The bandit glanced at the object in his hand for a split second, but that was all Jordan needed. He flung the contents of the mug in the startled bandit's eyes and simultaneously swung the heavy drinking vessel, bringing it crashing against his assailant's jaw and temple with a force that sent the surprised villain to his knees. Bending down, Jordan snatched the thug's gun from the ground, grabbed the stunned man's shoulders, and yanked him to his feet. "Start walking, you son of a bitch! We're going to take that little stroll you wanted."
The thug swayed slightly and Jordan gave him an impatient shove that sent him staggering down the path, with Jordan behind him. Reaching into his own pocket, Jordan felt for the small pistol he'd been carrying since he returned to England. Realizing that it must have fallen out of his coat when he bent over his captive, he tightened his grip on its replacement and followed his unfortunate prisoner down the path.
Five minutes later the dark shape of the old woodsman's cottage loomed up at the end of the path. "How many are inside?" Jordan demanded, even though there was no light showing through the slats of the closed shutters to indicate anyone was there, waiting.
"No one's there," the bandit grunted, then he gasped as he felt the cold kiss of the pistol's muzzle pressing against the back of his skull. "One or two. I don't know," he amended quickly.
Jordan's voice was as cold as death. "When we get to the door, tell them you've got me and to light a lamp. Say anything else, and I'll blow your head off." For emphasis, he shoved the pistol's muzzle harder against the frightened man's skull.
"Right!" he gasped, stumbling slightly as he rushed up the steps in his haste to escape the touch of the gun. "I've got him!" he called out in a low, frightened voice as he kicked at the door with his foot. It swung open on rusty, squeaking hinges. "Light a damn lamp, it's black as pitch in here," he added obediently, standing in the doorway.
There was the sound of tinder being struck, a shadow bent toward a lantern, light flickered— In one swift motion, Jordan struck his captive's skull with the butt of his pistol and sent him sprawling to the floor, unconscious, then he straightened his arm, leveling his pistol at the stunned figure bending over the flaring lantern.
The face staring back at him in the lantern's glow nearly sent him to his knees with shock and pain.
"Jordan!" his aunt said wildly. Her gaze flew toward the far corner and Jordan instinctively spun, crouching, and fired. Blood spurted from the chest of his aunt's other hired assassin, who clutched frantically at his wound and toppled to the floor, a gun dangling uselessly from his limp hand.
Jordan spared the man only a brief glance to ensure that he was dead, then he turned his head and looked at the woman he had loved better than his own mother until one minute ago. And he felt… nothing. A cold, hard core of empty nothingness was growing inside him, strangling every other emotion he'd ever felt, leaving him incapable of feeling anything—even anger. His voice devoid of all expression, he asked simply, "Why?"
His quiet, polite calm so unnerved his aunt that she stammered, "W-why are we going to k-kill you, you mean?"
The word "we" brought his head up sharply. Going swiftly to the dead man in the corner, he snatched the loaded gun from his hand and discarded the empty one he'd been holding. With the loaded gun ruthlessly trained on the woman he had once adored, Jordan walked to the doorway that opened off the room they were standing in and glanced into what appeared to be a small bedchamber. It was empty and yet his aunt still seemed to think he was going to be killed and, moreover, she had specifically said "we."
And then it dawned on him who she was probably waiting for, and he felt the first sparks of fury begin to ignite inside him: His cousin and possibly his wife were apparently expected here to see that he was properly finished off this time.
Walking back into the main room, he said in a cold, deadly voice, "Since you're obviously expecting reinforcements, why don't we both sit down and await their arrival."
Doubt and panic flickered in her eyes, and she sank slowly onto the crude wooden chair beside the table. With exaggerated courtesy, Jordan waited until she was seated before he casually perched his hip upon the table and waited, facing the closed door. "Now," he invited silkily, "suppose you answer some questions—quickly and briefly. The night I was waylaid outside Morsham was no random accident, was it?"
"I—I don't know what you mean."
Jordan glanced at the familiar face of the unconscious thug who had waylaid him that night and then at his aunt. Without a word, he lifted the gun he was holding in his crossed arms and pointed it at the terrified woman. "The truth, madam."
"It wasn't an accident!" she cried, her eyes riveted on the menacing pistol.
The gun lowered. "Go on."
"N-neither was your impressment, although you weren't supposed to be impressed, you were supposed to die, except you're—you're so very hard to kill!" she added in a tone of anguished accusation. "You always had the devil's own luck. You—with your money and your titles, and your strong, healthy legs, while poor Bertie is a cripple and my Tony a virtual pauper!"
Tears began spilling from her eyes and she whimpered furiously, "You had everything, including luck. You can't even be poisoned!" she cried, her shoulders shaking. "And we couldn't a-afford to hire more competent people to kill you, because you have all the money."
"How very thoughtless of me," Jordan drawled with bitter sarcasm. "Why didn't you simply ask me for money. I'd have given it to you, you know, had I dreamed you needed it. Not," he amended caustically, "to have me killed, however."
"Grandmama," Alexandra said a little desperately, "do you see Jordan anywhere? Or—or that man with the black shirt and red kerchief around his neck?"
"Alexandra, for goodness' sake," the duchess said in exasperation, "why are you constantly fidgeting and asking me to look about for people? Hawthorne is somewhere nearby, you may be sure of that. He was there by that tree, drinking a mug of that dreadful potion, but a moment ago."
Alexandra apologized, tried to sit still and remain calm, but a few minutes later she could no longer quell the unexplainable, rising panic she felt.
"Where are you going, dear?" the duchess asked when Alexandra abruptly arose and shook out her skirts.
"To look for my husband." With a rueful little laugh, Alexandra admitted, "I suppose I'm afraid he'll disappear again, the way he did a year ago. Silly of me, I know."