His breath hissed through his teeth as the needle pierced his skin. “You would be too, if you knowed anyfing about the world outside your stinking village.” The ordeal was making his accent slip again.
“Greenwood Corners is a very nice place,” Sara said, mildly provoked. “And I know a great many things about the world.”
Derek held his breath for a moment, then let it burst forth. “Dammit, ’ow much longer—”
“A few more,” the doctor murmured.
Derek struggled to keep his mind on the conversation with Sara. “Writing books about whores…I’ll bet you newer…joined giblets wiv a man in your lily-white life.”
Dr. Hindley and Worthy began to reprove him, but Sara smiled quizzically. “ ‘Joined giblets?’…I’ve never heard it put that way before.”
“You ’asn’t been long enow in the rookery.”
“That’s true,” she said seriously. “I must make several more visits there before my research is complete.”
“You’re not going back,” he informed her. “God knows ’ow you lasted this long. Bloody little fool, traipsing through the rookery at night—”
“This is the last stitch,” Dr. Hindley announced, carefully tying off the thread. Derek sighed in relief and fell silent.
Worthy left the bedside and came to Sara, smiling apologetically. “Forgive Mr. Craven. He’s only rude to the people he likes.”
“Will he be all right?” she whispered.
“Certainly. He’s a very strong man. He has survived worse than this.” Worthy looked at her closely, his expression softening into concern. “You’re trembling, Miss Fielding.”
Sara nodded and took a deep breath. “I suppose I’m not used to so much excitement.” She hadn’t realized how rattled she was until now. “Everything happened so quickly.”
“You must rest for a little while,” Worthy urged, “and steady your nerves with some brandy.”
“Yes…perhaps a splash, in a cup of tea.” She twined her fingers together. “I’m staying with friends of my parents, the Goodmans. The hour is late…they might worry…”
“As soon as you’re ready, we’ll have a private carriage convey you anywhere you wish.”
“Worthy!” Derek’s disgruntled voice interrupted them. “Stop that bloody whispering. Give the country mouse some money and send ’er back where she came from.”
Worthy began to reply, but Sara stopped him with a light touch on his arm. Squaring her small shoulders, she approached the bed. “Mr. Craven,” she said calmly, “you’re very kind to offer a reward, but I have enough money to suit my needs. However, I would be grateful if you would allow me to tour your club, and perhaps ask a few questions of your employees. As I mentioned earlier, I’m writing a novel, and you could help me—”
“Mr. Craven, it is a reasonable request, considering the fact that I saved your life tonight.”
“Like ’ell you did.”
Sara was taken aback. “But those two men were trying to kill you!”
“If they’d wanted that, I’d be dead now.”
“Then…their purpose was to…to deliberately mark your face?” She recoiled in horror. “But why would anyone want to do such a thing?”
“Mr. Craven has many enemies,” Worthy remarked, his round face troubled. “In particular a man named Ivo Jenner, who owns a rival club. But I wouldn’t have expected Jenner to do something like this.”
“Maybe not,” Derek muttered, closing his eyes. “Maybe it was someone else. Worvy…take ’er out of ’ere.”
“But Mr. Craven,” Sara protested.
“Come,” Worthy said, shushing her gently. He urged her away from the bedside. Reluctantly Sara followed him to the next room.
Left alone, Derek gave a soft laugh threaded with bitterness. “Damn you, Joyce,” he whispered, and raised a hand to touch the stitches on his face.
After Dr. Hindley departed, Worthy rang for tea and stirred the fire in the grate. “Now,” he said pleasantly, sitting in a chair near Sara’s, “we may talk without interruption.”
“Mr. Worthy, could you try to make Mr. Craven understand that I wouldn’t be a nuisance, or inconvenience him in any way? All I want is to observe the activities at the club, and ask a few questions—”
“I will talk to Mr. Craven,” Worthy assured her. “And I’ll allow you to visit the club tomorrow while Mr. Craven is indisposed.” Worthy smiled at her obvious excitement. “It is a privilege rarely granted to women, you know, except on assembly nights. There was only one other lady who has even been allowed to cross the threshold.”
“Yes, I’ve heard of her—they called her Lawless Lily. She was Mr. Craven’s paramour for a number of years, wasn’t she?”
“Things are not always what they seem, Miss Fielding.”
They were interrupted by a maid bearing a tray of tea and delicate sandwiches. Efficiently Worthy poured Sara’s tea and added a liberal amount of brandy. Balancing the cup and saucer on her lap, Sara nibbled on a sandwich, feeling as if she were slowly awakening from a nightmare. She stretched her damp feet toward the warm fire, taking care not to expose her ankles.
“There is only one condition I must ask of you,” Worthy said, settling back in his chair. “You must not approach Mr. Craven, or ask him any questions. In fact, I insist that you take care to avoid him. You will be free to talk to anyone else at the club. We will all try to be as accommodating as possible.”
Sara frowned in disappointment. “But Mr. Craven could be of great help to me. There are things I would like to ask him—”
“He is an intensely private man who has spent his life trying to escape his past. I assure you, he will not want to talk about himself.”
“Is there anything you could tell me about him?” She sipped her tea and watched the factotum hopefully.
“He’s not easy to describe. Derek Craven is by far the most complicated individual I’ve ever met. He is capable of kindness, but…” Worthy drank some brandy and contemplated the rich amber depths in the glass. “I’m afraid that all too often Mr. Craven reveals himself as a man of ruined potential. He comes from a world more savage than you could begin to comprehend, Miss Fielding. All he knows about his mother was that she was a prostitute who worked at Tiger Bay, a dockland street where sailors and criminals go to be serviced. She gave birth to him in a drainpipe and abandoned him there. Some of the other harlots took pity on the infant and sheltered him for the first part of his life in local brothels and flash houses.”
“Oh, Mr. Worthy,” Sara said in a strangled voice. “How dreadful for a child to be exposed to such things.”
“He began to work at five or six years of age as a climbing boy for a chimney sweep. When he became too old to climb, he resorted to begging, thievery, dock labor…There is a period of a few years which he will not speak of at all, as if it never existed. I don’t know what he did at that time…nor do I wish to know. Somehow in the midst of it all he gained a rudimentary understanding of letters and numbers. By his teens he had educated himself enough to become a Newmarket bookmaker. According to him, it was at that time that he conceived the idea of operating his own gambling club someday.”
“What remarkable ambition for a boy with such origins.”
Worthy nodded. “It would have been an extraordinary achievement for him to build a small den in the city. Instead, he dreamed of creating a club so exclusive that the most powerful men in the world would clamor to be allowed membership.”
“And that’s precisely what he’s done,” she marveled.
“Yes. He was born without a shilling to his name…” Worthy paused. “He was born without a name, as a matter of fact. Now he is wealthier than most of the gentry that patronizes his club. No one is really aware of how much Mr. Craven owns. Landed estates, houses, streets lined with rent-paying shops and tenants, private art collections, yachts, race-horses…it’s astounding. And he keeps track of every farthing.”
“What is his goal? What does he ultimately want?”
Worthy smiled faintly. “I can tell you in a word. More. He’s never satisfied.” Seeing that she had finished her tea, he inquired if she wanted another cup.
Sara shook her head. The brandy, the firelight, and Worthy’s calm voice had all combined to make her drowsy. “I must leave now.”
“I’ll have a carriage brought around.”
“No, no, the Goodmans live a short distance from here. I shall go on foot.”
“Nonsense,” the factotum interrupted firmly. “It is ill-advised for a lady to go anywhere on foot, especially at this time of night. What happened to Mr. Craven is an example of the dangers that could befall you.” They both stood up. Worthy was about to say something else, but his words died away, and he stared at her oddly. Most of Sara’s hair had fallen from its pins to her shoulders, the red glow of firelight dancing over the chestnut waves. There was something oddly moving about her quaint, old-fashioned prettiness, which would easily be passed over in this day when more exotic beauty was preferred.
“There’s something almost otherworldly about you…” Worthy murmured, quite forgetting himself. “It has been too long since I’ve seen such innocence in a woman’s face.”
“Innocent?” Sara shook her head and laughed. “Oh, Mr. Worthy, I know all about vice and sin—”
“But you’ve been untouched by it.”
Sara chewed her lip pensively. “Nothing ever seems to happen in Greenwood Corners,” she admitted, “I’m always writing about the things other people do. Sometimes I’m desperate to live, to have adventures and feel things, and—” She broke off and made a face. “I hardly know what I’m saying. What must you think of me?”
“I think,” Worthy said with a smile, “that if you long for adventure, Miss Fielding, you’ve made quite a start tonight.”
Sara was pleased by the notion. “That’s true.” She sobered immediately. “About the man I shot—I didn’t intend to harm him—”
“You saved Mr. Craven from horrible disfigurement, if not death,” Worthy said gently. “Whenever you feel guilty about what you’ve done, you might remind yourself of that.”
The advice made Sara feel better. “You’ll allow me to return tomorrow?”
“I insist that you do so.”
She gave him an enchanting smile. “Well, in that case…” Taking his proffered arm, she allowed him to escort her downstairs.
Derek lay stretched out on the bed. The laudanum coursed through his veins, making him sluggish, dizzy. It did little to numb the pain, or his self-disgust. His lips pulled into a bitter smile. He almost would have preferred it if his attackers had made a proper beast of him, instead of giving him a piddling slash that made him look less a monster and more a fool.
He thought of Joyce, and waited for a feeling of betrayal, anger, anything but this cold sense of admiration. At least she cared enough about something to take action, even if it was her own pride. Whereas he couldn’t bring himself to care about anything. He had everything he’d ever wanted…wealth, women, even the pleasure of watching his betters scrape their boots at the entrance of his club. But over the past two years all his former voracious appetites had dried up, and he was left with nothing, a young man with a withered soul.
It was the absence of feeling that had driven him to Lady Ashby’s bed, and ultimately had led to tonight’s disaster. Joyce, with her sinuous body, blond hair, and catlike eyes, had stirred an interest that he hadn’t felt in a long time. Mild though the feeling was, it had been enough to make him pursue her. He couldn’t deny there had been many entertaining nights, filled with sophisticated games and sensual depravity…and it took a hell of a lot to make him feel depraved. Finally Derek had ended the liaison, disgusted with himself as well as her. The memory rolled over him, and he relived it in a drugged stupor.
“You can’t be serious,” Joyce had said, her silky voice amused at first. “You would never give me up.” She stretched on the bed, her na*ed body unconcealed by the rumpled linen sheets. “Tell me, who would it be after me? Some bovine country maid? Some little actress with bleached hair and red stockings? You can’t go back to that, Derek. You’ve developed a taste for finer things.”
Derek had grinned at her confident tone. “You aristocratic ladies and your gold-plated twats. You always think it’s such a honor for me to touch you.” He surveyed her with mocking green eyes. “You think you’re the first high-kick wench I’ve ever had? I used to have blue-blooded bitches like you pay me to do this. You’ve gotten it for free.”
Joyce’s beautiful face, with its narrow, aristocratic nose and sharply sculpted cheekbones, was suddenly pinched with rage. “You lying bastard.”
“How do you think I got the money to start my club? They called themselves my ‘patronesses.’ ” Derek gave her a hard smile, pulling on his trousers.
Joyce’s red lips parted in a sneering laugh. “Then you were nothing but a whore? A male whore?” The idea clearly excited her.
“Among other things.” He buttoned his shirt and faced the mirror to straighten his collar.
Joyce slid from the bed and strode to him, pausing for a moment to admire her na*ed body in the mirror. Married at a young age to an elderly widowed earl, she had satisfied her sexual urges by taking a long string of lovers. Any pregnancies had been terminated quickly, for she would never ruin her figure with children, and the earl had already begotten suitable heirs with his first wife. Joyce’s cunning wit and beauty had made her a society favorite. A lovely predator, she devoted herself to ruining any woman whom she perceived as a threat to her own position. With a few carefully chosen words and some brilliantly engineered “coincidences” Joyce had been known to shred many a good reputation and cast innocent women into the depths of disgrace.
Derek also looked into the mirror, seeing what Joyce intended him to see, the erotic contrast between his clothed form and her gold-and-white nakedness. At times Joyce could seem as guileless as an angel, but he had seen her turn into a witch with wild hair and a contorted face, screaming at the height of ecstasy and clawing him with her long nails. She was the most wanton woman he’d ever known, willing to do anything for the sake of pleasure, no matter how debauched. They were quite a pair, he thought grimly, both of them existing only to satisfy their own needs.