She propped herself up on her elbows, while a small pucker of worry insinuated itself between her brows. “But how will we manage? You’ve always lived at the club in order to keep a close eye on everything.” Her voice lowered in suspicion. “Are you planning to install me in one of your mansions and forget about me?”
Derek laughed and flipped her to her back, his broad shoulders looming over her. “Much good you’ll be to me that way,” he said dryly. “I married you to keep you in arm’s reach.” He drew his hand down her body in a leisurely caress. “Closer if possible.”
Sara pushed at his chest in a show of pretended annoyance. “Why do you always try to make love to me when I want to talk about something?”
Derek eased her legs apart. “You always try to talk while I’m making love to you,” he countered, kissing her throat.
Sara wriggled out from beneath him and crawled to the opposite side of the bed. “I want this settled,” she insisted, pulling the sheet around herself protectively. “I don’t want you to move away from the club on my account.”
“It’s not just for you. I might like to try living in a place where I’m not surrounded by wenches, drunken swells, and thieves all the time. Maybe I’d like to sleep at night without keeping one ear out for a police raid.”
“What about your business?”
“I’ll still have my thumb on it. Worthy will watch over the place when I’m not here.” He began to tug the sheet away from her. “Give me this.”
“Where are you planning for us to live?” Sara asked warily.
Derek gave a casual shrug. “I thought we’d start by touring the places we already own. If none of them please you, we’ll buy something. Or we’ll have it built.” In a sudden move he snagged her ankle in his hand and began to pull her toward him. “Come here…You have wifely duties to attend to.”
She grabbed the edge of the mattress to stop the inexorable slide. “I’m not finished talking!”
“I am. Let go of that.” He yanked gently at her leg.
Sara rolled to her stomach, gasping with laughter as she felt him crawl over her. His considerable weight lowered enough to keep her pinned flat. The startling male length of him, roughness, heat, and sinew, pressed from her shoulders to her feet. She giggled suddenly. “You can’t do anything this way,” she gloated. “And I’m not going to turn over.”
Derek smiled at her innocence. Pushing her long hair aside, he kissed the downy nape of her neck. “I don’t want you to turn over,” he whispered. He hoisted himself up enough to settle his hands on her shoulders, manipulating the soft muscles. His touch was deft and easy.
Sara sighed in pleasure. “That’s nice. Oh…don’t stop that.”
The soothing pressure traveled over her back, his thumbs finding vulnerable points on either side. She turned her head to the side, breathing deeply. He crouched over her again, his strong hands resting on the swell of her hips, his mouth at her ear. The tip of his tongue edged the fine curve and then ventured inside to flick in a shallow, delicate thrust. For a second all sound was blocked. Sara quivered at the peculiar sensation. After his tongue withdrew from her moist ear, the heat of his breath and the low timbre of his voice seemed more acute than before. “Do you like that?” he whispered.
“I-I don’t know.”
He laughed quietly and did it again. Sara would have turned over for him then, her body filled with restless impulses. But he kept her face down and forced his hand gently beneath her hips. She gasped as he found the damp triangle between her thighs, his fingers searching expertly. When she tried to twist around, he sank his teeth into the back of her neck, holding her still. “Stay there. I like this view of you.”
“Don’t,” she murmured, thinking he was teasing her.
His voice was vibrant with lust. “Round, sweet, firm…You have the prettiest backside I’ve ever seen.”
Her protesting laugh ended in a groan as he goaded her with his hips, pushing her down against his hand. She reached forward and curled her fingers around the mattress, digging deeply. The provocative devil on top of her kept whispering, praising her with earthy accolades, nudging her in a slow rhythm. Caught between his body and his tormenting hand, she felt the tension build inside until a frustrated whimper broke from her throat. Instead of turning her to face him, he straddled her from behind. She floundered in a moment of confusion as she felt his thighs brace against hers. “This way,” he said quickly, pulling her h*ps high. “Let me…my sweet Sara…I won’t hurt you.”
He pushed inside her, a heavy, exciting surge. Shocked and aroused, she curved her spine to make it easier for him. He rode her gently, the muscled force of him surrounding her while his hands coasted over her br**sts and smooth belly. Sara dropped her head, smothering her cries against the mattress. A few strokes more, and she cl**axed in shivering ripples that emptied her of all strength. His hands tightened powerfully on her h*ps as he followed her into the depths of thoughtless rapture.
It wasn’t long before their marriage had taken on a wilful character of its own. Having never experienced family life, Derek didn’t know how to behave like a husband, at least not the ordinary kind. He seemed like a half-tamed creature to Sara, unaware of regular hours for eating or sleeping. The only structure in their life was what she imposed. Sara tried to make the changes gradual, unwilling to require too much of him at once.
One night after waiting up for him past two o’clock, she dressed in a simple gown and ventured out of their private apartments, wondering what kept him downstairs. The club was infused with particular excitement, the drone of voices punctuated with exclamations and encouragements. Standing inconspicuousy at the edge of the doorway, she watched the tightly knit crowd around the hazard table. All of them concentrated on the roll of ivory dice as if life or death depended on it. Derek’s slim, dark form was visible in their midst. He was laughing quietly at some quip that had been made to ease the tension.
“Mrs. Craven.” Sara heard Worthy’s voice beside her, and she turned with a smile. She had come to rely on the factotum almost as much as Derek. Worthy had been more overtly pleased about their marriage than anyone else, reassuring her in his quiet way that she had made the right decision. They had talked for a few minutes at the reception the Raifords had given after the wedding. Together they had watched Derek’s attempts to wheedle her elderly mother into a dance. “I’ve never seen him care about anyone the way he does you,” Worthy had told Sara. “After you left, it was like watching a man crumble inside. The only reason he went to the weekend at Raiford Park was because he was too pickled to protest when Gill and I loaded him into the carriage.”
“Oh, dear.” Sara had smiled in sympathetic amusement. “He was drinking quite a bit?”
“Blue ruin,” Worthy had confirmed. “But ever since he returned, knowing you were going to be his wife…well, he’s been a different man. You bring out the best in him. He is determined to be a good husband to you—and he never fails, once he decides to accomplish something.”
Just then Derek had managed to coax Katie into a sedate waltz, the pair of them circling the corner of the ballroom with great dignity. “You don’t have to convince me of that,” Sara had remarked, her eyes gleaming with laughter.
Since the wedding Worthy had done all that was possible to make her comfortable at the club and afford her time and privacy with Derek. The servants were irreproachable in their goodwill and efficiency. Whatever she needed was provided almost before she could ask for it. When she was in the vicinity of the club patrons, Worthy or Gill hovered protectively nearby, ensuring that she was safe from any improper advances.
As another roll of the dice caused the group at the hazard table to murmur excitedly, Sara leaned closer to the factotum. “What’s happening?” she asked.
“Lord Alvanley is at the hazard table, playing very deep. He tends to spend large amounts and run up heavy losses. Naturally he is a great favorite of Mr. Craven’s.”
“Naturally,” Sara repeated wryly. No wonder Derek was following the game closely. Derek’s presence tended to encourage spending at the tables, almost as if the players wished to impress him by throwing around their wealth.
“Is there something you require, Mrs. Craven?” Worthy asked.
She shrugged slightly, watching Derek. “I was just wondering…do you think it will be very long before the game is over?”
Worthy followed her gaze. “I’ll go and ask him. Wait right here, Mrs. Craven.”
“Perhaps you shouldn’t bother him…” Sara began, but he was already gone.
While the factotum made his way to the hazard table, some of the house wenches approached her, led by Tabitha. Although Sara and Tabitha had tacitly agreed never to mention their meeting in Greenwood Corners, the girl seemed to feel partially responsible for Sara’s good fortune. She had thanked Sara for not “turning her nose up” at all the house wenches after becoming Derek’s wife. “Ye’re a fine, gracious lady,” she had told Sara, “just like I said you was.”
This evening the three house wenches came up to Sara, all of them dressed in brightly spangled finery. Sara greeted them pleasantly.
“ ’Tis a slow night,” Tabitha commented, sticking a hip out and resting her hand on it as she eyed the assortment of soldiers, aristocrats, and diplomats. “Always is when the play’s deep. But after, they rush for the nearest wench, an’ sometimes pay double for a flier.”
“You’d better take care to ’ide yourself when the game’s done,” Violet advised Sara sagely. “Mr. Craven would blow up good, were another man to try an’ riddle you.”
“I’m just waiting for Mr. Worthy to return—” Sara began, but Tabitha interrupted with a gusty laugh.
“I’ve a notion to bull-bait yer ’usband, Mrs. Crawen, an’ show ’im why a man should keep close to ’is wife’s bed at night.”
Sara shook her head in confusion. “I don’t know what you mean, Tabitha. But I won’t participate in any attempts to trick Mr. Craven, especially not in front of his friends…no…really…”
Laughing merrily, bent on mischief, the house wenches dragged her with them to the hazard table. They took care to keep her concealed in their midst. “Mr. Crawen,” Tabitha said casually, “we brung a new girl for ye to try out. She’s been waiting to give ye a little knock.”
Eyebrows were raised and a few glances exchanged across the table, for the prostitutes usually knew better than to intrude on a game.
Derek gave Tabitha a quizzical frown. “Tell her I don’t tumble the house wenches.” He turned away dismissively.
Tabitha persisted with glee. “But she’s a nice, fresh one. Why don’t you take a look?” Giggling, the wenches brought Sara forth. She was flushing and protesting, trying to remove the spangled tuft of plumes they had tucked behind her ear.
Derek laughed suddenly, his expression lightening. He pulled Sara into the crook of his arm. “This one I’ll take,” he murmured, bending to kiss her temple.
Pausing in the middle of the game, Lord Alvanley inquired as to the identity of the newcomer. When informed that she was Craven’s new bride, Alvanley temporarily deserted his position at the hazard table. The crowd of men watched in amusement as he approached Sara. “My sincerest compliments, Mrs. Craven.” Alvanley bowed over her hand and addressed Derek languidly. “You don’t have the intelligence I suspected, Craven, if you choose to leave such a pretty creature waiting upstairs in favor of our boorish company.”
Derek grinned and bowed in acknowledgment. “At Your Lordship’s advice, I’ll oblige my wife and retire for the evening.” He eased Sara through the crowd and walked away with her.
A rumble of masculine laughter and off-color comments accompanied their exit. “There’s a mannerly fellow!”…“Oblige her once for me, Craven!”
Red as a beet, Sara apologized as they entered the hall. “I’m so sorry! I didn’t intend to take you away. Worthy said the game was important…Please, you must go back and attend it.”
A smile played on Derek’s lips. “It’s too late. If you take it upon yourself to fetch me from a high-stakes game, you’ll have to face the consequences.” Pulling her to the side of the stairs that led to their apartments, Derek bent and covered her mouth with a lusty kiss. “Poor little wife,” he murmured, cupping his hands over her bottom and urging her hard against his body. “I haven’t done well by you, if you’ve been left so unsatisfied you had to come looking for me.” He nibbled at the tender spot just beneath her ear. “I’ll just have to work harder to keep up with your appetite.”
“Derek,” she protested, her hands working aimlessly over his shoulders as he kissed her again. Her heart began to race, and she couldn’t suppress a little moan of pleasure. “I-I was just concerned that you wouldn’t have enough sleep for the night.”
He strung a necklace of kisses around her throat. “You were right about that. I won’t. And neither will you.”
“I’ll never take you away from a game again,” she said, feeling the need to apologize. “I didn’t mean to disrupt your evening—”
“I’m glad you did,” Derek murmured. He grinned as he stared into her soft blue eyes. “Any time you want me, Mrs. Craven…I’m at your service.” Sliding his arm around her hips, he nudged her up the stairs.
At first it was a shock for Sara to live so intimately with a man. She had been brought up with modesty and discretion in matters of personal habits, whereas Derek had no inhibitions at all. Although Sara admired the lithe power of Derek’s body as he walked across the room naked, she knew she would never be able to expose herself so nonchalantly. He was a physical man, easily aroused and adventurous. One night he could be protective and sweetly tender, taking hours to explore her body with gentle caresses, holding her afterward as if she were a treasured child. The next he would be lusty and insolent, introducing her to sensual arts she had never imagined possible. His range of moods was infinite. She was never precisely certain what to expect from him. His humor could be ribald or exquisitely subtle. He could be quietly understanding or mocking. She had never known anyone so self-controlled, but at odd moments she had a sense of the deep-felt emotions locked inside him. And when she found her new life overwhelming, his arms were the safest haven she had ever known.