As her thoughts turned to Sebastian, he entered the room, still wearing the same clothes he had worn the previous evening. His hair was a disordered mass of gold and amber, and his light eyes were heavily shadowed. He looked fatigued but resolute, with the air of a man who had made unpleasant decisions and was determined to stand by them.
His gaze combed over her. “How are you?”
Evie would have run to him, but something in his expression checked her. She stood by the washstand, staring at him curiously. “A bit weary. Not so weary as you seem, however. The maid said that you were awake most of the night. What did you and Cam discuss?”
Sebastian reached up to rub the nape of his neck. “He’s having a bit of difficulty coming to terms with what happened last night. But he’ll be all right.”
Evie stood before him uncertainly, wondering why he was trying so hard to appear remote. As he glanced over her nightgown-clad form, however, he could not conceal the flare of yearning in his eyes. The sight reassured her. “Come to me,” she said in a low voice.
Instead of complying, Sebastian walked to the window, away from her. Silently he gazed at the busy street lined with carriages, the pavements crowded with foot traffic.
Perplexed by his behavior, Evie watched the long, sleek line of his back, and the taut set of his shoulders.
Finally Sebastian turned toward her, his face carefully blank. “I’ve had enough,” he said. “You’re not safe here—I’ve said it from the beginning. And I’ve been proven right one time too many. I’ve made a decision that will not be altered. You are leaving on the morrow. I’m sending you to the country, to stay at the family estate for a while. My father wants to meet you. He’ll be pleasant enough company, and there are a few local families to provide some diversion—”
“And you intend to stay here?” Evie asked with a frown.
“Yes. I will manage the club, and I’ll come to visit you from time to time.”
Unable to believe that he was proposing a separation between them, Evie gave him a round-eyed stare. “Why?” she asked faintly.
His face was grim. “I can’t keep you in a place like this, worrying constantly about what might happen to you.”
“Things happen to people in the country, too.”
“I’m not going to argue with you,” Sebastian said gruffly. “You’ll go where I want you to go, and that’s that.”
The old Evie would have been cowed, and hurt, and would probably have obeyed without further argument. The new Evie, however, was much stronger…not to mention desperately in love. “I don’t think I can stay away from you,” she said in a level tone. “Especially when I don’t understand the reason for it.”
There was a crack in Sebastian’s composure now, a wash of color that crept up from his collar. He raked both hands through his hair, further disheveling the glittering locks. “Lately I’ve become so damned distracted that I can’t make a decision about anything. I can’t think clearly. I’ve got knots in my stomach, and constant pains in my chest, and whenever I see you talking to any man, or smiling at anyone, I go insane with jealousy. I can’t live this way. I—” He broke off and stared at her incredulously. “Damn it, Evie, what is there for you to smile about?”
“Nothing,” she said, hastily tucking the sudden smile back into the corners of her mouth. “It’s just…it sounds as if you’re trying to say that you love me.”
The word seemed to shock Sebastian. “No,” he said forcefully, his color rising. “I don’t. I can’t. That’s not what I’m talking about. I just need to find a way to—” He broke off and inhaled sharply as she came to him. “Evie, no.” A shiver ran through him as she reached up to the sides of his face, her fingers gentle on his skin. “It’s not what you think,” he said unsteadily. She heard the trace of fear in his voice. The fear that a small boy must have felt when every woman he loved had disappeared from his life, swept away by a merciless fever. She didn’t know how to reassure him, or how to console his long-ago grief. Raising on her toes, she sought his mouth with her own. His hands came to her elbows, as if to push her away, but he couldn’t seem to make himself do it. His breath was rapid and hot as he turned his face away. Undeterred, she kissed his cheek, his jaw, his throat. A low curse escaped him. “Damn you,” he said desperately, “I’ve got to send you away.”
“You’re not trying to protect me. You’re trying to protect yourself.” She hugged herself to him tightly. “But you can force yourself to take the risk of loving someone, can’t you?”
“No,” he whispered.
“Yes. You must.” Evie closed her eyes and pressed her face against his. “Because I love you, Sebastian…and I need you to love me back. And not in h-half measures.”
She heard his breath hiss through his teeth. His hands came to her shoulders, then snatched back. “You’ll have to let me set my own limits, or—”
Evie reached his mouth and kissed him slowly, deliberately, until he succumbed with a groan, his arms clamping around her. He answered her kiss desperately, until every part of her had been set alight with tender fire. He took his mouth from hers, gasping savagely. “Half measures. My God. I love you so much that I’m drowning in it. I can’t defend against it. I don’t know who I am anymore. All I know is that if I give in to it entirely—” He tried to control the anarchy of his breath. “You mean too much to me,” he said raggedly.
Evie smoothed her palm over his hard chest in a soothing circle. She understood his desperation, the emotions that were so unfamiliar and powerful that they overwhelmed him. It reminded her of something Annabelle had confided to her, that at the beginning of their marriage, Mr. Hunt had been quite unnerved by the intensity of his feelings for her, and it had taken time for him to adjust to them. “Sebastian,” Evie ventured, “it won’t be like this all the time, you know. It…it will seem more natural, more comfortable, after a while.”
“No, it won’t.”
He sounded so passionate, so certain, that she had to hide a smile against his shoulder. “I love you,” she said once again, and felt a tremor of longing run through him. “You can s-send me away, but you can’t stop me from running back to you. I want to spend every day with you. I want to watch you shave in the morning. I want to drink champagne and dance with you. I want to mend the holes in your stockings. I want to share a bed with you every night, and to have your children.” She paused. “Don’t you think I have fears as well? Perhaps you’ll wake up one morning and say that you’ve tired of me. Perhaps all the things you tolerate so well now will become too exasperating to bear—my stammer, my freckles—”
“Don’t be an idiot,” Sebastian interrupted roughly. “Your stammer would never bother me. And I love your freckles. I love—” His voice cracked. He clutched her tightly. “Hell,” he muttered. And then, after a moment, with bitter vehemence, “I wish I were anyone other than me.”
“Why?” she asked, her voice muffled.
“Why? My past is a cesspool, Evie.”
“That’s hardly news.”
“I can’t ever atone for the things I’ve done. Christ, I wish I had it to do over again! I would try to be a better man for you. I would—”
“You don’t have to be anything other than what you are.” Lifting her head, Evie stared at him through the radiant shimmer of her tears. “Isn’t that what you told me earlier? If you can love me without conditions, Sebastian, can’t I love you the same way? I know who you are. I think we know each other better than we know ourselves. Don’t you dare send me away, you c-coward. Who else would love my freckles? Who else would care that my feet were cold? Who else would ravish me in the billiards room?”
Slowly his resistance ebbed. She felt the change in his body, the relaxing of tension, his shoulders curving around her as if he could draw her into himself. Murmuring her name, he brought her hand to his face and nuzzled ardently into her palm, his lips brushing the warm circlet of her gold wedding band. “My love is upon you,” he whispered…and she knew then that she had won. This imperfect, extraordinary, passionate man was hers, his heart given over completely to her safekeeping. It was a trust she would never betray. Overwhelmed with relief and tenderness, Evie clung to him while a teardrop slipped from the outside corner of one eye. Sebastian smoothed it away with his fingers, staring into her upturned face. And what she saw in his glittering gaze stole her breath away.
“Well,” Sebastian said unsteadily, “you may have a point about the billiards room.”
And she smiled as he lifted her in his arms and carried her to bed.
It was nearly the end of winter. Since Evie’s mourning period coincided with Annabelle’s confinement, the two of them had spent a great deal of time together. They were both precluded from attending social events such as balls or large suppers, but that suited the women quite well, as it had been bitterly cold since Christmas, and spring seemed reluctant to arrive. Instead of gadding about town, they huddled next to the great fireplace at the Hunts’ luxurious hotel suite, or more often they gathered with Lillian and Daisy in one of the cozy parlors at Westcliff’s Marsden Terrace. They read, chatted, and did handiwork while consuming endless cups of tea.
One afternoon Lillian sat at a writing desk in the corner, laboriously composing a letter to one of her sisters-in-law, while Daisy reclined on a settee with a novel, her slight frame bundled in a cashmere lap blanket. Annabelle had occupied a chair by the blazing fire, one of her hands resting on the burgeoning curve of her belly, while Evie sat on a stool before her, rubbing her aching feet. Wincing and sighing, Annabelle murmured, “Oh, that feels lovely. No one warned me that pregnancy makes one’s feet so sore. Though I should have expected it, with all the extra weight I’m obliged to carry. Thank you, Evie. You’re the dearest friend in the world.”
Lillian’s sardonic voice came from the corner. “She told me the same thing, Evie, when I last rubbed her feet. Her devotion lasts only until the next massage. Admit it, Annabelle—you’re a lightskirt.”
Annabelle grinned lazily. “Just wait until you conceive, dear. You’ll be begging for foot rubs from anyone who is willing to give them.”
Lillian opened her mouth to reply, seemed to think better of it, and took a sip of wine from a glass on the desk.
Without looking up from her novel, Daisy said, “Oh, go on and tell them.”
Both Annabelle and Evie turned to stare at Lillian. “Tell us what?” they both asked in tandem.
Lillian responded with a quick, embarrassed lift of her shoulders, and sent a bashful grin over her shoulder. “Come midsummer, Westcliff will finally have his heir.”
“Unless it’s a girl,” Daisy added.
“Congratulations,” Evie exclaimed, temporarily abandoning Annabelle. She went to hug Lillian exuberantly. “That is wonderful news!”
“Westcliff is beside himself with delight, though he tries not to show it,” Lillian said, returning the hug. “I’m certain he is telling St. Vincent and Mr. Hunt at this very moment. He seems to believe it is entirely his accomplishment.”
“Well, his contribution was essential, wasn’t it?” Annabelle pointed out in amusement.
“Yes,” Lillian replied, “but the greater part of the undertaking is clearly mine.”
Annabelle grinned at Lillian from across the room. “You’ll do splendidly, dear. Forgive me if I don’t leap across the room; just know that I am truly overjoyed. I hope you have the opposite of whatever I’m having and then we can arrange a marriage.” Her tone turned whiny and cajoling. “Evie…come back. You can’t leave me with just one foot done.”
Shaking her head with a smile, Evie returned to the stool at the hearth. She glanced at Daisy, noticing the fond, pensive gaze that was directed toward her older sister. Perceiving the girl’s wistfulness, Evie said as she resumed her place at Annabelle’s feet, “In the midst of all this talk about husbands and babies, we mustn’t forget about finding a gentleman for Daisy.”
The dark-haired girl sent her an affectionate grin. “You’re a dear, Evie. And I don’t mind having waited for my turn. After all, someone had to be the last wallflower. But I am beginning to wonder if I’ll ever find a suitable man to marry.”
“Of course you will,” Annabelle said reasonably. “I don’t foresee any difficulty, Daisy. We’ve all broadened our circle of acquaintances quite a bit, and we’ll do whatever is necessary to find the perfect husband for you.”
“Just keep in mind that I don’t want to marry a man like LordWestcliff,” Daisy said. “Too overbearing. And not one like Lord St.Vincent either. Too unpredictable.”
“What about one like Mr. Hunt?” Annabelle asked.
Daisy shook her head firmly. “Too tall.”
“You’re becoming a bit particular, aren’t you?” Annabelle pointed out mildly, her eyes twinkling.
“Not in the least! My expectations are quite reasonable. I want a nice man who likes long walks, and books, and is adored by dogs, children—”
“And all the superior forms of aquatic and plant life,” Lillian said dryly. “Tell me, dear, where are we to find this paragon?”
“Not at any of the balls I’ve been to so far,” came Daisy’s glum reply. “I wouldn’t have thought it possible, but the selection this year is even worse than last. I am beginning to believe that any man worth marrying is not to be found at such occasions.”
“I think you’re right,” Lillian said. “There’s too much competition at those affairs—and the best quarry has already been thinned out. Time to hunt in a new field.”
“The club’s office has files on all its patrons,” Evie volunteered. “Approximately twenty-five hundred gentlemen of means. Of course, a large number of them are married—but I’m certain that I could find the names of many eligible ones.”
“Would Lord St. Vincent allow you to have access to such private information?” Daisy asked doubtfully.
Lillian countered in a droll tone, “Does he ever refuse her anything?”
Evie, who endured frequent teasing from them about Sebastian’s obvious devotion, smiled and glanced down at her wedding band as it gleamed brightly in the firelight. “Rarely,” she admitted.