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Bemused, Sara nearly toppled to the floor from his gentle push. “But why?”

Derek lowered his head and tunneled his fingers into his black hair. He started as he felt her hand brush the nape of his neck. “Don’t touch me,” he said, more roughly than he intended. Raising his head, he stared into Sara’s perplexed face with a crooked smile. “Sorry,” he muttered. “But if you don’t move away, sweet, you’re going to be lifting your heels for me right here.”

They entered Craven’s discreetly through the side door, being zealously guarded by Gill. “Mr. Craven,” he said respectfully, and glanced away from the female guest with a show of tact. But the gray cloak she wore was vaguely familiar. Suddenly recognizing the visitor, Gill exclaimed with pleasure, “Miss Fielding! I thought we would never see you here again! Back for more research, eh?”

Sara flushed and smiled, not knowing how to reply. “Hello, Gill.”

“Shall I tell Worthy that you’re here? He’ll certainly want to know—”

Derek interrupted in a biting voice. “I’ll ring for my bloody factotum if I want to see him. Right now I don’t want to be disturbed.” If the employees were alerted to her presence, they would all come swarming around her in a matter of minutes. He wasn’t in the mood for impromptu celebrations over Sara Fielding’s return. He had brought her here for privacy.

“Oh. Yes, Mr. Craven.” Gill’s eyes widened as understanding dawned. Prudently he buttoned his lips and resumed his station at the door.

Derek brought Sara to the apartments above the club, his hand resting on the small of her back as they ascended the stairs. She paused as soon as they entered the duster of private rooms, and inspected the surroundings curiously. “It looks different,” she commented. Far more tasteful, actually. The rich plum draperies had been changed to a cool, powdery shade of blue. The gold-embossed leather on the walls had been replaced with a coat of gleaming ivory paint. Instead of the intricate Oriental rug on the floor, there was an elegant carpet of English floral design.

“I changed some things after you left,” Derek said dryly, thinking of all the ruined furniture and textiles that had been replaced. He had wanted her so desperately that he’d been able to ease the ache only by drinking endless bottles of gin and destroying everything in sight. Now she was there. She claimed to love him. All at once the situation seemed so fantastic that he feared he was having an alcohol dream, and he would wake in a dull stupor to discover that she wasn’t there.

Sara wandered from room to room, noting all the changes, and he followed her slowly. As they reached the bedroom, Derek was disconcerted by the heavy silence between them. He was accustomed to provocative banter, seductive smiles, experienced partners. None of the women he had known was hampered by inhibition or modesty. But Sara was quiet, her movements wooden as she went to a vase of cut flowers poised on a bronze side table. Suddenly Derek felt an unfamiliar pang of remorse. The impulse to bring her here had been selfish. He should have let her go back to her family. Like the rutting scoundrel he was, he hadn’t given her any choice—

“Is it always this awkward?” Sara asked. Her voice was hushed.

Derek turned to look at her, his gaze falling to the white rose in her hands. She had taken it from the arrangement of hothouse flowers. Nervously her fingers ruffled the fragile petals.

Self-consciously Sara sniffed the pale blossom and began to insert it back into the huge vase. “It’s nice to have roses in January,” she murmured. “Nothing in the world has such a lovely scent.”

She was so innocently beautiful, with the disordered waves of her hair falling around her face. His muscles tightened in response. He would like to have her painted this way, standing by the table with her head turned toward him, the white flower caught in her fingers. “Bring it here,” he said.

She obeyed, coming to him and handing him the rose. He closed his fingers around the plump head of the flower and pulled gently, freeing the petals from their tenuous moorings. Tossing aside the desecrated stem, he opened his hand over the bed. The petals scattered in a fragrant shower. Sara drew in a quick breath, staring at him as if mesmerized.

Derek reached for her, taking her face in his large hands. His rose-scented palm was hot against her cheek as his lips found hers. He tasted her lightly, toying, until she opened to allow the sleek plunge of his tongue. His cradling hands left her face and swept down her back and sides, savoring the shape of her body encased within the heavy gown. Sara leaned against him, lifting her arms around his shoulders. There was a tug at the ribbon that confined her hair, and a rippling curtain of russet locks fell down her back. With a growl of enjoyment Derek sank his fingers into her hair, stroking, twining, bringing handfuls to his face.

A fluttering pulse beat in Sara’s throat as Derek reached to unfasten her wool gown. She was unmoving beneath his expert hands, even when the dress dropped to the floor to reveal her crumpled linen undergarments and neatly mended cotton stockings. Slowly Derek sank to his knees before her, pulling her body against his face and breathing through her shift. Sara twitched as if she had been scalded, her small hands coming to rest on his shoulders.

Reaching beneath the hem of the shift, Derek found the waist of her drawers and eased them down to her ankles, followed by her stockings. His hands traveled over her bare legs, his fingers dipping in the hollows behind her knees, venturing up her thighs to her buttocks. She fidgeted in unease but allowed the caress…until she felt his mouth encroaching high inside her leg, his tongue crossing her skin in a burning sweep. Jerking from him with an incoherent stammer, she backed away until she felt the edge of the bed against her hips. She stared at him in round-eyed surprise.

For a moment Derek knew a dismay equal to hers. He had frightened her. Holy hell, he thought…and wondered for the first time in his life how to make love like a gentleman. He strove for a measure of restraint, while Sara gave him an apologetic glance. Surreptitiously she pulled long sheaves of hair in front of her, concealing her meagerly clad body. Half-suspecting she might bolt, Derek began to unbutton his shirt.

Sara propped herself against the massive bed, grateful for its support. A whirlwind of panic swept through her as Derek stripped off his white shirt. She switched her gaze to the floor, but not before she had seen how large and formidable his body was, his torso heavily muscled, his chest covered with thick black hair. Silvery scars marked his skin, legacies of his life in the rookery. He was a man of vast experience. All that was new and frightening to her was commonplace to him. He had known countless women who were as familiar with this act as he was. How could he help but be disappointed by her? “You’ve done this many times before, haven’t you?” she murmured, squeezing her eyes shut.

She heard his trousers drop to the floor. “Never with someone I…” He paused and cleared his throat. “Never with someone like you.” His bare feet padded across the floor toward her.

Sara flinched as his hands slid around her waist, pulling her to his na*ed body. The heat of his skin sank through the insubstantial layer of her shift. He was aroused, throbbing hard and forcefully erect against her. “Open your eyes,” he said. “There’s nothing to be afraid of.”

She forced herself to comply, staring straight ahead into his chest. Her heart thumped so violently that it seemed to batter against her ribs.

As if he could read her mind, Derek lowered his mouth to her hair and held her tightly. “Sara…I’m going to take care of you. I’ll never hurt you, or force you to do something you don’t want.” He took a long breath and forced himself to add reluctantly, “If you want this to stop, then tell me. I probably won’t be kind. But I’ll wait.”

She would never know how much the words cost him. It went against his nature to deny himself what he wanted so badly. He had been deprived of too much when he was young—it had made him selfish to the core. But her needs had become too important to him, her affection too precious to risk.

Sara looked up at him, reading the truth in his face. Gradually her body relaxed against his. “You must tell me how to please you,” she said softly. “I-I don’t know anything…and you know too much.”

His black lashes lowered over a flick of green fire. A wry smile pulled at the corners of his mouth. “We’ll find some middle ground,” he promised, and kissed her.

Willingly Sara dropped her arms as he pushed the shift down her h*ps to the floor. He lifted her na*ed body onto the bed, and the scent of roses drifted over them. A fierce blush covered her from head to toe, and she moved to gather the covers around herself. Derek spread her beneath him with a muffled laugh, his hands traveling over her shrinking body. “Don’t be shy with me.” He kissed the translucent skin of her shoulders and the downy slope of her breast, relishing her lush softness. Raising his head, he stared into her eyes. “Sara, you have to believe…I’ve never wanted anyone like this.” He paused, aware of the sublime banality of the words. Yet he was driven to continue like an impassioned idiot, trying to make her understand. “You’re the only one who ever…Oh, bloody hell.”

As he struggled with the words, her small hand came up to his face, sliding tenderly over his jaw. She knew what he was trying to tell her. “You don’t have to say it,” she whispered. “It’s all right.”

Derek turned his lips against her palm, and she closed her fingers afterward, as if to hold the kiss for safekeeping. “Everything I have is yours,” he said raspily. “Everything.”

“I only want you.” She curved her arms around his neck and drew him down to her.

His gentleness was astonishing. She had expected the same violent passion of their other encounters…but tonight he was no pirate to ravage and plunder. Instead he claimed her with sneak-thievery, exploring her with a stealthy patience that set her nerves on fire. He stole away her modesty, her restraint, her every thought, leaving nothing but a smoldering blaze of sensation.

His hand lightly gripped the round weight of her breast, lifting it as he covered the peak with his mouth. Slowly his tongue traced over the awakening bud, causing the tender flesh to contract. He turned to her other breast, sucking and nibbling until Sara writhed against his mouth. Scooping up a fragrant handful of petals, Derek sprinkled them over her body, gently playful as he nudged them across her skin. Sara arched up to him, abandoning herself to his tender passion. A few delicate petal shards caught in the springy crop of curls between her thighs. He reached down to the soft thatch, but Sara stiffened in surprise and tried to push his hand away.

“No,” she protested as he used his leg to pry hers apart.

Derek held her down easily and smiled against her throat. “Why not?” He closed his teeth on the small lobe of her ear. Tracing the fragile rim with the tip of his tongue, licking hotly inside the shell-like curve, he spoke to her in the softest of whispers. “Every part of you belongs to me…inside and out. You’re mine everywhere. Even here.” Cupping his hand between her legs, he toyed with her until he felt a sheen of moisture against his palm. Her weak protests faded into silence as he parted the soft curls and searched her with extreme care. He found her sleek and swollen, sensitive to the touch of his fingers. Pressing, stimulating, he carefully worked his fingers into the slickness, until she gasped and pressed the crescents of her nails into his shoulders.

Derek shuddered with desire, raising himself over her, possessing her mouth with a wet, carnal kiss. Sara responded with her own feminine demand, running her hands over the muscled plane of his back, seeking to pull him more heavily on top of her. Unable to wait any longer, Derek urged her knees wide and positioned himself against her. Carefully he pushed himself inside, easing beyond the virginal resistance. Sara cried out as she was sundered, invaded, in a deep thrust.

Derek held her h*ps steady as he drove even further, immersing himself in her warmth. His senses hovered on the verge of rapture, and he fought to contain himself as she twisted beneath him in discomfort. “I’m sorry,” Derek whispered, closing his eyes. “I’m sorry…Oh, God, don’t move.” Sara subsided against him, her breath falling on his shoulder in delicate puffs.

Gradually he mastered himself and pressed his lips to her drawn forehead. “Is it better this way?” he murmured, shifting his weight.

Sara quivered, feeling the altered pressure inside her. “I-I don’t know.”

He pushed again, a long, gentle slide. “Or this…?” he asked, his voice hoarse.

She couldn’t answer, her lips parting in suspended silence as he began an easy rhythm. Each surge brought a flick of pain, but a deep instinct clamored for her to arch upward, her inner muscles grasping to hold him inside. His black head dropped to her breasts, his mouth pulling at her ni**les with gently flirting suction. Lost in a tide of building sensation, Sara felt more slickness emerge between them, until the back-and-forth motion became a smooth, frictionless glide. “Please…you must stop,” she gasped, while her muscles squeezed around him. “I can’t bear any more.”

The emerald eyes glittered with triumph. “Yes, you can.” He plunged deeper into her struggling body, his thrusts relentlessly regular. With a gasping whimper, she went still beneath him while a great wave of pleasure rolled through her, unmatched by anything she’d ever felt before. He wrapped his arms around her, im-pelling himself more strongly, prolonging the exquisite spasms. When she was finally satiated, he took his own fulfillment, his body shaking with violent release.

They remained locked together for a long time, relaxing amid the rumpled sheets. Derek reclined on his side and kept her against him, his lips drifting over her forehead and the silken edge of her hairline. Sara smiled in drowsy wonder, breathing in the perfume of the crushed petals and the scent of his skin.

“Was it what you expected?” He traced a gentle pattern on her hips.

She blushed and pressed her face against his chest. “No. It was much better.”

“For me too. It was different from—” Derek stopped himself, hesitant to speak of his past experiences.

“From all your other women,” she finished for him dryly. “Tell me how it was different.”

Derek shook his head. “You’re the one with the fancy words. I can’t explain it.”

“Try,” she insisted, tugging threateningly at his wiry chest curls. “In your own words.”

He covered her plucking fingers with his own, pressing her hand flat. “It was just better, all the way through. Especially this part.” He cuddled her closer. “I’ve never felt so peaceful afterward.”

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