"I never liked turtles except in soup," Tony joked, nudging John Camden in the ribs, "but that turtle of mine showed some mettle there for a moment. I'll wager a pound yours stays under his shell longer than mine."
"Done!" John Camden agreed unhesitatingly and began extolling his laggard turtle to remove his head from his shell.
Jordan watched them, his expression closed, and then he turned and walked over to a table where mugs of ale were being served by some of his kitchen maids.
"What the devil's gotten into your illustrious cousin?" Roddy Carstairs inquired of Tony. "When the two of you were fencing, he looked like he was trying to draw your blood. Can it be he's still jealous because his wife nearly married you?"
Deliberately keeping his attention on his turtle, Tony shrugged lightly. "What gives you the idea Hawk was ever jealous?"
"My dear boy, don't forget I was at the Lindworthy ball the night he swooped down upon us like an avenging angel and ordered Alex home."
"Because of that outrageous wager which you coerced her into placing," Tony shot back, and pointedly turned all his attention to his turtle.
Helping himself to another glass of ale from the table, Jordan propped his shoulder against a tree, his expression thoughtful as he stood at the perimeter of the woods, watching Alexandra as her gaze searched the crowd, obviously looking for him. She'd been watching him all night, Jordan knew. So had Tony. And both of them were wearing the same baffled, uneasy expressions as if they expected him to be more overjoyed with his birthday celebration.
His gaze returned to Alexandra and he saw her laugh at something his grandmother said. He could almost hear the music of her laughter, and even in the encroaching dark he could almost see the way her eyes lit when she laughed. His wife. A murderess. Even as he thought it, his heart screamed a protest that his mind could no longer override. "I don't believe it!" he bit out in a soft, furious whisper. The girl who had planned all this could not be planning his murder. The girl who had held him to her in the night, and teased him while they fished at the stream, and shyly presented him with her grandfather's treasured watch could not possibly be trying to murder him.
"Your grace?" Fawkes' urgent voice stopped Jordan as he straightened, intending to walk over to the shooting contests, which had become more humorous than intense as the contestants squinted through ale-blurred eyes at the target nailed to a tree. "I must insist you leave at once," Fawkes whispered, falling into step beside Jordan.
"Don't be a fool," Jordan snapped, completely out of patience with Fawkes and his theories. "The meaning behind my cousin's note is obvious—they'd planned this party for me together, and that is undoubtedly why they met in secret those two times."
"There isn't time to argue about all that," Fawkes said angrily. "It will be dark in a few more minutes and my men aren't owls. They can't see in the dark. I've sent them ahead to position themselves along your route home."
"Since it's already too late to reach the house in daylight, I fail to see what difference it makes if I stay here for a while."
"I cannot be responsible for what happens if you don't leave here at once," Fawkes warned before he turned on his heel and stalked off.
"Can you believe those grown men are actually cheering their turtles on to victory?" Melanie chuckled, watching Tony and her husband. "I suppose I ought to go and remind them of the decorum required of men in their exalted positions," she said, and carefully descended from the platform with no such intention in mind. "Actually, I want to be there to see the winner cross the line," she confessed with a wink.
Alexandra nodded absently, scanning the open, cheerful faces of the cottagers, her gaze stopping on one disturbingly familiar face that wasn't cheerful at all. Suddenly, for no reason at all, she found herself recalling the night she met Jordan—a balmy night just like this one—when two cutthroats held Jordan at gunpoint.
"Grandmama," she said, turning to the duchess. "Who is that short man over there in the black shirt—the one with the red kerchief around his neck?"
The duchess followed her gaze and shrugged. "I'm sure I wouldn't have the vaguest idea who he is," she declared primly. "I've seen more of these cottagers today than I have in the entire thirty years I lived at Hawthorne. Not," she added a trifle reluctantly, "that I don't think your party was an excellent idea, my dear. Things have changed in England of late, and though I regret the necessity for pandering to those who serve us, it's wise for a landholder to be on good terms with his tenants these days. One hears talk of them demanding more and more and turning quite nasty…"
Alexandra's attention wandered, her mind returning to her dismal preoccupation with the night she met Jordan. Nervously, she glanced around the open field, looking for the man in the black shirt, who seemed to have vanished. A few minutes later, without realizing what she was doing, she began taking inventory of those she loved, watching to make certain they were safely within sight. She looked for Tony and could not see him, then she anxiously sought out Jordan and saw him standing at the perimeter of the woods, his shoulder propped casually against a tree, drinking ale and watching the festivities.
Jordan saw her looking at him, and he nodded slightly. The sweet tentative smile she sent him made him ache with uncertainty and regret. He raised his glass to her in a silent, sardonic toast, then froze at the sound of a vaguely familiar voice in the darkness beside him. "There's a gun pointing straight at yer head, milord, and another one pointing at yer wife over yonder. Make one sound and my partner will blow her head off. Now, move sideways toward the sound of my voice, right here in the woods."
Jordan tensed and slowly lowered the mug of ale. Relief, not fear, surged through his bloodstream as he turned toward the voice; he was ready for this long-awaited confrontation with his unknown enemy—eager for it. Not for an instant did he believe Alexandra was in any danger, that had merely been a ploy to make him obey.
Two paces brought him into the enfolding darkness of the dense woods, and another pace ahead he saw the deadly gleam of a pistol. "Where are we going?" he asked the shadow holding the gun.
"To a cozy little cottage down this path. Now get in front of me and start walkin'."
His body coiled like a tight spring now, Jordan moved another step forward onto the path, his right hand tightening on the heavy mug of ale. "What shall I do with this?" he inquired with feigned meekness, turning slightly and lifting his right hand.