As Elizabeth looked uneasily at Alexandra she wondered if society knew the whole story or only the scandal; she wondered if they still talked about it or if it had finally been laid to rest. Alex had left on her prolonged trip just before it all happened, and she wondered if Alex had heard about it since her return.
The questions tumbled in her mind, desperate to be voiced, but she could not risk asking for two reasons: In the first place, the answers, when they came, might make her I cry, and she would not give in to tears. In the second, in I order to ask Alex the questions she longed to ask she would have to first inform her friend of all that had happened. And I the simple truth was that Elizabeth was too lonely and bereft to risk the possibility that Alex might also abandon her if she knew.
"What sorts of things do you want to know?" Alex asked with a determinedly blank, cheerful smile pinned to her face-a smile designed to conceal her pity and sorrow from her proud friend.
"Anything!" Elizabeth immediately replied. "Well, then," Alex said, eager to banish the pall of
Elizabeth's painful, unspoken questions from the room, "Lord Dusenberry just became betrothed to Cecelia Lacroix!"
"How nice," Elizabeth replied with a soft, winsome smile, her voice filled with genuine happiness. "He's very wealthy and from one of the finest families."
"He's an inveterate philanderer, and he'll take a mistress within a month of their vows," Alex countered with the directness that had always shocked and rather delighted Elizabeth.
"I hope you're mistaken."
"I'm not. But if you think I am, would you care to place a wager on it?" Alex continued, so happy to see the laughter rekindle in her friend's eyes that she spoke without thinking. "Say 30 pounds?"
Suddenly Elizabeth couldn't bear the uncertainty any longer. She needed to know whether loyalty had brought Alex to her-or whether she was here because she mistakenly believed Elizabeth was still the most Sought-after female in London. Lifting her eyes to Alex's blue ones, Elizabeth said with quiet dignity, "I do not have 30 pounds, Alex."
Alex returned her somber gaze, trying to blink back tears of sympathy. "I know."
Elizabeth had learned to deal with relentless adversity, to hide her fear and hold her head high. Now, faced with kindness and loyalty, she nearly gave in to the hated tears that tragedy had not wrung from her. Scarcely able to drag the words past the tears clogging her throat, Elizabeth said humbly, "Thank you."
"There's nothing for which to thank me. I've heard the whole sordid story, and I don't believe a word of it! Furthermore, I want you to come to London for the Season and stay with us." Leaning forward, Alex took her hand. "For the sake of your own pride, you have to face them all down. I'll help you. Better yet, I'll convince my husband's grandmother to lend her consequence to you. Believe me," Alex finished feelingly, but with a fond smile, "no one will dare to cut you if the Dowager Duchess of Hawthorne stands behind you."
"Please, Alex, stop. You don't know what you're saying. Even if I were willing, which I'm not, she would never agree. I don't know her, but she'll surely know all about me. About what people say about me, I mean."
Alex held her gaze steadily. "You're right on one account -she had heard the gossip while I was away. I've talked the matter over with her, however, and she is willing to meet you and then make her own decision. She'll love you, just as I do. And when that happens she'll move heaven and earth to make society accept you."
Elizabeth shook her head, swallowing back a constricting lump of emotion that was part gratitude, part humiliation. "I appreciate it, really I do, but I couldn't endure it."
"I've quite made up my mind," Alex warned gently. "My husband respects my judgment, and he'll agree, I have no doubt. As to gowns for a Season, I have many I've not yet worn. I'll lend-"
"Absolutely not!" Elizabeth burst out. "Please, Alex," she implored, realizing how ungrateful she must sound. "At least leave me some pride. Besides," she added with a gentle smile, "I am not quite so unlucky as you seem to think. I have you. And I have Havenhurst."
"I know that," Alex said. "But I also know that you cannot stay here all your life. You don't have to go out in company when you're in London, if you don't wish to do so. But we'll spend time together. I've missed you."
"You'll be too busy to do it," Elizabeth said, recalling the frenetic whirlwind of social activities that marked the Season.
"I won't be that busy," Alexandra said with a mysterious smile glowing in her eyes. "I'm with child."
Elizabeth caught her in a fierce hug. "I'll come!" she agreed before she could think better of it. "But I can stay at my uncle's town house if he isn't there."
"Ours," Alexandra said stubbornly.
"We'll see," Elizabeth countered just as stubbornly. And then she said rapturously, "A baby!"
"Excuse me, Miss Alex," Bentner interrupted, then he turned to Elizabeth, looking uneasy. "Your uncle has just arrived," he said. "He wishes to see you at once in the study."
Alex looked quizzically from the butler to Elizabeth. "Havenhurst seemed rather deserted when I arrived. How many servants are here?"
"Eighteen," Elizabeth said. "Before Robert left we were down to forty-five of the original ninety, but my uncle turned them all away. He said we didn't need them, and after examining the estate books he showed me that we couldn't possibly afford to give them anything but a roof and food. Eighteen of them remained anyway, though," she added, smiling up at Bentner as she continued, "They've lived at Havenhurst all their lives. It's their home, too."
Standing up, Elizabeth stifled the spurt of dread that was nothing more than an automatic reflex at the prospect of confronting her uncle. "This shouldn't take long. Uncle Julius never likes to remain here any longer than he absolutely must."
Bentner hung back, ostensibly gathering up the tea things, watching Elizabeth leave. When she was out of earshot he turned to the Duchess of Hawthorne, whom he'd known when she was a dab of a girl running wild in boys' breeches. "Begging your pardon, Your Grace," he said formally, his kindly old face filled with concern, "but may I say how glad I am that you're here, especially now with Mr. Cameron just arriving?"
"Why, thank you, Bentner. It's lovely to see you again, too. Is anything particularly amiss with Mr. Cameron?"