After watching—with a twinge of satisfaction—the letters burn to ashes in the fireplace, Evie felt sleepy. She went to the master bedroom for a nap. In spite of her weariness, it was difficult to relax while she was worried about Sebastian. Her thoughts chased round and round, until her tired brain put an end to the useless fretting and she dropped off to sleep.
When she awakened an hour or so later, Sebastian was sitting on the bed beside her, a lock of her bright hair clasped loosely between a thumb and forefinger. He was watching her closely, his eyes the color of heaven at daybreak. She sat up and smiled self-consciously.
Gently Sebastian stroked back her tumbled hair. “You look like a little girl when you sleep,” he murmured. “It makes me want to guard you every minute.”
“Did you find Mr. Bullard?”
“Yes, and no. First tell me what you did while I was gone.”
“I helped Cam to arrange things in the office. And I burned all your letters from lovelorn ladies. The blaze was so large, I’m surprised no one sent for a fire brigade.”
His lips curved in a smile, but his gaze probed hers carefully. “Did you read any of them?”
Evie lifted a shoulder in a nonchalant half shrug. “A few. There were inquiries as to whether or not you’ve yet tired of your wife.”
“No.” Sebastian drew his palm along the line of her thigh. “I’m tired of countless evenings of repetitive gossip and tepid flirtation. I’m tired of meaningless encounters with women who bore me senseless. They’re all the same to me, you know. I’ve never given a damn about anyone but you.”
“I don’t blame them for wanting you,” Evie said, looping her arms around his neck. “But I’m not willing to share.”
“You won’t have to.” He cupped her face in his hands and pressed a swift kiss to her lips.
“Tell me about Mr. Bullard,” Evie urged, her hands coming up to caress his wrists.
She was silent as Sebastian described the encounter with Clive Egan, and the revelations about Joss Bullard and his mother. Her eyes became very wide, and she was filled with pity. Poor Joss Bullard could not help his origins, or the indifferent upbringing that had made him so resentful. “How strange,” she murmured. “I’d always wished and even hoped that Cam was my brother, but I never gave a thought to the possibility that Joss Bullard might be.”
Bullard had always been so unapproachable and belligerent…and yet how much of that might have been the result of Ivo Jenner’s repudiation? To feel unwanted, to be kept a shameful secret by the man who might have been his true father…surely that would make anyone bitter.
“We went to the Tottenham hospital,” Sebastian continued, “where he had been admitted to the ward of incurables. It’s a foul place, and in dire need of funding. There were women and children who—” He broke off with a slight grimace at the recollection. “I’d rather not describe it, actually. But an administrator at Tottenham said that Bullard had been admitted in the last stage of distemper.”
“I want to help him,” Evie said resolutely. “At the very least, we can have him sent to a better hospital—”
“No, sweet.” Sebastian traced his fingertips over the fine bones of her hand. “He died two days ago. They showed us to the plot where he and two other patients were buried in the same grave.”
Evie looked away, absorbing the information. She was surprised to feel her eyes moisten and her throat tighten. “The poor boy,” she said huskily. “I feel sorry for him.”
“I don’t,” Sebastian said flatly. “If he grew up without a parent’s affection, he was no different from countless other people who have to make their way in the world alone. He had an easier time of it than Rohan, whose Gypsy blood makes him an object of prejudice. Don’t cry, Evie. Bullard isn’t worth a single tear.”
Evie let out an unsteady sigh. “I’m sorry. I don’t mean to be so emotional. It’s just that it’s been a very trying few weeks. My feelings are all a bit too close to the surface and I can’t seem to manage them properly.”
She was collected against his warm body, his hard muscles surrounding her, his voice weaving through his hair. “Evie, love, don’t apologize for being emotional. You’ve been through hell. And only a heartless brute like me could truly appreciate the courage it takes to be honest about your feelings.”
Evie’s voice was muffled against his shoulder. “You’re not heartless.” She sighed shakily. “Perhaps it is wrong of me, but even though I do feel sorry for Mr. Bullard, I’m relieved that he is gone. Because of his actions, I almost lost you.”
His mouth searched through the loose curls of her hair until he found the fragile rim of her ear. “You won’t be that fortunate.”
“Don’t,” Evie said, unable to smile at the light quip. She drew her head back to look at him, while his arms remained locked around her. “It’s not something to joke about. I…” Her voice wobbled sharply as she forced herself to continue. “I don’t think I could live without you now.”
Sebastian’s large hand passed gently over the back of her head, pulling her to his shoulder, and he buried his face in her hair for a moment. “Ah, Evie,” she heard him say softly, “I must have a heart, after all…because right now it aches like the devil.”
“Only your heart?” she asked ingenuously, making him laugh.
He lowered her to the bed, his eyes sparkling wickedly. “Also a few other things,” he conceded. “And as my wife, it’s your duty to ease all my aches.”
She lifted her arms and drew him down to her.
Oblivious to the personal issues of Jenner’s owners or employees, the club patrons continued to crowd the building nightly, especially as it became known that there were no more available memberships, as the limit had been set at twenty-five hundred. Those who wished to become members were obliged to subscribe to a waiting list in hopes of a vacancy.
The odd pairing of a penniless viscount and a gaming club in decline had resulted in a surprising alchemy. The employees were either swept along in the current of Sebastian’s dynamic energy, or they were discarded in his wake. The place was run with a ruthless efficiency that Jenner’s had never seen before. Even Ivo Jenner in his heyday had never ruled his small empire with such an iron hand.
In the past, Ivo Jenner’s hidden resentment of the aristocracy had caused him to treat many of the club members with a fawning subservience that had made them vaguely uncomfortable. Sebastian, on the other hand, was one of their own. He was relaxed and yet so dashing that his presence seemed to infuse the atmosphere with excitement. Whenever he was near, club members laughed more, spent more, talked more, ate more.
Whereas other clubs served the eternal beefsteak and apple tart, the lavish buffet at Jenner’s was constantly replenished with ever-more-artful dishes…hot lobster salad, casserole of pheasant, prawns on pillowy beds of pureed celery root, quail stuffed with grapes and goat cheese and served in pools of cream sauce. And Evie’s favorite—a sticky flourless almond cake topped with raspberries and a thick layer of meringue. The food and entertainment at Jenner’s had improved at such a rapid rate that wives began to complain that their husbands were spending far too many nights at the club.
Sebastian’s manipulative nature had found a perfect outlet in Jenner’s. He knew how to provide an environment in which men could relax and enjoy themselves, and in the process he divested them of their money with ease. The games were run with scrupulous honesty, since gaming was, in theory, forbidden by law even though it was practiced openly throughout London. Operating a respectable club was the best way to avoid prosecution.
If at first Sebastian had to endure a few mocking comments from his acquaintances, their manner quickly changed as they found themselves in the position of asking him to extend credit, or to forestall the payment of their debts. For a man who had never had much money, Sebastian had a surprising ability to manage it. As Cam had said admiringly, Sebastian demonstrated the ability of a rat terrier to sniff out a risky bank balance, or anything else that might affect a member’s ability to pay.
One evening as Evie stood beside Cam’s desk in the main room to watch Sebastian presiding over a hazard game of particularly deep play, she became aware of an elderly man beside her. She turned and recognized him as Lord Haldane, a gentleman whom Sebastian had introduced to her the previous week. “My lord,” Evie murmured as he bowed over her hand. “How nice it is to see you again.”
He smiled, his brown eyes kind in his jowly face. “The pleasure is mine, Lady St. Vincent.”
They both glanced back at the main hazard table, where Sebastian had just made a quip to ease the tension of the game. A low rumble of laughter went through the crowd. Evie silently marveled at how natural he seemed in his role, as if he had been born to it. Strangely, he seemed more at home in the club than even her father had. Ivo Jenner, with his excitable nature, had always found it difficult to conceal his worry when a club member had followed a run of extraordinary luck that threatened to break the bank. Sebastian, on the other hand, remained cool and unruffled no matter what the circumstances.
Lord Haldane was occupied with similar reflections, for he stared at Sebastian’s distant figure and said absently, “I never thought to see another of his kind again.”
“My lord?” Evie questioned with a half smile, as Sebastian noticed her presence and began to make his way over to her.
Haldane seemed lost in a memory of days long past. “In all my years, I’ve seen only one other man who walked through a gaming club that way. As if it was his personal hunting ground, and he the most charming of predators.”
“Are you referring to my father?” Evie asked, confused.
Haldane smiled and shook his head. “Bless me, no. Not your father.”
“Who—” Evie began, but her question was lost as Sebastian reached them.
“My lady,” Sebastian murmured, resting one hand at the small of her corseted back. Regarding Haldane with a slight smile, he continued to speak to Evie. “It seems I’ll have to warn you, my love…this gentleman is a wolf in sheep’s clothing.”
Although Evie would have expected the elderly man to take offense at such a remark, Haldane chuckled with pleasure, his vanity flattered. “If I were twenty years younger, my impudent fellow, I would steal her away from you. Despite your much-vaunted charm, you are no match for what I was then.”
“Age hasn’t tamed you a whit,” Sebastian replied with a grin, drawing Evie away from him. “Pardon us, my lord, while I remove my wife to safer territory.”
“It is obvious that this elusive fellow has been caught firmly in your snare,” Haldane told Evie. “Go, then, and pacify his jealous temperament.”
“I…I will try,” Evie said uncertainly. For some reason both men laughed, and Sebastian kept his hand on Evie’s back as they left the main room.
His head bent to hers as they walked. “Is everything all right, sweet?”
“Yes. I…” She paused, smiled, and said lamely, “I just wanted to see you.”
Stopping with her behind a column, Sebastian ducked his head to steal a kiss. He looked down at her, his eyes sparkling. “Shall we go play a game of billiards?” he whispered, and laughed huskily as she blushed.
The popularity of the club increased further when newspapers began to commend it in overblown prose:
At last Jenner’s may assume a place among the elite gentlemen’s resorts in London, distinguishing itself as a venerated pavilion in which every sprig and stripling of the aristocracy aspires to be one of the select. The cuisine satisfies the most discerning palates, and the expanded selection of wines appeals to the most fastidious tastes…
And in another editorial:
Too much cannot be said about the quality of the newly refurbished surroundings, which provide an ornate backdrop to the gatherings of patrons characterized by intellectual and personal superiority. It is no surprise that the number of candidates for membership far exceeds the number of vacancies…
In yet another:
Many have suggested, and few disagree, that the renaissance of Jenner’s could only have been brought about by one gentleman, who, with devilish charm, manages to be conversant with all the worlds of fashion, politics, literature, and the aristocracy. It is, of course, the infamous Lord St. Vincent, now the owner of a beau-ideal club that promises to be an important institution in West End life…
Sitting in the office one evening, Evie read the editorials. She had not expected the amount of public attention that Sebastian and the club were receiving. While she was glad that he was making it a success, she could not help but wonder what it would be like when she eventually came out of mourning, and they began to take part in London society. She had no doubt that they would be invited to many places. And the fact was, being a wallflower did not afford one many opportunities to practice social skills. She would have to overcome her awkwardness and shyness. She must learn the art of making repartee…She must learn to be charming and confident—
“Why are you frowning, sweet?” Sebastian came to sit on the desk, glancing down at her with a quizzical smile. “Did you read something unpleasant?”
“Just the opposite,” Evie said glumly. “Everyone is waxing ecstatic about the club.”
“I see.” A gentle forefinger stroked the edge of her jaw. “And that gives you concern because…”
Her explanation came out in a rush. “Because you’re b-becoming very well-known—that is, for something other than skirt chasing—and therefore you will be sought-after, and someday I’ll come out of mourning which means that we’ll go to balls and soirees, and I don’t think I’ll be able to st-stop myself from hiding in the corners. I’m still a wallflower, you know. I must learn how to be witty and poised and talk to people, or else you’ll be vexed with me, or even worse, ashamed, and I—”
“Evie. Hush. Good God…” Sebastian hooked a foot around a nearby chair, dragged it against hers, and sat with his knees braced around hers. Taking both her hands, he smiled into her eyes. “You can’t go twenty minutes without finding something to worry about, can you? You won’t have to be anything other than what you are.” He bent to kiss her hands, and when he lifted his head, his smile had faded and his eyes smoldered. His thumb came to the surface of her wedding band, rubbing gently over the engraved words.