She bent again to her writing, carefully dipping the ivory-handled pen in a pot of ink. But she was unable to resume her train of thought. Idly she speculated on what the mysterious notes might contain. Setting down the pen, Sara stared longingly at the slips of paper, while her conscience waged a war with her curiosity. Unfortunately the latter won out. Quickly she plucked the notes from their resting place.
The first note was a list of random tasks, with Worthy’s name written across the top:
Riplace carpits in card rums 2 and 4
Credit to be rifused to Lords Faxton and Rapley until acownts seteld.
Have Gill sampel next brandy delivry…
Sara felt compassion as she glanced over the laboriously scrawled note. Craven’s handling of the written word was nothing short of a massacre. On the other hand, there was nothing wrong with his mathematics. On a few occasions she had observed him multiplying and dividing figures in his head with bewildering speed, easily juggling betting odds and percentages. He could watch a card game in progress, silently calculate the cards that had been played, and predict the winning hand with unfailing accuracy. He glanced over the account books and rapidly totaled columns of figures without ever reaching for a pen.
His other talent was just as extraordinary—an apparent ability to see inside peoples’ minds. He could unerringly sense a well-hidden vulnerability and skewer it with a casual remark. His alert gaze took note of every nuance in a person’s expression, in a tone of voice…It made Sara realize with some surprise that he was every bit the observer she was, that he also felt a distance between himself and the rest of the world. At least, she thought, that was one thing they had in common.
Sara picked up the second note, which was inscribed in an elegant feminine style, all pretentious loops and curls. It was an odd, abrupt message which gave her a cold sensation.
Now you wear my mark for everyone to see.
Come take your revenge if you dare.
I still want you.
“Oh, my,” Sara whispered, staring at the elaborately scrawled initial. She had no doubt the reference to a “mark” meant the slash on Craven’s face. What kind of woman would pay to have a man’s face ruined? How could Craven consort with such a female? Slowly Sara put the letters back in place, not wanting to see any more. Perhaps this “J” felt a kind of twisted love for Craven that was aligned with hatred. Perhaps Craven felt the same for her.
It was difficult for Sara, who had always known love as a gentle and comforting emotion, to understand that for others it was sometimes dark, primitive, sordid. “There are so many things I don’t know,” she muttered, taking off her spectacles and rubbing her eyes. Perry had always been helpless in the face of her “moods”…He saw little reason one should be interested in anything outside Greenwood Corners. She had learned to conceal her occasional frustrations from him, or he would give her one of his lectures about being sensible.
Her thoughts were interrupted by a quiet voice from the doorway. “What are you doing in my apartments?”
Sara turned in the chair and flushed. Derek Craven stood there, an unfathomable expression on his tanned face. “I’m sorry,” she said with an appealing glance. “Usually I work at Mr. Worthy’s secretaire, but he asked if I would use your desk today, since you were gone and he needed—”
“There are other rooms you could have used.”
“Yes, but none that offered privacy, and I can’t work with distractions, and…I’ll leave now.”
“That’s not necessary.” He walked toward her. Although he was a large, powerfully built man, he moved with catlike grace. Sara lowered her head, focusing on the desk blotter. Out of the corner of her eye she saw Craven touch her discarded spectacles. “How many of these do you have?” he asked, nudging them an inch across the surface of the desk.
“You leave them everywhere. I find them on bookcases, desks, edges of picture frames, wherever you happen to set them aside.”
Sara picked up the spectacles and adjusted them on her face. “I can’t seem to remember them,” she admitted. “It’s very disconcerting. I take an interest in something, and then just forget them.”
Derek’s gaze moved to the neatly formed sentences before her. “What’s this?” Deliberately he leaned over her, bracing his hands on the gleaming expanse of mahogany. Stunned, Sara shrank in the chair, while his arms formed a cage on either side of her.
“I-I’m writing about the rookery.”
Derek grinned at her overly casual tone. He knew exactly how much his nearness bothered her. Deciding to prolong her torment, he leaned over her more deeply, glancing at the tantalizing hint of fullness in her bodice and the flash of white skin above the lace at her neck. His chin nearly touched her lace cap as he read aloud from her notes. “The…city streets are…om…” He paused, concentrating on the difficult word.
Automatically Sara located the word with the tip of her finger. “Ominous,” she said. “It means haunting…sinister.” She straightened her spectacles as they slipped on her nose. “It seemed an appropriate way to describe the atmosphere of the rookery.”
“I’ll describe it better,” he said flatly. “It’s dark and it stinks.”
“That’s true enough.” Sara risked a glance over her shoulder. He was close enough that she could see the grain of black whiskers beneath his shaven skin. His exquisite clothes and the pleasant trace of sandalwood scent couldn’t conceal the brutality that simmered so close to the surface. He was a rough, masculine man. Perry Kingswood would be disdainful of him. “Why, he is nothing but a ruffian!” Perry would exclaim. “A peasant in gentleman’s attire!”
Somehow Craven seemed to read her thoughts. “Your young man in the village…Kingsfield…”
“Why does he let you come to London alone?”
“I’m not alone. I’m staying with the Goodmans, a very respectable family—”
“You know what I’m asking,” Derek said curtly. He turned to face her, half-sitting on the edge of the desk. “You spend your time with gamblers, whores, and criminals. You should be safe with your family in Greenwood Corners.”
“Mr. Kingswood isn’t pleased with the situation,” Sara admitted. “We had words about it, in fact. But I was very stubborn.”
“Do you ever tell him about the things you do in London?”
“Mr. Kingswood knows about my research—”
“I’m not talking about your research,” he murmured, his eyes hard. “Are you going to tell him you killed a man?”
Sara blanched guiltily, feeling slightly sick as she always did when she thought of that night. She avoided his piercing gaze. “I don’t think there would be much point in telling him.”
“Oh, you don’t. Now I see what kind of wife you’ll be. Sneaking behind the poor bastard’s back to do things he doesn’t approve of—”
“It’s not like that!”
“It’s exactly like that.”
“Perry trusts me,” Sara said sharply.
“I wouldn’t trust you if I were in his place.” His mood turned caustic. “I’d keep you with me every bloody minute of the day—no, I’d have you fitted with a ball and chain—because I know that otherwise you’d be running off to do ‘research’ in the nearest dark alley with every cutthroat and pimp you can find!”
She folded her arms and regarded him with tight-lipped disapproval. “There’s no need to shout at me, Mr. Craven.”
“I’m not…” Derek’s voice faded into silence. He had been shouting, something he never did. Amazed, he rubbed his jaw and stared at her, while she returned his gaze like an inquiring little owl. Her fearless attitude provoked him beyond reason. Didn’t anyone understand how much she needed someone to look after her? She shouldn’t be allowed to wander through London by herself. She shouldn’t be here alone with him, for God’s sake. He could have ravished her ten times over by now.
As he continued to study her, he realized that beneath the cloud of frills and the spectacles, there was an attractive woman. She would be appealing if she didn’t dress like a spinster. He raised his hand to her puffy cap, his fingertip brushing an edge of lace. “Why do you always wear this thing on your head?”
Sara’s lips parted in surprise. “To keep my hair in place.”
He continued to finger the edge of lace. A curious tension seemed to fill the room. “Take it off.”
Sara could hardly find her breath for a moment. His intense green eyes remained on hers. No one had ever looked at her this way, making her hot and cold and unbearably nervous. She leapt up from the chair and backed away a few steps. “I’m afraid I don’t have time to indulge your whims, Mr. Craven. My work is finished for now. I must go. Good evening.”
She fled the room, leaving behind all her possessions, even her reticule. Derek looked at the little drawstring bag and waited for her to come back. After a minute had passed, he knew she would return for it later, when there was no chance of confronting him. He picked up the bag and sat more fully on the desk, swinging a leg nonchalantly. He loosened the silken cord and looked inside. A few pound notes…the tiny notebook and pencil…the pistol. Derek smiled wryly and delved deeper into the reticule until he found a few coins and a handkerchief. Extracting the neatly pressed square of linen, he held it to his face. He hunted for the scent of perfume or flower water, but there was none.
Lodged at the bottom of the reticule was the extra pair of spectacles. Derek examined them minutely, the round lenses, the dainty steel frame, the small curved earpieces. He squinted through them at the words she had written. After he folded the spectacles, he placed them in his coat pocket and closed the reticule. When Sara discovered the spectacles were missing, she would assume she had left them somewhere, as she often did. It was the first act of outright thievery he had committed in ten years. But he had to have them. He wanted to own a little piece of her.
Leaving the reticule as Sara had placed it on the desk, Derek jammed his hands into his pockets and began to walk with no particular destination in mind. He thought of the way Worthy had sung Sara Fielding’s praises yesterday. Not even the former Lily Lawson, with all her sparkling allure, had been able to elicit such devotion from the factotum.
“She is a lady of quality,” Worthy had said in response to one of Derek’s sarcastic barbs. “Miss Fielding treats everyone she encounters with kindness and courtesy, even the house wenches. Before she leaves the club in the evenings, she voluntarily writes letters dictated to her by some of the illiterate members of the staff, so that they might send word to their families. When she saw that the hem of Violet’s gown needed mending, she asked for a needle and knelt down on the floor to fix it. One of the maids told me yesterday that when she tripped with a pile of linen in her arms, Miss Fielding stopped to help her gather it up—”
“Maybe I should hire her,” Derek had interrupted sarcastically.
“Miss Fielding is the most gentle, tolerant woman who has ever set foot in this club. And perhaps I should take this opportunity to tell you sir, that the staff has been complaining.”
“Complaining,” Derek repeated without inflection.
Worthy nodded stiffly. “That you have not been according her the proper degree of respect.”
Derek had been dumfounded. “Who the hell is paying their salaries?”
“Then tell them I don’t hand out a bloody fortune in order to hear their opinions! And I’ll talk to their saintly Miss Fielding any damn way I want to!”
“Yes, sir.” With a barely audible sniff of disapproval, Worthy had turned on his heel and gone down the stairs.
Oh, Worthy was indeed taken with her. Everyone was. Derek had never dreamed that his territory would be so gently and thoroughly invaded—or that his employees would be such willing traitors. Sara Fielding’s mysterious charm had captivated everyone in his club. They all strove to please and accommodate her. During the hours she sat at Worthy’s desk, they tiptoed quietly through the halls as if in mortal fear of distracting her from her work. “She’s writing now,” Derek had heard one of the housemaids tell another reverently, as if some holy sacrament were being performed.
Derek hardened his jaw. “A lady of quality,” he snorted aloud. He’d had his pleasure between the thighs of women with far superior pedigrees, ladies born with blue blood and illustrious names, generations of privilege and wealth behind them.
But Worthy had been right. Privately Derek admitted that Sara Fielding was the only genuine lady he had ever met. She had none of the vices that Derek could detect so easily in others. Jealousy, greed, lust…she seemed to be above such flaws. On the other hand, he sensed the reckless edge that might someday prove her undoing. She needed someone to keep her from plunging headlong into trouble, or at least to drag her out of it. It didn’t seem likely that her hapless suitor Kingswood was up to the task.
Derek was certain that Kingswood would be slender and classically handsome in the mode of Byron. He would have a cultured voice, of course, and locks as fair as Derek’s own were dark. No doubt Kingswood was a stuffy young country squire who couldn’t understand recklessness. Eventually he would mature into a portly old gentleman who drank too much at dinner and would never let others finish their sentences. And Sara, as his loving wife, would tolerate his boorishness with a gentle smile, and save her frustrations for her private moments. When she had a problem, she would try to solve it herself to keep from bothering him. And she would be faithful to her husband. Only he would know the sight of her with unbound hair and a thin white nightgown…Only he would know the feeling of her sleeping trustingly against him. They would make love in the concealment of darkness and layers of bedclothes, their eyes closed, their movements governed by modesty and restraint. No one would ever awaken Sara Fielding’s passion, strip away her inhibitions, taunt and tease her…
Impatiently Derek raked his hands through his hair and stopped in the middle of the empty hallway. He wasn’t behaving like himself—he wasn’t thinking like himself. He felt as if he should brace himself for some cataclysmic event. The air was charged with white-hot currents. His nerve ends seemed abraded. Something was going to happen…something…and all he could do, it seemed, was wait.