Almost Heaven (Sequels #3)

And the day we bargained about the betrothal, and you told me I had something you wanted very badly, what you wanted to do with me…was this?”
“Among other things,” he agreed, tenderly brushing his knuckles over her flushed cheek.
“If I had known all this,” she said with a rueful smile, “I’m certain I would have asked for additional concessions.”
That startled him-the thought that she would have tried to drive a harder bargain if she’d realized exactly how much and what sort of power she really held. “What kind of additional concessions?” he asked, his face carefully expressionless.
She put her cheek against his shoulder, her arms curving around him. “A shorter betrothal,” she whispered. “A shorter courtship, and a shorter ceremony.”
A fresh surge of tenderness and profound pride swept through him at her sweetness and her candor, and he wrapped his arms tightly, protectively around her, smiling with joyous contentment. He had realized within minutes of meeting her that she was rare; he had known within hours that she was everything he wanted. Passionate and gentle, intelligent, sensitive, and witty. He loved all of her qualities, but he hadn’t discovered the one he particularly admired until much later, and that was her courage. He was so proud of the courage that had enabled he to repeatedly confront adversity and adversaries-even when the adversary was him.

Because,” he said quietly as she stood up, “until you walked into it, this was an ordinary garden.”

Puzzled, Elizabeth tipped her head. “What is it now?”

“Heaven.

But if you could just pay her some small attention-or better yet, escort her yourself-it would be ever so helpful, and I would be grateful forever.”
“Alex, if you were married to anyone but Jordan Townsende, I might consider asking you how you’d be willing to express your gratitude. However, since I haven’t any real wish to see my life brought to a premature end, I shall refrain from doing so and say instead that your smile is gratitude enough.”
“Don’t joke, Roddy, I’m quite desperately in need of your help, and I would be eternally grateful for it.”
“You are making me quake with trepidation, my sweet. Whoever she is, she must be in a deal of trouble if you need me.”
“She’s lovely and spirited, and you will admire her tremendously.”
“In that case, I shall deem it an embarrassing honor to lend my support to her. Who-“ His gaze flicked to a sudden movement in the doorway and riveted there, his eternally bland expression giving way to reverent admiration. “My God,” he whispered.
Standing in the doorway like a vision from heaven was an unknown young woman clad in a shimmering silver-blue gown with a low, square neckline that offered a tantalizing view of smooth, voluptuous flesh, and a diagonally wrapped bodice that emphasized a tiny waist. Her glossy golden hair was swept back off her forehead and held in place with a sapphire clip, then left to fall artlessly about her shoulders and midway down her back, where it ended in luxurious waves and curls that gleamed brightly in the dancing candlelight. Beneath gracefully winged brows and long, curly lashes her glowing green eyes were neither jade nor emerald, but a startling color somewhere in between.
In that moment of stunned silence Roddy observed her with the impartiality of a true connoisseur, looking for flaws that others would miss and finding only perfection in the delicately sculpted cheekbones, slender white throat, and soft mouth.
The vision in the doorway moved imperceptibly. “Excuse me,” she said to Alexandra with a melting smile, her voice like wind chimes, “I didn’t realize you weren’t alone.”
In a graceful swirl of silvery blue skirts she turned and vanished, and still Roddy stared at the empty doorway while Alexandra’s hopes soared. Never had she seen Roddy display the slightest genuine fascination for a feminine face and figure. His words sent her spirits even higher: “My God,” he said again in a reverent whisper. “Was she real?”
“Very real,” Alex eagerly assured him, “and very desperately in need of your help, though she mustn’t know what I’ve asked of you. You will help, won’t you?”
Dragging his gaze from the doorway, he shook his head as if to clear it. “Help?” he uttered dryly. “I’m tempted to offer her my very desirable hand in marriage!

Elizabeth, if you want to be kissed, all you have to do is put your lips on mine.

Elizabeth’s entire body started to tremble as his lips began descending to hers. and she sought to forestall what her heart knew was inevitable by reasoning with him. “A gently bred Englishwoman,” she shakily quoted Lucinda’s lecture. “feels nothing stronger than affection. We do not fall in love.”

His warm lips covered hers. “I’m a Scot,” he murmured huskily. “We do.

Feeling a little foolish over her confidences, Elizabeth glanced up at him with an embarrassed smile. “What is the most beautiful place you’ve ever seen?”

Dragging his gaze from the beauty of the gardens, Ian looked down at the beauty beside him. “Any place,” he said huskily, “where you are.

Had we been wed in Scotland, we could have spoken the old vows. Do you know what words, what promises we would have spoken had we been there, not here, this morning?” His hand slid up to her cheek, cupping it as if to soften the effect of his tone, and as Elizabeth gazed at his hard, beloved face in the candlelight her shyness and fears slid away. “No,” she whispered.
“I would have said to you,” he told her quietly and without shame, “’With my body, I thee worship.’”
He spoke the words now, as a vow, and when Elizabeth realized it, the poignancy of it made her eyes sting with tears. Turning her face into his hand, she kissed his palm, covering his hand with hers, and a groan tore from his chest, his mouth descending on hers in a kiss that was both rough and tender as he parted her lips for the demanding invasion of his tongue.

His coach drew up before the Duke of Stanhope’s town house, and Ian walked swiftly up the front steps, almost knocking poor Ormsley, who opened the door, off his feet in his haste to get to his grandfather upstairs. A few minutes later he strode back down and into the library, where he flung himself into a chair, his eyes riveted on the clock. Upstairs the household was in an uproar as the duke called for his valet, his butler, and his footmen. Unlike Ian, however, the duke was ecstatic. “Ormsley, Ian needs me!” the duke said happily, stripping off his jacket and pulling off his neckcloth. “He walked right in here and said it.”
Ormsley beamed. “He did indeed, your grace.”
“I feel twenty years younger.”
Ormsley nodded. “This is a very great day.”
“What in hell is keeping Anderson? I need a shave. I want evening clothes-black, I think-a diamond stickpin and diamond studs. Stop thrusting that cane at me, man.”
“You shouldn’t overly exert yourself, your grace.”
“Ormsley,” said the duke as he walked over to an armoire and flung the doors open, “if you think I’m going to be leaning on that damned cane on the greatest night of my life, you’re out of your mind. I’ll walk in there beside my grandson unaided, thank you very much. Where the devil is Anderson?

His gaze held hers, and his voice was tender and rough. “Love me, Elizabeth.”

Elizabeth felt a tremor run through her entire body, but she looked at him without flinching. “I do.

His heart is weak, but his will is strong-more so now than ever,” he continued, shrugging into the light cape Ormsley was putting over his shoulders.
“What do you mean, ‘more now than ever’?”
The physician smiled in surprise. “Why, I meant that your coming here has meant a great deal to him, my lord. It’s had an amazing effect on him-well, not amazing, really. I should say a miraculous effect. Normally he rails at me when he’s ill. Today he almost hugged me in his eagerness to tell me you were here, and why. Actually, I was ordered to “have a look at you,” he continued in the confiding tone of an old family friend, “although I wasn’t supposed to tell you I was doing so, of course.” Grinning, he added, “He thinks you are a ‘handsome devil.’”
Ian refused to react to that admonishing information with any emotion whatsoever.
“Good day, my lord,” the doctor said. Turning to the duke’s sisters, who’d been hovering worriedly in the hall, he tipped his hat. “Ladies,” he said, and he departed.
“I’ll just go up and look in on him,” Hortense announced. Turning to Charity, she said sternly, “Do not bore Ian with too much chatter,” she admonished, already climbing the stairs. In an odd, dire voice, she added, “And do not meddle.”
For the next hour Ian paced the floor, with Charity watching him with great interest. The one thing he did not have was time, and time was what he was losing. At this rate Elizabeth would be giving birth to her first child before he got back to London.

Ian saw the tears shimmering in her magnificent eyes and one of them traced unheeded down her smooth cheek.
With a raw ache in his voice he said, "If you would take one step forward, darling, you could cry in my arms. And while you do, I'll tell you how sorry I am for everything I've done - " Unable to wait, Ian caught her, pulling her tightly against him. "And when I'm finished," he whispered hoarsely as she wrapped her arms around him and wept brokenly, "you can help me find a way to forgive myself."
Tortured by her tears, he clasped her tighter and rubbed his jaw against her temple, his voice a ravaged whisper: "I'm sorry," he told her. He cupped her face between his palms, tipping it up and gazing into her eyes, his thumbs moving over her wet cheeks. "I'm sorry." Slowly, he bent his head, covering her mouth with his. "I'm so damned sorry.

If she’d known what a good shot you are,” he whispered past the unfamiliar tightness in his throat, “she’d never have dared.” His hand lifted to her wet cheek, holding it pressed against his chest. “You could always call her out, you know.” The spasmodic shaking in Elizabeth’s slender shoulders began to subside, and Ian added with forced tightness, “Better yet, Robert should stand in for you. He’s not as fine a shot as you are, but he’s a hell of a lot faster…”
A teary giggle escaped the girl in his arms, and Ian continued, “On the other hand, if you’re holding the pistol, you’ll have some choices to make, and they’re not easy…”
When he didn’t say more, Elizabeth drew a shaky breath. “What choices?” she finally whispered against his chest after a moment.
“What to shoot, for one thing,” he joked, stroking her back. “Robert was wearing Hessians, so I had a tassel for a target. I suppose, though, you could always shoot the bow off Valerie’s gown.”
Elizabeth’s shoulders gave a lurch, and a choked laugh escaped her.
Overwhelmed with relief, Ian kept his left arm around her and gently took her chin between his forefinger and thumb, tipping her face up to his. Her magnificent eyes were still wet with tears, but a smile was trembling on her rosy lips. Teasingly, he continued, “A bow isn’t much of a challenge for an expert marksman like you. I suppose you could insist that she hold up an earring between her fingers so you could shoot that instead.”
The image was so absurd that Elizabeth chuckled.
Without being conscious of what he was doing, Ian moved his thumb from her chin to her lower lip, rubbing lightly against its inviting fullness. He finally realized what he was doing and stopped.
Elizabeth saw his jaw tighten. She drew a shuddering breath, sensing he’d been on the verge of kissing her, and had just decided not to do it. After the last shattering minutes, Elizabeth no longer knew who was friend or foe, she only knew she’d felt safe and secure in his arms, and at that moment his arms were already beginning to loosen, and his expression was turning aloof. Not certain what she was going to say or even what she wanted, she whispered a single, shaky word, filled with confusion and a plea for understanding, her green eyes searching his: “Please-“
Ian realized what she was asking for, but he responded with a questioning lift of his brows.
“I-“ she began, uncomfortably aware of the knowing look in his eyes.
“Yes?” he prompted.
“I don’t know-exactly,” she admitted. All she knew for certain was that, for just a few minutes more, she would have liked to be in his arms.
“Elizabeth, if you want to be kissed, all you have to do is put your lips on mine.”
“What!”
“You heard me.”
“Of all the arrogant-“
He shook his head in mild rebuke. “Spare me the maidenly protests. If you’re suddenly as curious as I am to find out if it was as good between us as it now seems in retrospect, then say so.” His own suggestion startled Ian, although having made it, he saw no great harm in exchanging a few kisses if that was what she wanted.

If you would take one step forward, darling, you could cry in my arms. And while you do, I'll tell you how sorry I am for everything I've done -" Unable to wait, Ian caught her, pulling her tightly against him. "And when I'm finished," he whispered hoarsely as she wrapped her arms around him and wept brokenly, "you can help me find a way to forgive myself."
Tortured by her tears, he clasped her tighter and rubbed his jaw against her temple, his voice a ravaged whisper: "I'm sorry," he told her. He cupped her face between his palms, tipping it up and gazing into her eyes, his thumbs moving over her wet cheeks. "I'm sorry." Slowly, he bent his head, covering her mouth with his. "I'm so damned sorry.

I love you,” he whispered, rubbing his
jaw against her temple. “And you love me. I can feel it when you’re in my arms.” He felt her stiffen slightly
and draw a shaky breath, but she either couldn’t or wouldn’t speak. She hadn’t thrown the words back in his face, however, so Ian continued talking to her, his hand roving over her back. “I can feel it, Elizabeth, but if you don’t admit it pretty soon, you’re going to drive me out of my mind. I can’t work. I can’t think. I make decisions and then I change my mind. And,” he teased, trying to lighten the mood by using the one topic sure to distract her, “that’s nothing to the money I squander whenever I’m under this sort of violent stress. It wasn’t just the gowns I bought, or the house on Promenade...”

Still talking to her, he tipped her chin up, glorying in the gentle passion in her eyes, overlooking the doubt in their green depths. “If you don’t admit it pretty soon,” he teased, “I’ll spend us out of house and home.” Her delicate brows drew together in blank confusion, and Ian grinned, taking her hand from his chest, the emerald betrothal ring he had bought her unnoticed in his fingers. “When I’m under stress,” he emphasized, sliding the magnificent emerald onto her finger, “I buy everything in sight. It took my last ounce of control not to buy one of these in every color.

I’m going to hurt you, sweetheart, because there’s no other way. If I could take the pain for you, I would.”
She did not turn her face away from him or try to twist free of his imprisoning grasp, and what she said made Ian’s throat ache with emotion. “Do you know,” she whispered with a teary smile, “how long I’ve waited to hear you call me ‘sweetheart’ again?”
“How long?” he asked hoarsely.
Putting her arms around his shoulders, Elizabeth braced herself for whatever pain was coming, knowing as he tensed that it was going to happen, talking as if she could calm herself. “Two years. I’ve waited and w-

I regret being the cause of your having to endure further gossip, but I felt you must be apprised before you actually married that murderous Scot!”
He sneered the word “Scot” again, and in the midst of all her turmoil and terror that foolish thing raised Elizabeth’s hackles. “Stop saying ‘Scot’ in that insulting fashion,” she cried. “And Ian-Lord Thornton-is half-English,” she added a little wildly.
“That leaves him only half-barbarian,” Wordsworth countered with scathing contempt.

Is there a bird among them, dear boy?” Charity asked innocently, peering not at the things on the desk, but at his face, noting the muscle beginning to twitch at Ian’s tense jaw.
“No.”
“Then they must be in the schoolroom! Of course,” she said cheerfully, “that’s it. How like me, Hortense would say, to have made such a silly mistake.”
Ian dragged his eyes from the proof that his grandfather had been keeping track of him almost from the day of his birth-certainly from the day when he was able to leave the cottage on his own two legs-to her face and said mockingly, “Hortense isn’t very perceptive. I would say you are as wily as a fox.”
She gave him a little knowing smile and pressed her finger to her lips. “Don’t tell her, will you? She does so enjoy thinking she is the clever one.”
“How did he manage to have these drawn?” Ian asked, stopping her as she turned away.
“A woman in the village near your home drew many of them. Later he hired an artist when he knew you were going to be somewhere at a specific time. I’ll just leave you here where it’s nice and quiet.” She was leaving him, Ian knew, to look through the items on the desk. For a long moment he hesitated, and then he slowly sat down in the chair, looking over the confidential reports on himself. They were all written by one Mr. Edgard Norwich, and as Ian began scanning the thick stack of pages, his anger at his grandfather for this outrageous invasion of his privacy slowly became amusement. For one thing, nearly every letter from the investigator began with phrases that made it clear the duke had chastised him for not reporting in enough detail. The top letter began,

I apologize, Your Grace, for my unintentional laxness in failing to mention that indeed Mr. Thornton enjoys an occasional cheroot…

The next one opened with,

I did not realize, Your Grace, that you would wish to know how fast his horse ran in the race-in addition to knowing that he won.

From the creases and holds in the hundreds of reports it was obvious to Ian that they’d been handled and read repeatedly, and it was equally obvious from some of the investigator’s casual comments that his grandfather had apparently expressed his personal pride to him:

You will be pleased to know, Your Grace, that young Ian is a fine whip, just as you expected…
I quite agree with you, as do many others, that Mr. Thornton is undoubtedly a genius…
I assure you, Your Grace, that your concern over that duel is unfounded. It was a flesh wound in the arm, nothing more.

Ian flipped through them at random, unaware that the barricade he’d erected against his grandfather was beginning to crack very slightly.
“Your Grace,” the investigator had written in a rare fit of exasperation when Ian was eleven,

“the suggestion that I should be able to find a physician who might secretly look at young Ian’s sore throat is beyond all bounds of reason. Even if I could find one who was willing to pretend to be a lost traveler, I really cannot see how he could contrive to have a peek at the boy’s throat without causing suspicion!”

The minutes became an hour, and Ian’s disbelief increased as he scanned the entire history of his life, from his achievements to his peccadilloes. His gambling gains and losses appeared regularly; each ship he added to his fleet had been described, and sketches forwarded separately; his financial progress had been reported in minute and glowing detail.

It’s dark as a tomb in here,” she said, unable to see more than shadows. “Will you light the candles, please,” she asked, “assuming there are candles in here?”
“Aye, milady, right there, next to the bed.” His shadow crossed before her, and Elizabeth focused on a large, oddly shaped object that she supposed could be a bed, given its size.
“Will you light them, please?” she urged. “I-I can’t see a thing in here.”
“His lordship don’t like more’n one candle lit in the bedchambers,” the footman said. “He says it’s a waste of beeswax.”
Elizabeth blinked in the darkness, torn somewhere between laughter and tears at her plight. “Oh,” she said, nonplussed. The footman lit a small candle at the far end of the room and left, closing the door behind him. “Milady?” Berta whispered, peering through the dark, impenetrable gloom. “Where are you?”
“I’m over here,” Elizabeth replied, walking cautiously forward, her arms outstretched, her hands groping about for possible obstructions in her path as she headed for what she hoped was the outside wall of the bedchamber, where there was bound to be a window with draperies hiding its light.
“Where?” Berta asked in a frightened whisper, and Elizabeth could hear the maid’s teeth chattering halfway across the room.
“Here-on your left.”
Berta followed the sound of her mistress’s voice and let out a terrified gasp at the sight of the ghostlike figure moving eerily through the darkness, arms outstretched. “Raise your arm,” she said urgently, “so I’ll know ‘tis you.”
Elizabeth, knowing Berta’s timid nature, complied immediately. She raised her arm, which, while calming poor Berta, unfortunately caused Elizabeth to walk straight into a slender, fluted pillar with a marble bust upon it, and they both began to topple. “Good God!” Elizabeth burst out, wrapping her arms protectively around the pillar and the marble object upon it. “Berta!” she said urgently. “This is no time to be afraid of the dark. Help me, please. I’ve bumped into something-a bust and its stand, I think-and I daren’t let go of them until I can see how to set them upright. There are draperies over here, right in front of me. All you have to do is follow my voice and open them. Once we do, ‘twill be bright as day in here.”
“I’m coming, milady,” Berta said bravely, and Elizabeth breathed a sigh of relief. “I’ve found them!” Berta cried softly a few minutes later. “They’re heavy-velvet they are, with another panel behind them.” Berta pulled one heavy panel back across the wall, and then, with renewed urgency and vigor, she yanked back the other and turned around to survey the room.
“Light as last!” Elizabeth said with relief. Dazzling late-afternoon sunlight poured into the windows directly in front of her, blinding her momentarily. “That’s much better,” she said, blinking. Satisfied that the pillar was quite sturdy enough to stand without her aid, Elizabeth was about to place the bust back upon it, but Berta’s cry stopped her.
“Saints preserve us!”
With the fragile bust clutched protectively to her chest Elizabeth swung sharply around. There, spread out before her, furnished entirely in red and gold, was the most shocking room Elizabeth had ever beheld: Six enormous gold cupids seemed to hover in thin air above a gigantic bed clutching crimson velvet bed draperies in one pudgy fist and holding bows and arrows in the other; more cupids adorned the headboard. Elizabeth’s eyes widened, first in disbelief, and a moment later in mirth. “Berta,” she breathed on a smothered giggle, “will you look at this place!

I've hurt you terribly my love, and I'll hunt you again during the next fifty years. And you are going to hurt me, Ian-never I hope as much as you are hurting me now. But if that's the way it has to be, then I'll endure it, because the only alternative is to live without you, and that is no life at all. And the difference is that I know it, and you don't... not yet...

Listen carefully to me, darling, because I'm giving you fair warning that I won't let you do this to us. You gave me your love, and I will not let you take it away. The harder you try, the harder I'll fight you. I'll haunt your dreams at night, exactly the way you have haunted mine every night I was away from you. You'll lie awake in bed at night, wanting me, and you'll know I'm lying awake wanting you. And when you can't stand it anymore you'll come back to me and I'll be there waiting for you. I'll cry in your arms, and I'll tell you I'm sorry for everything I have done and you'll help me find a way to forgive myself.

Lost in the stormy kiss, Elizabeth felt her legs gliding down his as he gently lowered her against him until her feet touched the floor. But when his fingers pulled at the ribbon that held her gown in place at her shoulder, she jerked free of his kiss, automatically clamping her hand over his. “What are you doing?” she asked in a quaking whisper. His fingers stilled, and Ian lifted his heavy-lidded gaze to hers.
The question took him by surprise, but as he stared into her green eyes Ian saw her apprehension, and he had a good idea what was causing it. “What do you think I’m doing?” he countered cautiously.
She hesitated, as if unwilling even to accuse him of such an unspeakable act, and then she admitted in a small, reluctant voice, “Disrobing me.”
“And that surprises you?”
“Surprises me? Of course it does. Why wouldn’t it?” Elizabeth asked, more suspicious than ever of what Lucinda had told her.
Quietly he said, “What exactly do you know about what takes place between a husband and wife in bed?”
“You-you mean ‘as it pertains to the creation of children’?” she said, quoting his words to her the day she agreed to become betrothed to him.
He smiled with tender amusement at her phrasing. “I suppose you can call it that-for now.”
“Only what Lucinda told me.” He waited to hear an explanation, and Elizabeth reluctantly added, “She said a husband kisses his wife in bed and that it hurts the first time, and that is how it is done.”
Ian hesitated, angry with himself for not having followed his own instincts and questioned her further when she seemed fully informed and without maidenly qualms about lovemaking. As gently as he could, he said, “You’re a very intelligent young woman, love, not an overly fastidious spinster like your former duenna. Now, do you honestly believe the rules of nature would be completely set aside for people?

Once again this unspeakable man had caused her to make a complete fool of herself, and the realization made her eyes blaze with renewed fury as she turned her head and looked at him.
Despite Ian’s apparent nonchalance he had been watching her closely, and he stiffened, sensing instinctively that she was suddenly and inexplicably angrier than before. He nodded to the gun, and when he spoke there was no more mockery in his voice; instead it was carefully neutral. “I think there are a few things you ought to consider before you use that.”
Though she had no intention of using it, Elizabeth listened attentively as he continued in that same helpful voice. “First of all, you’ll have to be very fast and very calm if you intend to shoot me and reload before Jake there gets to you. Second, I think it’s only fair to warn you that there’s going to be a great deal of blood all over the place. I’m not complaining, you understand, but I think it’s only right to warn you that you’re never again going to be able to wear that charming gown you have on.” Elizabeth felt her stomach lurch. “You’ll hang, of course,” he continued conversationally, “but that won’t be nearly as distressing as the scandal you’ll have to face first.”
Too disgusted with herself and with him to react to that last mocking remark, Elizabeth put her chin up and managed to say with great dignity, “I’ve had enough of this, Mr. Thornton. I did not think anything could equal your swinish behavior at our prior meetings, but you’ve managed to do it. Unfortunately, I am not so ill-bred as you and therefore have scruples against assaulting someone who is weaker than I, which is what I would be doing if I were to shoot an unarmed man. Lucinda, we are leaving,” she said, then she glanced back at her silent adversary, who’d taken a threatening step, and she shook her head, saying with extreme, mocking civility, “No, please-do not bother to see us out, sir, there’s no need. Besides, I wish to remember you just as you are at this moment-helpless and thwarted.” It was odd, but now, at the low point of her life, Elizabeth felt almost exhilarated because she was finally doing something to avenge her pride instead of meekly accepting her fate.
Lucinda had marched out onto the porch already, and Elizabeth tried to think of something to dissuade him from retrieving his gun when she threw it away outside. She decided to repeat his own advice, which she began to do as she backed away toward the door. “I know you’re loath to see us leave like this,” she said, her voice and her hand betraying a slight, fearful tremor. “However, before you consider coming after us, I beg you will take your own excellent advice and pause to consider if killing me is worth hanging for.”
Whirling on her heel, Elizabeth took one running step, then cried out in pained surprise as she was jerked off her feet and a hard blow to her forearm sent the gun flying to the floor at the same time her arm was yanked up and twisted behind her back. “Yes,” he said in an awful voice near her ear, “I actually think it would be worth it.”
Just when she thought her arm would surely snap, her captor gave her a hard shove that sent her stumbling headlong out into the yard, and the door slammed shut behind her.
“Well! I never,” Lucinda said, her bosom heaving with rage as she glowered at the closed door.
“Neither have I,” said Elizabeth, shaking dirt off her hem and deciding to retreat with as much dignity as possible. “We can talk about what a madman he is once we’re down the path, out of sight of the house. So if you’ll please take that end of the trunk?”
With a black look Lucinda complied, and they marched down the path, both of them concentrating on keeping their backs as straight as possible.

That reminded him of how thrifty she was, and he promptly decided-at least for the moment-that her thriftiness was one of her most endearingly amusing qualities.
“What are you thinking about?” she asked.
He tipped his chin down so that he could better see her and brushed a stray lock of golden hair off her cheek. “I was thinking how wise I must be to have known within minutes of meeting you that you were wonderful.”
She chuckled, thinking his words were teasing flattery. “How soon did my qualities become apparent?”
“I’d say,” he thoughtfully replied, “I knew it when you took sympathy on Galileo.”
She’d expected him to say something about her looks, not her conversation or her mind. “Truly?” she asked with unhidden pleasure.
He nodded, but he was studying her reaction with curiosity. “What did you think I was going to say?”
Her slim shoulders lifted in an embarrassed shrug. “I thought you would say it was my face you noticed first. People have the most extraordinary reaction to my face,” she explained with a disgusted sigh.
“I can’t imagine why,” he said, grinning down at what was, in his opinion-in anyone’s opinion-a heartbreakingly beautiful face belonging to a young woman who was sprawled across his chest looking like an innocent golden goddess.
“I think it’s my eyes. They’re an odd color.”
“I see that now,” he teased, then he said more solemnly, “but as it happens it was not your face which I found so beguiling when we met in the garden, because,” he added when she looked unconvinced, “I couldn’t see it.”
“Of course you could. I could see yours well enough, even though night had fallen.”
“Yes, but I was standing near a torch lamp, while you perversely remained in the shadows. I could tell that yours was a very nice face, with the requisite features in the right places, and I could also tell that your other-feminine assets-were definitely in all the right places, but that was all I could see. And then later that night I looked up and saw you walking down the staircase. I was so surprised, it took a considerable amount of will to keep from dropping the glass I was holding.”
Her happy laughter drifted around the room and reminded him of music. “Elizabeth,” he said dryly, “I am not such a fool that I would have let a beautiful face alone drive me to madness, or to asking you to marry me, or even to extremes of sexual desire.”
She saw that he was perfectly serious, and she sobered, “Thank you,” she said quietly. “That is the nicest compliment you could have paid me, my lord.”
“Don’t call me ‘my lord,’” he told her with a mixture of gentleness and gravity, “unless you mean it. I dislike having you address me that way if it’s merely a reference to my title.”
Elizabeth snuggled her cheek against his hard chest and quietly replied, “As you wish. My lord.”
Ian couldn’t help it. He rolled her onto her back and devoured her with his mouth, claimed her with his hands and then his body.

there is the door,use it....

The truth is,” she said shakily, “that I am scared to death of being here.”
“I know you are,” he said, sobering, “but I am the last person in the world you’ll ever have to fear.”
His words and his tone made the quaking in her limbs, the hammering of her heart, begin again, and Elizabeth hastily drank a liberal amount of her wine, praying it would calm her rioting nerves. As if he saw her distress, he smoothly changed the topic. “Have you given any more thought to the injustice done Galileo?”
She shook her head. “I must have sounded very silly last night, going on about how wrong it was to bring him up before the Inquisition. It was an absurd thing to discuss with anyone, especially a gentleman.”
“I thought it was a refreshing alternative to the usual insipid trivialities.”
“Did you really?” Elizabeth asked, her eyes searching his with a mixture of disbelief and hope, unaware that she was being neatly distracted from her woes and drawn into a discussion she’d find easier.
“I did.”
“I wish society felt that way.”
He grinned sympathetically. “How long have you been required to hide the fact that you have a mind?”
“Four weeks,” she admitted, chuckling at his phrasing. “You cannot imagine how awful it is to mouth platitudes to people when you’re longing to ask them about things they’ve seen and things they know. If they’re male, they wouldn’t tell you, of course, even if you did ask.”
“What would they say?” he teased.
“They would say,” she said wryly, “that the answer would be beyond a female’s comprehension-or that they fear offending my tender sensibilities.”
“What sorts of questions have you been asking?”
Her eyes lit up with a mixture of laughter and frustration. “I asked Sir Elston Greeley, who had just returned from extensive travels, if he had happened to journey to the colonies, and he said that he had. But when I asked him to describe to me how the natives looked and how they lived, he coughed and sputtered and told me it wasn’t at all ‘the thing’ to discuss ‘savages’ with a female, and that I’d swoon if he did.”
“Their appearance and living habits depend upon their tribe,” Ian told her, beginning to answer her questions. “Some of the tribes are ‘savage’ by our standards, not theirs, and some of the tribes are peaceful by any standards…”
Two hours flew by as Elizabeth asked him questions and listened in fascination to stories of places he had seen, and not once in all that time did he refuse to answer or treat her comments lightly. He spoke to her like an equal and seemed to enjoy it whenever she debated an opinion with him. They’d eaten lunch and returned to the sofa; she knew it was past time for her to leave, and yet she was loath to end their stolen afternoon.

They’re going to ask what you said. And if I tell Mr. Twindell you said heaven will be like this, he’ll be very disappointed. He’s counting, you know, on gold streets and angels and horses with wings.”
“I see where that could be a problem,” Ian agreed, and he tenderly laid his hand against his son’s cheek. “In that case, you can tell him I said this is almost heaven.

What is the most beautiful place you’ve ever seen?”
Dragging his gaze from the beauty of the gardens, Ian looked down at the beauty beside him. “Any place,” he said huskily, “were you are.”
He saw the becoming flush of embarrassed pleasure that pinkened her cheeks, but when she spoke her voice was rueful. “You don’t have to say such things to me, you know-I’ll keep our bargain.”
“I know you will,” he said, trying not to overwhelm her with avowals of love she wouldn’t yet believe. With a grin he added, “Besides, as it turned out after our bargaining session, I’m the one who’s governed by all the conditions, not you.”
Her sideways glance was filled with laughter. “You were much too lenient at times, you know. Toward the end I was asking for concessions just to see how far you’d go.”
Ian, who had been multiplying his fortune for the last four years by buying shipping and import-export companies, as well as sundry others, was regarded as an extremely tough negotiator. He heard her announcement with a smile of genuine surprise. “You gave me the impression that every single concession was of paramount importance to you, and that if I didn’t agree, you might call the whole thing off.”
She nodded with satisfaction. “I rather thought that was how I ought to do it. Why are you laughing?”
“Because,” he admitted, chuckling, “obviously I was not in my best form yesterday. In addition to completely misreading your feelings, I managed to buy a house on Promenade Street for which I will undoubtedly pay five times its worth.”
“Oh, I don’t think so,” she said, and, as if she was embarrassed and needed a way to avoid meeting his gaze, she reached up and pulled a leaf off an overhanging branch. In a voice of careful nonchalance, she explained, “In matters of bargaining, I believe in being reasonable, but my uncle would assuredly have tried to cheat you. He’s perfectly dreadful about money.”
Ian nodded, remembering the fortune Julius Cameron had gouged out of him in order to sign the betrothal agreement.
“And so,” she admitted, uneasily studying the azure-blue sky with feigned absorption, “I sent him a note after you left itemizing all the repairs that were needed at the house. I told him it was in poor condition and absolutely in need of complete redecoration.”
“And?”
“And I told him you would consider paying a fair price for the house, but not one shilling more, because it needed all that.”
“And?” Ian prodded.
“He has agreed to sell it for that figure.”
Ian’s mirth exploded in shouts of laughter. Snatching her into his arms, he waited until he could finally catch his breath, then he tipped her face up to his. “Elizabeth,” he said tenderly, “if you change your mind about marrying me, promise me you’ll never represent the opposition at the bargaining table. I swear to God, I’d be lost.” The temptation to kiss her was almost overwhelming, but the Townsende coach with its ducal crest was in the drive, and he had no idea where their chaperones might be. Elizabeth noticed the coach, too, and started toward the house.
"About the gowns," she said, stopping suddenly and looking up at him with an intensely earnest expression on her beautiful face. "I meant to thank you for your generosity as soon as you arrived, but I was so happy to-that is-" She realized she'd been about to blurt out that she was happy to see him, and she was so flustered by having admitted aloud what she hadn't admitted to herself that she completely lost her thought.
"Go on," Ian invited in a husky voice. "You were so happy to see me that you-"
"I forgot," she admitted lamely.

When Elizabeth finally descended the stairs on her way to the dining room she was two hours late. Deliberately.
“Good heavens, you’re tardy, my dear!” Sir Francis said, shoving back his chair and rushing to the doorway where Elizabeth had been standing, trying to gather her courage to do what needed to be done. “Come and meet my guests,” he said, drawing her forward after a swift, disappointed look at her drab attire and severe coiffure. “We did as you suggested in your note and went ahead with supper. What kept you abovestairs so long?”
“I was at prayer,” Elizabeth said, managing to look him straight in the eye.
Sir Francis recovered from his surprise in time to introduce her to the three other people at the table-two men who resembled him in age and features and two women of perhaps five and thirty who were both attired in the most shockingly revealing gowns Elizabeth had ever seen.
Elizabeth accepted a helping of cold meat to silence her protesting stomach while both women studied her with unhidden scorn. “That is a most unusual ensemble you’re wearing, I must say,” remarked the woman named Eloise. “Is it the custom where you come from to dress so…simply?”
Elizabeth took a dainty bite of meat. “Not really. I disapprove of too much personal adornment.” She turned to Sir Francis with an innocent stare. “Gowns are expensive. I consider them a great waste of money.”
Sir Francis was suddenly inclined to agree, particularly since he intended to keep her naked as much as possible. “Quite right!” he beamed, eyeing the other ladies with pointed disapproval. “No sense in spending all that money on gowns. No point in spending money at all.”
“My sentiments exactly,” Elizabeth said, nodding. “I prefer to give every shilling I can find to charity instead.”
“Give it away?” he said in a muted roar, half rising out of his chair. Then he forced himself to sit back down and reconsider the wisdom of wedding her. She was lovely-her face more mature then he remembered it, but not even the black veil and scraped-back hair could detract from the beauty of her emerald-green eyes with their long, sooty lashes. Her eyes had dark circles beneath them-shadows he didn’t recall seeing there earlier in the day. He put the shadows down to her far-too-serious nature. Her dowry was creditable, and her body beneath that shapeless black gown…he wished he could see her shape. Perhaps it, too, had changed, and not for the better, in the past few years.
“I had hoped, my dear,” Sir Francis said, covering her hand with his and squeezing it affectionately, “that you might wear something else down to supper, as I suggested you should.”
Elizabeth gave him an innocent stare. “This is all I brought.”
“All you brought?” he uttered. “B-But I definitely saw my footmen carrying several trunks upstairs.”
“They belong to my aunt-only one of them is mine,” she fabricated hastily, already anticipating his next question and thinking madly for some satisfactory answer.
“Really?” He continued to eye her gown with great dissatisfaction, and then he asked exactly the question she’d expected: “What, may I ask, does your one truck contain if not gowns?”
Inspiration struck, and Elizabeth smiled radiantly. “Something of great value. Priceless value,” she confided.
All faces at the table watched her with alert fascination-particularly the greedy Sir Francis. “Well, don’t keep us in suspense, love. What’s in it?”
“The mortal remains of Saint Jacob.

Why did happy memories fade and blur until one could scarcely recall them at all, while horrible memories seemed to retain their blinding clarity and painful sharpness?

With his current mood, Elizabeth realized, she was going to have to make her own opening. Lifting her eyes to his enigmatic golden ones, she said quietly, “Ian, have you ever wanted something very badly-something that
was within your grasp-and yet you were afraid to reach out for it?”

Surprised by her grave question and her use of his name, Ian tried to ignore the jealousy that had been eating at him all night. “No,” he said, scrupulously keeping the curtness from his voice as he gazed down at her alluring face. “Why do you ask? Is there something you want?”

Her gaze fell from his, and she nodded at his frilled white shirtfront.

“What is it you want?”

“You.