“I’m certain you already have many women to f-fortify your vanity. You don’t need one more.”
“I always need one more, darling. That’s my problem.”
He took her back to the library, where she sat before the fire for a few more minutes. Just as she began to doze in the chair, St. Vincent returned to take her outside. Groggily she went with him to a gleaming black-lacquered carriage in front of the house, and St. Vincent handed her inside the vehicle deftly. The plush cream-colored velvet upholstery inside was supremely impractical but magnificent, glowing in the soft light of a tiny carriage lamp. Evie experienced an unfamiliar sense of well-being as she settled back against a silk-fringed cushion. Her mother’s family lived according to a narrow set of rules governing good taste, and they distrusted anything that smacked of excess. For St. Vincent, however, she suspected that excess was commonplace, especially when it came to matters of bodily comfort.
A basket made of thin woven strips of leather had been set on the floor. Searching it tentatively, Evie found several napkin-wrapped sandwiches made of thick slices of buttermilk bread and filled with thin-sliced meats and cheeses. The scent of the smoked meat aroused a sudden overwhelming hunger, and she ate two of the sandwiches in rapid succession, nearly choking with ravenous eagerness.
Entering the carriage, St. Vincent folded his long, lean body into the opposite seat. He smiled slightly at the sight of Evie finishing the last few crumbs of a sandwich. “Feeling better?”
“Yes, thank you.”
St. Vincent opened the door of a compartment that had been cleverly built into the inner wall of the carriage and extracted a small crystal glass and a bottle of white wine that had been placed there by a servant. He filled the glass and gave it to her. After a cautious sip of the sweet, ice-cold vintage, Evie drank thirstily. Young women were seldom allowed to have full-strength wine…it was usually heavily watered. Finishing the glass, she barely had time to wish for another before it was replenished. The carriage started with a gentle lurch, and the edge of Evie’s teeth clicked lightly against the rim of the glass as the vehicle jostled along the street. Fearing that she might spill the wine on the cream velvet upholstery, she took a deep swallow, and heard St. Vincent’s quiet laugh.
“Drink slowly, pet. We’ve a long journey ahead of us.” Relaxing back against the cushions, he looked like an idle pasha in one of the torrid novels that Daisy Bowman adored. “Tell me, what would you have done had I not agreed to your proposition? Where would you have gone?”
“I suppose I would have gone to st-st-stay with Annabelle and Mr. Hunt.” Fleeing to Lillian and Lord Westcliff had not been an option, as they were on their month-long honeymoon. And it would have been futile to approach the Bowmans…although Daisy would have argued passionately in her favor, her parents would have wanted nothing to do with the situation.
“Why wasn’t that your first choice?”
Evie frowned. “It would have been difficult, if not impossible, for the Hunts to keep my uncles from taking me back. I am far s-safer as your wife than as someone else’s house guest.” The wine made her pleasantly dizzy, and she sank lower in her seat.
Regarding her thoughtfully, St.Vincent leaned down to remove her shoes. “You’ll be more comfortable without these,” he said. “For God’s sake, don’t shy away. I’m not going to molest you in the carriage.” Untying the laces, he continued in a silken tone, “And if I were so inclined it’s of little consequence, since we’re going to be married soon.” He grinned as she jerked her stocking-clad foot away from him, and he reached for the other.
Allowing him to remove her remaining shoe, Evie forced herself to relax, though the brush of his fingers against her ankle sent a strange hot ripple through her.
“You might loosen your corset strings,” he advised. “It will make your journey more pleasant.”
“I’m not wearing a c-corset,” she said without looking at him.
“You aren’t? My God.” His gaze slid over her with expert assessment. “What a happily proportioned wench you are.”
“I don’t like that word.”
“Wench? Forgive me…a force of habit. I always treat ladies like wenches, and wenches like ladies.”
“And that approach is successful for you?” Evie asked skeptically.
“Oh yes,” he replied with such cheerful arrogance that she couldn’t help smiling.
“You’re a dr-dreadful man.”
“True. But it’s a fact of life that dreadful people usually end up getting far better than they deserve. Whereas nice ones, such as you…” He gestured to Evie and her surroundings, as if her current situation was a perfect case in point.
“Perhaps I’m not as n-n-nice as you might think.”
“One can only hope.” His light, glittering eyes narrowed thoughtfully. Evie noticed that his lashes, indecently long for a man, were several shades darker than his hair. Despite his size and broad-shouldered build, there was a feline quality about him…he was like a lazy but potentially deadly tiger. “What is the nature of your father’s illness?” he asked. “I’ve heard rumors, but nothing of a certainty.”
“He has consumption,” Evie murmured. “He was diagnosed with it six months ago—I haven’t seen him since. It’s the l-longest period I’ve ever gone without visiting him. The Maybricks used to allow me to go to the club to see him, as they saw no harm in it. But last year Aunt Florence decided that my chances of finding a husband were being harmed by my association with my father, and therefore I should distance myself from him. They want me to pretend he doesn’t exist.”
“How surprising,” he murmured sardonically, and crossed his legs. “Why the sudden passion to hover over his deathbed? Want to ensure your place in his will, do you?”
Ignoring the hint of malice that was embedded in his question, Evie thought over her reply, and spoke coolly. “When I was a little girl, I was allowed to see him often. We were close. He was—and is—the only man who has ever cared for me. I love him. And I don’t want him to die alone. You may m-mock me for it, if it amuses you. I don’t care. Your opinion means nothing to me.”
“Easy, pet.” His voice was laced with soft amusement. “I detect evidence of a temper, which I’ve no doubt you inherited from the old man. I’ve seen his eyes flash just that way when his dander is up over some trifle.”
“You know my father?” she asked with surprise.
“Of course. All men of pleasure have been to Jenner’s for one kind of stimulation or another. Your father is a decent fellow, for all that he’s as stable as a tinderbox. I can’t help but ask—how in God’s name did a Maybrick marry a cockney?”
“I think that, among other things, my mother must have regarded him as a means of escaping her family.”
“Just as in our situation,” St. Vincent commented blandly. “There’s a certain symmetry in that, isn’t there?”
“I h-hope the symmetry ends there,” Evie replied. “Because I was conceived not long after they were married, and then my mother died in childbirth.”
“I won’t make you belly-full, if you don’t wish it,” he said agreeably. “It’s easy enough to avoid pregnancy…sheaths, sponges, douches, not to mention the most clever little silver charms that one can—” He stopped at her expression, and laughed suddenly. “My God, your eyes are like saucers. Have I alarmed you? Don’t tell me that you’ve never heard of such things from your married friends.”
Evie shook her head slowly. Although Annabelle Hunt was, on occasion, willing to explain some of the mysteries of the marital relationship, she had certainly never mentioned any devices to prevent pregnancy. “I doubt they’ve ever heard of them either,” she said, and he laughed again.
“I’ll be more than willing to enlighten you when we finally reach Scotland.” His lips curved in the smile that the Bowman sisters had once found so utterly charming…but they must have missed the calculating gleam in his eyes. “My love, have you considered the possibility that you might enjoy our consummation sufficiently to want it more than once?”
How easily endearments seem to trip from his tongue. “No,” Evie said firmly. “I won’t.”
“Mmm…” A sound almost like a cat’s purr left his throat. “I like a challenge.”
“I m-might enjoy going to bed with you,” Evie told him, staring at him steadily, refusing to look away even though the prolonged shared gaze made her flush with discomfort. “I rather hope I will. But that won’t change my decision. Because I know you for what you are—and I know what you’re capable of.”
“My dear…” he said almost tenderly, “you haven’t begun to learn the worst of me.”
For Evie, who had been uncomfortable during the previous week’s twelve-hour drive from Westcliff’s Hampshire estate, the forty-eight-hour journey to Scotland was nothing short of torture. Had their pace been more moderate, it would have been much easier. However, at Evie’s own insistence they went straight through to Gretna Green, stopping only to change drivers and horse teams at three-hour intervals. Evie feared that if her relations had managed to discover what she was doing, they would be in close pursuit. And considering the outcome of St. Vincent’s battle with Lord Westcliff, Evie had little hope that he could win in a physical standoff against her uncle Peregrine.
Well-sprung and equipped though the carriage was, traveling at such relentless speed caused the vehicle to jolt and sway until Evie began to feel nauseated. She was exhausted and could find no comfortable position in which to sleep. Her head bumped constantly against the wall. It seemed that whenever she did manage to nod off, only a few minutes passed before she was awakened.
St. Vincent was less obviously miserable than Evie, though he too had acquired a rumpled, travel-worn appearance. Any attempts at conversation had long since dwindled, and they rode together in stoic silence. Surprisingly, St. Vincent did not utter a word of protest about this grim exercise in endurance. Evie realized that he felt the same urgency that she did to reach Scotland. It was in his best interests, even more than hers, to see that they were legally married as soon as possible.
On and on and on…the carriage bounced on rough patches of road, at times nearly pitching Evie from the seat to the floor. The pattern of fitful dozing and forced awakenings continued. Every time the carriage door opened, with St. Vincent leaping down to check on a new team, a blast of freezing air came into the vehicle. Cold and aching and stiff, Evie huddled in the corner.
Night was followed by a day of biting temperatures and drizzling rain that soaked through Evie’s cloak as St. Vincent shepherded her across an inn yard. He took Evie to a private room, where she ate a lukewarm bowl of soup and made use of the chamber pot while he went to oversee yet another change of horses and driver. The sight of the bed nearly made Evie ill with longing. But sleep could come later, after she had gone to Gretna Green and permanently removed herself from her family’s reach.
All totaled, the duration of the stay was less than a half hour. Returning to the carriage, Evie tried to remove her wet shoes without smearing mud onto the velvet upholstery. St. Vincent climbed in after her and bent to help. While he untied her shoes and drew them from her cramped feet, Evie wordlessly removed the rain-soaked hat from his head and tossed it to the opposite seat. His hair looked thick and soft, the locks containing every shade between amber and champagne.
Moving to sit beside her, St. Vincent contemplated her pinched-looking face and reached out to touch the chilled curve of her cheek. “I’ll say this for you,” he murmured. “Any other woman would be howling with complaints by now.”
“I c-c-can hardly complain,” Evie said, shivering violently, “when I’m the one who asked to go straight thr-through to Scotland.”
“We’re halfway there. One more night, and a day, and we’ll be married by tomorrow evening.” His lips quirked with the wry suggestion of a smile. “No doubt there’s never been a bride more eager for the marital bed.”
Evie’s trembling lips curved in an answering smile as she understood his implicit meaning—that she was eager for sleep, not for love play. As she stared into his face, so close to hers, she wondered absently how the signs of weariness on his face and the shadows beneath his eyes could make him look so appealing. Perhaps it was because he seemed human now, rather than like some heartless and beautiful Roman god. Much of his aristocratic hauteur had melted away, no doubt to reappear later when he was fully rested. For now, however, he was relaxed and approachable. It seemed as if some frail bond had been established between them during this hellish journey.
The moment was interrupted by a knock on the carriage door. St. Vincent opened it to reveal a bedraggled chambermaid standing in the rain. “‘Ere you are, milor’,” she said, peering from beneath the hood of her dripping cloak as she handed two objects to him. “An ‘ot pot an’ a brick, just as you asked.”
St. Vincent fished a coin from his waistcoat and gave it to her, and she beamed at him before dashing back to the shelter of the inn. Evie blinked in surprise as St. Vincent handed her a tin-glazed earthenware cup filled with steaming liquid. “What is this?”
“Something to warm your insides.” He hefted a brick wrapped in layers of gray flannel. “And this is for your feet. Lift your legs onto the seat.”
Under any other circumstances Evie might have objected to his casual handling of her legs. However, she made no demur as he arranged her skirts and tucked the hot brick at her feet. “Ohhhhh…” She shuddered with comfort as the delicious heat wafted around her frozen toes. “Oh…n-nothing has ever felt so good…”
“Women say that to me all the time,” he said with a smile in his voice. “Here, lean back against me.”
Evie obeyed, half lying on him with his arms curved around her. His chest was solid and very hard, but it cushioned the back of her head perfectly. Bringing the earthenware cup to her lips, she took a tentative sip of the hot drink. It was spirits of some kind, mixed with water and flavored with sugar and lemon. As she drank slowly, it filled her body with warmth. A long, contented sigh escaped her. The carriage lurched forward, but St. Vincent immediately adjusted his hold, keeping her tucked comfortably against his chest. Evie could scarcely conceive how hell could have turned so abruptly into heaven.