Lily released an explosive sigh. “That blustering idiot Jenner! I discount every word he said as nonsense.”
Derek had turned his attention to the closed door. His large, rawboned body was very still. The Raifords waited for him to voice his thoughts. His voice was strained and barely audible. “Sara has a green necklace. She was going to wear it tonight.”
Alex watched Derek alertly. “Craven…would Sara have had any reason to leave the club tonight?”
“With a blond woman?” Lily asked skeptically. “I don’t think any of Sara’s friends are blond except my sister Penelope, and she certainly wouldn’t have—” She broke off at Derek’s quiet exclamation. “Derek, what is it?”
“Joyce,” he muttered. “It could have been Joyce.”
“Lady Ashby?” Lily bit her lip and asked gently, “Derek, are you certain you’re not trying to convince yourself of something you want desperately to believe?”
Derek was silent, concentrating on his own thoughts.
Alex frowned as he turned the possibilities over in his mind. “Perhaps we should pay a visit to Ashby House,” he conceded. “At this point it wouldn’t do any harm. But Craven, don’t rest your hopes on discovering anyth—” He turned with surprise to find Derek already striding out the door. Raising his tawny brows, he looked at Lily.
“I’ll stay here,” she muttered, pushing him after Derek. “Go and keep him safe.”
After Sara and the driver helped Joyce into the coach, they began the long journey back to London. Joyce curled in a miserable huddle, groaning and cursing whenever the wheels of the vehicle jostled over a deep rut. Her endless complaining was finally too much for Sara to take. “Oh, good Lord, that’s enough,” she exclaimed impatiently.
“I’m going to die,” Joyce moaned.
“Unfortunately that’s not the case. The bullet passed cleanly through your shoulder, the bleeding’s stopped, and whatever discomfort you feel isn’t nearly enough to make up for all you’ve done,” Sara continued with growing exasperation. “The first time I met Derek was on the night you had his face slashed, and ever since then you’ve harassed and tormented us both. You brought this on yourself!”
“You’re enjoying my suffering,” Joyce whined.
“Somehow I can’t dredge up much sympathy for a woman who’s just tried to kill me! And when I think of the cruel, callous way you destroyed Derek’s club…”
“He’ll always hate me for that,” Joyce whispered in satisfaction. “I’ll always have that part of him, at least.”
“No,” Sara said firmly. “I’m going to fill his life with such happiness that he’ll have no room to hate anyone. He won’t spare you a thought. You’ll be nothing to him.”
“You’re wrong,” Joyce hissed.
They fell into a seething silence that lasted the rest of the journey. Eventually the carriage stopped in front of Ashby House, a magnificent stucco-fronted mansion frescoed in a rich shade of umber. Sara bid the driver to assist her in bringing Joyce into the building. They had to ascend a short flight of steps. Mewling in discomfort, Joyce leaned heavily against Sara, digging her nails punishingly into her shoulder and arm. Grimly Sara resisted the urge to throw her down the stairs. As they reached the front door, an astonished butler admitted them. Sara spoke to the butler tersely. “Pay the driver whatever he was promised, and show us to Lord Ashby. Quickly.”
Bewildered, the butler stared at Lady Ashby’s bloodstained gown. “Go on,” Sara encouraged, and he complied with her orders. After he was paid, the driver scurried back to his coach and left with all due haste.
“What are you going to tell Lord Ashby?” Joyce murmured.
Sara regarded her with cool blue eyes. “The truth, my lady.”
Joyce gave a faint cackle, looking like a wild golden witch. “He won’t punish me. He lets me do whatever I want.”
“Not this time. I’m going to make certain you answer for what you’ve done tonight.”
“Try it,” Joyce invited, cackling again.
The butler led them to a nearby sitting room, magnificently fitted in red and black. Since Sara no longer offered her support, Joyce clung to the butler’s arm, becoming pale and dizzy as they reached their destination. “Send for a physician,” Joyce commanded thinly, holding her shoulder as she eased into a chair. “I require immediate attention.”
The butler left, and the heavy rumble of a voice came from the corner of the room. “I’ve been waiting for you, Lady Ashby. It appears you’ve been about some mischief tonight.”
Joyce glanced at her husband and didn’t reply. Cautiously Sara approached Lord Ashby. He was seated in a chair near the fireplace, his knees spread comfortably. A stocky, thick-throated old man with flapping jowls and moist, bulging eyes, he looked like a imperious frog. She felt like an unlucky fly trespassing in his territory. In spite of his fine clothes and his aristocratic heritage, he possessed a grubby, all-engulfing quality that unnerved Sara.
“Explain this,” he said, staring at Sara. His broad hand gestured impatiently.
Sara met his eyes and made her tone as crisp as possible. “I wouldn’t exactly describe Lady Ashby’s actions as ‘mischief,’ my lord. Tonight your wife set fire to my husband’s club, threatened my life, abducted me, and tried to lock me away in your deserted castle to keep me as her own private pet! I’m inclined to have her charged with attempted murder.”
Joyce interrupted eagerly. “She’s lying, my lord! This…this peasant creature attacked me without provocation—”
“Quiet!” Ashby thundered. His reptilian gaze returned to Sara. “You don’t intend to go to the authorities, Mrs. Craven, or you wouldn’t have brought Lady Ashby to me. You and I would rather not expose the distasteful details of this situation in the courts. Your husband, after all, is as much a culprit as my wife.”
“I don’t agree—”
“Oh? Then what are you doing now, if not trying to protect him from the consequences of his past mistakes? Although you would like to argue the point, Mrs. Craven, you are well aware that your husband should never have taken Lady Ashby to his bed, out of respect for me if for no other reason. Although…I will concede that Lady Ashby must have been a potent temptation.”
Sara glanced at the feral, bloodstained woman with disdain. “Whatever his taste was in the past, my husband has no interest in anyone but me now.”
A slight smile came to Lord Ashby’s face. His pendulous jowls twitched. “I do not doubt that in the slightest, Mrs. Craven. And I will consider myself indebted to you—solely you, not your husband—if you will allow me to handle my wife in the way I see fit.”
The two women spoke at the same time.
“My lord?” Joyce asked sharply.
“What will you do with her?” Sara said.
“I will keep her at a remote location in Scotland,” Lord Ashby answered Sara, “away from all society. Clearly she presents a danger to all those she associates with. I would isolate her in relative comfort rather than confine her to an lunatic hospital, where she might be subjected to cruel treatment and also prove an embarrassment to the family.”
“Nooo!” Joyce erupted in an inhuman howl. “I won’t be sent away! I won’t be caged like an animal!”
Sara kept her attention on Lord Ashby. “I only wonder why you haven’t done it before, my lord.”
“My wife has always been a source of amusement for me, Mrs. Craven. Until now she has never caused real harm to anyone.”
“My husband’s face—” Sara began hotly, thinking of the slashing.
“A punishment he deserved,” Lord Ashby declared. “In the past Craven cuckolded many powerful men. He’s fortunate that none of them ever decided to make a gelding of him.”
He had a point, much as she disliked to admit it. “Your ‘source of amusement’ nearly cost me my life,” Sara said under her breath.
Ashby frowned impatiently. “Mrs. Craven, I see no reason to go over the same ground yet again. I give you my word of honor that the problem will be addressed in the way I have described. Lady Ashby will never set foot in England again. That should be enough to satisfy you.”
“Yes, my lord. Of course I trust your word.” Sara lowered her gaze deferentially. “If you’ll excuse me, I must find my husband now.”
“Craven was here with Lord Raiford,” Lord Ashby informed her.
Sara was disconcerted by the news. “Here? But how—”
“They suspect that Joyce might have had something to do with your disappearance. I told them I had no knowledge of her whereabouts. They left not ten minutes before your arrival.”
“Where did they go?”
“I did not ask. It was of no consequence to me.”
Sara was relieved that Derek hadn’t been injured. But he must be distraught, even frantic, not knowing what had happened to her. She bit her lip in consternation. “Well, at least they know there’s a chance I’m all right.”
“They don’t have much hope,” Ashby said dryly. “I must say, your husband seemed quite indifferent to the entire situation.”
Sara’s heart thumped anxiously. She knew it wasn’t indifference at all, but a surfeit of emotions Derek couldn’t handle. He was keeping it all inside, denying his grief and fear to everyone, even himself. She had to find him. Perhaps the best place to begin her search was the club. With dawn arriving soon, surely the men would want to survey the damaged building by the light of day and comb through the ruins. “My lord,” she said urgently, “I would ask that one of your carriages convey me to St. James Street.”
Ashby nodded. “With all expediency.”
Sara left the room, while Joyce screamed madly after her, “I won’t be locked away forever…I’ll come back! You’ll never be safe!”
Sara’s breath was knocked from her at the first sight of the club. Or rather, the place where the club had been. Thieves and beggars were poking through the rubble in search of fire-damaged goods. Slowly Sara descended from the Ashby carriage. She stood at the side of the street, staring. “Dear God,” she whispered, her eyes stinging with tears.
All Derek’s dreams, the monument to his ambition…razed to the ground. Nothing remained but the marble columns and staircases, sticking up like the exposed skeleton of a once-proud beast. Pieces of the stone facade were scattered on the ground like giant scales. The extent of the destruction was difficult to comprehend. For years the club had been the center of Derek’s life. She couldn’t imagine how he must be reacting to the loss.
The lavender light of daybreak fell gently over the scene. Sara made her way to the charred ruins at a snail’s pace, her thoughts disconnected. Her manuscript had burned, she realized sadly. It had almost been finished. The art collection was gone too. Was Worthy all right? Had anyone perished in the fire? There were hot embers on the ground, and small patches of flame. Tufts of smoke rose from blackened timbers that had fallen at odd angles. What had once been the huge chandelier in the domed hall was a mass of melted crystal lumps.
Reaching what had once been the grand central staircase, now exposed to the open sky, Sara stopped and dragged her sleeve over her face. She gave an aching sigh. “Oh, Derek,” she murmured. “What am I going to say to you?”
A breeze rustled past her, stirring ashes around her skirts, making her cough.
Suddenly an odd feeling came over her, a slight shock as if she’d been touched by invisible hands. She rubbed her arms and turned around, somehow knowing Derek would be there.
And he was. He stared at her from a face that was stark-white, paler than the scorched marble columns rising from the ground. His lips formed her name, but he didn’t make a sound. The breeze swept over them both, clearing away the wisps of smoke from the ground. Sara was startled by his gauntness, the torment that pulled at his features until he looked like a stranger. His eyes were searing, as if he were flooded with uncontainable rage…but suddenly the depths of green overflowed, and she realized with astonishment that it was not rage…It was soul-deep terror. He didn’t move, or even blink, afraid she would disappear.
“Derek?” she said uncertainly.
His throat worked violently. “Don’t leave me,” he whispered.
Sara went to him, picking up her skirts, stumbling in her haste. “I’m all right. Oh, please don’t look like that!” Reaching him, she threw her arms around him and held on with all her strength. “Everything’s all right.”
A fierce tremor went through him. Suddenly he clutched her in an embrace that hurt, until her ribs ached from the pressure. His hands slid over her body in a frantic search, while his breath shuddered in her ear. “You said you’d never leave me.” He held her as if he feared she would be ripped away from him.
“I’m here now,” she soothed. “I’m right here.”
“Oh, God…Sara…I couldn’t find you…”
She brushed her palms over his cold, wet cheeks. He was off-balance, his considerable weight swaying against her. “Have you been drinking?” she murmured, pulling back to look at him. He shook his head, staring at her if she were a ghost. She wondered how to take away the shattered look in his eyes. “Let’s find a place to sit down.” As she stepped away toward the marble stairs, his arms tightened. “Derek,” she urged. He went with her like a sleepwalker. They settled on a step and he hunched over her tightly, his arms fast around her.
“I love you,” he told her, wiping impatiently at the tears that kept trickling down his face. “I couldn’t say it before. I couldn’t—” He clenched his trembling jaw, trying to control the hot flow of tears. It only made them worse. Giving up, he buried his face in her hair. “Bloody hell,” he muttered.
Sara had never seen him so undone, had never imagined it possible. Stroking his dark head, she whispered meaningless words, trying to give him comfort.
“I love you,” he repeated hoarsely, burrowing against her. “I would have given my life to have one more day with you, and tell you that.”
Watching the reunion from across the street, Alex sighed with tremendous relief. “Thank God,” he muttered, and went to his carriage. He couldn’t wait to tell Lily the good news. In fact, he might decide never to let Lily out of his sight again. He rubbed his tired eyes and spoke to the coachman. “Well, Craven’s got his second chance. As for me…I’m going home to my wife now. Step lively about it.”