Devil in Winter Page 62

“No,” Evie said instantly, her concerned gaze switching from Sebastian’s mocking face to Westcliff’s granite-hard one. “I’m going to stay.” Turning to Lord Westcliff, she gave him her hand. “My lord, I have thought so often about Lillian…she is well, I hope?”

Westcliff bent over her hand and spoke in his distinctive gravelly voice. “Quite well. It is her wish that you come to stay with us, if you so desire.”

Although Sebastian had been browbeating her into leaving the club only a few minutes earlier, he was filled with sudden fury. The arrogant bastard. If he thought to come in here and snatch Evie away from beneath his nose—

“Thank you, my lord,” Evie replied softly as she stared into Westcliff’s bold-featured face. He had black hair, and eyes so dark that it was impossible to distinguish the irises from the pupils. “You are very kind. And I wish very much to visit soon. But I have no need of your hospitality at this time.”

“Very well. The offer will remain open. Allow me to offer my condolences on your recent loss.”

“Thank you.” She smiled at Westcliff, Sebastian saw with a stab of jealousy.

As the possessor of one of the oldest and most powerful earldoms in England, Marcus, Lord Westcliff, had the aura of a man who was accustomed to having his opinions heard and heeded. Though he was not classically handsome, Westcliff possessed a dark vitality and masculine vigor that caused him to stand out in any gathering. He was a sportsman and a bruising rider, known for pushing himself to the edge of his own physical limits and beyond. In fact, Westcliff approached everything in life that way, allowing himself nothing less than excellence in whatever he chose to do.

Westcliff and Sebastian had been friends since the age of ten, having spent most of their formative years together at boarding school. Even as boys they’d had an unlikely friendship, for Westcliff by nature believed in moral absolutes, and had no difficulty distinguishing right from wrong. Sebastian had loved to take the simplest matters and twist them into something exasperatingly complex, merely as an exercise of his own cleverness. Westcliff always chose the most efficient and straightforward path, whereas Sebastian chose the crooked, poorly mapped route that would get one into all manner of trouble before finally reaching his destination.

However, there was much that the two friends understood about each other, having both grown up under the influence of manipulative and uncaring fathers. They had shared a similarly unromantic view of the world, understanding that they could trust very few people. And now, Sebastian reflected bleakly, he had broken Westcliff’s trust beyond any hope of repairing it. For the first time in his life, he was aware of a sickening pang that he could only identify as regret.

Why the hell had he focused his attentions on Lillian Bowman? When he had realized that Westcliff was taken with the girl, why had Sebastian not troubled himself to find some other heiress to wed? He had been a fool to overlook Evie. In retrospect, Lillian had not been worth the sabotage of a friendship. Privately Sebastian was forced to acknowledge that Westcliff’s absence in his life was rather like a blister on his foot that frequently chafed and would never quite heal.

Sebastian waited until the door had closed behind Cam. Then he draped a possessive arm over Evie’s narrow shoulders and spoke to his former friend. “How was the honeymoon?” he inquired mockingly.

Westcliff ignored the question. “In light of the circumstances,” he said to Evie, “I find it necessary to ask—were you married under duress?”

“No,” Evie said earnestly, inching closer to Sebastian’s side as if she were trying to shield him. “Truly, my lord, it was my idea. I went to Lord St. Vincent’s home to ask for his help, and he gave it.”

Appearing unconvinced, Westcliff said curtly, “Surely there were other avenues available to you.”

“None that I could see at the time.” Her slender arm slipped around Sebastian’s waist, causing his breath to stop in sudden astonishment. “I do not regret my decision,” he heard Evie tell Westcliff firmly. “I would do it again without hesitation. Lord St. Vincent has been nothing but kind to me.”

“She’s lying, of course,” Sebastian said with a callous laugh, while his pulse began to vibrate frantically in his veins. With Evie’s soft body tucked against his side, he could feel her warmth, smell her skin. He couldn’t understand why she was trying to defend him. “I’ve been a bastard to her,” he told Westcliff flatly. “Fortunately for me, Lady St. Vincent was ill-used by her family for so long that she has no conception of what it is to be treated well.”

“That’s not true,” Evie said to Westcliff. Neither of them spared a glance at Sebastian, giving him an infuriating sense of being cut out of the conversation. “This has been a difficult time, as you can imagine. I could not have survived it without my husband’s support. He has looked after my health, and sheltered me as much as possible. He has worked very hard to preserve my father’s business. He defended me when my uncles tried to compel me to leave with them against my will—”

“You’ve gone too far, sweet,” Sebastian told her with baleful satisfaction. “Westcliff knows me well enough to be certain that I would never work. Or defend anyone, for that matter. I only bother with my own interests.” To his annoyance, neither of them seemed to pay attention to his remarks.

“My lord,” Evie said to the earl, “from what I have learned about my husband, I do not believe he would have acted as he did, had he understood that you were in love with Lillian. That is not to excuse his behavior, but to—”

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