‘The devil!’ White strode across the room until he stood immediately in front of James. Giles shifted his position so he could watch the other two—he did not want a brawl in the club, but if James lost hold of the threads of his temper, that is what they might well have. ‘No one calls me a cheat! If you weren’t as blind as a bat I would call you out for that, Albright.’
‘And I would refuse your challenge, White. My grievance predates yours. You will apologise both to my sister and to the lady who you so grievously offended that night, or give me satisfaction.’
‘I will do no such thing,’ White blustered. ‘And meet you? You couldn’t hit a barn door with a blunderbuss.’
‘I fear you are correct,’ James said with such politeness that Giles felt his mouth twitch in amusement. ‘However, as in all cases where a duellist cannot fight because of infirmity, my second will take my place.’
‘And who is that?’ White swung round as Giles cleared his throat. ‘You? I’ll not meet a bastard on the field of honour.’
‘No?’ Giles drawled. ‘Then it will be all around town within the day that you and your friends are cowards who will not fight, even when the odds are three to one. My friend did not make it clear, perhaps, that the challenge includes all of you. The choice of weapons is, of course, yours, as is the order in which you meet me. We stay at Grillon’s tonight and I expect word from you as to place, time and weapons by nine tomorrow morning. I have no time to waste on you—the matter will be concluded by dawn the day after tomorrow.’
He took James’s arm and guided him out of the door, closing it on an explosion of wrath. ‘That went well, I think.’ The picture of Isobel struggling in that lout’s grip while he pawed at her was still painfully vivid in his imagination, but at least the gut-clenching anger had been replaced with the satisfying anticipation of revenge for her. He hoped they would choose rapiers; he would enjoy playing with them, making it last.
‘Exceedingly well. I might not be able to see much, but I could tell that rat’s face changed colour. Where shall we dine tonight?’
* * *
‘We are being followed.’ Giles took a firmer grip on James’s arm. In the darkness with only occasional pools of light, or the wind-tossed flames of the torches carried by passing link-boys, his friend was completely blind.
‘Who? How many?’
‘Five, I think.’ Giles turned a corner, aiming for King Street and the bright lights around the entrance to Almack’s. They had been eating in a steak house in one of the back streets that criss-crossed the St James’s area. Now they were only yards from some of the most exclusive clubs, gracious houses and the royal palace, but surrounded by brothels, drinking dens and gambling hells. It was not an area to fight in—not with a blind man at his side.
‘As to who it is, I suspect our three friends and a pair of bully boys they’ve picked up.’ He lengthened his stride. ‘We rattled them, it seems. We’re almost to King Street, James. If anything happens you’ll be able to make out the lights if you just keep going down the slope and you’ll be on the doorstep of Almack’s.’
‘And leave you? Be damned to that,’ James said hotly.
‘Go for help—hell, too late, here they come.’
There was a rush of feet behind them. Giles swung round, pulled the slim blade from the cane he carried and pushed James behind him as he let his sword arm fall to his side. The two big men, porters by the look of them, skidded to a halt on the cobbles, their shadowed faces blank and brutal.
Beyond three figures lurked, too wary to approach. Giles stepped back as though in alarm, flailed wildly with the cane and the big men laughed and rushed him. The rapier took the nearest through the shoulder, then was wrenched from Giles’s hand as the man fell against his companion. As the second man fended off the slumped body Giles jabbed him in the solar plexus with the cane, kneed him in the groin as he folded up, then fetched him a sharp blow behind the ear as he went down.
‘Stay behind,’ he said sharply to James as his friend moved up to his side. The three men who had held back rushed them, so fast that he was only just aware as they reached him that they were masked. His fist hit cloth, but there was a satisfying crunch and a screech of pain as the man—White, he suspected—fell back. Then one of the others had him in a bear hug from behind and the other began to hit him.
Through the blows and the anger he kept control, somehow, and began to fend off the man in front of him with lashing feet and head butts when he got close enough. Dimly he was aware of the sound of breaking glass and James’s voice, then he wrenched free and could use his fists.