He left the office with long strides and went to the entrance hall. Seeing no sign of Evie’s black-gowned figure, he deduced that she had gone an alternate route, perhaps through the central room. He paused in one of the arched doorways and glanced across the sea of heads. Evie’s brilliant hair made it easy to locate her quickly. She was heading to the corner where Cam sat. As she passed, several club members moved to make way for her.
Sebastian pursued her slowly at first, then with increasing urgency. He was in a peculiar state, struggling to understand himself. He had always been so adept at handling women. Why, then, had it become impossible to remain detached where Evie was concerned? He was separated from what he wanted most, not by real distance but by a past tainted with debauchery. To let himself have a relationship with her…no, it was impossible. His own iniquity would saturate her like dark ink spreading over pristine white parchment, until every inch of clean space was obliterated. She would become cynical, bitter…and as she came to know him, she would despise him.
Cam, who was seated on a tall stool overlooking the hazard tables, noticed Evie’s approach. He turned on the stool to face her, lowering one foot to the ground. His dark head lifted, and he let his gaze whisk quickly across the room, alert as always to the scene around him. Catching sight of Sebastian, Cam gave a short nod to indicate that he would keep her with him until Sebastian could reach them.
Cam surveyed the room once more, a frown tugging between his dark brows. His shoulders hitched slightly, as if the hair on his nape was prickling uncomfortably, and he twisted to glance over his shoulder. Seeing that no one was behind him, he began to settle back onto the stool. However, it seemed that some nagging instinct caused him to scrutinize the crowd, as if his gaze were being drawn by a magnet…He happened to glance upward to the second-floor galleries…and Sebastian saw the boy focus with sudden knifelike intensity.
Breaking free of the crowd, Sebastian followed Cam’s stunned gaze, and saw a dark, stocky man standing at the east balcony that overlooked the main floor. He was disheveled and dirty, his black hair plastered over the distinctive bullet shape of his skull. Joss Bullard, Sebastian realized in an instant…but how had he entered the club without being noticed? It must have been through a hidden entrance. The club had more openings and passages than a rabbit warren. And no one knew the place better than Bullard or Cam, both of whom had lived here since childhood—
Sebastian’s thoughts exploded as he saw the gleam of reflected light off the barrel of a pistol in Bullard’s hand. Even at this angle, the object of his aim was clear. The target was Evie, who was still approximately a half-dozen yards away from Cam.
Driven by raw instinct, Sebastian leaped forward with lightning speed, while hideous fear burned through him. Evie’s form became so sharp and detailed in his panicked vision that even the velvet nap of her gown was distinct. Every nerve and muscle strained to reach her, every thundering beat of his heart laboring to feed blood to his fast-moving limbs. Seizing her with frantic hands, Sebastian turned his own body to shield her, and used the momentum of his speed to bring them both to the floor.
The report of a pistol echoed through the cavernous room. Sebastian felt an impact in his side, as if someone had punched him with a fist, and a burst of fiery pain as a lead slug tore through muscle and soft tissue, severing a network of arteries in its path. The hard collision of the floor stunned Sebastian momentarily. He lay partly over Evie, trying to cover her head with his arms, while she struggled beneath him. “Be still,” he gasped, holding her to the floor, fearing that Bullard might shoot again. “Wait, Evie.”
She subsided obediently, while the air was filled with a surfeit of noise…shouts and cries…thundering footsteps…
Levering himself over Evie’s prone body, Sebastian risked a glance upward at the second-floor balcony. Bullard was gone. With a grunt of pain, Sebastian rolled to his side and searched his wife for injuries, terrified that the bullet might have struck her as well. “Evie…sweetheart…are you hurt?”
“Why did you push me like that?” she asked in a muffled voice. “No, I’m not hurt. What was that noise?”
His shaking hand brushed over her face, pushing back a tumble of hair that had fallen across her eyes.
Bemused, Evie wriggled out from beneath him and sat up. Sebastian remained on his side, panting for breath, while he felt a hot slide of blood over his chest and waist.
People were crowding to flee the building, threatening to trample the couple on the floor. Suddenly a man came to crouch over them, having fought his way through the rushing horde. He used his body as a bulwark to keep them from being overrun. Blinking, Sebastian realized that it was Westcliff. Dizzily Sebastian reached up to clutch at his coat.
“He aimed for Evie,” Sebastian said hoarsely. His lips had gone numb, and he licked at them before continuing. “Keep her safe…keep her…”
Evie let out a shaken cry as she saw the bright crimson that spread over Sebastian’s shirtfront and realized he had been wounded. She attacked the buttons of his coat and waistcoat, ripping the plackets in her sudden frenzy. Wordlessly Westcliff stripped off his own coat and wadded his waistcoat into a tight bundle. Evie tore open Sebastian’s blood-soaked shirt and found the gushing wound in his side. Her face turned very white, and her eyes began to glitter, but she managed to control her alarm as she took the makeshift pad from Westcliff and held it firmly against the wound to slow the bleeding.
The pressure caused such agony that Sebastian could not prevent a low groan. His hand remained suspended in the air, fingers half curled. The scent of fresh blood saturated the air. Westcliff bent over him and examined the exit wound. “Through and through,” Sebastian heard him say to Evie. “No major vessel damage, from the looks of it.”
While Westcliff maintained the pressure on the wound, Evie moved to cradle Sebastian’s head on her lap, cushioning him in a soft mass of black velvet. Taking his hand, she gripped his fingers firmly. The clasp of her hand seemed to anchor him, providing a counterbalance to the gnawing pain in his lower torso. Sebastian stared into her downbent face, unable to read her expression. There was a strange, deep glow in her eyes, something like tenderness or sorrow…something rare and infinite. He didn’t know what it was. No one had ever looked at him that way before.
He struggled to say something to banish the disturbing emotion in her gaze. “This is what comes of tr…” He was forced to pause as thrills of pain stole his breath away. “…trying to appear heroic,” he finished. “I think I’ll stick with villainy from now on. Much…safer.”
Westcliff’s black eyes glinted briefly at the attempt at humor. “The shot originated from the upper gallery,” he said.
“Former employee…Bullard…dismissed recently.”
“Are you certain that he aimed for Lady St.Vincent?”
“Perhaps he thought that harming her was the best way to revenge himself against you.”
Sebastian’s head was swimming, making it difficult to think clearly. “No…” he muttered. “Could only be true if…he thought I cared for her…but everyone knows…not a love match.”
Westcliff gave him an odd look but refrained from replying. Sebastian had no means of knowing how he and Evie appeared at that moment, as he gripped her hand and let her cradle him as tenderly as a mother with a hurt child. All he knew was that the wound in his side ached unbearably. Relentless tremors ran through him until his teeth began to chatter. He was vaguely aware of Westcliff leaving them for a moment, and barking out orders, and returning with an armload of coats, though it was unclear whether their owners had donated them willingly or not. The coats were settled over him, and Westcliff continued to apply pressure on the wound.
Sebastian lost consciousness for a moment, and when he came back to his senses, he felt Evie’s warm hand caressing the cold, sweaty surface of his face. “The doctor is coming,” she murmured. “Once the bleeding slows, we’ll take you upstairs.”
His breath shivered between his clenched teeth. “Where’s Rohan?”
“I saw him in pursuit of Bullard, right after the shot was fired,” Westcliff replied. “As a matter of fact, Rohan climbed up a column to the second floor.”
“If he doesn’t catch the bastard,” Sebastian muttered, “I will. And then—”
“Shhh…” Evie soothed, her free hand slipping beneath the mound of coats to reach the bare surface of his chest. Her palm rested over the weak throb of his heart, and her fingertips traced over the thread of fine gold chain that hung around his neck. Following the chain, she discovered the Scottish-gold wedding band dangling from the end of it.
Sebastian had not wanted her to find out that he wore the ring beneath his clothes. Agitated, he whispered, “Means nothing. Just…wanted to keep it safe—”
“I understand,” Evie murmured, flattening her hand on his chest once more. He felt the brush of her lips against his forehead, and the soft caress of her breath. She smiled down at him. “You realize, of course,” she said, “that you’ve given me the perfect excuse to stay. I’m going to take care of you until you’re well enough to throw me out on your own.”
Sebastian could not return the smile. Anxiety flooded him as he realized that Evie wasn’t safe here or anywhere, until Bullard was caught. “Westcliff,” he rasped, “Someone has to…protect my wife…”
“Nothing will happen to her,” Westcliff assured him.
As Sebastian stared at his former friend, the only honorable man that he had ever known, he saw that Westcliff’s face was carefully impassive. They both understood what Evie was too inexperienced to gather…that although the bullet had not hit a vital organ, the wound was likely to suppurate. Sebastian would not die of blood loss, but it was likely that he could succumb to a fatal fever. And if so, Evie would be alone and undefended in a world filled with predators. Men like himself.
Trembling with cold and shock, Sebastian forced out a few desperate words, finding that it took several thready breaths to get them out. “Westcliff…what I did before…sorry. Forgive…forgive…” He felt his eyes begin to roll back in his head, and he fought to stay conscious. “Evie…keep her safe. Please…” He sank into an ocean of bright sparks, deeper and deeper, until the fluttering lights had faded and he was lost in blackness.
“Sebastian,” Evie whispered, bringing his lax hand to her cheek. She kissed the backs of his fingers while tears trickled down her face.
“It’s all right,” Westcliff reassured her. “He’s just fainted. He’ll come to in a moment.”
She let out a small, gasping sob before regaining control. “He deliberately put himself in front of me,” she said after a moment. “He took the shot for me.”
“So it would seem.” Westcliff watched her speculatively, thinking, among other things, that some interesting changes had occurred in both Sebastian and his unlikely bride since their elopement.
When Lillian had learned that St. Vincent had married Evangeline Jenner, she had gone into a fury, terrified about what harm might have befallen her friend.
“That monster!” Lillian had cried upon their return to London from Italy. “For him to do this to Evie, of all people…oh, you can’t know how fragile she is. He’ll have been cruel to her…she has no defenses, and she is so innocent…My God, I’ll kill him!”
“Your sister said that she did not appear to have been ill-used,” Westcliff pointed out rationally, though he too had been concerned by the idea of someone as helpless as Evangeline Jenner at St. Vincent’s mercy.
“She was likely too afraid to admit anything,” Lillian had said, her dark eyes snapping as she paced back and forth. “He probably raped her. Threatened her. Perhaps even beat her—”
“No, no,” Westcliff had soothed, gathering her stiff body into his arms. “According to Daisy and Annabelle, there was ample opportunity for her to tell them if she had been abused. But she did not. If it will ease your worries, I’ll go to the club and offer her refuge. She can stay with us in Hampshire if she desires.”
“For how long?” Lillian had mumbled, nestling deeper into his embrace.
“Indefinitely, of course.”
“Oh, Marcus…” Her brown eyes had sparkled with sudden moisture. “You would do that for me?”
“Anything, love,” he had told her gently. “Anything at all to make you happy.”
And so Westcliff had come to Jenner’s this evening to ascertain if Evangeline was an unwilling captive. Contrary to all expectations, he had found a woman who seemed eager to stay, who bore obvious affection for St. Vincent.
As for St. Vincent, so eternally aloof and indifferent…it was difficult to believe that the man who treated women with such cavalier cruelty could be the same one who had just risked his life. To receive an apology from a man who had never expressed a single regret about anything, and then to hear him practically beg for his wife’s protection, led to an inescapable conclusion. St. Vincent had, against all odds, learned to care more for someone else than he did for himself.
The situation was extraordinary. How someone like Evangeline Jenner could have wrought such a change in St. Vincent, the most worldly of men, was difficult to understand. However, Westcliff had learned that the mysteries of attraction could not always be explained through logic. Sometimes the fractures in two separate souls became the very hinges that held them together.
“My lady—” he said gently.
“Evie,” she said, still cradling her husband’s hand against her face.
“Evie. I must ask…why did you approach St. Vincent, of all men, with an offer of marriage?”
Gently lowering St. Vincent’s hand, Evie smiled ruefully. “I needed a way to escape my family, legally and permanently. Marriage was the only answer. And as you were no doubt aware, suitors were hardly queuing up for my favors in Hampshire. When I learned what St. Vincent had done to Lillian, I was appalled…but it also occurred to me that…he was the only person I knew of who seemed as desperate as I was. Desperate enough to agree to anything.”
“Was it also part of your plan that he manage your father’s club?”
“No, he decided that, much to my surprise. In fact, he has surprised me at every turn since we married.”