"I see you do recall him. He'll be gratified. Phillip Constable. Pip. Not rich Pip, not powerful Pip, but as capable of love as any grown man. Indeed," his gaze swept like the blade he'd so lately discarded through the group of posers, "more so. But then, the young love so ardently, so wholeheartedly, don't they? So very, very foolishly."
"Oh, yes. They do," she said with chilling clarity. She lifted her head to a defiant angle, "or so I've been told. Where is he now? What happened?"
He tallied the brightness of her eyes, the adamantine quality of her expression. She waited, seemingly remorseless, demanding, regal and haughty.
"Your name was being besmirched," he said. "Pip would have none of it. The young fool challenged Tunbridge to a duel. Tunbridge accepted. They fought. Young Pip, as you can see," he jerked his chin in the direction of the blood stained epee, "lost."
"Is he dead?" she asked.
"Not yet. The blade pierced the meat of his breast but no vital organs." The tension in her eased. She wasn't going to get off so comfortably. "If he's very lucky no infection will set in and he'll live to learn a lesson from his ill-advised gallantry. If he's lucky."
"Perhaps we all will," she said softly before raising accusing eyes. "And what of you? Apparently you have some feelings for… this lad. Were you his second? A man of your years playing standby for a boy? Could you have not stopped it?"
"I knew nothing of the duel." How dare she place the onus for Pip's fate on him? And why should he feel the need to defend himself to her? Guilt made his voice harsh. "Only happenstance led me in their direction. I heard the clash of steel and followed the sound. It did not go on very long. Pip is not much of a swordsman."
And having been stung by her inference that he had let the boy challenge and fight an opponent that Thomas knew to be far superior, he repaid her in kind, by attacking. "When did you first come upon him? Pip, that is. You could have circumvented this then, by simply letting the lad be. He couldn't have presented much of a challenge. Not for you."
"No," she said tautly. "No challenge at all."
" 'Sblood, man," Jonathan burst out. "Continue and I'll be forced to call you out myself!"
Fia put her hand down on the chair's arm and pushed herself upright. The sword clattered to the floor.
The sharp sound shattered the paralysis that held the other men in the room. The swarthy young man Thomas had noted earlier pushed himself upright and moved to confront Thomas. With one fluid movement he struck Thomas across the cheek.
"Name the place, sir!" the man ground out.
"Coward!" another gentleman spat out in disgust.
The swarthy man's jaw bulged in frustration. He raised his hand to deliver a backhanded blow to Thomas' other cheek but before he could do so Thomas caught his wrist in mid-air.
"Don't do it," he said coldly. "She's not worth a broken jaw, let alone your life." To emphasize his point he tightened his grip until he felt bones grind together. The man's brows snapped together in startled pain. Helplessly he tried to yank free but Thomas' grip had been honed holding his own weight one-handed from a yardarm fifty feet above deck while he secured a sail with the other.
"I will not tolerate your insult of this lady!" he panted, fear causing his voice to break.
"Thomas, desist!" Jonathan commanded as harsh exclamations erupted around them. Faces grew livid. Hands clenched.
"Stop it!" Fia's voice rose above the rising clamor. "Let him go!"
Thomas turned on her with a snarl. "Don't fret, Madame. Your snowy conscience will not be marred on my account." He looked back at the man twisting angrily in his grip. "You can call me out as many times as you like. Sir." His gaze swept over the shocked, angry faces of the others. "Any one of you can, but you won't find any satisfaction. Not now, not ever. Enough blood has been spilled because of her and her own. And from the look of you pitiful fools," he included Jonathan in his scathing scrutiny, "more will be. But not mine. Never mine."
With a muttered oath, Thomas released the man's wrist. He snatched it to his chest, backing away.
Thomas waited, so focused on what he was sure would be the fool's bid at recompense that he didn't hear or see Fia move. He just suddenly felt her, close behind. His head swung round. She stood less than an arm's span away, small and delicate and vibrant, Queen Mab by daylight, shimmering in silk and sunlight, her blue eyes brilliant and fierce and unearthly gorgeous.
"If anyone calls you out, Lord Donne, 'twill be me," she promised in her low, vibrant voice.
"And that," Thomas returned in a matching tone as he turned his back on her and her coterie of sycophants and panderers, "is one challenge I might accept."