Kiss of Steel Page 42

Leo held him back, both arms locked beneath his shoulders as he pleaded in his ear. Finally she saw what the crowd saw: the Devil of Whitechapel in all his infinite fury, a beast pushed to its limits, its entire focus narrowed on the man it wished to kill.

And she found no fear. For there was a man there too. A man she loved. Full of kindness and gentle touches. Sweet little smiles as he gave her pieces of his heart without asking for anything back. A man afraid to touch her for fear of unleashing the monster within.

“Blade,” she called, her hands grasping in the air for him. “Blade, look at me.”

He threw Barrons off him with the ease of a man flicking lint from his shoulder. As if time slowed down, she could see his hand dipping for his sword, hear the steely rasp of the metaljacket guards as they reached for their weapons, and she knew he would never get to Vickers before they slew him. As Vickers had, no doubt, planned.

“Blade!” she screamed in desperation. He barely slowed. “This is what he wants!”

The metaljackets streamed past her, locking their automatic recurring pistols on him. Blade stopped dead in his tracks as they fanned into a circle around him. His nostrils flared as he waged an internal battle she could only guess at. Then his gaze—still black as the ace of spades—locked on hers.

“Honoria.” The word was crisp and cultured. But the frown drawing between his brows was not. There was a hint of puzzlement to it, as though his darker side could not quite fathom what she meant to him.

“Don’t let him win,” she whispered. Her throat was suddenly thick. “I love you.”

A tremble ran through his frame. His fist clenched around the hilt of his sword. And yet finally he seemed to see the towering metal legion that surrounded him. He looked around, his dark gaze taking in the room with a calculating gleam.

Honoria barely heard the crack of boot heels on the marble. Her entire focus was on Blade, on holding him to his sanity. She felt as though his tenuous control would break if she so much as blinked.

A rough fist caught in her hair, and she couldn’t help grabbing for the hand to ease the searing pain. Her chains rattled and she froze as the movement leeched out of Blade. He stood like a statue of Vengeance, his gaze narrowing on Vickers’s hand. A muscle in his jaw ticked.

“Who allowed this monster, this animal, to present before the prince consort?” Vickers spat.

Blade stared at Vickers as if shaking off a spell. The black faded from his eyes replaced by grim determination. “I ain’t an animal,” he said, each word clearly delineated.

Relief flooded through her.

“No?” Malicious humor flavored Vickers’s words. He appealed to the crowd, his hand wrenching her around. “Who could tear his own sister apart and still call himself a man?” Shocked gasps abounded, but Vickers continued. “Or live in the filth of the rookeries with vermin and verwulfen and not be tainted?” Vickers sniffed the air. “You stink of vileness, you beast. How dare you enter this tower?”

“At least I ain’t stinkin’ o’ rot,” Blade countered. He stepped forward and the metaljackets moved as one, taking a threatening step toward him.

Frustration danced across his face, and he looked at the group on the dais in silent appeal. The prince consort had seated himself in an enormous throne-like chair, his left ankle hooked up on his knee. The queen stood at his side, her hand resting on his shoulder as he idly stroked it. She stared at the tableau in front of her with a distant, unfocused look on her face.

“Come and fight me,” Blade snarled. “Or aren’t you man enough?”

Vickers let her go and wiped his hand on his thigh as though it had been soiled. “A duke doesn’t duel with dogs. You have no cause—”

“Honoria is mine,” Blade interrupted.

“I was her father’s patron,” Vickers explained, as if to a child. “My claim takes precedence over yours. And I shall do whatever I like with her.” He yanked on the chain at her throat.

“So the question is,” someone said in a quiet, yet firm voice, “whether a man of no quality may duel a duke?”

A hundred heads swiveled toward the dais. The queen stepped forward.

The prince consort glanced at the queen with hooded eyes, but his thoughts were concealed. She might have been acting his desires, or this might truly be her own whim. Honoria could not tell.

“Your Highness,” Vickers said, his voice turned to treacle. “This is no matter for the court. Allow me to see the creature removed.”

The queen speared him with a look. “I have not finished, Your Grace.”

A hush fell across the room. This time the prince consort did not look entirely pleased. “Alexandra,” he murmured.

The queen half glanced behind her. In that moment she looked incredibly young. Perhaps little older than Honoria. And so fragile and human.

She wavered for a moment, and then a spark of defiance lit her gaze and she swept down from the dais. The metaljackets parted before her and the prince consort half rose to his feet, his face flushed with a flicker of anger.

Blade stared down at her. “Your ’Ighness.”

“I have heard word of you,” the queen said crisply. “They say you are a monster. A killer.” She held out a hand toward the nearest guard. “A sword, please.”

Honoria made as if to move, but Vickers hauled her up short.

The queen struggled to lift the heavy sword. “On your knees.”

Blade looked for her and Honoria slowly shook her head. “No,” she whispered. “No.” She could not lose him. Not like this. But how could he defy the queen? They would tear him to pieces.

Blade had always owned an odd sense of honor. As the crowd of blue bloods watched in fascination, he went to his knees before a mere mortal.

“The Devil of Whitechapel,” the queen pronounced. “And yet you are also a savior of the realm, responsible for the single-handed execution of a vampire, or so I am told. My people—I—cannot thank you enough.”

Shocked gasps met this statement. The prince consort was on his feet, his nostrils flaring with rage. “Where did you hear of this nonsense?”

“It isn’t nonsense,” Leo replied. He bowed his head as the prince consort’s gaze fell upon him. “I was there. He killed the creature himself.” Leo didn’t dare look at her.

“What is your true name?” the queen asked, resting the sword tip on his shoulder.

Blade looked up in shock. “My queen?”

“Your name?” she repeated gently.

He had to think. Honoria could barely breathe for the sudden gleam of hope. Beside her she could see Vickers quivering with rage, his knuckles whitening on the chain links.

Blade cleared his throat. “I were born ’Enry Rathinger.”

“For your services to the realm, I name thee Sir Henry Rathinger.” She touched the tip of the sword to each of his shoulders. “Arise, my knight. And greet your peers.”

The room erupted into mayhem. Vickers went pale with fury, and the prince consort stared at his wife with a deadly look on his face.

Through all of the shouting and shocked gasps, Honoria found and met Blade’s gaze. He looked stunned. He knelt on the floor still as the room raged around them. Honoria found herself grinning stupidly, and then he was grinning too. The room faded away. All she could see was her love, and there was a chance now. A chance!

His laughter faded away. He pressed his fingers to his chest, then his lips, and then held his hand out toward Honoria, palm upward.

The moment gave him strength. Determination washed over his expression and he surged to his feet, silencing the roar of the crowd. The queen stepped back, trailing the borrowed sword along the marble tiles. Her gaze met her husband’s with a little flare of defiance.

“You,” Blade said, focusing on Vickers. “I challenge you to a duel.”

Vickers glared at him, then gave an ugly little smile. “I accept.”

Chapter 30

“He favors his left side, but don’t overextend, for he’s used it to his advantage in the past.” Barrons helped Blade slide his hand into the grip of the dueling sword. Blade gave a slight twist, and the overlapping plates of the hand guard extended up, enclosing his hand. The sword truly became an extension of his body. The only way to remove it would be to remove the arm.

Blade took an experimental swing. It was heavier than he was used to, but perfectly balanced.

“What other weapon do you want?” Barrons asked. “The shield? The mace?”

Vickers was hefting a shield. Their eyes locked on each other. “No,” Blade said. “Just this.” He flicked open the razor in his palm, feeling it settle there like an old friend.

“Unorthodox,” Barrons murmured, glancing around, “but it should give the crowd a thrill.”

“I don’t give a damn.”

Barrons grinned. “Aye, but, Sir Henry, you’re one of us now.”

Blade grunted. He was nothing like them and he never would be.

The floor had been cleared to reveal a brass ring cut into the marble. This was where the duel would commence. Any man who stepped outside that circle instantly declared forfeit.

He had to focus. Vickers would be no easy kill, Blade knew, and the darkness within him was bubbling up, threatening to overtake him again. He couldn’t let that happen. There had been a moment when he’d woken from that monochrome nightmare and realized that he’d been about to tear his way through the Echelon with no thought to Honoria or his own safety. All that had mattered was Vickers and killing him.

Blade looked down and clenched his fist within the protective casing of the sword hilt. If he lost control like that again, Vickers would have him. And Honoria would be better off dead.

She stood by the dais, her chains placed in the hands of the Lady Aramina. The plain white robes of a blood slave revealed more flesh than was courteous, but she held herself still, ignoring the speculative glances of the men around her. There was a certain untouchable feeling that she projected, as though she had forgotten the world around her and focused only on Blade.

When she saw him looking, she gave a weak little smile that didn’t fool him for a moment. She was scared. For him.

“Are you ready, or should you like a few more moments to stare at your whore’s face? To memorize it for your years in hell?” Vickers taunted.

Anger flashed through Honoria’s eyes, and Blade smiled. There. That was how he wanted to remember her.

Turning, he favored Vickers with a cool look. “Are you ready?”

“I’ve been waiting for this moment for years. You were a dog that should have been put down after you murdered your sister. An oversight I am about to correct.”

Blade stepped into the brass ring. Silence fell across the room as the crowd craned their necks to see. He knew what Vickers was trying to do: rile the monster within so that he lost control. Nothing would ever ease the pain of Emily’s death—or the press of guilt he felt whenever he thought of her—but Vickers had his share of blame in that too. Yes, it had been Blade’s hand that ultimately caused the killing stroke, but he’d only been Vickers’s pawn.

Thank you, Honoria.

“Ain’t nothin’ less interestin’ than a man who keeps repeatin’ ’imself. Any time you’re ready, Your Grace.” He gestured to the ring. “I wouldn’t wanna keep you waitin’ after all ’em years.”

“You will learn that I am nothing if not patient,” Vickers said as he swept the luxurious fur-lined cloak off his shoulders and tossed it at one of his cronies. He stood for a moment in his gold-leafed armor as though testing the edge of his sword, but his position placed him within a ray of light that shone through the glass panes in the ceiling. Some of the ladies in the crowd gasped.

Knowing the figure he presented—strong, tall, his armor gleaming like an invulnerable god from legend—Vickers stepped into the circle.

And Blade attacked.

Vickers parried the blow with ridiculous ease, despite the fact that the edge of his heel was dangerously close to the brass ring. But Blade didn’t want to force him out of the circle and win by default. He wanted the man dead. He backed off.

Vickers smiled darkly as though realizing his opponent’s intentions. He took a mocking step forward. “Come. Do your worst. Show us your little alley tricks.”

A glimpse of Honoria drifted through the corner of Blade’s vision, white-faced and stiff with tension. Mine, whispered the darkness within.

She’s bloody mine, he snarled back silently, feeling the press of the demon upon him. It wanted Vickers’s blood. For once they were in agreement.

Forcing himself to block the hunger—even Honoria—from his mind, he lunged forward and met Vickers’s sword. The duke parried each thrust with economical skill, a little smile playing about his lips.

“You have strength,” Vickers commented, whipping his shield up to block another blow. “But little skill or grace. Perhaps you should have chosen the broadsword. It seems more suited to your rudimentary style of hacking.”

“You talk too much,” Blade said, slashing across Vickers’s guard. The wound at his side gave a warning throb and he pulled the blow unconsciously. It scattered harmlessly off the shield.

As Vickers danced back, his guard lowering for a moment, Blade kicked him in the face.

Vickers went down, his head cracking against the cold white tiles. The crowd gave a collective gasp, surging toward the circle with bloodthirsty glee. Blade leapt forward, bringing the sword down in a sweeping stroke. The duke saw it coming and rolled. Sparks showered off the marble as Blade’s sword bit deep.

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