"His father and mother were in complete agreement on one thing, and that was the superiority of their rank. Unlike the sons of other nobles, who are allowed the company of children their own age who live on the estate—even if the children happen to be sons of the grooms—my aunt and uncle found it entirely unseemly for Jordan to associate with any but his own rank. Since fledgling dukes and earls are rather scarce, particularly in this part of the country, he grew up here in complete isolation."

Pausing for a moment, Tony gazed up at the treetops and sighed. "I used to wonder how he could bear the loneliness."

"But surely Jordan's parents didn't consider your company unacceptable?"

"No, they didn't, but I rarely visited him at Hawthorne unless my aunt and uncle were away. When they were in residence, I couldn't stand the stifling atmosphere of the place—it gave me the creeps. Besides, my uncle made it clear to me and to my parents that my presence at Hawthorne was not desired. They said I disrupted Jordan's studies and took his mind from serious matters. On those occasions when he was allowed time off, he preferred to come here, rather than have me come to Hawthorne because he adored my mother and he liked being with us." With a sad, whimsical smile, Tony finished, "When he was eight years old, he tried to trade me his inheritance for my family. He volunteered to let me be the marquess, if I'd live at Hawthorne."

"That's not at all as I imagined his life," Alexandra remarked when Tony fell silent. "When I was young, I thought it must be heavenly to be rich." She recalled her own childhood; the games she'd played with her friends, the lighthearted, carefree times, the warmth of her friendship with Mary Ellen and her family. She felt incredibly sad to know Jordan had evidently missed out on his own childhood.

"Not all children of noble families are raised with such rigidity."

"What about his parents—what were they like exactly?"

She was watching him with such earnest concern that Tony put his arm around her shoulders in a gesture of comfort and capitulation. "To sum it up as succinctly as possible, Jordan's mother was a notorious flirt whose amatory exploits were famous. My uncle didn't appear to care. He seemed to regard women as weak, amoral creatures who couldn't control their passions—or so he said. On the other hand, he was as promiscuous as she was. When it came to Jordan, however, he was positively rigid. He never let Jordan forget he was a Townsende and the next Duke of Hawthorne. He never let up on him. He insisted Jordan be smarter, braver, more dignified, and more worthy of the Townsende name than any Townsende before him, and the harder Jordan tried to please him, the more demanding his father became.

"If Jordan did poorly in a lesson, his tutor was instructed to cane him; if he didn't appear for supper on the dot of nine—not a minute before or a minute after—he was not allowed to eat until the following night. When he was eight or nine, he was already a better horseman than most men are, but on one particular hunt Jordan's horse refused a jump, either because Jordan was too little to force him to take it—or because Jordan was a little scared to try it. I'll never forget that day. Not one of the riders had dared that hedge with the creek on the other side of it, but my uncle rode up and called the entire hunt to a halt. With all of us looking on, he taunted Jordan with cowardice. Then he made him take the hedge."

"To think," Alexandra said in a suffocated voice, "I used to believe all children whose fathers lived with them were luckier than I. Did he… did he clear the hedge?"

"Three times," Tony said dryly. "On the fourth, his horse stumbled and when it fell, it rolled on Jordan and broke his arm."

Alexandra paled, but Tony was lost in his story now and didn't notice. "Jordan didn't cry of course. Jordan wasn't permitted to cry, not even as a little boy. According to my uncle, tears were unmanly. He had very rigid ideas about things like that."

Alexandra turned her face up to the sun, blinking back the tears at the back of her eyes. "What sort of ideas?"

"He believed a man had to be hard and completely self-sufficient to truly be a man, and that was the way he raised Jordan to think. Any emotion that was 'soft' was unmanly, and therefore abhorrent. Sentimentality was soft—unmanly; so was love and genuine affection. Anything at all that showed a male to be 'vulnerable' was unmanly. My uncle disapproved of all forms of frivolity, too, with the exception of dalliances with the opposite sex, which my uncle viewed as the epitome of manliness. I don't think I ever saw the man laugh—not a real, genuine laugh that sprang from mirth, rather than sarcasm. For that matter, I've rarely seen Jordan laugh. To work and to excel at whatever one did was all that mattered to my uncle—a very peculiar attitude for a nobleman as you've undoubtedly gathered."

"I make him laugh," Alexandra said with a mixture of pride and sadness.

Tony grinned. "That smile of yours would lighten any man's heart."

"No wonder he didn't want to talk about his boyhood."

"Some good things came of my uncle's determination to make Jordan excel at whatever he did."

"What sort of things?" Alexandra asked with disbelief.

"Well, for example, Jordan was forced to excel at his studies, and by the time we went to university, he was so far ahead of everyone that he was given private courses in subjects the rest of us couldn't fathom. Moreover, he obviously found ways to put all his learning to excellent use, because when Jordan's father died, Jordan was only twenty. He inherited eleven estates along with his title, but the Townsende coffers had never been very full, and Hawthorne was the only one of his estates that was well kept-up. Within three years, every one of Jordan's estates were prospering, and he was well on his way to becoming one of the richest men in Europe. Not a mean accomplishment for a young man of twenty-three. Beyond that, there's little else I could tell you about him."

Overwhelmed with gratitude, Alexandra reached up and hugged Tony tightly. Leaning back in his arms, she smiled a little shakily. "Thank you," she said simply, her eyes glowing with fondness, then she glanced apprehensively at the sun. "I can't stay any longer. I said I'd only be gone an hour and it's more than that already."

"What will happen if you're gone longer?" Tony teased, but he looked puzzled.

"I'll be found out."

"So?"

"So I'll lose the wager I made with Jordan."

"What wager?"

Alexandra started to explain, but tenderness and loyalty to her proud, dominating husband were already stirring to vibrant life within her, and she couldn't bear to shame Jordan by telling his cousin that the only reason she had agreed to come to Hawthorne was because Jordan had virtually bribed her to do it. "Just a… a foolish bet we have between us," she hedged as Tony handed her up into her carriage.


Tags: Judith McNaught Sequels Billionaire Romance
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