Stormy Persuasion Page 32

“Judy!” Anthony said, looking at her incredulously. “He gave you three compliments in the receiving line. If he had spouted one more, I was going to forcibly move him along. You really don’t recall?”

She blushed slightly, but then grinned. “I was probably distracted, remembering Mama’s admonishment to enjoy myself here without falling in love with an American. But if you want me to form an interest in Mr. Denison, you can take me to meet him again as soon as we finish this dance.”

“Bite your tongue. If he wasn’t memorable enough for you, we’ll keep it at that.”

She did meet Raymond Denison later, though, and danced with him. He appeared to be quite the catch. Jacqueline even pouted that he was more handsome than her Quintin. Judith wasn’t sure if she was teasing. But Raymond was the equivalent of an English gentleman, an American man of leisure. His family apparently owned long-established businesses not just in Connecticut but all over New England, and he was the young heir to it all. He was amusing. She laughed quite a bit with him, much more than with the other young men she danced with. But she had a feeling even bad humor would have made her laugh tonight, she was feeling so bubbly inside. And no matter whom she danced with, she wished it were Nathan instead. . . .

Amy was ecstatic. As the evening wound down, she’d received so many compliments it was clear her first gala event was a resounding success. Even her first attempt at matchmaking appeared to have worked. She said to Jacqueline when she joined her at the refreshment table after dancing with Andrássy, “Judy seems quite taken with Raymond Denison. Have you noticed how often she’s laughed with him tonight?”

Jack grinned. “Like Jaime, it just took a new man for her to stop lamenting over the wrong one.”

“Then she said something to you about Raymond?”

“She hasn’t stopped dancing long enough for me to ask!”

“If you mean Judith, I quite agree,” Catherine said as she stepped up to them. “I was hoping to get her opinion about this wonderful man I’ve met.”

“Who?” Amy asked, but amended with a laugh, “I’ll ask again later! I must find out why the champagne is running low.”

“But the night is almost over!” Jacqueline called after her cousin, not wanting to be left alone with Catherine, but Amy didn’t pause as she hurried off.

“Will you join me in the garden for a moment to meet him?” Catherine continued. “I just want to see what another young woman thinks of him before I consider delaying my trip even longer—because of him.”

“Is this the man you met in town while shopping?” Jack asked.

“Why, yes, it is.”

“Then why don’t you bring him inside?”

“Because he wasn’t invited. But we danced in the garden. That was quite romantic. I’m surprised you haven’t tried it with your young man.”

Now that was a sore subject. Jacqueline had twice tried to get Quintin out to the garden tonight, but both times he got distracted by one of his many friends. Maybe if she disappeared for a while, he’d get the idea. So she agreed to accompany Catherine, but spotting Quintin, she still waved at him so he could see where she was going.

The terrace was well lit with the pretty lanterns Amy had decorated it with for the ball, but that light didn’t extend far. The extensive garden did have old lampposts though, interspersed along the many paths. But a few had gone out, leaving long stretches of darkness between them. Catherine kept moving deeper into the garden.

“For a party crasher, he’s doing a good job of staying out of sight,” Jacqueline remarked impatiently.

“He must still be here,” Catherine whispered beside her. “I assured him I would return.”

The man suddenly stepped out of the shadows and smiled at Jacqueline. She drew in her breath. He was handsome, very handsome. Black-haired, dark-eyed, wearing a double-tiered greatcoat and an oddly shaped hat with feathers drooping off to the side of it. She guessed that Catherine didn’t want an opinion about him at all. She just wanted to show off that she’d found the most handsome man in Bridgeport!

But Catherine suddenly whispered, “Hurry!”

That broke through Jacqueline’s momentary surprise. With a frown, she turned toward Catherine, only to get a gag shoved in her mouth and a steely arm clamped over her chest. But she also saw Andrássy running toward them, his sword in hand. Thank goodness! Whatever Catherine was up to, her brother wasn’t going to let her get away with it.

“Let Jack go, Catherine!” Andrássy ordered furiously. “I warned you—”

Jacqueline’s eyes flared as someone else snuck up behind Andrássy and hit him over the head. The sword fell to the ground. So did Andrássy, and he didn’t move again. They’d killed him?! But it was the last thing she saw. Without a word from these men, she was bundled up and carried away.

Chapter Forty-One

Judith joined Georgina, Amy, and Gabrielle, who were standing near the entrance. There might be a few more waltzes, but most of the guests had already departed, and Judith had had quite enough dancing for one night.

“Well, how was it, your first official ball?” Georgina asked, putting an arm around her.

“I’ll probably have sore feet in the morning.” Judith grinned. “And where’s Jack gone off to? Surely not to bed yet?”

“Not without telling me, she wouldn’t.”

“Like you, she was dancing most of the night,” Gabrielle said. “But I haven’t seen her lately, now that you mention it.”

“The last I saw her, she was with Catherine at the refreshment tables, but that was quite some time ago,” Amy replied.

Judith glanced about the room again. “I don’t see Catherine, either.”

“Nor Andrássy, for that matter,” Georgina said, beginning to frown.

“Those two wouldn’t sneak off tonight without saying their good-byes, would they?” Amy asked,

But Georgina was a little more than concerned now. “Never mind them, start looking for Jack. I’ll send the men to search the grounds.”

Judith groaned and hurried upstairs with Gabby to check the bedrooms. Jack was probably in the garden getting the kiss she’d wanted from Quintin, and she would be mortified when their fathers found her there. And it would be Judith’s fault. She should have looked for Jack there first.

Jack’s bedroom was empty, as Judith figured it would be. Gabrielle met her in the corridor to say Catherine’s belongings were all still in her room, and Gabby hurried downstairs to report that. Judith started to follow her, but thought she better check on Andrássy first. As fond of Jack as he was, he might know where she was or at least where his stepsister was. Catherine’s absence might be a matter of concern after Jack was found.

But Andrássy’s room was empty, too, his trunks still there. An envelope propped up on his bureau was odd enough for her to grab it along with the little velvet pouch pushed against it that was holding it upright. James’s name was on the envelope. Perhaps Andrássy and his sister did sneak off, after all, and this was their farewell note? But without their belongings?

She hurried downstairs just as her father and uncle were coming in from the garden—without Jack. She felt a pang of fear, seeing how worried they looked. Clinton was informing them, “I’ve sent for the militia, James. We’ll search the entire town and beyond if we have to, but we’ll find her.”

“You might want to read this first, Uncle James.” Judith handed him the envelope. “I thought it was only a farewell note from Andrássy that he left in his room for us to find tomorrow morning, but it could be more than that.”

James opened the letter and started reading it.

Anthony complained, “Blister it, James, don’t keep us in suspense. Read the bloody thing out loud.”

James ignored Anthony until he finished reading. His rage was apparent, the more so because he said not a word, but he handed the letter to his brother. Anthony was about to simply read it silently, too, but Georgina snatched it out of his hand and read it aloud to everyone:

The only reason you are reading this is because I have failed to stop my former lover Catherine’s plot to abduct Jacqueline. I never wanted this to happen, but she and her accomplices are determined to commit this foul deed to please her father. You will receive a ransom note tomorrow by post. No, I am not who I said I am. I am a professional actor who foolishly fell under her spell. She hired me to aid her in her plot because I do actually have Gypsy blood and she wanted me to pass myself off as your relative. I helped her steal the jewelry, but I am leaving my portion of it here to prove I am a man of honor. No harm will come to Jacqueline. I will see to that and to making my amends to the Malory family the next time we meet.

Georgina had started crying before she finished.

Anthony was the first to respond; “Dead men can’t make amends.”

A round of angry agreement followed that statement.

“This must be what I had a premonition about,” Amy said miserably. “I knew something bad was going to happen, but I thought it was the theft when you told me about it. I should have known it would be something worse than that.”

Judith was so shocked by Andrássy’s revelations, she almost forgot about the pouch, but she handed it to James now. “This was with the letter.”

He opened it and emptied the contents into his hand. No more than a few pieces of cheap costume jewelry rolled out along with a lot of stones added for weight.

Anthony snorted, “Of course he’s not a Malory. He’s too stupid. She gave him little more than a pile of rocks in payment.”

“And he has stunningly bad taste in women,” James added, referring to Catherine.

Judith felt hollow inside. She’d befriended Catherine, defended Andrássy! “I believed them without question, but you didn’t, Uncle James. You had doubts from the beginning.”

“His only proof of being related to us having been destroyed in a fire was too convenient, leaving just his word, and a stranger’s word isn’t good enough when it comes to my family. It would have been easy enough to learn about the Stephanoff side of the family, particularly in Haverston, where people still remember Anastasia.”

“Can we even trust what he’s written?” Katey asked. “After all, he’s a Gypsy.”

“Perhaps not even that is true,” Boyd said to his wife.

But just then someone ran in and yelled that the ships in Bridgeport harbor were under attack. James left immediately, everyone else following as quickly as the horses could be saddled or hitched, the ladies in the carriage, the rest on horseback. What they found in the harbor defied description. The Maiden George was tilted on her side, the wharf she’d been tied to demolished under her as she sank into it. The ship on the other side of that wharf was also starting to tilt in the other direction. There didn’t appear to be a single ship along the docks that wasn’t sinking. It was as if the entire area had been fired upon, yet there were no fires and no ships out in the harbor to account for so much destruction.

James was actually walking on the side of his ship, looking for the hole that had sunk her. One of his crew swam out of the hold to report, “A sawed and pried-loose plank, Cap’n, just as you suspected. Had to be done earlier tonight and underwater, which is why the watch saw nothing amiss until it was too late.”

James leapt ashore and told Anthony, “I sent Artie to wake the postmaster. If Catherine and her cronies didn’t want us to get their ransom note until tomorrow, it could have a clue in it about where they’re taking Jack.”

“Out to sea, obviously, or they wouldn’t have sunk our means to give quick chase,” Boyd said.

“Possibly,” Warren replied, “or that’s just what they want us to think.”

But someone suddenly yelled, “Look there!”

A ship was coming into view, moving out from behind a bend just beyond the outskirts of town. It was heading out to the middle of the Sound—and the ocean beyond. James started swearing. Judith thought she saw a woman on the deck, but it was too dark to be sure.

But Henry was on hand and had his spyglass. He handed it to James. “That’s Catherine.”

It was infuriating to just watch them sail away with no way to stop them. James wasn’t the only one swearing now. Then Artie returned with the ransom note. James read it aloud this time:

Come to St. Kitts if you want to obtain your daughter’s release. You will be contacted there with further instructions. It will be a simple exchange, you for your daughter.

James snarled to no one in particular, “They want me, why the bloody hell didn’t they just take me?”

“Speaking from experience,” Warren said cautiously, “you’re not an easy target to take by any means. Whoever wants you apparently knows that.”

“But why make Uncle James travel so far for this?” Judith exclaimed. “Why not do the exchange right here?”

“Because James can gather an army here,” Georgina said, quietly crying again. “They obviously want him isolated, which means—”

Georgina couldn’t finish that thought, but Judith could fill in the blanks. Money wasn’t being demanded as it had been when she’d been kidnapped as a child. They wanted James specifically, which could only mean one thing. They planned to kill him.

“But this makes no sense,” Boyd put in. “They want you to follow but take away your means to?”

“They obviously don’t want a sea battle, likely aren’t prepared for one.”

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