“That is my price.”
“Your price is too damn high. I never apologize.”
“Then you had better not accept my challenge. Or if you do accept it…you had better not fail.”
“You’ll have no way of knowing if I cheat.”
A long moment of silence passed.
“Where is your ring?” Sebastian asked suddenly.
Evie’s smile disappeared instantly. Embarrassed to admit that she had removed it in a fit of pique, she mumbled, “I took it off.”
“What did you do with it?”
Awkwardly she reached into her pocket. “I…it’s here. I’ll put it back on if you wish—”
“Give it to me.”
Assuming that he intended to take it away from her for good, Evie closed her fingers tightly around the circlet. All of a sudden she discovered that she had become rather attached to the blasted thing. However, pride kept her from asking him to let her keep it. Reluctantly she withdrew the gold ring from her pocket, surreptitiously stroking the engraved surface with her fingertip one last time. Tha Gad Agam Ort…
Taking the ring from her, Sebastian slid it onto his own hand. His hands were so much larger that the circlet would only fit the tip of his smallest finger. Grasping her chin in an intractable hold, he glared into her eyes. “I’ll take your bet,” he said grimly. “I’m going to win it. And in three months, I’m going to put this back on your finger, and take you to bed, and do things to you that are outlawed in the civilized world.”
Evie’s resolve did not shield her from the heart-thumping alarm that any rational woman would feel upon hearing such an ominous statement. Nor did it prevent her knees from turning to jelly as he jerked her against his body and fitted his mouth to hers. Her hands, suspended in mid-air, went to his head in a trembling butterfly descent. The texture of his hair, the locks so cool and thick on the surface, so warm and damp at the roots, was too alluring to resist. She slid her fingers into the gleaming golden layers and pulled him even closer, helplessly reveling in the urgent pressure of his mouth.
Their tongues mated, slid, stroked, and with each slippery-sweet caress inside the joined cavern of their mouths, she felt a hot coiling deep in her belly…no, deeper than that…in the tightening, liquefying core where she had once taken his invading flesh. It shocked her to realize how much she wanted him there again.
She whimpered as he pulled away from her, while frustration washed over them both.
“You didn’t say that I couldn’t kiss you,” Sebastian said, his eyes bright with devil-fire. “I’m going to kiss you as long and as often as I like, and you’re not to utter a word of protest. That’s the concession you’ll give in return for my celibacy. Damn you.”
Giving her no time either to agree or to object, he released her and strode to the door. “And now, if you’ll excuse me…I’m going to go kill Joss Bullard.”
Sebastian encountered Cam in the hallway outside the reading room. “Where is he?” he demanded without preamble.
Stopping before him with an expressionless face, Cam said shortly, “He’s gone.”
“Why didn’t you follow him?” White-hot fury blazed in Sebastian’s eyes. This news, added to the frustration of his vow of celibacy, was the last straw.
Cam, who had been exposed to years of Ivo Jenner’s volcanic temper, remained unruffled. “It was unnecessary in my judgment,” he said. “He won’t return.”
“I don’t pay you to act on your own damned judgment. I pay you to act on mine! You should have dragged him here by the throat and then let me decide what was to be done with the bastard.”
Cam remained silent, sliding a quick, subtle glance at Evie, who was inwardly relieved by the turn of events. They were both aware that had Cam brought Bullard back to the club, there was a distinct possibility that Sebastian might actually have killed him—and the last thing Evie wanted was a murder charge on her husband’s head.
“I want him found,” Sebastian said vehemently, pacing back and forth across the reading room. “I want at least two men hired to look for him day and night until he is brought to me. I swear he’ll serve as an example to anyone who even thinks of lifting a finger against my wife.” He raised his arm and pointed to the doorway. “Bring me a list of names within the hour. The best detectives available—private ones. I don’t want some idiot from the New Police, who’ll foul this up as they do everything else. Go.”
Though Cam undoubtedly had a few opinions to offer on the matter, he kept them to himself. “Yes, my lord.” He left the room at once, while Sebastian glared after him.
Seeking to calm his seething temper, Evie ventured, “There is no need to take your anger out on Cam. He—”
“Don’t even try to excuse him,” Sebastian said darkly. “You and I both know that he could have caught that damned gutter rat had he wanted to. And I’ll be damned if I’ll tolerate your calling him by his first name—he is not your brother, nor is he a friend. He’s an employee, and you’ll refer to him as ‘Mr. Rohan’ from now on.”
“He is my friend,” Evie replied in outrage. “He has been for years!”
“Married women don’t have friendships with young unmarried men.”
“Y-you dare to insult my honor with the implication that…that…” Evie could hardly speak for the multitude of protests that jammed inside her. “I’ve done nothing to merit such a lack of tr-tr-trust!”
“I trust you. It’s everyone else that I hold in suspicion.”
Suspecting that he might be mocking her, Evie stared at him with a reproachful frown. “You’re carrying on as if I am being chased by hordes of men, when that is obviously not the case. At Stony Cross Park, men went out of their way to avoid my company—and you were one of them!”
The charge, though true, seemed to startle Sebastian. His face became taut, and he stared at her in stony silence. “You hardly made it easy for anyone to approach you,” he said after a moment. “A man’s vanity is more fragile than you might think. It’s easy for us to mistake shyness for coldness, and silence for indifference. You could have exerted yourself a bit, you know. One brief meeting between the two of us…one smile from you…was all the encouragement I would have needed to jump on you like a grouse on laurel.”
Evie stared at him with round eyes, having never considered things in that light before. Was it possible that she herself was partly responsible for her history as a perennial wallflower? “I suppose…” she said reflectively, “I could make more of an effort to overcome my shyness.”
“Do as you please. But when you’re with Rohan or any other man, you had better keep in mind that you belong completely to me.”
Trying to interpret the comment, Evie stared at him with astonishment. “Are you…is it possible…you’re jealous?”
Sudden bafflement flickered across his features. “Yes,” he said gruffly. “It would seem so.” And throwing Evie a glance of bewildered annoyance, he left the room.
The funeral was held the next morning. Sebastian had done a splendid job of arranging the event, somehow managing to achieve the perfect balance between total somber dignity and slightly theatrical pomp. It was the kind of procession that Ivo Jenner would have adored, so large that it took up the full breadth of St. James.
There was a black and gilded hearse drawn by four horses, two mourning coaches similarly drawn by fours, with all the bridles adorned with tall dyed ostrich plumes. The handsome oak coffin, adorned with brass nails and a gleaming inscription plate, was lined with lead and welded shut to prevent the intrusion of grave robbers, a common problem in London churchyards. Before the lid had closed over her father’s body, Evie had seen one of Cam’s gold rings on his finger, a parting gift that had touched her. What had touched her equally, however, had been the glimpse she’d caught of Sebastian smoothing her father’s faded red hair with a comb, when he’d thought no one was watching him.
It was bitterly cold. The biting wind penetrated Evie’s heavy wool cloak as she sat on horseback, with Sebastian walking beside her and holding the horse’s reins. Two dozen men serving as pages, feathermen, and coachmen walked at the end of the procession, their breaths blowing white in the early winter air. They were followed by a great crowd of mourners, a curious mingling of well-to-do people, merchants, flash gentry, and outright criminals. Friends and enemies alike were there. No matter what someone’s occupation or disposition, the tradition of mourning had to be observed.
It was expected that Evie would not attend the funeral, as ladies’ natures were considered too delicate to tolerate such harsh reality. However, Evie had insisted on participating. She found comfort in the ritual, as if it helped her to bid farewell to her father. Sebastian had been inclined to argue, until Cam had intervened.
“Jenner must be released from the fetters of his daughter’s grief,” the Gypsy had told Sebastian, just as the argument had become heated. “The Rom believe that if someone grieves too much for a loved one who has died, the deceased one will be forced to come back through the veil, to try to comfort the sorrowing one. If attending the funeral will help her to let him go…” He had stopped and shrugged prosaically.
Sebastian had given him a withering glance. “Ghosts again,” he said sourly. But he had let the matter drop and gave in to Evie’s wishes.
Having cried until it seemed that she had no more tears left, Evie managed to be stoic throughout the funeral, even when earth was shoveled over the coffin that had been lowered into the ground. A few salty drops did slip from the corners of her eyes, however, as the coffin was completely covered, and Cam stepped forward with a small silver flask. According to Romany tradition, he solemnly poured a drink of brandy onto the grave site.
Angered by the gesture, the elderly clergyman stepped forward, scolding, “Stop that! We’ll have none of your heathen practices! Soiling a sacred place with cheap spirits—”
“Sir,” Sebastian interrupted, stepping forward and resting a large hand on the clergyman’s shoulder. “I don’t think our friend Jenner would have minded.” He let a conspiratorial smile touch his lips as he added, “It’s French brandy, and an excellent year. Perhaps you will allow me to send a few bottles to your residence, to sample at your leisure?”
Mollified by the viscount’s abundant charm, the clergyman smiled back. “That is very kind, my lord. Thank you.”
Once most of the mourners had departed, Evie let her gaze travel over the shop fronts, the houses, and the blacking factory that surrounded the square. Her attention was suddenly caught by the face of a man standing by a lamppost on the other side of the square. Dressed in a dark coat and a dirty gray cap, he was not recognizable until a slow smile split his face.
It was Joss Bullard, she realized with a start of recognition. It seemed that he had wanted to pay his respects to Ivo Jenner, if only from a distance. However, he did not wear the expression of a man in mourning. He looked positively evil, his face twisted with a malice that sent a chill down her spine. Watching her steadily, he drew his finger across his throat in an unmistakable gesture that caused her to take an involuntary step backward.
Noticing the movement, Sebastian turned toward her, automatically taking her shoulders in his black-gloved hands. “Evie,” he murmured, staring down at her pale face with a touch of concern. “Are you all right?”
Evie nodded, letting her gaze flicker back to the lamppost. Bullard was gone. “I’m just a bit c-cold,” she replied, her teeth chattering as a gust of bitter wind swept the hood of her cloak back from her face.
Immediately Sebastian pulled the hood back into place and snuggled the cloak more closely around her neck. “I’m going to take you back to the club,” he said. “I’ll give a few coins to the feathermen and coachmen, and then we’ll leave.” Reaching into his greatcoat, he pulled out a small leather bag and went to the group of men waiting respectfully near the graveside.
Catching Evie’s anxious stare, Cam approached her, the gleam of a smudged tear track on his lean cheek. She caught at his sleeve and said under her breath, “I just saw Mr. Bullard. Over there, at the lamppost.”
His eyes widened slightly, and he nodded.
There was no opportunity to say anything further. Sebastian returned and put his arm around Evie’s shoulders. “The carriage is waiting,” he said.
“There was no need to have arranged for a carriage,” she protested. “I could have walked.”
“I had them fill the foot warmer,” he said, and a smile tugged at his lips as he saw the flicker of anticipation in her expression. He glanced at Cam. “Come to the carriage with us.”
“Thank you,” came the boy’s guarded reply, “but I would prefer to walk.”
“We’ll see you at the club, then.”
“Yes, my lord.”
As Evie accompanied Sebastian to the carriage, she steeled herself not to look back at Cam. She wondered if he would manage to find Bullard, and what might happen if he did. Stepping onto the movable stool, she climbed into the vehicle. She hurriedly arranged her skirts over the foot warmer and shuddered in pleasure as it sent wafts of heat up to her knees. Sebastian sat beside her, a faint smile on his lips.
Remembering their madcap journey to Gretna Green, which had not been all that long ago, Evie thought that it seemed as if an eternity had passed since then. She snuggled against Sebastian, gratified that he did not try to ease her away.
“You held up quite well, all things considered,” he said as the carriage began to move.
“It was the most elaborate funeral procession I’ve ever seen,” she replied. “My father would have adored it.”
Sebastian let out a huff of amusement. “When in doubt, I chose to err on the side of excess, hoping it would have suited him.” He hesitated before continuing. “Tomorrow I’m going to have your father’s apartments completely emptied and stripped,” he said. “We’ll never be rid of the sickroom smell otherwise.”
“I think that is an excellent idea.”
“The club will reopen the week after next. I’ll let you stay here until then, to have a little time to adjust to your father’s death. But when Jenner’s doors are open again, I want you to be comfortably settled in my town house.”