Devil in Winter Page 29

“Thank you,” Evie said, nearly too tired to know what she was eating. She lifted her fork to her mouth, took a bite of something, and closed her eyes as she chewed and swallowed. When her lashes lifted, she found Sebastian’s gaze on her.

He looked as weary as she felt, with faint smudges beneath his blue eyes. The skin over his cheekbones was taut, and he was pale beneath the sun-kissed tint of his complexion. His night beard, which was inclined to grow quickly, was a shadow of glittering golden stubble. Somehow the roughening of his looks made him even more handsome, lending a textured grace to what otherwise might have been the sterile perfection of a marble masterpiece.

“Are you still fixed on the notion of staying here?” he asked, deftly carving a peach and divesting it of the pit. He handed her a neat golden half.

“Oh yes.” Evie accepted the peach and took a bite, its tart juice trickling over her tongue.

“I was afraid you might say that,” he replied dryly. “It’s a mistake, you know. You have no idea of what you’ll be exposed to…the obscenities and lewd comments, the lecherous gazes, the groping and pinching…and that’s just at my house. Imagine what it would be like here.”

Uncertain whether to frown or smile, Evie regarded him curiously. “I will manage,” she said.

“I’m sure you will, pet.”

Lifting a goblet of wine to her lips, Evie glanced at him over the rim as she drank. “What is in that ledger?”

“A lesson in creative record keeping. I’m sure you won’t be surprised to learn that Egan has been draining the club’s accounts. He shaves away increments here and there, in small enough quantities that the thefts have gone unnoticed. But over time, it totals up to a considerable sum. God knows how many years he’s been doing it. So far, every account book I’ve looked at contains deliberate inaccuracies.”

“How can you be certain that they’re deliberate?”

“There is a clear pattern.” He flipped open a ledger and nudged it over to her. “The club made a profit of approximately twenty thousand pounds last Tuesday. If you cross-check the numbers with the record of loans, bank deposits, and cash outlays, you’ll see the discrepancies.”

Evie followed the trail of his finger as he ran it along the notes he had made in the margin. “You see?” he murmured. “These are what the proper amounts should be. He’s padded the expenses liberally. The cost of ivory dice, for example. Even allowing for the fact that the dice are only used for one night and then never again, the annual charge should be no more than two thousand pounds, according to Rohan.” The practice of using fresh dice every night was standard for any gaming club, to ward off any question that they might be loaded.

“But here it says that almost three thousand pounds was spent on dice,” Evie murmured.

“Exactly.” Sebastian leaned back in his chair and smiled lazily. “I deceived my father the same way in my depraved youth, when he paid my monthly upkeep and I had need of more ready coin than he was willing to provide.”

“What did you need it for?” Evie could not resist asking.

The smile tarried on his lips. “I’m afraid the explanation would require a host of words to which you would take strong exception.”

Spearing a quail egg with her fork, Evie popped it into her mouth. “What is to be done about Mr. Egan?”

His shoulders lifted in a graceful shrug. “As soon as he is sober enough to walk, he’ll be dismissed.”

Evie brushed away a stray lock of hair that had fallen over her cheek. “There is no one to replace him.”

“Yes, there is. Until a suitable manager can be found, I’ll run the club.”

The quail egg seemed to stick in her throat, and Evie choked a little. Hastily she reached for her wine, washed it down, and regarded him with bulging eyes. How could he say something so preposterous? “You can’t.”

“I can hardly do worse than Egan. He hasn’t managed a damned thing in months…before long, this place will be falling down around our ears.”

“You said you hated work!”

“So I did. But I feel that I should try it at least once, just to be certain.”

She began to stammer in her anxiety. “You’ll pl-play at this for a few days, and then you’ll tire of it.”

“I can’t afford to tire of it, my love. Although the club is still profitable, its value is in decline. Your father has a load of outstanding debt that must be settled. If the people who owe him can’t muster the cash, we’ll have to take property, jewelry, artwork…whatever they can manage. Having a good idea of the value of things, I can negotiate some acceptable settlements. And there are other problems I haven’t yet mentioned…Jenner has a string of failing Thoroughbreds that have lost a fortune at Newmarket. And he’s made some insane investments—ten thousand pounds he put into an alleged gold mine in Flintshire—a swindle that even a child should have seen through.”

“Oh God,” Evie murmured, rubbing her forehead. “He’s been ill—people have taken advantage—”

“Yes. And now, even if we wanted to sell the club, we couldn’t without first putting it in order. If there were an alternative, believe me, I would find it. But this place is a sieve, with no one who is capable or willing to stop the holes. Except for me.”

“You know nothing about filling holes!” she cried, appalled by his arrogance.

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