“And happy?” she asked hopefully.
“I don’t know how ‘happy’ feels.” He sought her mouth for a brief, hard kiss, and his voice turned to rough velvet. “But I know I want to stay inside you forever.”
As evening approached, Sara closed herself in the seclusion of the tiled and furnished bathing room. She was nonplussed at the arrival of a housemaid who insisted on making the preparations for the bath: warming towels, drawing and testing the water, setting out a tray of soaps and perfume. Although Sara had heard it was common for aristocratic ladies to require help with their baths, she felt it was unnecessary in her case.
“Thank you, that will be enough,” she said with a disconcerted smile as she stepped into the warm water. But the maid waited while she bathed, and held up a heated towel when she emerged. Another towel was employed to pat her back and arms dry. It seemed terribly decadent, allowing someone to do what she was perfectly able to do for herself, but there seemed to be no choice. Sara sniffed curiously at the proffered flacons of perfume, detecting rose, jasmine, hyacinth, and violet, but she declined to use any of them. The maid helped her into a large robe of heavy textured silk. Murmuring thanks for the assistance, Sara was finally able to dismiss the maid. She rolled up the long sleeves of the robe and wandered back to Derek’s bedroom, the hem of the garment dragging on the floor behind her.
Clad in a similar robe, Derek was standing in front of the fireplace. He poked at a blazing log with a fire iron. As he glanced at her with a half-smile, the golden-red light played over his black hair and swarthy face. “How do you feel?”
“A little hungry,” she replied, and then added self-consciously, “very hungry.”
Derek approached her, taking her shoulders in his large hands. Smiling, he brushed a kiss on the tip of her nose. “I can do something about that.” He turned her to face a table laden with trays and silver-domed platters. “Monsieur Labarge outdid himself for your sake.”
“How wonderful, but…” Color climbed high in her cheeks. “I suppose everyone must know what we’re doing.”
“Everyone,” he agreed. “I think you’ll have to marry me, Miss Fielding.”
“To save your reputation?”
Derek grinned, bending to kiss the flash of pale throat revealed by the robe. “Someone has to make a respectable man of me.” He led her to the table and seated her. “We’ll have to serve ourselves. I dismissed the stewards.”
“Oh, good,” Sara said in relief. Draping an embroidered napkin on her lap, she reached for a platter of tiny molded pates and puddings. “I think it would be tiresome, having servants hover around all the time.”
Derek ladled out a broth flavored with vegetables, wine, and truffles. “You’ll get used to it.”
“What if I don’t?”
“Then we’ll let some of them go.”
Sara frowned, knowing how difficult it was to find employment in London. Many of the prostitutes she had talked to had once been maids dismissed by aristocratic employers. Cast out in the streets, they had no choice but to sell themselves. “I couldn’t dismiss anyone just because I’m not accustomed to being waited on,” she protested.
Derek was amused by her dilemma. “Then it seems we’ll have to keep the servants.” He gave her an encouraging smile, handing her a glass of wine. “You’ll have more time for your writing this way.”
“That’s true,” she said, brightening at the thought.
They consumed the supper at a leisurely pace, while the level of wine in the bottle dipped lower and the fire on the grate burned to hot red coals. Sara had never eaten such a delicious meal in her life: succulent lobster and quail meat baked in pastry, and chicken br**sts rolled in crumbly batter, fried in butter, and covered with a rich Madeira sauce. Derek kept urging her to try different morsels: a bite of potato soufflé dabbed with soured cream, a spoonful of liqueur-flavored jelly that dissolved on her tongue, a taste of salmon smothered in herbs. Finally replete, Sara collapsed in her chair and watched him as he left to stoke the fire. “Do you eat like this all the time?” she asked contentedly, dabbing her spoon in a delicate almond-flavored custard. “I don’t understand why you’re not fat. You should have a belly the size of the king’s.”
Derek laughed and returned to the table, pulling Sara into his lap as he sat down. “Thank God I don’t…or I wouldn’t be able to hold you like this.”
She curled against his hard chest and sipped from the wineglass he held to her lips. “How did you acquire such a talented chef?”
“I’d heard of Labarge’s reputation, and I wanted the best for my club. So I went to France to hire him.”
“Was it difficult to convince him to leave with you?”
Derek smiled reminiscently. “Almost impossible. The Labarges had worked for the family of a French count for generations. Labarge didn’t want to break tradition, not when his father and grandfather had been employed by the same family. But everyone has a price. I finally offered to pay him two thousand pounds a year. I also agreed to hire most of his kitchen staff.”
“Two thousand?” she repeated in amazement. “I’ve never heard of a chef being paid so much.”
“Don’t you think he’s worth it?”
“Well, I enjoy his dishes very much,” Sara said earnestly. “But I’m from the country. I wouldn’t know good French food from bad.”
Derek laughed at her artlessness. “What do people eat in the country?”
“Root vegetables, stews, mutton…I make a very good pepper pot.”
Slowly he stroked the rumbled cascade of her hair. “You’ll have to make it for me someday.”
“I don’t think Monsieur Labarge would allow it. He’s very possessive of his kitchen.”
Derek continued to play with her hair. “We’ll go to a cottage I have in Shropshire.” A smile crossed his face. “You’ll put on an apron and cook for me. I’ve never had a woman do that before.”
“That would be nice,” she said dreamily, lowering her head to his shoulder. But the mention of the cottage had awakened her interest. After a moment she looked up at him with a question in her eyes.
“What is it?” he asked.
She seemed to choose her words carefully. “Mr. Worthy once told me that you own a great deal of property. And everyone says you’ve made a fortune from the club. I’ve heard people claim that you’re one of the wealthiest men in England. I’ve just been wondering…” She hesitated, recalling Perry’s admonition that it wasn’t a woman’s place to ask about finances. “Oh, never mind.”
“What is it you want to know? How much I own?” Derek read the answer in her abashed expression, and he smiled wryly. “There isn’t a simple answer to that. As well as my personal holdings, there are estates, mansions, and tracts of land deeded to Craven’s in payment of gambling debts. Also a yacht, jewelry, artwork…even some Thoroughbreds. Those things aren’t strictly mine, since they belong to the club…”
“But the club belongs to you,” she finished.
Sara couldn’t resist probing further. “What do you count among your personal holdings?”
Derek had the grace to look slightly embarrassed. “Four estates…a terrace in London…a chateau in the Loire Valley—”
“A chateau? I thought you didn’t like France!”
“It came with excellent vineyards,” he said defensively, and resumed his list. “A castle at Bath—”
“A castle?” she repeated in bemusement.
He made a gesture as if it were nothing. “It’s in ruins. But there are wooded hills with deer, and streams full of fish—”
“I’m sure it’s very picturesque,” Sara said in a strangled voice. “You needn’t go on.”
His eyes narrowed on her. “Why do you look like that?”
Sara nearly choked on a mixture of laughter and dismay. “I’ve just begun to realize how wealthy you are. It’s rather frightening.”
“You’ll get used to it.”
She shook her head. “I don’t think so.”
There was a teasing lightness to his tone, but his eyes glinted oddly as he replied. “You’ve been compromised, sweet. It’s too late to change your mind.”
Sara shook her head and stood up from his lap. “I can live with being compromised. Where are my clothes?” She was only jesting, not reading the sudden tension in his face.
“You said you would stay with me no matter what.”
“At the time,” she said, wandering to the fireplace, “I didn’t know that a chateau and a castle would be part of the arrangement.” She shook her head in bemusement. “It’s almost too much to take in. I think I’d better go back to Greenwood Corners.” She didn’t know that he had followed her until he spun her to face him. His hand grasped her upper arms with bruising force. Sara was alarmed as she looked up at his harsh face.
“What?” she gasped. “What in the world—”
“I won’t let you leave me.” His voice was even, but his large body was rigid, his hands hurtful.
She blinked in astonishment. “I don’t want to leave you. You must know that I was teasing you!” As his eyes bored into hers, she realized that she had discovered a vulnerable spot, like a thin patch on the surface of a frozen river. In a few careless words she had broken through to the dark depths he concealed so well. He was deadly quiet, still staring at her, while she tried to soothe him. “I won’t make a joke of it again. I was just surprised. You…you mustn’t hold my arms so tightly.”
His fingers loosened, and he began to breathe again, in rough surges. All the comfortable ease of the evening was gone. Abruptly they had become strangers. “Nothing would make me leave you,” Sara murmured. “You don’t trust me yet, do you?”
“I’ve known too many deceitful women.” Derek was bitterly surprised by his own actions. He’d just demonstrated beyond a doubt why they didn’t belong together. Trust was only one of many things he couldn’t give her.
“All I ask is that you try.” Sara leaned toward him, against the slight pressure he exerted to hold her back. She pressed her ear to his wildly beating heart. Faith, constancy, trust…He’d known little of such things. He would need time to learn them. “You’re far too worldly,” she whispered. “You don’t want to believe in anything you can’t see or touch. It’s not your fault. I know why you’ve had to be that way. But you must try to have faith in me.”
“I don’t know if I can change.”
“You’ve already changed.” She smiled as she thought of the way he’d been when they first met.
Derek was silent for a long moment. “You’re right,” he said with a touch of surprise.
She kissed his silk-covered chest and sighed. “Perhaps it’s odd, but I’m not afraid of being poor. It’s what I’ve always been used to. I am a little afraid of being rich, though. I can’t imagine myself living in a mansion.”
He wrapped his arms around her. “I used to walk through the rookery, and instead of seeing thieves’ kitchens and beggars, I would imagine gold palaces and servants. Rooms full of candles, tables piled with food.”
“And you made it all come true.”
“I had some luck.”
“It wasn’t luck.” She held him more tightly. “It was you. You’re a remarkable man.”
He touched her as if he couldn’t stop himself. “I want you,” he muttered, although the fact was becoming obvious, with her body flattened against his. His palms skimmed the deep curves of her hips, waist, breasts. Roughly he tugged at the silk robe until it parted in the front. Firelight danced over her exposed skin, gilding the porcelain whiteness.
Sara made a hesitant move toward the bed, but he pulled her back to stand before him. He removed her robe, dropping it to the floor. His long fingers wrapped around her breasts, thumbs passing over her ni**les in light circles. There was a new, wicked certainty in his touch, for he had already learned what aroused her. Pushing her down to the floor, he nudged her back into the silken pool of their robes. Sara stretched out at his bidding, and he lowered himself over her, blocking the fire glow from the grate. She shivered at the erotic slide of his tongue as he licked the shadowed undercurve of her breast. His mouth wandered over her in open, wet kisses that sent ripples of sensation across her skin. In some places she felt his teeth close on her, eliciting a twitch of startled reaction.
Derek made a prison of his own body, his muscled legs tangling with hers, his weight caging her against the carpeted floor. She couldn’t hold back a quiet moan as he pressed himself intimately against her, stiffness and burning silken skin…he made a tantalizing motion, a rhythm that promised relief from the sweet torment. Sara lifted herself to him, eager for his possession. But he held back, his green eyes blazing with deviltry.
“Please,” she whispered.
He moved downward to kiss her navel, his tongue intruding in the tiny hollow. A few delicate swirls, and he blew softly against the damp circle. He fitted his hands around the deep curve of her waist, then shaped the roundness of her h*ps in his palms, kneading gently. The feathery brush of curls against his chin was a powerful enticement. He worked his mouth down in the inviting triangle, ignoring her sudden jolt of unwillingness. Hungrily he breathed in the scent of her, his nerves stimulated by the earthy sweetness.
Spurred into action, Sara struggled frantically to escape him. He wrapped his arms up around her thighs, mastering her, and his head dipped low into the space he had made for himself. He swept through the lush curls with short, wheedling touches of his tongue. Sara groaned a denial as he reached deeper into the soft cleft, searching for the intoxicating taste of her body.
His fingers wove gently through the patch of curls, separating them. He found the delicate center of sensation and stroked with his tongue, teasing, insinuating deep in the softness. Steeped in pleasure and shame, Sara lay motionless.
The taste of her was maddeningly erotic. He covered the enticing female flesh with his mouth and tugged firmly. At the same time he slid his fingers inside the moist passage, stroking in counterpoint to the steady rhythm of his mouth. Sara cried out suddenly, pulled into a whirling upheaval, her senses overflowing.