Sara considered that. “No,” she said with a catch in her voice. “No one else in the world.” It was the truth. There was only tonight…that was all she would ever have with him. She met his searching eyes and touched the lapel of his coat, smoothing it needlessly. In some distant corner of her mind a scolding voice intruded on the moment…Here she was, cavorting in a palace of sin with a scoundrel…
A scoundrel who was about to kiss her.
His fingers threaded through her curls, disarranging her hair, cupping the back of her head in a secure grip. There was the rasp of silk and velvet as the edges of their masks brushed, and then his mouth found hers. At first the kiss was cool and gentle. He took his time, tasting, slowly turning his lips over hers. Sara couldn’t help thinking for a surprised moment that his kisses were rather like Perry’s.
But it all changed in a quicksilver moment. His mouth became searingly hot, rubbing over hers until her lips were forced open. Sara quivered with astonishment at the intrusion of his tongue. Was this how other people kissed? Confounded by the intimacy, she pushed at his chest until he lifted his head and looked at her. There were flares in the depths of his eyes, like small, intense rushlights.
“N-not in front of everyone,” she said, waving an unsteady hand at the crowd. The excuse was a feeble one. Not one pair of eyes was focused on them. All the revelers were absorbed in their own flirtations. Obligingly Derek linked his fingers around her gloved wrist and pulled her away with him, out of the central room, past the dining and card rooms, farther away until the music and chatter blended to a quiet drone. Sara stumbled after him, her grogginess clearing away. “Where…” was all she could manage to say as they strode along the hallway.
“To the back rooms.”
“I…don’t think that’s a good idea.”
His pace didn’t ease. “We need privacy.”
He urged her through a private door and into a softly lit room. Sara’s wide eyes took in the sight of silk damask walls and the play of violet shadow on intricate plasterwork. A few pieces of furniture were placed around the room; a tiny round table and two gilt chairs, a pretty bronze screen with painted panels, and a chaise longue. Sara reared back in panic, but the door was already closed, and Craven’s arms were around her. His hand clasped the back of her neck, and his voice puffed warmly into her hair.
“Easy. All I want to do is hold you.”
“But I can’t—”
“Let me hold you.” He kissed her neck and crowded her more closely against him.
Slowly Sara relaxed. A pleasant languor spread from her head to her toes, and somehow she forgot there was a world outside the circle of his arms. There was only the warmth of his skin, banked within the layers of his clothes. And the movement of his hands as he worked the soft muscles of her neck and back. Even in her innocence, she was aware of the sinful knowledge in his touch. He knew how to hold a woman, how to seduce her away from inhibition. Blindly she lifted her face, and he kissed her. His lips seemed to wring her very soul from her body.
Sara clung to him, wrapping herself closer until her aching br**sts were wedged against his chest. He took hold of her waist, pressing her to his groin. As she felt the hard, insistent protrusion of his body, she broke away awkwardly. “I-I’ve had too much to drink. I must go, I must…”
Derek gave a muffled laugh and stripped off his mask. Greedily he kissed her vulnerable throat, biting into the tender flesh. She gasped, trying to move back, but he caught the slippery waves of her hair in his fist. Murmuring reassurances, he nudged her off-balance and eased her down to the cushioned chaise. Objections wavered on her lips, all too quickly hushed by his mouth. He pulled the velvet bodice down until her na*ed br**sts gleamed in the golden light…magnificent br**sts with silken points. Fastening his mouth on a rosy nipple, he sucked and licked gently until she whimpered, her fingers tangling in his dark hair. He cupped her br**sts high in his hands and used his lips, his teeth, and his tongue on them, as if he would devour the sweetness of her flesh.
Sara groaned and arched upward, pushing her nipple further into the depths of his mouth. She felt him pulling up her skirts, his powerful thighs clamping on either side of her hips. He crouched over her, kissing, cupping, stroking, until she was left with barely a shred of sanity. It was only that tiny scrap of consciousness that made her realize he had reached for her mask.
She twisted her head away with a gasping cry. “No!”
His hand curved underneath her breast, his thumb stroking the moist patches left by his mouth. “All right, then,” he said softly. “Keep your disguise. I don’t care who you are.”
“I can’t do this. You don’t understand—”
“There’s nothing to be afraid of.” He dragged his lips through the deep vale between her breasts, each word he spoke a hot brand against her skin. “No one will know. No one but you and me.” His hand searched the layers of her silk undergarments. One of his knees delved between hers. The weight of his body over hers was delicious. She wanted more, wanted him to press harder, deeper, until she was crushed beneath him. She had to stop him before the pleasure became disaster. But her trembling arms encircled him tighter, and the only sounds that escaped her lips were broken gasps.
Recognizing the signs of surrender, Derek kissed her with a mixture of triumph and relief. Tonight, at least, there would be no empty hours, no tormenting frustration. He would ease his needs within her, and use her to forget…he would give her all the pleasure he could never give Sara Fielding…Sara…Damn her for intruding on his thoughts even now. But perhaps that was only to be expected. In some ways this woman resembled Sara. She had the same flawless skin, and beneath her heady perfume there was the same delicate scent…She was the same size…shape…
He went still. The shock of it was like a hard blow to the chest. Roughly he pulled his mouth from hers and lifted himself up on his elbows. He hung over her, panting hard. The wracking breaths weren’t enough to sustain him. Nothing was.
“It’s not you,” he said, the words torn from his throat. “Oh, damn you, it’s not…”
Sara tried to turn away as his shaking hand descended to her face and removed her mask. Her dazed blue eyes stared up into his appalled ones. He was pale underneath his tan, the scar showing in harsh relief.
Derek would have thought his body could be no more aroused than it already was, but as he stared down at her, he became painfully hard. The frantic, exquisite throbbing of his blood made him flinch.
Sara moistened her lips. “Mr. Craven—”
“Look at you. Oh, God…” Derek’s gaze burned over the gleaming rise of her breasts, her kiss-swollen lips. “I told you not to come here.” His fingers sifted through the russet tumble of her hair. “I told you…Why?”
“R-research?” She offered the one stammering word as if it would explain everything.
“Christ.” A frightening expression came over his face, dark and cruel and passionate. He looked ready to kill her.
Although it seemed to be a lost cause, Sara tried to defend herself. “I didn’t mean for it to go this far,” she babbled. “I’m sorry. It happened so quickly. I was drinking. It didn’t seem real. And you were so…I…I really don’t know how this all happened. I’m so sorry, so very—” She stopped, aware of how woefully inadequate the explanation was.
He was silent, his weight pinning her against the chaise longue. The hard pressure of his arousal seemed to burn through the layers of their clothes. Uncomfortably Sara moved beneath him.
“Stay still!” Derek swallowed hard, his gaze traveling to the lush display of her breasts. “You and your…research.” He said the word as if it were obscene. His hand covered her breast, his palm rubbing over the nipple until it formed a tight bud. He tried to let her go, but his body wouldn’t obey. Every nerve screamed rebelliously. He wanted her. He would have given everything he owned just to grind himself inside her. Breathing harshly through his teeth, he fought to contain his desire.
“I wanted to be someone other than myself,” Sara said in defiant misery. “The kind of woman that you would…dance with…and desire. And even now…I don’t regret what I’ve done. You may not feel any attraction for Sara Fielding, but at least you felt something for the woman I pretended to be, and that—”
“You don’t think I want you?” he asked hoarsely.
“I knew when you refused to kiss me this morning—”
“That’s what this is about? You wanted revenge because I didn’t…” Craven seemed to choke on the words. When he managed to speak again, his voice was tainted with a cockney twang. “It wasn’t enow for you that I’ve ached like a drawn dog ever since you came ’ere—”
“Drawn dog?” she repeated in confusion.
“Pulled away before the rutting’s finished.” He clenched his hands on either side of her face, glaring at her. “I wanted you this morning, you little tease. I’ve wanted to do you over since the first time I…Be still!” He snarled the last two words with a roughness that made her cringe. She stopped squirming at once. Swallowing hard, he forced himself to continue. “Don’t move, or I won’t be able to stop myself. Listen to me. I’m going to let go of you…and you’re going to leave. For good. Don’t come back to the club.”
“That’s right. Go back to your village.”
“But why?” Sara asked. Humiliating tears threatened to spill from her eyes.
“Because I can’t—” He stopped, his breath rattling in his throat. “Jesus, don’t cry!”
Don’t move. Don’t cry. Don’t come back. Sara stared at him with glittering blue eyes. She felt wild, drugged, drunk with emotion. “I don’t want to leave,” she said thickly.
Derek’s muscles trembled with the effort of holding still. He did not want to ruin or hurt her, and he was close, so close, to throwing away the few meager scraps of honor he possessed. “What do you want, Sara? This?” He taunted her with his body, urging himself against her in a crude thrust. “This is what you’ll get from me. I’ll do you over right now, and send you back to Kingswood a soiled dove. Is that what you want, to be covered by the likes of me?” He pushed again, expecting her to beg for her freedom. Instead she gasped and lifted her knees, instinctively making a cradle for him. He wiped at a fallen tear with his fingers. A guttural sound came from his throat, and he lowered his mouth to her face, licking at the silken trail of salt. It was going to happen. He couldn’t stop it.
Pushing his hand beneath her skirt, he found the waist of her drawers and delved beneath them. He spread covetous kisses over her pale br**sts and throat. She was everything he’d ever wanted, beauty and fire arching against his despoiling hands. His fingers wandered across the smooth skin of her belly, the white tops of her thighs. She started in fear, but he held her down and sifted through the patch of delicate curling hair until the soft core of her body became swollen and wet. Fondling her gently, he covered her mouth with kisses, while his breath rushed in rhythmic bursts. She writhed uncontrollably, making small, wanton groans that heated his senses to full boil.
Sara dug her fingers into the thick layer of his coat as she realized he was opening his pantaloons. Time stopped, like a whirling top snatched up in an unyielding fist. Pleasure unfurled and billowed in ever-widening waves as she yielded to the man intent on claiming her, the hard weight of his body poised to drive inside her. “Sara,” he said over and over, his breath scalding her ear. “Sara—”
“Mr. Craven?” A quiet male voice broke the spell.
Sara gave a start of fright as she realized someone was in the doorway. She struggled to sit up, but Derek held her down, concealing her with his own body. He groped for his sanity. Finally he gave a savage groan.
“What is it?”
Worthy’s voice was strained. Keeping his face turned away, he spoke with great care. “I wouldn’t have disturbed you, Mr. Craven, but there is a rumor that Ivo Jenner has been seen in the club. Knowing his wont to make trouble, I thought you should be informed.”
Derek was silent for nearly half a minute. “Leave. I’ll see to Jenner…if he’s here.” The last words were invested with heavy sarcasm, making it clear that he suspected the factotum had invented a ruse merely to rescue Sara.
“Sir, shall I have a carriage brought for…?” Worthy paused, unwilling to voice Sara’s name.
“Yes,” Derek said tersely. “Get out, Worthy.”
The factotum closed the door.
Sara couldn’t seem to stop trembling. She clenched her arms around Craven’s shoulders and buried her face against the humid skin of his throat. She had never experienced the pain of unsatisfied desire before. It hurt. It hurt like nothing she’d ever felt, and there seemed to be no remedy. Although she expected Craven to be cruel, he was kind at first, holding her tightly against his body and rubbing her back. “Dogdrawn,” he said with a humorless laugh. “A few minutes and you’ll be all right.”
Wildly she twisted against him. “I c-can’t catch my breath.”
He clamped his arm across her h*ps and pressed his mouth to her temple. “Be still,” he whispered. “Still.” When her trembling eased, his mood changed, and he pushed her away abruptly. “Cover yourself.” He sat up and clutched his head in his hands. “When you’re ready to leave, Worthy will take you to the carriage.”
Sara fumbled with her clothes, tugging at the bodice of her gown. Derek watched from the corners of his eyes until her br**sts were concealed. He stood up to arrange his coat and pantaloons. Striding to the mirror that hung over the small marble fireplace, he neatened his cravat and raked his hands through his rumpled hair. Though the final result was not as immaculate as before, he looked presentable. Sara, on the other hand, knew herself to be a complete mess. Her gown was disheveled, while her hair cascaded in wild ripples down her back. She was on the verge of tears. Somehow she kept her face dry and her voice steady. “Perhaps we could both manage to forget tonight.”
“I intend to,” he said grimly. “But what I said before still holds. Don’t come back, Miss Fielding.” He strode to the door, pausing to deliver a savage aside to Worthy, who waited outside the threshold. “If it were anyone else but you, I’d fire you. After beating you to a bloody pulp.” He left the room without a backward glance.