Winter snow is falling down
children laughing all around.
Lights are turning on like a fairytale come true.
Sitting by the fire we made
you're the answer when I prayed
I'd find someone and baby I found you.- Jim Brickman, "The Gift"
Looking back from where I stand tonight
I wouldn't change a thing about my life.
Wrong turns I had to take
back in those crazy years
could not have been mistakes if they brought me here.- Colin Ray, "All my Roads"
A soft, contented smile played around the corners of Mark’s mouth as he listened to the swish of snow against the window. Bridget lay beside him, spooned against his chest as if their bodies were two halves of a puzzle. How could it be, Mark wondered, that just hours before, he had kissed this woman for the first time, and now she had slid into his arms and into his heart as if she had always belonged there? How could it be that he, Mark Darcy—cool, practical, reserved Mark Darcy—had passionately kissed a half-naked woman in the middle of a public street? Well, he had; more to the point, he had, to borrow an eloquent expression from Bridget’s friend Sharon, stuck his fucking tongue down her fucking throat, not to mention several other places unsuitable for public displays of affection once they’d regained the privacy of the flat. He hadn’t jumped over any family heirlooms to do it, but all in good time. These things must be done delicately, after all.
Now, Mark absently stroked his thumb along Bridget’s thigh, allowing his mind to replay the events of the past few hours as she slept beside him—reentering the flat, Bridget still cradled against his chest with his coat tucked firmly around her over her ill-suited attempt to guard herself against the elements. By the time he’d finished demonstrating the myriad of things that “nice boys” were capable of, she was still trembling, though not, he was fairly certain, from cold. As he continued tracing slow, rhythmic circles on her skin with his fingertips, Bridget’s eyes fluttered open, and she turned in his arms, tilting her head up to kiss him.
“Not bad, mr Darcy,” she whispered, “for a nice boy.”
“Yes, well. . .” he hesitated. “I’ve been wanting to do that for a while, actually.”
Bridget lifted a brow. “Really? Since when?”
“Never you mind.”
“Nice try.” Without warning, Bridget rolled on top of him, catching his face between her hands and kissing him. From her smugly satisfied expression as she pulled back, the look in his eyes must have appeared slightly punch-drunk.
“I’m. . . sorry,” he managed when he found his voice. “What was the question?”
“You said you’d been wanting to do that for some time. I was only wondering since when?”
“Precisely?” She nodded. “Well. . .” Again, Mark hesitated, feeling a blush creep up his neck. “Since you turned up at Una and Geoffrey’s in that ridiculous bunny girl outfit. Incidentally,” he added, “do bunnies always shag like that, or only in the winter, for warmth?”
Bridget leaned in to kiss him again. “Only when they’re shagging another very, very attractive bunny.”
“Right. Duly noted.” Gently, he caressed her cheek with the back of his hand; then curled an arm around her to pull her head to his chest. Reveling in Bridget’s soft, warm weight against him, it surprised Mark to admit, even to himself, that he’d never before appreciated—never before experienced the exquisitely sweet, simple pleasure of just lying with another person. Now, holding Bridget in his arms, feeling their heartbeats and breathing syncing with one another’s, he knew, perhaps for the first time in his life, what it was to want to be with someone, not out of necessity or convenience, but from the pure comfort of sharing time and space with that person.
As if reading his thoughts, Bridget reached out to place a hand over his. “You know, I never really imagined you as the cuddling type.”
“Neither did I,” he admitted.
“I guess I shouldn’t be surprised though. I imagine cuddling Natasha would have been like cuddling a cactus, not that—shit.” Reddening, she briefly averted her eyes. “I didn’t mean—I shouldn’t have assumed—but--”
Laughing, Mark tilted her chin up to peck her on the lips, effectively silencing her stammers. “You’re not far from wrong, actually.”
Bridget grimaced. “Please tell me she didn’t snap her fingers at you in bed.”
“Not precisely. Sex with Natasha felt a bit like reading a legal brief, to be honest. I think we both just wanted to get it over as quickly as possible without falling asleep.”
“Mark?” Bridget lifted her head suddenly and looked up at him. “You didn’t—you weren’t really thinking of—of marrying her?”
“Well, I'm here, Natasha is in New York, and I’ve just slept with you, so I think we can safely assume the answer to that question is no.” Bridget continued to consider him, a slight crease between her brows. Cradling her hand within his, Mark smiled for a moment at their interlinked fingers; then, glancing up at her again and noticing that her expression still appeared troubled, he added, “Bridget, look. I don’t know what might have happened if you hadn’t turned up at my parents’ ruby wedding. I never expected you’d be there, let alone that you’d, well. . .”
“Make a complete arsse of myself?” she suggested.
“Not exactly, but as I was saying, I don’t know what might have happened if I’d stayed in New York. Looking at the situation now, I suppose it might have wound up being a repeat of my first marriage. I respect Natasha; I admire her work ethic; I value her expertise, but I don’t think I ever cared for her, or was really interested in her as more than a colleague.”
A glint of amusement lit Bridget's eyes. “Even though you slept with her?”
“yes, well. . .” Mark cleared his throat. “Just once. Sort of thing that could happen to anyone. I know that sounds terribly callous and emotionally detached, but Natasha wasn’t precisely looking for romance, and I—well, I wasn’t really interested in emotional attachment either—not then, anyway.”
“What changed your mind?”
“You did,” he murmured, giving her hand a squeeze. “I thought for a time that perhaps I wasn’t capable of forming an emotional connection with another person, but there’s a difference between not forming those kinds of attachments because it’s not in one’s nature and not forming them because one simply hasn’t found the right person to make that connection with.”
Bridget smiled, a faint glisten of tears in her eyes. Rolling onto her stomach, she propped her chin on her hands and regarded him; as his eyes met hers with smoldering intensity, a becoming blush tinged her cheeks.
“Um, so. . .” she murmured.
“So. . .”
“So, we’ve slept together.”
Mark's lips twitched. “Were you stating a fact, or seeking confirmation?”
“I was just, you know—shit, Mark, I can’t think when you’re looking at me like that.”
“Like what, precisely?”
“All smoldery and horny as if I’m a ripe peach or something and you’re just going to, you know--” Mark pulled her closer and began very delicately to nibble on her earlobe. “Um, that,” Bridget murmured, her eyelids fluttering. For the next few moments, both were silent; then suddenly, they both spoke at once.
“Mark, listen, I--” They each paused, blushed, averted their eyes, and laughed nervously.
“Sorry,” she said hastily. “You were saying?”
“No, you first.”
Bridget rolled her eyes. “Seriously? I’m lying on top of you, naked, in my bed, we’ve just fucked like rabbits, and still you’re reverting to your English schoolboy manners?”
Mark shrugged. “Well, you know what they say. You can take the boy out of Eton…”
“But you can’t take Eton out of the boy? Well, yes you fucking can, apparently.”
“Don’t let my father hear you saying that.”
“Um, right.” Bridget blushed again. “That was sort of what I wanted to talk to you about, actually.” She lowered her eyes and fiddled with a corner of the duvet. “I know our parents—I mean your—I mean my mum—I know they were hoping—and I mean, it’s not that I don’t want to, but I was just thinking, I don’t want you to feel, you know, obligated.”
Now it was Mark’s turn to roll his eyes. “Bridget, we’ve just had, and I’m slightly understating things here, the most spectacular sex I recall having in recent memory, so I’m not sure where obligation comes into the equation, but I’m happy to oblige. The thing is. . .” He faltered; then reached for her hand again before continuing. “What I wanted—what I’m trying to say is that, um, I owe you an apology.”
Bridget frowned. “For what, exactly? I mean, you’re probably the reason why I’ve lost all feeling below the waist, but I’m sure that’s only a temporary side-effect.”
“No, it’s not—look, this wasn’t how I meant for things to happen.”
Her frown deepening, Bridget sat up and rolled away from him. “Look, Mark, I know spontaneous passion was probably beaten out of you at Eton with an iron rod, but it’s generally considered good manners to mention if you don’t want to sleep with someone before they’re naked. Just, you know, for future reference.”
“God, no, Bridget, it’s not that at all,” Mark said gently, stretching out an arm to pull her back down beside him and kissing her forehead. “I only meant that I was planning—hoping—to do things right. When I came round earlier, I had every intention of asking you for a proper date, but hen I, um. . .”
“got a bit distracted?”
“to put it delicately.”
Bridget giggled. “Sort of thing that could happen to anyone, really.” She lifted a hand and rested her palm against his cheek, her eyes shining; then leaned in to brush her lips against his. “That’s really sweet, by the way,” she whispered.
“Never say I wasn’t raised right.”
“No,” Bridget agreed. “I’m glad your mother taught you to offer to buy a lady dinner before taking her knickers off. Remind me to thank her.”
Mark winced. “I’d prefer it if you keep my chivalrous sexual etiquette between us, frankly.”
“Very proper of you.” Bridget gave him another peck on the lips and snuggled beneath his arm. “You know,” she said, “we can still have dinner.” Then glancing at the clock, she added, “11.00 might be a bit late, though. I suppose I could cobble something together, but you’ve already had some experience with my culinary skill.”
“Or lack thereof,” Mark quipped, earning a poke in the ribs for his moment of levity.
“The thing is, I’m not sure I have anything remotely edible in the fridge, and I’m guessing you’re not craving blue soup and orange pudding.”
Grinning, Mark stroked her cheek with the edge of his thumb. “Some experiences are unique precisely because they’re meant to be gone through only once.”
“I could really do with some food, though.”
“Hmm, let’s think.” Mark rested his chin on the top of her head as he considered. “Have you got eggs?”
She gave him another poke in the ribs. “You’re new around here, aren’t you?”
“Right. Sorry. Stupid question.” With a twinge of reluctance, he allowed her to wiggle out of his embrace, his eyes never leaving her as she crossed the room and began to rummage through a tangle of laundry for a robe.
“What on earth are you doing that for?” he asked, propping himself on one elbow to gain a better view.
Bridget cast a teasing wink at him over her shoulder. “Well, you know, Marco Pierre White says the secret to good cooking is all in the concentration of flavors. I’m just trying to ensure that you’re able to, you know, concentrate.”
Omelets and chilled chardonnay wasn’t precisely dinner at the Ivy, but conversation flowed easily, and Bridget had located and lit a few candles. As far as Mark was concerned, however, the key ingredient was the company. Once they’d finished their impromptu meal and washed up, Bridget suggested dessert, at which point Mark wordlessly scooped her up and carried her back to the bedroom.
“You’re a very, very surprising man, Mark Darcy,” she whispered, tracing a finger along his jaw as he nudged her thighs apart. He considered responding, but as she gazed up at him, her blue eyes dancing with a mischievous light, he decided his tongue could be put to much better use.