The lady’s maid entered the room with an armload of evening finery. “No, Annie, not the pink gown,” Lily said, gesturing over her shoulder. “Tonight I want something more dashing. Something wicked.” She sat at her dressing table, peering into a gilt-framed oval mirror and running her fingers through her unruly sable curls.
“The blue with the slash-and-puff sleeves and the low neck?” Annie suggested, her round face wreathed in a smile. Born and reared in the country, she had a fascination for all the sophisticated styles to be found in London.
“Perfect! I always win more when I wear that one. All of the gentlemen stare at my bosom instead of concentrating on their cards.”
Annie chuckled and went in search of the gown, while Lily tied a silver and sapphire bandeau around her forehead. Artfully she coaxed a few curls to fall over the sparkling ribbon. She smiled into the mirror, but it looked rather like a grimace. The daring grin she had once used to great effect had disappeared. Lately she couldn’t seem to manufacture anything but a poor imitation. Perhaps it was the strain she had been living with for so long.
Lily frowned at her reflection ruefully. Were it not for Derek Craven’s friendship, she would have become far more bitter and hardened by now. Ironic, that the most cynical man she had ever known had helped her to retain her last few shreds of hope.
Lily knew that most of the ton believed that she was having an affair with Derek. She was not surprised by such speculation—Derek was not the sort of man who had platonic relationships with women. But there was no romantic attachment between them and there never would be. He had never even made an attempt to kiss her. Of course, it would be impossible to convince anyone else of that, for they were seen together, cup-and-can, in their favorite haunts, places that ranged from the most prized seats at the opera to the dingiest Covent Garden drinking establishments.
Derek never asked to visit Lily’s London terrace, and she did not invite him. There were certain lines they did not cross. Lily liked the arrangement, for it kept other men from making unwanted advances to her. No one would dare intrude on what was considered to be Derek Craven’s territory.
There were things about Derek that Lily had come to admire over the past two years—his strength and utter lack of fear. Of course, he had his faults. He was lost to sentiment. He loved money. The clink of coins was music to him, sweeter than any sound a violin or piano could produce. Derek had no taste for paintings or sculpture, but the perfect shape of a die—that he appreciated. As well as his lack of cultural refinement, Lily also had to admit that Derek was selfish to his very marrow—the reason, she suspected, that he had never fallen in love. He would never be able to put another’s needs before his own. But if he had been less selfish, if he had possessed a sensitive and kind nature, his childhood would have destroyed him.
Derek had confessed to Lily that he had been born in a drainpipe and abandoned by his mother. He had been raised by pimps, prostitutes, and criminals who had shown him the darkest side of life. In his youth he had made money by robbing graves, but found his stomach was too unsteady for it. Later he had turned to laboring on the docks—shoveling dung, sorting fish, whatever would yield a coin. When he was still just a boy, a high-born lady had caught sight of him from her carriage as he carried boxes of empty bottles out of a gin shop. In spite of his unkempt and filthy appearance, something about his looks had appealed to her, and she had invited him into her carriage.
“It’s a lie,” Lily had interrupted in the middle of that particular story, watching Derek with wide eyes.
“It’s the truf,” he countered lazily, relaxing before the fire in his apartments, stretching his long legs. With his black hair and tanned face, and features that were neither chiseled nor coarse but somewhere in between, he was handsome…almost. His strong white teeth were slightly snaggled, giving him the appearance of a friendly lion when he smiled. Nearly irresistible, that smile, although it never reached his hard green eyes. “She took me in ’er carriage, she did, an’ brung me to ’er ’ome in London.”
“Where was her husband?”
“Away to the country.”
“What would she want to do with a dirty boy she had just plucked from the streets?” Lily asked suspiciously, and scowled as he gave her a knowing smile. “I don’t believe this, Derek! Not a bloody word of it!”
“First she ’ad me take a bath,” Derek reminisced, a thoughtful expression on his face. “God…the ’ot water…hard soap, an it smelled so sweet…an the rug on the floor…soft. I washed my arms an elbows first…my skin looked so white to me…” He shook his head with a faint smile and sipped some brandy. “Afterwards I was shiwerin’ like a newborn pup.”
“And then I suppose she invited you into her bed and you were a magnificent lover, beyond anything she had experienced before,” Lily said sarcastically.
“No.” Derek grinned. “The worst, more like. ’Ow did I know to please a woman? I only knew as to please myself.”
“But she liked it anyway?” Lily asked skeptically. She was experiencing the same confusion she always had concerning such matters. She had no idea what drew men and women together, why they desired to share a bed and engage in an act that was so painful, embarrassing, and joyless. There was no doubt that men enjoyed it far more than women did. Why would a woman deliberately seek out some stranger to couple with? A blush came to her cheeks and her gaze fell, but she listened intently as Derek continued.
“She taught me what she liked,” he said. “An’ I wanted to learn.”
“Why.” Derek hesitated, drinking more, staring into the dancing fire. “Any man can rut, but few knows or cares to please a woman. An’ to see a woman like that, going soft an eazy underneaf me…it gives a man power, y’see?” He glanced at Lily’s perplexed face and laughed. “No, I s’pose you don’t, poor gypsy.”
“I’m not poor anything,” she retorted, wrinkling her nose in distaste. “And what do you mean by ‘power’?”
The smile he turned to her was faintly nasty. “Tickle a woman’s tail right, an’ she’ll do anyfing for you. Anyfing.”
“Thing,” Lily said distinctly, and shook her head in bemusement. “I don’t agree with you, Derek. I’ve had my…I mean, I’ve done…that…and it wasn’t at all what I expected. And Giuseppe was known everywhere as Italy’s greatest lover. Everyone said so.”
Derek’s bright green eyes filled with mockery. “Sure ’e did it right?”
“Since I conceived a child from the act, he must have done something right,” Lily retorted.
“A man can father a thousand bastards, an’ still not do it right, lovey. Plain as a pipe stem—you don’t know nofing about it.”
Arrogant male, Lily thought, and gave him a speaking glance. She didn’t care how someone did it, there was no possible way it could be pleasant. Frowning, she remembered Giuseppe’s wet mouth on her skin, the suffocating weight of his body, the pain that had driven through and through her until she had gone rigid in silent misery…
“Is this all you have to give?” he had demanded in his fluid Italian, his hands roving over her body. She had flinched from the intimate groping that had brought only embarrassment, the rough probing that brought pain. “Ah, you’re like all the English…cold as a fish!”
Long before then, she had learned that men could never be trusted with her heart. Giuseppe had taught her not to trust anyone with her body, either. To subject herself to that again, from any man, would be more degradation than she could bear.
Reading Lily’s thoughts, Derek stood up and approached her chair. He braced his hands above her head and stared down at her with glinting green eyes. Lily shifted uncomfortably, feeling trapped. “You do tempt me, lovey,” Derek murmured. “I’d like to be the man what shows you the pleasure it can be.”
Disliking the threatened feeling that was coming over her, Lily scowled at him. “I wouldn’t allow you to touch me, you wax-nosed cockney.”
“I could if I wanted to,” he returned evenly. “An’ I’d make you like it. You needs a good tumble, worse than any woman I ever knew. But it won’t be me that does you over.”
“Why not?’ Lily asked, trying to sound bored. Her voice held a nervous quaver that made him smile.
“I’d lose you then,” he said. “That’s what always ’appens. An’ the devil will go blind before I loses you. So you’ll find some other man to lift your ’eels for. An’ I’ll be ’ere, when you come back to me. Always.”
Lily was quiet, her wondering gaze locked on his purposeful face. Perhaps, she thought, this was as close as Derek could ever come to loving someone. He saw love as a weakness, and he despised weakness in himself. But at the same time, he depended on their odd friendship. He didn’t want to lose her…well, she didn’t want to lose him, either.
She gave him a glance of mock scorn. “Was that supposed to be a declaration of affection?” she asked.
The mood was broken. Derek grinned and rumpled her short hair, pulling at the silky curls. “Whatewer you wants it to be, lovey.”
After her meeting with Zachary, Lily went to Craven’s in search of Derek. Certainly he would know something about Raiford. Derek knew the financial worth of every man in England, including past bankruptcies and scandals, future inheritances, and outstanding debts and liabilities. Through his own intelligence service, Derek was also aware of the private contents of their wills, which men kept mistresses and how much they paid for them, and what marks their sons made at Eton, Harrow, and Westfield.
Dressed in a pale blue gown, her small br**sts emphasized by a scoop-necked bodice edged with sparkling cream lace, Lily strolled through Craven’s unaccompanied. Her presence attracted little attention, for by now she was a familiar sight, an accepted oddity. She was the only woman Derek had ever allowed membership at Craven’s, and in return he had demanded complete honesty from her. He alone knew her darkest secrets.
Peering into room after room, Lily took in the sights of early evening at the gambling palace. The supper rooms were filled with guests partaking of fine food and drink. “Pigeons,” she said softly, smiling to herself. That was Derek’s word for his guests, although no one but her ever heard him use it.
First the “pigeons” would dine on the best cuisine in London, prepared by a chef to whom Derek paid the unthinkable salary of two thousand pounds a year. The supper would be accompanied by a selection of French and Rhenish wines, which Derek furnished at his own expense, ostensibly out of the goodness of his heart. Such an appearance of generosity encouraged the guests to spend more at the tables later.
After supper, the club members would proceed through the building to the game rooms. Louis XIV would have felt entirely at home here, surrounded by stained glass, magnificent chandeliers, acres of rich blue velvet, dazzling and priceless artwork. Set at the center of the edifice, like a precious jewel, was the hazard room with its domed ceiling. The air was filled with a quiet buzz of activity.
Skirting the edge of the octagonal-shaped room, Lily absorbed the rhythm of ivory dice rattling in the box, the crisp shuffle of cards, the hum of voices. A shaded lamp hung directly over the oval-shaped hazard table, concentrating brilliant light on the green cloth and yellow markings. Tonight several German embassy officials, a few French exiles, and a number of English dandies were grouped around the central hazard table. A wry, pitying smile touched Lily’s lips as she saw how absorbed they were. Bets were placed and dice tossed with hypnotic regularity. Were a foreigner to come here, someone who had never seen gambling before, he would assume that some sort of religious rite were taking place.
The trick of winning was to play with detachment, taking calculated risks. But most of the men here did not play to win; they played for the thrill of casting themselves on the mercy of fate. Lily played without emotion, winning moderately but consistently. Derek called her a “rook,” which was for him a term of highest praise.
A couple of the croupiers at the hazard table, Darnell and Fitz, nodded discreetly as Lily passed by. She was on excellent terms with Derek’s employees, including the kitchen staff. The chef, Monsieur Labarge, always insisted that she sample and praise his latest creations—lobster patties covered with breadcrumbs and cream, miniature potato souffles, partridge stuffed with hazel-nuts and truffles, omelets filled with jellied fruit, pastries, and mouthwatering custards layered with crushed macaroons.
Lily glanced around the hazard room in search of Derek’s slim, dark form, but he was not there. As she headed toward one of six arched doorways, she was aware of a light touch at her gloved elbow. Turning around with a half smile, she expected to see Derek’s lean face. It was not Derek, but a tall Spaniard wearing a golden insignia on his sleeve that designated him as an ambassador’s aide. He bowed to her perfunctorily, then reached for her with insolent familiarity. “You have attracted de notice of Ambassador Alvarez,” he informed her. “Come, he weeshes you to sit with him. Come weeth me.”
Jerking her elbow away, Lily looked across the room at the ambassador, a rotund man with a thin mustache. He was staring at her avidly. With an unmistakable gesture, he motioned her to come to him. Lily returned her gaze to the aide. “There’s been a mistake,” she said gently. “Tell Señor Alvarez that I am flattered by his interest, but I have other plans for this evening.”
As she turned away, the aide took her wrist and jerked her back. “Come,” he insisted. “He weel pay for hees pleasure.”
Obviously she had been mistaken for one of Craven’s hired women, but even they were not subjected to this sort of treatment, as if they were whores procured from a street corner. “I’m not one of the house wenches,” Lily said through her teeth. “I’m not for sale, do you understand? Now let go of me.”
The aide’s face darkened with frustration. He began to chatter in Spanish, trying to force her toward the hazard table where Alvarez was waiting. Several guests paused in their gambling to observe the commotion. As embarrassment joined her irritation, Lily shot a murderous glance at Worthy, Derek’s factotum. He stood up from his desk in the corner and began toward them. Before Worthy reached the aide, Derek miraculously appeared from nowhere.
“Well, now, Seny’r Barreda, I see as you’ve met Miss Lawson. A beauty, ain’t she?” As he spoke, Derek deftly extricated Lily from the Spaniard’s grasp. “But she’s a special guest—my special guest. There’s other women we ’as for the ambassador’s convenience, an’ sweeter to the taste. This one’s a sour little apple, she is.”
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