She had never experienced this physical closeness with a man before. It seemed terribly wrong to enjoy it. On the other hand, she would have to be unconscious not to. Nature had squandered an unreasonable quantity of male beauty on this undeserving creature. Better yet, he was incredibly warm. She fought the urge to squirm deeper against him. His clothes were made of exquisite fabrics; a coat of fine wool, a waistcoat of heavy silk, a shirt of butter-soft linen. The hints of starch and expensive cologne mingled with the salty-clean scent of his skin.
Fearing that he might want to set her apart from him after the hot pot was finished, Evie tried to make it last as long as possible. To her regret, she finally drained the last sweet drops at the bottom of the cup. Taking the earthenware vessel from her, St. Vincent set it on the floor. Evie was profoundly relieved as she felt him settle back with her in his arms once more. She heard him yawn over her head. “Go to sleep,” he murmured. “You have three hours before the next team change.”
Wedging her toes more tightly against the hot brick, Evie half turned and nestled deeper against him, and let herself drift into the inviting depths of slumber.
The rest of the journey became a great blur of movement and weariness and rude awakenings. As Evie’s exhaustion deepened, she became increasingly dependent on St. Vincent. With each new relay, he managed to bring her a mug of tea or broth, and he reheated the brick in every available hearth. He even found a quilted blanket from somewhere, dryly advising Evie not to question how he had acquired it. Convinced that she would have been frozen solid by now without him, Evie quickly lost all reservations about attaching herself to him whenever he was in the carriage. “I-I’m not making advances,” she told him as she flattened herself against his chest. “You’re just an available s-source of heat.”
“So you say,” St. Vincent replied lazily, tucking the quilt more tightly around them both. “However, during the past quarter hour you’ve been fondling parts of my anatomy that no one’s ever dared to touch before.”
“I v-very much doubt that.” She burrowed even further into the depths of his coat, and added in a muffled voice, “You’ve probably been h-handled more than a hamper at Fortnum and Mason.”
“And I can be had at a far more reasonable price.” He winced suddenly, and moved to arrange her on his lap. “Don’t put your knee there, darling, or your plans of consummating the marriage may be thrown very much into doubt.”
She dozed until their next stop, and just as she found herself relaxing into a deep sleep, St. Vincent gently shook her awake. “Evangeline,” he murmured, smoothing back her straggling hair. “Open your eyes. We’re at the next coaching stop. Time to go inside for a few minutes.”
“Don’t want to,” she mumbled, pushing at him irritably.
“You must,” he insisted gently. “We’re coming to a long stretch after this. You’ll have to use the convenience now, as it will be your last opportunity for a while.”
Evie was about to protest that she had no need of a convenience, when suddenly she realized that she did. The thought of getting up and walking out into the freezing gray rain again nearly brought tears to her eyes. Bending over, she tugged on her clammy, filthy shoes and fumbled miserably with the laces. St. Vincent brushed her hands away and tied them himself. He helped her from the carriage, and Evie gritted her teeth as a bitter gust of wind struck her. It was perishing cold outside. After tugging the hood of her cloak farther over her face, St. Vincent clamped a supportive arm around her shoulders and helped her across the inn yard. “Believe me,” he said, “you’d rather spend a few minutes here than have to stop by the side of the road later. Knowing what I do about women and their plumbing—”
“I know about my own plumbing,” Evie said testily. “There’s no need to explain it to me.”
“Of course. Forgive me if I’m talking excessively—I’m trying to keep myself awake. And you too, for that matter.”
Holding on to his lean waist, Evie trudged through the icy mud and distracted herself by thinking about cousin Eustace, and how glad she was not to have to marry him. She would never again have to live under the Maybricks’ roof. The thought gave her strength. Once she married, they would have no more power over her. Good Lord, it could not happen soon enough.
After arranging for the temporary use of a room, St. Vincent took Evie by the shoulders and evaluated her with a thorough glance. “You look ready to faint,” he said frankly. “Sweet, there’s time enough for you to rest here an hour or two. Why don’t you—”
“No,” she interrupted stonily. “I want to keep going.”
St. Vincent regarded her with obvious annoyance, but asked without rancor, “Are you always so stubborn?” Taking her up to the room, he reminded her to lock the door when he left. “Try not to fall asleep on the chamber pot,” he advised helpfully.
When they returned to the carriage, Evie followed their by-now familiar pattern, removing her shoes and allowing St. Vincent to tuck the hot brick at her feet. He settled her between his spread legs, resting one of his own stockinged feet near the brick, while his other foot remained on the floor to secure their balance. Evie’s heartbeat quickened, her veins dilated with a rush of tingling blood as St. Vincent took one of her hands in his and began to toy with her cold fingers. His hand was so warm, his fingertips velvety, the nails short and smoothly filed. A strong hand, but one that unquestionably belonged to a man of leisure.
St. Vincent laced their fingers together lightly, drew a small circle in her palm with his thumb, then slid his fingers up to match them against hers. Although his complexion was fair, his skin was warm-toned, the kind that absorbed the sun easily. Eventually St. Vincent ceased his playing and kept her fingers folded in his.
Surely this couldn’t be she…the wallflower Evangeline Jenner…alone in a carriage with a dangerous rake, racing madly to Gretna Green. Look what I’ve started, she thought dizzily. Turning her head on his chest, she rested her cheek against the fine linen of his shirt and asked drowsily, “What is your family like? Do you have brothers and sisters?”
His lips played among her curls for a moment, and then he lifted his mouth to reply. “There’s no one left, save for my father and myself. I have no memories of my mother—she died of cholera when I was still an infant. I had four older sisters. Being the youngest, and the only boy, I was spoiled beyond reason. But when I was a child, I lost three of my sisters to scarlet fever…I remember being sent to our country estate when they fell ill, and when I was brought back, they were gone. The one that was left—my eldest sister—married, but like your mother, she died in labor. The babe didn’t survive.”
Evie was very still during the matter-of-fact recitation, forcing herself to remain relaxed against him. But inside she felt a stirring of pity for the little boy he had been. A mother and four doting sisters, all vanishing from his life. It would have been difficult for any adult to comprehend such loss, much less a child. “Do you ever wonder what your life might have been like,” she found herself asking, “if you’d had a mother?”
“I do. I often wonder what advice she’d have given me.”
“Since your mother ended up married to a ruffian like Ivo Jenner,” St. Vincent replied sardonically, “I wouldn’t have put too much stock in her advice.” A quizzical pause. “However did they meet? It isn’t often that a gently bred girl encounters Jenner’s sort.”
“That’s true. My mother was riding in a carriage with my aunt—it was one of those winter days when the London fog is so thick at noon that one can scarcely see a few yards ahead. The carriage swerved to avoid a street vendor’s cart, and threw down my father, who happened to be standing on the nearby pavement. At my mother’s insistence, the carriage driver stopped to ask after his condition. He was just a bit bruised, nothing more. And I suppose…I suppose my father must have interested her, because she sent a letter to him the following day, inquiring once more after his health. They began a correspondence—my father had someone else write his letters for him, as he wasn’t literate. I know of no other details, save that they eventually eloped.” A smile of satisfaction curved her lips as she imagined the fury of the Maybricks upon discovering that her mother had run away with Ivo Jenner. “She was nineteen when she died,” she said reflectively. “And I’m twenty-three. It seems odd to have lived longer than she did.” Twisting in Sebastian’s arms, she glanced up at his face. “How old are you, my lord? Thirty-four? Thirty-five?”
“Thirty-two. Although at the moment I feel no less than a hundred and two.” He was staring at her curiously. “What happened to your stammer, child? It disappeared somewhere between here and Teesdale.”
“Did it?” Evie asked with mild surprise. “I suppose…I must feel comfortable with you. I tend to stammer less with certain people.” How odd—her stammer never completely vanished like this unless she was talking to children.
His chest moved beneath her ear in a huff of amusement. “No one’s ever told me that I’m a comfortable sort. I’m sure I don’t like it. I’ll have to do something diabolical soon to correct your impression.”
“No doubt you will.” She closed her eyes and slumped more heavily against him. “I think I’m too tired to stammer.”
His hand came up to her head, lightly stroking her hair and the side of her face, his fingertips massaging her temple. “Sleep,” he whispered. “We’re almost there. If you’re going to hell in a handcart, my love, you should be warmer soon.”
She wasn’t, however. The farther north they traveled, the colder it became, until Evie reflected dourly that a portion of devil’s brimstone or hell broth would have been quite welcome. The village of Gretna Green lay in the county of Dumfriesshire, just north of the border between England and Scotland. In defiance of the strict marriage laws of England, hundreds of couples had traveled the coaching road from London, through Carlisle, to Gretna Green. They came on foot, by carriage or horseback, seeking an asylum, where they could say their marriage vows and return to England as man and wife.
After a couple crossed the bridge over the Sark River and entered Scotland, they could be married anywhere in the country. A declaration before witnesses was all that was necessary. A flourishing marriage trade had developed in Gretna Green, with the residents competing to perform wedding services in private homes, hostelries, or even out-of-doors. The most famous—and infamous—location for a Gretna wedding, however, was the blacksmith’s shop, where so many hasty services had been performed that a marriage anywhere in Gretna Green was referred to as an “anvil wedding.” The tradition had started in the seventeen hundreds when a blacksmith had set himself up as the first of a long line of blacksmith priests.
At last, St. Vincent’s carriage reached its destination, an inn located next to the blacksmith’s shop. Seeming to suspect that Evie might collapse from weariness, St. Vincent kept a firm arm around her as they stood before the innkeeper’s battered desk. The innkeeper, a Mr. Findley, beamed with delight upon learning that they were an eloping couple, and assured them with broad winks that he always kept a room at the ready for situations such as this.
“‘Tisn’t legal till ye consummate the weddin’, ye know,” he informed them in a nearly incomprehensible accent. “We’ve ‘ad tae sneak a puir gruim an’ ‘is bride ou’ the back duir o’ yon smithy, whilst their pursuers were ‘ammering aweey a’ th’ front. When they came tae the inn an’ found baith lovers together abed, the bridegruim was still weering ‘is boots! But there was no doubt the bonnie deed ‘ad been doon.” He laughed uproariously at the memory.
“What did he say?” Evie mumbled against St. Vincent’s shoulder.
“I have no idea,” he said in her ear. “And I’d rather not speculate.” Raising his head, he said to the innkeeper, “I want a hot bath in the room when we return from the blacksmith’s cottage.”
“Aye, milord.” Eagerly the innkeeper received the coins that St. Vincent handed to him in exchange for a old-fashioned looking key. “Wad ye ‘ave a supper tray as weel, milord?”
St. Vincent gave Evie a questioning glance, and she shook her head. “No,” St. Vincent replied, “but I expect we’ll want a large breakfast on the morrow.”
“Aye, milord. Ye’re goin’ tae wed a’ the smithy, aren’t ye? Ah, guid. There’s nae better priest in Gretna than Paisley MacPhee. A literate man, ‘e is…‘e’ll serve as a clark tae the weddin’, an make oot a fine certificate for ye.”
“Thank you.” St. Vincent kept his arm around Evie as they walked out of the inn and headed to the blacksmith’s cottage next door. A quick glance down the street revealed rows of tidy cottages and shops, with lamps being lit to relieve the gathering darkness of early evening. As they approached the front of the whitewashed building, St. Vincent murmured, “Bear up just a bit longer, sweetheart. It’s almost done.”
Leaning heavily against him with her face half hidden in his coat, Evie waited as he rapped on the door. It opened soon thereafter to reveal a bulky, ruddy-faced man with a handsome mustache that connected to his profuse side whiskers. Fortunately his Scottish burr was not nearly as thick as the innkeeper’s, and Evie was able to follow what he said.
“Are you MacPhee?” St. Vincent asked curtly.
Rapidly St. Vincent made introductions and explained their purpose. The blacksmith smiled broadly. “Sae ye wish tae marry, do ye? Come inside.” He summoned his two daughters, a pair of chubby, dark-haired girls whom he introduced as Florag and Gavenia, and he led them to the shop that was attached to the residence. The MacPhees exhibited the same relentless cheer as the innkeeper Findley, which disproved much of what Evie had always heard about the reputedly dour nature of the Scots.
“Will ye have my two lasses stand as witnesses?” MacPhee suggested.
“Yes,” St. Vincent said, glancing around the shop, which was filled with horseshoes, carriage equipment, and farming implements. The lamplight struck tiny glints in the golden bristle on the lower half of his face. “As you can no doubt see, my…” He paused as if debating how to refer to Evie. “…bride…and I are quite weary. We’ve traveled from London at a bruising pace, and therefore I would like to hasten the proceedings.”