The confidence that had buoyed her up all afternoon was higher than ever as Alexandra stood before her dressing table, her head turned toward the clock on the mantel. An hour and a half ago, when Jordan had entered the master bedchamber which adjoined hers, she had heard him tell his valet he was going to White's tonight. Twenty-five minutes ago, he had left.
White's was only a short distance from the Lindworthy mansion, and rather than risk the slightest possibility that Jordan might have lingered downstairs, or that she might encounter him en route, she thought it best to give him plenty of time to arrive at his destination before she left for hers.
By now, he surely ought to be there, she decided, and turned to the middle-aged French maid whom the duchess had hired for her. "Will I do, Marie?" she asked brightly, but Alexandra knew she had never looked better.
"You will leave them speechless, your grace," Marie declared with smiling certainty.
"That's what I'm afraid of," Alexandra chuckled ruefully as she glanced in the mirror at the breathtakingly gorgeous lemon chiffon gown that was gathered at the shoulders into tiny pleats that crossed her bodice on a diagonal and emphasized the enticing swell of her breasts and plunged at the neckline into a daringly low V. A wide band of horizontal pleats hugged her narrow waist, then fell into an airy drift of swirling chiffon skirts.
Long matching gloves encased her arms to well above the elbows, and diamonds flashed at her throat and peeped from beneath the soft tendrils at her ears. Her shining hair was twisted into an elegant chignon at her crown, with a rope of diamonds artfully woven into the wide coil.
The stark simplicity of her coiffure set off her finely sculpted features, giving her a more sophisticated appearance to offset her youth and complement her dramatic gown to perfection.
Picking up her little beaded reticule, Alexandra said gaily, "Don't wait up for me, Marie. I'm spending the night at the home of a friend." It was not quite the truth, but Alexandra had no intention of letting Jordan Townsende make love to her again, and for tonight at least she had a plan to prevent it.
White's, the most exclusive private gentlemen's club in England, looked exactly as it had when Jordan had last walked past its wide bow windows more than a year ago. And yet, the moment he walked into its hallowed confines, he was aware that something was subtly different tonight.
It was different, yet everything was the same: Comfortable chairs were still grouped around low tables so a man could lean back and relax while casually losing or acquiring a fortune on the turn of a card. The large book where bets were recorded—a book as sacrosanct to the gamblers of White's as the Bible to a Methodist—was still in its usual place. Except tonight there was a much larger crowd than normal gathered around it, Jordan noted as he strode forward.
"Hawthorne!" a hearty voice exclaimed—too heartily, and the group of men at the betting book lurched erect, then hastily started forward in a group. "Good to have you back, Hawk," Lord Hurly said, shaking Jordan's hand. "Wonderful to see you, Hawk," someone else said as his friends and acquaintances pressed around him, all eager to welcome him back. A little too desperately eager, Jordan thought…
"Have a drink, Jordan," John Camden said grimly and unceremoniously snatched a glass of Madeira from the tray of a passing footman, thrusting it into Jordan's hand.
With a faint, puzzled smile at Camden's odd behavior, Jordan handed the Madeira back to the footman. "Whisky," he said succinctly and, excusing himself, he started toward the betting book. "What sort of nonsense are the young bucks betting on these days?" he asked. "No more pig races, I hope." Six men abruptly blocked his path, fanning around the betting book in a semicircle and all six simultaneously burst into agitated conversation. "Odd weather we're… Devil of a time you had… Tell us about… How's Lord Anthony?… Is your grandmother well?"
Unseen by Jordan, John Camden shook his head, indicating the futility of their human blockade of the betting book, and the loyal band of sympathetic husbands trying to block Jordan's path all stepped awkwardly aside.
"My grandmother is fine, Hurly," Jordan said as he strolled through their midst to the book. "And so is Tony." Bracing his hand on the back of the chair, Jordan leaned slightly forward, flipping backward through the pages as he had flipped backward through old copies of the newspapers earlier today, bringing himself up to date with the world. There were bets on everything, from the anticipated date of the next snowstorm to the weight of old Bascombe's firstborn child.
Eight months ago, Jordan noted derisively, young Lord Thornton had bet £1,000 that his young friend Earl Stanley would take to his bed with a stomach ailment two months later, on December 20. On December 19, Thornton had bet Stanley £100 that he couldn't eat two dozen apples at one sitting. Stanley won that bet. But he lost £1,000 the next day. Jordan chuckled, glancing up at his friends, and remarked dryly: "I see Stanley is still as gullible as ever."
It was traditional, this remarking upon the betting follies of the younger set by the older, wiser, more worldly set. The fathers of the six men gathered around the betting book—and their fathers before them—had all stood there, doing exactly that.
In the past, Jordan's remark would have caused his friends to reply with amusing stories about other bets, or with good-natured reminders about some of his reckless foibles. Today all six men gave him uneasy smiles and said nothing.
With a puzzled, encompassing glance at them, Jordan returned his attention to the book Stillness descended on the entire club as the gentlemen at the gaming tables ceased their play, waiting. A moment later, Jordan felt certain he knew the reason for the peculiar atmosphere all around him—throughout all of May and June, page after page of the betting book was suddenly covered with wagers on which suitor—and there had been dozens of them—Alexandra would ultimately choose to wed.
Annoyed but not surprised, Jordan turned the page and saw bets cropping up about the race on Queen's Day and whether Alexandra would tie her ribbon on his sleeve.
He was, he saw as he glanced idly down the names in the book, a vast favorite to succeed… although, near the bottom of the page, there were a few names betting against him: Carstairs, Jordan noted wryly, had bet £1,000 against him earlier that day. Typical!
The next wager was also against him—a large one in a very odd amount—£2,017.3—guaranteed by Carstairs but placed on behalf of…