Read Almost Heaven Online

Authors: Judith McNaught

Tags: #Fiction, #General, #Romance, #Historical

Almost Heaven (6 page)

BOOK: Almost Heaven
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Instead of peering through the hedge Elizabeth glanced around the end of it, scanning the garden, which was filled with gorgeously garbed men and women who were laughing and chatting as they moved languidly toward the ballroom where dancing would take place followed by a late supper. Her gaze drifted idly over the men in pastel satin breeches and colorful waistcoats and jackets which made them resemble bright peacocks and flashy macaws. “Who am I supposed to see?”

“Mr. Ian Thornton, silly! No, wait, you can’t see him now. He moved away from the torches.”

“Who is Ian Thornton?”

“That’s just it; nobody knows, not really!” In the tone of one imparting delicious and startling news she added, “Some say he’s the grandson of the Duke of Stanhope.”

Like all young debutantes, Elizabeth had been required to study
Debrett’s Peerage,
a book the
ton
revered with almost as much fervor as a devout Presbyterian felt for his Bible. “The Duke of Stanhope is an old man,” she remarked after thoughtful consideration, “and he has no heir.”

“Yes, everyone knows that. But it’s said Ian Thornton is his “Valerie’s voice dropped to a whisper
” illegitimate
grandson.”

“You see,” Penelope contributed authoritatively, “the Duke of Stanhope did have a son, but he disowned him years ago. My mama told me all about it was quite a scandal.” At the word “scandal” they all turned inquisitively, and she continued, “The old duke’s son married the daughter of a Scottish peasant who was part Irish to boot! She was a perfectly dreadful person of no consequence whatsoever. So this could be his grandson.”

“People think that’s who he is simply because of his surname,” Georgina provided with typical practicality, “yet it’s a common enough name.”

“I heard he’s so rich,” Valerie put in, “that he wagered £25,000 on a single hand of cards one night at a polite gaming hall in Paris.”

“Oh, for heaven’s sake,” said Georgina with derision, “he didn’t do that because he’s rich, he did it because he’s a gambler! My brother knows him, and
he
said Ian Thornton is a common
gambler, a
person without background, breeding, connections,
or
wealth!”

“I’ve heard that, too,” Valerie admitted, peering through the hedge. “Look,” she broke off – “you can see him now. Lady Mary Watterly is practically throwing herself at him!”

The girls leaned so far forward they almost fell into the shrubbery.

“I know I’d melt if he looked at me.”

“I’m sure you would not,” Elizabeth said with a wry smile, because she felt she ought to contribute something to the conversation.

“You haven’t seen him yet!” Elizabeth didn’t
need
to look at him; she knew exactly the sort of handsome young men who made all her friends swoon blond, blue-eyed Corinthians between twenty-one and twenty-four.

“I suppose Elizabeth has too many wealthy beaux of her own to care about a mere mister, no matter how handsome or intriguing he might be,” Valerie said when Elizabeth remained politely aloof, and it seemed to Elizabeth the compliment was coated with a layer of envy and malice. The suspicion was so unpleasant that she quickly rejected it. She’d done nothing to Valerie, or to anyone, to deserve animosity. Not once since she’d come to London had she uttered an unkind word against anyone; in fact, she never took part in gossip that turned malicious or repeated a word of it to anyone else. Even now she was extremely uneasy with some of the things they were saying about the man they were watching. It seemed to Elizabeth that a person had a right to dignity regardless of his rank or lack thereof. That, of course, was a minority opinion that verged on heresy in the
ton’s
eyes, and so she kept her odd notions to herself.

At the time Elizabeth had felt such thoughts were disloyal to her friends, and, moreover, that she was probably being churlish by not joining in their fun and trying to share their excitement with Mr. Ian Thornton. Trying to throw herself into the spirit of the moment, she smiled at Valerie and said, “I don’t have as many beaux as
that,
and I’m sure if I could see him, I’d be as intrigued as everyone else.”

For some reason Elizabeth’s words caused Valerie and Penelope to exchange pleased, conspiratorial glances, then Valerie explained the reason for it: “Thank heavens you agree, Elizabeth, because the three of us are in a bit of a coil. We were counting on you to help us out of it.”

“What sort of coil?”

“Well, you see,” Valerie explained with a breathless exuberance that Elizabeth blamed on the glasses of heady wine the servants had been pressing on all the guests, including them, “I had to wheedle forever before Charise would agree to let us be here this weekend.”

Since she already knew that, Elizabeth nodded and waited.

“The thing is, when Charise said earlier today that Ian Thornton was really going to be here, we were all up in the boughs about it. But she said he wouldn’t pay any of us the slightest notice, because we’re too young and not at all in his style –”

“She’s probably correct,” Elizabeth said with an unconcerned smile.

“Oh, but he must!” Glancing at the other girls as if for reinforcement, Valerie finished eagerly, “He absolutely must, because the three of us wagered our entire quarter’s allowance with Charise that he would ask one of us to dance tonight. And he’s not likely to do
that
unless his interest is piqued beforehand.”

“Your entire allowance?” Elizabeth said, horrified at such an extravagant gamble. “But you were planning to use it to buy those amethysts you saw at the jeweler’s on Westpool Street.”

“And I intended to use mine,” Penelope added as she turned to peer through the hedge again, “to buy that marvelous little mare Papa has refused me.”

“I-I could probably withdraw from the wager,” Georgina put in, looking acutely uneasy about more than the money. “I don’t think –” she started, but Penelope burst out eagerly, “He’s starting across the garden in this direction, and he’s alone! There’ll never be a better opportunity to try to attract his notice than right now, if he doesn’t change direction.”

Suddenly the outrageous wager did seem like forbidden fun, and Elizabeth chuckled. “In that case, I nominate Valerie for the task of piquing his interest, since it was her idea and she particularly admires him.”

“We nominate
you,”
Valerie said in a giddy, determined voice.

“Me? Why should it be me?”

“Because you’re the one who’s already received fourteen offers, so it’s perfectly obvious you’re the most likely to succeed. Besides,” she added when Elizabeth balked, “Viscount Mondevale cannot help but be impressed when he hears that Ian Thornton a mysterious older man at whom Mary Jane Morrison flung herself last year to no avail asked
you
to dance and paid
you
particular’ attention. As soon as Mondevale hears about it he’ll come up to scratch in a trice!”

In accordance with the dictates of Polite Society, Elizabeth had never allowed herself to show the slightest partiality for the viscount, and she was startled to learn that her friends had guessed her secret feelings. Of course, they couldn’t know that the handsome young man had already made his offer and was about to be accepted.

“Make up your mind quickly, he’s nearly here.” Penelope implored amid a chorus of nervous giggles from Georgina,

“Well, will you do
it?’
Valerie demanded urgently as the other two girls began backing away and turning toward the house.

Elizabeth took her first swallow of the wine she’d been given as soon as she stepped from the house into the garden. She hesitated. “Very well, I suppose so,” she said, flashing a smile at her friend.

“Excellent. Don’t forget he has to dance with you tonight or we’ll lose our allowances!” Laughing, she gave Elizabeth a light, encouraging shove, then turned on her satin-shod heels and fled after their laughing friends.

The clipped hedge the girls had been peering around and through blocked Elizabeth from view as she hastily walked down two wide brick steps onto the grass and glanced around, trying to decide whether to stand where she was or be seated upon the little white stone bench to her left. She darted to the bench and sat down just as booted heels struck the steps, once – twice, and there he was.

Oblivious to her presence for the moment, Ian Thornton walked forward another pace, then stopped near a lighted torch and withdrew a thin cheroot from his jacket pocket. Elizabeth watched him, suffused with trepidation and an unfamiliar, tingling excitement that was due as much to his appearance as to her secret assignment. He was
nothing
like she’d expected him to be. Besides being older than she’d imagined – -she guessed him to be at
least
twenty-seven – he was startlingly tall, more than six feet, with powerful shoulders and long, muscular legs. His thick hair was not blond, but a rich brown-black that looked as if it had a tendency to curl. Instead of wearing the customary bright satin coat and white breeches that the other men wore he was clad in raven black from head to foot, with the exception of his snowy shirt and neckcloth, which were so white they seemed to gleam against the stark black of his jacket and waistcoat. Elizabeth had the uneasy thought that Ian Thornton was like a large, predatory hawk in the midst of a gathering of tame, colorful peacocks. As she studied him he lit the cheroot, bending his dark head and cupping his hands over the flame. White cuffs peeped from beneath his black jacket, and in the bright orange glow of the flame she saw that his hands and face were deeply tanned.

Elizabeth expelled the breath she hadn’t realized she’d been holding, and the tiny sound made him glance up sharply. His eyes narrowed in surprise or displeasure Elizabeth wasn’t certain. Caught in the act of lurking in the shadows and staring at him. Elizabeth blurted the first idiotic thing that came to mind. “I’ve never seen a man smoke a cigar before. It-they always retire to another room.”

His dark brows lifted a fraction in bland inquiry. “Do you mind?” he asked as he finished lighting the cigar.

Two things hit Elizabeth at once: His piercing eyes were the strange color of gleaming amber, while his voice was richly textured and deep; the combination sent a peculiar warmth up her spine. “Mind?” she repeated stupidly.

“The cigar,” he said.

“Oh-no. No, I don’t,” she hastily assured him, but she had the oddest impression that he had come here seeking privacy and to enjoy a cigar, and that if she had said yes, she did mind, he would have turned around abruptly and left rather than extinguish his cigar so that he could remain in her presence. Fifty yards away, at the far end of the long, narrow grassy ledge on which they stood, girlish laughter sounded, and Elizabeth turned involuntarily, catching a glimpse in the torchlight of Valerie’s pink gown and Georgina’s yellow one before they darted around the hedge and were blocked from sight.

A flush stained her cheeks at the embarrassing way her friends were acting, and when she turned back she found her companion studying her, his hands shoved into his pockets, the cigar clamped between teeth as white as his shirt. With an imperceptible inclination of his head he indicated the place the girls had been. “Friends of yours?” he asked, and Elizabeth had the horrible, guilty feeling that he somehow knew the whole thing had been plotted in advance.

She considered telling a small fib, but she didn’t like to lie, and those disturbing eyes of his were leveled on hers. “Yes, they are.” Pausing to arrange her lavender skirts to their best advantage, she raised her face to his and smiled tentatively. It occurred to her that they hadn’t been introduced, and since there was no one about to do the thing properly, she hastily and uneasily remedied the matter herself. “I am Elizabeth Cameron,” she announced.

Inclining his head in the merest mockery of a bow, he acknowledged her by saying simply, “Miss Cameron.”

Left with no other choice, Elizabeth prodded, “And you are?”

“Ian Thornton.”

“How do you do, Mr. Thornton,” she replied, and she extended her hand to him as was proper. The gesture made him smile suddenly, a slow, startlingly glamorous white smile as he did the only thing he could do – which was to step forward and take her hand. “A pleasure,” he said, but his voice was lightly tinged with mockery.

Already beginning to regret ever agreeing to this plan, Elizabeth racked her brain for an opening, which in the past she’d left to the besotted boys who desperately wanted to engage
her
in conversation. The subject of whom one knew was always appropriate among the
ton
and Elizabeth seized on that with relief. Gesturing with her fan toward the place they’d last seen her friends, she said, “The young lady in the pink gown was Miss Valerie Jamison, and Miss Georgina Granger was in the yellow one.” When he showed no sign of recognition, she provided helpfully, “Miss Jamison is the daughter of Lord and Lady Jamison.” When he merely continued to watch her with mild interest. Elizabeth added a little desperately, “They are the Herfordshire Jamisons. You know – the earl and countess.”

“Really?” he responded with amused indulgence.

“Yes indeed,” Elizabeth rambled, feeling more ill at ease by the second, “and Miss Granger is the daughter of the Wiltshire Grangers – the Baron and Baroness of Grangerley.”

BOOK: Almost Heaven
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ads

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