Devil in Winter Page 2

“‘Beat me to a pulp’would be a more accurate choice of words,” Sebastian said pleasantly, knowing that she couldn’t help but notice the shadowy bruises on his jaw from Westcliff’s righteous pummeling. “He didn’t seem to take it well, my borrowing of his betrothed.”

“You k-kidnapped her,” Evangeline countered calmly. “‘Borrowing’ implies that you intended to give her back.”

Sebastian felt his lips curve with his first real smile in a long time. She wasn’t a simpleton, apparently. “Kidnapped, then, if you’re going to be precise. Is that why you’ve come to visit, Miss Jenner? To deliver a report on the happy couple? I’m weary of the subject. You had better say something interesting soon, or I’m afraid you’ll have to leave.”

“You w-wanted Miss Bowman because she is an heiress,” Evangeline said. “And you need to marry someone with money.”

“True,” Sebastian acknowledged easily. “My father, the duke, has failed in his one responsibility in life: to keep the family fortune intact so that he can pass it on to me. My responsibility, on the other hand, is to pass my time in profligate idleness and wait for him to die. I’ve been doing my job splendidly. The duke, however, has not. He’s made a botch of managing the family finances, and at present he is unforgivably poor, and even worse, healthy.”

“My father is rich,” Evangeline said without emotion. “And dying.”

“Congratulations.” Sebastian studied her intently. He did not doubt that Ivo Jenner had a considerable fortune from the gambling club. Jenner’s was a place where London gentlemen went for gaming, good food, strong drink, and inexpensive whores. The atmosphere was one of extravagance tinged with a comfortable degree of shabbiness. Nearly twenty years earlier, Jenner’s had been a second-rate alternative to the legendary Craven’s, the grandest and most successful gaming club that England had ever known.

However, when Craven’s had burned to the ground and its owner had declined to rebuild, Jenner’s club had inherited a flood of wealthy patrons by default, and it had risen to its own position of prominence. Not that it could ever be compared to Craven’s. A club was largely a reflection of its owner’s character and style, both of which Jenner was sorely lacking. Derek Craven had been, indisputably, a showman. Ivo Jenner, by contrast, was a ham-fisted brute, an ex-boxer who had never excelled at anything, but by some miraculous whim of fate had become a successful businessman.

And here was Jenner’s daughter, his only child. If she was about to make the offer that Sebastian suspected she might, he could not afford to refuse it.

“I don’t want your c-congratulations,” Evangeline said in response to his earlier remark.

“What do you want, child?” Sebastian asked softly. “Get to the point, if you please. This is becoming tedious.”

“I want to be with my father for the last few days of his l-life. My mother’s family won’t allow me to see him. I’ve tried to run away to his club, but they always catch me, and then I’m punished. I w-will not go back to them this time. They have plans that I intend to avoid—at the cost of my own life, if necessary.”

“And those plans are?” Sebastian prodded idly.

“They are trying to force me to marry one of my cousins. Mr. Eustace Stubbins. He cares n-nothing for me, nor I for him…but he is a willing pawn in the family’s scheme.”

“Which is to gain control of your father’s fortune when he dies?”

“Yes. At first I considered the idea, because I thought that Mr. Stubbins and I could have our own house…and I thought…life might be bearable if I could live away from the rest of them. But Mr. Stubbins told me that he has no intention of moving anywhere. He wants to stay under the family’s roof…and I don’t think I can survive there much longer.” Faced with his seemingly incurious silence, she added quietly, “I believe they mean to k-kill me after they’ve gotten my father’s money.”

Sebastian’s gaze did not move from her face, though he kept his tone light. “How inconsiderate of them. Why should I care?”

Evangeline did not rise to his baiting, only gave him a steady stare that was evidence of an innate toughness Sebastian had never encountered in a woman before. “I’m offering to marry you,” she said. “I want your protection. My father is too ill and weak to help me, and I will not be a burden to my friends. I believe they would offer to harbor me, but even then I would always have to be on guard, fearing that my relations would manage to steal me away and force me to do their will. An unmarried woman has little recourse, socially or legally. It isn’t f-fair…but I can’t afford to go tilting at windmills. I need a h-husband. You need a rich wife. And we are both equally desperate, which leads me to believe that you will agree to my pr-proposition. If so, then I should like to leave for Gretna Green tonight. Now. I’m certain that my relations are already looking for me.”

The silence was charged and heavy as Sebastian contemplated her with an unfriendly gaze. He didn’t trust her. And after the debacle of last week’s thwarted abduction, he had no wish to repeat the experience.

Still, she was right about something. Sebastian was indeed desperate. As a multitude of creditors would attest, he was a man who liked to dress well, eat well, live well. The stingy monthly allotment he received from the duke was soon to be cut off, and he hadn’t enough funds in his account to last the month. To a man who had no objection to taking the easy way out, this offer was a godsend. If she was truly willing to see it through.

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