“He takes no profit from them, Miss Fielding. Their presence adds to the ambiance of the club, and serves as an added enticement to the patrons. All the money the house wenches make is theirs to keep. Mr. Craven also offers them protection, rent-free rooms, and a far better clientele than they’re likely to find on the streets.”
Sara smiled ironically. “Better? I’m not so certain, Mr. Worthy. From what I’ve been told, aristocratic men are just as adept at abusing women—and spreading disease—as poor ones.”
“Perhaps you would like to talk to the house wenches. I am certain they will describe both the benefits and disadvantages of working at the club. They’ll be straightforward with you. My impression is that they consider you something of a heroine.”
Sara was startled by the remark. “Me?”
“When I explained that you are the author of Mathilda, they were all quite excited. Tabitha read the novel aloud to the others on their off days. Recently they all went to see the stage production.”
“Would it be possible for me to meet some of them now?”
“At this hour they are usually sleeping. But perhaps later—”
A raspy feminine voice interrupted them. “Worthy! Worthy, you bloody idler, I been looking all ower the damn club for you!” The woman dressed in only a ruffled white wrapper that was slightly transparent, hurried down the hall to them. She was attractive, though her small face was coarsened by years of hard living. Rippling waves of chestnut hair, much like Sara’s own, fell down her shoulders and back. She spared Sara only the briefest of glances.
Sara would have liked to exchange a few friendly words, but she knew from her previous experiences with prostitutes that they needed a fair amount of friendly reassurance before they would converse with someone like her. Out of deference, contempt, or shame, they usually avoided looking a “good woman” in the eyes.
“Tabitha,” Worthy said calmly. “What is the matter?”
“Lord F again,” came her indignant reply. “The cheap old rutter! ’E took to Molly last ewening an’ said ’e’d pay for the ’ole night. Now ’e wants to leave without paying!”
“I’ll take care of it,” Worthy said calmly. He glanced at Sara, who was taking notes. “Miss Fielding, would you mind very much if I left you here for a few minutes? The gallery to your right is filled with many beautiful paintings in Mr. Craven’s private collection.”
“Please, go right ahead,” Sara urged.
Suddenly Tabitha became very animated. “Is she the one?” she asked Worthy. “That’s Mathilda?”
“Oh, no,” Sara said. “I wrote the novel entitled Mathilda.”
“Then ye knows ’er? She’s a friend of yers?”
Sara was nonplussed. “Not really. You see, Mathilda is a fictional character. She’s not real.”
The comment earned a chiding glance from Tabitha. “Not real? I read all about ’er. An’ I knows a girl who met ’er. They worked the same street after Mathilda was ravished by Lord Aversley.”
“Let me explain it this way—” Sara began, but Worthy shook his head as if it were no use, and ushered Tabitha down the hall.
Smiling thoughtfully, Sara wandered to the picture gallery. The walls were covered with paintings by Gainsborough, a horse and rider by Stubbs, two florid works by Rubens, and a magnificent Van Dyke. Drawing closer to a magnificent portrait, she stared at it curiously. The painting featured a woman seated in a large chair. Her young daughter stood nearby, a small hand poised on her mother’s arm. The two were remarkably beautiful, with pale skin, dark curly hair, and expressive eyes. Touched by the tender scene, Sara spoke out loud. “How lovely…I wonder who you are?”
Sara could not help but be aware of the difference between the sparkling allure of the woman in the portrait and her own average attractiveness. She guessed that Mr. Craven was accustomed to very beautiful women—and she knew there was nothing exotic or remarkable about her. What would it be like to have the kind of looks that men found irresistible?
Although there was no sound behind her, a sixth sense caused her nerves to tingle. Sara whirled around. No one was there. Cautiously she straightened her spectacles and told herself that she was being foolish. Wandering further into the gallery, she looked closely at the sumptuous paintings. Like everything else in the club, they seemed to have been chosen for their ability to impress. A man like Mr. Craven would probably spend his life collecting valuable artwork, elaborate rooms, beautiful women…They were all earmarks of his achievement.
Slipping the notebook back into her reticule, Sara began to wander from the gallery. She thought of how she might describe the club and its fictional owner in her novel. Perhaps she would romanticize him just a bit. Contrary to those who assumed he was completely without grace or virtue, she might write, he concealed a secret love of beauty and sought to possess it in its infinite forms, as if to atone for—
All at once a powerful grip compressed her arm, and the wall seemed to open in a blur before her eyes. She was pulled off her feet, dragged sideways, so quickly that all she could do was gasp in protest as the unseen force yanked her from the gallery into a place of stifling darkness…a secret door…a concealed corridor. Hands steadied her, one wrapped around her wrist, one clamped her shoulder. Blinking in the darkness, Sara tried to talk and could only make a fearful squeak. “Who…who…”
She heard a man’s voice, as soft as frayed velvet. Or rather, she felt his voice, the heat of his breath against her forehead. She began to tremble violently.
“Why are you here?” he asked.
“Mr. Craven,” she whispered shakily. “I-its very dark in here.”
“I like the dark.”
She fought to catch her breath. “Did you really f-find it necessary to give me such a start?”
“I didn’t plan to. You walked right by me. I couldn’t help myself.”
Sara’s fear gave way to indignation. He was not at all sorry he had frightened her…He had intended to. “You’ve been following me,” she accused. “You’ve been watching me all morning.”
“I said last night I didn’t want you here.”
“Mr. Worthy said it was all right—”
“I own the club, not Worthy.”
Sara was tempted to tell him how ungrateful he was, after what she had done for him last night. But she didn’t think it wise to argue with him while she was trapped here. She began to inch backward, toward the crack of light where the secret door had been left ajar. “You’re right,” she said in a subdued voice. “You’re absolutely right. I-I believe I’ll go now.”
But he didn’t release his grip on her, and she was forced to stand still. “Tell me what made you decide to write about gambling.”
Blinking in the darkness, Sara tried to gather her wits. “Well…there was a boy in my village. A very nice, intelligent boy, who came into a small inheritance. It would have been enough to keep him comfortable for many years. But he decided to try and increase his wealth, not by honest means, but by gambling. He lost it all in one night. At your club, Mr. Craven.”
He shrugged indifferently. “Happens all the time.”
“But it wasn’t enough for him,” Sara said. “He continued to gamble, certain that with each roll of the dice he would regain what he had lost. He gambled away his home, his horses and possessions, what was left of his money…He became the disgrace of Greenwood Corners. It made me wonder what had driven him to such behavior. I asked him about it, and he said he hadn’t been able to stop himself. He was reduced to tears as he told me that after he had lost everything at Craven’s, he sold his boots to someone on the street and played cards barefoot at a local gaming hell. Naturally this made me wonder about the other lives that have been ruined by cards and dice. The fortunes that are lost nightly at the hazard table could be used for much nobler purposes than lining your pockets.”
She sensed his sardonic smile. “I agree, Miss Fielding. But one piddling book won’t stop anyone from gambling. Anything you write will only make them do it more.”
“That’s not true,” she said stiffly.
“Did Mathilda stop anyone from visiting whores?”
“I believe it made the public regard prostitutes in a more sympathetic light—”
“Whores will always spread their legs for a price,” he said evenly, “and people will always put their money on a bet. Publish your book about gambling, and see how much good it does. See if it keeps anyone on the straight-and-narrow. I’d sooner expect a dead man to fart.”
Sara flushed. “Doesn’t it ever bother you to see the broken men walking from your club, with no money, no hope, no future? Don’t you feel responsible in any way?”
“They’re not brought in at gunpoint. They come to Craven’s to gamble. I give them what they want. And I make a fortune from it. If I didn’t, someone else would.”
“That is the most selfish, callous statement I’ve ever heard—”
“I was born in the rookery, Miss Fielding. Abandoned in the street, raised by whores, nursed on milk and gin. Those scrawny little bastards you’ve seen, the pickpockets and beggars and palmers…I was one of them. I saw fine carriages rattling down the street. I stared through tavern windows at all the fat old gentlemen eating and drinking until their bellies were full. I realized there was a world outside the rookery. I swore I’d do anything—anything—to get my share of it. That’s all I’ve ever cared about.” He laughed softly. “And you think I should give a damn about some young fop in satin breeches throwing his money away at my club?”
Sara’s heart hammered wildly. She had never been alone in the dark with a man. She wanted to escape—every instinct warned that she was in danger. But deeper still, there was a spark of unthinkable fascination…as if she were poised at the doorway of a forbidden world. “In my opinion,” she said, “you use your poor beginnings as a convenient excuse to…to discard all the ethics the rest of us must live by.”
“Ethics,” he sneered. “I couldn’t name one man, rich or poor, who wouldn’t discard them for the right price.”
“I wouldn’t,” she said steadily.
Derek fell silent. He was acutely aware of the small woman so close to him, buttoned and ruffled, cocooned in high-neck propriety. She smelled like starch and soap, like all the other spinsters he’d had the misfortune to meet…the governesses of his patrons’ aristocratic sons, and the maiden aunts who chaperoned untouchable young ladies, and the bluestockings who preferred a book in their hands to a man in their beds. “On the shelf” was what such women were called—objects that had lost their freshness and were stored away until they might serve some convenient purpose.
But there was a difference between her and the rest. She had shot a man last night. For him. His brows pulled together until his wound ached.
“I would like to leave now,” she said.
“Mr. Worthy will be looking for me.”
“I’m not finished talking with you.”
“Must it be here?”
“It’ll be anywhere I decide. I have something you want, Miss Fielding—permission to visit my club. What will you offer in return?”
“I can’t think of anything.”
“I never give something for nothing.”
“What do you want me to offer?”
“You’re a writer, Miss Fielding,” he jeered. “Use your imagination.”
Sara bit her lip and considered the situation carefully. “If you truly believe the statement you made earlier,” she said slowly, “that the publication of my novel would serve to increase your profits…then it would be in your interest to allow me to do my research here. If your theory holds true, you stand to gain some money from my book.”
His white teeth flashed in a grin. “I like the sound of that.”
“Then…I have your permission to visit the club?”
He let a long moment pass before he answered. “All right.”
Sara felt a rush of relief. “Thank you. As source material, you and your club are peerless. I promise I will try not to be an annoyance.”
“You won’t be an annoyance,” he corrected. “Or you’ll leave.”
They were both startled as the secret door swung wide open. Worthy stood there, gazing inside the corridor. “Mr. Craven? I didn’t expect you to be up and about so soon.”
“Apparently not,” Derek said darkly, his hands dropping from Sara. “Showing the place without asking my permission? You’re bloody certain of yourself these days, Worthy.”
“It was my fault,” Sara said, trying to protect the factotum. “I-I insisted on having my way. The blame is all mine.”
Derek’s mouth twisted. “No one can make Worthy do anything he doesn’t want to do, mouse. No one except me.”
At the sound of Sara’s voice, Worthy looked anxiously in her direction. “Miss Fielding? Are you all right?”
Derek dragged Sara out and pushed her, blinking, into the bright light. “Here’s your little novelist. We were just having a discussion.”
Sara stared through her spectacles at her captor, who seemed even larger and more imposing than he had last night. Craven was exquisitely dressed in charcoal-gray trousers and a snow-white shirt that emphasized his swarthiness. His tan waistcoat was made without pockets, fitted to his lean midriff with no hint of a wrinkle. She had never seen such elegant garments on anyone in the village, not even Perry Kingswood, the pride of Greenwood Corners.
But in spite of his expensive attire, no one would ever mistake Derek Craven for a gentleman. The jagged line of stitches on his face gave him a battered, rough appearance. His hard green eyes seemed to look right through her. He was a powerful man with street swagger and absolute confidence, a man who could no more conceal his appetite for the finer things of life than he could keep the sun from rising.
“I hadn’t intended to show Miss Fielding the hidden passageways,” Worthy commented, his eyebrows climbing up his forehead. He turned to Sara. “However, now that you know about them, I might tell you that the club is riddled with secret corridors and peepholes by which you may observe the action on the floor.”