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“Have you breakfasted yet, my lord?” she asked.

Sebastian shook his head, a smile glinting in his eyes. “Not yet.”

“I’ll go to the kitchen and see what is to be had.”

“Stay a moment,” he urged. “We’re almost finished.”

As the two men discussed a few last points of business, which pertained to a potential investment in a proposed shopping bazaar to be constructed on St. James Street, Sebastian picked up Evie’s hand, which was resting on the desk. Absently he drew the backs of her fingers against the edge of his jaw and his ear while contemplating the written proposal on the desk before him. Although Sebastian was not aware of what the casual familiarity of the gesture revealed, Evie felt her color rise as she met Cam’s gaze over her husband’s downbent head. The boy sent her a glance of mock reproof, like that of a nursemaid who had caught two children playing a kissing game, and he grinned as her blush heightened further.

Oblivious to the byplay, Sebastian handed the proposal to Cam, who sobered instantly. “I don’t like the looks of this,” Sebastian commented. “It’s doubtful there will be enough business in the area to sustain an entire bazaar, especially at those rents. I suspect within a year it will turn into a white elephant.”

“White elephant?” Evie asked.

A new voice came from the doorway, belonging to Lord Westcliff. “A white elephant is a rare animal,” the earl replied, smiling, “that is not only expensive but difficult to maintain. Historically, when an ancient king wished to ruin someone he would gift him with a white elephant.” Stepping into the office, Westcliff bowed over Evie’s hand and spoke to Sebastian. “Your assessment of the proposed bazaar is correct, in my opinion. I was approached with the same investment opportunity not long ago, and I rejected it on the same grounds.”

“No doubt we’ll both be proven wrong,” Sebastian said wryly. “One should never try to predict anything regarding women and their shopping.” He stood to shake the earl’s hand. “My wife and I are just about to partake of some breakfast. I hope you will join us.”

“I’ll take some coffee,” Westcliff said with a nod. “Forgive my unexpected call, but I have some news to share.”

Sebastian, Evie, and Cam all stared at the earl intently as he continued, “I was finally able to meet with Lord Belworth this morning. He admitted that he was the original owner of the pistol used to shoot St. Vincent. He went on to relate in confidence that approximately three years ago, he had given the set of dueling pistols to Mr. Clive Egan, along with some family jewelry and other trifles, as a bribe to allow him more time to settle his financial debts to the club.

Evie blinked in surprise at the mention of the former club manager. “Then Mr. Egan is harboring Mr. Bullard?”

“Possibly.”

“But why? Does this mean that Mr. Egan may have engaged Mr. Bullard to make an attempt on my life?”

“We’ll find out,” Sebastian said, his face set. “I intend to pay a call to Egan today.”

“I’ll accompany you,” Westcliff said evenly. “I have resources who were able to obtain Egan’s address. It’s not far from here, actually.”

Sebastian shook his head. “Thank you for your help, but I won’t have you inconvenienced by any further involvement. I doubt your wife would appreciate my allowing you to be put at risk. I’ll take Rohan with me.”

Evie began to object, knowing that in this situation, Sebastian would be safer in Westcliff’s company. Sebastian had barely begun to recover from his injury. And if he took it in his head to do something foolish, it would not be easy for Cam to restrain him. Cam was, after all, his employee, and he was at least eight years younger. Westcliff knew Sebastian far better, and had infinitely more power to influence him.

Before Evie could say a word, however, Westcliff replied. “Rohan is indeed a capable lad,” the earl agreed smoothly, “which is why he should be entrusted with Evie’s safety, and remain here with her.”

Sebastian’s gaze narrowed as he prepared to argue. The words halted on his lips as Evie curled her hand around his arm, and leaned against him with light, confiding pressure. “I would prefer that,” she said.

As Sebastian glanced into her upturned face, his expression softened, giving her the heady feeling that he would do whatever was in his power to please her. “All right,” he murmured reluctantly. “If Rohan’s presence would put you at ease, so be it.”

Part of Sebastian’s objection to taking Westcliff with him to see Clive Egan was the residual awkwardness between them. It wasn’t exactly comfortable to spend time in the company of a man whose wife you had once kidnapped. The beating Westcliff had given him afterward had cleared the air somewhat, and Sebastian’s subsequent apology had also helped. And it seemed as if Sebastian’s marriage to Evie, and his willingness to sacrifice himself for her, had inclined the earl to view him with a cautious approval that might, in time, rekindle their friendship. However, their relationship had been cast in a new form that might never fully recapture their previous ease.

For a man who had once dedicated himself to living without regrets, Sebastian was having quite a few unwanted second thoughts about his past behaviors. His actions regarding Lillian Bowman had been a mistake on many levels. What an idiot he had been, willing to sacrifice a friendship for the sake of a woman he had never really wanted in the first place. Had he bothered to consider his alternatives, he might have discovered Evie, who had been there right beneath his nose.

To Sebastian’s relief, the conversation with Westcliff was amiable as the carriage traveled through the west side of London to the outskirts where fashionable middle-class developments were being built on greenfield sites. Clive Egan’s address was one of a man who possessed solid means. Reflecting sourly on how much money Egan had gained from years of skimming and pinching the club’s profits, Sebastian told Westcliff everything he knew about the former manager. The subject led to the current condition of the club’s finances, and the necessary restructuring of investments. It was a pleasure to confide in Westcliff, who had one of ablest financial minds in the country, and offered a knowledgeable perspective on business issues. And it did not escape either of them that the discussion was a drastic departure from the past, when Sebastian had prattled about scandals and affairs, which had always resulted in rather patronizing lectures from Westcliff.

The carriage stopped at a new residential square, with tiny paved yards set behind them. All the houses were three stories tall and exceedingly narrow, none being wider than approximately fourteen feet across. An old and worn-looking cook-maid opened the door and stepped aside with a low grumble as they barged inside. The house seemed to be one of the indifferently decorated, ready-furnished variety, often let to middle-class professional men who had not yet married.

Since the entire residence consisted of three rooms and a closet, it was not difficult to locate Egan. The former club manager was settled in a large chair by the hearth of a parlor that smelled strongly of liquor and urine. A collection of bottles lined the sills of both windows, and a few more were set by the heart. Wearing the glassy-eyed expression of a perpetual drunkard, Egan beheld his two visitors without surprise. He looked exactly as he had when Sebastian had dismissed him two months earlier, bloated and unkempt, with carious teeth, a great red bulb of a nose, and a ruddy complexion webbed with spidery veins. Lifting a glass of spirits to his mouth, he drank deeply and grinned as he regarded them with watery gray eyes.

“I heard your guts had been blasted out,” he said to Sebastian. “But since you don’t look to be a ghost, I suppose the story was false.”

“Actually, it’s true,” Sebastian replied, his gaze chilling. “But the devil wouldn’t have me.” The thought that Egan might be responsible for the attempted murder of his wife made it difficult for him to keep from attacking the bastard. Only the fact that he had information they needed was sufficient to keep Sebastian in check.

Egan let out a low chuckle and waved toward the row of bottles. “Pour yourselves a drink, if you like. Not often that I’m visited by such high-kick gentlemen.”

Westcliff spoke calmly. “No thank you. We’ve come to ask about a previous visitor of yours. Mr. Joss Bullard. Where is he?”

Taking another deep guzzle of the spirits in his glass, Egan regarded him stonily. “How the devil should I know?”

Withdrawing the custom-made pistol from his pocket, Westcliff displayed it in an open palm.

The drunkard’s eyes bulged, and his face was suddenly covered in a wash of purple. “Where did you get that?” he wheezed.

“Bullard used it the night of the shooting,” Sebastian said, struggling for discipline, when every nerve was singing with rage. “And although I doubt the misshapen lump that is currently sitting on your shoulders contains anything close to a functioning brain, even you should be able to figure out the implications of your involvement in attempted murder. Care for a nice long stay in a Fleet Ditch jail? That can be arranged in a matter of—”

“St. Vincent,” Westcliff murmured in quiet warning, while Egan spluttered and choked.

“He must have stolen it from me!” Egan cried, the liquor splashing from his glass to the floor. “Thieving little bastard—I didn’t know he’d gotten it. It’s not my fault, I tell you! I want nothing except to be left in peace. Damn his eyes!”

“When was the last time you saw him?”

“Maybe three weeks ago.” Polishing off his drink, Egan snatched up the bottle from the floor and nursed from it like a starving infant. “He came to stay every now and again, after he left Jenner’s. He had nowhere to go. They wouldn’t even let him sleep in a padding ken, once the pox started showing.”

Sebastian and Westcliff exchanged a swift glance. “Pox?” Sebastian asked suspiciously, for there were many different diseases that were referred to as pox. “What kind?”

Egan stared at him scornfully. “Distemper. Pox that led to madness. Even before he left Jenner’s, there were signs…the slow speech, the tremors of his face…the cracks and dents on his nose. You’d have to have been blind not to notice.”

“I’m not usually given to examining my employees’ appearances that closely,” Sebastian said sardonically, while thoughts rushed through his mind. Distemper pox was a nasty disease transmitted by sexual contact, leading to what doctors referred to as “paresis of the insane.” It resulted in madness, sometime partial paralysis, and a gruesome wasting of the fleshy parts of the body, including the soft tissue of the nose. If Bullard was indeed the victim of distemper pox, and it had progressed this far, there was no hope for him. But why, in the grip of dementia, had he focused on Evie?

“His mind has probably gone by now,” Egan said bitterly, raising the bottle for another numbing swig. He closed his eyes briefly against the burn of the spirits, and let his chin rest on his chest. “The boy came here the night of the shooting, ranting about having killed you. Shaking in every limb, he was, and complaining of noise and pain in his head. He was full of whims and notions. Beyond reason. So I paid a man to take him to a ward for incurables—the one at the turnpike that leads to Knightsbridge. Bullard is there now, either dead or in a state that would make death a damned mercy.”

Sebastian spoke with taut impatience rather than compassion. “Why did he try to kill my wife? God knows she never did him any harm.”

Egan replied morosely. “He always despised her, poor little bastard. Even in childhood. After one of Evangeline’s visits to the club, when Bullard saw the delight Jenner took in her, he would be sullen and bilious for days. He would make jest of her…” Egan paused, a reminiscent smile whisking across his lips. “Funny little creature, she was. Speckled, shy, and round as a porpoise. I heard that she’s a beauty now—though I can’t quite picture it—”

“Was Jenner his father?” Westcliff interrupted, his face expressionless.

The abrupt question startled Sebastian. He listened intently as Egan replied.

“Could have been. His mother, Mary, swore up and down that he was.” Carefully Egan tucked the bottle at his side and rested his interlaced fingers on the bulging platform of his stomach. “She was a bawdyhouse whore. The luckiest night of her life was when she worked the brass for Ivo Jenner. He took a liking to Mary, and paid the madam to keep her for his exclusive use. One day Mary came to him and said she was bellyfull, and the child was his. And Jenner, who was a soft touch, gave her the benefit of the doubt. He supported her for the rest of her life, and let the boy work at the club when he was old enough. Mary passed on many years back. Just before she kicked off, she told Bullard that Jenner was his father. When the boy confronted him with it, Jenner told him that whether it was true or not, it would stay a secret. He didn’t want to acknowledge Bullard as his. For one thing, the boy was never what you’d say was a likely sort, and for another…Jenner never gave a damn about anyone but his daughter. He wanted Evie to have everything when he finally kicked off. Bullard blamed Evie, of course. He thought that if it wasn’t for her, Jenner would have claimed him as a son, and would have done more for him, given him more. He was likely right about that.” Egan frowned sadly. “By the time she brought you to the club, my lord, Bullard was already ill with the pox…and it was then that the madness began. A sad ending to a melancholy life.”

Glancing at the two of them with gloomy satisfaction, Egan added, “You’ll find him at Tottenham’s Hospital, if you wish to revenge yourself on a poor bedeviled lunatic. Take what satisfaction you can have, my lords—but if you ask me, Bullard’s maker has already contrived the worst punishment a body can endure.”

CHAPTER 22

During the hours that Sebastian was gone, Evie occupied herself with menial tasks around the club; sorting money and receipts, answering correspondence, and finally attending to the pile of unread letters addressed to Sebastian. Naturally she had been unable to resist opening a few. They were filled with flirtatious nonsense and innuendo, two of them even hinting that by now Sebastian must have wearied of his new bride. Their intent was so obvious that Evie actually felt embarrassed for the sake of the letter writers. They also served to remind her of Sebastian’s promiscuous past, when his main occupation had been to indulge in games of amorous pursuit and conquest.

It wasn’t easy to place her trust in such a man without feeling like a naive fool. Especially in light of the certainty that Sebastian would always be admired and coveted by other women. But Evie felt that Sebastian deserved the chance to prove himself. It was in her power to give him a new beginning—and if her gamble proved successful, the rewards for both of them would be infinite. She could be strong enough to take the risk of loving him, to make demands of him, to have expectations that he might sometimes find difficult to meet. And Sebastian seemed to want to be treated like an ordinary man—to have someone look beyond the mortal beauty of his facade, and ask more of him than his erotic skills. Not, Evie thought with a private grin, that she wasn’t appreciative of his looks and skills.

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