Devil in Winter Page 14

As St. Vincent lifted his body away from hers, Evie was surprised that she didn’t crumple bonelessly to the ground. He was breathing as hard as she, harder, his chest rising and falling steadily. They were both silent as he reached to untie the ribbon, his ice-blue gaze focused completely on the task. His hands were shaking. He couldn’t bring himself to look at her face, though she could not fathom whether it was to keep from seeing her expression, or to prevent her from seeing his. After the length of white silk had fallen away, Evie felt as if they were still bound, her wrist retaining the sensation of being fastened against him.

Finally daring to glance at her, St. Vincent silently challenged her to protest. She held her tongue and took hold of his arm, and they walked the short distance to the inn. Her mind was spinning, and she barely heard Mr. Findley’s jovial congratulations as they entered the little building. Her legs felt heavy as she ascended a flight of dark, narrow steps.

Finally it had come to this, a teeth-gritting effort to put one foot in front of the other in the hopes that she wouldn’t drop in her tracks. They came to a small door in the upstairs hallway. Resting her drooping shoulders against the wall, Evie watched St. Vincent fumble with the lock. The key turned with a scraping sound, and she staggered toward the open doorway.

“Wait.” St. Vincent bent to lift her.

She inhaled quickly. “You don’t have to—”

“In deference to your superstitious nature,” he said, picking her up as easily as if she were a child, “I think we had better adhere to one last tradition.” Turning sideways, he carried her through the doorway. “It’s bad luck if the bride trips over the threshold. And I’ve seen men after a three-day bacchanal who were steadier on their feet than you are.”

“Thank you,” Evie murmured as he set her down.

“That will be a half crown,” St. Vincent replied. The sardonic reminder of the blacksmith’s fees brought a sudden smile to her face.

The smile faded, however, as she glanced around the tidy little room. The bed, large enough for two, looked soft and clean, the coverlet worn from countless launderings. The bedstead was made of brass and iron with ball-shaped finials. A rosy glow emanated from an oil lamp made of ruby glass that had been set on the bedside table. Muddy, cold, and numb, Evie stared mutely at the ancient wood-rimmed tin tub that had been placed before the small, flickering hearth.

St. Vincent latched the door and came to her, reaching for the fastening of her cloak. Something like pity flickered across his features as he saw that she was shaking with weariness. “Let me help you,” he said quietly, taking the cloak from her shoulders. He laid it over a chair near the hearth.

Evie swallowed hard and tried to stiffen her knees, which seemed inclined to buckle. Cold dread weighted her stomach as she glanced at the bed. “Are we going to…” she started to ask, her voice turning scratchy.

St. Vincent began on the front fastenings of her gown. “Are we going to…” he repeated, and followed her gaze to the bed. “Good God, no.” His fingers moved rapidly along her bodice, freeing the row of buttons. “Delectable as you are, my love, I’m too tired. I’ve never said this in my entire life—but at the moment I would much rather sleep than f**k.”

Overwhelmed with relief, Evie let out an unsteady sigh. She was forced to clutch at him for balance as he pushed the loosened gown down over her hips. “I don’t like that word,” she said in a muffled voice.

“Well, you had better get used to it,” came his caustic reply. “That word is said frequently at your father’s club. God knows how you managed to escape hearing it before.”

“I did,” she said indignantly, stepping out of the discarded gown. “I just didn’t know what it meant until now.”

St. Vincent bent to untie her shoes, his broad shoulders quivering. A curious gasping, choking noise came from him. At first Evie wondered anxiously if he had suddenly been taken ill, and then she realized that he was laughing. It was the first genuine laughter she had ever heard from him, and she had no idea what he found so funny. Standing over him in her chemise and drawers, she crossed her arms over her front and frowned.

Still snorting with quiet amusement, St. Vincent removed her shoes one at a time, tossing them aside. Her stockings were rolled down her legs with swift efficiency. “Take your bath, pet,” he finally managed to say. “You’re safe from me tonight. I may look, but I won’t touch. Go on.”

Having never undressed before a man in her life, Evie felt a prickling blush cover her body as she eased down the straps of her chemise. Tactfully St. Vincent turned his back and went to the washstand with a ewer of hot water that had been set by the hearth. While he proceeded to gather his shaving implements from his trunk, Evie clumsily stripped away her underclothes and climbed into the bath. The water was hot, wonderfully so, and as she sank into the tub her cold legs tingled as if they were being pricked with a thousand needles.

A jar of gelatinous brown soap had been set on a stool beside the tub. Scooping some of it in her fingers, Evie spread the acrid-smelling stuff over her chest and arms. Her hands felt clumsy…she couldn’t quite seem to make her fingers work properly. After dunking her head in the water, she reached for more of the soap, nearly dropping the jar in the process. She washed her hair, made a sound of discomfort as her eyes began to sting, and splashed handfuls of water on her face.

Quickly St. Vincent approached the tub with the ewer. She heard his voice through the splashing. “Tilt your head back.” He poured the remainder of the clear water over her soapy hair. Deftly he blotted her face with a length of clean but scratchy toweling and bade her to stand. Evie took his proffered hand and obeyed. She should have been mortified, standing na**d in front of him, but she had finally reached an extremity of exhaustion that did not allow for modesty. Trembling and enervated, she let him help her from the tub. She even allowed him to dry her, as she was unable to do anything but stand listlessly, not caring or even noticing if he was looking at her.

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