Derek picked up a new deck, shuffling so expertly that the cards were nothing but a blur. He dealt a hand to her, facedown. “Tell me which is the queen.”
Sara squinted at the backs of the cards. “I can’t. They’re all the same.”
“No, they’re not. I just marked the queen.” Derek picked up the card and showed her the tiny, nearly indistinguishable notch he had made with his thumbnail on the edge of the card. “There are other ways of marking. I could use ink on the tip of my finger to leave smudges. I could bend them just a little. Or keep a bit of glass-work up my sleeve.”
“A mirror?” she asked.
He nodded, continuing to toy with the cards. “If a deck has been professionally marked, you can tell by riffling the deck and watching the backs. Any line work or blockouts will jump out.” The cards seemed to come to life in his hands as he shuffled once more. “Here’s how to stack the deck…but the motion has to be smooth. It takes practice in front of a mirror.” The cards were a flowing stream in his hands. He held them tenderly, his long fingers manipulating and flexing until the deck formed a bridge, a waterfall, a snapping fan.
Sara watched in awe. As agile as the dealers in the club were, she had never seen any of them handle cards with such ease. That, coupled with his extraordinary mind for numbers, would make him an invincible opponent. “Why don’t you ever play?” she asked. “I’ve never seen you in a casual game with Lord Raiford or your other friends. Is it because you know you would always win?”
Derek shrugged. “That’s one reason,” he said without conceit. “The other is that I don’t enjoy it.”
“I never did.”
“But how can you be so good at something and not enjoy it?”
“Now there’s a question,” he said, and laughed softly, setting aside the cards. Leading her to the hazard table, he took her by the h*ps and lifted her up. She sat on the edge of the table, her knees pushed apart as he stood between them. Derek leaned forward, his mouth a warm, gentle brand. “It’s not like your writing, sweet. When you sit at your desk, you put your heart and your mind into your work, and it gives you satisfaction. But cards are just patterns. Once you learn the patterns, it’s automatic. You can’t enjoy something if it doesn’t demand a little of your heart.”
Sara caressed his black hair. “Do I have a little of your heart?” A moment after she asked, she regretted the question. She had promised herself not to push him, not to demand things he wasn’t ready for.
Derek’s eyes were shadowed green as he stared at her without blinking. He leaned forward, and his lips sought hers, kindling a warmth inside her that rapidly leapt to bright flame. Sara shivered as she felt him raise her skirts to her waist. He wedged himself tighter between her spread knees. They kissed ardently, groping underneath confining clothes, clumsily plucking at buttons in impetuous haste.
Sara gasped as she felt his hot, intimate flesh rising against her body. “Not here…Someone will see…”
“They’re all gone.” Gently he bit into her neck.
“But we can’t…”
“Now,” he insisted, pulling her head against his shoulder as he took her there on the hazard table, making her shudder in helpless pleasure.
* * *
Sara was alone in the private apartments over the club, viewing herself in the long mirror of the bedroom. She was dressed to attend the birthday dinner of Lord Raiford’s seventeen-year-old brother Henry. On private occasions such as this the Raifords surrounded themselves with warm, enjoyable company. Sara knew the evening would be filled with wit and laughter. Derek had gone with Alex to help deliver Henry’s present, a shining Thoroughbred horse, to Swans’ Court before the boy arrived home from Eton.
Sara smoothed the skirt of her green velvet gown. Low-cut and severe in its simplicity, the gown was adorned only by a row of six golden clasps that held the split front of the skirt together. She was wearing a necklace Derek had given her to mark their first month of marriage, a gorgeous creation of diamonds and tumbled emeralds that lay in intricate strands over her chest. Admiring the sparkling necklace in the mirror, Sara smiled and turned to view it from another angle.
Suddenly her heart stopped.
The reflection showed there was someone behind her.
Whirling around, Sara stared with wide eyes at the golden-haired woman who held a pistol pointed directly at her.
Lady Ashby’s face was taut, her eyes brilliant with madness and hatred.
Sara was the first to speak, hearing her own calm voice with a sense of amazement. “You must have come through the hidden passages.”
“I knew about them long before you ever met him,” Joyce sneered, her gaze darting to the huge gilded bed. “I was with him in that bed too many times to count. We were magnificent together. We invented things that had never been done before. Don’t move.” Her grip on the gun was steady.
Sara took a quick, shallow breath. “What do you want?”
“I want to have a look at the woman he’s taken as his wife.” Joyce smiled contemptuously. “Covered in velvet and jewels…as if that might fool others into thinking you’re a lady of consequence.”
“A lady such as yourself?”
Joyce ignored the jab, staring mesmerized at the necklace that glittered against Sara’s pale skin. “Those emeralds are the exact color of his eyes. No one else has eyes like that.” She glared at Sara in crackling fury. “I said don’t move!”
Sara froze, having begun to inch toward the long tasseled rope that would ring the servants’ bell.
“You must be pleased with yourself,” Joyce said, “admiring yourself in your fine gown, with his ring on your finger. You think you have what I covet most. You think he belongs to you. But your marriage means nothing. He belongs to me. I put my mark on him.”
“He doesn’t want you,” Sara whispered, her eyes locked on Joyce’s vindictive face.
“You country simpleton! Do you actually think you’ve had any more of him than a hundred women could claim? I know him every bit as well as you do. I know the pattern of hair on his chest, the smell of his skin. I’ve felt his scars beneath my hands, and the muscles moving on his back. I know what it is to have him inside me…the way he moves…slow and deep…just before he finds his release.” Joyce’s eyes half-closed. “A gifted lover, your bastard husband. No other man on earth understands a woman’s body as he does. A big, sensual beast, with no conscience and no scruples. He is my perfect counterpart—and he knows it.”
Swiftly Sara darted to the bellpull and gave it a frantic jerk, expecting to hear the explosion of the pistol. But Joyce didn’t fire. Trembling and white, Sara faced her. “The servants will be up here right away. I suggest that you leave, Lady Ashby.”
Joyce regarded her with contempt. “What a ridiculous creature you are.” Deliberately she reached over and knocked the lit oil lamp from the dresser.
Sara gave a cry of horror as the globe broke and the puddle of oil ignited. Immediately the pool of fire spread outward, flames licking hungrily at the carpet, woodwork, and draperies. “Oh, God!”
Joyce’s face was painted gold and red by the rearing, malevolent light. “You can die by smoke and fire,” she said in a guttural voice, “or a bullet. Or…you can choose to do exactly as I tell you.”
Derek and Alex were several streets from St. James when they realized something was terribly wrong. Bells were tolling. Carriages, horses and pedestrians clogged the area. The sky was filled with a dull red glow that came from a blaze somewhere on the horizon. “Fire,” Alex said tersely, staring out the window of the carriage.
“Where?” A cold feeling settled over Derek, collecting in the pit of his stomach. The carriage progressed with excruciating slowness while the outriders did their best to forge a way through the crowded streets. His sixth sense, always accurate, warned of disaster. “It’s the club,” he heard himself say.
“I can’t say for certain.” Alex’s voice was calm, betraying none of the anxiety he was feeling. But one of his hands was gripped around the curtain at the window, exerting so much tension that the stitches in the fabric began to pop.
With a muffled curse Derek opened the door of the carriage and leapt out. The vehicle moved so slowly that it was faster to walk. He shouldered his way through the mob that was gathering to watch the fire. “Craven!” He heard Alex behind him, following at a distance. He didn’t pause. The insistent tolling of the bells filled his ears, reverberating in thunderous crashes. It couldn’t be his club. Not after he’d spent years of his life working, stealing, suffering for it. He’d built it with his own sweat and blood, with pieces of his soul. God, to watch it all disappear into smoke and ashes…
Derek turned the corner and made an incoherent sound. The gambling palace was roaring. The growl of fire was everywhere; the sky, the air, even the ground seemed to tremble. Derek staggered to the scene and watched as his dreams burned in an unholy blaze. He was mute, breathing and swallowing, trying to understand what was happening. Gradually he became aware of familiar faces in the awestruck crowd. Monsieur Labarge sat on the side of the pavement, numbly holding a copper pot he must have carried from the kitchen, too panicked to set it down. Gill was standing with the house wenches, some of them angry, some crying.
Worthy was nearby, the flames reflected in his spectacles. Sweat trickled down his cheeks. He turned and saw Derek. His face twitched convulsively. He tottered forward, his voice unrecognizable as he spoke. “Mr. Craven…it spread too quickly. There was nothing they could do. It’s all gone.”
“How did it start?” Derek asked hoarsely.
Worthy removed his spectacles and mopped his face with a handkerchief. He took a long time to answer, having to choke the words forth. “It began on the top floor. The private apartments.”
Derek stared at him blankly.
Two police officers rushed by them, a snatch of hasty conversation floating in the air behind them.
“…knock down the next building…make a fire gap…”
“Sara,” Derek heard himself say.
Worthy bent his head and shivered.
Derek drew close to Worthy, gripping the factotum’s shirtfront. “Where is she? Where is my wife?”
“I’ve questioned the employees,” Worthy answered, gasping as if it were painful to talk “Several of them…confirmed she was in the club.”
“Where is she now?”
“Sir…” Worthy shook his head and began to make an odd gulping sound.
Derek let go of him and reeled back a few steps, staring at him dazedly. “I have to find her.”
“It happened too quickly,” Worthy said, trying to control his tears. “She was in the apartments when it started. She couldn’t have gotten out.”
There was jangling confusion in his head. Disoriented, Derek swerved in a half-circle. He felt very strange, all his skin prickling. “No, I…No. She’s somewhere…I have to find her.”
“Mr. Craven?” Worthy followed him as he made his way into the street. “You mustn’t go in there. Mr. Craven, wait!” He took hold of Derek’s arm.
Derek shook him off impatiently, his purposeful strides gaining momentum.
In a sudden panic, the factotum flung himself at Derek, using his slight weight and wiry strength to hold him back. “Help me stop him!” Worthy screamed. “He’ll run straight into the middle of it!”
Derek growled and shoved him away, but other hands descended on him, shoving him down to the ground. He cursed and tried to rise again, only to find himself surrounded by a crowd of men intent on restraining him. Enraged, he began to fight like a rabid animal, roaring and struggling to break free. Distantly he heard Alex Raiford’s voice. “Derek…for God’s sake, man…”
Someone clubbed him, a violent blow to his skull. Derek arched against the pain with an animal whimper. “My…wife,” he gasped, his brain on fire, his thoughts collapsing like a house of cards. He gave a quiet groan and plummeted into blackness.
Lady Ashby had taken Sara to the underground wine cellar at gunpoint. They left the club through one of the hidden doorways. It had been designed to allow patrons an easy escape route to avoid the embarrassment of being caught in the club during a police raid. As she emerged from the cellar to the fresh outside air, Sara was surprised to see a hired carriage waiting for them. “Get in,” Joyce muttered, jabbing her in the back with the muzzle of the pistol. “And don’t try to appeal to the driver. He’s being paid well to keep his mouth shut and do as I bid him.”
Once inside, they sat on opposite seats. Joyce kept the pistol pointed at Sara, relishing the power of life and death over her prisoner. The carriage began to move.
Sara clasped her trembling hands in her lap. “Where are we going?”
“To an Ashby holding in the country. An old medieval house.” Now that her plan was progressing exactly as she’d intended, Joyce was casual, even conversational. “Most of it has crumbled over the centuries, except for the central core and the tower. No one ever goes there.”
“How far is it?”
“We’ll travel a good hour and a half. Perhaps two.” She smiled mockingly. “Would you like to know why I’m taking you there? I’m not going to tell you. I’m saving it as a surprise.”
Sara wondered if the fire had spread throughout the club, or if by some miracle the employees had been able to contain it. Soon Derek would return from his errand with Alex. She felt ill at the thought of what he might face. He would discover that she was missing…He might be injured in the attempt to find her. Suddenly she was terrified for his sake, wondering if he would be in danger, if he would think she was dead…Agitatedly she touched the heavy necklace at her throat, worrying the smooth emeralds between her fingers.
“Give that to me,” Joyce said sharply, watching her.
“Yes, take it off.” Joyce watched as Sara unhooked the glittering treasure from her neck. “A peasant woman with a necklace fit for a queen,” she sneered. “You don’t have the grace or bearing to wear it properly. Give it to me.” Her eager fingers wrapped around the necklace, and she snatched it away. Setting it on the seat beside her, she toyed lovingly with the web of emeralds and diamonds. “He gave me presents…a bracelet, a necklace, jeweled combs for my hair…but nothing as fine as this.” She smiled at Sara tauntingly. “The day he gave me the combs, he said that he’d imagined making love to me wearing jewels in my golden hair and nothing else. He much prefers blond hair to dark, did you know that?”