They had long conversations in bed at night, talking until they could barely keep their eyes open. Their opinions were sometimes drastically opposed, but Derek claimed to enjoy looking at the world through her eyes, even as he teased her for being an idealist. Perhaps she had affected him more than he knew, for his bitterness seemed to be eroding slowly. At times Sara noticed a trace of boyishness about him, a wont to tease and engage her in bits of nonsense, a new free and easy laugh.
“Mr. Crawen looks ’specially fine these days,” Tabitha and the other house wenches had remarked, and Sara knew that it was true. The vital, charismatic quality that had always made Derek attractive seemed to have doubled. Women stared at him covetously wherever they went, causing Sara twinges of jealousy. She took reassurance in his devotion to her. Females might flutter and simper when he was near, but he treated them all with polite indifference. Sara alone was entrusted with his secrets, his affection, his needs, and no other woman had ever come close to holding such a position in his life.
They had a well-deserved reputation for reclusiveness, though it wasn’t intentional. In the first whirlwind month of marriage, there simply wasn’t time to attend many social events. Sara was busy every waking moment. She set aside a few hours of solitude in the mornings for her writing, and spent the rest of each day making nerve-wracking decisions about the house they were to live in. They had agreed on a place Derek already owned, a handsome town mansion of three stories, surrounded by high-walled gardens. It was a house designed for entertaining. The floor plan centered around a spacious colonnaded hall, which opened into a huge drawing room and dining room. The house was serene and airy, filled with delicate white plasterwork of garlands and ribbons, the walls painted icy shades of green, mauve, and blue.
Derek had dropped the entire project of decorating it into her lap, claiming cheerfully that he had no taste. The truth of that was indisputable. His idea of elegance was to load as much gilt and carving as possible on every spare inch of space. But Sara feared that her own taste might be no better. She enlisted the advice of Lily Raiford and a small number of young society matrons with whom she was becoming friends. Cautiously she chose furniture of simple design, upholstered with pale, richly emboidered brocades. Bed hangings and window draperies were made of light-colored damask and chintz. Sara had ordered splendid framed pier glasses for several rooms, and at Lily’s suggestion, small writing tables to hold books, prints, and newspapers for guests to glance at. Her own writing desk was made of glowing rosewood, fitted with rows of compartments and drawers.
Occasionally her labors were interrupted by an evening out with Derek. They attended a play, a musical evening hosted by the Raifords, and a reception for a visiting foreign royal. Suffering under intense scrutiny at these social functions, Sara became aware of the need for suitable clothes. She was reluctant to go to the dressmaker, knowing how expensive it would be. After years of counting pennies, the act of spending large amounts of money made her feel slightly queasy. Buying furnishings for the house was necessary. Buying purely for herself was much more difficult to justify. To her surprise, Derek insisted on accompanying her to Madam Lafleur’s shop.
Monique welcomed them extravagantly, her dark eyes smiling in her round face. “Voici, the most talked-about couple in London,” she proclaimed, meeting them personally at the front of the shop instead of sending her assistants. “How well you look, the both of you! Everyone wonders why you have gone into hiding, but I tell my clients bien sûr, of course they will keep to themselves at first! That is the privilege of the newly-married, n’est-ce pas?” She regarded Derek speculatively. “You have accompanied your wife here, Monsieur Craven. How generous it is of you to take such an interest!”
Derek gave her a charming smile. “I’m here because my wife has a little problem she won’t admit to you.”
“Oh?” Monique’s gaze instantly dropped to Sara’s stomach.
Derek grinned and winced as Sara dug her elbow into his side. Leaning toward the dressmaker, he said in a confidential tone, “The problem is she’s afraid to spend my money.”
“I see.” There was a flash of disappointment in Monique’s eyes. Clearly she had hoped for a juicy bit of gossip she could spread around London. Her good humor was restored as Derek continued.
“I don’t intend for my wife to waste the afternoon trying to talk you into making gowns with less costly fabric and no trimmings. I want her to have the best, and look as elegant—more elegant than any woman in England. Price is no object.”
The last four words sent the dressmaker’s pulse soaring. “Oh, monsieur…” Monique nearly kissed him in her excitement. “She is such a lovely woman, your wife.”
“Lovely,” Derek agreed, his warm gaze falling on Sara. Idly he picked up a stray tendril that had fallen to her shoulder, and curled it around his finger. “There’s only one requirement I have. Show enough of her, but not too much. I want certain parts kept for my private admiration.”
“I understand,” Monique said with an emphatic nod. “Men are tempted by a beautiful bosom, they lose their heads, et alors…” She shrugged prosaically.
Monique touched his arm inquisitively. “How many gowns do you have in mind, monsieur?”
Sara was annoyed that the two were conducting the transaction as if she weren’t there at all. “Four day gowns,” she interrupted, “and two for evening. Six in all. And perhaps a cambric nightgown—”
“Twenty-five,” Derek told the dressmaker. “Don’t forget gloves, slippers, unmentionables, and everything she’ll need to go with the order.” Gently he covered Sara’s mouth with his hand as she sputtered in protest. His sly green eyes met the dressmaker’s over her head, and he winked as he added, “Nightgowns aren’t necessary.”
Monique chuckled and glanced at Sara’s reddening face. “I think perhaps, madam, your husband is part French!”
After interminable weeks of consultations and fittings, Sara found herself in possession of an array of gowns more beautiful than she had ever imagined. They were made of vibrantly hued silks, velvets, and brocades, with small belted waists and flowing skirts worn over crisp petticoats. The deep scoops of necklines were finished with lavish lace borders. Underneath she wore thin, almost transparent drawers that reached only to the knees, and chemises so sheer they could be pulled through her wedding ring. From the milliner she had bought several provocative hats with tiny eye-length veils, bonnets lined with silk, and a turban to which Derek took a violent dislike.
“It covers all of your hair,” he complained, lounging on the bed and watching as she tried it on. “And it looks lumpy.”
Sara stood before the looking glass as she stuffed coils of unruly locks beneath the headdress. “The problem is that I have too much hair. The milliner said if I cut a fringe across my forehead and took several inches off the bottom, the turban would fit better.”
He shook his head decisively. “You’re not going to cut any of it.”
Sara sighed in frustration as a chestnut curl sprang from beneath the turban and fell over her shoulder. “All my new hats would sit more becomingly if my hair were short. Madam Lafleur said that I have just the right bone structure to wear it in a smart crop.”
Derek actually paled. “If you cut all your hair off, I’ll take a crop to you.” Leaping off the bed, he snatched the offending turban from her head before she had time to move.
“Now look what you’ve done,” she exclaimed while her hair tumbled around her. “And I almost had it finished. Give me the turban.” Derek shook his head and backed away, clutching the small bundle. Sara made her voice very patient. “The turban, if you please.”
“Promise me you won’t cut your hair.”
Sara couldn’t believe he was being so ridiculous. “If I did, it would grow back.” She advanced on him and made a quick grab. His arm shot up in the air, holding the turban well out of her reach.
“Promise,” he insisted.
“If you knew the price that had been paid for that turban, you wouldn’t treat it so cavalierly!”
“I’ll pay it a hundred times over, for your promise.”
An incredulous smile flitted across her lips. “Why?” she asked, combing a hand through the wild ripples of her hair. “Does my appearance mean so much to you?”
“It’s not that. It’s…” Derek dropped the turban to the floor and circled her slowly. “I like to watch you braid it…and the way you let a few curls fall on your neck after you’ve pinned it up…and when you brush it out at night I know I’m the only man who sees it loose and long over your back. It’s a part of you that only I can have.” He grinned and added, “Among other things.”
Sara watched him for a moment, touched by his admission. Although he couldn’t admit out loud that he loved her, he said it in more subtle ways…his gentleness, his constant praise of her, his generosity. “What other things?” she murmured, backing up against the bed and draping herself over it.
Needing no further invitation, Derek crawled up beside her. He unbuttoned her bodice as he answered. “Your skin…especially here. Pure and white as a moonbeam.” His fingertips moved tenderly over the firm slopes of her breasts. “And these…beautiful…I want to cover them with diamonds and kisses…”
“Kisses are sufficient,” she said hastily.
Derek raked up her skirts. Her h*ps lifted willingly as he pulled her drawers down. Softly his hand found her. “And this part of you…mine alone.” His thick lashes lowered, and his breath touched her throat in unsteady surges. He reached for the fastening of his trousers. “Sometimes,” he whispered, “I’m so deep inside you I can feel your womb…and I’m still not close enough. I want to share every breath…every beat of your heart.”
Sara quivered as she felt him move against her suddenly, entering her in a thrust that stretched her exquisitely tight. Derek cradled her head in both his hands, his mouth hot on her neck. “Sometimes,” he murmured, “I want to punish you a little.”
“Why?” She groaned at his purposeful stokes, her head falling back on the pillow. His hands pressed down on her shoulders, holding her steady as he pushed into her center.
“For making me want you until I ache with it. For the way I wake at night just to watch you sleeping.” His face was intense and passionate above her, his green eyes harsh in their brightness. “I want you more each time I’m with you. It’s a fever that never leaves me. I can’t be alone without wondering where you are, when I can have you again…” His lips possessed hers in a kiss that was both savage and tender, and she opened to him eagerly.
He had never been so demanding, his body hard and heavy as it met hers in solid blows. She rocked upward to receive him, straining to match his rapid pace, breathing in sobs of frantic need. Her blood pumped furiously, and the sensations sharpened as she sought release. Compulsively she answered his rhythm over and over, until her muscles ached and trembled. He reached down to grip her bottom tightly, pulling her against him, forcing himself even deeper inside her. Their skin was slick with the mingled sweat of their efforts. The friction between them was a slippery, powerful motion that teased their senses to an excruciating pitch. All at once violent spasms of pleasure tore through Sara, and she screamed against his shoulder. The inward ripples of her response wrapped around him tightly, and Derek let his passion burst forth in a glorious rush. In the aftermath he held her tightly, his hands smoothing over her back in repeated strokes. Words dammed up in his chest while he battled silently to drag them out. Sara seemed to understand, for she laid her head against his chest and sighed. “It’s all right,” she whispered. “Just keep holding me.”
“I’ve never seen you look so fine,” Katie exclaimed as Sara entered the cottage. She helped Sara off with her high-necked pelisse and reached out to finger one of the long banded sleeves of the new gown. “What beautiful fabric. It shimmers like a pearl!”
Smiling, Sara turned in a circle and swished the skirts of the corded silk gown. “Do you like it? I’ll have one just like it made for you.”
Katie regarded the geranium-colored silk doubtfully. “It might be a touch too elegant for Greenwood Corners.”
“No, it will be perfect for church on Sunday.” Sara grinned mischievously. “You can sit a row or two ahead of Mrs. Kingswood in all your finery, and she’ll whisper to everyone that you’ve gone to blue blazes just like your daughter!”
Katie ruffled her white hair in distraction. “If a new gown doesn’t convince everyone I’ve gone to blue blazes, the new house will for certain!”
Sara smiled at that, recalling the entire afternoon of persuasion it had taken for Derek to convince them to accept his gift of a new house. He had finally won through a mixture of charm and sheer stubbornness. “It’s your choice,” he had told Isaac and Katie pleasantly. “Either you’ll have it here or in London.” The next afternoon they had found themselves conferring with Graham Gronow, Derek’s preferred architect. Gronow had designed a lovely, classical Georgian house of comfortable size for them. Under construction on a choice plot of land close to the center of the village, the house was a subject of conversation for everyone in Greenwood Corners. Wryly Katie had told Sara that she thought Derek had deliberately made certain the house would be larger than the Kingswoods’ manor. Sara hadn’t argued, knowing full well that he wasn’t above such behavior.
“Derek plans to hire a cookmaid and gardener for you,” Sara said, following her mother into the kitchen. “I told him you might want to choose someone familiar from the village. If not, we’ll send someone from London.”
“Heavens above,” Katie exclaimed. “Tell your Mr. Craven we don’t need hired help.”
“But you do,” Sara argued. “What about the days when Papa’s joints are too stiff for him to work outside? And now that I won’t be able to do my share of the household tasks, you’ll need someone to help, and perhaps bring you a cup of tea in the afternoon. Wouldn’t you like that?”
“Sara, the whole village is already expecting us to put on airs. Mrs. Hodges says her head spins every time she thinks about us living in a new house. Forty years we’ve been here, and never thought to leave.”