Devil in Winter Page 27

However, as he wandered discreetly around the second-floor gallery, taking care to avoid being seen by those on the busy main floor, Sebastian was aware of a nagging curiosity that would not be denied. With his hands tucked negligently in his coat pockets, he leaned against a column. He watched the croupiers at work and noticed the indifferent efforts of the general supervisor to oversee the play and keep everything moving at a satisfactory pace. Activity at all three hazard tables seemed a bit sluggish. Someone needed to stir things up and create an atmosphere that would urge the guests into deeper, faster play.

Slovenly house wenches sauntered lazily through the room, pausing to interact with the male guests. Like the meals at the dining hall sideboard and the coffee room downstairs, the women were a free benefit of membership. Whether a man needed a wench for consolation or for celebration, the prostitutes would accompany him to one of several upstairs rooms reserved for this purpose.

Wandering down to the ground-floor card rooms and coffee room, Sebastian surveyed his surroundings. There were small but prolific signs that it was a business in decay. Sebastian guessed that when Jenner had fallen ill, he had failed to appoint a reliable replacement for himself. His factotum, Clive Egan, was either inept or dishonest, or both. Sebastian wanted to see the account books, the records of expense and profit, the private financial records of the members, rent rolls, mortgages, debts, loans, credit—everything that would contribute to a complete portrait of the club’s health. Or lack thereof.

As he turned back to the staircase, he saw the Gypsy, Rohan, waiting in the shadowy corner, his posture relaxed. Sebastian remained strategically silent, forcing the boy to speak first.

Rohan held his stare as he said with meticulous politeness, “May I help you, milord?”

“You can start by telling me where Egan is.”

“He’s in his room, milord.”

“In what condition?”


“Ah,” Sebastian said softly. “Is he often indisposed, Rohan?”

The Gypsy remained silent, but his steady, sloe-eyed gaze was filled with speculation.

“I want the key to his office,” Sebastian said. “I want to have a look at the account ledgers.”

“There is only one key, milord,” Rohan replied, studying him. “And Mr. Egan always keeps it with him.”

“Then get it for me.”

The boy’s heavy dark brows lifted a fraction. “You want me to rob a man when he is drunk?”

“It’s a hell of a lot easier than waiting until he’s sober,” Sebastian pointed out sardonically. “And it’s not robbery when the key is, for all intents and purposes, mine.”

Rohan’s young face hardened. “My loyalty is to Mr. Jenner. And his daughter.”

“So is mine.” That wasn’t true, of course. The majority of Sebastian’s loyalty was reserved for himself. Evie and her father were, respectively, a distant second and third on the list. “Get me the key, or prepare to follow in Egan’s footsteps when he departs on the morrow.”

The air was charged with masculine challenge. However, after a moment, Rohan gave him a look of distaste mingled with reluctant curiosity. When he acceded, and moved toward the staircase with long, fluid strides, it was not out of fearful obedience, but rather out of the desire to observe what Sebastian would do next.

By the time Sebastian had dispatched Cam Rohan to bring Evie downstairs, she had straightened her father’s room and enlisted the grudging help of a housemaid to change the bed linens. The sheets were damp from night sweats. Though her father stirred and muttered as they carefully rolled him to one side and then the other, he did not awaken from his morphine-induced stupor. His rawboned body, swamped in the folds of his nightshirt, startled Evie with its lightness. Anguished pity and protectiveness filled her as she drew the new linens and blankets up to his chest. Dampening a cool cloth, she laid it over his forehead. A sigh escaped him, and at last his eyes opened into dark, shiny slits amid the furrows of his face. He regarded her without comprehension for a long moment, until a smile stretched his cracked lips, revealing the edges of tobacco-varnished teeth.

“Evie,” came his low croak.

Leaning over him, Evie smiled while the inside of her nose stung and her eyes ached with unshed tears. “I’m here, Papa,” she whispered, saying the words she had longed to say for her entire life. “I’m here, and I’m never going to leave you again.”

He made a sound of contentment and closed his eyes. Just as Evie thought he had fallen asleep, he murmured, “Where shall we walk first today, lovey? The biscuit baker, I s’pose…”

Realizing that he imagined this was one of her long-ago childhood visits, Evie replied softly, “Oh yes.” Hastily she knuckled away the excess moisture from her eyes. “I want an iced bun…and a cone of broken biscuits…and then I want to come back here and play dice with you.”

A rusty chuckle came from his ravaged throat, and he coughed a little. “Let Papa take forty winks before we leaves…there’s a good girl…”

“Yes, sleep,” Evie murmured, turning the cloth over on his forehead. “I can wait, Papa.”

As she watched him slip back into his drugged slumber, she swallowed against the sharp pain in her throat and relaxed in the bedside chair. There was no other place in the world that she wanted to be. She let herself slump a little, her sore shoulders lowering as if she were a marionette whose strings had been released. This was the first time that she had ever felt needed, that her presence had ever seemed to matter to someone. And though her father’s condition grieved her, she was grateful that she could be with him for the last hours of his life. It wasn’t nearly enough time to come to know him—they would always be strangers to each other—but it was more than she had ever hoped to have.

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