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As the last tremor subsided, Derek levered his body over hers and pushed himself inside her, gripping her h*ps in his large hands. He gave a pleasured groan and began to thrust in a sustained motion. Their bodies converged until there was no space left between them. Feeling the shudder of his cl**ax resounding deep against her womb, Sara enfolded him in her arms. She rubbed her face against his gleaming black hair. “I do love you,” she whispered in his ear. “And I’ll never leave you.”

They passed through the center of Greenwood Corners at midmorning. Sara kept away from the windows, knowing the gossip it would cause for her to be seen in the magnificent private carriage. Strolling merchants and village women carrying large baskets on their arms stopped to watch the vehicle’s progress. Shopkeepers came outside to remark on the lacquered carriage, the pair of outriders, and the liveried footman in attendance. Such an equipage had rarely, if ever, been seen in Greenwood Corners. A few people followed the vehicle far enough to determine its direction and ran back to report that it was traveling toward the Fieldings’ cottage.

When they reached her parents’ home, Derek helped Sara from the private carriage. He spoke briefly with the footman before walking Sara along the path that led to the cottage door.

“I wish the night wasn’t over,” she said, holding his arm tightly.

“There’ll be other nights for us.”

“Not for a while.”

That earned her a piercing glance. “You’ll arrange the wedding as soon as possible. Accept Lily’s offer of help if necessary.”

“Yes, sir.” Sara smiled at his commanding tone. “It almost sounds as if you’re anxious to marry me.”

“It won’t be a moment too soon,” he muttered.

Sara was glad of his sudden fretfulness, knowing it meant that he was reluctant to be parted from her. She was half-afraid that she had dreamed the last two days. “If you don’t come back for me, I’ll find you in London,” she threatened. “Or I’ll send Papa—and he’ll bring you here at the end of his old musket.”

Derek grimaced. “I’m not certain any man in his right mind would choose me for his daughter.”

“Oh, Papa’s a wise, dear man. You’ll adore each other. Just make certain to speak loudly so he can hear you.” They stopped at the door, and Sara turned the handle to open it. “Mama?” she called.

Katie appeared in the doorway with a delighted exclamation, and made a move to embrace her daughter. “Sara, how was the ball? You must tell me everyth—” She stopped at once as she saw the man beside Sara, his dark, broad-shouldered form filling the doorway.

“Mama, this is Mr. Craven,” Sara said softly.

Taken aback, Katie stared at the two of them with round eyes. “Isaac,” she called, her voice higher-pitched than usual. “Sara’s brought someone home with her. A man.”

“Has she? Well, let me have a look at him.”

Abruptly Derek found himself confronted by two small gray-haired people. Scrutinizing him closely, they welcomed him into the tidy, worn little cottage. There were sprays of dried flowers and herbs, painted pottery, and piles of books everywhere. He had to duck his head to avoid a low overhead beam as he crossed the threshold. As Sara introduced him to her father, they shook hands cordially. The old man’s face was engraved with lines of good humor and character, his blue eyes lit with a friendly twinkle.

“Papa,” Sara chattered, “you’ll remember I mentioned Mr. Craven before. We met during my research in London. He owns a social club.” She proceeded to bustle her mother toward the kitchen. “Mama, let’s make some tea while the men become acquainted.”

They went into the kitchen and closed the door. Dazed, Katie fumbled for the jar of tea while Sara began to pump water energetically at the sink. “You’ve taken my breath away,” Katie remarked, hunting for a spoon.

“Mr. Craven was at Raiford Park this weekend,” Sara said, her face mantled with the high color of excitement. “It’s a complicated story, but the long and the short of it is…I love him, and he proposed to me, and I said yes!”

Katie’s mouth dropped. She sat in a chair, fanning her hands over the center of her chest as if to calm her heart “Your Mr. Craven proposed,” she repeated numbly.

“He’s the most wonderful man in the world. You and Papa are going to love him as much as I do.”

“Sara…isn’t this terribly sudden? Think of all the years you’ve known Perry—”

“Mr. Craven makes me a thousand times happier than Perry ever could. Don’t look worried, Mama. Haven’t you always known me to be sensible?” She smiled confidently. “I’ve made the right choice. You’ll see.” As Katie began to ask something else, Sara motioned for her to be quiet, while portions of the men’s conversation filtered from the other room. Carefully Sara pressed her ear to the door.

“…you’re a little too late in asking, Mr. Craven. Sara already has a fiancé. Young Kingswood.”

Sara couldn’t stop herself from interrupting. She opened the door enough to stick her head through the space. “He’s not my fiancé anymore, Papa. Perry and I became unengaged before I left this weekend.”

Isaac looked perplexed. “You did? Why?”

“I’ll explain later.” She gave Derek an encouraging look and retreated behind the door.

Katie watched her daughter with wry amusement. “There’s no need to pop back and forth like a turtle in its shell. I have a feeling your Mr. Craven is quite capable of talking to Papa without any help from you.”

Sara rested her ear against the panels again. “Shhh.”

“…I can’t say I approve of my daughter marrying a gambler,” came Isaac’s voice.

“I don’t gamble, sir. I own a club where others gamble.”

“Splitting hairs, my boy. I don’t approve of the whole business. On the other hand…I don’t approve of men drinking too much, and I suppose I don’t hold it against our local tavern owner. Tell me more about this social club. You have fancy women working there, do you? Has Sara met any of these poor fallen creatures?”

“I can’t keep her away from them,” Derek said dryly.

“My Sara has a kind heart. Drawn to unfortunates. The city is a dangerous place for a girl like her.”

Sara opened the door again. “I’ve never come to any harm there, Papa!”

Derek spoke before Isaac could reply. “Is there any bread to go with the tea, Sara?”

“Yes,” she answered, slightly perplexed. “Would you like some toast?”

“Lots of it. Very thin slices.” Derek held up his thumb and forefinger to demonstrate.

She frowned at him, realizing he intended to keep her too busy to interrupt again. “Very well,” she said grudgingly, and went back into the kitchen.

Isaac regarded the man sitting across from him in a new way, a smile creasing his leathery face. “You’re patient with her,” he said approvingly. “I’m glad of that. She was always a wilful child. She has her own ideas about things.” Derek was tempted to make a sardonic remark, but he kept silent and watched the old man sitting there in his comfortable chair, gnarled hands resting on the knitted blanket over his knees. A fond look came over Isaac’s face, and he continued as if to himself, “She was a miracle for Katie and me, born to us long after the time for childbearing had passed. We thank God every day for giving her to us. I could never entrust her to someone who might cause her harm. Young Kingswood is a self-indulgent man…but at least he’s a gentle sort.” The blue eyes met Derek’s in a direct, guileless stare. “Mr. Craven, I’ve brought up my daughter to think for herself. If I were twenty years younger, I wouldn’t have allowed her such freedom. But her mother and I are elderly, and as nature takes its course, there will come a time when we won’t be here to protect her. I thought it was best to teach Sara to trust her own judgment. If Sara wants to marry you, she will, whether I approve or not.”

Derek met his eyes without blinking. “Your approval may not be necessary, sir, but I still would like to have it.”

A faint smile came to Isaac’s face. “All I want is your assurance that you’ll treat my daughter with kindness.”

Derek had never talked to another man so earnestly; no maneuvering or shrewdness, nothing but humble honesty. “I want to be more than kind to Sara. I want to keep her safe, and happy, and provide whatever will please her. I don’t pretend to deserve her. I’m not educated or wellborn, and even the devil wouldn’t have my reputation. My one saving grace is that I’m not a fool. I would never interfere with her writing, or any of the projects she chooses for herself. I would never try to separate Sara from her family. I respect her too much for that. I don’t want to change her.”

Isaac seemed to find the words reassuring, but there was lingering doubt in his expression. “I believe you are sincere. But marriage, a wife, children…That’s a load of responsibility you’ve never had before.”

“I wouldn’t be here if I weren’t prepared for it.”

Their conversation was interrupted by an enthusiastic knocking on the front door of the cottage. Isaac’s gray brows quirked in curiosity as he rose to answer.

Derek stood up also, and watched intently as a slender young man with pale, longish hair entered the room. His fair forehead was puckered with worried impatience. “I heard that a fine carriage had passed through town,” he said rather breathlessly. “Was it Sara? If she’s returned, I would like to talk to her immediately.”

Hearing the arrival of another visitor, Sara emerged from the kitchen, followed by her mother. She stopped short in amazement. “Perry,” she said weakly.

Somehow Sara had never thought that the two men would have occasion to be in the same room together. The silence was ponderous. She sought the right words to break it, while one part of her mind marveled at the striking differences between the two men.

Perry’s handsomeness was fit for poetry. He was as pale and golden as a fairy-tale prince. A crest of pink color extended from his cheekbones across the bridge of his refined nose. His eyes gleamed bright and blue. Derek, by contrast, looked dark and surly, exhibiting all the charm of a sullen cat. He didn’t return Sara’s glance, all his attention focused on the newcomer.

Mustering her nerve, Sara stepped forward. “Perry…I would like to introduce you to Mr. Craven, a…a visitor from London.”

Perry glanced at the swarthy stranger, and then back at Sara. “Why is he here?” he asked with a petulant frown.

“He and I…Well, we…” She cleared her throat and said baldly, “He’s my fiancé.”

“What nonsense,” Perry said curtly. “I’m your fiancé. You left the village before we could resolve our differences.”

“We did resolve them,” Sara said, inching closer to Derek. “And I realized that I’m much better suited to Mr. Craven.”

“Is this by chance Derek Craven?” Perry demanded in outrage. “Why, he’s a complete blackguard! Everyone in decent society knows it. I can scarcely believe your father would let him in the house!”

Sara bristled defensively. “I’m beginning to wish he hadn’t let you in!”

“If this is the company you’ve been keeping, no wonder you changed so greatly,” Perry sneered. “It certainly explains your attempts to satisfy your insatiable lust with me. I’ve wracked my brains all weekend trying to make excuses for your wanton advances—”

Derek started for Perry with a snarl. “You pompous little runt—”

Yelping with fright, Perry charged outside, his legs a blur as he hurried back to the safety of his home and his mother.

Swiftly discarding the idea of pursuit, Derek turned to Sara. “What did he mean, ‘insatiable lust’?”

She hastened to explain. “Well, ‘insatiable’ means unable to satisfy—”

“I know that,” he said in a biting tone. “Why did he say it about you?”

Sara rolled her eyes and shrugged. “It was nothing. I merely tried to kiss him once the way you kissed me, and he…” Her voice faded as she realized that her parents were watching the pair of them in dumb-founded silence.

Isaac was the first to speak, a smile twitching the corners of his mouth. “I’ve seen and heard enough, Mr. Craven. If you and my daughter are already talking about ‘insatiable lust,’ I think I’d better give you my approval…and hope for a quick wedding.”

They were married in the village church, the ceremony small and simple. Sara’s only concession to Lily’s grandiose plans was to allow the church to be filled with fresh flowers and greenery. Surrounded by family and friends, she exchanged vows with a man far different than the one she had always expected to marry. With Perry, the future had been predictable. Now the coming weeks, months, and years loomed before her in a tangle of possibilities. She sensed the bewilderment of her friends, who had never dreamed that she would spurn Perry Kingswood in favor of a man she barely knew.

But Sara saw Derek for exactly what he was, no more and no less, and she was aware that he might never change. It was enough that he loved her. In spite of his faults, he would take care of her and defend her to the last breath of life. Separately they had different strengths. Together they were complete.

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.”

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