Elizabeth glanced up as Ian handed her a glass of champagne. “Thank you,” she said, smiling up at him and gesturing to Duncan, the duke, and Jake, who were now convulsed with loud hilarity. “They certainly seem to be enjoying themselves,” she remarked. Ian absently glanced the group of laughing men, then back at her. “You’re breathtaking when you smile.”
Elizabeth heard the huskiness in his voice and saw the almost slumberous look in his eyes, and she was wondering about its cause when he said softly, “Shall we retire?”
That suggestion caused Elizabeth to assume his expression must be due to weariness. She, herself, was more than ready to seek the peace of her own chamber, but since she’d never been to a wedding reception before, she assumed that the protocol must be the same as at any other gala affair-which meant the host and hostess could not withdraw until the last of the guests had either left or retired. Tonight, every one of the guest chambers would be in use, and tomorrow a large wedding breakfast was planned, followed by a hunt. “I’m not sleepy-just a little fatigued from so much smiling,” she told him, pausing to bestow another smile on a guest who caught her eye and waved. Turning her face up to Ian, she offered graciously, “It’s been a long day. If you wish to retire, I’m sure everyone will understand.”
“I’m sure they will,” he said dryly, and Elizabeth noted with puzzlement that his eyes were suddenly gleaming.
“I’ll stay down here and stand in for you,” she volunteered.
The gleam in his eyes brightened yet more. “You don’t think that my retiring alone will look a little odd?”
Elizabeth knew it might seem impolite, if not precisely odd, but then inspiration struck, and she said reassuringly, “Leave everything to me. I’ll make your excuses if anyone asks.”
His lips twitched. “Just out of curiosity-what excuse will you make for me?”
“I’ll say you’re not feeling well. It can’t be anything too dire though, or we’ll be caught out in the fib when you appear looking fit for breakfast and the hunt in the morning.” She hesitated, thinking, and then said decisively, “I’ll say you have the headache.”
His eyes widened with laughter. “It’s kind of you to volunteer to dissemble for me, my lady, but that particular untruth would have me on the dueling field for the next month, trying to defend against the aspersions it would cause to be cast upon my…ah…manly character.”
“Why? Don’t gentlemen get headaches?”
“Not,” he said with a roguish grin, “on their wedding night.”
“I can’t see why.”
“Can you not?”
“No. And,” she added with an irate whisper, “I don’t see why everyone is staying down here this late. I’ve never been to a wedding reception, but it does seem as if they ought to be beginning to seek their beds.”
“Elizabeth,” he said, trying not to laugh. “At a wedding reception, the guests cannot leave until the bride and groom retire. If you look over there, you’ll notice my great-aunts are already nodding in their chairs.”
“Oh!” she exclaimed, instantly contrite. “I didn’t know. Why didn’t you tell me earlier?”
“Because,” he said, taking her elbow and beginning to guide her from the ballroom, “I wanted you to enjoy every minute of our ball, even if we had to prop the guests up on the shrubbery.