She shouldn’t have obeyed, but her hands seemed to possess a will of their own, clenching the wads of velvet against her midriff. Her drawers were pushed to her ankles, and his mouth wandered upward, his breath like puffs of steam against the tender skin of her leg. Evie made a low keening sound as he parted the private curls between her thighs. The two fingers he slipped inside her were immediately clasped and caressed, her inner muscles working as if to draw him deeper. Evie’s eyes half closed, and a passion-blush swept over her body in uneven drifts of pink. “Sebastian.”
“Shhh…” His fingers pushed higher, and his mouth nudged past the swollen folds of her sex. He teased the straining little peak, licking in a sly counter-rhythm to the gentle thrust of his fingers. Evie arched against the door, her throat aching from the effort not to cry out. He did not pause or relent, did not allow her a single moment to catch her breath, only stroked and tormented her hot, twitching flesh, driving the sensation higher and higher until at last she choked back a scream and shuddered with rapture. His mouth stayed on her, drawing out every last ripple of fulfillment until she was finally still, her weary flesh emptied of sensation.
Eventually Sebastian stood, bringing his aroused body against hers, his forehead pressed to the door behind her. Evie linked her arms around his lean waist, her eyes closed as she rested her cheek against his shoulder. “The bargain…” she mumbled.
“You said I could kiss you,” came his gentle, wicked whisper near her ear. “But, my love…you didn’t specify where.”
“You sent for me, my lord?” Evie came to stand before the desk in the small office, where Sebastian remained sitting. One of the servants had brought her downstairs at his request, accompanying her through the barely controlled chaos of the overcrowded club.
On this, the first night of Jenner’s reopening, it seemed that everyone who was or wished to be a member was determined to gain admittance. A stack of applications was piled on the desk before Sebastian, while at least a dozen men waited impatiently in the entrance hall to be approved. The air was filled with the sounds of chatter and clinking glasses, and the music of an orchestra that played on the second-floor balcony. To honor the memory of Ivo Jenner, champagne was being served in an endless flow, adding to the atmosphere of uninhibited enjoyment. The club was open again, and all was well with the gentlemen of London.
“Yes, I did,” Sebastian said in response to Evie’s question. “Why the hell are you still here? You should have left approximately eight hours ago.”
She stared into his expressionless face without flinching. “I’m still packing.”
“You’ve been packing for three days. You don’t own more than a half-dozen gowns. The few belongings you have would fit into a small valise. You’re stalling, Evie.”
“What difference does it make to you?” she shot back. “For the past two days you’ve treated me as if I don’t even exist. I can scarcely credit that you even noticed I’m still here.”
Sebastian subjected her to a knifelike stare while he struggled to retain control of his writhing temper. Not notice her? Holy hell, he would have given a fortune for that to be true. He had been torturously aware of her every word and gesture, hungering constantly for the briefest glimpse of her. Seeing her now, her beautifully curved body neatly wrapped in the black velvet dress, was enough to drive him mad. The somber darkness of mourning was supposed to render a woman plain and drab, but instead the black made her skin look like fresh cream, and her hair glow like fire. He wanted to take her to bed, and love her until this mysterious bedeviling attraction was consumed in its own heat. He felt invaded by something, some kind of ardent disquiet that felt like a sickness…something that made him go from one room to another and then forget what he had wanted. He had never been like this…distracted, impatient, agonized with yearning.
He had to get rid of her. Evie had to be protected from the dangers and depravities of the club, as well as from himself. If he could somehow keep her safe, and see her in some kind of limited manner…it was the only solution.
“I want you to go,” he said. “Everything has been prepared for you at the house. You’ll be far more comfortable there. And then I won’t have to worry about what kind of trouble you might be getting into.” Standing, he went to the door, taking care to preserve a necessary physical distance between them. “I’m going to send for a carriage. In a quarter hour, I want you to be in it.”
“I’ve had no supper. Is it too much to ask that I be allowed a last meal?”
Though Sebastian wasn’t looking at her, he could hear the note of childish defiance in her voice, and it caused a wrench in his heart…a heart that he had always believed to be nothing more than an efficient muscle.
He never remembered whether he had intended to allow her to stay for supper or not, for at that moment he saw Cam approaching the office…accompanied by the unmistakable form of the Earl of Westcliff. Turning to the side, Sebastian dragged his lean fingers through his hair. “Bloody hell,” he muttered.
Evie came to him instantly. “What is it?”
Sebastian wiped his face clean of expression. “You’d better go,” he said grimly. “Westcliff is here.”
“I’m not going anywhere,” she said at once. “Westcliff is too much of a gentleman to fight in front of a lady.”
Sebastian let out a derisive laugh. “I don’t need to hide behind your skirts, pet. And I doubt he’s here to fight—that was all settled on the night I abducted Miss Bowman.”
“What does he want, then?”
“Either to deliver a warning, or to see if you need rescuing. Or both.”
Evie remained by his side as Westcliff entered the office.
Cam was the first to speak. “My lord,” he said to Sebastian, “I bid the earl to wait, but he—”
“No one bids Westcliff to do anything,” Sebastian said dryly. “It’s all right, Cam. Go back to the hazard tables, or it will be mayhem in there. And take Lady St. Vincent with you.”
“No,” Evie said instantly, her concerned gaze switching from Sebastian’s mocking face to Westcliff’s granite-hard one. “I’m going to stay.” Turning to Lord Westcliff, she gave him her hand. “My lord, I have thought so often about Lillian…she is well, I hope?”
Westcliff bent over her hand and spoke in his distinctive gravelly voice. “Quite well. It is her wish that you come to stay with us, if you so desire.”
Although Sebastian had been browbeating her into leaving the club only a few minutes earlier, he was filled with sudden fury. The arrogant bastard. If he thought to come in here and snatch Evie away from beneath his nose—
“Thank you, my lord,” Evie replied softly as she stared into Westcliff’s bold-featured face. He had black hair, and eyes so dark that it was impossible to distinguish the irises from the pupils. “You are very kind. And I wish very much to visit soon. But I have no need of your hospitality at this time.”
“Very well. The offer will remain open. Allow me to offer my condolences on your recent loss.”
“Thank you.” She smiled at Westcliff, Sebastian saw with a stab of jealousy.
As the possessor of one of the oldest and most powerful earldoms in England, Marcus, Lord Westcliff, had the aura of a man who was accustomed to having his opinions heard and heeded. Though he was not classically handsome, Westcliff possessed a dark vitality and masculine vigor that caused him to stand out in any gathering. He was a sportsman and a bruising rider, known for pushing himself to the edge of his own physical limits and beyond. In fact, Westcliff approached everything in life that way, allowing himself nothing less than excellence in whatever he chose to do.
Westcliff and Sebastian had been friends since the age of ten, having spent most of their formative years together at boarding school. Even as boys they’d had an unlikely friendship, for Westcliff by nature believed in moral absolutes, and had no difficulty distinguishing right from wrong. Sebastian had loved to take the simplest matters and twist them into something exasperatingly complex, merely as an exercise of his own cleverness. Westcliff always chose the most efficient and straightforward path, whereas Sebastian chose the crooked, poorly mapped route that would get one into all manner of trouble before finally reaching his destination.
However, there was much that the two friends understood about each other, having both grown up under the influence of manipulative and uncaring fathers. They had shared a similarly unromantic view of the world, understanding that they could trust very few people. And now, Sebastian reflected bleakly, he had broken Westcliff’s trust beyond any hope of repairing it. For the first time in his life, he was aware of a sickening pang that he could only identify as regret.
Why the hell had he focused his attentions on Lillian Bowman? When he had realized that Westcliff was taken with the girl, why had Sebastian not troubled himself to find some other heiress to wed? He had been a fool to overlook Evie. In retrospect, Lillian had not been worth the sabotage of a friendship. Privately Sebastian was forced to acknowledge that Westcliff’s absence in his life was rather like a blister on his foot that frequently chafed and would never quite heal.
Sebastian waited until the door had closed behind Cam. Then he draped a possessive arm over Evie’s narrow shoulders and spoke to his former friend. “How was the honeymoon?” he inquired mockingly.
Westcliff ignored the question. “In light of the circumstances,” he said to Evie, “I find it necessary to ask—were you married under duress?”
“No,” Evie said earnestly, inching closer to Sebastian’s side as if she were trying to shield him. “Truly, my lord, it was my idea. I went to Lord St. Vincent’s home to ask for his help, and he gave it.”
Appearing unconvinced, Westcliff said curtly, “Surely there were other avenues available to you.”
“None that I could see at the time.” Her slender arm slipped around Sebastian’s waist, causing his breath to stop in sudden astonishment. “I do not regret my decision,” he heard Evie tell Westcliff firmly. “I would do it again without hesitation. Lord St. Vincent has been nothing but kind to me.”
“She’s lying, of course,” Sebastian said with a callous laugh, while his pulse began to vibrate frantically in his veins. With Evie’s soft body tucked against his side, he could feel her warmth, smell her skin. He couldn’t understand why she was trying to defend him. “I’ve been a bastard to her,” he told Westcliff flatly. “Fortunately for me, Lady St. Vincent was ill-used by her family for so long that she has no conception of what it is to be treated well.”
“That’s not true,” Evie said to Westcliff. Neither of them spared a glance at Sebastian, giving him an infuriating sense of being cut out of the conversation. “This has been a difficult time, as you can imagine. I could not have survived it without my husband’s support. He has looked after my health, and sheltered me as much as possible. He has worked very hard to preserve my father’s business. He defended me when my uncles tried to compel me to leave with them against my will—”
“You’ve gone too far, sweet,” Sebastian told her with baleful satisfaction. “Westcliff knows me well enough to be certain that I would never work. Or defend anyone, for that matter. I only bother with my own interests.” To his annoyance, neither of them seemed to pay attention to his remarks.
“My lord,” Evie said to the earl, “from what I have learned about my husband, I do not believe he would have acted as he did, had he understood that you were in love with Lillian. That is not to excuse his behavior, but to—”
“He doesn’t love her,” Sebastian snarled, pushing Evie away from him. Suddenly it felt as if the room was shrinking, the walls drawing closer until they threatened to crush him in a fatal vise. Damn her for trying to apologize for him! And damn her for putting up a sham pretense of affection between them. “He doesn’t believe in love any more than I do.” He glared at Westcliff. “How many times have you told me that love is a delusion of men who wished to make the necessity of marriage more palatable?”
“I was wrong,” Westcliff said. “Why are you so irate?”
“I’m not—” Sebastian broke off as he realized that he was unraveling. He glanced at Evie and felt the startling reverse of their positions…she, the stammering wallflower, now serene and steady…and he, always so cool and self-possessed, now reduced to an impassioned idiot. And all in front of Westcliff, who observed the pair of them with keen scrutiny.
“What does it take to be rid of you?” Sebastian asked Evie abruptly. “Go with Westcliff, if you won’t go to the town house. I don’t give a damn so long as you’re out of my sight.”
Her eyes widened, and she flinched as if she had been struck by a metal dart. She remained composed, however, taking a deep breath and releasing it in a controlled flow. As Sebastian watched her, he was nearly overcome by the urge to fall to his knees before her and beg for forgiveness. Instead he remained frozen while she went to the door.
“Evie—” he muttered.
She ignored him and left, squaring her shoulders as she walked away from the office.
Sebastian clenched his hands into aching fists while his gaze followed her. After several seconds, he forced himself to glance at Westcliff. His old friend was staring at him not with hatred, but with something like reluctant compassion. “This isn’t what I expected to find,” Westcliff said quietly. “You’re not yourself, Sebastian.”
It had been years since Westcliff had addressed him by his first name. Men, even siblings or the closest of friends, almost always called each other by their family or title names.
“Go to hell,” Sebastian muttered. “No doubt that was what you came to tell me tonight. If so, you’re about a month too late.”
“That was my intention,” Westcliff admitted. “Now, however, I’ve decided to stay and have a snifter of brandy while you tell me what in God’s name you’re doing. To start with, you can explain why you’ve taken it upon yourself to manage a gaming club.”
It was the worst possible time to sit and talk with the club so crowded—but suddenly Sebastian didn’t give a damn. It had been an eternity since he’d conversed with someone who knew him well. Although Sebastian had no illusion that their former friendship was anything but a shambles, the prospect of discussing things with Westcliff, even an unsympathetic Westcliff, seemed an unutterable relief. “All right,” he muttered. “Yes, we’ll talk. Don’t leave. I’ll return in a moment—I can’t allow my wife to go through the club unescorted.”