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Sebastian frowned as he saw the air of friendly ease between them

“Good evening,” Evie murmured, taking a place at the table beside Sebastian. She smiled as she glanced up at him. “Are you clever with numbers, my lord?”

“I’ve always thought so,” Sebastian replied ruefully, “until now. Rohan…are the other croupiers adept with probability calculations?”

“Adept enough, my lord. They are well-trained. They all know how to tempt a player to make wagers to the house’s advantage, how to identify a good player from a bad one…”

“Trained by whom?” Evie asked.

Cam’s grin was a flash of startling white in his honey-skinned face. “By me, of course. No one understands gaming as well as I.”

Smiling, Evie glanced up at her husband. “All he lacks is confidence,” she remarked dryly.

Sebastian, however, did not react to the jest. Instead he said abruptly to Cam, “I want a list, in descending order, of all outstanding loans and their due dates. The account book is on the top shelf in the office. Why don’t you go start on it now?”

“Yes, my lord.” Giving a shallow bow to Evie, Cam left with his usual loose-limbed grace.

Standing with her husband in the cavernous, semi-darkened hazard room, Evie felt a prickle of nervousness in her stomach. Over the past few days their interactions had been frequent but impersonal, and it was seldom that they ever found themselves alone together. She leaned over the table and reached for the discarded dice, depositing them in a small leather dice box. As she straightened, she felt Sebastian’s hand skim gently over her corseted back, and the hairs on her nape lifted in response. “The hour is late,” he said, his tone far softer than the one he had used with Cam. “You should go to bed—you must be exhausted after all you’ve done today.”

“I haven’t done all that much.” She shrugged uneasily, and his hand made another slow, unnerving pass along her spine.

“Oh yes, you have. You’re pushing yourself a bit too hard, pet. You need to rest.”

She shook her head, finding it difficult to think clearly when he was touching her. “I’ve been glad of the chance to work a bit,” she managed to say. “It keeps me from dwelling on…on…”

“Yes, I know. That’s why I’ve allowed it.” His long fingers curved around the back of her neck.

Her breath shortened as the warmth of his hand transferred to her skin.

“You need to go to bed,” he continued, his own breathing not quite steady as he eased her closer. His gaze drifted slowly from her face to the round outline of her breasts, and back again, and a low, humorless laugh escaped him. “And I need to go there with you, damn it. But since I can’t…Come here.”

“Why?” she asked, even as he secured her against the edge of the table and let his legs intrude amid the folds of her skirts.

“I want to torture you a little.”

Evie stared at him with round eyes, while her heart pumped liquid fire through her veins. “When you—” She had to clear her throat and try again. “When you use the word ‘torture,’ I’m sure you mean it in a figurative sense.”

He shook his head, his eyes filled with light smoke. “Literal, I’m afraid.”

“What?”

“My love,” he said gently, “I hope you didn’t assume that the next three months of suffering was to be one-sided? Put your hands on me.”

“Wh-where?”

“Anywhere.” He waited until she had hesitantly placed her hands on his shoulders, over the fine wool weave of his coat. Holding her gaze, he said, “As high as the fire in me burns, Evie, I will stoke it in you.”

“Sebastian…” She strained a little, and he pinned her more firmly against the table.

“It’s my right to kiss you,” he reminded her, “whenever I want, for as long as I want. That was our bargain.”

She threw an agitated glance around the room, and he read her thoughts easily.

“I don’t give a damn if anyone sees us. You’re my wife.” A smile chased across his lips. “My better half, to be certain.” Leaning over her, he nuzzled into the fine tendrils that strayed over her forehead. His breath was hot and soft on her skin. “My prize…my pleasure and pain…my endless desire. I’ve never known anyone like you, Evie.” His lips touched gently at the bridge of her nose and slid down to the tip. “You dare to make demands of me that no other woman would think of asking. And for now I’ll pay your price, love. But later you’ll pay mine…over and over…” He caught her trembling lips with his, his hands cupping the back of her head.

He was a man who loved kissing, nearly as much as he loved the act of intercourse itself. The kiss began as a gentle brush of dry, closed lips…the pressure increasing until he had gained the soft opening of her mouth…and then she felt the subtle intrusion of his tongue. Her head tippled back helplessly in the cradle of his palms, the sudden hammering of her heart sending the blood rushing through her veins, making her feel weak and hot. He took more of her, kissing her at every possible angle, searching deeply.

One of his hands eased over her front, passing lightly over her breasts, his thumb searching in vain for the point of her nipple through the thick padding of her corset. Craving the feel of her bare skin, he moved his fingers up to her throat, stroking the rapid throb of her pulse. His mouth slid from hers and traveled along her neck until he found the tender pulse point. Evie stiffened her legs, her hands gripping his shoulders to bolster her failing balance. With a low murmur, Sebastian gathered her more firmly against his body and sought her lips again. She could no longer hold back the pleading sounds in her throat, her mouth working frantically to draw in more of his taste, more of the warm male silk of his mouth, more—

The awkward sound of someone clearing his throat caused Evie to break the kiss with a gasp. Realizing that someone had entered the main room, Sebastian pulled her head against his chest, his thumb caressing the flushed curve of her cheek. He spoke to the intruder coolly, while his heart thumped strongly against Evie’s cheek.

“What is it, Gully?”

Jim Gully, one of the club’s gaming room staff, replied breathlessly. “Sorry, milord. Trouble downstairs. The carpenters got a bottle o’ blue ruin from somewhere, and all three are howling drunk. They started a quarrel into the coffee room. Two ow ‘em are at fisticuffs already, whilst another is breaking the dishes at the sideboard.”

Sebastian scowled. “Tell Rohan to handle it.”

“Mr. Rohan says ‘e’s busy.”

“There’s a drunken brawl downstairs and he’s too busy to do anything about it?” Sebastian asked incredulously.

“Yes, milord.”

“Then you take care of it.”

“Can’t, milord.” He held up a bandaged finger. “Busted my knuckle during a fight in the alley last evenin’.”

“Where is Hayes?”

“Dunno, milord.”

“Are you telling me,” Sebastian asked with dangerous softness, “that of the thirty employees who work here, not one of them is available to keep three drunken sods from tearing up the coffee room when they should be restoring it?”

“Yes, milord.”

In the furious pause after Gully’s reply, the sounds of shattering porcelain and furniture hitting the walls caused a vibration that elicited a faint tinkling rattle from the overhead chandeliers. Incomprehensible bellowing accompanied the racket as the fight escalated. “Damn it,” Sebastian said through gritted teeth. “What the hell are they doing to the club?”

Evie shook her head in confusion, staring from her husband’s wrathful countenance to Gully’s carefully blank one. “I don’t understand—”

“Call it a rite of passage,” Sebastian snapped, and left her with long strides that quickly broke into a run.

Picking up her skirts, Evie hurried after him. Rite of passage? What did he mean? And why wasn’t Cam willing to do something about the brawl? Unable to match Sebastian’s reckless pace, she trailed behind, taking care not to trip over her skirts as she descended the flight of stairs. The noise grew louder as she approached a small crowd that had congregated around the coffee room, shouts and exclamations renting the air. She saw Sebastian strip off his coat and thrust it at someone, and then he was shouldering his way into the melee. In a small clearing, three milling figures swung their fists and clumsily attempted to push and shove one another while the onlookers roared with excitement.

Sebastian strategically attacked the man who seemed the most unsteady on his feet, spinning him around, jabbing and hooking with a few deft blows until the dazed fellow tottered forward and collapsed to the carpeted floor. The remaining pair turned in tandem and rushed at Sebastian, one of them attempting to pin his arms while the other came at him with churning fists.

Evie let out a cry of alarm, which somehow reached Sebastian’s ears through the thunder of the crowd. Distracted, he glanced in her direction, and he was instantly seized in a mauling clinch, with his neck caught in the vise of his opponent’s arm while his head was battered with heavy blows. “No,” Evie gasped, and started forward, only to be hauled back by a steely arm that clamped around her waist.

“Wait,” came a familiar voice in her ear. “Give him a chance.”

“Cam!” She twisted around wildly, her panicked gaze finding his exotic but familiar face with its elevated cheekbones and thick-lashed golden eyes. “They’ll hurt him,” she said, clutching at the lapels of his coat. “Go help him—Cam, you have to—”

“He’s already broken free,” Cam observed mildly, turning her around with inexorable hands. “Watch—he’s not doing badly.”

One of Sebastian’s opponents let loose with a mighty swing of his arm. Sebastian ducked and came back with a swift jab. “Cam, why the d-devil aren’t you doing anything to help him?”

“I can’t.”

“Yes, you can! You’re used to fighting, far more than he—”

“He has to,” Cam said, his voice quiet and firm in her ear. “He’ll have no authority here otherwise. The men who work at the club have a notion of leadership that requires action as well as words. St. Vincent can’t ask them to do anything that he wouldn’t be willing to do himself. And he knows that. Otherwise he wouldn’t be doing this right now.”

Evie covered her eyes as one opponent endeavored to close in on her husband from behind while the other engaged him with a flurry of blows. “They’ll be loyal to him only if he is w-willing to use his fists in a pointless display of brute force?”

“Basically, yes. They want to see what he’s made of.” Cam pulled at her wrist, to no avail. “Watch,” he urged, a sudden tremor of laughter in his voice. “He’ll be all right.”

She couldn’t watch. She turned into Cam’s side, flinching and twitching with each sound of fists connecting with flesh, of every masculine grunt of pain. “This is i-intolerable,” she moaned. “Cam, please—”

“No one forced him to dismiss Egan and run the club himself,” he pointed out inexorably. “This is part of the job, sweetheart.”

She understood that. She knew full well that her own father had broken up brawls, or participated in them, for most of his life. But Sebastian had not been born to this—he did not have the essential brutishness, or the appetite for violence, that had distinguished Ivo Jenner.

As another man was downed, however, and Sebastian circled warily around his last opponent, it became evident that whether or not it was in his nature, he was willing to do what was necessary to prove his mettle. The drunken man rushed toward him, and Sebastian felled him with a quick combination, two lefts and a right. Collapsing to the ground, his opponent subsided with a groan. The crowd of employees sanctioned Sebastian’s victory with approving howls and a round of applause. Accepting the acclaim with a grim nod, Sebastian saw Evie standing in the half circle of Cam’s protective arm, and his face turned dark.

The vanquished fighters were helped outside by enthusiastic spectators. Brooms and pails were fetched to remove the debris, while some of the staff threw far friendlier glances at Sebastian than they had before. Using his shirtsleeve to blot a small trickle of blood from the corner of his mouth, Sebastian bent to pick up an overturned chair, and set it in its proper place in the corner.

Cam let go of Evie and approached Sebastian as the room emptied. “You fight like a gentleman, my lord,” he commented.

Sebastian gave him a sardonic glance. “Why doesn’t that sound like a compliment?”

Sliding his hands into his pockets, Cam observed mildly, “You do well enough against a pair of drunken sots—”

“There were three to start with,” Sebastian growled.

“Three drunken sots, then. But the next time you may not be so fortunate.”

“The next time? If you think I’m going to make a habit of this—”

“Jenner did,” Cam countered softly. “Egan did. Nearly every night there is some to-do in the alley, the stable yard, or the card rooms, after the guests have had hours of stimulation from gaming, spirits, and women. We all take turns dealing with it. And unless you care to get the stuffing knocked out of you on a weekly basis, you’ll need to learn a few tricks to put down a fight quickly. It causes less damage to you and the patrons, and keeps the police away.”

“If you’re referring to the kind of tactics used in rookery brawls, and quarrels over back-alley bobtails—”

“You’re not going for a half hour of light exercise at the pugilistic club,” Cam said acidly.

Sebastian opened his mouth to argue, but as he saw Evie drawing closer something changed in his face. It was a response to the anxiety that she couldn’t manage to hide. For some reason her concern gently undermined his hostility, and softened him. Looking from one to the other, Cam observed the subtle interplay with astute interest.

“Have you been hurt?” Evie asked, looking over him closely. To her relief, Sebastian appeared disheveled and riled, but free of significant damage.

He shook his head, holding still as she reached up to push back a few damp amber locks that were nearly hanging in his eyes. “I’m fine,” he muttered. “Compared to the drubbing I received from Westcliff, this was nothing.”

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