“He broke the engagement?”
“I…I think a case could be made that we broke it together…” As he advanced on her, she found herself backing into a nearby room, almost stumbling over a delicate gilded chair. “Mr. Craven, I wish you would stop prowling after me this way!”
His hard stare was relentless. “You knew I would be here this weekend.”
“You planned this with Lily.”
“I most certainly did not—” She broke off with a startled squeak as he reached her and clamped his hands on her shoulders.
“I can’t decide whose neck to wring first—yours or hers.”
“You’re offended that I’m here,” Sara said in a small voice.
“I’d rather stand in a bucket of coals than spend one night under the same roof with you!”
“You dislike me that much?”
Derek’s lungs began to work hard as he stared into her small, lovely face. The violent joy of being near her caused his blood to sizzle. His fingers flexed repeatedly into the softness of her shoulders, as if relishing the texture of her flesh. “No, I don’t dislike you,” he said, nearly inaudible.
“Mr. Craven, you’re hurting me.”
His grip didn’t loosen. “That night after the assembly…you didn’t understand a bloody thing I told you, did you?”
“And still you came here.”
Sara stood her ground, although it took all her strength not to wilt beneath his scorching glare. “I had every right to accept Lady Raiford’s invitation,” she said stubbornly. “A-and I won’t leave, no matter what you say to me!”
“Then I will.”
“All right!” To her amazement, an urge to taunt him overcame her, and she added, “If you have so little control over yourself that you find it necessary to run away from me.”
His face was wiped clean of all expression, but she could sense the fury that blazed within him. “They say God protects fools and children—for your sake I hope it’s true.”
“Mr. Craven, I thought you and I could at least manage to be civil to each other for one weekend—”
“Why the hell would you think that?”
“Because we managed it quite well before the assembly, and…” Sara sputtered into silence as she realized how tightly he was holding her. The tips of her br**sts grazed his chest. Her skirts flowed gently around his legs.
“I can’t manage it now.” He gripped her inflexibly, until she felt the hot, leaping pressure of his arousal against her stomach. His eyes blazed like emeralds in his austere face. “I can protect you against everything except myself.”
She knew that his grasp was deliberately painful. But instead of resisting, she relaxed against his hard body. More than anything she wanted to twine herself around him and crush her mouth against the place where the white linen of his cravat met smooth brown skin. Her hands crept up his broad shoulders, and she stared at him wordlessly.
Derek feared he was a hairsbreadth away from attacking her. “Why didn’t you marry him?” he asked hoarsely.
“I don’t love him.”
He shook his head in baffled anger, and opened his mouth to deliver a scathing reply. Apparently thinking better of it, he closed his mouth abruptly, only to open it again. Were the moment not so tense, Sara would have laughed. Instead she stared up at him helplessly. “How could I have gone through with it when I don’t love him?”
“You little fool. Isn’t it enough that you’d be safe with him?”
“No. I want more than that. Or nothing at all.”
His dark head bent lower over hers. One of his hands released her shoulder, and his fingertips grazed the delicate curls at her temple. He was tight-lipped, as if enduring an exquisitely painful torture. Sara made an inarticulate sound as she felt his knuckles brush the highest edge of her cheek. The brightness of his gaze was like harsh sunlight. She felt as if she were drowning in the depths of burning green. His large hand cradled her cheek and jaw, his thumb testing the downy surface. “I’d forgotten how soft your skin was,” he murmured.
She stood there trembling against him, beyond all sense of pride and propriety. Impulsive words hovered on her lips. Suddenly she was distracted by the feel of a strange object underneath her palm, pressed flat against his chest. There was a hard lump in the inside pocket of his coat. She frowned curiously. Before Derek realized what she was doing, she reached inside the garment to investigate.
“No,” he said swiftly, his large hand gripping her wrist to stop her.
But it was too late; her fingers had already encountered the object and identified it. With a disbelieving look on her face, Sara pulled out the tiny pair of spectacles she thought she had lost at the club. “Why?” she whispered, amazed that he was carrying them in his breast pocket.
He met her gaze defiantly, his jaw set. A small muscle twitched in his cheek.
Then she understood. “Are you having problems with your sight, Mr. Craven?” she asked softly. “Or is it your heart?”
Just then they both heard the sound of distant voices down the hall. “Someone’s coming,” he muttered, and released her.
He was gone in an instant, as if the hounds of hell were nipping at his heels. Still clutching the spectacles, Sara bit her lip. In her wild mixture of emotions—relief that he still wanted her, fear that he would leave—nothing was as strong as the desire to comfort him. She wished she had the power to reassure him that his love wouldn’t hurt her…that she would never ask for more than he could give.
Harrassed by a flood of minor difficulties, Lily searched for her husband and found him alone in the hunting room. He was seated at a desk with an empty cigar box in his hand. Alex smiled at the sight of her, but his expression changed to a questioning frown. “What is it, sweetheart?”
Lily talked even more quickly than usual, a sure sign of her frustration. “To begin with, Mrs. Bartlett is demanding that she have her room changed, claiming the view doesn’t suit her, when it’s perfectly obvious that what she really wants is to be located next to Lord Overtone, with whom she’s carrying on a flaming affair—”
“So let her have the room.”
“It’s already occupied by Stockers!”
Alex considered the dilemma with apparent seriousness. “I don’t think Stockers would like to find Overtone in his bed,” he mused, and snickered at the image of the two lecherous old rakes sneaking through the mansion at night to find the delectable Mrs. Bartlett.
“Oh, go on and laugh, but I have even worse problems to tell you about. The cook’s been taken ill. Nothing serious, thank God, but she’s gone to bed and the rest of the kitchen staff is trying to organize themselves, and I can’t guarantee that supper will be edible tonight.”
Alex made a dismissive gesture, as if that were the least of their worries. He held up the empty box. “My stock of cigars is out. Did you remember to order more?”
“I forgot,” she admitted with a rueful sigh.
“Hell.” He frowned. “What are the men and I supposed to smoke while we’re having our after-dinner port?”
“You wouldn’t like my suggestion,” Lily replied pertly. “Oh, the children have lost the puppy again—its somewhere in the house, Nicole says.”
In spite of his annoyance over the cigars, Alex laughed. “If that blasted animal ruins any more family heirlooms—”
“It was only one chair,” Lily protested.
They were interrupted by Derek Craven’s explosive entrance. The edge of the door careened into the wall as he came into the room and fixed Lily with a violent glare. “I’m going to stuff you down the nearest well.”
Driven by a strong instinct for self-preservation, Lily skittered hastily to Alex and settled herself on his lap. “I can invite whomever I want to my weekend parties,” she defended herself, watching Derek from within the protective circle of her husband’s arms.
Derek’s eyes blazed green fire. “I told you never to interfere in my life the way you do others—”
“Easy, Craven,” Alex said calmly, squeezing Lily tightly to keep her silent. “I agree that Lily occasionally goes a step too far with her meddling. But it’s always with the best of intentions…and in this case I don’t see why the presence of one small, shy woman should affect you so greatly.” He arched a tawny brow in the mocking tradition of his aristocratic ancestors. “With all your experience, surely you don’t perceive Miss Fielding as a threat?”
Both the Raifords were amazed to see a dark flush cover Derek’s face. “You have no idea in hell about the trouble she can cause.”
That remark earned a skeptical look from Alex. “She won’t cause any trouble this weekend,” he replied evenly. “We’re all here to socialize, enjoy the scenery, and take the fresh air.”
Glaring at them both, Derek hesitated as if yearning to say something else. Instead he left with a muffled curse, raking his hands through his hair.
There was silence as the Raifords looked at each other. Alex let out a long breath of amazement. “Christ. I’ve never seen him behave this way.”
“Now do you believe what I’ve been telling you?” Lily demanded in satisfaction. “He adores her. He’s gone mad over her.”
Alex didn’t argue, only shrugged. “He’ll deny it to his last breath.”
Lily snuggled against him. “Thank you for defending me. I actually thought he might try to box my ears!”
Alex grinned and fondled her slim body. “You know I’ll never let anyone raise a hand to you. I reserve that privilege for myself.”
“I’d like to see you try,” she warned, and smiled as he kissed the soft, perfumed space behind her earlobe.
“Lily,” he murmured, “for my sake as well as yours, leave the two of them alone. They’ll resolve the matter on their own—without any help from you.”
“Is that a request or a command?”
“Don’t test me, my sweet.” Although his tone was gentle, there was no mistaking the note of warning in it.
Knowing better than to cross her husband when he was in this mood, Lily toyed flirtatiously with the crisp points of his shirt collar. “I’ve always suspected I would have been better off married to a milksop,” she grumbled.
Alex laughed. “I’m exactly the husband you deserve.”
“I’m afraid you’re right,” she replied, and kissed him lovingly.
Suddenly he interrupted the kiss and drew his head back. “Lily…have you mentioned to Derek yet that the Ashbys are attending?”
She grimaced and shook her head. “I couldn’t summon the nerve to tell him. He’ll never believe that I agreed to invite them with the greatest reluctance.”
“My father and Lord Ashby were close friends. And Lord Ashby has been a powerful ally of mine in Parliament. I couldn’t offend the old man by withholding an invitation—even if his wife is a poisonous bitch.”
“Why don’t you explain it to Derek? Good God, with him and Joyce under the same roof, I’m expecting bloodshed at any moment!”
For the better part of the afternoon Sara was cloistered with a group of young matrons whose eager gossip reminded her of the quote, “Love and scandal are the best sweeteners of tea.” Quickly she discovered that her fears of being snubbed were groundless. The women were pleasant and friendly, and far more out-spoken than Sara’s village friends. Among them were Mrs. Adele Bartlett, a wealthy widow with an opulent figure and brilliant red hair, and Lady Mountbain, a mellow-voiced brunette with an earthy sense of humor. Two lively young women were seated next to Lily Raiford; Lady Elizabeth Burghley and Lady Stamford, Lily’s own sister. The group talked with shocking frankness about their husbands and lovers, exchanging bon mots and giggling quietly. It was not lost on Sara that the conversations of these aristocratic ladies bore a strong resemblance to those of the house wenches at Craven’s.
Although Lily seemed to enjoy the gathering, her gaze often strayed to the window. Sara guessed that she would have preferred walking outside or riding, rather than being confined indoors. Noticing Lily’s lack of participation in the discussion, one of the women addressed her nonchalantly. “Lily, darling, why don’t you tell us about your husband? After all these years of domesticity, how often does Lord Raiford demand his conjugal rights?”
Lily surprised them all by blushing. “Often enough,” she said with a private smile, refusing to say any more. They teased and laughed, and regarded her with envy, for Lily wore the look of a happily married woman—a rarity among the ton.
Lady Mountbain curled in a corner of a cushioned settee. Her wide, scarlet-hued mouth stretched into a speculative smile. “Enough talk about husbands,” she declared in her silky-rough voice. “I much prefer the subject of un married men—their activities are so much more interesting. Derek Craven, for example. There is something positively animal about him. Whenever he’s near, I can’t take my eyes from the man. Perhaps it’s that black hair…or the scar…”
“Yes, the scar,” Adele Bartlett added dreamily. “It makes him look even more of a brute.”
“Wickedly unprincipled,” someone else added in a tone of relish.
Adele nodded emphatically. “I’m so pleased you invited him to the weekend, Lily. It’s so exciting, having a dangerous man nearby. It makes one feel anything could happen.”
“Nonsense,” Lily said in reply to the comments. “Derek is no more dangerous than…than that cat near the hearth!”
A few gazes settled doubtfully on the sleeping animal, a fat and lazy tom who had far more interest in chasing after supper than after other felines. Reading their disbelief, Lily changed the subject adroitly. “No more talk about men—they’re bothersome creatures, and that is that. We have more important things to discuss!”
“Such as?” Adele was clearly wondering what could be more important than men.
“Did I happen to mention that we have an author in our midst?” Lily asked brightly. “You must talk to Sara—you loved the novel Mathilda, didn’t you?”
In order to keep from drawing attention to herself, Sara had taken an inconspicuous place in a chair near the corner. Suddenly she found herself the focus of every pair of eyes. A flood of excited questions erupted all at once.