Expelling her breath on a rush of relief, Alexandra pushed the door wide open, stared at the fallen thug, then rushed forward as Jordan stood up. Tears of fright streaming down her face, she wrapped her arms around him, the gun in her hand forgotten. "I knew it was him—I knew it! I—"
She cried out in surprised pain as Jordan wrapped his hand in her hair and viciously yanked her head back. His face only inches from hers, he bit out, "Of course you knew it was him, you murderous little bitch!" and with a cruel jerk of his wrist, he flung her sprawling onto the floor, her hip landing painfully on the gun in her hand.
For a moment, Alexandra simply sat there, staring at him through fear-widened eyes, unable to assimilate what was happening.
"Are you afraid, sweetheart?" he jeered smoothly. "You should be. Where you're going, there are no windows, no lovely gowns, no men—other than a few jailers who'll avail themselves of your delectable little body until it becomes too gaunt to interest them. Hopefully, it will hold their interest longer than it held mine," he added with deliberate cruelty.
"Don't look so surprised," he said, misinterpreting the reason for her shock. "I've bedded you because it was necessary to keep up the sham of the unsuspecting husband—not because I wanted you," he lied, feeling an almost uncontrollable urge to murder her for her treachery.
"Jordan, why are you doing this?" Alexandra cried, then recoiled in terror from the blaze in his eyes when she called him by his given name.
"I want answers, not questions," Jordan snapped. Estimating that it might be another ten minutes before Fawkes realized he was missing and last seen heading in this direction, Jordan relaxed against the table again, his weight braced on one foot, the other swinging idly as he turned toward Tony. "While we're waiting," he invited smoothly, pointing the gun at him, "suppose you fill in some details for me. What else has been poisoned in my house?"
Tony's eyes lifted from the gun in Jordan's hand to his relentless features. "You're mad, Jordan."
"I wouldn't mind killing you," Jordan said thoughtfully, raising the gun higher as if he was about to do it
"Wait!" his aunt screamed, casting desperate glances at the empty doorway and beginning to babble. "Don't hurt Tony! H-he can't answer because he d-doesn't know about the poison."
"And I suppose my wife knows nothing about it either," Jordan inserted sarcastically. "Do you, my dear?" he asked, the barrel of the gun shifting toward Alexandra.
Disbelief and fury drove Alexandra slowly to her feet, clutching her gun in the folds of her skirts. "You think we've been trying to poison you?" she breathed, staring at him as if he had kicked her in the stomach.
"I know you have," he countered, enjoying the anguish he saw in her eyes.
"Actually—" Bertie Townsende drawled from the doorway, his gun pointing straight at Jordan's head, "you're wrong. As my hysterical mother is undoubtedly about to confess, I'm the one who conceived these effective—admittedly, not successful—plots to rid us of you. Tony hasn't the stomach for murder, and since I have the brains of the family, if not the legs, I've handled the planning and the details. You look surprised, cousin. Like everyone else, you assume a cripple can't pose a significant threat to anyone, don't you? Drop your gun, Jordan. I have to kill you anyway, but if you don't drop it, I'll kill your charming wife first, while you watch."
His body coiled like a tight spring, Jordan tossed his gun down and slowly came to his feet, but Alexandra suddenly sidled up against him as if she mistakenly believed there was safety there. "Move away!" he snapped under his breath, but she clasped his hand in an outward display of terror and simultaneously pressed a pistol into his palm.
"You'll have to kill me, too, Bertie," Tony said softly, standing up and starting forward.
"I suppose so," his brother agreed without hesitation. "I intended to eventually, anyway."
"Bertie!" his mother cried. "No! That's not what we planned—"
Alexandra's gaze riveted on the man on the floor, she saw him slide his arm toward Tony's coat and, behind him, another man stepping into the doorway, slowly raising a gun. "Jordan!" she screamed, and because there was no other way to protect him from three assailants, Alexandra threw herself in front of him at the exact moment two guns discharged.
Jordan's arms automatically clasped her to him as Bertie Townsende collapsed, shot by Fawkes from the doorway, and the bandit on the floor rolled over, clutching the wound in his arm inflicted by Jordan's gun. It happened so fast that it took a moment before Jordan realized that Alexandra was suddenly very heavy, a dead weight sliding down his body. Tightening his arms, he tipped his chin, intending to tease her about fainting after everything was over, but what he saw struck stark terror in his heart: Her head had fallen back, lolling limply on her shoulders, and blood was streaming from a wound at her temple. "Get a doctor!" he shouted at Tony, and lowered her to the floor.
His heart hammering with fear, he knelt beside her, ripped off his shirt, and tore it into strips, binding the ugly wound in her head. Before he'd half finished, blood had already soaked and spread around and through the white linen, and her color was rapidly turning an ashen grey.
"Oh my God!" he whispered. "Oh my God!" He had seen men die in battle countless times; he knew the signs of a hopelessly fatal wound, and even while his mind was recognizing that she would not live, Jordan was snatching her into his arms. Cradling her against his chest, he ran down the path, his heart hammering in frantic rhythm with the refrain pounding in his heart: Don't die… don't die … Don't die…
His chest heaving with exertion, Jordan burst into the clearing, carrying his limp, beloved burden. Oblivious to the stricken faces of the cottagers, who stood in quiet, watchful groups, Jordan laid her gently in the carriage Tony had evidently told someone to pull up at the edge of the woods.
An old woman, a midwife, took one look at the bloody bandage around Alexandra's head and the deathly pallor of her skin and, as Jordan raced around to climb into the seat, she quickly felt for Alexandra's pulse. When she turned back to the cottagers gathered around the carriage, she sadly shook her head.
The women whom Alexandra had helped and befriended a year ago gazed lovingly at her still form in the carriage and, as Jordan drove off, the soft sounds of weeping began to fill the clearing. Only ten minutes before, it had rung with the gaiety she had brought to them.