“It’s like that, is it, m’lord?” the coachman asked cheekily, and Alex gave him a wry grin.
Murmuring quietly, Sara kissed her husband’s rumpled hair and his neck. He held her for a long time while the shaking in his limbs gradually subsided.
“Is Worthy all right?” Sara asked. “Was anyone hurt?”
“They’re all fine.”
“Derek, we’ll build another club. We’ll do it all again, I promise—”
“No.” He said it with such vehemence that she was quiet for a few minutes, continuing to stroke his hair. He lifted his head and looked at her with bloodshot eyes. “It’ll never be what it was. I’d rather remember the place as it was than build an imitation. I…I want something different now.”
“What is that?” she asked, her brow wreathed in tender concern.
“I don’t know yet.” Derek gave a short laugh and hauled her close again. “Don’t ask a man questions…when he’s had the scare of his life.” Uncaring of anyone who might see them, he cupped his hands around her head and kissed her. Her mouth was bruised from his desperate, punishing ardor. Sara winced and murmured softly, trying to gentle him. She wasn’t aware of the exact moment when he returned to himself, but suddenly his skin was warm and his mouth was once again familiar as it moved tenderly over hers.
After a while Derek ended the kiss and laid his cheek against hers, breathing deeply. His fingers traced the moist curve of her face, the fragile juncture between ear and jaw. “When they said you were dead…” He paused while a tremor took hold of him and forced himself to go on. “I thought I was being punished for my past. I knew I wasn’t meant to have you, but I couldn’t stop myself. In my whole life you were what I wanted most. All along I’ve been afraid you’d be taken from me.”
Sara didn’t move or make a sound, but she was amazed. For him to admit he’d been afraid…She would have thought no power on earth or beyond could have elicited such a confession.
“And because of that I tried to protect myself,” he continued raspily. “I didn’t want to give you the one last part of myself that I couldn’t take back. And then you were gone…and I realized it was already yours. It had been since the very beginning. Except that I hadn’t told you. It drove me mad, the thought that you would never know.”
“But I’m not gone. I’m here, and we still have a life together.”
He kissed her cheek, his stubble scratching her tender skin. “I still couldn’t bear to lose you.” Suddenly there was a smile in his voice. “But I won’t let the thought of it keep me from loving you with everything I have…heart, and body…and whatever else I can find to throw into the offer.”
Sara laughed. “Do you actually think you could get rid of me? I’m afraid I’m a permanent part of your life, Mr. Craven…no matter how many ex-mistresses you send after me.”
He didn’t share her amusement. “Tell me what happened.”
She gave him her account of all that had transpired, while Derek grew increasingly tense. His face turned ruddy with anger, and his hands tightened into punishing fists. When she finished the description of her visit with Lord Ashby, Derek dumped her from his lap and stood up with a savage curse.
“What are you doing?” Sara asked, disgruntled, as she picked herself up off the ground.
“I’m going to strangle that gotch-gutted bastard and his bitch of a wife—”
“No, you’re not,” Sara interrupted stubbornly. “Lord Ashby gave his word that he would lock his wife away where she could do no harm to anyone. Let it be, Derek. You can’t go storming off in a temper and create more scandal-fodder just to satisfy your sense of vengeance, and besides…” She paused, seeing that her words were having little effect. With feminine shrewdness, she realized there was only one way to dissuade him. “Besides,” she continued in a softer tone, “I’ve endured all I can for one day. I need a few hours of peace. I need to rest.” It was the truth, actually. Her bones ached from weariness. “Couldn’t you forget the Ashbys for now and take me home?”
Disarmed, his anger overrun by concern, Derek put his arms around her. “Home,” he repeated, knowing she meant the mansion they hadn’t yet spent a night in. “But it isn’t finished yet.”
Sara leaned against him, nuzzling against his chest. “I’m certain we can find a bed somewhere. If not, I’ll be glad to sleep on the floor.”
Derek relented and held her tightly. “All right,” he murmured against her hair. “We’ll go home. We’ll find someplace to sleep.”
“And you’ll stay next to me?”
“Always,” he whispered, kissing her again.
The insistent cry of a hungry baby rang through the mansion, while the nursery maid held the child and tried to soothe her wailing. Aware of the rising clamor, Derek bounded up several flights of stairs to the nursery. The nursery maid started at his sudden appearance, perhaps fearing he would blame her for the baby’s fretfulness. His dark face was unreadable. “It’s all right,” he assured her, reaching for his daughter.
Cautiously the servant retreated to the side of the room, busying herself with a small pile of unfolded baby clothes. “Lydia is hungry, sir. Mrs. Craven must be late from her lecture.”
Derek cuddled his daughter against his shoulder and spoke in a mixture of baby words and cockney, a language only she seemed to understand. Gradually the infant quieted, attentive to her father’s low voice. A tiny, dimpled hand reached up to Derek’s jaw, exploring the scratchy surface. He kissed the miniature fingers and smiled into Lydia’s solemn eyes. “What a noisy little girl you are,” he murmured.
The nursery maid watched him with awe and curiosity. It was unheard of for a father of means to set foot in the nursery, much less to occupy himself with crying children. “She doesn’t do that for anyone else,” she remarked. “You do have a way with her, Mr. Craven.”
Suddenly Sara’s laughing voice came from the door. “He has a way with all women.” She entered the room and raised her face for Derek’s kiss before taking Lydia from him. Dismissing the nursery maid, she settled into a comfortable chair and unbuttoned the bodice of her gown. Her long hair partially shielded the baby at her breast. Derek lounged nearby, watching them closely.
Motherhood had brought a new radiance to Sara’s features, while her achievements in her work had given her maturity and confidence. In the past year she had finished another novel, The Scoundrel, which was promised to attain the success of Mathilda. The story, about an ambitious young man who wished to prosper through honest means but was forced by a callous society to resort to crime, had struck a nerve in the public sensibility. Frequently Sara was invited to speak at salon meetings concerning political reform and social issues. She felt that she wasn’t learned or charismatic enough to lecture to such groups of intellectuals, but they virtually insisted on her presence at their gatherings.
“How was your speech?” Derek asked, drawing a gentle finger over the dark fuzz on his daughter’s head.
“I just made a few commonsense remarks. I said that instead of hoping the poor will merely ‘accept their station’ in life, we should give them a chance to make something of themselves…or they’ll turn to dishonest means, and we’ll have more crime.”
“Did they agree?”
Sara smiled and shrugged. “They think I’m a radical.”
Derek laughed. “Politics,” he said, in a tone that conveyed whimsy and scorn at once. His gaze swept over the sight of the nursing baby and lingered on the exposed curve of Sara’s breast.
“What of the hospital?” Sara asked. “Has the construction finally begun?”
He tried to look matter-of-fact, but she could see that he was pleased. “The ground’s been broken.”
Sara’s face lit with a smile of delight.
In the last few months the remains of the club had been cleared. Derek had made no decision on what to do with the property. There was, of course, a demand for him to rebuild Craven’s, for the place was mourned by such influential figures as the duke of Wellington, Lord Alvanley, and even the king. But Derek resisted the public urgings to reestablish the gambling club and devoted himself to other projects. He was building a large, modern hospital to the north of the city, enlisting voluntary contributions and matching each donation with his own money. He was also developing a plot of land in the West End into a row of elegantly furnished town houses, to be leased to foreign travelers, unmarried men, and families who moved to London for the Season.
Sara had teased him lovingly as they looked over the architect’s drawings for the hospital building, a plain but handsome quadrangle. For years Derek had been known as the greatest scoundrel in England, and now he was universally praised for his “reformation.” “You’re becoming known as a public benefactor,” she told him in satisfaction, “whether you like it or not.”
“I don’t like it,” he replied darkly. “I’m only doing this because I’d be bored otherwise.”
Sara had laughed and kissed him, knowing he would forever deny having any altruistic feelings.
When Lydia was finished at Sara’s breast, the nursery maid returned to take her. Sara used a soft cloth to blot her front. She fastened her dress and blushed slightly at Derek’s close regard. His green eyes met hers. “She’s lovely,” he said. “She looks more like you every day.”
Of all the surprises about Derek—and it seemed there was an endless supply—the greatest was his absorption with his daughter. Sara had expected that he would be a kind but uninvolved father. He had never known the relationship between parent and child before. She had thought he might preserve a careful distance between himself and the baby. Instead he loved his daughter with open adoration. Often he would tuck her in the crook of his arm and parade her before guests as if a baby were a lovely miracle none of them had ever seen before. He thought her prodigiously clever for holding his finger, for kicking her legs, for making adorable sounds, for doing all the things that babies usually did…except that in his opinion his daughter did them far better.
“Have several more children,” Lily had advised Sara dryly, “so that his attention will be divided among them. Otherwise he’ll ruin this one.”
Sara didn’t completely understand the reason for his behavior until a recent afternoon, when she had stood with him over the cradle to watch their sleeping daughter. Derek had taken Sara’s hand in his and brought it to his lips. “You’re my heart,” he had murmured. “You’ve given me more happiness than I have a right to. But she…” He glanced down at Lydia wonderingly. “She’s my own flesh and blood.”
Moved by the words, Sara had realized how alone he had always been: no parents, sisters, or brothers, no blood ties of any kind. Her fingers tightened, and she nestled against him. “Now you have a family,” she had said softly.
Bringing her mind back to the present, Sara answered Derek’s earlier comment. “Lydia has black hair, green eyes, and your mouth and chin, and you say she looks like me?”
“She has your nose,” Derek pointed out. “And your temperament.”
Sara laughed, standing up and folding a light blanket into a neat square. “I suppose it’s my temperament when she wakes the household in the middle of the night with her screaming?”
Derek advanced on her unexpectedly and cornered her against the wall. “Well, now,” he murmured, “in the past you’ve been known to raise the roof a time or two, haven’t you?”
Their gazes locked in an electric moment. Thoroughly disconcerted, Sara blushed deeply. She didn’t dare look at the nursery maid in case she had heard. Giving Derek a reproving frown, she ducked beneath his arm and fled, hurrying to the safety of her bedroom. He followed close behind her.
They hadn’t made love since well before the baby’s birth, and to Derek’s credit, he had been patient. Extraordinarily so, considering his strong physical appetites. Although the doctor had indicated that she was fully healed from the birth and ready to resume marital relations, Sara had managed to put Derek off with gentle refusals. Lately, however, she had been the recipient of intense glances that warned she wouldn’t be sleeping alone much longer. She paused at the doorway of her bedroom.
“Derek,” she said with a pleading smile, “perhaps later—”
“I’m not certain,” she countered, beginning to close the door against him.
Stubbornly Derek shouldered his way past her and shut the door. He began to reach for her, then hesitated as he saw her stiffen. His face went taut. “What is it?” he asked. “A physical problem? Is it something I’ve done, or—”
“No,” she said swiftly. “None of those things.”
Fiercely Sara concentrated on the fabric of her sleeve. She could find no way to explain her reluctance to him. She had gone through so many changes…She was a mother now…She wasn’t certain that making love with him would be the same at all, and she didn’t want to find out. She was afraid of disappointing him, and herself, and it was easier to keep putting off the event than to face it. She shrugged lamely. “I’m afraid it won’t be the same as before.”
Derek was very quiet, absorbing the statement. His hand settled on the back of her neck in a gesture that Sara thought was meant to be consoling. Instead he gripped her nape and pulled her against him, his mouth coming down firmly on hers. She wriggled in surprise as he forced her hand down between his thighs. He was as hard as iron, throbbing at her touch.
“There.” He pressed her hand tighter. “Do you feel that? You’re my wife, and it’s been months, and I’m aching for you. I don’t care if it’s not the same as before. If you don’t come to bed with me now, I’m going to burst.”
And that, apparently, was all he intended to say on the matter. He ignored her soft protest and undressed them both. Gathering her small body against his, he groaned in love and pleasure and impatience. “Sara, I’ve missed you…holding you like this…” Reverently his hands traced over her, sensitive to the new roundness of her breasts, the fuller curve of her hips.