"After we visit with them," Alexandra said quickly, "could we walk outside? I have something to ask you."

"Of course we can," Tony readily agreed.

Tucking her hand in the crook of his proffered arm, Alexandra walked to the open front door of the house. "I assume you left London because of the gossip about all of us," she said in a tone of apology.

"Partly, and also because I was dying to know how you're getting on. There's one more reason," he admitted with an odd grin. "Sally Farnsworth sent a note asking to see me yesterday in London."

The name of the girl he had admitted loving registered instantly on Alexandra. "And did she come to see you?" Alexandra asked eagerly, studying his handsome face.

"Yes."

"What did you say?—What did she do?" she burst out.

"She proposed," Tony admitted wryly.

Alexandra laughed with amazed delight. "And?"

"And I'm considering it," he teased. "No, really, she's coming for a visit next week. I want her to see firsthand what I have to offer her by way of a home and family. I'm no longer a duke, you know. When I was, I couldn't believe she wanted me for any other reason. Now I know she does, and I haven't much to offer. Don't mention it to my mother, though. I want to break the news of Sally's visit to her gently. My mother doesn't hold her in high regard because of what happened—before."

Alexandra agreed instantly and they went inside.

"My dear, it is so very good to see you!" Lady Townsende exclaimed in her soft, smiling voice as Tony escorted Alexandra into the cheerful little salon where Lady Townsende was sitting with Bertie, Tony's younger brother. "What a jolt we've received from our dear Jordan— returning from the dead as it were."

Alexandra acknowledged her greeting, worriedly noting how pale and thin Tony's white-haired mother looked. The shock of Jordan's return had obviously affected her fragile health.

Peering around Alex, Lady Townsende glanced hopefully toward the doorway. "Jordan didn't come with you?" she asked, her disappointment obvious.

"No, I—I'm sorry, he didn't. He—"

"He's working like a demon as usual, I've no doubt," Bertie said with a grin as he came awkwardly to his feet, leaning on the cane which he used to take the weight off his crippled left leg. "And determined to keep you all to himself so that you can renew your acquaintance after his long absence."

"He is working very hard," Alexandra said, grateful that Bertie had provided her with an excuse. At one inch over six feet, Bertie was slightly taller than Tony, with sandy hair and hazel eyes. Although he possessed the Townsende charm in full measure, the constant pain from the twisted leg he'd been born with had taken its toll on Bertie's face. Lines of strain were permanently etched beside his mouth, creating a permanent grimness in his features, a grimness that was not reflected in his cheerful personality.

"He wanted Alexandra to wait before calling on us, so that he could accompany her here," Tony improvised helpfully, addressing his mother and brother. "I've promised her we won't spoil Jordan's future visit by telling him that she's already come here to see us, and to tell us how he's faring."

"How is he faring?" Lady Townsende implored.

Uneasy with the fabrications she was being forced to participate in, Alexandra gladly spent the next ten minutes reciting every detail of Jordan's capture and imprisonment. When she had finally finished answering all of Lady Townsende's worried questions about his health, Tony stood up and invited Alexandra to accompany him for a stroll about the lawns.

"I can see from those tiny lines on your pretty forehead that something's amiss with you. What is it?" he asked as they walked across the small, neatly kept front lawn toward the gardens off to the right.

"I'm not certain," Alexandra admitted ruefully. "From the moment Hawthorne came into view, Jordan has been different somehow. Last night he told me he grew up at Hawthorne and because of that, the place always makes him feel 'grim.' But when I asked him why, he wouldn't tell me. And then yesterday, Smarth said the oddest things about Jordan's parents…" she continued, using her husband's given name for the first time since he returned. Turning to Tony, she said abruptly, "What were his parents like? His boyhood?"

Tony's smile remained but he looked uneasy. "What difference does all that make?"

"It wouldn't make a difference," Alexandra burst out desperately, "if everyone didn't become so edgy when I asked those questions."

"Who have you been asking?"

"Well, Gibbons and Smarth."

"Good God!" Tony said, stopping short and staring at her in laughing dismay. "Don't let Jordan catch you. He disapproves of familiarity with servants. It's a family taboo," he added, "—although not in my branch of the family. We only have six servants, and it's impossible not to regard them rather as dependents."

Tony paused to bend down and pluck a rose growing in the small garden. "You should ask Jordan these questions."

"He won't tell me. A long time ago I told him I preferred truth to platitudes. Last night when I asked why he didn't like Hawthorne, he told me he's trying to learn to say what he thinks and feels, but that he isn't accustomed to baring his soul yet. He said we'd have to ease into that," she added with a faint smile as she remembered his teasing tone. "He promised to answer my question someday."

"My God," Tony uttered in amazement, staring at her. "Jordan said all that? He said he was willing to 'bare' his soul to you someday? He must care more for you than I ever imagined." Tucking the rose behind her ear, he chucked her under the chin.

"It's become a mystery I have to solve," Alexandra prodded, when Tony seemed disinclined to say more.

"Because you're falling in love with him?"

"Because I'm frightfully, inexcusably curious," Alexandra prevaricated, and when Tony appeared to refuse her request, she sighed miserably. "Very well. I'm afraid to fall in love with a stranger and he's in no hurry to let me know him."

Tony hesitated and then took pity on her. "Very well, since it isn't idle curiosity, I'll try to answer your questions. What do you want to know?"

Pulling the rose from behind her ear, Alexandra twirled the stem absently between her fingers. "First of all, was there something wrong at Hawthorne when he was growing up? What was his boyhood like?"

"Amongst noble families," Tony began slowly," 'the heir' is generally singled out for special attention from his parents. In Jordan's case it was more pronounced because he also happened to be an only child. While I was allowed to climb trees and roll in the dirt, Jordan was required to remember his station at all times; to be clean, neat, punctual, solemn, and aware of his importance at every moment.


Tags: Judith McNaught Sequels Billionaire Romance
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