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Dreaming of You: Chapter 4


The temptation of it beckoned sweetly. Derek couldn’t control the lurid thoughts that flooded his mind. Of all the women he had known, none had ever affected him like this. In his ruthless climb out of the gutter, he had used women, for pleasure and for gain. And he had been used in turn. But the game at which he was so expert had always been understood by his partners. Sara Fielding didn’t realize what he was, and how much she had to fear from him. If it was the only decent thing he ever did, he would protect her from himself.

Carefully he reached out to her. His long fingers curved gently around her jaw, as if he were handling a precious object. Her skin was soft and fragile, like the finest silk. “Miss Fielding.” His voice was hoarse. “I’d like to do more than kiss you.” He watched as her lashes drifted downward, partially concealing her deep blue eyes. “I’d like to take you upstairs to my bed. And keep you with me until morning. But you…and me…” He shook his head, and his friendly, mocking snarl of a smile appeared. “Do your ‘research’ with Kingswood, mouse.”

He was refusing her. Sara’s cheeks turned rosy with humiliation. “I-I wasn’t asking to come to your bed,” she said tensely. “I asked for a kiss. One kiss isn’t such an earth-shattering request.”

Derek released her, the warmth of his fingers fading immediately from her skin. “For you and me, one kiss is a mistake,” he assured her, and produced a halfhearted grin. Sara didn’t return the smile. Faced with her puzzled countenance, he turned abruptly and strode away, leaving her alone in the sparkling room. His body was beginning to respond to her nearness, his loins awakening with throbbing awareness. If he stayed with her one moment longer, she would get far more than she had asked for.

Incredulously Sara watched his departure. It seemed as though he couldn’t get away from her quickly enough. Her offer had been considered and summarily dismissed. Suddenly her embarrassment changed to baffled anger. Why had he refused her? Was she so unattractive? So undesirable? At least Perry had declined her invitation for reasons of honor. Derek Craven had no such excuse!

She glanced around the opulent room. There would be dazzling, sophisticated women here tonight. Craven would dance, flirt, and ply them with seductive charm. After midnight the assembly would begin to unravel. There would be drunkenness, gallantry, merriment, scandals brewing. Sara wrapped her arms around herself. She didn’t want to watch from a safe distance. She wanted to be down here tonight. She wanted to become someone else, someone brazen enough to capture the attention of Derek Craven himself.

In her novels, her characters always acted with boldness. Mathilda, especially, had been fearless. If Mathilda had wanted to go to the assembly, she would have, and damn the consequences. A sudden blast of excitement made Sara’s breath shorten. “I’ll get my kiss from you, Mr. Craven. And you’ll never even know it was I.” Terrified she might lose her nerve, Sara flew from the room. Abruptly she checked herself. It wouldn’t do to appear frantic. Busily she combed the club in search of Worthy. She finally found him at his desk, sorting through stacks of letters and receipts.

“Miss Fielding,” he said with a smile, setting his papers aside. “I was told you had decided to delay our breakfast while Mr. Craven showed you…” He paused as he saw her expression. “Miss Fielding, has something happened? You seem agitated.”

“I’m afraid I am. Mr. Worthy, I need your help!”

All at once the factotum’s face changed, taking on a grim austerity that made him seem unfamiliar. “Is it Mr. Craven? If he’s done anything to distress you—”

“Oh, no, if s not that at all. Mr. Worthy, it is imperative that I attend the assembly tonight!”

“The assembly?” the factotum asked blankly, and gave a sigh of relief. “Thank God. I thought…well, that doesn’t matter. I promise you will obtain an excellent view from the balcony—”

“I want to do more than watch. I must be there. I must get a mask from somewhere, and a gown—nothing too elaborate, but appropriate to the occasion. Could you recommend a shop, a dressmaker, someone who would be able to help me at such short notice? Perhaps I could pay to borrow a gown and then return it later, or remake one I already have—”

“Miss Fielding, you are quite overwrought,” he exclaimed. He took her hand and bestowed several fatherly pats in an attempt to settle her nerves. “You’re not yourself—”

“I have the rest of my life to be myself!” she said passionately. “For just one night I want to be someone else.”

Worthy continued to pat her hand while he regarded her with concern. His gaze was filled with un-spoken questions. He considered several approaches. “Miss Fielding,” he finally said, “you don’t understand the atmosphere at these assemblies—”

“Yes I do.”

“You wouldn’t be safe. There are men who will undoubtedly make unwelcome advances—”

“I’m aware of that. I can certainly handle a harmless tiddle here and there.”

“ ‘Tiddle’?” he repeated dazedly. “Where did you learn that word?”

“That’s not important. The point is, I want to attend the ball tonight. No one will know. Not even Mr. Craven. I’ll be wearing a mask.”

“Miss Fielding, the mask is more of a danger than a protection. It’s only a scrap of leather and ribbon and paper, but it leads people to discard their inhibitions, and then…” He paused to clean his spectacles. Vigorously he rubbed the lenses with his sleeve. Sara suspected he was stalling for time in order to think of a way to dissuade her. “May I ask what has caused this sudden determination? Does it have something to do with Mr. Craven?”

“Absolutely not,” she said, a shade too quickly. “This is strictly for the purposes of research. I…I’m considering writing a scene in my novel which includes an assembly ball, and since I’ve never been to one, this is my only opportunity to gain an accurate perception of the people, the atmosphere—”

“Miss Fielding,” he interrupted. “I doubt that your family—or your fiancé—would approve of this.”

“Mr. Kingswood isn’t my fiancé yet. And you’re right, he wouldn’t approve. No one I know would approve.” Sara smiled in delight at the thought. “But they’re not going to know.”

Worthy contemplated her for a long time, reading the determination on her face. He gave a reluctant sigh. “I suppose I could have Gill and one of the croupiers to keep an eye on you. But if Mr. Craven had any suspicion of this—”

“He won’t. He’ll never, ever find out. I’ll be utterly discreet. I’ll avoid Mr. Craven like the plague. Now about the dressmaker…could you possibly recommend a reputable shop?”

“Yes, indeed,” Worthy murmured. “In fact, I believe I can do better that that. I think I know someone who will help.”

Derek strode edgily about his apartments, trying to ignore the fever that coursed through his body. He hungered for a woman…for her. He had been fascinated by her since the first morning she had come here, with her fancy words and her ladylike manners, and her gentle wilfulness. What would it be like to wrap her in his arms and hold himself deep within her? Savagely he wished he had never met her. She should be married to her country suitor, and located well out of his own reach. She belonged with a decent man. A stab of violent jealousy for Perry Kingswood caused Derek to scowl.

“Mr. Craven?” came a steward’s voice from the doorway.

The servant approached with a card poised on a silver tray. Derek recognized the Raiford crest at once. “Is it Lily?”

“No, sir. The caller is Lord Raiford.”

“Good. God help me if I have to see any more women today. Bring him up.”

There was no man in England more different from Derek than Alex, Lord Raiford. Alex possessed a self-assurance that could only come from having been born to a family of nobility. He was an honorable man with an inherent sense of fairness. There had been struggles in his life, grief and loss, which he had overcome handsomely. Men liked him for his sportsmanship and his sense of humor. Women adored his easy masculine charm, not to mention his looks. With his rich blond hair and rangy build, he possessed a distinctively lion-esque appearance. Raiford could have an affair with any woman he wanted, but he was passionately in love with his own wife, Lily. His devotion to her was a source of amusement for the sophisticated members of the ton. In spite of their mockery, many secretly wished for the kind of loving and faithful union the Raifords had, but in these days of arranged matches that wasn’t possible.

Alex tolerated Derek’s friendship with his wife because he knew that if the need ever arose, Derek would protect Lily with his own life. Throughout the years, a friendship had evolved between the two men.

“I came to see if Lily had exaggerated about the scar,” were Alex’s first words as he entered the library. He studied Derek’s dark face impassively. “It’s not what I’d call an improvement.”

Derek grinned briefly. “Piss off, Wolverton.”

They sat down before the fire with snifters of brandy, and Alex accepted one of the cigars that Derek offered. After snipping and lighting it carefully, Alex inhaled with great enjoyment. His gray eyes appeared silver in the haze of smoke. He gestured to the scar. “How did it happen? A dozen rumors are circulating—none of them particularly flattering to you, I might add.”

Derek gave him a level stare. “It doesn’t matter.”

Alex sat back and regarded him thoughtfully. “You’re right. The scar is of no import, and neither are the rumors. What matters is that Lady Ashby did this to you—and having gone this far, she’ll likely do worse.” He held up his hand as Derek tried to interrupt. “Let me finish. There’s good reason for concern. Joyce is a dangerously unpredictable woman. I’ve been acquainted with her for a long time. Fortunately I managed to avoid the mistake of becoming involved with her. But you—”

“It’s over now,” Derek said flatly. “I can handle Joyce.”

“I’m not so certain. I hope you don’t believe that by ignoring the problem, she’ll go away. As far as I can tell, Joyce has made life hell for every man she’s ever taken as a lover—though this seems to be the first time she’s ever resorted to physical maiming.” Alex’s mouth tightened with distaste. “For all Joyce’s beauty, I would never have the desire to lie with her. There’s something emotionless about her. She’s like a beautiful, deadly serpent. Why in God’s name did you become involved with her? Surely you knew better.”

Derek hesitated. It was a rare occasion when he confided in anyone—but if there was one man he trusted, it was Alex. “I knew better,” he admitted, “but I didn’t care. I met Joyce at Lord Aveland’s wedding reception. We talked for a while. I thought she would be entertaining, and so…” He shrugged. “The affair began that night.”

Alex began to ask something, hesitated, and looked disgusted with himself. “What was she like?” he finally asked, unable to hold back the question of purely masculine interest.

Derek smiled wryly. “Exotic. She likes tricks, games, perversions…There’s nothing she won’t do. I enjoyed it for a while. The trouble began when I’d finally had enough of her. She didn’t want it to end.” His mouth twisted. “Still doesn’t.”

Alex sipped some brandy and then swirled the liquid in the snifter, regarding it with untoward interest. “Derek,” he murmured, “before my father died, he had a close friendship with Lord Ashby. Although Lord Ashby is an old man now, he’s lost none of his mental agility. I’d like to approach him discreetly and ask him to put a stop to Joyce’s antics before she does something worse than she already has.”

“No,” Derek said with a short laugh. “I’d be lucky if the old codger doesn’t hire someone to finish me off. He wouldn’t take kindly to the idea of flash gentry humping his wife. Don’t interfere, Raiford.”

Alex, who had always been fond of solving others’ problems, was annoyed by the refusal. “What makes you think I’m asking for your bloody permission? You’ve damn well manipulated and interfered with my life for years!”

“I don’t need your help.”

“Then at least take my advice. Stop having affairs with other men’s wives. Find your own woman. How old are you? Thirty?”

“I don’t know.”

Alex registered the statement with a blink of surprise, and then regarded him speculatively. “You have the look of a thirty-year-old. That’s high time for a man to marry and produce legitimate offspring.”

Derek raised his brows in mock horror. “A wife? Little Cravens underfoot? God, no.”

“Then at least find yourself a mistress. Someone who knows how to take care of a man. Someone like Viola Miller. Were you aware that she and Lord Font-mere have recently broken off their arrangement? You’ve seen Viola before…a graceful, intelligent woman. She doesn’t bestow her favors lightly. If I were you, I’d do whatever was in my power to become her next protector. I think you’ll agree she’s worth whatever price you have to pay.”

Derek gave an irritable shrug, wanting to change the subject. “A woman never solves anything. She only causes more problems.”

Alex grinned. “Well, you’d be safer with your own wife than someone else’s. And you have little to lose by throwing in your lot with the rest of us.”

“Misery loves company,” Derek quoted sourly.

“Exactly.”

Their conversation drifted to other matters, and Derek asked if Alex and Lily were planning to attend the assembly ball at the club.

Alex laughed at the idea. “No, I’m not fond of that crowd of scoundrels and whores called the demimonde—though my wife does seem to enjoy such gatherings.”

“Where is she?”

“At the dressmaker’s, having some new gowns fitted. Lately she’s worn her damn breeches about the estate so often that our son asked why she didn’t wear gowns like all the other mothers.” Alex frowned. “Lily left in a hurry this morning. She wouldn’t explain why. Received some note she wouldn’t let me read. She’s up to something. Damn that woman—she drives me to distraction!”

Derek suppressed a grin, knowing that Alex wouldn’t change a hair on his wife’s head.

“S. R. Fielding!” Lily exclaimed with a soft laugh, seizing Sara’s hand and holding it tightly. Her dark eyes glowed with delight. “You have no idea how much I admire your work, Miss Fielding. I felt such kinship with Mathilda. She could have been modeled after me!”

“You’re the woman in the portrait,” Sara said in astonishment. “In Mr. Craven’s gallery.” The painting had captured the countess faithfully—except that on canvas she had looked far more serene. No artist’s skill could ever completely capture her radiant self-confidence and convey the lively sparkle of her eyes.

“The little girl in the painting is my daughter, Nicole,” Lily said proudly. “A beauty, isn’t she? The portrait was completed a few years ago. The artist refused to sell it, but Derek offered him a ridiculous sum that he couldn’t refuse. Derek claims anything can be had for a price.” Her lips quirked. “Sometimes I think he’s right.”

Sara smiled cautiously. “Mr. Craven is far too cynical.”

“You don’t know the half of it,” Lily said wryly, and dismissed the subject with a motion of her hands. Suddenly she was all business. “As Worthy described the situation, we are in dire need of a ball gown.”

“I had no intention of putting you to such trouble, Lady Raiford. Thank you for agreeing to help me.”

Worthy had arranged for Sara to be conveyed to Madam Lafleur’s, the most exclusive dressmaker in London. Lady Raiford would meet her there, Worthy had said, and further made it clear that Sara was to allow her complete authority. “Lady Raiford knows all about this sort of thing. You must trust her judgment, Miss Fielding.” Privately Sara suspected that Worthy was far from impressed by her own fashion sense. However, it was lack of funds, not taste, which had always determined her wardrobe.

Now Sara found herself in the famed set of rooms on Bond Street, lined with gilded mirrors and elegant pinkish-gray brocade. There was an intimidatingly regal ambiance at Lafleur’s. Even the pleasant smiles of the assistants did little to calm her trepidation. The thought of how much her whimsy might cost was unnerving, but Sara doggedly ignored the nagging worry. Later she would moan and wince as she accounted for her wild expenditure. Later she would be prudent and responsible.

“Please call me Lily,” Lady Raiford said. “And this is no trouble at all, my dear, especially in light of all you’ve done for me.”

“Ma’am? Have I done something for you?”

“Saving Derek the way you did, never thinking of the danger to yourself…I’ll be forever in your debt. Derek is a close friend of the family.” Lily grinned cheerfully. “Quite an interesting man, don’t you agree?” Before Sara could answer, Lily turned and caught the eye of a figure standing by. “Well, Monique? How long will it take to make Miss Fielding breathtakingly beautiful?”

The dressmaker approached them from the door, where she had been waiting tactfully. She welcomed Lily with a fondness that betrayed a long-standing friendship, and then turned to Sara. By all rights a woman of Monique Lafleur’s stature and success would be aloof, proudly wearing an air of hauteur. Instead Monique was friendly and kind, with a smile as generous as her girth.

“Chérie.” She took Sara by the shoulders and glanced over her assessingly. “Ah, yes,” she muttered. “I see there is much work to be done. But I do enjoy a challenge! Lady Raiford was right to bring you to me. When we finish, I promise you will be an enchanteresse!”

“Perhaps we could find something simple for me to wear…” Sara’s words were lost in the sudden bustle as Monique gestured to her assistants. Lily merely stood back with a smile.

“Cora, Marie!” the dressmaker called. “Come, bring the gowns, maintenant! Quickly, there is not a moment to lose!”

Sara stared in bemusement at the armloads of richly hued silks and velvets that were brought forth. “Where did all these come from?”

Monique dragged her to an adjoining room outfitted with delicate rococo furniture, tasseled curtains, and mirrors even more massive than the ones in the front rooms. “The gowns belong to Lady Raiford.” Deftly she turned Sara around and unfastened her bodice. “I design everything she wears. When the countess adopts a new fashion, all of London copies it the next day.”

“Oh, but I couldn’t take one of Lady Raiford’s gowns—”

“None of them has ever been worn,” Lily interrupted, following them into the room. “We’ll have one of them altered for you, Sara.” She turned her attention to the dressmaker. “The blacks and purples won’t suit her at all, Monique. And nothing so virginal as the white. We want something bold and striking. Something that will make her stand apart from the crowd.”

Sara stepped out of her gown and averted her eyes from the sight of herself in the mirror, clad in her chemise, thick white stockings, and heavy drawers. Monique cast a speculative glance at the serviceable undergarments, shook her head, and seemed to make a mental note of something. She reached for one of the gowns, turning it this way and that. “The pink?” she suggested, holding the shimmering rose-colored satin in front of Sara’s half-clad figure. Sara held her breath in awe. She had never worn such a sumptuous creation. Silk roses adorned the sleeves and hem of the gown. The short-waisted bodice was finished with a stomacher of silver filigree and a row of satin bows.

Lily shook her head thoughtfully. “Charming, but too innocent.”

Sara suppressed a disappointed sigh. She couldn’t imagine anything more beautiful than the pink satin. Busily Monique discarded the gown and sorted through the others. “The peach. No man will be able to keep his eyes from her in that. Here, let us try it, chérie.”

Raising her arms, Sara let the dressmaker and her assistant Cora pull the gauzy peach-hued gown over her head. “I think it will have to be altered a great deal,” Sara commented, her voice muffled beneath the delicate layers of fabric. The gowns had been fitted for Lily’s lithe, compact lines. Sara was more amply endowed, with a generous bosom and curving hips, and a tiny, scooped-in waist…a figure style that had been fashionable thirty years ago. The current high-waisted Grecian mode was not particularly flattering to her.

Monique settled the gown around Sara’s feet and then began to yank the back of it together. “Oui, Lady Raiford has the form that fashion loves.” Energetically she hooked the tight bodice together. “But you, chérie, have the kind that men love. Draw in your breath, s’il vous plaît.”

Sara winced as her breasts were pushed upward until they nearly overflowed from the low-cut bodice. The hem of the unusually full skirt was bordered with three rows of graduated tulip-leaves. Sara could hardly believe the woman in the mirror was herself. The peach gown, with its transparent layers of silk and shockingly low neckline, had been designed to attract a man’s attention. It was too loose at the waist, but her breasts rose from the shallow bodice in creamy splendor, pushed together to form an enticing cleavage.

A broad smile appeared on Lily’s face. “How splendid you look, Sara.”

Monique regarded her smugly. “With a few alterations, it will be perfect. This is the gown, n’est-ce pas?”

“I’m not certain,” Lily said, pacing around the room as she considered Sara from all angles. “Perhaps it’s just my preference for more assertive shades…” She paused and shook her head with a decisiveness that caused Sara’s heart to sink. “No, it isn’t spectacular enough to achieve our purpose.”

“Purpose?” Sara asked, perplexed, “There is no purpose other than to see me suitably attired. Surely this one is more than adequate?”

Lily slid an unfathomable glance to the dressmaker, who suddenly found a multitude of reasons to leave the room. Quietly the assistants followed. Baffled by their sudden departure, Sara fluffed the skirt of the peach gown and feigned unconcern.

“Perhaps we should have a little talk, Sara.” Sorting through the other garments, Lily held up a mauve and violet creation and made a face. “My God. I can’t think why I ever had this made.” Carelessly she tossed the gown aside. “Exactly why is it imperative, as Worthy wrote, for you to attend the ball tonight?”

“Research,” Sara said, not quite meeting her eyes. “A scene for my novel.”

“Really.” An odd smile played about Lily’s mouth. “Well, I know nothing about writing novels. But I have a fair understanding of human nature. Perhaps I’m mistaken, but I assumed the point of all this was to make someone notice you.” There was a subtly inquiring lilt to the last word.

Sara shook her head immediately. “No, my lady—”

“Lily.”

“Lily,” she repeated obediently. “I don’t intend anything of the sort. I don’t wish to attract anyone’s attention. I’m nearly engaged to Mr. Perry Kingswood, of Greenwood Corners.”

“Ah.” The countess shrugged, regarding her with friendly sympathy. “Then I was wrong. Actually…I’d thought you might be entertaining an interest in Derek Craven.”

“No. He’s not at all the sort of man I…” Sara stopped and stared at her blankly. “Not at all.”

“Of course. Forgive me. I was being presumptuous.”

Sara tried to smooth over the awkward moment. “It’s not that I don’t think well of Mr. Craven. He’s a unique sort of person—”

“There’s no need to tiptoe around the truth. He’s impossible. I know Derek better than anyone. Selfish, secretive, lonely…very much the way I was five years ago, before I married Lord Raiford.” Lily stood behind Sara and began to unfasten the snug gown. “We’ll try the blue velvet. You have the perfect complexion for it.” Seeming disinclined to discuss the subject of Derek Craven any further, she freed the row buttons from the tiny silk loops that held them.

Sara frowned as she slipped the sleeves down her arms and stepped out of the gauzy peach circle. The silence became untenable. “But why should Mr. Craven be lonely?” she finally burst out. “He’s surrounded by people all the time. He could have the companionship of any woman he desires!”

Lily made a comical grimace. “Derek doesn’t trust anyone. After being abandoned by his mother and living for so long in the rookery…well, I’m afraid he doesn’t have the highest opinion of women, or of people in general.”

“He has a very high opinion of you,” Sara said, thinking of the magnificent portrait in Craven’s private gallery.

“We’ve been friends for a long time,” Lily conceded, and added pointedly, “but nothing more. Oh, I know what the gossips claim—but the relationship was strictly platonic. Perhaps it doesn’t matter to you. In any event, I wanted you to know the truth.”

Sara felt an unaccountable leap of pleasure at the information. Aware of Lily’s perceptive gaze, Sara struggled with an urge to confide in this sympathetic stranger—she, who had always guarded her own privacy so carefully. I’m not going to the ball for research, she wanted to burst out, I’m going because Mr. Craven thinks I’m a country mouse. And I barely recognize myself…because suddenly I would do anything to show him that he’s wrong…when it shouldn’t matter. It shouldn’t matter at all.

“Mr. Craven forbade me to come to the club tonight,” Sara heard herself say.

“Did he?” Lily responded immediately. “I’m not surprised.”

“He claims I wouldn’t be safe among the demimonde. Why, I’ve visited brothels and rookery gaming hells, and I’ve never come to any harm! It’s not at all fair, especially in light of the fact that I’m the one who rescued him!”

“I should say so,” Lily agreed.

“From the moment I arrived, he’s wanted to send me back to Greenwood Corners.”

“Yes, I know.” Lily moved to fasten the blue dress. “Derek wants to be rid of you, Sara, because he perceives you as a threat.”

Sara laughed incredulously. “Me, a threat? I assure you, no one has ever thought of me that way!”

“There is only one thing that Derek Craven fears,” Lily assured her. “He’s a complete coward when it comes to his own feelings. He’s had affairs with dozens of women—and as soon as there’s any danger of becoming attached to one, he’ll discard her and find another. When I first knew him, I thought of him as an extremely limited man, incapable of love, trust, or tenderness. But now I believe those feelings are there. He’s bottled them deep inside ever since he was a child. And I think the time is fast approaching when he won’t be able to hold them back any longer. He’s not quite himself these days. Lately I’ve seen signs that the wall he’s built around him is cracking.”

Troubled, Sara smoothed the velvet at her hips and stared down at the floor. “Lady Raiford, I’m not certain what you expect of me,” she said honestly. “I love Mr. Kingswood, and I intend to marry him—”

“Sara,” Lily interrupted gently, “you would help Derek greatly if you show him tonight that he’s not as bloody invincible as he thinks. I’d like for you—or someone else—to find a chink in the armor. That’s all.” She smiled warmly. “And then you’ll go back to Mr. Kingswood, who is a wonderful man, I’m certain…and I’ll do my part to find the right woman for Derek.” Lily laughed. “She’ll have to be strong, wise, and patient enough to qualify for sainthood.” She stood back to look at Sara, and a grin appeared on her face. “This,” she said emphatically, “is the gown.”

They sat together in the Raifords’ carriage, drinking companionably from a silver flask that Lily had produced. Sara stared out the window from behind a tiny tasseled curtain, watching the torrent of people ascend the steps to the club. Women wore sumptuous gowns and masks adorned with plumes, jewels, and ribbons. Their escorts were attired in dark, formal attire and simple black masks that made it look like a highwayman’s ball. The windows blazed with light, while the strains of orchestra music floated into the cold darkness of night.

Lily watched the procession and smacked her lips, savoring the taste of fine brandy. “We’ll wait a few minutes more. It wouldn’t do to appear too early.”

Sara drew the borrowed cloak around herself and reached for the flask. The brandy was strong but mellow, a pleasant fire that eased the tautness of her nerves and the chattering of her teeth.

“My husband is probably wondering where I am,” Lily remarked.

“What will you tell him?”

“I’m not certain yet. It will have to be something close to the truth.” Lily grinned cheerfully. “Alex can always tell when I’m lying outright.”

Sara smiled. Not only did Lily take pleasure in recounting outrageous tales of her past misbehavior, but she freely gave her opinions about anyone and anything. She had an amazingly cavalier attitude toward men. “They’re easy to manage, and entirely predictable,” Lily had said earlier. “If something is easily given, they’re indifferent to it. If something is withheld, they want it desperately.”

As she mulled over Lily’s advice, Sara thought that perhaps she had been right about withholding. Perry Kingswood had always known that as soon as he cared to propose, Sara would accept. Perhaps if he hadn’t been so certain of her, it wouldn’t have taken four years to come to the brink of an engagement. When I return to Greenwood Corners, Sara thought, I’ll be a new woman. She would be as self-confident and independent as Lily herself. And then Perry would fall madly in love with her.

Pleased by the notion, Sara bolstered herself with more brandy.

“You’d better go easy on that,” Lily advised.

“It’s quite bracing.”

“It’s quite potent. Here—it’s time to put your mask on. Don’t be nervous.”

“It’s a lovely mask,” Sara said, toying with the narrow black silk ribbons before tying it in place. Monique had artfully fashioned it out of black silk and lace, and glinting blue sapphires that matched her gown. “I’m not nervous at all.” It was true. She felt as if some reckless stranger had replaced her usual cautious self. The midnight-blue gown molded to her figure, cut so low that her breasts seemed ready to spill from the meager bodice. A broad satin sash fastened with a gold buckle emphasized her small waist. The mask covered the upper half of her face but revealed her lips, which Monique and Lily had insisted on darkening with the faintest hint of rouge. Laboriously they had arranged her hair in a cluster of curls on top of her head, allowing a few ringlets to dangle teasingly against her cheeks and neck. A perfume that reminded Sara of roses blended with some deeper foresty scent had been applied sparingly to her bosom and throat.

“A triumph,” Monique had declared, gloating over the transformation. “Beautiful, worldly, but still fresh and young…ah, chérie, you will make many conquests tonight!”

“Stunning,” Lily had said, beaming with delight. “What a stir she’ll cause. You’ll undoutedly hear all the gossip tomorrow morning, Monique.”

“Bien sûr, everyone will come in to ask who she is, clucking like a flock of jealous hens!”

As the two had congratulated themselves, Sara had stared at the unfamiliar reflection in the mirror, her stomach jumping excitedly The image was that of an experienced woman, well-versed in the art of seduction. “Not a mouse tonight,” she had whispered with a wondering smile. “You won’t even know me, Mr. Craven.”

At the sound of Lily’s vaguely anxious voice, Sara recalled herself to the present. “If you have any trouble tonight,” Lily was saying, “just shout for Worthy.”

“There won’t be any need for that,” Sara said airily, and tipped the flask for another deep swallow.

“You’d better say something to Worthy when you go in. He won’t recognize you otherwise.”

Sara smiled smugly at the thought. “Neither will Mr. Craven.”

“I’m not certain I like the look in your eyes,” Lily said uneasily “Be careful, Sara. Strange things have been known to happen at these assemblies. I ended up married after a particularly memorable one. Here, give me back that flask. I think you’ve had enough.”

Reluctantly Sara gave back the brandy, while Lily delivered a final lecture. “Don’t accept any wagers, or you’ll be tricked into playing prick-the-garter with some randy buck before you know what’s happened. And mind that you don’t go to the back rooms with anyone—that’s where people disappear for a convenient tail tickle.”

“Worthy didn’t tell me that.”

“He was probably too embarrassed,” Lily said darkly. “Those rooms are designed to muffle all sound, and they’re filled with questionable pieces of furniture upon which all manner of sordid things have taken place.”

“How do you know so much about them?”

“Hearsay, of course.” Lily grinned in a way that belied her innocent tone. “Out of the carriage, minx.”

“Thank you,” Sara said earnestly. “Thank you for everything. I do wish you would let me pay for the gown, and the silk undergarments, and—”

“I won’t hear of it,” Lily interrupted. “You can tell me all about the ball someday. That will be payment enough.” She waved Sara away with a laugh.

The footman assisted Sara from the carriage, and she walked up the steps alone. Perhaps it was just a touch of giddiness from the brandy, but she was feeling most strange. The night was magical, menacing, kaleidoscopic. The marble steps beneath her feet seemed to shift like sands moved by the tide. Something was going to happen to her tonight. Whether the morrow brought happiness or regret, she knew that for at least a few hours she would have lived as boldly as she had always dreamed of doing.

“Madam?” the butler asked imperturbably as she swept into the entrance. It was his responsibility to filter out uninvited guests, otherwise the assembly balls would swell to unmanageable proportions.

Sara smiled faintly as she slipped off the black cloak, revealing the sumptuous curves of her figure outlined snugly in blue velvet. “Good evening,” she said, lowering her voice at least an octave. “You must be Ellison. Miss Fielding has told me about you.”

Ellison, who had confided everything to her, from his mother’s recent illness to his fondness for kidney pie, clearly didn’t recognize her. “You’re a guest of Miss Fielding’s?”

“I’m very close to her,” Sara assured him. “She said I would be welcome tonight.” She shrugged her silky shoulders. “However, if that’s not the case—”

“Wait, madam…” A trace of wonder entered his usually impassive voice. “May I ask your name?”

She leaned close to him. “I don’t think that would be wise,” she confided. “I’m afraid my reputation would tend to make things quite inconvenient.”

Ellison’s face turned pink. It was easy to read the thoughts that whirled through his mind. A beautiful, mysterious woman, with a vague connection to Miss Fielding…“M-madam,” he stuttered in barely restrained excitement. “Could it be? May I ask if you are…M-Mathilda? The real Mathilda?”

Her red lips pursed thoughtfully. “It’s possible.” She handed her cloak to him and glided into the building. She felt no shame at her ruse. After all, if anyone had a right to assume Mathilda’s identity, it was her creator!

A cluster of three young rakes who had stood behind Sara at the entrance stared after her eagerly. “Did you hear that?” one of them gasped. “Hang me if that ain’t Mathilda.”

“It could be a masquerade,” one of his companions pointed out reasonably.

“No, no, that’s her,” the first insisted. “I’ve a friend who spent an evening with Mathilda in Bath last June. She’s just as he described her.”

“Let’s follow her.”

“Mathilda couldn’t have been in Bath last June,” the third argued. “I heard she was touring the continent with one of the Berkleys.”

“Was that before or after she joined the convent?”

Sara did not notice the three men debating and following her. Having caught sight of Worthy, she made her way through the central hazard room. Her progress was impeded by a multitude of men suddenly offering to bring her punch, asking her to dance, pleading for her attention. Someone pressed a glass into her hand, and she accepted it with a smile. Pausing to sip the spicy mixture, she savored the flow of warmth through her veins. Gracefully she lifted a black-gloved hand to push a dangling curl away from her forehead, and smiled at the crowd around her. “Gentlemen,” she said in a throaty voice, “you’re quite a dashing assortment, and I’m flattered by your attentions, but you’re all speaking at once. I can only manage three or four of you at a time.”

They renewed their efforts enthusiastically. “Miss, may I escort you to one of the card rooms—”

“—a glass of wine?”

“—a sweetmeat or two?”

“—if would dance the waltz with me—”

Sara declined all the invitations with a regretful pout. “Perhaps later. I must leave to greet an old friend, or he’ll be heartbroken at my neglect.”

“I’ll soon expire of a broken heart myself,” one of them exclaimed, and the gathering attempted to follow Sara as she slipped to the side of the room where Worthy stood.

Smiling in triumph, Sara stood before him and made a small curtsey. “Well?” she demanded.

The factotum bowed deferentially. “Welcome to Craven’s, madam.”

As the factotum resumed his preoccupied perusal of the room, Sara frowned slightly and inched closer. “Are you looking for someone?” she asked in her normal voice, following the direction of his gaze. “Is something happening?”

Suddenly Worthy’s eyes were riveted on her. He removed his spectacles, polished them roughly, and replaced them to stare at her in amazement. “Miss Fielding?” he asked in a shocked whisper. “Is that you?”

“Of course it’s me. Didn’t you recognize me?” She beamed at him. “Do you like the transformation? Lady Raiford is responsible for all of it.”

Worthy choked and stammered, and could not seem to reply. As he glanced at her lusciously exposed figure, his face turned pale with fatherly dismay. Sara accepted another glass of punch from a passing servant and drained it thirstily. “How delicious this is,” she exclaimed. “It’s very warm in here, isn’t it? That music is enthralling—I can scarcely keep my feet still. I’m going to dance tonight, the quadrille and the waltz and—”

“Miss Fielding,” Worthy gasped, “that punch is much too strong for you. I’m going to have Gill bring you a drink without spirits—”

“No, I want to drink what everyone else is drinking.” She inclined her head toward him until her fruit-scented breath fogged his spectacles. “And don’t call me Miss Fielding. There’s no Miss Fielding here tonight.”

Worthy stuttered helplessly, polishing his spectacles once more. In the space of a few seconds he prepared a speech that would herald her immediate departure from the ball. He had never suspected Sara Fielding could be transformed into a blood-stirring temptress. Everything about her was different; her voice, her movements, her entire demeanor. Even the shape of her face seemed to have changed. By the time Worthy fitted the spectacles back onto his nose, she was gone, whisked away by a pair of dandies who managed to look bored and lecherous at the same time. The factotum began to signal frantically for Gill, hoping that between the two of them, they could avert the coming disaster. If Mr. Craven happened to see her…

Sensitive to Worthy’s harried expression and wild gestures, Gill approached from the opposite side of the octagonal-shaped room. “Trouble?” the young man asked.

“Miss Fielding is here! We must find her at once.”

Gill shrugged, seeing no reason for concern. “She’s probably in a corner somewhere, watching and listening to everyone as usual.”

“Miss Fielding is not herself this evening,” Worthy said tersely. “It’s a dangerous situation, Gill.”

“You sound as if you expect her to cause some sort of trouble,” Gill said, and laughed at the notion. “That sweet, quiet little spinster…”

“That sweet, quiet spinster is capable of setting this entire club on its ear,” Worthy hissed. “Find her, Gill, before Mr. Craven does. She’s wearing a blue dress and a black mask.”

“That describes at least two dozen women here,” Gill pointed out. “And I don’t think I could recognize her without her spectacles.” He poked Worthy’s arm, his interest occupied by a more urgent matter. “By the by, do you know what I heard just before I came over here? Mathilda may be attending the ball. Mathilda herself! Well, I’d like to hear Miss Fielding try to claim there’s no Mathilda after this.”

“Find her,” Worthy said in a strangled voice.

“Mathilda?”

“Miss Fielding.”

“I’ll try,” Gill said dubiously, and sauntered away.

Worthy scanned the crowd for a sight of Sara’s blue gown, his foot tapping the floor. As he considered alerting more of the club’s employees to search for the elusive Miss Fielding, he heard a soft drawl that sent a chill down his spine.

“Looking for someone?”

After gulping painfully, Worthy turned to face Derek Craven’s grim countenance. “Sir?” he croaked.

“I know she’s here,” Derek said, his green eyes hard behind the stark black mask he wore. “I saw her not a minute ago. Slinking around to look for me, asking questions—she’s as subtle as an elephant stampede. I hope I can keep from killing the bitch with my bare hands—or giving her a scar to match the one she gave me.”

With equal parts of relief and horror, Worthy realized Craven was referring to Lady Ashby. “Lady Ashby had the effrontery to attend the ball?” Temporarily he forgot about the problem of Sara Fielding. “Would you like me to remove her from the club, sir?”

“Not quite yet,” Derek said grimly. “First I’m going to talk to her.”

Lady Ashby waited by a massive column, watching the milling crowd like a cat studying its prey. Her slender body was draped in a gold silk gown that matched her hair. A mask of gold and silver feathers covered her narrow, perfectly sculpted face.

Suddenly a clenching pain attacked the back of her head, as a large hand twisted in the mass of her curls. The unseen man behind her twined his fingers more tightly, preventing her from turning her head. Her breath escaped in a hiss of pain. Slowly she relaxed. “Derek,” she murmured, staying perfectly still.

His voice was low and filled with hatred. “You stupid bitch.” His hand twisted until she inhaled sharply and arched to ease the pull on her scalp.

“I wanted to see your face,” she gasped. “That’s why I came. I wanted to explain—”

“I know why you’re here.”

“It was wrong of me, Derek. I didn’t want to hurt you. But you left me no recourse.”

“You didn’t hurt me.”

“I can’t let you leave me,” Joyce said steadily. “I won’t. I’ve been manipulated and abandoned by every man I’ve ever depended on. The first time was my father—”

“I don’t care,” Derek interrupted, but she continued insistently, ignoring the pain of his grip in her hair.

“I want you to understand. I was forced to marry at the age of fifteen. The bridegroom was as old as my grandfather. I despised Lord Ashby at first sight, the lecherous old goat. Can you imagine what it was like, climbing into bed with that?” Her voice turned acid. “His wrinkled skin, his bad teeth, his body shriveled with age…oh, quite the impassioned lover he was. I begged my father not to sell me to an old man, but he was mesmerized by the thought of the Ashby lands and wealth. My family profited greatly by the marriage.”

“So did you,” Derek pointed out.

“I promised myself that from then on I would take whatever pleasure I could find. Never again would I let anyone control me. I’m different from all the spineless bitches who allow men to mold their lives however it pleases them. If I allowed you to toss me aside so easily when you tired of me, I would be nothing, Derek. I would have been reduced to the state of the fifteen-year-old child I once was, forced to submit to the will of an indifferent man. I won’t be abandoned, you smug cockney bastard.”

She caught her breath as she was spun around and brought face to face with Derek’s harshly shadowed countenance. He had removed his mask. “There’s your revenge,” he snarled. “Does it please you?”

Transfixed, Joyce stared at the stitched wound on his face. “I did hurt you,” she murmured, sounding awed and contrite, and eerily satisfied.

Derek fitted the mask back over his face. When he spoke again, there was a weary note in his voice. “Get out of here.”

She seemed to be empowered by the sight of his scar. “I still want you.”

“I don’t heel to anyone,” he said roughly. “Especially not to a well-worn little purse like you.”

“Come back to me,” Joyce entreated. “I’ll make life very sweet for you.” Her smile was tainted with menace. “You’re still handsome, Derek. I would hate to see your face cut to ribbons.”

“Until you, I’d never met a woman who had to threaten a man into her bed.” The barb found its mark—he saw a flush collect at the outline of her mask. “Don’t cross me again, Joyce,” he said through his teeth, taking her wrist in a grip that made her wince. “Or I’ll make you wish you were dead.”

“I’d rather have your retaliation than your indifference.”

With a sound of disgust, Derek motioned for a club steward, who was standing several feet away and talking sotto voce with an exotically dressed woman. Quickly he approached them. “Take her out of here,” Derek muttered, shoving Joyce toward him. “And if I see her back again tonight, I’ll have your head.”

“Yes, sir.” The steward ushered Joyce away with quiet haste.

Feeling unclean, Derek took a drink from the tray of a passing servant and downed it quickly. He grimaced, disliking the cloying sweetness of the punch. It was strong stuff, the liquor passing smoothly down his gullet and settling with fiery warmth in his belly. He waited for it to numb the boiling resentment, the distaste, and worst of all the twinge of pity. He understood what it was like to rail against one’s own helplessness, the desperate struggle for dominance. Many times he had sought revenge for wrongs done to him. It would be the height of hypocrisy for him to pretend he was any better than Lady Ashby.

The noise in the room became almost deafening with the antics of the crowd at the hazard table. Derek hadn’t noticed the unruly group before, having been completely immersed in the scene with Joyce. Setting the empty cup aside, he drew closer to the hazard table. He checked the work of his employees; the croupiers raking in the dice, the “flasher” hired to complain publicly about the bank’s “losses” and thereby draw heavier play, the waiters who ensured that everyone had glasses filled with punch or wine. The only two who weren’t attending to their jobs were the ushers, who were supposed to bring the club patrons upstairs when they desired to visit a house wench.

But no one wanted to go upstairs. The group of boisterous men, spanning all ages and levels of social consequence, was gathered around one woman. She stood at the side of the table, tossing dice from a cup onto the green felt. She was flirting simultaneously with at least a half-dozen players.

Derek smiled unwillingly, his bitterness fading a little. It had been years since he’d seen a woman handle a crowd of admirers so deftly—not since Lily in her gambling days. Fascinated, he wondered where the hell she had come from. He knew about all the new arrivals in London, and he’d never seen her before. She must be some diplomat’s wife, or some exclusive courtesan. Her lips were red and pouting, her pale white shoulders enticingly bare above the blue velvet of her gown. She laughed frequently, tossing her head back in a way that caused her chestnut curls to dance. Like the other men present, Derek was captivated by her figure, the luscious round breasts, the tiny waist, all revealed by a well-fitted gown that was unlike the shapeless Grecian styles of the other women.

“A toast to the loveliest bosom in London!” Lord Bromley, a rakish young ne’er-do-well, exclaimed. Titillated and excited, the crowd raised their glasses with a cheer. Waiters rushed to bring more liquor.

“Miss,” one of them begged, “I entreat you to cast my dice for me.”

“Whatever good luck I have is yours,” she assured him, and shook the dice in the box so vigorously that her breasts quivered beneath their shallow covering. The temperature in the room escalated rapidly as a host of admiring sighs greeted the display. Derek decided to intervene before the crowd’s mood became too highly charged. Either the vixen didn’t realize the lust she was inciting, or she was doing it deliberately. Either way, he wanted to meet her.

Sara cast the dice and laughed in delight as a triple came up. “House pays thirty to one!” the croupier called, and the group’s roar of appreciation was equaled only by a clamor for the woman to roll the dice again. Before she could say a word, she was neatly plucked out of the crowd by a pair of strong hands.

The protests were quelled immediately as the men recognized that the abductor was Derek Craven himself. Their tempers were mollified as Derek motioned for a bevy of seductive house wenches, who filtered through the group with inviting smiles.

Slowly Sara looked up at her captor’s masked face. “You took me away from the game.”

“You were about to cause a riot in my club.”

“Your club? Then you must be Mr. Craven.” Her red lips curved provocatively. “I didn’t mean to cause trouble. How can I make amends?”

He studied her intently. “Come have a walk with me.”

“Is that all? I thought you might make a more daring request.”

“You seem disappointed.”

She shrugged. “With your reputation, Mr. Craven, it’s only reasonable to expect an indecent proposal.”

His mouth quirked with a subtly flirtatious smile…a smile unlike any he had ever given Sara Fielding. “There’s every chance I’ll oblige you.”

She laughed throatily. “There’s a chance I might accept.”

All at once Sara thought she had given herself away. Something in her voice had awakened a spark of recognition. He was staring at her far too intensely. “Who are you?”

Sara tilted her head back to look at him, daring him to guess. “Don’t you know me?”

The hint of a smile disappeared. “I intend to.”

A sense of reality began to pierce the pleasant fog surrounding her. Sara became uneasy, taking a half-step away from him. “It’s possible I arrived with someone,” she said, wishing for the return of her earlier recklessness. She needed another drink.

“You’re not leaving with him.”

“What if I’m married?”

“You still won’t leave with him.”

Sara laughed and feigned alarm. “I’ve been warned about men like you.”

He leaned close to whisper in her ear. “I hope you didn’t listen.” His lips brushed the sensitive curve of her jaw. Sara closed her eyes while a nerveless quivering took over her body. She tried to summon the strength to pull away from him, but instead she stood against him docilely, as if she had no will of her own. There was the delicate catch of his teeth against her earlobe, and the low murmur of his voice. “Come with me.”

She couldn’t. Her knees were too weak. But somehow she allowed him to lead her to the next room, into the midst of the whirling couples. His supportive arm slid around her, and his vital grip enclosed her hand. So this was what it felt like to be held far too closely, to have a man stare at her with desire in his eyes. “You’ve never been here before,” he said.

“You’re wrong.”

He shook his head. “I’d have remembered you.”

“Actually,” she said in a hushed voice, “I’m not here now. This isn’t happening at all. You’re just visiting a dream of mine.”

“Am I?” He bent his head, his smiling mouth very close to hers. His breath was warm against her lips. “Then don’t wake up, angel. I’d like to stay awhile.”


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