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Fiction: The Devil In The Winter ( Chapter 2).

CHAPTER 2

THE DEVIL IN THE WINTER.

As Lord St. Vincent left the room, Evie let out a shaky sigh and closed her eyes. St. Vincent needn’t worry that she might change her mind. Now that the agreement had been made, she was a hundred times more impatient than he to start on their journey. The knowledge that Uncle Brook and Uncle Peregrine were most likely searching for her this very moment filled her with fear.


When she had escaped the house near the end of summer, she had been caught at the entrance to her father’s club. By the time Uncle Peregrine had brought her home, he had knocked her about in the carriage until her lip was split, one eye was blackened, and her back and arms were covered with bruises. Two weeks of being locked in her room had followed, with little more than bread and water being thrust past her door.


No one, not even her friends Annabelle, Lillian, and Daisy, knew the full extent of what she had undergone. Life in the Maybrick household had been a nightmare. The Maybricks, her mother’s family, and the Stubbinses—her mother’s sister Florence and her husband, Peregrine—had joined in a collective effort to break Evie’s will. They were angered and puzzled as to why it had been so difficult…and Evie was no less puzzled than they. She wouldn’t have ever thought that she could endure harsh punishment, indifference, and even hatred, without crumbling. Perhaps she had more of her father in her than anyone had guessed. Ivo Jenner had been a bare-knuckle bruiser, and the secret to his success, within the rope ring and outside it, was not talent but tenacity. She had inherited the same stubbornness.


 


Evie wanted to see her father. She wanted it so badly that the longing was a physical ache. She believed he was the only person in the world who cared for her. His love was negligent, but it was more than she had ever gotten from anyone else. She understood why he had abandoned her to the Maybricks long ago, directly after her mother had died in childbirth. A gaming club was no place to raise an infant. And while the Maybricks were not of the peerage, they were of good blood. Evie could not help but wonder, though…if her father had known how she was to be treated, would he have made the same choice? If he’d had any inkling that the family’s anger at their youngest daughter’s rebellion would become focused on a helpless child…but there was no use in wondering now.


Her mother was dead, and her father very nearly so, and there were things that Evie needed to ask him before he passed away. Her best chance of escaping the Maybricks’ clutches was the insufferable aristocrat whom she had just agreed to marry.


She was amazed that she had managed to communicate so well with St. Vincent, who was more than a little intimidating, with his golden beauty and wintry ice-blue eyes, and a mouth made for kisses and lies. He looked like a fallen angel, replete with all the dangerous male beauty that Lucifer could devise. He was also selfish and unscrupulous, which had been proved by his attempt to kidnap his best friend’s fiancee. But it had occurred to Evie that such a man would be a fitting adversary for the Maybricks.


St. Vincent would be a terrible husband, of course. But as long as Evie harbored no illusions about him, she would be all right. Since she cared nothing about him, she could easily turn a blind eye to his indiscretions and a deaf ear to his insults.


How different her marriage would be from those of her friends. At the thought of the wallflowers, she felt a sudden urge to cry. There was no possibility that Annabelle, Daisy, or Lillian—particularly Lillian—would remain friends with Evie after she married St. Vincent. Blinking back the sting of incipient tears, she swallowed against the sharp pain in her throat. There was no use crying. Although this was hardly a perfect solution to her dilemma, it was the best one she could think of.


Imagining the fury of her aunts and uncles upon learning that she—and her fortune—were forever out of their reach, Evie felt her misery ease a little. It was worth anything not to have to live under their domination for the rest of her life. Worth anything, too, not to be forced into marriage with poor, cowardly Eustace, who took refuge in eating and drinking to excess, until he was nearly too corpulent to fit through the doorway of his own room. Though he hated his parents almost as much as Evie did, Eustace would never dare to defy them.


It had been Eustace, ironically, who had finally driven Evie to escape this evening. He had come to her earlier in the day with a betrothal ring, a gold band with a jade stone. “Here,” he had said, a bit sheepishly. “Mother said I was to give this to you—and you won’t be allowed to have any meals unless you wear it to the dining table. The banns will be announced next week, she said.”


It had not been unexpected. After trying for three failed seasons to find an aristocratic husband for Evie, the family had finally come to the conclusion that they would get no advantageous social affiliation through her. And in light of the fact that she would be coming into her fortune soon, they had hatched a plan to keep her inheritance for themselves by marrying her to one of her cousins.


Upon hearing Eustace’s words, Evie had felt a surge of astonished fury that brought a violent tide of scarlet to her face. Eustace had actually laughed at the sight, and said, “Lud, you’re a sight when you blush. It makes your hair look positively orange.”


Biting back a caustic reply, Evie had fought to calm herself, and concentrated on the words that swooped and dashed inside her like leaves in a wind squall. She had collected them painstakingly, and managed to ask without stammering, “Cousin Eustace…if I agree to marry you…would you ever take my part against your parents? Would you allow me to go see my father, and take care of him?”


The smile had died on Eustace’s face, the plump pouches of his cheeks drooping as he stared into her grave blue eyes. His gaze dropped away and he said evasively, “They wouldn’t be so harsh with you, cuz, if you weren’t such a stubborn little rodent.”


Losing her patience, Evie had felt the stammer getting the better of her. “Y-you would take my f-fortune, a-a-and do nothing for me in return—”


“What do you need a fortune for?” he had asked scornfully. “You’re a timid creature who scurries from corner to corner…you have no need of fancy clothes or jewels…you’re no good for conversation, you’re too plain to bed, and you have no accomplishments. You should be grateful that I’m willing to marry you, but you’re too stupid to realize it!”


“I-I-I—” Frustration had made her impotent. She couldn’t summon the words to defend herself, could only struggle and glare and gasp with the effort to speak.


“What a blithering idiot you are,” Eustace said impatiently. He threw the ring to the floor in a fit of temper, his arm jiggling heavily with the motion. The ring bounced and rolled out of sight beneath the settee. “There, it’s lost now. And it’s your fault for vexing me. You’d better find it, or you’ll starve. I’ll go tell Mother that I’ve done my part by giving it to you.”


Evie had foregone supper, and instead of searching for the lost ring, she had feverishly packed a small valise. Escaping through the second-floor window and sliding down a rain gutter, Evie had then bolted through the yard. By a stroke of luck an available hackney had stopped for her as soon as she ran out the gate.


That was probably the last she would ever see of Eustace, Evie thought with morose satisfaction. One did not often see him in society. As his girth expanded, he confined himself more and more to Maybrick House. No matter how things turned out, she would never regret having escaped the fate of becoming his wife. It was doubtful that Eustace would ever have tried to bed her…he did not seem to possess a sufficient quantity of what was genteelly referred to as “animal spirits.” His passion was reserved exclusively for food and wine.


Lord St. Vincent, on the other hand, had seduced and compromised too many women to count. While many women seemed to find that appealing, Evie was not one of them. However, there would be no doubt in anyone’s mind that their marriage had been thoroughly consummated.


Her stomach gave a nervous leap at the thought. In her dreams she had envisioned marrying a kind and sensitive man, who might be just a little boyish. He would never mock her for her stammering. He would be loving and gentle with her.


Sebastian, Lord St. Vincent, was the complete opposite of her dream lover. There was nothing kind, sensitive, or remotely boyish about him. He was a predator who undoubtedly liked to toy with his prey before killing it. Staring at the empty chair where he had sat, Evie thought of how St. Vincent had looked in the firelight. He was tall and lean, his body a perfect frame for elegantly simple clothes that provided a minimum of distraction from his tawny handsomeness. His hair, the antique gold of a medieval icon, was thick and slightly curly, with streaks of pale amber caught in the rich locks. His pale blue eyes glittered like rare diamonds from the necklace of an ancient empress. Beautiful eyes that showed no emotion when he smiled. The smile itself was enough to steal the breath from one’s body…the sensuous, cynical mouth, the flash of white teeth…Oh, St. Vincent was a dazzling man. And well he knew it.


Oddly, however, Evie was not afraid of him. St. Vincent was far too clever to rely on physical violence when a few well-chosen words would skewer someone with a minimum of fuss. What Evie feared far more was the simpleminded brutishness of Uncle Peregrine, not to mention the vicious hands of Aunt Florence, who was fond of delivering stinging slaps and nasty pinches.


Never again, Evie vowed, brushing absently at the smudges on her gown where accumulated grime from the drainpipe had left black streaks. She was tempted to change into the clean gown that she had packed in her valise, which she had left in the entrance hall. However, the rigors of traveling would soon make anything she wore so dusty and rumpled that there was hardly any point in changing clothes.


A sound from the doorway caught her attention. She looked up to see a plump housemaid, who asked rather diffidently if she wanted to freshen up in one of the guest rooms. Thinking ruefully that the girl seemed entirely too accustomed to the presence of an unaccompanied woman in the house, Evie allowed the maid to show her to a small upstairs room. The room, like the other parts of the house she had so far seen, was handsomely furnished and well kept. Its walls were covered in a light-colored paper adorned with hand-painted Chinese birds and pagodas. To Evie’s pleasure, an adjoining antechamber contained a sink with spigots of running water, the handles cleverly shaped like dolphin fish, and nearby a cabinet that opened into a water closet.


After seeing to her private needs, Evie went to the sink to wash her hands and face, and drank thirstily from a silver cup. She went to the bedroom to search for a comb or brush. Finding none, she smoothed her hands over the pinned-up mass of her hair.


There was no sound, nothing to warn her of anyone’s presence, but Evie felt a sudden ripple of awareness. She turned with a start. St. Vincent was standing just inside the room, his posture relaxed, his head slightly tilted as he watched her. A peculiar sensation passed through her, a gentle heat like light passing through water, and suddenly she felt weak all over. She was very tired, she realized. And the thought of all that awaited her…the journey to Scotland, the hasty wedding, the consummation afterward…was exhausting. She squared her shoulders and began to move forward, but as she did so, a rain of blinding sparks fell over her vision, and she paused and swayed heavily.


Shaking her head to clear her eyes, Evie slowly became aware that St. Vincent was standing with her, his hands gripping her elbows. She had never been this close to him before…her senses were swiftly imprinted with the smell and feel of him…the subtle touch of expensive cologne, and clean skin covered with layers of fine linen and wool-blended broadcloth. He radiated health and virility. Sharply unnerved, Evie blinked up into his face, which was much farther above hers than she would have expected. She was surprised by the realization of how large he was—his size wasn’t appreciable until one stood very close.


“When was the last time you ate?” he asked.


“Yesterday m-morning…I think—”


One of his tawny brows lifted. “Don’t say the family was starving you?” He glanced heavenward as she nodded. “This becomes more maudlin by the moment. I’ll have the cook pack a basket of sandwiches. Take my arm, and I’ll help you downstairs.”


“I don’t need help, th-thank you—”


“Take my arm,” he repeated in a pleasant voice that was underlaid with iron. “I won’t let you fall and break your neck before we even reach the carriage. Available heiresses are difficult to come by. I’d have a devil of a time replacing you.”


Evie must have been more unsteady than she had thought, for as they walked together to the staircase, she was glad of his support. Sometime during their descent St. Vincent slid his arm behind her back and took her free hand, guiding her carefully down the rest of the steps. There were a few light bruises on his knuckles—remnants of the fight with Lord Westcliff. Thinking of how this pampered aristocrat would fare in a physical confrontation with her hulking uncle Peregrine, Evie shivered a little, and wished that they were already at Gretna Green.


 


Feeling the tremor, St. Vincent tightened his arm around her as they reached the last step. “Are you cold?” he asked, “or is it nerves?”


“I w-want to be away from London,” she replied, “before my relations find me.”


“Is there any reason for them to suspect that you’ve come to me?”


“Oh n-no,” she said. “No one would ever believe I could be so demented.”


Had she not already been somewhat light-headed, his brilliant grin would have made her so. “It’s a good thing my vanity is so well developed. Otherwise you’d have demolished it by now.”


“I’m certain you already have many women to f-fortify your vanity. You don’t need one more.”


“I always need one more, darling. That’s my problem.”


He took her back to the library, where she sat before the fire for a few more minutes. Just as she began to doze in the chair, St. Vincent returned to take her outside. Groggily she went with him to a gleaming black-lacquered carriage in front of the house, and St. Vincent handed her inside the vehicle deftly. The plush cream-colored velvet upholstery inside was supremely impractical but magnificent, glowing in the soft light of a tiny carriage lamp. Evie experienced an unfamiliar sense of well-being as she settled back against a silk-fringed cushion. Her mother’s family lived according to a narrow set of rules governing good taste, and they distrusted anything that smacked of excess. For St. Vincent, however, she suspected that excess was commonplace, especially when it came to matters of bodily comfort.


A basket made of thin woven strips of leather had been set on the floor. Searching it tentatively, Evie found several napkin-wrapped sandwiches made of thick slices of buttermilk bread and filled with thin-sliced meats and cheeses. The scent of the smoked meat aroused a sudden overwhelming hunger, and she ate two of the sandwiches in rapid succession, nearly choking with ravenous eagerness.


Entering the carriage, St. Vincent folded his long, lean body into the opposite seat. He smiled slightly at the sight of Evie finishing the last few crumbs of a sandwich. “Feeling better?”


“Yes, thank you.”


St. Vincent opened the door of a compartment that had been cleverly built into the inner wall of the carriage and extracted a small crystal glass and a bottle of white wine that had been placed there by a servant. He filled the glass and gave it to her. After a cautious sip of the sweet, ice-cold vintage, Evie drank thirstily. Young women were seldom allowed to have full-strength wine…it was usually heavily watered. Finishing the glass, she barely had time to wish for another before it was replenished. The carriage started with a gentle lurch, and the edge of Evie’s teeth clicked lightly against the rim of the glass as the vehicle jostled along the street. Fearing that she might spill the wine on the cream velvet upholstery, she took a deep swallow, and heard St. Vincent’s quiet laugh.


“Drink slowly, pet. We’ve a long journey ahead of us.” Relaxing back against the cushions, he looked like an idle pasha in one of the torrid novels that Daisy Bowman adored. “Tell me, what would you have done had I not agreed to your proposition? Where would you have gone?”


“I suppose I would have gone to st-st-stay with Annabelle and Mr. Hunt.” Fleeing to Lillian and Lord Westcliff had not been an option, as they were on their month-long honeymoon. And it would have been futile to approach the Bowmans…although Daisy would have argued passionately in her favor, her parents would have wanted nothing to do with the situation.


“Why wasn’t that your first choice?”


Evie frowned. “It would have been difficult, if not impossible, for the Hunts to keep my uncles from taking me back. I am far s-safer as your wife than as someone else’s house guest.” The wine made her pleasantly dizzy, and she sank lower in her seat.


Regarding her thoughtfully, St.Vincent leaned down to remove her shoes. “You’ll be more comfortable without these,” he said. “For God’s sake, don’t shy away. I’m not going to molest you in the carriage.” Untying the laces, he continued in a silken tone, “And if I were so inclined it’s of little consequence, since we’re going to be married soon.” He grinned as she jerked her stocking-clad foot away from him, and he reached for the other.


Allowing him to remove her remaining shoe, Evie forced herself to relax, though the brush of his fingers against her ankle sent a strange hot ripple through her.


“You might loosen your corset strings,” he advised. “It will make your journey more pleasant.”


“I’m not wearing a c-corset,” she said without looking at him.


“You aren’t? My God.” His gaze slid over her with expert assessment. “What a happily proportioned wench you are.”


“I don’t like that word.”


“Wench? Forgive me…a force of habit. I always treat ladies like wenches, and wenches like ladies.”


“And that approach is successful for you?” Evie asked skeptically.


“Oh yes,” he replied with such cheerful arrogance that she couldn’t help smiling.


“You’re a dr-dreadful man.”


“True. But it’s a fact of life that dreadful people usually end up getting far better than they deserve. Whereas nice ones, such as you…” He gestured to Evie and her surroundings, as if her current situation was a perfect case in point.


“Perhaps I’m not as n-n-nice as you might think.”


“One can only hope.” His light, glittering eyes narrowed thoughtfully. Evie noticed that his lashes, indecently long for a man, were several shades darker than his hair. Despite his size and broad-shouldered build, there was a feline quality about him…he was like a lazy but potentially deadly tiger. “What is the nature of your father’s illness?” he asked. “I’ve heard rumors, but nothing of a certainty.”


“He has consumption,” Evie murmured. “He was diagnosed with it six months ago—I haven’t seen him since. It’s the l-longest period I’ve ever gone without visiting him. The Maybricks used to allow me to go to the club to see him, as they saw no harm in it. But last year Aunt Florence decided that my chances of finding a husband were being harmed by my association with my father, and therefore I should distance myself from him. They want me to pretend he doesn’t exist.”


“How surprising,” he murmured sardonically, and crossed his legs. “Why the sudden passion to hover over his deathbed? Want to ensure your place in his will, do you?”


Ignoring the hint of malice that was embedded in his question, Evie thought over her reply, and spoke coolly. “When I was a little girl, I was allowed to see him often. We were close. He was—and is—the only man who has ever cared for me. I love him. And I don’t want him to die alone. You may m-mock me for it, if it amuses you. I don’t care. Your opinion means nothing to me.”


“Easy, pet.” His voice was laced with soft amusement. “I detect evidence of a temper, which I’ve no doubt you inherited from the old man. I’ve seen his eyes flash just that way when his dander is up over some trifle.”


“You know my father?” she asked with surprise.


“Of course. All men of pleasure have been to Jenner’s for one kind of stimulation or another. Your father is a decent fellow, for all that he’s as stable as a tinderbox. I can’t help but ask—how in God’s name did a Maybrick marry a cockney?”


“I think that, among other things, my mother must have regarded him as a means of escaping her family.”


“Just as in our situation,” St. Vincent commented blandly. “There’s a certain symmetry in that, isn’t there?”


“I h-hope the symmetry ends there,” Evie replied. “Because I was conceived not long after they were married, and then my mother died in childbirth.”


“I won’t make you belly-full, if you don’t wish it,” he said agreeably. “It’s easy enough to avoid pregnancy…sheaths, sponges, douches, not to mention the most clever little silver charms that one can—” He stopped at her expression, and laughed suddenly. “My God, your eyes are like saucers. Have I alarmed you? Don’t tell me that you’ve never heard of such things from your married friends.”


Evie shook her head slowly. Although Annabelle Hunt was, on occasion, willing to explain some of the mysteries of the marital relationship, she had certainly never mentioned any devices to prevent pregnancy. “I doubt they’ve ever heard of them either,” she said, and he laughed again.


“I’ll be more than willing to enlighten you when we finally reach Scotland.” His lips curved in the smile that the Bowman sisters had once found so utterly charming…but they must have missed the calculating gleam in his eyes. “My love, have you considered the possibility that you might enjoy our consummation sufficiently to want it more than once?”


How easily endearments seem to trip from his tongue. “No,” Evie said firmly. “I won’t.”


“Mmm…” A sound almost like a cat’s purr left his throat. “I like a challenge.”


“I m-might enjoy going to bed with you,” Evie told him, staring at him steadily, refusing to look away even though the prolonged shared gaze made her flush with discomfort. “I rather hope I will. But that won’t change my decision. Because I know you for what you are—and I know what you’re capable of.”


“My dear…” he said almost tenderly, “you haven’t begun to learn the worst of me.”


 

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Evie Peregrine St. Vincent Uncle Uncle Brook

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