The duchess's face turned icy at his impertinence and lack of taste, but then she glanced at Elizabeth, noting her sudden stillness and her alarmed expression, and she nodded curtly.
"There's no point in rushing into the matter," Julius said as he started down the hall, accompanied by the group that had been in the morning room. It wasn't just the money that pleased Julius so much; it was the triumph he felt because, in dealing with a man as incredibly astute as Thornton was purported to be, Julius Cameron had emerged the absolute victor.
"I believe an introduction is in order, Elizabeth," Julius said when they entered the drawing room.
Elizabeth automatically presented him to the duchess, her mind ringing with alarm over an unknown threat, and when her uncle said, "I'd like some tea before we get into this," her alarm escalated to fear because he'd never partaken of anything since Bentner had put the purgative in his drink. He was stalling for time, she realized, to phrase his explanation; that alone meant it was news of the utmost import.
Oblivious to the park they were driving past on the way to Elizabeth's address, Ian idly tapped his gloves against his knee. Twice, women he'd met last night waved at him and smiled, but he didn't notice. His mind was occupied with the explanations he intended to make to Elizabeth. At all costs, she must not think he wanted to marry her out of pity or guilt, for Elizabeth was not only beautiful, she was proud; and her pride would make her oppose their betrothal. She was also courageous and stubborn, and if she discovered their betrothal was already an established fact, she sure as bell wasn't going to like that either, and Ian couldn't blame her. She had been the most sought-after beauty ever to hit the London scene two years ago; she was entitled to be courted properly.
No doubt she'd want to get a little of her own back by pretending she didn't want him, but that was one thing that didn't concern him. They had wanted each other from that first night in the garden. They had wanted each other every time they'd been together since then. She was innocence and courage; passion and shyness; fury and forgiveness. She was serene and regal in a ballroom; jaunty and skillful with a pistol in her bands; passionate and sweet in his arms. She was all of that, and much more.
And he loved her. If he was honest, he'd have to admit be had loved her from the moment she'd taken on a roomful of angry men in a card room-a young, golden princess, outnumbered by her subjects, dwarfed by their size, scornful of their attitude.
She had loved him, too; it was the only explanation for everything that had happened the weekend they met and the three days they were together in Scotland. The only difference was that Elizabeth didn't have the advantage of Ian's years and experience, or of his upbringing. She was a young, sheltered English girl who thought the strongest emotion two people could or should feel for one another was "a lasting attachment."
She didn't know, could not yet comprehend, that love was a gift that had been given to them in a torchlit garden the moment they met. A smile touched his lips as he thought of her in the garden the night they met; she could challenge a roomful of men, but in the garden, when she was flirting with him, she'd been so nervous that she'd rubbed her palms against her knees. That memory was one of the sweetest.
Ian smiled in amused self-mockery. In every other facet of his life he was coolly practical; where Elizabeth was concerned he was alternately blind and reactionary or, like now, positively besotted. On his way here this morning he'd stopped at London's most fashionable jeweler and made purchases that had left the proprietor, Mr. Phineas Weatherbone, caught somewhere between ecstasy and disbelief, bowing Ian out the front door. In fact, there was a betrothal ring in Ian's pocket, but he'd only taken it with him because he didn't think it needed to be sized. He would not put it on Elizabeth's finger until she was prepared to admit she loved him, or at least that she wanted to marry him. His own parents had loved one another unashamedly and without reservation. He wanted nothing less from Elizabeth, which, he thought wryly, was a little odd, given the fact that he hadn't expected or truly wanted the same thing from Christina.
The only problem that didn't concern him was Elizabeth's reaction to discovering that she was already betrothed to him, or worse, that he'd been made to pay to get her. There was no reason for her to know the former yet, and no reason for her ever to know the latter. He had specifically warned her uncle that he would deal with both those matters himself.
All the houses on Promenade Street were white with ornamental wrought-iron gates at the front. Although they were not nearly so imposing as the mansions on Upper Brook Street, it was a pretty street, with fashionable women in pastel bonnets and gowns strolling by on the arms of impeccably dressed men.
As Ian's driver pulled his grays to a stop before the Cameron house, Ian noticed the two carriages already waiting in the street in front of him, but he paid no heed to the rented hack behind him. Irritably contemplating the impending confrontation with Elizabeth's insolent butler, he was walking up the front steps when Duncan's voice called his name, and he turned in surprise.
"I arrived this morning," Duncan explained, turning to look askance at two dandies who were mincing down the street, garbed in wasp-waisted coats and chin-high shirt points dripping with fobs and seals. "Your butler informed me you were here. I thought-that is. I wondered how things were going."
"And since my butler didn't know," Ian concluded with amused irritation, "you decided to call on Elizabeth and see if you could discover for yourself."
"Something like that," the vicar said calmly. "Elizabeth regards me as a friend, I think. And so I planned to call on her and, if you weren't here, to put in a good word for you."
"Only one?" Ian said mildly. The vicar did not back down; he rarely did, particularly in matters of morality or justice. "Given your treatment of her, I was hard pressed to think of one. How did matters turn out with your grandfather?"
"Well enough," Ian said, his mind on meeting with Elizabeth. "He's here in London."
"And," Ian said sardonically, "you may now address me as ?my lord'."
"I've come here," Duncan persisted implacably, "to address you as ?the bridegroom'."
A flash of annoyance crossed Ian's tanned features. "You never stop pressing, do you? I've managed my own life for thirty years, Duncan. I think I can do it now."
Duncan had the grace to look slightly abashed. "You're right, of course. Shall I leave?"
Ian considered the benefits of Duncan's soothing presence and reluctantly shook his head. "No. In fact, since you're here," he continued as they neared the top step, "you may as well be the one to announce us to the butler. I can't get past him."