"What's this all about, Fawkes?" Jordan demanded as he sat down behind his desk and waited for the investigator to be seated across from him.

"Before I explain," Fawkes began cautiously, "I need to ask you a question, your grace. From the time you drove away from the front of the house in your carriage with the picnic baskets today, who handled the decanter of port that was packed into the picnic basket this afternoon?"

"The port?" Jordan repeated, caught off guard by a discussion of wine rather than a footman. "My wife handled it when she poured a glassful for me."

An odd, almost sad expression darkened the investigator's hazel eyes, then it vanished as he said, "Did you drink any of it?"

"No," Jordan said. "The glass tipped over in the grass."

"I see. And your wife, of course, had none of it either?"

"No," Jordan said shortly. "I seem to be the only one who can stomach the stuff."

"Did you stop anywhere and leave the baskets unattended before you arrived at your destination? The stables, perhaps? A cottage?"

"Nowhere," Jordan clipped, eager to see Alexandra and angry because this interview was delaying that. "What the hell is this all about? I thought you wanted to discuss a footman named Nordstrom."

"Nordstrom is dead," Fawkes said flatly. "Poisoned. I suspected the cause of his death when Higgins came to fetch me, and the local physician, Dr. Danvers, has just confirmed it."

"Poisoned," Jordan repeated, unable to entirely absorb such a macabre event taking place in his own house. "How in God's name could such an accident happen here?"

"The only accidental thing about it was the victim. That poison was intended for you. I blame myself for never having believed your assassin would actually try to accomplish your death from inside your own home. In a way," the investigator said in a harsh voice, "I'm to blame for your footman's death."

Oddly enough, Jordan's first fleeting thought was that he'd been wrong about Fawkes. In contrast to his earlier impression of the investigator, he was now inclined to believe that Fawkes was deeply committed to protecting the lives of those he served, rather than to turning a profit. Then it hit him that someone in his own house was apparently trying to poison him, and the thought was so repugnant that he could scarcely believe it. "What in God's name makes you think what could be an explainable accident was actually a miscarried attempt on my life?" he demanded angrily.

"To explain as succinctly as possible, the poison was placed in the decanter of your special port, which was included among the items provided for your picnic. The picnic baskets were unpacked here, after your return, by a kitchen servant by the name of Jean. Higgins was present at the time, and he noticed a few blades of grass clinging to the outside of the decanter. Higgins inspected the decanter, felt that some grass or other minute debris might have gotten into it, and accordingly judged it unfit for your consumption. I gather," Fawkes added, digressing slightly, "that at Hawthorne you adhere to the prevailing custom amongst Society which dictates that any untouched wine poured at meals goes to the butler for his own use, or to be given out as he chooses?"

"We do," Jordan confirmed, his expression composed, watchful, as he waited for the investigator to continue.

Fawkes nodded. "That is what I was told, but I wanted to confirm it with you. In accordance with that custom, the undrunk port was Higgins'. Since he doesn't care for your special port, he gave it to Nordstrom, the footman, to celebrate becoming a grandfather yesterday. Nordstrom took it to his room at four o'clock this afternoon. At seven o'clock he was found dead, the body still warm, the port beside him.

"The scullery maid told me that Nordstrom himself opened the bottle of port this morning, sampled it to be certain it hadn't gone bad, then he filled the decanter and placed it in the basket. Nordstrom is the one who carried the basket with the port out to your coach this afternoon. Higgins tells me you were in a hurry to be off and followed Nordstrom out to the carriage a minute or two later. Is that right?"

"There was a groom holding my horses. I didn't see a footman."

"The groom didn't put the poison in the port," Fawkes said with absolute certainty. "He's my man. I considered Higgins as a possibility, but—"

"Higgins!" Jordan uttered, the idea so farfetched it almost made him laugh.

"Yes, but Higgins didn't do it," Fawkes reassured, mistaking Jordan's incredulity for suspicion. "Higgins has no motive. Besides, he hasn't the constitution to commit murder. The man was hysterical over Nordstrom—wringing his hands and carrying on worse than the scullery maid. We had to wave hartshorn under his nose."

Under other circumstances, Jordan would have been amused at the image of his stern, unflappable butler having hysterics, but there was no amusement in his chilly grey eyes at the moment. "Go on."

"It was also Nordstrom who unloaded your carriage and brought the baskets back down to the kitchens. Therefore Nordstrom was the only one to handle the decanter and the wine both before and after the picnic. Obviously, he didn't poison it. Jean, the scullery maid, assured me no one else touched the decanter."

"Then when was the poison put in the decanter?" Jordan demanded, without the slightest premonition that his entire world was about to be brought crashing down around his feet.

"Since we've ruled out the possibility that it was put into it before or after the picnic," Fawkes said quietly, "the obvious answer is that it was dropped into the port during the picnic."

"That's absurd!" Jordan clipped. "There were only two people there—my wife and myself."

Fawkes delicately shifted his gaze away from the duke's face as he said, "Exactly. And since you didn't do it, that only leaves… your wife."

Jordan's reaction was instaneous and volatile. His hand crashed down on his desk like a thunderclap, at the same instant he surged to his feet, his entire powerful body vibrating with rage. "Get out!" he warned in a low, savage breath, "and take along the fools who work for you. If you aren't off my property within fifteen minutes, I'll throw you off myself. And if I ever hear you've breathed a word of this groundless slander against my wife, I'll murder you with my own two hands, so help me God!"

Fawkes stood up slowly, but he wasn't finished. On the other hand, he wasn't fool enough to remain within arm's reach of his infuriated employer. Backing away a long step, he said sadly, "I regret to say it isn't 'groundless slander.' "


Tags: Judith McNaught Sequels Billionaire Romance
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