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 br**sts 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.
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.”
Derek Craven’s arm was firm around Sara’s waist as they whirled in an effortless waltz. He seemed to savor her tipsy playfulness. He flirted shamelessly with her, and pointed out the envious gazes of other men, and made Sara laugh by accusing her of collecting men’s hearts as her playthings. When the waltz ended and a quadrille began, they drew to the edge of the room and accepted drinks brought by a passing waiter. As Sara watched the pattern of the dance, she stood close to Craven, swaying until their shoulders brushed. He grinned and slid an arm around her waist to steady her. Cheerfully Sara drifted back toward the skipping couples, attracted by the music.
Derek pulled her back deftly. “Not a quadrille. You’re not quite steady on your feet, angel.”
“Angel?” Sara repeated, resting back against him. Unladylike behavior, yes, but in the cheerful revelry of the ball, no one noticed or cared. “Do you give names to all your women?”
“I don’t have any women.”
“I don’t believe you,” she said with a giggle, leaning harder against his solid chest. Lightly his hands cupped her elbows, preserving her balance.
“Tell me your name,” he said.
She shook her head. “It doesn’t matter who I am.”
His thumbs moved slowly over the gloved surface of her inner elbows. “I’ll find out before the night is through.” A waltz began, and she turned in his arms to look at him imploringly. “All right,” he said with a laugh, guiding her back to the dance floor. “Another waltz. And afterward you’ll take off your mask.”
The words gave her an unpleasant start. It was the one threat that would break the magic spell wrought over the evening. Sara opened her mouth to tell him no, and then thought better of it. A denial would only make him determined. “Why?” she asked instead, making her voice provocative.
“I want to see your face.”
“I’ll tell you about my face instead. Two eyes, a nose, a mouth…”
“A beautiful mouth.” His fingertip drifted over her lower lip with a light touch that she could have mistaken for a kiss, had her eyes been closed.
The vague smugness Sara had felt at being clever enough to fool him was gone, dissolving in a rush of warmth. She was drunk. “In one’s cups” was the way her father had always put it. Yes, very much in her cups. That was the explanation for the aching emotions that surged within her. Tonight was supposed to be a game, and Derek Craven was nothing but a scoundrel. Why did his touch fill her with such longing? He was the embodiment of all the forbidden delight she would never experience. If only tonight would never end…If only Perry would hold her like this sometimes…If only…
“I want to dance for a long, long time,” she heard herself say.
He took her into his arms and stared down at her intently. “Anything you want.”
Derek didn’t think he would be able to take his hands from her when the waltz ended. He couldn’t risk letting go of her, the one gift Providence had ever seen fit to bestow on him. Everything else he’d had to work, suffer, steal, and cheat for. It had all required effort. But she had simply appeared, like a perfect fruit dropping from a tree into his outstretched hands. He was almost light-headed with desire. She must have felt it too. Her responses dwindled to wordless murmurs as she stared at him through the mask. She was beautiful, experienced, and worldly enough to understand and accept the terms he offered. Not like the other one. Not like the fine, innocent lady who was as different from him as ice from fire.
The hour grew late, and the club was strained at the seams. More guests had arrived, contributing to the happy mayhem. Couples were formed as lords, ladies, rakes, and prostitutes each sought a partner for the night. Usually Sara would have been shocked by the ribald jokes tossed back and forth, but a liberal quantity of alcohol had painted a rosy glow over the scene. She laughed at the lusty sallies she heard, even the ones she didn’t understand. Frequently she was jostled against Derek in the crowded room, until he drew her to a more sheltered spot beside one of the marble columns. Sara was beseiged by invitations to dance, but Derek warded them all off with sardonic amusement. He had claimed her for the evening, and he had no trouble making it clear to those who tried to encroach on his territory.
“I don’t recall giving you exclusive rights to my company,” Sara said, nestled in the crook of his shoulder. She could feel the steady beat of his heart right against her breast, and the incredible strength of his body. The scent of brandy, the starch in his cravat, and the fragrance of his tanned skin formed a heady mixture.
Derek looked down at her with a grin. “Do you want to be with someone else?”