In the entire endless evening his serenity received a jolt only a few times. The first was when someone who didn’t know who he was confided that only two months ago Lady Elizabeth’s uncle had sent out invitations to all her former suitors offering her hand in marriage.
Suppressing his shock and loathing for her uncle, Ian had pinned an amused smile on his face and confided, “I’m acquainted with the lady’s uncle, and I regret to say he’s a little mad. As you know, that sort of thing runs,” Ian had finished smoothly, “in our finest families.” The reference to England’s hopeless King George was unmistakable, and the man had laughed uproariously at the joke. “True,” he agreed. “Lamentably true.” Then he went off to spread the word that Elizabeth’s uncle was a confirmed loose screw.
Ian’s method of dealing with Sir Francis Belhaven-who, his grandfather had discovered, was boasting that Elizabeth had spent several days with him-was less subtle and even more effective. “Belhaven,” Ian said after spending a half hour searching for the repulsive knight.
The stout man had whirled around in surprise, leaving his acquaintances straining to hear Ian’s low conversation with him. “I find your presence repugnant,” Ian had said in a dangerously quiet voice. “I dislike your coat, I dislike your shirt, and I dislike the knot in your neckcloth. In fact, I dislike you. Have I offended you enough yet, or shall I continue?”
Belhaven’s mouth dropped open, his pasty face turning a deathly gray. “Are-are you trying to force a-duel?”
“Normally one doesn’t bother shooting a repulsive toad, but in this instance I’m prepared to make an exception, since this toad doesn’t know how to keep his mouth shut!”
“A duel, with you?” he gasped. “Why, it would be no contest-none at all. Everyone knows what sort of marksman you are. It would be murder.”
Ian leaned close, speaking between his clenched teeth. “It’s going to be murder, you miserable little opium-eater, unless you suddenly remember very vocally that you’ve been joking about Elizabeth Cameron’s visit.”
At the mention of opium the glass slid from his fingers and crashed to the floor. “I have just realized I was joking.”
“Good,” Ian said, restraining the urge to strangle him. “Now start remembering it all over this ballroom!”
“Now that, Thornton,” said an amused voice from Ian’s shoulder as Belhaven scurried off to begin doing as bidden, “makes me hesitate to say that he is not lying.” Still angry with Belhaven, Ian turned in surprise to see John Marchman standing there. “She was with me as well,” Marchman sad. “All aboveboard, for God’s sake, so don’t look at me like I’m Belhaven. Her aunt Berta was there every moment.”
“Her what?” Ian said, caught between fury and amusement.
“Her Aunt Berta. Stout little woman who doesn’t say much.”
“See that you follow her example,” Ian warned darkly.
John Marchman, who had been privileged to fish at Ian’s marvelous stream in Scotland, gave his friend an offended look. “I daresay you’ve no business challenging my honor. I was considering marrying Elizabeth to keep her out of Belhaven’s clutches; you were only going to shoot him. It seems to me that my sacrifice was-“
“You were what?” Ian said, feeling as if he’d walked in on a play in the middle of the second act and couldn’t seem to hold onto the thread of the plot or the identity of the players.
“Her uncle turned me down. Got a better offer.”
“Your life will be more peaceful, believe me,” Ian said dryly, and he left to find a footman with a tray of drinks.