“Where shall we take her?” one of them asked.
“To the bridge,” came the ready suggestion. “I know just the spot to have her. We’ll wait our turns politely—as gennelmen should—an’ if she makes a fuss, we’ll toss her in the Thames.”
The other two burst out laughing.
“Let me go! I’m not a prostitute. I’m not—”
“Yes, you’re a good girl,” he soothed. “A young, pretty wench who shouldn’t mind a bit of folly with a few randy bucks.”
“Don’t worry, darling, you’ll like us. Splendid fellows, we are. Never given a wench reason to complain before, have we?”
“I should say not!” the second man chimed.
“You’ll likely offer to pay us after!” the other added and the three rocked with drunken hilarity as they dragged her along with them. Sara screamed and fought with her nails and teeth, lashing out with all her strength. Annoyed by her frantic clawing, one of them cuffed her across the face. “Don’t be a little fool. We’re not going to kill you—just want a tail-tickle.”
Sara had never made sounds in her life as she did now, mad screams that rent the air. She found unexpected strength in her terror, feeling her nails rip across skin, her half-closed fists striking hard against the bonds that held her…and yet it wasn’t enough. She was half-carried, half-dragged. Her lungs shuddered, drawing in enough air for another ear-splitting scream. Suddenly she was dropped to the street, landing hard on her buttocks. The scream was knocked out of her throat. She sat on the ground in stupefied silence.
A slim, dark figure passed before her eyes, moving with a peculiar catlike grace. Sara heard heavy thuds as a weighted cudgel swung in vicious arcs. Two of the men who had assaulted her collapsed, groaning sickly. The third screamed in outrage and skittered back. “What are you doing?” he shouted. “What in blazes? You ignorant swine…I’ll see you hanged for this!”
Sara passed a hand over her eyes and gazed at the apparition in trembling wonder. At first she had thought Jenner had come back to rescue her. But it was Derek Craven’s scarred face she saw, harsh as a primitive war mask, lit by red fire-glow. He stood with his legs splayed and his chin lowered. One hand was wrapped around a neddy, the weighted club preferred by rookery brutes. He didn’t spare a glance for Sara, only stared at the remaining man like a hungry jackal.
He spoke through his teeth. “Take your friends and leave.”
The fallen libertines struggled to their feet, one of them clasping a hand to his bleeding head, the other holding his side. The third, divining the accent in Derek’s voice, did not move. “Well-dressed for a cockney, aren’t you? So fine feathers are to your taste, eh? I’ll give you money for more. You’ll be the Beau Brummell of the East End. Just let us have the woman.”
“I’ll even share, if you want a taste of her first—”
“She’s mine,” Derek growled, and raised the club a few inches.
By tacit agreement the two injured men lurched away. The third stared at Derek in angry indecision. “Thickheaded knave!” he finally exclaimed. “Have the little bitch all to yourself, then!” After biting his thumb in a contemptuous gesture, he hastened to join his companions as they shuffled down the street.
Sara stood up and staggered toward Craven. He was upon her in three strides, with a swirl of black cloak and a face so harsh that she half-believed he was the devil. Her shoulders were seized in a brutal grip. She was ushered without ceremony to an ebony horse waiting nearby, its sides gleaming with sweat. Silently she endured Craven’s rough handling as he more or less threw her into the saddle. He took the reins and swung up behind her in a lithe movement, his left arm clamping hard about her.
The horse sprang into a canter. Dismal shacks, broken storefronts, and swarming streets flew past them. Closing her eyes against the biting rush of air, Sara wondered dully if he was taking her back to the club. Miserably she turned her face into the fine wool fabric of his cloak. Each rising surge of the horse’s gait urged her closer against him. She had never been held so tightly, her body caught hard against his, her lungs squeezed until her breath was short. But strangely she found a measure of solace in his painful grip. With the sinewy strength of him braced behind her, nothing and no one would harm her. She’s mine, he had said…and her heart had throbbed in answer…recognizing it as truth.
Strange, unknowable man, who had once deliberately driven the woman he loved into someone else’s arms. Worthy had told her the story of how Derek had practically thrown Lily into Lord Raiford’s bed.
“Mr. Craven feared that he himself was falling in love with her,” Worthy had confided, “and so he virtually gave her away to the earl. He did everything possible to encourage their liaison. Mr. Craven doesn’t know how to love. He recognizes it only as weakness and folly. That’s part of his attraction for women, I believe. They each hope to be the one who will finally capture his heart. But it’s not possible. He’ll never allow it, no indeed…”
Weakness and folly…Tonight she had indulged in a hearty share of both. Words of apology and gratitude hovered on her lips, but she was too ashamed to say them. Instead she closed her eyes and clung to him, desperately pretending that time had vanished and they would keep riding forever, off the edge of the earth and into a sea of stars…
Her fantasy was short-lived. Soon they reached a small park bordered by quiet streets. The glass globes of suspended oil lamps cast ovals of feeble light across the road. Reining the horse to a halt, Derek dismounted and held up his hands to her. Awkwardly Sara slid down from the saddle, guided by his hands at her waist. He let go of her as soon as her feet touched the ground and walked to the edge of the park.
Sara approached him and stopped a few feet away. Her lips parted and her throat worked, but no sound came out.
Derek swung around, rubbing his jaw as he gazed at her.
She was swamped by a feeling of utter hopelessness as she waited for him to destroy her with a few caustic words. But he continued to watch her silently, his face unreadable. It seemed almost as if he were waiting for some cue from her. The dilemma lasted for several seconds, until Sara solved it by bursting into tears. She jerked her hands up to her face, blotting her streaming eyes. “I’m so sorry,” she gasped.
Suddenly he was next to her, touching her shoulders and arms lightly and then jerking his hands back as if burned. “No, don’t. Don’t. You’re all right now.” Gingerly he reached out to pat her back. “Don’t cry. Everything’s fine. Bloody hell. Don’t do that.”
As she continued to weep, Derek hovered over her in baffled dismay. He excelled at seducing women, charming and deceiving them, breaking down their defenses…everything but comforting them. No one had ever required it of him. “There, now,” he muttered, as he had heard Lily Raiford say a thousand times to her crying children. “There, now.”
Suddenly she was leaning on him, her small head resting at the center of his chest. The long skeins of her hair draped everywhere, entangling him in a fine russet web. Alarmed, he lifted his hands to ease her away. Instead his arms slid around her until she was pressed against him length to length. “Miss Fielding,” he said with great effort. “Sara…” She nestled deeper against him, muffling her gulping sobs in his shirtfront.
Derek swore and furtively pressed his lips to the top of her head. He concentrated on the chilly night air, but his loins began to throb with an all-too-familiar pain. It was impossible to stay indifferent to the feel of her body molded to his. He was a bloody charlatan…no gentleman, no chivalrous comforter of women, only a scoundrel filled with raw desire. He smoothed his hand over her hair and urged her head into his shoulder until she was in danger of being smothered. “It’s all right,” he said gruffly. “Everything’s fine now. Don’t cry anymore.”
“I sh-should never have gone off with Mr. Jenner, but I was angry with you for…for…”
“Yes, I know.” Derek searched in his coat and found a handkerchief. Clumsily he plastered it against her wet face. “Here. Take this.”
She peeled the linen from her cheeks and used it to blow her nose. “Oh, th-thank you.”
“Did Jenner hurt you?”
“No, but he left me, right in the middle of that m-mess—” Her chin wobbled, heralding fresh tears, and Derek interrupted in alarm.
“Easy. Easy. You’re safe now. And I’m going to wring Ivo Jenner’s neck—after I wring yours for going with him.” His hand slipped under her cloak to her velvet-covered back, kneading the knotted muscles.
Sara gave a last hiccup. She drooped against him, shivering. “You saved me tonight. I’ll never be able to thank you enough.”
“Don’t thank me. We’re even now.”
“I am grateful,” she insisted.
“Don’t be. I’m responsible for some of this. I should have known it was you behind the mask.” His eyes swept over her luminous, tear-streaked face. “Perhaps I did, somehow.”
Sara was very still, soaking in the warmth that mingled beneath their cloaks. The heel of his hand rested on the side of her breast, while his other spread across the small of her back. “Where did the dress come from?” he asked, his breath a puff of white mist in the air.
“Of course,” he said sardonically. “It looks like something she would wear.” He glanced into the open neck of the cloak, where the shadow of her cl**vage was visible. His thumb moved high on her breast, lingering at the edge where velvet ended and soft skin began. “Except you fill it out differently.”
Sara pretended not to notice the gentle fondling, even as her blood quickened and her ni**les contracted within the velvet sheath. “Lady Raiford was very kind. You mustn’t blame her. Coming to the assembly ball tonight was my idea. It was all my fault, no one else’s.”
“I suspect Worthy and Lily were damn eager to help you.” His knuckles brushed over the top of her breast and around the side, until a tremor of pleasure went through her. He spoke softly against her hair. “Are you cold?”
“No,” she whispered. Liquid fire raced through her veins. She felt as if she had drunk some heady concoction a hundred times more potent than wine.
Derek eased her head back and stared into her eyes. “I want you to forget everything that happened tonight.”
“Because you’re going back to your village tomorrow. You’re going to marry your Kingsfield.”
“Wood,” he repeated impatiently.
Sara moistened her dry lips. “Will you forget, Mr. Craven?”
“Yes.” His gaze flickered to her mouth, and he let go of her.
Momentarily disoriented, Sara swayed and found her balance. She half-expected him to tell her it was time to leave, but he seemed in no particular hurry. Wandering to the wooden fence nearby, he leaned against the highest rail.
“Shouldn’t we return to the club?” Sara asked, following him.
“For what? There’s not much left of the assembly, after the raid your friend Jenner arranged. No more guests, no gambling…and fortunately for you, no more rum punch.”
Sara blushed deeply. “That punch was quite intoxicating,” she admitted.
He laughed, inspecting her flushed cheeks and her uncertain balance. “You’re still flying high as a kite, angel.”
Relieved that he was no longer angry with her, Sara folded her arms and glanced at the quiet streets. The wind seemed to carry the faint howl of the distant mob, though that was only a trick of her imagination. She wondered if their gruesome purpose had been accomplished, if they had reveled in pulling apart the highwayman’s corpse. The thought made her shudder, and she told Craven what Jenner had said about the mob. He listened without surprise. “How can people behave in such a way?” Sara asked. “How can they watch executions for entertainment? I can’t understand it.”
“I did, when I was a boy.”
Her jaw dropped. “You went to hangings, a-and floggings, and disembowlings, and…but you didn’t enjoy it. You couldn’t have.”
Derek met her gaze without blinking. “Now I take no pleasure in death. But at the time I had quite a fascination for it.”
Troubled by the admission, Sara reminded herself that as a child he had lived in an underworld of crime and sin, brought up in brothels, flash houses, and the streets of the rookery. But still she found it difficult to accept the image of him cheering as a man strangled at the end of a rope. “What did you think, as you watched them being hanged?” she asked.
“I considered myself lucky. At least I wasn’t up there. I was hungry, and didn’t own so much as a piss pot…but at least there was no rope around my neck.”
“And that made you feel better about your situation?”
“I had no ‘situation,’ Miss Fielding. I fought, cheated, stole for everything: the food I ate, the gin I drank…for women, sometimes.”
Sara colored slightly. “What about honest labor? You worked sometimes. Worthy told me you did.”
“Labor, yes. Honest?” He shook his head and snorted in bitter amusement. “You’d rather not know.”
Sara was quiet for a moment. “I would,” she said suddenly. “I would like to know.”
“More material for your research?”
“No, it’s not that at all.” Impulsively she touched his arm. “Please. You must believe I would never betray a private confidence.”
Derek stared at the place on his sleeve she had touched, even after her hand was withdrawn. He crossed his long legs and kept his eyes on the ground. A heavy swath of black hair spilled over his forehead. “I was a climbing boy until I got too big. Some of the chimneys were only two or three bricks wide. I was small for a boy of six, but one day I couldn’t squeeze myself through the flue.” A reminiscent smile crossed his face. “You don’t know what hell is until you’ve been stuck in a chimney.”
“How did they get you out?” she asked, horrified.
“They lit a bundle of hay underneath me. I tore half my hide off, scrambling up that chimney.” He laughed shortly. “After that I worked on the docks, loading crates and boxes. Sometimes I skinned and gutted fish, or shoveled manure and hauled it from stableyards to the wharf. I never knew what a bath was.” Sliding a glance at her, he grinned at her expression. “Stank until even the flies wouldn’t come near me.”