She glanced at Sebastian to observe his reaction to the chambermaids’ dazzled admiration, but he seemed oblivious. Clearly, their behavior was so commonplace as to go unnoticed. A man of his looks and position would always be sought after by women. Evie had no doubt that it would be devastating to a wife who loved him. However, she would never allow herself to suffer the bite of jealousy or the fear of betrayal.
Coming to seat Evie at the table, Sebastian served her first. There was porridge flavored with salt and butter, as the Scots considered it a sacrilege to sweeten it with treacle. There were also yeast rolls called bannocks, rashers of cold boiled bacon, smoked haddock, and a large bowl of smoked oysters, and broad slices of toasted bread heaped with marmalade. Evie devoured her food hungrily, washing it down with strong tea. The meal was a simple one, hardly comparable to the spectacular English breakfasts at Lord Westcliff’s Hampshire estate, but it was hot and plentiful, and Evie was far too ravenous to find fault with anything.
She lingered over breakfast while Sebastian shaved and finished dressing. Dropping a leather roll of shaving implements into his trunk, he closed the lid and spoke casually to Evie. “Pack your belongings, pet. I’m going downstairs to see that the carriage is made ready.”
“The marriage certificate from Mr. MacPhee—”
“I’ll take care of that as well. Lock the door behind me.”
In approximately an hour he returned to collect Evie, while a brawny lad carried the trunk and valise to the waiting carriage. A faint smile touched Sebastian’s lips as he saw that Evie had used one of his silk cravats to tie her hair at the back of her neck. Evie had lost most of her hairpins during the journey from England, and she had not had the foresight to tuck an extra rack of them into her valise. “With your hair like that, you look too young to marry,” he murmured. “It adds a piquant note of debauchery to the situation. I like it.”
Becoming accustomed by now to his indecent remarks, Evie gave him a look of resigned forbearance and followed him from the room. They descended to the first floor and exchanged farewells with Mr. Findley, the innkeeper. As Evie accompanied Sebastian to the entrance, Findley called out sunnily, “I bid ye a safe juirney, Lady St. Vincent!”
Startled to realize that she was now a viscountess, Evie managed to stammer out her thanks.
Sebastian helped her to the waiting carriage, while the horses stomped and shifted and blew white breath from their flared nostrils. “Yes,” he commented sardonically, “besmirched though it is, the title is now yours to share.” He helped her up the movable step and into the vehicle. “Moreover,” he continued as he swung in to sit beside her, “we will someday rise to even greater heights, as I’m first in line for the dukedom…though I advise you not to hold your breath until it happens. The men in my family are regrettably long-lived, which means you and I probably won’t inherit until we’re both too decrepit to enjoy it.”
“If you—” Evie began, and stopped in surprise as she saw a bulky object on the floor. It was a large pottery container of some sort, with a stoppered opening at one end. Its shape was round, but it was flat on one side to ensure its stability on the floor. She threw a glance of bewilderment at Sebastian, tentatively touched the sole of her shoe to the object and was rewarded with a strong waft of heat that went right up her skirts. “A foot warmer,” she exclaimed. The heat from the boiling water that was contained in the pottery casing would last much longer than the hot brick she had used before. “Where did you manage to find it?”
“I bought it from MacPhee when I saw it in his cottage,” Sebastian replied, seeming amused by her giddy excitement. “Naturally he was overjoyed at the prospect of charging me for something else.”
Impulsively Evie half rose from her seat to kiss his cheek, which was smooth and cool against her lips. “Thank you. It was very kind of you.”
His hands came to her waist, preventing her retreat. He exerted just enough force to bring her onto his lap, until their faces were so close that their noses were nearly touching. His breath caressed her mouth as he murmured, “Surely I deserve more thanks than that.”
“It’s only a foot warmer,” she protested mildly.
He grinned. “I should point out, darling, that the thing is going to cool eventually…and then, once again, I will be your only source of available warmth. And I don’t share my body heat indiscriminately.”
“According to rumor you do.” Evie was discovering an unfamiliar delight in the exchange. She had never bantered with a man like this, nor had she ever experienced the fun of withholding something he wanted, teasing him with it. She saw from the glimmer in his eyes that he was enjoying it as well. He looked as if he wanted to pounce on her.
“I’ll bide my time,” he said. “The damned bottle can’t last forever.”
He let her scramble off his lap, and watched as she settled the fall of the skirts over the foot warmer. Leaning back blissfully as the carriage began to roll forward, Evie felt gooseflesh rise on her thighs at the delicious drafts of heat that drifted through the legs of her drawers and sank into the weave of her stockings. “My lord…that is…Sebastian…”
His eyes were as bright and reflective as a looking glass. “Yes, sweet?”
“If your father is a duke, then why are you a viscount? Shouldn’t you be a marquess, or at least an earl?”
“Not necessarily. It’s a relatively modern practice to add a number of lesser titles when a new one is created. As a rule, the older the dukedom, the less likely that the eldest son is a marquess. My father chooses to make a virtue of it, of course. Don’t ever start him on the subject, especially when he’s in his cups, or you’ll receive a mind-numbing discourse on how foreign and feminine-sounding the word ‘marquess’ is, and how the rank itself is nothing but an embarrassing half step beneath a dukedom.”
“Is he an arrogant man, your father?”
The hint of a bitter smile curved his lips. “I used to think it was arrogance. But I’ve come to realize that it’s more an obliviousness to the world outside his own. To my knowledge, he’s never put on his own stockings, or put powder on his own toothbrush. I doubt he could survive a life without privilege. In fact, I believe he would starve in a room filled with food if there were no servants to bring it to the table where he sat. He thinks nothing of using a priceless vase as a target for shooting practice or putting out a fire in the hearth by throwing a fox-fur coat on it. He even keeps the forests around the estate perpetually lit with torches and lamps in case he should ever take it in his mind to go walking through them at night.”
“No wonder you’re poor,” Evie said, appalled by such waste. “I hope you’re not a spendthrift as well.”
He shook his head. “I have yet to be accused of unreasonable financial excess. I rarely gamble, and I don’t keep a mistress. Even so, I have my share of creditors nipping at my heels.”
“Have you ever considered going into a profession?”
He gave her a blank look. “What for?”
“To earn money.”
“Lord, no, child. Work would be an inconvenient distraction from my personal life. And I’m seldom disposed to rise before noon.”
“My father is not going to like you.”
“If my ambition in life were to earn other peoples’ liking, I would be most distressed to hear that. Fortunately it’s not.”
As the journey continued in a companionable vein, Evie was aware of a contradictory mixture of feelings toward her husband. Although he possessed a large measure of charm, she found little in him that was worthy of respect. It was obvious that he had a keen mind, but it was employed for no good purpose. Furthermore, the knowledge that he had kidnapped Lillian, and betrayed his own best friend in the bargain, made it clear that he was not to be trusted. However…he was capable of an occasional cavalier kindness that she appreciated.
With every stop between relays Sebastian saw to Evie’s needs, and despite his threats about letting the foot warmer cool, he had it refilled with boiling water. When she grew tired he allowed her to nap against his chest, anchoring her as the carriage wheels bounced over broken stretches of road. As she drowsed in his arms, it occurred to her that he provided the illusion of something she had never had before. Sanctuary. His hand passed repeatedly over her hair in the gentlest of caresses, and she heard him murmur in his dark-angel voice, “Rest, my love. I’m watching over you.”
Although Sebastian was eager to reach London and take stock of his new circumstances, he did not regret his decision to travel more slowly on their return route. Evie had become pale and uncommunicative by nightfall, her reserves of strength depleted after the ardors of the past few days. She needed rest.
Finding a suitable coaching inn at which they could spend the night, Sebastian paid for the best room available and requested food and a hot bath to be sent up immediately. Evie bathed in a small slipper tub, while Sebastian made arrangements for a change of horses in the morning and saw to it that the driver received lodging. Returning to the room, which was small but clean, with somewhat threadbare blue curtain panels covering the windows, Sebastian discovered that his wife had finished her bath and was dressed in her nightgown.
He wandered to the table, lifted the napkin that covered his plate, and discovered a portion of roast chicken, a few wilted root vegetables, and a small pudding. Noting that Evie’s plate was empty, he glanced at her with a wry smile. “How was it?”
“Better than no supper at all.”
“I will confess to having a new appreciation for the talents of my London chef.” He sat at the rickety table and draped a fresh napkin over his lap. “I think you will find his creations to your liking.”
“I don’t expect that I will have many meals at your home,” Evie said guardedly.
Sebastian paused with his fork poised halfway to his mouth.
“I will be staying at my father’s club,” Evie continued. “As I told you before, I intend to take care of him.”
“During the day, yes. But you won’t stay there at night. You’ll return in the evenings to my…our…house.”
She regarded him with an unblinking stare. “His illness won’t go away at nightfall and resume at daybreak. He will need constant care.”
Sebastian shoved a bite of food into his mouth as he replied irritably. “That’s what servants are for. You may hire a woman to care for him.”
Evie shook her head with a stubborn firmness that further annoyed him. “That isn’t the same as being nursed by a loving relative.”
“Why should you give a damn about the quality of his care? Precious little he’s done for you. You hardly know the bastard—”
“I don’t like that word.”
“That’s a pity. Because it’s one of my favorites, and I intend to keep using it whenever it applies.”
“Then it is fortunate we will see each other so seldom after we return to London.”
Glaring at his wife, whose sweet face concealed an unexpectedly mulish disposition, Sebastian was reminded that she was willing to take drastic measures to get what she wanted. The devil knew what she would do if he pushed her too hard. Forcing his hands to relax on the handles of his knife and fork, he resumed eating. It didn’t matter that the chicken was tasteless. Had it been swathed in the most delectable French sauce, he still wouldn’t have noticed it. His crafty mind was busy sorting through strategies to deal with her.
Finally, adopting an expression of kind concern, he murmured, “My love, I can’t allow you to stay at a place filled with thieves, gamblers and drunkards. Surely you see the inherent dangers in such a situation.”
“I will make certain that you receive my dowry as quickly as possible. And then you won’t have to worry about me.”
His self-control, always so solid, evaporated like hot water on a stove plate. “I’m not worried about you, damn it! It’s just—holy hell, it’s not done, Evie. The Viscountess St. Vincent can’t live in a gaming club, even for a few days.”
“I didn’t realize you were so conventional,” she said, and for some reason the sight of his ferocious scowl elicited a twitch of amusement at the corners of her lips. Subtle as the twitch was, Sebastian saw it, and he was instantly thrown from anger to bemusement. He would be damned if he would be put through a wringer by a twenty-three-year-old virgin…near-virgin…who was so naive as to believe that she was any kind of match for him.
His gaze of icy contempt should have withered her. “In your fantasy of playing ministering angel, sweet, just who did you imagine would protect you in that place? Sleeping there alone at night is an invitation to be raped. And I’ll be damned if I stay there with you—I have better things to do than sit in a second-rate gambling palace and wait for old Jenner to turn up his toes.”
“I haven’t asked you to watch over me,” she replied in a level tone. “I’ll manage quite well without you.”
“Of course you will,” Sebastian muttered sarcastically, suddenly losing interest in the cold supper before him. Tossing his napkin over the half-finished plate, he stood from the table and removed his coat and waistcoat. He was dusty and travel-weary, and he intended to make use of the slipper bath. With any luck the water would still be warm.
As he undressed and threw each garment over the chair, he couldn’t help but think of all the women who had wanted to marry him over the years—beautiful and well endowed, both physically and financially—they would have done anything short of murder to please him. He had been far too busy with his rakish pursuits to consider offering for any of them. And now, through a combination of circumstances and bad timing, he had ended up wedded to a socially awkward creature with an unsavory bloodline and an obstinate temperament.
Noticing the way Evie had averted her gaze from the sight of his na*ed body, Sebastian felt a sneer twist his lips. He went to the tiny folding tub and lowered himself into the lukewarm water, his long legs straddled on either side of it. Washing himself idly, sluicing his soapy chest and arms with great handfuls of water, he watched his wife with narrowed eyes. He was pleased to observe that some of her composure had vanished as he bathed. Her color heightened as she took an undue interest in the pattern of the quilted counterpane on the bed.
As she traced a pattern of stitches with her forefinger, the gleam of the Scottish-gold ring caught Sebastian’s eye. He experienced a strange reaction to the sight, a nearly overwhelming urge to go over to her, shove her back on the bed, and take her without preliminaries. To dominate her, and force her to admit his ownership. The rush of primal lust was more than a bit alarming to a man who had always considered himself civilized. Troubled and inflamed, he finished washing, snatched up the damp length of toweling that she had used, and dried himself efficiently. The sight of his arousal did not escape Evie’s notice—he heard her quick intake of breath from across the room. Casually he wrapped the toweling around his waist and tucked in the loose end as he went to his trunk.