Jordan threw back his head and shouted with laughter.

The sound of his mirth echoed through the stables where Smarth was standing at a window beside one of the grooms, watching the duke and his young duchess. "Told ye she could do it!" Smarth said, nudging the groom and winking. "Told ye she'd make him happier 'n he's ever been afore!" Humming cheerfully, he picked up a brush and began to groom a chestnut stallion.

John Coachman paused in the act of polishing the silver-trimmed harness to study the pair of lovers, then he bent his head to his task again, but now he began to whistle a happy little melody between his teeth.

A stablekeep laid down his pitchfork and watched the duke and duchess, then he, too, began to whistle as he reached for another bundle of hay.

Putting his hand beneath Alexandra's elbow, Jordan started to escort her back to the house, then he stopped abruptly and turned as the stableyard seemed to fill with tuneless, discordant melodies being hummed and whistled by servants going about their tasks with jaunty vigor.

"Is something wrong?" Alexandra asked, following his glance.

A slight, puzzled frown creased his forehead, then he shrugged, unable to discern exactly what had caught his attention. "No," he said, guiding her back to the house. "But I've lazed away most of the day, and I'll have to work twice as hard today and tomorrow to make up for it."

Disappointed, but still determined, Alexandra said brightly, "In that case, I won't try to corrupt you with amusing distractions—until the day after that."

"What sort of distraction do you have in mind?" Jordan asked, grinning.

"A picnic."

"I suppose I could find time for that."

"Sit down, Fawkes, I'll be with you in a few minutes," Jordan said later that afternoon without bothering to look up from the letter he was reading from his London business agent.

Undaunted by his client's discourtesy—which he correctly attributed to the duke's understandable annoyance at needing his services—the investigator, who was masquerading as an assistant bailiff while at Hawthorne, sat down across from Jordan's massive desk.

Several minutes later, the duke tossed down his quill, leaned back in his chair, and abruptly demanded, "Well, what is it?"

"Your grace," Fawkes began briskly, "when you gave me Lord Anthony's note last evening, did you not tell me that you'd instructed your wife not to visit him?"

"I did."

"And you're certain she heard and understood your wishes?"

"Perfectly certain."

"You made them very clear?"

Expelling his breath in an irritated rush, Jordan clipped, "Impeccably clear."

The first sign of uneasiness and concern tightened Fawkes' face into a mild frown, then he quickly recovered and said in a brisk, impersonal voice, "Late yesterday afternoon, your wife went down to the stables and asked for a carriage. She told my man, Olsen, that she was merely going to visit a cottage on the estate, and would therefore not require his services. As we agreed last night, after learning Lord Anthony had mysteriously decided to return to Winslow, Olsen followed your wife, staying well out of sight, so as to be able to protect her without alarming her."

Fawkes paused and then said meaningfully, "After paying a brief visit to one of your cottagers, your wife went directly to Lord Anthony's house. In light of what transpired while she was there, I find this incident disturbing and possibly even suspect."

Jordan's dark brows snapped together over frigid grey eyes. "I fail to see why you should be 'disturbed' by it," Jordan said in a cutting voice. "She ignored my orders, which is my problem, not yours. It is not, however, cause to suspect her of any…" He trailed off, unable to voice the word.

"Complicity?" Fawkes provided quietly. "Perhaps not—at least not yet. My men, who have been watching Lord Anthony's house to spot any suspicious strangers who might call there, tell me that Lord Anthony's brother and mother were both inside the house. However, I must inform you that your wife spent little time in the house visiting with them. After approximately a quarter of an hour, Lord Anthony and your wife left the house together and went into the garden at the side of the house, out of sight of the occupants of the house. They then carried on a private conversation which Olsen could not hear, but which appeared to him to be of an extremely intense nature—judging from their expressions and mannerisms."

The investigator's gaze shifted from Jordan's unreadable face to a point upon the far wall. "While they were in the garden they embraced and kissed one another. Twice."

Pain, suspicion, and doubt blazed through Jordan's brain like hot axes as he envisioned Alexandra wrapped in Tony's arms… his mouth on hers… his hands…

"But not for a prolonged period of time," Fawkes said in the taut silence.

Drawing a long, steadying breath, Jordan briefly closed his eyes. When he spoke, his voice was calm, cold, and hardened with implacable conviction. "My wife and my cousin are related by marriage. They are, moreover, friends. Since she does not know my cousin is suspected of trying to assassinate me—or that her life may also be in danger from the same assassin—she undoubtedly felt my restriction against her visiting my cousin was unjust and unreasonable and she chose to disregard my orders."

"Your wife flagrantly ignores your wishes, yet you don't find that, er… suspicious? Or at least odd, your grace?"

"I find it infuriating, not 'suspicious,' " he replied with biting sarcasm, "and it is anything but 'odd.' My wife has been doing as she damned well pleases since she was a child. It's an unpleasant habit of which I intend to break her, but it does not make her a willing accomplice to an assassin."

Realizing that it was pointless to argue the issue any further, Fawkes nodded politely and reluctantly stood up. He turned to leave, but his employer's icy voice made him halt and turn back.

"In the future, Fawkes," Jordan ordered tightly, "instruct your men to keep their backs to my wife and me when we are out of the house. They're supposed to be looking for a possible assassin, not spying on us."

"S-spying on you," Fawkes stuttered in dismay.

Jordan nodded curtly. "On the way back today, I saw two of your men in the woods. They were watching my wife, not watching for an assassin among the trees. Get rid of them."

"There must be some mistake, your grace. My men are highly trained, professional—"

"Get rid of them!"

Tags: Judith McNaught Sequels Billionaire Romance