“How could I be ashamed of you?” he continued. “I’m the one who’s been an utter villain. You’ve never done a blameworthy thing in your life. And as far as drawing room airs and graces are concerned…I hope you never become like those shallow fools who chatter endlessly without managing to say anything of interest.” Tugging her closer, he nuzzled into her neck, where the corded-silk edge of her gown lay against her pale skin. His mouth tasted her lightly, and then he whispered against the moist spot he had made, causing her to shiver. “You’re not a wallflower. But you have my permission to hide in corners, my sweet—so long as you take me with you. In fact, I’ll insist on it. I warn you, I’m very badly behaved at such affairs—I’ll probably debauch you in gazebos, on balconies, beneath staircases, and behind assorted potted plants. And if you complain, I’ll simply remind you that you should have known better than to marry a conscienceless rake.”
Evie’s throat arched slightly at the light stroke of his fingers. “I wouldn’t complain.”
Sebastian smiled and nipped tenderly at the side of her neck. “Dutiful little wife,” he whispered. “I’m going to be a terrible influence on you. Why don’t you give me a kiss, and go upstairs for your bath? By the time you finish, I’ll be there with you.”
The bath was only half-filled when Evie entered the bedroom. Frannie and another housemaid each picked up a set of wood-handled ewers in preparation for one more trip downstairs. Feeling warm and dreamy in the aftermath of Sebastian’s kisses, Evie began to unbutton the sleeves of her gown.
“I’ll unfasten you when I come back with the last of the water, milady,” Frannie offered.
Evie smiled at her. “Thank you.” She wandered to the dressing table and picked up a flacon of perfume, a gift that Lillian had recently sent. With her unusually sensitive nose, Lillian loved to occupy herself with scents and perfumes, and had recently taken to experimenting with her own combinations. This fragrance was lush and well-rounded, with roses and pungent wood spices fixed in amber. Evie carefully poured a few golden drops into the bath water, and inhaled in pleasure as the fragrant steam rose into the air.
Returning to the dressing table, she sat in a small chair and bent to remove her shoes and stockings, reaching beneath her skirts to unfasten her garters. With her head angled downward, she could see very little…but a sudden icy slither down her spine and a soft tread on the carpeted floor caused all the hairs on her body to stand erect. She saw a shadow slide quickly across the floor. Sitting up, Evie followed the shadow to its origins, and a startled sound escaped her as she saw a ragged figure coming toward her. She sprang from the chair, overturning it in her haste. As she whirled to face the man who had entered the room, he spoke in a grinding voice.
“Not a word. Or I’ll slit you open from neck to muff.”
A long, wicked knife was clutched in his hand. He stood very close to her—he could reach her with one lunge, if he chose.
No image wrought from nightmares or childhood fears of monsters, could ever match the sight of the intruder’s gruesomely corroded form. Evie inched toward the slipper tub, trying to position it between herself and the madman. He was dressed in clothes that were little more than a heap of rags. He favored his left side oddly, as if he were an off-kilter string puppet. On every inch of exposed skin—his hands, his throat, his face—there were open, oozing sores, as if his flesh were decaying right off his bones. Most horrifying of all, however, were the tattered remnants of what had once been a nose. He looked like a chimera, a collection of flesh and limbs and features that didn’t belong together.
Despite filth and sores and the shocking ruin of his face, Evie recognized him. It took great effort for her to remain calm when all her veins were filled with stinging panic. “Mr. Bullard,” she croaked. “The hospital said you were dead.”
Bullard’s head lolled oddly on his shoulders as he continued to stare at her. “I left that bloody ‘ell pit,” he growled. “I broke a window and ‘scaped at night. I ‘ad enow o’ those demons trying to pour their devil brews down my throat.” He started toward her with arrhythmic steps. Evie circled the tub slowly, while her heart pounded hard in her chest. “But I wasn’t going to kick off in that cursed place wivout sending you to ‘ell first.”
“Why?” Evie asked softly, fighting not to glance at the doorway, where she saw movement from the corners of her eyes. It must be Frannie, she thought feverishly. The blurred shape disappeared without a sound, and Evie prayed that the housemaid had run to fetch help. In the meantime, the only recourse was to keep away from Joss Bullard.
“You took ewerything from me,” he snarled, rounding his shoulders like an animal backed against the wall of a cage. “‘E gave it all to you, the damned bastard—‘e only wanted an ugly little tangle-tongue, when I was ‘is son. ‘Is son, an’ I was ‘id away like a filthy chamber pot.” His face contorted. “I did whotever ‘e asked…I’d of killed to please ‘im…but it never mattered. It was allus you ‘e wanted, you bleedin’ parasite!”
“I’m sorry,” Evie said, and the genuine regret in her voice seemed to disorient him momentarily. He paused and stared at her with his head tilted at an odd angle. “Mr. Bullard…Joss…My father did care about you. His last request was that you should be helped and taken care of.”
“It’s too late for that!” He gasped and raised both hands to his head, including the one with the knife, as if there was unbearable pain in his skull. “Goddamn it…ah…devil take ‘im…”
Seeing a chance to flee, Evie broke for the doorway. Bullard caught her at once, slamming her hard against the wall. As her head hit the hard surface, an explosion seemed to go off in her brain, and her vision was fragmented into a sea of glittering gray and black. Struggling to focus, she blinked and moaned. There was an unpleasant pressure high on her chest and a pinching sensation at the side of her throat. Gradually she realized that Bullard’s arm was locked around her neck, with the long knife blade completing the circle. The sharp steel pressed against her with every inhalation. Bullard was breathing harshly, the puffs of air from his lungs reeking of foulness and decay. She felt the tremors of his body, and his efforts to stiffen his muscles against them. “We’ll go see ‘im together,” he said near her ear.
“Who?” Evie mumbled, her gaze slowly clearing.
“Our father. We’ll go see ‘im in ‘ell…you an’me.” A laugh rattled in his throat. “‘E’ll be running a cribbage game wiv old Scratch ‘imself.” He urged the knife against her, seeming to enjoy the way she flinched. “I’ll cut you,” he muttered, “an’ then meself. ‘Ow would Jenner like that, to see us arm in arm, strolling into ‘ell together?”
As Evie sought for words that might bring him temporarily to reason, a quiet voice came from the doorway.
It was Sebastian, looking astonishingly cool and unperturbed. Although the danger to her had not lessened, Evie felt a rush of relief at his presence. He entered the room slowly. “Apparently the record keeping at Tottenham’s leaves something to be desired,” Sebastian commented, not sparing a glance for Evie. His gaze was fixed on Bullard’s face, his eyes light and hypnotic.
“I thought I’d put a bullet in you,” Bullard said roughly.
Sebastian shrugged casually. “A trifling injury. Tell me…how did you manage to get into the club? We have men at every door.”
“Coal cellar. There’s a bolt ‘ole in it what leads to Rogue’s Lane. No one knows about it. Not ewen that ‘alf-bred Rohan. Go back, or I’ll stick ‘er like a pigeon on a spit.” This last came as Sebastian came a step closer.
Sebastian’s gaze shot to the knife, which Bullard now angled as if he intended to plunge it into Evie’s breast.
“All right,” Sebastian said, retreating at once. “Easy…I’ll do whatever you ask.” His voice was soft and friendly, his expression calm, though glittering trickles of sweat had begun to course down the sides of his face. “Bullard…Joss…listen to me. You have nothing to lose by letting me speak. You’re among friends. All your…your sister and I want is to honor your father’s request to help you. Tell me what you want. I can get you mor**ine to ease your pain. You can stay here for as long as you wish, with a clean bed to sleep in, and people to take care of you. Whatever you want is yours.”
“You’re playing me false,” Bullard said suspiciously.
“I’m not. I swear it. I’ll give you anything. Unless you harm Evie—then I can do nothing for you.” As Sebastian spoke, he moved slowly toward the window, forcing Bullard to turn. “Let her step away from you, and—”
“Stop,” Bullard said crossly, with an impatient shake of his head. A tremor shook him, and he let out an animal grunt. “Damned noise in my ears…”
“I can help you,” Sebastian said patiently. “You need medicine. And rest. Lower your arm, Joss…there’s no need to hurt anyone. You’re where you belong. Lower your arm, and I can help you.”
Incredulously Evie felt Bullard’s arm begin to relax as he was drawn to Sebastian’s soothing voice. At the same time, he turned more fully toward Sebastian.
A deafening blast of sound rent the air. Evie was released with a force that sent her reeling backward. Her dazed mind had only a moment to register the sight of Cam in the doorway, lowering a smoking pistol. Sebastian had deliberately moved into the room to position Bullard so that Cam could get a clear shot.
Before Evie could look at the crumpled heap on the floor, she was seized and whirled around, and crushed against Sebastian’s chest. All the tension he had kept so tightly constrained for the past minute was released in hard shudders as he gripped her against him, clutching her back, her limbs, great handfuls of her hair as it tumbled from its pins. She had no breath to speak, could only stand against him helplessly while he cursed and groaned into her hair.
It seemed that her pulse would never return to normal. “Frannie fetched you,” she finally managed to say.
Sebastian nodded, sliding his shaking fingers into her hair until they curved over her skull. “She told me there was a man in your room. She didn’t recognize him.” Dragging her head back, he saw the tiny cut the knife had made on her throat. His face drained of color as he saw how close Bullard had been to the main artery. He bent to kiss the thin mark, and then dragged his mouth feverishly over her face. “Holy hell,” he whispered. “Evie. Evie. I can’t bear it.”
She twisted in his arms to glance at Cam, who had just draped his own coat over Bullard’s head and shoulders to conceal them. “Cam, you didn’t have to shoot him,” she said thickly. “He was going to let me go. He was lowering his arm—”
“I couldn’t be certain,” the boy said in a monotone. “I had to take the shot when I saw it.” His face was blank, but his golden eyes were brilliant with unshed tears. Evie realized that he had just been forced to kill a man he had known since boyhood.
“Cam—” she began compassionately, but he made a staying gesture and shook his head.
“It was kinder to him,” he said without looking at her. “No creature should have to suffer that way.”
“Yes, but you—”
“I’m fine,” he said, his jaw hardening.
He wasn’t, however. He was pale beneath his golden tan, and he looked so shaken that Evie couldn’t stop herself from going to him and putting her arms around him in maternal consolation. He allowed the embrace, though he didn’t return it, and gradually his tremors quieted. She felt the briefest pressure of his lips on her hair.
That, it seemed, was all that Sebastian was willing to allow. Coming forward, he retrieved Evie and spoke brusquely to Cam. “Go send for the mortuary man.”
“Yes,” the boy said almost absently. He hesitated. “They’ll have heard the noise downstairs. We’ll have to offer an explanation of some kind.”
“Tell them someone was cleaning a gun, and it went off accidentally,” Sebastian said. “Tell them no one was hurt. When the mortuary man arrives, bring him up the back way. Pay him for his silence.”
“Yes, my lord. What if a constable should make inquiries—”
“Send him to the office—I’ll deal with him there.”
Cam nodded and disappeared.
Pulling Evie from the apartments, Sebastian locked the door, pocketed the key, and took her to another bedroom down the hallway. She accompanied him in a daze, trying to make herself comprehend what had just happened. Sebastian was silent, his profile granite-hard as he tried to marshal his composure. With great care, he brought her into the bedroom. “Stay here,” he said. “I’ll send a maid to attend you. And a glass of brandy—I want you to drink all of it.”
Evie looked up at him anxiously. “Will you come to me later?”
He gave her a short nod. “I have to take care of things first.”
But he didn’t return to the room that night. Evie waited for him in vain, finally going to bed alone. Her sleep was broken by frequent awakenings, her hand fumbling to the empty space beside her as she searched in vain for Sebastian’s warm body. Morning arrived to find her worried and exhausted, her gaze bleary as she beheld the maid who had come to light the grate.
“Have you seen Lord St. Vincent this morning?” Evie asked huskily.
“Yes, milady. His Lordship and Mr. Rohan have been up most of the night, talking.”
“Tell him that I wish to see him.”
“Yes, milady.” The maid set a ewer of hot water on the washstand and left the room.
Climbing out of bed, Evie performed her morning ablutions and smoothed her hands over the untamed curls of her hair. Her brush and comb and pins were all in the other bedroom, where—
She shivered with revulsion and pity as she remembered the events of the previous evening. How glad she was that her father had not lived to see what had become of poor Joss Bullard. She wondered what his true feelings for the young man had been, or if he had ever let himself believe that Bullard had been his son. “Papa…” she murmured, staring at her own blue eyes in the looking glass. Ivo Jenner’s eyes. He had taken so many secrets to the grave with him, and had left so much unexplained. She would always regret not having known him better. It gave her comfort, however, to think that he would have been pleased to know that Jenner’s would finally achieve the heights he had always aspired to…and that his own daughter had set in motion the events that would result in the club’s salvation.