Rage exploded in Jordan's brain as he straightened and turned to his friends. "Excuse me, gentlemen," he bit out in a soft, murderous voice, "I have just remembered that I have another engagement tonight." Without a glance at anyone else, he stalked out.
The six men surrounding the betting book gazed at one another in helpless consternation. "He's going after Carstairs," John Camden said grimly, and they all nodded agreement.
They were wrong. "Home!" Jordan snapped at his driver as he flung himself into his carriage. Idly slapping his gloves against his thigh, Jordan endured the ride to No. 3 Upper Brook Street in a state of deadly calm as he contemplated a variety of highly gratifying methods of teaching his outrageously willful, errant wife a badly needed, unforgettable lesson.
He had never been tempted to strike a woman in his life, yet now he could think of nothing more satisfying than the impending prospect of walking into Alexandra's bedchamber, jerking her over his lap, and paddling her until she could bear no more. It was, he decided, an eminently suitable punishment for what had been an eminently childish act of public defiance!
And after that, he decided, he would toss her onto the bed and put her to the use God intended her for!
In the mood he was in, he might well have done exactly that. But—as Higgins informed him when he stalked past the butler and headed up the staircase—Alexandra was "not at home."
A moment ago, Jordan would have sworn he could not have been angrier than he already was. The news that Alexandra had openly defied him by going out, when he had specifically ordered her to stay home, sent his blood to the boiling point. "Get her maid down here," Jordan demanded in a voice that made Higgins press backward against the door before scurrying off to do as he was bade.
Five minutes later, at ten-thirty, Jordan was en route to the Lindworthys'.
At that same moment, the Lindworthy butler was loudly proclaiming the arrival of: "Her grace, the Duchess of Hawthorne!"
Airily ignoring the swiveling heads and searching stares, Alexandra walked gracefully down the grand staircase in the most daring ensemble she had ever appeared in. It suited her perfectly—she felt wonderfully, independently daring tonight.
Partway down the staircase, she glanced casually over the packed ballroom, looking either for Roddy, Melanie, or the dowager duchess. She saw the duchess first, standing with a group of her elderly friends, and Alexandra headed toward her—a shimmering, glowing vision of youth and poise, her eyes shining as brightly as the jewels she wore, as she occasionally paused to nod regally at an acquaintance.
"Good evening, dear ma'am," Alexandra said gaily, pressing a kiss to the duchess' parchment cheek.
"I see you're in high spirits, child," her grace said, beaming at her and clasping Alexandra's gloved hands in her own. "I'm equally happy to see," she added, "that Hawthorne took my excellent advice this morning and removed his foolish restriction against your going out into company."
With a mischievous smile, Alexandra dropped into a deep, respectful curtsy that was a miracle of grace, then she raised her head and jauntily declared, "No, ma'am, he did not."
Since Alexandra already knew where the duchess stood on the matter of her marital obligations, that unenthusiastic reaction to her rebellious behavior didn't dampen Alexandra's spirits in the least. In fact, in the mood she was in, she didn't think anything could dampen her spirits. Until a scant minute later, when Melanie rushed over to her, looking positively panicked. "Oh, Alex, how could you do such a thing!" she burst out, too overwrought to care that the dowager was standing right there. "There isn't a husband here who wouldn't like to wring your neck—including mine when he hears of it! You went too far, it's beyond what is pleasing! You can't do—"
"Whatever are you talking about?" Alexandra interrupted, but her heart was beginning to pound in automatic reaction to her usually imperturbable friend's wild anxiety.
"I'm talking about the wager you had Roddy place in your name in the betting book at White's, Alexandra!"
"In my name—" Alexandra exclaimed in panic-stricken disbelief. "Oh dear God! He wouldn't have!"
"What wager?" the dowager gruffly demanded.
"He would and he did! And everyone in this ballroom knows about it."
"Dear God!" Alexandra repeated faintly.
"What wager?" the dowager demanded in a low, thunderous voice.
Too shaken and angry to answer the dowager, Alexandra left that to Melanie. Plucking up her skirts, she whirled around, searching for Roddy. What she saw was dozens of inimical male faces watching her.
She finally saw Roddy and bore down on him with murder in her eye and pain in her heart.
"Alexandra, my love," he said, grinning, "you look more smashing than—" He reached out to take her hand, but she snatched it away, glaring at him with angry, accusing eyes.
"How could you do this to me!" she burst out bitterly. "How could you write that wager down in some book and put my name on it!"
For the second time since she had met him, Roderick Carstairs lost momentary control of his bland expression. "What do you mean?" he demanded in a low, indignant voice. "I did what you wanted me to do. You wanted to demonstrate to Society that you are not going to fall at Hawk's feet, and I placed the wager for you at the best place to make your feelings public. And it was no easy task," he continued irritably. "Only members of White's are allowed to record wagers there, which is why I had to put my name over yours and guarantee your—"
"I wanted you to place a wager for me in your name, not mine, which is why I asked you to do it!" Alexandra cried in a voice raw with anxiety. "A quiet, confidential, unwritten gentlemen's wager!"
Roddy's brows snapped together as anger replaced his righteous indignation. "Don't be a nitwit! What could you possibly hope to gain from a 'quiet, confidential' wager?"
"Money!" Alexandra exclaimed miserably.
Roddy's mouth dropped open. "Money?" he repeated uncomprehendingly. "You made that wager because you want money?"
"Of course!" she naively replied. "Why else would anyone wager?"
Looking at her as if she were some curious specimen of humanity completely beyond his ken, Roddy informed her, "One wagers because one enjoys winning. You are married to one of the richest men in Europe. Why should you need money?"