“Please let me out here,” Sara called to the driver, tapping on the roof of the carriage. It was eight o’clock in the morning, her usual time to arrive at the club. Before they had pulled around to the front entrance, her interest had been caught by the sight of several loaded carts lined at the side of the building. They were different than the usual market wagons that brought deliveries of fresh produce to the kitchen.
The footman assisted her from the vehicle and inquired if it would please her to have them wait there.
“No, thank you, Shelton. I’ll enter the club through the kitchen.” Although Sara knew it was improper, she gave the driver a cheerful little wave as she walked away. He gave an imperceptible nod, although he had painstakingly explained to her yesterday that it would not do for a lady to appear familiar with the hired help.
“Ye should look down your nose all grand and haughty-like,” he had instructed sternly. “No more smiles at me an’ the footmen, miss. Ye needs be more offhandish with the servants—or what will people think of ye?” In Sara’s opinion, it hardly mattered if she behaved without the expected hauteur, since she would soon be gone from London.
The sound of voices raised in debate rang from the alley. Sara drew her cloak more closely around her throat, shivering as the cold morning air struck her face. The carts were filled with crates of wine bottles. A short, rotund man waddled back and forth, shaking his finger and talking rapidly to two of Craven’s employees. The man appeared to be a merchant defending the quality of his wares.
“I’d slit my throat before I’d water my precious vintages, and ye know it!” he barked.
Gill, an intelligent young man who had become one of Worthy’s protegés, selected three bottles at random. He opened them and examined the contents carefully. “Mr. Craven was displeased by the last delivery of brandy. It wasn’t fit to serve to our patrons.”
“That was first-rate wine I sold ye!” the merchant exclaimed.
“For some dockside tavern, perhaps. Not for Craven’s.” Gill took a small sip, swished it around his mouth, and spit it out carefully. He nodded his approval. “This is acceptable.”
“It’s the finest French brandy,” the merchant said indignantly. “How dare ye swill it like it was some stinkin’ cheap ale—”
“Mind your language,” Gill said, suddenly noticing Sara. He cast a quick grin in her direction. “There’s a lady present.”
The merchant ignored the new arrival. “I don’t care if the Queen o’ Sheba’s here, there’s no need to open them bottles—”
“There is, until I’m satisfied you haven’t watered down your liquor.”
As the two argued, Sara skirted around the side of the alley toward the kitchen entrance. Engrossed in the animated conversation, she didn’t watch where she was going. Suddenly a huge, dark shape moved near the corner of her vision, and she gasped as she bumped into a tall man hefting a crate of wine on his shoulder. “Oh—”
Automatically he steadied her with his free arm. The hard band of muscle threatened to crush her. Sara’s head fell back as she regarded the swarthy face above hers. “Forgive me, I wasn’t looking—” She stopped and frowned in bewilderment. “Mr.…Craven?”
Derek bent to set down the crate, and then he loomed over her once more. “Are you all right?”
Sara nodded jerkily. At first she hadn’t recognized him. He was always so immaculately dressed, smoothly shaven, every hair in place. Today, heavy black stubble shadowed his jaw. His broad shoulders were covered with a knit sweater and a rough coat. His wool trousers and scuffed boots had seen far better days. “Should you be exerting yourself like this?” she asked with a frown. “What about your injuries?”
“I’m fine.” Derek had found it impossible to attend to his usual business this morning; poring over account books, combing through piles of promissory notes and bank drafts. Filled with frustration, he had decided to work outside where he could be of some use. He glanced at Gill, who was engaged in the argument with the wine merchant, and then back at Sara. The collision had dislodged her white cap. A band of lace drooped lazily over her cheek. One corner of his mouth twitched with unwilling amusement. “Your hat is crooked,” he told her.
“Oh, dear.” Sara reached up to her head, pulling the frilly headgear forward.
Suddenly he laughed. “Not that way. Here, I’ll do it.”
Sara noticed that his white teeth were slightly snaggled, giving his smile the appearance of a friendly snarl. It was then that she understood why so many women had been seduced by him. His grin held a wickedly irresistible appeal. She stared at his chest as he untied the laces and positioned her cap correctly.
“Thank you,” she murmured, and tried to take the strings of the cap from his fingers.
But he didn’t let go. He held the laces at her chin, his fingers tightening. Glancing up at him in confusion, Sara saw that his smile had vanished. In a decisive motion he pulled the concealing lace from her hair and let it fall. The cap fluttered to a patch of mud and rested there limply.
Sara lifted her hand to the loose braided coil of her hair, which threatened to tumble from its pins. The chestnut locks gleamed with fiery highlights, escaping in delicate wisps around her face and throat. “Mr. Craven,” she scolded breathlessly. “I find your behavior untoward a-and offensive, not to mention—oh!” She stammered in astonishment as he reached for her spectacles and plucked them from her face. “Mr. Craven, h-how dare you…” She fumbled to retrieve them. “I…I need those…”
Derek held them out of reach as he stared at her uncovered face. This was what she had kept hidden beneath the old-maid disguise…pale, luminous skin, a mouth shaped with surprising lushness, a pert little nose, marked at the delicate bridge where the edge of her spectacles had pressed. Angel-blue eyes, pure and beguiling, surmounted by dark winged brows. She was beautiful. He could have devoured her in a few bites, like a fragrant red apple. He wanted to touch her, take her somewhere and pull her beneath him, as if he could somehow erase a lifetime of sin and shame within the sweetness of her body.
Forcing his muscles to loosen, Derek bent to scoop up the soiled puff of lace. Sara watched him in offended silence. He tried to brush off the lace cap, succeeding only in grinding the mud deeper into the pure white cloth. Finally Sara ventured to retrieve it from him. “I’m certain this will wash,” she said crisply.
She was most definitely annoyed. Derek felt a rueful grin stealing over his face. As he handed the spectacles back, his bare fingers brushed her gloved ones. Impersonal though the touch was, it caused his heart to pump with unexpected vigor. He decided to charm her back into her usual pleasant mood.
“It’s a pity to cover such beautiful hair, Miss Fielding.”
Sara received the compliment with a forbidding frown. “Mr. Craven, I am hardly eager to hear your opinions about my appearance.” She held the crumpled puff as if it were an injured pet. “Throwing my favorite cap into the mud—”
“It dropped,” he said hastily. “I didn’t throw it. I’ll buy you another.”
The frown lingered between her silky brows. “I’m not in the habit of allowing gentlemen to purchase articles of clothing for me.”
“Sorry,” he said, doing his best to look chastened.
The cold breeze gusted again, bringing with it the scent of a coming storm. Sara looked at the gray sky and wiped at an errant raindrop that had whisked against her cheek. “You’ll catch a chill,” Derek said, all solicitous concern. He found her elbow in the folds of her cloak. Before she could jerk her arm away, he ushered her down the steps of the nearest entrance, and opened the door for her. The warmth and light of the kitchen enveloped her in a comforting glow.
“What are your plans for this morning?” Derek asked.
“I am going to breakfast with Mr. Worthy. He is going to explain to me about the committee of lady patronesses that has planned the assembly ball for this evening.”
His eyes glinted dangerously. “I don’t recall giving him leave to tell you anything about my patronesses. Why do you have to know how everything works around here? Who does what, and why, and everything about the people I hire, how much frigging money I have, which side of my face do I start my shave every morning—” Breaking off with a beleaguered sigh, he drew the cloak from her shoulders. He took the bedraggled cap and handed it to a nearby kitchen maid. “Do something with this,” he said brusquely. He turned back to Sara and took her arm once more. “Come with me.”
“Where are we going?”
“I’ll show you how they’ve decorated the hazard room.”
“Thank you. That would be delightful.” She followed without hesitation. “I’m looking forward to the ball tonight. We certainly have nothing to compare in Greenwood Corners.”
“If you want to watch, you’ll get a fair view from the second-floor balcony behind the musicians.”
Sara didn’t think that would provide a very good view at all. “I don’t think I’ll be noticed if I stand in a corner of the hall—”
“No. That won’t work.”
“Then I’ll borrow a mask from someone, and come downstairs for a closer look.”
“You don’t have a suitable gown, mouse.”
Mouse…Oh, how she disliked the nickname he had bestowed on her! But he was right. Sara glanced down at her heavy plum-colored gown and flushed. “I might have something,” she said bravely.
Derek gave her a derisive glance but let her comment pass unchallenged. “Only the demimonde will attend tonight. The more debauched variety of aristocrats and foreigners, whores, actresses—”
“But those are precisely the kind of people I wish to write about!”
“You’re no match for a crowd of randy bucks. They’ll be drunk and ready for action, and they’ll assume you’re here for one reason. Unless you’re prepared to oblige them, you’ll stay upstairs where it’s safe.”
“I can take care of myself.”
“You’re not coming to the ball tonight, Miss Fielding.”
Her eyes widened. “You’re forbidding me to attend?”
“I’m advising you not to,” he murmured in a tone that would have caused Napoleon to quail.
They entered the central hazard room, and Sara temporarily abandoned their argument. She’d never seen a place decorated so extravagantly. It was like a glittering underwater kingdom, reminding her of the tales of Atlantis that had enchanted her as a child. The walls were hung with gauzy blue and green silk draperies. A painted canvas studded with seashells gave the impression of a castle beneath the sea. Slowly she wandered around the room, inspecting the plaster sculptures of fish, scallop shells, and bare-breasted mermaids. A gaudy treasure chest filled with paste jewels was wedged beneath the central hazard table. The doorway to the next room had been converted into the hull of a sunken ship. Lengths of blue gauze and silver netting were hung overhead, making it seem as if they were under water.
“How extraordinary,” she said. “It’s beautiful, imaginative…” She turned a slow circle. “And when all the guests are here, the women in glittering gowns, everyone wearing masks…” A feeling of wistfulness swept over her. She smiled tremulously, lifting one of the silken banners and letting it stream through her fingers. “I’ve never attended a ball before. Country dances, of course, and the local festivals…” The silk caught in the sudden vise of her fingers. She was lost in her thoughts, forgetting the presence of the man who watched her.
All of her life she had been quiet and responsible, living vicariously through the experiences of others. It had been enough to content herself with family and friends, and to write. But now she regretted the things she had missed. She had never made a mistake more serious than forgetting to return a borrowed book. Her sexual experience had been limited to Perry’s kisses. She had never worn a gown cut low enough to show her bosom, or danced until dawn. She’d never really been intoxicated. Except for Perry, the men she had grown up with in the village had always regarded her as a sister and confidante. Other women inspired passion and heartbreak. She inspired friendship.
Once when she had been overtaken by a mood similiar to this, she had thrown herself at Perry. Filled with a desperate need to be close to someone, she had begged him to make love to her. Perry had refused, pointing out that she was not the kind of woman to be taken out of wedlock. “We’ll be married someday,” he had explained with a loving smile. “As soon as I can make my mother accept the idea. It won’t take long—and in the meantime, you and I will pray for patience. You mean more to me than a hour or two of illicit pleasure.” Perry had been right, of course. She had even admired his concern for doing the right thing…but that had done little to ease the sting of rejection. Wincing at the memory, Sara let go of the silken banner and turned to face Craven. He was watching her with the intense stare that always made her uneasy.
“What is it?” He reached out and took her arm, his fingers resting lightly on her sleeve. “What are you thinking about?”
Sara was very still, feeling the warmth of his hand sinking through the heavy material of her gown. He mustn’t stand so close…he mustn’t look at her this way. She had never been so aware of anyone in her life. A mad notion crossed her mind, that he was about to take her into his arms. Briefly the image of Perry Kingswood’s reproachful face floated before her. But if Craven did try to take a liberty…no one would ever know. Soon she would walk away from him forever, back to her ordinary life in the country.
Just once let something happen to her. Something she would remember all her life.
“Mr. Craven.” Her heart rose in her throat, threatening to obstruct her voice. “Perhaps you wouldn’t mind helping me with my research. There is something you could do for me.” She took a deep breath and continued in a rush. “Living in Greenwood Corners, one tends to have rather limited experience. Certainly I’ve never encountered a man like you, and never expect to again.”
“Thank you,” he said dryly.
“Therefore, purely in the interests of research…to broaden my scope of experience and so on and so forth…I thought that perhaps you might be willing to…that is, you would consider…” Sara balled her hands into fists and forced herself to finish bluntly. “That you would kiss me.”