"So we are," he said indifferently, as the gatekeeper saluted his coach, then rushed forward to open wide the gates.

His cavalcade swept down the smooth road and he glanced at the magnificence of his "home," feeling no pride in its palatial splendor, nor any warm sensation of homecoming. Hawthorne represented the bleakness of his parents' marriage and his own boyhood.

"After all I've seen in the last year, I still think this is the most splendid estate in England." Alexandra sighed happily, her gaze roving lovingly over the immense, elegant house, then lifting to the flag already flying high above the hall, indicating the duke was now in residence.

"My ancestors would be pleased to hear it," Jordan remarked dryly as he glanced at his estate in the waning light of dusk. "They intended Hawthorne to rival the king's residence. It was designed to impress and intimidate."

"You—you don't like it?" Alexandra gasped.

"Not particularly. I find it oppressive. I have other houses which I think are infinitely more pleasing, although not so convenient to town."

She gaped at him in amazement. "They're more beautiful than Hawthorne?"

"Cozier."

"Hawthorne does rather overawe one," Alex admitted. "The house is so—so silent."

The entire staff of two hundred servants, including maids, gamekeepers, grooms, and footmen, were lined up on the terraced steps in formal uniforms, their faces wreathed in smiles as the coach drew to a stop before the house.

Footmen rushed forward to let down the steps, but Jordan insisted on lifting Alexandra down from the coach himself, his hands lingering at her waist after he set her down. "Welcome home," he said, his smile intimate. "Our rooms have been prepared, and an excellent supper awaits us."

"I'm much too exhausted to eat," Alexandra said hastily, in hopes of deterring him from trying to make love to her until tomorrow night. "I'd like to bathe and retire immediately."

The ploy was both obvious and futile. "In that case, we'll both skip supper and go straight to bed," Jordan countered patiently, but implacably.

"I assumed you would at least grant me a night's rest after our journey!"

"No welshing on your bet, sweetheart."

"Don't call me that, my lord," she warned.

"Jordan," he corrected.

"Here they come," Gibbons chortled to Smarth, peering excitedly around the shoulder of the gamekeeper who was blocking their view. "I can't wait to see Miss Alexandra's face, now the master is back," he said, echoing the thoughts of most of Hawthorne's staff, who were aware of her heartwrenching devotion to Jordan when she believed him dead.

"She'll be happy as a songbird," agreed Mrs. Brimley, the housekeeper, craning her neck.

"She'll be glowin' with happiness, shinin' like a—" Gibbons broke off, stunned, as Alexandra swept past them with an expression on her face that could best be described as thoroughly irate. "Well, I'll be…" he breathed, turning his bewildered face first to Smarth and then to Mrs. Brimley.

Alexandra ate in uneasy silence across the candlelit table from Jordan. "The wine doesn't suit you?" he asked.

Alexandra startled at the sound of his deep voice and her spoon clattered against the fragile Sèvres china bowl. "I—I don't care for port, your grace."

"Jordan," he reminded her.

Alexandra swallowed, unable to force his name past her lips. She glanced at the plump red strawberries in her bowl and set her spoon down, her stomach churning with tension over what she knew would be happening to her an hour from now.

"You've scarcely eaten a bite," Jordan observed, his deep voice husky.

Suffocated by what she regarded as his deliberate, unprecedented efforts to charm and disarm her, Alexandra shook her head. "I'm not very hungry."

"In that case," he said, laying his napkin aside, "shall we retire, my dear?" A footman stepped forward to pull his chair back, and Alexandra snatched up her fork. "I believe I could eat some of the pheasant," she said hastily.

Jordan politely placed his napkin back in his lap, but she could have sworn his eyes gleamed with laughter.

Stalling for time, Alexandra made a positive production of dissecting the succulent slice of pheasant she was given into precise, bite-sized rectangles and of chewing each small rectangle until it was nearly liquefied. When the last geometric shape disappeared from her plate and she put down her fork, Jordan quirked a questioning brow at her, asking if she was finished.

Alexandra's panicked gaze flew to the nearest footman. "I—I would enjoy some of cook's delicious asparagus now," she desperately announced, and this time there was no denying the smile that quirked Jordan's lips. She followed the asparagus with a small helping of peas in cream sauce, pork stuffed with apples, lobster in a pastry shell, and then blueberries.

When she asked for the blueberries, Jordan didn't bother trying to hide his amusement. Lounging back in his chair, he watched her valiant struggle to swallow every last blueberry, a smile playing about his sensual mouth.

Carefully avoiding his eyes, Alexandra managed to finish the blueberries, but when she was done, her stomach was churning in protest against so much food.

"Something more to fortify you, my sweet?" Jordan suggested helpfully. "Some chocolate cake?"

The mention of dessert made her shudder and she hastily shook her head.

"Beef in wine sauce?"

Alexandra swallowed and whispered, "No, thank you."

"A litter, perhaps?" he offered, grinning wickedly, "to carry you upstairs?"

Before she could answer, he purposefully laid his napkin aside and rose, coming around the table to help her up. "If you continue to eat like that," he remarked teasingly as they walked up the long, curving staircase, "you'll soon be too fat to climb these stairs. I shall have to install a winch and cargo net to lift you up and over the balcony."

Under different circumstances, Alexandra would have laughed at his joke, but tonight tension and acute self-consciousness had strangled her sense of humor. She realized he was trying to put her at ease but she could hardly be grateful when it was his fault she was so uneasy in the first place. Moreover, she couldn't understand how he could be so unembarrassed about what they were about to do. Then she recollected his reputation as a womanizer and realized that he could hardly be embarrassed or uneasy about something he'd done hundreds of times with dozens of women!


Tags: Judith McNaught Sequels Billionaire Romance
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