Alexandra was waiting for him in the hallway, looking as bright and innocent as spring in a blue muslin gown trimmed with wide cream ribbon at the full sleeves and hem. She turned and watched him walk down the staircase, her smile bright and eager. She was smiling, Jordan realized with a nearly uncontrollable surge of fury, because his beautiful young wife intended to rid herself of him for good.

"Ready to go?" she asked brightly.

Wordlessly he nodded, and they walked out to the carriage that was waiting for them in the drive.

Beneath the fringe of her lashes, Alexandra stole another sideways peek at Jordan's profile as their carriage swayed gently down the path through the trees that would soon open up into a wide, lush field that bordered the orchards. Despite Jordan's outwardly relaxed pose as he lounged back against the squabs, his hands light on the horses' reins, she saw his gaze move restlessly over the trees bordering the path—as if he were watching for something, waiting for it.

In fact, she had just started to wonder if he had somehow found out about her "surprise" and was expecting the revelers to burst out of the trees, when their carriage broke into the field, and Jordan's open shock at the spectacle that greeted him removed any possibility that he was forewarned.

"What the—?" Jordan breathed in amazement as he gazed at the incredible sight before him: Colorful banners were waving in the breeze, and all his tenants and their children were gathered in the fields, dressed in their best clothing, grinning at him. Off to his left, he saw Tony, his mother, and his brother standing with Jordan's grandmother. Melanie and John Camden had come with Roddy Carstairs and a half-dozen other Londoners of Jordan's acquaintance. On his right, at the far side of the clearing, a large raised platform had been set up, with two thronelike chairs and a half-dozen other, less elaborate chairs upon it A canopy stretched above the platform, protecting it from the sun, and the Hawthorne pennants were flying from poles atop the canopy, displaying the Hawthorne crest—a hawk with its wings outspread.

Jordan's carriage moved toward the center of the field, and four enthusiastic trumpeters officially announced their duke's arrival—as arranged—with loud, emphatic blasts upon their horns, followed by a prolonged cheer that went up from the crowd.

Drawing the horses up short, Jordan turned sharply to Alexandra. "What is this all about?" he demanded.

The eyes she raised to his were full of love and uncertainty and hope. "Happy birthday," she said tenderly.

Jordan simply looked at her, his jaw tight, and said absolutely nothing. Smiling uncertainly, she explained, "It's a Morsham-style celebration, only more elaborate than the ones we used to have to celebrate birthdays." When he continued to stare at her, she laid her hand on his arm and explained eagerly, "It's a combination tournament and country fair—to celebrate the birthday of a duke. And to help you get to know your tenants a little, too."

Jordan looked around at the crowd in angry bewilderment. Could this whole elaborate setting actually be a backdrop for murder? he wondered. Was his wife an angel or a she-devil? Before the day was out, he would know. Turning, he helped her down from the carriage. "What am I supposed to do now?"

"Well let's see," she said brightly, trying not to let him see how foolish she felt or how hurt "Do you see the livestock in the pens?"

Jordan glanced around at the half-dozen pens scattered about the field. "Yes."

"Well, the livestock belongs to your cottagers, and you're to select the best from each pen, and to give the owner a prize from the ones I've purchased in the village. Over there, where the ropes created lanes, there'll be a jousting contest, and over there—where the target is—an archery contest, and—"

"I think I have the gist of it," Jordan interrupted shortly.

"It would also be rather nice if you'd compete in some of the contests," Alexandra added a little hesitantly, not certain how willing her husband might be to mingle with his inferiors.

"Fine," he said, and without another word he escorted her to her chair on the platform and left her there.

After greeting his friends from London, he, Lord Camden, and Tony helped themselves to some of the ale the cottagers were already enjoying and began strolling around the fairgrounds, pausing to watch the squire's fourteen-year-old perform as an amateur juggler.

"So, my dear," Roddy Carstairs said, leaning toward her, "is he madly in love with you yet? Shall I win our wagers?"

"Behave yourself, Roddy," Melanie said from beside Alexandra.

"Do not dare to mention that dreadful wager in my presence!" snapped the dowager duchess.

Eager to watch Jordan from closer range, Alexandra stepped down from her chair and descended the steps from the platform, with Melanie right behind her. "It isn't that I'm not pleased to see him, but why is Roddy here? And the others?"

Melanie chuckled. "The others came with him for the same reason. Roddy is here. Our proximity to Hawthorne is suddenly making us quite popular with people who would normally not set foot in the country for weeks yet—they arrived yesterday, determined to have a look at how things were going with you and the duke. You know Roddy—he prides himself on knowing the gossip before everyone else does. I've missed you so much," Melanie added, abruptly giving Alexandra a swift, affectionate hug, then she stood back, studying Alexandra's face. "Are you happy with him?"

"I—yes," Alexandra lied.

"I knew it!" Melanie said, squeezing Alexandra's hand, so delighted that her prophecy was coming true that Alexandra didn't have the heart to explain that she was married to a man whose moods were so unpredictable that she felt sometimes as if she were going quite mad. And so she held her silence and watched with bittersweet yearning as Jordan strolled around the livestock pens with his hands clasped behind his back, his expression suitably grave as he solemnly judged the plumpest poultry, the most promising pig, the best-trained dog, handing out prizes to their awed owners.

By the time the sun began to sink beneath the treetops, and the torches had been lit, the tenants and the nobles alike were all in rare high spirits, laughing and drinking ale together, while competing in every sort of contest from the serious to the silly. Jordan, Lord Camden, and even Roddy Carstairs, had joined in the archery contests, jousts, fencing and shooting matches. With quiet pride, Alexandra had stood on the sidelines, her heart swelling with tenderness while she watched Jordan deliberately miss his last shot in a shooting contest so that the thirteen-year-old son of one of his tenants would win. "The award goes to the best man," Jordan had declared untruthfully as he presented the awed youngster with a gold sovereign. Then he threw off all pretense of dignity by strolling over to the turtle races, choosing a turtle from the basket, and insisting that his friends do the same. But he never once turned to glance at Alexandra. It was as if he was exerting himself to participate solely for the sake of his guests. Side by side with the children, three of London's most illustrious nobles stood at the starting line, cheering their individual entrants, extolling them to run faster and then calling out in disgust when the turtles ignored their royal commands and retreated beneath their shells.

Tags: Judith McNaught Sequels Billionaire Romance