Sara smiled. “Everyone knows it’s not in you or Papa to put on airs. And Mrs. Hodges will become accustomed to the idea of you living in another home, just as the rest of Greenwood Corners will. This cottage is too small and old, and when it rains there are more leaks in the roof than I can count. And you may as well brace yourself for another surprise, because I told Derek yesterday that I would like for you to visit us in London. He’s going to furnish you with a carriage, horses, and a driver, so you’ll be able to travel whenever you want.”
“Oh, my.” Katie sagged against the kitchen table. “Imagine poor Eppie stabled next to an elegant pair of chestnuts!”
“It’ll do her good to associate with higher-ups.”
They both laughed, and then Katie’s face changed. Her voice was suddenly filled with motherly concern. “How is it for you, Sara? I can’t help but worry at times, thinking of you living with him in…that place.”
“ ‘That place’ is a gambling club,” Sara said dryly. “And I’m perfectly comfortable there. But to ease your worry, the mansion will be finished soon, and I’ll be living in a proper home.”
They began to prepare a tea tray as they talked, the familiar ritual making the conversation easier. “What about Mr. Craven?” Katie asked. “What kind of husband is he?”
A comical expression came over Sara’s face. “A peculiar one is the best way to put it.” Carefully she measured spoonfuls of tea leaves into a chipped yellow pot. “Derek is a very complicated man. He’s not afraid of anything…except his own feelings. He isn’t able to admit that he loves me, but at times I see it on his face, and it’s as if the words are trying to burst from him.”
Katie wore a perturbed look. “Is there any likeness between the two of you, Sara? Anything at all you have in common?”
“Yes, but it’s difficult to explain.” Sara smiled thoughtfully. “We’re eccentric in our own ways, but somehow we fit together. I’m certain that an ordinary marriage wouldn’t have done for either of us. We’re often in each other’s company, but we have our separate interests. I have my books and my writing, and Derek busies himself with the club and all his intrigues—”
“Oh, it’s a constant amazement, the assortment of people who visit him at all hours. One moment I’ll see him conferring with urchins and ruffians right off the street, and the next he’s talking to the ambassador of France!”
Katie shook her head in wonder. “I’m beginning to understand what you meant by ‘complicated.’ ”
Sara hesitated and then set down the spoon and the jar of tea. “I’m going to tell you something, Mama, but it mustn’t go past these walls, or Derek will have my head. The other day I happened to find receipts and records of charity donations in a drawer of his desk. I couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw the figures written out. He has given immense sums of money to schools, orphanages, and hospitals, and that doesn’t include what he spends on his political causes!”
“Did you ask him about it?”
“Of course! I asked him why he would give all of it in secret, and deliberately let everyone think that he never cares about any cause but his own. It’s as if he wants people to have a bad impression of him. If they only knew how much good he’s done…”
Katie leaned forward in fascination. “What did he say?”
“He laughed and said that if people were told he had made a charitable contribution, no matter how great or small, they would claim he was trying to polish his own reputation. And there was a time, he said, when he gave money to orphans for just that reason—to make certain others thought well of him. He said he’s done more bootlicking in his life than any man should have to, and that now he can afford to do what he wants without giving a damn…er…without giving a thought to what others say. He said that he’s entitled to his privacy, and that as his wife I’m obliged not to tell anyone.” She raised her brows significantly. “Now what do you think of that?”
Katie was frowning. “He sounds quite odd, if you ask me.”
Sara felt a carefree laugh bubbling up from inside her. “From what I can tell, the ton considers Derek and me to be an odd pair.”
“So do the villagers,” Katie said bluntly, and Sara laughed again.
Without a doubt the ton would have disdained the Cravens had they sought to court its favor. Between them they didn’t have a thimbleful of blue blood. No families of distinction, no histories of any merit…nothing but a vulgarly large fortune built on the habits of wealthy men who liked to gamble. However, the Cravens cared so little for the ton’ s approval that it had reluctantly been given to them by default. And as Derek remarked crudely but accurately, money was a good grease for social acceptance.
But while the ton accorded them grudging admission into their elevated circles, the public gave the Cravens outright adoration. It astonished everyone, including the celebrated couple themselves. “The day has finally come when pigs fly,” the Times acerbically noted, “and a cockney and a country maid have become the center of all fashionable observation in London.”
Derek was at first puzzled and then wryly resigned to the small uproar they created whenever they appeared in public. “Next month they’ll take an interest in someone else,” he assured Sara. “We’re a temporary curiosity.”
What he didn’t expect was the fascination of the populace for a pair of commoners who lived like royalty. They were labeled “refreshing” by one source, “upstarts” by another. A caricature by George Cruikshank depicted them as flash gentry trying to ape the rarefied manners of the elite. The Cravens were a window through which ordinary people could view the lives of the upper crust and imagine themselves in such a position.
The interest was stirred even more when it became known that Sara was the reclusive author of Mathilda. There was speculation in coffeehouses and pubs across the city about whether Mrs. Craven was Mathilda in disguise. Sara heard the name being called out from a crowd observing the arrival of theatergoers as they attended a production at Drury Lane. “Look ’ere, Mathilda!” a man called out as she emerged from the carriage. “Show us yer face!” As Sara glanced toward him in bewilderment, a cheer scattered across the gathering. “Mathilda! Ye’re a lovely sight, dearie!”
“ ‘Show us your face,’ ” Derek muttered beneath his breath as he escorted Sara up the front steps. “Soon you’ll be declared public property.”
Sara began to laugh. “I think they just want to believe there is a Mathilda somewhere.”
Before going to their box seats, they drifted apart to exchange social pleasantries with the multitude of acquaintances who swarmed around them. Husbands who were assured that Derek was no longer crawling into their wives’ beds had begun to treat him with cautious pleasantness. People Sara barely knew or had never met took special care to fawn over her. Her hands were repeatedly decorated with kisses from dandies and smooth-voiced foreigners, while she was overwhelmed with praises for her hair, her gown, her charm. For the most part they were respectful…except for one insolent knave whose voice was all too familiar.
“Damn my sparklers if it ain’t Mathilda!”
Sara turned warily to confront Ivo Jenner’s cheeky grin. “Mr. Jenner,” she said, acknowledging him with a polite nod.
His sly gaze roved over her. “Fancy little warming pan, you are. Crawen’s a lucky bastard to ’ave you in his bed ewery night. ’E doesn’t deserve such a fine splice as you.”
“Mr. Craven is an exemplary husband,” she murmured, trying to edge away from him.
“Fine-feathered gentleman, your ’usband,” Jenner scoffed. “Tell ’im ’e’s nofing but an apple-polishing cockney bastard—”
“If you don’t leave right now,” Sara interrupted, “you’ll have a chance to tell him yourself.”
Jenner followed her gaze, his insolent smile broadening as he saw Derek shouldering his way toward them. By the time he reached them, Jenner had melted into the crowd.
Derek seized Sara’s arm. “What did he say to you?”
She blinked in wary surprise at his rough tone. “Nothing of any import.”
“It was nothing,” she said, wincing in pain. She twisted her arm free. “Derek…please, don’t make a scene.”
He seemed not to hear her. His gaze was riveted on Jenner’s retreating figure. “I’ll teach that weedy bastard to lay a blasted finger on what’s mine,” he growled.
Sara’s lips tightened in annoyance. He was behaving like a mongrel fighting over a bone. She knew why Jenner always angered him so easily—Jenner’s swaggering cockiness reminded Derek of his own past. “I’m not your property,” she said.
Although Sara’s voice was as gentle as always, there was a cool note in it that raised Derek’s hackles. He looked at her sharply. She had never spoken to him that way before. He didn’t like it. “The hell you’re not,” he said gruffly, daring her to argue.
She kept her gaze averted from his. “I would like to go to our seats now.”
For the rest of the evening Derek was infuriated by the reserve in her manner. She virtually ignored him, all her attention focused on the play. It was clear he had displeased her. Sara’s withdrawn manner was worse punishment than any argument could have been. He steeled himself to be just as cool to her. If she was expecting to wring an apology from him, she could wait until the devil went blind. She was his—he had a perfect right to defend her against the advances of scum like Ivo Jenner!
After they returned home and retired for the evening, they kept to their own sides of the bed. It was the first night of their marriage that they didn’t make love. Derek was miserably conscious of her soft body so close by, his own acute desire for her, and, even worse, his need for her affection. In the morning he was vastly relieved when Sara awoke in her usual good humor, the previous night apparently forgotten.
Derek lounged in the bathing tub while she perched on a nearby chair and read the daily paper to him. The Times carried detailed descriptions of Sara’s ivory gown and the five-carat blue diamond on her finger, the Cravens’ reported opinions of the play, and speculation on whether Derek was truly a “reformed rake.” “There’s not a word of truth in any of it,” Derek said. “Except the part where they said you were resplendent.”
“Thank you, kind sir.” Sara set down the paper and reached over to toy with one of the large soapy feet propped on the porcelain rim of the tub. She wriggled his big toe playfully. “What about the part that says you’re reformed?”
“I’m not. I still do everything I used to do…except now only with you.”
“And quite impressively,” she replied, her tone demure.
He liked that, she could see. His green eyes gleamed, and he drew his foot down into the bath. “The water’s still hot,” he said, making inviting swirls with his hands.
Sara smiled and shook her head. “No.”
He slid lower into the water, watching her steadily. “I need help with my bath. There’s a spot I can’t reach.”
“Come in here and I’ll show you.”
Unable to resist his roguish appeal, Sara relented. Standing up from the chair, she dropped her robe and night rail to the wet tiles and blushed under his interested gaze. Carefully she stepped into the tub. Derek reached up to help her and lowered her gently into the warm water. She shivered at the feel of him beneath her, slippery and strong, his muscled arms and legs wrapping around her. His black hair gleamed like the pelt of a wet seal.
“Where is the soap?” she asked, brushing a clot of foam away from his jaw.
“I dropped it,” he said regretfully, and drew her hand down into the cloudy water. “You’ll have to find it.”
She giggled and splashed him. Puddles of water collected on the floor of the bathing room as they played. Linking her dripping arms around his neck, she pressed a wet kiss to his lips. “I’m afraid I can’t find the soap,” she whispered, her body drifting buoyantly against his.
“Keep looking,” he encouraged throatily, and sought her mouth for another kiss.
In his private moments Derek acknowledged to himself that all Lily had ever claimed about marriage was true. The sheer convenience of it was stunning. His wife was always close at hand, her small presence gracing his home, her hand on his arm when they appeared in public, the lingering scent of her perfume haunting him sweetly when they were apart. He knew it would be impossible ever to tire of her, for she was as vital to him as the very air he breathed. And yet he felt himself to be an imposter with every husbandly kiss he placed on her forehead. It was as if he had been given a handsome suit of clothes that didn’t quite fit. He found himself studying Sara intently, waiting for the clues that he had made mistakes. He wasn’t fool enough to think he was behaving the way most husbands did—whatever that was. But she gave him precious little guidance, and he was left to walk blindly along a steep and unfamiliar path.
Frequently Derek felt a deep sense of unease, as if some invisible, monumental debt were being accumulated in his name. There was also the occasional bite of resentment when he realized she had become the source of all pleasure to him, all comfort and peace. She was the first human being he had ever needed. He had lost his freedom in a way he had never imagined possible, bound more securely by her love than by a mile’s length of iron chains.
Missing Derek’s presence in bed, Sara crept downstairs in the early hours of the morning and found him alone in the central gaming room. It was eerily quiet and cavernous without the usual crowd of patrons and employees. Derek was at Worthy’s corner desk with several decks of cards aligned carefully across the polished surface. Sensing her presence, he glanced over his shoulder with a noncommittal grunt.
“What are you doing?” Sara asked with a yawn, curling into a nearby chair.
“Worthy suspects one of my dealers is cheating. I wanted to look at the cards he was using tonight, just to be certain.” Derek’s mouth twisted with displeasure as he indicated one of the shallow stacks. “That’s a marked deck if I’ve ever seen one.”
Sara was perplexed. She had seen all the elaborate rituals at the tables, the ceremonious openings of fresh boxes of cards. “How could any of the dealers mark the cards? There’s no time or opportunity…is there?”