Devil in Winter Page 23

As the years passed, Evie’s visits to King Street had been curtailed. Although she had always blamed the Maybricks for it, she now realized that her father had also been partly responsible. It had been much easier for Jenner to love her as a child, when he could make her squeal by tossing her in the air and catching her in his burly arms. He could rumple her red hair, the same shade as his own, and soothe her tears upon leaving him by pressing a sweet or a shilling into her palm. But when she became a young woman, and he could no longer treat her like a little girl, their relationship had become awkward and distant. “This club’s no place for you, tibby,” he had told her with gruff fondness. “You has to stay away from a milling cove like me, and find some rum cull to marry.”

“Papa,” she had begged, stammering desperately, “d-don’t send me back there. Pl-please, please let me stay with you.”

“Little tangle-tongue, you belong with the Maybricks. And no use to hop the twig and run back here. I’ll only send you off again.”

Her tears had failed to sway him. During the ensuing years, Evie’s visits to her father’s club had dwindled to once every six months, or longer. Whether or not it was for her own good, the sense of being unwanted had sunk deep into her marrow. She had become so uneasy around men, so certain that they would be bored by her, that it had become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Her stammer worsened—the harder she fought to get the words out, the more incoherent she had become, until it was easiest to remain silent and fade into the woodwork. She had become an expert at being a wallflower. She had never been asked to dance, never been kissed, never been teased or courted. The only proposal she had ever received had been cousin Eustace’s reluctant offer.

Marveling at her change in fortune, Evie glanced at her husband, who had brooded silently during the past two hours. His eyes narrowed as he looked back at her. With his cold expression and cynical mouth, he seemed completely unlike the seductive scoundrel who had shared a bed with her two days earlier.

She turned her attention to the window as the scenery of London passed by her. Soon they would be at the club, and she would see her father. It had been six months since they had been together, and Evie had braced herself for a great change in him. Consumption was a common disease, and everyone was aware of its ravages.

It was a slow death of lung tissue, accompanied by fever, coughing, weight loss, and drenching sweats at night. When death arrived, it was usually welcomed by the victim, and all those who cared for him, as an end to the terrible suffering. Evie could not imagine her robust father being reduced to such a condition. She feared seeing him equally as much as she yearned to care for him. However, she kept this all to herself, suspecting that Sebastian would only mock her if she told him of her fears.

Her pulse quickened as the carriage rolled along St. James and turned onto King Street. The long brick and marble front of Jenner’s became visible, silhouetted against the yellows and reds of a ripening sunset that glowed through the ever-present haze that hung over London. Staring through the carriage window, Evie let out a tense sigh as the vehicle passed through one of the many alleys that led from the main thoroughfare to the mews and yards behind the row of buildings.

The carriage came to a halt at the back entrance, which was far preferable to entering through the front of the building. Jenner’s was not a place that nice women frequented. A gentleman might bring his mistress, or even a prostitute who had captured his passing interest, but he would never think of escorting a respectable lady into the club. Evie became aware that Sebastian was watching her with the dispassionate interest of an entomologist observing a new species of beetle. Her sudden paleness and her visible trembling could not have escaped his notice, but he offered no word or gesture of comfort.

Preceding her from the carriage, Sebastian fitted his hands around Evie’s waist and helped her down to the ground. The smell of the back alley was the same as it had been since Evie’s childhood—manure, garbage, liquor, and the crisp overlay of coal smoke. No doubt she was the only young woman of privileged upbringing in London to think that it smelled rather like home. At least it struck her nostrils more agreeably than the atmosphere at the Maybrick house, which was redolent of rotting carpets and bad cologne.

Wincing at the ache of muscles that had been cramped in the carriage for far too long, Evie went to the doorway. Entrances to the kitchen and other service rooms were located farther along the building, but this one opened to a staircase that went up to her father’s apartments. The driver had already summoned a club employee with a few decisive pounds of his fist at the door, and stepped back perfunctorily.

A young man appeared, and Evie was relieved to see a face that she recognized. It was Joss Bullard, a long-familiar figure at the club, who had worked there as a debt collector and an usher. He was large, stocky, and dark-haired, with a bullet-shaped head and a heavy jaw. Possessing a natural inclination toward surliness, Bullard had treated Evie with a bare minimum of courtesy whenever she had visited the club. However, she had heard her father praise him for his loyalty, and for that she was appreciative.

“Mr. Bullard,” she said, “I’ve c-come to see my father. Please allow me i-i-inside.”

The burly young man did not move. “‘E ‘asn’t asked for you,” he said gruffly. He switched his gaze to Sebastian, taking note of his expensive garments. “Go to the front, sir, if you’re a member.”

“Idiot,” Evie heard Sebastian mutter, and before he could continue, Evie interrupted hastily.

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