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Looking uncomfortable and vaguely shamed by the transaction, Brook handed him the sovereign.

Peregrine seized Evie in a hard grip, rendering her as helpless as a rabbit caught by the scruff of the neck. His big, square face was florid with rage. “You stupid, worthless girl!” he cried, shaking her hard. “If you weren’t still of some use, I would dispose of you like so much rubbish. How long did you think you could hide from us? There’ll be hell to pay, I promise you!”

“Bullard, stop him, please,” Evie screamed, fighting and arching as Peregrine dragged her toward a waiting carriage. “No!”

But Bullard didn’t move to help her, only watched from the doorway with hate-filled eyes. She didn’t understand what she had done to make him despise her so. Why was there no one to help her? Why was no one answering her cries? Fighting for her life, Evie clawed and elbowed her uncle, her struggles hampered by her heavy skirts. She was hopelessly outmatched. Infuriated by her resistance, Peregrine growled, “Submit, you damned little hellion!”

From the corner of her eye, Evie saw a boy coming from the stable yard, pausing uncertainly at the sight of the conflict in the alley. She screamed to him, “Get Cam—” Her shout was stifled by Peregrine’s crushing palm as it covered her mouth and nose. She bit into his dusty-tasting flesh, and he jerked his hand away with an enraged howl. “Cam!” Evie shrieked again, before she was silenced by a hard cuff to the ear.

Peregrine shoved her at Uncle Brook, whose lean face swam in her blurring vision. “Put her in the carriage,” Peregrine commanded, reaching inside his coat for a handkerchief to bind his bleeding hand.

Evie writhed in Brook’s grip. As he pushed her roughly toward the vehicle, Evie twisted and managed to deliver a glancing blow to the front of his throat. The impact caused Brook to choke for breath and release her.

Peregrine seized Evie with his plate-sized hands. He slammed her against the side of the carriage. Her head hit the hard lacquered paneling, and there was an explosion of sparks before her eyes, and a piercing pain in her skull. Dazed by the impact, Evie could only grapple feebly as she was thrust into the vehicle.

To Evie’s astonishment, her cousin Eustace was waiting inside, pale and corpulent, appearing like a baby whale that had been loaded into the seat. He locked her against the massive, stale-smelling folds of his body, exhibiting surprising strength as he plumped a fleshy forearm over her throat. “Got you,” he said, panting with effort. “Troublesome bitch—you broke your promise to marry me. But my parents said that I’m to have your fortune, and they’ll get it for me no matter what must be done.”

“Already married—” Evie wheezed, smothering in the mountain of human flesh that seemed to surround her, as if she were being swallowed whole by some exotic undersea creature.

“The marriage won’t stand. We’re going to have it annulled. So you see, your plan to ruin things for me hasn’t worked.” Eustace sounded like a petulant boy as he continued. “You had better not annoy me, cousin. My father has said I may do whatever I like with you after we’re married. How would you like to be locked in a closet for a week?”

Evie couldn’t summon enough air to reply. His ponderous arms compressed her into the huge doughy mass of his chest and stomach. Tears of pain and despair prickled at the corners of her eyes as she pried frantically at the clench-hold around her neck.

Through the buzzing in her ears, she heard new sounds from outside, shouting and cursing. All of a sudden the carriage door was wrenched open and someone vaulted inside. Evie squirmed to see who it was. Her remaining breath was expelled in a faint sob as she saw a familiar glitter of dark golden hair.

It was Sebastian as she had never seen him before, no longer detached and self-possessed, but in the grip of bone-shaking rage. His eyes were pale and reptilian as his murderous gaze fastened on Eustace, whose breath began to rattle nervously behind the pudgy ladder of his chin.

“Give her to me,” Sebastian said, his voice hoarse with fury. “Now, you pile of gutter sludge, or I’ll rip your throat out.”

Seeming to realize that Sebastian was eager to carry out the threat, Eustace released his chokehold on Evie. She scrambled toward Sebastian and took in desperate pulls of air. He caught her with a low murmur, his hold gentle but secure. “Easy, love. You’re safe now.” She felt the tremors of rage that ran in continuous thrills through his body.

Sebastian sent a lethal glance to Eustace, who was trying to gather his jellylike mass into the far end of the seat. “The next time I see you,” Sebastian said viciously, “no matter what the circumstances, I’m going to kill you. No law, nor weapon, nor God Himself will be able to stop it from happening. So if you value your life, don’t let your path cross mine again.”

Leaving Eustace in a quivering heap of speechless fear, Sebastian hauled Evie from the vehicle. She clung to him, still trying to regain her breath as she glanced apprehensively around the scene. It appeared that Cam had been alerted to the fracas, and was keeping her two uncles at bay. Brook was on the ground, while Peregrine was staggering backward from some kind of assault, his beefy countenance turning ruddy from enraged surprise.

Swaying as her feet touched the ground, Evie turned her face into her husband’s shoulder. Sebastian was literally steaming, the chilly air striking off his flushed skin and turning his breath into puffs of white. He subjected her to a brief but thorough inspection, his hands running lightly over her, his gaze searching her pale face. His voice was astonishingly tender. “Are you hurt, Evie? Look up at me, love. Yes. Sweetheart…did they do you any injury?”

“N-no.” Evie stared at him dazedly. “My uncle Peregrine,” she whispered, “he’s very p-powerful—”

“I’ll handle him,” he assured her, and called out to Cam. “Rohan! Come fetch her.”

The young man obeyed instantly, approaching Evie with long, fluid strides. He spoke to her with a few foreign-sounding words, his voice soothing her overwrought nerves.

She hesitated before going with him, casting a worried glance at Sebastian.

“It’s all right,” he said without looking at her, his icy gaze locked on Peregrine’s bullish form. “Go.”

Biting her lip, Evie took Cam’s arm and allowed him to draw her aside.

“How kind of you to pay us a call, Uncle,” came the biting lash of Sebastian’s voice. “Come to offer us felicitations, have you?”

“I’ve come to collect my niece,” Peregrine snarled. “She is promised to my son. Your illicit marriage will not stand!”

“She’s mine,” Sebastian snapped. “Surely you can’t be so dim-witted as to think I would simply let her go without a protest.”

“I will have the marriage annulled,” Peregrine assured him.

“That would only be possible if the marriage hasn’t been consummated. And I assure you, it has.”

“We have a physician who has promised to testify that her maidenhead is still intact.”

“Like hell,” Sebastian said with chilling pleasantness. “Do you know what kind of reflection that would have on me? I’ve worked too hard to cultivate my reputation—I’ll be damned if I’ll allow any suggestion of impotence to mar it.” He shrugged out of his coat and tossed it to Cam, who caught it in one fist. Sebastian’s lethal gaze never left Peregrine’s livid features. “Has it occurred to you that I may have made her pregnant by now?”

“If so, that will be remedied.”

Not fully comprehending what her uncle meant, Evie shrank back into Cam’s protective hold. His arms tightened, even as he regarded Peregrine with a rare flash of hatred in his golden eyes. “Don’t worry, sweetheart,” he whispered to Evie.

Sebastian’s color rose at Peregrine’s words, making his eyes appear like splintered glass. “Charming,” he said. “I would kill her myself before I’d let you have her.”

Appearing to lose all vestige of self-control, Peregrine lunged for him with a roar. “I’ll go through you if need be, you preening son of a whore!”

Evie inhaled sharply as Sebastian sidestepped her charging uncle and waited for him to come around. “Stupid,” she heard Cam mutter. “He should have tripped him.” The boy fell silent as Sebastian barely managed to block the drive of Peregrine’s massive fist, then delivered a swift right to the jaw. Forceful though the blow was, it appeared to have little effect on Evie’s hulking uncle. Horrified, Evie watched the pair of them exchange a series of swift jabs and punches. Although Sebastian was far more agile, Peregrine managed to land a few blows of bone-jarring might, causing Sebastian to reel backward from the impact.

Employees began to drift from the club, giving encouraging shouts to Sebastian, while passersby from the street hurried toward the source of the noise. A wide circle formed around the brawlers, the air filled with hoots and bellows.

Evie clung tightly to the arm around her middle. “Cam, do something,” she begged.

“I can’t.”

“You know how to fight. My father always said—”

“No,” Cam said grimly. “It’s his battle. If I were to jump in now, it would appear as if he couldn’t handle your uncle on his own.”

“But he can’t!” Evie flinched as Sebastian staggered back after another brutal combination from Peregrine.

“You’re underestimating him,” Cam said, watching as Sebastian moved forward again. “He—there’s a fellow. Grand right hook. Good on his feet too. Men his size can’t usually move that fast. Now if he would just—damn, there’s a missed opportunity—” He suddenly whooped with approval as Sebastian felled Peregrine with a hard left to the jaw. “There’s some pile-driving force!” he exclaimed. “He’s got power and accuracy…all that’s wanting is some decent instruction.”

Reduced to a groaning heap on the ground, Peregrine seemed oblivious to the hard-faced man who stood over him.

Realizing that the fight was over, the club employees ventured forward with approving cries and slaps on Sebastian’s back, assuring him that he was not quite the namby-pamby they had thought him to be. Sebastian received the dubious praise with a sardonic expression, and brusquely supervised the loading of his disabled opponent into the carriage.

Gently Cam turned Evie to face him. “Tell me how it started,” he said urgently. “Now, before your husband reaches us.”

Rapidly Evie explained how Bullard had deceived her into coming downstairs, and how he had literally handed her over to her relations in exchange for a sovereign. Her words came out in a jumbled stammer, but Cam managed to follow the disjointed explanation. “All right,” he murmured, his honey-skinned face wiped clean of expression. “I’ll deal with Bullard. You go take care of St. Vincent. He’ll need you. Men are always full of sap after a good fight.”

Evie shook her head in confusion. “Sap? What? I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

Sudden amusement sparkled in his eyes. “You will.”

Before she could question him, Sebastian reached them. It seemed that the sight of Evie in Cam’s arms was not at all pleasing to him. His face took on a sullen cast. “I want to know what the hell happened,” he said furiously, snatching Evie back with possessive hands. “I leave for two hours on a peaceful Sunday morning, and I come back to find the damned place upside-down—”

“She’ll explain,” Cam interrupted, staring beyond Sebastian as his attention was caught by someone in the stable yard. “Pardon, I have to attend to something—” He vaulted lightly over the short railing and disappeared into the crowd.

CHAPTER 12

Cam found Joss Bullard near the stable yard, and confronted him warily. Bullard breathed with flared nostrils, the whites of his eyes showing. They had never been friends. Their relationship had been more like that of warring siblings who had lived under the same roof, with Jenner as a parental figure. As boys, they had played and fought together. As adults, they had worked side by side. After the many small acts of kindness Jenner had showed to Bullard, Cam would never have expected him to behave like this. Confusion and fury tangled inside him, and he shook his head slowly as he stared at Bullard.

“I don’t know why you gave her over,” Cam began, “or what you thought you had to gain from it—”

“I got a sovereign for it,” Bullard shot back. “An’ well worv it to be rid of that idiot tangle-tongue.”

“Are you mad?” Cam demanded in a flare of rage. “What’s the matter with you? We’re talking about Jenner’s daughter. You shouldn’t have done it even if you’d been given a bloody fortune!”

“She’s never done nofing for Jenner,” Bullard interrupted harshly, “or nofing for the club. But she comes ‘ere at the very last to watch ‘im kick off, an’ then she takes everything. Bugger the ‘igh-kick bitch an’ ‘er sodding ‘usband!”

Cam listened closely, but he failed to grasp the reason for Bullard’s jealousy. A Gypsy rarely understood resentment of other’s material possessions. Money was good only for the temporary pleasure of spending it. In the wandering tribe that Cam had belonged to until the age of twelve, no one had ever thought of wishing for more than he needed. A man could only wear one suit of clothes or ride one horse at a time.

“She was Jenner’s only child,” Cam replied. “What he gave to her has nothing to do with you or me. But nothing is worse than breaking the trust of someone who depends on your protection. To betray her…to help someone take her away against her will…”

“I’d do it again!” Bullard said, and spat on the ground between them.

Cam stared intently at the other man, realizing that he didn’t look well at all. His complexion was pale and wormy, and his eyes were dull. “Are you ill?” Cam asked softly. “If so, tell me. I’ll go to St. Vincent on your behalf. Maybe I can get him to—”

“Pox on you! I’m well rid o’ you, ‘alf-bred Gypsy filth. Well rid o’ all o’ you.”

The violent hatred in Bullard’s tone left no room for doubt. There would be no turning back for him. The only question now was whether Cam should collar him and drag him to the club, or let him flee. Recalling the vicious gleam in St. Vincent’s gaze, Cam reflected that if given a chance, the viscount might actually kill Bullard, which would lead to a great deal of unpleasantness for everyone, especially Evie. No…better to allow Bullard to disappear.

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