“Papa,” she said evenly, “before you go to sleep, I’ll help you to wash and shave.”
“No need,” he replied, his eyes glazed from the effects of morphine.
“Let me take care of you,” she insisted, going to the washstand, where a ewer of hot water had been left by the housemaid. “You’ll sleep better afterward, I think.”
He seemed too listless to argue, only sighed and coughed, and watched as she brought a porcelain bowl and his shaving implements to the bedside. She tucked a length of toweling over his chest and around the base of his throat. Having never shaved a man before, Evie picked up the shaving brush, dipped it into the water, and dabbed it tentatively into the mug of soap.
“An ‘ot towel first, tibby,” Jenner murmured. “That softens the whiskers.”
Following his directions, Evie soaked and wrung out another towel, and laid it gently over his jaw and throat. After a minute, she lifted the towel and used the shaving brush to spread the soap over one side of his jaw. Deciding to shave his face one section at a time, she opened the razor, regarded it dubiously, and cautiously leaned over her father. Before the razor touched his face, a sardonic voice came from the doorway.
“Good God.” Glancing over her shoulder, Evie beheld Sebastian. He spoke not to her, but to her father. “I don’t know whether to commend your bravery or to ask if you’ve taken leave of your senses, allowing her near you with a blade.” He approached the bed in a few leisurely strides and extended his hand. “Give me that, love. The next time your father coughs, you’re going to cut his nose off.”
Evie surrendered the razor without a qualm. Regardless of her husband’s lack of sleep, he seemed far more refreshed today. He was immaculately shaven, his hair washed and combed into gleaming clipped layers. His lean body was clad in a precisely tailored suit of clothes, the coat made of a dark charcoal fabric that set off his golden coloring beautifully. And as she had noticed last evening, a sense of vital energy clung to him, as if he were animated somehow merely by being in the club. The contrast between the two men, one so old and ill, the other so large and healthy, was startling. As Sebastian drew closer to her father, Evie experienced an instinctive urge to put herself between them. Her husband resembled nothing so much as a predator moving in to finish its helpless prey.
“Fetch the strop, pet,” Sebastian told her, his lips curved in a faint smile.
She went to obey, and when she returned from the washstand, he had taken her place at the bedside. “Always sharpen the razor before and after a shave,” Sebastian murmured, running the open blade along the strop, back and forth.
“It looks sharp enough already,” Evie said doubtfully.
“It can never be too sharp, sweet. Lather his entire face before you begin. The soap will soften the beard.” He moved back while she applied soap to her father’s face, then nudged her aside to half sit on the mattress. Razor in hand, he asked Jenner, “May I?”
To Evie’s amazement, her father nodded, seeming to have no qualms about letting Sebastian give him a shave. Evie went to the other side of the bed for a clearer view.
“Let the razor do the work,” Sebastian said, “rather than use the pressure of your hand. Shave with the grain, in the direction the hair grows…like this. And take care never to draw the blade in a parallel stroke. Start with the sides of the face…then the cheeks…then the sides of the neck, like so…” As Sebastian spoke, he scraped the blade over the grizzled beard, removing it in neat strokes. “And rinse the blade often.” His long-fingered hands were gentle on her father’s face, varying the angle, stretching sections of skin taut as he shaved. The motions were light and clever, accomplished with skillful economy. Evie shook her head slightly, unable to believe that she was watching Sebastian, Lord St. Vincent, shave her father with the expertise of a seasoned valet.
Finishing the masculine ritual, Sebastian wiped the residue of soap from Jenner’s gleaming-smooth face. There was only one tiny nick on the edge of his jaw. Pressing the towel to it, Sebastian murmured, “The soap needs more glycerin. My valet makes far better shaving soap than this…I’ll have him bring some later today.”
“Thank you,” Evie replied, aware of a ticklish warmth inside her breast as she watched him.
Sebastian’s gaze strayed to her face, and whatever he saw in her expression seemed to fascinate him. “The bedsheets need changing,” he said. “I’ll help.”
Evie shook her head, recoiling from the idea of him seeing her father’s wasted form. She knew that her father would feel very much at a disadvantage with him afterward. “Thank you but no,” she said firmly. “I will ring for the maid.”
“Very well.” He glanced at Jenner. “With your permission, sir, I will visit later, after you’ve rested.”
“Yes,” her father agreed, his gaze unfocused. He closed his eyes and reclined with a sigh.
Evie straightened the room as Sebastian cleaned the razor, sharpened it once more on the strop, and closed it in its leather case. Walking with Sebastian to the threshold of the room, Evie stopped to face him, pressing her back against the doorjamb. Her worried gaze lifted to his face. “Have you dismissed Mr. Egan yet?”
Sebastian nodded, bracing one hand on the jamb above her head as he leaned over her. Although his posture was loose and easy, Evie still had a feeling of being subtly dominated. To her bemusement, it was not an altogether unpleasant sensation. “He was hostile at first,” Sebastian replied, “until I told him that I had looked through some of the account books. After that he was as docile as a lamb, knowing how bloody fortunate he is that we’ve decided not to bring charges against him. Rohan is helping him to pack, and ensuring that he will leave at once.”
“Why don’t you wish to bring charges against Mr. Egan?”
“It’s bad publicity. Any hint of financial trouble makes people nervous about the club’s stability. We’re better off to absorb the losses and go on from here.” His gaze slid over her strained features, and he stunned her by saying softly, “Turn around.”
Her eyes became huge. “Wh-what? Why?”
“Turn around,” Sebastian repeated, waiting until she complied slowly. Her heart pounded painfully hard as he reached around her, took her wrists, and brought her hands up to the doorjamb. “Take hold, sweet.”
Bewildered, she waited and wondered nervously what he was going to do. Her eyes closed, and she tensed as she felt his big hands settle on her shoulders. His fingers smoothed lightly over her upper back, as if he were searching for something…and then he began to knead her back with gentle, sure motions, easing the soreness of her tortured muscles. His artful fingertips probed places of aching tension, causing her to inhale sharply. The pressure of his hands intensified, his palms rolling over her back, his thumbs stroking deeply on either side of her spine. To Evie’s mortification, she found herself arching like a cat. Slowly working his way upward, Sebastian found the knotted muscles at the junctures of her shoulders and neck and concentrated on them, kneading and pressing until she felt a soft moan rise in her throat.
A woman could become a slave to those experienced hands. He touched her with perfect sensuality, drawing acute pleasure from her sore flesh. Leaning most of her weight against the doorjamb, Evie felt her breathing turn slow and deep. Her back softened, lengthened beneath the coaxing manipulation, and it felt so wonderful that she dreaded the moment when he would stop.
When at last Sebastian’s hands eased away from her body, Evie was surprised that she didn’t melt into a puddle on the floor. She turned around and glanced at his face, expecting a taunting smile or a sarcastic remark. Instead she saw that his color had heightened, and his expression was impassive. “I have something to tell you,” he muttered. “In private.” Taking her by the arm, Sebastian drew her out of her father’s apartments and into the next available room, which happened to be the one that she had occupied the previous night. Sebastian closed the door and loomed over her. His face was impassive. “Rohan was right,” he said bluntly. “Your father doesn’t have long. It will be a miracle if he lasts another day.”
“Yes. I…I think that is obvious to everyone.”
“This morning I talked with Rohan at length about your father’s condition, and he showed me a leaflet that the doctor had left upon the diagnosis.” Reaching into his coat, Sebastian extracted a small folded piece of paper covered with minute printing, and gave it to her.
Evie read the words A New Theory of Consumption at the top of the leaflet. Since the only light in the room came from the small window, and her eyes were tired, she shook her head. “May I read it later?”
“Yes. But I will tell you the gist of the theory—that consumption is caused by living organisms—so tiny that they are invisible to the na*ed eye. They abide in the afflicted lungs. And the disease is transferred when a healthy person draws in part of a breath that the ill person emits from his lungs.”
“Tiny creatures in the lungs?” Evie repeated blankly. “That’s absurd. Consumption is caused by a natural predisposition to the ailment…or by staying out too long in the cold and damp…”
“Since neither of us are doctors or scientists, a debate on the issue would be rather pointless. However, to be safe…I’m afraid I’m going to have to limit the amount of time you spend with your father.”
The paper fell from her hand. Shocked by the statement, Evie felt her pulse beating at a furious tempo. After all she had gone through to be with her father, Sebastian was trying to deny her the last few days she would ever have with him—all because of some unproven medical theory printed on a leaflet? “No,” she said violently. Her throat constricted, and her words tumbled out too quickly for her mouth to accommodate them. “A-a-absolutely not. I will spend as long as I like with him. You d-don’t give a…a damn about me, or him…you just want to be cruel to show me that you have the p-power to—”
“I saw the bedclothes,” Sebastian said curtly. “He’s coughing up blood, mucus, and the devil knows what else…and the more time you spend with him, the greater the chance that you’ll inhale whatever the hell is killing him.”
“I don’t believe your silly theory. I could find a d-dozen doctors who would hold it up to ridicule—”
“I can’t let you take the chance. Bloody hell, do you want to find yourself in that bed six months from now with your lungs rotting away?”
“If th-th-that happens, it’s no concern of yours.”
As they confronted each other in the anger-snarled silence that followed, Evie had a fleeting sense that her bitter words had pierced deeper than she would have expected.
“You’re right,” Sebastian said savagely. “If you want to turn yourself into a consumptive, go right ahead. But don’t be surprised when I decline to sit wringing my hands at your bedside. I won’t do a thing to help you. And as you lie there coughing your lungs out, I’ll take the devil’s own delight in reminding you that it was your own damned fault for being such a stubborn idiot!” He concluded the speech with an irritated motion of his hands.
Unfortunately, Evie had been conditioned by too many encounters with Uncle Peregrine to discern between angry gestures and the beginnings of a physical attack. She flinched instinctively, her own arms flying up to shield her head. When the expected pain of a blow did not come, she let out a breath and tentatively lowered her arms to find Sebastian staring at her with blank astonishment.
Then his face went dark.
“Evie,” he said, his voice containing a bladelike ferocity that frightened her. “Did you think I was about to…Christ. Someone hit you. Someone hit you in the past—who the hell was it?” He reached for her suddenly—too suddenly—and she stumbled backward, coming up hard against the wall. Sebastian went very still. “Goddamn,” he whispered. Appearing to struggle with some powerful emotion, he stared at her intently. After a long moment, he spoke softly. “I would never strike a woman. I would never harm you. You know that, don’t you?”
Transfixed by the light, glittering eyes that held hers with such intensity, Evie couldn’t move or make a sound. She started as he approached her slowly. “It’s all right,” he murmured. “Let me come to you. It’s all right. Easy.” One of his arms slid around her, while he used his free hand to smooth her hair, and then she was breathing, sighing, as relief flowed through her. Sebastian brought her closer against him, his mouth brushing her temple. “Who was it?” he asked.
“M-my uncle,” she managed to say. The motion of his hand on her back paused as he heard her stammer.
“Maybrick?” he asked patiently.
“No, th-the other one.”
“Yes.” Evie closed her eyes in pleasure as his other arm slid around her. Clasped against Sebastian’s hard chest, with her cheek tucked against his shoulder, she inhaled the scent of clean male skin, and the subtle touch of sandalwood cologne.
“How often?” she heard him ask. “More than once?”
“I…i-it’s not important now.”
“How often, Evie?”
Realizing that he was going to persist until she answered, Evie muttered, “Not t-terribly often, but…sometimes when I displeased him, or Aunt Fl-Florence, he would lose his temper. The l-last time I tr-tried to run away, he blackened my eye and spl-split my lip.”
“Did he?” Sebastian was silent for a long moment, and then he spoke with chilling softness. “I’m going to tear him limb from limb.”
“I don’t want that,” Evie said earnestly. “I-I just want to be safe from him. From all of them.”
Sebastian drew his head back to look down into her flushed face. “You are safe,” he said in a low voice. He lifted one of his hands to her face, caressing the plane of her cheekbone, letting his fingertip follow the trail of pale golden freckles across the bridge of her nose. As her lashes fluttered downward, he stroked the slender arcs of her brows, and cradled the side of her face in his palm. “Evie,” he murmured. “I swear on my life, you will never feel pain from my hands. I may prove a devil of a husband in every other regard…but I wouldn’t hurt you that way. You must believe that.”
The delicate nerves of her skin drank in sensations thirstily…his touch, the erotic waft of his breath against her lips. Evie was afraid to open her eyes, or to do anything that might interrupt the moment. “Yes,” she managed to whisper. “Yes…I—”