Terris was nervous. Exactly what he’d done and its outcome was going to be revealed to a group of men who, collectively, were likely to be less than impressed with his actions – his married sisters’ husbands and another’s betrothed.
Looking back he could still see why it had seemed like such a good deal. He knew now, of course, that Bartolo Desideri had set him up. Had taken the time to nab him hook, line and sinker. It had never occurred to him that anyone would want Septima for sex: dull little Septima who actually enjoyed learning bookkeeping and was going to be trained up further in their maternal grandfather’s old accounting firm. She’d looked completely different in a silk shift with the Desideri’s collar around her neck and a half-naked wolf breed draped all over her.
It was a disturbing thought that his other sisters might undergo a similar alchemy, perhaps alone with their husbands. He deliberately changed what he was thinking about every time thoughts of his parents drifted into that equation.
His two brothers, both older than him, were out of the country but all six of his brother-in-laws were here. Giacomo the shopkeeper who’d been introduced to Filia by their brother Ernesto, although Ernesto denied it, his sharp nose and eyes no longer obscured by the horrible comb over he’d affected when Filia had first walked out with him. Rubia’s husband, the tall and elegant professor whom she’d met in a bookshop when Ernesto had left her in lieu of a holding deposit while he went to the bank. Tertia’s husband, Boscailo, dressed in his motorcycle leathers and built as their father, uncharitably but accurately said, like a minotaur. Skein, the quiet, art-learned foreigner who’d married Valentina. Luisa’s fat, sleek, banker husband, Ottone, in a bespoke grey three piece. The contingent was completed by Marselone, the former soldier who’d recently become engaged to Sextia. Father hadn’t told Terris what this meeting was about, just that he had to be here and the others would be told what he’d done. The phrase “start acting like an adult” had been used.
His father took the seat at the head of the table. “You’re probably all wondering why I’ve called you here,” he said in preamble, then told them exactly what Terris had done and what had transpired with Bartolo Desideri. One by one the men along the table turned their eyes from his father to Terris. Terris did not enjoy the attention.
When his father finished talking, Boscailo asked in a considered formal tone Terris had not heard him use before, “Count Terrence, can you hold the Strefagii together?”
His father’s posture stiffened. “Yes, yes I can.”
“Then this meeting,” Boscailo summarised, “Is not about the effects of the Strefagii situation on our families but about Septima herself?”
“Essentially,” his father nodded, “Our liquid funds are committed for years to come – I can’t raise the cash to pay for the parts. Count Bartolo demands a stake I can’t afford if I fight for her and I don’t have anyone capable for a third in three bout challenge.”
Marselone tapped his utilitarian hook on the table. “Are you sure Terris could hold up as a second?”
“Me?!” Terris gasped in shock.
At the other end of the table his father said, “Without a third, we won’t find out. Bartolo can almost certainly beat me, unless I get lucky or he gets sloppy. Terris – doesn’t practice but he was the one who started all this.” That was clear enough and Terris firmly shut his mouth. “I have to assume my third would have to face the Desiderii enforcer – none of my men are that good and I can’t ask any of you to do that.”
“Facing the White Wolf of the Desiderii isn’t something to look forward to,” Boscailo agreed slowly.
Terris couldn’t help himself. “White Wolf? Like that guy who was all over Septima last night?”
All eyes at the table switched back to him as if he’d sprouted two heads.
“That is interesting,” Boscailo was almost ruminating over his words. He turned back to his father-in-law. “I have an idea, Count Terrence, but I’ll need to speak to our wives first.”
“As you wish.” Terris thought his father was looking at Boscailo as if he hadn’t really seen him before. Almost as if he’d surprised him by being smart...