"Most marriages in our set involve a difference in age far larger than that between you and Annie."
"Val said you have some interesting ideas about marriage. Do I take it this is one of them?"
"A disgust over the usual gap in ages? Perhaps. Especially when it involves a difference that may be measured in decades. Certainly not something relatively minor like the dozen or so years between you and Annie."
Ian belatedly remembered that Elizabeth's first marriage had been to a man old enough to be her grandfather. Perhaps Annie saw him in a similar light.
"I think she believes I'm older than I am. And who could blame her for that assumption?" he said lightly, smiling to ensure that simple statement of fact would not be interpreted as self-pitying.
"And you, of course, haven't bothered to disabuse her of that notion?"
"Why should I? I'm already afraid people will question the arrangement her father made. As you say, the gap between our ages is not so great as that which will be between Annie and some of her suitors."
"I take it you don't consider yourself one of those?" Elizabeth asked, her shrewd blue gaze levelled on his face.
"A suitor? Hardly."
"Why not?" she sounded as if she really wanted to know.
"Because it would be highly inappropriate."
"You can hardly be accused of courting her in hopes of gaining control of her fortune."
"Perhaps not," Ian said.
"And so?" Elizabeth questioned, unwilling, apparently, to let the subject drop.
"I could hardly be considered suitable husband material for her, either," he said, meeting her eyes.
"I don't see why not."
Ian smiled, hoping that nothing of his discomfort over the subject she had raised would be revealed in his face.
"Do you not? But you are family, after all, and not strictly unbiased."
"Even if i were not family, I should not understand your reasoning in this."
"Annie is to choose her own husband," Ian said, deliberately avoiding the crux of the issue. "I should think that's what you would wish for her. Considering your own experience."
"Of course it is. I'm simply curious as to why you have taken yourself out of the running."
"Because her inclination is to call me Uncle Ian," he suggested with a smile. "I think she has taken me out of the running."
"Only because she doesn't know any better," Elizabeth said.
'Or because she has seen me at my worst,' Ian thought.
"Perhaps," he said again, the word carefully noncommittal.
"Obviously, you don't wish to talk about this."
He should have remembered that Elizabeth was too clever to be put off with platitudes and transparent excuses.
"If you will forgive me, no, truthfully i do not."
She inclined her head in agreement. "Then, of course, I shall not broach the subject again. I wish you would think about what I've said, however. Both about the rigours of the Season for a girl of Annie's sensitivity and about this. I can think of no finer man to care for Annie the rest of her life. She would be very lucky indeed to win your heart."
"But my heart is not a stake in this game," Ian said softly.
The silence between them this time was induced by her embarrassment, he supposed, as the first has been by his.
"I didn't know," Elizabeth said. "Forgive me for being obtuse. I am not usually."
She thought he was in love with someone else, Ian realized. An unrequited love. Which was as good as excuse as any.
"You are never obtuse," he denied, smiling at her.
"I was about this. Am I forgiven?"
"There is nothing to forgive. I am infinitely grateful for your help."
"But not for my advice," she said.
"I shall always welcome any advice you wish to give."
Except about this, he thought, holding his sister-in-law's eyes and seeing sympathy within them. As he had said, Elizabeth was never obtuse.
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