Duncan lifted the knocker while bestowing a mocking glance on Ian. "You can't get past the butler, and you think you're managing very well without me?"

Declining to rise to that bait, Ian remained silent. The door opened a moment later, and the butler looked politely from Duncan, who began to give his name, to Ian. To Duncan's startled disbelief, the door came crashing forward in his face. An instant before it banged into its frame Ian twisted, slamming his shoulder into it and sending the butler flying backward into the hall and ricocheting off the wall. In a low, savage voice he said, "Tell your mistress I'm here, or I'll find her myself and tell her."

With a glance of furious outrage the older man considered Ian's superior size and powerful frame, then turned and started reluctantly for a room ahead and to the left, where muted voices could be heard.

Duncan eyed Ian with one gray eyebrow lifted and said sardonically, "Very clever of you to ingratiate yourself so well with Elizabeth's servants."

The group in the drawing room reacted with diverse emotions to Bentner's announcement that "Thornton is here and forced his way into the house." The dowager duchess looked fascinated, Julius looked both relieved and dismayed, Alexandra looked wary, and Elizabeth, who was still preoccupied with her uncle's unstated purpose for his visit, looked nonplussed. Only Lucinda showed no expression at all, but she laid her needlework aside and lifted her face attentively toward the doorway.

"Show him in here, Bentner," her uncle said, his voice unnaturally loud in the emotionally charged silence.

Elizabeth felt a shock at seeing Duncan walk into the room beside Ian, and a greater one when Ian ignored everyone else and came directly to her, his gaze searching her face. "I trust you're suffering no ill effects from the ordeal last night?" he said in a gentle tone as he took her hand and lifted her fingertips to his lips.

Elizabeth thought he looked breathtakingly handsome in a coat and waistcoat of rust superfine that set off his wide shoulders, biscuit trousers that hugged his long legs, and a cream silk shirt that emphasized the tan of his face and throat. "Very well, thank you," she answered, trying to ignore the warmth tingling up her arm as he kept her hand for a long moment before he reluctantly released it and allowed her to handle the introductions.

Despite her grave concern over her uncle, Elizabeth chuckled inwardly as she introduced Duncan. Everyone exhibited the same stunned reaction she had when she'd discovered Ian Thornton's uncle was a cleric. Her uncle gaped, Alex stared, and the dowager duchess glowered at Ian in disbelief as Duncan politely bent over her hand. "Am I to understand, Kensington," she demanded of Ian, "that you are related to a man of the cloth?"

Ian's reply was a mocking bow and a sardonic lift of his brows, but Duncan, who was desperate to put a light face on things, tried ineffectually to joke about it. "The news always has a peculiar effect on people," he told her.

"One needn't think too hard to discover why," she replied gruffly.

Ian opened his mouth to give the outrageous harridan a richly deserved setdown, but Julius Cameron's presence was worrying him; a moment later it was infuriating him as the man strode to the center of the room and said in a bluff voice, "Now that we're all together, there's no reason to dissemble. Bentner, bring champagne. Elizabeth, congratulations. I trust you'll conduct yourself properly as a wife and not spend the man out of what money he has left."

In the deafening silence no one moved, except it seemed to Elizabeth that the entire room was beginning to move. "What?" she breathed finally.

"You're betrothed." Anger rose up like flames licking inside her, spreading up her limbs. "Really?" she said in a voice of deadly calm, thinking of Sir Francis and John Marchman. "To whom?"

To her disbelief, Uncle Julius turned expectantly to Ian, who was looking at him with murder in his eyes. "To me," he clipped, his icy gaze still on her uncle.

"It's final," Julius warned her, and then, because he assumed she'd be as pleased as he to discover she had monetary value, he added, "He paid a fortune for the privilege. I didn't have to give him a shilling."  Elizabeth, who had no idea the two men had ever met before, looked at Ian in wild confusion and mounting anger. "What does he mean?" she demanded in a strangled whisper.

"He means," Ian began tautly, unable to believe all his romantic plans were being demolished, "we are betrothed. The papers have been signed."

"Why, you-you arrogant, overbearing"-She choked back the tears that were cutting off her voice-"you couldn't even be bothered to ask me?"

Dragging his gaze from his prey with an effort, Ian turned to Elizabeth, and his heart wrenched at the way she was looking at him. "Why don't we go somewhere private where we can discuss this?" he said gently, walking forward and taking her elbow.

She twisted free, scorched by his touch. "Oh, no!" she exploded, her body shaking with wrath. "Why guard my sensibilities now? You've made a laughingstock of me since the day I set eyes on you. Why stop now?"

"Elizabeth," Duncan put in gently, "Ian is only trying to do the right thing by you, now that he realizes what a sad state you-"

"Shut up. Duncan!" Ian commanded furiously, but it was too late; Elizabeth's eyes had widened with horror at being pitied.

"And just what sort of ?sad state," she demanded, her magnificent eyes shining with tears of humiliation and wrath, "do you think I'm in?"

Ian caught her elbow. "Come with me, or I'll carry you out of here."

He meant it, and Elizabeth jerked her elbow free, but she nodded. "By all means," she said furiously.

Shoving open the door of the first room he came to, Ian drew Elizabeth inside and closed it behind them. She walked to the center of the little salon and whirled on him, her hands clenched into fists at her sides. "You monster!" she hissed. "How dare you pity me!"

It was exactly the conclusion Ian knew she'd draw, and exactly the reaction he would have expected from the proud beauty who'd let him believe in Scotland that her life was a frivolous social whirl, her home a virtual palace. Hoping to diffuse some of her anger, he tried to divert her with a logical debate over her choice of words. "There's a great difference between regretting one's actions and pitying the person who suffered for them."

"Don't you dare play word games with me!" she said, her voice trembling with fury.

Inwardly, Ian smiled with pride at her perspicacity; even in a state of shock, Elizabeth knew when she was being gulled. "I apologize," he conceded quietly. He walked forward, and Elizabeth retreated until her back touched a chair, then she held her ground, glaring at him. "Nothing but the truth will do in a situation like this," he agreed, putting his hands on her rigid shoulders. Knowing she'd laugh in his face if he tried to convince her now that he loved her, he told her something she should believe; "The truth is that I want you. I have always wanted you, and you know that."

Tags: Judith McNaught Sequels Billionaire Romance
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