Shaking her head in amused affection, Elizabeth said, "I daresay he wouldn't just meekly go along with Aaron."
"And I don't think," Alex added, her smiling gaze meeting Elizabeth's, "a press gang would take him. They're not that desperate."
"There's always black magic," Bentner continued. "In Deathly Endeavours there was a perpetrator of ancient rites who cast an evil spell. We would require some rats' tails, as I recall, and tongues of-"
"No," Elizabeth said with finality. "-lizards," Bentner finished determinedly. "Absolutely not," his mistress returned.
"And fresh toad mold, but procuring that might be tricky. The novel didn't say how to tell fresh from-"
"Bentner!" Elizabeth exclaimed, laughing. "You'll cast us all into a swoon if you don't desist at once."
When Bentner had padded away to seek privacy for further contemplation of solutions, Elizabeth looked at Alex. "Rats' tails and lizards' tongues," she said, chuckling. "No wonder Bentner insists on having a lighted candle in his room all night."
"He must be afraid to close his eyes after reading such things," Alex agreed, but her thoughts had returned to last night. "One thing is certain-I was correct about having you go out in society. Last night was much harder than I imagined, but the rest will be easy. I have no doubt you'll be receiving offers within a sennight, so what we must do is decide whom you like and wish to encourage. I think," she continued gently, "that if you still want Mondevale-"
Elizabeth shook her head emphatically. "I don't want anyone, Alex. I mean that."
The dowager duchess, who had arrived to accompany Alex on a shopping expedition, swept in on the heels of an intimidated footman whom she'd waved off when he offered to announce her. "What are you saying. Elizabeth?" she demanded, looking extremely disgruntled that her efforts last night might be going for naught.
Elizabeth started at the sound of her imperious voice. Clad in silver-gray from head to foot, she exuded wealth. confidence, and superior breeding. Elizabeth still thought her the most intimidating woman she'd ever met, but, like Alex, she had seen past that to the reluctant warmth beneath the sound of disapproval in her stern voice.
"What Elizabeth meant," Alex explained while the dowager duchess seated herself at the table and arranged her silk skirts to her satisfaction, "is that she's only been back out in society for one day. After her unfortunate experiences with Mondevale and Mr. Thornton, she is naturally reluctant to misplace her affections."
"You're wrong, Alexandra," said the dowager stoutly, scrutinizing Elizabeth's face. "What she meant, I believe, is that she has no intention of wedding anyone now or in the future, if she can avoid it."
Elizabeth's smile faded, but she did not lie. "Exactly," she said quietly, buttering a scone.
"Foolish, my dear. You shall and you must wed." "Grandmama is quite right," Alex said. "You can't hope to remain in society unwed without eventually encountering all manner of unpleasantness. Believe me, I know!"
"Exactly!" the dowager said, getting down to the reason for her early arrival. "And that is why I've decided that you ought to consider Kensington."
"Who?" Elizabeth said, and then she recognized Ian's new title. "Thank you, but no," she said firmly. "I feel much relieved that things came off as well as they did, and grateful to him for his help, but that is all." Elizabeth ignored the little tug on her heart when she recalled how handsome he'd looked last night, how gentle he'd been with her. He had caused her nothing but grief from the time she'd met him. He was unpredictable and dictatorial. Furthermore, having seen the special closeness Alex seemed to share with her handsome husband, Elizabeth was beginning to question the rightness of choosing husbands as if practicality were paramount. Elizabeth couldn't remember much about the gay, handsome couple who had been her own parents; they had breezed in and out of her life in a swirl of social activities that kept them away from home far more than they were there.
"Grateful?" repeated the duchess. "I would not have used that word. Besides, he did not handle it so well as he might have done. He should never have asked you to dance, for one thing."
"It might have looked more odd if he hadn't," Alex said reluctantly. "However, I, for one, am vastly relieved that Elizabeth has no interest in him."
The duchess frowned in surprise. "Why is that?" "I cannot find it in my heart to forgive him for the misery he has caused her." Recalling again that he had let Elizabeth believe his home was a modest cottage in Scotland, she added, "And I cannot trust him." Turning to Lucinda for reinforcement, Alex asked for her opinion.
Lucinda, who'd been apprised of Ian's actions last night by Elizabeth, looked up from her needlework. "In the matter of Mr. Thornton," she replied noncommittally, "I now prefer to withhold judgment."
"I was not suggesting," the dowager said, irritated with such unprecedented opposition, "that you should fall into his arms if he made you an offer. His behavior, excepting last night, has been completely reprehensible." She broke off as Bentner appeared in the doorway, his expression one of distress and ire.
"Your uncle is here, Miss Elizabeth." "There is no damned need to announce me," Julius informed him, striding down the hall to the morning room. "This is my house." Elizabeth stood up, intending to go somewhere private to hear whatever distressing thing he was bound to tell her, just as Uncle Julius stopped cold in the doorway, flushing a little at the realization she had female guests. "Have you seen Thornton?" he asked her.
"Yes, why?" "I must say I'm proud of the way you've obviously taken it. I was afraid you'd fly into the boughs over not being told. There's a great deal of money involved here, and I'll not have you turning missish so that he wants it back."
"What are you talking about?" "Perhaps we ought to leave," Alexandra suggested. "There's no need for privacy," he said, tugging at his neckcloth, suddenly looking uncharacteristically apprehensive. "I'd as lief discuss this with Elizabeth in front of her friends. You are. I collect. her friends?"
Elizabeth had a horrible feeling that he was relying on her guests to keep her from making "a scene," which is how he described any sort of verbal opposition, no matter how quiet. "Shall we adjourn to the front drawing room?" he said in the tone of one issuing an instruction, not an invitation. "There's more room."