Lauderson had turned scarlet during the contemptuous speech. “What gave Craven the idea that his opinion is worth a farthing?” His voice echoed in the deadly quiet of the room. “A man of no blood, no education, and certainly no refinement. He may be the wealthiest bastard in England, but that gives him no right to speak to me in that insolent manner.” He glanced at Alex in rising indignation. “An apology is due me, sir! Since you’re responsible for inviting the man, I’ll accept yours in lieu of his.”

The assemblage froze. Not even a creak of a chair disrupted the silence. Alex’s face was like carved marble as he returned Lauderson’s stare. “Excuse me, gentlemen,” he finally said. “The air in here has suddenly turned foul.” He left the table with an expression of distaste, while Lauderson’s eyes bulged.

Alex couldn’t find Derek until the ball had begun. He walked into the ballroom, pausing to observe the orchestra nearly concealed behind huge banks of roses. A row of French crystal chandeliers, each weighing a thousand pounds, shed sparkling light over the gleaming floor and the huge columns of fleur de peche marble. Lily presided over the ball with her usual warmth and grace, effortlessly making everyone feel welcome.

Catching sight of Derek taking a drink from the tray of a passing servant, Alex went to join him. “Craven, about that scene in the dining hall—”

“I hate the upper class,” Derek muttered, and took a large gulp of wine.

“You know we’re not all like Lauderson.”

“You’re right. Some are worse.”

Following Derek’s gaze, Alex saw Lauderson’s bulky form join a group of peers who were all engaged in toadying up to Lord Ashby. A haughty, irascible gentleman of the old school, Lord Ashby was usually making some speech or another. He believed that every word he uttered was like a pearl dropping from his lips. Because of his rank and wealth, the obsequious fools around him would never have dared to contradict that opinion. “Has Lady Ashby approached you yet?” Alex asked.

Derek shook his head. “She won’t.”

“How can you be certain?”

“Because I almost strangled her the last time I saw her.”

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Alex looked startled, and then smiled grimly. “I wouldn’t have blamed you if you had.”

Derek continued to stare at Lord Ashby. “Joyce was fifteen when she married that old bastard. Look at him, surrounded by those highborn lickspittles. I can see why Joyce turned out the way she did. Married to him, a girl in her teens would turn into either a trembling rabbit or a monster.”

“You sound as if you have some sympathy for her.”

“No. But I understand her. Life makes people what they are.” A scowl settled between Derek’s dark brows. He gestured to a corner of the room. “If any one of those fine barons or viscounts had been born in the rookery, they wouldn’t have turned out any better than I did. Noble blood counts for nothing.”

Following Derek’s gaze, Alex saw a growing coterie of men around Sara Fielding. Her small but lushly curved body was clad in a blue velvet gown a few shades darker than her eyes. Her hair was pulled into a mass of chestnut curls. She was uncommonly pretty tonight, exuding a shy charm that any man would find irresistible. Alex looked back at Derek’s expressionless face. “If that’s true,” he asked slowly, “then why let one of them have Miss Fielding?”

Derek ignored the question, but Alex persisted. “Would any of them treat her more kindly than you? Take better care of her? Would one of those young fops value her as you would?”

The green eyes glinted coldly. “You of all people know what I am.”

“I know what you were,” Alex replied. “Even five years ago, I would have agreed that you didn’t deserve someone like her. But you’ve changed, Craven. You’ve changed enough. And if she finds something in you that’s worthy of her affection…for God’s sake, don’t argue with a gift that fate has handed you.”

“Oh, very simple,” Derek jeered. “It doesn’t matter that I was born a bastard. She deserves nothing better than a man with a false name, fine clothes, and a sham accent. It’s not important that I have no family and no religion. I don’t believe in sacred causes, or honor, or unselfish motives. I can’t be innocent enough for her. I never was. But why should that matter to her?” His lips pulled into a sneer. “A match between us wouldn’t be a gift of fate, Raiford. It would be a bloody joke.”

Alex dropped the argument immediately. “Apparently you know best. Pardon, but I have to go search for my wife, who’s probably fending off her own set of admirers. Unlike you, I have a jealous streak as wide as the Thames.”

“More like the Atlantic,” Derek muttered, watching his friend wander off.

He turned his attention back to Sara and the bucks who hovered around her. “Jealous streak” couldn’t begin to describe how he felt. He despised the men who sought her favor. He wanted to snarl and gnash his teeth at them, and take her far away from their roving hands and leering gazes. But what could he do with her? The idea of making her his paramour was an unthinkable as marrying her. Either way, he would ruin her. The only choice was to stay away, but that seemed as simple a solution as stopping himself from breathing. The physical attraction was powerful, but more irresistible than that was the alarming feeling he had when he was near her…a feeling that came perilously close to happiness. No man on earth was less entitled to that than he was.

He was nowhere in sight, but Sara had the feeling that Craven was watching her. Earlier he had been mingling and exchanging pleasantries with guests. It hadn’t been lost on Sara that women were sending him all manner of signals; flirtatious glances, playful taps on his shoulder with their fans, and in one case the bold, deliberate brush of a thinly covered breast against his arm. Women were fascinated by his mixture of earthiness and elegance. It was as if there was a dark, smoldering fire buried beneath a layer of ice, and each woman hoped to be the one to break through his reserve.

“Miss Fielding,” Viscount Tavisham interrupted her thoughts. He stood an inch too close and stared at her with soulful brown eyes. “Perhaps you would honor me with another waltz?”

Sara smiled at him blankly while she thought of a suitable reply. She had danced with Tavisham twice already; a third time was out of the question. It would be noticed by the guests, and it would lead to improper speculation. Not that she didn’t like the impulsive young rake, but she didn’t wish to encourage his attentions. “I’m afraid the dancing has made me rather fatigued,” she said with an apologetic smile. Actually, it was true. Several waltzes and vigorous quadrilles had made the soles of her feet sore.

“Then we will find a quiet place to sit and talk.” He offered his arm in a courtly gesture. Clearly there was no way to avoid him. Sighing inwardly, Sara accompanied him to the long gallery with its multitude of French doors, and sat on a polished wooden bench with an ornately carved back. “Would you like some punch?” Tavisham offered, and she nodded. “Don’t go anywhere,” he admonished. “Don’t even bat an eye. I’ll return momentarily. And if any man approaches you, tell him you’re spoken for.”

Giving him a mock salute, Sara pretended to freeze in place, and he grinned at her before leaving. Couples promenaded back and forth along the gallery, admiring the view of the terrace and the fountain in the snow-covered garden outside. Toying with the sparkling beadwork on her gown, Sara thought of the last evening she had worn it. A soft smile curved her lips.

He had been carrying her spectacles right next to his heart. A man wouldn’t do something like that unless…

The thought filled her with nervous energy. She stood up, ignoring the protesting twinge of her feet. The garden was visible through the frosted windows, the hedges delicately coated with ice, the shadows cold and quiet. Pale blue moonlight gleamed over the frozen fountain and the bordered walkways. After the crowded, music-filled ballroom, the quiet garden was an inviting sanctuary. Obeying a sudden impulse, Sara slipped to the French doors and turned one of the gilded knobs. She shivered as a winter breeze caressed her bare shoulders, and closed the door behind her.

The garden was like a snow palace. Carefully she made her way along a graveled path, filling her lungs with refreshing air. Lost in her thoughts, she wandered until she heard a sound behind her. It might have been the rustle of another breeze…or her name, whispered in a low voice. Sara turned around, the ice-dusted hem of her skirt whirling and settling at her feet. He had been watching her, she thought, and a winsome smile broke over her face as she looked at the man standing a few yards away.

“Somehow I thought you might follow me,” she said breathlessly. “At least, I hoped you would.”

The stern cast of Derek’s face concealed a torrent of repressed emotion. How could she smile at him like that? He was shaking with cold and heat and need. God, he couldn’t bear the way she looked at him, as if she could see down to the darkest recesses of his soul. She began to approach him. Without meaning to he reached her in three strides and snatched her in his arms. Her joyous laugh tickled his ear as he lifted her off her feet. Urgently his mouth roved across her face with rough kisses that stung her cheek, her chin, her forehead. She caught his lean jaw in her hands to hold him still. The moonlight was captured in her glistening eyes as she stared up at him. “I want to be with you,” she whispered. “No matter what happens.”

No one in his life had ever said such a thing to him. Derek tried to think above the pounding of his heart, but she brought her soft mouth to his, and all reason was lost. Hungrily he bent over her, trying not to hurt her with the force of his kisses, trembling with an emotion as ferocious as it was tender.

Lily’s teeth chattered from the cold as she crept stealthily through the garden and positioned herself behind a frozen tree. Catching sight of Derek and Sara in the distance, locked in a passionate embrace, Lily broke into a wide grin. She had to restrain herself from doing a little victory dance. Rubbing her hands together to warm them, she considered a variety of matchmaking strategies.

“Lily.”

The quiet whisper gave her a start, just before her husband’s arms closed around her. “Why the hell are you out here?” Alex murmured, pulling her back against his tall body.

“You’ve been following me!” Lily exclaimed indignantly, keeping her voice low.

“Yes—and you’ve been following Derek and Miss Fielding.”

“I had to, darling,” she explained innocently. “I’ve been helping them.”

“Oh,” he said sardonically. “At first it appeared as if you were spying on them.” Ignoring her protests, Alex began to drag his wife away from the scene. “I think you’ve ‘helped’ enough, my sweet.”

“Spoilsport,” Lily accused, pulling against his firm grip. “I just want to watch a moment longer—”

“Now. Leave the poor devil alone.”

Determined to have her way, Lily braced her feet against the stone border of a pathway. “Not yet…Alex…oof!” With one easy tug, he had jerked her off balance, causing her to fall against him.

“Watch your step,” he advised mildly, as if the stumble had been her fault.

Her dark eyes met his twinkling gray ones. “You heavy-handed, overbearing tyrant,” she accused, and began to giggle as she pounded his chest.

Grinning, Alex subdued her struggles and kissed her amorously. He stopped only when she was out of breath. “At the moment Derek doesn’t need your help.” His hands wandered boldly over her tulle and satin ball gown. “But I have a problem that needs immediate attention.”

“Oh? What problem is that?”

His lips wandered to her neck. “I’ll have to show you in private.”

“Now?” she asked, scandalized. “Really, Alex, you can’t mean—”

“Now,” he assured her, and capturing her hand in his, began to walk her back to the mansion.

Lily’s fingers laced with his, while her heart beat in anticipation. In spite of his obstinate, overbearing nature, she thought him the most wonderful husband in the world, and was about to tell him so, when suddenly they nearly bumped into the solitary woman who crossed the path before them.

Lady Ashby whipped around and eyed them both like a baleful cat. From the seething anger on her face, Lily guessed that she had also followed Derek, and had seen him kissing Sara Fielding. “Lady Ashby,” Lily said sweetly. “Rather a cool night for a stroll, isn’t it?”

“It’s a relief from all the mismatched clutter inside,” Joyce replied.

Lily, whose taste in decorating was universally praised as being the epitome of elegance, took offense at hearing her home described as a “mismatched clutter.” “Now see here—” she began, and winced as Alex’s grip became painful.

“Sheathe your claws, ladies.” Alex pinned Joyce with an autocratic stare. “My wife and I would be delighted to accompany you back to the ball, Lady Ashby.”

“I don’t wish—” Joyce objected, but was presented with Alex’s rock-solid arm.

“I insist,” he said, ignoring his wife’s glare. It was clear that given the choice, the two women would much rather sneak back to the garden and spy on the embracing couple. In that moment Alex almost pitied Derek Craven, who was apparently neck-deep in trouble. On the other hand, Craven had brought it all on himself. Alex smothered a wry laugh as he was reminded of a quote he had once read…“These impossible women! How they do get around us!”

Too absorbed in each other to notice anything around them, Derek and Sara wound together, exchanging kisses of greedy violence, until the heat of desire was stoked to a sweltering blaze. Derek’s feet spread to contain her body more closely within his embrace. His lips forged a path down her exposed throat. “Oh…” The catch of sound came from her throat as she felt the hot swipe of his tongue on her skin. Derek bent his knees and pulled her high against him, and breathed deeply in the perfumed vale where her br**sts were pushed together.

Suddenly he lifted his head and buried his lips in the mass of her curls. “No,” he said, his voice muffled. His large body was still except for the rhythmic force of his breathing. Somehow it seemed as if he were waiting for her to convince him of something he wanted very badly to believe.

Honesty was too much a part of Sara’s nature for her to keep her feelings hidden. Although it might result in disaster, she had no choice but to lay her heart before him. “I need you,” she said, combing her fingers through his black hair.