The shot sounded like a hammer on stone, shocking everyone in the card salon into silence.
Within a wisping haze of smoke, a bloodied figure tottered and then staggered backward. Half a dozen men, their studied elegance shattered with the report of the pistol, rushed to his aid. Grasping the wounded man by the arms, they shuffled from the dimly lit room. One gentleman paused to turn a shaken gaze on the lone figure at the far end of the chamber.
"Nom de dieu!" he swore hoarsely. "You may have killed him!"
The man he addressed raised a shoulder ever so slightly. A look of boredom mantled his handsome features as he drawled with disinterest, "What must be done, LeCour, must be done."
"Vincent, you must be mad." The Frenchman swept a hand toward the stains darkening the floorboards at his feet. "There was no need to go this far."
Candlelight flickered over dark, disheveled hair as Vincent bent his head. He studied the pearl handle of the pistol in his palm. Softly, very softly, he murmured, "No need? Yet you, LeCour, were the first to agree on the necessity of this."
"But even so! It's dashed irregular!" protested a rotund Englishman in abominable French. "No one intended you kill--"
"Are you suggesting that my conduct has been improper?" Vincent inquired in a clipped voice.
"N-no! No such thing! Naturally not!" stammered the heavyset man, gaping into a pair of cold blue eyes and backing away from the danger he saw in them.
Vincent's lips stretched into a sneer as he calmly laid his pistol into its velvet-lined case. He snapped his fingers and instantly the matching pistol was carried from where it had fallen on the floor to be placed beside the first.
"You gentlemen will understand, I am certain, that I must excuse myself. If we do not meet again, I shall see you all in hell." With a mocking bow, Vincent strolled from the room.
"Mon dieu!" exclaimed the Frenchman fervently. "He has blood of ice, that one."
Had he heard that last remark, Jack Vincent would have been highly amused. At that moment, however, with his lips pressed tightly together and his lids dropping heavily over his deep blue eyes, Vincent stood outside looking far from any such happy state. The dueling case had been given a casual toss into the hands of a waiting footman, who in turn passed it to a postilion standing at the door of an elegant traveling coach. The postilion placed the rosewood case in its pocket within the coach while two more liveried footmen sprang forward to let down the steps as Vincent neared. Still another stood beside the door holding a glassed lantern high, for Vincent traveled with all the entourage befitting a son of the Duke of Sedgwick.
Lithely entering the carriage, Vincent leaned into a velvet corner and stretched his legs out before him in a leisurely manner that would have convinced a casual observer he was without a care in the world. But, in fact, Monsieur Vincent, having sobered considerably in the last thirty minutes, was forming plans for his immediate departure.
Perhaps he had not killed his man, for though he had done what he knew he must, his heart had not been in it and he had been unusually negligent in his aim. All the same, he could not linger to await word of the duel's ultimate outcome. There would be repercussions from this pistol-shot. Even now his opponent's associates could be preparing to eliminate him. He must leave France at once. He must, in fact, return at last to England. It was time, past time, for him to do so.
The elegant equipage had barely rolled to a standstill when Vincent descended. "Prepare for a journey," he directed as he stepped from the coach. "We leave within the hour."
When Vincent threw open the door of his spacious hotel chamber, he surprised his valet in the act of laying out a frogged burgundy brocade dressing gown upon the satin cover of a fluted poster bed. Oliver Fawkes looked as if he would have been more at home in the stables than in his present position as a gentleman's gentleman. He had, in fact, been a stable hand at Sedgwick Abbey when the nine-year-old Jack had first been brought under his father's care, and it had been Oliver Fawkes who had shown the lad how to so expertly handle whip and reins. In his youth, he had been a giant of a man, and his size was still impressive though he had begun to stoop with middle age. His hair was an indeterminate brown turning into a grizzly gray, while the only remarkable features of his square, rugged face were his wiry brows and his pressed-in nose.
Those wiry brows beetled together as he watched Vincent amble easily into the room. One brief glance was all Fawkes needed to ascertain that Master Jack had been into mischief again. Knowing the young man as he did, the glint in the blue eyes was enough to tell Fawkes just how many bottles the master had dipped into this evening.
"I'm glad to see you're still up," Vincent said, as if his old servant had not waited up for him every evening for the past fifteen years. With the barest of slurs, and in the casual manner of one remarking upon the weather, he apprised Fawkes of their impending journey. "I'm afraid there has been an unfortunate incident. We shall be leaving Amiens within the hour. Sooner, if you can manage to pack us up that quickly."
"What sort of incident" the valet demanded.
Yawning, Vincent dropped into a chair. He ignored the glowering adjuration of his servant and poured himself a full glass of cognac. He could not, of course, offer a true explanation. As trusted as Fawkes was, there were yet things with which Vincent trusted no one but himself. He stared down into the dark amber liquid, his lips tightening into a thin line. After a moment, he downed the contents of the glass on a toss.
"I was forced, I am afraid, to offer a lesson in the proper handling of dueling pistols," he finally said.
A soundless whistle sighed through Fawkes's crooked teeth. He did not ask if Vincent had killed his man. Knowing what a first-crack shot his master was, he simply assumed that this was so. What he did ask was, "Which of these Frenchies had the misfortune to need instructing?"
"Lord, they all do!" he said on a half-laugh. "There's not a one of them who knows how to aim worth a damn. Though, to be fair about it, many of our compatriots don't shoot any better."
Though he had spoken lightly, the weight of what he had not said was not lost upon Fawkes. Vincent had quite neatly sidestepped answering the question. Oliver Fawkes stared long and hard, but to no effect. Having known the master from the time he was knee-high to a horse's tail, he knew better than to press the issue. The boy had never been one to confide in another, and his dealings this past year and more had been such that Fawkes felt as much relieved as annoyed to be spared the details. Signaling his displeasure with a loud click of his tongue, he gave in to the inevitable. He bustled about the room, gathering up possessions and packing them haphazardly into a pair of cavernous trunks, covertly watching his deceptively impassive master refill his wine glass as he did so.
With that dark hair falling over his brow and the patrician nose shadowing a mouth that could smile or sneer with equal ease, Vincent looked the sort of rich rakehell whose natural habitat was gambling dens and questionable salons. And for some time now that had been the exact image he had projected. But looks could be deceiving. His dissolute manner and rumpled evening dress could not mask a rapier-sharp intellect and an athletic ability that graced his every movement, even such a movement as the tipping of his crystal glass to his lips.
Noting the action, and the meager amount of cognac left in the bottle, Fawkes paused in his tasks to inquire heavily, "And where will we be going, then?"
"I've thought perhaps it's time we called upon my esteemed family once again," Vincent answered. "Twelve months is most certainly long enough for us to have done without one another, don't you agree?"
"His Grace may not agree when he gets wind of this latest scrape of yours, Master J., and that's a fact," Fawkes said flatly before making his escape to finish arrangements for their imminent journey.
Vincent emptied the rest of the bottle while pondering just how his father would react to his homecoming. It had been a sword thrust through George Porter which had obligated his hasty exit from England a year ago; it seemed fitting, somehow, that a pistol shot now necessitated his return. But he seriously doubted if his Grace of Sedgwick would appreciate the irony.
With a light smile playing upon his lips, Vincent pictured his father. Physically, the Duke was very much like his eldest son, but temperamentally they were total opposites. The composed cynicism of the son could not be found in the volatile, unreserved disposition of the father. It was a certainty that after his inevitable initial outburst over his son's profligate ways, Sedgwick would welcome him home with unconditional warmth.
His musings were at this point interrupted by the reopening of the door. Fawkes returned to report that, after an explosive exchange of French, not to mention of sous, the innkeeper had quite understood the necessity of their immediate departure. Vincent did not evidence any interest in this message. Having quite disposed of all the cognac within the bottle, he was now pleasantly indifferent to the problems surrounding him.
His condition was not unnoticed by his valet, who stood, arms akimbo and brows descending heavily, scrutinizing his young master. "Well, sir, if you're still of a state of mind to leave, everything is ready to go," he said in his most repressive tones.
"By all means, Oliver, then let us go." Vincent rose with languid grace, not looking in the least like a man who had just neatly polished off his third bottle of wine in as many hours.
"To England!" he drawled as he sauntered toward the door.