It didn’t matter how gentlemen were. Samuel wasn’t a gentleman. He was not the sort of man to take up arms in a show of honor. He would fight.
Worse, any given blow might send him to that other place—that shadowy battlefield where he knew nothing but instinct and survival. Even if he wished to back down, he might be unable to do so in the heat of the struggle.
She saw no way this could end but badly—bloodily—for everyone concerned.
“Stop this,” she cried. “Both of you, please. Evan, you don’t understand. Samuel cares for me. He sacrificed everything to save me from that awful place.”
“He stole your virtue. He’s a blackguard.”
Kate wanted to argue that she’d given herself willingly, and that the idea of a woman’s virtue as a possession one man could steal from another was straight from the Dark Ages. But judging by the scene before her, accusations of medieval behavior would fall on deaf ears.
The men circled one another in the center of the hall, like two wild beasts bristling and snarling in warning. The bloodred carpet they trod upon did little to calm Kate’s fears or ease the men’s thirst for violence.
“You really want to do this, Thorne?” Evan asked.
“No. Because when I kill you, it will be sad for Katie and a mess for Sir Lewis’s house staff.”
“I spent four years fencing at Oxford.”
“Child’s play,” Samuel scoffed. “I spent a decade fighting my way through enemy lines, using nothing but a bayonet.”
I’m sure you did, Kate thought. But that was with a strong, healthy arm, not a grip weakened by snake venom.
“I won’t surrender her,” Samuel said. “You can’t convince me you’re the better man.”
“Very well. Then I’ll let my blade do the talking.”
Kate cringed as Evan swung his sword, but Thorne parried the blow capably. They clashed several times in quick succession. The ringing clangs of metal against metal shivered through her bones.
Just as suddenly, they broke apart and retreated, each breathing hard. The ritual of mutual, animalistic circling began again.
“Don’t do this, Samuel,” she pleaded. “He’s only desperate to save the family. It’s his passion. He wants so much to take care of his siblings and for Lark to have—”
Samuel laughed bitterly. “There’s nothing noble in this. Can’t you see he’s had this planned? He’s been maneuvering you into marrying him all along. That’s why he hasn’t let you out of his sight since they arrived in Spindle Cove. He cares, all right. He cares about the money.”
“And you don’t?” Evan stopped circling and leveled his sword at Samuel. “Those American ambitions disappeared rather quickly once you learned of her inheritance. You want her money so badly, you’re willing to drag her name through the gutter to get it.”
“The gutter you left her in.” Holding his blade pointed at Evan’s chest, Thorne looked around the room, from one Gramercy to the next. “I will never believe that no one knew of her. That you could not have found her and saved her years of degradation and misery. You’re either liars or fools.”
“Samuel, look sharp!”
Evan took advantage of his opponent’s distraction and made a slicing blow that caught Samuel’s sword and sent it spiraling away, into the darkest corner of the room. But before Evan could even demand his surrender, Samuel shifted his weight back and made a full-force kick at Evan’s wrist. Evan cried out in pain and dropped his sword. Rather than reach for it, Samuel kicked the weapon out of reach.
Both men were disarmed.
“Oh, thank heaven,” Kate whispered. “Maybe now it will be over.”
Harry shook her head. “You don’t know my brother very well.”
Evan turned to the next suit of armor in the row. This one held not a sword, but a shield and a long, slender javelin. He wrenched both shield and weapon from the pedestal. “Always fancied a go at this.”
Across the hall, Thorne turned to the armored figure’s counterpart and began to do the same.
Once they were identically armed, the men backed toward opposite ends of the hall, as if preparing for a joust.
“There’s no doubt you’re a lady now,” Harriet said to Kate. “They’ve organized a full tournament for your affections.”
“This is ridiculous!” Kate cried. “The midsummer fair was over weeks ago. What’s next, squaring off with crossbows?”
“Don’t give them any more ideas,” Lark whispered.
“On three, Thorne,” Evan called, raising his shield with his left hand and balancing the javelin with his right. He planted his boots firmly in the plush red carpet. “Three . . . two . . .”
“No!” Kate plucked her discarded stockings from the floor and dashed into the center of the hall, waving them like white, streaming banners of surrender. “Stop!”
The men stopped.
Everything stopped. Suddenly, the hall was completely, unearthly quiet. Because from the ballroom, they heard music. Not orchestral music. Just the gentle strains of the pianoforte and a familiar voice, lifted in song.
“Oh,” Kate gasped, recognizing the tune. “It’s Miss Elliott. At last, the brave dear. She’s finally performing for her friends.”
“Mozart,” Evan said, recognizing the aria. “Excellent choice, Kate. It suits her voice very well. Do you attend the opera frequently, Thorne?”
“No,” Samuel replied tightly.
Without taking his eyes from his opponent, Evan spoke to Kate. “Do you see? I will be good for you. I can give you not only the protection you need, but the companionship you deserve. We converse on politics and poetry, play brilliant duets.” He waved his javelin at Thorne. “He might make your blood pound with illicit thrills, but he can’t give you those things.”
Kate slid her gaze to Samuel, worried. She knew Evan’s words poked at his deepest feelings of unworthiness.
“What can you possibly offer her?” Evan demanded, as Miss Elliott’s voice soared to operatic heights. “You’ve no breeding. No education. Not even an honorable trade. You can’t provide her with a home befitting a lady.”
“I know.” Samuel’s expression hardened to that veneer of impenetrable stone.
“You’re beneath her,” Evan said, “in every possible way.”
“I know that, too.”
Don’t agree with him, Kate shouted in her mind. Don’t ever believe it.
Evan sneered. “Then how can you dare to ask for her hand?”
“Because I love her,” Samuel replied in a low, quiet voice. “I have more love and devotion to give that woman than there is gold in England. And I have the manners not to prattle on while her pupil is singing.” He made a menacing thrust with his javelin. “Shut it, or I’ll skewer you.”
After that, every soul in the room remained quiet and still until Miss Elliott sang her last, sweetly pure note. Kate’s chest swelled with pride in her pupil and happiness for her friend.
Best of all, she had hope for the men’s reconciliation.
“Thank you,” she told the men, alternating her gaze from one end of the hall to the other. “I know you understand what that meant to me. How hard Miss Elliott worked.”
She let her arms drop to her sides and retreated to the border of the hall, leaving them to regard one another. Surely now they must comprehend—no matter their differences as men, they both wanted what was best for her.
“Now,” Kate asked, “can we put away Sir Lewis’s artifacts and discuss this like rational people?”
“One,” Evan said.
The two men rushed at each other and collided in the center of the hall with an ugly crunch. The impact of javelins on shields sent them bouncing back, repulsed by the force of the impact. No one had been seriously hurt—which pleased Kate, but evidently frustrated the men. They threw their javelins aside.
Evan reached for a battle-axe next, but in pulling it down from its wall rack, he misjudged the weight. The horrific weapon crashed to the floor, narrowing missing his foot and sinking two inches into the parquet.
By now Lark, Harriet, and Aunt Marmoset had joined in the shouting. “Stop! Both of you, stop! This is absurd.”
But apparently there were yet loftier heights of male absurdity, just begging to be explored. Both of them had moved to some place beyond logic or reason, where only male pride and bloodlust held sway.
Thorne plucked a quarterstaff from a rack. It was a long, wooden pole weighted at either end for the purpose of inflicting bone-crushing blows.
For his part, Evan now reached for a morning star—a heavy, spiked ball dangling at the end of a chain. He lifted the mace’s handle with two hands and began to swing the menacing projectile in circles over his head. It made a fearful whistling noise as it picked up speed.
Everyone stared at it, rapt. The image was transfixing—this instrument of death swinging faster and faster through its drunken orbit.
Evan’s face told her even he was wary of what he’d unleashed—and uncertain how to control or stop it. He shot Kate a bewildered look. His eyes seem to say, Did I truly do this? Fight your betrothed with javelins and broadswords and then lift a bloody medieval mace over my head and start swinging it recklessly about in a room full of people?
Yes, Evan. You truly did.
She was glad he’d finally come to his senses about this entire ridiculous battle.
But it was too late.
When he released that thing, it was going to fly fast and hard and wreak destruction in whatever direction it chose.
He said, in a very polite, calm, aristocratic voice, “I can’t hold it much longer, I’m afraid.”
“Katie,” Samuel barked. “Get down.”
All the ladies obeyed, diving into corners and taking cover under chairs. Kate ducked behind one of the discarded shields.
Thorne positioned himself as her human guard, lifting his quarterstaff in both hands and keeping his eye on the circling morning star. He looked like a cricketer, readying to bat—and in essence, he was. Brave, stupid man.
“Samuel, please! Just take cover!”
With a savage shout, Evan released his grip on the mace. Kate ducked instinctively, unable to watch any further.
She both heard and felt the horrific crash. The initial impact was sharp and jolting, then almost musical, with the plink and crack of shattered glass.
The ball must have found a window and taken its bloodthirsty spikes soaring out into the garden. She could not speak for the hedgehogs, but with luck, it would seem no people had been hurt.
Drawn by the sound of calamity, guests began pouring in from the ballroom. Several carried candles or lamps.
“What the devil’s going on here?” Lord Rycliff demanded.
A good question. Sucking in what seemed to be her first proper breath in an hour, Kate emerged and assessed the scene.
Evan remained standing, staring at the broken window. On his brow, blood oozed from a small razor-thin cut. Otherwise, he appeared unharmed.
As for Samuel . . .
Oh no. Her worst fears were realized. He wasn’t physically harmed, but mentally . . . His eyes were dilated. his nostrils flared. He wasn’t there. Just the same as with the melon siege, with one important difference.
This time he was armed.
As Kate watched in horror, Samuel tightened his grip on the quarterstaff. He held it in two hands, braced across his chest, parallel to the floor.
An inhuman growl originated somewhere low in his gut, building strength as it clawed its way up through his chest.
He was going to charge Evan. And dazed, unarmed, unwitting Evan wouldn’t have a chance.
“Samuel, no!” Kate dashed to intercept him, gripping the quarterstaff with both hands.