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Dreaming of You: Chapter 3


Lily, Lady Raiford, leaned over him, her dark eyes vibrant with concern. “Why didn’t you tell me you’d been hurt?”

“It’s not that bad.” Although he wore an expression of annoyance, he accepted the little attentions she gave him; her soft ducking, the touch of her fingertips on his wound. Their relationship was that of amicable, bickering friends. They rarely saw each other alone, for Lily’s husband, the earl of Raiford, possessed a jealous nature. “You’d better leave before Raiford finds us together,” Derek muttered. “I’m in no mood for a duel today.”

Lily grinned and settled back in her chair. “Alex trusts me,” she said virtuously. “Besides, he knows I’m far too busy with the children to have an affair.” The brief smile faded. “Worthy sent me a note this morning, saying you had been injured. Knowing his gift for understatement, I went mad with worry. It could have been a scratch or a fatal wound, or anything in between. I had to see for myself. Oh, your poor face,” Her expression hardened, and for a moment her exquisite beauty was obscured by fury. “Who did this to you?”

He shook off the hand she had placed on his arm. “The odds are on Joyce.”

“Lady Ashby?” Lily’s velvet-brown eyes widened, and she spoke impulsively. “Why in God’s name?…Derek, tell me you weren’t having an affair with her! Tell me you weren’t like all the other poor rutting fools who were so entranced by that false yellow hair and lip-puckering and breast-jiggling that you fell right into her greedy clutches. No, don’t say anything, I can see that you were yet another willing victim.” She scowled and said acidly, “It’s written plainly across your face.”

The only reason she dared to speak to him so impudently was the close, enduring friendship they shared. Even so, she was treading dangerously close to the limits. Derek shoved a pillow at her, much in the manner of a bickering sibling. “Get out of here, coldhearted bitch—”

She dodged the pillow. “How could you have an affair with Lady Ashby when you know I despise her so?”

His mouth curved with a taunting smile. “You’re jealous.”

Lily gave an exasperated sigh. “We’re far beyond that, and you know it. I adore my husband, I belong to him completely—and he’s the closest thing to a friend you have. Both of my children refer to you as ‘uncle’—”

“All very cozy,” he jeered.

“There was never anything between you and me. When I turned to you for help all those years ago, you pushed me into Alex’s arms, for which I am profoundly grateful.”

“You should be,” he assured her.

Suddenly the tension between them dissolved, and they exchanged a grin. “Your taste in women is abominable,” Lily said softly. She picked up the discarded pillows and placed them behind his head.

Derek leaned back and regarded her through slitted eyes. “Your style of nursing could kill a man.” Gingerly he touched his stitches, which had begun to pull. Although he didn’t admit it out loud, he knew she was right. She was the only decent woman he had ever associated with. He had loved Lily in his own way, but not enough to take the risk he knew he would never be ready for. He wasn’t fit to be a husband or father. He had only the vaguest understanding of the word “family.” Permanence, responsibility, commitment, the things Lily needed…those had never been part of his world. All he could be certain of were the material riches he had shored up in staggering amounts. If a place in heaven could be obtained with money, he would have cornered the market on eternity.

He watched Lily steadily, his expression closed. With her dark gypsy curls restrained in an intricate plait, and her slender form clad in an elegant gown, one would never guess that she had once been an outcast, just as Derek was. That had been the bond between them, the foundation for shared secrets and memories. Since her marriage Lily had graduated to the privileged society Derek was permitted to view only from the fringes. Aristocratic lords were seldom inclined to invite him to their estates, but their blue-blooded wives were more than eager to have him in their beds. For Derek it was a pleasurable form of revenge, no less because it exasperated Lily.

“Tell me what happened with Lady Ashby,” she urged.

“I broke it off with her a week ago.” Derek smiled grimly as he remembered Joyce’s snarling fury. “She didn’t take it well. My guess is that she hired a pair of slashers to even the score.”

“How do you know someone else wasn’t behind it? Ivo Jenner, for example. He’s always playing nasty tricks—”

“No. The bastards who jumped me last night went straight for the face.” Ruefully he sat up and fingered the row of stitches. “A woman’s brand of revenge, I’d say.”

“You mean if Lady Ashby couldn’t have you, she wanted to make certain no one else would want you?” Lily looked stricken. “Disgusting, vicious—and exactly what one would expect of a woman like her. Why were you involved with her? Has your life become so stale and dull that you simply couldn’t resist her aristocratic charms?”

“Yes,” Derek sneered.

“For years I’ve seen you hop from bed to bed. The more elite and snobbish they are, the more you want them…and why? Just to show the world that you can have the best, most sought-after females. Men like you regard women only as trophies, and it infuriates me!”

“From now on I’ll hump all the homely, unwanted ones. Will that please you?”

Lily’s small hands seized one of his, and she hung on in spite of his efforts to disengage her. “I’ll tell you what will please me,” she said earnestly. “It has broken my heart to watch you become so world-weary and cynical. I want you to find a woman, Derek. A nice, unattached one—not one of your usual debauched sophisticates. I’m not suggesting marriage, since you’re so repelled by the idea. But at least take a mistress who’ll bring a measure of peace to your life!”

He smiled derisively. “That’s not why a man keeps a woman.”

“Isn’t it? I could name a half-dozen men whose mistresses are far more plain and matronly than their wives. A mistress is valued for the quality of companionship she provides, not the vulgar tricks she might know in bed.”

“How do you know so much about it?”

Lily shrugged. “I’ve heard the fellows talking during hunts, and at the club, and over their after-dinner port. Most of the time they forget I’m there.”

“Raiford should have put a stop to your hunting years ago.”

“Alex is proud of my hunting,” she replied pertly. “Stop trying to change the subject. What you need is a mistress, Derek.”

He laughed, deliberately reverting to the thick accent he had worked so hard to overcome. “I gets all the tail I wants an’ then some, lovey.”

She frowned at him. “I said ‘mistress,’ Derek, not your usual parade of lightskirts. I’m suggesting you find someone who would be a companion. Haven’t you ever considered spending all your nights with the same woman? Oh, don’t make a face! I think you should find a nice young widow from the country, or a lonely spinster who would be grateful for your protection. If you like, I’ll make a list—”

“I’ll choose my own women,” he said coldly. “God knows what kind of old crone you’d pick for me.”

“Anyone I chose would easily surpass Lady Ashby!” She let go of his hand and sighed. “I’d better leave. It will harm my reputation if I stay any longer in your apartments—especially considering your fascination for married women.”

“I didn’t ask you to come,” Derek retorted. But as she rose to leave, he snatched her hand and pressed a kiss to the back of it.

“Will you do what I ask?” Lily pleaded, squeezing his fingers.

“I’ll consider it.” His tone was so obliging that Lily knew he was lying.

Nevertheless she smiled and smoothed his black hair affectionately. “That’s better. Someday you’ll thank me for my sage advice.” She began to leave, then paused at the doorway and looked back at him questioningly. “Derek…before I came up here this afternoon I caught a glimpse of the most unusual little person wandering about in the back rooms with the staff. She was asking all manner of questions and writing things down.”

Derek settled back against the pillows, crossing his legs negligently. “She’s a novelist.”

“Really. Has she been published?”

“She wrote that Mathilda book.”

“That’s S. R. Fielding?” Lily laughed in surprised amazement, coming back into the room. “The famous recluse? How in heaven’s name did you manage to bring her here?”

“She brought me here last night—after rescuing me from the slashers.”

Lily’s jaw dropped. “You’re joking.”

Suddenly he grinned at her astonishment. “Pulled out a pistol and shot one of them.”

There was a moment of frozen silence, and then Lily began to howl with laughter. “You must introduce us,” she begged. “If only she would consent to attend one of my soirées, or at least a salon discussion. You must help me persuade her to accept an invitation!”

“Just tell her you’re Lawless Lily. She’s here to research a book.”

“How fascinating.” Lily began to pace busily. “A woman who writes about whores, shoots criminals in the rookery, frequents gambling clubs, and is no doubt doing her best to dig up your dirty secrets. We’ll be great friends, I think. What is she like? Old or young? Friendly or shy?”

Derek shrugged. “She’s younger than you, about ten years. Quiet, spinsterish…” He paused as he remembered the discreet way Sara had glanced at him from beneath the lace frills of her cap, the little startled jump she had given as she realized she had been standing close to him. “Shy with men,” he added.

Lily, who had always managed the opposite sex quite adroitly, shook her head. “I don’t see why. Men are such straightforward, simpleminded creatures.”

“Miss Fielding is from a village in the country. A place called Greenwood Corners. She knows nothing about men or the city. She wanders through the worst rookeries in London—to her, all problems are solved with ‘please’ and ‘thank you.’ Doesn’t think anyone would rob or rape her…why, it wouldn’t be polite. Do you know why I let her come to the club and poke her nose around here? Because if I didn’t, she’d be visiting every gambling hell in the city and rubbing elbows with every thief an’ murdering bastard what’s ever shook an elbow at green felt!” He began to warm to the subject, the casual note disappearing from his voice. “And she’s almost engaged. Hell knows what kind of man would let her traipse through London alone, unless it’s his plan to get rid of her! The bloody idiot!—I’d like to tell ’im what ’appens to women who walks in the city with frigging pistols in their readers—”

“Derek.” There was an odd smile on her face. “Your cockney is showing.”

He closed his mouth abruptly.

“That only happens,” Lily murmured, “when you’re considerably excited or angry about something.”

“I’m never angry.”

“Oh, of course not.” She returned to him, skewering him with a level gaze.

Derek didn’t like her expression, the superior look women wore when they felt they knew something a man was too stupid to understand. “I thought you were leaving,” he said gruffly.

“I was, until you began making speeches about our Miss Fielding. What does she think of you? Appalled by your lurid past, as I would imagine?”

“She’s in raptures over it.”

“I suppose you’ve done everything possible to be offensive.”

“She likes it. She calls me ‘source material.’ ”

“Well, you’ve been called worse things. Especially by me.” Lily regarded his slashed face with genuine dismay, “If only she could see you when you’re handsome. How long before the stitches are removed?”

“She’s not my preferred style,” he said flatly.

“It’s time I told you something, Derek…I’ve never been particularly impressed by your ‘preferred style.’ ”

Derek’s lips twitched with amusement “A fine romp I’d have with her in bed. She’d lie there and take notes the whole time. She…” He stopped as an image swept through his mind…Sara Fielding’s pale, naked body beneath his, her arms twined gently around his neck, her soft breath rushing against his skin. The idea was disturbingly erotic. Frowning, he forced himself to concentrate on what Lily was saying.

“…it would be far safer than the kind of liaison you had with Lady Ashby! You’ll be fortunate if your looks aren’t permanently ruined from this latest episode. Well, I’m going to make Lady Ashby regret this, mark my words—”

“Lily.” Something in his voice hushed her at once. “Let the matter rest. You’re to do nothing about Joyce.”

Lily was made uncomfortable by Derek’s sudden cool intensity. His was the kind of glance she had seen exchanged between men with dueling pistols in their hands, and between players who had staked their fortunes on the turn of a card. The men who won were always those who didn’t seem to care. She both admired and feared such ruthless nerve. “But Derek,” she protested, “you can’t let her get away with this. She must be made to pay for it—”

“You heard what I said,” Derek had never allowed anyone to settle his debts for him. He would confront Joyce in his own way and his own time. For now he chose to do nothing.

Lily bit her lip and nodded, wanting to say more but knowing the danger of provoking him. He would allow her friendly teasing and bullying up to a point, but there was a line she would never dare to cross. “All right,” she murmured.

After holding her gaze for a moment, Derek relented. “Give us a kiss, then.”

Obediently she pecked his cheek and gave him a subdued smile. “Come to visit soon. The children will be fascinated by your stitches, especially Jamie.”

He touched his forehead in a mock salute. “I’ll tell ’em I was attacked by pirates.”

“Derek,” she said contritely, “forgive me for interfering. It’s just that I’m concerned for you. You’ve had such a difficult life. You’ve lived through horrors that most people, including me, will never understand.”

“That was in the past.” He grinned and said in his old, boastful manner, “Now I’m one of the richest men in England.”

“Yes, you have more money than anyone could spend in a lifetime. But it hasn’t brought what you expected, has it?”

Derek’s smile vanished. He had never confided in her the nameless hunger that gnawed at him, the emptiness that he would fill if only he could identify the craving. How had she guessed? Was it something she could see in his eyes, or hear in his voice?

Faced with his stony silence, Lily sighed and touched a lock of black hair that lay on his forehead. “Oh, Derek.” Quietly she left the room while he stared after her.

Over the course of the next few days Sara was allowed to wander freely about Craven’s, as long as she avoided the main rooms the patrons frequented. She was pleased by the gathering pile of notes she had amassed, which would allow her to write a detailed description of a gentleman’s club. Soon she might extend her research to a few of the gaming hells in the outlying areas, but for now there was ample work to be done here.

She spent every morning sitting in the kitchen, the largest and busiest room in the club. All of Craven’s employees passed through the kitchen to take their meals and socialize, from the croupiers who ran the tables to the house wenches emerging after long nights of arduous activity.

The kitchen was well-stocked and meticulously organized. Three rows of assorted pots and pans hung over the heavy central worktable. The walls were lined with barrels of flour, sugar, and other supplies. A variety of sauces simmered on the long black stoves, sending a bewildering but delectable mixture of fragrances through the air. All of it was the domain of the chef, Monsieur Labarge. Years ago Mr. Craven had hired Labarge and his entire staff from an exclusive Parisian restaurant and had them all transferred to London. In return for their staggeringly high salaries, they provided the best cuisine in the city: a luscious cold buffet kept in constant supply for the club members and exquisitely prepared meals that were served in the dining rooms.

Monsieur Labarge was temperamental, but he was a genius. As far as Sara could tell, even Mr. Craven took care not to provoke him. Guessing at the chef’s weakness for flattery, Sara made a special effort to praise his creations, until the ends of his mustache fairly quivered with pride. Now he insisted on serving her his specialties, many of them renamed in honor of Mathilda.

The kitchen was filled with constant activity; boys and scullery maids occupied with menial tasks of washing, chopping, scraping, and kneading, and servants laden with trays of food for the diners. The staff readily included Sara in their conversations as they related stories that ranged from ribald to touchingly sad. They loved to talk and watch her write down what they said. Soon they began to compete to catch her interest. The prostitutes were especially helpful, giving Sara insights about the men who visited the club in droves…and about Derek Craven in particular. Sara particularly enjoyed Tabitha’s lively chatter. Although they were quite different in temperament, outwardly they shared a striking resemblance, both of them the same size and height, with chestnut hair and blue eyes.

“I’ll tell ye about the fine lords what come ’ere,” Tabitha said, her blue eyes filled with a sly twinkle. “They likes the ruttin’ awright, but they’re the worst in the sack. Two shakes of a tail an’ it’s done.” The other house wenches laughed in agreement. The four of them gathered around Sara at one of the wooden tables, while kitchen boys brought plates of delicate omelettes à la Mathilda and crusty rolls. “That an’ the fine victuals…that’s what draws ’em ’ere. But the cards is what makes ’em stay.”

“How many men are you expected to consort with each night?” Sara asked in a businesslike tone, her pencil poised over her notebook.

“Whatewer we feels like. Sometimes we lets ’em ’ave a tiddle downstairs in the card rooms, an’ then—”

“Tiddle?” Sara repeated, perplexed, and the prostitutes burst out laughing.

“Just a little touch an’ feel,” explained Violet, a short, robust blond. “An’ if they like the goods, the usher takes ’em upstairs an’ we does ’em over.”

“Newer Mr. Craven, though,” Tabitha said. “ ’E newer asks any ow us to ’is bed.”

“ ’E gets it from ’igh-kick women,” Violet commented sagely. “Countesses an’ duchesses an’ such.”

At this mention of Mr. Craven’s sexual preferences, Sara felt her blush heighten to scarlet. The more she learned about him, the more of a puzzle he presented. His inner qualities were concealed by a smooth diamond-hard façade. He was a showman, first and foremost. Skillfully he provided a surfeit of elegant decadence that satisfied not only the aristocratic belle monde but also the shadowy world of libertines and courtesans called the demimonde. His courtesy to his social superiors was always slightly overdone, crossing the threshold of politeness into subtle mockery. Sara was certain he respected very few of them, for he was familiar with their darkest secrets. Through his own network of spies and informants, he knew about the lovers they took, the contents of their wills, even the marks their sons made at Eton and Harrow, and what they stood to inherit.

It seemed that few men felt comfortable enough to ask about the dreadful slash on his face. Members of the royal family; Wellington, the famed military commander; and the foreign diplomats who loved to lounge at the hazard-table all possessed an air of quiet unease when Craven was present. When he made a joke, they laughed a little too jovially. When he made a suggestion, it was usually followed with alacrity. Apparently no one cared to risk earning his displeasure.

As Craven had claimed the first night she had met him, he was never angry. Sara had observed that his mood could range from cold silence to biting sarcasm, but he never shouted or lost his self-control. He was a figure of mystery; arrogant, self-mocking, sociable and yet intensely private. Underneath his most congenial smiles lurked an ever-present shadow of bitterness.

Sara’s attention was drawn back to the conversation as Tabitha mused aloud over Craven’s preference for aristocratic ladies. “Won’t touch anyone lower than a baroness.” She laughed heartily at the sight of Sara’s curiosity. “Ye should see ’em at the assembly balls, the ’ighborn bitches. Those fine ladies lust after our Mr. Craven, they do. An’ why not? ’E’s a good, solid man, not like their soft, lazy ’usbands what cares for cards an’ drink more than women.” She lowered her voice conspiratorially. “Built like a bull ’e is, an’ just where it counts.”

“ ’Ow does ye know?” Violet asked suspiciously.

“I’m friends wiv Lady Fair’urst’s maid Betty,” came Tabitha’s smug reply. “She told me once she walked in on the two of ’em by accident, ruttin’ in broad daylight while Lord Fair’urst was gone to Shropshire.”

The pencil dropped from Sara’s lax fingers, and she ducked under the table to pick it up. She could feel her pulse racing. It was one thing to listen in detachment when a stranger was being discussed, but how could she ever face Mr. Craven again? Mortified, fascinated, she emerged from beneath the table.

“Newer say!” one of the women exclaimed. “What did they do?”

“Lady Fair’urst threw a royal fit. Mr. Craven just laughed an’ said to close the door.”

The whores giggled merrily. “What’s more,” Tabitha continued, “you can always tell what a man’s got by the size ow ’is nose—an Mr. Craven’s got a nice long one.”

“It’s not the nose,” Violet said dismissively. “ ’Tis the size ow the feet.”

With the exception of Sara, they all cackled like a coven of amiable witches. Amid the hilarity, Tabitha leaned her head on her hand and stared at Sara as an idea occurred to her. “ ’Ere’s a plan, Miss Fielding—why don’t you bring Mathilda ’ere tomorrow to meet Mr. Craven? They’d make a grand pair.”

The other women chimed their agreement. “Aye, she’d melt ’is heart!”

“Yes, yes, do!”

“She’d wrap Mr. Craven ’round ’er little finger!”

Even Monsieur Labarge, who had been eavesdropping on the conversation, broke in impulsively. “For la belle Mathilda, I will make the finest gateau, so light it would float in the air!”

Sara smiled apologetically and lifted her shoulders in a helpless shrug. “I can’t, I’m afraid. There is no Mathilda. She…she’s only a work of fiction.”

The table was abruptly quiet. All of them stared at her with puzzled expressions. Even the kitchen boy had paused in the midst of stacking dishes.

Sara attempted to explain further. “You see, I created the character of Mathilda as the result of detailed research and discussions. She’s really a composite of many women I encountered when I—”

“I ’eard as ’ow Mathilda’s joined a convent now,” Violet interrupted, and Tabitha shook her head.

“Nay, she ’as a rich protector. I’ve a friend what saw her walking along Bond Street, just the other day. Credit at all the finest shops, ewen Madam Lafleur’s.”

“What was she wearing?” one of the women asked eagerly.

Tabitha proceeded to describe Mathilda’s lavish frock and the footman who had followed behind her. While the lively conversation continued, Sara reflected on what Tabitha had said about Mr. Craven and his affair with Lady Fairhurst. She wondered if love had been any part of his liaisons. He was a complex man, treading on the thinnest edge of respectability. No doubt it satisfied his sense of justice, carrying on affairs with the wives of aristocrats who secretly disdained him for his commonness. And it must be difficult for him to suppress a mocking smile as he counted his nightly earnings, the patrimonies he skillfully stripped from the young lords who considered themselves infinitely superior to him. It was a strange world he had created for himself. He was as apt to spend his time with the watchmen, pimps, and street urchins who were part-time employees of the club as he was with the highborn patrons. It was impossible to fit such a man into any category. Sara spent a good deal of time thinking about him, her mind filled with endless questions about who and what he was.

Sara paused in the midst of her writing in order to take a morsel from the plate of pastries Monsieur Labarge had sent up to her. The delicate layers of cake and coffee cream seemed to dissolve in her mouth. Flecks of sugar drifted to the polished mahogany in front of her, and she quickly wiped them away with her sleeve. She was sitting in one of the rooms of Craven’s private apartments, working at his large mahogany desk. The stately piece of furniture, with its innumerable compartments and small drawers, was cluttered with intriguing odds and ends; pieces of string, loose coins, dice and cribbage pins, notes and receipts. It seemed as if he ritually emptied his pockets at his desk. She wouldn’t have expected it of a man who conducted his life with such meticulous precision. As she consumed the last bite of cake, a few slips of paper piled in a corner of the desk caught her eye. Intrigued, she began to reach for the folded notes. Abruptly she stopped and scolded herself for even thinking of violating Mr. Craven’s privacy.

She bent again to her writing, carefully dipping the ivory-handled pen in a pot of ink. But she was unable to resume her train of thought. Idly she speculated on what the mysterious notes might contain. Setting down the pen, Sara stared longingly at the slips of paper, while her conscience waged a war with her curiosity. Unfortunately the latter won out. Quickly she plucked the notes from their resting place.

The first note was a list of random tasks, with Worthy’s name written across the top:

Worthy,

Riplace carpits in card rums 2 and 4

Credit to be rifused to Lords Faxton and Rapley until acownts seteld.

Have Gill sampel next brandy delivry…

Sara felt compassion as she glanced over the laboriously scrawled note. Craven’s handling of the written word was nothing short of a massacre. On the other hand, there was nothing wrong with his mathematics. On a few occasions she had observed him multiplying and dividing figures in his head with bewildering speed, easily juggling betting odds and percentages. He could watch a card game in progress, silently calculate the cards that had been played, and predict the winning hand with unfailing accuracy. He glanced over the account books and rapidly totaled columns of figures without ever reaching for a pen.

His other talent was just as extraordinary—an apparent ability to see inside peoples’ minds. He could unerringly sense a well-hidden vulnerability and skewer it with a casual remark. His alert gaze took note of every nuance in a person’s expression, in a tone of voice…It made Sara realize with some surprise that he was every bit the observer she was, that he also felt a distance between himself and the rest of the world. At least, she thought, that was one thing they had in common.

Sara picked up the second note, which was inscribed in an elegant feminine style, all pretentious loops and curls. It was an odd, abrupt message which gave her a cold sensation.

Now you wear my mark for everyone to see.

Come take your revenge if you dare.

I still want you.

—J

“Oh, my,” Sara whispered, staring at the elaborately scrawled initial. She had no doubt the reference to a “mark” meant the slash on Craven’s face. What kind of woman would pay to have a man’s face ruined? How could Craven consort with such a female? Slowly Sara put the letters back in place, not wanting to see any more. Perhaps this “J” felt a kind of twisted love for Craven that was aligned with hatred. Perhaps Craven felt the same for her.

It was difficult for Sara, who had always known love as a gentle and comforting emotion, to understand that for others it was sometimes dark, primitive, sordid. “There are so many things I don’t know,” she muttered, taking off her spectacles and rubbing her eyes. Perry had always been helpless in the face of her “moods”…He saw little reason one should be interested in anything outside Greenwood Corners. She had learned to conceal her occasional frustrations from him, or he would give her one of his lectures about being sensible.

Her thoughts were interrupted by a quiet voice from the doorway. “What are you doing in my apartments?”

Sara turned in the chair and flushed. Derek Craven stood there, an unfathomable expression on his tanned face. “I’m sorry,” she said with an appealing glance. “Usually I work at Mr. Worthy’s secretaire, but he asked if I would use your desk today, since you were gone and he needed—”

“There are other rooms you could have used.”

“Yes, but none that offered privacy, and I can’t work with distractions, and…I’ll leave now.”

“That’s not necessary.” He walked toward her. Although he was a large, powerfully built man, he moved with catlike grace. Sara lowered her head, focusing on the desk blotter. Out of the corner of her eye she saw Craven touch her discarded spectacles. “How many of these do you have?” he asked, nudging them an inch across the surface of the desk.

“Only two.”

“You leave them everywhere. I find them on bookcases, desks, edges of picture frames, wherever you happen to set them aside.”

Sara picked up the spectacles and adjusted them on her face. “I can’t seem to remember them,” she admitted. “It’s very disconcerting. I take an interest in something, and then just forget them.”

Derek’s gaze moved to the neatly formed sentences before her. “What’s this?” Deliberately he leaned over her, bracing his hands on the gleaming expanse of mahogany. Stunned, Sara shrank in the chair, while his arms formed a cage on either side of her.

“I-I’m writing about the rookery.”

Derek grinned at her overly casual tone. He knew exactly how much his nearness bothered her. Deciding to prolong her torment, he leaned over her more deeply, glancing at the tantalizing hint of fullness in her bodice and the flash of white skin above the lace at her neck. His chin nearly touched her lace cap as he read aloud from her notes. “The…city streets are…om…” He paused, concentrating on the difficult word.

Automatically Sara located the word with the tip of her finger. “Ominous,” she said. “It means haunting…sinister.” She straightened her spectacles as they slipped on her nose. “It seemed an appropriate way to describe the atmosphere of the rookery.”

“I’ll describe it better,” he said flatly. “It’s dark and it stinks.”

“That’s true enough.” Sara risked a glance over her shoulder. He was close enough that she could see the grain of black whiskers beneath his shaven skin. His exquisite clothes and the pleasant trace of sandalwood scent couldn’t conceal the brutality that simmered so close to the surface. He was a rough, masculine man. Perry Kingswood would be disdainful of him. “Why, he is nothing but a ruffian!” Perry would exclaim. “A peasant in gentleman’s attire!”

Somehow Craven seemed to read her thoughts. “Your young man in the village…Kingsfield…”

“Kingswood.”

“Why does he let you come to London alone?”

“I’m not alone. I’m staying with the Goodmans, a very respectable family—”

“You know what I’m asking,” Derek said curtly. He turned to face her, half-sitting on the edge of the desk. “You spend your time with gamblers, whores, and criminals. You should be safe with your family in Greenwood Corners.”

“Mr. Kingswood isn’t pleased with the situation,” Sara admitted. “We had words about it, in fact. But I was very stubborn.”

“Do you ever tell him about the things you do in London?”

“Mr. Kingswood knows about my research—”

“I’m not talking about your research,” he murmured, his eyes hard. “Are you going to tell him you killed a man?”

Sara blanched guiltily, feeling slightly sick as she always did when she thought of that night. She avoided his piercing gaze. “I don’t think there would be much point in telling him.”

“Oh, you don’t. Now I see what kind of wife you’ll be. Sneaking behind the poor bastard’s back to do things he doesn’t approve of—”

“It’s not like that!”

“It’s exactly like that.”

“Perry trusts me,” Sara said sharply.

“I wouldn’t trust you if I were in his place.” His mood turned caustic. “I’d keep you with me every bloody minute of the day—no, I’d have you fitted with a ball and chain—because I know that otherwise you’d be running off to do ‘research’ in the nearest dark alley with every cutthroat and pimp you can find!”

She folded her arms and regarded him with tight-lipped disapproval. “There’s no need to shout at me, Mr. Craven.”

“I’m not…” Derek’s voice faded into silence. He had been shouting, something he never did. Amazed, he rubbed his jaw and stared at her, while she returned his gaze like an inquiring little owl. Her fearless attitude provoked him beyond reason. Didn’t anyone understand how much she needed someone to look after her? She shouldn’t be allowed to wander through London by herself. She shouldn’t be here alone with him, for God’s sake. He could have ravished her ten times over by now.

As he continued to study her, he realized that beneath the cloud of frills and the spectacles, there was an attractive woman. She would be appealing if she didn’t dress like a spinster. He raised his hand to her puffy cap, his fingertip brushing an edge of lace. “Why do you always wear this thing on your head?”

Sara’s lips parted in surprise. “To keep my hair in place.”

He continued to finger the edge of lace. A curious tension seemed to fill the room. “Take it off.”

Sara could hardly find her breath for a moment. His intense green eyes remained on hers. No one had ever looked at her this way, making her hot and cold and unbearably nervous. She leapt up from the chair and backed away a few steps. “I’m afraid I don’t have time to indulge your whims, Mr. Craven. My work is finished for now. I must go. Good evening.”

She fled the room, leaving behind all her possessions, even her reticule. Derek looked at the little drawstring bag and waited for her to come back. After a minute had passed, he knew she would return for it later, when there was no chance of confronting him. He picked up the bag and sat more fully on the desk, swinging a leg nonchalantly. He loosened the silken cord and looked inside. A few pound notes…the tiny notebook and pencil…the pistol. Derek smiled wryly and delved deeper into the reticule until he found a few coins and a handkerchief. Extracting the neatly pressed square of linen, he held it to his face. He hunted for the scent of perfume or flower water, but there was none.

Lodged at the bottom of the reticule was the extra pair of spectacles. Derek examined them minutely, the round lenses, the dainty steel frame, the small curved earpieces. He squinted through them at the words she had written. After he folded the spectacles, he placed them in his coat pocket and closed the reticule. When Sara discovered the spectacles were missing, she would assume she had left them somewhere, as she often did. It was the first act of outright thievery he had committed in ten years. But he had to have them. He wanted to own a little piece of her.

Leaving the reticule as Sara had placed it on the desk, Derek jammed his hands into his pockets and began to walk with no particular destination in mind. He thought of the way Worthy had sung Sara Fielding’s praises yesterday. Not even the former Lily Lawson, with all her sparkling allure, had been able to elicit such devotion from the factotum.

“She is a lady of quality,” Worthy had said in response to one of Derek’s sarcastic barbs. “Miss Fielding treats everyone she encounters with kindness and courtesy, even the house wenches. Before she leaves the club in the evenings, she voluntarily writes letters dictated to her by some of the illiterate members of the staff, so that they might send word to their families. When she saw that the hem of Violet’s gown needed mending, she asked for a needle and knelt down on the floor to fix it. One of the maids told me yesterday that when she tripped with a pile of linen in her arms, Miss Fielding stopped to help her gather it up—”

“Maybe I should hire her,” Derek had interrupted sarcastically.

“Miss Fielding is the most gentle, tolerant woman who has ever set foot in this club. And perhaps I should take this opportunity to tell you sir, that the staff has been complaining.”

“Complaining,” Derek repeated without inflection.

Worthy nodded stiffly. “That you have not been according her the proper degree of respect.”

Derek had been dumfounded. “Who the hell is paying their salaries?”

“You, sir.”

“Then tell them I don’t hand out a bloody fortune in order to hear their opinions! And I’ll talk to their saintly Miss Fielding any damn way I want to!”

“Yes, sir.” With a barely audible sniff of disapproval, Worthy had turned on his heel and gone down the stairs.

Oh, Worthy was indeed taken with her. Everyone was. Derek had never dreamed that his territory would be so gently and thoroughly invaded—or that his employees would be such willing traitors. Sara Fielding’s mysterious charm had captivated everyone in his club. They all strove to please and accommodate her. During the hours she sat at Worthy’s desk, they tiptoed quietly through the halls as if in mortal fear of distracting her from her work. “She’s writing now,” Derek had heard one of the housemaids tell another reverently, as if some holy sacrament were being performed.

Derek hardened his jaw. “A lady of quality,” he snorted aloud. He’d had his pleasure between the thighs of women with far superior pedigrees, ladies born with blue blood and illustrious names, generations of privilege and wealth behind them.

But Worthy had been right. Privately Derek admitted that Sara Fielding was the only genuine lady he had ever met. She had none of the vices that Derek could detect so easily in others. Jealousy, greed, lust…she seemed to be above such flaws. On the other hand, he sensed the reckless edge that might someday prove her undoing. She needed someone to keep her from plunging headlong into trouble, or at least to drag her out of it. It didn’t seem likely that her hapless suitor Kingswood was up to the task.

Derek was certain that Kingswood would be slender and classically handsome in the mode of Byron. He would have a cultured voice, of course, and locks as fair as Derek’s own were dark. No doubt Kingswood was a stuffy young country squire who couldn’t understand recklessness. Eventually he would mature into a portly old gentleman who drank too much at dinner and would never let others finish their sentences. And Sara, as his loving wife, would tolerate his boorishness with a gentle smile, and save her frustrations for her private moments. When she had a problem, she would try to solve it herself to keep from bothering him. And she would be faithful to her husband. Only he would know the sight of her with unbound hair and a thin white nightgown…Only he would know the feeling of her sleeping trustingly against him. They would make love in the concealment of darkness and layers of bedclothes, their eyes closed, their movements governed by modesty and restraint. No one would ever awaken Sara Fielding’s passion, strip away her inhibitions, taunt and tease her…

Impatiently Derek raked his hands through his hair and stopped in the middle of the empty hallway. He wasn’t behaving like himself—he wasn’t thinking like himself. He felt as if he should brace himself for some cataclysmic event. The air was charged with white-hot currents. His nerve ends seemed abraded. Something was going to happen…something…and all he could do, it seemed, was wait.

“Please let me out here,” Sara called to the driver, tapping on the roof of the carriage. It was eight o’clock in the morning, her usual time to arrive at the club. Before they had pulled around to the front entrance, her interest had been caught by the sight of several loaded carts lined at the side of the building. They were different than the usual market wagons that brought deliveries of fresh produce to the kitchen.

The footman assisted her from the vehicle and inquired if it would please her to have them wait there.

“No, thank you, Shelton. I’ll enter the club through the kitchen.” Although Sara knew it was improper, she gave the driver a cheerful little wave as she walked away. He gave an imperceptible nod, although he had painstakingly explained to her yesterday that it would not do for a lady to appear familiar with the hired help.

“Ye should look down your nose all grand and haughty-like,” he had instructed sternly. “No more smiles at me an’ the footmen, miss. Ye needs be more offhandish with the servants—or what will people think of ye?” In Sara’s opinion, it hardly mattered if she behaved without the expected hauteur, since she would soon be gone from London.

The sound of voices raised in debate rang from the alley. Sara drew her cloak more closely around her throat, shivering as the cold morning air struck her face. The carts were filled with crates of wine bottles. A short, rotund man waddled back and forth, shaking his finger and talking rapidly to two of Craven’s employees. The man appeared to be a merchant defending the quality of his wares.

“I’d slit my throat before I’d water my precious vintages, and ye know it!” he barked.

Gill, an intelligent young man who had become one of Worthy’s protegés, selected three bottles at random. He opened them and examined the contents carefully. “Mr. Craven was displeased by the last delivery of brandy. It wasn’t fit to serve to our patrons.”

“That was first-rate wine I sold ye!” the merchant exclaimed.

“For some dockside tavern, perhaps. Not for Craven’s.” Gill took a small sip, swished it around his mouth, and spit it out carefully. He nodded his approval. “This is acceptable.”

“It’s the finest French brandy,” the merchant said indignantly. “How dare ye swill it like it was some stinkin’ cheap ale—”

“Mind your language,” Gill said, suddenly noticing Sara. He cast a quick grin in her direction. “There’s a lady present.”

The merchant ignored the new arrival. “I don’t care if the Queen o’ Sheba’s here, there’s no need to open them bottles—”

“There is, until I’m satisfied you haven’t watered down your liquor.”

As the two argued, Sara skirted around the side of the alley toward the kitchen entrance. Engrossed in the animated conversation, she didn’t watch where she was going. Suddenly a huge, dark shape moved near the corner of her vision, and she gasped as she bumped into a tall man hefting a crate of wine on his shoulder. “Oh—”

Automatically he steadied her with his free arm. The hard band of muscle threatened to crush her. Sara’s head fell back as she regarded the swarthy face above hers. “Forgive me, I wasn’t looking—” She stopped and frowned in bewilderment. “Mr.…Craven?”

Derek bent to set down the crate, and then he loomed over her once more. “Are you all right?”

Sara nodded jerkily. At first she hadn’t recognized him. He was always so immaculately dressed, smoothly shaven, every hair in place. Today, heavy black stubble shadowed his jaw. His broad shoulders were covered with a knit sweater and a rough coat. His wool trousers and scuffed boots had seen far better days. “Should you be exerting yourself like this?” she asked with a frown. “What about your injuries?”

“I’m fine.” Derek had found it impossible to attend to his usual business this morning; poring over account books, combing through piles of promissory notes and bank drafts. Filled with frustration, he had decided to work outside where he could be of some use. He glanced at Gill, who was engaged in the argument with the wine merchant, and then back at Sara. The collision had dislodged her white cap. A band of lace drooped lazily over her cheek. One corner of his mouth twitched with unwilling amusement. “Your hat is crooked,” he told her.

“Oh, dear.” Sara reached up to her head, pulling the frilly headgear forward.

Suddenly he laughed. “Not that way. Here, I’ll do it.”

Sara noticed that his white teeth were slightly snaggled, giving his smile the appearance of a friendly snarl. It was then that she understood why so many women had been seduced by him. His grin held a wickedly irresistible appeal. She stared at his chest as he untied the laces and positioned her cap correctly.

“Thank you,” she murmured, and tried to take the strings of the cap from his fingers.

But he didn’t let go. He held the laces at her chin, his fingers tightening. Glancing up at him in confusion, Sara saw that his smile had vanished. In a decisive motion he pulled the concealing lace from her hair and let it fall. The cap fluttered to a patch of mud and rested there limply.

Sara lifted her hand to the loose braided coil of her hair, which threatened to tumble from its pins. The chestnut locks gleamed with fiery highlights, escaping in delicate wisps around her face and throat. “Mr. Craven,” she scolded breathlessly. “I find your behavior untoward a-and offensive, not to mention—oh!” She stammered in astonishment as he reached for her spectacles and plucked them from her face. “Mr. Craven, h-how dare you…” She fumbled to retrieve them. “I…I need those…”

Derek held them out of reach as he stared at her uncovered face. This was what she had kept hidden beneath the old-maid disguise…pale, luminous skin, a mouth shaped with surprising lushness, a pert little nose, marked at the delicate bridge where the edge of her spectacles had pressed. Angel-blue eyes, pure and beguiling, surmounted by dark winged brows. She was beautiful. He could have devoured her in a few bites, like a fragrant red apple. He wanted to touch her, take her somewhere and pull her beneath him, as if he could somehow erase a lifetime of sin and shame within the sweetness of her body.

Forcing his muscles to loosen, Derek bent to scoop up the soiled puff of lace. Sara watched him in offended silence. He tried to brush off the lace cap, succeeding only in grinding the mud deeper into the pure white cloth. Finally Sara ventured to retrieve it from him. “I’m certain this will wash,” she said crisply.

She was most definitely annoyed. Derek felt a rueful grin stealing over his face. As he handed the spectacles back, his bare fingers brushed her gloved ones. Impersonal though the touch was, it caused his heart to pump with unexpected vigor. He decided to charm her back into her usual pleasant mood.

“It’s a pity to cover such beautiful hair, Miss Fielding.”

Sara received the compliment with a forbidding frown. “Mr. Craven, I am hardly eager to hear your opinions about my appearance.” She held the crumpled puff as if it were an injured pet. “Throwing my favorite cap into the mud—”

“It dropped,” he said hastily. “I didn’t throw it. I’ll buy you another.”

The frown lingered between her silky brows. “I’m not in the habit of allowing gentlemen to purchase articles of clothing for me.”

“Sorry,” he said, doing his best to look chastened.

The cold breeze gusted again, bringing with it the scent of a coming storm. Sara looked at the gray sky and wiped at an errant raindrop that had whisked against her cheek. “You’ll catch a chill,” Derek said, all solicitous concern. He found her elbow in the folds of her cloak. Before she could jerk her arm away, he ushered her down the steps of the nearest entrance, and opened the door for her. The warmth and light of the kitchen enveloped her in a comforting glow.

“What are your plans for this morning?” Derek asked.

“I am going to breakfast with Mr. Worthy. He is going to explain to me about the committee of lady patronesses that has planned the assembly ball for this evening.”

His eyes glinted dangerously. “I don’t recall giving him leave to tell you anything about my patronesses. Why do you have to know how everything works around here? Who does what, and why, and everything about the people I hire, how much frigging money I have, which side of my face do I start my shave every morning—” Breaking off with a beleaguered sigh, he drew the cloak from her shoulders. He took the bedraggled cap and handed it to a nearby kitchen maid. “Do something with this,” he said brusquely. He turned back to Sara and took her arm once more. “Come with me.”

“Where are we going?”

“I’ll show you how they’ve decorated the hazard room.”

“Thank you. That would be delightful.” She followed without hesitation. “I’m looking forward to the ball tonight. We certainly have nothing to compare in Greenwood Corners.”

“If you want to watch, you’ll get a fair view from the second-floor balcony behind the musicians.”

Sara didn’t think that would provide a very good view at all. “I don’t think I’ll be noticed if I stand in a corner of the hall—”

“No. That won’t work.”

“Then I’ll borrow a mask from someone, and come downstairs for a closer look.”

“You don’t have a suitable gown, mouse.”

Mouse…Oh, how she disliked the nickname he had bestowed on her! But he was right. Sara glanced down at her heavy plum-colored gown and flushed. “I might have something,” she said bravely.

Derek gave her a derisive glance but let her comment pass unchallenged. “Only the demimonde will attend tonight. The more debauched variety of aristocrats and foreigners, whores, actresses—”

“But those are precisely the kind of people I wish to write about!”

“You’re no match for a crowd of randy bucks. They’ll be drunk and ready for action, and they’ll assume you’re here for one reason. Unless you’re prepared to oblige them, you’ll stay upstairs where it’s safe.”

“I can take care of myself.”

“You’re not coming to the ball tonight, Miss Fielding.”

Her eyes widened. “You’re forbidding me to attend?”

“I’m advising you not to,” he murmured in a tone that would have caused Napoleon to quail.

They entered the central hazard room, and Sara temporarily abandoned their argument. She’d never seen a place decorated so extravagantly. It was like a glittering underwater kingdom, reminding her of the tales of Atlantis that had enchanted her as a child. The walls were hung with gauzy blue and green silk draperies. A painted canvas studded with seashells gave the impression of a castle beneath the sea. Slowly she wandered around the room, inspecting the plaster sculptures of fish, scallop shells, and bare-breasted mermaids. A gaudy treasure chest filled with paste jewels was wedged beneath the central hazard table. The doorway to the next room had been converted into the hull of a sunken ship. Lengths of blue gauze and silver netting were hung overhead, making it seem as if they were under water.

“How extraordinary,” she said. “It’s beautiful, imaginative…” She turned a slow circle. “And when all the guests are here, the women in glittering gowns, everyone wearing masks…” A feeling of wistfulness swept over her. She smiled tremulously, lifting one of the silken banners and letting it stream through her fingers. “I’ve never attended a ball before. Country dances, of course, and the local festivals…” The silk caught in the sudden vise of her fingers. She was lost in her thoughts, forgetting the presence of the man who watched her.

All of her life she had been quiet and responsible, living vicariously through the experiences of others. It had been enough to content herself with family and friends, and to write. But now she regretted the things she had missed. She had never made a mistake more serious than forgetting to return a borrowed book. Her sexual experience had been limited to Perry’s kisses. She had never worn a gown cut low enough to show her bosom, or danced until dawn. She’d never really been intoxicated. Except for Perry, the men she had grown up with in the village had always regarded her as a sister and confidante. Other women inspired passion and heartbreak. She inspired friendship.

Once when she had been overtaken by a mood similiar to this, she had thrown herself at Perry. Filled with a desperate need to be close to someone, she had begged him to make love to her. Perry had refused, pointing out that she was not the kind of woman to be taken out of wedlock. “We’ll be married someday,” he had explained with a loving smile. “As soon as I can make my mother accept the idea. It won’t take long—and in the meantime, you and I will pray for patience. You mean more to me than a hour or two of illicit pleasure.” Perry had been right, of course. She had even admired his concern for doing the right thing…but that had done little to ease the sting of rejection. Wincing at the memory, Sara let go of the silken banner and turned to face Craven. He was watching her with the intense stare that always made her uneasy.

“What is it?” He reached out and took her arm, his fingers resting lightly on her sleeve. “What are you thinking about?”

Sara was very still, feeling the warmth of his hand sinking through the heavy material of her gown. He mustn’t stand so close…he mustn’t look at her this way. She had never been so aware of anyone in her life. A mad notion crossed her mind, that he was about to take her into his arms. Briefly the image of Perry Kingswood’s reproachful face floated before her. But if Craven did try to take a liberty…no one would ever know. Soon she would walk away from him forever, back to her ordinary life in the country.

Just once let something happen to her. Something she would remember all her life.

“Mr. Craven.” Her heart rose in her throat, threatening to obstruct her voice. “Perhaps you wouldn’t mind helping me with my research. There is something you could do for me.” She took a deep breath and continued in a rush. “Living in Greenwood Corners, one tends to have rather limited experience. Certainly I’ve never encountered a man like you, and never expect to again.”

“Thank you,” he said dryly.

“Therefore, purely in the interests of research…to broaden my scope of experience and so on and so forth…I thought that perhaps you might be willing to…that is, you would consider…” Sara balled her hands into fists and forced herself to finish bluntly. “That you would kiss me.”


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