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A convenient fortune

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Clarke knows exactly why Mr Blake is here.

 

He needs money. That must be it. That’s the only reason anyone would ever court her.

 

Not that he is explicitly courting her, of course. It’s not as if he has strode into the drawing room with the words written across his forehead. But she presumes this is supposed to be that sort of call. He brought flowers, and complimented her mother, and now he’s taking tea and eating a very small sandwich. Clarke is a solver of problems by nature, and she thinks the pieces of this puzzle all fall together quite naturally.

 

That’s why she sighs loudly and reaches for another almond biscuit.

 

“Clarke, dear? Anything you would like to share?” Her mother prompts her, none too gently.

 

Clarke frowns. Yes - perhaps a sigh was not the best idea. She already knows she is quite unmarriageable, of course - that has been made very clear to her over the years. But all the same, there is no need to make it worse by sighing when eligible gentlemen come to call.

 

“No, Mama. I was only thinking it’s a shame that I have not had the chance to drive around Hyde Park this week.”

 

No. Right. That’s even worse, isn’t it? She should not mention her love of carriage driving the first time a gentleman comes to call. What better way to put him off?

 

On the other hand, she suspects he already knows of her strange activities. Why else would he be here? Didn’t he come here this morning because he knows she is rich but so unladylike as to be seriously lacking in suitors - and therefore absolutely desperate, lame prey, easy pickings?

 

But then the unbelievable happens.

 

“You like to drive, Miss Griffin? So do I.” Mr Blake offers - the first time he has looked genuinely cheerful since he walked into the room, she thinks. This conversation certainly seems to catch his interest far more intently than that ham sandwich.

 

She pauses, frowning at him. He really means it, doesn’t he? He’s not trying to make fun of her. She ought to engage him in conversation about his favourite curricle or his finest team of horses, perhaps.

 

Her mother beats her to it.

 

“You like to take the reins, Mr Blake? Perhaps you might take Clarke out for a drive one day.”

 

That has him frowning intently and protesting at once. “No - no, I certainly couldn’t do that. I would hate to deprive Miss Griffin of the chance to drive for herself if she enjoys it so much. I’m sure she would be quite bored as a passenger. Perhaps I might challenge you to a race instead?” He asks this last directly to Clarke.

 

“I’d like that.” She allows.

 

She knows exactly why this man is here. She knows he must just be desperate for money. But no gentleman has ever challenged her to a race before now, and she’s not about to turn him down.

 

…….

 

They drive out together the next day, take their teams through their paces along the avenues of Hyde Park.

 

It’s not enjoyable. Not quite. Clarke would love to be able to relax and think of nothing more than the wind in her hair and the reins in her hands. But she’s too caught up in the strangeness of the situation, in the idea that this man wants her fortune badly enough to take her out racing through a perfectly respectable park. He must be truly desperate - and must think that she is absolutely desperate to marry, too.

 

She and Mr Blake do not converse while they are out driving. It’s difficult to make time for small talk whilst careering around a corner at top speed. There are just occasional snatches of speech between them - challenges and taunts, more than anything else.

 

So - yes. It is almost enjoyable. If he were not a fortune hunter, and if she were not on the shelf, and if the whole of Town were not watching, Clarke thinks she might even have had a pleasant morning.

 

…….

 

Three days later, the situation grows even stranger. Clarke’s life becomes still more remarkable, because Mr Blake actually comes back. Even after that odd morning racing around Hyde Park, he is still interested enough to call on her again.

 

He really must be most desperate for funds.

 

“Sit up straight.” Her mother hisses, as Mr Blake is shown into the room.

 

Clarke slouches deeper into her chair. She might as well, she supposes. Her suitor needs money whether she sits up straight or not, presumably.

 

But then she brightens and stands eagerly for her curtsey when she sees that Mr Blake is carrying flowers. Only these are not overly fancy hothouse flowers like he brought the other day. This is a more informal selection of blooms like the ones that might be found in any well-kept garden - and that is rather more to her tastes.

 

“Mrs Griffin. Miss Griffin. A pleasure.” He says, bowing low.

 

“Mr Blake.” Clarke speaks up for herself, rather than letting her mother get the first word. “We weren’t expecting you.”

 

“You weren’t?” He asks, his brows lifted as if to tease or jest. “I brought you flowers on Monday, and went driving in the park with you on Tuesday, and now you are shocked to find me paying a call again?”

 

Clarke isn’t laughing, because that is more or less the truth. She truly is surprised that he bothered coming back after that display she must have made on Tuesday, driving and shouting like a sailor. Even the most ardent fortune hunters usually give up when they have seen just how strong-willed and ill-mannered she really is.

 

Mr Blake seems to realise something is amiss as he keeps speaking. “I am sorry - where are my manners? Here - flowers for you, Miss Griffin. I hope you don’t mind the more informal arrangement. I suppose I thought that perhaps a woman who likes driving a curricle might have a fondness for the English outdoors, and so some less ostentatious flowers might be more to your taste.”

 

She nods eagerly. “I’m very fond of nature. These flowers are beautiful.” She concedes, accepting the bouquet with an outstretched hand.

 

“And yet you look lovelier this morning by far.” He says smoothly.

 

That ruins everything, of course. She was just starting to warm to him, but he had to go and pay her that outlandish compliment. She knows full well that she doesn’t look particularly lovely - that has been made clear to her, time and time and time again.

 

She stands there, holding some flowers she no longer wants, avoiding the gaze of a man she never invited to call in the first place.

 

And then, of course, her mother leaps in to cover the silence.

 

“Clarke, why don’t you show Mr Blake some of your paintings? She has a real talent for watercolour landscapes, sir. You are quite right - she has a fondness for the great outdoors.”

 

Clarke feels like a horse being traded at market. 

 

Fine teeth on that one, good legs on the other. And oh, what about her - she can paint watercolours!

 

She pushes that thought aside and dutifully leads Mr Blake to the small table where her work is laid out, ostensibly as if she had just been called away from it to attend to her visitor. Or at least - the charade might be convincing if the paint were not already dried.

 

“Here is a selection of my work.” She intones, waving a bored hand at the table.

 

“Could we sit and look at it a while?” He asks, apparently eager. He’s a good actor - she has to concede that much.

 

“Certainly!” Clarke’s mother pipes up from across the room. “Do sit and take your time. I shall be over here giving you some privacy.”

 

Clarke sighs. This gentleman has been calling less than a week and already her mother is determined to afford them some private conversation, as if a proposal might fall from his lips at any second.

 

All the same, she sits, and Mr Blake helps with her chair, and she tries not to slap his hand away. She is perfectly capable of managing her own furniture, thank you very much. He takes a seat likewise, and so it is that they are both sitting at her small table and looking at her indifferent landscapes.

 

She doesn’t think landscapes are her best thing, in all honesty. She prefers portraits, finds human faces endlessly fascinating. But most of all she enjoys drawing details from nature - trees or leaves or even flowers like the ones she still clutches in her hand.

 

But fashionable ladies paint watercolour landscapes, so she must do her best.

 

“So tell me, Miss Griffin - do you take your inspiration from the places you pass whilst out driving?”

 

“Sometimes.”

 

“And do you prefer to paint a scene with fine weather, or are you an artist who is fascinated by a good storm?”

 

“I have no preference.”

 

“And do you like callers who persist in asking you questions so that you may make a brief, bored reply - or would you prefer to sit in silence?”

 

That surprises a sudden laugh out of her. “Sorry - I will strive to be a better conversationalist.”

 

He grins at her slightly. “No need to apologise. I was simply surprised - you were quite vocal when we were out racing. It is strange to see you so quiet.”

 

“I must tell you how sorry I am for my rudeness when we went driving. I ought to -”

 

“Please - never be sorry for that. I enjoyed taking a drive with a spirited young lady. It was quite refreshing.”

 

Refreshing. Oh God - refreshing. That’s bad, isn’t it? Refreshing is what people say when she does something totally outrageous, when she expresses an unfashionable opinion or dares to laugh too loud.

 

Refreshing.

 

He’ll never marry her now.

 

Not that she necessarily wanted him to. It’s just that she’s clearly never going to marry for love, but she cannot live with her parents forever. She does need to produce an heir for her future security, after all. And she was starting to think that a man who doesn’t seem to hate the idea of her driving a carriage might be a sound prospect. Yes, he’s obviously a fortune-hunter. But as long as he doesn’t gamble or drink to excess she suspects that he might be her best option.

 

In fact, as she chases closer to thirty, he might even be her only choice.

 

She clears her throat, tries a little harder. “When I am not out causing a scene in Hyde Park, I do like to paint landscapes. This one here is a view of Mount Weather, as seen from the woods beyond. This is -”

 

“A perfectly lovely painting, and I have no doubt that you can describe its setting faultlessly. But I did not come here for a lesson in geography.”

 

She bristles. It is hardly her fault that the most interesting conversation a fashionable young lady may have is one about the picturesque.

 

That’s why she says it. That’s why she dives straight in.

 

“No - you came here for my money.” She accuses him outright.

 

He doesn’t deny it. He simply grins and cocks a brow. “I prefer to think that I came here for your company.”

 

“Yes, of course. You came here to play at enjoying my company so you could get your hands on my money.” She amends.

 

He shrugs. “I’m not playing.”

 

“Why are you in need of funds, anyway? Are you a gambler? Have you spent too much on keeping mistresses? Are you a third son with nothing to inherit?”

 

“I’m not a third son. I am a stepson. I recently found out that my ailing stepfather plans to leave everything to my sister. I don’t hold it against him - I’m very fond of her, and I want her to live a comfortable life. But it leaves me, in my thirties, suddenly realising that I will soon be without a roof over my head.” He admits openly.

 

She frowns. “If you are so close with your sister, won’t she let you stay?”

 

“Yes. I’m sure she would. But I don’t want to live off her charity all my life.”

 

“You’d rather live off my dowry?”

 

“Not just your dowry. I understand you stand to inherit your father’s estate so long as you marry and produce an heir.”

 

She snorts out a hollow, unladylike laugh. “You have certainly done your research.”

 

“Yes. I believe I have.” He agrees mildly. “Now shall we stop talking about money and talk about something else - that fine team of greys you were driving on Tuesday, perhaps? I should like us to discuss our interests and find out whether we might suit.”

 

“Let me save you the trouble.” She bites out, sharp. “We shall not suit. I suit no one. I do not suit marriage at all. My genuine interests are driving too fast, taking charitable baskets to the sick in the slums of Town, and painting botanical studies of leaves. Oh - and I am an indifferent dancer. I think waltzes are too excessive - almost cloying. And let me tell you the worst part.” She lowers her voice to a sarcastic whisper. “I am a bluestocking.”

 

He rises to her challenge. “I am untitled, but my stepfather is a Viscount. My father was a soldier - a nobody. I like to spend my time reading books and shooting game and being outdoors - there is a freedom to it, I find. I believe a bluestocking wife who would indulge my fondness for books would suit me very well. But on one point we shall have to disagree - waltzing can be delicious.”

 

She gulps. Delicious. When he says it like that, she almost thinks that marriage might not be such a terrible idea after all.

 

She swallows, tries to gather herself. She is a sensible and outspoken young lady and will not be thrown off course by a foolish man.

 

“So you will not leave?” She asks outright. “I rather expected you to walk out the door the moment I told you all that.”

 

“Why should I? I knew many of those things before I started coming to call. None of them put me off - and I do still need your fortune. I shall court you a little longer, if I may.”

 

“So we are courting, then?” She asks. This has been the strangest, most unromantic conversation - and yet she feels truly heard in a way she has never felt before, she thinks.

 

“I should like to court you, if you are willing. We don’t have to formalise it with your parents if that would make your life uncomfortable.”

 

“It would. My mother would start designing my wedding gown.”

 

“Very well. Then an informal courtship? I will keep coming to call and inviting you out driving?” He suggests.

 

She swallows hard. She nods, slow, considering. It’s a good idea, isn’t it? She does need to marry eventually, she supposes, even if she doesn’t much like the sound of the idea. And a gentleman who wants to court her even though he knows what she’s really like is a good start.

 

Saying yes is the sensible, pragmatic thing to do. Neither of them is in danger of falling in love, for sure. But Mr Blake is right - their interests and requirements are quite compatible.

 

He needs money. She needs a husband who can put up with her. It makes sense.

 

“Very well. You are welcome to keep calling. It is as you say - we could solve each other’s problems, perhaps.”

 

“Spoken like a true romantic.” He teases.

 

She laughs at that. It’s not a loud laugh, or a long one, but it is bright and genuine.

 

Then she realises her mistake. Then she looks up and sees her mother staring at her, hard, with a gleeful look in her eyes.

 

Hmm. Whether this courtship is official or informal, it seems like her wedding gown is being planned regardless.

 

…….

 

Mr Blake calls again a few days later. He arrives holding not flowers, this time, but a book.

 

“You may recall I like to read.” He reminds Clarke, when she shoots him a quizzical look. “As you are also a self-confessed bluestocking, I thought maybe we could spend our visit today reading. Do you have a book half-read at the minute?”

 

“Yes. Yes - certainly. A volume on medicine, as it happens.”

 

“Not my preference. I like history.” He announces, showing her the title of his book.

 

The decline and fall of the Roman Empire. How cheerful, she thinks cynically, feeling herself smile.

 

“Miss Griffin? Are you laughing at me?” He asks, evidently reading her face.

 

“Not at all. I just think that it does not sound like a happy book. Have a seat - I will fetch my own book and be right back.”

 

It’s quite the loveliest call of Clarke’s life, in the end. They spend fully three hours sitting on couches near to each other, occasionally sipping tea, and reading their books in utter silence.

 

Sometimes she notices that her mother looks thoroughly bemused, chaperoning their quiet visit.

 

Clarke doesn’t greatly care, though. She is having a fine time regardless of her mother’s discomposure. In fact, she thinks married life might not be so bad, if she was largely left in peace to pursue her own interests like this. Is that the message Mr Blake is trying to send? Is he trying to show her that she would be free to do as she liked, if she were to become his wife?

 

She can think of worse fates, to be honest.

 

The afternoon is lengthening by the time he takes his leave. He asks after her book, then bows, then walks towards the door.

 

Only then he stops. He pauses on the threshold, turns to look at her one last time.

 

“Can we go out driving tomorrow?” He asks, his book clasped before him.

 

She frowns slightly. “I had plans for tomorrow - I am expected at an orphanage I support.”

 

He nods eagerly. “Could I come with you? Will you be driving yourself there? Perhaps I could join you?”

 

She frowns harder. “You truly want to make the visit with me?”

 

“Yes. I do hope you remember that conversation we had last week.” He says pointedly, his eyes flickering almost nervously towards where her mother stands, listening in.

 

Clarke nods slowly. She does remember that conversation, yes. She is aware that Mr Blake hopes to get to know her better, that he wishes for them to marry. But all the same, she is surprised at the idea of him joining her for one of her charitable visits.

 

But she cannot see a reason to say no. And anyway, she’s wondering what her mother makes of all this. Best to simply get on with it.

 

“Very well. I will see you tomorrow at nine.”

 

“I’ll be here.”

 

With that he turns and leaves at last.

 

…….

 

Their joint visit goes very well, in the end. Mr Blake takes an unfeigned interest in the lives of the people they meet - or at least, Clarke thinks it is unfeigned. She doesn’t believe he can possibly be such a talented actor as to fool her on this front. He really does seem to care about the children this orphanage supports.

 

She even overhears him, at one point, promising to the matron that he will send some items of clothing they are in need of. And she’s quite certain he doesn’t say it only to impress her and promote their strange courtship. He cannot possibly know she is loitering just around the corner, eavesdropping shamelessly as she returns from visiting the girls’ dormitory without him.

 

Well, then. Maybe he is actually a good man.

 

That’s why she relaxes somewhat on the drive home and dares to hold a more personal conversation with him. That’s why she makes no attempt to dissemble when he starts asking interesting questions.

 

“Is this why you learnt to drive?” He asks, as she takes the reins to steer them home. “So that you could make your charitable visits independently?”

 

“Not just that.” She takes a deep breath, attempts some real honesty. “I must own that, selfishly, I like the sense of freedom as well. It is not only so I may do good for other people. It is also good for me.”

 

“I can quite understand that.” He says at once. “And I must say - you’re a fine driver. I almost think I prefer relaxing and enjoying the ride over taking the ribbons myself.”

 

She laughs and thanks him for the compliment. As prospective husbands go, he really doesn’t seem like a bad option. He’s good humoured and kind and they will deal well enough together.

 

Sorry - they would deal well enough together. If they did decide to press on and marry, then they would manage to tolerate one another.

 

Mr Blake speaks up again. “May I ask you - do you know what else I might do to help that institution? I tried to ask the matron but she would only admit to being short of boys’ clothes. But surely more than that might be done? The place is clean and the staff are loving but I get no sense that these children have a future. Do they have a schoolroom? Do they need teachers?”

 

She frowns at him, risks a quick sideways glance at his earnest face even as she drives. “I thought you had no money?” She reminds him pointedly.

 

He snorts out a hollow laugh. “I do not quite have no money. I still have my allowance while my stepfather is alive. I can perfectly well make ends meet and still give charity to those worse off than myself.”

 

She nods, considers that. It’s a sentiment which does not make him a saint, perhaps, but it’s still a damn sight more compassion than most fortune-hunters show.

 

“I think perhaps today has made me think about poverty.” He muses now, thoughtful, speaking quieter than his usual boisterous, light-hearted tone. “There is a difference, is there not, between true poverty like that and the sort of genteel poverty I fear? I suppose I am simply a coward. I have grown up in relative luxury, and so I want a marriage which will allow me to continue in a similar lifestyle. I don’t want to be comparatively poor or dependent on my sister. And yet I know that, whatever happens, I will never find myself without a shirt on my back or a roof over my head.”

 

“I don’t think that makes you a coward.” She says. She feels strongly that he is not a coward, in fact, and that instinctive desire to defend him makes her a little uncomfortable. “I don’t think it is cowardice on your part, as such. And I think it takes a certain awareness of the world to say what you said just now. You are right - comparative poverty in our circle is still not poverty. But I don’t judge you or mistrust you for wishing to marry into a lifestyle like the one you have always lived.”

 

He hums a little. She’s not sure whether that’s him showing agreement or wondering where to start arguing with her from next.

 

She presses on. “I don’t know what lifestyle you would expect if we did marry. I keep a curricle and horses - that is a luxury I would struggle to give up. I buy too many books about medicine - I simply find those coloured plates of anatomical drawings fascinating. But besides that most of my disposable income will go on charitable causes such as this one, I think. I suppose we must keep the house watertight and pay some staff. But I would want to be as moderate as possible.”

 

“Yes. That would suit me fine. I am not one for gambling or horseracing or keeping up with the latest fashions.”

 

“Very well. Then we are agreed on that.” She concludes.

 

For one horrifying moment, she wonders if she has gone too far. She wonders if he will misunderstand her, and think that she is saying they are agreed to marry. And that’s not what she’s saying, not really. She would never presume to tell him she expects his proposal. She’s only trying to say that she believes they have reached an agreement about how they will manage their finances and priorities if they were to marry.

 

Good gracious. All these hypotheticals are quite exhausting. She could swear her life was simpler, back in the good old days when each gentleman would call once and then run a mile.

 

Mr Blake doesn’t appear to take it amiss, though. When she shoots a glance at him she simply sees him nodding calmly.

 

“Yes. It would seem so.” He muses. “Tell me - can we agree on one other thing today? If we are courting and starting to talk seriously about how this marriage might work, I believe it is high time you started to call me Bellamy. I should like to get used to the sound of it on your tongue before deciding whether or not you will be my wife one day.” He concludes, in a teasing sort of a tone.

 

She flushes. She’s never called a gentleman by his first name before. Obviously she hasn’t - no gentleman has ever hung around long enough for her to call him anything much before now.

 

But she’s a brave woman, so she is not about to let herself become flustered over this.

 

“Very well, Bellamy.” She enunciates it carefully, manages to keep her tone level and calm. “And I suppose you should call me Clarke. I’m sorry - it’s an eccentric name for an eccentric woman.”

 

“I prefer to think of you as unique.” He tells her gallantly, and he nudges her a little with his elbow as if to punctuate that comment.

 

Hmm. Unique. Refreshing. A whole host of adjectives she thinks are probably synonymous with unmarriageable.

 

But Bellamy seems determined to change her mind about each and every one.

 

…….

 

Her parents ask after her visit with Mr Blake that evening at supper. Of course they do - they have always been relatively indulgent of her quirks, but all the same they are bound to be curious when their daughter has just spent an entire morning driving around Town with an eligible gentleman. Clarke supposes an interrogation over a family supper is at least more subtle than her mother asking difficult questions in front of Bellamy himself.

 

Indeed, it is her mother who starts the conversation.

 

“So? What of your visit this morning? What of your new friend Mr Blake?”

 

“We had a most successful visit to the orphanage. They are very grateful for the linens you sent, mother.” Clarke nods and smiles at her for that, hoping to distract her a little from the topic of Bellamy.

 

So much for that. “And what of Mr Blake?” She insists.

 

“He seemed very interested in the work of the orphanage too. He spent a long time talking to a young girl named Charlotte. And he intends to donate some boys’ clothing to them, I believe. He was even talking about making some improvements to their schoolroom.”

 

“Yes, yes. Very good. All admirable, I’m sure.” Her father says, not unkindly. “But what of him ? What of Mr Blake himself? Come on, Clarke. You cannot keep your poor mother in suspense any longer.”

 

“He is pleasant company, and he seems like a sensible man.” She hedges. But even as she says it, she’s not altogether sure it’s the truth. He seems like a heartfelt man more than anything, in fact. That’s the only conclusion she can draw from the way he dived heart-first into supporting this orphanage she has only just brought to his attention, or the way he throws his soul into laughing with her when he is supposed to be concentrating on courting her convenient fortune.

 

“So you enjoy his company?” Her mother prompts.

 

Clarke nods. No sense in denying it. “Yes. I suppose we have a number of shared interests. We can converse together quite engagingly.”

 

“And what of his family? Does he talk about them much?” Her father asks.

 

“He has only his sister, his mother and his stepfather. His sister stands to inherit and his stepfather is ailing. So - so I believe he is quite seriously interested in my fortune.” She forces the words out. Her parents must know what is going on here as well as she does, but it’s never pleasant to say it outright.

 

“Yes - but how do you feel?” Her mother asks, eyes narrowed. “Are you interested in him?”

 

She almost weeps. She almost bursts into tears right there at the supper table. It’s not that she’s surprised at this evidence her mother cares about her wellbeing - she knows full well that her parents love her deeply. It’s just that they are so often torn between their love for her and the practicalities of life in the world they live in. Her mother does have a tendency to be anxious and pushy about suitors - but in this moment, Clarke realises more than ever that she behaves that way out of concern rather than anything else.

 

In short, her mother really does want her to be happy. It’s just that she thinks a sensible, tactical marriage is a prerequisite for happiness. And to be honest, she might be right - society is unkind to spinsters.

 

Clarke gathers herself and attempts to answer the question. “I hardly know whether I am interested. I barely know him. He does appear to be a better prospect than most, but is that enough?”

 

“Yes.” Her mother says simply. “In our circle, that is often enough. Genuine compatibility of temperament and interests is much more important than a hot flush of passion. Where the foundations are good, love might grow.”

 

Clarke nods slowly. Love might grow. She wouldn’t be surprised if it did, honestly. Bellamy seems like quite a lovable person in general. She thinks it’s less likely that he would find anything lovable about her, because it has been made quite clear to her for some years now that she is not lovable at all. But she can cope with that. He doesn’t need or want or expect to love her. He just wants to live a comfortable life.

 

Her mother presses on into the silence. “But I must ask - are you to spend the rest of your lives reading in silence? I don’t wish to scorn what makes you happy, Clarke. But I look at your visits with him and - and they are not what I would expect.”

 

“Don’t worry. We won’t be silent all the time. We argue well too.” Clarke feels a small smile stretch out over her cheeks as she says that.

 

Her mother looks confused but content, so that’s something.

 

Her father clears his throat and speaks up. “You could live at Arkadia Hall, if you wanted - as he has no home of his own. I understand that you will not want to live beneath our noses forever. If this Mr Blake is competent at managing the place you should be able to live comfortably on the proceeds from that. He can take the money as long as you live there.”

 

Her mother snorts. “Jake, dear. We both know Clarke will be the one managing the estate.”

 

That has them all laughing.

 

“Be that as it may, I would have to put the funds in his name. That is sadly the way of the world.” Her father explains. “Think of it as a sort of wedding gift. You can live on some of our family property if you marry a gentleman who doesn’t bring land of his own. I wouldn’t wish the poor lad to live with his father-in-law looking over his shoulder every day. I cannot do anything about the entail - you must still have your heir to inherit the whole lot. But I can lend you Arkadia Hall while I’m alive.”

 

Clarke nods seriously. That’s a big, generous offer. Her father is seriously offering to gift one of their family properties to her and any husband she might have, to live on as a separate household from her parents.

 

“Thank you, father. That’s very generous. I believe Bellamy does not have much experience of running an estate but he strikes me as an intelligent man and he has modest tastes. I’m sure we will manage very well at Arkadia Hall.”

 

“Bellamy, is it?” Her mother asks.

 

“You will manage very well at Arkadia Hall, will you?” Her father asks. “It rather sounds to me as though you have already made your mind up.”

 

Clarke can only laugh and throw her hands up into the air. “I don’t know! I don’t know. That came out wrong. Truly, he does seem like a good man. If we were to marry, I am sure we would manage very well at Arkadia Hall. But really, this is all very far removed from today. We are still only just courting and going on visits together. We have some time yet to refine such details and decide whether we will suit. I hardly expect he will be proposing to me tomorrow.” She concludes, laughing lightly. The whole thing is absurd. Her parents are making these plans when Bellamy has only been calling on her for a couple of weeks.

 

But all the same, she likes it. This conversation has not been completely excruciating as she might have expected - rather, it has made her realise that there might be a world in which she could marry Bellamy, and it could all turn out just fine.

 

…….

 

She is wrong. She is totally, thoroughly and completely wrong.

 

The visit starts out like any other. She is perhaps a little surprised that Bellamy has decided to see her three days running, but she doesn’t dwell on that. She invites him to sit at her painting table so she can show him some of her botanical sketches. She feels more comfortable showing little snatches of her true self to him now.

 

But then things turn strange and unexpected.

 

“Could we perhaps take a walk in the park soon? I wanted to speak to you in private.” Bellamy says, his eyes fixed too intently on a sketch of a leaf.

 

She frowns at him. “We never walk in the park. We could go for a drive, if you like. I’m always happy for an excuse to take the reins. But what on Earth do you wish to say to me that cannot be said here with my mother chaperoning from the far side of the room? I assure you, she cannot hear us as long as we keep our voices down.”

 

“I would very much like to take a walk in the park.” He insists, jaw tight.

 

She frowns harder still. “Bellamy - whatever is the matter?”

 

A beat of silence. His eyes look all wrong - tense and troubled. And his jaw is clenched so firm she thinks it might snap.

 

Then his posture grows tighter still as he straightens up and looks her right in the eye.

 

“Very well. Then we shall have this conversation here. I have a sensible idea to present to you, and I hope you will like it because I know you are a woman of sense. I believe we should get married.”

 

She feels her jaw fall open, hears herself give a startled gasp. “Now? Already? You wish to become engaged to me so soon?”

 

“I find that my mind is already quite made up on the matter.” He insists, firm, perhaps almost petulant. “I have thought long and hard about it, particularly since our visit yesterday. I have decided that I am hardly likely to find a woman who suits me better and I flatter myself that I solve your problem nicely as well.”

 

“A woman who suits you better?” She echoes, incredulous. “You mean you will find no one so rich who is so desperate to marry?”

 

He sighs loudly, his gaze falling back to her artwork where it lies on the table before him. “No, Clarke. Please - listen to me. As I said, I thought you would see the reason in my arguments. We are a sensible match in many other ways, too. We both like to read and explore the outdoors. We have similar tastes in terms of running a moderate household and giving to charity as generously as we can afford. And yes, we both very much need to marry. That is a logical consideration too, is it not?”

 

She nods slowly. This does all make a great deal of sense. She’s a little annoyed with him, honestly, for using logic against her. She’s already decided she is the rational one out of the two of them, the best at winning a reasoned argument.

 

She’s decided that, because she likes outwitting him.

 

He’s not wrong though. She must concede that, on this occasion, marriage makes a lot of sense.

 

But she can feel something deep within her chest which she thinks might just be her heart breaking. She was beginning to wonder if she had a heart, in all honesty. For many years now it has been untouched. And she certainly didn’t think her heart had got so very attached to Bellamy Blake.

 

But all at once, she finds she is devastated that he wants to marry her for sense. That he has strode in here all guns blazing to talk rationally about a marriage of convenience. Yes, they will suit. Yes, they will not hate one another’s company. Yes, they will solve each other’s problems rather nicely.

 

But some pathetic, sentimental part of her wanted him to love her, damn it. She’s as human as any other lady when all’s said and done. She still would have liked to feel wanted. She would have liked to think he chose her for herself, not just for her money or convenience or practicality.

 

She forces herself to nod and make some reply. “You’re right. It does make a good deal of sense. I would be happy to marry you - I just thought you might like to wait a little longer to check that we will suit.”

 

“I am already confident that we will suit well enough. Why delay? Why not get on with learning how best to live our lives together?”

 

Another stiff nod. “Very well. Yes - a sensible idea. Let’s get married.”

 

At last, he seems to read her mood. “Are you sure? It sounds like you are not so keen on this idea. If I have rushed you - if I need to do more to assure you I will be a good husband -”

 

“No!” She interrupts him, perhaps a little too loud. “No. It’s quite alright. I have no doubts as to your character or suitability. You are right - we will do very well together. It’s a sensible match.”

 

He nods, either eager or perhaps only relieved. He really does need her money, doesn’t he?

 

“Would you prefer a longer engagement, then? Do you still need some time to adjust to the idea?” He offers hurriedly.

 

She shrugs. “Do I take that to mean you hoped for a short engagement?” She asks him plainly.

 

“Yes. Very much so. Now we have reached this decision I see no reason to wait. And - excuse me - but you are not getting any younger and we will want an heir.”

 

She almost snaps at him. She almost yells at him, here and now, with her mother looking on. She almost screams at him that she is only twenty-eight and that is not such a horrid old age, thank you very much.

 

But of course there is no sense in starting their engagement on such a sour note, and she is wary of becoming utterly senseless, at this rate. It has not been her most rational, blue-stocking morning.

 

So what if he thinks she looks old? That’s what she decides in the end, as she pushes back her chair and goes to tell her mother the good news.

 

It simply doesn’t matter if Bellamy thinks she looks old. She never expected him to love her anyway.

 

…….

 

He’s a very attentive fiancé. She almost forgets that she’s a convenient friend more than a desirable woman to him, sometimes. He really does call at the house a great deal and go driving with her several times a week.

 

But she knows that’s partly to make a good impression on her parents. He knows how this works. He knows the kind offer of living at Arkadia Hall is contingent on her father’s goodwill.

 

All the same, Clarke enjoys the engagement, more or less. She enjoys getting to know Bellamy better and finding out ever more little domestic details about him. With each day that passes, she grows more and more convinced that they will live together very comfortably. On some things they feel very similarly - their enjoyment of books, for example. In other areas they have different opinions and enjoy debating from their respective viewpoints.

 

Dancing is just one of those sources of disagreement. Clarke has never cared for dancing very much. She thinks it’s a bit of a waste of time - and anyway, gentlemen don’t tend to ask her. But Bellamy loves it. She gets the impression he was something of a flirt before he realised he needed to settle down with a wealthy wife, that he enjoyed going to social events and dancing with every possible partner.

 

Part of her is jealous of all the ladies he might have laughed with in days gone by.

 

Maybe that’s why she agrees to it so easily, when he insists that they are to have a ball to celebrate their upcoming wedding. Maybe she wants to show him she can be just as much fun as all the other young ladies he has known.

 

There will be other good things about this ball, too. It’s being thrown by Bellamy’s stepfather at his house in Town. His mother and sister will be there - and that will be good, because this whole courtship and engagement has been so rushed and unconventional that she has never met them before now. And half of high society will be there to see that she really has managed to catch a husband at last.

 

She has no idea whether that last point is a good thing or not. But either way, it seems, she is agreeing to have a ball.

 

…….

 

Clarke arrives early for the ball in honour of her upcoming wedding to Bellamy. That’s the kind of person she is - she will always arrive early if she’s the guest of honour.

 

But it’s also because she’s nervous - more nervous than she wants to let on. And arriving early seems a better idea than pacing around her own bedroom and scuffing her shoes in the process.

 

“You look very beautiful.” Bellamy tells her, the moment she arrives through the door. Of course he does. He’s a good, dutiful future husband like that.

 

“And you look very dashing.” She says evenly. She hopes dashing is the right word. It seems more sensible than telling him he looks fantastically attractive and she is seriously tempted to tear his coat off with her teeth.

 

Oh dear. She’s been thinking things like that more and more often since they got engaged.

 

It doesn’t matter. It’s fine. She’s allowed to find her future husband attractive - that’s a good thing, in fact. Even in a marriage of convenience it is still advantageous to find one’s husband desirable.

 

She just hopes he won’t be too disappointed, the first time he sees her naked. She’d hate that. She’d hate to be eager and excited like a naïve young girl, and have him totally indifferent to her.

 

No matter. It’s fine. Time enough to worry about that later.

 

“Can I introduce you to my sister?” He asks right away.

 

She nods. And without missing a beat, Bellamy whisks her over to a particular corner of the room. His sister Octavia is a little younger than Clarke, perhaps. From Bellamy’s stories, Clarke knows she has two children already in the nursery. And her husband is a large, well-built fellow who insists that they are family now, and that Clarke must call him Lincoln.

 

In short, the initial introductions go remarkably well. Everyone is smiling and apparently delighted to make one another’s acquaintance.

 

But then, all at once, it gets stickier.

 

“I’m so pleased to meet you at last. Really - I’m not just saying that for the sake of politeness.” Octavia gushes, once the formalities are over. “I’ve been dying to meet you ever since Bellamy started talking about you in his letters. He’s never really courted anyone before. I could just tell you must be someone very -”

 

“Thank you, O.” Bellamy cuts her off, his jaw tight. “Clarke did not come here to listen to you prattle on about our correspondence.”

 

“I was only telling her that I’m so grateful she makes you so happy.”

 

There’s a beat of silence. Clarke wonders why Bellamy never told his sister the whole truth - that this is a marriage of convenience. She understood the two siblings were quite close and honest with each other.

 

Hmm. He must be spinning a romantic fairytale for a reason. Is it perhaps because Octavia is quite the sentimental dreamer? She’s heard him say that his sister can be a bit naïve and that she really treasures her romance with Lincoln. Is he by any chance sugar-coating the truth for her?

 

Clarke decides to help him out with that. They will have to work fluently together when they are married. She might as well start now.

 

“Thank you, Octavia. That’s very kind of you. I am overjoyed to be marrying your brother as well.”

 

The thing is, that’s not a lie. She genuinely is very pleased to be marrying Bellamy. In a world where she must marry and produce an heir, she thinks she’d rather do that with him than with any other man. This is, in short, the best possible outcome.

 

Sometimes she even catches herself wondering whether love might grow, as her mother once said it would.

 

“Yes - everyone’s very happy.” He says, brusque, perhaps even a little uncomfortable. “Now, Clarke - shall we get ready to receive our guests?”

 

She’s very aware that the guests are not expected for another quarter-hour or more. But she senses that he wants to extract himself from this conversation, and she does want him to be comfortable.

 

“By all means. Lead the way, Mr Blake.” She curtseys to him pertly.

 

He laughs, grabs hold of her hand, and hauls her back to her feet.

 

He’s still holding her hand as they wander over to the entrance hall, in fact. But she decides not to make a fuss about that. If he wants to hold her hand, she’s quite content to let him.

 

…….

 

Clarke rather enjoys the ball while she’s standing around welcoming guests. She can manage that much. She shares the same formulaic conversation with each of them - accepting their congratulations and bidding them a good evening.

 

But the main business of a ball is dancing, of course. And so there comes a time when she needs to quite literally put her best foot forward.

 

“Time to open the dancing, I think.” Bellamy tells her, checking his pocket watch.

 

She sighs. She’s not looking forward to this. She’s sure to make a mess of it, and he’s sure to feel embarrassed by her as a partner. He’s sure to end up wishing he was engaged to some other neater, better-behaved woman.

 

“Clarke? Are you well?”

 

“Yes. Quite well. Only - a little nervous, perhaps.” She dares to admit. She’s heard that honesty can be advantageous in a marriage.

 

To her surprise, Bellamy smiles softly at her. “Me too. I find I have often been nervous in the course of our courtship and engagement. I don’t want to do this wrong.”

 

She grins at him. “You won’t. You have considerable experience of dancing, do you not?”

 

“Yes. But never with my betrothed, and never at a ball in honour of our wedding.” He reminds her smartly.

 

She grins wider. “I daresay you will manage it. Come on - let us get this over with.”

 

He nods, firm, almost brisk. He takes her hand, leads her out onto the floor.

 

And then, from the musicians’ gallery, a waltz strikes up.

 

“What is this?” She asks, horrified, in the precious seconds before the dancing starts. “This is a waltz. I told you I -”

 

“And I told you waltzes are delicious.” He reminds her, a teasing grin on his face. “Come on. Give it your best attempt. If you hate it I shall buy you a fine new book by way of apology.”

 

She laughs at that. Of course he will - he’s Bellamy. And that laughter, the wave of relaxed good humour, carries her straight into the opening steps of the dance.

 

It’s…. It’s not too awful, actually.

 

She’s still horrible at waltzing, for the record. She simply hasn’t practised it much, because it’s not her preferred dance. But thankfully it’s quite a simple one, and anyway Bellamy guides her steps.

 

Besides the feeling that she doesn’t know what she’s doing, that countless eyes are watching her and judging her even more harshly than normal, it’s quite pleasant. When she allows herself to focus only on Bellamy, on the two of them circling the dance floor together, she almost enjoys herself.

 

“Are you well?” He asks her simply, a couple of minutes in.

 

“Yes. I believe so.”

 

“Good. I must own I am unsure whether to try for some conversation to lighten the mood, or whether you would rather I keep my mouth shut so you can concentrate on the steps.”

 

“I hardly know.”

 

“You are doing remarkably well. I wouldn’t know you hate this dance so much.”

 

She shoots a barbed look at him. “Yes you would. You know me better than that by now, sir. You know that if I were comfortable I would be much more talkative.”

 

“Or much more silent and relaxed as you are when we read together.” He counters.

 

She nods. That’s true, actually. She has heard people say that, sometimes, partners in a good marriage know one another better than they know themselves. She wonders if that’s the sort of marriage she and Bellamy might aspire to, one day.

 

She gathers herself and tries for some conversation. “Is this really what you think is delicious ? It is pleasant enough, and if I were feeling more talkative it would be enjoyable to spend time in conversation with you. But there is nothing about it which merits that word.” She argues.

 

He grins. “Perhaps not. Perhaps there is nothing delicious about it when I am holding you politely like this. Are you feeling comfortable? Do you want me to show you what I meant when I used that word?”

 

She nods. She’s always a curious sort.

 

All at once, he’s holding her closer, tighter. The hand which was once at her waist is now closer to the curve of her buttocks than anywhere else. And his other hand seems to be high up, over her shoulder, close to her neck. He’s stroking the skin there with his thumb or a finger, perhaps, and it’s sending shivers right through her.

 

But there’s more than that, too. He’s leaning close as they dance - so close she feels almost that he is embracing her. She can even feel his hips rocking into hers as he moves, drifting together and away in time to the music.

 

Oh God. Oh God. She could swear that’s an erect penis pressing against her. Or a half-hard one, at least. She doesn’t suppose she’d know the difference. She might be a bluestocking, but she isn’t that well informed.

 

She has choices, here. In a moment of sudden clarity she understands that there are options. She could tell him she’s not comfortable any more. That this is too much, too fast, that she was expecting some calm, proper dancing for this engagement of convenience. He’d accept that - she knows he is a reasonable man. He’d apologise, draw back, and tell her that they can learn and explore these things at her pace.

 

Or she can lean into it. She can physically lean into him, rock closer in time with the music. She can let her hands go wandering, too, and explore his gorgeous body over the top of those infuriatingly modest clothes.

 

That’s what she does, in the end. She sees no reason not to. She likes him, finds him attractive, and she’s marrying him next week. A little heated embrace under the guise of a dance can do nobody any harm.

 

“Like this?” She asks, shuffling closer so her head is almost resting on his chest, right over his heart.

 

She hears him swallow. She’s standing so close to him that she can hear even that. “Yes. Exactly like this. If - are you uncomfortable?”

 

“Not exactly.” She tells him, truthful and honest. “I am uncomfortable in much the same way you are, I believe.” She rocks her hips shamelessly towards his groin. “And I must own I am a little uncomfortable because this is new and because we are in public. But I shall survive. It is more thrilling than anything.”

 

Another loud swallow. She loves it, loves knowing that she has the power to ruin his composure like this. At least it seems he will enjoy their wedding night - that’s one less thing to worry about.

 

“You see? Delicious.” He mutters, hoarse.

 

She laughs lightly, lets her head rest on his chest at last. “Yes. Delicious. Quite a tease. But you must admit - it is impractical too. Really - what will we do when this is over? Will I have to stand in front of you like a sort of shield until you have… regained your composure?”

 

He laughs, squeezes her shoulder playfully. “I have no idea, Clarke. You are the planner out of the two of us. I am simply enjoying this moment.”

 

“Very well. I suppose I must get to work on a plan to help you conceal your situation. Tell me - do you think we could exit the floor in the direction of that potted palm when the time comes? I believe you would be quite safe if you hid behind that until you calmed down.”

 

“What would I do without you?” He asks, fond, evidently amused.

 

He’d have fewer moments of inconvenient arousal in the midst of public waltzes, she suspects. He wouldn’t have to plan escape routes to cover the bulge in his breeches.

 

Only then she remembers. She lost herself in the moment, but she’s got her head straight again now. For all she knows, this happens to him all the time. For all she knows, feeling heated when he dances a delicious waltz is something he’s been dealing with for years. Maybe he’s even held half the other young ladies in the room as closely as he’s now holding her.

 

Hmm. Well. No sense in dwelling on that. All she can do is help steer him to the potted palm and pray that he realises she’s quite the perfect wife for him, one of these days.

 

…….

 

The wedding itself doesn’t make much impact on Clarke. She’s been to weddings before, and the words of the ceremony are the same at this one. She’s seen Bellamy’s face before, too, so she doesn’t feel any great need to stare at it while they make their vows. That’s the sort of thing which belongs at the solemnising of a love match, she thinks, and it would be strange to gaze at him, wide-eyed, when they both know full well this is a marriage of simple, compatible practicality.

 

She’s more interested in wondering what the rest of him might look like than staring at his face. She’s found herself thinking of him all undressed rather too often since that delicious dance last week. So it is that, even as she signs the marriage register, she’s waiting for the wedding night to roll around.

 

When it does, at last, she finds she is actually quite relaxed. She’s much happier when it’s just herself and Bellamy, when she doesn’t feel like the eyes of high society are on them. Getting married in front of so many people who politely disdain her was a bit troubling, but now she knows she is on safer ground.

 

They’re destined to spend the wedding night in Bellamy’s stepfather’s house, in a room he has set aside for their use. But even that potentially awkward location, right amongst his family, is not enough to make Clarke feel uncomfortable now. She’s feeling an almost overwhelming sense of relief that the public part of the day is over, alongside a dizzying anticipation of what is still to come.

 

That’s why she leans comfortably back into the cushions of a handy couch and pats the space next to her.

 

“Are you well?” She asks Bellamy plainly. “Do you want to rest for a while before we consummate this marriage? Or would you like to get straight to it? Do you plan for me to call a maid in to undress me or are you doing it yourself?”

 

“I hardly need a rest before we manage this. I am feeling quite virile, thank you very much.” He teases her.

 

She grins. “And as to the rest of my questions?”

 

“No maids. No one but the two of us will set foot here tonight. I’m afraid you must make do with my poor services.”

 

She snorts out a laugh. “I hope your services are not as poor as all that.”

 

He takes her meaning, lets out a loud chuckle. “I hope you’ll find I’m not a hopeless bedmate. Have you - ah - any experience of such things?”

 

Clarke considers his question for a moment, wonders how honest to be. He knows he has a scandalous wife in many ways, yes. But this is hardly a question about curricle driving.

 

“Clarke?” He prompts her, coming to sit on the couch at her side. “You can tell me the truth, whatever it is. I have married you now. I am hardly likely to be scared off at this point.” He says it with the tone of a jest, but she can hear that he means it in truth, too.

 

She nods firmly, as much for her own sake as for his. “Very well. Then - I ought to tell you I have a little experience in this area, and largely with other women.”

 

For a moment, he is floored. For just a couple of seconds he blinks at her, as if that wasn’t quite the answer he was expecting.

 

But then his gaze clears and he throws her a careful smile. “Me too. A little experience, largely with women. So I suppose between us we will know what we are doing.”

 

“I hope so.”

 

Suddenly Clarke wonders whether she has overstated her past experience. Will Bellamy now expect her to be some kind of entertaining and expert lover? Will he expect her to know everything there is to know about bedsport?

 

No. Not at all. A little experience - a very little, really. That’s fine.

 

“How would you like to do this?” He asks now. “Do you prefer to sit and talk for a while? Perhaps some wine to set the mood?”

 

“I find kissing sets the mood better.” She recommends pertly.

 

He laughs. “Yes. I quite agree. So - may I?”

 

She nods. He doesn’t miss another beat. All at once he’s there, leaning over, kissing her soundly on the lips. And then he’s lingering, lengthening the kiss, showing her he means business.

 

It’s rather different from the soulless peck they shared in front of the witnesses earlier.

 

She gets on with kissing him back in kind, and with touching him, too. Yes, she got some small taste of touching his waist or back over his clothes last week. But she needs more than that, now. She needs to tangle her hands in his hair and run her fingers down the smooth, strong muscle of his neck.

 

She needs to get him undressed, in fact.

 

“May I?” She asks, her fingers clutching at his cravat.

 

He nods urgently. “Yes. You most certainly may. A question for you, Clarke - how do you feel about this dress?”

 

She frowns. They’ve more or less had this conversation before, she seems to recall. “As you know, my mother chose it. Apparently it’s very fashionable. It’s not what I would have chosen.”

 

“So you have no particular fondness for it?”

 

“I suppose not.” She agrees, wondering what the point of all this might be. Wouldn’t it be better to get back to kissing?

 

Oh. Oh. He seizes hold of her neckline, rips her dress straight down the bodice. He literally tears the front of it in two.

 

She doesn’t swoon. Of course she doesn’t swoon. She’s a sensible woman, a bluestocking, not some damsel in distress.

 

But all the same, her husband did just rip her wedding dress apart with his bare hands. She thinks that might be a little bit swoon-worthy.

 

He’s kissing her before she can so much as squeak in protest. She might not have liked that dress, but it was still a perfectly serviceable garment. What will happen to it now?

 

Hmm. Perhaps she could worry about that later.

 

All the same, she cannot let him get away with that without making some sort of sharp comment.

 

“That was bold.” She tells him, whispering it against his lips. She means it as a reprimand, but she fears it comes out sounding more awed .

 

“Yes.” He agrees simply.

 

“You just tore a rather fine dress.”

 

“Yes. I wanted to see what was underneath.” He says, as if that’s an adequate explanation.

 

“And?”

 

“It was worth it. The view is very lovely.” He tells her, running a careful hand over the place where her breasts are spilling from her stays. “But more than that, I think it was worth it to see the look in your eyes.”

 

“What do you mean?”

 

“You looked rather impressed. I don’t often see you look impressed.” He tells her, teasing.

 

She laughs. “It was perhaps a little impressive.”

 

He grins, an expression of victory, pure and simple. And then he’s leaning forward to kiss her again, hotter and more urgent than before. His hands are still exploring all her newly-exposed skin, wandering over her chest and arms.

 

And then he starts exploring with his mouth, instead.

 

“Bellamy.” She doesn’t know whether that’s a question or a whine.

 

“I know, sweetheart. I know.”

 

With that, he puts his mouth on her breast. He simply finds one nipple, spilling out of her stays, and starts suckling on it.

 

She could swear she forgets how to breathe.

 

“Bellamy.” 

 

It’s definitely a whine this time, urgent and needy. She wants… something. She’s not sure what. She wants to kiss him, but she doesn’t want his mouth to let go of her breast. She wants to get on to the next part, but she also wants to lie here and enjoy this forever.

 

He hums, low and soft and comforting - and of course he keeps suckling.

 

She wants to touch more of him. That’s what she decides in the end. Taking her lead from him, she makes short work of his coat, waistcoat and shirt. She doesn’t actually tear anything clean in two, because she has more sense and less muscle than her husband. But she does shed a couple of buttons and rip a few stitches as she hurries to expose his bare skin.

 

Yes. This is much better. She’s holding him, stroking him, touching him. And now he’s leaving her breast alone for a little while, shifting back up the couch to kiss her senseless once more.

 

They really ought to move to the bed. That’s a thought which catches her attention - a single moment of good sense, flickering like a lamp in a storm.

 

No. It’s gone. The moment has passed. Too late to move to the bed, now. Bellamy is pulling his breeches down and tugging aside what remains of her petticoats and underthings.

 

“What about my stays?” She asks. Surely he cannot mean to rip the laces open as he did with her dress?

 

“Do you really want to wait around while I unlace you, sweetheart?”

 

She shakes her head firmly.

 

“Then that’s staying on.”

 

Without further ado, he thrusts inside of her. He simply gets on and does it, eclipsing what little experience she had in one firm stroke.

 

It doesn’t hurt. She somehow always expected it would - even though her experience of intimacy up to this point has been utterly painless. But she’s heard such horror stories of men and cocks and wedding nights.

 

It’s a slight stretch, yes. But she’s wet and ready and eager for him, and that seems to make it easier. She feels quite comfortable, too - although consummating her marriage has turned into a messy tumble on a couch in her stepfather-in-law’s guest bedroom. And yet as long as Bellamy has his arms around her, she finds that it is quite easy to feel comfortable.

 

“Are you well?” He asks, soft, while he wriggles to get himself perfectly in place.

 

“Yes. Very well. Yet I’d be even better if you would get on with this.” She informs him, pert, slapping his buttocks as if urging a horse into motion.

 

He laughs, breathless, and starts rutting against her. That’s a phrase she’s never fully appreciated before now, but it suits the moment, she thinks. There is something very raw and animalistic about the way he is thrusting into her, again and again and again, deep groans rising from his throat as he goes.

 

It’s not frightening, though. She doesn’t feel used or disrespected or scared. Rather she feels sort of thrilled, to know that he wants her like this. To know that, conveniently rich or not, she genuinely is an object of some passion to him.

 

Mostly she feels like she wants to match him. She wants to give as good as she gets and show him she can be a sexual beast, too.

 

That’s why she reaches up to kiss him more forcefully than ever. She dares to trail kisses down his neck, too, and even nip at the shadow of his collarbone. She hopes it will bruise a little. She hopes he will wake up tomorrow morning wearing a mark that proclaims him as hers - a shadow of a wedding ring, perhaps.

 

He groans louder than ever when she marks him, so that’s something.

 

“Faster.” She urges him, with another slap on his buttocks.

 

“Whatever you need, sweetheart.” He sounds like he’s trying to tease her, but he also sounds wrecked.

 

He does move faster, though. He does thrust harder, pushing her deep into the cushions of the couch, knocking her head against the ridiculously ornate carved wood of the couch arm.

 

When she next redecorates a room, she will take care to choose only furniture on which her husband can give her a thorough mating.

 

She loves this. She relishes the rough, raw intensity of it. It’s the opposite of everything careful and sensible about their marriage, she thinks. It’s Bellamy in his purest form - she was right to think he was more heartfelt than rational. There is definitely something deeply heartfelt about the way he groans now.

 

She’s almost disappointed when she reaches her climax. It is a good, satisfying one, to be sure. But it feels like an ending, too. She can feel Bellamy nearing his pleasure, as well, and she finds herself suddenly wishing this moment could last forever.

 

No. That’s silly. They will be able to do this again another time.

 

He’s there. He’s spilling inside her, falling apart with a guttural groan. He’s slumping onto her chest, one arm and one leg slipping sideways off the couch. There is simply too much of him to be contained by such a pathetic piece of ornamental furniture.

 

They lie there for a moment. Clarke shifts a little, keen to keep hold of this closeness, but not so fond of feeling squashed.

 

And beneath her, the couch gives an almighty groan.

 

“We should move before this thing gives way beneath us.” Bellamy says around a breathless laugh.

 

“Yes. I think it was not designed for this. I did wonder if we should move to the bed.”

 

“I did wonder if we should take our time undressing and getting to know one another’s bodies.” He returns in kind.

 

Hmm. Well. There are two good ideas destined to be forever lost by the wayside.

 

“We really should move.” Clarke offers, because that seems like the most pressing point, just now.

 

“Yes. Give me a moment. I’ll get up and take a few deep breaths and do a very careful job of unlacing your stays.”

 

He doesn’t. He lies there several seconds longer.

 

“Bellamy? Are you quite alright?”

 

“I am very well indeed. And you? Was that… pleasant? Not too uncomfortable?”

 

“That was wonderful. But I am now feeling somewhat squashed.” She points out, nudging cheerfully at his shoulders.

 

That does it. That has him scrambling to his feet, offering her a hand too.

 

She stands, slow and steady. She doesn’t feel as weak on her legs as she might have expected. That was a very thorough and satisfying climax, but she can still stand without her husband’s help, thank you very much.

 

He makes no comment on it. He simply circles behind her and sets to unlacing her, slow and careful. He’s very gentle with his hands as he works - the complete opposite of everything passionate and fierce they just shared.

 

“Thank you.” She murmurs.

 

“You’re very welcome. I suppose your maid is probably quicker than I am at this but I’m doing my best.”

 

“No - thank you. That was a good start, I think. We shall do very well together.”

 

“I couldn’t agree more.” She can hear the smile in his voice as he speaks, and she likes it.

 

…….

 

They move to Arkadia hall the next morning, and that’s even better. The first few weeks of their marriage are some of the most peaceful Clarke has known. The two of them go driving together when they wish to be outdoors, and read in the library together when they wish for something quieter and more restful. And they have quite a lot of sex, and in some interesting locations - Clarke thinks that is better than most wives of fortune hunters can say.

 

It’s not just that Bellamy doesn’t bother her. It’s not only that he leaves her alone to live life on her terms and pursue her own interests. Rather, he actively encourages her to do what she enjoys, and she thinks that is very special.

 

It makes her fall more in love with him, really. She’s a little annoyed about that. She was just about managing to pretend to herself that she wasn’t actually in love, before the wedding. She had this kind lie she would repeat to herself - that Bellamy was a good man, and would make a fine husband, but that she shouldn’t go fancying herself in love just because he was the first eligible gentleman she’d ever hit it off with. They’ve only known each other a couple of months, for goodness sake.

 

She has to admit now, though, that she definitely has fallen in love with him. Although their acquaintance may be short, and their marriage may have been rushed and convenient, he is without doubt the perfect life partner for her.

 

It’s almost as if she had a list or a plan, she thinks. As if she’d spent her whole life waiting for a husband who would perfectly fit Bellamy’s description - only she didn’t realise it at the time.

 

She should have done, she scolds herself. She should have realised he would be exactly what she was looking for. A husband who is kind, warm, amusing, attractive - and devoted to letting her live life as she pleases?

 

Obviously she has fallen in love with him. She should have realised she would right from the start.

 

…….

 

Clarke is having a rather lovely day when it happens. She’s just spent a pleasant afternoon in the library with her husband, alternately reading and kissing, when she realises all at once that the honeymoon is over.

 

She goes to the toilet and realises that her courses have come.

 

She heaves a great sigh, rests her head on her hands and her elbows on her knees for a moment. This is fine. It is hardly the end of the world. She was always unlikely to fall pregnant in the first month - fertility can be an elusive thing. Some couples spend years trying for a child.

 

All the same, she’s disappointed. Bellamy very much wants a son, and soon. Isn’t that why he pushed for such a fast marriage? She still remembers what he said that day they got engaged, about needing an heir - and about her not getting any younger.

 

She certainly feels old beyond her years, as she sits here, slumped, and wonders how to tell him.

 

Best just get it over with. She’s being silly. He’s clearly not going to walk out on her for the crime of not conceiving immediately - he enjoys living in her father’s home off her family’s money far too much for that. And he can hardly fall out of love with her, when he doesn’t love her in the first place. So at worst she’s destined to live with a disappointed and reproachful friend for a few days.

 

She can handle that.

 

She gathers herself. She finishes on the toilet, cleans up, heads back to the library.

 

“I have something to tell you.” She informs Bellamy, brisk, the moment she gets through the door.

 

“Yes?” He sounds curious and perhaps a little alarmed as he looks up to meet her gaze.

 

“Yes. I’m not with child. I thought you would want to know straight away.”

 

“Oh. Thank you for telling me, I suppose. Are you upset about it?” He asks, eyes narrowing.

 

She shrugs. She’s not that upset about it for herself, to be honest. Twenty-eight is not so very ancient as Bellamy seems to think it is. She wonders whether men think that a woman disappears when she turns thirty, perhaps.

 

“Are you perhaps worried that our activities in the bedroom will be lacking while you have your courses? Because I assure you we can still pleasure each other. I will - ah - endeavour to keep you satisfied. Or are you worried that my family will be disappointed? I assure you that my mother will not pry into such things. Or perhaps -?”

 

“I am worried that you will be disappointed!” She cries out, exasperated.

 

He frowns at her, as if genuinely puzzled. “Why should I be disappointed? I am happy as long as you are well.”

 

“Because you want an heir! Because you want an heir so badly that you insisted on a short engagement! Because you think I am verging on being elderly although I am not yet thirty!”

 

All at once he is on his feet, striding towards her, his hands coming to close softly around her upper arms.

 

“Clarke? That’s really what you think? I am so sorry - it appears I did not explain myself well.”

 

“You explained yourself very clearly indeed.” She huffs. She’s annoyed with him for being so calm and patient about all this. She fears it makes her look like a hysterical woman, run away with her emotions, when really she is only reacting proportionately to his rude words.

 

“No - evidently I did not. I did not mean to imply you are old at all. I only meant that many couples do not conceive straight away - as we have not - and that I wanted you to have many childbearing years ahead of you so you could be patient with yourself. I know what you’re like. You judge yourself very harshly. I was concerned you would grow frustrated and worried if we were engaged for several years and then no babe appeared for a couple more years after that.”

 

She nods, slow, considering. That makes more sense as an argument, actually.

 

“I must admit, I was also keen to start our married life for its own sake. I - ah - I find that I have rather enjoyed these last few weeks with you.”

 

She manages a smile at that. “As have I.”

 

“You really thought I was condemning you for your age ?” He asks, as if he still can’t believe it.

 

“What was I supposed to think? You said that I was not getting any younger.”

 

“In my defence, that is perfectly true. But I didn’t mean to imply that you are somehow lacking in youth or health or beauty. I did not mean it to sound like an assessment of a horse at auction. I suppose I meant it more in a spirit of why wait? We had made a decision, and I was eager to make the best of it. Once we decided to marry I did not want to waste time.”

 

“That’s a rather more flattering sentiment.”

 

“Not that it would be such a bad thing if you were old. I hope still to be married to you when we are both old, after all.” Bellamy muses, something of a smirk playing about his lips. “Do you think we will still spend so much time in bed together when we are old?”

 

“I very much hope so. After all - I did not marry you for your money.” She quips.

 

He laughs at that. He laughs louder and longer than she thinks she deserves for it, honestly.

 

And then he pulls her in for a sound kiss, and she decides that perhaps it does not matter so much whether she is expecting a child or not.

 

…….

 

As the weather grows warmer, Clarke has an outrageous idea.

 

Then warm becomes positively parched, and it becomes less an idea, more an inevitability.

 

She simply needs to go swimming in the lake.

 

She doesn’t suppose Bellamy will mind, if any of the gardeners should spot her and tell him about it. He’s a very tolerant husband. She’s very lucky that he walked into the drawing room that day with those ridiculous hothouse flowers, honestly. He suits her far better than any other husband ever could.

 

She only hopes he feels as satisfied with his sensible, loveless decision.

 

She sneaks out for her swim early in the morning, on the third day of the heatwave. She dresses simply in an old chemise - more as a nod to modesty than because it will actually conceal anything once it is sodden through. She takes a worn cotton towel, too, but does not bother with spare clothes. She will sneak back up to her dressing room for that later.

 

No one is about, as she tiptoes to the water’s edge and then slips into the lake. It’s lovely - warm but just cool enough to soothe after so many long, hot summer days. She swims a couple of laps of the lake - briskly, of course. She’s not one for a ladylike, slow paddle.

 

Then she realises she has company.

 

There. Just a rustle in the undergrowth to the north of the lake. She swims over there, intent on finding out whether this is one of the staff or else a stranger spying on her.

 

It’s neither, of course. It’s her husband. She should have known it would be.

 

“I woke up and you weren’t in the bed.” He tells her, mock-affronted, as he emerges fully from the trees.

 

“Yes.” She agrees. No sense in arguing with that.

 

“You could have told me you were planning a great adventure.”

 

“You could have told me you like swimming.” She counters.

 

He grins. “You’re right. There are still so many things we don’t know about each other. Take this for your answer - as a general rule, I like any scheme of yours. If you are up to something, I am always willing to be a part of it.”

 

She laughs. “Very well said. So - come on into the water.”

 

“I was hoping you’d say that.”

 

He wastes no time in shrugging off his shirt and breeches, slipping into the water in just his smalls.

 

She wonders why he bothers wearing anything, actually. In fact - why is she wearing this chemise? It’s such a flimsy little thing, and there’s only her husband here to see her.

 

“So what is your plan?” Bellamy asks now, distracting her from her thoughts. “Are we here to have a race?”

 

“Perhaps we are here to restfully enjoy the cool water.” She suggests.

 

He laughs. “We are not. You and I both know that is not your way.”

 

“Very well - a race, then.”

 

With that she is off, kicking hard, stretching out as long as she can, desperately swimming away from him.

 

He catches her. He catches up with her, yes, but he also literally catches her. He wraps his hands around her waist and tackles her, both of them laughing as they kick hopelessly at the water.

 

At least it is shallow enough to stand here, so no harm done.

 

Their arms are still wrapped around each other, now, as they come laughing to a stop.

 

So it is only natural that they end up kissing. Obviously they must kiss. Clarke is beginning to think that any moment she is not kissing Bellamy is a moment wasted, to be honest.

 

And when they have been kissing for a while, his hand slips between her legs. And she’s obviously not going to turn down an offer like that, is she? Her husband is very good with his hands. So it is that she kisses him firmer, deeper, as she relaxes into his arms.

 

“It feels different.” She murmurs against his lips. “I don’t know whether it is the water or the change of location or something else entirely.”

 

“Are you still enjoying it?”

 

“Yes.”

 

“Then there is no need to analyse it. Just relax.” He recommends.

 

She does. She leans fully into him, lets him support her weight somewhat. That makes it easier to relax and concentrate on the pleasure.

 

It feels wonderful. It always does, of course, but today there is the added thrill of spontaneity, and of being outside of the privacy of their bedroom. It does feel slightly different, too, because she is standing in cool water. But it’s pleasant all the same.

 

She comes quickly, quietly, sighing into his mouth.

 

“What about you?” She asks, when she is done.

 

He laughs. “Want me to carry you back to our bedroom for the second act?”

 

“No. I don’t think we’ll get that far. And anyway - I believe I like doing it outside. There is a thrill to it. Carry me just into the trees.”

 

“As you like, sweetheart.”

 

She flushes a little. She does like it when he calls her that. It’s a trite endearment, perhaps - and he only ever makes use of it during sex. But all the same, she’s very fond of it. Perhaps she likes the triteness of it - the idea that she is a woman like any other bedmate, that he would make love with her by choice, that he is not just sleeping with her out of marital obligation or convenience. Or perhaps it’s because she’s so fond of his big, generous heart - even if she wishes more of it were selfishly hers .

 

Meanwhile he is cradling her in his arms and carrying her out of the water. Again, she finds that his strength heightens her arousal. In fact, she might just swoon a little.

 

It’s fine. It’s nothing to be ashamed of, to swoon at her husband’s strength. Indeed, she believes that is a very sensible reason to swoon.

 

They arrive on dry land and she wonders about pointing out her nearby towel. But Bellamy wouldn’t be interested in that, she thinks. He wouldn’t want to pause and lay a towel out neatly. Didn’t she learn that on their wedding night, when he was too impatient even to use the bed?

 

He’s feeling impatient today, too. She learns that rather abruptly when he never puts her down, but simply holds her pressed up against a tree and slips his cock easily inside of her.

 

She lets out a long moan, a strange whoosh of a sigh. There was something quite swoon-worthy about that moment, too, she thinks.

 

“Are you well?”

 

“Always.”

 

She’s never better, in fact, than when she’s in Bellamy’s arms.

 

He seems to be feeling even more impatient than usual, today. He’s setting quite a pace as he starts to move. And that suits her just fine, because she is very eager for another climax. She has never come apart writhing against a tree before now, and that sounds like just the sort of life experience a refreshing young lady like herself ought to try.

 

You see? She is proud of it now. Six months ago she thought herself quite unmarriageable, but now she has learnt that her unique personality is nothing to be ashamed of.

 

Bellamy is feeling talkative as well as impatient today, it seems. He’s been letting slip odd words along the way, and now he manages a longer snatch of speech.

 

“So good. You always feel so good, sweetheart. My gorgeous wife.”

 

She wants to reply. She wants to say something coherent and encouraging like there or perfect or you too.

 

But she doesn’t manage it. She’s moaning, loud yet breathless, burying her face in his neck.

 

“Yes.” Is all she manages. “Yes. Yes, Bellamy. Yes.”

 

She’s there. She’s falling apart again, the harsh texture of the tree against her back adding just a little seasoning of pleasure-pain to the experience. It’s the perfect foil for Bellamy’s warm arms, his gentle but assured touch.

 

He follows close behind, crying out her name as he comes.

 

And then it’s over. Then they’re both slumping to the floor, a chaotic mess of limbs and laughter.

 

“I’ll have grass between my buttocks.” Clarke frets, reaching to wipe dirt off her hands.

 

“Who cares?” Bellamy asks, pressing a kiss to her neck.

 

“I do.”

 

“Then let’s go and swim again. Let’s get back in the lake to clean up.”

 

“A good idea - one of your better ones.”

 

“And yet not as good as my best idea. Not as good as asking you to marry me.”

 

She smiles at him, fond and amused. “No - true. That really was a very good idea. To this day I do not understand how you ended up deciding to court me, nor how you made up your mind to marry me so quickly.”

 

“I knew what I was looking for.” He says simply.

 

Yes. Not just a fortune - she understands that now. A fortune and a sensible, compatible wife.

 

…….

 

They have been married a glorious couple of months when Clarke decides it’s time to go back to Town and visit her parents. She misses them. Yes, they were sometimes exasperating or overbearing and their attempts to convince her to marry were not always well-judged. But they love her, and she loves them. And even amidst her love for Bellamy, she would like to still see them sometimes.

 

She’ll miss him while she’s gone, but she tries not to dwell on that.

 

So it is that she decides to raise the matter with him one evening as they sit down to a quiet supper, just the two of them.

 

“I think I might go back to Town to visit my parents for a short while.” She says simply.

 

He nods at once. “By all means. I believe I will come with you.”

 

She frowns, surprised. “There’s no need. They are quite satisfied with you so far. They are entirely happy with the way you manage Arkadia Hall - my father wrote only last week that he is content for you to keep taking the proceeds for the foreseeable future. So there is no need to go and dance attendance on him.”

 

He frowns harder. “You must know that’s not why I plan to join you.”

 

“It’s not?”

 

“No. Although, while we are on the subject, we manage this estate. I’d be quite lost without you.”

 

That helps somewhat. She throws him a fond but confused smile as she asks her next question. “Why, then? Why are you so determined to come to Town? I thought your family were all gone to the country for the summer?”

 

“Because I want to go with you!” He half cries, throwing his hands up in the air, spilling a little stray gravy over the tablecloth.

 

She frowns hard, dampens a napkin, and starts dabbing at the mess he has made. “You truly want to come with me for its own sake?”

 

“No - for your sake. Or for my sake or ours. I want to come with you because we are newlyweds and you are my sweetheart wife.”

 

She gulps hard, lets the napkin fall in the gravy stain. To hell with it - the table cloth can be cleaned later. She is Bellamy’s sweetheart wife, and she rather thinks that deserves a spontaneous, messy kiss.

 

They end up spilling a little more gravy, as it happens. But she hardly thinks that is a disaster in the grand scheme of things.

 

…….

They arrive at her parents’ house in Town the following week, and it goes surprisingly smoothly. They profess to being delighted to see Bellamy, but Clarke thinks they actually are delighted. She could swear she can see real joy in their eyes. And he certainly acts warmly towards them - although that’s perhaps no surprise. Her husband is a very warm man in general.

 

So it is that the whole party of four find themselves sitting in the drawing room and passing the afternoon.

 

“I must confess that I have something of a soft spot for this drawing room.” Bellamy says, smiling brightly as he takes a seat.

 

“You do? Why?” Clarke asks, puzzled, as she sits next to him. She is often confused by her husband’s sentimental side - although she aspires to grow more expert in understanding every part of him, in time.

 

He frowns at her as if she ought to know the answer. “Because it is where I first called on you and where I asked you to marry me.” He points out.

 

She raises her brows at him. “There is no need to get so sentimental about a marriage of convenience between friends.” She says mildly.

 

He seems distressed by that. He’s glaring at her like she said the wrong thing, and then he’s glaring at the carpet, and now he’s glaring at the cup of tea her mother thrusts into his hand.

 

Clarke can’t understand why he looks so troubled, to be honest. If anyone has a right to be troubled by the situation she thinks it’s her. She’s the one who’s married to a beautiful, warm, engaging man who loves her money more than he loves her.

 

……..

 

The rest of that first afternoon is… stiff. Clarke is sorry she ever criticised Bellamy’s sentimental streak, now. If he wants to be foolish about a drawing room she supposes she ought to leave him to it.

 

Now she’s gone and ruined everything. Now her husband looks even less like he might love her, and her mother looks annoyed with her, and her father just looks tired.

 

See? Unmarriageable. She has always been unmarriageable.

 

It gets even worse, though, as the afternoon lengthens. Suddenly, of all things, her mother demands her help choosing a gown for dinner that evening.

 

Clarke sighs and follows her from the room.

 

“What is it?” She asks, the moment they are safely behind her mother’s closed dressing room door. She doesn’t believe any of this nonsense about a gown, not for one moment.

 

There is a brief silence. Her mother opens the wardrobe door, but Clarke gets the impression she does that to keep her hands busy more than to look at the dresses within.

 

And then -

 

“I know it’s not my place. I know it’s never my place to interfere in your marriage or your happiness. But I have been doing it for years so - here I am meddling again, I suppose.” A loud breath. “He’s in love with you, Clarke. He’s so obviously in love with you. And I know you never expected anyone to love you like that but he does. So perhaps it would be prudent not to describe this as a marriage of convenience right to his face.”

 

Clarke blinks at her, stunned. “You think Bellamy is in love with me?”

 

“I know Bellamy is in love with you.”

 

“No. No - that can’t be. He’s always been very honest and open about this. He required a marriage to a lady of fortune. He thought I was a sensible choice - he told me that the day we got engaged. He prepared an entire speech about how logical it was to marry me.”

 

“That’s not quite what he told your father.” Her mother says mildly. “He told him that you were the most fascinating and beautiful young lady and that he intended to cherish you.”

 

“To cherish me?”

 

“To cherish you.” She confirms, nodding firmly.

 

Clarke frowns harder than ever. “He does cherish me, I suppose. But he’s good at cherishing people in general. He’s very loving to his sister and he supports the orphanage I introduced him to and he’s very generous to the tenants.”

 

Her mother shakes her head. “Can’t you see it? I understand that he has not said it. For whatever reason he has hidden behind talk of good sense. But it’s obvious in the way he acts around you, in the way his eyes follow you around a room. And is he kind to you in private? Is he still a devoted husband even just between the two of you - where there is no need to keep up any charade of affection?”

 

Clarke nods, slow, considering that. It’s true - Bellamy is perhaps even more affectionate towards her in private than in public. He behaves that way even though he has always talked of sense - so it’s not as if he is so lovely to her behind closed doors for the sake of keeping up appearances.

 

But more than anything else, she thinks of the way he has acted this afternoon. He told her that drawing room held important memories. She threw that back in his face. And yes, the more she thinks about it, the more his reaction does seem like a man who was hurt rather than annoyed.

 

“You really think he might love me?” She asks, quiet, perhaps awestruck. She feels smaller and weaker in this moment than she has felt in quite some years. She simply doesn’t know how to deal with a revelation of this magnitude.

 

“I am quite sure of it. And I’m certain that, at this very moment, your father is attempting to assure him that you love him, too.”

 

Clarke laughs stiffly. “I do. I love him so much . I think perhaps that is why this is all so hard to believe. For years I felt that I was unmarriageable, that I could never be loved by a husband like Bellamy. To have him love me as I love him sounds deeply unlikely.”

 

“No - I think it makes perfect sense.”

 

Clarke bites her lip. She nods, once, firm and decisive.

 

“I ought to talk to him.”

 

“Yes. I believe you should.”

 

…….

 

She takes him driving, in the end. Of course she does - how else could she make things right between them? She thinks that he deserves a sentimental ending which looks back to their beginning.

 

It does feel like an ending, in fact, as they drive out of the stables and towards the park. An ending to this first chapter of their lives together - a sweet happily ever after. A good kind of ending, as well as the beginning of the next part.

 

She thinks he’d like that idea. She’ll explain it to him in those terms, just as soon as they’ve cleared the air between them. She thinks he’d like to know she’s been thinking sweet, sentimental thoughts about beginning and endings and the overlap between the two, about chapters in their lives together.

 

They drive in silence, through the streets and towards the park. It’s not as stiff as the silence between them in the drawing room this afternoon - already the simple act of taking him for a drive has this feeling much more like one of their quiet, companionable afternoons in the library.

 

Clarke even reaches out to pat his leg a little, whenever she can spare a hand from the reins.

 

At last they arrive. Hyde Park. The place where it all began, in so many ways.

 

“Do you remember the day when you brought me racing here? And I swore like a sailor all the while?” Clarke reminisces.

 

“Now who’s getting sentimental?” He more or less manages to tease.

 

She shoots him a quick grin. “I know, I know. I do remember these things too, you know. It was wrong of me to be so dismissive earlier.”

 

“No harm done. I understand - we simply see the world differently. That’s why life with you is so exciting.”

 

She smiles softly. “I should have known you’d be special the moment you came racing with me. But I must own, the moment I really began to have my suspicions was the day you came back three days later. I couldn’t believe you’d seen me at my most unladylike and still wanted to call.”

 

His turn to pat her leg, now. “I had seen you at your most lively and lovely and happy. Of course I wanted to see you again.”

 

She takes a deep breath. This is it. This is the moment to ask her question outright.

 

“Do you love me?” She asks him simply.

 

He stiffens at her side. She hears his breath catch, then hears him take a shaky inhale.

 

“Yes. I really do. I hope that’s alright.” He says, as if he thinks she might want him to say no.

 

She pats him on the leg once more and keeps driving. “That’s a stroke of good luck. I love you, too.”

 

There are no more words for quite some time, as they drive through the park together. Perhaps they shuffle a little closer on the seat. Perhaps Bellamy’s hand comes to rest on her knee, and perhaps she takes her hands off the reins in turn more often than is truly wise.

 

But they are silent, and content with silence. They do not intend to spend their whole married life in silence, of course - they argue well, too.

 

But for now there is no need to speak. They have said the words that matter.