Sara slid a questioning glance to Craven, and he read her thoughts easily.

“Nothing happens here that I don’t know about,” Craven said. “It’s safer that way—for the club members and for me.”

“Is it really,” she murmured. There was only the tiniest hint of skepticism in her voice, but it didn’t escape his notice.

“You might find some of the passageways useful,” he said smoothly, “since you won’t be allowed to approach any of the guests.”

“But Mr. Craven—”

“If you want to stay here, you’ll abide by my rules. No talking to guests. No interference at the tables.” He glanced at her reticule, which bulged with a suspiciously heavy lump. “Still carrying the pistol?” he asked, casually amused.

“I try to be prepared for any situation.”

“Well,” Derek mocked, “the next time things get tight around here, I’ll know who to come to.”

Sara was silent, her face averted. Unconsciously she had wrapped her fingers around the place on her arm he had gripped. Her hand moved gently, as if to rub the memory away.

So his touch repelled her, Derek thought, and smiled grimly. If she only knew the sins his hands had committed, she would never feel clean again.

Worthy cleared his throat and spoke in his official no-nonsense factotum’s voice. “Very well, Miss Fielding. Shall we resume our tour?”

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Sara nodded, looking back into the dark corridor. “I would like to see where this leads.”

Derek watched with a reluctant smile as the two of them ventured into the passageway. He called after the factotum, “Keep an eye on her. Don’t let her shoot anyone.”

Worthy’s reply was muffled. “Yes, Mr. Craven.”

Derek closed the panelled door so that it blended seamlessly into the wall. He paused and steadied himself against a touch of dizziness. His bruised ribs had begun to ache. Slowly he made his way to his apartments and sought his opulent bedchamber. The head-board and posts of his bed were carved with cherubs bearing trumpets and dolphins rising on crests of waves. All of it was thickly covered with gold, which gleamed richly against the embroidered velvet bed hangings. Although Derek knew it was in bad taste, he didn’t care. “A bed fit for a king” was what he had told the furniture maker, and the expensive design appealed to him. As a boy he had spent too many nights curled up in doorways and under rickety wooden stairs, dreaming of sleeping in his own bed someday. Now he had built a palace…only to discover that thousands of nights reclining amid gold and velvet would never take away the sense of deprivation. He still hungered for a nameless something that had nothing to do with fine linen and luxury.

Closing his eyes, he slept lightly, drifting into a troubling dream filled with images of Joyce Ashby and her glittering golden hair, her white feet splashing among rivers of blood…

Suddenly he knew he wasn’t alone. He jerked awake with a slight gasp, his nerves clamoring in alarm. There was a woman by his bed. His green eyes focused on her, and his dark head dropped back to the pillow. “God, it’s you.”

Chapter 3

Lily, Lady Raiford, leaned over him, her dark eyes vibrant with concern. “Why didn’t you tell me you’d been hurt?”

“It’s not that bad.” Although he wore an expression of annoyance, he accepted the little attentions she gave him; her soft ducking, the touch of her fingertips on his wound. Their relationship was that of amicable, bickering friends. They rarely saw each other alone, for Lily’s husband, the earl of Raiford, possessed a jealous nature. “You’d better leave before Raiford finds us together,” Derek muttered. “I’m in no mood for a duel today.”

Lily grinned and settled back in her chair. “Alex trusts me,” she said virtuously. “Besides, he knows I’m far too busy with the children to have an affair.” The brief smile faded. “Worthy sent me a note this morning, saying you had been injured. Knowing his gift for understatement, I went mad with worry. It could have been a scratch or a fatal wound, or anything in between. I had to see for myself. Oh, your poor face,” Her expression hardened, and for a moment her exquisite beauty was obscured by fury. “Who did this to you?”

He shook off the hand she had placed on his arm. “The odds are on Joyce.”

“Lady Ashby?” Lily’s velvet-brown eyes widened, and she spoke impulsively. “Why in God’s name?…Derek, tell me you weren’t having an affair with her! Tell me you weren’t like all the other poor rutting fools who were so entranced by that false yellow hair and lip-puckering and breast-jiggling that you fell right into her greedy clutches. No, don’t say anything, I can see that you were yet another willing victim.” She scowled and said acidly, “It’s written plainly across your face.”

The only reason she dared to speak to him so impudently was the close, enduring friendship they shared. Even so, she was treading dangerously close to the limits. Derek shoved a pillow at her, much in the manner of a bickering sibling. “Get out of here, coldhearted bitch—”

She dodged the pillow. “How could you have an affair with Lady Ashby when you know I despise her so?”

His mouth curved with a taunting smile. “You’re jealous.”

Lily gave an exasperated sigh. “We’re far beyond that, and you know it. I adore my husband, I belong to him completely—and he’s the closest thing to a friend you have. Both of my children refer to you as ‘uncle’—”

“All very cozy,” he jeered.

“There was never anything between you and me. When I turned to you for help all those years ago, you pushed me into Alex’s arms, for which I am profoundly grateful.”

“You should be,” he assured her.

Suddenly the tension between them dissolved, and they exchanged a grin. “Your taste in women is abominable,” Lily said softly. She picked up the discarded pillows and placed them behind his head.

Derek leaned back and regarded her through slitted eyes. “Your style of nursing could kill a man.” Gingerly he touched his stitches, which had begun to pull. Although he didn’t admit it out loud, he knew she was right. She was the only decent woman he had ever associated with. He had loved Lily in his own way, but not enough to take the risk he knew he would never be ready for. He wasn’t fit to be a husband or father. He had only the vaguest understanding of the word “family.” Permanence, responsibility, commitment, the things Lily needed…those had never been part of his world. All he could be certain of were the material riches he had shored up in staggering amounts. If a place in heaven could be obtained with money, he would have cornered the market on eternity.

He watched Lily steadily, his expression closed. With her dark gypsy curls restrained in an intricate plait, and her slender form dad in an elegant gown, one would never guess that she had once been an outcast, just as Derek was. That had been the bond between them, the foundation for shared secrets and memories. Since her marriage Lily had graduated to the privileged society Derek was permitted to view only from the fringes. Aristocratic lords were seldom inclined to invite him to their estates, but their blue-blooded wives were more than eager to have him in their beds. For Derek it was a pleasurable form of revenge, no less because it exasperated Lily.

“Tell me what happened with Lady Ashby,” she urged.

“I broke it off with her a week ago.” Derek smiled grimly as he remembered Joyce’s snarling fury. “She didn’t take it well. My guess is that she hired a pair of slashers to even the score.”

“How do you know someone else wasn’t behind it? Ivo Jenner, for example. He’s always playing nasty tricks—”

“No. The bastards who jumped me last night went straight for the face.” Ruefully he sat up and fingered the row of stitches. “A woman’s brand of revenge, I’d say.”

“You mean if Lady Ashby couldn’t have you, she wanted to make certain no one else would want you?” Lily looked stricken. “Disgusting, vicious—and exactly what one would expect of a woman like her. Why were you involved with her? Has your life become so stale and dull that you simply couldn’t resist her aristocratic charms?”

“Yes,” Derek sneered.

“For years I’ve seen you hop from bed to bed. The more elite and snobbish they are, the more you want them…and why? Just to show the world that you can have the best, most sought-after females. Men like you regard women only as trophies, and it infuriates me!”

“From now on I’ll hump all the homely, unwanted ones. Will that please you?”

Lily’s small hands seized one of his, and she hung on in spite of his efforts to disengage her. “I’ll tell you what will please me,” she said earnestly. “It has broken my heart to watch you become so world-weary and cynical. I want you to find a woman, Derek. A nice, unattached one—not one of your usual debauched sophisticates. I’m not suggesting marriage, since you’re so repelled by the idea. But at least take a mistress who’ll bring a measure of peace to your life!”

He smiled derisively. “That’s not why a man keeps a woman.”

“Isn’t it? I could name a half-dozen men whose mistresses are far more plain and matronly than their wives. A mistress is valued for the quality of companionship she provides, not the vulgar tricks she might know in bed.”

“How do you know so much about it?”

Lily shrugged. “I’ve heard the fellows talking during hunts, and at the club, and over their after-dinner port. Most of the time they forget I’m there.”

“Raiford should have put a stop to your hunting years ago.”

“Alex is proud of my hunting,” she replied pertly. “Stop trying to change the subject. What you need is a mistress, Derek.”

He laughed, deliberately reverting to the thick accent he had worked so hard to overcome. “I gets all the tail I wants an’ then some, lovey.”

She frowned at him. “I said ‘mistress,’ Derek, not your usual parade of lightskirts. I’m suggesting you find someone who would be a companion. Haven’t you ever considered spending all your nights with the same woman? Oh, don’t make a face! I think you should find a nice young widow from the country, or a lonely spinster who would be grateful for your protection. If you like, I’ll make a list—”

“I’ll choose my own women,” he said coldly. “God knows what kind of old crone you’d pick for me.”

“Anyone I chose would easily surpass Lady Ashby!” She let go of his hand and sighed. “I’d better leave. It will harm my reputation if I stay any longer in your apartments—especially considering your fascination for married women.”

“I didn’t ask you to come,” Derek retorted. But as she rose to leave, he snatched her hand and pressed a kiss to the back of it.

“Will you do what I ask?” Lily pleaded, squeezing his fingers.

“I’ll consider it.” His tone was so obliging that Lily knew he was lying.

Nevertheless she smiled and smoothed his black hair affectionately. “That’s better. Someday you’ll thank me for my sage advice.” She began to leave, then paused at the doorway and looked back at him questioningly. “Derek…before I came up here this afternoon I caught a glimpse of the most unusual little person wandering about in the back rooms with the staff. She was asking all manner of questions and writing things down.”

Derek settled back against the pillows, crossing his legs negligently. “She’s a novelist.”

“Really. Has she been published?”

“She wrote that Mathilda book.”

“That’s S. R. Fielding?” Lily laughed in surprised amazement, coming back into the room. “The famous recluse? How in heaven’s name did you manage to bring her here?”

“She brought me here last night—after rescuing me from the slashers.”

Lily’s jaw dropped. “You’re joking.”

Suddenly he grinned at her astonishment. “Pulled out a pistol and shot one of them.”

There was a moment of frozen silence, and then Lily began to howl with laughter. “You must introduce us,” she begged. “If only she would consent to attend one of my soirées, or at least a salon discussion. You must help me persuade her to accept an invitation!”

“Just tell her you’re Lawless Lily. She’s here to research a book.”

“How fascinating.” Lily began to pace busily. “A woman who writes about whores, shoots criminals in the rookery, frequents gambling clubs, and is no doubt doing her best to dig up your dirty secrets. We’ll be great friends, I think. What is she like? Old or young? Friendly or shy?”

Derek shrugged. “She’s younger than you, about ten years. Quiet, spinsterish…” He paused as he remembered the discreet way Sara had glanced at him from beneath the lace frills of her cap, the little startled jump she had given as she realized she had been standing close to him. “Shy with men,” he added.

Lily, who had always managed the opposite sex quite adroitly, shook her head. “I don’t see why. Men are such straightforward, simpleminded creatures.”

“Miss Fielding is from a village in the country. A place called Greenwood Corners. She knows nothing about men or the city. She wanders through the worst rookeries in London—to her, all problems are solved with ‘please’ and ‘thank you.’ Doesn’t think anyone would rob or rape her…why, it wouldn’t be polite. Do you know why I let her come to the club and poke her nose around here? Because if I didn’t, she’d be visiting every gambling hell in the city and rubbing elbows with every thief an’ murdering bastard what’s ever shook an elbow at green felt!” He began to warm to the subject, the casual note disappearing from his voice. “And she’s almost engaged. Hell knows what kind of man would let her traipse through London alone, unless it’s his plan to get rid of her! The bloody idiot!—I’d like to tell ’im what ’appens to women who walks in the city with frigging pistols in their readers—”

“Derek.” There was an odd smile on her face. “Your cockney is showing.”

He closed his mouth abruptly.

“That only happens,” Lily murmured, “when you’re considerably excited or angry about something.”

“I’m never angry.”