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15.21% Annie's Perfect Husband / Chapter 21: NO INHERITANCE

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Nor did his admiration of her courage or of the way her eyes met his with an honesty and openness that was unheard of in a woman of his class.

"She does have a tendency to speak her mind," Elizabeth said, softening her reproach this time with a smile.

"As do you," he reminded her.

"But I am not a young girl about to make her come."

"You once were."

"And I had been very carefully drilled in how to behave and especially in what to expect. The first rogue who flirts with Annie is liable to turn her head and steal her heart. You may make a dash for the Border to retrieve her before it's all over."

"She hasn't the wealth to make her interesting to the fortune hunters."

"Thank God for that. Do you really want my advice?"

"Of course. I should never have drawn you away from your honeymoon if I had not."

"Find her a husband from among your friends and acquaintances. Don't submit her to that brutal round."

"I thought women enjoyed all that. The parties and the routs and the balls."

"Some of them, perhaps. I don't think Annie will. I'm afraid..." Again, Elizabeth hesitated, her eyes on her gloves, the perfect fit of which she was now merely toying with.

"What are you afraid of?" Ian asked. "Not of speaking your mind to me, I hope."

"I'm afraid she'll be hurt."

"Hurt by whom?"

"By all manner of people," Elizabeth said, exasperation in her voice. "Those who have never forgiven Dare for marrying me may be unkind on principle. And Dare told me about her father's actions in Iberia, which may very well come back to haunt her. But beyond that, Ian, she's a little too different to fit in. They'll break her heart and perhaps even her spirit. And I should hate to see that happen."

Again, Ian felt the stirrings of anger. Not at Elizabeth. She was simply expressing what he recognized as the truth. His ire was directed instead at the society they both knew so well.

There were within the ton those who lived to feel superior to others. Their greatest delight was to offer a direct cut or to make a witty if cruel remark at another's expense. Annie would be exposed to all of them, and Ian knew there was little he could do to protect her.

"I gave my word," he said, regretting now that he had.

"And I've already told Annie she will be introduced. Besides, the Season is her best chance of finding someone suitable to marry."

Although Annie's marriage had from the beginning been the acknowledged goal of this exercise, as well as of his promise to Mrs Kemp, the word seemed to bring home to him for the first time what a difficult task he had set for himself.

Elizabeth's eyes assessed his face a moment because she nodded. "I hope you're right. I hope she finds someone who will love her for the very qualities I fear the ton will fail to admire."

"She isn't really so different as all that," Ian said.

"Perhaps not. Perhaps I am allowing the not-very-pleasant memories of my own season to colour my expectations."

"You were surely a diamond of the first water."

"I was a piece of merchandise on sale the highest bidder," Elizabeth said with a soft, but very distinct bitterness. And neither of them said anything for a long time.

"I'm sorry if this has brought back painful memories," Ian said finally, regretting now that he had asked for her help, despite how much he needed it.

Elizabeth laughed, her former seriousness determinedly wiped from her eyes. "Dare has now given me enough happy ones to quite make up for all of those, I promise you."

"And I promise you that Annie won't be sold. That isn't what this is about. She is perfectly free to marry whomever she pleases, provided he isn't a blackguard."

"And you are going to play the dragon slayer and protect her from blackguards, of course."

"Duenna, perhaps, rather than dragon slayer," Ian said.

"I can't see myself in the role of champion. Merely that of the faithful chaperone. Annie has suggested she call me Uncle Ian. And if you reveal that to Val, I shall never forgive you."

Elizabeth's laughter joined his. "Your secret is safe with me, my dear. But... however did she come up with that?"

"Perhaps because I am so much older."

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