"I can't lose!" she said joyously. "If I understood what you said, in order to win, all I have to do is go to the Queen's Race and not tie my ribbon on Hawk's arm?"

"That's all you have to do."

Scarcely able to contain her excitement, Alexandra clasped his hand, her eyes eagerly searching his. "Do say you'll do it for me, Roddy—it's even more important to me than you realize."

A smile of sardonic delight crossed his features. "Naturally, I'll do it," he said, looking her over with new respect and approval. "There's never been any love lost between your husband and me, as you've undoubtedly guessed." He saw her puzzled smile and heaved an exaggerated sigh at her naiveté. "If your husband had done me the kindness to stay 'dead' and if Tony had cocked up his toes without a male heir, I—or my heirs—would be the next Hawthorne. You've seen Tony's brother, Bertie—he's a frail boy who's been hovering at the brink of eternity for all of his twenty years. Something went wrong at his birth, I'm told."

Alexandra, who had no idea Roddy was so high on the list of ascendant heirs, slowly shook her head. "I knew you were related to us—to the Townsendes, I mean—but I thought it was only a distant kinship, fourth or fifth cousins."

"It is. But with the exception of Jordan and Tony's fathers, the rest of the Townsendes have had the amazing bad luck to continually produce daughters, not sons, and not many of those either. The males in our family seem to die quite young, and we are not very prolific in the production of heirs, although," he added, deliberately attempting to shock her, "it is certainly not for want of trying."

"Too much inbreeding, I fear," Alexandra quipped, managing to keep her face from reflecting her acute embarrassment at Roddy's bald reference to lovemaking. "You see it in collies, too. The entire ton is in need of new blood or they'll soon be scratching behind their ears and losing their hair."

Roddy threw back his head and laughed. "Irreverent chit!" he said, grinning. "You've learned to look quite bland when you're shocked, but you can't fool me yet. Keep practicing." Then briskly, "Back to business. How much do you wish to wager?"

Alexandra bit her lip, afraid to offend Dame Fortune, who was finally smiling upon her, by being too greedy. "Two thousand pounds," she began, but broke off as Filbert, who was at attention behind Roddy, suddenly coughed loudly, then cleared his throat with a meaningful "Ahem."

Her eyes dancing with merriment, Alexandra glanced at Filbert, then at Roddy, and quickly amended, "Two thousand and seventeen pound—"

"Ahem!" said Filbert again. "Ahem."

"Two thousand," Alexandra obediently amended again, "seventeen pounds, and two shillings."

Roddy, who was no fool, slowly turned around and cast his appraising eye over the footman, whom Alexandra had told him weeks ago had been with her since she was a child. "And your name is?" he drawled, regarding Filbert with lofty amusement.

"Filbert, my lord."

"You, I presume, are the owner of the seventeen pounds, two shillings?"

"Aye, my lord. Me 'n' Penrose."

"And Penrose is who?"

"The under-butler," Filbert replied, and then forgetting himself he added wrathfully, "or he were, 'til his noble highness strolled in here this morning and demoted him."

Roddy's expression took on a faraway look. "How utterly delicious," he murmured, then he recalled himself and bowed formally to Alexandra. "I don't suppose you'll be at the Lindworthy ball tonight?"

Alexandra hesitated a scant second before declaring with a mischievous little smile, "Since my husband is already engaged tonight, I can't see why not." Unbelievably, miraculously, she would soon have enough money to live cozily in Morsham for a decade. For the first time in her entire life, she was experiencing a taste of independence, of freedom, and freedom was bliss. It was sweet, it was divine. It tasted headier than wine. It made her daring. Her eyes positively shining with exuberant delight, she said, "And Roddy, if you still wish to test your skill with the rapier against me, I think tomorrow morning would be an excellent time. Invite anyone you'd like to watch. Invite the whole world!"

For the first time, Roddy looked uneasy. "Even our dear Tony, who let you have your own head, refused to let you fence with any of us. It's not quite the thing, my dear, and your husband is likely to turn nasty when he hears of it."

"I'm sorry, Roddy," she said, instantly contrite. "I wouldn't want to do anything which might cause you difficulty with—"

"I was concerned for you, my sweet child, not myself. I'm in no danger. Hawk won't call me out—He and I are much too civilized to stoop to a public display of unconstrained tempers, which is what dueling actually is. On the other hand," Roddy added bluntly, "I feel sure he will soon be looking for any opportunity to privately rearrange my face for me. Never fear," he added with supreme nonchalance, "I can handle myself with my fists. Contrary to what you may have thought, there's a man beneath these fine clothes I wear." Pressing a gallant kiss to the back of her hand, he said dryly, "I shall search you out at the Lindworthy ball tonight."

When Roddy left, Alexandra wrapped her arms around her middle, laughing as she looked heavenward. "Thank you, thank you, thank you!" she called to God, to fate, and to the ornate ceiling. Roddy had answered the first part of her problem by showing her a source of money, and now she had hit upon the solution to the second half: Jordan Townsende, she had observed during the last two days, was a man who was accustomed to, and demanded, unquestioning, instant obedience from everyone around him, including his wife. He was not a man who was accustomed to being defied by man, woman, or servant.

Therefore, Alexandra gleefully decided, defiance was obviously the key to her freedom. Several immediate and flagrant defiances were called for—ones that would cut up his peace, laugh at his dictatorship, and, most important, illustrate to him in the clearest possible way that he would be far more comfortable with Alexandra out of his way and out of his life.

"His majesty," Filbert disrespectfully declared, "ain't goin' to like yer betting against him or goin' out tonight." With a worried little frown, he said, "I was eavesdroppin' and I heard him say you couldn't."

Alexandra burst out laughing and hugged the concerned old man. "He'll never know about the bet," she cheerfully declared. "And if he doesn't like my going out, I suppose he can"—heading for the door she announced jubilantly—"send me back to Morsham! Or give me a divorce!" Humming a gay, lilting tune, she strolled jauntily down the hall and up the long staircase. In two months' time, when she collected her winnings, she would be able to simply walk away from Jordan Townsende as a wealthy woman by Morsham standards. Equally delightful was the knowledge that she had made the money using her own wit—and that Jordan would never know how she got the funds. In the doorway of his study, where he was about to bid his visitors goodbye, Jordan paused and turned, watching her as she walked jauntily up the stairs, a faint smile touching his lips. Alexandra, he realized, had a very pretty voice. A beautiful voice. Also an inviting sway to her hips. Very inviting.


Tags: Judith McNaught Sequels Billionaire Romance
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