There was the sweet shock of a probing kiss against her lips…another…She opened to him with a slight gasp. His mouth was hot silk and tender fire, invading her with gently questing pressure. His fingertips traced over her face, tenderly adjusting the angle between them.
As Sebastian felt her sway, her equilibrium unraveling, he took one of her hands and drew it gently up to the back of his neck. She brought the other up as well, clinging to his hard nape as she responded to the sweetly nuzzling kisses. He was breathing fast, the movements of his chest a beguiling friction against her breasts. Suddenly his kisses were deeper, more forceful, bringing the passion to a burning urgency that made her twist against him, desperate for more closeness with his hard masculine form.
A sound of pained desire came from low in Sebastian’s throat, and he lifted his mouth from hers. “No,” he whispered raggedly. “No, wait…love…I didn’t mean to start this. I just…hell.”
Evie’s fingers curled tightly into the fabric of his coat, and she buried her face against the slick gray silk of his necktie. Sebastian’s hand cupped the back of her head, his body supporting her unsteady weight. “I still mean what I said before,” he said into her hair. “If you want to care for your father, you’ll have to follow my rules. Keep the room ventilated—I want the door and window open at all times. And don’t sit too close to him. Furthermore, whenever you’re with him, I want you to tie a handkerchief over your mouth and nose.”
“What?” Evie squirmed away from him and gave him an incredulous glance. “So that the tiny invisible creatures won’t fly into my lungs?” she asked sarcastically.
His eyes narrowed. “Don’t try me, Evie. I’m close to forbidding you visit him at all.”
“I’ll feel ridiculous, wearing a handkerchief on my face,” she protested. “And it will hurt my father’s feelings.”
“I don’t give a damn. Bear in mind that if you disobey me, you won’t see him.”
Evie jerked away from him as a surge of new anger filled her. “You’re no better than the Maybricks,” she said bitterly. “I married you to gain my freedom. And instead I’ve exchanged one set of jailers for another.”
“None of us have complete freedom, child. Not even me.”
Closing her hands into fists, she glared at him. “At least you have the right to make choices for yourself.”
“And for you,” he mocked, seeming to enjoy the flare of temper he had provoked in her. “Good Lord, what a display. All that tempestuous defiance…it makes me want to bed you.”
“Don’t touch me again,” she snapped. “Ever!”
Maddeningly, he began to laugh as he went to the door.
When Evie went back to her father’s room in the evening, she knew at once that it was his time. His color was waxen and skull white, his lips turning blue as his tortured lungs were no longer able to draw in sufficient oxygen. She wished that she could breathe for him. Taking his cool hand in hers, she chafed his fingers as if she could warm them, and she stared into his face with a fixed smile. “Papa,” she murmured, smoothing his faded hair. “Tell me what to do. Tell me what you want.”
He regarded her with a mild, affectionate gaze, while his lips, shrunken in his wrinkled face, tilted in an answering smile. “Cam,” he whispered.
“Yes, I’ll send for him.” Evie let her agitated fingers stroke over his hair. “Papa,” she asked softly, “is Cam my brother?”
“Ahhhh,” he sighed, his eyes crinkling. “No, tibby. Would’ve liked that. Good lad…”
Evie leaned over and kissed one of his wasted hands, and left the bed. Hurrying to the bellpull, she yanked it several times, and a housemaid appeared with unusual alacrity. “Yes, milady?”
“Get Mr. Rohan,” Evie said, her voice shaking only a little. She paused and considered sending for Sebastian as well…but her father had not asked for him. And the thought of Sebastian’s cool, cerebral presence providing such a jarring contrast to her own emotions…no. There were some ways in which she might lean on him, but this was not one of them. “Go quickly,” she murmured to the housemaid, and went back to her father.
Some of her fear must have shone through her effort to maintain a reassuring facade, for her father took one of her hands and exerted a feeble tug to bring her closer to him. “Evie,” came his faint whisper, “I’m going to your mother, y’see…she’s got ‘em to leave a back door open…so I can steal into ‘eaven.”
She laughed quietly even as a few hot tears spilled from her eyes.
Soon Cam entered the room. His jet-black hair was tousled and his clothes were uncharacteristically rumpled, as if he had dressed in haste. Although he was calm and self-possessed, his golden eyes held a soft liquid glitter as he beheld Evie. She stood and backed away, finding it necessary to swallow several times before she could speak. “You have to bend low to hear him,” she said huskily.
Cam leaned over the bedside, clasping Jenner’s hands in his just as Evie had done. “Father of my heart,” the young Gypsy said softly, “be at peace with every soul you leave behind. And know that God will open your way in the new life.”
As Jenner whispered to him, the boy inclined his head and rubbed the old man’s hands soothingly. “Yes,” Cam said readily, though Evie sensed from the tension of his broad shoulders that he had not liked whatever it was that her father had asked of him. “I will see that it is done.”
After that, Jenner relaxed and closed his eyes. Cam eased away from the bedside and drew Evie forward. “It’s all right,” the boy murmured as he felt her trembling. “My grandmother always told me, ‘Never try to turn back on a new road—you don’t know what adventures await you.’”
Evie tried to take comfort in the words, but her eyes blurred and her throat hurt. Sitting beside her father, she curled an arm around his head and laid a gentle hand on his chest. His rattling breath quieted, and he made a slight sound as if he welcomed her touch. As she felt the life gradually passing from him, she felt Cam’s large hand slide around her upper arm in a gentle grip.
It was painfully quiet in the room. Evie’s heart thudded almost audibly. She had never encountered death before, and to have to confront it now, and lose the one person who had ever loved her, filled her with the cold pressure of fear. Throwing a watery glance to the doorway, she found Sebastian’s tall form standing there, his face unreadable, and she realized suddenly that she did need him to be there after all. As he stared at her with his bright moonstone eyes, something in his gaze helped to steady her.
The softest of exhalations left Ivo Jenner’s lips…and then there was nothing more.
Realizing that it was finally over, Evie pressed her cheek to his head and closed her brimming eyes. “Good-bye,” she whispered, tears slipping into the locks of his once-ruddy hair.
After a moment, Evie felt Cam’s capable hands lifting her away from the bed.
“Evie,” the boy murmured, his face averted, “I have to…have to arrange the body. Go with your husband.”
Evie nodded and tried to move, but her legs had locked. She felt Cam smooth her hair back, and then the dry brush of his mouth over her forehead in a sweet, chaste kiss. Blindly she turned away and stumbled toward her husband. Sebastian came to her in a few strides and pressed a handkerchief into her palm. She took it gratefully. Too distraught to notice or care where they were going, she wiped her eyes and blew her nose, while Sebastian led her from Ivo Jenner’s apartments. His arm was strong behind her back, his hand anchored at her waist.
“He was in constant pain,” Sebastian said in a matter-of-fact tone. “This is better.”
“Yes,” Evie managed to reply numbly. “Yes, of course.”
“Did he say anything to you?”
“He mentioned…my mother.” The thought brought a fresh burn to her eyes, but a crooked smile pulled at her lips. “He said she was going to help him through the back door of heaven.”
Sebastian guided her into her bedroom. Sinking onto the bed, Evie clamped the handkerchief over her nose and curled on her side. She had never cried like this before, without sobs, misery oozing from her throat, while the pressure of grief in her chest refused to abate. She was dimly aware of the curtains being drawn and of Sebastian sending a housemaid for some wine and a jug of cold water.
Although Sebastian stayed in the room, he did not come near, only paced for a few minutes and eventually lowered himself into a bedside chair. It was obvious that he did not want to hold Evie while she cried, that he would shrink from such emotional intimacy. She could abandon herself to him in passion, but not in grief. And yet it was clear that he had no intentions of leaving her.
After the housemaid brought the wine, Sebastian propped Evie up on the pillows and gave her a liberally filled glass. As she drank, he took a cold wet cloth and pressed it gently to her swollen eyes. His manner was kind and oddly careful, as if he were taking care of a young child.
“The employees,” Evie mumbled after a while. “The club. The funeral…”
“I’ll take care of all of it,” Sebastian said calmly. “We’ll close the club. I’ll make the funeral arrangements. Shall I send for one of your friends?”
Evie shook her head immediately. “It would put them in a difficult position. And I don’t feel like talking to anyone.”
Sebastian stayed with her until she had downed a second glass of wine. Realizing that he was waiting for some cue from her, Evie set the empty vessel on the night table. Her tongue felt thick as she spoke. “I think I could rest now. There’s no need for you to watch over me, when there is so much to be done.”
His assessing gaze swept over her, and he stood from the chair. “Send for me when you awaken.”
Lying tipsy and drowsing and alone in the semidarkness, Evie wondered why people always said that the death of a loved one was easier when one had time to prepare for it. This didn’t seem easy. And those same people might have added that her grief should be lessened by the fact that she had never really known her father. That made it worse, however. There were so few memories with which she could comfort herself…so little time they had spent together. Along with the sadness came a gloomy sense of deprivation…and beneath that, even a touch of anger. Was she so unworthy of love, that she’d had so little of it in her life? Did she lack some essential gift for drawing others to herself?
Aware that her thoughts were drifting dangerously toward self-pity, she closed her eyes and let out a shaking sigh.
Just as Cam left Ivo Jenner’s apartments, St. Vincent met him in the hall. There was a scowl on the blond man’s face, and a vein of chilling arrogance in his tone. “If my wife finds comfort in trite Gypsy homilies, I have no objection to your offering them. However, if you ever kiss her again, no matter how platonic the fashion, I’ll make a eunuch of you.”
The fact that St. Vincent could stoop to petty jealousy when Ivo Jenner was not yet cold in his bed might have outraged some men. Cam, however, regarded the autocratic viscount with speculative interest.
Deliberately calibrating his reply to test the other man, Cam said softly, “Had I ever wanted her that way, I would have had her by now.”
There it was—a flash of warning in St. Vincent’s ice-blue eyes that revealed a depth of feeling he would not admit to. Cam had never seen anything like the mute longing that St. Vincent felt for his own wife. No one could fail to observe that whenever Evie entered the room, St.Vincent practically vibrated like a tuning fork.
“It is possible to care about a woman without wanting to bed her,” Cam pointed out. “But it appears that you don’t agree. Or are you so obsessed with her that you can’t fathom how anyone else could fail to feel the same?”
“I’m not obsessed with her,” St. Vincent snapped.
Leaning a shoulder against the wall, Cam stared into the man’s hard eyes, his usual reserve of patience nearly depleted. “Of course you are. Anyone could see it.”
St. Vincent gave him a warning glance. “Another word,” he said thickly, “and you’ll go the way of Egan.”
Cam raised his hands in a mocking gesture of self-defense. “Warning taken. By the way…Jenner’s last words were about Bullard. There is a financial bequest for him in the will…Jenner wanted it to be honored.”
St. Vincent’s eyes narrowed. “Why would he leave money to Bullard?”
Cam shrugged. “I couldn’t say. But if I were you, I wouldn’t gainsay Jenner’s last wish.”
“If I do, there isn’t much that he or anyone else can do about it.”
“Then you’ll take the risk of having his ghost haunt the club because of unfinished business.”
“Ghost?” St. Vincent shot him an incredulous glance. “Christ. You’re not serious, are you?”
“I’m a Gypsy,” Cam replied matter-of-factly. “Of course I believe in ghosts.”
“Only half Gypsy. Which led me to assume that the rest of you was at least marginally sane and rational.”
“The other half is Irish,” Cam said, a touch apologetically.
“Christ,” St. Vincent said again, shaking his head as he strode away.
With the funeral to be arranged, and the club’s business in disarray, and the building itself in dire need of restoration, Sebastian should have been far too busy to take notice of Evie and her condition. However, she soon realized that he was demanding frequent reports from the housemaids about how much she had slept, and whether she had eaten, and her activities in general. Upon learning that Evie had gone without breakfast or lunch, Sebastian had a supper tray sent upstairs, accompanied by a terse note.
This tray will be returned for my inspection within the hour. If everything on it is not eaten, I will personally force-feed it to you.
To Sebastian’s satisfaction, Evie obeyed the edict. She wondered with annoyance if his orders were motivated by concern or by a desire to browbeat her. However, soon after that, Sebastian did something very considerate, by paying a dressmaker double her usual commission to have three mourning frocks run up for Evie at remarkable speed. Unfortunately, the fabric selection was entirely inappropriate.
Women in their first year of mourning were obliged to dress only in crepe, a dull, stiff, scratchy fabric made of gummed threads. No one considered this a pleasant choice, as crepe was dangerously flammable, and it tended to shrivel and nearly fall to pieces in the rain. Sebastian, however, had ordered one gown made of rich black velvet, one of soft cambric, and one of cashmere.