Sara reached for her mask and put it on. The door was closed, but she knew that Worthy was waiting for her. Slowly she stood up and rearranged her gown. Only by holding her hand over her mouth could she stem the sobs that threatened to erupt. She was swamped with self-pity, surpassed only by hatred of the man who had rejected her. “Don’t come back,” she repeated his earlier words, turning crimson. She had felt anger before, but never this burning fury. A few weeks ago she wouldn’t have thought herself capable of it.
Suddenly Lady Raiford’s words crossed her mind…“He’s had affairs with dozens of women—and as soon as there’s any danger of becoming attached to one, he’ll discard her and find another…”
Perhaps at this moment Craven was looking for another woman, one who would suit his standards, whatever they happened to be. The thought caused Sara’s insides to boil. “Well, Mr. Craven,” she said aloud, her voice shaking, “if you don’t want me, I’ll find a man who will. D-damn you, and Perry Kingswood too! I’m not a saint or an angel, and…and I don’t want to be a ‘good woman’ anymore! I’ll do what I please, and there’s nothing anyone can say about it!” Her rebellious gaze flew to the door. As soon as she walked through it, Worthy would take her outside to a carriage. No argument would persuade him to let her stay.
Frowning, Sara glanced around the room. The shape of it, four panelled walls with blunted corners, was familiar. It reminded her of another room upstairs, which featured a bookcase that opened into one of the secret passageways. There was no bookcase here, but the panels were about the right shape…Quickly she stripped off her gloves and strode to the walls, running her hands over the edges of the panels. Pressing, tapping, she hunted for any sign of a concealed door. Just as she began to give up hope, she found a tiny catch. Triumphantly she eased the panel outward, revealing a dark passageway. With a mutter of satisfaction, she stepped inside and closed the panel.
Feeling her way along the narrow hall, she progressed several yards and paused at the sound of clinking dishes and silver. She could hear the muffled, imperious voice of Monsieur Labarge, the chef. The noises were on the other side of the wall. He was shouting angrily at some hapless assistant who had apparently doused a fish with the wrong sauce.
Having no desire to make a grand appearance in the kitchen, Sara passed the hidden doorway and forged ahead. After a long journey through the darkness, she stopped at a small enclave that she guessed opened to one of the less frequently used card rooms. Sara pressed her ear to the crack of the door and squinted through a peephole. It seemed the room was vacant. Digging her nails into the side of the panel, she tugged until it opened with a protesting squeak. Her skirts rustled over the sill. Closing the panel, she sealed it once more and gave a triumphant sigh.
An unexpected voice made her start. “Wery interesting.”
Sara whirled around and saw an unfamiliar man in the room. He was stocky and tall, with a clean-shaven jaw and blondish-red hair. He removed his mask to reveal an attractive but battered face, with a crooked nose and a lopsided smile. There was a healthy dose of cockney in his accent. He pronounced the “v” in “very” as if it were a “w”—just as Derek Craven did in his occasional lapses. Although there was something secretive and guileful in his light blue eyes, his grin was so winning that Sara decided she had nothing to fear from him. Another cockney in well-tailored clothes, she mused.
She smoothed her wild hair and gave him a hesitant smile. “Are you hiding from someone?” she asked, with a nod toward the closed door.
“Could be,” he replied easily. “An’ you?”
“Very definitely.” She pushed some of her wild curls back and tucked them behind an ear.
“From a man,” he guessed.
“What else?” She shrugged in a worldly-wise way. “Why are you hiding?”
“Let’s say I’m not a faworite of Derek Crawen.”
Sara gave a sudden wry laugh. “Neither am I.”
He grinned and gestured to a wine bottle poised on one of the card tables. “Let’s drink to that.” He filled a glass and handed it to her. He lifted the bottle to his lips and swigged the rare vintage with a carelessness that would have caused a Frenchman to cry. “Fine stuff, I s’pose,” he commented. “All the same to me, though.”
Sara tilted her head back and closed her eyes, rolling the exquisite flavor in her mouth. “Nothing but the best for Mr. Craven,” she said.
“Pompous bastard, our Crawen. Though I newer likes to insult a man while drinking ’is stock.”
“That’s quite all right,” Sara assured him. “Insult him all you like.”
The stranger surveyed her with frank appreciation. “A pretty piece, you are. Did Crawen break it off with you, then?”
Sara’s bruised vanity was soothed by his admiring gaze. “There’s nothing to break off,” she admitted, lifting the wine to her lips. “Mr. Craven doesn’t want me.”
“The bloody fool,” the stranger exclaimed, and smiled invitingly. “Come with me, my little tibby, an’ I’ll make you forget all about ’im.”
Sara laughed and shook her head. “I don’t think so.”
“It’s my beat-up mug, aye?” He rubbed his battered face regretfully. “I been sent to dorse too many times.”
Realizing he thought she was rejecting him because he wasn’t handsome, Sara interrupted hastily. “Oh, no, it’s not that. I’m certain many women would find you appealing, and…did you say ‘sent to dorse’? Isn’t that a pugilist’s term? Were you once a boxer?”
Looking self-important, he stuck his chest out an extra inch. “Ewen now, I could beat any bruiser to the punch. They filled the stands to watch me in a set-to…Sussex, Newmarket, Lancashire…” Proudly he pointed to his nose. “Broke three times. Near ewery bone in my bloody face ’as been broke. Once I almost ’ad my brains knocked out.”
“How fascinating,” Sara exclaimed. “I’ve never met a fighter. I’ve never even been to a prizefight.”
“I’ll take you to one.” He jabbed the air with his fists in a couple of combinations. “Nothing like a good match, ’specially when they spill the claret.” Seeing that she didn’t understand the term, he explained with a grin. “Blood.”
Sara shivered with distaste. “I don’t like the sight of blood.”
“That’s what makes it exciting. Me, I used to fill buckets durin’ a set-to. One back’ander, and ffshhh…” He mimicked a spray of blood coming from his nose. “They pays more when you bleed, too. Aye, fighting made me a rich man.”
“What is your occupation now?”
He winked slyly. “I ’appens to operate an ’azard bank myself, on Bolton Row.”
Sara coughed a little and set the glass down. “You own a gambling club?”
He took her hand and kissed the back of it. “Ivo Jenner, at your service, m’lady.”
Sara lifted her mask and stared at him incredulously. The mischievous twinkle in Jenner’s eyes was replaced by surprise as he saw her face. “What a beauty you are,” he muttered.
Suddenly she gave a burst of laughter. “Ivo Jenner? You’re not at all as I imagined you. You’re actually rather charming.”
“Aye, I’ll charm the drawers off you tonight, given ’alf a chance.” He came forward to refill her glass, plying her with a liberal dose of wine.
“You’re a rogue, Mr. Jenner.”
“That I am,” he agreed readily.
Sara ignored the wine and leaned back against the wall, folding her arms across her chest. “I think you would be wise to leave as quickly as possible. Mr. Craven is looking for you. Why did you come here tonight? To make mischief, I assume?”
“Wouldn’t think of it!” He looked wounded at the very idea.
“I’ve heard from the employees that you’re constantly scheming to plant spies here, summoning the police to conduct raids during the busiest times…Why, rumor has it that you even caused a kitchen fire to be started last year!”
“Bloody lies.” His gaze flickered over the half-exposed mounds of her breasts. “There was no proof I ’ad anyfing to do with it.”
Sara regarded him suspiciously. “Some even suspect you of hiring men to attack Mr. Craven in the rookery and slash his face.”
“No,” he said indignantly. “That wasn’t me. Eweryone knows Crawen’s fancy for ’igh-kick women. It was a woman what did it to ’im.” He snorted. “Pull a cat’s tail, and she’ll scratch. That’s what ’appened to Crawen’s face.” He smiled insolently. “Maybe it was you, aye?”
“It was not me,” Sara said in annoyance. “For one thing, I don’t have a single drop of blue blood—which makes me completely uninteresting to Mr. Craven.”
“I likes you better for it, love.”
“For another thing,” she continued pertly, “I would never dream of slashing a man’s face just because he didn’t want me. And I wouldn’t chase someone who had spurned me. I have more pride than that.”
“An’ so you should.” Ivo Jenner laughed low in his throat. “A prize wench, you are. Forget about Crawen. Let me take you to a better place than this. My club. The pigeons aren’t as fine—but there’s deep play an’ all you wants to drink—an’ no Derek Crawen.”
“Go somewhere with you?” Sara asked, picking up her glass of wine.
“You’d rather stay ’ere?” he countered.
As Sara sipped the fruity beverage, she contemplated him over the rim of the glass. She began to feel better than before, a little less hollow. He had a point, she thought. There were no possibilities for her at Craven’s, not with Worthy and probably the entire staff ready to “escort” her out. Furthermore, this would be a chance for her to continue her research on gaming clubs. Of course, Ivo Jenner was not the most trustworthy of men. But neither was Derek Craven. And—childishly spiteful though it was—the idea of fraternizing with Craven’s business rival was not without appeal.
After replacing her mask, Sara gave him a decisive nod. “Yes, Mr. Jenner. I would like to see your club.”
“Ivo. Call me Ivo.” Grinning widely, Jenner donned his own mask. “I ’ope we can leave without being caught.”
“We’ll have to stop at the front entrance. I’ll have need of my cloak.”
“We’ll be stopped,” he warned.
“I don’t think so.” She threw a reckless grin in his direction. “I’m feeling very lucky tonight.”
He chuckled and crooked his arm invitingly. “So’m I, love.”
Brazenly they walked into the main rooms and along the outskirts of the crowd. Jenner proved skillful at maneuvering his feminine prize out of the reach of the exuberant guests, alternately exchanging laughter and threats as he shouldered his way through. Arm in arm, he and Sara made their way to the front entrance of the club. They paused to request Sara’s cloak from Ellison, the butler.
Ellison flushed in excitement as he saw her. “Miss Mathilda! Surely you’re not leaving so soon.”
Sara gave him an impish smile. “I’ve had a more intriguing invitation. To another club, as a matter of fact.”
“I see,” The butler’s face drooped with disappointment. “You’ll want your cloak, then.”
As an attendant rushed to fetch the required cloak, Jenner pulled Sara a foot or two away. “ ’E called you Mathilda,” he said in a strange voice.
“So he did.”
“That’s who you are? Mathilda? The one they wrote the book about?”
“In a way,” Sara said uncomfortably. It was definitely a twisted version of the truth. She couldn’t tell him her real name. No one must know that well-behaved, proper Miss Sara Fielding had ever gone to a ball and become intoxicated, and consorted with men of ill-repute. If word somehow ever got back to Perry Kingswood, or his mother…She shuddered at the idea.
Seeing the involuntary movement of her shoulders, Jenner received the cloak and draped it about her reverently. Lifting the rippling mass of her hair, he pulled it free of the velvet mantle. “Mathilda,” he breathed. “The woman ewery man in England wants.”
“That’s a great exaggeration, Mr. Jenner…er…Ivo.”
“Jenner?” Having overheard the last few words, the butler looked sharply at Sara’s masked companion. “Oh, no. Miss Mathilda, don’t say you’re going off with this debauched, dangerous ruffian—”
“I’m all right,” Sara soothed, patting the butler’s arm. “And Mr. Jenner is really very sweet.”
Ellison began to protest vigorously. “Miss Mathilda, I cannot allow—”
“She’s with me,” Jenner interrupted, glaring at the butler. “No one can say nofing about it.” Masterfully he pulled Sara along with him and ushered her down the front steps toward the line of waiting carriages.
With the assistance of Jenner and a footman dressed in a slightly frayed uniform, Sara climbed into a black and burgundy carriage. Though the interior was clean and presentable, it hardly matched the luxuriously outfitted vehicles she had become accustomed to at Craven’s. Sara smiled slightly, reflecting on how spoiled she had become in a matter of days. Fine food, French wine, impeccable service, and all the opulence of Craven’s club…It certainly was a contrast to Greenwood Corners.
Uneasily she gazed down at her borrowed finery. It had been willful, frivolous, inconsiderate of her to have put Worthy and Lady Raiford to trouble. It wasn’t like her. She had changed in the last few days, and not for the better. Craven was right—she should return to the village as soon as possible. Her parents would be ashamed if they knew of her conduct, and Perry…Sara bit her lip in dismay. Perry would condemn her for such behavior. He was of the old school, believing that natural feelings and animal urges should be strictly governed, never to take precedence over the intellect.
Wearily Sara leaned her head back against the flat cushions. Mr. Craven must despise her now, she thought. Unwillingly she remembered the searing delight of his hands on her skin, and the hot brand of his mouth. A shiver chased across her shoulders, and her heart gave an extra thump. God forgive her, but she wasn’t sorry for any of it. No one would be able to take it away from her, the memory that would remain even when she was safely tucked away in her country village. When she was an old woman, rocking serenely in a corner of the parlor and listening to her granddaughters giggling about their handsome swains, she would smile privately at the thought that she had once been kissed by the most wicked man in London.
***P/S: Copyright -->Novel12__Com