Elizabeth handed her basket to her footman and said cheerfully, "Instead of tarts I bought strawberries. Mr. Thergood is more reasonable than Mr. Jenkins. He agrees that when a person buys multiples of something, it is only reasonable that she should pay less per each."
Charles scratched his head at these complicated notions, but he tried to look as if he understood. "Of course," he agreed as he led her horse away. "Any fool could understand that."
"My feelings exactly." she said, then she turned and ran lightly up the front steps, her mind set on going over the account books. Bentner swung open the front door, the stout, elderly butler's features tense with excitement. In the tone of one who is bursting with delight but is too dignified to show it, he announced, "You have a visitor, Miss Elizabeth!"
For a year and a half there had been no visitors at Havenhurst, and so it was little wonder that Elizabeth felt an absurd burst of pleasure followed by confusion. It couldn't be another creditor; Elizabeth had paid them off by stripping Havenhurst of all its valuables and most of its furniture. "Who is it?" she asked, stepping into the hall and reaching up to pull off her kerchief.
A beaming grin broke across Bentner's entire face. "It is Alexandra Lawrence! Er...Townsende," he corrected himself, recalling that their visitor was married now.
Joyous disbelief held Elizabeth immobilized for a split second, then she turned and burst into an unladylike run, pulling off her kerchief as she dashed toward the drawing room. In the doorway she came to an abrupt halt, the kerchief dangling from her fingertips, her eyes riveted to the lovely young brunette who was standing in the middle of the room, clad in an elegant red traveling suit. The brunette turned, and the two girls looked at each other while slow smiles dawned across their faces and glowed in their eyes. Elizabeth's voice was a whisper, filled with admiration, disbelief, and pure delight. "Alex? Is it really you?"
The brunette nodded, her smile widening.
They stood still, uncertain, each one noting the dramatic changes in the other in the past year and a half, each one wondering a little apprehensively if the changes went too deep. In the silent room the ties of childhood friendship and long-standing affection began to tighten around them, pulling them forward a hesitant step, then another, and suddenly they were running toward each other, flinging their arms around one another in fierce hugs, laughing and crying with joy.
"Oh, Alex, you look wonderful! I've missed you so!" Elizabeth laughed, hugging her again. To society" Alex" was Alexandra, Duchess of Hawthorne, but to Elizabeth she was "Alex," her oldest friend in the world-the friend who'd been on a prolonged honeymoon trip and so was unlikely to have heard yet of the awful mess Elizabeth was in.
Pulling her down onto the sofa, Elizabeth launched into a torrent of questions. "When did you return from your honeymoon trip? Are you happy? What brings you here? How long can you stay?"
"I've missed you, too," Alex replied, chuckling, and she began answering Elizabeth's questions in the order they'd been asked. "We returned three weeks ago. I'm ecstatically happy. I'm here to see you, of course, and I can stay for a few days, if you wish me to."
"Of course I wish it!" Elizabeth said gaily. "I have absolutely nothing planned, except for today. My uncle is coming to see me." Actually, Elizabeth's social schedule was perfectly blank for the next twelve months, and her uncle's occasional visits were worse than having nothing to do. But none of that mattered anymore. Elizabeth was so absurdly happy to see her friend that she couldn't stop smiling.
As they had done when they were youngsters, both girls kicked off their slippers, curled their legs beneath them, and talked for hours with the easy camaraderie of kindred spirits separated for years, yet eternally united by girlhood memo.
Memories, happy, tender, and sad. "Will you ever forget," Elizabeth laughingly asked two hours later, "those wonderful mock tournaments we used to have whenever Mary Ellen's family had a birthday?"
"Never," Alex said feelingly, smiling with the memories.
"You unseated me every time we had a joust," Elizabeth said.
"Yes, but you won every single shooting contest. At least you did until your parents found out and decided you were too old-and too refined-to join us." Alex sobered. "We missed you after that."
"Not as much as I missed you. I always knew exactly which days those jousts were taking place, and I would mope around here in complete gloom, imagining what fun you were having. Then Robert and I decided to start our own tournaments, and we made all the servants participate," she added, laughing as she thought of her half-brother and herself in those bygone days.
After a moment Alex's smile faded. "Where is Robert? You haven't mentioned him at all."
"He. . ." She hesitated, knowing that she couldn't talk of her half-brother's disappearance without revealing everything that had preceded it. On the other hand, there was something in Alexandra's sympathetic eyes that made Elizabeth wonder uneasily if her friend had already heard the whole awful story. In a matter-of-fact voice she said, "Robert disappeared a year and a half ago. I think it may have had something to do with well, debts. Let's not talk of it," she said hastily.
"Very well," Alex agreed with an artificially bright smile. "What shall we talk about?"
"You," Elizabeth said promptly. Alex was older than Elizabeth, and time flew past as Alexandra talked of the husband she had wed, whom she obviously adored. Elizabeth listened attentively to the descriptions of the wondrous places all over the world that he had taken her to see on their honeymoon trip.
"Tell me about London," Elizabeth said when Alex ran out of conversation about foreign cities.
"What do you want to know?" she asked, sobering. Elizabeth leaned forward in her chair and opened her mouth to ask the questions that mattered most to her, but pride prevented her from voicing them. "Oh nothing in particular," she lied. I want to know if my friends ridicule me or condemn me-or worse, if they pity me, she thought. I want to know if it's common gossip that I'm penniless now. Most of all, I want to know why none of them has bothered to visit me or even to send me a message.
A year and a half ago, when she'd made her debut, she had been an instant success, and offers for her hand were made in record numbers. Now, at nineteen, she was an outcast from the same society that had once imitated, praised and petted her. Elizabeth had broken their rules, and in doing so she had become the focus of a scandal that raged through the ton like wildfire.