“Why the somber face?” Joyce purred. “Thinking about your tender scene in the garden with Sara Fielding?” She smiled as his gaze shot to hers. “Yes, darling, I’m fully aware of your preoccupation with that modest country violet—and so is everyone else. It’s provided a fair amount of amusement for all of us. Derek Craven falling for a timid little nobody. You should have told me you liked your women to play innocent—I could have obliged you.” Sinuously she draped herself against the balustrade and smiled at him.
Derek watched her, tempted either to shove her down the stairs or to tell her to go to hell…but something stopped him. He didn’t like the smug look on her face. Something was very wrong. Patiently he waited while she continued her speech. His hard green eyes didn’t move from hers.
“How does it feel to make love to a woman like that, darling? She can’t be very satisfying to a man of your robust appetite. I can’t imagine she would know the first thing about pleasing you.” Joyce sighed thoughtfully. “Men are such fools. I daresay you fancy yourself in love with her. Need I remind you that you’re not capable of love? You’re nothing but a great, lusty animal…and I wouldn’t have you any other way.” She pursed her red lips provocatively. “Leave the sentiments and the romantic foolishness to other men. What you have is much better than a heart…a nice, big cock. That’s all you’ve got to offer your country bumpkin. She probably doesn’t know enough to appreciate it…although now…at least she’ll have a basis for comparison.” She waited with a feline smile for her last words to register.
Comparison? Slowly Derek stood up, staring at her intently. A jolt of anxiety caused his heart to pump unpleasantly hard. His voice was scratchy. “What have you done, Joyce?”
“I’ve done her a favor, actually. I’ve enlisted someone to help her learn more about men. As we speak, she’s in her room ‘taking a flier’ as you cockneys put it, with our virile Lord Granville. Not so innocent anymore.”
The brandy snifter dropped from Derek’s hand and rolled, unbroken, down the thickly carpeted stairs. “Jesus,” he whispered, turning to lunge up the steps. He took them three at a time, while Joyce called after him.
“Don’t bother to charge to her rescue, my poor gallant. It’s too late.” She began to laugh wildly. “By now the deed is already done.”
At first Sara’s dazed mind could only recognize it as a nightmare. It couldn’t be real. She had been awakened by a huge hand clapped over her mouth. The bloated, ruddy face of a stranger was barely visible in the darkness. The weight of his body dropped over her as he joined her on the bed. She went rigid with terror and tried to scream, but all sound was smothered by his pawlike hand. His heavy bulk crushed her down, flattening her br**sts painfully and forcing the air from her lungs.
“Quiet, quiet,” he grunted, eagerly raking up her gown. “Lovely creature. I watched you tonight…those magnificent br**sts swelling out of your gown. Don’t struggle. I’m the best cocksman in London. Relax, you’ll enjoy it. You’ll see.”
Frantically she tried to bite and claw him, but nothing could stop his heavy thighs pushing between hers. The pungent sweat-and-perfume odor of his skin filled her nostrils, while groping hands searched over her half-clad body. Choking on her own smothered cries, Sara felt herself sinking in a dark, airless void.
Suddenly the punishing hand left her mouth, and the massive weight was lifted from her. She was finally able to scream with bloodcurdling force. Scrambling off the bed, she ran without direction until she found herself cowering in a corner. There was a terrifying snarling noise in the room, as if a wild beast had been let loose. Blinking rapidly, she tried to understand what was happening. Her hand flew to her mouth, holding in another scream.
Two men rolled over and over across the floor, crashing into the washstand. The porcelain pitcher and basin fell and shattered. Growling murderously, Derek drove his fists into Granville’s face. With a howl of pain, Granville managed to throw him off. Derek rolled easily and came to his feet.
Granville struggled up and stared at him in horror. “Good God, man, let’s discuss this like civilized beings!”
Derek’s teeth gleamed in the dim room, his lips twisting in a demonic sneer. “After I take your head off and pull your guts out through your neck.”
Granville whimpered in fear as Derek came after him again, slamming him to the floor. Brutal fists descended on him relentlessly, until Granville got in a blow of his own and gained another second’s respite. He raised a hand to his own face, discovering it was streaming with blood. “My nose is broken!” he cried in panic, crawling backward to the door as Derek stalked him mercilessly.
To Granville’s relief, a house steward appeared, staring into the room with alarm and bewilderment. “Please,” Granville sobbed, clutching at the servant’s ankle, “keep him away from me! He’s trying to kill me—”
“You won’t be that lucky,” Derek interrupted, snatching up a shard of broken pottery and advancing on him.
Bravely the house steward placed himself between Derek and his intended victim. “Mr. Craven,” the servant quavered, staring at the enraged giant before him, “you must wait until—”
“Get out of my way.”
Conscious of the blubbering aristocrat seeking his protection, the servant didn’t move. “No, sir,” he said unsteadily.
More servants and several guests began to appear, all crowding to see what the commotion was about. Derek pinned Granville with a bloodthirsty stare. “The next time I see you—and the coldhearted bitch who sent you—I’ll kill you both. Tell her that.”
Granville shrank back in fear. “There are witnesses who will testify as to your threats—”
Derek slammed the door, closeting himself alone in the room with Sara. He dropped the piece of broken pottery and turned to her, swiping his heavy black hair out of his eyes. She clutched the thin gown around herself as if it would protect her. Her face was blank, as if she didn’t recognize him. When he saw that her entire body was trembling, he went to her and scooped her up in his arms.
Silently he carried her to the bed and sat down with her in his lap. She was still against his broad chest, her arms gripped around his neck, her head wedged against his shoulder. They both breathed in hard spurts, one from fear, one from rage. As his anger diminished, Derek became aware of the multitude of voices gathering outside the door. No one dared come in. God only knew what they thought was going on in there. It would be better if he relinquished Sara to someone else’s care.
He didn’t realize she was crying until her wet cheek brushed his neck. No sobs, just quiet tears that slipped down her face and broke his heart. Slowly he un-clenched his hands and caressed her loose hair and her back. “Did he hurt you?” he finally brought himself to ask.
She knew what he meant. “No,” she said in a watery voice. “You arrived in time. How did you know? How—”
“Later.” At the moment he couldn’t bring himself to explain that she had been assaulted because of him.
Sara relaxed against him with a ragged sigh, her tears drying. It was impossible to believe that the same man who had attacked Lord Granville so brutally could hold her with such tenderness. She had never felt so safe, cradled against his broad chest, feeling his breath filter through her hair. One of his hands was splayed over her side, his thumb resting against the curve of her breast. It was wrong for him to hold her so intimately, for her to allow it, but she couldn’t bring herself to deny him. His head moved, and his mouth brushed hers in a gentle kiss. Closing her eyes, Sara felt his lips touch her delicate eyelids, her wet lashes.
A decisive rap on the door heralded Lady Raiford’s entrance. She slipped inside and turned to admonish the cluster of people around the portal. “Go on, all of you,” she said pertly. “Everything’s all right now. I wish everyone would go downstairs and try to refrain from gossiping about things that are not their concern.” Firmly she closed the door and stared at the pair on the bed. “Damnation,” she muttered, coming over to light the bedside lamp.
Aware of the scandalous appearance of the situation, Sara tried to crawl from Derek’s lap. He deposited her beneath the covers, tucked her in carefully, and sat on the bed beside her.
Lily’s gaze moved from Sara’s distraught face to Derek’s impassive one. “That filthy goat Granville,” she muttered. “I’ve always known he was a lecherous bastard, but that he would dare attack a guest under my roof…Well, Alex is booting him off the estate right now, and after I’m through, Granville won’t be received by anyone in the ton. Here, I thought this might help.” She handed a glass of whiskey to Derek. “Between the two of you, I can’t decide who needs it more.”
He gave it to Sara, who sniffed cautiously and shook her head.
“Drink some for me,” he insisted gently.
She tried a small swallow and coughed as it burned her throat. “Ugh.” She made a face at the vile taste. Gingerly she took another sip, and then another.
Derek pushed the whiskey back as she tried to give it to him. “Keep sipping.”
Lily pulled a chair to the bed and sat down. Removing the jeweled bandeau from her forehead, she rubbed her temples distractedly. Catching Sara’s worried glance, she produced a wry smile. “Well, now you’ve had your first scandal. Don’t worry, Derek and I are old hands at this sort of thing. We’ll take care of everything.”
Sara nodded uncertainly, lifting the glass to her lips. The more she drank, the easier it was to swallow, until she felt unsteady and very warm, as if heat were radiating from her bones. At first she thought she would never sleep again, but soon the frenzied thoughts in her mind were replaced by exhaustion. Derek and Lily began to talk idly, making noncommittal remarks about the ball, the guests, even the weather.
Derek softened his voice as he watched the whiskey taking effect. Gradually Sara’s eyes closed, and she gave a small yawn. Her breathing became even and deep. She looked like a child nestled beneath the covers, her hair rippling over the pillow, her long lashes fanning her cheeks. Assured that she was asleep, Derek stroked the palm of her hand with his fingertip, marveling at the softness of her skin.
Lily watched him with a trace of amazement. “You do love her. Until this moment I never really thought it could happen to you.”
He was silent, unable to admit the truth.
Lily spoke again. “She’s in serious trouble, Derek.”
“No, I got here in time. He didn’t hurt her.”
Although Lily’s voice was low, it didn’t alter her intensity. “Think, Derek. It doesn’t matter if Granville actually raped her or not. No one will have her now. No one will believe she hasn’t been ruined. The rumors will follow her back to the village. People will gossip and torment her for the rest of her life. Mothers will keep their children away from her ‘corrupting influence’—she’ll be a pariah. You have no idea how backward these people are. I grew up in the country, I know what it’s like. If some man does condescend to marry her, he’ll consider her secondhand goods. She’ll have to be grateful the rest of her life, and endure whatever kind of treatment he decides to mete out. God, if only I hadn’t invited her here!”
“If only,” he agreed coldly.
“Well, how was I to know Granville would take it in his head to do something like this?”
Derek swallowed hard, dropping his accusing stare. He looked at the slumbering innocent beside him, and fingered a silken lock of hair. “Tell me what’s to be done now.”
“To make Sara respectable again?” Lily shrugged helplessly. ‘‘We find someone for her to marry. The sooner the better.” She gave him a sarcastic glance. ‘‘Any candidates in mind?”
Sara awakened early, staring blankly at the unfamiliar ceiling. It took several minutes for her to recall where she was. Rubbing her eyes, she groaned miserably. Her temples throbbed with a sharp ache. She felt more than a little queasy. Carefully she crept out of bed and fumbled for her gray gown. When she was fully dressed, her hair tied back at the nape of her neck, she rang for a maid. Françoise appeared, wearing an expression so sympathetic that it was clear she knew about the previous evening.
Pale and controlled, Sara smiled at her briefly. ‘‘Françoise, I need your help to pack my belongings.” She gestured to her clothes. ‘‘I’m going home as soon as possible.”
The maid began to chatter, gesturing to the door and mentioning Lady Raiford’s name.
‘‘The countess wishes me to see her?” Sara asked, puzzled.
Françoise made a careful effort to speak in English. ‘‘If you please, mademoiselle…”
‘‘Certainly,” Sara said, although she had no desire to talk with Lily or anyone else this morning. She would rather slink away and try to forget that she had ever come to Raiford Park.
The house was quiet as Sara followed Françoise to the east wing, where the Raifords’ private suites were located. At nine o’clock, it was too early for most of the guests to have risen. Only the servants were up and about, dusting, emptying slops, carrying armloads of kindling, cleaning grates, and lighting fires.
Françoise led her to a small sitting room decorated in shades of white and powder-blue, filled with elegant furniture of Sheraton design. Giving her an encouraging smile, the maid left. Sara entered the empty room and wandered to the half-moon table against the wall. The table bore a display of carved jade, ivory, and lapis animals. Picking up a tiny jade elephant, Sara examined it carefully. She started as she heard Derek Craven’s voice behind her.
“How are you this morning?”
Setting down the carved piece, Sara turned slowly. “I-I was expecting Lily.”
Derek looked as if he hadn’t slept at all. Sara doubted he had even changed his clothes, which were rumpled and wrinkled. His black hair was completely disheveled, as if he had raked his hands through it a hundred times during the night. “As matters stand, Lily can’t do much to help you. But I can.”
Sara was perplexed. “I don’t need anyone’s help. I’m leaving this morning, and…What’s that in your hand?” She stared at the piece of paper he held, covered with his heavy black scrawl.
“A list.” Suddenly businesslike, Derek walked toward her and pushed the display of carved figures aside. He flattened the paper on the table, motioning for her to look at it. “These are the twenty most eligible bachelors in England, listed in order of preference. If none of them are to your liking, we’ll expand the list, although these are the most appropriate in age and character—”