only Tony's shoulder, covered in dark blue superfine. Even when he reluctantly guided her back to the group around the Townsendes. which still included Valerie and Georgina and Viscount Mondevale, Elizabeth felt. . . nothing.
"Are you all right?" Tony asked worriedly. "Perfectly," she replied with a sweet smile. "Do you have any hartshorn with you?"
"I never faint." "That's good. Your friends are still standing around to watch and listen, eager to see what happens now."
"Yes, they will not want to miss this." "What do you think he will do?"
Elizabeth raised her eyes and looked at Ian without a tremor. He was still beside the gray-haired man who looked so like him, and they were both surrounded by people who were gathering around and seemed to be congratulating them on something. "Nothing."
"Nothing?" "Why should he do anything?" "Do you mean he'll cut you?" "I never know what to expect from him. Does it matter?"
At that moment Ian lifted his gaze and saw her, and the only cut he thought of was a way to cut through the drivel and good wishes so that he could get to her. But he couldn't yet. Even though she looked pale and stricken and heartbreakingly beautiful, he had to meet her casually, if there was any hope of putting the right face on it. With infuriating persistence the well-wishers gathered around, the men toadying, the women curtsying; and those who weren't, Ian noticed with fury, were whispering and looking at Elizabeth.
Ian lasted five minutes before he signaled his grandfather with a curt nod, and they both disengaged themselves from three dozen people who were waiting to be formally presented to the Marquess of Kensington. Together they started through the crowd, Ian nodding absently to acquaintances and trying to avoid being waylaid, but pausing to bow and shake hands now and then so it wouldn't seem that he was heading straight for Elizabeth. His grandfather, who had been apprised of the plan in the coach, carried the whole thing off with aplomb. "Stanhope!" someone boomed. "Introduce us to your grandson."
The stupid charade chafed against Ian's straining patience. He'd already been introduced to half these people as Ian Thornton, and the pretense that he hadn't was an infuriating farce. But he endured it for the sake of appearances.
"How are you, Wilson?" Ian said at one of their innumerable pauses. "Suzanne," he said, smiling at Wilson's wife while he watched Elizabeth out of the corner of his eye. She hadn't moved, didn't seem to be capable of movement. Someone had handed her a glass of champagne, and she was holding it, smiling at Jordan Townsende, who seemed to be joking with her. Even from this distance Ian could see her smile lacked its entrancing sparkle, and his heart twisted. "We'll have to do that," he heard himself say to someone who was inviting him to call at their house, and then he'd had all he was willing to endure. He turned in Elizabeth's direction, and his grandfather obligingly stopped conversation with a crony. The minute Ian started toward Elizabeth the whispers hit unprecedented volume.
Alexandra cast a worried look at her, then at Jordan. "Ask Elizabeth to dance, please!" she implored him urgently.
"For heaven's sake, get her out of here. That monster is coming straight in our direction."
Jordan hesitated and glanced at Ian, and whatever he saw in the other man's expression made him hesitate and shake his head. "It's going to be all right, love," he promised with only a twinge of doubt as he stepped forward to shake Ian's hand, exactly as if they hadn't been playing cards a short while ago. "Permit me to present you to my wife," Jordan said.
Jordan turned to the beautiful brunette who looked at Ian with blazing blue eyes. "A pleasure," Ian murmured, lifting her hand to his lips and feeling her exert pressure to yank it away. The dowager duchess acknowledged Ian's introduction with something that might, by a great stretch of the imagination, be considered an inclination of her regal white head and snapped, "I am not pleased to meet you."
Ian endured both ladies' rebuffs and then waited while Jordan introduced him to all the others. A girl named Georgina curtsied to Ian, her eyes inviting. Another named Valerie curtsied, then stepped back in nervous fright from the blast from Ian's eyes as he nodded curtly to her. Mondevale was next, and Ian's first spurt of jealousy vanished when he saw Valerie clinging possessively to the young viscount's arm. "I think Valerie did it because she wanted Mondevale," he recalled Elizabeth saying.
Elizabeth watched it all with interest and no emotion until Ian was finally standing in front of her, but the instant his golden eyes met hers she felt the shaking begin in her limbs. "Lady Elizabeth Cameron," Jordan intoned.
A slow, lazy smile swept across Ian's face, and Elizabeth braced her quaking self for him to say something mocking, but his deep voice was filled with admiration and teasing. "Lady Cameron," he said, raising his voice enough to be heard by the other girls. "I see you are still casting every other female into the shade. May I present my grandfather to you-"
Elizabeth knew she was dreaming. He had introduced his grandfather to no one but her, and the honor was both deliberate and noted by everyone within sight.
When he moved away Elizabeth felt herself sag with relief. "Well!" said the dowager with a reluctant nod of approval, watching him. "I daresay he pulled that off well enough. Look there," she said several minutes later, " he's escorting Evelyn Makepeace onto the dance floor. If Makepeace didn't give him the cut direct, he's just been given the stamp of approval."
A hysterical giggle welled up inside Elizabeth. As if Ian Thornton would care whether he was cut! As if he'd care a snap for a stamp of approval! Her disjointed thoughts were interrupted by the second man to ask her for a dance all evening. With an elegant bow and a warm, searching smile the Duke of Stanhope offered his arm to her. "Would you honor me with this dance, Lady Cameron?" he asked, blithely ignoring his duty to dance with the older women first.