James' smile looked forced as he pulled out a ring.
Oh no, not here with witnesses .
"I suppose I could ask Lady Elizabeth here just as easily as in the garden," James said, turning his attention to Elizabeth.
"Now see here, sir!" Lord Dumford said in a huff.
"Elizabeth, would you do me the honor of becoming my wife?" he asked while Lord Dumford turned three different shades of red as he sputtered nonsense about proprieties.
Her mother and Lady Bradford both gasped, pressing a hand to their chests while her father and Lord Bradford smiled smugly. Lord Dumford looked decidedly unhappy.
"Well, Lady Elizabeth," James said, grinning knowingly, "will you marry me?"
She opened her mouth to ask to speak with him privately when someone unexpected answered for her.
"I'm sorry, brother, but I'm afraid Lady Elizabeth is unable to accept your proposal."
Elizabeth was the last to look in Robert's direction. After taking a much needed breath to calm her stomach, she looked over and frowned.
Robert stood just inside the small ballroom with such a look of deadly determination that she couldn't help but feel a tingle of apprehension. The two men who were practically cowering behind him caught her attention. One was clearly a minister and the other could easily be a surgeon based on the small black bag he carried.
"What's the meaning of this?" her father demanded. No doubt he was upset with the interruption to the engagement that he coveted.
"I'm sorry, my Lord," Robert said to her father, but his angry emerald eyes were focused on her, "but Lady Elizabeth has already agreed to marry me........today."
Elizabeth forced herself to remain calm, knowing that was the only way she was going to survive this. There had to be a way to get out of this and, while she sat there trying not to lose the contents of her stomach once again, she would try to think of a way out of this or pray for a miracle, probably both.
James chuckled good-naturedly. "As much as I appreciate a good jest, Robert, I'm afraid you're interrupting Elizabeth's acceptance."
"She most certainly was not about to accept," Lord Dumford said in outrage.
Robert moved his gaze to the older man and said in a quiet, controlled voice, "Leave. Now." He spoke softly, but the threat was clear.
Lord Dumford noticeably swallowed. He took a step back and to the side, well away from Robert's reach before leaving the room at a quick pace even as he glared at Robert.
"You can't be serious," James said, indicating to Elizabeth who was the only one who’d remained seated, "You hate each other."
Robert looked at her for a moment. She hoped to catch a glimpse of the kind, sweet stranger who'd made love to her in the orangery, but he wasn’t there. She'd never seen anyone's eyes look so cold before. The fact that it was because of her made her want to cry and beg for his forgiveness. She hadn't meant to hurt him.
"It doesn't matter how we feel about each other. We are to be married today. Now," he said, pulling out a folded piece of parchment. It was more than obvious that everyone in the room knew what he held by their expressions of outrage and disbelief. Robert had procured a special license for an immediate marriage, something that was very likely to cause a scandal.
Elizabeth felt her stomach turn as terror shot through her. He was serious. She couldn't marry him like this, she just couldn't. She’d hoped to explain about the baby to him and come to some sort of agreement. She wasn’t foolish enough to believe that it wouldn’t have ended in marriage, but she’d hoped for something on more amicable terms. She didn’t want to be forced into marriage by a man who hated her. She opened her mouth to tell him that just as her stomach lurched. Clamping a hand over her mouth, she practically jumped from her seat and just barely made it to the large potted plant by the piano in time.
* * *
Robert clenched his hands tightly by his sides as he watched Elizabeth give him further proof of her deception. There was no doubt in his mind now that she was carrying his child. He ignored the confused looks of their families and from the servants who’d lingered in the room as he watched her. The fact that no one moved to help her hadn't slipped his notice. Everyone appeared to be too stunned to do much of anything but stare at him, never mind help Elizabeth.
As angry as he was at her, he couldn't stand to see her suffer. With a muttered curse that had Lady Norwood and his mother gasping, he stalked over to her. Kneeling down next to her, he gently rubbed her back as she finished. He ignored the loud whispered conversations going on behind him and focused on Elizabeth as she tried to calm her breathing.
He could feel her body tremble beneath his touch. She was scared, he realized. For the first time since he'd known her, she was scared. That alone would have softened his heart if it hadn't been for one simple fact.
She’d tried to keep his child away from him and that was unforgiveable.
"Robert, please don't do this," she whispered.
"What is going on here?" Lord Norwood demanded.
Robert stood, bringing Elizabeth with him. When she tried to move away from him, he tightened his hold on her arm. He faced their families and the two men he'd brought with him.
"Lady Elizabeth has accepted my proposal. We've decided to marry today," Robert announced to an already stunned group.
Everyone gaped at them. Lord Norwood opened his mouth to say something, closed it, shook his head and opened his mouth again. "Elizabeth, is this true? Do you wish to marry Robert?"
"No," Elizabeth stressed. Her refusal normally would have irritated him, but she no longer had a choice, neither did Lord Norwood for that matter.
Lord Norwood exhaled a relieved sigh. He looked at Robert and gave him a sympathetic smile. "I'm sorry, son. I understand how easily it is to become infatuated with a beautiful woman, but she clearly doesn't feel the same way. As fond of you as I am, I don't think the match would work," he shifted his gaze to James, who still looked confused, but somewhat relieved. "Now, I believe we should go to my office and have a celebratory drink. What do you-"
Robert cut him off. "I'm sorry, my Lord, but I believe there's some confusion. Lady Elizabeth does not have a choice in the matter. She will marry me."
All good humor fled Lord Norwood's face. He took a threatening step forward. "You dare dictate to me, boy? In my own home?" His father stopped Lord Norwood from taking another step by placing his hand on the other man's chest.
"What is going on?" his mother asked no one in particular.
James ran a frustrated hand down his face as he considered Robert. "This is no longer funny, Robert."
"Do you see me laughing?" Robert bit out. "This is the very last thing on earth that I want, but I don't have a choice."
Elizabeth managed to pull her arm free. "And it's the very last thing you will get. We are not marrying today or any day," she said through clenched teeth.
"You will be my wife in less than ten minutes," he said coldly. "I guarantee it."
She looked towards her father for help. "Father, please do something!"
Lord Norwood shook his head, giving Robert a pitying look. "I'm sorry, son. She doesn't want you. You need to set your sights on someone who does. I will not force her hand in this."