“He’s one of the croupiers…he has been employed here since he was a boy. My father started him as a listmaker’s runner. You would remember Mr. Rohan, if you’ve seen him before. He is rather difficult to overlook.”
Sebastian pondered the remark and murmured, “He’s the Gypsy, isn’t he?”
“Half Gypsy, I believe, on his mother’s side.”
“What is the other half?”
“No one knows.” She threw him a guarded glance as she said quietly, “I’ve always wondered if he might be my half brother.”
Interest flickered in his pale eyes. “Did you ever ask your father?”
“Yes. He denied it.” However, Evie had never been quite convinced. Her father had always demonstrated a vaguely paternal manner with Cam. And she was not so naive as to believe that he hadn’t sired a few illegitimate children. He was a man of renowned physical appetites, and moreover he had never been one to worry over the consequences of his actions. Wondering if the same could be said of her husband, she asked cautiously, “Sebastian, have you ever…”
“Not that I’m aware of,” he said, understanding immediately. “I’ve always been inclined to use French letters—not only to prevent conception, but also to avoid the more exotic ailments that afflict the unwary.”
Bewildered by the statement, Evie murmured. “French letters? What are those? And what do you mean, ailments? Do you mean that doing…that…could make one ill? But how—”
“Good God,” Sebastian muttered, his fingers touching her mouth to still the questions. “I’ll explain later. It’s not the kind of thing one likes to discuss on the doorstep.”
Evie was prevented from asking further questions by the appearance of Cam Rohan. As Cam saw Evie, a faint smile came to his face, and he bowed gracefully. Even when Cam’s manner and movements were restrained, there seemed to be an invisible flourish, a suggestion of physical charisma. He was by far the best croupier at Jenner’s, though his appearance—that of a boy pirate—would hardly lead one to think so at first. He was about twenty-five, his body imbued with the slimness of young adulthood. The swarthy hue of his skin and the inky blackness of his hair betrayed his heritage, not to mention his first name, which was common for a Romany. Evie had always liked the soft-spoken young man, whose fierce loyalty to her father had been demonstrated numerous times over the years.
Cam was well-dressed in dark clothes and polished shoes, but as usual his hair wanted cutting, the thick black locks curling over the crisp white edge of his collar. And his long, lean fingers were adorned with a few gold rings. As his head lifted, Evie saw the glitter of a diamond stud in one ear—an exotic touch that suited him. Cam regarded her with the remarkable golden-hazel eyes that often lulled people into forgetting about the nimble mind behind them. At times his gaze was so penetrating that he seemed to be looking right through you…as if he were watching something behind you.
“Gadji,” Cam said softly, a friendly use of the Romany name for a non-Gypsy woman. He had an unusual accent, cultured, but tainted with hints of cockney and a sort of foreign rhythm, all blended in a unique mixture. “Welcome,” he said with a brief but dazzling smile. “Your father will be pleased to see you.”
“Thank you, Cam. I…I was afraid he might already h-have—”
“No,” Cam murmured, his smile dimming. “He is still alive.” He hesitated before adding, “Most of the time he sleeps. He won’t eat. I don’t think it will be long. He’s asked for you. I tried to send for you, but—”
“The Maybricks wouldn’t allow it,” Evie half whispered, her mouth tightening with anger. They had not bothered to tell her that her father had asked for her. And Joss Bullard had just lied to her. “Well, I’m away fr-from them for good, Cam. I’ve married. And I will remain here until my father…no longer n-n-needs me.”
Cam’s gaze swerved to Sebastian’s implacable countenance. Recognition kindled, and he murmured, “Lord St. Vincent.” If he had an opinion about Evie’s union with such a man, he did not reveal it.
Evie touched the surface of Cam’s coat sleeve. “Is my father awake now?” she asked anxiously. “May I go up to see him?”
“Of course.” The Gypsy took both her hands in a light grip, the gold rings warmed by the liberal heat of his fingers. “I will see to it that no one interferes.”
Suddenly Sebastian reached between them and plucked one of Evie’s hands away, pulling it decisively to his own arm. Though his manner was casual, the firm pressure of his fingers ensured that she would not try to pull away.
Puzzled by the display of possessiveness, Evie frowned. “I have known Cam since childhood,” she said pointedly. “He has always been quite kind to me.”
“A husband always likes to hear of kindnesses done for his wife,” Sebastian replied coolly. “Within limits, of course.”
“Of course,” Cam said softly. His attention returned to Evie. “Shall I show you upstairs, milady?”
She shook her head. “No, I know the way. Please r-return to what you were doing.”
Cam bowed again and exchanged a swift glance with Evie, both of them acknowledging tacitly that they would find an opportunity to talk later.
“Do you dislike him because he’s a Rom?” Evie asked her husband as they went to the stairs.
“I rarely dislike people for things they can’t change,” Sebastian replied sardonically. “They usually give me sufficient cause to dislike them for other reasons.”
Her hand fell away from his arm as she picked up her skirts.
“Where is the factotum, I wonder?” Sebastian continued, setting a palm at the small of her back as they ascended the stairs. “It’s early evening. The hazard room and the dining room are open—he should be busy.”
“He drinks,” Evie commented.
“That explains a great deal about the way this club is run.”
Sensitive to any insult about her father’s club, and uncomfortably aware of the gentle pressure of his hand on her back, Evie had to bite her tongue to hold back a stinging reply. How easy it was for a pampered nobleman to criticize the way professional men did things. If he had to run a place like this himself—perish the thought—he might have a great deal more respect for what her father had accomplished.
They climbed to the second level and proceeded along a second-floor gallery that wrapped completely around the upper part of the room. One had only to look over the balcony railings to view all the action of the main floor. This, the largest area of the club, was devoted entirely to hazard. Three oval tables covered with green baize cloth and yellow markings were surrounded by dozens of men. The sounds that floated upward—the constant rattle of dice, the quiet but intense exclamations of the casters and the croupiers, the soft drag of the little wooden rakes as they pulled money from the table into the croupier’s hands—they were among some of Evie’s earliest childhood recollections. She glanced at the magnificent carved desk in the corner of the room where her father had sat, approving credit, granting temporary memberships, and raising the hazard bank if the play had been too deep. At the moment the desk was occupied by a man of rather seedy appearance whom she did not know. Her gaze moved to the opposite corner of the room, where another stranger acted as general supervisor, regulating payments and overseeing the pace of the play.
Pausing at the railing, Sebastian looked down at the main floor with an oddly intent expression. Wanting to go to her father at once, Evie gave an impatient tug at his arm. However, Sebastian did not budge. In fact, he barely seemed to notice her, so absorbed was he in the activities taking place downstairs. “What is it?” Evie asked. “Do you see something unusual? Something wrong?”
Sebastian shook his head slightly and dragged his attention from the main floor. His gaze moved around them, taking in the faded painted panels on the walls, the chipped molding, the threadbare piling of the carpeting. Jenner’s had once been splendidly decorated, but as the years had passed, it had lost much of its luster. “How many members of the club are there?” he asked. “Excluding temporary memberships.”
“There used to be something like two thousand,” Evie replied. “I don’t know what the current figures are.” She tugged at his arm again. “I want to see my father. If I must go unaccompanied—”
“You’re not to go anywhere unaccompanied,” Sebastian said, focusing on her with an bright immediacy that startled her. His eyes were like polished moonstones. “You could be pulled into one of the bawdy rooms by some top-heavy drunkard—or an employee, for that matter—and raped before anyone realizes you’re missing.”
“I’m perfectly safe here,” she countered with annoyance. “I am still acquainted with many of the employees, and I know my way around the club better than you do.”
“Not for long,” Sebastian murmured, and his gaze returned almost compulsively to the main floor. “I’m going to go over every inch of this place. I’m going to know all its secrets.”
Taken aback by the statement, Evie gave him a perplexed glance. She realized that subtle changes had taken place in him from the moment they had entered the club…she was at a loss to account for his strange reaction. His customary languid manner had been replaced by a new alertness, as if he were absorbing the restless energy of the club’s atmosphere.
“You are staring at the club as if you’d never seen it before,” she murmured.
Sebastian ran his hand along the balcony railing experimentally, regarded the smudge of dust on his palm, and brushed it off. His expression was contemplative rather than critical as he replied, “It looks different now that it’s mine.”
“It’s not yours yet,” Evie replied darkly, realizing that he must be assessing the value of the place for its future sale. How like him to think of money while her father lay on his deathbed. “Do you ever think of anyone other than yourself?”
The question seemed to pull him out of his absorption, and his face became inscrutable. “Rarely, my love.”
They stared at each other, Evie’s eyes accusing, Sebastian’s opaque, and she understood that to expect any decency from him was to invite recurring disappointment. His ruined soul could not be repaired by her kindness and understanding. He would never become one of the reformed rakes that were featured in Daisy Bowman’s trove of scandalous novels.
“I expect that you’ll get everything you want quite soon,” she said coldly. “In the meantime, I’m going to my father’s room.” She started off along the gallery without him, and in a few long strides he fell into step beside her.
By the time they reached the private apartments that Ivo Jenner occupied, Evie’s blood was rustling madly in her ears. Equal parts of fear and longing caused her palms to dampen and her stomach to turn hollow. As she reached for the doorknob to the suite of rooms, her palm slipped on the tarnished brass.
“Allow me,” Sebastian said brusquely, brushing her hand aside. He opened the door and held it for her, and followed her into the dark receiving room. The only light came from the open doorway of the bedroom, where a small lamp gave off an indifferent glow. Evie went through the next threshold and paused, blinking until her eyes adjusted to the shadowy atmosphere. Barely aware of the presence of the man beside her, she approached the bed.
Her father was sleeping, mouth slightly open, his skin pale and glowing with a peculiar delicacy, as if he were a wax figure. Deep lines crossed his face, giving his cheeks the appearance of window shutters. He was half the size he had once been, his arms astonishingly thin, his form shrunken. Evie struggled to reconcile the unfamiliar, slight form on the bed with the big, burly father she had always known. Grief-stricken tenderness flooded her as she saw his red hair, now heavily mixed with silver, standing up in places on his head as if it were a baby bird’s ruffled feathers.
The room smelled of burned candle wicks, medicine, and unwashed skin. It smelled of sickness and approaching death. She saw a pile of dirty bedclothes in the corner, and a litter of crumpled bloodstained handkerchiefs on the floor. The night table was covered with a collection of dirty spoons and colored glass medicine bottles. Evie bent to pick up some of the soiled articles on the floor, but Sebastian caught her by the arm. “You don’t have to do that,” he muttered. “One of the housemaids can see to it.”
“Yes,” Evie whispered bitterly. “I see what a fine job they’ve been doing.” Jerking her arm away from his, she snatched up the dirty handkerchiefs and went to drop them into the pile of discarded bed linens.
Sebastian wandered to the bedside and glanced down at Jenner’s wasted form. He picked up one of the medicine bottles, passed it beneath his nose, and murmured, “Morphine.”
For some reason it provoked Evie to see him standing near her helpless father and examining his medicine. “I have things in hand,” she said in a low voice. “I wish you would leave now.”
“What do you intend to do?”
“I’m going to straighten the room and change the bed linens. And then I’m going to sit by him.”
The pale blue eyes narrowed. “Let the poor devil sleep. You need to eat, and change from your traveling clothes. What good do you think it will do him, for you to sit in the dark and—” He broke off with a muttered curse as he saw her obstinate expression. “Very well. I’ll give you one hour, and then you will share a meal with me.”
“I intend to stay with my father,” she said flatly.
“Evie.” His voice was soft, but it contained an inflexible note that caused her nerves to prickle in warning. Approaching her, he turned her rigid body to face him, and gave her the slightest hint of a shake, forcing her to look up at him. “When I send for you, you’ll come. Is that understood?”
Evie felt herself quiver with outrage. He issued the command as if he owned her. Good God, she had spent her entire life so far having to obey the edicts of her aunts and uncles, and now she would have to submit to her husband.
However…to give him his due, Sebastian still had a long way to go before he could equal the combined efforts of the Maybricks and Stubbinses to make Evie’s life miserable. And he was hardly being unreasonable or cruel in demanding that she take a meal with him. Swallowing back her anger, Evie managed a nod. As his gaze moved over her strained features, there was an odd gleam in his eyes, like the sparks struck from a blacksmith’s hammer as it met a sheet of molten metal.