“You wrote Mathilda?”
“My dear, you must tell us all about her! How did you meet?”
“How is she these days?”
Sara smiled and made a valiant attempt to reply, but she soon found that it didn’t matter what she said, for they all answered their own questions and went right on talking. Ruefully Sara glanced at Lily, who grinned and shrugged helplessly to show that the group was incorrigible.
Two hours before the appointed suppertime, the women began to disperse in order to change their gowns and ready themselves for a long evening. As she gazed around the room, Sara became aware of a new arrival, a blond woman to whom she hadn’t yet been introduced. Although the others gave the newcomer lackluster greetings, no one seemed inclined to claim her as a friend. Sara turned in her chair to glance at her.
The woman was slender and very striking. Her face was sharply sculpted, the nose aristocratically thin with a delicate point. Changeable eyes that held tones of blue, gray, and green were set deep below her plucked brows. A wealth of rich golden hair was cut with a fringe across her forehead and drawn on top of her head in a profusion of careless curls. Were there any warmth in her expression, she would have been stunningly beautiful. But the woman’s eyes were strangely flat and hard, like chips of stone. Her unswerving stare made Sara uneasy.
“And who are you?” she asked in a silky voice.
“Miss Sara Fielding, ma’am.”
“Sara,” the woman repeated, looking at her speculatively. “Sara.”
Uncomfortably Sara set her cup of tea down and began to brush invisible crumbs from her skirts. Noticing the others leaving the room, she wondered how she could follow suit without seeming rude.
“Where are you from?” the woman continued softly.
“Greenwood Corners, ma’am. It’s a small village not far from here.”
“But how sweet you are. Greenwood Corners. Of course. With a complexion as pure as a milkmaid’s, you would have to be from the country. And that delightful air of innocence…You make me feel quite protective. You’re not married, I see. Tell me, Sara, has any man yet claimed your affections?”
Sara kept silent, not knowing what to make of the woman’s interest.
“Oh, you’ll capture a score of hearts,” Lady Ashby said. “Even the most hardened ones. No one could resist a pretty innocent like you. I believe you could make an old man believe he’s young again. Why, you could probably make a scoundrel renounce the devil—”
“Joyce,” came Lily’s calm voice. They both glanced at Lily, who wore an unusual look of hauteur. Sara stood up from the chair, silently grateful for the rescue. “I’m certain my friend appreciates all these flattering observations,” Lily continued coolly, “but she’s rather shy. I wouldn’t like you to make any of my guests uncomfortable.”
“What an accomplished hostess you’ve become, Lily,” Joyce purred, staring at Lily with active dislike. “One would never suspect you’ve led such a colorful life. You hide it so well. But you can’t conceal the fruits of your past entirely, can you?”
“What do you mean by that?” Lily asked, her eyes narrowed.
“I mean that your adorable daughter Nicole is a constant reminder of your liaison with Derek Craven.” Joyce turned to Sara and added smoothly, “Why, you look surprised, darling. I thought everyone knew that Nicole is Derek Craven’s bastard child.”
Sara sensed Lily’s inner struggle to keep her temper in check. For a moment it seemed she would lose the battle. Sara touched her arm in a silent gesture of support, while Lady Ashby noted the gesture with a mocking gaze. Mastering herself, Lily compressed her lips until they were white. She glanced at Sara. “Shall we go upstairs?” she asked in a voice that shook slightly.
Hastily Sara nodded, and they left Lady Ashby, who wore a calculating smile.
They reached the second landing of the grand staircase before Lily was able to speak. “Nicole is a bastard child, but Derek isn’t the father.”
Sara made a small, consoling sound in her throat. “Lily, there’s no need to tell me—”
“I-I made a mistake, several years ago, before I was married. Alex couldn’t love my daughter any more if she were his own. I don’t care what anyone may say about me, but Nicole is a precious, innocent child. I can’t bear to think of her being punished for my sins. Thank God there are few people who would dare to cast stones. Lady Mountbain has so many children by different fathers that her brood is called the Mountbain Miscellany. And Lady Ashby has enough ex-lovers to form a complete regiment. Damn that woman! I hadn’t intended to tell you, but Joyce is the one who arranged to have Derek attacked in the rookery.”
Sara caught her breath in a mixture of surprise and anger, not only at Joyce but at Derek. How could he have carried on an affair with a woman like that? Well, he and Lady Ashby were two of a kind! This is what it would be like, her mind slyly whispered…always being confronted with evidence of his sins…always having to make excuses for him. Not for the first time Sara wondered what she was doing here. Unhappily she considered telling Lily that she wanted to leave Raiford Park.
“…stay away from Lady Ashby,” Lily was saying. “If she suspects that Derek has feelings for you, she’ll make things very unpleasant.” Mumbling something under her breath, Lily stomped up the stairs at an aggressive pace that Sara labored to follow. “Come with me—I want to show you something.”
They went to the third floor, approaching a set of bright, thickly carpeted rooms that Lily explained were the schoolroom, the nursery, and the bedchambers for the nurse and the two nursery maids. The sound of childish babble and laughter drifted from the nursery. Standing in the doorway, Sara saw two beautiful black-haired children, a girl of eight or nine, and a boy who appeared to be about three. They were sitting on the carpet, surrounded by towers of blocks, games, and books.
“These are my two darlings,” Lily said proudly.
At the sound of her voice, both of them looked up and rushed forward eagerly. “Mama!”
Lily embraced her children and turned them to face Sara. “Nicole, Jamie, this is Miss Fielding. She’s a very nice friend who writes stories.”
Nicole curtseyed neatly and regarded her with interest. “I like to read stories.”
“Me too!” Jamie chimed in, hovering behind his sister’s skirts.
“Jamie can’t read yet,” Nicole said with dignity.
“Yes, I can!” Jamie said, his temper sparking. “I’ll show you!”
“Children,” Lily interceded, forestalling her son’s efforts to fetch a book, “it’s a grand day outside. Come have a romp in the snow with me.”
The nurse wore a disapproving frown. “M’lady, they’ll catch their deaths of cold.”
“Oh, I won’t keep them out long,” Lily said cheerfully.
“You won’t have time to ready yourself for the ball—”
“It never takes me long to change.” Lily grinned at her children. “And besides, playing outside is much more fun than going to a boring old ball.”
Sniffing haughtily, the nurse went to fetch her charges’ coats.
“May I take one of my dolls, Mama?” Nicole asked.
Sara had to smile at Nicole’s quaint charm as the girl opened a painted toy cupboard and rummaged through a row of dolls. The child was an excessively ladylike little creature. Lily leaned toward Sara confidentially. “I encourage her to be as wild as she pleases, but she’ll have none of it. A little angel, she is. Completely unlike me.” She laughed quietly. “Wait until you have children, Sara—they’ll probably be perfect hellions!”
“I can’t imagine it,” Sara said, trying to picture herself as a mother. A wistful smile crossed her lips. “I don’t know if I will. Some women aren’t meant to have children.”
“You’re meant to,” Lily replied firmly.
“How do you know?”
“With your patience and kindness, and all the love you have to give…Why, you’ll be the best mother in the world!”
Sara laughed wryly. “Well, now that’s been established, all I need is someone to father them.”
“The ball tonight will be swarming with eligible bachelors. For supper I’ve seated you between two of the most promising ones. Have you brought the blue gown? Good. I expect you’ll have your pick of any man you desire.”
“I haven’t come for husband-hunting—” Sara began anxiously.
“Well, that doesn’t mean you’ll ignore any good prospects that come your way, does it?”
“I suppose not,” Sara murmured, deciding not to leave the weekend party. Now that she was here, she supposed there wasn’t much harm in staying.
Clad in their splendid evening finery, the guests assembled in the drawing room and began the long and complicated procession into the dining hall, an opulent room with a fifty-foot ceiling. With the couples arranged by order of rank, importance, and age, the ladies lightly held the gentlemen’s right arms and promenaded to the two long tables, each of which would accommodate one hundred guests. The tables were laden with innumerable crystal goblets, silver, and fine patterned porcelain.
Seated between two charming young men, Sara found herself enjoying the dinner greatly. The conversation was fascinating, for the table included poets quoting from their latest works and ambassadors telling amusing stories of life abroad. Every few minutes glasses were raised in a round of toasts, praising the host and hostess, the quality of the food, the health of the king, and every other notion that struck the guests as meritable. White-gloved servants moved quietly among the diners, bringing dishes of seasoned patties, tiny soufflés, and crystal plates of bonbons to sample between courses. After the great silver tureens of turtle soup and the plates of salmon were removed, large platters of roast, poultry, and game were brought out. The meal was concluded with iced champagne, pastries, and a luscious selection of fruits.
The cloths were removed from the tables, and the gentlemen leaned back in their chairs to enjoy Lord Raiford’s excellent stock of hock, sherry, and port, and to puff on cigars as they talked of masculine interests such as politics. Meanwhile the ladies retired to separate rooms for more tea and gossip. They would all rejoin in the ballroom an hour or two later, when dinner had settled.
Seated to Alex’s left, Derek nursed a glass of port and listened to the conversation with deceptive laziness. It was not his wont to take an active part in after-dinner arguments, no matter how good-natured they were. Certainly none of the men made the mistake of engaging him in a debate. He was far from a great orator, for he disliked making speeches of any length. But he had a way of cutting to the heart of a matter with a few well-chosen words. “And besides,” one of the men murmured to his neighbor, “I would never be fool enough to debate with a man who knows how much I’m worth.”
“How does he know that?”
“He knows how much everyone is worth, down to the last farthing!”
As the gentlemen drank deeper into their cups, the conversation turned to a bill that had recently been dismissed in Parliament. It would have abolished the practice of using climbing boys to clean chimneys. But Lord Lauderson, a fat, long-winded earl who had a habit of turning almost everything into an occasion for jokes and amusement, had made a humorous speech in the House of Lords that had killed the bill. A few of his witticisms were recounted at the table, and many of the men were laughing in appreciation. Proud of his own cleverness, Lauderson beamed until his face turned as pink as a cherub’s. “I say, I was in good form that day,” he said with a chuckle. “Glad to entertain, my good fellows…always glad of it.”
Slowly Derek set down his glass in order to keep it from splintering in his hand. He had supported the bill with as much money and behind-the-scenes manipulation as possible. With all that and Raiford’s support, the bill had been guaranteed to pass—until Lauderson’s facetious speech. All at once Lauderson’s boasting was too much to take.
“I hear you were quite amusing, my lord,” Derek said. His tone was soft, undercutting many of the boisterous jests that were being tossed back and forth. “But I doubt a group of climbing boys would have been as appreciative of your wit as Parliament was.” The table quieted immediately. Many gazes turned to his impassive face. Derek Craven always gave the appearance of never caring about anything…but it seemed that this issue was of more than passing importance to him. More than a few guests recalled the rumors that Craven himself had been a climbing boy. Their smiles faded noticeably.
“It’s clear that your sympathy rests with the boys,” Lauderson commented. “I pity the poor little wretches m’self, but it’s a necessary evil.”
“The work they do could easily be taken care of with long-handled brushes,” Derek said evenly.
“But not as efficiently as the small boys do it. And if the chimneys aren’t properly cleaned, our valuable homes could catch on fire—would you have us put our own lives and property at risk for the sake of a few cockney brats?”
Derek stared at the gleaming mahogany surface of the table. “With that one entertaining speech, my lord, you sentenced thousands of innocent boys to death for years to come. To something worse than death.”
“They are sons of day laborers, Mr. Craven, not sons of the gentry. They will never amount to anything. Why not put them to good use?”
“Craven,” Alex Raiford muttered, fearing that an ugly scene was about to take place.
But Derek lifted his eyes and regarded Lauderson in a cool, almost pleasant manner. “You almost tempt me to give you back a pig of your own sow, my lord.”
“What does that mean?” Lauderson asked, chuckling at the crude cockney expression.
“It means the next time you defeat a bill I’m particular to, using one of your frivolous high-kick speeches, I’ll stuff your gullet full of soot and mortar and shove your fat arse up a chimney. And if you get stuck there, I’ll light straw beneath you, or jab pins into your feet to get you going. And if you complain of burns from a hot flue, or of suffocation, I’ll flay your hide with a leather strap. That’s what a climbing boy goes through every day of his miserable existence, my lord. That’s what the bill would have prevented.” Giving him a chilling glance, Derek stood up and left the dining hall with a measured tread.