"Then you do care for him, don't you, child?" the duchess said fondly.
Alexandra nodded, too uneasy about Jordan's whereabouts to try to salvage her pride with a noncommittal answer. Her gaze shifted restlessly over the crowd as she picked up her skirts and began walking toward the place where she had last seen him. Tony was nowhere to be seen, but Melanie and John Camden were walking toward her, arm in arm.
"Wonderful party, Alexandra," John Camden admitted with an abashed grin. "I've never had as good a time at the fanciest affairs in the city."
"Thank you. H-have you seen my husband anywhere? Or Tony?"
"Not in the last fifteen minutes. Shall I look for them?"
"Yes please," Alexandra said, raking her hand through her hair. "I'm really in a sorry state tonight," she admitted, by way of an embarrassed apology. "I keep imagining things—earlier today I actually thought I saw a man up in one of the trees over there. And now Jordan seems to have vanished."
John Camden smiled and spoke in the soothing voice one might use with an overwrought child. "We were all together but a few minutes ago. I'll find them and send them to you."
Alexandra thanked him and hurried off toward the table where heavy pewter mugs of ale were being served. Passing it, she nodded at one of the scullery maids, and then walked over to the tree where Jordan had been standing. With a last glance at the milling partygoers in the clearing, she turned toward the woods and hesitantly began walking down the narrow path. Telling herself she was being fanciful and silly, she stopped after a few paces and looked about her, listening intently, but the sounds of laughter and fiddles from the clearing behind her drowned out the forest noises, and the thick branches overhead blotted out all the light, making her feel as if she were standing in an eerie void that contained only noise but no life.
"Jordan?" she called. When there was no answer, she bit her lip, her forehead furrowed into a worried frown. Intending to go back to the clearing, she started to turn, and it was then she saw the tankard lying in the path at her feet.
"Oh my God!" she whispered, snatching up the tankard and turning it over. A few drops of ale poured out of it. Wildly, she looked about her, expecting—hoping—to see Jordan lying in the path, perhaps passed out from too much drink, as Uncle Monty had occasionally done. Instead, she saw a small gleaming pistol on the side of the path.
Snatching it up, Alexandra whirled around and let out a stifled scream as she collided with a hard masculine body. "Tony! Thank God it's you," she cried.
"What the devil's wrong?" Tony said, gripping her shoulders hard in his anxiety as he steadied her. "Camden said Jordan's vanished and you saw a man hiding in the trees."
"I found Jordan's tankard of ale right here and a gun on the ground near it," Alexandra said, her voice and body trembling with terror. "And I saw a man I think was the same one who was trying to kill Jordan the night we met."
"Go back to the clearing and stay in the light!" Anthony said sharply. Snatching the gun from her hand, he turned and ran down the path, vanishing into the deep woods.
Stumbling over a thick root growing across the path, Alexandra raced back to the clearing, intending to get help rather than find safety. Wildly, she looked around for Roddy or John Camden, and seeing neither she ran straight toward one of the cottagers who had taken a brief respite from the shooting contest and was staggering toward the ale table in the same state of cheerful inebriation as the rest of his fellows. "Yer grace!" the man gasped, snatching off his cap and starting to execute a bow.
"Give me your gun!" Alexandra demanded breathlessly, and without waiting for him to hand it over, she snatched it out of the stunned man's hand. "Is it loaded?" she called over her shoulder, already racing toward the path.
His breath labored from a long sprint down the path to the forester's cottage, Tony put his ear to the door, listening for sounds. Hearing none, he cautiously tried the latch, and when it stuck he reared back two paces and rammed his shoulder against the door with enough extra force to send it flying wide open. Off balance because the door had opened so easily, he staggered into the cabin, stumbled, and stopped short, his mouth falling open in shock. His mother was seated stiffly upon a chair in front of him. And beside her, sitting on the table, was Jordan. In his hand, Jordan was holding a gun.
It was pointing straight at Tony's heart.
"W-what the hell is going on?" Tony burst out, panting
Tony's arrival demolished the last slender hope Jordan had clung to that Alexandra and his cousin had not conspired to end his life at this party. In a soft voice of deadly menace, he said to Tony, "Welcome to my party, cousin. I believe we're still expecting another guest this evening to make the party complete, aren't we, Tony? My wife?" Before Tony could answer, Jordan added, "Don't be impatient—she's bound to come looking for you, thinking I've been safely disposed of, won't she? I'm sure of it." His silken drawl suddenly became clipped. "There's a bulge in your pocket which is undoubtedly a gun. Take off your coat and throw it on the floor."
"Do it!" Jordan bit out savagely, and Tony slowly obeyed.
When Tony had dropped his coat on the floor, the point of Jordan's gun shifted slightly to the left, indicating the chair lying on its side by the shuttered window. "Sit down. And if you move an inch," he warned with frightening calm, "I'll kill you."
"You're mad!" Anthony whispered. "You must be. Jordan, for God's sake, tell me what the hell is going on."
"Shut up!" Jordan snapped, his head tipped toward the sound of footsteps on the cabin step. More than anyone, his rage was directed at the girl he had been obsessed with for over a year—the scheming liar who had made him believe she loved him, the little bitch who had lain in his arms and surrendered her eager body to him; the beautiful, laughing, unforgettable barefoot girl who had made him believe that heaven was a stream with a picnic blanket beside it. And now, he thought, with a wrath he could barely contain, she was about to fall into his clutches.
The door creaked open, slowly, a few inches; a familiar lock of mahogany hair peeked through the opening, then a pair of blue eyes that widened like saucers as her gaze riveted on the gun in his hand.
"Don't be shy, darling," Jordan said in a voice so low it was a deadly whisper. "Come inside. We've been waiting for you."