Sara kept her face blank, refusing to let the other woman see that her remark stung. Joyce began another sneering litany of insults and boasted about Derek’s sexual prowess until anger and jealousy roiled unpleasantly in Sara’s stomach.
* * *
A woman’s voice touched Derek gently, luring him from the welter of darkness. Something was wrong…Some strange coldness was all around him, inside him, a sinister shadow that had soaked through every inch of his body. He stirred groggily, wanting comfort. “Sara…”
“I’m here, darling.” It was Lily’s voice, sounding thick and odd.
Derek shook himself awake and groaned at the throbbing pain in his head. “Jesus.” He blinked and sat up clumsily, squinting at his surroundings. He was in the Raifords’ carriage, pulled to a halt in front of Swans’ Court. Alex was next to him, resting a steadying hand on his shoulder. Derek’s chest hurt. He felt as if he’d been beaten. “What happened?” he mumbled, rubbing his eyes.
Lily stood at the door of the carriage, her tear-streaked face illuminated by the side lamps. Her eyes were swollen. “Come into the house with us, Derek. Careful—let Alex help you.”
Derek obeyed without thinking, discovering as he stumbled out of the carriage that he wasn’t steady on his feet. Standing next to the vehicle, he braced a hand against the smooth lacquered side and tried to clear his head. Alex and Lily were on either side of him. Both of them looked at him strangely. He began to remember…the fire, the club…Sara.
“Where is she?” he asked. He was infuriated by the glance they gave each other. “Damn the both of you, answer me!”
Alex’s gray eyes were compassionate. He replied in a quiet voice, “She’s nowhere to be found, Derek. She was caught in the fire. She couldn’t have survived.”
Derek made a rough sound, backing away from them. The nightmare was upon him again. He began to tremble.
“Derek,” Lily said softly, her eyes glistening, “you’re not alone. We’ll help each other through this. Come inside. Come, we’ll get a drink.”
He stared at her without expression.
“Derek—” she coaxed, but suddenly he had vanished, moving swiftly into the night until it swallowed him whole.
Startled, Lily called out after him, and then turned to Alex. “You must follow him,” she said urgently. “Alex, bring him back!”
He slid his arms around her. “And then what? Short of knocking him unconscious, I can’t make him stay.” Lifting her chin, he stared into her eyes. “He’ll come back,” he reassured her gently. “He has nowhere else to go.”
Exhausted by her own frantic thoughts, Sara was wearily surprised when the pace of the carriage eased and then stopped. It had seemed as if the wheels would never cease turning, taking her farther away from London with every torturous minute that passed. Midway through the journey Joyce had lapsed into silence, fumbling awkwardly to clasp the emerald necklace around her throat while retaining possession of the gun.
Sara had contemplated her quietly, pondering the woman’s obsession with Derek. Joyce Ashby was insane, or at the very least mentally unbalanced. She seemed like a cruel, selfish child in an adult body. She valued no life but her own, and felt no sense of remorse for her actions. In her mind there would be no consequences for anything she did.
Why had Joyce been allowed to go about unhindered and cause such harm? Surely Lord Ashby must be aware of his wife’s actions. Sara wondered what kind of man he was, and why he hadn’t taken Joyce in hand long before now.
The driver opened the door of the carriage and looked inside. The strange young-old look about him defied any accurate guess of his age. He had a thin, whiskery rat face. His colorless eyes shifted nervously from the pistol to Joyce’s face. “M’lady?” he questioned.
“We’re getting out,” Joyce said. “Stay here until I return.”
Sara spoke swiftly, staring hard at the driver. “You can’t allow this. Don’t be a fool. The law will hold you responsible for what happens to me here—and if not, then my husband will!”
The man flinched and ducked away, ignoring her.
“Get out,” Joyce sneered, gesturing with the pistol.
Sara climbed to the ground, her legs cramped from the long ride. She shot a glance at the driver, who had gone to the front of the carriage with the horses. Since he apparently had no conscience to appeal to, she tried threats. “My husband is Derek Craven, and when he finds out about this, he won’t rest until he’s made you pay—”
“He won’t do anything to help you,” Joyce said, prodding Sara with the pistol. “Start walking.”
The path was illuminated by the carriage lantern Joyce carried. They approached the medieval structure, little more than a mutilated shell of stonework. The windows and doors had crumbled, giving the fortified house the appearance of a jaw with gaps of missing teeth. Slowly Sara entered the central hall. Mice and vermin scuttled in all directions, alerted to the presence of intruders.
Annoyed by Sara’s hesitant pace, Joyce brandished the gun and pushed her toward the broken stone steps that led up to the tower. “Up there,” she said brusquely.
Slowly Sara mounted the first step. Her mouth was dry with fear. She broke out into a heavy sweat, liquid fear seeping from her pores. “Why?”
“There’s a room at the top with a bar across the door. I’m going to keep you there. You’ll be my own private pet. From time to time I’ll come and visit you, and tell you all about your husband. We’ll find out how long he grieves for you, and how long it takes before he comes back to my bed.” Joyce paused and added smugly, “Perhaps I’ll even show you ways to pleasure me, and you’ll show me exactly what your husband finds so compelling about you.”
“You’re disgusting,” Sara said in outrage.
“You might say that now, but after a few days you’ll do whatever I want in return for food and water.”
Sara’s nerves twitched rebelliously, demanding action. She would rather die at this moment than be at the mercy of a madwoman for some indefinite length of time. She had to do something now, before they reached the tower room. After another few steps she pretended to stumble on the landing. Swiftly she turned and grabbed for Joyce’s arm.
Joyce reacted with a hiss of rage, fighting to keep hold of the pistol. She dropped the carriage lantern and tried to claw Sara’s face. Feeling the bite of long nails on her neck, Sara screamed and tried to twist the gun away. They grappled desperately and rolled down the steps together. The painful impact of the stone stairs on her head and back dazed Sara, but she didn’t let go of Joyce’s arm, even as she felt it come down between their writhing bodies.
All at once her ears rang with an explosion.
Sara’s first thought was that she had been shot. She had felt a hard, bruising blow against her breast that she gradually identified as the backward kick of the pistol. Slowly she stirred and sat up, holding a hand to the throbbing side of her head.
Joyce lay a foot or two away, moaning. A patch of crimson blood welled over her shoulder. “Help me,” she wheezed.
“Help you?” Sara repeated, staggering to her feet. Somehow she managed to collect her wits. The discarded carriage lantern was still intact, the tiny flame sputtering as the lamp rolled lazily across a step. After picking up the lamp, she went to Joyce, who was clutching her injured shoulder. I should leave you here, she thought. She was unaware she had said the words aloud until Joyce replied.
“You can’t let me die!”
“You’re not going to die.” Disgusted, terrified, Sara removed her own petticoat, wadded it up, and pressed it firmly against the wound to staunch the blood. Joyce screamed like an enraged cat, her eyes slitted and demonic. Sara’s ears rang from the piercing cry.
“Be quiet, you bitch!” Sara snapped. “Not another sound!” Suddenly her entire body was filled with furious energy. She felt strong enough to push down a stone wall with her bare hands. She went to the crumbling entrance of the castle and saw that the hack driver was still waiting, craning his neck curiously. “You!” she shouted. “Come here right away, or you won’t get a bloody shilling of what she promised!” She turned back to Joyce, her blue eyes blazing. “And you…give me back my necklace.”
As Alex had predicted, Derek returned to Swans’ Court, disheveled and dirty, smelling of charred wood. His face was tearless and cold, scraped from his earlier scuffles. Lily had been waiting up for him, drinking countless cups of tea. Henry, her brother-in-law, had gone out to roam with his friends in London, seeking trouble as high-spirited young men were wont to do. Alex stayed home, pacing edgily from room to room.
As the butler admitted Derek into the house, Lily rushed to the entrance hall and took his arm. She questioned him anxiously as she led him into the parlor. “Derek, where have you been? Are you all right? Would you like something to eat? A drink?”
“Brandy,” Derek said curtly, sitting down on the parlor sofa.
Lily sent maidservants scurrying for hot water, towels, and brandy. All of it arrived in short order. Derek was strangely passive as Lilly dabbed at the dirty scrapes with a moistened towel. He cupped the brandy snifter in his hands without bothering to taste it. “Drink some of that,” Lily said in the firm, motherly voice that the children never dared to disobey. Derek took a swallow and set the snifter down, not looking at her as she hovered about him. “Are you tired?” she asked. “Would you like to lay your head down?”
Derek rubbed the lower half of his jaw, his green eyes flat and blank. He appeared not to have heard her.
Carefully Lily smoothed a lock of his hair. “I’ll be close by. Tell me if there’s anything you want.” She went to Alex, who had been watching from the doorway. Their eyes met. “I hope he’ll be all right,” she whispered. “I’ve never seen him like this. He lost everything…the club…and Sara…”
Reading the worry in her gaze, Alex pulled her close and rocked her gently. In the years since their marriage they had shared a life of companionship, passion, and incomparable joy. Times like this served as a brutal reminder that they should never take their happiness for granted. He held his wife protectively. “He’ll survive,” he answered her. “Just as he’s survived everything else in his life. But he’ll never be the same.”
Lily shifted in his arms to glance miserably at Derek’s motionless form.
Someone used the brass knocker at the front door. The sharp sound echoed in the entrance hall. Alex and Lily looked at each other in silent question, then watched as the butler went to answer. They heard a thick cockney voice arguing with Burton’s well-modulated tones. “If Crawen’s ’ere, I bloody well ’as to see ’im!”
The man’s voice wasn’t familiar to Alex, but Lily recognized it immediately. “Ivo Jenner!” she exclaimed. “Why the hell would he come here? Unless…” Her dark eyes widened. “Alex, he’s the one who started the kitchen fire at Craven’s last year. It was just a prank…but perhaps he pulled another prank tonight that got out of hand! Do you think—” She stopped as she felt a sudden breeze rush by her, caused by Derek’s form as he shot past them to the entrance hall, lithe as a striking panther.
Alex followed him in a flash, but not before Derek had fastened his hands around Jenner’s throat, knocking him to the marble floor. Swearing obscenely, Jenner used his heavy pugilist’s fists to batter Derek’ssides. It took the combined strength of Alex, the butler, and Lily to pry Derek away. The entrance hall was filled with their combined bellowing. Only Derek was quiet, busily engaged in murder.
“Stop it!” Lily was screeching.
Alex had one powerful arm locked around Derek’s neck. “Damn you, Craven—”
“I didn’t do it!” Jenner protested loudly “That’s why I came ’ere, so as to tell you I didn’t do it!”
Gagging from the hard pressure on his throat, Derek was finally forced to subside. “I’ll kill you,” he gasped, staring at Jenner with bloodlust.
“You ’ammer’eaded madman!” Jenner exclaimed, standing up and shaking himself off. He yanked the hem of his coat back into place.
“Don’t you dare call Derek names!” Lily said hotly. “And don’t insult me by protesting your innocence under my own roof, when we all know there’s reason to believe you’re responsible for the fire!”
“I didn’t do it,” Jenner said vehemently.
“You were behind the kitchen fire at Craven’s last year!” Lily accused.
“Aye, I admit to that, but I ’ad nofing to do with this. I came ’ere to do Crawen a frigging favor, damn ’is eyes!”
“What favor?” Derek asked in a low, ugly voice. Alex had to tighten his restraining hold once more.
Composing himself, Jenner smoothed his red hair and cleared his throat “My affidavit man came to me tonight at my club, and ’e ’appened to be walking by Crawen’s just as the blaze started, an’ saw two women leaving the place. Looked odd, ’e said, since it wasn’t ’ouse wenches, but ladies dressed in fine gowns. One was blond, the other dark with green jewels all around ’er neck. They took a public coach away from the club…an’ it was then the place started to burn like the bowels of ’ell.” Jenner shrugged and added a touch sheepishly, “I thought…maybe the dark one was Mrs. Crawen.”
“And maybe I’ll find a giant beanstalk in my garden tomorrow morning,” Lily said sarcastically. “You’re a fiend, Jenner, for coming here and tormenting Derek with this tale!”
“It’s the truf,” Jenner said indignantly. “Dammit, I want you to find ’er! It’s all ower London—my own blasted club—that I’m the man what set the fire that killed bloody Mathilda! Bad for my reputation, an’ my business, and besides…I’ve a liking for the little wench.” He gave Derek a disdainful look. “Deserves better than this black’earted bastard, she does.”
“You’ve said your piece,” Alex murmured. “Now leave. I’m getting tired of holding him back.” He didn’t let go of Derek until Jenner was safely gone, the front door closed behind him. Derek shook him off and retreated several steps, giving him a baleful glare.