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Dreaming of You: Chapter 11


Late at night it gave Sara a cozy feeling to rest against Derek’s hard chest and listen to the sounds of the club below them. If she was very still, she could barely make out the clink of dishes, the drone of patrons and employees, the faint rattle of cribbage counters in bowls, even the sultry murmurs of house wenches as they welcomed guests into their rooms. The club was like a living creature, a splendid monster with a ceaseless pulse of activity. “I like being up here,” she murmured. “Quiet and hidden away, while everyone is busy downstairs.”

“Enjoy it while you can,” Derek advised.

Sara lifted her head in surprise. “What? Why do you say that?”

“I promised your father we wouldn’t live at the club.”

“But I like living here. Why would my father object?”

Derek smiled sardonically. “He has some strange notion about not wanting you to stay under the same roof with whores and gamblers.”

She propped herself up on her elbows, while a small pucker of worry insinuated itself between her brows. “But how will we manage? You’ve always lived at the club in order to keep a close eye on everything.” Her voice lowered in suspicion. “Are you planning to install me in one of your mansions and forget about me?”

Derek laughed and flipped her to her back, his broad shoulders looming over her. “Much good you’ll be to me that way,” he said dryly. “I married you to keep you in arm’s reach.” He drew his hand down her body in a leisurely caress. “Closer if possible.”

Sara pushed at his chest in a show of pretended annoyance. “Why do you always try to make love to me when I want to talk about something?”

Derek eased her legs apart. “You always try to talk while I’m making love to you,” he countered, kissing her throat.

Sara wriggled out from beneath him and crawled to the opposite side of the bed. “I want this settled,” she insisted, pulling the sheet around herself protectively. “I don’t want you to move away from the club on my account.”

“It’s not just for you. I might like to try living in a place where I’m not surrounded by wenches, drunken swells, and thieves all the time. Maybe I’d like to sleep at night without keeping one ear out for a police raid.”

“What about your business?”

“I’ll still have my thumb on it. Worthy will watch over the place when I’m not here.” He began to tug the sheet away from her. “Give me this.”

“Where are you planning for us to live?” Sara asked warily.

Derek gave a casual shrug. “I thought we’d start by touring the places we already own. If none of them please you, we’ll buy something. Or we’ll have it built.” In a sudden move he snagged her ankle in his hand and began to pull her toward him. “Come here…You have wifely duties to attend to.”

She grabbed the edge of the mattress to stop the inexorable slide. “I’m not finished talking!”

“I am. Let go of that.” He yanked gently at her leg.

Sara rolled to her stomach, gasping with laughter as she felt him crawl over her. His considerable weight lowered enough to keep her pinned flat. The startling male length of him, roughness, heat, and sinew, pressed from her shoulders to her feet. She giggled suddenly. “You can’t do anything this way,” she gloated. “And I’m not going to turn over.”

Derek smiled at her innocence. Pushing her long hair aside, he kissed the downy nape of her neck. “I don’t want you to turn over,” he whispered. He hoisted himself up enough to settle his hands on her shoulders, manipulating the soft muscles. His touch was deft and easy.

Sara sighed in pleasure. “That’s nice. Oh…don’t stop that.”

The soothing pressure traveled over her back, his thumbs finding vulnerable points on either side. She turned her head to the side, breathing deeply. He crouched over her again, his strong hands resting on the swell of her hips, his mouth at her ear. The tip of his tongue edged the fine curve and then ventured inside to flick in a shallow, delicate thrust. For a second all sound was blocked. Sara quivered at the peculiar sensation. After his tongue withdrew from her moist ear, the heat of his breath and the low timbre of his voice seemed more acute than before. “Do you like that?” he whispered.

“I-I don’t know.”

He laughed quietly and did it again. Sara would have turned over for him then, her body filled with restless impulses. But he kept her face down and forced his hand gently beneath her hips. She gasped as he found the damp triangle between her thighs, his fingers searching expertly. When she tried to twist around, he sank his teeth into the back of her neck, holding her still. “Stay there. I like this view of you.”

“Don’t,” she murmured, thinking he was teasing her.

His voice was vibrant with lust. “Round, sweet, firm…You have the prettiest backside I’ve ever seen.”

Her protesting laugh ended in a groan as he goaded her with his hips, pushing her down against his hand. She reached forward and curled her fingers around the mattress, digging deeply. The provocative devil on top of her kept whispering, praising her with earthy accolades, nudging her in a slow rhythm. Caught between his body and his tormenting hand, she felt the tension build inside until a frustrated whimper broke from her throat. Instead of turning her to face him, he straddled her from behind. She floundered in a moment of confusion as she felt his thighs brace against hers. “This way,” he said quickly, pulling her hips high. “Let me…my sweet Sara…I won’t hurt you.”

He pushed inside her, a heavy, exciting surge. Shocked and aroused, she curved her spine to make it easier for him. He rode her gently, the muscled force of him surrounding her while his hands coasted over her breasts and smooth belly. Sara dropped her head, smothering her cries against the mattress. A few strokes more, and she climaxed in shivering ripples that emptied her of all strength. His hands tightened powerfully on her hips as he followed her into the depths of thoughtless rapture.

It wasn’t long before their marriage had taken on a wilful character of its own. Having never experienced family life, Derek didn’t know how to behave like a husband, at least not the ordinary kind. He seemed like a half-tamed creature to Sara, unaware of regular hours for eating or sleeping. The only structure in their life was what she imposed. Sara tried to make the changes gradual, unwilling to require too much of him at once.

One night after waiting up for him past two o’clock, she dressed in a simple gown and ventured out of their private apartments, wondering what kept him downstairs. The club was infused with particular excitement, the drone of voices punctuated with exclamations and encouragements. Standing inconspicuously at the edge of the doorway, she watched the tightly knit crowd around the hazard table. All of them concentrated on the roll of ivory dice as if life or death depended on it. Derek’s slim, dark form was visible in their midst. He was laughing quietly at some quip that had been made to ease the tension.

“Mrs. Craven.” Sara heard Worthy’s voice beside her, and she turned with a smile. She had come to rely on the factotum almost as much as Derek. Worthy had been more overtly pleased about their marriage than anyone else, reassuring her in his quiet way that she had made the right decision. They had talked for a few minutes at the reception the Raifords had given after the wedding. Together they had watched Derek’s attempts to wheedle her elderly mother into a dance. “I’ve never seen him care about anyone the way he does you,” Worthy had told Sara. “After you left, it was like watching a man crumble inside. The only reason he went to the weekend at Raiford Park was because he was too pickled to protest when Gill and I loaded him into the carriage.”

“Oh, dear.” Sara had smiled in sympathetic amusement. “He was drinking quite a bit?”

“Blue ruin,” Worthy had confirmed. “But ever since he returned, knowing you were going to be his wife…well, he’s been a different man. You bring out the best in him. He is determined to be a good husband to you—and he never fails, once he decides to accomplish something.”

Just then Derek had managed to coax Katie into a sedate waltz, the pair of them circling the corner of the ballroom with great dignity. “You don’t have to convince me of that,” Sara had remarked, her eyes gleaming with laughter.

Since the wedding Worthy had done all that was possible to make her comfortable at the club and afford her time and privacy with Derek. The servants were irreproachable in their goodwill and efficiency. Whatever she needed was provided almost before she could ask for it. When she was in the vicinity of the club patrons, Worthy or Gill hovered protectively nearby, ensuring that she was safe from any improper advances.

As another roll of the dice caused the group at the hazard table to murmur excitedly, Sara leaned closer to the factotum. “What’s happening?” she asked.

“Lord Alvanley is at the hazard table, playing very deep. He tends to spend large amounts and run up heavy losses. Naturally he is a great favorite of Mr. Craven’s.”

“Naturally,” Sara repeated wryly. No wonder Derek was following the game closely. Derek’s presence tended to encourage spending at the tables, almost as if the players wished to impress him by throwing around their wealth.

“Is there something you require, Mrs. Craven?” Worthy asked.

She shrugged slightly, watching Derek. “I was just wondering…do you think it will be very long before the game is over?”

Worthy followed her gaze. “I’ll go and ask him. Wait right here, Mrs. Craven.”

“Perhaps you shouldn’t bother him…” Sara began, but he was already gone.

While the factotum made his way to the hazard table, some of the house wenches approached her, led by Tabitha. Although Sara and Tabitha had tacitly agreed never to mention their meeting in Greenwood Corners, the girl seemed to feel partially responsible for Sara’s good fortune. She had thanked Sara for not “turning her nose up” at all the house wenches after becoming Derek’s wife. “Ye’re a fine, gracious lady,” she had told Sara, “just like I said you was.”

This evening the three house wenches came up to Sara, all of them dressed in brightly spangled finery. Sara greeted them pleasantly.

“ ’Tis a slow night,” Tabitha commented, sticking a hip out and resting her hand on it as she eyed the assortment of soldiers, aristocrats, and diplomats. “Always is when the play’s deep. But after, they rush for the nearest wench, an’ sometimes pay double for a flier.”

“You’d better take care to ’ide yourself when the game’s done,” Violet advised Sara sagely. “Mr. Craven would blow up good, were another man to try an’ riddle you.”

“I’m just waiting for Mr. Worthy to return—” Sara began, but Tabitha interrupted with a gusty laugh.

“I’ve a notion to bull-bait yer ’usband, Mrs. Crawen, an’ show ’im why a man should keep close to ’is wife’s bed at night.”

Sara shook her head in confusion. “I don’t know what you mean, Tabitha. But I won’t participate in any attempts to trick Mr. Craven, especially not in front of his friends…no…really…”

Laughing merrily, bent on mischief, the house wenches dragged her with them to the hazard table. They took care to keep her concealed in their midst. “Mr. Crawen,” Tabitha said casually, “we brung a new girl for ye to try out. She’s been waiting to give ye a little knock.”

Eyebrows were raised and a few glances exchanged across the table, for the prostitutes usually knew better than to intrude on a game.

Derek gave Tabitha a quizzical frown. “Tell her I don’t tumble the house wenches.” He turned away dismissively.

Tabitha persisted with glee. “But she’s a nice, fresh one. Why don’t you take a look?” Giggling, the wenches brought Sara forth. She was flushing and protesting, trying to remove the spangled tuft of plumes they had tucked behind her ear.

Derek laughed suddenly, his expression lightening. He pulled Sara into the crook of his arm. “This one I’ll take,” he murmured, bending to kiss her temple.

Pausing in the middle of the game, Lord Alvanley inquired as to the identity of the newcomer. When informed that she was Craven’s new bride, Alvanley temporarily deserted his position at the hazard table. The crowd of men watched in amusement as he approached Sara. “My sincerest compliments, Mrs. Craven.” Alvanley bowed over her hand and addressed Derek languidly. “You don’t have the intelligence I suspected, Craven, if you choose to leave such a pretty creature waiting upstairs in favor of our boorish company.”

Derek grinned and bowed in acknowledgment. “At Your Lordship’s advice, I’ll oblige my wife and retire for the evening.” He eased Sara through the crowd and walked away with her.

A rumble of masculine laughter and off-color comments accompanied their exit. “There’s a mannerly fellow!”…“Oblige her once for me, Craven!”

Red as a beet, Sara apologized as they entered the hall. “I’m so sorry! I didn’t intend to take you away. Worthy said the game was important…Please, you must go back and attend it.”

A smile played on Derek’s lips. “It’s too late. If you take it upon yourself to fetch me from a high-stakes game, you’ll have to face the consequences.” Pulling her to the side of the stairs that led to their apartments, Derek bent and covered her mouth with a lusty kiss. “Poor little wife,” he murmured, cupping his hands over her bottom and urging her hard against his body. “I haven’t done well by you, if you’ve been left so unsatisfied you had to come looking for me.” He nibbled at the tender spot just beneath her ear. “I’ll just have to work harder to keep up with your appetite.”

“Derek,” she protested, her hands working aimlessly over his shoulders as he kissed her again. Her heart began to race, and she couldn’t suppress a little moan of pleasure. “I-I was just concerned that you wouldn’t have enough sleep for the night.”

He strung a necklace of kisses around her throat. “You were right about that. I won’t. And neither will you.”

“I’ll never take you away from a game again,” she said, feeling the need to apologize. “I didn’t mean to disrupt your evening—”

“I’m glad you did,” Derek murmured. He grinned as he stared into her soft blue eyes. “Any time you want me, Mrs. Craven…I’m at your service.” Sliding his arm around her hips, he nudged her up the stairs.

At first it was a shock for Sara to live so intimately with a man. She had been brought up with modesty and discretion in matters of personal habits, whereas Derek had no inhibitions at all. Although Sara admired the lithe power of Derek’s body as he walked across the room naked, she knew she would never be able to expose herself so nonchalantly. He was a physical man, easily aroused and adventurous. One night he could be protective and sweetly tender, taking hours to explore her body with gentle caresses, holding her afterward as if she were a treasured child. The next he would be lusty and insolent, introducing her to sensual arts she had never imagined possible. His range of moods was infinite. She was never precisely certain what to expect from him. His humor could be ribald or exquisitely subtle. He could be quietly understanding or mocking. She had never known anyone so self-controlled, but at odd moments she had a sense of the deep-felt emotions locked inside him. And when she found her new life overwhelming, his arms were the safest haven she had ever known.

They had long conversations in bed at night, talking until they could barely keep their eyes open. Their opinions were sometimes drastically opposed, but Derek claimed to enjoy looking at the world through her eyes, even as he teased her for being an idealist. Perhaps she had affected him more than he knew, for his bitterness seemed to be eroding slowly. At times Sara noticed a trace of boyishness about him, a wont to tease and engage her in bits of nonsense, a new free and easy laugh.

“Mr. Crawen looks ’specially fine these days,” Tabitha and the other house wenches had remarked, and Sara knew that it was true. The vital, charismatic quality that had always made Derek attractive seemed to have doubled. Women stared at him covetously wherever they went, causing Sara twinges of jealousy. She took reassurance in his devotion to her. Females might flutter and simper when he was near, but he treated them all with polite indifference. Sara alone was entrusted with his secrets, his affection, his needs, and no other woman had ever come close to holding such a position in his life.

They had a well-deserved reputation for reclusiveness, though it wasn’t intentional. In the first whirlwind month of marriage, there simply wasn’t time to attend many social events. Sara was busy every waking moment. She set aside a few hours of solitude in the mornings for her writing, and spent the rest of each day making nerve-wracking decisions about the house they were to live in. They had agreed on a place Derek already owned, a handsome town mansion of three stories, surrounded by high-walled gardens. It was a house designed for entertaining. The floor plan centered around a spacious colonnaded hall, which opened into a huge drawing room and dining room. The house was serene and airy, filled with delicate white plasterwork of garlands and ribbons, the walls painted icy shades of green, mauve, and blue.

Derek had dropped the entire project of decorating it into her lap, claiming cheerfully that he had no taste. The truth of that was indisputable. His idea of elegance was to load as much gilt and carving as possible on every spare inch of space. But Sara feared that her own taste might be no better. She enlisted the advice of Lily Raiford and a small number of young society matrons with whom she was becoming friends. Cautiously she chose furniture of simple design, upholstered with pale, richly embroidered brocades. Bed hangings and window draperies were made of light-colored damask and chintz. Sara had ordered splendid framed pier glasses for several rooms, and at Lily’s suggestion, small writing tables to hold books, prints, and newspapers for guests to glance at. Her own writing desk was made of glowing rosewood, fitted with rows of compartments and drawers.

Occasionally her labors were interrupted by an evening out with Derek. They attended a play, a musical evening hosted by the Raifords, and a reception for a visiting foreign royal. Suffering under intense scrutiny at these social functions, Sara became aware of the need for suitable clothes. She was reluctant to go to the dressmaker, knowing how expensive it would be. After years of counting pennies, the act of spending large amounts of money made her feel slightly queasy. Buying furnishings for the house was necessary. Buying purely for herself was much more difficult to justify. To her surprise, Derek insisted on accompanying her to Madam Lafleur’s shop.

Monique welcomed them extravagantly, her dark eyes smiling in her round face. “Voici, the most talked-about couple in London,” she proclaimed, meeting them personally at the front of the shop instead of sending her assistants. “How well you look, the both of you! Everyone wonders why you have gone into hiding, but I tell my clients bien sûr, of course they will keep to themselves at first! That is the privilege of the newly-married, n’est-ce pas?” She regarded Derek speculatively. “You have accompanied your wife here, Monsieur Craven. How generous it is of you to take such an interest!”

Derek gave her a charming smile. “I’m here because my wife has a little problem she won’t admit to you.”

“Oh?” Monique’s gaze instantly dropped to Sara’s stomach.

Derek grinned and winced as Sara dug her elbow into his side. Leaning toward the dressmaker, he said in a confidential tone, “The problem is she’s afraid to spend my money.”

“I see.” There was a flash of disappointment in Monique’s eyes. Clearly she had hoped for a juicy bit of gossip she could spread around London. Her good humor was restored as Derek continued.

“I don’t intend for my wife to waste the afternoon trying to talk you into making gowns with less costly fabric and no trimmings. I want her to have the best, and look as elegant—more elegant than any woman in England. Price is no object.”

The last four words sent the dressmaker’s pulse soaring. “Oh, monsieur…” Monique nearly kissed him in her excitement. “She is such a lovely woman, your wife.”

“Lovely,” Derek agreed, his warm gaze falling on Sara. Idly he picked up a stray tendril that had fallen to her shoulder, and curled it around his finger. “There’s only one requirement I have. Show enough of her, but not too much. I want certain parts kept for my private admiration.”

“I understand,” Monique said with an emphatic nod. “Men are tempted by a beautiful bosom, they lose their heads, et alors…” She shrugged prosaically.

“Exactly.”

Monique touched his arm inquisitively. “How many gowns do you have in mind, monsieur?”

Sara was annoyed that the two were conducting the transaction as if she weren’t there at all. “Four day gowns,” she interrupted, “and two for evening. Six in all. And perhaps a cambric nightgown—”

“Twenty-five,” Derek told the dressmaker. “Don’t forget gloves, slippers, unmentionables, and everything she’ll need to go with the order.” Gently he covered Sara’s mouth with his hand as she sputtered in protest. His sly green eyes met the dressmaker’s over her head, and he winked as he added, “Nightgowns aren’t necessary.”

Monique chuckled and glanced at Sara’s reddening face. “I think perhaps, madam, your husband is part French!”

After interminable weeks of consultations and fittings, Sara found herself in possession of an array of gowns more beautiful than she had ever imagined. They were made of vibrantly hued silks, velvets, and brocades, with small belted waists and flowing skirts worn over crisp petticoats. The deep scoops of necklines were finished with lavish lace borders. Underneath she wore thin, almost transparent drawers that reached only to the knees, and chemises so sheer they could be pulled through her wedding ring. From the milliner she had bought several provocative hats with tiny eye-length veils, bonnets lined with silk, and a turban to which Derek took a violent dislike.

“It covers all of your hair,” he complained, lounging on the bed and watching as she tried it on. “And it looks lumpy.”

Sara stood before the looking glass as she stuffed coils of unruly locks beneath the headdress. “The problem is that I have too much hair. The milliner said if I cut a fringe across my forehead and took several inches off the bottom, the turban would fit better.”

He shook his head decisively. “You’re not going to cut any of it.”

Sara sighed in frustration as a chestnut curl sprang from beneath the turban and fell over her shoulder. “All my new hats would sit more becomingly if my hair were short. Madam Lafleur said that I have just the right bone structure to wear it in a smart crop.”

Derek actually paled. “If you cut all your hair off, I’ll take a crop to you.” Leaping off the bed, he snatched the offending turban from her head before she had time to move.

“Now look what you’ve done,” she exclaimed while her hair tumbled around her. “And I almost had it finished. Give me the turban.” Derek shook his head and backed away, clutching the small bundle. Sara made her voice very patient. “The turban, if you please.”

“Promise me you won’t cut your hair.”

Sara couldn’t believe he was being so ridiculous. “If I did, it would grow back.” She advanced on him and made a quick grab. His arm shot up in the air, holding the turban well out of her reach.

“Promise,” he insisted.

“If you knew the price that had been paid for that turban, you wouldn’t treat it so cavalierly!”

“I’ll pay it a hundred times over, for your promise.”

An incredulous smile flitted across her lips. “Why?” she asked, combing a hand through the wild ripples of her hair. “Does my appearance mean so much to you?”

“It’s not that. It’s…” Derek dropped the turban to the floor and circled her slowly. “I like to watch you braid it…and the way you let a few curls fall on your neck after you’ve pinned it up…and when you brush it out at night I know I’m the only man who sees it loose and long over your back. It’s a part of you that only I can have.” He grinned and added, “Among other things.”

Sara watched him for a moment, touched by his admission. Although he couldn’t admit out loud that he loved her, he said it in more subtle ways…his gentleness, his constant praise of her, his generosity. “What other things?” she murmured, backing up against the bed and draping herself over it.

Needing no further invitation, Derek crawled up beside her. He unbuttoned her bodice as he answered. “Your skin…especially here. Pure and white as a moonbeam.” His fingertips moved tenderly over the firm slopes of her breasts. “And these…beautiful…I want to cover them with diamonds and kisses…”

“Kisses are sufficient,” she said hastily.

Derek raked up her skirts. Her hips lifted willingly as he pulled her drawers down. Softly his hand found her. “And this part of you…mine alone.” His thick lashes lowered, and his breath touched her throat in unsteady surges. He reached for the fastening of his trousers. “Sometimes,” he whispered, “I’m so deep inside you I can feel your womb…and I’m still not close enough. I want to share every breath…every beat of your heart.”

Sara quivered as she felt him move against her suddenly, entering her in a thrust that stretched her exquisitely tight. Derek cradled her head in both his hands, his mouth hot on her neck. “Sometimes,” he murmured, “I want to punish you a little.”

“Why?” She groaned at his purposeful stokes, her head falling back on the pillow. His hands pressed down on her shoulders, holding her steady as he pushed into her center.

“For making me want you until I ache with it. For the way I wake at night just to watch you sleeping.” His face was intense and passionate above her, his green eyes harsh in their brightness. “I want you more each time I’m with you. It’s a fever that never leaves me. I can’t be alone without wondering where you are, when I can have you again…” His lips possessed hers in a kiss that was both savage and tender, and she opened to him eagerly.

He had never been so demanding, his body hard and heavy as it met hers in solid blows. She rocked upward to receive him, straining to match his rapid pace, breathing in sobs of frantic need. Her blood pumped furiously, and the sensations sharpened as she sought release. Compulsively she answered his rhythm over and over, until her muscles ached and trembled. He reached down to grip her bottom tightly, pulling her against him, forcing himself even deeper inside her. Their skin was slick with the mingled sweat of their efforts. The friction between them was a slippery, powerful motion that teased their senses to an excruciating pitch. All at once violent spasms of pleasure tore through Sara, and she screamed against his shoulder. The inward ripples of her response wrapped around him tightly, and Derek let his passion burst forth in a glorious rush. In the aftermath he held her tightly, his hands smoothing over her back in repeated strokes. Words dammed up in his chest while he battled silently to drag them out. Sara seemed to understand, for she laid her head against his chest and sighed. “It’s all right,” she whispered. “Just keep holding me.”

“I’ve never seen you look so fine,” Katie exclaimed as Sara entered the cottage. She helped Sara off with her high-necked pelisse and reached out to finger one of the long banded sleeves of the new gown. “What beautiful fabric. It shimmers like a pearl!”

Smiling, Sara turned in a circle and swished the skirts of the corded silk gown. “Do you like it? I’ll have one just like it made for you.”

Katie regarded the geranium-colored silk doubtfully. “It might be a touch too elegant for Greenwood Corners.”

“No, it will be perfect for church on Sunday.” Sara grinned mischievously. “You can sit a row or two ahead of Mrs. Kingswood in all your finery, and she’ll whisper to everyone that you’ve gone to blue blazes just like your daughter!”

Katie ruffled her white hair in distraction. “If a new gown doesn’t convince everyone I’ve gone to blue blazes, the new house will for certain!”

Sara smiled at that, recalling the entire afternoon of persuasion it had taken for Derek to convince them to accept his gift of a new house. He had finally won through a mixture of charm and sheer stubbornness. “It’s your choice,” he had told Isaac and Katie pleasantly. “Either you’ll have it here or in London.” The next afternoon they had found themselves conferring with Graham Gronow, Derek’s preferred architect. Gronow had designed a lovely, classical Georgian house of comfortable size for them. Under construction on a choice plot of land close to the center of the village, the house was a subject of conversation for everyone in Greenwood Corners. Wryly Katie had told Sara that she thought Derek had deliberately made certain the house would be larger than the Kingswoods’ manor. Sara hadn’t argued, knowing full well that he wasn’t above such behavior.

“Derek plans to hire a cookmaid and gardener for you,” Sara said, following her mother into the kitchen. “I told him you might want to choose someone familiar from the village. If not, we’ll send someone from London.”

“Heavens above,” Katie exclaimed. “Tell your Mr. Craven we don’t need hired help.”

“But you do,” Sara argued. “What about the days when Papa’s joints are too stiff for him to work outside? And now that I won’t be able to do my share of the household tasks, you’ll need someone to help, and perhaps bring you a cup of tea in the afternoon. Wouldn’t you like that?”

“Sara, the whole village is already expecting us to put on airs. Mrs. Hodges says her head spins every time she thinks about us living in a new house. Forty years we’ve been here, and never thought to leave.”

Sara smiled. “Everyone knows it’s not in you or Papa to put on airs. And Mrs. Hodges will become accustomed to the idea of you living in another home, just as the rest of Greenwood Corners will. This cottage is too small and old, and when it rains there are more leaks in the roof than I can count. And you may as well brace yourself for another surprise, because I told Derek yesterday that I would like for you to visit us in London. He’s going to furnish you with a carriage, horses, and a driver, so you’ll be able to travel whenever you want.”

“Oh, my.” Katie sagged against the kitchen table. “Imagine poor Eppie stabled next to an elegant pair of chestnuts!”

“It’ll do her good to associate with higher-ups.”

They both laughed, and then Katie’s face changed. Her voice was suddenly filled with motherly concern. “How is it for you, Sara? I can’t help but worry at times, thinking of you living with him in…that place.”

“ ‘That place’ is a gambling club,” Sara said dryly. “And I’m perfectly comfortable there. But to ease your worry, the mansion will be finished soon, and I’ll be living in a proper home.”

They began to prepare a tea tray as they talked, the familiar ritual making the conversation easier. “What about Mr. Craven?” Katie asked. “What kind of husband is he?”

A comical expression came over Sara’s face. “A peculiar one is the best way to put it.” Carefully she measured spoonfuls of tea leaves into a chipped yellow pot. “Derek is a very complicated man. He’s not afraid of anything…except his own feelings. He isn’t able to admit that he loves me, but at times I see it on his face, and it’s as if the words are trying to burst from him.”

Katie wore a perturbed look. “Is there any likeness between the two of you, Sara? Anything at all you have in common?”

“Yes, but it’s difficult to explain.” Sara smiled thoughtfully. “We’re eccentric in our own ways, but somehow we fit together. I’m certain that an ordinary marriage wouldn’t have done for either of us. We’re often in each other’s company, but we have our separate interests. I have my books and my writing, and Derek busies himself with the club and all his intrigues—”

“Intrigues?”

“Oh, it’s a constant amazement, the assortment of people who visit him at all hours. One moment I’ll see him conferring with urchins and ruffians right off the street, and the next he’s talking to the ambassador of France!”

Katie shook her head in wonder. “I’m beginning to understand what you meant by ‘complicated.’ ”

Sara hesitated and then set down the spoon and the jar of tea. “I’m going to tell you something, Mama, but it mustn’t go past these walls, or Derek will have my head. The other day I happened to find receipts and records of charity donations in a drawer of his desk. I couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw the figures written out. He has given immense sums of money to schools, orphanages, and hospitals, and that doesn’t include what he spends on his political causes!”

“Did you ask him about it?”

“Of course! I asked him why he would give all of it in secret, and deliberately let everyone think that he never cares about any cause but his own. It’s as if he wants people to have a bad impression of him. If they only knew how much good he’s done…”

Katie leaned forward in fascination. “What did he say?”

“He laughed and said that if people were told he had made a charitable contribution, no matter how great or small, they would claim he was trying to polish his own reputation. And there was a time, he said, when he gave money to orphans for just that reason—to make certain others thought well of him. He said he’s done more bootlicking in his life than any man should have to, and that now he can afford to do what he wants without giving a damn…er…without giving a thought to what others say. He said that he’s entitled to his privacy, and that as his wife I’m obliged not to tell anyone.” She raised her brows significantly. “Now what do you think of that?”

Katie was frowning. “He sounds quite odd, if you ask me.”

Sara felt a carefree laugh bubbling up from inside her. “From what I can tell, the ton considers Derek and me to be an odd pair.”

“So do the villagers,” Katie said bluntly, and Sara laughed again.

Without a doubt the ton would have disdained the Cravens had they sought to court its favor. Between them they didn’t have a thimbleful of blue blood. No families of distinction, no histories of any merit…nothing but a vulgarly large fortune built on the habits of wealthy men who liked to gamble. However, the Cravens cared so little for the ton’ s approval that it had reluctantly been given to them by default. And as Derek remarked crudely but accurately, money was a good grease for social acceptance.

But while the ton accorded them grudging admission into their elevated circles, the public gave the Cravens outright adoration. It astonished everyone, including the celebrated couple themselves. “The day has finally come when pigs fly,” the Times acerbically noted, “and a cockney and a country maid have become the center of all fashionable observation in London.”

Derek was at first puzzled and then wryly resigned to the small uproar they created whenever they appeared in public. “Next month they’ll take an interest in someone else,” he assured Sara. “We’re a temporary curiosity.”

What he didn’t expect was the fascination of the populace for a pair of commoners who lived like royalty. They were labeled “refreshing” by one source, “upstarts” by another. A caricature by George Cruikshank depicted them as flash gentry trying to ape the rarefied manners of the elite. The Cravens were a window through which ordinary people could view the lives of the upper crust and imagine themselves in such a position.

The interest was stirred even more when it became known that Sara was the reclusive author of Mathilda. There was speculation in coffeehouses and pubs across the city about whether Mrs. Craven was Mathilda in disguise. Sara heard the name being called out from a crowd observing the arrival of theatergoers as they attended a production at Drury Lane. “Look ’ere, Mathilda!” a man called out as she emerged from the carriage. “Show us yer face!” As Sara glanced toward him in bewilderment, a cheer scattered across the gathering. “Mathilda! Ye’re a lovely sight, dearie!”

“ ‘Show us your face,’ ” Derek muttered beneath his breath as he escorted Sara up the front steps. “Soon you’ll be declared public property.”

Sara began to laugh. “I think they just want to believe there is a Mathilda somewhere.”

Before going to their box seats, they drifted apart to exchange social pleasantries with the multitude of acquaintances who swarmed around them. Husbands who were assured that Derek was no longer crawling into their wives’ beds had begun to treat him with cautious pleasantness. People Sara barely knew or had never met took special care to fawn over her. Her hands were repeatedly decorated with kisses from dandies and smooth-voiced foreigners, while she was overwhelmed with praises for her hair, her gown, her charm. For the most part they were respectful…except for one insolent knave whose voice was all too familiar.

“Damn my sparklers if it ain’t Mathilda!”

Sara turned warily to confront Ivo Jenner’s cheeky grin. “Mr. Jenner,” she said, acknowledging him with a polite nod.

His sly gaze roved over her. “Fancy little warming pan, you are. Crawen’s a lucky bastard to ’ave you in his bed ewery night. ’E doesn’t deserve such a fine splice as you.”

“Mr. Craven is an exemplary husband,” she murmured, trying to edge away from him.

“Fine-feathered gentleman, your ’usband,” Jenner scoffed. “Tell ’im ’e’s nofing but an apple-polishing cockney bastard—”

“If you don’t leave right now,” Sara interrupted, “you’ll have a chance to tell him yourself.”

Jenner followed her gaze, his insolent smile broadening as he saw Derek shouldering his way toward them. By the time he reached them, Jenner had melted into the crowd.

Derek seized Sara’s arm. “What did he say to you?”

She blinked in wary surprise at his rough tone. “Nothing of any import.”

“Tell me.”

“It was nothing,” she said, wincing in pain. She twisted her arm free. “Derek…please, don’t make a scene.”

He seemed not to hear her. His gaze was riveted on Jenner’s retreating figure. “I’ll teach that weedy bastard to lay a blasted finger on what’s mine,” he growled.

Sara’s lips tightened in annoyance. He was behaving like a mongrel fighting over a bone. She knew why Jenner always angered him so easily—Jenner’s swaggering cockiness reminded Derek of his own past. “I’m not your property,” she said.

Although Sara’s voice was as gentle as always, there was a cool note in it that raised Derek’s hackles. He looked at her sharply. She had never spoken to him that way before. He didn’t like it. “The hell you’re not,” he said gruffly, daring her to argue.

She kept her gaze averted from his. “I would like to go to our seats now.”

For the rest of the evening Derek was infuriated by the reserve in her manner. She virtually ignored him, all her attention focused on the play. It was clear he had displeased her. Sara’s withdrawn manner was worse punishment than any argument could have been. He steeled himself to be just as cool to her. If she was expecting to wring an apology from him, she could wait until the devil went blind. She was his—he had a perfect right to defend her against the advances of scum like Ivo Jenner!

After they returned home and retired for the evening, they kept to their own sides of the bed. It was the first night of their marriage that they didn’t make love. Derek was miserably conscious of her soft body so close by, his own acute desire for her, and, even worse, his need for her affection. In the morning he was vastly relieved when Sara awoke in her usual good humor, the previous night apparently forgotten.

Derek lounged in the bathing tub while she perched on a nearby chair and read the daily paper to him. The Times carried detailed descriptions of Sara’s ivory gown and the five-carat blue diamond on her finger, the Cravens’ reported opinions of the play, and speculation on whether Derek was truly a “reformed rake.” “There’s not a word of truth in any of it,” Derek said. “Except the part where they said you were resplendent.”

“Thank you, kind sir.” Sara set down the paper and reached over to toy with one of the large soapy feet propped on the porcelain rim of the tub. She wriggled his big toe playfully. “What about the part that says you’re reformed?”

“I’m not. I still do everything I used to do…except now only with you.”

“And quite impressively,” she replied, her tone demure.

He liked that, she could see. His green eyes gleamed, and he drew his foot down into the bath. “The water’s still hot,” he said, making inviting swirls with his hands.

Sara smiled and shook her head. “No.”

He slid lower into the water, watching her steadily. “I need help with my bath. There’s a spot I can’t reach.”

“Where?”

“Come in here and I’ll show you.”

Unable to resist his roguish appeal, Sara relented. Standing up from the chair, she dropped her robe and night rail to the wet tiles and blushed under his interested gaze. Carefully she stepped into the tub. Derek reached up to help her and lowered her gently into the warm water. She shivered at the feel of him beneath her, slippery and strong, his muscled arms and legs wrapping around her. His black hair gleamed like the pelt of a wet seal.

“Where is the soap?” she asked, brushing a clot of foam away from his jaw.

“I dropped it,” he said regretfully, and drew her hand down into the cloudy water. “You’ll have to find it.”

She giggled and splashed him. Puddles of water collected on the floor of the bathing room as they played. Linking her dripping arms around his neck, she pressed a wet kiss to his lips. “I’m afraid I can’t find the soap,” she whispered, her body drifting buoyantly against his.

“Keep looking,” he encouraged throatily, and sought her mouth for another kiss.

In his private moments Derek acknowledged to himself that all Lily had ever claimed about marriage was true. The sheer convenience of it was stunning. His wife was always close at hand, her small presence gracing his home, her hand on his arm when they appeared in public, the lingering scent of her perfume haunting him sweetly when they were apart. He knew it would be impossible ever to tire of her, for she was as vital to him as the very air he breathed. And yet he felt himself to be an imposter with every husbandly kiss he placed on her forehead. It was as if he had been given a handsome suit of clothes that didn’t quite fit. He found himself studying Sara intently, waiting for the clues that he had made mistakes. He wasn’t fool enough to think he was behaving the way most husbands did—whatever that was. But she gave him precious little guidance, and he was left to walk blindly along a steep and unfamiliar path.

Frequently Derek felt a deep sense of unease, as if some invisible, monumental debt were being accumulated in his name. There was also the occasional bite of resentment when he realized she had become the source of all pleasure to him, all comfort and peace. She was the first human being he had ever needed. He had lost his freedom in a way he had never imagined possible, bound more securely by her love than by a mile’s length of iron chains.

Missing Derek’s presence in bed, Sara crept downstairs in the early hours of the morning and found him alone in the central gaming room. It was eerily quiet and cavernous without the usual crowd of patrons and employees. Derek was at Worthy’s corner desk with several decks of cards aligned carefully across the polished surface. Sensing her presence, he glanced over his shoulder with a noncommittal grunt.

“What are you doing?” Sara asked with a yawn, curling into a nearby chair.

“Worthy suspects one of my dealers is cheating. I wanted to look at the cards he was using tonight, just to be certain.” Derek’s mouth twisted with displeasure as he indicated one of the shallow stacks. “That’s a marked deck if I’ve ever seen one.”

Sara was perplexed. She had seen all the elaborate rituals at the tables, the ceremonious openings of fresh boxes of cards. “How could any of the dealers mark the cards? There’s no time or opportunity…is there?”

Derek picked up a new deck, shuffling so expertly that the cards were nothing but a blur. He dealt a hand to her, facedown. “Tell me which is the queen.”

Sara squinted at the backs of the cards. “I can’t. They’re all the same.”

“No, they’re not. I just marked the queen.” Derek picked up the card and showed her the tiny, nearly indistinguishable notch he had made with his thumbnail on the edge of the card. “There are other ways of marking. I could use ink on the tip of my finger to leave smudges. I could bend them just a little. Or keep a bit of glass-work up my sleeve.”

“A mirror?” she asked.

He nodded, continuing to toy with the cards. “If a deck has been professionally marked, you can tell by riffling the deck and watching the backs. Any line work or blockouts will jump out.” The cards seemed to come to life in his hands as he shuffled once more. “Here’s how to stack the deck…but the motion has to be smooth. It takes practice in front of a mirror.” The cards were a flowing stream in his hands. He held them tenderly, his long fingers manipulating and flexing until the deck formed a bridge, a waterfall, a snapping fan.

Sara watched in awe. As agile as the dealers in the club were, she had never seen any of them handle cards with such ease. That, coupled with his extraordinary mind for numbers, would make him an invincible opponent. “Why don’t you ever play?” she asked. “I’ve never seen you in a casual game with Lord Raiford or your other friends. Is it because you know you would always win?”

Derek shrugged. “That’s one reason,” he said without conceit. “The other is that I don’t enjoy it.”

“You don’t?”

“I never did.”

“But how can you be so good at something and not enjoy it?”

“Now there’s a question,” he said, and laughed softly, setting aside the cards. Leading her to the hazard table, he took her by the hips and lifted her up. She sat on the edge of the table, her knees pushed apart as he stood between them. Derek leaned forward, his mouth a warm, gentle brand. “It’s not like your writing, sweet. When you sit at your desk, you put your heart and your mind into your work, and it gives you satisfaction. But cards are just patterns. Once you learn the patterns, it’s automatic. You can’t enjoy something if it doesn’t demand a little of your heart.”

Sara caressed his black hair. “Do I have a little of your heart?” A moment after she asked, she regretted the question. She had promised herself not to push him, not to demand things he wasn’t ready for.

Derek’s eyes were shadowed green as he stared at her without blinking. He leaned forward, and his lips sought hers, kindling a warmth inside her that rapidly leapt to bright flame. Sara shivered as she felt him raise her skirts to her waist. He wedged himself tighter between her spread knees. They kissed ardently, groping underneath confining clothes, clumsily plucking at buttons in impetuous haste.

Sara gasped as she felt his hot, intimate flesh rising against her body. “Not here…Someone will see…”

“They’re all gone.” Gently he bit into her neck.

“But we can’t…”

“Now,” he insisted, pulling her head against his shoulder as he took her there on the hazard table, making her shudder in helpless pleasure.

* * *

Sara was alone in the private apartments over the club, viewing herself in the long mirror of the bedroom. She was dressed to attend the birthday dinner of Lord Raiford’s seventeen-year-old brother Henry. On private occasions such as this the Raifords surrounded themselves with warm, enjoyable company. Sara knew the evening would be filled with wit and laughter. Derek had gone with Alex to help deliver Henry’s present, a shining Thoroughbred horse, to Swans’ Court before the boy arrived home from Eton.

Sara smoothed the skirt of her green velvet gown. Low-cut and severe in its simplicity, the gown was adorned only by a row of six golden clasps that held the split front of the skirt together. She was wearing a necklace Derek had given her to mark their first month of marriage, a gorgeous creation of diamonds and tumbled emeralds that lay in intricate strands over her chest. Admiring the sparkling necklace in the mirror, Sara smiled and turned to view it from another angle.

Suddenly her heart stopped.

The reflection showed there was someone behind her.

Whirling around, Sara stared with wide eyes at the golden-haired woman who held a pistol pointed directly at her.


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