“Oh, of course not.” She returned to him, skewering him with a level gaze.
Derek didn’t like her expression, the superior look women wore when they felt they knew something a man was too stupid to understand. “I thought you were leaving,” he said gruffly.
“I was, until you began making speeches about our Miss Fielding. What does she think of you? Appalled by your lurid past, as I would imagine?”
“She’s in raptures over it.”
“I suppose you’ve done everything possible to be offensive.”
“She likes it. She calls me ‘source material.’ ”
“Well, you’ve been called worse things. Especially by me.” Lily regarded his slashed face with genuine dismay, “If only she could see you when you’re handsome. How long before the stitches are removed?”
“She’s not my preferred style,” he said flatly.
“It’s time I told you something, Derek…I’ve never been particularly impressed by your ‘preferred style.’ ”
Derek’s lips twitched with amusement “A fine romp I’d have with her in bed. She’d lie there and take notes the whole time. She…” He stopped as an image swept through his mind…Sara Fielding’s pale, na*ed body beneath his, her arms twined gently around his neck, her soft breath rushing against his skin. The idea was disturbingly erotic. Frowning, he forced himself to concentrate on what Lily was saying.
“…it would be far safer than the kind of liaison you had with Lady Ashby! You’ll be fortunate if your looks aren’t permanently ruined from this latest episode. Well, I’m going to make Lady Ashby regret this, mark my words—”
“Lily.” Something in his voice hushed her at once. “Let the matter rest. You’re to do nothing about Joyce.”
Lily was made uncomfortable by Derek’s sudden cool intensity. His was the kind of glance she had seen exchanged between men with dueling pistols in their hands, and between players who had staked their fortunes on the turn of a card. The men who won were always those who didn’t seem to care. She both admired and feared such ruthless nerve. “But Derek,” she protested, “you can’t let her get away with this. She must be made to pay for it—”
“You heard what I said,” Derek had never allowed anyone to settle his debts for him. He would confront Joyce in his own way and his own time. For now he chose to do nothing.
Lily bit her lip and nodded, wanting to say more but knowing the danger of provoking him. He would allow her friendly teasing and bullying up to a point, but there was a line she would never dare to cross. “All right,” she murmured.
After holding her gaze for a moment, Derek relented. “Give us a kiss, then.”
Obediently she pecked his cheek and gave him a subdued smile. “Come to visit soon. The children will be fascinated by your stitches, especially Jamie.”
He touched his forehead in a mock salute. “I’ll tell ’em I was attacked by pirates.”
“Derek,” she said contritely, “forgive me for interfering. It’s just that I’m concerned for you. You’ve had such a difficult life. You’ve lived through horrors that most people, including me, will never understand.”
“That was in the past.” He grinned and said in his old, boastful manner, “Now I’m one of the richest men in England.”
“Yes, you have more money than anyone could spend in a lifetime. But it hasn’t brought what you expected, has it?”
Derek’s smile vanished. He had never confided in her the nameless hunger that gnawed at him, the emptiness that he would fill if only he could identify the craving. How had she guessed? Was it something she could see in his eyes, or hear in his voice?
Faced with his stony silence, Lily sighed and touched a lock of black hair that lay on his forehead. “Oh, Derek.” Quietly she left the room while he stared after her.
Over the course of the next few days Sara was allowed to wander freely about Craven’s, as long as she avoided the main rooms the patrons frequented. She was pleased by the gathering pile of notes she had amassed, which would allow her to write a detailed description of a gentleman’s club. Soon she might extend her research to a few of the gaming hells in the outlying areas, but for now there was ample work to be done here.
She spent every morning sitting in the kitchen, the largest and busiest room in the club. All of Craven’s employees passed through the kitchen to take their meals and socialize, from the croupiers who ran the tables to the house wenches emerging after long nights of arduous activity.
The kitchen was well-stocked and meticulously organized. Three rows of assorted pots and pans hung over the heavy central worktable. The walls were lined with barrels of flour, sugar, and other supplies. A variety of sauces simmered on the long black stoves, sending a bewildering but delectable mixture of fragrances through the air. All of it was the domain of the chef, Monsieur Labarge. Years ago Mr. Craven had hired Labarge and his entire staff from an exclusive Parisian restaurant and had them all transferred to London. In return for their staggeringly high salaries, they provided the best cuisine in the city: a luscious cold buffet kept in constant supply for the club members and exquisitely prepared meals that were served in the dining rooms.
Monsieur Labarge was temperamental, but he was a genius. As far as Sara could tell, even Mr. Craven took care not to provoke him. Guessing at the chef’s weakness for flattery, Sara made a special effort to praise his creations, until the ends of his mustache fairly quivered with pride. Now he insisted on serving her his specialties, many of them renamed in honor of Mathilda.
The kitchen was filled with constant activity; boys and scullery maids occupied with menial tasks of washing, chopping, scraping, and kneading, and servants laden with trays of food for the diners. The staff readily included Sara in their conversations as they related stories that ranged from ribald to touchingly sad. They loved to talk and watch her write down what they said. Soon they began to compete to catch her interest. The prostitutes were especially helpful, giving Sara insights about the men who visited the club in droves…and about Derek Craven in particular. Sara particularly enjoyed Tabitha’s lively chatter. Although they were quite different in temperament, outwardly they shared a striking resemblance, both of them the same size and height, with chestnut hair and blue eyes.
“I’ll tell ye about the fine lords what come ’ere,” Tabitha said, her blue eyes filled with a sly twinkle. “They likes the ruttin’ awright, but they’re the worst in the sack. Two shakes of a tail an’ it’s done.” The other house wenches laughed in agreement. The four of them gathered around Sara at one of the wooden tables, while kitchen boys brought plates of delicate omelettes à la Mathilda and crusty rolls. “That an’ the fine victuals…that’s what draws ’em ’ere. But the cards is what makes ’em stay.”
“How many men are you expected to consort with each night?” Sara asked in a businesslike tone, her pencil poised over her notebook.
“Whatewer we feels like. Sometimes we lets ’em ’ave a tiddle downstairs in the card rooms, an’ then—”
“Tiddle?” Sara repeated, perplexed, and the prostitutes burst out laughing.
“Just a little touch an’ feel,” explained Violet, a short, robust blond. “An’ if they like the goods, the usher takes ’em upstairs an’ we does ’em over.”
“Newer Mr. Craven, though,” Tabitha said. “ ’E newer asks any ow us to ’is bed.”
“ ’E gets it from ’igh-kick women,” Violet commented sagely. “Countesses an’ duchesses an’ such.”
At this mention of Mr. Craven’s sexual preferences, Sara felt her blush heighten to scarlet. The more she learned about him, the more of a puzzle he presented. His inner qualities were concealed by a smooth diamond-hard façade. He was a showman, first and foremost. Skillfully he provided a surfeit of elegant decadence that satisfied not only the aristocratic belle monde but also the shadowy world of libertines and courtesans called the demimonde. His courtesy to his social superiors was always slightly overdone, crossing the threshold of politeness into subtle mockery. Sara was certain he respected very few of them, for he was familiar with their darkest secrets. Through his own network of spies and informants, he knew about the lovers they took, the contents of their wills, even the marks their sons made at Eton and Harrow, and what they stood to inherit.
It seemed that few men felt comfortable enough to ask about the dreadful slash on his face. Members of the royal family; Wellington, the famed military commander; and the foreign diplomats who loved to lounge at the hazard-table all possessed an air of quiet unease when Craven was present. When he made a joke, they laughed a little too jovially. When he made a suggestion, it was usually followed with alacrity. Apparently no one cared to risk earning his displeasure.
As Craven had claimed the first night she had met him, he was never angry. Sara had observed that his mood could range from cold silence to biting sarcasm, but he never shouted or lost his self-control. He was a figure of mystery; arrogant, self-mocking, sociable and yet intensely private. Underneath his most congenial smiles lurked an ever-present shadow of bitterness.
Sara’s attention was drawn back to the conversation as Tabitha mused aloud over Craven’s preference for aristocratic ladies. “Won’t touch anyone lower than a baroness.” She laughed heartily at the sight of Sara’s curiosity. “Ye should see ’em at the assembly balls, the ’ighborn bitches. Those fine ladies lust after our Mr. Craven, they do. An’ why not? ’E’s a good, solid man, not like their soft, lazy ’usbands what cares for cards an’ drink more than women.” She lowered her voice conspiratorially. “Built like a bull ’e is, an’ just where it counts.”
“ ’Ow does ye know?” Violet asked suspiciously.
“I’m friends wiv Lady Fair’urst’s maid Betty,” came Tabitha’s smug reply. “She told me once she walked in on the two of ’em by accident, ruttin’ in broad daylight while Lord Fair’urst was gone to Shropshire.”
The pencil dropped from Sara’s lax fingers, and she ducked under the table to pick it up. She could feel her pulse racing. It was one thing to listen in detachment when a stranger was being discussed, but how could she ever face Mr. Craven again? Mortified, fascinated, she emerged from beneath the table.
“Newer say!” one of the women exclaimed. “What did they do?”
“Lady Fair’urst threw a royal fit. Mr. Craven just laughed an’ said to close the door.”
The whores giggled merrily. “What’s more,” Tabitha continued, “you can always tell what a man’s got by the size ow ’is nose—an Mr. Craven’s got a nice long one.”
“It’s not the nose,” Violet said dismissively. “ ’Tis the size ow the feet.”
With the exception of Sara, they all cackled like a coven of amiable witches. Amid the hilarity, Tabitha leaned her head on her hand and stared at Sara as an idea occurred to her. “ ’Ere’s a plan, Miss Fielding—why don’t you bring Mathilda ’ere tomorrow to meet Mr. Craven? They’d make a grand pair.”
The other women chimed their agreement. “Aye, she’d melt ’is heart!”
“Yes, yes, do!”
“She’d wrap Mr. Craven ’round ’er little finger!”
Even Monsieur Labarge, who had been eavesdropping on the conversation, broke in impulsively. “For la belle Mathilda, I will make the finest gateau, so light it would float in the air!”
Sara smiled apologetically and lifted her shoulders in a helpless shrug. “I can’t, I’m afraid. There is no Mathilda. She…she’s only a work of fiction.”
The table was abruptly quiet. All of them stared at her with puzzled expressions. Even the kitchen boy had paused in the midst of stacking dishes.
Sara attempted to explain further. “You see, I created the character of Mathilda as the result of detailed research and discussions. She’s really a composite of many women I encountered when I—”
“I ’eard as ’ow Mathilda’s joined a convent now,” Violet interrupted, and Tabitha shook her head.
“Nay, she ’as a rich protector. I’ve a friend what saw her walking along Bond Street, just the other day. Credit at all the finest shops, ewen Madam Lafleur’s.”
“What was she wearing?” one of the women asked eagerly.
Tabitha proceeded to describe Mathilda’s lavish frock and the footman who had followed behind her. While the lively conversation continued, Sara reflected on what Tabitha had said about Mr. Craven and his affair with Lady Fairhurst. She wondered if love had been any part of his liaisons. He was a complex man, treading on the thinnest edge of respectability. No doubt it satisfied his sense of justice, carrying on affairs with the wives of aristocrats who secretly disdained him for his commonness. And it must be difficult for him to suppress a mocking smile as he counted his nightly earnings, the patrimonies he skillfully stripped from the young lords who considered themselves infinitely superior to him. It was a strange world he had created for himself. He was as apt to spend his time with the watchmen, pimps, and street urchins who were part-time employees of the club as he was with the highborn patrons. It was impossible to fit such a man into any category. Sara spent a good deal of time thinking about him, her mind filled with endless questions about who and what he was.
Sara paused in the midst of her writing in order to take a morsel from the plate of pastries Monsieur Labarge had sent up to her. The delicate layers of cake and coffee cream seemed to dissolve in her mouth. Flecks of sugar drifted to the polished mahogany in front of her, and she quickly wiped them away with her sleeve. She was sitting in one of the rooms of Craven’s private apartments, working at his large mahogany desk. The stately piece of furniture, with its innumerable compartments and small drawers, was cluttered with intriguing odds and ends; pieces of string, loose coins, dice and cribbage pins, notes and receipts. It seemed as if he ritually emptied his pockets at his desk. She wouldn’t have expected it of a man who conducted his life with such meticulous precision. As she consumed the last bite of cake, a few slips of paper piled in a corner of the desk caught her eye. Intrigued, she began to reach for the folded notes. Abruptly she stopped and scolded herself for even thinking of violating Mr. Craven’s privacy.