“Judith McNaught not only spins dreams but makes them come true” (RT Book Reviews) in this sensual and moving tale of a tempestuous marriage facing its ultimate test. Alexandra Lawrence, an innocent country girl, and Jordan Townsende, the rich and powerful Duke of Hawthorne, have always had a stormy relationship. But when she is swept into the endlessly fascinating world of London society, free-spirited Alexandra becomes ensnared in a tangled web of jealousy, revenge, and overwhelming passion. But behind her husband’s cold, haughty mask, there lives a tender, vital, sensual man...the man Alexandra married. Now, she will fight for his very life and the rapturous bond they alone can share.
“I WON’T DO IT, I tell you,” Alexandra burst out, her cheeks flushed with angry color. She glowered at the seamstresses who for three days and nights had been measuring, pinning, sighing, and cutting on the rainbow of fabrics which were now strewn about the room in various stages of becoming day dresses, riding habits, walking costumes, and dressing gowns. She felt like a stuffed mannikin who was permitted no feelings and no rest, whose only purpose was to stand still and be pinned, prodded, and poked, while the duchess looked on, criticizing Alexandra’s every mannerism and movement.
For three entire days she had repeatedly asked to speak with her future husband, but the duke had been “otherwise occupied” or so Ramsey, the stony-faced butler, had continually informed her. Occasionally she had glimpsed him in the library talking with gentlemen until late in the afternoon. She and Mary Ellen were served their meals in Alexandra’s room, while he apparently preferred the more interesting company of his grandmother. “Otherwise occupied,” she had now concluded, obviously meant that he didn’t wish to be bothered with her.
After three days of this, Alexandra was tense, irritable, and—much to her horror—very frightened. Her mother and Uncle Monty were as good as lost to her. Even though they were supposedly staying at an inn a few miles away, they were not permitted to call at Rosemeade. Life yawned before her, a lonely, gaping hole where she would be denied the companionship of her family and Mary Ellen and even the old servants who had been her friends since babyhood.
“This is a complete farce!” Alexandra said to Mary Ellen, stamping her foot in frustrated outrage and glaring at the seamstress who had just finished pinning the hem of the lemon-yellow muslin gown Alexandra was wearing.
“Stand still, young lady, and cease your theatrics,” her grace snapped frigidly, walking into the room.
For three days the duchess hadn’t spoken a single personal word to her, except to criticize, lecture, instruct, or command. “Theatrics—” Alexandra burst out, as rage swept through her, hot and satisfying. “If you think that was a theatric, wait until you hear the rest of what I have to say!” The duchess turned as if she intended to leave and, for Alexandra, that was the last straw. “I suggest you wait a moment and let me finish, ma’am.”
The duchess turned then, lifting her aristocratic brows, waiting.
The sheer arrogance of her pose made Alexandra so angry that her voice shook. “Kindly tell your invisible grandson that the wedding is off, or, if he chooses to materialize, you may send him to me and I’ll tell him so.” Afraid she would burst into tears, which she knew the old woman would only mock, she ran from the room, along the balcony and down the staircase.
“What,” asked the butler as he opened the front door for her, “shall I tell his grace—should he inquire as to your whereabouts?”
Pausing in her headlong flight, Alexandra looked Ramsey right in the eye and mimicked, “Tell him I’m ‘otherwise occupied.’ ”
An hour later, as she wandered through the rose garden, her hysteria had cooled to a steely determination. Irritably, she bent and plucked a lovely pink rose and raised it to her nose, inhaling its scent, then she began absently snapping the petals off, one by one, her thoughts in a turmoil. Pink rose petals floated down about her skirts, joining those of the red roses, the white, and the yellow which she had also unconsciously shredded.
“Based on the message you left for me with Ramsey,” said a deep, unperturbed voice behind her, “I gather you’re displeased about something?”
Alexandra whirled in surprise, her relief at finally being able to speak to him eclipsed by the growing panic she’d been trying unsuccessfully to stifle for days. “I’m displeased about everything.”
His amused glance slid to the rose petals strewn about her skirts. “Including the roses, evidently,” he observed, feeling slightly guilty for ignoring her these last several days.
Alexandra followed the direction of his gaze, flushed with embarrassment, and said with a mixture of distress and frustration, “The roses are beautiful, but—”
“—But you were bored with the way they looked when they had their petals on, is that it?”
Realizing that she was being drawn into a discussion about flowers when her entire life was in chaos, Alexandra drew herself up and said with quiet, implacable firmness, “Your grace, I am not going to marry you.”
He shoved his hands into his pockets and regarded her with mild curiosity. “Really? Why not?”
Trying to think of the best way to explain, Alexandra ran a shaky hand through her dark curls and Jordan’s gaze lifted, watching the unconscious grace of her gesture— really studying her for the first time. Sunlight glinted in her hair, gilding it with a golden sheen, and turned her magnificent eyes a luminous, turquoise green. The yellow of her gown flattered her creamy complexion and the peach tint glowing at her cheeks.
“Would you please,” Alexandra said in a long-suffering voice, “stop looking at me in that peculiar, appraising way, as if you’re trying to dissect my features and discover all my flaws?”
“Was I doing that?” Jordan asked absently, noting for the first time her high cheekbones and the soft fullness of her lips. As he gazed at that arresting, delicately carved face with its winged brows and long, sooty eyelashes, he couldn’t imagine how he’d ever mistaken her for a lad.
“You’re playing Pygmalion with my life, and I don’t like it.”
“I’m what?” Jordan demanded, his attention abruptly diverted from her fascinating face.
“In mythology, Pygmalion was—”
“I’m familiar with the myth, I’m merely surprised that a female would be familiar with the classics.”
“You must have a very limited experience with my sex,” Alexandra said, surprised. “My grandfather said most women are every bit as intelligent as men.”
She saw his eyes take on the sudden gleam of suppressed laughter and assumed, mistakenly, that he was amused by her assessment of female intelligence rather than her remark about his inexperience with women. “Please stop treating me as if I haven’t a wit in my head! Everyone in your house does that—even your servants are haughty and behave oddly to me.”
“I’ll instruct the butler to put wool in his ears and pretend to be deaf,” Jordan teased, “and I’ll order the footmen to wear blinders. Will that make you feel more at home?”
“Will you kindly take me seriously!”
Jordan sobered instantly at her imperious tone. “I’m going to marry you,” he said coolly. “That’s serious enough.”
Now that she had decided not to marry him, and had told him so, the sharp pain of her decision was lessened a little by the discovery that she no longer felt intimidated and uncomfortable with him. “Do you realize,” she said with a winsome smile as she tilted her head to the side, “that you become positively grim when you say the word ‘marry’?” When he said nothing, Alexandra laid her hand on his sleeve, as if he was her friend, and gazed into his unfathomable grey eyes, seeing the cynicism lurking in their depths. “I don’t mean to pry, your grace, but are you happy with life—with your life, I mean?”
He looked irritated by her question, but he answered it. “Not particularly.”
“There you see! We would never suit. You’re disenchanted with life, but I’m not.” The quiet inner joy, the courage and indomitable spirit Jordan had sensed in her the night they met, was in her voice now as she lifted her face to the blue sky, her entire being radiant with optimism, innocence, and hope. “I love life, even when bad things happen to me. I can’t stop loving it.”
Transfixed, Jordan stared at her as she stood against a backdrop of vibrant roses and distant green hills—a pagan maiden addressing the heavens in a sweet, soft voice: “Every season of the year comes with a promise that something wonderful is going to happen to me someday. I’ve had that feeling ever since my grandfather died. It’s as if he’s telling me to wait for it. In winter, the promise comes with the smell of snow in the air. In summer, I hear it in the boom of thunder and the lightning that streaks across the sky in blue flashes. Most of all, I feel it now, in springtime, when everything is green and black—”
Her voice trailed off and Jordan repeated blankly, “Black?”
“Yes, black—you know, like tree trunks when they’re wet, and freshly tilled fields that smell like—” She inhaled, trying to recall the exact scent.
“Dirt,” Jordan provided unromantically.
She dropped her gaze from the heavens and looked at him. “You think me foolish,” she sighed. Stiffening her spine and ignoring the sharp stab of longing she felt for him, she said with calm dignity, “We cannot possibly wed.”
Jordan’s dark eyebrows drew together over incredulous grey eyes. “You’ve decided that, merely because I don’t happen to think wet dirt smells like perfume?”
“You haven’t understood a word I’ve said,” Alexandra said desperately. “The fact of the matter is that if I marry you, you’ll make me as unhappy as you are—and if you make me unhappy, I’ll undoubtedly retaliate by making you unhappy, and in a few years, we’ll both be as sour as your grandmother. Don’t you dare laugh,” she warned when his lips twitched.
Taking her arm, Jordan walked with her along the flagstone path that separated the rose beds and led to an arbor filled with trees decked out in spring blossoms. “You’ve failed to take one vital fact into consideration: From the moment I carried you into the inn, nothing in your life could ever be the same again. Even if your mother was only bluffing about putting us both through a public trial, your reputation is already destroyed.” Stopping at the entrance to the arbor, he leaned against the trunk of an oak tree and said in a detached, impersonal voice, “I’m afraid you have no choice except to do me the honor of becoming my wife.”
Alexandra chuckled, diverted by his ever-present, courteous formality, even now when she was bluntly refusing his hand in marriage. “Marrying an ordinary girl from Morsham is hardly an ‘honor’ for a duke,” she reminded him with cheerful, artless candor, “and despite what you so glibly said when we last parted, you are not my ‘servant.’ Why do you say those things to me?”
He grinned at her infectious merriment. “Habit,” he admitted.
She tipped her head to the side, an enchanting, spirited girl with the wit and courage to spar with him. “Do you never say what you really mean?”
Alex nodded sagely. “Apparently, speaking one’s mind is a privilege reserved for what your grandmother disdainfully refers to as ‘the lower classes.’ Why do you always seem to be on the verge of laughing at me?”
“For some unfathomable reason,” he replied in an amused drawl, “I like you.”
“That’s nice, but it isn’t enough to base a marriage on,” Alexandra persisted, returning to her original concern. “There are other, essential things like—” Her voice trailed off in horrified silence. Like love, she thought. Love was the only essential.
Unable to choke out the word, Alexandra hastily looked away and shrugged noncommittally.
Love, Jordan silently filled in with a resigned sigh, longing to return to his interrupted meeting with his grandmother’s bailiff. Alexandra wanted love and romance. He’d forgotten that even innocent, sheltered girls of her tender years would undoubtedly expect a little ardor from their affianced husbands. Adamantly unwilling to stand out here like a besotted fool and try to persuade her to marry him with tender words he didn’t mean, he decided a kiss would be the quickest, most effective, and most expedient way to fulfill his duty and neutralize her misgivings, so that he could resume his meeting.
Alex jumped nervously when his hand suddenly lifted and cupped her cheek, forcing her to give up her embarrassed study of the entrance to the arbor.
“Look at me,” he said in a low, velvety, unfamiliar voice that sent tingles of apprehensive excitement darting up her spine.
Alexandra dragged her eyes to his tanned face. Although no one had ever attempted to seduce or kiss her before, she took one look at the slumberous expression in his heavy-lidded eyes and knew something was in the wind. Instantly wary, she demanded without preamble: “What are you thinking?”
His fingers splayed sensuously across her cheek, and he smiled—a slow, lazy smile that made her heart leap into her throat. “I’m thinking about kissing you.”
Alexandra’s fevered imagination promptly ran away with itself as she recalled the novels she’d read. When kissed by the man they secretly loved, the heroines invariably swooned, or abandoned their virtue, or blurted out professions of undying love. Terrified that she would make just such a cake of herself, Alexandra gave her head an emphatic shake. “No, really,” she croaked. “I—I don’t think you should. Not just now. It’s very nice of you to offer, but not just now. Perhaps another time when I—”
Ignoring her protests, and struggling to hide his amusement, Jordan put his fingertips beneath her chin and tilted her face up for his kiss.
He closed his eyes. Alexandra’s opened wide. He lowered his head. She braced herself to be overcome with ardor. He touched his lips lightly to hers. And then it was over.
Jordan opened his eyes and looked at her to assess her reaction. It was not the naively rapturous one he expected to see. Alexandra’s eyes were wide with bewilderment and— yes—disappointment!
Relieved that she hadn’t made a fool of herself like the heroines of the novels, Alexandra wrinkled her small nose. “Is that all there is to kissing?” she asked the nobleman whose fiery kisses purportedly made maidens despise their virginity and married women forget their vows.
For a moment, Jordan didn’t move; he studied her with heavy-lidded, speculative grey eyes. Suddenly Alexandra saw something exciting and alarming kindle in those silvery eyes. “No,” he murmured, “there’s more,” and his hands encircled her arms, drawing her so close that her breasts almost touched his chest.
His conscience, which Jordan had assumed was long dead, chose that unlikely moment to suddenly assert itself after years of silence. You are seducing a child, Hawthorne! it warned in acid disgust. Jordan hesitated, more from surprise at the unexpected presence of that long-forgotten inner voice than from guilt at his actions. You are deliberately seducing a gullible child into doing your bidding because you don’t want to bother taking the time to reason with her.
“What are you thinking now?” Alexandra asked warily.
Several evasions occurred to him, but recalling that she’d scorned polite platitudes, he decided to be truthful. “I’m thinking that I’m committing the unforgivable act of seducing a child.”
Alexandra, who was relieved rather than disappointed that his kiss had not affected her, felt laughter bubble up inside of her. “Seducing me?” she repeated with a merry chuckle and shook her head, sending her curly hair into fetching disarray. “Oh, no, you may put your mind at ease on that score. I think I must be made of sterner stuff than most females who swoon from a kiss and abandon their virtue. I,” she finished candidly, “was not at all affected by our kiss. Not,” she added charitably, “that I thought it was gruesome, for it wasn’t, I assure you. It was . . . quite nice.”
“Thank you,” Jordan said, straight-faced. “You’re very kind.” Tucking her hand firmly into the crook of his arm, he turned and led her a few steps into the arbor.
“Where are we going?” she inquired conversationally.
“Out of sight of the house,” he replied dryly, stopping beneath the branches of an apple tree covered with blossoms. “Chaste pecks are permissible between an engaged couple in the rose garden; however, more passionate kissing must be done with more discretion, in the arbor.”
Alexandra, who was misled by the matter-of-fact tone of this lecture, failed to instantly absorb the import of his words. “It’s amazing!” she said, laughing up at him. “There are rules for absolutely everything amongst the nobility. Are there books with all this written down?” But before he could answer, she gasped, “K-kiss me passionately? Why?”
Jordan glanced toward the entrance of the arbor to make certain they were private, then he turned the full seductive force of his silver gaze and lazy smile on the girl standing before him. “It’s my vanity,” he teased in a low voice. “It chafes at the idea that you nearly dozed off in the middle of my last kiss. Now, let’s see if I can wake you up.”
For the second time in minutes, Jordan’s heretofore silent conscience was outraged. It roared at him: You bastard, what do you think you’re doing?
But this time, Jason didn’t hesitate for even a moment. He already knew exactly what he was doing. “Now then,” he said, smiling reassuringly into her enormous blue-green eyes as he matched his actions to his words, “a kiss is a thing to be shared. I’ll put my hands on your arms, thus, and draw you close.”
Puzzled by so much fuss over a kiss, Alexandra glanced down at the strong, long fingers gently imprisoning her upper arms, then at the front of his fine white shirt, before she finally raised her embarrassed gaze to his. “Where do my hands go?”
Jordan squelched his shout of laughter, as well as the suggestive reply that automatically sprang to his lips. “Where would you like to put them?” he asked instead.
“In my pockets?” Alexandra suggested hopefully.
Jordan, who suddenly felt more in the mood for a hearty laugh than a seduction, was nevertheless determined to continue. “The point I was trying to make,” he explained mildly, “is that it’s perfectly all right for you to touch me.”
I don’t want to, she thought frantically.
You will, he silently promised with an inner smile, correctly interpreting her mutinous expression. Tipping her chin up, he gazed into those wide, luminous eyes of hers, and tenderness began to unfold within him—a sensation that had been as foreign to him as the voice of his conscience until he met this unspoiled, unpredictable, artless child-woman. He felt, for the moment, as if he was gazing into the eyes of an angel, and he touched her smooth cheek with unconscious reverence. “Have you any idea,” he murmured softly, “how enchanting you are—and how rare?”
The words he spoke, combined with the touch of his fingertips against her cheek, and the deep, compelling timbre of his voice, had the seductive impact Alexandra had dreaded his kiss would have. She felt as if she were beginning to melt and float inside. She couldn’t pull her gaze from his hypnotic grey eyes; she didn’t want to try. Without realizing what she was doing, she raised her shaking fingertips to his hard jaw, touching his cheek as he was touching hers. “I think,” she whispered achingly, “that you are beautiful.”
“Alexandra—” The softly spoken word contained a poignant tenderness she hadn’t heard in his voice before, and it made her want to tell him everything in her heart. Unaware of the stimulating effect of her caressing fingers and candid turquoise eyes, she continued in the same aching voice, “I think you are as beautiful as Michelangelo’s David—”
“Don’t—” he whispered achingly, and his lips took hers in a kiss that was nothing at all like the first one. His mouth slanted over hers with fierce tenderness, while his hand curved around her nape, his fingers stroking her sensitive skin, and as his other arm encircled her waist, moving her tightly to him. Lost in a sea of pure sensation as his lips tasted and courted hers, Alexandra slid her hands up his hard chest and wrapped her arms around his neck, clinging to him for support, innocently and unconsciously molding her body to his length. The moment she did, the seducer became the seduced: Desire exploded in Jordan’s body, and the girl in his arms became an enticing woman. Automatically, he deepened the kiss, his mouth moving with hungry, persuasive insistence on hers, while Alexandra clung tighter to him, sliding her fingers into the crisp hair above his collar, her entire body racked with jolt after jolt of wild pleasure. He kissed her long and lingeringly, then he touched his tongue to her trembling lips, coaxing them to part, insisting, and when they did, his tongue slid between them, filling her mouth. His hand shifted from her back to her midriff, sliding upward toward her breasts.
Whether from fear or desire, Alexandra moaned softly, and the sound somehow penetrated his aroused senses, dousing his desire and dragging him reluctantly back to reality.
Jordan dropped his hands to her narrow waist and raised his head, staring down into her intoxicating young face, unable to believe the passion she had unexpectedly evoked in him.
Dizzy with love and desire, Alexandra felt the heavy thudding of his heart beneath her hand. Gazing up at the firm sensual mouth which had gently, and then fiercely, explored hers, she raised her eyes to his smoldering grey ones.
And she knew.
Something Wonderful had happened. This magnificent, handsome, complicated, sophisticated man was her promised gift from fate. He was hers to love.
Bravely ignoring the painful memories of her equally complicated, handsome, sophisticated father’s treatment, Alexandra accepted fate’s gift with all the humble gratitude in her bursting heart. Unaware that sanity had returned to Jordan and the expression in his eyes had changed from desire to irritation, Alexandra raised her shining eyes to his. Quietly, without emphasis or shame, she softly said, “I love you.”
Jordan had been expecting something like that the moment she raised her eyes to his. “Thank you,” he said, trying to pass her statement off as a casual compliment rather than an avowal he did not want to hear. Mentally he shook his head at how incredibly, disarmingly romantic she was. And how naive. What she felt, he knew, was desire. Nothing more. There was no such thing as love—there were only varying degrees of desire, which romantic women and foolish men called “love.”
He knew he ought to end her infatuation with him right now by telling her bluntly that his own feelings did not match hers and, moreover, that he did not want her to feel as she did about him. That was what he wanted to do. However, his conscience, which was suddenly making a damned nuisance of itself after a silence of decades, would not let him wound her. Even he, callous and cynical and impatient with this nonsense as he now felt, was not callous enough, or cynical enough to deliberately hurt a child who was looking at him with the adoration of a puppy.
So much did she remind him of a puppy that he reacted automatically and, reaching out, he rumpled her thick, silky hair. With smiling gravity, he said, “You will spoil me with so much flattery,” then he glanced toward the house, impatient to return to his work. “I have to finish going over my grandmother’s accounts this afternoon and tonight,” he said abruptly. “I’ll see you in the morning.”
Alexandra nodded and watched him walk out of the arbor. In the morning, she would be his wife. He had not reacted at all as she’d hoped he would, when she told him she loved him, but it didn’t matter. Not then. Then she had enough love bursting into bloom in her heart to sustain her.
“Alex?” Mary Ellen rushed into the arbor, her face alive with eager curiosity. “I watched from the windows. You were in here ever so long. Did he kiss you?”
Alexandra sank down on a white, ornamental iron bench beneath a plum tree and chuckled at her friend’s avid expression. “Yes.”
Mary Ellen eagerly sat down beside her. “And did you tell him you love him?”
“What did he do?” she demanded gleefully. “What did he say?”
Alexandra shot her a rueful smile. “He said, ‘thank you.’ ”
* * *
Firelight danced gaily in the hearth, banishing the chill of a spring night and casting shadows that cavorted and bobbed on the walls like sprites at an autumn festival. Propped against a pile of pillows in her huge bed, Alexandra watched the entertainment, her expression pensive. Tomorrow was her wedding day.
Drawing her knees up, she wrapped her arms around her legs, staring into the fire. Despite her thrilling discovery that she had fallen in love with her husband-to-be, she was not foolish enough to think she understood him, nor was she naive enough to believe she knew how to make him happy.
She was certain of only two things: She wanted to make him happy and somehow, some way, she would discover the means to do it. The awesome weight of that responsibility was heavy on her mind, and she wished devoutly she had a better notion of what being the wife of a nobleman entailed.
Her knowledge of marriage was limited and not very helpful. Her own father had been like a charming, elegant, eagerly awaited stranger who, when he deigned to visit them, was greeted with eager adoration by his wife and daughter.
Propping her chin on her knees, Alexandra remembered with a pang of pain how she and her mother had fussed over him for as long as he remained, hanging on to his words and following him around, as eager to please him as if he were a god and they his willing worshipers. Humiliation shot through her when she imagined how dull and provincial and gullible she and her mother must have seemed to him. How he must have laughed at their eager adoration!
With brave determination, Alexandra shifted her thoughts to her own marriage. She was quite certain the duke wouldn’t like being treated by his wife with the extreme deference her own mother had shown her father. His grace seemed to enjoy it when she spoke her mind, even if she said something outrageous. Sometimes, she could make him laugh out loud. But how to go on for the next forty years with him?
The only other marriages she had witnessed firsthand were peasant marriages, and in those marriages the wife cooked and cleaned and sewed for her husband. The idea of doing those things for the duke filled her with quiet longing, even while she knew the notion was sheer foolish sentimentality. This house was crawling with servants who anticipated the occupants’ needs in advance and took steps to make certain their every wish was carried out almost before they thought of it.
With an audible sigh, Alexandra accepted the fact that the Duke of Hawthorne didn’t need her to look after his needs in the way ordinary country-bred wives looked after their husbands’. Even so, she couldn’t help conjuring up a wonderful vision of herself, seated across from him in a chair before the fire, her fingers nimbly adding stitches to one of his snowy white shirts. Wistfully, she imagined the look of gratitude and pleasure on his ruggedly handsome face as he watched her mend his shirt. How grateful he would be . . .
A smothered laugh escaped her as she reconsidered her utter lack of talent with a needle. If she didn’t prick her finger and bleed all over his shirt, she would surely sew the armhole closed or something equally disastrous. The picture of cozy marital bliss faded and her expression became determined.
Every instinct she possessed told her that the duke was a highly complex man, and she hated her youthful inexperience. On the other hand, she was not a featherbrain, despite the fact that his grace seemed to regard her as an amusing child. When necessary, she could draw on a wealth of common sense and practicality. Hadn’t she managed to hold her household together from the time she was fourteen?
Now she had a new challenge ahead of her. She needed to make herself fit to be the Duke of Hawthorne’s wife. His grandmother had already, in the last several days, made a hundred critical remarks about Alexandra’s manners and mannerisms, and although Alex had bridled over what seemed to her be an excessive emphasis on superficial matters of conduct and convention, she secretly intended to learn everything she needed to know. She would make certain her husband never had reason to be ashamed of her.
My husband, Alexandra thought as she snuggled down into the pillows. That huge, handsome, elegant aristocrat was going to be her husband . . .
Lounging in a big wingback chair the next morning, Anthony studied his cousin with a combination of admiration and disbelief. “Hawk,” he chuckled, “I swear to God, what everyone says about you is true—you don’t have a nerve in your entire body. This is your wedding day, and I’m more nervous about it than you are.”
Partially dressed in a frilled white shirt, black trousers, and a silver-brocade waistcoat, Jordan was simultaneously carrying on a last-minute meeting with his grandmother’s estate manager and pacing slowly back and forth across his bedchamber, glancing over a report on one of his business ventures. One step behind him, his beleaguered valet followed doggedly in his wake, smoothing a tiny wrinkle from his finely tailored shirt and brushing microscopic specks of lint from the legs of his trousers.
“Hold still, Jordan,” Tony said, laughing with sympathy for the valet. “Poor Mathison is going to drop dead in his tracks from exhaustion.”
“Hmm?” Jordan paused to glance inquiringly at Tony, and the stalwart valet seized his chance, snatched up a splendidly tailored black jacket, and held it up so Jordan had little choice but to slide his arms into the sleeves.
“Do you mind telling me how you can be so damned nonchalant about your own marriage? You are aware that you’re getting married in fifteen minutes, aren’t you?”
Dismissing the estate manager with a nod, Jordan laid aside the report he was reading, and finally shrugged into the jacket Mathison was still holding out to him, then he turned to the mirror and ran a hand over his jaw to verify the closeness of his shave. “I don’t think of it as getting married,” he said dryly. “I think of it as adopting a child.”
Anthony smiled at the joke and Jordan continued more seriously, “Alexandra will make no demands on my life, nor will my marriage to her require any real changes. After stopping in London to see Elise, I’ll take Alexandra down to Portsmouth and we’ll sail along the coast so that I can see how the new passenger ship we’ve designed handles, then I’ll drop her off at my house in Devon. She’ll like Devon. The house there isn’t so large as to completely overwhelm her. Naturally, I’ll return there to see her from time to time.”
“Naturally,” Anthony said wryly.
Without bothering to answer that, Jordan picked up the report he’d been reading and continued scanning it.
“Your beauteous ballerina is not going to like this, Hawk,” Tony put in after a few minutes.
“She’ll be reasonable,” Jordan said absently.
“So!” the duchess said tautly, sweeping into the room wearing an elegant brown satin gown trimmed in cream lace. “You truly mean to go through with this mockery of a marriage. You actually intend to try to pass that countrified chit off on Society as a young lady of breeding and culture.”
“On the contrary,” Jordan said blandly. “I mean to install her in Devon and leave the last part of that to you. There’s no rush, however. Take a year or two to teach her what she needs to know in order to take her place as my duchess.”
“I couldn’t accomplish that feat in a decade,” his grandmother snapped.
Until then, he had tolerated her objections without rancor, but that remark seemed to push him too far, and his voice took on the cutting edge that intimidated servants and socialites alike. “How difficult can it be to teach an intelligent girl to act like a vapid, vain henwit!”
The indomitable old woman maintained her stony dignity, but she studied her grandson’s steely features with something akin to surprise. “That is how you see females of your own class, then? Vapid and vain?”
“No,” Jordan said curtly. “That is how I see them when they are Alexandra’s age. Later, most of them become much less appealing.”
Like your mother, she thought.
Like my mother, he thought.
“That is not true of all females.”
“No,” Jordan agreed without conviction or interest. “Possibly not.”
Judith McNaught is the New York Times bestselling author who first soared to stardom with her stunning bestseller Whitney, My Love, and went on to win the hearts of millions of readers with Once and Always, Something Wonderful, A Kingdom of Dreams, Almost Heaven, Paradise, Perfect, Until You, Remember When, Someone to Watch Over Me, the #1 bestseller Night Whispers, and other novels. There are more than thirty million copies of her books in print. She lives in Houston. Please visit her at JudithMcNaught.comand on Facebook at AuthorJudithMcNaught.