Page 17

Staring at the hatchet-faced young man whom he had known for so many years, Cam shook his head in angry puzzlement. Soul loss, his people called it…the essence of a man becoming trapped in some dark otherworld realm. But how had it happened to Bullard? And when?

“You had better stay away from the club,” Cam murmured. “If St. Vincent catches you—”

“St. Vincent can rot in ‘ell,” Bullard grunted, taking a hasty swipe at him.

Evading the tight arc of his fist with a startled reflex, Cam drew to the side of the stable yard. His eyes narrowed as he watched the other man turn and flee.

His attention was caught by the nervous nicker of a horse tethered to a nearby post, and Cam reached out a gentle hand and stroked the bay’s satiny neck. The gold rings on his fingers gleamed in the afternoon light. “He was a foolish man,” Cam told the horse mildly, calming the animal with his voice and touch. A sigh escaped him as he thought of something else. “Jenner left him a bequest…and I promised to make certain that he got it. Now what am I supposed to do?”

Sebastian pulled Evie inside the club, where the silence was startling after the tumult of the alley. She labored to keep pace with his ground-eating strides, her own breath coming fast by the time they reached the reading room on the main floor. The built-in mahogany shelves were filled with leather volumes. Against the walls, a multitude of papers and periodicals were draped over racks made with rows of clever movable dowels. Pushing Evie into the room, Sebastian closed them both inside with a decisive slam.

“Were you hurt?” he asked roughly.

“No.” Evie tried to hold back her next words, but they came out in a burst of resentment. “Why were you gone for so long? I needed you, and you weren’t here!”

“You had thirty employees to protect you. Why did you go downstairs in the first place? You should have stayed upstairs until you knew for certain who was outside.”

“Mr. Bullard told me that Annabelle Hunt was waiting for me. And then when I saw that it was my uncle, Bullard wouldn’t let me back inside the club. He pushed me right into my uncle’s arms.”

“My God.” Sebastian’s eyes widened. “I’m going to disembowel him, the gutter scum—”

“And while all that was happening,” Evie continued wrathfully, “you were in bed with a prostitute!” As the words left her lips, she realized that to her, this was the crux of the matter…even more important than Bullard’s betrayal, or her uncles’ assault, her emotions were roiling at the fact that Sebastian had betrayed her so soon with another woman.

Sebastian focused on her with an alert gaze. “I wasn’t.”

“Don’t lie,” Evie said, while their mutual fury seethed in the air. “I know you were.”

“Why are you so bloody certain?”

“Because you stayed at Madam Bradshaw’s for more than two hours!”

“I was talking about business. Talking, Evie! If you don’t believe that, then you can go to hell. Because if I had slept with someone, I guarantee you that I would be a lot more relaxed than I am now.”

Staring into Sebastian’s eyes, which were as hard as a frozen pond, Evie felt her outrage begin to drain away. She had no choice but to believe him—his offended anger was obvious.

“Oh,” she muttered.

“Oh? That’s all you have to say?”

“I suppose…I shouldn’t have jumped to conclusions. But knowing what I do of your past…I assumed…”

Her lame attempt at an apology seemed to erode the remnants of Sebastian’s self-control. “Well, your assumption was wrong! If you haven’t yet noticed, I’m busier than the devil in a high wind, every minute of the day. I don’t have the damned time for a tumble. And if I did—” He stopped abruptly. All semblance of the elegant viscount Evie had once watched from afar in Lord Westcliff’s drawing room had vanished. He was rumpled and bruised and furious. And he wasn’t breathing at all well. “If I did—” He broke off again, a flush crossing the crests of his cheeks and the bridge of his nose.

Evie saw the exact moment when his self-restraint snapped. Alarm jolted through her, and she lurched toward the closed door. Before she had even made a step, she found herself seized and pinned against the wall by his body and hands. The smell of sweat-dampened linen and healthy, aroused male filled her nostrils.

Once he had caught her, Sebastian pressed his parted lips against the thin skin of her temple. His breath snagged. Another moment of stillness. Evie felt the electrifying touch of his tongue at the very tip of her eyebrow. He breathed against the tiny wet spot, a waft of hellfire that sent chills through her entire body. Slowly he brought his mouth to her ear, and traced the intricate inner edges.

His whisper seemed to come from the darkest recesses of her own mind. “If I did, Evie…then by now I would have shredded your clothes with my hands and teeth until you were naked. By now I would have pushed you down to the carpet, and put my hands beneath your br**sts and lifted them up to my mouth. I would be kissing them…licking them…until the tips were like hard little berries, and then I would bite them so gently…”

Evie felt herself drift into a slow half swoon as he continued in a ragged murmur. “…I would kiss my way down to your thighs…inch by inch…and when I reached those sweet red curls, I would lick through them, deeper and deeper, until I found the little pearl of your clitoris…and I would rest my tongue on it until I felt it throb. I would circle it, and stroke it…I’d lick until you started to beg. And then I would suck you. But not hard. I wouldn’t be that kind. I would do it so lightly, so tenderly, that you would start screaming with the need to come…I would put my tongue inside you…taste you…eat you. I wouldn’t stop until your entire body was wet and shaking. And when I had tortured you enough, I would open your legs and come inside you, and take you…take you…”

Sebastian stopped, anchoring her against the wall while they both remained frozen, aroused, panting.

At length, he spoke in a nearly inaudible voice. “You’re wet, aren’t you?”

Had it been physically possible to blush any harder, Evie would have. Her skin burned with violated modesty as she understood what he was asking. She tipped her chin in the tiniest of nods.

“I want you more than I’ve ever wanted anything on this earth.” Sebastian took a shivering breath. “Tell me what I have to do to get you. Tell me what it will take for you to let me into your bed.”

Evie pushed at him helplessly, unable to dislodge the stimulating weight of his body. “Th-there is nothing you could do. Because I would want the one thing you couldn’t give. I would want you to be faithful to me, and you could never do that.”

“I could.” But the assertion came too easily. It reeked of insincerity.

“I don’t think so,” she whispered.

His long hands cupped her face, his thumbs running over the curves of her cheeks. His mouth was just above hers as he spoke. “Evie…I can’t hold to our agreement. I can’t live with you, see you every day, and not have you. I can’t…” Feeling the little tremors that ran through her body, he dipped his head and kissed the side of her throat. Her senses responded to the persuasive heat of his mouth, so erotic and tender…the searching fingers that slid over the curve of her breast.

Hearing her muffled whimper, he took her mouth in a consuming kiss. Feebly she turned her face away, her lips tingling from the exquisite friction. “No, Sebastian.”

He rubbed his face against her hair and the top of her head. Something about the situation, or his own reaction to it, must have struck a chord of humor, for he let out a soft, sardonic laugh. “You’ll have to think of a way to solve this, Evie. Think of something fast…because otherwise…” Hepaused to nip hungrily at her ear, “…otherwise I’m about to screw you senseless.”

Her eyes flew open. “That word—” she began indignantly, and he silenced her with a hard kiss.

Drawing back, Sebastian regarded her with amused exasperation, his color still high. “Do you object to the word itself, or the sentiment behind it?”

Relieved to see that he had regained at least a modicum of sanity, Evie wriggled out from between his body and the wall. “I object to the fact that you want me only because I’m unavailable, and therefore a novelty—”

“That’s not the reason,” he interrupted swiftly.

Evie sent him a disbelieving glance. “F-furthermore, I will not be part of a stable of women whom you visit at random.”

Suddenly Sebastian was quiet, looking away from her. Evie waited, nearly choking on her impatience as she waited for him to admit that she was right. She waited until his gaze slowly lifted, and his winter-blue eyes stared into hers.

“All right,” Sebastian said huskily. “I agree to your terms. I’ll be…monogamous.” He seemed to have a bit of difficulty with the last word, as if he were trying to speak a foreign language.

“I don’t believe you.”

“Good God, Evie! Do you know how many women have tried to obtain such a promise from me? And now, the first time I’m willing to take a stab at fidelity, you throw it back in my face. I admit that I’ve had a prolific history with women—”

“Promiscuous,” Evie corrected.

He gave an impatient snort. “Promiscuous, debauched—whatever you want to call it. I’ve had a hell of a good time, and I’ll be damned if I say I’m sorry for it. I’ve never bedded an unwilling woman. Nor, to my knowledge, did I leave anyone unsatisfied.”

“That’s not the point.” A frown creased her forehead. “I don’t blame you for your past…or, at least…I’m not trying to punish you for it.” Ignoring his skeptical snort, she continued, “But it doesn’t make you an especially good candidate for fidelity, does it?”

His tone was surly as he replied. “What do you want of me? An apology for being a man? A vow of celibacy until you’ve decided that I’m worthy of your favors?”

Struck by the question, Evie stared at him.

Women had always come far too easily to Sebastian. If she made him wait for her, would he lose interest? Or was it just possible that they might come to know each other, understand each other, in an entirely new way? She longed to find out if he could come to value her in ways beyond the physical. She wanted the chance to be something more than a mere bed partner to him.

“Sebastian…” she asked carefully, “have you ever made a sacrifice for a woman?”

He looked like a sullen angel as he turned to face her, leaning his broad shoulders against the wall, one knee slightly bent. “What kind of sacrifice?”

That drew a wry glance from her. “Any kind at all.”

“No.”

“What is the longest period of time you’ve ever gone without…without…” She floundered for an acceptable phrase. “…making love?”

“I never call it that,” he said. “Love has nothing to do with it.”

“How long?” she persisted.

“A month, perhaps.”

She thought for a moment. “Then…if you would forswear intercourse with all women for six months…I would sleep with you afterward.”

“Six months?” Sebastian’s eyes widened, and then he threw her a scornful glance. “Sweetheart, what gives you the idea that you’re worth a half-year of celibacy?”

“I may not be,” Evie said. “You’re the only one who can answer that.”

It was obvious that Sebastian would have loved to have informed her that she wasn’t worth waiting for. However, as his gaze traveled over her from head to toe, Evie saw the unmistakable glow of lust in his eyes. He wanted her badly.

“It’s impossible,” he snapped.

“Why?”

“Because I’m Sebastian, Lord St. Vincent. I can’t be celibate. Everyone knows that.”

He was so arrogant, and so indignant, that Evie suddenly had to gnaw on the insides of her lips to keep from laughing. She struggled to master her amusement, and finally managed to say calmly, “Surely it wouldn’t harm you to try.”

“Oh, yes it would!” His jaw hardened as he labored to explain. “You’re too inexperienced to understand, but…some men are possessed of a far greater sexual drive than others. I happen to be one of them. I can’t go for long periods of time without—” He broke off impatiently as he saw her expression. “Damn it, Evie, it’s unhealthy for a man not to release his seed regularly.”

“Three months,” she said, “and that’s my final offer.”

“No!”

“Then go find another woman,” she said flatly.

“I want you. Only you. The devil knows why.” Sebastian glared at her, his eyes narrowing into hot, brilliant slits. “I should force you. You have no legal right to refuse me your bed.”

Suddenly Evie’s heart stopped, and she felt herself blanch. But she would not shrink from him. Something inside demanded that she stand up to him as an equal. “Go on, then,” she challenged coolly. “Force me.” She saw the flicker of surprise in his eyes. His throat worked, but he remained silent. And then…she understood. “You can’t,” she said in wonder. “You would never have raped Lillian. You were only bluffing. You could never force a woman.” A faint smile rose to her lips. “She was never in a moment’s danger, was she? You’re not nearly the villain you pretend to be.”

“Yes, I am!” Sebastian seized her and kissed her angrily, stabbing his tongue inside her, assaulting her mouth with his own. Evie didn’t resist him. She closed her eyes and let him do as he wished, and soon he was groaning and kissing her with a tender passion that wrung pleasure from every nerve. By the time he lifted his head, they were both shaking.

“Evie…” His voice was hoarse. “Don’t ask this of me.”

“Three months of celibacy,” she said. “And if you succeed, I-I will go to bed with you willingly, as often as you wish.”

“For how long?”

“For as long as we both shall live. But if you fail…” Evie paused to think of the direst consequences possible…something that would revolt him to the very core. “If you fail, then you will have to go to your former friend Lord Westcliff, and apologize for abducting Lillian Bowman.”

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