Devil in Winter Page 85

Evie let out an unsteady sigh. “I’m sorry. I don’t mean to be so emotional. It’s just that it’s been a very trying few weeks. My feelings are all a bit too close to the surface and I can’t seem to manage them properly.”

She was collected against his warm body, his hard muscles surrounding her, his voice weaving through his hair. “Evie, love, don’t apologize for being emotional. You’ve been through hell. And only a heartless brute like me could truly appreciate the courage it takes to be honest about your feelings.”

Evie’s voice was muffled against his shoulder. “You’re not heartless.” She sighed shakily. “Perhaps it is wrong of me, but even though I do feel sorry for Mr. Bullard, I’m relieved that he is gone. Because of his actions, I almost lost you.”

His mouth searched through the loose curls of her hair until he found the fragile rim of her ear. “You won’t be that fortunate.”

“Don’t,” Evie said, unable to smile at the light quip. She drew her head back to look at him, while his arms remained locked around her. “It’s not something to joke about. I…” Her voice wobbled sharply as she forced herself to continue. “I don’t think I could live without you now.”

Sebastian’s large hand passed gently over the back of her head, pulling her to his shoulder, and he buried his face in her hair for a moment. “Ah, Evie,” she heard him say softly, “I must have a heart, after all…because right now it aches like the devil.”

“Only your heart?” she asked ingenuously, making him laugh.

He lowered her to the bed, his eyes sparkling wickedly. “Also a few other things,” he conceded. “And as my wife, it’s your duty to ease all my aches.”

She lifted her arms and drew him down to her.

Oblivious to the personal issues of Jenner’s owners or employees, the club patrons continued to crowd the building nightly, especially as it became known that there were no more available memberships, as the limit had been set at twenty-five hundred. Those who wished to become members were obliged to subscribe to a waiting list in hopes of a vacancy.

The odd pairing of a penniless viscount and a gaming club in decline had resulted in a surprising alchemy. The employees were either swept along in the current of Sebastian’s dynamic energy, or they were discarded in his wake. The place was run with a ruthless efficiency that Jenner’s had never seen before. Even Ivo Jenner in his heyday had never ruled his small empire with such an iron hand.

In the past, Ivo Jenner’s hidden resentment of the aristocracy had caused him to treat many of the club members with a fawning subservience that had made them vaguely uncomfortable. Sebastian, on the other hand, was one of their own. He was relaxed and yet so dashing that his presence seemed to infuse the atmosphere with excitement. Whenever he was near, club members laughed more, spent more, talked more, ate more.

Whereas other clubs served the eternal beefsteak and apple tart, the lavish buffet at Jenner’s was constantly replenished with ever-more-artful dishes…hot lobster salad, casserole of pheasant, prawns on pillowy beds of pureed celery root, quail stuffed with grapes and goat cheese and served in pools of cream sauce. And Evie’s favorite—a sticky flourless almond cake topped with raspberries and a thick layer of meringue. The food and entertainment at Jenner’s had improved at such a rapid rate that wives began to complain that their husbands were spending far too many nights at the club.

Sebastian’s manipulative nature had found a perfect outlet in Jenner’s. He knew how to provide an environment in which men could relax and enjoy themselves, and in the process he divested them of their money with ease. The games were run with scrupulous honesty, since gaming was, in theory, forbidden by law even though it was practiced openly throughout London. Operating a respectable club was the best way to avoid prosecution.

If at first Sebastian had to endure a few mocking comments from his acquaintances, their manner quickly changed as they found themselves in the position of asking him to extend credit, or to forestall the payment of their debts. For a man who had never had much money, Sebastian had a surprising ability to manage it. As Cam had said admiringly, Sebastian demonstrated the ability of a rat terrier to sniff out a risky bank balance, or anything else that might affect a member’s ability to pay.

One evening as Evie stood beside Cam’s desk in the main room to watch Sebastian presiding over a hazard game of particularly deep play, she became aware of an elderly man beside her. She turned and recognized him as Lord Haldane, a gentleman whom Sebastian had introduced to her the previous week. “My lord,” Evie murmured as he bowed over her hand. “How nice it is to see you again.”

He smiled, his brown eyes kind in his jowly face. “The pleasure is mine, Lady St. Vincent.”

They both glanced back at the main hazard table, where Sebastian had just made a quip to ease the tension of the game. A low rumble of laughter went through the crowd. Evie silently marveled at how natural he seemed in his role, as if he had been born to it. Strangely, he seemed more at home in the club than even her father had. Ivo Jenner, with his excitable nature, had always found it difficult to conceal his worry when a club member had followed a run of extraordinary luck that threatened to break the bank. Sebastian, on the other hand, remained cool and unruffled no matter what the circumstances.

Lord Haldane was occupied with similar reflections, for he stared at Sebastian’s distant figure and said absently, “I never thought to see another of his kind again.”

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