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forewarned is forearmed

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1.

It’s an idle, passing thought, that first time. Something like, I wonder what’s for dinner? or Where did I leave my gloves?

In the middle of Hyde Park, on a sunny Thursday afternoon, Kate looks at the soaking wet figure of Viscount Bridgerton and thinks, Oh. He has nice arms.

She doesn’t mean to think it. She means to think, Idiot. Rake. Rude, insufferable man.

And she is thinking those things, really rather viciously as it happens, but then … well, then he goes and takes off his jacket.

The gesture itself is hardly an impressive one. He can’t really do anything else and still call himself a gentleman, not when Edwina is standing right there, soaking wet and shivering, her walking dress turned almost sheer from their tumble into the river. But as he unceremoniously drops his coat around Edwina’s shoulders, Kate finds herself staring at what he was hiding underneath it — namely, a thin, wet, white shirt.

A thin, wet, white shirt that is plastered almost indecently against his arms, from his shoulders right down to his wrists.

And that’s when it happens.

Oh.

Just a simple observation.

He has nice arms.

An odd feeling sweeps over her with the thought, catching like a hook in her belly. Surprise, she supposes, at finally finding something about the man that she actually likes. Besides his smile, that is. And— oh, very well, perhaps his kindness to Mary was quite endearing back at the house. And the flowers were nice. And his coat, the one now swimming on Edwina’s slight frame, is a rather pleasing shade of blue—

But apart from all that, she likes nothing about him whatsoever.

Except, apparently, his arms.

In her defence, he’s not supposed to have arms like this. He’s not supposed to have muscles. He’s a viscount, for heaven’s sake! He’s not supposed to have lifted anything heavier than whatever irritating little bell he uses to summon his servants.

Arms like his don’t belong on aristocrats. They belong on farm-hands. Labourers. Blacksmiths. Classical statues. Oil paintings of perfectly formed Greek gods, splayed out decadently on the canvas, naked and writhing and—

“Miss Sharma, are you listening to me?”

“Oh.” Kate blinks, wrenching her eyes from the viscount’s arms to his face. The bulging vein on his forehead warns her that what she’s about to say is a bad idea. She says it anyway. “No, not really.”

Bridgerton growls a low, frustrated sound in the back of his throat. “Of course not.”

“Sorry?” she offers, sounding anything but.

He sighs at that, clenching his fists and raising them to rest briefly against his forehead.

She wonders — another silly, idle thought — if he tears his shirt seams sometimes, doing things like that.

“Miss Sharma…” he grits out, as if he can somehow tell her mind is wandering again, even without looking her way.

“My apologies,” she says quickly, almost meaning it this time. “I was merely…”

Admiring your physique.

Wondering what you might look like wearing a laurel wreath

Wondering what you might look like wearing only a laurel wreath

“Merely what, Miss Sharma?” he prompts, dropping his fists to stare at her, all intense eyes and barely leashed anger.

He’s trying to intimidate her, she realises, an oddly pleasurable sort of shiver sliding up her spine at the thought.

“Well?”

His efforts certainly seem to be working on Edwina, who is studying the grass at her feet as if it’s the most fascinating thing she’s ever seen.

Kate, on the other hand, feels no compulsion to lower her gaze. None at all.

Instead she steps closer, resisting the urge to smirk when he takes a quick, automatic step back.

“Merely a trifle distracted,” she says sweetly, finally deigning to finish her sentence. “I was wondering what you hoped to achieve by giving Edwina your coat, when it is surely just as damp as her dress.”

“Kate!” Edwina whispers, mortified. “It was very kind of the viscount to offer—”

“No, your sister is quite right,” Bridgerton says shortly, sparing Edwina a brief glance. “I’m afraid it won’t save you from catching a chill but it was the best I could do.” He spins on his heel, turning his gaze back to Kate. Slowly, brazenly, he looks her up and down, his eyes lingering in all sorts of places they shouldn’t. “And I did not see you offering to give her your dress, Miss Sharma.”

Kate gasps at that.

She hates that she gasps at that.

But she does.

“This was your fault, after all,” Bridgerton goes on, smirking now, “which, if you had been listening, was precisely what you would have heard me saying just now.”

“It was not—”

“Oh, let’s not get into this again,” Edwina puts in, an uncommon edge of impatience sharpening her tone. “Please. I’m getting cold.”

“Right,” Bridgerton says distractedly, a faint wash of colour sweeping over his cheeks. “Yes. Of course.” He looks away from Kate, shaking his head slightly as though to clear water from his ears. “My apologies.”

So needlessly dramatic, this man. His head wasn’t even submerged.

“I shall see you home at once.” He flicks a quick look back at Kate, then at Newton. “Do you think you can manage to keep your animal under control on the way, Miss Sharma?”

“Oh, I’ll do my very best,” Kate says, pulling a face behind his back as he moves to retrieve Newton’s lead from the railing he wrapped it around after climbing out of the river. “But I make no promises,” she adds in an undertone, just loud enough for him to hear, “so mind he doesn’t bite…”

As he turns around, she could swear she hears him mutter, “I bet you bite.”

He moves back towards her, idly wrapping Newton’s lead back and forth around his arm, and Kate is appalled to realise that she’s staring at him, that she can’t seem to stop, utterly fixated on the way the rough cord strains slightly against his damp shirt, pulling the wet fabric tighter and tighter around his forearms, until she half expects it to tear.

She blinks, and suddenly he’s right in front of her.

“Here,” he says, unwinding the lead from his wrist and handing it over. His voice sounds rough. Odd.

She thinks she might like it.

He holds her gaze for just a split second longer than he should, and then he turns away.

And offers Edwina his arm.

Kate spends the rest of the day telling herself that the horrible, sickly feeling in her stomach is not disappointment.

And that night, she dreams about him. She dreams about his arms. His hands. He’s wrapping the rope of Newton’s lead around her wrists, over and over, tight enough that she can’t get free. He’s wrapping his fingers around her throat, his thumb against her racing pulse.

In the dream, she doesn’t mind a bit.

In the dream, there’s a bite mark on his forearm in the shape of her teeth.

--

2.

As it turns out, pall mall mallets are actually rather heavy.

Sadly, Kate does not discover this by swinging hers at Viscount Bridgerton.

But she does imagine it.

There’s really not much else to do between turns, especially when she’s too far away from most of the players to take part in their conversations. For a solid half an hour she amuses herself by idly swinging her mallet about, imagining all the ways she could sneak up on the viscount and knock the mallet of death right into the back of his knees, sending him sprawling to the floor at her feet.

It’s a somewhat vicious daydream, perhaps, but after his little trick back on the first wicket, she’s a little short on sympathy for the man right now.

And the idea of him on his knees is really rather appealing.

The price for this highly diverting fantasy is an odd, overheated sort of feeling in her face, a series of spectacularly botched shots, and a rather sore arm.

The mallet is an awkward size, too short to be rested on the grass and used like a cane for support, and with almost all its weight concentrated in the blunt head at the bottom, it keeps unbalancing and knocking into her ankles when she’d much rather imagine it knocking into his.

If she didn’t think the viscount would appear out of thin air and snatch it back off her, she’d have started tossing it onto the grass between turns about three wickets ago. Groaning under her breath, she swaps the blasted thing to her other hand instead, rolling her shoulder slightly to try and ease the ache.

“Losing hurts, eh, Miss Sharma?”

“Ugh. You.”

Kate slips her eyes closed, willing him to go away.

Naturally, when she opens them, Lord Bridgerton is still there.

In fact, he’s standing even closer.

“You can still catch me up, you know.”

“Oh, shut up,” she bites out, good manners quite abandoned at this point in the game. Not that there has ever been very much by the way of good manners between them. “I do not need your pity.”

“You mistake me, Miss Sharma. I was merely—”

“Gloating.”

“—Being nice.”

“You do not know the meaning of the word.”

His laugh is dangerously close to a cackle. He saunters even closer, effortlessly tossing the pink mallet from one hand to the other as if it weighs nothing at all.

“I can be nice.”

Something shivers through Kate at the statement. At the way he doesn’t take his eyes off her as he says it.

Somewhere between his last turn and this one, he discarded the jacket he was wearing. The realisation lands on her like a burn, but one that doesn’t hurt. It’s a drop of candle wax falling on cool skin — a shock, unpleasant and then, just as quickly, not.

“Go away,” she mutters. To him or her thoughts, she’s not sure.

His shirt is the finest weave, and blindingly white against his dark waistcoat. It ripples slightly in the breeze as he moves the mallet, catching against the muscles of his arms every now and again, clinging.

“Just go away.”

“No chance,” he says, coming to a stop right in front of her. He cocks his head, considering her with a strange half-smile. “I like you like this.” His voice is still light, teasing, but there’s an edge to it now, hinting at something dangerous. “All riled up—”

“You insolent—” Kate bites off the insult. “I am not—”

“Now, now, Miss Sharma.” He tuts softly and she feels the sound land inside her, in all sorts of strange places. “Don’t lie to me.”

“I was not lying.”

“Yes, you were.”

“I—”

“You,” he says, drawing out the word until it sounds different, until it feels different, “are a terrible loser, I think. I recognise the signs, you see, because I just so happen to be one myself.”

“Oh, you don’t say.”

He laughs at that, his whole face lighting up.

“I do not go to great pains to hide it, that’s true.” His shrug stretches that white shirt tight across his shoulders. “But unlike you, I so very rarely lose so—”

Kate cuts off his words with a groan. She raises the mallet of death, pointing it at him in warning. “I have not lost yet, my lord.”

He raises his hands in surrender and she has a sudden, unwelcome flash of that fantasy from earlier — him on his knees, panting and breathless, and hers to command.

She shoves it out of her mind. Tries to, at least.

“What are you doing back here anyway?” she grumbles, eyeing the distant figures of his brothers and sister across the far end of course. “I thought the rule was that you must stay with your ball.”

“I am between wickets,” he says, shrugging again.

She’s never given much thought to shrugs before.

On Anthony Bridgerton, they’re rather spectacular.

“And since Colin and Daff will no doubt take an age to line up their shots, I thought now might be a good time to check on Hyacinth.”

“Oh.”

Kate glances up at the sky, expecting to see that the sun has just come out from behind a cloud. She certainly feels warmer all of a sudden.

“She always pesters us to let her play,” Bridgerton goes on, looking back towards where his sister is languishing two full wickets behind Kate, “but then she gets fed up after an hour, especially when she’s losing.”

“Anthony!” Noticing his attention, Hyacinth waves her brother over. “I’m so bored!”

“See?” Bridgerton sighs, but there’s a smile in it too, somehow.

Kate feels herself smile back at him before she consciously decides to do it. “Sisters,” she says heavily.

“Sisters,” he agrees, humming a low, pleasant laugh that she can’t help but return.

It’s an odd feeling, sharing this tiny, private joke with him. She doesn’t want to like it. She doesn’t want him to walk away either, but both things happen.

“Anthony, look,” Hyacinth whines as he approaches her. She swings her mallet a little haphazardly, using it to point out her ball. “I am losing!”

Kate doesn’t make the decision to eavesdrop. The little girl’s voice just happens to carry. And Kate also just happens to wander a little closer so she doesn’t miss the viscount’s reply.

“I know, poppet. I’m sorry.”

Kate’s stomach does a funny little flip at the endearment.

“You are doing a good deal better than last time, though,” he goes on. “I saw you get that fourth wicket in only three strokes.”

“You were watching?”

“Of course I was watching.”

Watching seems like a good idea, now that he mentions it. Giving up on merely listening in, Kate angles herself so she can see them both as well.

And then she promptly clunks her mallet against her ankle in surprise.

“Ow,” she whispers, and then, quieter still, “Oh.”

Because Lord Bridgerton — cold, arrogant, insolent Lord Bridgerton — is hugging his little sister.

It’s not just a perfunctory, there-there sort of embrace, either. He’s got his head bent towards hers as they talk, one arm curled protectively around her shoulders, and he looks utterly comfortable, as though this isn’t unusual at all. As though they do it all the time.

Kate suddenly realises that she’s got a handful of her own pelisse, the fabric bunched up into a fist over her heart. She lets it go, smoothing the cotton and telling herself to stop staring. To stop listening.

She sidles a little closer instead.

“How about this…” Bridgerton says to Hyacinth, “I shall help you line up your next shot.” He lets her go, tossing his mallet aside and dropping to his haunches beside her ball. “I think you can get it through the wicket in one more stroke if we really think about it.”

“But that … that’s cheating. We are not supposed to help each other.”

He winks. “I won’t tell if you don’t.”

Kate doesn’t like the man. She really doesn’t. But as she watches him take great pains to study the placement of little Hyacinth’s ball relative to the wicket, listening patiently to all her ideas about how hard to hit it, and at what angle, she realises that she could.

She could like him a lot.

And then—

“Oh good God…”

Then he starts to roll up his sleeves.

It’s hardly a scandalous move, not out here in the countryside, far away from all the rigid rules of London. And it’s nothing that his brothers haven’t already done, both of them giving in to the warmth of the afternoon way back on the first couple of wickets.

But for reasons that Kate cannot fathom, all the simple motions that seemed innocent on Colin and Benedict Bridgerton — nimble fingers unbuttoning a cuff, the slow, careful roll of fabric up an arm — seem positively indecent on the viscount.

She watches, her throat suddenly dry, as he idly rolls up the ends of his sleeves, his wrists flexing with each turn, the fabric sliding away to reveal strong, well defined forearms, dusted with dark, soft hair.

She doesn’t actually know that, of course. That the hair on his arms is soft.

But somehow she does.

He’s barely paying attention to what he’s doing, still intent on studying the layout of Hyacinth’s wicket, squinting at the course as the clouds finally part, bathing the whole lawn in bright spring sunshine. He’s so distracted, in fact, that he doesn’t even notice that he rolls one of his sleeves for one more turn than the other, making the two sides a little lopsided.

It’s oddly endearing.

“Your turn, Kate!”

Kate startles at the sound of Edwina’s voice, jerking her head towards where her sister is calling her from the wicket up ahead. Panic claws at her chest. She glances back towards the viscount, and then to Edwina, holding her breath as she waits for her sister to notice him standing there in the sunshine, tall and strong and naked from the damned elbows, and promptly fall in love with him.

Strangely enough, that’s not what happens at all.

Miraculously, Edwina looks at him and then simply … looks away.

“Kate? Are you taking your turn or…?”

“Right! Yes! Sorry!” Hefting her mallet, Kate hurries back to her ball and takes a quick, ill-thought out shot that sends it sailing far past her wicket.

“Damn,” she mutters under her breath.

“Bad luck!” Edwina calls out, already turning back to focus on her own turn.

“Oh dear…”

For the second time in less than ten minutes, Kate slips her eyes closed and prays that Anthony Bridgerton won’t be there when she opens them.

“I think impatience might be your problem, you know.”

She opens her eyes, fixing him with the darkest, cruellest scowl she can muster.

Actually it’s your bloody forearms.

“Arrogance is most definitely yours,” she bites out, trying to keep her eyes on his stupid, handsome, smiling face and away from the absolute obscenity of his bare arms.

He laughs at her little barb, and she discovers in a rush of pleasure that she likes that. The sound. The light in his eyes. The feeling in her chest.

“Only arrogance? And here I expected you to give me the whole laundry list of my flaws.”

“I haven’t all afternoon, my lord.”

He laughs again at that. “That’s true. You have a game to lose, after all.”

Just then, a little whoop of triumph from back down the course announces that Hyacinth has taken her turn, and made her shot. Kate turns towards the sound, clapping the little girl’s efforts.

“You are breaking the rules, Miss Sharma,” the viscount says, moving to stand beside her. “There is no cheering for other players.”

She turns her head slightly, a strange sort of thrill dancing up her spine when she realises how close he is. “But you helping her was not against the rules?”

“Oh, that won’t matter in the end,” he says, shrugging. She’d forgotten how much she likes it when he does that. “I give it five more turns before she gives up and runs off back to the house for tea.”

He brightens at the thought, a spark of amusement lighting up his eyes. “And then you shall be in last place.”

“No! No — Technically if she forfeits, I still beat her!”

“She’s eleven, Miss Sharma.”

“Oh.” Kate feels herself flush. “Yes, well, I—”

“Relax,” he says, grinning impishly. “I’m only bamming you. I would have said precisely the same thing.”

“You beast!” She doesn’t mean to smile back at him. But just like before, her lips make the decision before her mind has a chance to get involved. “I felt awful then!”

“So you should. Lording your victory over a poor, blameless little girl…”

“She is your sister, my lord. She can’t be that much of an angel.”

He snorts a laugh, glancing back towards the little girl. “You’re right, of course.” His smile is pure indulgence. “She’s a little hellion.”

The fondness in his voice is almost unbearably lovely.

“You’re very good with her.”

The viscount smiles faintly, giving her another of those delicious shrugs of his. “Even big bad rakes love their baby sisters, Miss Sharma.”

Kate scoffs, eyeing him as he stands beside her, eye to eye, nose to nose, very nearly the exact same height. “You are not that big.”

Bridgerton chokes on thin air.

“What?”

“Nothing,” he says, coughing out a laugh. “Nothing at all.”

Even so, it rather feels like something.

All of this — it all feels like something.

--

3.

His arm is warm around her shoulders.

The detail is not what matters — the softness of his shirt against her skin, the weight of him, the warmth.

What matters is that she notices. She doesn’t notice, not when there’s a storm. She can’t. She can’t see. Can’t speak. Can’t move.

When a storm starts, she just … ends.

She becomes a body without a soul, just bones and blood and fear. And cold, always cold.

Until tonight. Until Anthony Bridgerton lowers himself down to the floor of his own library and puts his warm, heavy arm around her trembling shoulders. And she notices.

She doesn’t know how long he’s been sitting here beside her, whispering platitudes into her unhearing ears, only knows that somewhere, somehow, she started to hear him.

“You’re all right, Kate.”

“You’re safe.”

“I won’t leave you.”

Somewhere, somehow, she started to believe him.

“I won’t let anything hurt you.”

After a while the promises slide into pleas, cajoling and kind and a little desperate, a little ragged at the edges.

“Breathe, Kate. Just breathe.”

“Please try. Please. For me.”

“That’s it. Good girl. In and out, just like that. Slower. There you go.”

Even as the storm rages on beyond the rattling windows, she feels it — the clouds inside her lifting, her skies clearing. She comes back to herself, piece by careful piece. No, that’s not right. He gives her back to herself. She has a pulse because she can feel his, thrumming beneath her thumb where she’s clutching at his wrist. She has courage because he lends her every last bit of his own, all his borrowed strength pressed into her side, his arm held tight around her shaking shoulders, holding her together until she finds the steel that lives in her spine, and the trembling slows. Stops.

“Time to open your eyes, Kate.”

She has eyes because he asks her to use them.

“Come on.” His hand curls under her chin, gently angling her face up towards his. “Look at me, sweetheart. Just look at me.”

She can see because she has to. She has to see him, now, sitting beside her in the dark. Holding her hand. Calling her by names he’d never use in the light.

Slowly, she flutters her eyes open, taking a moment to steel herself against the pity she will surely see in his eyes. She meets his gaze openly, brazenly, waiting for it, but it never comes. There’s something else there instead. Something new. She doesn’t know what it is, but it’s not pity.

“Kate…”

It’s not possible that she doesn’t have a voice. Not when he’s asking for her.

“I … I’m all right, my lord.”

The title intrudes like an open window, blowing in a taste of the storm. She stiffens in his arms, suddenly remembering who he is, where they are, all the things they can never be to each other.

“Forgive me,” she says, trying to pull away from him. “I ought to—”

“Don’t.” His voice is weak, rough, as if he’s the one who hasn’t spoken for hours, not her. “Don’t say you’re sorry.” He tightens his arm around her shoulders. And he is so, so warm. “And don’t go.”

“But—”

“Just breathe, Kate. Just look at me.”

She has a heart because it’s right there, falling into his hands.

--

4.

“Kate?”

Her new husband finds her in the library.

Of course.

“There you are!”

He sounds a little breathless, like perhaps he hurried home to her.

Kate shares a small, private smile with the bookshelf at the thought. “Here I am.”

“Looking for something new to read?”

“No,” she says, still not turning around. It’s nice, sometimes, to linger on the waiting. “I just like it in here.”

It smells like history, like dusty books and old parchment, and like their history too, the ghost of that night seeming to linger in the air — petrichor and the singed wick of burnt low candles. The rest of the house still feels too grand, too unfamiliar, to be totally comfortable, but her new world always feels a little smaller in here. If she closes her eyes she can shrink it right down to the space beneath that table in the corner, to the feeling of his arm around her shoulders and the whisper of his voice in her ear.

“I’m sorry I was gone so long,” Anthony says quietly, his arms sliding around her waist from behind, pulling her back against the warm, solid wall of his chest.

She sighs into his embrace, relaxing into the almost-familiar warmth of him. Touching him doesn’t quite feel normal yet, not after only a few days of marriage, but it doesn’t feel quite so new either, not anymore. It feels more like remembering something she knew a long time ago, like a favourite song from when she was a child, half-forgotten but always there, ready to be sung.

“It’s all right,” she says, feeling him relax a little at her reassurance. She glances to her left, not towards him but towards the table in the corner of the room, the one that sheltered her once, until his arms did. “It was quite a storm … that night. I am not surprised that the damage was considerable.”

She left him earlier out with some of the tenants, helping to organise a working party to repair the last of the damaged farms. He was in his element, hands on his hips, standing tall and proud in the sunshine as he relished the prospect of an afternoon filled with good, honest work and his favourite activity of all: telling people what to do.

“Did you get everything finished?”

The sun was high overhead when she left him but the candles are lit in here now, a few bright spots in the pale gold of the late afternoon light. She turns her head towards him, wanting to see his face in the fading light.

“Not quite,” he says, his jaw rough against her cheek, shaded with the beginnings of the stubble that she’ll watch him shave away in the morning.

He won’t let her near him with the razor, not yet. But she can be patient. He’ll let her, one day. He’ll like it, one day.

“You’ll go back tomorrow then?” she asks, angling her neck to try and see him better, her nose pressing into the sun-warmed skin of his neck at the open collar of his shirt.

He smells like hard work, the scent of the outdoors clinging to him there, grass and dust, and sunshine mixed with salt. She inhales deeply, feeling the slow, sweet bloom of desire unfurling inside her, familiar and new, all at once. She glances down, her eyes falling to the place where his arms are crossed over her stomach, and she thinks wildly, stupidly, of all the books in here — all that perfect tinder — as that simmering warmth inside her suddenly catches fire, and burns.

It’s the littlest thing that does it.

His arms are bare to his elbows, his shirt sleeves folded haphazardly out of the way to reveal the strong, corded muscles of his forearms, the same ones she watched ripple and clench as he moved above her that morning.

And right there, stuck to his arm by the crook of his elbow, is a small, thin blade of grass.

That little detail whispers that he missed her. That he hurried home, dirty and aching, and didn’t bother to call for a bath before he came and found her. His hands are clean, his nails scrubbed free of the mud and dirt of his afternoon’s work, but that’s all. He made himself just clean enough to touch her, and then he came running.

The impatience of it is exquisite.

“I did actually,” he says, answering the question she’s already forgotten. “I told the men that I would be back in the morning. That is … if you do not mind?”

His breath flutters against her ear as he speaks, betraying his hesitance, and her heart aches for it. He seems to expect this, her husband — to always be pulled in two directions. To be chastised for not doing one important thing even when he’s busy doing another. And this is what it’s done to him, Ieft him flinching before the blow even falls.

“Of course not,” she says, quick and firm. “The tenants are our responsibility, Anthony. I understand that.”

He presses a kiss to her temple, humming a grateful note in his throat. “Even so, I expect that most gentlemen do not spend their honeymoons repairing fences.”

“Perhaps not,” she agrees, idly tracing her fingers along the veins of his hand. “But I am glad that mine does.”

He turns her in his arms then, slowly, a dance move that requires no music. Once she’s facing him, he lifts a hand to her face and gently trails the back of it down her jaw. The cool metal of his signet ring leaves a blissful trail of goosebumps in its wake and she thinks, briefly, about pressing her cheek into it, wanting the mark.

He leans in, his voice barely more than a whisper. “I am, you know.”

“Are what?” she teases. “A gentleman?”

“Yours,” he says, and then covers her mouth with his.

The kiss is everything she usually likes, and not at all what she wants. It’s a slow, careful slide of his lips across hers, a hint of his tongue, of his teeth — a promise of more, later, when she wants more now.

“Anthony…” She clutches him closer, grabbing fistfuls of the bunched cutton of his shirt sleeves as she pulls him against her. “Please.”

He groans his approval, for her touch or her pleas she’s not sure, perhaps both. Then he dips at the knees slightly, walking her backwards towards the bookcase, his hand slipping into her hair to shield her head as she bumps up against the shelves.

“Anthony, I—” She bites off her sentence as he drops his lips to her neck, nipping and soothing over the soft skin there, his tongue pressing hot and flat against the pulse point beneath her jaw. “I think—”

He moves his mouth back to hers, stealing away her words and her breath and every proper, pure thought she’s ever had in her life. She parts her legs beneath her skirts, letting him press his knee between them, trapping her completely between the books — leather and paper, dust in her hair — and his body — warmth and strength and the hint of salt on his skin.

“God, Kate,” he murmurs, his breath ragged as he tears his lips from hers. “I missed you.”

She pants out half a laugh, pressing her forehead into his as she catches her breath. “You were gone for an afternoon.”

“Precisely.” He kisses her again, and it tastes like a smile. “Far, far too long.”

She shakes her head at him, fondness sweetening her desire for him, like a drop of honey on a warm spoon, pressed to her tongue.

“I intend to make it up to you this evening,” he says, his voice pitched low.

She smiles at the promise in his voice, pulling him a little closer, the open sides of his waistcoat creasing in her desperate hands.

“Anthony…” Her greedy eyes wander over every inch of him, catching on tiny, insignificant details — a lock of hair falling over his brow, a loose thread unravelling at the edge of his open collar, a twist in the chain of his pocket watch. “I think you should—”

“Bathe before supper, I know,” he says, flicking a rueful look down at his shirt.

“Take me to bed,” she finishes, a split second after him.

He goes suddenly, completely, still.

“What?” She’s never heard him so quiet. So soft. “What did you say?”

Kate sucks in a breath, not missing the way his eyes fall immediately to the rise and fall of her breasts, to the way they strain against the edge of her bodice as she breathes, hard and fast.

The hunger in that look is enough to make her brave.

“I said I think you should take me to bed.”

Anthony blows out a long, slow breath, a flicker of surprise chasing across his face, and with good reason. She has been willing, desperate even, for every last thing he has shown her these past few days, but never, not once, has she been the first to move. The first one to want.

Until now.

The look on her new husband’s face tells her that he realises this.

It tells her that he likes it.

But then, of course, he has to go and ruin it.

“Why?”

She stiffens slightly in his arms. “What do you mean, why?”

He smiles faintly, his lips slightly parted as he stares at her, his tongue poking insolently into the side of his cheek. “Why?” he repeats.

She fidgets under the intensity of his stare, feeling watched. Exposed. Bare. “I…”

“Is it the work?” He glances down then, laughing as he takes a quick look at the dishevelled state of his attire. “Do you like me like this, Kate? A little rough around the edges?”

His smile is warm enough but she feels herself turn suddenly, shockingly, cold.

“Don’t.” She lets go of his waistcoat, hugging her arms around herself instead. “Don’t make fun of me, Anthony.”

“I am not.” He says it completely without guile, but it’s too late. Her sudden embarrassment won’t let her hear how appalled he sounds. “Kate, my God, I would never. Not about this.”

“You would,” she says, pulling out of his embrace and striding across the room, no destination in mind. “You laughed.” She turns back to him, hating the accusation in her voice. Hating that in her heart she already knows it isn’t true, that she has done the same thing she always does — jumped to the wrong conclusion, just to have something to hide behind. “You were laughing…”

“Not at your expense, Kate.” He moves towards her, slowly, as if she might bolt if he hurries. He’s not wrong. “Never that.”

“But then—” She huffs, frustrated — with herself and with him, and with the fact that she still wants him, even now. Even when she wants to curl up into a ball and hide from that soft, understanding look in his eyes, she also wants to see it above her, beneath her, the gathering ache between her thighs only getting worse as he reaches for her so slowly, so gently, all his frustration picked up and put away, for her sake.

“Then why ask?” she says, sighing out the question as he slides his arm around her waist, not letting her retreat any further. “Why try and—”

“Because I wanted to know,” he replies, firmly and without hesitation. Giving her no space to do anything but believe him.

“Oh,” she says, her embarrassment more acute than ever now.

She tries to look away but he won’t let her, grasping her chin with a strong but careful hand, keeping her eyes on him.

“I want to know everything about you, Kate. What you want. What you like. What gives you pleasure.”

“Oh,” she says again, like a fool.

He smiles softly at her, running his thumb slowly over her mouth, catching at her bottom lip and pulling it free of where she’s worrying it with her teeth. “It’s all right, you know. To want things. To ask me for them.”

“I…” She swallows hard, thinking of all the things she wants from him. His hair between her fingers. His head between her thighs. His shirt and boots and breeches on the floor. The length of him in her hand. In her mouth. “I know that.”

“Do you?” he says, more curious than unsure. “Then what was that, just now, why did you—”

“Because.” She drops her gaze again, addressing that loose thread on his collar. “It is … embarrassing.”

“Oh, Kate, no.” He grasps her head in both of his hands now, his ring cool against her heated cheek as he forces her to look at him again. “You never need to be embarrassed with me.”

She scoffs. She can’t help it.

“What? What is it?”

You!” She glances down at his arm, finding the tiny little piece of grass that started this. “You do not understand! All of this … it is different for you. Not so new. You have so much more control than—”

“Kate,” he says, a little of his frustration slipping into his voice now. God help her, she likes the roughness of it. He snatches his hands back from her face, curling them into fists, but there’s no violence in the way he strokes them down the apples of her cheeks, slow and soft. “If you think I possess even a modicum of control when it comes to you, then you have not been paying attention.”

“It is not the same, Anthony, and you know it.”

“Why—”

“Because! I have never seen you go to pieces for something as simple as an open collar and a—”

This time he really does laugh at her.

“Do you really think so?” He ducks his head and kisses her, hard and bruising, and still so damn sweet she wants to cry. “Kate, yesterday afternoon you took down your hair and I thought I might die.”

“I…” She jerks back, staring up at him. “What?”

He smiles faintly, evidently pleased to have shocked her. “It was just after lunch. We were in the drawing room, do you remember? You were wearing your dark green day dress, the one with the little ruffle along the bodice, and you were complaining that there was a stray pin somewhere in your hair. You said it was giving you a headache.”

He takes her hand as he talks, leading her towards the armchair beside the fire. She barely even notices, too lost in his story, and the quiet, soft timbre of his voice as he tells it.

“Eventually you started trying to find it,” he goes on, dropping into the chair and tugging her down onto his thigh, her skirts settling between his spread legs. “You pulled out one pin, then another, then another. And then, after a little while you got impatient, the way you do sometimes...” He gives her waist a pinch at that, humming a laugh. “And so you gave up and pulled out all the pins.”

“I— I barely even remember that.”

“I remember all of it.” He slips one hand into the back of her coiffure, his thumb rubbing over a loose curl at the back of her neck. “Your hair came down in this great big mass of curls, and you made this sound, like a sort of whimper, and I … I could not breathe.”

For a long moment she just looks at him, saying nothing at all. She’s not sure she could speak, even if she wanted to.

Eventually, very quietly, she says, “I see.”

“Do you?” He smiles faintly, pressing a kiss to both of her cheeks, heated in desire now, not shame. “I am a fool for you, Lady Bridgerton…”

A wash of pleasure laps over her at his words, as though she is standing on the beach, the tide rushing in to cover her feet, and then ebbing away. She wants to chase it. To walk right into the ocean and let herself drown in it. In him.

Except—

She kisses him, slow and soft, and it doesn’t feel like drowning at all. It feels like floating.

Smiling softly, she captures his face in her hands, walking slow fingertips up to his temples to smooth back the stray curl falling over his brow. He closes his eyes at her ministrations, humming a quiet, contented noise in the back of his throat.

“I suppose,” she muses, smoothing her hand through his hair, “that a good wife ought to object to that descriptor. But then again, I have always thought you something of a fool, my lord.”

He smiles at her barb, weak as it is. “Ah,” he says softly, opening his eyes again. “There she is.”

It’s not so frightening, now, the way he looks at her. The way he sees her.

She settles herself more comfortably onto his lap, resting her head against his shoulder with a long, slow sigh. He groans as she shifts against him, the proof of his lingering desire pressing against her hip. He makes no move to hide it, and no move to relieve it either, his hands staying firmly around on her waist, carefully placed.

“Your hair was loose that night as well,” he says quietly, after a moment. “During the storm.”

“I remember,” she whispers back.

He strokes his thumb idly over her side, creeping up towards the curve of her breast, so very slowly. He doesn’t stop there, his touch ghosting over her and then gone, and he smiles faintly at the quiet, petulant sound she lets out as she arches herself towards him, chasing.

“I wanted you then, as well,” he says, his hand sliding up and into her hair again, tilting her head back slightly so he can press a kiss to the underside of her jaw. “I could think of nothing else.”

“Really?” She shifts on his lap, pressing her thighs together, but it’s no use. The ache won’t go away. She doesn’t really want it to.

“Not — not at first,” he says quickly, as though afraid he has offended her. “Not when you were scared. I only wanted you safe, then. But later … after we talked …” He blows out a long breath, the heat of it whispering against her cheek, the ghost of a kiss. “I did not want you to leave.”

“I did not want to go,” she admits, barely recognising her own voice. “I thought about staying.”

He closes his eyes as her words land, as though they’re hurting him. But he smiles, like it’s a good pain.

“I thought about following you,” he says. “About knocking on your bedroom door.”

“I think…”

She trails off, lost in the memory of that night — the way she took him to her bed with her, even as she slipped all alone between the cool sheets of a guest room that he has probably never even seen. The ghost of his arm was real enough, heavy and warm across her shoulders, her skin still warmed with the borrowed heat of his, and when her hand slipped between her legs it was his fingers she imagined there, his name she bit back from crying out into the darkness.

“I think I would have let you in.”

He lets out a rough, desperate exhale, dropping his head to her temple. “Christ, Kate. Do not tell me that.”

She shrugs. “It’s the truth.”

He stands up suddenly, lifting her off his lap in one smooth, effortless motion. “Which room?” he murmurs urgently, his hands tight on her arms as he clasps her to him from behind, his firm, broad chest pressing hot against her back. “Do you remember, Kate? Could you find it again?”

“Why?”

He laughs darkly.

“Why do you think?” He leans in even closer, his voice a low, rough whisper in her ear. “So that I can make love to you right there, in that bed where—”

“Yes,” she blurts out, feeling the hot rush of his laughter against her neck. “Yes, I could find it again.”

She doesn’t mind it anymore, the laughter. She understands it now, she’s inside the joke with him, and there is hilarity in it — in the absolute power they hold over each other. In all the foolish things they do for it.

“Good girl,” he says softly, the praise going straight to the ache between her thighs. “Show me the way.”

She spins in his arms, turning herself to face him, to see him. Open collar. Tousled hair. Bare, clean arms — that blade of grass gone now, brushed away, perhaps when she wasn’t looking. Or perhaps it’s on her dress now. Perhaps it’s on her skin.

“Now?” she says, hearing the eagerness in her voice. Liking it.

He opens his mouth, agreement already on his tongue, but then he looks over her shoulder, his eyes suddenly falling to that table in the corner, the place where so much of this madness between them began.

“No,” he says, sounding faintly surprised at himself. “Not yet. I want you in here first.”

“In… in here?”

“Yes, Kate. In here.”

She swallows, looking at the open door. The wide, clear windows, looking out over the lawn. Where anyone could be walking. Watching. “But…”

He walks over to the door, closing it slowly. Deliberately.

The windows come next, each pair of drapes pulled tight against the late afternoon light.

In the candlelight it feels a little more like that night, and something of that memory must show on her face, because he shakes his head softly as he walks back to her side.

“No hiding this time.” He runs a finger along her jaw, gently turning her face towards the corner of the room. “I don’t want you under the table, Kate. I want you on top of it.”

She sucks in a breath, but it’s not enough, she can’t seem to fill her lungs.

He leans in close, his voice low and rough. “Would you like that, sweetheart? Would you like to spread your legs up there for me?”

She gasps at his crude, blunt words, and he smiles, as if he knows what that gasp means — that it’s pleasure, not shock.

“I…”

That feeling from earlier threatens to creep in— vulnerability masquerading as shame — but it’s too weak, too faint, to chill her desire this time. The fire inside her burns it right up, melting away her embarrassment, and setting her free.

“Yes,” she tells him, bold and brave. “Yes, I’d like that very much.”

He groans something low and weak in his throat and then abruptly lets her go, striding over to the table and sweeping one strong arm across its surface, carelessly sending books and papers flying.

The only thing he doesn’t knock to the floor is an old, slightly battered looking gold ink-stand, which he picks up carefully, lovingly, in two hands, and deposits onto the mantelpiece.

“Your father’s?” she guesses, watching him.

He doesn’t pretend to misunderstand. “Yes.”

She crosses the room in three short strides, and kisses him like she loves him.

And she thinks, vaguely, Who is the fool here, really?

But then he kisses her back, and she doesn’t care.

“Your hair,” he says, the words slurred out like a drunkard as she trails her lips down to his neck, his jaw, nipping and licking, turning the strongest man she’s ever known into a whimpering wreck in her arms. “Take it down.”

She pulls back slightly, looking at the beautiful mess she has made of him — lips swollen, eyes like pitch.

“Please, Kate,” he says. “Take down your hair.”

She reaches for the first pin but then she remembers — his voice earlier, quiet and patient and honest.

It’s all right, you know. To want things. To ask me for them.

And so she shakes her head, saying simply, “No.”

“But…”

“No, Anthony.” She turns her back on him, leaning slightly over the table, bracing her hands on the empty surface. And then she looks at him over her shoulder, and says, imperiously, “I want you to do it.”

She’s never seen him move so fast.

--

5.

Kate’s life is all numbers, after the accident.

Six weeks until she can try putting weight on her leg again.

Five glasses of whisky for the pain.

Four walls and nothing else for weeks but waiting, waiting, waiting.

Three days until the next Whistledown. Two hours until Anthony gets home. One until Newton will want a walk, and he’ll bark and bark and not understand why Kate won’t take him.

Some days she bears it well and some days she just bears it, and then one day it’s finally the day — the day the strapping on her leg can come off, at last.

She wakes early and spends the morning staring at her bedroom door, waiting for the doctor like a child waits for their birthday, restless and giddy. Then, when he’s been and gone, and she’s taken five whole steps, she paints on a smile she doesn’t mean and waits a little more, just until Anthony reluctantly goes out to parliament.

And then she cries.

It’s silly, really, but in all those endless weeks of boredom, she never once thought about what her leg would look like when all the bindings came off.

She thought about walking again. Riding. Dancing. Other things.

She didn’t think about the bruises on her ankles, the weakness of her muscles, the peeling of her skin. She didn’t think it would all be so ugly.

Every part of her aches as she hobbles with her cane to her dressing room, far more steps than her doctor suggested she should be trying at the moment. The bath she insists on is precarious, the journey back to the bedroom even more so, but she could swear that everything hurts a little less, knowing that her leg is covered now, her dry skin soothed with a salve and hidden away beneath an absurdly fine silk stocking, the kind she might wear beneath a ballgown.

She knows that Anthony notices, later, and she loves him a little more for not asking why.

“You overdid it, didn’t you?” he says instead, eyeing her as she lounges on their bed, her leg stretched out in front of her. “While I was out today?”

“Perhaps a little…”

“Kate…” He sighs, tugging off his cravat. “You must promise me you’ll be careful.”

“Just careful? You do not want me to promise to take it easier?”

He hums a quiet laugh, tossing his cravat at her. “Why would I waste my time asking for promises you could never keep?”

She laughs in reply, catching the strip of linen and bringing it up to her nose, inhaling his familiar, soothing scent. “You know me too well.”

He pauses his undressing to look at her, smiling the softest of all his smiles. “Just well enough, I think.”

It’s a funny feeling sometimes, loving him. It can be all sorts of things in the span of a single day — madness in the morning, peace in the afternoon — utterly contrary and yet somehow, not.

Tonight it feels like friendship, quiet and kind.

“I used my cane,” she tells him, idly running his cravat through her fingers. “If that makes you feel any better?”

“Marginally.” He sits down on the edge of the bed, his shirt wide open, revealing the broad expanse of his chest, firm and familiar and so very tempting. She thinks about reaching for him, about sliding her hand beneath the soft cotton of his shirt and finding his heartbeat, but one look at his hand, resting flat on the mattress, just beside her leg but not touching it, and she knows that he won’t allow it, not yet. Not until she lets him touch her first.

Like a coward, she pulls her leg a little further from his hand.

“How bad is it, Kate?” he says quietly, his eyes on the shape of her leg beneath her nightdress. “You can tell me.” The patience in his voice is boundless. Endless. Like the way he loves her. “If you need something for the—”

“No,” she says, “no laudanum. It only aches a little, that’s all.”

“I was not thinking laudanum actually. I was thinking spirits.

He winks at her, cheeky and ridiculous, and she barely resists the urge to giggle for him.

“I could take a little brandy, I suppose. But only a little. We do not want a repeat of—”

“No,” he agrees hastily. “Certainly not.”

The week after her accident, she made Anthony put the laudanum away and took five glasses of his best whisky for the pain instead. She cast up her accounts, later that same evening, and it was not pretty. Still, he held her hair back for her without complaint, rubbing soothing circles on her back and trying not to laugh as she babbled, drunkenly, my god, you must have really meant it. You must really, really love me.

“You stay there,” he says, and she adores him for pretending that she has a choice, that she could leave this bed under her own power if she wanted to. “I’ll fetch it, save bothering the servants. I want to check on something in my study anyway.”

She closes her eyes for a moment as he leaves, listening to the quiet patter of his steps along the hall, down the stairs, and back up again. He moves quickly, like always, never one for lingering when he has somewhere to be, and she likes that she knows it — that she can tell his footsteps from anyone else’s, that she can always pick them out, heading right for her.

When he slips back inside their bedroom, he’s holding a deck of cards, a decanter of brandy, and just one glass.

“You do not want any?” she says, watching as he pours out a measure for her.

“Not enough hands,” he says, shrugging. “I’ll share your glass.”

“And the cards?”

“I thought we might play a game.”

The suggestion is innocent enough. Children play games. Friends. Families. But the heat that rushes over Kate has nothing at all to do with the burn of her first sip of brandy.

“What will we play for?” she asks, not bothering to disguise the breathless edge of interest in her voice. “Not money.”

“No,” he agrees. “No point. Everything of mine is already yours.”

Strictly speaking, everything of hers is actually his, but she doesn’t bother to correct him.

“Truths, then?” she offers.

“And forfeits,” he says, shuffling the cards with a lazy, practised ease that immediately draws her attention to his arms.

She thought, once, that she might lose her fascination with his forearms after they were married. It made a strange sort of sense, she thought, that she would be drawn to the only vaguely private part of him that she’d ever seen, and that once she saw other, infinitely more interesting parts, his arms would lose their power over her.

She was, as it turns out, quite wrong.

Because she knows every inch of him now — has counted the freckles hidden beneath his clothes, has pressed her tongue into the hollows of his collarbones and ran her fingers through the hair on his chest, following where it leads and taking him in her hand, in her mouth, teasing and tasting, watching his eyes roll back in ecstasy — and yet she still goes weak for just the clink of his cuff-links being dropped onto the bedside table.

His sleeves are rolled up tonight, the way they almost always are at home, and she can still see the faint burn of the tan he got when he fell asleep beside her in the garden last week.

When he catches her staring, it feels a little like she’s already lost, before a single hand is dealt. And a little like she’s already won.

“Rather warm tonight, is it not?” Without waiting for her answer, he places the cards down on the bed and tugs off his shirt in one smooth, fluid motion. “There. That’s better.”

He drops down onto the bed beside her, humming a low, quiet groan of relief as he sinks back against the soft pillows.

“Husband, please,” she says flatly, taking another sip of her brandy. “I know what you are doing.”

“And what’s that?”

“You are trying to distract me so that you may win.”

“Is that so?” He smiles lazily, dealing out a hand of vingt-et-un for them both. Then he plucks her glass out of her hands, licking up a drop of brandy from the edge as he takes a sip. “Is it working?”

“No,” she lies, hiding her smile behind her cards. “I’ll take another card please.”

He flips the top of the deck over, the latest card giving her a decent hand, enough to stick.

“What were you checking downstairs?” she says idly, watching him play through his own hand.

“Oh,” he says, his voice carefully casual. “That.”

“Anthony?”

He shifts a little, absently turning over a card. “I do not want to say.”

“Well now you have to tell me.”

“I was … checking a date in my calendar.”

“And?”

“And,” he goes on reluctantly, “did you know that today is precisely three months to the day since the first time I kissed you?”

He looks awkward and embarrassed, and rather guiltily pleased.

And she—

She can’t help it. She bursts out laughing.

“How on earth did you work that out?”

“I—”

“Did you make a note of it? Oh, please tell me you made a note of it!”

Of course I didn’t—”

“Dear diary … seduced a woman I’m falling madly in love with today, and then was abominably rude in the hope that it would scare her off.”

“Oh, hush.” He rolls his eyes, beleaguered and fond. “I had the musicale in my planner, that’s all.”

“Ah, of course.” She reaches for him, tracing a finger over his temple and down the side of his face, her laughter fading into a quiet, happy hum. “I cannot believe it’s only been three months…”

Such a short time, to have changed two lives so completely.

“I know.” His smile flickers, sliding closer to a frown. “And I know that I’ve no right to remember that evening fondly, not with how I behaved afterwards but—”

She waves her hand, cutting him off. “We were neither of us at our best that night.”

“That’s true,” he agrees, brightening. “You bit me.”

“I did.” She hums a low, dirty laugh, watching him watch her swallow a mouthful of her drink. “And to think, these days you have to ask me nicely for that sort of thing.”

He chokes out a laugh. “Now just who is distracting whom?”

She smiles at that, and he smiles for her smile, and they go on with their silly little game.

When Anthony wins, he chooses forfeits that aren’t forfeits at all, not really.

A kiss, first — “For the sake of the anniversary, you understand,” he murmurs, pressing a waiting finger to his lips.

Then later — “Your hair. Take it down for me.” She does as he bids, deliberately taking her time while he quietly holds out his palm, collecting hair pins like a dragon hoarding gold, something greedy and wild in his eyes.

The next time she loses a hand, she starts reaching for the buttons on her nightgown before he even asks.

“No.” He stills her with a hand on her wrist. “Come here,” he says instead, gently manoeuvring her to sit between his spread legs, her back against his front.

“What—” She falls silent as she feels his hands land in her hair, carefully sectioning it out for a braid. “Oh.”

He works slowly, methodically swapping each section through his fingers, his quiet, brandy-scented breath ghosting over her neck, sweet and warm. Then, when he’s done, he leans in and lifts the braid aside, pressing a single, chaste kiss to the back of her neck.

“Anthony…” She goes weak, all over. All at once. All for him.

“My deal, I think,” he says, his voice rough in her ear before he slides away from her.

She throws a card at him for leaving her side, and it shouldn’t be so damn attractive, the way he flicks a wrist, and catches it in mid-air.

In between his forfeits, Kate chooses truths. Memories mostly, stories — his favourite birthday, the first book he ever stayed up late to finish, the last time he cried.

“Today,” he says, in answer to that.

She sits up a little straighter, abandoning her now empty glass of brandy on her bedside table. “What?”

He deals out the next hand methodically, not looking at her. “It was when the doctor took the strapping off your leg. They were happy tears, at first, but then…” He looks up, fixing her with the sort of stare that makes her feel like he’s looking inside her, somehow. “I realised that you were not smiling. And then they were just tears.”

“Oh,” she says quietly.

She thought she hid it well — the damage on her leg and the damage it did to her — but she should have known that he’d see. He always sees.

Unconsciously, she reaches for her nightgown, making sure her leg is covered. “I’m all right now.”

“No,” he says, still studying her. Still seeing her. “I do not think you are.”

She should have expected it, really, what comes next.

He tips over his cards, showing a perfect hand — Vingt-et-un. And then he says, quietly, “Let me see your leg, Kate.”

“Anthony…”

“I won the game. And this is what I want as my prize. Take off your stockings and let me see.”

“Is there … is there not something else that—”

“No,” he says simply. “There is nothing else.”

She knocks her head back against the headboard, considering his request.

“Please, love. Please let me see you.”

She groans, quiet and low. “I would have asked for more brandy if I knew we were going to do this.”

“Is that a yes?”

In answer, she curls her hand around the hem of her nightgown, slowly peeling it up her legs.

“Wait.” He covers her hand with his, taking over. “Let me.”

The soft cotton of her nightgown slides easily over the silk, and she’d laugh at it, at the absurdity of the simple nightwear against the ridiculous fine evening stockings she should have removed hours ago, but she can’t quite seem to find the breath to do it.

Leaving her nightgown bunched at her thighs, Anthony moves with that quick, easy grace of his, changing position so that he’s sitting at the foot of the bed, facing her.

“Ready?” he says.

“No,” she says, but she doesn’t stop him.

He starts on her good leg, untying the ribbon garters with quick, nimble fingers before peeling her stocking down slowly, letting it sail over his shoulder to the floor.

“May I?” he says, hovering over her other leg.

In that moment, as he kneels there and gives her the choice, she loves him more than she ever has before. And because of that, she says, “Yes.”

He moves more slowly now, and she finds herself holding her breath as he carefully unties her garter. Outside, a window clatters open. A carriage trundles along. A cat cries to be let in. Inside, there is silence — just their breathing and the quiet whisper of the silk against her skin as he slowly peels the stocking down.

She focuses on his hands, on his arms, keeping her eyes on the veins in his wrists, even as her vision starts to blur with tears.

“Oh, my love…” he whispers, agony in every syllable. When she drags her eyes up to meet his, he isn’t looking at the criss-cross of bruises left by the strapping on her calf. He’s looking at her face. “Please don’t cry.”

She dashes away a tear, forcing herself to look. To see. “It’s so ugly.”

“Kate, no.” She’s never heard him sound so furious. Or so sad. Carefully, reverently, he lifts her leg slightly, ducking his head to press a kiss over the bone at the inside of her ankle. “My love … there is not, and there could never be, anything about you that is ugly.”

She sinks into the mattress, going weak all over. And underneath it, somehow, she is stronger.

“I love you,” she says dreamily, half-slurring the words from the heady rush of pleasure that comes from his hands on her skin, right where she hasn’t been touched in months.

“And I love you,” he replies, settling into a cross legged position at the foot of the bed, her leg now resting over one of his thighs. “Now then … I do believe it is your deal.”

There’s a quiet intensity to his voice now, and she knows, instinctively, that this will be the last round. Their little game is almost played out.

As she deals out the cards he works his hands over the tight, wasted muscle of her calf, carefully rotating her ankle until she lets out a quiet, whimpering sigh.

He stops immediately. “Does that hurt?”

“No,” she says, her voice barely there. “God, no. Don’t stop.”

He hums his agreement, working his thumb in slow, firm circles. It’s a small, simple movement but he puts his all into it, the muscles in his arms moving under his skin as he works his hands over her. She groans her appreciation, forgetting her cards and her embarrassment and very nearly her own name, except not that — never that, because her name is his name now, and she could never forget that she belongs to this man.

When he calls for another card, it takes her at least thirty seconds to hear him.

“Bust,” he says ruefully, quickly tossing the card aside and returning his attention to her calf.

She picks up her own cards, the suits and the numbers blurring in front of her eyes as she looks past them, to him.

He looks a little vulnerable, leaning forwards like this, the usually hard planes of his stomach turned soft by his position. For some reason it’s that — that softness in his belly, shown only to her — that dissolves the last of her hesitation. She flexes her foot and sighs out her pleasure, letting herself enjoy the massage, and the sight of his strong arms working just for her, in the place she didn’t want anyone to see.

He shifts slightly when she moans, adjusting his breeches, and she feels her jaw drop.

“You cannot be enjoying this.”

He looks up, raising his eyebrows. “Why not? You are...”

“Well … yes,” she stammers, flustered by the knowing glint in his eyes, “but it is not for — That is, surely there is nothing in this for you.”

“I assure you there is.”

“Not enough to—”

“Kate, I have had my hands on you for the last five minutes. That is more than enough.”

“No...” She glances down at her leg. The skin is not so dry now, the oil she rubbed into it earlier leaving a slight sheen that glimmers in the candlelight. But the bruises are still there, looking even darker in the darkness, and the muscle is a little too thin, wasted from lack of use. “It must be something else.”

“It’s just you, love. It’s always just you.”

“I—”

“Play your hand, Kate,” he interrupts, nudging her cards towards her. “Or I will be forced to take myself in hand, just to show you what you do to me.”

“We’ll see,” she says, eyeing him suspiciously. “When I win.”

And she does.

“Another truth, I think.” She takes a meaningful look down at his lap, and then at her leg, where it still rests on his thigh, one of his hands splayed across her shin. “Tell me, dear husband … what was the last lie you told me?”

“Ah…”

“I knew it,” she says, too charmed by his clumsy attempt to set her at ease to be annoyed by the lie. “I knew it must be something more than just having your hand on my bloody leg! What is it? Is my nightgown sheer in this light or—”

“I wish.” He hums a laugh, looking disconcertingly calm for someone just caught in a falsehood.

“Then—”

“I told you … putting my hands on you is more than enough to please me, Kate. Hell, I have been half hard since you took down your hair.”

“But—”

“Here.” He shifts slightly, retrieving something from beneath his thigh. “There’s your lie,” he says, tossing two cards down onto the sheets. “I swapped them out just now. For the winning hand I showed you.”

‘You…” She snatches them up, staring at him open-mouthed. “You cheated?!”

“Just the once.” He pats her leg lightly, not looking remotely sorry. “And it was for a good cause.”

“You…” She shakes her head at him, but she can feel it — the pull at the edge of her lips, the smile she can’t quite fight. “You filthy little cheat…”

“Less of the little, thank you.”

“I see you do not object to the rest.”

“Not tonight.” He leans back against the footboard of the bed, all loose-limbs and bare skin, so effortlessly handsome she wants to scream. And then he has the audacity to shrug his naked, muscled shoulders at her. “You needed the push. And I needed to touch you. I’d happily cheat for that a thousand times over. Filthily or otherwise.”

“I cannot believe you.”

“Yes you can.”

“You’re incorrigible.”

He stretches lazily, lifting his arm to scratch at the back of his neck. “And you love it.”

He can’t possibly know what that simple little move does to her. “I…”

“Why don’t I deal us one more hand?” he suggests slowly, watching her watch him. “And if you win you may choose my penance, as forfeit.”

She considers him, lounging there against the footboard, and decides that she might well choose nothing but this, if she wins. She’ll make him lie there all night, his arm behind his head, just letting her look. Perhaps she’ll paint him. Perhaps she’ll put her paint right onto his skin.

“I’m not playing another round of vingt-et-un,” she says, her voice breathless and deep, betraying the obscene wandering of her thoughts. “You might cheat again.”

“I won’t.”

“Forgive me if I doubt your word on that, my darling.” She snatches up the cards, pointedly adding the two he gave her back into the deck. “We’ll cut the pack instead. Highest card wins.”

He inclines his head in agreement. It’s a simple move, but the deference is absurdly, appallingly, pleasing.

“And what will you have me do? If you win?”

She hovers her hand over the deck, contemplating him as he sprawls out opposite her. Then he flexes his hand on her shin and she knows, in a flash, that watching him could never be enough.

“If I win, I want your hands on me,” she says, bold and brash and honest.

“My hands are already on you, love.”

She parts her legs beneath her nightgown, letting her knees fall apart. “Not where I want them.”

He stares at the stretch of pale fabric pulled tight across her thighs. “How much have you had to drink tonight?” he says cautiously.

She bites the swell of her bottom lip, considering the question. “Enough to ask for this. Not enough to beg.”

He swallows hard at that, his eyes wide and wild in the candlelight.

“All right,” he says softly. “If you win, I’ll touch you.”

She reaches for the cards.

“But if I win, you’ll touch yourself.”

He says it just before she lifts the cards, giving her the chance to back down.

If anything, she moves faster.

“Queen of diamonds,” he says, smiling faintly as she shows him her card. “How apt.”

“I was never the diamond, you fool.”

He shrugs, the candlelight rolling over him with the motion, spilling across his skin like honey. “You are to me, wife.”

“A diamond or a queen?”

“Both.”

He sketches a mock bow as he leans in and cuts the deck.

And then he smiles.

“Ace of hearts.” He flicks the card down onto the sheets in the space between her open legs. “I win.”

“No,” she counters at once. “I win.”

“Excuse me?”

“The ace is low, Anthony.”

“The ace is high, Katharine.”

For one long, charged moment they simply stare at each other, neither backing down, neither giving in.

And then, without warning, he starts to laugh, the sound booming out of him in the quiet room. She gives in to the sound, letting her own laughter spill out to match his, because there’s nothing else for it and because it is funny — these silly games they play, the perfectly matching way that they want each other. Stupidly. Obsessively. Competitively.

“I suppose we could cut the pack again,” she offers half-heartedly, reaching for the cards.

“No,” he says, stilling her with a hand on her wrist. “I’ve a better idea.”

He moves back up the bed again, effortlessly flipping himself around to lean back against the pillows beside her. She barely has a moment to marvel at the way he moves himself, all easy strength, before he’s moving her — closing his hands around her arms and shifting her forwards slightly, making space to slip his body behind hers, like he did before he braided her hair earlier.

When he reaches for the buttons on her nightgown, she smiles into the dim light of their bedroom, assuming that he’s given in. That she’s won. She sprawls herself back against his chest, her breath catching in her throat as she watches the bones of his fingers move under the skin of his hand as he slips each tiny button free, achingly slowly.

But once the last button slips loose and the bodice of her nightgown falls open over her chest, he doesn’t reach for her breasts. He reaches for her hands.

“Anthony?”

Without a word, he closes his hands over hers, his fingers warm where hers are cool, large where hers are small, enclosing her completely. She shudders out a breath, shifting her hips restlessly as he effortlessly moves her hands with his, dragging them up to curl her fingers around the edge of her nightgown.

“May I?” he whispers, hovering there.

She groans her approval, dropping her chin to her chest to watch him control her — to watch herself let him control her — as he pulls her hands down with his, dragging her nightgown with them, baring her chest to the warm air of their bedroom.

“This way,” he says, his voice a quiet rasp in her ear as he guides her hands to her breasts, “we both win.”

“God, yes…” She bites down on her lip to contain her restless whimpers as he makes her pinch and pull at her nipples, and then ease away, slowing, soothing. Shifting a little behind her, his desire a blunt, obvious pressure at her back, he eases her hips forwards slightly, guiding her to lie back even further against him. Then he removes one of her hands from her breast and guides it lower, in a slow, inching crawl down her stomach, creeping beneath her nightgown.

“Wait,” she blurts out, just as he begins to move her fingers towards that hot, aching pulse between her legs.

He stops at once, and she feels the effort it takes him, the coiled tension in every line of his body as he holds himself utterly still behind her.

“No. It’s not—” She shakes her head uselessly. “I don’t want to stop.”

“What do you want, Kate?”

“I want—” She stares down at her lap, at the place where his forearm and hers disappear beneath her nightgown. “I want to see.”

“Fucking hell.” He groans the curse into her ear, biting at the lobe.

Releasing his grip on her hand for a moment, he shoves her nightgown further up, baring the tops of her thighs to the candlelight. Then he closes his hand over hers again, easing her thighs wide with her touch, but his strength.

She bites back a moan, watching the muscles of his arms ripple and shift in the dim light as he holds one hand at her breast, kneading lazily over the soft flesh while he guides her other hand back into a slow, gentle slide along the soft skin at the inside of her thigh.

She thinks he might stop soon, might make her wait, but when she’s mere inches from that hot, aching place between her thighs, he does the opposite — pushing her hand suddenly, pressing the heel of it right against herself, until she bucks her hips up into her own touch.

“Fuck, Anthony…”

He groans, for the heat of her words or just the heat of her, she’s not sure.

“That’s it, love,” he says, licking into a kiss at the side of her throat as he guides her fingers into a slow, easy rhythm. “Take what you want.”

It shouldn’t be so good. It should be a little strange, a little clumsy, and it is those things, but the uncertainty only makes it sweeter. He gives her just enough control, and none at all, all at once. It’s her hand doing the work, her fingers moving in slow circles against that hot, aching peak, but he sets the pace, the speed, the pressure, his fingers locked between her knuckles. When she starts to move faster, her legs shifting restlessly against the bed sheets, he suddenly tightens his grip on her hand, pulling it away completely.

“No—!” She feels her eyes roll back, fluttering half closed lids as he holds her hand up, just inches from where she needs it. “Anthony, please.”

“Don’t.” He releases the hand that was holding hers at her breast, closing it loosely around her jaw, his fingers at her throat as he tilts her head to the side, towards him. “Don’t you dare close your eyes.”

She snaps them wide open again.

“Good girl.” He smiles, soft and wicked, and licks a kiss against her cheek. “Now…” He slowly angles her head back down, whispering one quiet instruction, “Watch.”

She sucks in a breath, waiting for him to press her hand back down where she wants it, but instead he loosens his grip, batting her hand away and suddenly replacing it with his, his touch relentless and sure, and still so, so slow. Featherlight. There and gone. And then there again.

“Oh God,” she babbles uselessly into the quiet room, bucking up against his hand. He releases his other hand from her throat, sliding his arm down to clamp around her stomach, holding her still. Holding her down. “Oh God — Anthony, please. Please.”

He turns his hand, one long, blunt finger suddenly sliding inside, and that’s all it takes. She is more than ready, falling apart in an instant, crying out his name as her bruised leg kicks out across the bed, sending the deck of cards sliding across the sheets, playing cards falling everywhere.

When she comes back to herself, he is breathing hard in her ear, one arm resting heavy on her stomach, the other lying useless on her thigh, his fingers wet and warm against her skin.

“Good God,” she slurs out, slumping against him. “You should cheat at cards more often.”

His laughter is the last, best truth she wins that night.

--

(+1)

Kate is always telling him that it won’t happen — that he won’t die young.

She says they’ll have years together. Decades.

She’s wrong, of course. He is going to die, tonight, right here in their bed, and this — losing her affection, watching her tire of him — is what’s going to kill him.

He’s been busy these past few weeks, distracted by an upcoming vote in parliament and by the sudden fever that left Gregory wheezing through the night, and Anthony sitting sleepless beside his bed, watching the rise and fall of his rattling chest until dawn. He assumed, thoughtlessly, carelessly, that she understood. She never said he was neglecting her. And she was so happy to see him when he came home early tonight, the vote won, Gregory on the mend.

She was the one who took off her dress.

But now—

“Kate?”

She doesn’t answer when he calls her name.

“My love?”

She doesn’t even look at him.

He stares down at her body beneath his, the naked skin of her shoulders burning gold in the candlelight, her curls splayed across the pillows as she holds her head firmly to the side, looking away from him. He feels his arms tremble, straining with the effort of holding himself above her, his strength fading with every second that she won’t look at him.

And then it gets worse.

Her eyes still averted, she curls her hand around the tops of his arms, her nails digging in as if she’s trying to pull him closer.

“Anthony, please.” She parts her thighs wider beneath him, drawing him into the cradle of her hips. “I need you.”

It’s his favourite thing to hear.

And in that split second, he’s never heard anything worse.

He hauls himself off her, barely hearing her whimper of protest as he collapses heavily onto his back. “I’m sorry, Kate,” he blurts, panic slurring his words together. “I’ll fix it. Whatever it is … whatever I’ve done or not done, I’ll fix it. But—”

“Anthony?” She chases him towards his side of the bed, turning onto her side. “What’s wrong?”

He’s far too frightened, too distracted, to register that she’s looking at him, finally. And that she looks genuinely, honestly, baffled.

“Kate, you must know…” He hauls the bedsheets over his hips, hiding his nakedness, and then he does the same for her, even as she blinks down in confusion as he throws the sheets over her. “Christ, you have to know that you do not …” He gestures vaguely at her body, the outline of her curves obvious through the thin cotton. “You do not have to pretend that—”

“Pretend?” She jerks back a little, her face twisted with confusion and a hint of hurt. “Anthony, what’s gotten into you?”

“What’s gotten into me?! What’s gotten into you?!” He throws his arm over his face, trying to bring his breathing under control. “Kate, if you don’t want this, if you don’t want me anymore, you—

“Don’t want you?!” She snatches his arm off his face, forcing him to meet her eyes. “Anthony, what are you saying? Of course I want you!

“You can’t even look at me!”

She freezes, her hand on his arm, her eyes wide, as his accusation hangs there between them, suspended in the warm air of their bedroom.

He expects her to deny it, perhaps. To pretend to misunderstand.

He does not expect her to laugh.

“Kate?”

“Oh.” She abruptly releases her hand from his wrist, collapsing down onto her own back beside him. “Oh, Christ, this is embarrassing.”

“What is it?” It’s his turn to chase her now, turning himself onto his side to look at her. “What’s going on?”

She giggles quietly, staring up at the canopy above their heads.

“Kate?” he says again, confusion and hope warring in his chest, making him dizzy. “I don’t understand what—”

He cuts himself off as she suddenly snatches up his hand, dragging it down to swipe between her legs, letting him feel her, hot and slick and shockingly, blissfully wet.

“Oh,” he says, groaning at the feel of her, relief making the sensation sweeter. “Oh.”

She shifts back onto her side, facing him, looking fierce and perhaps a little furious, and he feels foolish, suddenly. And small. It must show on his face because she softens at once, reaching out to smooth her finger over the frown line between his brows, the one she calls her barometer, her forecast of all his moods.

“It’s all right,” she says softly, replacing her finger with her lips, kissing that frown line away. “I love you for stopping. And for checking. Heaven knows there are men out there who would not. But understand this, Anthony …”

She reaches between them, closing her small, slim hand over his softening cock, the cool touch of her fingers landing like a white hot brand, turning him hard again in an instant.

“I do want you. I always have. I always will.”

Her certainty lands on him like flint against steel, kindling something deep, deep in his gut.

“And,” she adds pointedly, smirking as he bucks up into her touch, “for the record I was looking at you, just now.”

“No—”

“I was.” Even in the weak candlelight he can see the hesitation in her face. She pulls her hand away from him, laying it flat on the sheets in the space between them. “I just … wasn’t looking at your face.”

“What?” A slightly giddy laugh thrills through him, even if he doesn’t quite know what’s funny. “Where were you looking?”

“Oh, hell.” She hesitates, biting at the corner of her lip.

“Kate…” he sing-songs her name, relief making him feel giddy and stupid, and happy. “Tell me … where were you looking?”

“Your arms,” she blurts out, brazening through the utter absurdity of her statement. “I was looking at your arms.”

“My … arms?” Like a fool, he glances down at them.

‘Yes,” she says, in that superior tone she uses when she knows she’s done something daft, and she doesn’t want to admit it.

“These arms?”

“The very same.” She hums a quiet, strained laugh. “I have always rather liked them, if you must know. Even when I did not particularly like the rest of what they were attached to.”

He laughs at that. “I remember that sort of feeling.”

“They used to drive me to distraction, to be honest. All the time.” She wets her lips, barely blinking as she stares down at his arms. “At the serpentine, first. And when we played pall mall. And … oh God, every single time we danced. I could still feel your arms around me when I went to bed at night.”

“You’re serious…” he breathes, watching the hitch in her breath, the way her eyes follow every tiny movement of his body.

“Very.” There’s something desperately appealing about the way she doesn’t bow her head, doesn’t hide her desire. Not from him. Not anymore.

She reaches out and traces a single fingertip over his forearm, drawing lingering circles over the bones of his wrist. She doesn’t touch him anywhere else, giving him only that single fingertip on his wrist, careful and soft, and he—

“Christ, Kate.”

He’s never been so hard. He’s never been so damn weak.

He shifts even further onto his side, trying to press his hips into the mattress, to find even a hint of relief.

“I like to watch them move…” she says, licking her lips absently. “That’s what — When you were holding yourself above me, just now, that’s what I was looking at.”

“My God…” He lets out a quiet, incredulous laugh. “And I was afraid you’d gone off me.”

“Never.” Her hand tightens on his wrist. “Never in a million years.”

She curls herself closer to him, letting the sheets fall away from her chest, letting him see her. “I could never tire of you, Anthony. Never.”

He softens at the fierceness in her voice, love wrapped in war, fighting just for him. He reaches for her slowly, running the back of his knuckles over one of her breasts, watching the nipple tighten and strain for him, like always. “Nor I of you, love.”

Groaning her pleasure, she pulls him in for a kiss, her tongue sliding into his mouth the second he parts his lips, relentless and reckless, and so filthy it’s all he can do not to lose himself completely. Forcing himself still, he lets her push him onto his back, lets her take what she wants, groaning at the feeling of her naked chest pressing against his as she clambers over him, her knees settling either side of his hips, her slight weight his favourite burden of all.

“You’ll never be rid of me,” she says breathlessly, something greedy in her eyes as she sits back on his thighs, pinning his arms at his sides. “Not ever. Do you hear me, Anthony? I am going to make them hang our portrait with a thousand bolts on the frame, so even our ancestors can’t take it down, a hundred years from now. A thousand. We’ll still be in that library. Together.”

The tears surprise him. On her cheeks and on his own.

“Well,” he says quietly after a moment, “I like the sound of that.” And then, just to make her smile, he adds, “Shall I roll up my shirt sleeves for the portrait, then? For posterity?”

She doesn’t want to laugh, he can see that. But she does.

“You are going to be ridiculous about this aren’t you?”

He grins. “I’m afraid so, yes.”

“Do you recall…” she says speculatively, running an absent finger along the length of him where it lies against his belly, straining for her touch, “that you once told me that I did not need to be embarrassed about what I want? That you’d never laugh at me?”

“Oh that still stands,” he says, groaning as ghosts her hand over him, keeping her touch featherlight, on purpose. “I’ll save my teasing for the morning, I promise. Right now, you can have — fuck, Kate — you can have anything you want. No questions asked.”

“Anything?”

The breathless interest in her voice is too much. It’s not enough.

It takes everything in him not to use those arms she likes so bloody much and lift her clean up off his thighs, and then straight back down, right down onto the straining length of his cock, right where he needs to feel her, hot and wet, and home.

“Anything,” he says, trembling with the effort to lie still beneath her. “My arms can hold you up. Or they can hold you down. It’s your choice, Kate.”

Her mouth goes slack, her eyes wide. Wanting. Thinking.

“What if … what if I want something else?” she says, biting her lip again.

That hesitance in her face, paired with the sure, certain pressure of her hand as she strokes him, nearly destroys him.

“I told you. You can have anything you want.” He lifts his arms up towards her, pressing them together from elbow to wrist, like a beggar. “Use them. Watch them. Bind them. I don’t care.”

It’s an unthinking suggestion, that last one.

But then he looks at her face, alight with desire, and he knows, instinctively, that it’s the right one.

“Fuck.” He bucks up into her hand, almost spilling himself right there and then. “Is that it?” he says quietly. “Is that what you want tonight, Kate?”

She licks her lips, releasing her hold on him to close her hand experimentally around his wrists, pressing them together.

“Make your choice, love, because I cannot wait much longer—”

“Yes,” she says swiftly, letting out a shocked laugh at her own words. “Yes, I want that. I want to see you bound.”

He swallows hard, working his jaw for a good ten seconds before he remembers how to speak.

“Then by all means, fetch a bind, my love.”

By rights, the arrangement of it all really shouldn’t be so enjoyable. It should be awkward and amusing, watching her clamber carefully off him, shrugging into his banyan as she rushes off to his dressing room. And when she comes back in, the length of two of his very best cravats in her hand, he should probably be embarrassed by the way he spreads himself so readily for her, lying there naked in the centre of their bed, his arms lifting, his hands curling around the wooden posts of the bed frame.

She makes small talk about nautical knots as she ties him to the bed.

And God help him, it’s the most arousing conversation he’s ever had.

When the job is done she hesitates slightly, slipping off the bed and stepping back, taking in the sight of him. Heaven knows what he must look like, splayed out like a sacrifice, restless and desperate for her touch.

“Are you … comfortable?” she says, studying him with a slight frown.

“No,” he says, letting her see the smile that accompanies his words. “And yes.”

She smiles faintly, a quick flash of teeth in the gloom.

And then she sucks in a quick, harsh breath, and drops his banyan off her shoulders, letting it fall right to the floor.

“My God, Kate…”

She is flawless in the candlelight, all shadows and softness, glowing where the light touches her, and calling to him where it doesn’t, darkness gathering between her thighs, hiding her from his eyes.

“Come here.” He doesn’t care that he’s begging. Only cares that she does what he begs for. “Come to bed.”

Smiling like a siren, she climbs up the bed, sliding gracefully up his body, heedless of the torture she’s putting him through, the exquisite agony of every brush of her soft skin against the hair on his legs as she settles herself on top of him with a kiss, her knees bracketed around his. She slowly slips back, too far to be thinking of fucking him, but his disappointment at that realisation barely lasts a second, dissolving in a rush of heat when she parts her lips, staring down at his cock as she settles herself between his open legs, and he realises her intentions.

He strains against the bindings and her eyes go to his arms at once, something hungry and wild in her gaze as she takes in the stretch and strain of his muscles, the way the veins of his arms stand out when she takes him in her hand, her thumb running slowly, almost unthinkingly, over the head of him, spreading a hint of moisture there.

“Look at you,” she says, smiling faintly as she watches him struggle.

“Look at you,” he counters, staring up at all the places he wants to touch her — the flare of her hips and the curve of her breast and the graceful line of her throat, just the right size for his hand. “God, Kate, you’re divine.”

He does this, sometimes — saves his prettiest words for their darker nights. By day, he calls her wife, mostly. Woman, occasionally. Endearments that wouldn’t sound like endearments to anyone else. But she is his sweetheart when she’s on her knees, a siren when he is on his, an angel while they do things that would make such creatures blush.

“You’re a goddess. You’re—”

The praise dies in his throat as she leans forward suddenly, bringing him into the soft, wet heat of her mouth.

“Oh, God. Oh—” He sees stars. Galaxies. And then he sees nothing at all, his eyes rolling back into his head as she works her lips and tongue over him the same way she always does — imperfectly, but with shameless, utterly perfect enthusiasm. Like this isn’t just for him, like she likes it for herself.

“Kate…” He strains uselessly against the restraints, desperate to reach for her, to hold back her hair for her, like he usually does.

She must be thinking the same thing because she pulls off him with an obscene pop, looking up at him with a rueful smile as she flips her hair out of her face.

“You usually help with this,” she says, watching him shift restlessly as she strokes an idle fist over him. She turns her head, eyeing the curls spilling over his skin. “You’re always so good, when you hold my hair for me. So careful not to pull.”

She shifts slightly, letting her hair ghost over him, everywhere. Hips. Thighs. Cock. It’s the strangest seduction he’s ever known. And the best.

“I don’t mind though,” she goes on idly, as if he isn’t hanging off her every word, every move. “Sometimes. When you pull my hair.”

He groans out a weak, ragged moan, and then she takes him back into the hot, wet heat of her mouth, and his hips buck right off the bed.

She lifts off him at once. “Down.”

“I”m sorry,” he babbles, useless in the face at that imperious tone in her voice, that scratch of her nails across his thighs. He flattens himself against the mattress, blinking wide, contrite eyes at her. “I’m sorry — I’ll be good — I’ll — Oh, Christ, I’ll be so good—

Her hair falls back in her face as she works him with her mouth and her hands, the curtain of her curls obscuring his view of her, giving him only glimpses, hints. It’s too good. Too much.

“God, you’re perfect,” he babbles nonsensically, “You’re fucking flawless — No! Wait—!” His praise turns to protest as she pulls away again, right when he can feel the white hot edge of his release building. “No, Kate, please—”

“Not yet, Anthony,” she says, smiling wickedly.

“But—”

He cuts off his protest as she lifts herself up, shifting her hips forward.

“I am not done with you yet.”

“Kate—” His voice dissolves into a groan as she lines him up at her centre, hovering for just a moment before she sinks down in one smooth, wet slide, enclosing him in the perfect, pulsing heat of her. “Kate…”

She whimpers her pleasure as she begins to move, slow, careful rolls of her hips that have him straining uselessly at his bindings, desperate to touch her. The imperfection of it — her slightly stilted rhythm, the absence of his guiding hands — make it last, drawing out every moment until he feels himself losing any shred of sanity he ever had.

Candlelight kisses the flare of her hips, right where his hands should be, right where she needs him, and when she reaches down and closes a hand over the perfect swell of her breasts, a touch that belongs only to him, he cries out in frustration, straining at the knots.

“Kate…”

He’s going to break his wrists.

“Please…”

He’s going to break the god-damn headboard.

And she—

She looks like she wouldn’t mind if he did, actually.

“This…” She stills suddenly, dropping her hands to rest against his chest. “This is not really working, is it?”

“I— What?”

“It’s not working,” she repeats, keeping him fully seated inside her as she sits back slightly, wiping a hand over her sweat-soaked brow. “Not anymore.”

He can’t help it, he laughs. The sudden segue is so utterly Kate. “I…”

“Oh, do not mistake me,” she says, petting a hand over the side of his face. “It was fun, and we will most certainly be doing it again, but…” She trails off, smiling sheepishly. “I need your hands on me now.”

“Christ…” he bites out, shifting his hips upwards slightly, the shallowest of thrusts. She gasps, dropping her head back slightly, showing her throat. He thrusts his hips up again, not entirely in control of the motion anymore. “Let me go and you can have them, Kate.”

She leans forward at once, leaving him half inside her as she starts working at the knots, her breasts swaying dangerously close to his face, inches from his lips.

“Hurry,” he bites out, more impatient than ever.

“I should have used a simple knot,” she grumbles, fiddling with the cravat, “instead of—”

“Why do you know so damn much about nautical knots?”

“Oh, that,” she sits back slightly, groaning slightly as the motion draws him further inside her. “I had a phase as a child where I was very much interested in being a pirate.”

“Of course you did.”

She returns to the knots, successfully freeing one wrist before moving on to the other one.

“I don’t think you’d make a very good pirate,” she goes on cheerfully, glancing down at him with a fond smile. “You’re far too good. Too honourable.”

“Do you know,” he says idly, rotating his aching wrist before moving it to her waist, holding her steady, “most people are not in the habit of pausing for chit chat at moments like this?”

“Really?” She smiles down at him, utterly unconcerned. “Well, that sounds rather boring, doesn’t it?”

He flops his head back down on the pillow, shaking with silent laughter. “You’re right. It does.”

She catches her tongue between her teeth as she works at the final knot, and he watches her quietly, thinking how very absurd this all is — he’s still inside her right now, still lazily circling his hips as much as the position will allow, and she’s talking about pirates and turkish knots and seasickness, and he—

He never wants her to stop.

He could listen to her ramble on for days. Weeks. Years. A lifetime.

And there is no power on this earth that could ever untangle whatever knot it is that ties his heart to hers.

Thankfully, the same does not apply to the knot that’s holding his damn hand to the headboard.

“I think I’ve — yes, got it!”

Kate’s cry of triumph strangles away into a gasp as he uses his newfound freedom in a desperate, heady rush of movements, cycling through every little thing he thought to do when he couldn’t — clamping his hands around her waist, guiding her to ride him better, harder, deeper, then hauling her closer to him, fucking lazily up into her as he buries his face in her chest, sucking and biting and licking over her breasts until she cries out, her hands sinking into his hair, holding him to her as she pulses and shakes, coming apart around him, drawing him deeper, tighter into her as she cries out her pleasure.

It’d be easy, so easy, to chase his release after hers, but he slows instead, barely moving at all as he lifts a hand to her face, trailing it down her sweat soaked skin. She catches his wrist, bringing it to her lips and licking a soft, sorry line over the abraded skin there.

“Did I hurt you?”

“Never.”

“Let me make it better,” she says, circling her hips lazily, slowly. “Let me make you feel good.”

“You already do, love.”

She smiles, resting her hands on his chest as she tries to move again, but there’s a tiredness to it, a strain in her muscles that’s more than pleasure, and he can’t do it — can’t take his own pleasure if it isn’t hers.

“No,” he says, clamping his hands around her waist and lifting her off him. “Wait.”

He tosses her down onto the bed beside him, looming over her.

“Anthony?” She props herself up on her forearms, her dark hair wild against the white sheets, watching as he shifts himself to kneel between her legs. “What are you— Oh…”

He buries his head between her thighs, groaning at the familiar heat of her, the taste he hasn’t known for too long — too many days these past few weeks spent working, climbing exhausted into their bed and missing out on this, on feeling her tremble beneath his tongue, her hands in his hair.

“No, wait,” she whines, shifting against him, trying to push him away. “It’s too soon — I can’t—”

“You can.”

He works her relentlessly, making up for lost time, hauling one of her legs over his shoulder, one arm clamping around her thigh to hold it there. The restraining hand in his hair slowly turns into an imploring one, her finger gripping his hair, holding him where she wants him. Where he wants to be.

“Anthony, I—” He pulls away when he feels her getting close, blowing softly over her as her thighs tremble around him. “Please…”

He ignores her, keeping her on the edge as long as he can, pulling back when she tries to reach for him, slowing when she asks for more, until she’s babbling uselessly above him, pleading her case in broken, nonsensical fragments.

“Please, just let me— I swear, Anthony, if this is about earlier … about me making you wait — I’m sorry. You can … you can spill in my mouth. Tonight. Tomorrow. Every day for a week. Please just—”

“Kate….” he says, pulling his mouth completely away from her, smiling as she whimpers her disapproval. “This is not punishment.” Without warning, he closes his arms around her waist, tossing her slightly up the bed and crawling up after her, settling between her spread legs. “This is reward.”

“You and I have a very different idea of—”

He swallows her words with a kiss, angling her hips and sliding inside her in slow, gentle increments, until he feels the clutch of her nails at his back and he can’t hold back any longer, surging forward that final few inches, seating himself fully, deeply inside her.

“...what constitutes a reward,” she finishes, gasping out a little laugh.

“You’re doing it again,” he grunts, angling her hips to thrust deeper, making her cry out in pleasure.

“Doing what?”

He leans in close, tangling their tongues together in a filthy, slick slide. “Making conversation.”

“Oh.” She arches one perfect eyebrow at him. “Then why don’t you shut me up?”

Her smile is pure challenge.

And he damn near loses the game, right then and there.

He grits his teeth, forcing himself to slow his thrusts, determined not to chase his pleasure until she finds hers again. It’s so easy now, after several months of marriage, to take her there quickly, when he wants to. He knows where to touch, where to bite, when to slip his hand between them and send her spiralling higher, higher, higher—

“Hold me,” she cries out, clenching around him, her thighs trembling as she locks them around his hips, pulling him deeper inside her. “Put your arms around me, Anthony, please—”

He gathers her to him, holding tight, and she lets go in an instant, screaming his name into his neck, the blissful sound sending him over the edge right behind her. He snaps his hips once, twice more, feeling her clenching around him as the aftershocks of her release flutter through her, the feeling shattering him apart — sending him flying into a thousand blissful pieces, until all that’s left of him is that thick, unbreakable knot in his heart, tying him to her.

“Holy hell…” He collapses down onto her, dropping all his weight on her, just for a second, just because she knows she likes the pressure of him, right in the afterglow.

“You can say that again…” she mumbles, groaning as he slowly rolls off her, collapsing onto his back.

She sprawls out beside him, laughing her delight up at the canopy, her sweat soaked skin slick against his where they’re pressed together, shoulder to shoulder, arm to arm.

“I should have told you ages ago. About the arm thing.”

He splutters out a laugh, exhausted and exhilarated, and as she giggles away beside him he thinks, vaguely, that she was right, of course. He isn’t going to die. He’s going to live for every last second he gets with this woman. And there’s going to be so damn many of them. He can even afford to waste a few, right now. He can afford to rest.

In the end, he only moves for her, reaching for the linen cravat that held his hand to the bedpost and using it to clean them up, best as he can. She watches through heavy-lidded eyes as he works over the mess of her thighs, her gaze following the flex of his forearms, the red marks on his wrist standing out in the fading light.

“I love you,” she murmurs, sated and lazy, her eyes dreamily following his movements.

“I love you too.” And then, because it’s her, because it’s them, he says, “Even if you do have a strange perversion about my arms…”

There is nothing in this whole wide world quite like making Kate Bridgerton laugh.

He thinks, fancifully, that he might just keep on doing it. Forever.

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