Sara gathered her scattered wits. “Tabitha, what a pleasant surprise it is to see you! Please come inside. I’ll make some tea. Perhaps the driver would like to sit in the kitchen—”
“No time for all that,” Tabitha said, at once gratified and embarrassed by Sara’s welcoming manner. “I’ll be gone in a blink ow an eye—just stopped to ’ave a bit ow a chat. Won’t stay but a minute.”
Sara urged her inside the warm house and closed the door against a gust of wind. “Is everything all right at the club?”
“How is Mr. Worthy?”
“ ’E’s fine.”
“Fine, as allus.”
The urge to ask about Derek Craven was overwhelming. Somehow Sara held the words back. She motioned for Tabitha to join her on the settee in the front room and watched her without blinking, wondering why the house wench had taken it upon herself to visit.
Tabitha took exaggerated pains to arrange her skirts and sit like a lady. She grinned at Sara as she smoothed the material of her gown. “My ma thinks I’m a maid for a grand lord in London, carrying coal an’ water, polishing silwer an’ such. It wouldn’t do for ’er to know I works on my back at Crawen’s.”
Sara nodded gravely. “I understand.”
“Mr. Crawen would cull me good if ’e knowed I’d come ’ere today.”
“I won’t tell a soul,” Sara promised, while her heart climbed up into her throat. She stared at Tabitha, who shrugged and glanced around the cottage as if she were waiting patiently for something. The house wench wanted her to ask about Craven, Sara realized. Agitatedly she tangled her hands in her makeshift apron. “Tabitha…tell me how he is.”
The house wench needed no further prompting. “Mr. Crawen’s short in temper these days. Doesn’t eat or sleep, acts like ’e’s got a bee up ’is arse. Yesterday ’e went to the kitchen an’ told Monsieur Labarge ’is soup tasted like bilgewater. Why, it took Gill an’ Worthy both to keep Labarge from gutting ’im with a big knife!”
“I-is that why you’ve come here, to tell me that? I’m very sorry to hear it, but…” Sara paused awkwardly and lowered her head. “His mood has nothing to do with me.”
“It ’as ewerything to do with you, miss—an’ no one knows it better than me.”
Sara’s fists knotted tighter in her apron. “What do you mean?”
Tabitha leaned forward, speaking in a theatrical whisper. “Mr. Crawen came to my bed two—no, three—nights ago. You know ’e newer does that. Not with the ’ouse wenches.”
Suddenly it was impossible to breathe. Sara remembered having felt like this long ago, when her horse Eppie had shied at some movement in the grass and thrown her to the ground. Sara had fallen flat on her stomach and had wheezed and gasped sickly for air. Oh, God, how could it matter this much to her that he had taken his pleasure within this woman’s body, held her and kissed her—
“ ’Is eyes were so strange,” Tabitha continued, “like ’e was looking through the gates of ’ell. ‘I ’as a special request, ’e says, ’an’ if you tells anyone about it, I’ll ’ave you skinned an’ gogged.’ So I says awright, an’ then—”
“No.” Sara felt as if she would shatter to pieces if she heard one more word. “Don’t tell me. I—I don’t want to hear—”
“It was about you, miss.”
“Me?” Sara asked faintly.
“ ’E came to my bed. ’E told me not to say anyfing, no matter what ’e did. No matter what ’e said. Then Mr. Crawen turned the lamp down an’ took me against ’im…” Tabitha averted her gaze as she continued. Sara was frozen in place. “ ‘Let me hold you, Sara,’ ’e says, ‘I need you, Sara’…all night long it was, ’im pretending I was you. It’s because we look alike, you an’ me. That’s why ’e did it.” She shrugged with a touch of embarrassment. “ ’E was gentle an’ sweet about it, too. In the morning ’e left wivout a word, but there was still that terrible look in ’is eyes—”
“Stop,” Sara said sharply, her face ashen. “You shouldn’t have come here. You had no right to tell me.”
Instead of being offended by Sara’s outburst, Tabitha looked sympathetic. “I says to myself…it wouldn’t ’urt no one if I told Miss Fielding. You ’as the right to know. Mr. Crawen loves you, miss, like ’e’s newer loved no one in ’is blessed life. ’E thinks you’re too good for ’im—’e thinks you’re as fine as an angel. An’ you are, God’s truf.” Tabitha stared at her earnestly. “Miss Sara, if you only knew…’e’s not as bad as they say.”
“I know that,” Sara choked. “But there are things you don’t understand. I’m betrothed to another man, and even if I weren’t…” She stopped abruptly. There was no need to explain her feelings, or speculate on Derek Craven’s, in front of this woman. It was useless, not to mention painful.
“Then you won’t go to ’im?”
The girl’s bewilderment caused Sara to smile in spite of her misery. Like the other house wenches, Tabitha felt inordinately proud and not a little possessive of Derek Craven, almost as if he were a favorite uncle or a kindly benefactor. If he wanted something, if something would please him, there was no question that he should have it.
Woodenly Sara stood up and made her way to the door. “I know you came here with good intentions, Tabitha, but you must leave now. I…I’m sorry.” Those were the only coherent words she could form. Oh, God, she was sorry for things she couldn’t name or even admit to herself. She was consumed by loneliness, burning with it. She ached with grief for what she would never have.
“I’m sorry too,” Tabitha murmured, her face reddening guiltily. “I won’t bother you again, miss. I swear it on my own life.” She left quickly, forbearing to say another word.
Stumbling to the fireplace, Sara sat down on the hard floor and buried her face against her knees. Wildly she tried to convince herself that she would be a fool to give away what happiness she might be able to find with Perry. She tried to imagine going to Derek Craven and telling him…telling him what? A bubble of senseless laughter escaped her. “I want to see you one more time,” she whispered. She wanted to be near him again, if only for a few minutes. And he felt the same way, or he wouldn’t have made love to another woman and pretended it was she.
“I will forget you, Sara Fielding. No matter what it takes…”
What good would it do even if she were able to steal a few precious moments with him? He would not want to see her. What could she say to him, when she couldn’t explain her feelings even to herself?
Resting her head on her forearm, she groaned in frustration. She was treading on the edge of disaster. She must forget her dangerous infatuation with Derek Craven and turn to the man she had loved ever since she was a girl. Suddenly it seemed as if Perry Kingswood had the power to save her from herself. She struggled to her feet. Quickly she banked the fire, snatched up her cloak and mittens, and bolted out the front door. She hurried to the Kingswood manor as fast as her feet would take her. During the long walk, the cold air drove deep into her lungs and seemed to freeze her bones. Her chest ached from a knot of pain that had settled in the center. “Perry, make it all go away,” she wanted to beg. “Make me feel safe and loved. Tell me we were meant to be together.”
She didn’t care if he thought she had taken leave of her senses. All she needed was for him to put his arms around her and reassure her that he loved her. And he would, she thought, drawing strength from the image of him holding her. He would be calm and gentle, and soothe her fears.
Her breath caught in excitement as she came upon the Kingswoods’ home, and she saw Perry leading a horse from the paddock to the stable in back. “Perry!” she cried, but the wind was blowing, making it impossible for him to hear. Eagerly she hurried around the house to the stable. The sturdy structure was warm and sheltered from the wind, filled with the familiar smells of hay and horses.
Perry, who was clad in a heavy wool coat and a knitted hat, was busy leading the horse into a hay-lined stall. Aware of her approach, he turned to face her. His color was high from exercise, and his eyes were like sapphires. “Sara? Why are you in such a state? Is something wrong?”
“I had to see you this very minute.” She launched herself forward and clung to him, dropping her head into the curve of his neck. “Perry, I’ve been so unhappy, wondering how to get rid of this distance between us! I’m sorry if I’ve been demanding or unreasonable. I want everything to be right between us. Tell me you love me. Tell me…”
“What’s brought this on?” he asked in astonishment, his arms closing around her.
“Nothing. Nothing in particular…I just…” Floundering in her excitement, she fell silent and held on to him more tightly.
After a minute of wordless surprise, Perry eased her away and spoke in a softly chiding tone. “You never used to carry on so, darling. Running about the countryside with your hair flying and your eyes wild…there’s no need for it. Of course I love you. Have I given you reason to doubt that? I’ll be glad when you stop writing. It makes you emotional, and that wouldn’t do for our children, or me, for that matter—”
He stopped with a muffled sound as Sara took his face in her mittened hands and pressed her mouth to his. She felt his body tense. There was a tentative response, the slightest movement of his lips…but then he pulled back and looked down at her in shocked dismay. “What has happened to you?” he asked sternly. “Why are you behaving this way?”
“I want to belong to you,” Sara said, her face flushed. “Is it so wrong of me, when we’ll be married in just a few months?”
“Yes, it is wrong, and you know it.” His cheeks turned as red as hers. “Decent, God-fearing people should have the moral strength to control their animal urges—”
“That sounds like something your mother would say, not you.” Sara pressed against him ardently. “I need you,” she whispered, brushing swift, dancing kisses over his cheek and jaw. The blood raced in her veins. “I need you to love me, Perry…here…now.” Urgently she pulled him toward a stack of neatly folded blankets and a few blocks of hay. Perry took a few uncertain steps forward. “Make me yours,” Sara murmured, and lifted her mouth, parting her lips enough to let her tongue drift over the surface of his.
Abruptly Perry sucked in his breath and pushed her away. “No!” He stared at her with a mixture of accusation and desire. “I don’t want this! And I certainly don’t want to kiss you as if you were some French whore!”
Sara fell back a step and felt her face stiffen. It was as if she were standing outside herself, watching the scene from a distance.
“What is it you’re after?” he asked heatedly. “Proof that I love you?”
“Yes,” she stammered. “I…I suppose I am.”
The admission earned no sympathy or understanding. Instead, it seemed to outrage him further. “Such boldness! When I think of the modest, innocent girl you once were…By God, you’re acting more like your blasted Mathilda than yourself! I’m beginning to suspect you succumbed to the advances of some knave in London. What else would explain your behavior?”
Once she might have begged his forgiveness. But now his accusations sparked her own emotions into a white-hot explosion. “Perhaps it’s just that after four years I’m tired of loving you chastely! And if you’re wondering about my virginity, I still have it—much good it does me!”
“You seem to be far more knowledgeable now than before you left.”
“Maybe I am,” she said recklessly. “Does it bother you to think that other men might want me? That I may have been kissed by someone other than you?”
“Yes, it bothers me!” Perry was so enraged that his handsome face was mottled purple and white. “It bothers me enough that I’ve reconsidered my proposal to you.” He enunciated each word like the snap of a leather strap. Flecks of spittle fell to his chin. “I loved you the way you once were, Sara. But I don’t want you as you are now. If you want to be the next Mrs. Kingswood, you’ll have to find some way to change yourself back into the girl I fell in love with.”
“I can’t.” Sara began to storm from the stable, throwing words over her shoulder. “So you may as well tell your mother that the engagement is broken! She’ll be delighted, I’m certain.”
“She’ll feel only sorrow and pity for you.”
Sara stopped abruptly and looked back at him. “Is that what you really think?” She shook her head disbelievingly. “I wonder why you thought you needed a wife at all, Perry. Why marry when you’ve got her to take care of you? If you decide to court other girls in the village, you’ll soon discover how few of them are willing to abide your mother’s high-handed ways. In fact, I can’t think of a single one who would agree to take on the pair of you!”
As she ran out of the stable, Sara thought she heard him call her name, but her pace didn’t slow. She was grateful for the flood of righteous indignation that sustained her. Making her way back home, she replayed the scene several times in her head, feeling alternately furious and ill. When she reached the cottage, she slammed the front door as hard as she could. “It’s over,” she told herself repeatedly, sinking down into a chair and shaking her head in disbelief. “It’s over, it’s over.”
She wasn’t aware of exactly how much time passed before her parents returned home. “How was Reverend Crawford?” she asked dully.
“Splendid,” Katie replied. “Still has his chest complaint, though. His cough is no better than last week. I fear we’re due for another half-heard sermon on Sunday.”
Sara smiled wanly, remembering how hoarse the reverend’s voice had been the previous Sunday. It had been impossible for most of the congregation to hear, especially the elderly parishoners. She began to rise from the chair, but Isaac dropped a letter into her lap. It was addressed to her. “This was delivered to the village yesterday,” he said. “Fine paper, a scarlet wax seal…it must be from a very important person.”