“Good girl,” he murmured with a mocking smile, and left the room.

CHAPTER 8

Sebastian was briefly tempted to leave Evie at the club and go to his own household, which was walking distance of St. James. The lure of his quiet home, with its modern plumbing and well-stocked pantry and larder, was difficult to resist. He wanted to eat at his own table, and relax before the hearth dressed in one of the velvet-lined silk robes that hung in his bedroom armoire. To hell with his stubborn wife—she could make her own decisions and learn to live with the consequences.

However, as he wandered discreetly around the second-floor gallery, taking care to avoid being seen by those on the busy main floor, Sebastian was aware of a nagging curiosity that would not be denied. With his hands tucked negligently in his coat pockets, he leaned against a column. He watched the croupiers at work and noticed the indifferent efforts of the general supervisor to oversee the play and keep everything moving at a satisfactory pace. Activity at all three hazard tables seemed a bit sluggish. Someone needed to stir things up and create an atmosphere that would urge the guests into deeper, faster play.

Slovenly house wenches sauntered lazily through the room, pausing to interact with the male guests. Like the meals at the dining hall sideboard and the coffee room downstairs, the women were a free benefit of membership. Whether a man needed a wench for consolation or for celebration, the prostitutes would accompany him to one of several upstairs rooms reserved for this purpose.

Wandering down to the ground-floor card rooms and coffee room, Sebastian surveyed his surroundings. There were small but prolific signs that it was a business in decay. Sebastian guessed that when Jenner had fallen ill, he had failed to appoint a reliable replacement for himself. His factotum, Clive Egan, was either inept or dishonest, or both. Sebastian wanted to see the account books, the records of expense and profit, the private financial records of the members, rent rolls, mortgages, debts, loans, credit—everything that would contribute to a complete portrait of the club’s health. Or lack thereof.

As he turned back to the staircase, he saw the Gypsy, Rohan, waiting in the shadowy corner, his posture relaxed. Sebastian remained strategically silent, forcing the boy to speak first.

Rohan held his stare as he said with meticulous politeness, “May I help you, milord?”

“You can start by telling me where Egan is.”

“He’s in his room, milord.”

“In what condition?”

“Indisposed.”

“Ah,” Sebastian said softly. “Is he often indisposed, Rohan?”

The Gypsy remained silent, but his steady, sloe-eyed gaze was filled with speculation.

“I want the key to his office,” Sebastian said. “I want to have a look at the account ledgers.”

“There is only one key, milord,” Rohan replied, studying him. “And Mr. Egan always keeps it with him.”

“Then get it for me.”

The boy’s heavy dark brows lifted a fraction. “You want me to rob a man when he is drunk?”

“It’s a hell of a lot easier than waiting until he’s sober,” Sebastian pointed out sardonically. “And it’s not robbery when the key is, for all intents and purposes, mine.”

Rohan’s young face hardened. “My loyalty is to Mr. Jenner. And his daughter.”

“So is mine.” That wasn’t true, of course. The majority of Sebastian’s loyalty was reserved for himself. Evie and her father were, respectively, a distant second and third on the list. “Get me the key, or prepare to follow in Egan’s footsteps when he departs on the morrow.”

The air was charged with masculine challenge. However, after a moment, Rohan gave him a look of distaste mingled with reluctant curiosity. When he acceded, and moved toward the staircase with long, fluid strides, it was not out of fearful obedience, but rather out of the desire to observe what Sebastian would do next.

By the time Sebastian had dispatched Cam Rohan to bring Evie downstairs, she had straightened her father’s room and enlisted the grudging help of a housemaid to change the bed linens. The sheets were damp from night sweats. Though her father stirred and muttered as they carefully rolled him to one side and then the other, he did not awaken from his morphine-induced stupor. His rawboned body, swamped in the folds of his nightshirt, startled Evie with its lightness. Anguished pity and protectiveness filled her as she drew the new linens and blankets up to his chest. Dampening a cool cloth, she laid it over his forehead. A sigh escaped him, and at last his eyes opened into dark, shiny slits amid the furrows of his face. He regarded her without comprehension for a long moment, until a smile stretched his cracked lips, revealing the edges of tobacco-varnished teeth.

“Evie,” came his low croak.

Leaning over him, Evie smiled while the inside of her nose stung and her eyes ached with unshed tears. “I’m here, Papa,” she whispered, saying the words she had longed to say for her entire life. “I’m here, and I’m never going to leave you again.”

He made a sound of contentment and closed his eyes. Just as Evie thought he had fallen asleep, he murmured, “Where shall we walk first today, lovey? The biscuit baker, I s’pose…”

Realizing that he imagined this was one of her long-ago childhood visits, Evie replied softly, “Oh yes.” Hastily she knuckled away the excess moisture from her eyes. “I want an iced bun…and a cone of broken biscuits…and then I want to come back here and play dice with you.”

A rusty chuckle came from his ravaged throat, and he coughed a little. “Let Papa take forty winks before we leaves…there’s a good girl…”

“Yes, sleep,” Evie murmured, turning the cloth over on his forehead. “I can wait, Papa.”

As she watched him slip back into his drugged slumber, she swallowed against the sharp pain in her throat and relaxed in the bedside chair. There was no other place in the world that she wanted to be. She let herself slump a little, her sore shoulders lowering as if she were a marionette whose strings had been released. This was the first time that she had ever felt needed, that her presence had ever seemed to matter to someone. And though her father’s condition grieved her, she was grateful that she could be with him for the last hours of his life. It wasn’t nearly enough time to come to know him—they would always be strangers to each other—but it was more than she had ever hoped to have.

Her thoughts were interrupted by a tap on the doorjamb. She glanced up to see Cam at the threshold. His arms were loosely folded over his chest, his body arranged in a posture of deceptive leisure. Evie gave him a tired imitation of a smile. “I s-suppose he has sent you to collect me?”

There was, of course, no need to define who “he” was. “He wants you to eat with him in one of the private dining rooms.”

Evie shook her head slightly, her smile turning wry. “I hear and obey,” she muttered in a parody of an obedient wife. Standing, she paused to straighten the blankets over her sleeping father’s shoulders.

Cam didn’t move from the doorway as she approached him. He was taller than the average man, though not quite so much as Sebastian. “How did you end up wedded to Lord St. Vincent?” he asked. “I know of his financial problems—we were nearly at the point of refusing him credit the last time he was here. Did he come to you with the idea of a marriage bargain?”

“How do you know it isn’t a love match?” Evie parried.

He gave her a wry glance. “The only love match is between St. Vincent and himself.”

The pressure of a real smile worked up to Evie’s lips, and she made a stern effort to hold it back. “I w-went to him, actually. It was the only way I could think of to escape the Maybricks for good.” Her smile vanished at the thought of her relations. “Did they come here after I went missing, Cam?”

He nodded. “Both your uncles. We had to let them search the club themselves before they were satisfied that you weren’t hiding here.”

“Drat,” Evie muttered, borrowing Daisy Bowman’s favorite curse word. “They’ll have gone next to my fr-friends, I suspect. The Hunts, and the Bowmans. The news that I’ve gone missing will worry them.” However, learning the truth of what she had done would worry them far more. Distractedly she smoothed back the straggles of her hair and wrapped her arms around herself. She would have to send word to Annabelle and Daisy that she was all right. Since Lillian was traveling on the continent, she would not have heard the news of Evie’s disappearance.

Tomorrow, she thought. Tomorrow she would deal with the repercussions of her soon-to-be-infamous elopement. She wondered if she dared send someone to the Maybrick home to fetch the rest of her clothes…or if there was any chance that they would let her have them. Probably not. More things for her ever-lengthening list of things to be done…she would have to have some day dresses and shoes made in short order.

“Once m-my relations discover that I’m here,” she said, “they’ll come to take me back. They may try to annul the marriage. I…” She paused to steady her voice. “I very much fear what might happen to me if I am forced to go with them.”

“Won’t St. Vincent stop them?” Cam asked, reaching out to settle a calming hand on her shoulder. It was an innocuous point of contact, just the light weight of his palm resting on the fragile curve of her shoulder bone, but she took reassurance from it.

“If he is here at the time. If he’s sober. If he’s able.” She gave him a humorless smile. “If and if…”

“I’ll be here,” Cam murmured. “I’ll be sober, and able. Why don’t you think St. Vincent will be?”

“It’s a marriage of convenience. I don’t expect that we shall see very much of him once he collects my dowry. He told me that he has far better things to do than sit in a second-rate gambling club and wait for…for…” Hesitating, she glanced over her shoulder at her father’s bed.

“He may have changed his mind about that,” Cam remarked sardonically. “Once I let him have the key to the office, he pulled out every ledger and started poring over them page by page. By the time he’s finished, he’ll have gone through the entire club with a flea comb.”

Evie’s eyes widened at the information. “What could he be looking for?” she asked, more to herself than to him. Sebastian was behaving oddly. There was no reason for him to dive into the club’s financial records with such urgency when they had just arrived from a long journey. Nothing would change between now and tomorrow. She thought of the compulsive quality of his gaze as they had watched the activity on the main floor, and his murmur…“I’m going to go over every inch of this place. I’m going to know all its secrets…” As if it were something more than a mere building filled with faded carpets and hazard tables.

Puzzled, Evie went with Cam through a series of back halls and passageways that provided the most direct route to the downstairs dining rooms. Like most gaming clubs, Jenner’s had its share of secret places for hiding, for observing, for smuggling people and objects. Cam showed her to a small private room, held the door for her, and bowed as she turned to thank him.

Advancing farther into the room, Evie heard the door close quietly behind her. Sebastian was sprawled in a heavy armchair with the relaxed confidence of Lucifer on his throne, using a pencil lead to make notations in the margin of an account ledger. He sat at a table that was laden with plates from the sideboard in the main dining room.

Tearing his gaze from the ledger, Sebastian nudged it aside and stood, pulling the second chair away from the table. “How is your father?”

Evie replied cautiously as she allowed him to seat her. “He woke for just a moment. He seemed to think that I was a little girl again.” Seeing a platter piled with cuts of roast fowl, and another filled with hothouse peaches and grapes, she reached out to serve herself. Her overwhelming hunger, paired with weariness, caused her hands to tremble. Seeing her difficulty, Sebastian silently transferred choice tidbits onto her empty plate; tiny boiled quail eggs, a spoonful of creamed vegetable marrow, a slice of cheese, cold cuts and fish and soft bread.

“Thank you,” Evie said, nearly too tired to know what she was eating. She lifted her fork to her mouth, took a bite of something, and closed her eyes as she chewed and swallowed. When her lashes lifted, she found Sebastian’s gaze on her.

He looked as weary as she felt, with faint smudges beneath his blue eyes. The skin over his cheekbones was taut, and he was pale beneath the sun-kissed tint of his complexion. His night beard, which was inclined to grow quickly, was a shadow of glittering golden stubble. Somehow the roughening of his looks made him even more handsome, lending a textured grace to what otherwise might have been the sterile perfection of a marble masterpiece.

“Are you still fixed on the notion of staying here?” he asked, deftly carving a peach and divesting it of the pit. He handed her a neat golden half.

“Oh yes.” Evie accepted the peach and took a bite, its tart juice trickling over her tongue.

“I was afraid you might say that,” he replied dryly. “It’s a mistake, you know. You have no idea of what you’ll be exposed to…the obscenities and lewd comments, the lecherous gazes, the groping and pinching…and that’s just at my house. Imagine what it would be like here.”

Uncertain whether to frown or smile, Evie regarded him curiously. “I will manage,” she said.

“I’m sure you will, pet.”

Lifting a goblet of wine to her lips, Evie glanced at him over the rim as she drank. “What is in that ledger?”

“A lesson in creative record keeping. I’m sure you won’t be surprised to learn that Egan has been draining the club’s accounts. He shaves away increments here and there, in small enough quantities that the thefts have gone unnoticed. But over time, it totals up to a considerable sum. God knows how many years he’s been doing it. So far, every account book I’ve looked at contains deliberate inaccuracies.”

“How can you be certain that they’re deliberate?”

“There is a clear pattern.” He flipped open a ledger and nudged it over to her. “The club made a profit of approximately twenty thousand pounds last Tuesday. If you cross-check the numbers with the record of loans, bank deposits, and cash outlays, you’ll see the discrepancies.”

Evie followed the trail of his finger as he ran it along the notes he had made in the margin. “You see?” he murmured. “These are what the proper amounts should be. He’s padded the expenses liberally. The cost of ivory dice, for example. Even allowing for the fact that the dice are only used for one night and then never again, the annual charge should be no more than two thousand pounds, according to Rohan.” The practice of using fresh dice every night was standard for any gaming club, to ward off any question that they might be loaded.


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