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 br**sts 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 br**sts 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,” 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 h*ps 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.”