"No. Absolutely not," Alexandra said with great firmness. "You must keep your—"

The sound of Higgins' stately marching stride echoed in the hall, coming toward the breakfast room, and Filbert leapt with surprising agility to his feet. "Higgins goes purple every time he sees us talking friendlylike," Filbert explained unnecessarily as he snatched Alexandra's yellow linen napkin from beside her saucer and began energetically flicking it at nonexistent crumbs on the table. And that was the scene Higgins approvingly beheld when he entered the morning room to convey the news that Sir Roderick Carstairs wished to be announced to her grace.

A few minutes later, Roddy strode in, sat down at the table, beckoned to Filbert with a lofty nod of his head to pour him some tea, and then began cheerfully regaling her with the "delicious details" of his visit to Hawk last night.

Halfway through his astounding recitation, Alexandra half rose from her chair and cried in an accusing whisper, "You told him all those things about me? You?"

"Stop looking at me as if I just slithered out from beneath a rock, Alex," Roddy said with bored nonchalance, adding milk to his tea. "I told him all that to ensure he knows you've been the hit of the Season, so that when he discovers—which I assure you he will—that you made a complete cake of yourself over him when you first came to town, he will not be nearly so complacent. Melanie called last night to suggest I do exactly that, but I'd already come up with the idea on my own and gone to Hawk's."

Ignoring her stricken expression, he continued blithely: "I also did it because I wanted to see his face when he heard the news, although this was not my primary reason for going there, as I just explained. Actually," he added after taking a delicate sip of his tea and replacing the Sèvres cup in its saucer, "haring over to Mount Street to see him last night was the first truly noble gesture of my life—an indication, I fear, that I have developed a character weakness, for which I blame you."

"Me?" Alexandra repeated, so distraught and distracted she was beginning to feel dazed. "What character weakness is that?"

"Nobility, my dear. When you look at me with those big, beautiful eyes of yours, I often have the terrifying feeling you see something better and finer in me than I see when I look in the mirror. Last night, I suddenly felt impelled to do something better and finer, so I hustled over to Hawk's filled with noble intent to save your pride. It was quite revolting of me, now that I repine on it." He looked so disgusted with himself that Alexandra hastily hid her smile behind her own teacup as he went on: "Unfortunately, my magnificent gesture may have been for naught. I couldn't be certain Hawk was paying me any heed, despite the fact that I rattled on quite abominably for the better part of an hour."

"He heard you, all right," Alexandra said wryly. "This morning he presented me with a written list of those very same transgressions and demanded I either confess or deny."

Roddy's eyes widened with delight. "Did he, indeed? I thought I was getting under his skin last night but, with Hawk, one can never tell. Did you admit to the list or deny it?"

Too tense and worried to remain seated another moment, Alexandra put her cup down and with an apologetic look, she stood up, restlessly walking over to the little settee by the windows and needlessly plumping its yellow flowered pillows. "I admitted it, of course."

Roddy swiveled in his chair, studying her profile with great interest. "I gather, then, that all is not honey and roses here between the reunited couple?" When Alexandra absently shook her head, he grinned with pleasure. "You realize, I suppose, that Society is already on tenterhooks, waiting to see if you succumb to Hawk's legendary charm again? The odds, at the moment, are four to one that you'll be his adoring wife by the day of the Queen's Race."

Alexandra whirled around, staring at him in angry horror. "What?" she breathed in disgust, unable to believe her ears. "What are you talking about?"

"Wagers," Roddy said succinctly. "The odds are four to one in favor of you putting your ribbon on Hawk's arm and cheering for him at the Queen's Race. Very domestic."

Alexandra didn't know it was possible to feel such revulsion for people she had begun to like. "People are betting on a thing like that?" she burst out

"Naturally. On Queen's Race day, it's traditional for a lady to show her favor to a gentleman who is riding in the race by removing the ribbon from her bonnet and tying it on his arm herself, for good luck and encouragement. It is one of the few public displays of affection which we of the ton encourage—mostly, I believe, because the discussion of who ultimately wore whose colors provides us with titillating gossip and conjecture for the long winter months that follow. At this point, the odds are four to one in favor of you tying your ribbon on Hawk's arm."

Momentarily diverted from her major problems by a minor detail, Alexandra looked suspiciously at Roddy. "Who are you betting on?"

"I haven't placed my wager yet. I thought I'd stop here first—to test the atmosphere—before I dropped in at White's." Daintily wiping his mouth on a napkin, Roddy stood up, kissed her hand, and said in a challenging voice, "Well, my dear, what's it to be? Will you be showing your affection for your spouse by giving him your colors to wear on September seventh?"

"Of course not!" Alexandra said, inwardly shuddering at the thought of making such a public spectacle of herself over a man everyone knew didn't care a jot about her.

"You're quite certain? I'd hate to loose £1,000."

"Your money is very safe," Alexandra said bitterly, sinking down on the flowered settee and staring at her hands. He was halfway across the room when Alexandra jubilantly shouted his name and shot to her feet as if the cushions beneath her had burst into flames. Laughing with joy, she advanced upon the startled aristocrat. "Roddy, you're wonderful! You're brilliant! If I didn't already have a husband, I'd propose to you!"

Roddy said nothing to that flattering proclamation, but regarded her in wary amusement, one brow arched in inquiry.

"Please, please, say you'll do one little favor for me?" she pleaded prettily.

"What is it?"

Alexandra drew a steadying breath, unable to believe fate had just presented her with a perfect solution to what had seemed a hopeless dilemma. "Could you—possibly—place a wager for me?"

His look of comical shock was instantly replaced by one of dawning understanding, and then of irrepressible glee. "I suppose I could do that. Can you cover your bet if you lose?"

Tags: Judith McNaught Sequels Billionaire Romance
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