His eyes widened slightly, just as they had when Margaret's trembling finger had identified Annie as his ward.
"Do you know," he said, his voice suddenly full of amusement she didn't understand, "I really don't believe I should be able to endure it if you do."
"I beg your pardon," Annie said, bewildered and embarrassed.
"Forgive me, Annie. You may call me Ian, or even Mr Sinclair, if you are more comfortable with that. But when I think of my brother's reaction to your calling me Uncle Ian... Truthfully, I beg you, that I am not willing to endure. Not even for my ward.
"Too ornate," the Countess of Dare said, her blue eyes lifting from the drawing in the fashion book she and the dressmaker were perusing, their fair heads very close together. "Something more classic, I think, given her height and colouring."
Annie was still standing where they had placed her, on a stool in the middle of her bedroom, dressed only in her chemise and petticoat. She had been humiliated by the rather threadbare appearance of those garments, especially when confronted with the cool, blonde elegance of the Countess of Dare.
Neither she nor the modiste had commented on the patches and darns, however, seeming to be far more concerned with thumbing through the pictures in the books the woman had brought from London. Pictures which Annie had not yet been allowed to see. It seemed she was merely a bystander to this process.
"This, perhaps," the dressmaker suggested, and the eyes of both women surveyed Annie's form again, moving from head to toe.
"Only if the colour is changed. And I don't like the trim," Elizabeth Sinclair said. "Braided ribbon is not exactly 'au courant'."
"I couldn't agree more," said the dressmaker. "In green?"
"Of a certain shade. We shall probably have to shop for it in London. There is nothing in the samples you've brought that is quite right for her," the Countess said, her eyes falling to the swatches of fabric scattered about the floor and draped over the groom's furnishing.
"I have others. Your brother-in-law's message was not suggestive of the scope of what he wants."
"What did he want?" Annie asked, hoping to at least be informed as to the occasion on which the dress they were discussing should be worn.
"A wardrobe," Elizabeth explained, smiling at her.
"Without any cheeseparing," the modiste said, her pleasure obvious.
"A wardrobe?" Annie repeated. Which seemed to imply..."I am to have several dresses?"
"Dozens," the Countess agreed. Her eyes met Annie's again before they fell to the pattern book as she turned the page. "Your father was very fortunate in his choice of guardian."
"I understand they were great friends," Annie said.
When Elizabeth Sinclair's eyes came up this time there was something in their blue depths Annie didn't understand. Some emotion there that she couldn't quite read. Almost as quickly as it had formed, however, it was controlled.
"Indeed?" the Countess said. "I didn't know."
Annie didn't either, of course. She had simply made that assumption, based on the fact that her father had chosen Ian Sinclair to be her guardian. And she couldn't imagine any reason for that other than friendship.
However, whenever she had attempted during the past week to introduce any topic that might lead to a recounting of the days they had served together, she had sensed a reluctance on her guardian's part. She had finally been forced to conclude that he was as reticent to discuss his military career as his health. And probably for the same reasons.
"This?" Elizabeth questioned the dressmaker.
Again both pairs of eyes focused on Annie, whose arms were beginning to grow gooseflesh from being bare so long. She didn't complain, however. She stood where they had placed her, the light from the windows of her bedroom illuminating her every feature, good and bad, she supposed, and wondered what she had glimpsed so briefly in the eyes of Ian Sinclair's sister-in-law.
"What do you think?" Ian asked, watching from his chair by the fire as Elizabeth pulled on her gloves.
"I think you are going to need a great deal of help."
"Besides that," he responded with a smile.
"She's completely unspoiled. And quite lovely, of course, but... Frankly, Ian, she hasn't much training in the deportment that will be expected of a debutante."
"If you mean blushing and simpering, then I'm not sure I would view skill in those behaviours as an advantage."
The tone of his reply was sharper than he had intended, but the implied criticism bothered him. While he had been confined to his room by the maddeningly lingering effects of his illness, he had had almost too much time to examine his feelings for Annie.
Although it was true that he had, of necessity, been celibate since he'd been wounded, he didn't believe that completely explained the strength of his attraction.
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