The lone figure of a woman stood in the shadows. She leaned against the wall of a crumbling lodging house, her shoulders hunched as if she were ill. Derek Craven’s hard green eyes flickered over her as he came from the back-alley gaming hell. Such a sight wasn’t unusual in the streets of London, especially in the rookery, where human suffering was visible in all its variety. Here, a short but significant distance from the splendor of St. James, the buildings were a crumbling mass of filth. The area was crawling with beggars, prostitutes, swindlers, thieves. His kind of people.
No decent female would be found here, especially after dusk. But if she was a whore, she was dressed strangely for it. Her gray cloak parted in the front to reveal a high-necked gown made of dark cloth. The lock of hair that strayed from beneath her hood was an indistinct brown. It was possible she was waiting for an errant husband, or perhaps she was a shopgirl who had lost her way.
People glanced furtively at the woman, but they passed her without breaking pace. If she remained here much longer, there was no doubt she would be raped or robbed, even beaten and left for dead. The gentlemanly thing to do would be to go to her, inquire about her well-being, express concern for her safety.
But he was no gentleman. Derek turned away, striding along the broken pavement. He had grown up in the streets—born in the gutter, nursed through infancy by a group of ragged prostitutes, and educated in his youth by criminals of every kind. He was familiar with the schemes used to prey upon the unwary, the few efficient moments it took to rob a man and crush his throat. Women were frequently used in such plots as bait or lookouts, or even assailants. A soft feminine hand could do a great deal of damage when it was wrapped around an iron cudgel, or when it clutched a stocking weighted with a pound or two of shot.
Gradually Derek became aware of footsteps close behind him. Something about them caused a warning prickle along his spine. Two sets of heavy footsteps, belonging to men. Deliberately he changed his pace, and they adjusted to match. They were following him. Perhaps they had been sent by his rival Ivo Jenner to cause mischief. Swearing silently, Derek began to round a corner.
As he expected, they made their move. Swiftly he turned and ducked beneath the drive of a clenched fist. Relying on instinct and years of experience, he shifted his weight to one leg and lashed out with his booted foot, striking a blow to the assailant’s stomach. The man gave a muffled gasp of surprise and staggered back. Whipping around, Derek lunged for the second man, but it was too late…He felt the thud of a metal object on his back and a blinding impact on his head. Stunned, he fell heavily to the ground. The two men crawled over his twitching body.
“Do it quick,” one of them said, his voice muffled. Struggling, Derek felt his head pushed back. He struck out with a clenched fist, but his arm was pinned to the ground. There was a slash across his face, a dull roar in his ears, hot wetness flowing in his eyes and mouth…his own blood. He sputtered a groaning protest, writhing to free himself from the searing pain. It was happening too quickly. He couldn’t stop them. He had always been afraid of death, for somehow he had known it would come like this, not in peace, but in pain and violence and darkness.
Sara stopped to read through the information she had gathered so far. Peering through her spectacles, she puzzled over the new cant words she had heard that night. The language of the street changed quickly from year to year, an evolving process that fascinated her. Leaning against a wall for privacy, she pored over the notes she had made and scribbled a few corrections with her pencil. The gamblers had referred to playing cards as “flats” and had cautioned each other to watch out for the “crushers,” which was perhaps intended to describe policemen. One thing she hadn’t figured out yet was the difference between “rampsmen” and “dragsmen,” both words used to refer to street thieves. Well, she would have to find out…it was imperative that she use the correct terms. Her first two novels, Mathilda and The Beggar, had both been praised for their attention to detail. She would not want her third, as yet untitled, to be faulted for inaccuracies.
She wondered if the men coming and going from the gambling hell would be able to answer her questions. Most of them were quite disreputable, with unshaven faces and poor hygiene. Perhaps it would be unwise to ask them anything—they might not welcome an interruption in their evening revels. On the other hand, she needed to talk to them for the sake of her book. And Sara was always careful not to judge people by outward appearances.
Suddenly she was aware of a disturbance near the corner. She tried to see what was happening, but the street was shrouded in darkness. After folding the sheaf of paper she had stitched together to form a little book, she slipped it into her handbag and ventured forth curiously. A torrent of crude words brought color to her cheeks. No one used such language in Greenwood Corners except old Mr. Dawson, when he drank too much spiced punch at the annual town Christmas festival.
There were three figures engaged in a struggle. It appeared that two men were holding a third on the ground and beating him. She heard the sounds of fists pounding on flesh. Frowning uncertainly, Sara clutched her reticule as she watched. Her heart began to pound like a rabbit’s. It would be unwise to involve herself. She was here as an observer, not a participant. But the poor victim made such piteous groans…and all at once her horrified gaze took in the flash of a knife.
They were going to murder him.
Hastily Sara fumbled in her handbag for the pistol she always carried on her research trips. She had never used it on anyone before, but she had practiced target shooting in a country field to the southeast of Greenwood Corners. Drawing out the small weapon, she cocked it and hesitated.
“Here, now!” she called out, trying to make her voice strong and authoritative. “I insist that you stop at once!”
One of the men looked over at her. The other ignored her cry, raising the knife once more. They did not consider her a threat at all. Biting her lip, Sara raised the trembling pistol and aimed to the left of them. She couldn’t kill anyone—she doubted her conscience would tolerate it—but perhaps the loud noise would frighten them. Steadying her hand, she pulled the trigger.
As the echoes of the pistol’s report died away, Sara opened her eyes to view the results of her efforts. To her amazement, she realized she had unintentionally hit one of the men…dear God, in the throat! He was on his knees, clasping the gushing wound with his hands. Abruptly he toppled over with a gurgling noise. The other man was frozen. She couldn’t see his shadowed face.
“Go away now,” Sara heard herself say, her voice shaking with fear and dismay. “Or…or I shall find it necessary to shoot you as well!”
He seemed to melt away into the darkness like a ghost. Sara crept to the two bodies on the ground. Her mouth gaped open in horror, and she covered it with her unsteady fingers. She had very definitely killed a man. Edging around his fallen body, she approached the victim of the attack.
His face was covered with blood. It dripped from his black hair and soaked the front of his evening clothes. A sickening feeling came over her as she wondered if rescue had come too late for him. Sara slipped the pistol back into her handbag. She was cold all over, and very unsteady. In all her sheltered twenty-five years, nothing like this had ever happened to her. She looked from one body to the other. If only there were a foot patrol nearby, or one of the renowned and highly trained city officers. She found herself waiting for something to happen. Someone would come across the scene very soon. A sense of guilt crept through her shock. Dear Lord, how could she live with herself, knowing what she had done?
Sara peered down at the victim of the robbery with a mixture of curiosity and pity. It was difficult to see his face through all the blood, but he appeared to be a young man. His clothes were well-made, the kind of garments that were to be found on Bond Street. Suddenly she saw his chest move. She blinked in surprise. “S-sir?” she asked, leaning over him.
He lunged upward, and she gave a terrified squeak. A large hand grasped the material of her bodice, clenching too tightly to allow her to pull away. The other hand came up to her face. His palm rested on her cheek, his trembling fingers smearing blood across the surface of her spectacles. After a frantic attempt to escape, Sara subsided into an unsteady heap beside him.
“I have foiled your attackers, sir.” Gamely she tried to pry his fingers away from her bodice. His grip was like iron. “I believe I may have saved your life. Unhand me…please…”
He took a long time to reply. Gradually his hand fell away from her face and drifted down her arm until he found her wrist. “ ’Elp me up,” he said roughly, surprising her with his accent. She wouldn’t have expected a man wearing such fine clothes to speak with a cockney twang.
“It would be better if I called for assistance—”
“Not ’ere,” he managed to gasp. “Empty-’eaded fool. We’ll be…robbed an’ gutted in a frigging second.”
Offended by his harshness, Sara was tempted to point out that a little gratitude wouldn’t be amiss. But he must be in considerable pain. “Sir,” she said tentatively, “your face…if you will allow me to get the handkerchief from my reticule—”
“You fired the pistol shot?”
“I’m afraid so.” Easing her hand inside her reticule, she pushed past the gun and found the handkerchief. Before she could pull it out, he tightened his grip on her wrist. “Let me help you,” she said quietly.
His fingers loosened, and she brought forth the handkerchief, a clean, serviceable square of linen. Gently she dabbed at his face and pressed the folded linen against the hideous gash that ran from his brow to the center of his opposite cheek. It would be disfiguring. For his sake, she hoped he wouldn’t lose an eye. A hiss of pain escaped his lips, spattering her with blood. Wincing, Sara touched his hand and brought it to his face. “Perhaps you could hold this in place? Good. Now, if you’ll wait here, I’ll try to find someone to assist us—”
“No.” He continued to hold the fabric of her dress, his knuckles digging into the soft curve of her breasts. “I’m awright. Get me to Craven’s. St. James Street.”
“But I’m not strong enough, or familiar with the city—”
“It’s close enow to ’ere.”
“Wh-what about the man I shot? We can’t just leave the body.”
He gave a sardonic snort. “Pox on ’im. Get me to St. James.”
Sara wondered what he would do if she refused. He seemed to be a man of volatile temperament. In spite of his injuries, he was still quite capable of hurting her. The hand at her bosom was large and very strong.
Slowly Sara removed her spectacles and placed them in her reticule. She slid her arm beneath his coat and around his lean waist, blushing in dismay. She had never embraced a man except for her own father, and Perry Kingswood, her almost-fiancé. Neither of them had felt like this. Perry was quite fit, but he was not at all comparable to this big, rawboned stranger. Struggling to her feet, she staggered as the man used her to lever himself up. She hadn’t expected him to be so tall. He braced his arm across her small shoulders while he kept the handkerchief clutched over his face. He gave a slight groan.
“Are you all right, sir? That is, are you able to walk?”
That produced a choking laugh. “Who the ’ell are you?”
Sara took a hesitant step in the direction of St. James, and he lurched along beside her. “Miss Sara Fielding,” she said, then added cautiously, “of Greenwood Corners.”
He coughed and spat a mouthful of blood-tinged saliva. “Why did you help me?”
Sara couldn’t help noticing that his accent had improved. He sounded almost like a gentleman, but the trace of cockney was still there, softening his consonants and flattening his vowels. “I had no choice,” she replied, bearing up underneath his weight. He clasped his ribs with his free arm and held on to her with the other. “When I saw what those men were doing—”
“You had a choice,” he said harshly. “You could’ve walked away.”
“Turn my back on someone in trouble? The idea is unthinkable.”
“It’s done all the time.”
“Not where I’m from, I assure you.” Noticing that they were straying toward the middle of the street, Sara guided him back to the side, where they were concealed in the darkness. This was the oddest night of her life. She hadn’t anticipated that she would be walking through a London rookery with a battered stranger. He peeled the handkerchief back from his face, and Sara was relieved to see that the bleeding had slowed. “You’d better hold it against the wound,” she said. “We must find a doctor.” She was surprised that he hadn’t asked about the extent of the damage. “From what I was able to see, they made a long slash across your face. But it doesn’t seem to be deep. If it heals well, your appearance might not be affected greatly.”
“It doesn’t matter.”
The remark sharpened Sara’s curiosity. “Sir, do you have friends at Craven’s? Is that why we are going there?”
“Are you by any chance acquainted with Mr. Craven?”
“I am Derek Craven.”
“The Mr. Craven?” Her eyes widened in excitement. “The same one who founded the famous club and came from the underworld and…Were you really born in a drainpipe, as the legend says? Is it true that you—”
“Lower your voice, damn you.”
Sara couldn’t believe her good fortune. “This is quite a coincidence, Mr. Craven. As it happens, I’m in the process of researching a novel about gambling. That’s why I’m here at this time of night. Greenwood Corners isn’t a very worldly sort of place, and therefore I found it necessary to come to London. My book will be a fictional work which will include many descriptions of people and places significant to the gaming culture—”
“Jaysus,” he growled. “Anything you want—a frigging fortune—if you’ll keep your mouth shut until we get there.”
“Sir—” Sara tugged him away from a small pile of rubble, which he might have tripped over. Knowing that he was in pain, she didn’t take offense at his rudeness. The hand clenched at her shoulder was trembling. “We’re almost out of the rookery, Mr. Craven. You’ll be all right.”
Derek’s head swam, and he fought to keep his balance. The blow to his head seemed to have knocked his brains out of place. Tightening his grip on the small form beside him, he matched his shuffling footsteps to hers. He leaned over her more heavily until the fabric of her hood brushed his ear. A kind of dull amazement took hold of him. Blindly he followed the talkative little stranger and hoped to God she was leading him in the right direction. It was the closest to praying he’d ever come.