That question, although logical, would have required Alexandra to discuss intentions that were entirely private. "I can't explain," she said miserably, "but I'm sorry for blaming you."

Accepting her apology with a nod, Roddy stopped a passing footman and took two glasses of champagne from his tray, handing one of them to Alexandra. "Do you suppose," she said eagerly, after a moment, oblivious to the pregnant hush suddenly creeping over the huge room, "there's a chance Hawk may not discover my bet?"

Roddy, who was rarely oblivious to anything, glanced curiously about him and then upward, following the direction of everyone's gazes.

"Not much," he said wryly and, with a blasé motion of his hand, he directed her attention to the upper balcony at the same moment the Lindworthy butler announced in a booming voice…

"His grace, the Duke of Hawthorne.' "

Jolts of shock and anticipation roared through the crowd and Alexandra's head snapped up, her eyes riveted in alarmed horror on the tall, daunting figure clad in stark black, who was stalking purposefully down the stairs. The staircase was less than fifteen yards from Alexandra, but when Jordan neared the bottom step, the giant sea of people in the ballroom seemed to press forward in a huge wave and an explosion of greetings erupted into a deafening cacophony of sound.

He was taller by half a head than nearly everyone, and from her corner, Alexandra saw him smile slightly as he seemed to listen to what people were saying to him, but his eyes were casually scanning the crowd—searching, Alexandra feared, for her. Panicked, she downed her champagne and handed the empty glass to Roddy, who then gave her his own. "Drink mine," he said dryly. "You're going to need it."

Alexandra looked around like a fox searching for a bolt-hole, her glance skidding to a stop in every direction that might inadvertently put her in Hawk's line of vision. Helpless to move, she pressed back against the wall and unthinkingly lifted Roddy's glass to her lips, just as her eyes encountered the dowager duchess off to her right. The duchess sent her an odd, quelling look, then turned and spoke rapidly to Melanie. A moment later, Melanie was wending her way around the crowd surrounding Jordan, moving toward Alexandra and Roddy.

"Your grandmother says," Melanie said in an urgent voice as soon as she reached Alexandra, "to pray not choose tonight of all nights to overindulge for the first time in your life, and not to worry because she says Hawthorne will know exactly how to act when he realizes you're here."

"Did she say anything else?" Alexandra begged, desperately needing reassurance.

"Yes," Melanie said with a vigorous nod. "She said I am to stick to your side like glue and not leave you, no matter what happens tonight."

"Dear God!" Alexandra burst out. "I thought she said there was nothing to worry about!"

Roddy shrugged mildly. "Hawk may not know of your wager yet, so don't look so overwrought."

"I'm not worried solely about the wager," Alexandra informed him darkly, watching Jordan, trying to anticipate in which direction he would ultimately move when he disentangled himself from the large crowd around him, so that she could slide in the opposite one. "I'm worried he'll discover I'm—"

Someone on Jordan's right said something to him and he turned his head; his gaze sliding swiftly, searchingly along the wall where Alexandra stood… past Melanie, past Roddy, past Alexandra… and then slashed back, leveling on her like a pair of deadly black pistols. "—here," Alexandra finished weakly, while Jordan looked straight at her, impaling her on his gaze, leaving her in no doubt that he intended to seek her out at the first possible moment.

"I think he's just discovered it," Roddy teased.

Jerking her eyes from Hawk's, Alexandra looked around for a safe place to conceal herself until he moved out of her only path of escape—somewhere where it would not seem to anyone she was hiding. The safest thing to do, she decided quickly, was simply to stroll into the midst of the seven hundred guests and try to melt into the crowd until Jordan lost sight of her.

"Shall we 'mingle,' my dear?" Roddy suggested, obviously arriving at the same conclusion.

Slightly relieved, Alexandra nodded, but the idea of "mingling" lost its appeal a few minutes later when she passed by Lord and Lady Moseby and Lord North, who were all standing on the sidelines near the mirrored wall that ran the width of the ballroom. Lady Moseby held out her hand, detaining Alexandra as she said in a laughing voice tinged with admiration, "I heard about your wager, Alexandra."

Alexandra's polite smile froze on her face.

"It—it was merely a jest," Melanie Camden put in, materializing at Alexandra's side, in accordance with the duchess' earlier instruction.

Regarding Alexandra with a disapproving look, Lord North said stiffly, "I wonder if Hawk will find it amusing."

"I wouldn't, I assure you," Lord Moseby darkly informed Alexandra, then he took his wife's arm and, with a curt nod, firmly guided his lady away from Alexandra, with Lord North right beside him.

"I'll be damned!" Roddy said softly, glowering at the men's rigid backs. After a long, thoughtful moment, he slowly transferred his gaze to Alexandra's stricken face, regarding her with a combination of contrition, annoyance, and irony. "I fear I've done you a grave wrong by placing that wager at White's," he said. "I naturally expected a few of the more prudish of my sex to frown on our little wager. Regrettably, I failed to consider that in openly defying your husband with that wager, you would outrage every other husband in the ton."

Alexandra scarcely heard him. "Roddy," she said hastily, "you're very sweet to stay by my side, but you're quite tall and—"

"And you'd be less easily spotted without me at your side?" Roddy guessed, and Alexandra nodded. "In that case," he said contritely, "I shall take myself off."

"Thank you."

"Inasmuch as I feel inadvertently responsible for part of your dilemma, the least I can do is make myself scarce so you can escape it for now." With a brief bow, he strode into the crowd, heading in the opposite direction from Alexandra and Melanie.

Five minutes later, standing with her back angled toward the ballroom, Alexandra looked anxiously at Melanie. "Do you see him?"

"No," Melanie said, after casting a surreptitious look over the crowded room. "He's no longer by the stairs, nor in your path."

"In that case, I'm going to leave now," Alexandra said quickly, pressing a brief kiss to Melanie's cheek. "I'll be fine—don't worry. I'll see you tomorrow if I can—"

Tags: Judith McNaught Sequels Billionaire Romance