Elizabeth considered refusing. She wasn't certain at the moment she'd remember how, but there was something imploring and almost urgent in the duke's look when she hesitated, and she reluctantly laid her gloved fingers on his arm.

As they walked through the crowd Elizabeth concentrated on keeping her mind perfectly blank. So successful was she in "that endeavor that they had nearly reached the dance floor before she realized the older man's stride was slightly slower than it needed to be. Rousing herself from her lethargic misery, she cast a worried glance at his handsome face, and he smiled. "An old riding injury," he explained, obviously guessing the cause of her concern. "I'm quite adept at dealing with it, however, and I shan't disgrace us on the dance floor." As he spoke he put his hand on her waist and moved her into the midst of the dancers with easy grace. When they were safely blocked from view of the guests by the other dancers, however, his face sobered. "Ian has charged me to give you a message," he told her gently.

It occurred to Elizabeth, not for the first time, that during every one of the five short days she'd "spent in Ian Thornton's company he had turned her emotions upside down and inside out, and she was not in a mood to let him do it again tonight. Lifting her eyes to the duke's, she regarded him politely but without any sign of interest in hearing Ian's message.

"I am to tell you not to worry," the duke explained. "All you need do is remain here for another hour or so and trust him."

Elizabeth lost control of her expression completely; her eyes widened with shock, and her slender shoulders shook with laughter that was part hysteria and part exhaustion. "Trust him?" she repeated. Every time she was near Ian Thornton she felt as if she were a ball being slammed and bounced off his racket in whatever direction his whim chose to send her, and she was heartily and thoroughly weary of it. She smiled at the duke again and shook her head at the sheer absurdity of what his message suggested.

Among those dancers who were close enough to see what was happening, it was noted and immediately remarked upon that Lady Cameron seemed, amazingly, to be on the most amiable terms with the Duke of Stanhope. It was also being duly and uncomfortably noted by the entire assembly that not just one, but now two of the most influential families in England seemed to be championing her.

Ian, who had guessed before ever setting foot in the ballroom exactly how their collective minds would work, was standing amid the crowd, doing his skillful utmost to ensure their thoughts continued to move in the direction in which he pointed them. Since he couldn't stop the gossip about his relationship with Elizabeth, he set out to turn it in a new direction. With an indulgent cordiality he'd never before displayed to the ton. he allowed himself to be verbally feted while deliberately letting his admiring gaze rest periodically on her. His unhidden interest in the lady, combined with his lazy, sociable smile, positively invited questions from those who'd gathered around to speak to the new heir to the Stanhope prestige. They in turn were so emboldened by his attitude and so eager for a firsthand on-dit about his relationship with her that several of them ventured a hesitant but joking remark. Lord Newsom, a wealthy fop who'd attached himself to Ian's elbow, followed Ian's gaze on one of the occasions when it shifted to Elizabeth and went so far as to remark, in the amused tone of one exchanging manly confidences, "She's something, isn't she? It was the talk of the town when you got her off for an afternoon alone in that cottage two years ago."

Ian grinned and lifted his glass to his mouth, deliberately looking at Elizabeth over its rim. "Was it?" he asked in an amused tone that was loud enough to reach the ears of the avidly interested gentlemen around him.

"Indeed it was." "Did I enjoy it?"

"I beg your pardon?"

"I asked if I enjoyed being with her in that cottage." "Why ask? You were there together."

Rather than deny it, which would never convince them, Ian let the comment hang in the air until the other man demanded, "Well, weren't you with her there?"

"No," he admitted with rueful, conspiratorial grin, "but it was not for want of trying on my part."

"Give over, Kensington," one of them chided with derision. "There's no point in trying to protect the lady now. You were seen with her in the greenhouse."

Instead of smashing his face, Ian quirked an amused brow at him. "As I said, it was not for want of trying to get her off alone."

Seven male faces gaped at him in disbelief that was turning to disappointment; a moment later that gave way to shocked gratification when the new marquess asked their counsel: "I wonder," Ian remarked as if thinking aloud, "if she'd look with more favor on a marquess than she did on a mere mister."

"Good God, man," one of them laughed sarcastically. "The promise of a coronet will win you the hand of any woman you want."

"The promise of a coronet?" Ian repeated, frowning a little. "I gather it's your opinion, then, that the lady would settle for nothing less than marriage?"

The man, who'd thought nothing of the sort a moment ago, now nodded, though he wasn't exactly certain how he'd come to agree.

When Ian departed he left behind six men who had the diverting impression that the Marquess of Kensington had been rebuffed by Lady Cameron when he was a mere mister, and that bit of gossip was far more delectable than the former gossip that he'd seduced her.

With democratic impartiality, all six of those men shared their misinformation and erroneous conclusions with anyone in the ballroom who wanted to listen. And everyone was more than eager to listen. Within thirty minutes the ballroom was alive with speculation on this new information, and several males were studying Elizabeth with new interest. Two of them hesitantly presented themselves to Ian's grandfather and requested introductions to her, and shortly afterward Ian saw her being drawn to the dance floor by one of them, with his grandfather beaming approval. Knowing that he had done all he could to stem the gossip about her for one night, Ian then performed the only other ritual he had to endure before he could ask her to dance without exposing her to further censure. He asked seven consecutive women of assorted ages and unimpeachable reputations to dance with him first.

When all seven duty-dances were over, Ian caught Jordan Townsende's eye and tipped his head very slightly toward the balcony, sending him the signal that Ian knew his grandfather had already forewarned Jordan to expect.

Elizabeth noticed none of that as she stood with the Townsendes, letting the conversations swirl around her. In a welcome state of calm unreality she listened to several gentlemen who seemed to have lost their aversion to her, but her only genuine feelings were of relief that the Townsendes were no longer ostracized, and a lingering frustration that when she had asked if she could leave, nearly an hour ago, Jordan Townsende had glanced at the Duke of Stanhope and then shaken his head and gently told her, "Not for a while." Thus she was forced to remain, surrounded by people whose faces and voices never quite penetrated her senses, even though she smiled politely at their remarks or nodded agreement at their comments or danced with a few of them.


Tags: Judith McNaught Sequels Billionaire Romance
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