Lost in thought, Alexandra drove right past the footman who ran out of the great house to take the reins, and continued down to the stables which were situated behind and off to the side of the mansion. Tony's disclosures about Jordan's boyhood at Hawthorne whirled through her mind, stabbing at her heart and filling her with compassion. Now she understood so many things about Jordan that had puzzled and angered and hurt her, including the subtle change in him since their arrival at Hawthorne. To think she had actually believed, when she was a girl, that happiness was simply a matter of having both parents at home with one. Her grandfather had been right again, she realized, for he had repeatedly said that no one is ever quite what they seem.

So absorbed was she in her thoughts that she said nothing to Smarth when she drew up at the stables and he rushed out to assist her down from the carriage. Instead, she simply looked at him as if he didn't exist, then she turned and started toward the house.

Smarth incorrectly assumed his mistress was looking right through him because he had forfeited her trust and affection by refusing to discuss his master with her. "My lady!" Smarth said, looking both wounded by her unintentional snub, and extremely apprehensive as well.

Alexandra turned and glanced at him, but in her mind she was seeing a little boy who had never been permitted to be one.

"Please, my lady," Smarth said wretchedly, "don't look at me like I hurt ye beyond fixin'." Dropping his voice, he nodded toward the fence where two colts were frisking about, kicking up their heels. "If ye'd walk over t' the fence wit me, I've somethin' to tell ye that ye'll want to know."

With an effort, Alexandra made herself concentrate on the unhappy footman, and she did as he asked.

Staring fixedly at the horses, Smarth lowered his voice and said, "Me 'n' Gibbons talked it over, and we decided that ye've a right to know why the master is the way he is. He's not a harsh man, my lady, but from what I hear is a-goin' on atween the two o' you since the master came back, yer bound to get the idea he's hard as a rock."

Alexandra opened her mouth to tell the apprehensive servant that he need not betray his knowledge, but his next words floored her. "Th' other reason we decided to tell you is 'cause the way we heerd it, you ain't here at Hawthorne to stay and be his wife—except fer three months, that is."

"How on earth—?" Alexandra burst out

"Servants' grapevine, my lady," Smarth averred with a touch of pride. "Hawthorne has the best in England, I'll vow. Why, the staff knows what's happenin' within twenty minutes of it takin' place—unless o' course Mr. Higgins or Mrs. Brimley the housekeeper are the only ones to hear of it. Their mouths are tight as virg—They don't tell nobody nothin'," he amended, turning scarlet.

"That must be extremely vexatious for you," Alexandra said dryly, when Smarth flushed deeper.

He shifted from one foot to the other, shoved his hands in his pockets, took them out again and looked at her in helpless dismay, his weathered face creased with unhappiness. "You wanted me ter tell you 'bout his grace's parents, and me 'n' Gibbons agreed we cain't deny yer command. Besides, ye've a right t' know." And in a voice low and uneasy, Smarth related very nearly the same general history that Tony had told her.

"And now you know what it's been like around here fer all these years," Smarth finished, "me 'n' Gibbons is hopin' you'll stay here and bring laughter to th' place, th' way you did when you was here afore."

"Real laughter," Smarth clarified. "Not the kind what comes from the mouth—the kind what comes from the heart like you gived us afore. The master ain't never heard the sound o' it at Hawthorne, and it would do him a world a good, specially if you could git him ter join in wit it."

Everything Alexandra had learned today revolved in her head like a dizzying kaleidoscope, turning and changing shape, taking on new dimensions throughout the rest of the day and long after Jordan had pulled her to him and fallen asleep.

The sky was already lightening, and still she lay awake, staring at the ceiling, hesitating to take a course of action that could—and undoubtedly would—make her vulnerable to Jordan once again. Until now, she'd made leaving here her goal; and, in line with that, she'd kept her every emotion and every action in careful check.

She turned onto her side and Jordan's arm encircled her, drawing her back against his chest and the backs of her legs against his own while he buried his face in her hair. His hand lifted, cupping her breast in a sleepy caress and sending a tremor of delight through her entire body.

She wanted him, Alexandra realized with a despondent inner sigh. Despite everything he had been—a libertine, a heartless flirt, and an unwilling husband—she wanted him. In the safe silence of her heart, she was finally willing to admit that to herself now… because now she realized that he was more than just a spoiled, shallow aristocrat.

She wanted his love, his trust, and his children. She wanted to make this house ring with laughter for him, and to make Hawthorne seem beautiful to him. She wanted to make the entire world beautiful for him.

Tony, the dowager duchess, and even Melanie had all believed she could make Jordan fall in love with her. She couldn't give up without trying, she knew that now.

But she didn't know how she was going to endure it if she failed.

Chapter Twenty-Six

My lord?" she whispered at dawn the next morning.

Jordan opened one sleepy eye and beheld his wife looking bright and alert as she sat down on his bed beside his hip. "Good morning," he murmured, his appreciative gaze shifting to the V of tantalizing flesh exposed by the bodice of her belted silk dressing gown. "What time is it?" he asked, his voice husky with sleep. He glanced toward the windows and realized the sky was not blue, but a weak shade of grey streaked with pale pink.

Unlike Jordan, Alexandra had been awake all night and was therefore not suffering from any foggy remnants of drowsiness. "Six o'clock," she answered brightly.

"You're joking!" he uttered. Appalled by the early hour, he promptly closed his eyes and required an explanation for being awakened at dawn: "Is someone ill?"




A faint smile tugged at his firm lips and creased the sides of his closed eyes as he mumbled, "Illness or death are the only acceptable reasons for a rational human to be awake this early in the morning. Come back to bed."

Alexandra chuckled at his lighthearted, sleepy banter, but she shook her head. "No."

Tags: Judith McNaught Sequels Billionaire Romance
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