“I can’t wear these,” Evie told him with a frown, smoothing her hands over the gowns. She had put them on the counterpane of her bed, where the garments lay heaped like midnight flowers.
Sebastian had brought the gowns upstairs himself, as soon as they had been delivered to the club. He stood at the corner of the bed, casually leaning back against the heavy carved post. With the exception of his snowy white shirt and collar, he was dressed in black from head to toe. As one would expect, he was astonishingly handsome in the severe clothes, their darkness providing an exotic contrast to his glowing golden skin and hair. Not for the first time, Evie wondered wryly if any man with such remarkable looks could possess a decent character—no doubt he had been spoiled since infancy.
“What is your objection to the clothes?” Sebastian asked, glancing at the gowns. “They’re black, aren’t they?”
“Well, yes, but they’re not made of crepe.”
“Do you want to wear crepe?”
“Of course not—no one does. But if people saw me wearing anything else, there would be terrible gossip.”
One of Sebastian’s brows arched. “Evie,” he said dryly, “you eloped against your family’s wishes, you married a notorious rake, and you’re living in a gaming club. How much more damned gossip do you think you could cause?”
She cast an uncertain glance over the dress she was wearing, one of the three that she had taken with her the night that she had escaped the Maybricks. Although she and the maids had done their best to clean it, the brown wool was travel-stained, and shrunken in the places where it had gotten wet and muddy. And it was itchy. She wanted to wear something fresh and soft and clean. Reaching out to the folds of the black velvet, she stroked it gently, her fingertips leaving sleek trails in the soft nap.
“You must learn to ignore what people say,” Sebastian murmured, coming to her. Standing behind her, he rested his fingers lightly on her shoulders, causing her to start a little. “You’ll be much happier that way.” Suddenly his voice was tipped with amusement. “I’ve learned that while gossip about others is often true, it’s never true when it is about oneself.”
Evie stiffened nervously when she felt his hands moving along the line of fasteners on the back of her brown wool. “What are you doing?”
“Helping you to change your gown.”
“I don’t want to. Not now. I…oh, please don’t!”
But he persisted, sliding one hand around her front to keep her in place, while his other continued to release the row of buttons. Rather than resort to an undignified struggle, Evie flushed and held still, goose bumps rising on her exposed skin. “I w-wish you wouldn’t handle me in such a cavalier manner!”
“The word ‘cavalier’ implies indifference,” he replied, pushing the gown over her hips. It fell in a scratchy heap to the floor. “And there is nothing indifferent about my reaction to you, love.”
“One could wish for a bit of respect,” Evie exclaimed, shivering before him in her underclothes. “Especially after…after…”
“You don’t need respect. You need comfort, and holding, and possibly a good long tumble in bed with me. But since you won’t allow that, you’ll get a shoulder rub and a few words of advice.” Sebastian settled his warm hands over her shoulders, which were bare except for the tapes of her chemise straps. He began to rub her stiff muscles, his thumbs fanning in strong arcs across her upper back. Evie made a little sound and tried to step away, but he hushed her and continued to massage her with infinite skill.
“You’re not the same as you were a few days ago,” he murmured. “You’re no longer a wallflower, nor a virgin, nor the helpless child who had to endure life with the Maybricks. You’re a viscountess with a sizable fortune, and a scoundrel of a husband. Whose rules will you adhere to now?”
Evie shook her head in weary confusion. She discovered that as Sebastian worked the tension out of her back, her control over her emotions seemed to dissolve at an equal rate. She was afraid that if she tried to speak, she might cry. Instead she remained silent, squeezing her eyes shut and fighting to keep her breathing even. “So far you’ve spent your life striving to please others,” she heard him say. “With a rather poor rate of success. Why don’t you try pleasing yourself for a change? Why not live by your own rules? What has obeying the conventions ever gotten you?”
Evie pondered the questions, and her breath hissed in pleasure as he found a particularly sore spot. “I like the conventions,” she said after a moment. “There is nothing wrong with being an ordinary person, is there?”
“No. But you’re not ordinary—or you never would have come to me instead of marrying cousin Eustace.”
“I was desperate.”
“That wasn’t the entire reason.” His low voice sounded like a purr. “You also had a taste for the devil.”
“I didn’t! I don’t!”
“You enjoyed cornering me, an infamous rake, in my own home with an offer I couldn’t afford to refuse. Don’t try to deny it—I know you well enough by now.”
Incredibly, despite her grief and worry, Evie felt a smile working up to her lips. “Perhaps I did enjoy it, for a moment,” she admitted. “And I certainly enjoyed thinking about how furious my family would be when they learned of it.” The trace of a smile vanished as she added morosely, “How I hated living with them! If only my father had kept me with him. He could have paid someone to look after me…”
“Good Lord,” Sebastian said, not sounding at all sympathetic, “why should he have wanted a young child in his sphere?”
“Because I was his family. Because I was all that he had!”
That earned a decisive shake of his head. “Men don’t think that way, sweet. Your father assumed—and rightly so—that you would be better off living away from him. He knew you would never marry well unless you were brought up in a respectable manner.”
“But if he had known how the Maybricks would treat me…the way I was abused—”
“What makes you assume that your father wouldn’t have done the same?” Sebastian shocked her by asking. “He was an ex-boxer, for God’s sake. He was hardly known for his self-restraint. You may have become entirely familiar with the back of his hand, had you seen him more often.”
“I don’t believe that!” Evie said hotly.
“Settle your feathers,” Sebastian murmured, reaching for the velvet gown on the bed. “As I told you, I would never condone striking a woman for any reason. But the world is full of men who don’t have that particular scruple, and it’s likely your father was one of them. Argue if you like—but don’t be so naive as to put Jenner on a pedestal, love. In the context of his world—the rookeries, the gaming hells, the rogues, criminals, and confidence tricksters—he was a decent enough man. I’m sure he would think that a fitting eulogy. Lift your arms.” Expertly he pulled the velvet over her head, tugged the skirts into a soft, heavy fall over her hips, and helped her to push her arms through the sleeves. “This life isn’t for you,” he said, not unkindly. “You belong on some country estate, sitting on a blanket spread over green lawn, eating a dish of strawberries and cream. Going for carriage drives. Calling on your friends. Someday you should probably let me give you a baby. It would be something to occupy you. And it would give you something in common with your friends, who have doubtless have already begun breeding.”
Startled by the casualness with which the suggestion had been delivered, Evie stared into the handsome face so close to hers. One might have thought he had just proposed to buy her a puppy. Was he really as callous as he seemed?
“Would you take any interest in a baby?” Evie managed to ask after several hard swallows.
“No, pet. I’m no more meant for a wife and family than your father was. But I would see to it that you were handsomely provided for.” A wicked spark entered his eyes. “And I would participate enthusiastically in the begetting of children, if not their rearing.” He moved behind her to fasten the gown. “Think about what you want,” he advised. “There’s very little you can’t have…so long as you dare to reach for it.”
Any friendly feeling that Evie had for her husband promptly vanished the next morning when Sebastian left the club just before noon, ostensibly on an errand to Madame Bradshaw’s. He had finished making arrangements for Ivo Jenner’s funeral, which would be held the following day, and was now turning his attention to business matters involving the club. Jenner’s would be closed for a fortnight, during which there would be a massive invasion of carpenters, masons, painters, all employed to refurbish the building.
Sebastian had also begun to make decisive changes in the club’s procedures, including promoting Cam to the position of factotum. In light of the boy’s mixed heritage, it was certain to be a controversial decision. Gypsies were universally believed to be a light-fingered and deceptive lot. For Cam to be responsible for collecting and paying large sums of money, and arbitrating whenever the legality of a play was in question, would be viewed by some as asking a cat to watch over a nest of baby chicks. The power of the position was such that no one, not even Sebastian, could question his judgments on the games. However, Cam was a familiar and well-liked figure, and Sebastian was willing to gamble that his popularity would induce the club members to accept him in this new position. Besides, none of the other thirty club employees was remotely qualified to run the hazard room.
Now that the house wenches were gone it was imperative that something should be done so that when the club reopened, the members would have access to female companionship. To Evie’s disgruntlement, Cam had agreed with Sebastian that an arrangement with Madame Bradshaw would be an excellent solution to the problem. And naturally, Sebastian had taken it upon himself to make a proposition to the notorious madam. Knowing of her husband’s infamous sexual appetite, Evie was certain that his visit to Madame Bradshaw’s would include far more than a mere business negotiation. Sebastian had not slept with anyone since their sojourn to Gretna Green. No doubt he was primed and eager to indulge himself with some willing female.
Evie told herself repeatedly that she didn’t care. He could sleep with ten women…a hundred…a thousand…and she would not care. She would be an idiot if she did. Sebastian was no more capable of loyalty than a stray tom who wandered the alleys, mating with every she-cat he encountered.
Fuming beneath her stoic facade, Evie brushed and pinned her hair in an intricate plaited coil. Turning away from the small looking glass that sat atop the dresser, Evie set down her brush. As the gleam of her gold wedding ring caught her eye, the engraved Gaelic words seemed to mock her. “My love is upon you,” she whispered bitterly, and tugged it off. There was no point in wearing a wedding ring for a sham of a marriage.
She started to set it on the dresser, thought better of it, and slipped it into her pocket, deciding she would ask Cam to store it in the club’s safe. Just as she made to leave the room, there was a rap at the door. It couldn’t have been Sebastian, who never bothered to knock. Opening the door, Evie beheld Joss Bullard’s heavy features.
While Bullard was not actively disliked by the other employees, it was obvious that his popularity did not begin to approach Cam’s. It was unfortunate for Bullard that since he and Cam Rohan were of an age, they were often measured against each other. It would have been unfair to compare most men to the darkly beautiful Cam, whose sly charm and dry humor made him a favorite among employees and club patrons. To make matters worse, Bullard was a humorless man, dissatisfied with his lot in life and jealous of all those whom he perceived had been given more. Sensing that he found it difficult even to be civil to her, Evie treated him with guarded politeness.
Bullard’s hard, flat eyes stared into hers. “Visitor at the back entrance what’s askin’ for you, milady.”
“A visitor?” Evie frowned, feeling her stomach turn hollow at the suspicion that her uncles had finally learned of her whereabouts. The news of Jenner’s death, the temporary closure of the club, and her own presence there must have traveled swiftly through London. “Who? Wh-what name did he give?”
“I was bid to tell you it was Mrs. ‘Unt, milady.”
Annabelle. The sound of her dear friend’s name caused Evie’s heart to quicken with relief and eagerness, though she could scarcely credit that Annabelle would dare to come to a gaming club. “That is good news,” she exclaimed. “Please bring her upstairs to my father’s receiving room.”
“I was bid to say that you mus’ come down to the back step, milady.”
“Oh.” But that wouldn’t do. A girl of Annabelle’s sheltered background should not be allowed to wait at the back of the club. Filled with concern, Evie crossed the threshold and strode from the room, thinking only of reaching Annabelle as quickly as possible. With Bullard at her heels, she descended the two long flights in a rush, grasping the railing at measured intervals. By the time she reached the bottom, her heart was thumping with exertion. Struggling a little with the heavy door, she pushed it open—
—and reared back in startled surprise as she saw not Annabelle Hunt’s trim figure, but the hulking form of her uncle Peregrine.
Evie’s mind went blank. She gave him a shocked stare that lasted for a mere fraction of a second, then reared back as terror suffused her. Peregrine had always been more than willing to use his fists to force her into compliance. It didn’t matter that she was now Lady St. Vincent, and therefore legally out of his reach. Her uncle would take his revenge in any manner possible, beginning with a harsh beating.
Blindly Evie turned to flee, but to her amazement, Bullard moved to block her way.
“‘E paid me a sovereign to fetch you,” Bullard muttered. “That’s as much as I make in a month.”
“No,” she gasped, shoving at his chest. “Don’t—I’ll give you anything—don’t let him take me!”
“Jenner made you stay wiv them, all those years,” the young man sneered. “‘E didn’t want you ‘ere. No one does.”
As she screamed in protest, Bullard shoved her inexorably toward her uncle, whose broad features were mottled with furious triumph. “There, I did as you asked,” Bullard said brusquely to the man just behind Peregrine, whom Evie recognized in a flash—her uncle Brook. “Now post the cole.”