Cam interrupted firmly. “There are more drubbings in store, milord, if you won’t take a few pointers on how to fight.” Without waiting for Sebastian’s assent, he went to the doorway and called, “Dawson! Come back here for a minute. No, not for work. We need you to come take a few swings at St. Vincent.” He glanced back at Sebastian and remarked innocently, “Well, that got him. He’s hurrying over here.”
Biting back a sudden smile, Evie withdrew to the corner, understanding that Cam’s intention was to help her husband. If Sebastian insisted on sparring according to gentlemen’s rules, he would be no match against the ruthless attacks he might encounter.
Dawson, a burly young employee, entered the room.
“Dawson is the best fighter we’ve got,” Cam remarked. “He’s going to show you a few basic maneuvers to down a man quickly. Dawson, give Lord St. Vincent a cross buttock. Gently, though—it wouldn’t do to break his back.”
Looking more than pleased to practice the maneuver on Sebastian, Dawson charged him in a few heavy strides, hooked a meaty arm around his neck, grasped his loose arm, and canted him over his shoulder, causing Sebastian to flip over violently. He landed on his back with a pained grunt. Dawson was about to jump onto his abdomen when Cam interceded hastily, diving forward to grab the enthusiastic young man by the shoulder. “Good, Dawson. Very good. That’s enough for now. Back off, please.”
Evie watched the proceedings with a clenched fist pressed against her mouth.
Cam reached down a hand to help Sebastian up. Spurning the offer, Sebastian rolled and rose to his feet, regarding him with a scowl so forbidding that it would have given most men pause, before continuing. Cam, however, spoke in an instructional tone. “It’s a simple move, really. When your sides come together, lock your arm around the other man’s neck, seize his arm, and shift your body like so, and then he’ll go over quite easily. Depending on how hard you slam him to the ground, he’ll be unable to move for several seconds. Here, try it with me.”
It was to Sebastian’s credit that he exercised restraint while practicing the procedure on Cam. He learned quickly, flipping the Gypsy to the ground with an odd mixture of efficiency and reluctance. “I can’t fight this way,” he muttered.
Cam ignored the comment. “Now, if you’re seized from behind, you can usually break it with a backward head butt. Start with your head down, chin to the chest. Clench your teeth, keep your mouth shut, and jerk your head back, hard and fast, into his face. No need to take aim. And for the forward head butt…have you done this before? No? Well, the trick is to keep your eyes on your opponent while you’re doing it. Aim for a soft part of the face—never go for his forehead or skull. Use your body weight, and try to strike with the area about one inch above your brows.”
Sebastian tolerated the lesson with baleful reluctance, while the two younger men demonstrated throat strikes, foot stomps, and other techniques for attacking the vulnerable places of the human body. He participated when called on to do so, displaying a physical aptitude that seemed to please Cam. However, when the boy began on various methods for delivering a groin kick, it appeared that Sebastian had endured enough.
“That’s it,” he growled. “No more, Rohan.”
“But there are still a few things—”
“I don’t give a damn.”
Cam exchanged a glance with Evie, who shrugged and shook her head slightly, neither of them understanding the source of his aggravation. After a moment, Cam dismissed Dawson with a few words of praise, and shooed him out of the room.
Turning to Sebastian, who was tugging on his coat with barely suppressed violence, Cam asked calmly, “What is the problem, milord?”
Sebastian made a scornful sound. “I’ve never pretended to be a model of virtue. And I’ve done things in the past that would make the devil cringe. But there are certain things that even I can’t stoop to. Men of my position don’t stomp feet, knee the groin, or butt heads while they’re fighting. Nor do they engage in throat punching, tripping, or God help me, hair pulling.”
Though Evie would have thought it impossible for Cam’s eyes to look cold, they were suddenly as hard as chunks of frosted amber.
“What exactly is your position, if you don’t mind my asking?” the Gypsy inquired in a lightly barbed tone. “Are you a nobleman? You’re not living like one. You’re sleeping in a gaming club, in a room recently vacated by a pair of whores. Are you a man of leisure? You’ve just ended the evening breaking up a fight between a pair of sodden idiots. It’s a bit late to turn particular now, isn’t it?”
“You fault me for having standards?” Sebastian countered icily.
“Not at all. I fault you for having two sets of them. The Rom have a saying—‘With one behind, you cannot sit on two horses.’ If you want to survive here, you’ll have to change. You can’t pose as an aristocratic idler who’s above this sort of thing. Hell…you’re trying to assume a job that even I couldn’t manage. You’ll have to deal with gamblers, drunkards, thieves, liars, crime lords, lawyers, police, and more than thirty employees who all believe you’re going to fold up the wagon and depart within the month. Now that Jenner’s dead, you’ve taken his place as one of the greatest marks in London. Everyone will want favors, or try to take advantage of you, or prove themselves superior to you. And no one will ever tell you the complete truth. About anything. You have to sharpen your instincts. You have to make people afraid of crossing you. Otherwise, the odds of your success are so low as to be…” His voice trailed away. It was clear that Cam would have liked to say more, but one glance at Sebastian’s face seemed to indicate that further words were useless. Raking his lean hand roughly through the disordered layers of his jet-black hair, Cam strode from the room.
A long minute passed before Evie dared to approach her husband. He was staring fixedly at the blank wall in brooding contemplation. She noticed that whereas most people tended to look older when they were tired and strained, Sebastian tended to look younger. Staring up into his face, she murmured, “Why are you doing it? It’s not just for money. What are you hoping to find in this place?”
Unexpectedly, the questions kindled a gleam of sardonic amusement in his eyes. “When I figure it out…I’ll let you know.”
The following afternoon Sebastian came to the office to find Evie, who was totaling receipts and listing numbers in an account ledger. “You have a visitor,” Sebastian said without preamble. He met her gaze over the pile of paper slips. “Mrs. Hunt.”
Evie stared at him in astonishment, her heart leaping. She had struggled with the question of whether to write to Annabelle. She had been longing to see her friend, and yet there was a definite question about what her reception would be. Slowly she stood from her chair. “Are you certain it’s not another deception?”
“I’m certain,” Sebastian said sardonically. “My ears are still ringing with accusations and invectives. Neither Mrs. Hunt nor Miss Bowman will accept that you weren’t abducted, raped, and married at knifepoint.”
“Miss Bowman?” Evie repeated dumbly, reflecting in an instant that it couldn’t be Lillian. She was no longer Miss Bowman, and was still on her honeymoon with Lord Westcliff. “Daisy is here as well?”
“And as hot-tempered as a hornet,” he confirmed. “You might reassure them that you’ve acted of your own free will, as I believe they’re of a mind to send for the nearest constable to arrest me.”
Excitement caused Evie’s pulse to quicken, and her fingers tightened on his arm. “I can’t believe they’ve both dared to come here. I’m certain that Mr. Hunt can’t know what Annabelle is doing.”
“On that point we agree,” Sebastian said. “Hunt wouldn’t allow his wife within a ten-mile radius of me. And the Bowmans would never approve of their youngest daughter setting foot in a gaming club. However, knowing your friends, I have no doubt that they’ve concocted some elaborate ruse to cover their actions.”
“Where are they? Don’t say you’ve left them standing at the back entrance?”
“They’ve been shown to the reading room.”
Evie was so eager to see her friends that she had to restrain herself from breaking into a run as soon as she left the office. Hurrying to the reading room, with Sebastian following, she dashed across the threshold and stopped uncertainly.
There was Annabelle, with her honey-streaked hair curled into shining upswept ringlets, her complexion as fresh as that of the idealized dairymaids who were painted on tins of sweets. Upon first acquaintance, Annabelle’s exquisite English-rose beauty had been so intimidating that Evie had been afraid to talk to her, certain that she would receive a crushing snub from such an exquisite creature. However, she had eventually discovered that Annabelle was warm and kind, with a self-deprecating sense of humor.
Daisy Bowman, Lillian’s young sister, had an outsized personality that belied her small, slight frame. Idealistic and possessed of a decidedly whimsical bent, she devoured romantic novels populated with rogues and villains. However, Daisy’s elfin facade concealed a shrewd intelligence that most people tended to overlook. She was fair-skinned and dark-haired, with eyes the color of spiced gingerbread…mischievous eyes with long, spiky lashes.
Upon seeing Evie, her friends rushed toward her with unladylike squeals, and Evie let out her own laughing shriek as they collided in a circle of tightly hugging arms and exuberant kisses. In their shared excitement, the three young women continued to exclaim and scream, until someone burst into the room.
It was Cam, his eyes wide, his breathing fast, as if he had come at a dead run. His alert gaze flashed across the room, taking in the situation. Slowly his lean frame relaxed. “Damn,” he muttered. “I thought something was wrong.”
“Everything is fine, Cam,” Evie said with a smile, while Annabelle kept an arm around her shoulders. “My friends are here, that’s all.”
Glancing at Sebastian, Cam remarked sourly, “I’ve heard less noise from the hogs at slaughter time.”
There was a sudden suspicious tension around Sebastian’s jaw, as if he were fighting to suppress a grin. “Mrs. Hunt, Miss Bowman, this is Mr. Rohan. You must pardon his lack of tact, as he is…”
“A ruffian?” Daisy suggested innocently.
This time Sebastian could not prevent a smile. “I was going to say ‘unused to the presence of ladies at the club.’”
“Is that what they are?” Cam asked, casting a dubious glance at the visitors, his attention lingering for a moment on Daisy’s small face.
Pointedly ignoring Cam, Daisy spoke to Annabelle. “I’ve always heard that Gypsies are known for their charm. An unfounded myth, it seems.”
Cam’s golden eyes narrowed into tigerish slits. “We’re also known for carrying off gadji maidens.”
Before the exchange could continue, Evie interceded quickly. “My lord,” she said to Sebastian, “if you have no objections, I would like to speak in private to my friends.”
“Certainly,” he said with impeccable courtesy. “Shall I have a tea tray sent in, my sweet?”
“Yes, thank you.”
As the men departed and the doors closed behind them, Daisy burst out, “How can you speak to St. Vincent cordially after what he’s done?”
“Daisy,” Evie began apologetically, “I’m so s-sorry about what happened to Lillian, and I—”
“No, not just that,” Daisy interrupted hotly, “I mean after what he’s done to you! Taking advantage of you, forcing you to marry him, and then—”
“He didn’t force me.” Evie looked from Daisy’s indignant face to Annabelle’s concerned one. “Truly, he didn’t! I was the one who approached him. Here, let’s sit, and I’ll t-tell you everything…How have you two managed to come to the club?”
“Mr. Hunt is away on business,” Annabelle said with a crafty smile. “And I told the Bowmans that I was taking Daisy shopping with me on St. James Street. I’m her chaperone, you see.”
“And we did go shopping,” Daisy interjected slyly. “It’s only that we’ve taken this one little detour afterward…”
In the following minutes, they sat together in a cluster, with Annabelle and Evie on the settee, and Daisy in a nearby chair. Stammering slightly, Evie relayed the events that had transpired after she had left the Maybricks’ home. To her relief, her friends did not condemn her for her actions. Instead they were concerned and sympathetic, even though it was clear that they did not agree with the choices she had made.
“I’m sorry,” Evie said at one point, as she saw the frown that pleated the ivory smoothness of Annabelle’s forehead. “I know you don’t approve of my marriage to Lord St. Vincent.”
“It doesn’t matter if I approve,” Annabelle said gently. “I’ll stand your friend no matter what you do. I wouldn’t care if you had married the devil himself.”
“Who is undoubtedly close kin of St. Vincent,” Daisy remarked grimly.
“The point is,” Annabelle continued, giving Daisy a swift warning glance, “now that it’s a fait accompli, we want to find out how we can best help you.”
Evie smiled gratefully. “All I need is your friendship. I was so afraid you might withdraw it.”
“Never.” Annabelle glanced over her and reached out to smooth her tumbled red curls. “Dear, I hope this doesn’t seem presumptuous…but since you left your family’s home in haste, I’m sure you weren’t able to take many gowns with you. So I’ve brought some things for you to wear. I know you’re in mourning, and so I’ve brought only the browns and black and grays, and of course some nightgowns and gloves and other things…I’ll have them sent in from the carriage, if you are agreeable. We’re nearly the same height, and I think with a few alterations—”
“Oh Annabelle,” Evie exclaimed, throwing her arms around her friend, “how kind you are! But I don’t want you to s-sacrifice any part of your wedding trousseau for my sake—”
“It’s no sacrifice,” Annabelle informed her, drawing back and smiling. “Before long, I won’t be able to wear them at all.”