Devil in Winter Page 87

Evie’s throat arched slightly at the light stroke of his fingers. “I wouldn’t complain.”

Sebastian smiled and nipped tenderly at the side of her neck. “Dutiful little wife,” he whispered. “I’m going to be a terrible influence on you. Why don’t you give me a kiss, and go upstairs for your bath? By the time you finish, I’ll be there with you.”

The bath was only half-filled when Evie entered the bedroom. Frannie and another housemaid each picked up a set of wood-handled ewers in preparation for one more trip downstairs. Feeling warm and dreamy in the aftermath of Sebastian’s kisses, Evie began to unbutton the sleeves of her gown.

“I’ll unfasten you when I come back with the last of the water, milady,” Frannie offered.

Evie smiled at her. “Thank you.” She wandered to the dressing table and picked up a flacon of perfume, a gift that Lillian had recently sent. With her unusually sensitive nose, Lillian loved to occupy herself with scents and perfumes, and had recently taken to experimenting with her own combinations. This fragrance was lush and well-rounded, with roses and pungent wood spices fixed in amber. Evie carefully poured a few golden drops into the bath water, and inhaled in pleasure as the fragrant steam rose into the air.

Returning to the dressing table, she sat in a small chair and bent to remove her shoes and stockings, reaching beneath her skirts to unfasten her garters. With her head angled downward, she could see very little…but a sudden icy slither down her spine and a soft tread on the carpeted floor caused all the hairs on her body to stand erect. She saw a shadow slide quickly across the floor. Sitting up, Evie followed the shadow to its origins, and a startled sound escaped her as she saw a ragged figure coming toward her. She sprang from the chair, overturning it in her haste. As she whirled to face the man who had entered the room, he spoke in a grinding voice.

“Not a word. Or I’ll slit you open from neck to muff.”

A long, wicked knife was clutched in his hand. He stood very close to her—he could reach her with one lunge, if he chose.

No image wrought from nightmares or childhood fears of monsters, could ever match the sight of the intruder’s gruesomely corroded form. Evie inched toward the slipper tub, trying to position it between herself and the madman. He was dressed in clothes that were little more than a heap of rags. He favored his left side oddly, as if he were an off-kilter string puppet. On every inch of exposed skin—his hands, his throat, his face—there were open, oozing sores, as if his flesh were decaying right off his bones. Most horrifying of all, however, were the tattered remnants of what had once been a nose. He looked like a chimera, a collection of flesh and limbs and features that didn’t belong together.

Despite filth and sores and the shocking ruin of his face, Evie recognized him. It took great effort for her to remain calm when all her veins were filled with stinging panic. “Mr. Bullard,” she croaked. “The hospital said you were dead.”

Bullard’s head lolled oddly on his shoulders as he continued to stare at her. “I left that bloody ‘ell pit,” he growled. “I broke a window and ‘scaped at night. I ‘ad enow o’ those demons trying to pour their devil brews down my throat.” He started toward her with arrhythmic steps. Evie circled the tub slowly, while her heart pounded hard in her chest. “But I wasn’t going to kick off in that cursed place wivout sending you to ‘ell first.”

“Why?” Evie asked softly, fighting not to glance at the doorway, where she saw movement from the corners of her eyes. It must be Frannie, she thought feverishly. The blurred shape disappeared without a sound, and Evie prayed that the housemaid had run to fetch help. In the meantime, the only recourse was to keep away from Joss Bullard.

“You took ewerything from me,” he snarled, rounding his shoulders like an animal backed against the wall of a cage. “‘E gave it all to you, the damned bastard—‘e only wanted an ugly little tangle-tongue, when I was ‘is son. ‘Is son, an’ I was ‘id away like a filthy chamber pot.” His face contorted. “I did whotever ‘e asked…I’d of killed to please ‘im…but it never mattered. It was allus you ‘e wanted, you bleedin’ parasite!”

“I’m sorry,” Evie said, and the genuine regret in her voice seemed to disorient him momentarily. He paused and stared at her with his head tilted at an odd angle. “Mr. Bullard…Joss…My father did care about you. His last request was that you should be helped and taken care of.”

“It’s too late for that!” He gasped and raised both hands to his head, including the one with the knife, as if there was unbearable pain in his skull. “Goddamn it…ah…devil take ‘im…”

Seeing a chance to flee, Evie broke for the doorway. Bullard caught her at once, slamming her hard against the wall. As her head hit the hard surface, an explosion seemed to go off in her brain, and her vision was fragmented into a sea of glittering gray and black. Struggling to focus, she blinked and moaned. There was an unpleasant pressure high on her chest and a pinching sensation at the side of her throat. Gradually she realized that Bullard’s arm was locked around her neck, with the long knife blade completing the circle. The sharp steel pressed against her with every inhalation. Bullard was breathing harshly, the puffs of air from his lungs reeking of foulness and decay. She felt the tremors of his body, and his efforts to stiffen his muscles against them. “We’ll go see ‘im together,” he said near her ear.

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