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"Aren’t you magnificent,” Julian tells her. “Marvelous as sterling.”

Courtenay looks at her, a sidelong glance, unmistakable in intent. It had rather better be: she's entirely eager. Julian has been gracious and Courtenay, after so long with Julian’s fractious, difficult personality, finds this unexpected. Julian, an unfixed point, behaves as she likes. What she likes is so often what Courtenay likes: on seeing her in society again, the beginning of the season, it is strange to know Julian as she might be seen by someone new. Her mild head-tilts and gentle conversation had been what Courtenay had first known of her and the reacquaintance is strange. This manner is certainly more amenable to guests and Courtenay would not have appointed herself a hostess without Julian’s gentle acceptance of their guests, but it’s rather like looking at a tiger without her claws. “Only sterling? I thought I might have been golden.” Courtenay waves her hand though her hair, a first pass to remove the pins.

Julian gives Courtenay a generous look. “I’d much rather have a pound of sterling than a pound of gold. What would I do with a gummy cube of some mineral, like I’m my sister-in-law? I was, before you ask, terribly bored through their courtship: while Eleanor played lovesick swain, I had to look at specimen labels. You've seen his writing: I could have nearly withered from boredom.” Courtenay's fingers are somewhat caught in her own curls, which remains her reason for not kissing Julian immediately. "Dreadfully dull. I would have told you about it to cool your ardor before this fête, but I was afraid you wouldn't believe me at the tedium I suffered." Julian's customary asperity only makes her lovelier: her eyes nearly glint with undampened fire.

Between them, the candle on the dressing table burns brightly. It's a broad table built in the last century with gilt and clawed feet: Courtenay had wanted it for her own girlhood rooms at Carrington Hall.

Julian frowns in the looking-glass, perhaps at a mussed eyelash or inconvenient blush. "You are the most perfect lady I can imagine. Tell me about your ardor." Courtenay settles, propping her elbows up, and unpicks a pin. Her curls must be a fright and her dress is hardly unlaced, but Courtenay hadn't known that she was inflaming any ardor at all. Before the party, she had done the ordinary sorts of arrangements: speaking with the cook, checking the flowers in the drawing room, ensuring that there would be an adequate supply of everything. It hadn't seemed alluring to her and Courtenay considers herself rather an expert as to her own allure.

Julian does find sums terribly arousing.

"It wasn't my ardor," Julian remarks as she turns away from the glass, having evidently satisfied herself to the state of her face. She settles a forearm on the tabletop and looks to Courtenay. "You were the one to ask me about the feeling of sun on my hair and what the Eastern Ocean looked like at dusk."

Courtenay doesn't recall making quite that conversational foray: she had thought that she'd only asked if Mrs Medlock might arrive in patterned cotton. Having her blander questions assumed to be a minaudière's fancy would rankle if Julian were not smiling so steadily and kindly upon her. She unscrews her necklace and replaces it in the jewelry box. This kind of precision is merely how Julian flirts: Courtenay had kissed her neck and Julian is parceling out her response. As Courtenay must remind herself of the goodwill of her interlocutors, so too must Julian remind herself that they are not speaking a double-entry account, with a compliment for every mercy.

Courtenay ought to honor that devotion. She unhooks the topmost closure of her gown. "Clearly your answer was so thrillingly titillating that you had to pour a great deal of cold water on my —" Julian smiles delightedly so Courtenay continues, "— passion, over the course of the rest of the day, to keep me from any untoward behavior in front of our guests."

"Help me out of my dress."

"If you'll help me out of mine."

Julian offers her hand to Courtenay along the burnished edge of the table. "Gladly. Tell me about your untoward behavior." Her fingertips brush Courtenay's knuckles and then the back of her hand. "All of the things you didn't do."

Courtenay admires Julian's hand: her finely-kept nails, the softness of her palm, her slender wrist for a lingering moment, then leans forward to kiss her. It's a clumsy sort of kiss, the reach between their chairs at the dressing table too far, Courtenay's hair in her face, and Julian kisses back warmly. Kissing Julian is a pleasure. She is still capable of surprise when Courtenay kisses her on the stair, a battle fought with some imagined decency and lost, and when their kisses lead to nothing in particular, merely the pleasure of shared company.

When they had begun their connection, Julian had believed that kisses were an indulgence to be dispensed with in all circumstances. This idea has been, with a great deal of application, generally of Courtenay's mouth to Julian's mouth but sometimes also to other parts of her body, abandoned. Courtenay does so like to kiss: that Julian initiates the tenderest sort of bruising kisses when they are in their bed is a positive joy. The candle flickers a little and a cloud brushes over the moon. Julian clasps her hand to Courtenay's thigh and Courtenay feels the shiver in her blood. Quite enough of their discussion for Julian, then.

Still kissing, they stand together. Courtenay pushes her chair aside and strokes her hand over the diamond span of Julian's dress. The fabric is warm; when Courtenay gets the ties out of the way, her shift is even warmer. The skin between Julian's shoulder-blades is delectably near to touch: Courtenay really ought to get her out of her stays.

With a good deal of graciousness, Courtenay licks Julian's mouth closed. "Step out of the dress? I want you, Julian."

"Do you? I was thinking of having you on your back."

"Were you?" Courtenay could kiss her all evening, loitering at her neck, her shoulders, her hands. Undressing makes it all the pleasanter but she hadn't assumed they'd have sex. "I hadn't thought that far," she says, a bit abashed. Over the years, Courtenay's ability to plan hasn't much improved from when she first set herself at Julian, or possibly even from when she started making her own choices as a girl. "Impulsive, are you?" Julian is delightfully lovely and Courtenay can't understand half of what she thinks about: Julian undertakes almost nothing without consideration. It's a point on which they are enjoyably completely unalike. Of course Julian's thought about this and of course she's rationalized her thoughts as a point of Courtenay's pride.

As though she would desire anything but Julian's contrariety. "You're impractical." Julian's hair is silver in the moonlight: Courtenay brings their entwined hands to Julian's neck, stroking the gleam of her hair. Soft and silvered: Julian really is a perfect jewel-box of a lady. Courtenay could look at her all night. She may very well.

Not if Julian has plans, though. Courtenay unlaces the second tie of Julian's muslin as she feels Julian attend to the hook closures of her silk. Courtenay had been quite pleased with her looks this evening and it is gratifying to have Julian's hand along her back, pleased and excited. Courtenay likes when she may predict what inflames Julian's passions and when Julian blames her for it handsomely.

Well, while they're saying things that aren't true: "Careless." It is a fine gown: green weave with gold trim down the center, new for the season. Julian is always thoughtful with Courtenay's possessions, with Courtenay herself. As the dress slips down, Julian takes hold of it and bends so that Courtenay may step out of it. Depositing it over the back of a chair with the same imperturbable concentration that she uses to shoot walls, Julian is unbelievably good. This is Courtenay's great good fortune: Julian's heated glances under the candlelight at the party belong to the same lady who plans the yearly outgoings and writes confounding novels. She loves Julian in all her guises and would say anything to her to prove this.

"Remarkable." Julian unlaces Courtenay's stays one-handed, a neat little trick. Courtenay laced them herself this morning, a diagonal strand under several quick whips. "Clever and beautiful." As though Julian knows the inside of Courtenay's mind, her latest recrimination, she holds Courtenay's hand more tightly. "You, on your back, looking down at me. Those impossible green sheets like an ocean around us."

"They're absurd, not impossible," Courtenay manages to drawl nearly normally, "and you want me under you?"

Undressing, Julian looks intensely at Courtenay. A look like that would have kept Courtenay in lascivious thoughts for days and she has Julian here: removing her dress, unhooking her stays, dropping her petticoat and drawers to the floor.

She turns down the blanket, and at Julian's motion, Courtenay raises her arms to divest herself of her chemise. Now entirely undressed, Courtenay goes willingly, wantonly, down to the bed, under Julian. She knows that her eyes shine with the reflected lustre of the sheets and she intends to get precisely out of that what she wants: Julian, as she is. "Julian."

"Yes?"

Courtenay edges toward the top of the bed, settling on her elbow, pulling Julian with her by their joined hands.

Instead of coming readily, Julian holds Courtenay's hand and settles at her legs. “You know very well what I think of you. Enchanting, wise, charming. Your fashion sense, of course, remains deplorable, but I wouldn’t want you too perfect.” Courtenay has one knee bent, her other leg stretched out along Julian’s body. The sight is thrilling and Courtenay regards Julian excitedly. "And in any case, it just makes me all the happier to get you out of those dresses.” Julian bends her head and, holding Courtenay's hand all the while, licks a stripe up her thigh.

It is a wonder.

Julian is a wonder.

Julian, for her manners, loves Courtenay and Courtenay, for all her mistakes, loves Julian. The party had been marvelous and the sex promises to be fun. Courtenay does always enjoy sex with Julian. They'd urged one another on at first, Courtenay feeling a bit of a debauchée for explaining that there wasn't any such thing as insufficient practice and Julian reading from the mysterious book she has in her head about how to be a lady, but they've both determined precisely what makes it excellent. Their mutual favorite. It is this coming together, that Julian knows what Courtenay likes, and that Courtenay can do exactly what Julian likes.

“My dresses aren’t bad,” Courtenay insists. Julian had helped select the one she had worn this evening. “I’m just very exciting. I like to dress the way I am.”

Julian relaxes her grip on Courtenay’s hand. During the party, naturally, they hadn't held hands: Courtenay had been much preoccupied with her duties as hostess and Julian had been about, charming merchants' wives and once, when Courtenay had stepped back unthinkingly to her, apparently playing some mathematical game with Lady Radnor who had otherwise looked decidedly ill at ease on one of her rare visits to London. Julian is an ornament to society. Having the Albemarle Street house for the season is an enticement to her. Courtenay never mistakes Julian’s grace for ease: she doesn’t have an advantage in this that Courtenay lacks. They are both utterly lost. “The way you are? And the way you are is gold silk faced with pink stripes.”

That is a superb dress and Courtenay intends to wear it to the Nortons' ball next week.“I had that made in Venice.” Courtenay explains. When Julian inclines her head, her jaw rests against Courtenay’s thigh. “No one would believe me as a pure little miss in muslin.” She'd hardly believed herself: she had once been such a creature and felt foolish in white. “I don’t want to pretend that I am anything other than what I am.”

“Compelling,” Julian concludes. Her exhale of breath so near a very sensitive place makes Courtenay twitch. “And not entirely accurate. You’re a lady who looks devastatingly gorgeous in green silk and you know it very well.” Julian urges Courtenay’s legs wider and kisses her. Courtenay sucks in a breath. “It would be grossly unfair if you also looked a vision in sprigged muslin as the rest of us are expected to do.” Julian apparently intends to continue this conversation. How inviting. “You do, of course. I’ve seen you in sprigged muslin. You’re quite lovely, although not as lovely, I now see, as when you’re happier in silk.” Julian applies herself to Courtenay’s pleasure for several moments before continuing: “your happiness does make you lovely. Lovelier than usual.”

“When did you see me in sprigged muslin?” Courtenay nearly gasps. If Julian’s to make this an ordinary conversation, it will hardly be the first time Courtenay has done so. She’s always liked talking and she’s always liked sex so combining the two is hardly novel. Julian generally doesn't say very much when they are in bed together: she prefers to do her seductions upright. Courtenay likes Julian's determination: she likes it very much. If Julian generally doesn't have cajolery for Courtenay when they're both so far advanced toward gratification, the unfamiliarity is a special thrill. She’s never been quite so lovingly critiqued: Julian hasn't applied her habitual sharpness all evening. Courtenay has enjoyed it in the past when Julian has subjected her to tongue-lashings and other kinds of restraints aside, but they hadn't planned anything for this evening. The party had been quite enough to be going with.

“You're wearing it in your portrait." Courtenay must look bewildered for Julian takes pity on her. "Your portrait. I’ve told you about this before. Your portrait hangs in Mrs Olmstead‘s drawing room. To be entirely accurate, it is a picture of a beauty. Jade eyes, aquiline nose, the most remarkable profusion of curls at her forehead. However, I understand she puts it about that you modeled for it.” Julian rests her jaw on Courtenay’s thigh.

“Didn’t I?”

Julian gives Courtenay a weary look before vigorously applying her mouth to Courtenay’s warmth. The feeling is impossibly good. Julian does have a touch for what Courtenay likes best: the pleasure of this, of the steadiness that Julian brings to all of her many accomplishments, her determination to make Courtenay feel as fine as she ever will. There’s no upper limit on pleasure and Julian seems certain to explore every height that she can bring Courtenay to. “Cavalier suits you, but I would think it’s at odds with your thinking. You needn’t be brazen about everything.”

Courtenay must have been in her second season by then, if she’d been at the Olmsteads: Mr Olmstead been in the Far East the year previous. “The dress was an affectation, Julian.” Courtenay cannot stop the drawl in her voice when Julian licks into her. “A joke between friends. I notice you don’t complain about the excitement I’ve given you.”

Julian raises her gaze to meet Courtenay’s, giving a curl to her tongue. When she begins to speak, Courtenay is still enthralled. “I’m awash in excitement,” Julian offers. “Can’t you tell?” She holds Courtenay’s hand more tightly. “Tell me about why a portrait of you in a white dress is the centerpiece of Mrs Olmstead’s drawing room. Take your time with it. I’m listening.”

Courtenay shakes her head to clear it. She shouldn’t have asked Julian all those questions about Madras. She knows Julian’s opinion on the past being best left in the past, but she had wanted to learn about what Julian saw when she closed her eyes, if she dreamed of India. Of course Julian knows about a portrait made a decade ago.

It would be fair if Julian had never seen that picture. Courtenay is certainly not ashamed of it and she’s very glad that the Olmsteads have such gratitude for that winter. They’d all made a rotten situation much nicer. Julian must not have been in London if she hadn’t heard that story the season it was going about. It would have been before she arrived in England at all, wouldn't it? “Are you fucking me, or are you listening?”

Julian tightens her grip on Courtenay’s hand. “Both. So, you were in your second winter of youthful indiscretions and told a very long joke, during which you were also painted?” Courtenay’s fondness for stories which wander down the garden path still perplexes Julian. “You want my fingers as well, or should I have what I like?”

Looking at Julian, Courtenay nods with no idea of what she’s agreed to. Julian between her legs? Julian’s hand and her mouth? “Please, Julian.” The mere thought is overfull: having Julian powerful, in the best way.

“You’re the most marvelous lady,” Julian tells her.

“I knew Lydia Olmstead my first year out. There'd been a precipitous marriage, the baby didn’t come, her husband fled to follow a trading concern. Please, Julian.” Julian shoulders Courtenay’s legs apart, the warmth of her body sudden, and waves her fingers in anticipation while she licks at a place which makes Courtenay want to scream. There is only the barest pause before Julian’s fingers join her tongue. Courtenay clutches Julian’s hand and feels nothing but heated sensation. Having found Courtenay’s pleasure with her mouth, the addition of her fingers is a honeyed joy. Courtenay loves this and Julian can give it to her. And also ask her to carry on a conversation like they’re in a drawing room. “We had occasionally been intimate friends, and when her husband returned, she asked if I wouldn’t — Julian!” Julian has spread her fingers and lain sucking kisses down, providing every stimulation that Courtenay could desire. “Julian!”

The feeling builds like a peak: Courtenay has been undone before, but Julian possesses some undiscovered skill in coaxing Courtenay to ever-greater heights. This pleasure isn’t something Courtenay has thought of lasting, except that Julian delights in it. “So,” Julian continues, her mouth damp, her eyes bright, her fingers inside Courtenay, “Mrs Olmstead has your portrait because you were her great lost love? How dreadful.”

Courtenay closes her eyes. Hearing Julian’s voice, feeling her hands, the tap of her fingers outside and within Courtenay, every sensation is overwhelming. “Julian. Fuck. Not her lost love, Julian.” Julian strokes languorously, and Courtenay can nearly finish the story, if not her satiety. “Lydia has my portrait — oh there, please — because I was a third for her — Julian — when she was too wild to get into Thomas’ bed and he thought she’d never love anyone again — Julian — and I was quite certain that she’d enjoy a lady’s touch. It worked, now please, Julian.” She’ll beg if Julian will do this for her. “Julian, please.”

The first wave of pleasure flows down Courtenay's back and around her arms. Where their hands are touching, the tide thrills her. Julian keeps talking: "do you think I could have a portrait of you done? Done as you are now: adoring, eager, a super-abundance of beauty?" Julian sounds less like she is contemplating this and more as though she would like to press herself along Courtenay. That this could make pleasure for them both, that Julian will have Courtenay this way, is a heavenly harmony. "A reclining Venus for my own collection? A picture — Courtenay — I would have of your loveliness in all things? To — breathe, here — admire?" She's learned exactly what Courtenay would have her know and it's unbearable.

There could be nothing so exquisite as this with the lady she loves. "You'd like to admire me? Julian, please, again. See me in a mirror? In oil paint?" The feeling is so good: her pleasure crests. Courtenay could imagine herself like that: she'd mention her more salacious affairs except that there is nothing so wonderful as Julian's pleasure. Courtenay can only ever give her that.

Then Julian bends her fingers deep within Courtenay and presses a hot kiss to the pearl of her pleasure. Courtenay is entirely, blissfully, wonderfully undone. She slides down onto the sheets and holds Julian's hand tightly.