Slowly Sara turned the letter over in her hand, regarding the delicate handwriting and the elaborate crest stamped on the back. Conscious of her parents’ interested gazes, she broke the seal and unfolded the smoothly textured parchment. Silently she read the first few lines.
My Dear Miss Fielding,
Since the delightful occasion when we met, I have remembered you often, and I must confess, with a great deal of curiosity. I would dearly love to hear your account of the assembly, and perhaps take some time to further our acquaintance during an upcoming weekend…
Sara read further and then looked up at her parents’ quizzical faces. “It’s from the countess of Raiford,” she said in astonished wonder. “I had the opportunity to meet her while I was in London.”
“What does the letter say?” Katie asked.
Sara looked back down at the letter. “She…she has invited me to stay at Raiford Park for a weekend in Hertfordshire. There will be a ball, grand dinners, fireworks…more than two hundred guests…She writes that they have need of someone ‘bright and fresh’ like me to liven the conversation…” Sara gave an incredulous laugh. “She can’t really mean to invite someone like me to a gathering of the haut ton.”
Reaching down for the letter, Katie held it at arm’s length and squinted at it in an effort to read. “How extraordinary.”
“I couldn’t possibly accept,” Sara said. “I don’t have the right kind of clothes, or a private carriage, and I wouldn’t know a soul—”
“And Perry would hardly approve,” her father pointed out.
Only half-hearing the comment, Sara shook her head in confusion. “Why would she desire my presence at an event of this sort?” Sara caught her breath as a terrible thought occurred to her. Perhaps Lily thought that inviting a country bumpkin would serve as entertainment for her sophisticated guests. They would find no end of amusement in baiting a shy, plainly dressed novelist in their midst. The drumming of her pulse seemed to fill her ears. But as she recalled Lily’s sparkling smile, she was ashamed of her own suspicions. She would regard Lily’s invitation as the kindhearted gesture that it was.
“Imagine the gentry who’ll attend,” Katie said, examining the letter. “I must show this to the Hodges—they’ll scarcely believe their ears when I tell them my daughter has befriended a countess!”
“No difference between a countess and a milkmaid in God’s eyes,” Isaac pointed out, bending to stir up the coals in the grate.
“Lady Raiford is a unique woman,” Sara mused. “She is lively, kind, and very generous.”
“A woman of her means can afford to be generous,” her father remarked, his eyes twinkling.
“I imagine there will be a colorful assortment of people at her home,” Sara continued. “Perhaps even…” She bit her lip and tried to quiet the sudden chaos of her thoughts. It was possible Derek Craven would be there. He was a close friend of the Raifords. All the more reason not to go, she told herself…but her heart whispered a different message.
Hours later, when her parents were toasting their feet before the fire and reading passages from the Bible, Sara sat with a lapdesk and a leaf of her best letter paper. Carefully she clipped a pen into a tiny pot of ink and began to write. Her hand shook a little, but somehow she was able to keep the words even and neatly formed.
My Dear Lady Raiford,
It is with pleasure that I accept your gracious invitation to the forthcoming weekend at Raiford Park…
The astringent smell of gin permeated the air of the apartments above the gambling club. Despite the maids’ best efforts to keep the place as immaculate as always, they could do little to repair the destruction Derek had wrought over the past weeks. The thick velvet drapes and elaborate carpets were ruined by liquor stains and cigar burns. A table encrusted with semi-precious stones had been marked by boot heels resting casually on its fragile surface. Litter and discarded clothing were strewn across the floor. The windows were covered to keep out any light.
Cautiously Worthy ventured deeper into the apartment, having the vague sensation of intruding into the cave of an ill-tempered beast. He found Derek sprawled on his stomach across an unmade bed. Long legs and bare feet dangled well over the edge of the mattress. There was an empty gin bottle on the floor, drained over several hours of steady drinking.
Derek’s back tensed beneath the thick ocher silk of his robe as he became aware of the visitor. “You took your bloody time,” he sneered without looking up. “Bring it here.”
“Bring what, sir?”
The rumpled black head lifted. Derek fastened a bleary glare on the factotum. His mouth was bracketed with deep lines. The pallid color of his skin made the scar on his face more noticeable than usual. “Don’t play games with me. You know I sent for another bottle.”
“Sir, won’t you have a tray from the kitchen instead? You haven’t eaten anything since yesterday morning…and you despise gin.”
“It’s mother’s milk to me. Get me what I asked for, or you’ll find your interfering arse on the streets.”
Having been threatened with dismissal nearly every day for the past month, Worthy dared to ignore the remark. “Mr. Craven, I’ve never known you to behave this way. You haven’t been yourself since—”
“Since when?” Derek prompted, suddenly looking like a panther tensed to strike. The effect was spoiled by an inebriated burp, and he lowered his head to the wrinkled counterpane once more.
“It’s clear to everyone that something is wrong,” Worthy persisted. “My regard for you prompts me to speak frankly, even if it means losing my position at Craven’s.”
Derek’s voice was muffled in the covers. “I’m not listening.”
“You are a better man than you know, sir. I will never forget that you saved my life. Oh, I know you forbade me ever to mention it, but it is true, nonetheless. I was a stranger to you, and yet you took it upon yourself to spare me from the hangman’s noose.”
Years ago Worthy had been the under-butler of an aristocratic household in London. He had been in love with one of the parlormaids, who had stolen a pearl and ruby necklace from the mistress of the house. Rather than allow his love to be arrested and hanged for the theft, Worthy had claimed responsibility. He had been held at Newgate for execution. Hearing the story of Worthy’s plight through one of the servants at the club, Derek had approached a local magistrate as well as a prison official, using equal parts of bribery and coercion to free the under-butler. It was said in London that Craven could talk the hind leg off a horse. Only he could have plucked a hapless convict right from the bowels of Newgate.
The first time Worthy had ever seen Derek Craven was at the door of his prison cell, wearing an expression of sardonic amusement. “So you’re the fool what’s going to ’ang for some light-fingered bitch?”
“Y-yes, sir,” Worthy stuttered, watching as Derek handed a wad of money to the prison guard.
“More loyalty than wits,” Derek had observed with a grin. “Just as I ’oped. Well, little gallows-bird, I could use you as a factotum for my club. Unless you’d rather let the ’angman string you up tomorrow?”
Worthy had done everything short of kissing his feet in gratitude, and had served him faithfully ever since. Now, as he saw the state to which his strong-willed, prosperous employer had fallen, he was at a loss to know how to help him. “Mr. Craven,” he said tentatively, “I understand why you’re doing this to yourself.” A spasm of pain crossed his face. “I was in love once.”
“I remember. Your noble affair with the light-handed parlormaid.”
Worthy ignored the gibe and continued in a quiet, earnest tone. “For ten years not a day has gone by that I haven’t thought of her. I can still see her face before me, as clear and bright as nothing else in my memory.”
“Yes, sir. There is no logic to it. No one can explain why one woman can tear a man’s very heart from his chest, and never let go. For you that woman is Miss Fielding, isn’t it?”
“Get out,” Derek said harshly, his fingers digging into the mass of crumpled bedclothes.
“Sir, even if you have lost her, you must conduct your life in a manner that will honor your feelings for her. It would sadden her to see you like this.”
“Very well, sir.”
“And send up another bottle of gin.”
Murmuring his acquiescence, the factotum left the room.
Perhaps later Derek would notice that the gin was never delivered, but for now he fell into a drunken oblivion. Senseless dreams floated through his head while he twitched and muttered incoherently.
In the middle of the seething shadows, he became aware of a woman’s body pressed against his. Small hands slipped inside his robe and eased the fabric apart. His body stiffened in arousal. Hungrily he pressed himself against her, seeking the exquisite friction of her palms clasped around him. Gathering her close, he cupped the silken weight of her br**sts in his hands.
Burning with the need to thrust inside her, he rolled on top of her and pushed her knees wide to position her for his entry. He dragged his mouth over her throat and breathed hotly against the moist trail he had left behind. Moaning passionately, she arched against him and wrapped her arms around his shoulders. “Sara,” he groaned against her ear as he began to push inside her. “Oh, Sara—”
All at once knifelike talons raked over his back, digging vengefully deep. Derek gasped in painful surprise. Rearing back to escape the stinging scratches, he caught the woman’s slim wrists and pinned them on either side of her head. Lady Ashby lay beneath him, glaring up at him. Her fingers were curled into claws, the tips wet with his blood. “You rutting bastard,” she spat. “Don’t ever call me by another woman’s name!”
Derek heard a dull roar that he didn’t recognize as his own. His hands fastened around her neck. A thick red haze surrounded him. His fingers dug into her throat, choking off the pathways of blood and air until her face turned purple. She stared at him with a twisted grimace of triumph, as if she welcomed his murderous grip on her throat. Just as her eyes began to roll back in her head, he released her with a feral snarl and leapt off the bed.
Joyce curled in a heap amid the tangled covers. The room was filled with the sound of her violent choking.
Clenching a shaking hand around the tasseled bellpull, Derek rang for Worthy. Dazedly he walked to the window and gathered the open robe around himself. He rubbed his unshaven jaw, the bristles as rough as wire. “Mad as a weaver,” he muttered. It wasn’t clear if he was referring to Joyce or himself.
She finally regained enough breath to speak. “What st-stopped you from killing me?”
He didn’t look at her. “I won’t hang for your murder.”
“I’d like to die,” she wheezed sickly, “and take you with me.”
The scene disgusted Derek, nauseated him. It was an echo of his past, a reminder that the years of depravity would always haunt him, making any sort of normal life impossible. The sour taste of defeat filled his mouth.
Worthy appeared, wearing an expression of blank surprise as he saw the na*ed blond woman on Derek’s bed and her discarded gown on the floor.
“It’s Lady Ashby,” Derek said curtly, walking to the door. Blood from the nail marks on his back soaked through his robe. “Find out how she got in here. Get rid of whoever’s responsible for letting her inside.” His narrowed eyes swerved from the woman on the bed to the factotum. “If she ever sets foot in Craven’s again, I’ll kill her—right after I clean and bone you like a mackerel.”
Joyce raised herself on her hands and knees like a golden cat. Strands of her hair fell over her face, and she watched Derek intently through the gleaming wisps. “I love you,” she mewled.
Something about her tone sent a chill down Derek’s spine…some insistent, wild note that warned she would never admit defeat. “Go to hell,” he said as he left the room.
The hired carriage traveled along the mile-long drive that led from the fifteenth-century gatehouse, through a lush, landscaped park. Eventually the vehicle reached the splendid Raiford mansion. Sara’s knees turned weak as she stared through a corner of the carriage window. “Oh, my,” she breathed. A nerveless shiver went from her head to her toes. She most definitely did not belong here.
The glistening white mansion was fronted with ten towering columns and twenty pairs of Palladian windows, and ornamental carved stone balustrades that ran the entire width of the building. A regal procession of chimney stacks and towering domed projections on the roof gave the mansion the appearance of reaching for the sky. Before Sara had the presence of mind to direct the driver to return to Greenwood Corners, the carriage stopped. Two gigantic footmen with carefully blank expressions helped her alight from the vehicle. Sara was ushered to the row of circular steps leading to the front portico. A tall, gray-bearded butler appeared at the door, accompanied by the groom of the chambers.
The butler had a stern face that might have been carved from granite. She smiled at him and began to fumble in her reticule for the letter from Lily. “Sir, I have an invitation from Lady Raiford—”
He seemed to recognize her, perhaps from Lily’s description. “Of course, Miss Fielding.” He glanced over her plain gray gown and traveling bonnet, and the brightly embroidered shawl that one of the village women had loaned to her. Some of his haughtiness seemed to melt away. “We are honored by your presence.”
Before she could thank him for the sentiment, she was interrupted by Lily Raiford’s exuberant voice. “You’re here at last! Burton, we must go to special lengths to make Miss Fielding feel at home.” Dressed in a lemon-colored gown made of cashmere, with sleeves of a silk so thin it was referred to by dressmakers as peau de papillon, or “butterfly skin,” Lily was breathtakingly beautiful.
“Oh, please don’t go to any trouble—” Sara protested, but the words were lost in the flood of Lily’s busy chatter.
“You haven’t arrived a moment too soon, my dear.” Lily kissed her on both cheeks in the continental fashion. “Everyone is lounging inside making cynical observations and thinking themselves quite witty. You’ll be a breath of fresh air. Burton, see that Miss Fielding’s bags are brought to her room while I take her around.”