“What?” Sara stared at him incredulously. “You’re trying to marry me off now?” A sputter of dazed laughter escaped her. “Why on earth would any of these men offer for me?”
“Pick a name. I’ll get him for you.”
“There’s not a man in England who doesn’t owe me one favor or another.”
“Mr. Craven, there’s no need for this…this absurdity—”
“You don’t have a choice,” he said brusquely.
“Yes, I do! I can choose not to marry anyone, and return to Greenwood Corners where I belong.” Sara backed away as he tried to give her the list. “I won’t look at any names. I don’t know any of those men. I don’t want to marry some stranger just for the sake of propriety. My reputation doesn’t mean that much to me…or to anyone else, really.”
“News of this will reach the village. You know the things they’ll say about you.”
“I don’t care what they say. I’ll know the truth, and that will sustain me.”
“Even when your precious Kingswood looks down his nose at you for being a ruined woman?”
That caused Sara to flinch, the image of Perry and his mother treating her with contemptuous pity under the guise of Christian virtue…but she nodded resolutely. “I’ll bear any burden the Lord sees fit to give me. I’m stronger than you think, Mr. Craven.”
“You don’t have to be strong. Take someone’s name. Let him be your shield. Any one of the men on this list has the means to support you and your parents in luxury.”
“I don’t care about luxury. I can still afford my principles. I won’t be bartered off to some unwilling suitor merely to save my name.”
“No one can afford principles all the time.”
She became even calmer in the face of his growing impatience. “I can. And I could never marry someone I didn’t love.”
Derek ground his teeth together. “Everyone else does!”
“I’m not like everyone else.”
Biting back an unflattering reply, Derek struggled for self-control. “Would you at least look at this?” he asked through his teeth.
She went to him and glanced at the neatly written list, discovering that Lord Tavisham’s name was at the top. “ ‘Viscount’ is spelled with an ‘s,’ ” she murmured.
An impatient scowl crossed his face. “What do you think of him? You danced together last night.”
“I rather liked him, but…are you certain he’s the most eligible bachelor in England? I find that hard to believe.”
“Tavisham’s young, titled, intelligent, kindhearted—and he has a yearly income that makes even my fingers itch. He’s the best catch I’ve ever seen.” Derek pasted a fake, unnatural smile on his face. “I think he likes books too. I heard him talking about Shakespeare once. You’d like to marry someone who reads, wouldn’t you? And he’s handsome. Tall…blue eyes…no pockmarks…”
“His hair is thin.”
Derek looked offended, his coaxing panther-grin disappearing. “He has a high forehead. It’s a sign of nobility.”
“If you’re so enthralled with him, you marry him.” Sara walked away to the window, turning her back to him.
Abandoning all attempts at diplomacy, Derek followed her with the paper clutched in his hand. “Pick one or I’ll cram this down your throat!”
She was unfazed by his fury. “Mr. Craven,” she said with great care, “you’re very kind to take such an interest in my welfare. But it’s better that I remain a spinster. I will never find a husband who wouldn’t resent my writing. No matter how well-intentioned he was in the beginning, he would be frustrated by my habit of abandoning my wifely duties in order to work on my novels—”
“He’ll learn to live with it.”
“What if he doesn’t? What if he forbids me to write ever again? Unfortunately, Mr. Craven, a wife is at the mercy of her husband’s whims in such matters. How can you suggest I should entrust my life and my happiness to a stranger who may not treat me with respect?”
“He’ll treat you like a queen,” Derek said grimly. “Or he’ll answer to me.”
Sara gave him a chiding glance. “I’m not so naive as that, Mr. Craven. You would be powerless to do anything for me, once I belonged to another man.”
Derek felt his color rising. “Anything’s better than letting you go back to that stinking hole of a village to live alone and be scorned by everyone.”
“How do you plan to stop me?” she asked gently.
“I’ll…” Derek halted, his mouth open. Physical harm, blackmail, and financial ruin, his stock-in-trade threats, weren’t options in this case. She had no gambling debts, no scandalous past, nothing he could use against her. And she wasn’t susceptible to bribery in any form. Restlessly he considered possibilities. “I’ll close down your publisher,” he finally said.
She infuriated him by smiling. “I don’t write for the sake of being published, Mr. Craven. I write because I love the act of putting words on paper. If I can’t earn money by selling novels, I’ll do odd jobs in the village, and merely write for my own pleasure.” Faced with his glowering silence, Sara felt her temporary amusement fade away. She looked into his bright green eyes, understanding the reason for his discomfort. He was determined to find another man to take care of her, but that didn’t stop him from wanting her for himself. “I appreciate your concern, but there’s no reason for you to worry. You mustn’t feel responsible for me. None of this was your fault.”
Derek turned pale, as if she’d slapped him instead of thanking him. A mist of sweat appeared on his forehead. “Last night was my fault,” he said hoarsely. “I once had an affair with Lady Ashby. Granville attacked you because she asked him to, out of a desire to spite me.”
Sara’s face turned blank. It took a good half-minute for her to form a reply. “I see,” she murmured. “Well…that confirms everything I’ve heard about Lady Ashby. And although you should have had more sense than to conduct an affair with a woman like that, the blame belongs with her—not you.” She shrugged and smiled faintly. “Besides, you stopped Lord Granville in time. I’ll always be grateful for that.”
Derek hated her for being so sweetly forgiving. He closed his eyes and rubbed his forehead. “Damn you, what do you want from me?”
“I told you last night.”
The mist on his forehead turned to fine droplets, while Derek’s pulse drove hard and fast. He’d thought nothing would ever bring him to this. What if he did manage to walk away once more? It seemed he would just come back again.
Sara’s gaze was riveted on him, while she waited for what seemed to be endless minutes. She was afraid to speak, her entire body tense with anticipation. All at once he crossed the distance between them and took her in his arms, holding her against his pounding heart. His voice was low and steady as he spoke just above her ear. “Marry me, Sara.”
“Are you sure?” she whispered. “You won’t take it back?”
It was strange, but with the words said, he felt powerfully relieved, as if some eternally divergent part of himself had just settled into place. “You said you wanted this,” he muttered, “even knowing the worst about me. Let it be on your head, then.”
Sara nuzzled into the warm side of his neck. “Yes, Mr. Craven,” she whispered. “I’ll marry you.”
Upon being informed of the engagement, Lily was overjoyed and brimming with a multitude of plans. “You must allow Alex and me to give you a wedding, Sara. Something small and elegant in the chapel at Raiford Park, or at our home in London—”
“Thank you,” Sara said hesitantly, “but I think we might be married in the village.” She looked at Derek questioningly for his reaction to the idea.
His expression was unfathomable, but he answered readily. “Whatever you want.” Now that the leap had been taken, he didn’t care about the particulars: where, how, or even when. All that mattered was that she was his now…and he would pay any price to keep her.
Lily continued excitedly, “We’ll give a reception for you, then. I have many wonderful friends to introduce you to, respectable and otherwise. In the meanwhile we’ll send you home in one of our carriages, Sara, and Derek can stay here to talk to Lord Raiford—”
“I’m afraid not,” Derek interrupted. “Sara and I are both leaving within the hour. In my carriage.”
“Together?” Lily looked startled, and then shook her head. “You can’t. Don’t you realize what people would say when they discovered that both of you were gone?”
“Nothing they haven’t said already.” He slid a proprietary arm around Sara’s shoulders.
Lily drew her slight frame up as tall as possible, adopting the brisk tone of a chaperone defending her charge. “Where are you planning to go?”
Derek smiled slowly. “None of your damn business, gypsy.” Ignoring Lily’s sputtering protests, he stared down at his fiancée and raised his brows mockingly.
As she met his glinting green eyes, Sara realized he intended to take her to London and keep her with him for the night. Her nerves jangled with alarm. “I’m not certain it’s advisable—” she began diplomatically, but he cut her off.
“Go pack your things.”
Oh, the arrogance. But it was part of why she loved him, his single-minded determination to get what he wanted. Only blind, bullying stubbornness had enabled him to climb from the gutter. Now that the prospect of marrying her was within his reach, he planned to ensure it by well and truly compromising her. After tonight there would be no turning back. Sara stared at the broad expanse of his chest, conscious of the weight of his arm across her shoulders, the gentle stroke of his thumb and forefinger against her neck. Well…reprehensible as it was, she wanted the same thing.
“Derek,” Lily said in a steely voice, “I won’t allow you to force this poor child into something she’s not prepared for—”
“She’s not a child.” His fingers tightened on the back of Sara’s neck. “Tell her what you want, Sara.”
Helplessly Sara raised her head and looked at Lily, her face turning a deep shade of crimson. “I…I’m leaving with Mr. Craven.” She didn’t have to look at Derek to know that he was smiling in satisfaction.
Lily sighed shortly. “This entire situation is indecent!”
“A lecture from Lawless Lily on indecent behavior,” Derek mocked, leaning over to kiss his long-standing friend on the forehead. “Save it for another time, gypsy. I want to leave before everyone wakes up.”
During the carriage ride to London, Derek prompted Sara to tell him about her engagement to Perry. She hedged uncomfortably, not wanting to speak ill of her former fiancé behind his back. “That’s all in the past now. I would rather not talk about Perry.”
“I want to know how it ended between you. For all I know I’m caught in the middle of a lovers’ spat—and you’ll go running back to him when the smoke clears.”
“But you can’t really think that!”
“Can’t I?” His voice was dangerously quiet.
Sara frowned at him, although she was inwardly amused. The big, potently masculine creature sitting opposite her was simmering with jealousy, clearly longing to do battle with his unseen rival. “There isn’t much to tell,” she said evenly. “The trouble began right after Perry proposed. Although we were happy at first, it didn’t take long before we discovered that we didn’t suit. Perry said I wasn’t the same woman he’d known all his life. He said I had changed—and he was right. We’d never argued before, but suddenly it seemed we couldn’t agree on anything. I made him very unhappy, I’m afraid.”
“So you gave him plenty of lip,” Derek commented, looking pleased. His good humor restored, he reached over to pat her familiarly on the thigh. “That’s fine. I like my women saucy.”
“Well, Perry doesn’t.” She pushed away his exploring hand. “He wants a woman who will allow him to dictate to her. He wanted me to stop writing, and fill the house with children, and spend the rest of my life waiting on him—and his mother—hand and foot.”
“Clodhoppers,” Derek said without rancor, exhibiting the typical cockney disdain for simple country folk. He pulled her onto his lap, ignoring her attempts to wriggle free. “Did you tell him about me?”
“Mr. Craven,” she exclaimed, protesting the clasp of his hands on her hips.
He locked his arms around her. Their faces were very close, their noses almost touching. “Did you?”
“No, of course not. I tried not to think about you at all.” Sara’s eyes half-closed as she stared at the tanned hollow at the base of his throat. Disliking the civilized confinement of a cravat, he had removed the starched cloth and unfastened the top button of his white shirt. “I did dream about you,” she confessed.
Derek smoothed his hand over her chestnut hair and brought her head closer to his. “What was I doing in your dreams?” he asked against her lips.
“Chasing me,” she admitted in a mortified whisper.
A delicious grin curved his mouth. “Did I catch you?”
Before she could reply his lips were on hers. His mouth twisted gently, his tongue hunting for an intimate taste of her. Closing her eyes, Sara made no protest as he took her wrists in his hands and twined her arms around his neck. He stretched one of his legs out to rest his foot on the seat. Caught in the lee of his powerful thighs, she had no choice but to let her body rest on the hard length of his. Leisurely he fondled and kissed her, wringing succulent delight from every nerve. As he began to slide his hand into her bodice, the thick wool fabric of her gown resisted his efforts. Foiled in his attempt to reach her breasts, he pushed a lock of her hair aside and dragged his mouth over her throat. She stiffened, unable to hold back a whimper of pleasure. The carriage swayed and jolted suddenly, forcing their bodies closer with the impact.
Derek felt himself approaching a flashpoint beyond which there was no return. With a tortured groan he pried Sara’s voluptuous body away from his and held her away, while he struggled to emerge from a scarlet fog of desire. “Angel,” he said hoarsely, nudging her toward the opposite seat. “You…you’d better go over there.”