She was asking him something. He fought to concentrate on her words. “…should we ascend the front steps, or is there another way—”

“Side door,” he muttered, squinting from behind the handkerchief. “Ower there.”

“My. What a large building.” Sara regarded the club with awe. The massive building was fronted by eight Corinthian columns and seven pediments, and bordered by two wings. The whole of it was surrounded by a marble balustrade. She would have liked to have gone up the front steps and seen the famed entrance hall, filled with stained glass, blue velvet, and chandeliers. But of course Mr. Craven would not want to show himself like this in front of the club members. After she guided him to the side of the building, they descended a short flight of steps that led to a heavy wooden door.

Derek grasped the handle and pushed the door open. Immediately they were approached by Gill, one of his employees. “Mr. Craven?” the young man exclaimed, his gaze darting from the blood-soaked handkerchief clutched to Derek’s face, to Sara’s apprehensive eyes. “Good Lord—”

“Get Worthy,” Derek muttered. He brushed by Gill and made his way through the small panelled antechamber. The winding staircase led to his private apartments. Contemplating the six-flight climb, he motioned abruptly for Sara to join him.

Surprised that he would want her to help him up the stairs, Sara hesitated. She glanced at the young employee, who was already walking away from them, disappearing down a wide, carpeted hallway.

“Come,” Derek said gruffly, motioning for her again. “You think I ’as all night to stand ’ere?”

She went to him immediately, and he draped a heavy arm across her shoulders. Together they began the walk up the steps. “Who is Worthy?” she asked, sliding an arm around his hard waist to steady him.

“Factotum.” Derek’s ribs seemed to cut through his innards like dull knives. His face burned like fire. He heard himself talking, all the years of tutoring dropping away to reveal his thick cockney accent. “Worvy…does ewerything…’elps me run the club. Trusts ’im…wiv my life.” He stumbled on the landing and gave a whimpering curse.

Sara tightened her arm on his waist. “Wait. If you fall, I couldn’t stop you. We must wait for someone strong to assist you the rest of the way.”

“You’re strong enow.” He began the next flight, his arm gripped around her shoulders.

“Mr. Craven,” Sara protested. Clumsily they ascended another two flights, Sara was terrified that he might faint and fall down the stairs. She began to encourage him, saying anything she could think of to keep him moving. “Almost there…Come, you’re stubborn enough to climb a few more…Stay on your feet…”

She was breathing hard from exertion as they mounted the last step and came to the door of his private apartments. They crossed the entrance hall and came to a drawing room decorated with acres of plum velvet and rich brocade. Her astonished gaze took note of the gilt-embossed leather on the walls, the regal parade of French windows, and the splendid view of the city outside. Following Mr. Craven’s mumbled directions, she helped him to the bedchamber. The room was lined with green damask and elaborate mirrors. It contained the largest bed she had ever seen in her life. Blushing deeply, Sara reflected that she had never been in a man’s bedroom before. Her embarrassment was washed away in concern as Mr. Craven crawled onto the bed, boots and all. He sprawled on his back with a gasp and became very still. The arm clamped over his ribs relaxed.

“Mr. Craven? Mr. Craven—” Sara hovered over him, wondering what to do. He had fainted. His long body was unmoving, his large hands half-clenched. Reaching down to his throat, she unknotted his stained cravat. Carefully she unwound the cloth and pulled the handkerchief away from his face.

The slash went from his right temple, across the bridge of his nose, and down to the edge of his left cheekbone. Although his features were blunt, they were strong and even. His lips parted to reveal startlingly white teeth. Coppery smears of blood covered his swarthy skin, crusting in the thick lines of his brows and in his long eyelashes.

Spying a washstand across the room, Sara hurried to it and found cool water in the pitcher. After pouring a few inches of liquid into the basin, she brought it to the bedside table. She dampened a cloth and pressed it to his face, wiping away the blood and dirt. As she cleaned his eyes and cheeks, the water revived him, and he made a hoarse sound. His thick lashes lifted. Sara paused in her task as she found herself looking into intense green eyes, the color of grass on a cool spring morning. There was a strange sensation in her chest. Pinned in place by his gaze, she couldn’t move or speak.

He raised his hand, touching one of the locks of hair that had fallen from her pins. His voice was hoarse. “Your name…again.”

“Sara,” she whispered.

Just then two men entered the room, one of them small and bespectacled, the other elderly and tall. “Mr. Craven,” the smaller one said soberly. “I’ve brought Dr. Hindley.”

“Whiskey,” Derek croaked. “I’ve ’ad the piss knocked out ow me.”

“You were in a fight?” Worthy bent over him, his mild face wreathed in surprise. “Oh, no. Your face.” He stared disapprovingly at Sara, who stood by wringing her hands. “I hope this young woman was worth it, Mr. Craven.”

“I wasn’t fighting ower ’er,” Derek said, before Sara could intervene. “It was Jenner’s men, I think. Two ow ’em armed wiv a neddy jumped me in the street. This little mouse…pulls out a pistol an’ shoots one ow the bastards.”

“Well.” Worthy regarded Sara with a much warmer expression. “Thank you, miss. It was very brave of you.”

“I wasn’t brave at all,” Sara said earnestly. “I didn’t stop to think. It happened very quickly.”

“In any case, we owe you our gratitude.” Worthy hesitated before adding, “I am employed by Mr. Craven to deal with disturbances on the floor, as well as”—he glanced at Craven’s bloodstained body and finished lamely—“any other matters that require my attention.”

Sara smiled at him. Worthy was a very nice-looking man, with small, neat features, thinning hair on top; and gleaming spectacles perched on his pointed nose. There was an air of patience about him that she guessed would not be easily shaken. Together he and the doctor bent over the bed, removing Craven’s shoes and clothes. Sara turned away, modestly averting her gaze. She began to walk from the room, but Craven said something gruffly, and Worthy stopped her. “I think it would be best if you didn’t leave yet, Miss—”

“Fielding,” she murmured, keeping her eyes on the floor. “Sara Fielding.”

The name seemed to awaken his interest. “Any relation to S. R. Fielding, the novelist?”

“Sara Rose,” she said. “I use my initials for the sake of anonymity.”

The doctor looked up from the bed with an expression of startled delight. “You are S. R. Fielding?”

“Yes, sir.”

The news seemed to animate him. “What an honor this is! Mathilda is one of my favorite novels.”

“It was my most successful work,” Sara admitted modestly.

“My wife and I have spent many an evening discussing our theories on the ending of the novel. Did Mathilda cast herself from the bridge to end her misery, or did she choose to seek atonement for her sins—”

“Excuse me,” said an icy voice from the bed. “I’m frigging bleeding to death. Mathilda can go tip a pike.”

Sara frowned contritely. “Oh, I’m sorry. Dr. Hindley, please see to Mr. Craven at once.” She turned her gaze to Worthy. “Where would you like me to wait?”

“In the next room, if you please. You’re welcome to ring for tea and refreshments.”

“Thank you.” As Sara went to the drawing room, she wondered what it was about Mathilda that always inspired such interest. The book’s popularity never failed to amaze her. There had even been a recent stage production of the story. People tended to discuss the character of Mathilda as if she were a real person, seeming to enjoy endless debates concerning the novel’s conclusion. After writing the story of a girl who had run away from the country and fallen into the sinful ways of prostitution, Sara had deliberately left a question as to the ending. On the last page, Mathilda was poised at the edge of London Bridge, faced with the decision to end her ruined life or commit herself to a selfless existence of doing good for others. Readers could form their own opinions about Mathilda’s fate. Personally, Sara didn’t think it important to know whether Mathilda lived or died…the point was that she had learned the error of her ways.

Discovering that her reticule was hanging forgotten from her arm, Sara delved inside and found her spectacles. She polished them on her sleeve until they shone, placed them on her nose, and located her notebook. “ ‘Tip a pike,’ ” she mused, writing down the unfamiliar expression. She must ask someone to explain it later.

Slowly she removed her cloak and draped it over the back of a chair. She felt as if she were trapped in a temporarily vacated lion’s den. After walking to the windows, she pushed aside the heavy plum-colored drapes to reveal a view of the street. All of London was just outside these thin panes of glass, a world of busy people absorbed in their own lives. She turned to gaze at the gold mirrors adorning the walls, and the sumptuous furniture upholstered with painted white velvet. The tables, inlaid with semi-precious stones, were weighted with arrangements of fresh hothouse flowers. The room was beautiful, but too extravagant.

Sara preferred the small cottage she and her elderly parents lived in. There was a kitchen garden in the back, and fruit trees that her father tended meticulously. They had a small yard and paddock, and an old gray horse named Eppie. The faded furniture in their small parlor was constantly filled with callers. Her parents had many friends. Nearly everyone in Greenwood Corners had come to visit at one time or another.

This, by contrast, was a splendid and lonely palace. Sara stood in front of a vivid oil painting depicting Roman gods involved in some decadent celebration. She was distracted by a groan from the next room, and a curse from Mr. Craven. They must be stitching the wound on his face. Sara tried to ignore the sounds, but after a few moments, curiosity compelled her to investigate.

Coming to the doorway, she saw Worthy and Dr. Hindley leaning over Mr. Craven’s head. His lower body, covered with a white sheet, was still. But his hands were twitching at his sides, as if he longed to shove the doctor away from him.

“We’ve given you all the laudanum we can, Mr. Craven,” Dr. Hindley remarked, drawing another stitch through the cut.

“Damn stuff…never works on me. More whiskey.”

“If you’ll just be patient, Mr. Craven, it will be done in a few minutes.”

Another pained groan erupted. “Damn you and everyone else in your stinking, bloodletting, bone-sawing, corpse-humping business—”

“Mr. Craven,” Worthy interrupted hastily. “Dr. Hindley is doing his best to repair the damage done to your face. He is trying to help you. Please don’t antagonize him.”

“It’s quite all right,” the doctor said calmly. “By now I know what to expect from him.” He continued to join the edges of skin with small, careful stitches.

All was quiet for a moment, and then Derek gave a muffled gasp. “Bloody ’ell. I don’t care what it looks like. Leave me alone—” He made a move to get up from the bed.

Sara entered the room immediately. It was clear that Craven had a quick temper, but he must be coaxed into staying. It would be a shame not to let the doctor salvage what he could of his face.

“Sir,” she said briskly, “I know it is uncomfortable, but you must let the doctor finish. You may not care about your appearance now, but you might later. Besides…” She paused and added pointedly, “a large, strong man such as yourself should be able to bear a little pain. I assure you, it’s nothing compared to the suffering a woman endures in labor!”

Slowly Derek eased back to the mattress. “How do you know?” he sneered.

“I was present at a childbirth once in Greenwood Corners. It lasted for hours, and my friend bore the agony with hardly a sound.”

Worthy looked at her pleadingly. “Miss Fielding, you would be more comfortable in the next room—”

“I’m distracting Mr. Craven with some conversation. It might take his mind off the pain. Wouldn’t you prefer that, Mr. Craven? Or should I leave?”

“Do I have a choice? Stay. Flap your gums.”

“Shall I tell you about Greenwood Corners?”

“No.” Derek damped his teeth together and stifled a grunt. “About yourself.”

“Very well.” Sara approached the bed, taking care to preserve a discreet distance. “I am twenty-five years old. I live in the country with my parents—” She paused as she heard Mr. Craven’s panting groan. The stitch-taking was hurting him.

“Go on,” he said sharply.

Sara searched frantically for more to tell him. “I-I’m being courted by a young man who lives in the village. We share the same fondness for books, although his tastes are more refined than mine. He doesn’t approve of the fiction I write.” She crept closer and stared at Craven curiously. Although she was unable to see his face, she had a good view of his chest, which was covered with a great amount of dark hair. The sight was startling. The only male chests she had been privileged to view before now were those of hairless Greek statues. Above his lean waist and midriff, his chest and shoulders were powerfully muscled, and splotched with bruises. “Mr. Kingswood—that’s his name—has been courting me for almost four years. I believe that his proposal will come soon.”

“Four years?”

Sara felt mildly defensive at his jeering tone. “There have been a few difficulties. His mother is a widow, and she relies on him a great deal. They live together, you see. Mrs. Kingswood doesn’t approve of me.”

“Why not?”

“Well…she doesn’t consider any woman quite good enough for her son. And she dislikes the subject matter I have chosen for my novels. Prostitution, poverty…” Sara shrugged. “But they are issues that need to be addressed.”

“Especially when you makes money off ’em?”

“Enough to keep my parents and myself in a comfortable style,” she admitted with a smile. “You’re a cynical man, Mr. Craven.”

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