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In Want of a Wife

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If it was up to Bellamy, he wouldn't be in London during the season for any reason at all.

He can't avoid the city entirely, of course, nor does he wish to; he's a scholar, and many important resources and conferences and talks are in London. It's not his favorite place in the world, but he doesn't mind visiting under ordinary circumstances.

But during the season, everything becomes about the marriage market, and even people Bellamy otherwise likes start asking him uncomfortable questions, like wasn't his father a lord or something (no, his step-father was) and isn't he eight-and-twenty now and has he thought that, perhaps, he might like to find a wife one of these days and isn't this the place for him to do it? Even some of the men with whom he has discreet intimate agreements sometimes ask, presumably wondering if he's going to want to continue fucking them once he's married.

Being in London for the entire season and attending all of the associated balls and fetes and exhibitions is his idea of torture, but there is one person and one person alone for whom he would do it, and it is her coming-out season, so here he is. Octavia is trying to find a husband, and he'd never make her go through that alone.

His sister at least isn't the worst prospect for marriage. Her father, the late Lord Blake, was a kind man, a better one that Bellamy expected him to be, and even if his marriage to Bellamy's mother had been a scandal, it was years in the past now. Octavia is now a well-born young lady with a good dowry, and if her father, in his desperation for an heir, had married an opera singer who already had a half-grown child of unknown parentage, well, that didn't make her dowry any worse. Not every finely bred man in London will want to marry her, but she doesn't need every finely bred man. She just needs one, whom she likes well enough, and of whom Bellamy approves.

It shouldn't be impossible.

"It's going to be fun!" Octavia declares in the carriage, with the enthusiasm of a girl raised in the country, away from polite society, without any real understanding of what she's getting herself into. "Have you met Lady Danbury before?"

"No," he admits. The existence of a noble willing to not only host but sponsor Octavia for the season had been a welcome surprise, but Bellamy's still not sure they can trust her. For all he knows, she's invited Octavia to humiliate her, to get some perverse revenge on Lord Blake for an old slight. It doesn't feel likely, but none of this really feels likely. Ever since Bellamy's mother married Lord Blake and the man not only didn't cast him out but embraced him, paid for his education, and treated him as much like his own son as he could.

If Bellamy could have inherited his estate, it would have been easy. He doesn't think he'd make a particularly great lord, but Lord Blake would have taught him. And he has some friends among the aristocracy from school, ones who would have been happy to have him join their number.

Now, there's some cousin off galavanting around the continent, and if Octavia isn't married by the time he gets back, he says he'll have her. Which might not be the worst thing, but he doesn't want his sister to have to marry some stranger just so she won't be turned out of her own home. At least if they spend the season in London, she'll have some choice in the matter, the chance to find her own husband whom she might actually like.

But he's not sure about fun.

"The London season isn't--" he starts, and O cuts him off.

"Like the balls we have in the country," she finishes. "You keep telling me, yes."

"I'm just saying, we're not going to the city to have fun."

"I don't have to get married."

"No," he says, only half-lying. She doesn't have to marry the new Lord Blake if she doesn't find another husband. Bellamy is by no means rich, but he could support both of them if he had to. He could certainly work harder to make money than he does.

But turning down what Lord Blake the younger considers to be a generous offer would have consequences, consequences he would prefer to shield his sister from. The easiest thing for everyone would be if Octavia found a husband during this season and married him instead.

"So I can enjoy being in London and meeting new people and getting a new wardrobe," she says, practical. "And you could think about finding a wife, you know."

"Not you too," he groans. "Trust me, O, none of the well-bred young ladies of London want to marry someone like me. I don't have anything to offer."

"You do!" she protests, with the confidence of eighteen years and very little life experience. "You're smart and loyal and caring, and I suppose you aren't terrible to look at."

"Very kind of you to say," he teases. "But I don't have money or a title. No one who married me would gain any social capital. They'd probably lose it."

"What's the point of having a large dowry if you can't marry someone you like who has less money than you do?" she demands, with a huff of annoyance.

"The point of having a large dowry is to lure in an even richer husband, obviously. I don't like it," he adds, before she can make any kind of argument about love or the like. "But marriage for the aristocracy is mostly about social climbing. If you find anyone you want to marry, I'll be happy no matter how much or little money he has, but not all families feel the same. You were very lucky to have someone like Lord Blake for a father."

"And anyone would be lucky to have someone like you for a husband," she says, all stubborn loyalty.

"You might be the only person in London who thinks that," he teases, as if London isn't also full of common folk who would see him as a very good prospect. "But I'm glad you do, at least."

She settles more comfortably into the seat of the carriage. "Just you wait. We're going to have so much fun."

*

If it was up to Clarke, she'd never go back to London.

"You could do this," she tells her mother, more than a little accusatory. "Better than I can."

"You've told me on more than one occasion that I did not help during your season," the viscountess shoots back, which is true, but still a low blow. "Besides, between you and your brother, I'm sure you'll be fine."

It's the most faith Clarke thinks Lady Griffin has ever put into her children, and she for one could do without it. For all she blamed Abby for not taking better care of her, she knows her own disastrous season wasn't her mother's fault. It wasn't even her fault, at least not the part with Lord Collins. The part with Mr. Wallace had been Abby's fault, but then Abby found her with that maid, which had been careless, and Abby had decided that was the worst sin of the season. Clarke doesn't agree, but they can both agree that things had gone very badly, and even though no one knows all the details, the aura of scandal has never left Clarke. Not as far as she knows, anyway. She'd refused to return to the bride market, and the only people she still sees are the ones who never cared about any of that.

"You think one of us might get married as well," she tells her mother, mild accusation in her tone.

"I am hoping one of my children will at some point find a spouse, yes," says Abby dryly. "You're both fair prospects."

"Roan is," Clarke corrects. "And he'll marry eventually. Once he's done being…" She struggles for the most polite word. It's not as if she or Abby is unaware that the viscount is a rake. Everyone is aware. But for whatever reason, no one is allowed to just say it. "A bachelor."

"Well perhaps you can remind him that he's one-and-thirty, and far past his bachelor days."

"I'm sure he has no idea." Clarke regards her. "If you're so worried, why are you stepping away from all this?"

"Because I think you're right," Abby finally admits. "These last seven years, I haven't done either of you any good. I haven't found you a husband and I haven't found Roan a wife. Maybe letting the two of you fend for yourselves and your cousin will help you understand what I've been going through."

"Quite a gamble to take with your niece," Clarke points out.

Her mother's smile is tight. "I won't be letting her down if she doesn't get married. You will."

It's a bracing thought. Clarke wouldn't have minded marrying the right person, if she'd ever found him, but she doesn't need to wed. Her family is wealthy, and her older brother both adores and understands her. He'll marry eventually, when he's ready, and secure the family line, and Clarke will be a beloved and somewhat eccentric spinster aunt.

Madeline doesn't have that luxury. Her parents passed away last year, and if not for Roan and Abby's generosity, she wouldn't even have a dowry. When Clarke heard, she'd assumed Abby would be the one stepping in, taking over her niece's season and managing her prospects.

Instead, apparently, Abby has decided to make Madeline a pawn in her own personal quest to get her own children married, and Clarke has to admit it's a good move. She will feel awful if she fails to secure a match for the girl. She'll blame herself.

"Of course I'll be available to advise you if you need," Abby goes on, just as Clarke is pondering how profoundly unprepared she is for the entire affair. "But she's your responsibility, not mine. And I have no doubt you will do right by her."

"Of course," Clarke echoes. A season in London for an infamous rake and his scandal-prone sister to attempt to find a husband for a seventeen-year-old girl they haven't seen since she was five. Nothing could possibly go wrong.

*

Lady Danbury is waiting for them when their carriage arrives. She's immediately obvious as a lady, from the way she dresses to the way she carries herself, and Bellamy finds himself standing up straighter, resisting the urge to smooth down his hair in an attempt to look more dignified.

"Mr. Blake," she says, nodding at him. "Miss Blake. A pleasure."

Octavia dips into a passable curtsey, and Bellamy kisses the lady's hand when she offers it. "The pleasure is all ours," he says. "I can't thank you enough for agreeing to sponsor my sister."

She looks him over, nodding once like she's making up her mind. "I thought you'd grow up handsome."

Bellamy's stomach drops. "Have we met, my lady? I'm afraid I don't--"

She waves her hand, dismissive. "Don't give me that look, I won't bite. I was a witness when your mother married Lord Blake. I'm not surprised you don't remember, you were young and had more pressing matters on your mind."

"Were you and Father friends?" Octavia asks, sounding curious. Lord Blake had only died a few months ago, but he hadn't been a particularly attentive father. He'd considered it his duty to feed, clothe, and educate his children, and he'd fulfilled those duties admirably. Interacting with them was not something he thought of as a necessary part of child-rearing. His life outside of the estate is almost entirely a mystery. Lady Danbury had certainly never come to call.

"We were acquainted," says the lady, with a slight sniff of her nose. "I was friends with his first wife, before she passed. He was a good husband to her."

"And to our mother," says Octavia. "A good father to both of us."

"Rest his soul," says Lady Danbury. "Now, do come in. We have a great deal to do if we're to get the two of you married."

"I'm not looking for a wife, Lady Danbury," Bellamy protests as they follow her. "This season is for my sister."

She sniffs. "Is that so?"

"I'm not a gentleman," he reminds her.

"No, I suppose not. Still, you will be at these balls, will you not? Do you dance?"

"Passably."

"And can you make polite conversation?"

"No," says Octavia, grinning, and he shoots her a glare.

"Yes, though I choose not to with my sister."

"That is the right of all brothers." She nods again. It seems to Bellamy that she has a lot of conversations in her own mind, and she always comes out of them in agreement. "We may find a match for you yet."

She's a lady and she's doing him and Octavia a tremendous favor. He would have to be an idiot to contradict her. "As you say, Lady Danbury."

Octavia smirks at him, and he sticks his tongue out while the lady's back is turned.

*

"So, Madeline--"

"Madi," says the girl. It's the first thing she's said to Clarke since they met, and at least it's a little bit friendly. They're already on a nickname basis.

"Madi. Are you excited for your season?"

"Should I be?"

Her tone isn't combative, but the question still hits Clarke hard. "Many girls are," she says carefully.

"My mother didn't want me to debut until I was at least eighteen. Maybe even nineteen."

"I debuted when I was seventeen."

It might not be the absolute stupidest thing she could have said, but it's certainly close. Madi gives her the most unimpressed look she's ever seen and simply says, "And you're happily married with a wonderful family, obviously."

Clarke sighs. "I'm happy, at least."

"But you aren't getting married."

She doesn't say it as a question, so Clarke doesn't respond. "I know this isn't exactly reassuring, but I don't think I would have had a better debut if I waited a year or two. Do you want to get married?"

"Of course."

"Just not yet?"

Her shrug is an odd, jagged motion. "I don't know how I'd decide. It's strange to think about courting. There are boys I grew up with who are nice, and I've known them my whole life, but I can't imagine marrying them. And I've known them forever!"

"Sometimes it's easier when you haven't," Clarke says. "Everyone thought I was going to marry my friend Wells--the Duke of Hastings," she clarifies. "Because we've been best friends for our whole lives. And sometimes that makes for a good match, but sometimes it's like it is with me and Wells, and it just feels like he's another older brother. When you're on the marriage market, you're meeting people because you might marry them. You're thinking of them differently."

"I suppose," says Madi. "If I don't get married, what will happen to me?"

Clake weighs her options carefully before opting for the truth. "Nothing," she promises. "My mother is using you as a test for me and my brother, which is awful, because we deserve it, but you don't. She wants us to be responsible and mature and act in a way that befits our station, which we usually don't. But if we fail, we won't let anything happen to you. Roan will most likely let you continue to live with us if you wish, and you'll have another season, and another. He has more than enough money to take care of you, and Mother won't stop him because she knows you haven't done anything wrong. And she couldn't anyway," she concludes. "He's the viscount, it's his house and his money."

Madi exhales a surprised little, "Oh."

"I'm sorry you're stuck in the middle of our family squabble, but you'll come out fine. And I promise I'll work much harder to find you a suitable husband than I've worked to find myself one."

"Don't you want to be married?" she asks, earnest.

It'll be just as well to get it out of the way. "If I met someone I liked and wanted to marry, then I'd be happy to marry him," she says. "But I'm lucky. I don't have to marry just to marry. Not everyone has that privilege."

"And I don't."

Clarke resists the urge to groan. "I'm hoping you'll have better luck than I did."

"But you could marry any of the people I could," Madi presses. "If you don't want to marry them, why would I?"

"I assume we're looking for different things. What are you hoping for in your husband?"

"Someone kind," she says immediately. "I know I'll be expected to have children, so I'd like him to be a good father. Someone who likes animals. I want someone to go riding with, who won't mind if I bring home stray kittens."

It doesn't sound exactly like the list Clarke would have made when she was seventeen, but it's close. Madi isn't a child, but she's young and inexperienced. She doesn't know any more than Clarke did at her age what a good husband is like.

At five-and-twenty, Clarke still isn't sure she has it figured out either, but she has to at least try. "Well, I want someone who reads," she says. "And enjoys lively conversation. Someone who's honest with me. Someone I won't get tired of speaking with."

"Oh," says Madi slowly. "That sounds good too."

She's not a very good liar, and Clarke has to hide her smile. There are, of course, other things she'd like in a husband, but intelligent, easy to talk to, and honest are the most appropriate ones for polite company. "Still, we're probably interested in different people."

"Does he need to be rich?"

"For you, yes. For me, it's less important. I have a generous dowry and a brother who doesn't mind supporting me. I promise there are plenty of people I wouldn't want to marry who might be good matches for you."

She really must get better at speaking to Madi because almost every time she says something to the girl, she regrets it.

"Like who?"

"Wells is married, so he's not an option anymore," she says, buying herself time to think. Kind and good with animals. Someone who will be gentle with her and understand she's young and alone and a little scared. Monty springs to mind at once, but he's not quite right. He's involved with a blacksmith in his employ and she offered to marry him herself so he wouldn't have to worry about his wife finding out and he said he didn't want to make her give up her chance at a good husband. They've agreed if she hasn't found one in a few years, they'll marry and see about getting him an heir, but she wouldn't want to put Madi into that situation, not without telling her the truth.

A bolt of inspiration hits. "Lord Pembroke has recently returned from travel and is, I believe, looking for a wife."

"Lord Pembroke," Madi repeats, testing it out.

"He's an earl and an old friend. One of the kindest people I've ever met."

"But not a match for you."

She smiles. "He was my first love, actually. When I was eight and he was thirteen he helped me learn to dance and I was besotted for a good month. I was sure we'd get married someday."

"So why didn't you?"

"Because the month ended and then he was just Lincoln again. It was a passing fancy. He and I wouldn't be a good match. But he did offer to marry me, after I had to break off my engagement. That's just the kind of person he is. He'd do anything for his friends."

"And you think he'd want to marry me?"

"I don't know," Clarke admits. "But I'm sure he'd be happy to get to know you. That's the whole point of your season."

Madi thinks it over and finally starts to smile. "I could get to know some people."

"Yeah," Clarke agrees. "It'll be fun."

*

Bellamy is sitting in Lady Danbury's drawing room working on a new translation when the door bursts open and Octavia's maid says, "Mr. Blake! Come quickly!"

Bellamy jerks to his feet and follows her into the entryway, where a large man has Octavia in his arms. She's awake, at least, and looking irritable, but Bellamy's heart is still thudding in his chest.

"Octavia, what--"

"I'm fine, Bell!"

"So you asked a strange man to carry you home just for fun?" he snaps.

"She twisted her ankle," says the man in question. "Is there somewhere I can put her down?"

It's on the tip of Bellamy's tongue to offer to take her, but his good sense wins out. No need to jostle her more than they have to. "This way. Thank you for helping her home."

"She came most of the way in the carriage," the man explains. "But she stumbled when she tried to get out and this seemed easiest."

"I could have done it," O says, as stubborn as ever.

"You could have," the man agrees. "But I could do it too. I'm happy to help."

"She really does appreciate it. As do I, Mister…"

"Meadows," says the man. "Lincoln Meadows."

"Mr. Meadows," says Bellamy. "Right in here."

Mr. Meadows deposits her on the bed, and the maid gets a pillow under Octavia's ankle and starts to take her boot off. Octavia has at least stopped protesting, which surprises Bellamy until he hears a voice behind him say, "Lord Pembroke. An honor to have you stop by."

Bellamy's eyes widen in horror. He's not good with nobility, that's why he's not supposed to be here. "My lord, I'm so--"

Lord Pembroke waves his apology away. "I could have corrected you, I did not. I think we had more pressing matters on our hands. Lady Danbury," he adds, kissing the lady's hand. "A pleasure to see you."

"You say that, but you have not called on me. How long have you been in town?"

"Only a few days. I was on the verge of calling on you, I assure you."

She doesn't look convinced, but turns her attention to Octavia nevertheless. "And you, Miss Blake? Are you unharmed?"

"Chagrinned, my lady."

"Good, you may yet recover." She slides her arm through Lord Pembroke's. "Now, will you stay for tea? You may not have intended to call now, but here you are regardless."

"How could I refuse?" he asks, and it's nice to know lords are as powerless in the face of social politeness and pushy older ladies as anyone else.

"Mr. Blake?"

"I'll join you presently," he says. "Once I've gotten a cold compress on Octavia's ankle."

She at least waits until Lord Pembroke and Lady Danbury have left before she says, "I'm fine, Bell! I had worse tumbles every week at home."

"You know you're going to present yourself before the Queen this week, right?" he asks. "It didn't matter if you were limping around Lord Blake's estate, but it will matter if you fall flat on your face in front of Her Royal Majesty." Octavia's jaw works for a moment as she tries to come up with a rebuttal; when she can't come up with one, he presses on. "Did you know he was a gentleman? I think Pembroke is an earl."

"No. I didn't even see him until I slipped and he caught me."

Bellamy groans. "How did you slip on a walking path?"

"I was by the river."

"You're lucky you didn't fall in."

"I might have, if not for the earl." There's a dreamy look in her eyes that Bellamy doesn't entirely approve of. It's not a surprise when she says, "He's handsome, isn't he?" He knows how this story goes.

"He is," he admits, only a little begrudgingly. He's as good a judge of a handsome man as anyone.

"Do you think he's married?"

"I have no idea. Lady Danbury will probably tell you," he adds, even more begrudgingly. It's not as if Lord Pembroke seems like a bad sort. But it's one of those romantic moments that it's easy to get caught up in, something out of a fairy tale: the handsome prince on his white horse swooping in to save the day.

It doesn't mean he's actually a good man, or that he'd be a good husband.

"He didn't look that much older than I am," he offers when Octavia doesn't say anything. "So he very well might not be married."

"And an earl would be a good prospect."

"And everyone else would think that too. Don't get your hopes up too high. For all we know, he is married."

"What if I just get them up a little?"

It's impossible not to smile. "Just a little."

*

Attending a ball at five-and-twenty feels a little like putting on a dress that's a few seasons out of date. For the most part, it still fits, but Clarke is aware of being out-of-place, conspicuously and obviously outdated. It's not as if she cannot marry at her age, just that her time here has come and gone, and she failed to do the one thing she was supposed to. She's returned as a scary story to tell the debutantes: don't be too picky, or you'll end up like Miss Griffin, an old maid before your thirtieth birthday.

The whole thing is ridiculous and absurd, but no less real because of it.

"Is everyone staring at me?" Madi asks, her voice soft.

"No, they're staring at Clarke," says Roan mercilessly. "No one's seen her for years. They probably thought she died."

"I see people," Clarke grumbles. "Just not these people."

"As you say," says Roan. He raises one hand. "Lady Danbury! Did you know, you grow even more beautiful every time I see you?"

"And did you know, my lord, that you grow even more full of shit?"

Madi gasps, and Clarke smiles. "Don't worry, she won't speak that way to you. Roan's her favorite."

"You should flatter me more, perhaps then you would be my favorite," says Lady Danbury. She looks Clarke up and down. "I was not expecting to see you tonight, Miss Griffin. Or, indeed, ever again."

Clarke rolls her eyes, smiling. She does like Lady Danbury. "You see me every year at my mother's annual ball, I just don't come into the city. But tonight, I am here escorting my cousin, Miss Madeline Gainsborough. Madi, this is Lady Dansbury, our hostess."

"It's an honor to meet you, my lady," says Madi, dipping automatically into a curtsy.

Lady Danbury nods. "A pleasure. And where is Lady Griffin this evening?"

"She decided her children should have to fend for themselves this season," says Roan. "She remains in the country. But she did send her regrets."

"Pushing the two of you out of the nest, I suppose. I cannot blame her. Miss Griffin, you do not have a dance card."

"Oh," says Clarke. "No, I suppose I do not."

"Then you had best go and get one. It would not do to be without if you receive an invitation."

Her only counterargument is that she doesn't expect to receive an invitation, and Lady Danbury knows that as well as Clarke does, so there's no point in saying it. Someone could ask her to dance, and if they do, she'll be expected to say yes, so there's no reason not to get a dance card, other than the embarrassment of how empty it will be.

"Everyone knows you," says Madi, her voice hushed and slightly awed. The crowd has parted for her like the Red Sea.

"It's not as fun as it seems," Clarke whispers back.

As if he heard her, Cage Wallace slithers out of the woodwork, looking just as slimy as the last time Clarke saw him. At least, she notes with grim satisfaction, he has an actual scar on his lip from the time she "accidentally" bumped into him while he was standing too close to speak with a young lady who looked like she'd be anywhere else. If she achieved nothing else in her time out, that, at least, was a worthy accomplishment.

"Miss Griffin," he oozes. "I didn't think I'd have the pleasure again."

"Mr. Wallace," she shoots back, her own smile serene. "I didn't think you wanted it." A reasonable man, having had his proposal refused, would leave her alone, but Wallace delights in making Clarke uncomfortable.

"I don't believe I've met your companion."

It's both absurd and unfair that if Clarke told him she had no wish to introduce him, she would be the rude one. "No, I don't believe you have. My cousin, Miss Madeline Gainsborough."

"Miss Gainsborough. May I have the next dance?"

Madi looks a little alarmed, and Clarke wishes there was a polite, proper way she could break Wallace's foot. She's not much of a believer in romance, but this is Madi's first dance at her first ball and she should have it with someone better than Cage Wallace.

"I've promised her first dance already, we're on our way to the gentleman now so he can sign his name. But I believe she can give you her second."

"Then may I have your first, Miss Griffin?" he asks, and of course she has no excuse ready to get out of that.

"It would be my pleasure," she says, through gritted teeth, and puts his name on her card because if she murders him, it will cause a scene.

"You don't actually have a first dance for me, do you?" Madi asks, as they leave Wallace behind.

"I'll find one, don't worry. I was already looking for Lord Pembroke, but if I can't find him in time, I do have friends. Any of them will be happy to dance with you."

"I don't need charity."

"Madi. I hate Mr. Wallace. He's awful, and he only asked us both to dance because he knows I hate him. I refuse to let your first dance in your first season be with a man who asked you to make me upset. You deserve a better memory than that. Besides, it's not charity. Everyone's here to dance. There's Lincoln," she says, spotting him. "I promise, he won't mind."

"That's him?" Madi asks, her voice more of a squeak. Lincoln is a little intimidatingly handsome, Clarke can admit, even if she's used to him. And it is a little strange, watching the whole thing from her supposedly advanced age. At seventeen, Madi feels so much younger than she is, and Lincoln's always been older. It's strange to think of them as being a good match.

Then again, Cage Wallace is older than Lincoln and still on the market. Madi has much worse options.

"That's him," she confirms, navigating towards him through the crowd. "Lord Pembroke. It's been too long."

"Still not long enough for me to have gotten used to the new title," he says, smiling warmly. "Miss Griffin. A pleasure as always."

"Please allow me to introduce my cousin, Miss Madeline Gainsborough," she says. "And please take her first dance so Cage Wallace won't realize I lied to him."

Lincoln laughs. "I'm glad to hear nothing has changed. And of course, it would be my honor if you would dance with me, Miss Gainsborough."

"The honor would be mine, Lord Pembroke," Madi returns, proper and confident, the model of a well-bred young lady.

"Is this your first season?" he asks, and Clarke takes a step back from the conversation, watching the crowd as the two of them get to know each other. It's not an engagement, of course, not even interest, but they seem comfortable. It's an encouraging start.

Then, Lincoln spots someone across the room and smiles at them, and Clarke follows his gaze to another young lady. She resembles Madi, at least superficially, brown hair and eyes, probably seventeen or eighteen, lovely but looking a little overwhelmed. At least until she sees Lincoln and her entire face lights up.

It's not really surprising, of course, that he should have other admirers. Clarke picked him for Madi based on his many sterling qualities, but he doesn't really need any of those to attract potential wives. All he needs is to be the Earl of Pembroke.

The young lady starts making her way in their direction, and Clarke spots her escort, a man with black hair and dark eyes. He doesn't look much older than Clarke, too young to be her father, and he's enough darker that she's not sure he's a brother either. A more distant relative, perhaps a cousin, like her and Madi. It's not as if they resemble each other much either. Neither the lady nor her escort is familiar, which isn't surprising, but it makes Clarke itch a little. People she doesn't know should be an improvement, but she doesn't know what they'll hear about her, or what opinions they'll form based only on rumors.

"Ah, Miss Blake," says Lincoln, smiling when he notices the girl. "Glad to see you steady on your feet."

"I wouldn't have missed this," she says, eager in a way most ladies have been taught not to be. "But I thank you for your help," she adds, when her companion clears his throat. Definitely a relative. Maybe he is her brother after all. Up close, there's more of a resemblance.

"Of course. Are you up to dancing?"

"Of course!"

He smiles. "Then you'll have to save one for me. But I'm being dreadfully rude. Have you met Miss Griffin and Miss Gainsborough?"

The lady turns her attention to the two of them, apparently noticing them for the first time, although Clarke's quite sure her companion hadn't missed them. "I have not, no."

"This is Miss Clarke Griffin, the late viscount Griffin's daughter."

"Present viscount's sister," she puts in.

"And Miss Madeline Gainsborough. And this is Miss Octavia Blake, the late Lord Blake's daughter, and her brother, Mr. Bellamy Blake."

Lord Blake was the one whose first wife died childless, and he scandalized the entire peerage when he married some opera singer, hoping she'd give him an heir, and then she didn't. And the opera singer had a son already, didn't she? From some other, unknown father.

Clarke had been thinking Mr. Blake might do well for himself on the marriage market if he was unwed, but it seems unlikely now. No one comes to these balls looking for a man without rank or title. Unless Mr. Blake has made himself a fortune, he's likely only here to take care of his sister, as Clarke is for Madi.

"A pleasure to meet you both," she says, smiling. "Were you hurt, Miss Blake?"

"Nothing serious!" she says, too quickly for good manners. "I was out walking, and I slipped. Lord Pembroke was kind enough to escort me home."

It's the kind of thing Lincoln would do for anyone, but that doesn't matter, really. The person he actually did it for was Miss Octavia Blake. It's a connection he has to her and not to Madi, inescapably.

Then again, the season has only just begun.

The band begins to warm up, and Cage Wallace materializes like some malevolent spirit. "Miss Griffin, are you ready?"

Madi is dancing with Lincoln, so her alternative is making polite small talk with the Blakes. If she's lucky, one dance with Cage Wallace won't be much worse. She pastes a smile on.

"Lead the way."

*

"Do you think she's pretty?"

"Yes," says Bellamy, before he realizes Octavia is probably talking about Miss Gainsborough, not Miss Griffin. "But Lord Pembroke is probably only dancing with her to be polite. He was happy to see you."

"He was, wasn't he? And he'll dance the next one with me. But maybe you can figure out more about the other two ladies while we're dancing."

"I'm not sure marital espionage is my forte," he says dryly. "But I'll see what I can do."

The first dance concludes and the couples switch partners. The gentleman dancing with Miss Griffin claims Miss Gainsborough, Lord Pembroke comes for Octavia, and Bellamy ends up standing next to Miss Griffin without even trying.

She is quite pretty to be unmarried. His taste in women doesn't always match with the societal ideal, but he recognizes that Miss Griffin is the pinnacle of that: blonde hair and blue eyes, a beauty mark on her lip, a nice figure he's trying not to notice. And her brother is a viscount. Even if she's a few years past her debut, he can't believe she doesn't have her choice of suitors.

Then again, maybe she's the one who doesn't want to marry. It's rare that women have the option to remain unwed, but if her brother will support her, she can be picky.

Bellamy clears his throat. "Lovely weather we're having," he offers, and she gives him an unimpressed look.

"It rained for two straight days."

"But it's not raining right now. I don't think."

Her mouth twitches. "You don't think."

"It doesn't sound like it's raining."

"You're right, that is lovely."

"I thought so."

"Is this your first season?"

He considers his options and settles on, "Is it that obvious?"

At last, her expression softens. "Your conversation starters could use some work."

"Next time I'll say we're having awful weather."

"Much better." Her teeth catch her bottom lip, drawing his attention to it. "Your sister seems quite fond of Lord Pembroke."

"Is that a problem? I thought she was supposed to come here to get fond of someone."

"I'd be happy to help you find another suitor for her," says Miss Griffin, her voice full of forced brightness. "But Lord Pembroke is going to marry Miss Gainsborough. So we'll need to come up with someone else for your sister. It shouldn't be too difficult."

Bellamy stares at her, actually open-mouthed with shock for a moment. "Someone else," he repeats, finally.

"What does she like about Lord Pembroke? There are any number of good prospects this year."

"Oh? So why doesn't Miss Gainsborough go for one of them?"

Miss Griffin looks at him for the first time, and he can see her taking in his crossed arms and tight jaw, realizing she's miscalculated. "Your sister is set on Lord Pembroke, then?" she asks.

"I think the real question is what Lord Pembroke is set on. I assume if he's promised to Miss Gainsborough, he won't show any interest in my sister anyway."

Miss Griffin ignores that, which is answer enough all by itself. "If you're looking for rank, I can do better for her than an earl. The Marquess of Bath is--"

"Probably an excellent match for Miss Gainsborough."

Miss Griffin scowls, but smooths the expression over quickly enough he can't mention it. "Miss Gainsborough told me what she was looking for in a husband and Lord Pembroke is her best match. So if you'd just tell me what your sister is looking for, I can find someone for her too."

"How impressive. Do you charge for your matchmaking, or do you do it out of the goodness of your heart?"

"I'm trying to help!" Miss Griffin protests.

"You're trying to get rid of a potential rival and convince me it's charity," he shoots back.

She opens her mouth and shuts it again. "That is what I'm doing."

"I came to London for one reason, Miss Griffin, and that is to see my sister happily married. I don't care about titles, not as long as he can take care of her. But I care what she wants, and I'm not going to push her onto some other suitor just so you can have your way."

"Then I suppose it is up to Lord Pembroke," she says, turning her attention back to the dance floor. The second dance is just finishing up, and Bellamy is struck with a perverse, irrational urge to ask Miss Griffin to dance the next one with him. Just to annoy her.

"I suppose so," he agrees instead, and vows, if only to himself, that if Lord Pembroke doesn't marry his sister, he'll at least make sure the earl doesn't marry Miss Gainsborough either.

That's a much better way to annoy Miss Clarke Griffin.

*

"Do you know anything about the Blakes?" Clarke asks Roan the next morning.

"Blakes, Blakes," he taps his jaw. "He's the one who actually married an opera singer, isn't he? Didn't he die?"

"And yet his children live on. Well, his daughter and her brother. The opera singer's son."

"How wonderful for them. Is there a reason I care?"

"We met them last night. Miss Blake seems interested in Lord Pembroke."

Roan nods his approval. "And why shouldn't she be? Pembroke's an excellent fellow."

"He is, and I have my eye on him for Madi."

"Ah, so you're worried about her getting in the way of your scheming."

"It's not scheming!" she protests. "It's our responsibility. Madi needs to come out of this season wed. She doesn't have her family to take care of her."

"If we can help her find a husband, I think we can take care of her for a year or two if she doesn't find a husband as well," says Roan, with an easy shrug, just as Clarke knew he would. "Obviously, I like Pembroke and I think he'd make a good husband for Madi, but if for whatever reason she doesn't make a match with him or anyone, it won't be the end of the world."

"I feel as if I will have let her down."

"You won't."

Clarke glares at her brother. If she were a boy, they'd probably be an infamous duo, the Griffin brothers, notorious rakes and scoundrels. It's acceptable to be a rake, when you're male, but if anyone in society knew how many women Clarke had bedded, she'd be a pariah.

Roan knows, though, and he's always been happy to trade stories and share exploits as if she were a brother, at least in terms of his putting restrictions on her life. He doesn't care how many maids she ravishes or proposals she turns down. As long as Roan is Viscount Griffin, Clarke knows she'll be taken care of, and she loves him for that and a thousand other things.

But the other side of that coin is that Roan doesn't truly appreciate that Clarke still faces struggles as a lady in society. Once, during the fallout of her broken engagement, they'd quarreled, and she asked him what he thought she'd do if he were to die, and it was clear it had never occurred to him that this would leave her in a dire predicament. And Madi, as a cousin, is not only in a more precarious place, but doesn't have the long history Clarke does with Roan. Even if Clarke assures her she'll be taken care of, she might not believe it.

"You want to take this seriously," he says, when he finally notices her glaring.

"We can be as cavalier as we wish with our own lives, but not hers."

"I can't argue with that, I suppose." He sighs. "What do you want me to do about this? Seduce Miss Blake?"

"No!" says Clarke. "Unless you mean marrying her yourself, which would be fine."

"Really?" he asks, sounding surprised.

"Why wouldn't it?"

"She's not good enough for the Earl of Pembroke, but she's good enough for your beloved only brother?"

"I never said she wasn't good enough, I'd just prefer he marry Madi. She seems like a perfectly fine young lady. And you could use a wife. Maybe she'd be good for you."

"I promise I will dance with her at least once," says Roan. "Assuming her brother doesn't object."

"Not if it's what his sister wants," she says, wrinkling her nose. "That's all he's interested in, her happiness."

He gives Clarke a curious look that she doesn't appreciate at all. "And that's a bad thing?"

"Of course not. He seems like a very devoted brother. More than most." Roan continues looking at her, and she relents at last. "I thought the easiest thing would be to tell him that Lincoln was spoken for, and I'd help his sister find someone else. He wasn't impressed."

"So you dislike him because he saw through you."

"More or less."

"And now, when I show interest in his sister, he'll know the only reason I'm doing it is because you told me to. Which makes him more likely to object."

"That is possible," Clarke admits.

"Well, at least it won't be a dull season," he says, and Clarke feels herself relax. She'd thought he might change his mind once he found out about the elder Blake, but of course, Roan never minds being a force for chaos in the universe.

"You are an excellent brother," she tells him, and he grins.

"And you are a holy terror."

*

"Now that is an interesting development," says Lady Danbury, jolting Bellamy out of glaring at Octavia and Lord Griffin. "I wasn't expecting your sister to tempt the viscount into courting."

"She didn't."

She raises her eyebrows at him. "No?"

Bellamy huffs, crossing his arms over his chest. "I assume Miss Griffin put him up to it."

"If that's the case, I wonder why she didn't do it sooner. If your sister married the viscount…"

"It's not happening," he snaps, and immediately regrets it. Lady Danbury isn't someone to snap at. "I apologize, my lady. Miss Griffin doesn't seem to approve of my sister's fondness for Lord Pembroke. I believe she's trying to distract Octavia."

"She could be. If it eases your mind, Lord Griffin may not have the best reputation, but he is rarely deceitful. If Miss Griffin did talk him into this, you can be assured he would not have gone along with it if courting your sister was not something to which he was willing to dedicate himself."

Bellamy makes a face. "I'm not sure that eases my mind."

"As long as your sister is happy, what else matters?"

He doesn't disagree, but there's no good way to tell Lady Danbury that her word isn't enough to make him trust Clarke Griffin. And from what little he knows of the viscount, he thinks Lord Pembroke would be a better match. He can't say he likes the idea of his sister marrying a notorious rake. Lord Pembroke might have as many dalliances as Lord Griffin, but at least he has the sense to keep them quiet.

"I wasn't sure what to expect from her season," is what he finally says. "I'm happy she seems to be so popular, but it's more stressful for me than if she only had one suitor."

"She has gotten a lot of attention," says Lady Danbury, as satisfied as if she had found Octavia's beaus herself. "Of course, the choice of her husband will ultimately be yours. If you don't approve of Lord Griffin, don't accept his suit."

"If he's Octavia's choice, I won't say no. But I hope he's not."

"You haven't even met him," says a voice to his left, and he jumps at the sight of Miss Griffin. "Good evening, Mr. Blake," she adds, smirking.

"Miss Griffin."

"Miss Griffin!" says Lady Danbury. "Good to see you. Is this the year that brother of yours finally picks a wife?"

"I can't make any promises."

"And what about you? Will you be finding a match for yourself?"

"I think my marrying days are past," Miss Griffin demurs. "There are plenty of young ladies for the gentlemen to pick from."

"One bad match need not doom you forever, Miss Griffin," Lady Danbury says. Bellamy wishes there was a way he could ask what happened with her engagement, but to show interest would only make him seem, well, interested. When all he is is curious. "Do you have a dance card tonight?"

"I do. Empty so far, as Mr. Wallace hasn't found me yet."

"A shame," she says, in a tone that suggests she will skin Mr. Wallace if he so much as attempts to ask Miss Griffin for a dance. "Mr. Blake could rectify that."

"He doesn't have to--" Miss Griffin starts, looking alarmed, and Bellamy can't help himself.

"How rude of me. Of course I should have asked you to dance, Miss Griffin."

"You don't have to."

"It would be my pleasure."

Apparently, she doesn't have any other arguments lined up. "The pleasure is all mine."

Bellamy knows how to dance and has done it a few times, but he can't claim any great skill. There's a part of him that wishes he was better at it now, just because he's sure Miss Griffin is expecting him to be terrible, and he'd like to prove her wrong.

That desire lasts for about thirty seconds after the dance starts, at which point he asks her, "Are you actually a bad dancer, or have I only seen you dancing with people whose feet you step on on purpose?" The worst part of the whole thing is that he still finds the whole thing rather enjoyable. Miss Griffin is warm through the soft material of her dress, and the perfume she wears is lovely, and every time she looks up at him, he feels at risk of getting lost in her eyes. But then she steps on his foot and he remembers that there are so many more interesting things to be than merely lovely, and Miss Griffin is at least a few of them.

She gives him a sickly sweet smile. "That would be telling."

"Is Mr. Wallace someone I should be worried about?" he asks, dodging out of the way of another attempted trodding. That one was definitely deliberate. "You don't seem fond of him, and he seems to be on the prowl for a wife. Is he going to come after my sister?"

To her credit, Miss Griffin pauses to really think it over. "I'm not sure. If the two of you continue to associate with me, he might come after her. He does want to marry, but he holds a particular grudge against me and my brother." Bellamy cocks his head, and she smiles. "He never has forgiven me for preferring spinsterhood to marrying him. And he's never forgiven Roan for not forcing me to accept his suit."

"And you wouldn't recommend him as a husband for my sister?"

"I wouldn't recommend him as a husband for anyone. If you're getting desperate for a match for her by the end of the season, we can do better than Wallace."

"We?"

She doesn't look at him. "I do know something about the panic a young lady feels when she realizes she will come out of the season without an engagement. I don't wish that on anyone."

"It seemed as if you had made your peace with it," he says carefully.

"I have. But that's today, not eight years ago. Eight years ago, it felt as if the world was ending."

They part, moving from dancing on their own to the group, but Bellamy still finds himself watching her. It may have been naive, but he'd truly thought that she never wanted to marry. That this was her preference. She's five-and-twenty, now, so her engagement would have been at seventeen. At seventeen, even the confident, self-assured Miss Griffin was probably just a girl, maybe even a romantic one.

"Does your brother really want to marry my sister?" he asks, when they come back together.

"I don't know. Honestly, my brother's mind is a mystery. He's open to marriage, and he won't lead her on. But I doubt he's committed to anything yet."

"So you didn't just put him up to it."

She smirks, and his stomach swoops. "Not just that. Have a good evening, Mr. Blake."

*

"So, what did you think of Miss Blake?"

"I liked her," says Roan, to Clarke's surprise. "She hasn't had the personality stamped out of her yet. But if you're asking if I'll marry her, I don't have an answer. Nor am I sure she would say yes, even if I asked. What do you think of her brother? I saw you dancing."

"What's there to think?" Clarke asks, trying for unconcerned and not sure she reaches it. "Lady Danbury made him ask. He doesn't like me."

"Because you don't want his sister to marry Pembroke."

She shrugs. "I'm not particularly likable. I don't mind."

It's apparently the wrong thing to say. Roan smiles like a predator who's just scented fresh blood. "I was thinking we should invite the Blakes to join us in the country early, you know. So I could get to know Miss Blake a little better, away from the demands of society."

"Is that so."

"My only real dilemma was whether or not to ask Pembroke as well. On the one hand, it would be a good opportunity for him and Madi to get to know each other. But if you're trying to keep him away from Miss Blake…"

Inviting anyone to the estate early hadn't occurred to Clarke. In all honesty, she'd been looking forward to a few days away from the bustle of society. A little peace and quiet--when her mother let her have it, at least--before the rest of the ton descended for their annual ball. Bringing along the Blakes, with or without Lord Pembroke, would be strategically wise, but Clarke's having trouble mustering up much enthusiasm. Especially given the calculating look in her brother's eye when he asked about Mr. Blake.

At least Abby certainly wouldn't approve of whatever Roan is thinking. Mr. Blake is not the kind of man Clarke should be marrying. She doesn't know what his profession is, but he almost certainly has one. He has no title and no lands. Unless her mother is well and truly desperate, she'd never even suggest that Clarke might marry Mr. Blake.

Which is annoying in its own way. Clarke might not like the man much, but he's a far sight better than plenty of other suitors Abby has approved of, Cage Wallace first and foremost. Maybe if the scope of her potential husbands had been expanded beyond gentleman, she'd be married already.

"I think we should invite Lord Pembroke as well," she decides, the words coming out slowly. "There is some risk, but if he prefers Miss Blake, there isn't much to be done. And if we don't invite him, Madi will be stuck with only Mr. Blake for company, and Mother would certainly never let us hear the end of that."

"Yes, I don't expect Mr. Blake to be company for Madi," Roan says mildly.

"You think she's given up on me so completely that she'd be happy to see me married to a man like him, do you?"

"You know as well as I do that you don't need her approval to marry. If you want to marry him, you have my blessing, which is all you need. He's quite a respected scholar, actually."

Against her will, Clarke perks up. "A scholar?"

"I looked into him. The late Lord Blake financed his education. He's an Oxford man, but I'll try not to hold that against him. He worked as a teacher until he gained enough of a reputation as a translator of Greek and Latin poetry to make his living from that. I've heard he may be in line for a professorship in a year or two."

"That doesn't mean I want to marry him."

"Of course not," Roan agrees smoothly. "But if you did want to marry him, he wouldn't be a bad prospect. Again, you'd have my blessing."

"Roan."

"Clarke."

"I thought you'd given up on getting me married."

"So did I."

"I'm agreeing to this for Madi. I'm not interested in spending more time with Mr. Blake."

He shrugs. "Then don't. I'm not planning to force you to spend time with him. But if you want to, you may. And if you want to marry him, you should."

It's not actually so strange for Roan to be talking of these things already--Madi hasn't had much more conversation with Lincoln than Clarke has with Mr. Blake--but it still feels sudden. As if her brother has latched onto the idea for no good reason.

"Are you trying to prove a point to me?" she asks, narrowing her eyes at him.

"A point about what?"

"Trying to rush people into marriages before they know each other."

"Believe it or not, I'm trying to help. I'm not expecting you to rush into anything, just give your own life and happiness the same consideration the rest of us are giving everyone else's. I'm getting to know Miss Blake," he adds, his tone not quite accusatory, but almost there. "I may not marry her, but I don't see why I'd rule it out. Why can't that be the attitude you take with Mr. Blake?"

"For one thing, I don't think he likes me any more than I like him."

"Then you probably won't marry him," says Roan, unconcerned. "Certainly no one will try to make you, not unless Mother likes scholars a great deal more than we thought."

"She's going to get her hopes up thinking you'll marry Miss Blake."

"Then either she'll be happy because I do or she'll relish the reminder that I am a constant disappointment."

Clarke has to smile. "If I married Mr. Blake, she'd get to feel both at once."

"Something for you to keep in mind going forward. Shall I invite the Blakes and Lord Pembroke to join us, then?"

"I suppose you might as well."

His smile is not at all reassuring. "Excellent."

*

"I wasn't expecting Lord Pembroke to be here," Bellamy tells Miss Griffin. In truth, he wasn't expecting to receive a special invitation at all, but he has no intention of telling her that. He assumes it's a part of her scheme to convince her brother to propose to Octavia, and he was included only because he had to be.

Still, it's nice to be spending a few quiet days in the country. He already feels better being out of London.

"Were you expecting to be here?" Miss Griffin asks, because apparently he doesn't need to tell her things for her to know them.

"Once you invited us, I figured it out. But I thought we'd be the only guests. It's not much of an advantage if my sister can talk to Lord Pembroke as well."

Miss Griffin looks out over the grounds, where Octavia and Miss Gainsborough seem to be making friends. It makes sense, Bellamy supposes, as they're of an age and in similar circumstances, but it's odd to realize they don't think of each other as rivals. He and Miss Griffin have kept that to themselves. "I would like to say I can manipulate everything to go my own way, but if Lincoln prefers your sister then there's nothing I can do. Not that I won't be doing my best to convince him that Miss Gainsborough is the right choice," she adds, shooting him a conspiratorial grin. "But if I didn't invite him, then all I was really doing was matchmaking for your sister. Madi would have gotten bored."

He nearly asks a few different questions before finally letting himself ask what he really wants to know: "What happened in your season?"

Miss Griffin frowns. "Why?"

"I'm curious."

She's quiet for a long moment. "I got engaged to a young lord who said all the right things and then I discovered he'd left a jilted fiancée at home without ever telling her he wasn't planning to marry her after all because she was too lowborn. So I called off the wedding and gained a reputation for being flighty and indecisive. Some people knew the whole story, but my mother said we shouldn't share it."

"Why not?"

Her mouth twists. "Because everything can always be turned around to make it the woman's fault, so the best course is always to share as little as possible."

"I'm surprised that was enough to keep you from getting another husband."

"There were some other things as well. Rumors and such. Mr. Wallace proposed to me after, thinking I'd be grateful just to have another proposal. I turned him down, and he tried to get caught in a compromising position with me so I'd have to marry him."

"Shit," he says without thinking, and then makes it worse by adding a "Fuck!" reflexively. "I mean--sorry."

Miss Griffin laughs, a bright peal of sound. "That just became worse and worse. Swearing in front of a lady, and doubling down on it after."

"I can tell you're scandalized. That's awful," he adds. "I'm sorry."

She shrugs. "My mother still wanted me to marry him. She said a husband was a husband. But it wasn't her decision, it was Roan's, and he refused his consent. He's promised I'll only marry if I want to."

"He seems like a good man."

"Perfect for your sister," she teases, and he laughs. "Roan said you're a scholar?"

It's his turn to frown. "Yes. Is that a problem?"

"Not at all. We have an extensive library here, you should feel free to use it as much as you like during your visit."

"I'm going to tell my sister that was your idea. She says it's good for me to have a break from my books."

Miss Griffin smiles. "Well, these aren't your books."

"I'm sure that will make her feel so much better." He clears his throat. "When is Lord Pembroke expected to arrive?"

"Around teatime. Why?"

"I'm curious. I don't know what there is to do in large country houses."

"Didn't you grow up on Lord Blake's estate?"

"Fine, I don't know what to do in large country houses when I'm a guest."

"What would you be doing if you weren't a guest?"

"Working."

"On translations?"

He doesn't like her knowing so much about him. Did she ask her brother, or did her brother tell her on his own? And, either way, why would they be discussing him? It's probably just because of Octavia. If Lord Griffin truly is considering marrying her, he probably wanted to know things about his potential brother-in-law. Miss Griffin probably did too.

"Yes, on translations."

"Did you bring those?"

"I did, but--"

He's spared from having to explain to Miss Griffin that his sister would never let him hear the end of it if he disappeared within hours of arriving to go and bury himself in translations again, but unfortunately what spares him is the arrival of Ladies Danbury and Griffin. Which is only being spared from a certain perspective; all in all, he'd much rather be talking to Miss Griffin alone. The proper ladies make him feel like he should stand up straight and clean his teeth; Miss Griffin makes him want to slouch and belch just to annoy her.

It's possible there's no one in society with whom he has a healthy relationship, except maybe his sister, and he's not even sure about her.

"Clarke, are you out here without a chaperone?" asks Lady Griffin.

Miss Griffin's eyebrows shoot up. "In the garden, with my cousin in view and countless servants attending to the grounds?" she asks. "Yes, I didn't think we needed any more supervision."

Her mother's mouth thins into a hard line. "Just remember to be careful," she finally says. "It only takes one person to start a rumor."

"No need to worry, I'm sure, Lady Griffin," says Lady Danbury. "Surely there can be nothing amiss with two friends taking the air."

Bellamy half-expects Miss Griffin to object to being called his friend, but she seems to consider it more important to not give her mother an inch. "I was just inviting Mr. Blake to visit our library. He's a scholar of some renown."

"How impressive," says Lady Griffin, in a dry voice that suggests she thinks no such thing.

There is a not insignificant part of Bellamy that wants to mention that he is not actually trying to court Miss Griffin, but there's really no good way to address something like that. No one's actually suggested that he might be courting Miss Griffin, and to even suggest that he might would be the height of presumption, being as she is a lady and he is not a gentleman. If he said it felt as if the idea of his and Miss Griffin being matched was in the air, everyone would deny it. There is no possible way he can address his bizarre suspicion that Lady Griffin is worried her daughter is thinking about marrying him without being impossibly rude.

He should have just let Lady Danbury escort Octavia to the Griffin soiree and stayed back in London, or even gone back to the Blake estate for some time on his own. But instead here he is, caught between a lady and her mother, neither of whom like him for their own separate, contradictory reasons.

It hasn't even been a full day yet.

"Bell!" Octavia calls, waving across the expanse of lawn, oblivious to the odd tension of the group watching her. "There's a pall-mall set! Come play with us!"

He manages a lopsided smile for the ladies. "It seems duty calls. If you'll excuse me."

Being an ill-bred bastard, he takes his leave without actually waiting to be dismissed. Octavia might be ruthless when it comes to pall-mall, but he'll take anything over talking to Lady Griffin.

*

"You aren't even slightly concerned about this?" Abby demands, once it's just the three of them in their own private drawing room. The question is mostly directed at Roan, so Clarke elects to ignore it.

"About what, precisely?" he asks, not even looking up from the letter he's writing.

"Mr. Blake."

"What's to be concerned about?"

"A man like that being around your sister and cousin."

Clarke's temper flares against her better judgment. "A man like what, exactly?"

"I remember Lord Blake's marriage, even if the two of you may not," Abby snaps. "That opera singer seduced Lord Blake and improved her lot in life, and I'm sure her son learned that it worked. And now you've brought him here, with two unwed ladies he can attempt to trick into wedlock. You'll have to be watching Madeline like hawks to make sure he doesn't compromise her."

Clarke and Roan exchange a look, united in their horror. But Clarke's the one who finds her voice first. "That's not why Mr. Blake is here, Mother. That's not the kind of person he is."

"And you're an expert on this, I take it."

"More than you are!" says Clarke. "I've actually spoken to the man. He's irritating and I can't say I'm particularly fond of him, but he's not planning to take advantage of anyone. All he wants is to help his sister find an appropriate husband."

"All he says he wants," Abby retorts. "Men lie, Clarke. Ask your brother."

"I don't think she needs me to tell her that men lie," says Roan. "But everyone lies. The question is if this particular man is lying, and I agree with Clarke. I don't believe Mr. Blake has any interest in forcing anyone into marriage. It's my understanding he makes a perfectly good living with which he is happy. Some ladies might even be happy to marry him, untitled as he is."

Clarke doesn't glare at him only because she wants to present a united front against their mother. "You can't tell us Madi's season is our responsibility if you don't even trust us as judges of character. I know exactly how awful it is to have a man try to force me into marriage," she adds, before Abby can argue with her. "I would never put Madi in that position. Nor would Lady Danbury."

"Lady Danbury is a wonderful friend, but she admits she had not spoken with the Blakes since the wedding. She hardly knows what kind of man Mr. Blake grew into."

"Whereas you're an expert," Clarke snaps, her annoyance mounting. "What do you want us to do, exactly, send him away?"

"I just want you to be careful," she says. "I would hate if something happened to you or to Madeline."

Clarke's only options are arguing or leaving, and she elects to take her leave. Abby won't be argued out of this; she will be convinced Mr. Blake has some nefarious ulterior motives until he leaves, at which point they will have only escaped from his machinations thanks to luck and Abby's vigilance.

Despite Clarke's every attempt to banish her foul mood, the irritation lingers. It's not about Mr. Blake himself so much as her mother, and her mother's belief that the problem is not all men who might coerce young ladies into compromising positions for their own gain, but only ones who do it without sufficient rank. When Cage Wallace tried to entrap Clarke, he was the best she might hope to do for a husband. But if Bellamy Blake were to do the exact same thing, he would be a monster, simply because of his birth.

"And he would be a monster," she mutters, drawing her dressing gown around her as she stomps towards the library. If she's not going to be able to sleep, she might as well read. "But Cage is a monster too. They'd both be monsters, not just Mr. Blake."

There's light leaking out the library door, to Clarke's surprise, but when she pushes it open and sees Mr. Blake inside, it feels inevitable. Of course, he's the only one who could be in there. A ready-made compromising position.

He startles at the noise, an unfamiliar pair of glasses sliding down his nose as he looks up from the book. It's far too late for anyone to be awake, and she finds herself smiling.

"You know, you could have just come during the day," she teases.

"I meant to." He clears his throat. "I'm sorry, I wasn't expecting to see anyone else here. I was having trouble sleeping."

Clarke knows she should leave, and if Abby hadn't been so awful about him earlier, she probably would. Now, she wants to have a perfectly uneventful time alone with Mr. Blake so she can throw it in her mother's face the next time they argue about his intentions.

"It must be going around," she says, crossing the room to stand next to him. "Did you find anything interesting?"

This close to him, she's aware of his scent, somehow clean and earthy, all at once, like soil after rain, and his jawline, and the ridiculous number of freckles he has. He really is stupidly handsome, especially in the soft light of the library. It's unbelievable that there's no common-born woman who wants to marry him.

He clears his throat, his Adam's apple bobbing as he swallows. "Uh, yeah. As you said, it's a very impressive library. Does your family actually read?"

She laughs, the strange tension breaking. "Excuse me?"

"What?" he huffs.

"Of course we read."

"Lord Blake didn't really. He had an amazing library, but he never went there. It was just part of what being a gentleman was to him. He was supposed to have books, so he did. It was as simple as that."

"Well, the Griffins read them."

"Do you have a favorite?"

"In the library or in the world?"

"Either or both. Are there different answers?"

"How do you feel about novels?" she asks.

"I like novels."

"I just read Pride and Prejudice, I liked it a great deal."

He nods. "I haven't had a chance to read it yet, but I liked Sense and Sensibility." He smiles down at the volume in his hands. "Except when it hit too close to home, that is."

"Oh?"

"I was worried Lord Pembroke might be a Willoughby when he came in carrying Octavia with her twisted ankle. She has some things in common with Marianne."

Clarke has to smile. "Lincoln is more of a Brandon."

"What about your brother?"

"Austen doesn't favor the honorable rake as an archetype," she muses. "I'm not sure there's an analogy."

"Of course not, she favors realism," Mr. Blake grumbles, and that actually makes her laugh.

"He's a good man, I promise."

"So why hasn't he married?"

"Are you a rake?" Clarke teases and to her surprise, Mr. Blake looks away.

"I don't think that's the kind of discussion we should be having, Miss Griffin."

Her stomach swoops and her heartbeat picks up. She'd assumed he'd answer no without a second thought; after all, he's been openly disdainful of Roan.

Then again, he might not care, if Roan wasn't trying to marry his sister.

"Is that why you aren't married?" she presses. "Are you not a good man?"

"I don't have the obligation to marry that your brother does. No family name to continue. My family name isn't even my family's."

Clarke wets her lips, aware again of how close he is and how desperately inappropriate the entire situation is, and how much she wants answers anyway. Her mother would die of rage if she came in. "So you find your pleasure elsewhere?"

"Miss Griffin," he says, his tone a warning.

"What? My brother is a rake, I do know something about it."

"Well, he shouldn't have told you."

Clarke rolls her eyes. "You think it helps the young ladies of society to be ignorant of what marriage entails? Are you planning to send your sister to her wedding night with no idea of what to expect?"

"Of course not." He rubs his face. "That doesn't mean I can discuss it with you."

"I'm not used to talking to people whose reputations I don't know," she muses. "I don't know that I like it."

"I prefer it, if that helps."

"So, you don't want to marry?" she asks, curious in spite of herself. "Never?"

"Do you?" he shoots back.

"I would have to find someone worth marrying, and so far, I've had no luck. I haven't ruled it out, but my prospects are not encouraging." She raises her eyebrows. "Your turn."

"I assume I will eventually. I'm not against the idea. If I found someone I wanted to marry." He wets his lips, which draws her eye down to them uncomfortably. Despite all the women she's kissed, she's never kissed a man before, and she's suddenly very aware of how much she wants to. "Does your mother think I want to marry you?"

It's just as well the question is like having cold water poured on her. All the rage comes flooding back, and she turns away from him with a huff. "My mother is a snob."

"She doesn't have to be a snob to not want her daughter to marry a bastard of no consequence," he points out. "I'm mostly worried she's going to turn me out of the house."

"She won't." She bites the corner of her mouth, deliberately turning to face him again. "She was worried you'd try to trick me into a compromising position."

His eyebrows go up in wry amusement. "Like being alone in the library with you in your dressing gown, for example?"

"For example."

"I was here first, so I don't think I tricked you."

"I think if anyone finds us, you'll have to marry me regardless, and my mother will certainly assume it was a deliberate scheme on your part."

"Then I had best take my leave before someone discovers us," he says. "Goodnight, Miss Griffin."

She gets one last lungful of his scent as he walks past her, and then she's alone again.

"Goodnight," she murmurs to the empty room, and gives it a few minutes before she follows him out.

*

If Bellamy was sensible, he'd avoid Miss Griffin. Knowing that he wasn't wrong, that her mother dislikes and distrusts him, should be enough to have him on his best behavior. He could get to know Lord Pembroke and Lord Griffin better, or spend time with his sister. He could work on his translations or read or go hunting or explore the grounds. He has a thousand options that are not following Miss Griffin around like a lost puppy, and he can't bring himself to do any of them, because Miss Griffin never said she wanted to see less of him.

Of course, she never said she wanted to see more of him either, but it wouldn't take much effort on her part to avoid him. It wouldn't even take much effort for her to not seek him out, but she does. In groups, they tend to fall into conversation with each other, and even when he does go off on his own, she'll often find him, sitting next to him in the drawing room with her own book or catching up to him on a walk, so he sees no reason that he can't do the same to her.

He thinks about marrying her in the same way he thinks about what he might do if he had wings, except that he thinks about it more often because it feels as if everyone is watching him and wondering if he's going to try to propose, if he really is so delusional. If he thought Miss Griffin wanted him to court her, that would be one thing, but he can't quite talk himself around to that. For one thing, she and Lady Griffin clearly have a complicated relationship, and Lady Griffin clearly doesn't like him, so that's probably part of why Miss Griffin is being friendlier to him.

Not that friendly is exactly the right word, anyway. They still quarrel, but in a different way. Whatever is happening between the other ladies and the lords, both Bellamy and Miss Griffin seem to have agreed that there isn't very much they can do as matchmakers. Lord Griffin gets to know Octavia, Lord Pembroke gets to know both Octavia and Miss Griffin, and the four of them will, one way or another, sort things out among them. So there's much less arguing about who will marry whom and much more arguing about books and politics and the general state of the world. Miss Griffin is educated and opinionated and Bellamy suspects that not many people recognize that. His acknowledging that she has a brain in her head seems to set him apart, and her genuine interest in his opinions on the labor and suffragette movements makes him much more inclined to share more of those opinions.

Sometimes, when they're (mostly) alone and her face is flushed with the passion of whatever argument she's just made, and she's smiling with giddy delight that she convinced him of said argument, he does want to kiss her. Kissing her seems so much more realistic than marrying her; if they were truly alone, he could do it just once, just so he'd know what she tastes like, and then he could be done.

But even though he's returned to the library once or twice in the late night, he hasn't seen her there again. Which is almost certainly for the best.

Every time he and Octavia are alone, he expects her to bring it up, but she waits until the day before the rest of the group is supposed to arrive for the ball before she sits him down and says, "I know you think you can't marry Miss Griffin, but we should talk about it anyway."

The funny thing about expecting conversations is that even when he knows they're coming, Bellamy never manages to come up with his lines in advance. "There's nothing to talk about, O. I like her," he adds, when his sister opens her mouth. "Much more than I expected I would. But I'm still not looking for a wife, and even if I were, I wouldn't be looking for a lady."

"Why aren't you looking for a wife? You could be. And you don't have to be looking to find one."

"She wouldn't marry me."

"How do you know?" She bites her lip. "Madi asked her, you know. What she wanted in a husband. And she said someone like you."

His heart stops. "Someone like me but titled, I assume."

Octavia shakes her head. "No, Madi asked before they met us. Miss Griffin wanted to know what Madi was looking for in a husband, and Miss Griffin described someone just like you."

"She didn't." It's not a question; he just doesn't believe her.

"The very first thing she said was that she wanted someone who read," Octavia says promptly. "Madi remembers, because she was so surprised that it was the first. Not that he was handsome or kind or rich, but that he liked to read. Someone honest, with whom she enjoyed conversing. That was all of it. Miss Griffin said she wants someone intelligent whom she won't get tired of talking to, and she said she didn't even care if he was wealthy, because she has a good dowry and Lord Griffin will support her no matter what. You cannot tell me that doesn't make it sound as if she would marry you."

Of course, she's right. If Octavia--and Miss Gainsborough--are telling the truth, what Miss Griffin wants in a husband and what he offers are in perfect agreement. And it doesn't sound like the kind of lie his sister would make up, really. It wouldn't occur to Octavia, any more than it would to Miss Gainsborough, that reading and good conversation would be the first things one looked for in marriage. But Miss Griffin's first fiance probably was someone whose main selling points were that he was handsome and said all the right things, and she'd found out he was lying to her, that he didn't care for her how she thought.

Miss Griffin tried a storybook romance once, and it turned out she was in the wrong genre. Now she wants someone she trusts, someone she has things in common with, someone she enjoys being with.

Someone, he must admit, he thinks he could be.

"I don't know if she'll say yes," Octavia admits, with surprising gravity. "Maybe she cares more about fortune and title than she thought, or maybe Madi and I are just being silly and romantic. But I thought you should know." She nods, like Lady Danbury agreeing with herself, and pats him on the knee as she stands. "Good luck, Bell."

He goes to the drawing room to read, and he isn't even there for ten minutes before Miss Griffin joins him with a book of her own. "Your translation," she says, holding up the thin volume.

Hope is thick in his throat. "Oh?"

"I wanted to see if you were any good."

He laughs. "You don't know Latin or Greek."

"But I know English. I'll at least know if you're translating into something coherent and well-written."

"Well, you'll have to let me know."

She smirks, and his heart flips again. It sounded so good, what she wanted. It sounds like what he wants too. "Just try and stop me."

*

For the most part, Clarke is glad when the rest of the guests arrive for her mother's annual ball. Being alone with Lincoln and the Blakes was too comfortable, too easy and private, and having more eyes on her helps, to the extent that being reminded most people are always watching and judging her is helpful.

The biggest downside is that Abby, in her quest to remind Clarke that Mr. Blake is an untitled bastard who is surely trying to lure her into an ill-advised union, has decided that she should be parading eligible bachelors in front of Clarke. The first time it happened, the bachelors were at least excited by the prospect of marrying her, but even with her good name and impressive dowry, no one is particularly enthusiastic. It doesn't hurt, exactly, because she doesn't want to marry any of them either, but the forced politeness and endless pleasantries are enough to make her want to scream.

All she really wants to do is go back to Mr. Blake and have a conversation with some actual substance, but she doesn't let herself do it often. Talking to him has become an indulgence, the kind of treat she can't let herself have often because it isn't good for her. She has male friends, plenty of them, but they're of the proper rank and breeding, the kind of men she's allowed to be friends with. Mr. Blake is not, and it will do neither of them any good to be overly familiar with the eyes of London upon them.

Wells, of course, still notices. "Who's the black-haired man you were talking to?" he asks, while they're dancing.

"Mr. Blake. I'm hoping my brother will marry his sister."

"Why?"

"Because Roan could use a wife and I like his sister." She doesn't bother explaining the entire Madi situation; Wells doesn't need to know all her plots.

"Is he the younger brother?" he asks, frowning. "Where's Lord Blake?"

"Dead. He's the one who married the opera singer, remember? Mr. Blake is the opera singer's son."

"Ah." He nods once. "Well, if you want to talk about that, I'm sure I can get away."

"The last thing I want is for the gossips to decide we're having an affair."

His eyebrows go up. "I doubt that's actually the last rumor you want going around about you at the moment."

Clarke doesn't argue, and he doesn't press her. They finish the dance and she moves onto the next gentleman who doesn't really want to be dancing with her, and then the next, her eyes finding Mr. Blake in the crowd without her really intending to. He's mostly with his sister, but sometimes he speaks with Lady Danbury or Roan or Lincoln.

She's on her last dance of the night when she sees he's talking to Monty, and that does surprise her, at least until she remembers that Monty dabbles in classics as well, and they might know each other professionally.

The dance concludes and Clarke makes her way through the crowd slowly, nodding and smiling and exchanging polite greetings until she gets to Mr. Blake and Monty in an almost natural, casual way.

"Clarke!" says Monty, grinning. "I was wondering when I'd see you."

"My mother is keeping me busy. Do you know Mr. Blake?"

"We've been to a few lectures together," says Monty. "I was just thinking I should have introduced the two of you sooner, I should have known you'd get along."

"That's a strong word for it," Clarke teases, and Mr. Blake smiles too.

"You should have seen the notes she left on my latest Ovid translation. I've never met a harsher or less informed critic."

"You want your translations to be good for English audiences," says Clarke. "Sometimes that means using a less accurate word that gets the idea across better."

His smirk might be his most unfair facial expression. "Whatever you say, my lady."

The conversation moves on, and when Mr. Blake leaves to speak to his sister, Monty gives Clarke a careful, calculating look, just as she was expecting. "I think we should get some air."

"That sounds lovely."

Clarke's maid is used to her and Monty's friendship, so she follows at a polite distance, giving the two of them some space to speak in private once they're outside.

"You don't have to tell me I'm being foolish," she says. "Everyone else already had."

"That's not what I was going to tell you."

"No?"

"I know Bellamy because Bellamy is like us," he says in a rush. "We spent time together after a few lectures. A very enjoyable time. Neither of us wanted it to be anything serious."

Clarke stares at Monty in open-mouthed disbelief. Suddenly, Mr. Blake's evasiveness about his conquests makes much more sense. A rake is one thing, but a man who fucks other men is quite another, a risky confession. One that she could have used against him. "But he does like women," she says slowly.

"Like us, as I said. He and I had the same opinion on the matter: if we met women we wanted to marry we would, but until then, it was safer to limit our relations to other men."

Her breath comes out shakily. "So I take it you think that if he met a woman in a similar situation…"

"I cannot imagine he would think poorly of her."

Clarke leans against the railing, taking in great lungfuls of night air. It was the final thing that she'd been fretting over, that last secret she couldn't tell. Precious few people know, even fewer who would tell anyone, but the truth is, Clarke has no idea how far the rumors have spread. Anyone she married might have found out, one way or another, and might have been awful to her once they did.

"Fuck," she breathes, laughing in disbelief. "That was all that was keeping me from marrying him."

Monty joins her at the railing, grinning. "You say that like it's a bad thing."

"I was ready to be an old maid. Or to marry you, once you were willing."

"I was hoping you'd find someone you actually wanted to marry. And you have."

"It's so stupid."

"Why?"

"My mother will be furious, for one thing."

"Unless you can go back in time and marry during your first season, your mother won't be happy with you, so I think you can stop worrying about that. What about your brother?"

"He approves. He already told me."

"Then that's that, isn't it?"

Monty has a way of saying things that makes them sound true and simple. As if the world really is that easy. But this time, she has to admit, he might be right. "That's that."

*

"I thought I might find you here."

Bellamy startles, but seeing Miss Griffin isn't actually a surprise. He'd come to the library tonight hoping she might come, one last time. In the morning, they'll be returning to London, and he suspects that she's as aware as he is that this strange friendship of theirs will, if not end, at least change.

He's going to have to decide if it's worth the risk to openly court her, and he's still not sure.

"I had to steal some of your books before I left," he says, holding up the volume he was looking at.

"Or you could borrow them."

"Less fun." He watches as she comes closer, his heart in his throat. The first time he saw her, he knew she was beautiful, but it was an impersonal, distant kind of beauty, beauty like a painting or a statue. She had all the right features, but he had no context for it.

Now, every time he sees her, she's more gorgeous than the last.

"I thought you might wear more than your dressing gown if you were expecting me," he remarks.

"It's more comfortable," she says. "I wasn't going to put all my layers back on just for you."

"Heaven forbid."

Her fingers skate over a row of books, dancing over the spines. "I wasn't expecting you and Monty to be friends."

"I do know some gentlemen."

"I'm almost engaged to him."

His heart drops into his shoes. "Almost?"

"We've agreed that if I'm still not married by the time I'm thirty, he will marry me. I tried to get him to do it after my first season, but he said it wasn't fair."

"I'm sorry to hear that," he says carefully. He wouldn't have thought of Clarke and Monty as a pair, but it does make some sense. Monty is well read and honest. It's not as if he's the only one.

She smiles. "Bellamy."

His Christian name hits him like a slap. "What?"

"I wanted to marry Monty because Monty already knew about my last scandal. My worst." She bites the corner of her mouth. "My mother caught me with my head between my maid's legs."

"Oh," he says. It's a different kind of heartbreak, not better or worse, exactly, just different.

"It's something he and I have in common. He said you were the same way. I don't prefer women, but there's no risk of pregnancy with them. And they won't tell anyone because it would be as bad for them as for me if we were found out. Like you and Monty."

"Not just Monty," he says. He's mostly numb, at this point, waiting for her to finish. He's not going to know how to feel until she's done. "I have a few such friends."

"I'm as much of a rake as my brother, to be honest. He knows, and a few others. But I knew I couldn't marry anyone who didn't know. Who might find out and think less of me."

"So you could marry Monty, and he'd keep his blacksmith, and you'd find someone of your own."

"I thought it was a good plan, but he thought I might still find a husband who suited me. Or find a lady who wanted a similar arrangement. He didn't want to marry me until I had one or the other."

"Thank you for telling me," he says, and she huffs out a laugh.

"I'm not telling you for your edification. I want to know if it's you. If you'll marry me."

"Yes," he says, before he's even fully processed the question. It sinks in slowly, the certainty settling on his bones, and he starts to laugh. "Fuck, you couldn't have started there? I thought you were trying to tell me you were in love with Monty."

She's laughing too now, really laughing, bright and relieved. "I've never confessed my love to anyone before, I didn't know how to do it. I wanted to make sure you knew everything you were getting."

His breath catches, the laughter dying in his throat as reality slams into him. "What about your mother? Your brother?"

"My mother will hate it, but she can't dictate what I do. Roan gave me his blessing before we even came here."

"Oh?"

"I told him I didn't want it, but he gave it nonetheless." She looks up at him. "This wasn't how I was expecting things to go."

"No?"

She takes a step closer, enough that he can feel her warmth and smell her soap and perfume. "I was hoping that as soon as I showed up here in my dressing gown, you would be overcome with lust and ravish me."

He lets himself reach out, tugging her in by her waist, his heart swooping when she comes willingly, eagerly. She wants to marry him.

And she wants to be ravished first.

"Maybe if you hadn't led by making me think you were in love with Monty," he teases, and kisses her before she can retort.

The last time Bellamy kissed a girl, he was ten. His mother hadn't married Lord Blake yet, and he hadn't learned to think of marriage as a big deal. People did it, of course, but it wasn't a requirement. The girl had seen her sister kissing the baker's son, and she'd wanted to see what it was like.

It hadn't impressed Bellamy much at the time, but he's gotten much better at kissing since then, and Clarke's had plenty of practice as well. She melts against him, her mouth opening almost at once, her hands tangling in his hair.

Some part of him knows that anyone could come in and catch them here, but it's hard to care when she's in his arms and they're already (almost) engaged. If someone finds them, all they'll have to do is get married more quickly.

There's a mostly empty desk behind her, and Bellamy pushes her back onto it, lifting her so that she can sit, her legs open for him to slot between them. He slides his hand up her leg, under the dressing gown, and she pulls him closer, her nails pressing against his scalp, his whole body thrumming.

"I wanted to do this the first time I saw you here," he murmurs. "I always want to do this."

"It's probably good we waited," she says, untucking his shirt from his trousers so she can slide her hands up his back. "The more we do it, the more likely it is that someone will notice."

He smirks. "Everyone noticed, Clarke."

She wraps her leg around his thigh, pulling him closer. "Say my name again."

"Clarke."

"Bellamy." She kisses him. "Are you going to fuck me on the desk?"

"You did ask to be ravished." He cups her breast through her dressing gown, making her moan. "What do you like?"

"I'm not sure. This is my first experience with a man."

"I should be able to do some of the things you like," he teases. "I hope."

"And some new things." She pulls back enough to take her dressing gown and night shirt off, leaving her naked in front of him, overwhelming in her beauty even before she smirks. "Feel free to try whatever you'd like."

"That would take all night, and then some." He kisses her lips again, quickly, and then down the column of her jaw. Her hands start to work on the buttons of his shirt as he moves, and he lets her deal with that as his own hands explore her breasts. "How long before we're married?"

"I'm not sure, but I'll try to move it along as quickly as possible." He twists her nipple between his fingers and she gasps. "Fuck, just like that. With your mouth, too."

It's nice to be with someone who knows what she wants. "I knew you'd come up with something."

He keeps moving his mouth down her body, pausing only to shrug his shirt off once Clarke's dealt with the buttons. Then he's back, kissing the soft swell of her breast, getting closer and closer to the peak of her nipple before closing his mouth around it. She cries out, softly enough he doesn't worry anyone will hear, gasps, "Bellamy," as she tightens her hand in his hair again. "That feels so good."

He pushes her back so she's flat on the desk, laid out before him with her loose hair splayed around her head, her breasts heaving with every breast. He can't help kissing her again, for all he wants to touch her everywhere, and she doesn't seem to mind, pulling him back on top of her and returning the kiss greedily. The barrier of his trousers between them is too much, all at once, and he undoes the clasp with one hand and kicks them off without leaving her mouth.

"I don't know if you should fuck me," she admits, breathless. "I really don't know how long it will be before we can be married."

"And we don't need you to be pregnant." He kisses her again. "I think we can figure something else out. My head between your legs sounded very appealing."

She moans at the mere thought of it. "Please, feel free."

"Is there anything I should know?"

She takes his hand and guides it down, bringing his fingers to a small nub among her folds. "This is the most sensitive spot," she says, and gasps when he touches it. "You can put your fingers or your tongue inside me as well, but that's the spot where--fuck," she gasps again, as he begins to rub. "Oh fuck, just like that."

"Women come more than men, don't they?" he asks, kissing her shoulder. "Will you come just from this?"

Her hips arch into his touch. "Yes. But I'll come faster if you put your mouth back on my breast."

"Later, once we're married, I'm going to make you come slowly," he promises. "I'm going to make you beg for it."

"I will."

He works the spot between her legs with his thumb and her nipple with his mouth, learning the sounds she makes when she likes something, when she's getting close, and then, at last, when she comes, gasping and shaking, his name on her lips.

Making her come apart is his new favorite pastime; he can't wait to do it again.

"How long can you stay here tonight?" he asks, leaning up to kiss her again.

"How long do you want me?"

"For as long as I can have you." He nuzzles under her jaw. "Forever, Clarke."

She laughs breathlessly. "Tonight, you can have me until dawn. Then I really should go."

"Plenty of time to try new things," he says, and slides down, pressing a kiss against her thigh as he settles between her legs.

*

"I'm not going to marry Lord Pembroke."

Clarke startles out of a memory of Bellamy's fingers thrusting inside her and his mouth hot on her neck, turning to Madi guiltily. She's been quiet since they got in the carriage, and Clarke had assumed that she was just enjoying the scenery as Clarke herself was enjoying reliving the many high points of the previous night. But now she sees that Madi's hands are fisted in the fabric of her dress, her shoulders tense with misery.

"That's all right," she says quickly.

"I'm not sure I want to marry at all this season!"

"You don't have to."

"But you wanted me to marry Lord Pembroke."

"You told me what you wanted in a husband and I thought Lincoln would be a good match for you. If he's not a good match, you shouldn't marry him. Do you think he'll marry Miss Blake?"

She nods. "He prefers her. And Octavia wants to marry him too. More than I do."

"Then it sounds like that's a happy ending for everyone."

"You're not mad? Truly?"

After last night, Clarke's in such a good mood she doesn't think anything could spoil it, but she can't exactly tell Madi that. "I'm not."

"Do you remember what you said?" she asks shyly. "About what you wanted in a husband."

"Not very well. Why?"

"Octavia and I were talking about it. The person you described sounded a great deal like Mr. Blake."

She has to smile. "Did he?"

"I know he's not rich or a gentleman, but you said that didn't matter. And he does like to read."

"He does." She bites her lip, but Madi won't tell anyone. She's a smart girl. "I'll tell you a secret: we are engaged."

Her eyes go huge. "You and Mr. Blake?"

"He asked me last night, and I accepted," she says. It's close enough to the truth. "I haven't told anyone yet. Roan won't object, but I haven't had the chance to let him know. And I thought it would be better if I wrote to my mother to tell her. Give her some privacy to come to terms with it."

Madi giggles. "She won't be happy, will she?"

"No, she won't." Clarke flashes her a grin. "But that's fine. I'm going to be happy enough for the both of us."