“It’s decided, then,” he murmured. “I accept your proposition. There’s much more to discuss, of course, but we’ll have two days until we reach Gretna Green.” He rose from the chair and stretched, his smile lingering as he noticed the way her gaze slid quickly over his body. “I’ll have the carriage readied and have the valet pack my clothes. We’ll leave within the hour. Incidentally, if you decide to back out of our agreement at any time during our journey, I will strangle you.”

She shot him a sardonic glance. “You w-wouldn’t be so nervous about that if you hadn’t tried this with an unwilling victim l-last week.”

“Touche. Then we may describe you as a willing victim?”

“An eager one,” Evangeline said shortly, looking as though she wanted to be off at once.

“My favorite kind,” he remarked, and bowed politely before he strode from the library.

CHAPTER 2

As Lord St. Vincent left the room, Evie let out a shaky sigh and closed her eyes. St. Vincent needn’t worry that she might change her mind. Now that the agreement had been made, she was a hundred times more impatient than he to start on their journey. The knowledge that Uncle Brook and Uncle Peregrine were most likely searching for her this very moment filled her with fear.

When she had escaped the house near the end of summer, she had been caught at the entrance to her father’s club. By the time Uncle Peregrine had brought her home, he had knocked her about in the carriage until her lip was split, one eye was blackened, and her back and arms were covered with bruises. Two weeks of being locked in her room had followed, with little more than bread and water being thrust past her door.

No one, not even her friends Annabelle, Lillian, and Daisy, knew the full extent of what she had undergone. Life in the Maybrick household had been a nightmare. The Maybricks, her mother’s family, and the Stubbinses—her mother’s sister Florence and her husband, Peregrine—had joined in a collective effort to break Evie’s will. They were angered and puzzled as to why it had been so difficult…and Evie was no less puzzled than they. She wouldn’t have ever thought that she could endure harsh punishment, indifference, and even hatred, without crumbling. Perhaps she had more of her father in her than anyone had guessed. Ivo Jenner had been a bare-knuckle bruiser, and the secret to his success, within the rope ring and outside it, was not talent but tenacity. She had inherited the same stubbornness.

Evie wanted to see her father. She wanted it so badly that the longing was a physical ache. She believed he was the only person in the world who cared for her. His love was negligent, but it was more than she had ever gotten from anyone else. She understood why he had abandoned her to the Maybricks long ago, directly after her mother had died in childbirth. A gaming club was no place to raise an infant. And while the Maybricks were not of the peerage, they were of good blood. Evie could not help but wonder, though…if her father had known how she was to be treated, would he have made the same choice? If he’d had any inkling that the family’s anger at their youngest daughter’s rebellion would become focused on a helpless child…but there was no use in wondering now.

Her mother was dead, and her father very nearly so, and there were things that Evie needed to ask him before he passed away. Her best chance of escaping the Maybricks’ clutches was the insufferable aristocrat whom she had just agreed to marry.

She was amazed that she had managed to communicate so well with St. Vincent, who was more than a little intimidating, with his golden beauty and wintry ice-blue eyes, and a mouth made for kisses and lies. He looked like a fallen angel, replete with all the dangerous male beauty that Lucifer could devise. He was also selfish and unscrupulous, which had been proved by his attempt to kidnap his best friend’s fiancee. But it had occurred to Evie that such a man would be a fitting adversary for the Maybricks.

St. Vincent would be a terrible husband, of course. But as long as Evie harbored no illusions about him, she would be all right. Since she cared nothing about him, she could easily turn a blind eye to his indiscretions and a deaf ear to his insults.

How different her marriage would be from those of her friends. At the thought of the wallflowers, she felt a sudden urge to cry. There was no possibility that Annabelle, Daisy, or Lillian—particularly Lillian—would remain friends with Evie after she married St. Vincent. Blinking back the sting of incipient tears, she swallowed against the sharp pain in her throat. There was no use crying. Although this was hardly a perfect solution to her dilemma, it was the best one she could think of.

Imagining the fury of her aunts and uncles upon learning that she—and her fortune—were forever out of their reach, Evie felt her misery ease a little. It was worth anything not to have to live under their domination for the rest of her life. Worth anything, too, not to be forced into marriage with poor, cowardly Eustace, who took refuge in eating and drinking to excess, until he was nearly too corpulent to fit through the doorway of his own room. Though he hated his parents almost as much as Evie did, Eustace would never dare to defy them.

It had been Eustace, ironically, who had finally driven Evie to escape this evening. He had come to her earlier in the day with a betrothal ring, a gold band with a jade stone. “Here,” he had said, a bit sheepishly. “Mother said I was to give this to you—and you won’t be allowed to have any meals unless you wear it to the dining table. The banns will be announced next week, she said.”

It had not been unexpected. After trying for three failed seasons to find an aristocratic husband for Evie, the family had finally come to the conclusion that they would get no advantageous social affiliation through her. And in light of the fact that she would be coming into her fortune soon, they had hatched a plan to keep her inheritance for themselves by marrying her to one of her cousins.

Upon hearing Eustace’s words, Evie had felt a surge of astonished fury that brought a violent tide of scarlet to her face. Eustace had actually laughed at the sight, and said, “Lud, you’re a sight when you blush. It makes your hair look positively orange.”

Biting back a caustic reply, Evie had fought to calm herself, and concentrated on the words that swooped and dashed inside her like leaves in a wind squall. She had collected them painstakingly, and managed to ask without stammering, “Cousin Eustace…if I agree to marry you…would you ever take my part against your parents? Would you allow me to go see my father, and take care of him?”

The smile had died on Eustace’s face, the plump pouches of his cheeks drooping as he stared into her grave blue eyes. His gaze dropped away and he said evasively, “They wouldn’t be so harsh with you, cuz, if you weren’t such a stubborn little rodent.”

Losing her patience, Evie had felt the stammer getting the better of her. “Y-you would take my f-fortune, a-a-and do nothing for me in return—”

“What do you need a fortune for?” he had asked scornfully. “You’re a timid creature who scurries from corner to corner…you have no need of fancy clothes or jewels…you’re no good for conversation, you’re too plain to bed, and you have no accomplishments. You should be grateful that I’m willing to marry you, but you’re too stupid to realize it!”

“I-I-I—” Frustration had made her impotent. She couldn’t summon the words to defend herself, could only struggle and glare and gasp with the effort to speak.

“What a blithering idiot you are,” Eustace said impatiently. He threw the ring to the floor in a fit of temper, his arm jiggling heavily with the motion. The ring bounced and rolled out of sight beneath the settee. “There, it’s lost now. And it’s your fault for vexing me. You’d better find it, or you’ll starve. I’ll go tell Mother that I’ve done my part by giving it to you.”

Evie had foregone supper, and instead of searching for the lost ring, she had feverishly packed a small valise. Escaping through the second-floor window and sliding down a rain gutter, Evie had then bolted through the yard. By a stroke of luck an available hackney had stopped for her as soon as she ran out the gate.

That was probably the last she would ever see of Eustace, Evie thought with morose satisfaction. One did not often see him in society. As his girth expanded, he confined himself more and more to Maybrick House. No matter how things turned out, she would never regret having escaped the fate of becoming his wife. It was doubtful that Eustace would ever have tried to bed her…he did not seem to possess a sufficient quantity of what was genteelly referred to as “animal spirits.” His passion was reserved exclusively for food and wine.

Lord St. Vincent, on the other hand, had seduced and compromised too many women to count. While many women seemed to find that appealing, Evie was not one of them. However, there would be no doubt in anyone’s mind that their marriage had been thoroughly consummated.

Her stomach gave a nervous leap at the thought. In her dreams she had envisioned marrying a kind and sensitive man, who might be just a little boyish. He would never mock her for her stammering. He would be loving and gentle with her.

Sebastian, Lord St. Vincent, was the complete opposite of her dream lover. There was nothing kind, sensitive, or remotely boyish about him. He was a predator who undoubtedly liked to toy with his prey before killing it. Staring at the empty chair where he had sat, Evie thought of how St. Vincent had looked in the firelight. He was tall and lean, his body a perfect frame for elegantly simple clothes that provided a minimum of distraction from his tawny handsomeness. His hair, the antique gold of a medieval icon, was thick and slightly curly, with streaks of pale amber caught in the rich locks. His pale blue eyes glittered like rare diamonds from the necklace of an ancient empress. Beautiful eyes that showed no emotion when he smiled. The smile itself was enough to steal the breath from one’s body…the sensuous, cynical mouth, the flash of white teeth…Oh, St. Vincent was a dazzling man. And well he knew it.

Oddly, however, Evie was not afraid of him. St. Vincent was far too clever to rely on physical violence when a few well-chosen words would skewer someone with a minimum of fuss. What Evie feared far more was the simpleminded brutishness of Uncle Peregrine, not to mention the vicious hands of Aunt Florence, who was fond of delivering stinging slaps and nasty pinches.

Never again, Evie vowed, brushing absently at the smudges on her gown where accumulated grime from the drainpipe had left black streaks. She was tempted to change into the clean gown that she had packed in her valise, which she had left in the entrance hall. However, the rigors of traveling would soon make anything she wore so dusty and rumpled that there was hardly any point in changing clothes.

A sound from the doorway caught her attention. She looked up to see a plump housemaid, who asked rather diffidently if she wanted to freshen up in one of the guest rooms. Thinking ruefully that the girl seemed entirely too accustomed to the presence of an unaccompanied woman in the house, Evie allowed the maid to show her to a small upstairs room. The room, like the other parts of the house she had so far seen, was handsomely furnished and well kept. Its walls were covered in a light-colored paper adorned with hand-painted Chinese birds and pagodas. To Evie’s pleasure, an adjoining antechamber contained a sink with spigots of running water, the handles cleverly shaped like dolphin fish, and nearby a cabinet that opened into a water closet.

After seeing to her private needs, Evie went to the sink to wash her hands and face, and drank thirstily from a silver cup. She went to the bedroom to search for a comb or brush. Finding none, she smoothed her hands over the pinned-up mass of her hair.

There was no sound, nothing to warn her of anyone’s presence, but Evie felt a sudden ripple of awareness. She turned with a start. St. Vincent was standing just inside the room, his posture relaxed, his head slightly tilted as he watched her. A peculiar sensation passed through her, a gentle heat like light passing through water, and suddenly she felt weak all over. She was very tired, she realized. And the thought of all that awaited her…the journey to Scotland, the hasty wedding, the consummation afterward…was exhausting. She squared her shoulders and began to move forward, but as she did so, a rain of blinding sparks fell over her vision, and she paused and swayed heavily.

Shaking her head to clear her eyes, Evie slowly became aware that St. Vincent was standing with her, his hands gripping her elbows. She had never been this close to him before…her senses were swiftly imprinted with the smell and feel of him…the subtle touch of expensive cologne, and clean skin covered with layers of fine linen and wool-blended broadcloth. He radiated health and virility. Sharply unnerved, Evie blinked up into his face, which was much farther above hers than she would have expected. She was surprised by the realization of how large he was—his size wasn’t appreciable until one stood very close.

“When was the last time you ate?” he asked.

“Yesterday m-morning…I think—”

One of his tawny brows lifted. “Don’t say the family was starving you?” He glanced heavenward as she nodded. “This becomes more maudlin by the moment. I’ll have the cook pack a basket of sandwiches. Take my arm, and I’ll help you downstairs.”

“I don’t need help, th-thank you—”

“Take my arm,” he repeated in a pleasant voice that was underlaid with iron. “I won’t let you fall and break your neck before we even reach the carriage. Available heiresses are difficult to come by. I’d have a devil of a time replacing you.”

Evie must have been more unsteady than she had thought, for as they walked together to the staircase, she was glad of his support. Sometime during their descent St. Vincent slid his arm behind her back and took her free hand, guiding her carefully down the rest of the steps. There were a few light bruises on his knuckles—remnants of the fight with Lord Westcliff. Thinking of how this pampered aristocrat would fare in a physical confrontation with her hulking uncle Peregrine, Evie shivered a little, and wished that they were already at Gretna Green.

Feeling the tremor, St. Vincent tightened his arm around her as they reached the last step. “Are you cold?” he asked, “or is it nerves?”

“I w-want to be away from London,” she replied, “before my relations find me.”

“Is there any reason for them to suspect that you’ve come to me?”

“Oh n-no,” she said. “No one would ever believe I could be so demented.”

Had she not already been somewhat light-headed, his brilliant grin would have made her so. “It’s a good thing my vanity is so well developed. Otherwise you’d have demolished it by now.”

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