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“You don’t even know me.”

She turned her face and pressed her lips to the thin, healed-over scar, lingering in the space between his thick brows. “I know that you care for me.”

Derek did not pull away from her tender ministrations, but his tone was savage. “Not enough, or I wouldn’t be here with you. I wish to hell I had the decency to leave you alone.”

“I’ve been alone for far too long,” she said passionately. “There’s no one for me; not Perry, not any of the men in the village, or anyone inside that ballroom. No one but you.”

“If you’d seen anything of the world, you’d know there’s a hell of a lot more to choose from than Perry Kingswood and me. Thousands of ordinary, honorable men who would fall to their knees in gratitude for a woman like you.”

“I don’t want anyone honorable. I want you.”

She felt him smile unwillingly against her ear. “Sweet angel,” he whispered. “You can do far better than me.”

“I don’t agree.” Ignoring his attempt to ease her away, she snuggled under his chin.

Reluctantly Derek folded her against his warm body. “You’re getting cold. I’ll take you inside.”

“I’m not cold.” Sara had no intention of going anywhere. She had dreamed of this moment for too many nights.

Derek glanced over her head at the light coming from the ballroom. “You should be in there dancing with Harry Marshall…or Lord Banks.”

She frowned at the mention of the two callow youths. “Is that what you think I deserve? You would pair me with some shallow, conceited dandy and claim that I’ve made a splendid match? Well, I’m beginning to think it’s a convenient excuse, this notion of yours that I’m too good for you! Perhaps the truth is that I’m lacking something. You must think I wouldn’t satisfy your needs, or—”

“No,” Derek said swiftly.

“I suppose you would rather be consorting with all those married women who keep whispering in your ear and making eyes at you, and touching you with their fans—”

“Sara—”

“Writers are very observant, perceptive people, and I can tell exactly which women you’ve consorted with, just by watching—”

Derek smothered her tirade with his mouth. When she was quiet, he lifted his head. “None of them mattered to me,” he said roughly. “There were no promises, no obligations on either side. I felt nothing for them.” He looked away from her and swore, aware of the futility of trying to explain it to her. But she had to understand, so that she would have no illusions about him. He forced himself to go on. “Some of them claimed to love me. As soon as they said it, I left without looking back.”

“Why?”

“There’s no place in my life for that. I don’t want it. I have no use for it.”

Sara stared at his averted face. In spite of his un-emotional tone, she sensed the tumult inside him. He was lying to himself. He needed to be loved more than any person she had ever met. “Then what do you want?” she asked softly.

He shook his head without answering. But Sara knew. He wanted to be safe. If he were rich and powerful enough, he would never be hurt, lonely, or abandoned. He would never have to trust anyone. She continued to stroke his hair, playing lightly with the thick raven locks. “Take a chance on me,” she urged. “Do you really have so much to lose?”

He gave a harsh laugh and loosened his arms to release her. “More than you know.”

Clinging to him desperately, Sara kept her mouth at his ear. “Listen to me.” All she could do was play her last card. Her voice trembled with emotion. “You can’t change the truth. You can act as though you’re deaf and blind, you can walk away from me forever, but the truth will still be there, and you can’t make it go away. I love you.” She felt an involuntary tremor run through him. “I love you,” she repeated. “Don’t lie to either of us by pretending you’re leaving for my good. All you’ll do is deny us both a chance at happiness. I’ll long for you every day and night, but at least my conscience will be clear. I haven’t held anything back from you, out of fear or pride or stubbornness.” She felt the incredible tautness of his muscles, as if he were carved from marble. “For once have the strength not to walk away,” she whispered. “Stay with me. Let me love you, Derek.”

He stood there frozen in defeat, with all the warmth and promise of her in his arms…and he couldn’t allow himself to take what she offered. He’d never felt so worthless, so much a fraud. Perhaps for a day, a week, he could be what she wanted. But no longer than that. He had sold his honor, his conscience, his body, anything he could use to escape the lot he’d been given in life. And now, with all his great fortune, he couldn’t buy back what he’d sacrificed. Were he capable of tears, he would have shed them. Instead he felt numbing coldness spread through his body, filling up the region where his heart should have been.

It wasn’t difficult to walk away from her. It was appallingly easy.

Sara made an inarticulate sound as he extricated himself from her embrace. He left her as he had left the others, without looking back.

Somehow Sara made her way to the ballroom, too dazed to think about what would happen next. Derek was not there. The elegant clamor of the ball made it easy for her to maintain an appearance. She danced several times with different partners, pasting a shallow smile on her face. She made conversation in a light voice that sounded odd to her own ears. Evidently her pain wasn’t visible, for no one appeared to notice that something was wrong.

But then Lady Raiford appeared. The expression on Lily’s face changed from a smile to an uncertain frown as she approached. “Sara?” she asked quietly. “What happened?”

Sara was quiet, while panic assailed her. Any hint of sympathy would push her over the edge. She would have to leave the ball immediately, or she would burst into tears. “Oh, I’ve had a lovely time,” she said rapidly. “I just have a touch of the headache. It’s rather late—I’m not used to such hours. Perhaps I should retire.”

Lily made a motion to touch her, then withdrew her hand. The velvety eyes filled with sympathy. “Would you like to talk?”

Sara shook her head. “Thank you, but I’m very tired.”

While the two women conversed, Lady Ashby watched them from across the room. She had secluded herself in a corner with Lord Granville, one of many admirers who had unsuccessfully sought her favors for years. The hope of gaining access to her bed kept him coming back time after time, but she had always disdained him. In spite of his reputed virility and his fleshy handsomeness, he’d never had anything she wanted. Until now.

She smiled into his narrow blue eyes. “Granville, do you see that woman standing next to Lily Raiford?”

Indifferently Granville glanced away from her, his gaze alighting on the pair. “Ah, the delightful Miss Fielding,” he commented. “Yes, indeed.” Contemplating Sara’s bountiful charms, he moistened his lips with a thick tongue. “A pretty little bonbon.” He looked back at Joyce, savoring her golden beauty, displayed in a diaphanous lavender gown. “However, I prefer a woman of worldliness and experience—who could satisfy a man of my varied tastes.”

“Indeed.” Joyce’s lovely face took on a hard cast. “We’ve known each other a long time, haven’t we, Granville? Perhaps it’s time we made our friendship more intimate.”

A flush of sexual greed worked up from his throat. “Perhaps it is,” he breathed, stepping closer to her.

Delicately she propped her fan against his chest, keeping him at bay. “But first I would ask a favor of you.”

“A favor,” he repeated warily.

“You’ll find it quite pleasant, I assure you.” Joyce’s lips curved in a malicious smile. “When that ‘pretty little bonbon’ as you call her, retires for the evening, I want you to go up to her room and…” Standing on her toes, Joyce whispered her plan to him, while his flush grew deeper. “Consider her a morsel to whet your appetite,” Joyce finished, “before you enjoy the main course later tonight. First Miss Fielding…then me.”

Granville shook his head with momentary dismay. “But there’s a rumor,” he protested. “They say that Derek Craven is enamored of her.”

“She won’t tell him. She won’t tell anyone. She’ll be too ashamed.”

Contemplating the proposition, Granville finally nodded with a chortle of lecherous delight. “All right. As long as you tell me why you want this favor. Has it something to do with your former liaison with Craven?”

Joyce’s chin dipped in a small nod. “I’m going toruin everything he values,” she murmured. “If he is attracted by innocence, I’ll see that it’s debauched. If any woman is fool enough to care for him, I’ll ruin her. I won’t let him have anything…unless he crawls on his knees to beg me for it.”

Granville stared at her in fascination. “What an extraordinary creature you are. A tigress. You swear by all that’s sacred to you that you’ll yield yourself to me tonight?”

“I hold nothing sacred,” Joyce smiled thinly. “But I’ll yield to you tonight, Granville…after you’ve finished with Miss Fielding.”

Gently repelling Lily’s attempts to talk to her, Sara bade her good night and slipped from the ballroom. She went upstairs alone. The music and laughter from the ballroom faded with each step, until she reached the silence of her room. Declining to ring for a chambermaid, Sara managed to struggle from her gown unaided. She left the rich heap of beaded velvet on the floor, along with her white lawn underclothes. It seemed too much of an effort to pick the garments up. After donning her nightgown, she sat down on the edge of the bed and allowed herself to think for the first time since Derek had left her alone in the garden.

“He was never mine to lose,” she said aloud. She wondered if there was anything she could have done differently, any more she could have said. No…she didn’t have reason for regret. It had not been wrong to love him, nor had it been wrong to tell him so. A sophisticated woman might have played her hand more cleverly, but Sara knew little about games. It was best to be open and giving…and if her love wasn’t returned, at least she couldn’t be faulted for cowardice.

Kneeling by the bed, she folded her hands and closed her eyes tightly. “Dear Lord,” she said in a strangled whisper. “I can bear it for a while…but please don’t let it hurt forever.” She was motionless for a long time, while her mind swam with painful thoughts. In the welter of her emotions, there was a trace of pity for Derek Craven. For an instant tonight, quick as a lightning flash, he had been tempted to take the risk of loving someone. Somehow she doubted that he would ever come that close again.

And me? she wondered wearily, extinguishing the lamp and crawling into bed. I’ll just muddle through all of this, and carry on. And someday, with the grace of God…I might be strong enough to love someone else.

For a while Derek lingered in the billiards room with a glass of brandy, only half-listening to the languid conversations of the men who had retreated there for a gentlemanly smoke. The cloying atmosphere made him feel like a caged tiger. He left silently, taking the brandy with him. As he wandered around the first floor of the mansion, Derek saw a flash of white on the grand staircase. Welcoming any distraction over the prospect of returning to the ballroom, he went to investigate. Halfway up the stairs he saw Nicole in her white ruffled nightgown, her long hair a mass of tangles. She huddled by the banister in an effort to conceal herself. Upon seeing him, she held a finger to her lips in a gesture to keep quiet. Casually Derek made his way up the stairs and sat next to her. He rested his arms on his bent knees. “What are you doing out of bed at this hour?”

“I’m sneaking downstairs to look at all the pretty gowns,” Nicole informed him in a whisper. “Don’t tell Mama.”

“I won’t, as long as you go back upstairs to your room.”

“After I see what the ball looks like.”

He shook his head firmly. “Little girls shouldn’t roam through the house in their nightgowns.”

“Why?” Nicole looked down at herself, tucking her bare feet beneath the hem of the garment “It covers everything. See?”

“It isn’t proper.” Derek resisted the urge to smile grimly as he heard himself delivering a statement on propriety.

“Mama doesn’t have to be proper.”

“Neither will you, when you’re older.”

“But Uncle Derek…” Nicole pleaded, and then sighed heavily as she saw his brows lower threateningly. “All right, I’ll go back upstairs. But someday I’m going to have a ball gown of silver and gold…and I’ll stay up and dance all night!”

Derek looked down at her small face. Nicole’s features were slightly more exotic than her mother’s. With her lustrous black eyes and striking dark brows, she had the promise of stunning beauty. “That day isn’t long coming,” he said. “Someday you’ll have every man in London begging to marry you.”

“Oh, I don’t want to marry anybody,” she said earnestly. “All I want is my own stable full of horses.”

Derek smiled slightly. “I’m going to remind you of that when you’re eighteen.”

“Maybe I’ll marry you,” she said with a childish giggle.

“That’s very kind of you, sweet.” He rumpled her hair. “But you’ll want to marry someone your own age, not some old cheeser.”

A new voice interrupted from the foot of the stairs. “He’s right,” Lady Ashby said silkily. “I was forced to marry an old man—and look what became of me.”

Nicole’s smile vanished. With a child’s natural perceptiveness, she sensed the corruption beneath Joyce’s beautiful exterior. Warily she inched closer to Derek as Joyce ascended the steps in fluid, graceful movements. Pausing before them, Joyce regarded the little girl with distaste. “Run along, child. I want to talk with Mr. Craven alone.”

Hesitantly Nicole glanced at Derek. He leaned over and whispered to her. “Back to bed, miss.”

As soon as the child was gone, all warmth faded from Derek’s face. Raising his brandy glass, he downed the last of the warm amber liquid. He remained sitting, affecting no pretense of courtesy.

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