Keeping her pale blue eyes on his expressionless face, Joyce ran her hand over his flat stomach, seeking his crotch with her palm. “You still want me,” she purred. “I can feel how much. You’re the most satisfying lover I’ve ever had, so big and hard—”

Derek pushed her away so roughly that she fell back onto the bed. Expectantly she spread her legs and waited for him. Surprise dawned in her eyes as she realized he wasn’t going to oblige her.

“It’s over,” Derek said flatly. “I’ll pay all your debts on Bond Street. Pick out something from that little frog-eating jeweler you like so much, and charge it to my account.” He left his black silk cravat hanging loose around his neck and shrugged into his coat.

“Why are you doing this? Do you want me to beg?” Joyce smiled provocatively. “I’ll get on my knees before you. How would you like that?” As she sank to the floor and leaned her face toward the front of his trousers, Derek forced her up, clamping his hands on her shoulders.

“Listen to me, Joyce—”

“You’re hurting me!”

“I haven’t lied to you. I made no promises. How long did you think this would go on? We both got what we wanted. Now it’s over.”

She glared at him. “It will end when I say so, and not before!”

Derek’s expression changed. “So that’s it,” he said, and laughed. “Your pride is hurt. Well, tell your friends whatever you want, Joyce. Tell them that you were the one to break it off. I’ll agree with anything you say.”

“How dare you speak to me in that superior tone, you ignorant cockney! I know how many thousands of boots you licked to get where you are, and so does everyone else! Gentlemen will come to your club, but they’ll never invite you to their homes, or their parties, or let you eat at their tables or approach their daughters, and do you know why? Because they don’t respect you—they regard you as something to be scraped from their shoes and left in the gutter where you came from! They think of you as the lowest form of—”

“All right,” Derek said, a humorless smile crossing his face. “I know all that. Save your breath.”

Joyce stared at him closely, apparently realizing her insults hadn’t affected him at all. “You have no feelings, do you? That’s why no one can hurt you—because you’re dead inside.”

“That’s right,” he said smoothly.

“And you don’t care about anyone. Not even me.”

His glinting green eyes met hers. Although he didn’t reply, the answer was clear. Drawing back her arm, Joyce struck him with all her strength, the blow sounding like the sharp crack of a pistol. Automatically Derek moved to strike back. But his hand stopped before it reached her face. He lowered it slowly. His face was dark and cool.

“I can make you want me,” Joyce said hoarsely. “There are things we still haven’t done together—new games I could show you—”

“Good-bye, Joyce.” He turned and left the room.

His refusal of her body was insultingly casual, as if he had turned down an unwanted offer of seconds at the supper table. Joyce flushed crimson. “No,” she snarled. “You won’t leave me! If it’s another woman, I’ll claw her eyes out!”

“It’s not another woman,” came his sardonic reply. “It’s just boredom.” Suddenly his accent changed to coarse, flat cockney. “Or as you gentry likes to call it, ennui.”

She ran out of the bedroom, still naked, calling after him as he went down the stairs. “Come back this instant…or you’ll pay for this every day of your life! If I can’t have you, no one will! Do you understand me? “You’ll pay for this, Derek Craven!”

Derek hadn’t taken her threat seriously—or maybe it was just that he hadn’t cared. He had done what he’d planned with his life, never dreaming that at the end of the long, treacherous path success would be coupled with such disappointment. Now he had gained everything he wanted, and there was nothing to look forward to. Damn ennui, the mind-numbing clutches of boredom. A few years ago, he hadn’t even known what the word meant. A rich man’s disease, he thought, and smiled grimly in ironic appreciation.

Chapter 2

Sara dressed carefully for her visit to the gambling palace. She wore the best gown she owned, a gray-blue grenadine with three deep bias tucks at the hem, and a high-necked bodice ornamented with lace. She had very few clothes, but they were all made with good sturdy cloth. The gowns she preferred did not adhere to any particular style that would date them. She hoped the bloodstains could be removed from the garments she had worn last night. There had been quite a scene when Sara had returned at such a late hour, spattered with blood. In response to Mrs. Goodman’s frantic questions, Sara had explained mildly that she had encountered a little trouble during her research. “Nothing to worry about—I merely stopped to give assistance to a stranger.”

“But all that blood—”

“Not a bit of it’s mine,” Sara reassured her with a smile.

Eventually she had diverted Mrs. Goodman to the problem of how to treat the stains. Together they had applied a paste of starch and cold water to her coat and gown. This morning the clothes were soaking in a mixture of gin, honey, soft soap, and water.

After pinning her hair up to stay away from her face, Sara covered the chestnut locks with a sprigged lace cap. Satisfied with her appearance, she searched through one of her trunks for a light cape. A glance through the small pane of her window had revealed that it was a typically cool autumn day.

“Sara!” Mrs. Goodman’s puzzled voice drifted to her as she descended the stairs. “A magnificent private carriage has stopped right outside the house! Do you know anything about it?”

Intrigued, Sara went to the front door of the Goodmans’ modest home and opened it a crack. Her gaze took in the sight of a black-lacquered carriage, gleaming ebony horses, outriders, and a coachman and footman dressed in buckskins, frock coats, and tricorns. Mrs. Goodman joined her at the door. All along the street, curtains were pulled aside and staring faces appeared at windows. “No carriage like that has ever been seen on this street before,” Mrs. Goodman said. “Look at Adelaide Witherbane’s face—I think her eyes are ready to pop out! Sara, what in heaven’s name is going on?”

“I have no idea.”

Disbelieving, they watched as the footman ascended the steps of the Goodman home. He was well over six feet tall. “Miss Fielding?” he asked deferentially.

Sara opened the door wider. “Yes?”

“Mr. Worthy has sent a carriage to convey you to Craven’s whenever you are ready.”

Mrs. Goodman’s suspicious stare turned from the footman to Sara. “Who is this Mr. Worthy? Sara, does this have anything to do with your mysterious behavior last night?”

Sara shrugged noncommittally. Mrs. Goodman had been distraught by Sara’s late arrival, her disheveled appearance, and the bloodstains on her clothes. In response to the multitude of questions, Sara had replied mildly that there was nothing to worry about, she had been occupied with research for her novel. Finally Mrs. Goodman had given up. “I see,” she had said darkly, “that what your mother wrote to me is true. Beneath that quiet surface is a stubborn and secretive nature!”

“My mother wrote that?” Sara asked in surprise.

“What she said amounts to the same thing! She wrote that you’re in the habit of doing whatever you wish no matter how eccentric, and that you rarely answer any questions starting with the words ‘where’ and ‘why.’ ”

Sara grinned at that. “A long time ago I learned not to explain things to people. It misleads them into thinking they’re entitled to know everything I do.”

Bringing her mind back to the present, Sara gathered her reticule and gloves, and began to leave with the footman. Mrs. Goodman stopped her with a touch on her arm. “Sara, I think it would be best if I accompany you, in the interests of your safety.”

Sternly Sara held back a smile, knowing that the elderly woman’s curiosity was running rampant. “That is very kind of you, but there is no need. I will be quite safe.” She went to the carriage and paused as she glanced at the towering footman. “This was quite unnecessary,” she murmured. “I had intended to walk to Craven’s this morning.”

“The driver and I are at your service, Miss Fielding. Mr. Worthy is insistent that you should not go about London on foot any longer.”

“Do we need to take the armed outriders as well?” Sara was embarrassed by all the pomp and show. The carriage would have been far more suitable for a duchess than a novelist from a small country village.

“Especially the outriders. Mr. Worthy said that you have a tendency to frequent dangerous places.” Opening the carriage door with a flourish, he assisted her to the set of tiny carpeted steps. Smiling ruefully, Sara settled back among the velvet cushions and arranged her skirts.

When they arrived at the gambling club, the butler admitted her into the entrance hall with exquisite politeness. Immediately Worthy appeared with a courteous smile. He greeted her as if she were an old friend. “Welcome to Craven’s, Miss Fielding!”

Sara took his proffered arm as he brought her into the club. “How is Mr. Craven this morning?”

“He’s off his appetite, and the stitches are unsightly, but otherwise he is quite well.” Worthy watched Sara as she turned a circle in the center of the sumptuous entrance hall. Her expression was transformed with wonder.

“My word,” was all she could say. “Oh, my.” She had never seen such luxury; the ceiling of stained-glass panels, the glittering chandelier, the walls lined with gilded columns, the heavy swaths of deep blue velvet. Without taking her eyes from the gorgeous surroundings, she fumbled in her reticule for her notebook.

Worthy spoke while Sara scribbled furiously. “I’ve told the staff about you, Miss Fielding. They are willing to provide any information that you might find useful.”

“Thank you,” she said absently, adjusting her spectacles and peering at the carving on the capitals of the columns. “This is an Ionic design, I believe?”

“Scagliola, the architect called them.”

She nodded and continued to take notes. “Who was the architect? It looks like something by Nash.”

“No, Mr. Craven felt that Nash’s ideas were not sufficiently imaginative. Besides, Mr. Nash was quite elderly, and far too busy with projects for the king. Instead Mr. Craven chose a young architect by the name of Graham Gronow. He made it clear to Gronow that he wanted a building so magnificent that it would outshine Buckingham House.”

Sara laughed. “Mr. Craven never does anything in half-measures, does he?”

“No,” Worthy said ruefully. He indicated the entrance to the central hazard room. “I thought we might begin with a general tour of the club.”

She hesitated. “That would be delightful, but I wouldn’t like to be seen by any of the patrons—”

“You won’t, Miss Fielding. It’s too early in the day. Most fashionable Londoners do not rise until afternoon.”

“I like getting up with the sun,” Sara said cheerfully, following him to the central room. “I do my best thinking early in the day, and besides—” She broke off with an exclamation as she stepped through one of the doorways of the octagonal room. Her eyes widened as she stared at the famous domed ceiling. It was covered with lavish plasterwork and splendid paintings, and ornamented with the largest chandelier she had ever seen. The central hazard table was positioned directly beneath the dome. Quietly Sara absorbed the atmosphere of the room. She could sense the thousands of dramas that had unfolded here; the fortunes gained and lost, the excitement, anger, fear, wild joy. Several ideas for her novel occurred to her all at once, and she wrote as fast as possible, while Worthy waited patiently.

Suddenly an odd sensation crept over her, a ticklish feeling on the back of her neck. The movements of her pencil slowed. Disturbed, she finished a sentence and glanced at the empty doorway. An inner awareness prompted her to gaze upward to the balcony that overlooked the main floor. She caught a shadowy glimpse of someone leaving…someone who had been watching them. “Mr. Craven,” she said beneath her breath, too softly for the factotum to hear.

Seeing that she had finished her note-taking, Worthy gestured to the exits at the other side of the room. “Shall we continue?”

They visited the dining and buffet rooms, a long row of elaborate card rooms, areas for smoking and billiards, and the concealed cellar where the club members could hide in the event of a police raid. Encouraged by Sara’s questions and her rapt interest, Worthy told her all about the intricacies of gambling, the architecture of the building, even the lands of food and wine that were served.

Throughout the tour Sara couldn’t dismiss the feeling that they were being followed. Frequently she glanced over her shoulder, suspecting she might catch someone watching them from a doorway or from behind a column. As the minutes passed, she began to see many servants bustling back and forth. Scores of housemaids crossed the halls carrying long-handled mops, buckets, and piles of cleaning rags. Door plates were polished, carpets were swept, fireplace mantels were wiped, and furniture was thoroughly dusted.

“How well-organized this place is,” Sara remarked as they went up the grand central staircase with its heavy golden balustrade.

Worthy smiled with pride. “Mr. Craven has exacting standards. He employs nearly a hundred servants to keep the club running like clockwork.”

Each of the six staircase landings branched off into long hallways. Sara noticed that Worthy’s color heightened when she asked what those rooms were for. “Some of them are servants’ quarters,” he said uncomfortably. “Some are temporary residences for guests. Many are for the use of…er…house wenches.”

Sara nodded matter-of-factly, knowing exactly what a house wench was. After the research she had done for Mathilda, she was very much against the practice of prostitution. She had sympathy for the women who were enslaved by such a system. Once they began on such a path, it was difficult, if not impossible, ever to turn back. One of her reasons for writing sympathetically about prostitutes was to show that they were not the amoral creatures people considered them to be. She didn’t like the idea of Mr. Craven increasing his wealth by procurement—it was far more distasteful than gambling. “How much of Mr. Craven’s profit is earned by the house wenches?” she asked.

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