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“But here it says that almost three thousand pounds was spent on dice,” Evie murmured.

“Exactly.” Sebastian leaned back in his chair and smiled lazily. “I deceived my father the same way in my depraved youth, when he paid my monthly upkeep and I had need of more ready coin than he was willing to provide.”

“What did you need it for?” Evie could not resist asking.

The smile tarried on his lips. “I’m afraid the explanation would require a host of words to which you would take strong exception.”

Spearing a quail egg with her fork, Evie popped it into her mouth. “What is to be done about Mr. Egan?”

His shoulders lifted in a graceful shrug. “As soon as he is sober enough to walk, he’ll be dismissed.”

Evie brushed away a stray lock of hair that had fallen over her cheek. “There is no one to replace him.”

“Yes, there is. Until a suitable manager can be found, I’ll run the club.”

The quail egg seemed to stick in her throat, and Evie choked a little. Hastily she reached for her wine, washed it down, and regarded him with bulging eyes. How could he say something so preposterous? “You can’t.”

“I can hardly do worse than Egan. He hasn’t managed a damned thing in months…before long, this place will be falling down around our ears.”

“You said you hated work!”

“So I did. But I feel that I should try it at least once, just to be certain.”

She began to stammer in her anxiety. “You’ll pl-play at this for a few days, and then you’ll tire of it.”

“I can’t afford to tire of it, my love. Although the club is still profitable, its value is in decline. Your father has a load of outstanding debt that must be settled. If the people who owe him can’t muster the cash, we’ll have to take property, jewelry, artwork…whatever they can manage. Having a good idea of the value of things, I can negotiate some acceptable settlements. And there are other problems I haven’t yet mentioned…Jenner has a string of failing Thoroughbreds that have lost a fortune at Newmarket. And he’s made some insane investments—ten thousand pounds he put into an alleged gold mine in Flintshire—a swindle that even a child should have seen through.”

“Oh God,” Evie murmured, rubbing her forehead. “He’s been ill—people have taken advantage—”

“Yes. And now, even if we wanted to sell the club, we couldn’t without first putting it in order. If there were an alternative, believe me, I would find it. But this place is a sieve, with no one who is capable or willing to stop the holes. Except for me.”

“You know nothing about filling holes!” she cried, appalled by his arrogance.

Sebastian responded with a bland smile and the slightest arch of one brow. Before he could open his mouth to reply, she clapped her hands over her ears. “Oh, don’t say it, don’t!” When she saw that he was obligingly holding his silence—though a devilish gleam remained in his eyes—she lowered her hands cautiously. “If you ran the club, where would you sleep?”

“Here, of course,” came his prosaic reply.

“I’ve taken the only available guest room,” she said. “All the others are occupied. And I’m not going to share a bed with you.”

“There will be rooms aplenty tomorrow. I’m getting rid of the house wenches.”

The situation was changing too rapidly for her staggering brain to follow. Sebastian’s assumption of authority over her father’s business and all his employees was alarming in its speed. She had the unnerving feeling of having brought a tame cat into the club and seeing it transform into a rampaging tiger. And all she could do was watch helplessly as he proceeded to slaughter at will. Perhaps, she thought desperately, if she indulged him for a few days, he would tire of the novelty. In the meantime, she could only try to minimize the damage.

“You’re just going to throw the h-house wenches out into the streets?” she asked with forced calm.

“They’ll be dismissed with generous parting sums as a reward for their labors on the club’s behalf.”

“Do you intend to hire new ones?”

Sebastian shook his head. “While I have no moral aversion to the concept of prostitution—in fact, I’m all for it—I’m damned if I’ll become known as a pimp.”

“A what?”

“A pimp. A c**k bawd. A male procurer. For God’s sake, did you have cotton wool stuffed in your ears as a child? Did you never hear anything, or wonder why badly dressed women were parading up and down the club staircase at all hours?”

“I always visited in the daytime,” Evie said with great dignity. “I rarely saw them working. And later, when I was old enough to understand what they were doing, my father began to curtail my visits.”

“That was probably one of the few kind things he ever did for you.” Sebastian waved away the subject impatiently. “Back to the subject at hand…not only do I not want the responsibility of maintaining mediocre whores, but we don’t have the room to accommodate them. On any given night, when all the beds are occupied, the club members are forced to take their pleasures out in the stables.”

“They are? They do?”

“And it’s damned scratchy and drafty in that stable. Take my word for it.”

“You—”

“However, there is an excellent brothel two streets over. I have every expectation that we can come to an arrangement with its proprietress, Madame Bradshaw. When one of our club members desires female companionship, he can walk to Bradshaw’s, receive their services at a discounted price, and return here when he’s refreshed.” He raised his brows significantly, as if he expected her to praise the idea. “What do you think?”

“I think you would still be a c**k bawd,” Evie said. “Only by stealth.”

“Morality is only for the middle classes, sweet. The lower class can’t afford it, and the upper classes have entirely too much leisure time to fill.”

Evie shook her head slowly, staring at him with huge eyes, not moving even when he leaned forward to press a grape between her slack lips. “There’s no need to say anything,” he murmured, smiling. “Clearly you’re speechless with gratitude at the prospect of having me here to keep an eye on you.”

Her ruddy brows lowered in a scowl, and he laughed softly. “If your concern is that I may be overcome with manly ardor and ravish you in a moment of weakness…I may. If you ask nicely.”

Evie clamped her teeth on the sweet, pulpy grape and maneuvered the seeds out with her teeth and tongue. As he watched her mouth working on the fruit, Sebastian’s smile faded slightly, and he leaned back. “At the moment you’re too much of a novice to be worth the bother,” he continued coolly. “Perhaps I’ll seduce you in the future, after some other men have taken the trouble to educate you.”

“I doubt it,” she said sullenly. “I would never be so bourgeois as to sleep with my own husband.”

A catch of laughter escaped him. “My God. You must have been waiting for days to use that one. Congratulations, child. We haven’t yet been married a week, and you’re already learning how to fight.”

CHAPTER 9

Evie never knew where her husband had slept that first night, but she suspected that it had been someplace uncomfortable. Her own sleep had been far from restful, as worry had awakened her with clocklike regularity. She had gone to check on her father several times, giving him sips of water, straightening the bedclothes, administering more medicine when the coughing worsened. Each time he awakened, Jenner regarded his daughter with renewed surprise. “Am I dreaming you’re ‘ere, tibby?” he had asked her, and she had murmured softly and stroked his hair.

At the first sign of daylight, Evie washed and dressed, and pinned her damp hair into a braided coil at the back of her neck. Ringing for a chambermaid, she ordered mulled eggs, broth, tea, and any other sickroom food she could think of to tempt her father’s failing appetite. Mornings at the club were quiet and still, as most of the employees were sleeping after having worked into the wee hours of the morning. However, there was always a skeleton staff, who were available for light tasks. A cook-maid stayed in the kitchen while the chef was gone, preparing simple fare for those who required it.

The sound of cruel hacking came from her father’s room. Hurrying to the bedside, Evie found him coughing spasmodically into a handkerchief. It made her own lungs hurt as she heard the harrowing convulsions of his chest. Rummaging through the bottles on the night table, she found the mor**ine syrup and poured it into a spoon. She wedged an arm behind her father’s damp, hot head and neck, lifting him into a half-sitting position. Once again shocked by how light he was, she felt his body tense as he tried to hold back another cough. The resulting shudders jolted the spoon in her hand, and the medicine dribbled onto the bedclothes.

“I’m sorry,” Evie murmured, quickly moving to blot the sticky syrup and refill the spoon. “Let’s try again, Papa.” He managed to take the medicine, his veined throat moving as he swallowed. Then, sputtering with a few residual coughs, he waited as she wedged supportive pillows behind him.

Evie eased him back and pressed a folded handkerchief into his hand. Staring into his gaunt face with its grizzled beard, she searched for any sign of her father in this unrecognizable stranger. He had always been full-faced, robust, ruddy…he had never been able to hold a conversation without the expressive use of his hands, making fists and punching the air in gesticulations that seemed particular to ex-boxers. Now he was a pale shadow of that man, the skin on his face gray and sagging from rapid weight loss. However, the blue eyes were the same…round and dark, the shade of the Irish sea. Finding reassurance in the familiarity of those eyes, Evie smiled.

“I’ve sent for breakfast,” she murmured. “I expect it will be here soon.”

Jenner shook his head slightly, indicating that he did not want food.

“Oh yes,” Evie insisted, half sitting beside him on the bed. “You’ll have to eat something, Papa.” Taking a corner of a blotting cloth, she dabbed at a drop of blood at the bristly corner of his mouth.

A frown insinuated itself between his graying brows. “The Maybricks,” he said raspily. “Will they come for you, Evie?”

Her smile was infused with grim satisfaction. “I’ve left them for good. A few days ago I ran off to Gretna Green and got m-married. They have no power over me now.”

Jenner’s eyes widened. “Who?” he asked succinctly.

“Lord St. Vincent.”

A tap came at the door, and the housemaid entered, bearing a tray laden with dishes. Evie rose to help her, clearing some articles from the night table. She saw her father recoil from the smell of the food, bland though it was, and she winced sympathetically. “I’m sorry, Papa. You must take a little broth, at least.” She draped a napkin over his chest and brought a cup of warm broth to his lips. He drank a few sips and leaned back, studying her as she blotted his mouth. Knowing that he was waiting for her to explain the situation, Evie smiled ruefully. Having given some previous thought to the matter, she had decided that there was no need to counterfeit a romance for his benefit. Her father was a practical man, and it had probably never occurred to him to hope that his daughter might marry for love. In his view, one took life as it came, doing whatever was necessary to survive. If one found a bit of enjoyment along the way, one should take advantage of it, and not complain afterward when the price had to be paid.

“Hardly anyone knows about the marriage yet,” she said. “It’s not a bad match, actually. We get on well enough, and I have no illusions about him.”

Jenner opened his mouth as she slipped a bite of mulled eggs inside. He contemplated the information, swallowed, and ventured, “His father, the duke, is a paper skull what doesn’t know ‘is arse from an axe ‘andle.”

“Lord St. Vincent is quite intelligent, however.”

“A cold sort,” Jenner remarked.

“Yes. But not always. That is—” She stopped suddenly, her cheeks reddening as she remembered Sebastian rising over her in bed, his body hard and warm, his back muscles flexing beneath her fingers.

“A muff chaser, ‘e is,” Jenner commented in a matter-of-fact tone.

“That doesn’t matter to me,” Evie replied with equal frankness. “I would never ask fidelity of him. I’ve gotten what I wanted from the marriage. As for what he wants…”

“Aye, I’ll post the cole,” her father said amicably, using the cockney term for paying money that was owed. “Where is ‘e now?”

She gave him another bite of mulled egg. “No doubt he is still abed.”

The chambermaid, who had been leaving the room, paused at the doorway. “Pardon, but ‘e’s not abed, miss…er, milady. Lord St. Vincent woke Mr. Rohan at first light, and is dragging him to an’ fro, asking questions and giving ‘im lists. Put Mr. Rohan in the devil’s own mood, ‘e ‘as.”

“Lord St. Vincent has that effect on people,” Evie said dryly.

“Lists for what?” Jenner asked.

Evie did not dare admit that Sebastian had taken it upon himself to interfere with the running of the club. That would likely upset her father. News of his daughter’s loveless marriage was something he could take in stride, but anything that affected his business would be a source of grave concern. “Oh,” she said vaguely, “I believe he saw a patch of carpeting that wanted replacing. And he thought of an improvement to the sideboard menu. That sort of thing.”

“Hmm.” Jenner scowled as she brought the cup of broth to his mouth once again. “Tell ‘im ‘e’s not to touch anyfing wivout Egan’s leave.”

“Yes, Papa.”

Evie exchanged a covert glance with the chambermaid, narrowing her eyes in warning to prevent the girl from volunteering further information. Understanding the silent command, the chambermaid nodded.

“You’re not so tangled in the gob as you were,” Jenner remarked. “Why is that, carrot pate?”

Evie considered the question thoughtfully, knowing that her stammer had indeed improved during the last week. “I’m not certain. I think perhaps being away from the Maybricks has helped me to feel…calmer. I noticed it soon after we left London…” She gave him an expurgated version of their journey to Gretna Green and back, even provoking a few chuckles that caused him to cough into his handkerchief. As they conversed, she saw the relaxing of his face, betraying the pain-easing effect of the morphine. She ate a piece of his untouched toast, drank a cup of tea, and set the breakfast tray by the door.

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