Devil in Winter Page 52

Picking up her skirts, Evie hurried after him. Rite of passage? What did he mean? And why wasn’t Cam willing to do something about the brawl? Unable to match Sebastian’s reckless pace, she trailed behind, taking care not to trip over her skirts as she descended the flight of stairs. The noise grew louder as she approached a small crowd that had congregated around the coffee room, shouts and exclamations renting the air. She saw Sebastian strip off his coat and thrust it at someone, and then he was shouldering his way into the melee. In a small clearing, three milling figures swung their fists and clumsily attempted to push and shove one another while the onlookers roared with excitement.

Sebastian strategically attacked the man who seemed the most unsteady on his feet, spinning him around, jabbing and hooking with a few deft blows until the dazed fellow tottered forward and collapsed to the carpeted floor. The remaining pair turned in tandem and rushed at Sebastian, one of them attempting to pin his arms while the other came at him with churning fists.

Evie let out a cry of alarm, which somehow reached Sebastian’s ears through the thunder of the crowd. Distracted, he glanced in her direction, and he was instantly seized in a mauling clinch, with his neck caught in the vise of his opponent’s arm while his head was battered with heavy blows. “No,” Evie gasped, and started forward, only to be hauled back by a steely arm that clamped around her waist.

“Wait,” came a familiar voice in her ear. “Give him a chance.”

“Cam!” She twisted around wildly, her panicked gaze finding his exotic but familiar face with its elevated cheekbones and thick-lashed golden eyes. “They’ll hurt him,” she said, clutching at the lapels of his coat. “Go help him—Cam, you have to—”

“He’s already broken free,” Cam observed mildly, turning her around with inexorable hands. “Watch—he’s not doing badly.”

One of Sebastian’s opponents let loose with a mighty swing of his arm. Sebastian ducked and came back with a swift jab. “Cam, why the d-devil aren’t you doing anything to help him?”

“I can’t.”

“Yes, you can! You’re used to fighting, far more than he—”

“He has to,” Cam said, his voice quiet and firm in her ear. “He’ll have no authority here otherwise. The men who work at the club have a notion of leadership that requires action as well as words. St. Vincent can’t ask them to do anything that he wouldn’t be willing to do himself. And he knows that. Otherwise he wouldn’t be doing this right now.”

Evie covered her eyes as one opponent endeavored to close in on her husband from behind while the other engaged him with a flurry of blows. “They’ll be loyal to him only if he is w-willing to use his fists in a pointless display of brute force?”

“Basically, yes. They want to see what he’s made of.” Cam pulled at her wrist, to no avail. “Watch,” he urged, a sudden tremor of laughter in his voice. “He’ll be all right.”

She couldn’t watch. She turned into Cam’s side, flinching and twitching with each sound of fists connecting with flesh, of every masculine grunt of pain. “This is i-intolerable,” she moaned. “Cam, please—”

“No one forced him to dismiss Egan and run the club himself,” he pointed out inexorably. “This is part of the job, sweetheart.”

She understood that. She knew full well that her own father had broken up brawls, or participated in them, for most of his life. But Sebastian had not been born to this—he did not have the essential brutishness, or the appetite for violence, that had distinguished Ivo Jenner.

As another man was downed, however, and Sebastian circled warily around his last opponent, it became evident that whether or not it was in his nature, he was willing to do what was necessary to prove his mettle. The drunken man rushed toward him, and Sebastian felled him with a quick combination, two lefts and a right. Collapsing to the ground, his opponent subsided with a groan. The crowd of employees sanctioned Sebastian’s victory with approving howls and a round of applause. Accepting the acclaim with a grim nod, Sebastian saw Evie standing in the half circle of Cam’s protective arm, and his face turned dark.

The vanquished fighters were helped outside by enthusiastic spectators. Brooms and pails were fetched to remove the debris, while some of the staff threw far friendlier glances at Sebastian than they had before. Using his shirtsleeve to blot a small trickle of blood from the corner of his mouth, Sebastian bent to pick up an overturned chair, and set it in its proper place in the corner.

Cam let go of Evie and approached Sebastian as the room emptied. “You fight like a gentleman, my lord,” he commented.

Sebastian gave him a sardonic glance. “Why doesn’t that sound like a compliment?”

Sliding his hands into his pockets, Cam observed mildly, “You do well enough against a pair of drunken sots—”

“There were three to start with,” Sebastian growled.

“Three drunken sots, then. But the next time you may not be so fortunate.”

“The next time? If you think I’m going to make a habit of this—”

“Jenner did,” Cam countered softly. “Egan did. Nearly every night there is some to-do in the alley, the stable yard, or the card rooms, after the guests have had hours of stimulation from gaming, spirits, and women. We all take turns dealing with it. And unless you care to get the stuffing knocked out of you on a weekly basis, you’ll need to learn a few tricks to put down a fight quickly. It causes less damage to you and the patrons, and keeps the police away.”

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