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 dean 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.
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!”