"Er… quite," Uncle Monty replied, retreating farther back in his chair and shooting Alexandra a desperate look.

"Do you have the time?" Alexandra asked, longing to retire.

Jordan looked up at her and said with deliberate cruelty, "No."

"Ought to have a watch, Hawthorne," Uncle Monty suggested, as if he thought the idea a wonderfully original one. "They're the very thing to keep abreast of the time!"

Alexandra quickly averted her face to hide her hurt that Jordan had for the second time accepted her grandfather's watch and then cast it aside.

"It's eleven o'clock," Uncle Monty provided helpfully, pointing to his own watch and chain. "I always wear a watch," he boasted. "Never need to wonder about the hour. Wondrous things, watches," he rhapsodized. "One can't help conjecturing about how they work, can one?"

Jordan slammed his book shut. "Yes," he said bluntly, "one can."

Having failed utterly in his attempt to draw the duke into an animated discussion about watchmaking, Uncle Monty sent another pleading look to Alexandra, but it was Sir Henry who responded. The huge English sheepdog, while utterly nonchalant about his duty to protect people, was deeply cognizant of his duty to console them, lavish them with affection, and generally be underfoot in case they had need of his attention. Seeing the unhappy expression on Sir Montague's face, he roused himself from the hearth and trotted over to the distressed knight, whereupon he delivered two extremely wet licks to his hand. "Ye gods!" burst out Uncle Monty, leaping to his feet with more energy than he'd displayed in a quarter century and vigorously wiping the back of his hand against his trousers. "That animal has a tongue like a wet mop!"

Offended, Sir Henry cast a mournful look upon his disgruntled victim, then turned and flopped down on the hearth.

"If you don't mind, I think I'll retire," Alexandra said, unable to bear the atmosphere another moment.

"Is everything in readiness at the grove, Filbert?" Alexandra asked the next afternoon, when her faithful old footman answered her summons and appeared in her bedchamber.

"It is," the footman announced bitterly. "Not that yer husband deserves a birthday party. After the way 'e's been treatin' ye, 'e deserves a kick in the arse!"

Alexandra tucked a wayward curl beneath the brim of her sky-blue bonnet and did not argue the issue. She'd conceived the idea for a surprise party in honor of Jordan's birthday the day they'd strolled out to the pavilion—the happiest day of what was apparently a short-lived period of bliss.

After days of enduring Jordan's frigid, unexplainable disdain, her face was pale, and she was forever on the verge of tears. Her chest ached from holding them back, and her heart ached because she couldn't find a reason for Jordan's behavior. But as the hour for her surprise approached, she couldn't quell the burgeoning hope that perhaps when Jordan saw what she had planned with Tony and Melanie's help, he might either become the man he had been when they were together at the stream, or at least tell her what was bothering him.

"The whole staffs talkin' bout the way he's actin' t' ye," Filbert continued angrily. "Hardly speakin' t' ye and lockin' himself away in his study night and day, never doin' his husbandly—"

"Filbert, please!" Alexandra cried. "Don't spoil today for me with all that."

Contrite, but still determined to vent his spleen against the man who was causing the dark shadows beneath Alexandra's eyes, Filbert said, "Don't need to spoil it fer ye, he'll do that if'n he can. Surprised he even agreed to go wit ye to the grove when you tolt him you had somethin' to show 'im."

"So was I," Alexandra said with an attempt at a smile that immediately became a puzzled little frown. She had confronted Jordan in his study this morning when he was meeting with Fawkes, the new assistant bailiff, and she had fully expected to have to plead with him to accompany her for a carriage ride. At first, Jordan started to refuse her request, but then he hesitated, glanced at the bailiff, and then abruptly agreed.

"Everything is in readiness," Fawkes was assuring Jordan in the master bedchamber. "My men are stationed in the trees along the route to the grove and around the grove itself. They've been there for three hours—since twenty minutes after your wife suggested your little jaunt. I instructed my men to remain there, out of sight, until the assassin or assassins reveal themselves. Since they can't leave their positions without being seen, they can't report back to me, and I don't know what they're seeing. God knows why your cousin chose the grove instead of a cottage or somewhere more private."

"I do not believe this is happening," Jordan bit out, shrugging into a fresh shirt. He stopped, momentarily struck by the absurdity of putting on a fresh shirt so that he would look nice when his wife led him into a trap meant to kill him.

"It's happening," Fawkes said with the deadly calm of a seasoned soldier. "And it's a trap. I could tell it from the sound of your wife's voice and the look in her eyes when she asked you to ride out with her this afternoon. She was nervous and she was lying. I watched her eyes. Eyes don't lie."

Jordan regarded the investigator with bitter derision, remembering how deceptively, radiantly innocent Alexandra's eyes had once seemed to him. "That's a myth," he said contemptuously. "A myth I used to believe."

The note we intercepted from Lord Townsende an hour ago is no myth," Fawkes reminded Jordan with quiet conviction. "They're so confident we're ignorant of their plans that they're becoming careless."

At the mention of Tony's note, Jordan's face became as expressionless as a stone mask. As instructed, Higgins had brought Tony's note to Jordan before carrying it up to Alexandra, and the words seared into Jordan's brain:

Everything is ready at the grove. All you have to do is get him there.

An hour ago, the pain of reading that had nearly sent him to his knees, but now he felt—nothing. He was past the point of feeling anything, even a sense of betrayal or fear as he prepared to face his own beloved assassins. Now all he wanted was to have the thing over with, so he could somehow begin blotting Alexandra out of his heart and mind.

Last night he had lain awake in his bed, fighting the stupid urge to go to her and hold her, to give her money and warn her to flee—for whether or not she and Tony succeeded in killing him today, Fawkes already had enough evidence to ensure that she and Tony would spend the rest of their lives in a dungeon. The image of Alexandra clad in filthy rags, living out her life in a dark, rat-infested cell, was almost more than Jordan could bear, even now—when he was about to become her target in open country.


Tags: Judith McNaught Sequels Billionaire Romance
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