Tom sprinted to the horse’s head and grabbed the bridle. “If you try to drive off with him,” he panted to the cabman with a murderous glare, “you won’t bloody live to see another day. I swear it.” He directed his voice to Bazzle. “Get out of the cab, boy.”
“Mr. Severin,” Bazzle sobbed. “It’s … it’s Uncle Batty …”
“Get out of the cab,” Tom repeated patiently.
“The ’igh and mighty Tom Severin,” the big, grizzled brute sneered. “Noffing but a common thief! Stealin’ away a man’s living! This ’ere is my pigeon. You wants to make a nancy o’ the little sod, you ’as to pay for it.”
Bazzle called out tearfully, “I ain’t no sod! Leave Mr. Severin alone! ’E ain’t done noffing to yer.”
“’E robbed me o’ yer rightful earnings wot I was due,” Uncle Batty retorted. A sneer twisted his face. “No one steals from me. I’m taking back wot’s mine.” Without looking at Bazzle, he said, “Mind me, boy, or I’ll wring this fine feathered toff’s neck like a chicken fit for the plucking.”
“Don’t touch ’im,” the boy cried.
“Bazzle,” Tom said, “listen to me. Climb out of that damned cab and go back to the office building. Wait for me there.”
“But Uncle Batty will—”
“Bazzle,” Tom said curtly.
To Tom’s relief, the boy obeyed, slowly descending from the cab and heading toward the steps. Tom let go of the horse’s bridle and moved to the pavement.
“Wot’s the brat to yer anyways?” Uncle Batty sneered, circling him. “Bazzle ain’t worth the time o’ day to yer.”
Tom didn’t reply, only countered his movements, keeping his gaze fixed on the other man’s face.
“Going to lay yer flat, I am,” Uncle Batty continued. “Pound ye to a paste. Or … if ye cares to toss some blunt me way, I might leave yer be.”
“I wouldn’t give you a farthing, you gatless arsewit,” Tom said. “It’s the surest guarantee you’d come back for more.”
“As the gen’leman wishes,” the other man growled, and lunged for him. Tom sidestepped, turned swiftly, and was ready with a jab, cross and a hard left hook when he came upright.
Uncle Batty stumbled back and roared with outrage. He plowed forward again, absorbing a blow to his side and another to his stomach before landing an overhand punch that sent Tom reeling back. Pressing forward, Batty pounded him with an uppercut and another right, but Tom sidestepped to deflect the force of the blow. With bullish rage, Batty launched at him, sending them both to the ground. A burst of white sparks went across Tom’s vision as his head hit the pavement.
When Tom came to himself, he was rolling across the ground with the massive figure, trading blows, using knees, elbows, fists, any means to gain an advantage. He smashed a fist into the bastard’s face, sending a spray of blood over them both. The big body beneath him went still, groaning in defeat. Tom kept pounding, machine-like, the breath sawing from his lungs, his muscles burning in agony.
He felt a multitude of hands grabbing him, pulling him away. Unable to see clearly, he dragged his sleeve across his eyes. In the tumult and fury, he became aware of a small body pressed tightly to him, skinny arms cinched around his waist.
“Sir … sir …” Bazzle sobbed.
“Bazzle,” Tom slurred, his head spinning. “You’re my boy. No one takes you away from me. No one.”
Sometime later, he heard Cassandra’s tense, quiet voice. “Tom. Tom, can you hear me?”
But his vision had gone gray, and he could only mumble a few words that he knew weren’t making sense. Feeling her arms around him, he sighed and turned his face against the perfumed softness of her bosom, and let himself drift into the inviting darkness.
“I HAVE NO middle name,” Tom said testily, as Garrett Gibson leaned over his bedside and moved her finger across his field of vision.
“Keep following my finger. Who’s the queen?”
Cassandra sat at the foot of the bed and watched the examination. After the previous day’s events, her husband’s face was a bit worse for wear, but the bruises would heal, and thankfully, he had suffered only a slight concussion.
“What year is it?” Garrett asked.
“Eighteen seventy-seven. You asked me the same questions yesterday.”
“And you’re just as cantankerous as you were then,” Garrett marveled. Sitting up, she spoke to Cassandra. “Since the concussion is minor, and all indications are promising, I’ll allow him some limited activity for the next day or two. However, I wouldn’t let him overdo. He should rest his mind and body as much as possible to ensure a complete recovery.” She wrinkled her nose playfully at Bazzle, who was curled up on the other side of the bed with a ball of red fluff cuddled against his chest. “That means we mustn’t let the puppy disturb Mr. Severin’s sleep.”
The puppy had been a gift from Winterborne and Helen, delivered just that morning. They had received word of a new litter from a friend who bred toy poodle dogs, and at their request had sent the pick of the litter when he was ready to be weaned. Bazzle was enchanted with the little creature, whose presence had already helped him to stop fretting over the fright he’d received.
“There’s a dust wad on the bed,” had been Tom’s comment upon first seeing the puppy. “It has legs.”
Now the toy poodle stretched and yawned, and toddled up along Tom’s side, staring at him with bright amber eyes.
“Was this thing on our approved list?” Tom asked, reluctantly reaching out to stroke the curly head with two fingers.
“You know quite well it was,” Cassandra said, smiling, “and, being a poodle, Bingley will hardly shed at all.”
“Bingley?” Tom repeated.
“From Pride and Prejudice. Haven’t you read that one yet?”
“I don’t need to,” Tom said. “If it’s Austen, I already know the plot: two people who fall in love after they have a terrible misunderstanding and have many long conversations about it. Then they marry. The end.”
“Sounds orwful,” Bazzle said. “Unless it’s the one with the squid.”
“No, that’s an excellent novel,” Tom said, “which I will read to you, if you can find it.”
“I know where it is,” Bazzle said eagerly, and jumped off the bed.
“I’ll read it to both of you,” Cassandra said, “after I see Dr. Gibson out.”
“I’ll see myself out,” Garrett said firmly. “You stay with the patient, dear, and don’t let him overexert himself today.” She stood and collected her bag. “Mr. Severin, my husband asked me to convey to you that Uncle Batty will be incarcerated for a good long while. By the time he’s released, he’ll pose no more problems for you or anyone. In the meantime, I’m treating the boys who were living with him, and endeavoring to find them new situations.”
“Thank you,” Tom said, seeming disconcerted as Bingley snuggled into the crook of his arm. “You’re not supposed to be on the bed,” he told the puppy. “It’s contractually prohibited.”