"You do that," he urged, a gleam of amusement in his eyes as more footmen came trooping downstairs with their trunks. "Will two minutes give you enough time?" He nodded toward the crowded hallway outside his study.
"We're leaving for Hawthorne within the hour."
"Alexandra," he said quietly, "you have no choice." Reaching out, Jordan ran his hands up her arms while he silently fought the urge to pull her to him and seal the victory he already knew was his.
Inwardly, Alexandra bridled, but she knew he was right. Roddy's words came back to reassure her. We are not a very prolific family… "Very well," she agreed ungraciously. And the rest of Roddy's sentence hit her. Although it is not for want of trying…
"You're blushing," Jordan remarked, his eyes smiling into hers.
"Any female would blush when baldly presented with the prospect of spending three months of… of…"
"Naked splendor in my arms?" Jordan provided helpfully.
She gave him a look that could have pulverized rock.
Chuckling, he said, "Consider the risk I am taking. Suppose I lose my head entirely and become enslaved by your bod—beauty?" he corrected belatedly, positively oozing good humor. "And then you go off, taking my money and all hope of a legal heir with you."
"You don't for a moment believe I could do that, do you?" Alexandra snapped irritably.
It was his insufferable grin, as much as his arrogant confidence, that made her turn on her heel. Jordan caught her arm and pulled her firmly back around, his voice calm but authoritative. "Not until we reach an agreement. Do we have a bet, or do I take you to Hawthorne—under guard if necessary—and without promise of remuneration if you decide to leave me in three months?"
Put in that context, Alexandra had absolutely no choice. Lifting her head, she looked him in the eye and declared with unconcealed dislike, "We have a wager."
"You agree to all the terms?"
"With great reluctance, your grace," she said stonily and, jerking her arm free, started to leave.
"Jordan," he said to her back.
Alexandra turned. "Pardon?"
"My name is Jordan. In future, please call me that."
"I prefer not to."
Raising his hand in an exaggerated, mock warning, he said, "Sweetheart, be cautious lest you lose your bet in less than five minutes. You agreed to be my most 'obedient, loving, and biddable wife.' And I bid you call me by my given name."
Her eyes shot daggers into his, but she inclined her pretty head. "As you wish."
She had already walked out of the study before Jordan realized she had simply managed not to call him anything at all. A smile swept across his features as he absently rolled the paperweight between his palms, contemplating the impending, highly satisfactory sojourn in the country with his enticingly pretty—albeit reluctant—wife.
Eight uniformed outriders, mounted upon prancing steeds and carrying maroon pennants bearing the Duke of Hawthorne's insignia, rode ahead of a procession that included Jordan's splendid coach and three others containing luggage and various personal servants, and eight additional armed outriders followed behind it. All day, as they traveled regally through villages and lush countryside, peasants flocked to the roads to enjoy the spectacle of fluttering pennants, jangling silver harnesses, outriders in maroon and gold livery, and the shiny, black-lacquered coach with the gold crest of the Duke of Hawthorne emblazoned upon its doors.
They passed the drive leading up to Tony's house, and Alexandra began to look forward to seeing Tony's mother and younger brother again. They were such a kind family, and their house so cozy and inviting in comparison to the daunting magnificence of Hawthorne.
A tiny, whimsical smile played at the corners of Alexandra's lips as they neared the village of Winslow, near Hawthorne. Whenever their procession passed through a village, they created a sensation, but nothing like the one they were about to cause, she realized, as she saw the entire population of Winslow lined up in the streets and roads, already waving colorful scarves and kerchiefs to welcome their Duke home. Obviously, servants had been sent ahead to alert the staff at Hawthorne that the duke was coming home, and word had spread swiftly to the village.
How different this festive, excited greeting was from the half-hearted greeting Anthony received a year ago, when these same villagers stood along the roads to salute him dutifully as their new duke.
"You're pleased about something?" Jordan remarked, watching her.
Alexandra unconsciously turned the full force of her dazzling smile on him. "I love parades," she admitted, laughing a little ruefully. "It's the child in me, I suppose."
Jordan, who only moments ago had been dwelling on the stirring prospect of putting his own child inside her, perhaps this very night, tried to ignore the surge of hot lust her words ignited in him.
After her ungracious acceptance of his wager this morning, he had fully expected her to sulk throughout their journey, but to his increasing confusion, from the moment they left London, Alexandra had treated him with polite cordiality, albeit with a trace of shyness. After trying to find a reason for her pleasant but unexplainable mood change, he decided to take a more direct approach and bluntly remarked upon it.
Startled, Alexandra tore her attention from the coach window and self-consciously looked at her hands before slowly raising her magnificent aqua eyes to his. "After taking time to reflect upon the matter, my lord," she said candidly, "I decided your wager was more than fair. It is no more your fault that we had to marry than it was mine, and neither you nor I can be blamed because we cannot possibly suit. You have offered me a way out of an impossible situation, which is more than most men in your position would probably do. Therefore, I decided it would be altogether churlish in me to behave badly to you during the next three months."
Before Jordan could recover from the shock that she honestly and truly believed she would win the wager, she had stretched her graceful, gloved hand out toward his. "Friends?" she offered.
Jordan took her hand, his thumb lightly caressing her sensitive palm. "Friends," he agreed, and not by a flicker of an eye did he betray either his pique or his admiration for her spirit of fair play.
"We're home," Alexandra said, smiling when their procession drew up before the ornate black-iron gates with the Hawthorne crest upon them.