"You can't," Melanie said unhappily. "My husband does not think the London air suitable for my condition. He's bent on taking me back to the country, and staying there until the baby comes."
The thought of having to face the near future without Melanie to confide in made Alexandra feel positively miserable. "I'll write to you," she promised, wondering dismally if she would ever see Melanie again. Unable to say more, Alexandra plucked up her skirts and began making her way toward the staircase. Behind her, Melanie called out her name, but the roar of laughing conversation in the crowded ballroom swallowed the warning as Alexandra walked quickly, staying close to the wall.
Without stopping, she bent to put her champagne glass on a table, then stifled a scream as a hand clamped cruelly onto her forearm and spun her around. At the same instant, Jordan stepped in front of her, neatly isolating them both from view of the ballroom guests. Bracing his hand high on the wall behind her, he managed to imprison her with his body and yet look to all appearances like a relaxed gentleman engaging in somewhat intimate conversation with a lady.
"Alexandra," he said in an ominously calm tone that belied the leaping fury in his eyes, "there are approximately four hundred men in this room, most of whom believe it's my duty to set an example for their wives by dragging you out of here in front of everyone, and then to take you home and beat some sense into you—which I am perfectly willing, no—anxious—to do."
To her terrified disbelief, he paused in that horrible announcement to reach out and take a glass of champagne from the tray on the pedestal beside them and then to blandly hand it to her—a gesture designed to keep up the charade of two people engaged in ordinary conversation. Continuing in that same deadly voice, he said, "Despite the fact that your public wager—and your flagrant disobedience in coming here tonight—more than deserve public retaliation, I am going to offer you two choices." Silkily he said, "I want you to listen to them very carefully."
To her angry shame, Alexandra was so terrified her chest was rising and falling like a frightened bird and she could only nod her head.
Unmoved by her obvious fright, he gave her the first choice: "You can either leave with me right now—quietly and ostensibly willingly, or kicking and screaming—it doesn't matter to me. Either way, if we do leave now, everyone in this ballroom is going to know why I'm taking you out of here."
When he paused, Alexandra swallowed convulsively, her voice a parched whisper. "What is the second choice?"
"To salvage your pride," he replied, giving her the second choice, "I am willing to walk onto that dance floor with you and try to make it appear that we both regard your wager as nothing more than a harmless little jest. But whichever choice you make," he finished ominously, "I am still going to deal with you when we get home, do you understand that?"
His last sentence and the unmistakable threat of physical retribution it carried were dire enough to make Alexandra agree to anything—anything that would delay their leavetaking.
Somewhere in the tumult of her mind, it dimly occurred to her that, in offering her a chance to salvage her pride this way, he was treating her with more consideration than she had done when she placed a public bet against him. On the other hand, she could hardly find it in her heart to be very grateful to him for sparing her public humiliation—not when he was promising private, physical retribution later. With a supreme effort of will, she managed to steady her voice and arrange her features into a reasonably calm mask. "I would prefer to dance."
Jordan stared down into her lovely pale face and had to stifle a spurt of admiration for her courage. Instead, he politely offered her his arm and she placed her trembling hand on it.
The moment Jordan stepped out of her way, Alexandra glimpsed the swift, guilty movements of heads turning away, and she realized that a great many people had been watching their little tête-à-tête. With an outward appearance of unhurried dignity, she strolled with Jordan through the fascinated crowd, which parted like the Red Sea to let them pass, then turned to watch their progress.
Alexandra's control slipped a notch, however, when the couple in their path turned to let them pass and she found herself face to face with Elizabeth Grangerfield, whose elderly husband had recently died. The shock of encountering Jordan's former paramour nearly sent Alexandra to her knees, though Jordan and Elizabeth seemed perfectly at ease as they greeted at each other.
"Welcome home, your grace," Elizabeth said in her husky voice as she held out her hand.
"Thank you," Jordan said with a polite smile and pressed a gallant kiss to the back of it.
Watching them, Alexandra felt as if someone had punched her in the stomach. Somehow, she managed to keep her expression politely neutral as they walked away, but when they reached the dance floor and Jordan tried to put his hand on her waist, she jerked back, glaring at him.
"Would you prefer to leave now?" he asked silkily, while all around them dancers began to whirl and dip.
Too infuriated to notice that they'd become the object of six hundred pairs of fascinated eyes the instant they stepped onto the floor, Alexandra reluctantly put her hand on the sleeve of his black jacket—but her expression made it eloquently obvious that she found the contact with him quite revolting.
Jordan jerked her into his arms and they moved into the colorful whirl of waltzing couples. "If you have a shred of sense—or if you've learned anything about manners and behavior," he said in an explosive underbreath, "you'll wipe that martyred expression off your face and try to look congenial!"
That remark, with all its attendant arrogant superiority, made Alexandra long to slap his aristocratic face. "How dare you lecture me on manners and propriety, when you have just fawned over your precious paramour with your own wife standing there!"
"What the hell did you expect me to do?" Jordan demanded shortly. "Mow her down? She was standing right in our path!"
"You might have included me in your conversation." Alexandra flung back, too overwrought to consider that such a thing would have been a worse embarrassment to her.
This hostile exchange between the Duke of Hawthorne and his errant wife did not go unnoticed by the occupants of the ballroom. Dancers were colliding with one another in their efforts to eavesdrop; the musicians were leaning from side to side, trying for a better view; and quizzing glasses were focused in unison upon the pair.