Devil in Winter Page 4

Evie wanted to see her father. She wanted it so badly that the longing was a physical ache. She believed he was the only person in the world who cared for her. His love was negligent, but it was more than she had ever gotten from anyone else. She understood why he had abandoned her to the Maybricks long ago, directly after her mother had died in childbirth. A gaming club was no place to raise an infant. And while the Maybricks were not of the peerage, they were of good blood. Evie could not help but wonder, though…if her father had known how she was to be treated, would he have made the same choice? If he’d had any inkling that the family’s anger at their youngest daughter’s rebellion would become focused on a helpless child…but there was no use in wondering now.

Her mother was dead, and her father very nearly so, and there were things that Evie needed to ask him before he passed away. Her best chance of escaping the Maybricks’ clutches was the insufferable aristocrat whom she had just agreed to marry.

She was amazed that she had managed to communicate so well with St. Vincent, who was more than a little intimidating, with his golden beauty and wintry ice-blue eyes, and a mouth made for kisses and lies. He looked like a fallen angel, replete with all the dangerous male beauty that Lucifer could devise. He was also selfish and unscrupulous, which had been proved by his attempt to kidnap his best friend’s fiancee. But it had occurred to Evie that such a man would be a fitting adversary for the Maybricks.

St. Vincent would be a terrible husband, of course. But as long as Evie harbored no illusions about him, she would be all right. Since she cared nothing about him, she could easily turn a blind eye to his indiscretions and a deaf ear to his insults.

How different her marriage would be from those of her friends. At the thought of the wallflowers, she felt a sudden urge to cry. There was no possibility that Annabelle, Daisy, or Lillian—particularly Lillian—would remain friends with Evie after she married St. Vincent. Blinking back the sting of incipient tears, she swallowed against the sharp pain in her throat. There was no use crying. Although this was hardly a perfect solution to her dilemma, it was the best one she could think of.

Imagining the fury of her aunts and uncles upon learning that she—and her fortune—were forever out of their reach, Evie felt her misery ease a little. It was worth anything not to have to live under their domination for the rest of her life. Worth anything, too, not to be forced into marriage with poor, cowardly Eustace, who took refuge in eating and drinking to excess, until he was nearly too corpulent to fit through the doorway of his own room. Though he hated his parents almost as much as Evie did, Eustace would never dare to defy them.

It had been Eustace, ironically, who had finally driven Evie to escape this evening. He had come to her earlier in the day with a betrothal ring, a gold band with a jade stone. “Here,” he had said, a bit sheepishly. “Mother said I was to give this to you—and you won’t be allowed to have any meals unless you wear it to the dining table. The banns will be announced next week, she said.”

It had not been unexpected. After trying for three failed seasons to find an aristocratic husband for Evie, the family had finally come to the conclusion that they would get no advantageous social affiliation through her. And in light of the fact that she would be coming into her fortune soon, they had hatched a plan to keep her inheritance for themselves by marrying her to one of her cousins.

Upon hearing Eustace’s words, Evie had felt a surge of astonished fury that brought a violent tide of scarlet to her face. Eustace had actually laughed at the sight, and said, “Lud, you’re a sight when you blush. It makes your hair look positively orange.”

Biting back a caustic reply, Evie had fought to calm herself, and concentrated on the words that swooped and dashed inside her like leaves in a wind squall. She had collected them painstakingly, and managed to ask without stammering, “Cousin Eustace…if I agree to marry you…would you ever take my part against your parents? Would you allow me to go see my father, and take care of him?”

The smile had died on Eustace’s face, the plump pouches of his cheeks drooping as he stared into her grave blue eyes. His gaze dropped away and he said evasively, “They wouldn’t be so harsh with you, cuz, if you weren’t such a stubborn little rodent.”

Losing her patience, Evie had felt the stammer getting the better of her. “Y-you would take my f-fortune, a-a-and do nothing for me in return—”

“What do you need a fortune for?” he had asked scornfully. “You’re a timid creature who scurries from corner to corner…you have no need of fancy clothes or jewels…you’re no good for conversation, you’re too plain to bed, and you have no accomplishments. You should be grateful that I’m willing to marry you, but you’re too stupid to realize it!”

“I-I-I—” Frustration had made her impotent. She couldn’t summon the words to defend herself, could only struggle and glare and gasp with the effort to speak.

“What a blithering idiot you are,” Eustace said impatiently. He threw the ring to the floor in a fit of temper, his arm jiggling heavily with the motion. The ring bounced and rolled out of sight beneath the settee. “There, it’s lost now. And it’s your fault for vexing me. You’d better find it, or you’ll starve. I’ll go tell Mother that I’ve done my part by giving it to you.”

Evie had foregone supper, and instead of searching for the lost ring, she had feverishly packed a small valise. Escaping through the second-floor window and sliding down a rain gutter, Evie had then bolted through the yard. By a stroke of luck an available hackney had stopped for her as soon as she ran out the gate.

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