Devil in Winter (Wallflowers #3) by Lisa Kleypas

CHAPTER 1

London, 1843

As Sebastian, Lord St. Vincent, stared at the young woman who had just barged her way into his London residence, it occurred to him that he might have tried to abduct the wrong heiress last week at Stony Cross Park.

Although kidnapping had not, until recently, been on Sebastian’s long list of villainous acts, he really should have been more clever about it.

In retrospect Lillian Bowman had been a foolish choice, though at the time she had seemed the perfect solution to Sebastian’s dilemma. Her family was wealthy, whereas Sebastian was titled and in financial straits. And Lillian herself had promised to be an entertaining bed partner, with her dark-haired beauty and her fiery temperament. He should have chosen far less spirited prey. Lillian Bowman, a lively American heiress, had put up fierce resistance to his plan until she had been rescued by her fiance, Lord Westcliff.

Miss Evangeline Jenner, the lamblike creature who now stood before him, was as unlike Lillian Bowman as it was possible to be. Sebastian regarded her with veiled contempt, pondering what he knew of her. Evangeline was the only child of Ivo Jenner, the notorious London gambling club owner, and a mother who had run off with him—only to quickly realize her mistake. Though Evangeline’s mother had come from decent lineage, her father was little better than gutter scum. Despite the inglorious pedigree, Evangeline might have made a decent enough match if not for her crippling shyness, which resulted in a torturous stammer.

Sebastian had heard men say grimly that they would wear a hair shirt until their skin was bloody rather than attempt a conversation with her. Naturally Sebastian had done his utmost to avoid her whenever possible. That had not been difficult. The timid Miss Jenner was wont to hide in corners. They had never actually spoken directly—a circumstance that had appeared to suit both of them quite well.

But there was no avoiding her now. For some reason Miss Jenner had seen fit to come uninvited to Sebastian’s home at a scandalously late hour. To make the situation even more compromising, she was unaccompanied—and spending more than a half minute alone with Sebastian was sufficient to ruin any girl. He was debauched, amoral, and perversely proud of it. He excelled at his chosen occupation—that of degenerate seducer—and he had set a standard few rakes could aspire to.

Relaxing in his chair, Sebastian watched with deceptive idleness as Evangeline Jenner approached. The library room was dark except for a small fire in the hearth, its flickering light playing gently over the young woman’s face. She didn’t look to be more than twenty, her complexion fresh, her eyes filled with the kind of innocence that never failed to arouse his disdain. Sebastian had never valued or admired innocence.

Though the gentlemanly thing would have been for him to rise from his chair, there seemed little point in making polite gestures under the circumstances. Instead, he motioned to the other chair beside the hearth with a negligent wave of his hand.

“Have a seat if you like,” he said. “Though I shouldn’t plan to stay long if I were you. I’m easily bored, and your reputation is hardly that of a scintillating conversationalist.”

Evangeline didn’t flinch at his rudeness. Sebastian couldn’t help but wonder what kind of upbringing had inured her so thoroughly to insult, when any other girl would have flushed or burst into tears. Either she was a pea wit, or she had remarkable nerve.

Removing her cloak, Evangeline draped it over one arm of the velvet-upholstered chair, and sat without grace or artifice. Wallflower, Sebastian thought, recalling that she was friends not only with Lillian Bowman, but also with Lillian’s younger sister, Daisy, and with Annabelle Hunt. The group of four young women had sat at the side of numerous balls and soirees all last season, a band of perpetual wallflowers. However, it seemed that their bad luck had changed, for Annabelle had finally managed to catch a husband, and Lillian had just brought Lord Westcliff up to scratch. Sebastian doubted that their good fortune would extend to this bumbling creature.

Though he was tempted to demand her purpose in visiting him, Sebastian feared that might set off a round of prolonged stammering that would torment them both. He waited with forced patience, while Evangeline appeared to consider what she was about to say. As the silence drew out, Sebastian watched her in the gamboling firelight, and realized with some surprise that she was attractive. He had never really looked at her directly, had only received the impression of a frowsy red-haired girl with bad posture. But she was lovely.

As Sebastian stared at her, he became aware of a slight tension building in his muscles, tiny hairs rising on the back of his neck. He remained relaxed in his chair, though the tips of his fingers made slight depressions in the soft-napped velvet upholstery. He found it odd that he had never noticed her, when there was a great deal worth noticing. Her hair, the brightest shade of red he had ever seen, seemed to feed on the firelight, glowing with incandescent heat. The slender wings of her brows and the heavy fringe of her lashes were a darker shade of auburn, while her skin was that of a true redhead, fair and a bit freckled on the nose and cheeks. Sebastian was amused by the festive scattering of little gold flecks, sprinkled as if by the whim of a friendly fairy. She had unfashionably full lips that were colored a natural rose, and large, round blue eyes…pretty but emotionless eyes, like those of a wax doll.

“I r-received word that my friend Miss Bowman is now Lady Westcliff,” Evangeline remarked in a careful manner. “She and the earl went on to Gr-Gretna Green after he…dispatched you.”

“‘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.

“Not to look a gift horse in the mouth,” Sebastian said casually, “but how close is your father to dying? Some people linger for years on their deathbeds. Very bad form, I’ve always thought, to keep people waiting.”

“You won’t have to wait for long,” came her brittle reply. “I’ve been told he’ll die in a fortnight, perhaps.”

“What guarantee do I have that you won’t change your mind before we reach Gretna Green? You know what kind of man I am, Miss Jenner. Need I remind you that I tried to abduct and ravish one of your friends last week?”

Evangeline’s gaze shot to his. Unlike his own eyes, which were a pale shade of blue, hers were dark sapphire. “Did you try to rape Lillian?” she asked tautly.

“I threatened to.”

“Would you have carried out your threat?”

“I don’t know. I never have before, but as you said, I am desperate. And while we’re on the subject…are you proposing a marriage of convenience, or are we to sleep together on occasion?”

Evangeline ignored the question, persisting, “Would you have f-forced yourself on her, or not?”

Sebastian stared at her with patent mockery. “If I say no, Miss Jenner, how would you know if I were lying or not? No. I would not have raped her. Is that the answer you want? Believe it, then, if it makes you feel safer. Now as for my question…”

“I will sl-sleep with you once,” she said, “to make the marriage legal. Never again after that.”

“Lovely,” he murmured. “I rarely like to bed a woman more than once. A crashing bore, after the novelty is gone. Besides, I would never be so bourgeois as to lust after my own wife. It implies that one hasn’t the means to keep a mistress. Of course, there is the issue of providing me with an heir…but as long as you’re discreet, I don’t expect I’ll give a damn whose child it is.”

She didn’t even blink. “I will want a p-portion of the inheritance to be set aside for me in a trust. A generous one. The interest will be mine alone, and I will spend it as I see fit—without answering to you for my actions.”

Sebastian comprehended that she was not dull-witted by any means, though the stammer would cause many to assume otherwise. She was accustomed to being underestimated, ignored, overlooked…and he sensed that she would turn it to her advantage whenever possible. That interested him.

“I’d be a fool to trust you,” he said. “You could back out of our agreement at any moment. And you’d be an even greater one to trust me. Because once we’re married, I could play far greater hell with you than your mother’s family ever dreamed of doing.”

“I would r-rather have it be from someone I chose,” she returned grimly. “Better you than Eustace.”

Sebastian grinned at that. “That doesn’t say much for Eustace.”

She did not return his smile, only slumped a little in her chair, as if a great tension had left her, and stared at him with dogged resignation. Their gazes held, and Sebastian experienced a strange shock of awareness that went from his head to his toes.

It was nothing new for him to be easily aroused by a woman. He had long ago realized that he was a more physical man than most, and that some women set off sparks in him, ignited his sensuality, to an unusual degree. For some reason this awkward, stammering girl was one of them. He wanted to bed her.

Visions darted from his seething imagination, of her body, the limbs and curves and skin he had not yet seen, the swell of her bottom as he cupped it in his hands. He wanted the scent of her in his nostrils, and on his own skin…the drag of her long hair over his throat and chest…He wanted to do unspeakable things with her mouth, and with his own.