“Oh, my,” she said faintly.
“Sometimes I mudlarked—stole cargo from the waterside, sold it under the table to crooked merchants. I wasn’t much different from the other lads in the rookery. All of us did what was necessary to survive. But there was one…Jem was his name…a scrawny boy with a face like a monkey. One day I noticed he was doing better than the rest. He had a thick coat to wear, food to fill his belly with, even a wench on his arm now and again. I went up to him and asked where he was getting his money.” His face changed, becoming coarse and hard, all trace of handsomeness wiped away. “Jem told me. On his advice, I decided to try my hand at the resurrection business.”
“You…joined a church?” Sara asked, bewildered.
Derek gave her a startled look and then began to choke with laughter. When she asked what was the matter, he actually doubled over, gasping for breath. “No, no…” After dragging a sleeve over his eyes, he was finally able to control himself. “I was a bone-grubber,” he explained.
“I don’t understand—”
“A grave-robber. I dug up corpses from cemeteries and sold them to medical students.” A peculiar smile crossed his lips. “You’re surprised, aren’t you? And revolted.”
“I…” Sara tried to sort through her scattered thoughts. “I can’t say I f-find the thought very pleasant.”
“No. It was far from a pleasant business. But I’m a very good thief, Miss Fielding. Jem used to say I could steal the twinkle from the devil’s eye. I was a good resurrection man—efficient, dependable. I averaged three a night.”
“Bodies. By law, surgeons and medical students can only use the corpses of convicted felons. But there’s never enough to go around. So they paid me to go to burial grounds near hospitals and asylums and bring them the newest corpses I could find. The surgeons always called them ‘specimens.’ ”
“How long did this go on?” Sara asked with a horrified shiver.
“Almost two years—until I began to look like the corpses I stole. Pale, scrawny, like walking death. I slept during the day and only went out at night. I never worked when the moon was full. Too much light. There was always a danger of being shot by groundskeepers, who naturally didn’t look kindly on the business. When I couldn’t go about my work, I would sit in a corner of the local tavern and drink as much as my belly would hold, and try to forget about what I’d been doing. I was a superstitious sort. Having disturbed many an eternal rest, I began to think I was being haunted.”
He spoke in a flat voice, as if he were talking about something that had no connection with him. Sara noticed that his color was high. Embarrassment, self-disgust, anger…She could only guess at the emotions that stirred within him. Why was he confessing such personal and unspeakable things to her?
“I think I was dead inside,” he said. “Or at least only half-human. But the money kept me going back, until I had a nightmare that put a stop to it all. I never set foot near another graveyard after that.”
“Tell me,” Sara said softly, but he shook his head.
“After my resurrection days I turned to other ways of making a profit—all of them nearly as unsavory. But not quite. Nothing’s as bad as what I did. Not even murder.”
He was quiet then. The moon was veiled by clouds, the sky painted in muted tones of gray and violet. Once it might have been the kind of night he had gone out to desecrate graveyards. As she stared at the man next to her, his hair gleaming like ebony in the lamplight, Sara realized that her heart was pounding and her palms were clammy. Cold perspiration trickled down her back and beneath her arms. He was right—she was revolted by the things he had done. And without a doubt there was more he hadn’t told her.
She struggled with many feelings at once, trying to understand him, trying most of all not to fear him. How terribly naive she had been. She would never have imagined him capable of such terrible things. The families of his victims, how they must have suffered—and it could just as well have been her family, her relatives. He was responsible for causing pain to many people. Had someone described such a man to her, she would have said that he was beyond redemption.
But…he wasn’t completely bad. He had come after her tonight, fearing for her safety. He had refused to take advantage of her at the club, when there had been nothing to stop him but the remnants of his own conscience. Just now when she had been crying, he had been kind and gentle. Sara shook her head in consternation, not knowing what to think.
Craven’s face was turned away, but challenge was clear in every line of his posture. It seemed as if he were waiting for her to condemn him. Before she was quite aware of what she was doing, she reached out to the black hair that curled slightly on the back of his neck. At the touch of her hand, he seemed to stop breathing. Muscle flexed beneath her fingertips. She sensed the smoldering beneath his stillness, and his battle to keep his emotions closed away.
After a minute he looked up at her with blazing green eyes. “You little fool. I don’t want your pity. I’m trying to tell you—”
“It’s not pity.” Hastily she snatched her hand back.
“I’m trying to tell you that all that stands between me and becoming that again is a pile of money.”
“You have a mountain of it.”
“Not enough,” he said heatedly. “Never enough. If you had the sense of a frigging sparrow, you’d understand.”
Sara’s brows knitted together. She felt the tightness in her chest expand until she burst with an anger that almost equaled his. “I do understand! You have the will to survive, Mr. Craven. How could I blame you for that? I don’t like the things you’ve done, but I’m not a hypocrite. If I’d been born in the rookery, I probably would have become a prostitute. I know enough to understand that there were few choices for you in that place. In fact…I…I admire you for lifting yourself out of such depths. Few men would have had the will and the strength to do it.”
“Oh?” He smiled darkly. “Earlier today you were asking about my committee of patronesses. I’ll tell you. Most of their husbands keep mistresses, leaving them alone in their beds night after night. I used to service those fine ladies for a price. I made a fortune. I was as good a whore as I was a thief.”
The blood drained from Sara’s cheeks.
Seeing her reaction, he jeered softly. “Still admire me?”
Numbly Sara remembered the conversations she’d had with the prostitutes she’d interviewed for Mathilda. They had the same look on their faces as Craven did now…bleak, hopeless. “When I needed more money to finance the club,” Craven continued, “I blackmailed a few of them. No proper lord would like to find out his wife had taken flash gentry like me into her bed. But the odd thing was, the blackmail did little to dull my charms. The ‘friendships’ continued until the club was built. We have very civilized understandings, my patronesses and me.”
“Lady Raiford—” Sara said hoarsely.
“No, she wasn’t one of them. She and I never…” He made an impatient gesture and retreated unexpectedly, beginning to pace around her as if a circle of fire separated them. “I didn’t want that from her.”
“Because you cared about her.” When the comment drew no response, Sara pressed further. “And she’s one of many people who care about you…including Mr. Worthy, Gill, even the house wenches—”
“It comes along with paying their salaries.”
Ignoring his sneering sarcasm, she regarded him steadily. “Mr. Craven, why have you told me all of this? You won’t accept my sympathy—and I won’t give you scorn. What do you want from me?”
Stopping in the middle of another pass, he crossed the invisible barrier between them and seized her. His hands clenched her upper arms painfully. “I want you to leave. You’re not safe here. As long as you’re in London you’re not safe from me.” His gaze raked over the rippling mass of her hair, her delicate face, her bewildered eyes. With a sudden groan he pulled her against him, burying his face in her hair. Sara closed her eyes, her mind spinning. His body was solid and powerful, hunching over hers to accommodate their difference in height. She felt him tremble with the force of his need. He spoke just beneath her ear, his voice thick with tormented pleasure. “You have to leave, Sara…because I want to hold you like this until your skin melts into mine. I want you in my bed, the smell of you on my sheets, your hair spread across my pillow. I want to take your innocence. God! I want to ruin you for anyone else.”
Blindly Sara flattened her hand on his cheek, against the scratch of newly grown beard. “What if I want the same?” she whispered.
“No,” he said fiercely, and turned his mouth to the tender skin of her neck. “If you were mine, I would make you into someone you didn’t recognize. I would hurt you in ways you’d never dream of. I won’t let that happen. But don’t ever think I didn’t want you.” His hands gripped her closer, and they both began to breathe harshly. The hard jut of his arousal burned against her stomach. “That’s for you,” he muttered. “Only for you.” He groped for her wrist and brought her palm to his chest. Even through the thickness of linen, broadcloth, and wool, she could feel the resounding thump of his heart. She squirmed to press harder against him, and he caught his breath. “A man should never come so close to hell as this,” he said raggedly. “But even with the devil whispering in my ear to take you, I can’t do it.”
“Please,” she gasped, not knowing if she was asking him to let go or to keep her with him.
The word seemed to drive him to the edge of madness. He fitted his mouth over hers with a tortured groan, his tongue searching in urgent forays. Sara curled her arms around his head, tangling her fingers in his dark locks as if she could hold him to her forever. She could still feel his heartbeat pounding against her flattened breasts. His thigh was a hard intrusion amid her skirts, bearing firmly against an unspeakably intimate place. She didn’t know how long he stood there kissing her, his mouth sometimes gentle, sometimes brutal, his hands wandering freely inside her cloak Her legs turned weak, and she knew she couldn’t have stood upright without his arms around her.
“Mr. Craven,” she moaned when his lips left hers to slide hotly down her throat.
He smoothed her hair back from her face and pressed his forehead to hers until she could feel the stitches of his wound against her skin. “Say my name. Say it just once.”
For a moment he was immobile. His breath fanned over her chin. Then he brushed a soft kiss on each of her closed eyes while her lashes trembled against his lips. “I will forget you, Sara Fielding,” he said roughly. “No matter what it takes.”
There was one last moment of that night that lingered in Sara’s memory. He had taken her to the Goodmans’ home, riding with her perched sideways across the saddle. She burrowed her head against his chest, clinging to him tightly. Even in the wintry rawness of the air, his body seemed to blaze with the heat of a coal fire. They stopped on the side of the street, and he disentangled her arms in order to dismount.
A light snow had begun to fall. Tiny flakes swirled downward, making a delicate, audible patter on the street. Craven helped her to the ground. A few snowflakes had fallen on his hair, melting points of lace caught in the dark locks. His scar was more pronounced than usual. She longed to press her lips against the wound, a lasting reminder of the night she had met him. Her throat was unbearably tight. Her eyes stung with unshed tears.
He was so far from the gallant knights in her romantic fantasies…He was tarnished, scarred, imperfect. Deliberately he had destroyed any illusions she might have had about him, exposing his mysterious past for the ugly horror that it was. His purpose had been to drive her away. But instead she felt closer to him, as if the truth had bonded them in a new intimacy.
Walking her to the Goodmans’ front steps, Craven paused to survey her tangled hair, whisker-burned cheeks, and puffy lips. He smiled slightly. “You look like you’ve been done over by a squadron of sailors on leave.”
Sara looked into his intent green eyes, knowing they would haunt her forever. “I’ll never see you again, will I?” she asked dazedly.
There was no need for him to reply. He took her hand as if it were a priceless object, raising it to his mouth so lightly that she felt as if her arm were floating. The warmth of his breath penetrated her skin. She was aware of the movement of his lips as he pressed soundless words in her palm. He released her, and the look he gave her seemed to reveal the depths of his lustful, longing, bitter soul. “Good-bye, Miss Fielding,” he said hoarsely. He turned and strode away. Sara watched in frozen silence as he hoisted himself easily into the saddle and rode down the street, until he had disappeared from sight.
The day after her return to Greenwood Corners, Sara walked a mile across the frozen cart trails and patches of woodland that separated her family’s cottage from the Kingswoods’ smaller village manor. Along the way she breathed deeply of the clean country air, crisp with the scents of pine and snow. “Miss Fielding!” She heard a boy’s high-pitched voice behind her. “How was London?”
Sara turned to smile at young Billy Evans, the miller’s son. “London was very exciting,” she replied. “Why aren’t you in school at this hour?” She gave him a mock-suspicious glance, for this wouldn’t be the first time Billy had been caught playing truant.
“Sent to borrow a book from the rectory,” he said cheerfully. “How’s your novel, Miss Fielding?”
“Barely begun,” Sara admitted. “I think I’ll have it finished by summer.”
“I’ll tell my mother. She loves your books—though she has to hide ’em from Pa.”
“Why is that?”
“He doesn’t like her to read. Says it might give her the notion to run off like Mathilda did.”
They both laughed, and Sara rumpled the boy’s red hair. “She would never do that, Billy. Besides, Mathilda ended up nearly jumping off a bridge—see what comes of running away?”
He gave her a sly, bucktoothed grin. “Guess you won’t be leaving Mr. Kingswood anymore, then.”
Sara leaned close to him. “Do you think he missed me?” she asked in a conspiratorial whisper. To her delight, Billy blushed until his face was bright pink underneath his carrot-colored hair.