"Very well, thank you," she returned with equal courtesy. "A little tired, that's all."

"I imagine you have some questions you'd like answered—about what happened two days ago."

What Alexandra wanted was for him to put his arms around her and tell her that he loved her. "Yes, of course," she replied, wary of his unfathomable mood.

"To be brief, a year and a half ago, Bertie caught one of their kitchen servants—a local peasant named Jean—stealing money from his purse. She admitted that she intended to give it to her brothers, who were waiting for her in the woods directly behind their house. Bertie and his mother had already hatched a scheme to have me killed, but until then neither of them had any idea where to find someone to do it. Rather than prosecute the maid for stealing the money, Bertie made her sign a confession, admitting to the theft. He paid her brothers to get rid of me the night I met you, and he kept the maid's confession to ensure her silence and her brothers' cooperation.

"You ruined their plans by riding to my rescue in that suit of armor, but one of the brothers—the one I shot—managed to crawl to his horse and escape while I took you to the inn.

"Bertie tried again four days after we were married, but this time the two men he hired took his money, and instead of killing me, they doubled their take by handing me over to the press gang. As my aunt pointed out," Jordan added sardonically, "it's difficult to hire good people when one hasn't much money."

He shoved his hands into his pockets and then continued: "When I 'came back from the dead' a week ago, Bertie reminded the maid that he still had her incriminating confession and he used it to blackmail her brother into trying to kill me again. That time he shot at me in Brook Street—the same night you slept in the governess' room."

Alexandra gazed at him in astonishment. "You never told me that someone shot at you that night."

"I saw no reason to alarm you," Jordan said, then shook his head and gruffly added, "That's not the complete truth. I also had it in the back of my mind that you might have been the one who fired that pistol. From the standpoint of size, the gunman could have been you. And you had told me that very day that you'd do anything necessary to get out of our marriage."

Biting her lip, Alexandra turned her face away from him, but not before Jordan saw the pain and accusation in her eyes. He shoved his hands deeper into his pockets and went on: "Three days ago, a footman named Nordstrom died from drinking the port that was in the decanter at our picnic—the same port you repeatedly tried to make me drink."

Her gaze flew to his face, and he continued in a voice of harsh self-accusation, "Fawkes is not an assistant bailiff, he's an investigator whose men have been stationed all over Hawthorne since we came here. He investigated the incident with the port, and it looked as if you were the only one who could possibly have poisoned it."

"Me?" she cried softly. "How could you think such a thing!"

"Fawkes' witness was a scullery maid who's worked here off and on when we need her for the last year and a half. Her name," Jordan finished, "is Jean. She poisoned the port, again at Bertie's instructions. I think you already know everything else that has happened since then."

Alexandra swallowed painfully. "In your mind, you accused and convicted me of trying to murder you, based on evidence as flimsy as that? Because I'm the same approximate height as someone who shot at you in Brook Street, and because a scullery maid said I must have been the one who poisoned your wine?"

Inwardly, Jordan flinched at her words. "I did it based on those things and on the fact that Olsen, who is one of Fawkes' men, followed you to Tony's house on two separate occasions. I knew you were meeting with him in secret, and that—combined with everything else—made the evidence against you seem very damning."

"I understand," she said bleakly.

But she didn't understand at all, and Jordan knew it. Or perhaps she understood too well, he thought grimly. No doubt she clearly understood that he had failed in his promise to trust her and that he had repeatedly rejected the love she offered. She also understood, he knew bitterly, that she had risked her life twice for his sake and in return he had rewarded her with callousness and mistrust.

Jordan gazed down at her beautiful pale face, knowing perfectly well that he deserved her hatred and contempt. Now that she was fully conscious of the true depth of his heartlessness and stupidity, he waited, half expecting her to banish him from her life.

When she didn't, he felt obliged to say the things she should be saying to him. "I realize my behavior to you has been unforgivable," he began tightly, and the sound of his voice filled Alex with dread. "Naturally, I don't expect you to want to remain married to me. As soon as you're well enough to leave here, I'll give you a bank draft for a half million pounds. If you ever need more…"

He stopped and cleared his throat as if it was clogged. "If you ever need more," he began again, his voice rough with emotion, "you have only to tell me. Anything I have will always be yours."

Alexandra listened to that speech with a mixture of tenderness, anger, and disbelief. She was about to reply when he cleared his throat again and added, "There's something else I want to tell you… Before we left London, Filbert told me how you felt when you thought I was dead, and how you reacted when you came to London and had all your illusions shattered. Most of what you heard about me was true. However, I would like you to know that I did not sleep with Elise Grandeaux the night I saw her in London."

Pausing, Jordan gazed down at her, unconsciously memorizing every line of her face so that he would have it before him in the empty years that lay ahead of him. In silence, he looked at her, knowing she represented every hope and every dream he cherished in his heart. Alexandra was goodness and gentleness and trust. And love. She was flowers blooming on the hillsides and laughter floating through the halls.

Forcing himself to finish what he had come to say and then get out of her life, he drew a long breath and said unsteadily, "Filbert also told me about your father and what happened after he died. I can't wipe away the hurt he caused you, but I wanted to give you this…"

Jordan held out his hand and Alexandra saw within it a long, flat velvet case. She took it from him and with trembling fingers unfastened the latch.

Lying on a bed of white satin, suspended from a fine gold chain, was the largest ruby she had ever seen. It was cut in the shape of a heart. Beside it, in another shallow tray was an emerald surrounded by diamonds—in the shape of a heart. Beside the emerald was a magnificent, glittering diamond.


Tags: Judith McNaught Sequels Billionaire Romance
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