Elizabeth hesitated and then slowly began stating her terms: "I want to be allowed to look after Havenhurst without interference or criticism."

"Done," he agreed with alacrity while relief and delight built apace in him.

"And I'd like a stipulated amount set aside for that and given to me once each year. In return, the estate, once I've arranged for irrigation, will repay your loan with interest."

"Agreed," Ian said smoothly. Elizabeth hesitated, wondering if he could afford it, half-embarrassed that she'd mentioned it without knowing more about his circumstances. He'd said last night that he'd accepted the title but nothing else. "In return," she amended fairly, "I will endeavor to keep costs at an absolute minimum."

He grinned. "Never vacillate when you've already stipulated your terms and won a concession-it gives your opponent a subtle advantage in the next round."

Elizabeth's eyes narrowed suspiciously; he was agreeing to everything, and much too easily. "And I think," she announced decisively, "I want all this written down, witnessed, and made part of the original agreement."

Ian's eyes widened, a wry, admiring smile tugging at his lips as he nodded his consent. There was a roomful of witnesses in the next room, including her uncle, who'd signed the original agreement, and a vicar who could witness it. He decided it was wise to proceed now, when she was in the mood, rather than scruple over who knew about it. "With you as a partner a few years ago," he joked as he guided her from the room, "God knows how far I might have gone." Despite his tone and the fact that he'd been on her side during the negotiations, he was nevertheless impressed with the sheer daring of her requests.

Elizabeth saw the admiration in his smile and smiled a little in return. "At Havenhurst I purchase all our supplies and keep the books, since we have no bailiff. As I explained, I've learned to bargain."

Ian's grin faded as he imagined the creditors who'd descended on her after her brother left and how brave she'd had to be to keep them from dismantling her house stone by stone. Desperation had forced her to learn to bargain.

Chapter 23

Duncan had been trying, with extreme difficulty, to keep a pleasant conversation going in the drawing room while Elizabeth and Ian were gone, but not even his lifelong experience in dealing with humans in the throes of emotion could aid him-because in this room everyone seemed to be in the throes of a different emotion. Lady Alexandra was obviously worried and tense; Elizabeth's loathsome uncle was cold and angry; the dowager and Miss Throckmorton-Jones were evidencing signs of enjoying the difficulty Ian was obviously having with this unusual betrothal.

With a sigh of relief, Duncan broke off his discourse on the likelihood of early snow and looked up as Elizabeth and Ian walked into the room. His relief doubled when he met Ian's eyes and saw softness there, and a touch of wry amusement.

"Elizabeth and I have come to an agreement," Ian told the occupants of the room without preamble. "She feels, and rightly so, that she and she alone has the right to give herself in marriage. Therefore, she has certain. . . ah . . . terms she wishes to be included in the betrothal agreement. Duncan, if you will be so kind as to write down what she stipulates?"

Duncan's brows rose, but he quickly got up and went over to the desk.

Ian turned to her uncle, his voice taking on a bite. "Do you have a copy of the betrothal contract with you?"

"Certainly," Julius said, his face reddening with anger. "I have it, but you're not changing one word, and I'm not giving back one shilling." Rounding on Elizabeth, he continued, "He paid a fortune for you, you conceited little slut-"

Ian's savage voice cracked like a whiplash. "Get out!" "Get out?" Julius repeated furiously, "I own this house. You didn't buy it when you bought her."

Without looking at Elizabeth, Ian snapped a question at her, "Do you want it?"

Although Julius didn't yet recognize the depth of Ian's fury, Elizabeth saw the taut rage emanating from every line of his powerful frame, and fear raced up her spine. "Do I-I want what?"

"The house!" Elizabeth didn't know what he wanted her to say, and in the mood he was in, she was actually terrified of saying the wrong thing.

Lucinda's voice turned every head but Ian's as she eyed him with cool challenge. "Yes," she said. "She does."

Ian accepted that as if the woman spoke for Elizabeth, his gaze still boring through Julius. "See my banker in the morning," he clipped murderously. "Now get out!"

Belatedly, Julius seemed to realize that his life was in genuine jeopardy, and he picked up his hat and started for the door. "It won't come cheap!"

Slowly and with purposeful menace Ian turned around and looked at him, and whatever Julius saw in his metallic eyes made him leave without further discussion of price.

"I think," Elizabeth said shakily, when the front door banged closed behind him, "some refreshment is in order."

"An excellent idea, my dear," said the vicar. Bentner appeared in answer to Elizabeth's summons, and after glowering at Ian he looked at her with outraged sympathy, then he left to fetch a tray of drinks and food.

"Well, now," said Duncan, rubbing his hands with satisfaction, "I believe I was to take down some-ah-new terms of betrothal."

For the next twenty minutes Elizabeth asked for concessions, Ian conceded, Duncan wrote, and the dowager duchess and Lucinda listened with ill-concealed glee. In the entire time Ian made but one stipulation, and only after he was finally driven to it out of sheer perversity over the way everyone was enjoying his discomfort. He stipulated that none of Elizabeth's freedoms could give rise to any gossip that she was cuckolding him.

The duchess and Miss Throckmorton-Jones scowled at such a word being mentioned in front of them, but Elizabeth acquiesced with a regal nod of her golden head and politely said to Duncan, "I agree. You may write that down." Ian grinned at her, and Elizabeth shyly returned his smile. Cuckolding, to the best of Elizabeth's knowledge, was some sort of disgraceful conduct that required a lady to be discovered in the bedroom with a man who was not her husband. She had obtained that incomplete piece of information from Lucinda Throckmorton-Jones, who, unfortunately, actually believed it.

"Is there anything more?" Duncan finally asked, and when Elizabeth shook her head, the dowager spoke up. "Indeed, though you may not need to write it down." Turning to Ian, she said severely, "If you've any thought of announcing this betrothal tomorrow, you may put it out of your head."

Tags: Judith McNaught Sequels Billionaire Romance
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