His mordant wit was as sharp and deadly as an executioner’s ax. Sometimes Victor’s mocking cut to the quick with sudden and precise aim, and at other times it was wielded with brutal, hacking repetition. The verbal fencing was a talent Victor inherited from his father.
While charming with his friends, without hesitation Victor would turn his rapier tongue into a weapon when dealing with fools. The only person immune to his disdain was Gabrielle.
Winter had arrived, not with soft falling snow, but with howling gales of ice and bitter winds. Standing outside in the storm, Victor dared the gods to flay the skin off his bones. His hair whipping and stinging his face, he turned up his collar and leaned into the squalls.
Squinting against the tears flooding his cheeks, Victor tried to see deep into the veil of nothingness, only the blizzard blurred his vision. His howls echoed the shrill shrieks whistling around him.
Gabrielle watched him from behind the rime-coated window in the warmth and comfort of the manor house. His raging frightened her. She could see when the anger rose in him and knew how to deflect it.
The fire crackled, sending sparks up the flue. Shadows danced across the walls, and Gabrielle’s thoughts, as insubstantial as the smoke from the hearth, mingled with the failing light.
Placing a bare hand on the window pane, the heat of her skin melted the ice. Peering into the white maelstrom outside, Gabrielle could barely discern Victor’s silhouette. Had he looked back at the manor, Gabrielle would have been but a shade behind the glass.
A chill filled the room, sucking out the warm air. A shiver ran up Gabrielle’s spine, and she knew the Admiral had made his entrance. Knowing the father, Gabrielle could understand why Victor was so relentless. He was never a child, never a son. He was forever a hand in his father’s crew, and the Admiral was merciless with this discipline.
“Is he still being a wuss?” The Colonel sat beside the fire, a snifter of brandy in one hand. “Standing out in the storm like a puss. He needs to man up, and face me.”
Gabrielle crossed her arms over her chest. Not cowering from the Colonel’s abrasive tone, but in an effort to stop from launching herself at him, claws unsheathed. She learned early on that defending Victor against his father’s insults only brought on more virulent verbal attacks.
Never the poker player, Gabrielle stared at the old man, her lips pursed against a rush of insults, one eyebrow arched in defiance.
“You do your son a disservice,” she said, remaining steadfast at her sentinel post.
“If he depends on the mewing of a woman to defend his honor,” the Colonel said, “he is an insufferable weakling unworthy of my consideration.”
“You truly have no idea what Victor is capable of,” she said. “You would do well to not underestimate him.”
The Colonel guffawed. A harsh bark that set Gabrielle’s teeth on edge. A slamming door and a rush of frigid air stopped her from picking up the fire poker and burying it in the old man’s skull.
Victor swept into the room, bringing the cold with him. Moving to Gabrielle, he took her in his arms, letting her warmth thaw his numb arms. Reluctant to let her go, Victor faced his father.
Gabrielle held him tight, not letting him advance on the Colonel.
“Col. Rees, I must ask you to leave,” Gabrielle said.
“You are aware there is a blizzard outside,” the colonel said.
“Then you better get started,” Gabrielle said. “You wouldn’t want to get stranded in a snow drift.”
“Are you going to allow this wench to speak to me with such disrespect,” the Colonel said, standing rigid, his chest puffed out in indignation.
“I will drive you to the train station, father,” Victor said.
The storm obstructed all light from the day, making the change into night almost indiscernible. When Victor returned, the fire in the hearth had burned down to embers. Gabrielle dozed in a chair. He knelt on the floor at her feet and rested his head in her lap.
Waking, she gently stroked his wet and icy hair.
“Is it finished?” Gabrielle twisted his hair until he lifted his head, whimpering softly.
“Yes,” he said. “He will challenge you no more.”
“Good,” Gabrielle said. “I will not tolerate anyone defying me.”