She was not aware that while she danced the Duke of Stanhope had relayed the rest of Ian's instructions to Jordan. and so she felt no warning tremor when Jordan tipped his head in acknowledgment of Ian's signal and abruptly said to Anthony Townsende, "I think the ladies would enjoy a stroll out on the balcony." Alex gave him a swift, questioning look but placed her hand on her husband's arm, while Elizabeth obediently turned and allowed Lord Anthony to offer her his. Along with the Duke of Stanhope, the party of five moved through the ballroom an honor guard to protect Elizabeth, arranged in advance by the same man who had caused the need to protect her.
The wide balcony was surrounded by a high stone balustrade, and several couples were standing near it, enjoying the refreshing night air and moonless night. Instead of walking out the French doors directly forward to the balustrade, as Elizabeth expected him to do, Jordan guided their party to the right, to the farthest end of the balcony, where it made a sharp right turn around the side of the house. He turned the comer, then stopped, as did the rest of the party. Grateful he'd sought some privacy for them, Elizabeth took her hand from Tony's arm and stepped up to the balustrade. Several feet to her left Jordan Townsende did a similar thing, except that he turned sideways and leaned his elbow atop the balustrade, his back blocking them from view of anyone who might decide to walk around the side of the house as they had done. From the corner of her eye she saw Jordan grin tenderly and speak to Alexandra, who was standing beside him at the railing. Turning her head away, Elizabeth gazed out at the night, letting the restless breeze cool her face.
Behind her, where Tony had been standing, shadows moved, then a hand gently grasped Elizabeth's elbow, and a deep, husky voice said near her ear, "Dance with me, Elizabeth."
Shock stiffened her body, slamming against the barricade of numbness that Elizabeth was trying to keep intact. Still gazing straight ahead, she said very calmly and politely, "Would you do me a great service?"
"Anything," he agreed.
"Go away. And stay away."
"Anything," he amended with a solemn smile in his voice, "but that." She felt him move closer behind her, and the nervous quaking she'd conquered hours before jarred through her again, awakening her senses from their blissful anesthesia. His fingers lightly caressed her arm, and he bent his head closer to hers. "Dance with me."
In the arbor two years ago, when he had spoken those words, Elizabeth had let him take her in his arms. Tonight, despite the fact that she was no longer being totally ostracized, she was still teetering on the edge of scandal, and she shook her head. "I don't think that would be wise."
"Nothing we've ever done has been wise. Let's not spoil our score."
Elizabeth shook her head, refusing to turn, but the pressure on her elbow increased until she had no choice. "I insist."
Reluctantly she turned and looked at him. "Why?" "Because," he said, smiling tenderly into her eyes, "I've already danced seven dances, all of them with ugly women of unimpeachable reputations, so that I'd be able to ask you, without causing more gossip to hurt you."
The words, as well as his softness, made her wary. "What do you mean by the last part of that?"
"I know what happened to you after the weekend we were together," he said gently. "Your Lucinda laid it all out for Duncan. Don't look so hurt-the only thing she did wrong was to tell Duncan rather than me."
The Ian Thornton who was talking to her tonight was almost achingly familiar; he was the man she'd met two years ago.
"Come inside with me," he urged, increasing the pressure on her elbow, "and I'll begin making it up to you."
Elizabeth let herself be drawn forward a few steps and hesitated. "This is a mistake. Everyone will see us and think we've started it allover again-"
"No, they won't," he promised. "There's a rumor spreading like fire in there that I tried to get you in my clutches two years ago, but without a title to tempt you I didn't have a chance. Since acquiring a title is a holy crusade for most of them, they'll admire your sense. Now that I have a title, I'm expected to use it to try to succeed where I failed before-as a way of bolstering my wounded male pride." Reaching up to brush a wisp of hair from her soft cheek, he said, "I'm sorry. It was the best I could do with what I had to work with-we were seen together in compromising circumstances. Since they'd never believe nothing happened, I could only make them think I was in pursuit and you were evading."
She flinched from his touch but didn't shove his hand away. "You don't understand. What's happening to me in there is no less than I deserve. I knew what the rules were, and I broke them when I stayed with you at the cottage. You didn't force me to stay. I broke the rules, and-"
"Elizabeth," he interrupted in a voice edged with harsh remorse, "if you won't do anything else for me, at least stop exonerating me for that weekend. I can't bear it. I exerted more force on you than you understand."
Longing to kiss her, Ian had to be satisfied instead with trying to convince her his plan would work, because he now needed her help to ensure its success. In a teasing voice he said, "I think you're underrating my gift for strategy and subtlety. Come and dance with me, and I'll prove to you how easily most of the male minds in there have been manipulated."
She nodded, but without any real interest or enthusiasm, and allowed him to guide her back through the French doors.
Despite his confidence, moments after they entered the ballroom Ian noticed the increasing coldness of the looks being directed at them, and he knew a moment of real alarm-until he glanced at Elizabeth as he took her in his arms for a waltz and realized the cause of it. "Elizabeth," he said in a low, urgent voice, gazing down at her bent head, "stop looking meek! Put your nose in the air and cut me dead or flirt with me, but do not on any account look humble, because these people will interpret it as guilt."
Elizabeth, who had been staring at his shoulder, as she'd done with her other dancing partners, tipped her head back and looked at him in confusion. "What?"
Ian's heart turned over when the chandeliers overhead revealed the wounded look in her glorious green eyes. Realizing logic and lectures weren't going to help her give the performance he badly needed her to give, he tried the tack that had, in Scotland, made her stop crying and begin to laugh. He tried to tease her. Casting about for a subject, he said quickly, "Belhaven is certainly in fine looks tonight -pink satin pantaloons. I asked him for the name of his tailor so that I could order a pair for myself."