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“How do you feel?”

 

How did she feel?

 

Truly she did not know. She could not.

 

Her mind raced a mile a minute, her heart pounding, as she struggled to grasp onto a single solitary thought.

 

It was proving especially difficult with his body turned into hers, his shoulder comfortably resting upon hers. His eyes fixed adoringly on hers, the breath of his words scorching her skin.

 

She had placed her hand tentatively on his shoulder, an impulse she could not control.

 

Perhaps it was to assure him of her contentedness. Perhaps it was to thank him for his tenderness. Perhaps it was simply because she could.

 

Because he was hers.

 

“I feel…” she started.

 

Speaking had allowed the events of the past few hours to seep into her pores.

 

He had withdrawn from her touch. He had avoided her gaze. He had withheld his words.

 

He had despised her. She had despised herself.

 

Chasing after something she knew she could never possess. He had apprised her of such in no uncertain terms. In the bluntest and harshest of ways.

 

She was a fool.

 

He had surrendered in front of the Queen, resigned to his fate. A life shackled to a woman he did not want.

 

Most cruelly, he spoke a most delightful symphony, a tale she so wished were true. Their courtship in the most heavenly of universes.

 

But she could derive no pleasure from his declaration. Each kind word a sharp stab in the heart. Tinged with the insidious poison of insincerity.

 

And yet, all of her assumptions had been gloriously wrong.

 

He adored her. He burned for her. He yearned for her.

 

He fought for her.

 

She could hardly understand, unable to undo the careful protection her suppositions had afforded her. The certainty that this was not real.

 

But there he stood, willing her to unfold. Willing her to believe.

 

When she let him in, she realized there could be no greater balm to her soul. The overwhelming sensation of his reciprocity.

 

“I feel….”

 

She almost laughed, a slight hysteria starting to settle in.

 

She was weightless, unable to feel her limbs and extremities.

 

The physical expression of their union was nothing like she had anticipated. It most certainly was not a natural continuation of what happens at night.

 

She thought she had unlocked something that night. An unmatched roar through her body, a delightful tune pulled from the jaws of her pleasure.

 

But nothing could prepare her for the intensity of this song.

 

Their lips meeting, chaste.

 

His fingertips grazing her skin.

 

The shiver down her spine.

 

The tickle of her clothing slipping down her body.

 

The sound of his cravat sliding off his neck.

 

The rippling of his muscles as he discarded his shirt.

 

The sight of his broad bare chest.

 

The warmth of his skin under her touch.

 

Her sheepish embarrassment at his request.

 

The immediate gratification of her submission.

 

The innate desire to beckon him closer.

 

The heat of his body radiating through hers.

 

The rhythm of his movements.

 

The compounding pressure of each stroke.

 

To be filled and left empty.

 

Her confession.

 

The pinnacle.

 

 

How did she feel?

 

She felt…well she felt

 

“Wonderful.”

 

She turned to look at the ceiling. Basking in the day’s events.

 

She felt his arm snake around her waist, tugging her to face him.

 

They remained quiet, taking in each other’s features, steadying in their breaths.

 

“How do you feel?” she dared ask.

 

The corners of his mouth twitched. He leaned forward, capturing her lips in a slow, languid kiss.

 

He savored her, brushing his lips against hers in an excruciatingly chaste manner.

 

When she tried to move her lips more urgently, he pulled back. Her eyes shooting open in surprise and frustration.

 

He smirked, his eyes never leaving hers. He wordlessly took her hand in his, as he had done before.  

 

He brought her open palm to his lips, leaving a trail of kisses from her fingertips, to the beat of her wrist. He darted his tongue, sucking in time with each pulsating rhythm.

 

She sighed, her body vibrating in response.

 

He quickly pecked her lips, before moving to her cheek, her temple.

 

“Wonderful,” he whispered, his lips grazing her ear.

 

She smiled widely.

 

She still could hardly believe the turn the night had taken.

 

Even during the restless nights preceding the wedding, she had never allowed herself to dream up such a wonderful possibility.

 

For her agony to turn to ecstasy.

 

She fervently pressed her lips to his, humming into his mouth with wanton desire. She felt his tongue slide across her lips, exploring the confines of her mouth. The baritone rumble of his groan sending waves across her skin, down to the pit of her abdomen.

 

His hand rubbed against the smooth skin of her legs, teasing their way to her core.

 

“Mmmm,” she grimaced.

 

Simon withdrew his hand, concern etched across his face.

 

“Is everything well?”

 

Daphne was perfectly well, except for the dull ache she felt when he had tried to touch her. She suddenly became aware of her body. Her thighs were sore, the inner muscles tender from being stretched for an extended period. Her arms were heavy, residual tiredness from the way she had clung to him.

 

She was spent.

 

“I am afraid I may be in need of some respite. My body is not yet accustomed to such…exertions.”

 

And perhaps her mind was not yet accustomed to the intensity of…them. It was all so new. And so very draining.

 

“I am sorry, I did not realize,” he followed with a kiss, on her shoulder, her cheek, her lips, her forehead.

 

She smiled, running her hands across his arms. No longer a figment of her longing. Here in the flesh.

 

She began exploring his body, caressing the expanse of his skin, resting on his chest.  

 

She was not sure how long they had stayed this way, simply luxuriating in each other’s proximity, in their intimacy.

 

Her fingers crawled from his arms to the nape of his neck, tickling the hairs.

 

“Simon?” Her voice a mere murmur.

 

“Yes, Daphne?”

 

“Is it always like that? Like this?”

 

He drew closer at her words, encircling his arms protectively around her.

 

“Mmmm, well I can only speak from my experience—”

 

“And what a worldly experience that must---AH,” she could barely finish her jest before he gripped her at her waist, tickling her into submission.

 

“I shall have you know my reputation precedes me.”

 

Daphne raised a brow, accompanied by a smirk, “Yes, Your Grace, a paragon of virtue I am sure.”

 

“Well, in all my years of perhaps what some may call rakish tendencies,” he started, giving her body one last squeeze, causing her to squeal in laughter, “it has never been like…that. Like this.”

 

“Truly?”

 

“Truly. That was something…entirely apart.”

 

Her countenance erupted with a sense of relief and delight. Despite her quip, she had been worried of his response. Even with the memory of grand affirmations echoing in her head, it was difficult for her mind to adjust to his utter devotion, to his satiation with her.

 

Her smile faded as she noted a certain unease cloud his demeanor, his face growing hot and his eyes averting her gaze. He seemed astonished at his own words.

 

She reached to his face, relishing the friction of his beard on her fingertips. She slowly cajoled him back to her, his eyes soft and pure. He almost appeared as a child, a boy seeking…something. Approval? Reinforcement? Her…love?

 

She was not sure.

 

She could not be sure of anything.

 

She knew very little about the ways between a man and a woman.

 

But somehow, she knew.  

 

“You know this is what I always wanted,” she ignored her discomfort to wrap her arms around his back, pulling him flush to her body in a gentle embrace.

 

“To lay with your husband in an Inn?”

 

She grinned at his attempt to lighten the air in the room.

 

“To lay with you.”

 

“I somehow suspect, I did not always figure into such plans.” 

 

“Mmmmm, you might be surprised. In all my years of preparation, I had been searching for something so…well so intangible. I could never quite grasp it. There were always the practical matters to consider, yes. I wanted someone whom I could talk to. Whom I could trust. Who could afford me protection. Someone who might return my affections…”

 

She paused, sensing growing tension in his body. She never ceased in her caresses, relaxing and loosening his muscles.

 

“But when I met you,” she cleared her throat, willing herself to continue, “when I succumbed to my feeling for you, I realized I had found in you everything my heart desired.”  

 

She saw a flicker of disbelief cross his eyes, perhaps even shame.

 

Did he not know all that he had given her?

 

…Oh. Suddenly, her mind ventured into waters she had carefully instructed herself to avoid.

 

Perhaps he could only fixate on the one thing he could not provide. Children.

 

She had longed to be a mother. To be a true mistress of a household just like her mother had been.

 

She could not pinpoint the exact moment when the prospect of motherhood turned from obligation to aspiration.

 

Maybe it was when she had first been old enough to fathom the birth of a child. Gregory had arrived, a most adorable bundle. She remembered him as he was, a mere pod in the arms of Papa. The way his hands latched onto her fingers in a most heartening gesture.

 

Maybe it was when they had nearly lost Mama, and she faced the prospect Anthony had, of being the eldest maternal presence in her younger siblings’ lives. She had been first to care for Hyacinth as Mama recuperated. She would visit often with the nursemaids, observing their duties, intent on showering her dear sister with all the love she could muster. She had learned then how tiresome an endeavor it was.

 

Or maybe it was simply the comfort of knowing how contented Mama was at their presence. Invigorated by their every mischievous prank, their petty dramas (which at the time seemed most serious), their silly dispositions.

 

Oh, how she wished she could experience that joy for herself.

 

Pulling herself from her thoughts, she regarded her husband.

 

He appeared subdued, his eyes facing downwards. Nothing like the confident, assured man she had just seen a few moments before.

 

It clearly pained him, to be unable to fulfill his duty. To be unable to allow her to fulfill her duty.

 

But Daphne was surprised at just how easily her mind had adjusted to a life without children.

 

For she realized, she would not trade any part of him.

 

A child was not worth suffering the indignity of being the Baroness Berbrooke.

 

A child was not worth condemning herself to a life of pretend with Prince Friedrich, no matter how good and kind a man he was.

 

A child was not worth losing Simon’s friendship, his companionship.

 

Nothing was worth more than what she had found with him. Nothing.

 

But perhaps, she could make him understand.

She lifted his chin, compelling him to look at her.

 

Everything Simon. Everything that truly matters in this world, you have given to me.”

 

And this realization almost frightened her. She had never surrendered so much of herself to another. Trusted so much of someone, to place her entire life in their hands. 

 

She sealed her confession with a searing kiss, as if to imbue her sentiments into his very soul.

 

A small moan released from Daphne’s lips as Simon’s hand ran up her thigh, over the curve of her bottom and up to rest at the small of her back.

 

She drew her hands slowly up his back, and down his arms, caressing the muscles beneath her fingers.

 

Simon rolled himself fully atop her, his body stretched against hers and his pelvis cushioned between her legs. His right hand rubbed up her thigh, over the bare flush of her skin. His mouth abandoned hers and kissed a slow path to her neck, his hand deftly kneading her thigh.

 

Daphne threw her head back, reveling in his attentions, allowing herself be lost in the rush of desire he evoked within her.

 

"Simon,” she purred, her voice a breathless pant.

 

"Should we stop?” Simon’s question muffled from where his mouth was occupied at the shallow indent at the base of her neck.

 

“Mmmmm,” she could only manage a wordless whimper of pleasure.

 

He pulled his face back from her, his hands sliding upward against the warm skin of her lower back.

 

"This is not," he had to mumble in between kisses, as her head rose to crush her lips against his, “a good idea..."

 

"Why?" Her mouth took possession of his again, her kisses harder and hungrier. Simon finally obliged, his tongue teasing her bottom lip with light flicks until her mouth opened for him.

 

"I do not want to hurt you,” he managed to whisper, breaking off from the kiss.  

 

Daphne forced herself to quell the desire burning within, aching to combust.

 

She smiled at him, her stomach flipping at the tenderness of his tone and the depth of his feeling for her.

 

She evaluated herself a moment. Her body suddenly felt almost ethereal again, gone were any lingering aches or pains. Though if they were still there, she certainly could not feel them, nor did she wish to.

 

“I will be fine.”

 

“Are you sure?”

 

“Yes, I want you Si—" a soft sound of pleasure broke from her when his hand cupped her breast, his thumb gently rubbing over her nipple. "Simon."

 

His mouth buried into her neck, licking and sucking and nibbling at her soft sweet skin. He rocked his pelvis against hers. The intimate areas between their legs ground together, the residual heat reverberating, pleasure intensifying.

 

Daphne gasped, her eyes immediately closing as the tingle of warmth cut through her, arousal multiplying in the pit of her stomach.

 

His fingers tangled in her hair and tugged tenderly, stretching her neck back to give him full access.

 

He continued with his sweet torture on her neck, now alternating between running his teeth in a gentle nip, and sucking lightly on her freckle.

 

"Mmf,” she could barely mumble against his shoulder.

 

Daphne leaned her head back into the pillows, her eyes closed tightly. She moaned again, louder this time, as he kissed her... and touched her. Her hands ran along his bare arms and shoulders until they found his neck, stroking over the curly hairs and urging him closer.

 

Simon tore his mouth away, resting his forehead against hers, taking the moment to calm their breathing. His hands ran up her sides, landing on her face, his thumbs moving tenderly over her cheeks.

 

She lifted her chin up, trying to catch his mouth with hers, but he pulled away, just enough so her lips couldn't reach his. Her eyes opened to look into his. But the question was answered in the way he was looking at her.

 

His brown eyes boring into hers.

 

Raw, rife with want, need, passion…her breath caught.

 

"Turn over," he suggested in a husky voice.

 

Daphne paused, biting her lip. Her hand went to his cheek. "I want to see your face..." she offered, after a minute.

 

Simon instinctively turned his cheek into her palm. "Trust me," he murmured, placing a soft kiss inside her palm.

 

She looked at him for a second, then started to smile. Trust him.

 

She gave him a quick kiss, then did as he asked without question, and without asking for explanation.

 

She could not see him, but she could feel his gaze traveling slowly down the length of her back, likely absorbing every detail.

 

The curve of her neck to her shoulders, the slight protrusion of her shoulder blades, the long, graceful curve of her spine to the small of her back.

 

Just when she had begun to wonder what he was doing, his hands began to touch her. His palms lightly caressed over her soft skin, his fingertips ghosting after. As if it were a grand expedition, his quest to touch her, feel her, know her.

 

Daphne’s eyes closed, her breathing soft as she felt his hands and fingertips slipping over her back. She did not really know what he was doing, but she did not mind in the least.

 

It did not even feel carnal in nature. No, it felt more akin to a sensual massage. But even so, his touch was making her shiver with pleasure. And all those little touches were building the intensity.

 

Simon leaned down and kissed a freckle on her back, which made her draw in a sharp breath and open her eyes. He then nuzzled his nose against the back of her neck, before kissing the very spot.

 

"Simon..." she moaned as his lips began to kiss down her back, following the curves of her skin.

 

His mouth and tongue traced the long line of her spine down her back, and his hands on her skin were now pressing harder.

 

Daphne could not help the bubble of soft laughter that came from her throat, as he kissed the round of her bottom. She shook her head against the bedspread, unsure whether to feel embarrassment. She pulled herself up on her elbows so she could look over her shoulder at him, smiling.

 

Her laughter must have been contagious, because he started to chuckle softly as well.

Daphne took in a breath when his mouth kissed her there again, this time nibbling on her skin, his tongue lavishing her. She squirmed a little as he kissed his way down, to the back of her thigh, his hands running over her legs.

 

When his mouth encountered the back of her knee, she made a soft noise and turned to look at him over her shoulder again.

 

She smiled at him, "I have never been touched there."

 

Simon looked deeply into her eyes for a long moment, "I want to kiss you... everywhere. Every inch of you."

 

"Hmm…Everywhere?"

 

"Everywhere."

 

"That could take ages.”

 

He grinned, "I know."

 

Simon lowered his head and continued to kiss his way down the back of her leg, until he reached the bottom of her foot. He placed a soft kiss on her heel, and one on the arch of her foot.

 

"Turn over."

 

Daphne’s heartbeat quickened at his words, turning over slowly, pondering what he might have planned next. Her eyes closed again when he kissed the top of her foot ever so gently.

 

She sighed, smiling as his mouth kissed up her leg, past her knee, his lips drifting father to the inside of her thigh.

 

Her eyes opened as she realized what he was about to do. His lips, down there…she was not sure if she was ready.

 

Her hands went to his face, pulling him up to her. "Not now," she mumbled against his mouth, her arms pulling him closer.

 

That made him draw back to look at her face, curiously. "It hurts?" he questioned quietly.

 

"No...it is just…" she whispered under her breath. Her hand laid on top of his on her cheek, "How you make me feel is... so...”

 

She had suddenly lost all her words. How could she possibly describe what he did to her? The sheer magnitude of his presence. His touch. His glance.

 

It scared even her. She seemed to possess no control over it.

 

Simon smiled down at her. As if he understood. As if he knew…

 

She beamed as his lips came down to hers, her arms wrapped tightly around him, crushing him against her, "Simon," she moaned, "I need you."

 

Simon urgently took hold of her hands and positioned himself above her. He propped himself up on his elbows, looking down at her face as he slid into the wet, inviting confines of her body.

 

He groaned as he pushed into her again, her warm softness giving to his strength, enveloping him. "Daphne..." he mumbled.

 

Daphne bit down on her bottom lip as he pushed into her, his hard length burying deep inside her and filling her.

 

It was much easier this time, though Simon still paused, waiting for her to adjust to his length.

 

Their moans blurred together, as he withdrew himself, and slowly pushed himself inside her, savoring the feel of her body, pulling him deeper, her wet heat surrounding him.

 

Simon held her close as she rocked against him, content for the moment to keep their pace slow. Their hands still joined, they leaned into each other as they moved together.

 

Daphne nuzzled her nose against his, her lips barely brushing his. Then their mouths met, their lips tender and slow as they kissed.

 

Hands began to roam over naked skin, caressing every contour, taking time to appreciate every curve and nuance of each other's bodies.

 

Lips to lips.  

 

Tongue to tongue.

 

Hips to hips. 

 

Hands remained wandering over the bare expanses of skin in a journey of their own - knowing, learning, touching, memorizing, feeling, caressing, loving...

 

Simon’s hands grasped onto her hips, the rhythm of their movements building slowly.

 

She felt her legs spread in a similarly awkward position to their earlier encounter. Determined and emboldened by the experience, she experimentally shifted her legs, wrapping loosely around his waist.

 

She supposed that was the right thing to do, as her actions only urged him to go deeper, harder, faster.

 

Simon was thrusting himself into her with increasing tempo. It was a marked changed from their first time. He had gone slow, as slow as possible, so as not to hurt her she supposed.

 

But slow was simply no longer possible. Patience had had its time, now passion and lust were taking control, erupting into an uncontrollable frenzy of hunger. Their bodies were clinging to each other, pounding against each other, seemingly in time with their hearts pounding in their chests.

 

They were breathing too heavy to kiss, so their foreheads pressed against each other's, their noses grazing ever so slightly.

 

Their bodies were laced with a sheen of sweat, radiating, as he continued the punishing rhythm of his hips.

 

Daphne felt the now familiar heat building inside her. More aware of her body, she slipped her hands from his back and cupped the cheeks of his face, urging him down to her. Her tongue flicked at his lips, and when his mouth opened, she pushed her tongue inside, tasting him ravenously.

 

His rhythm was continuous, each thrust punctuated with a creak of the bed.

 

Simon moaned into her mouth, his tongue dueling hers. Their tongues entangled, in a dance that was almost savage in its ferocity.

 

Daphne’s pants mixed with an uncontrollable coo, as she felt her pinnacle nearing. But Simon didn't release her mouth, keeping her lips captured to his. Her legs squeezed him tighter, making him moan and shudder.

 

As he pounded into her softness even faster, another noise, louder, one she hardly recognized as her own, sounded from the back of her throat.

 

She felt a bolt of heat rip through her body, taking her over. Her body quivered, reverberating with her release.

 

Her legs loosened from him, falling carelessly to the side, her muscles incapable of holding her body up. Her eyes were fixed on the ceiling, lost in the throes of her passion.

 

Daphne did not register that he had left her, her body still scorching from the heat of their encounter.

 

She gripped the sheets as tight as she could, spreading her release across her body.

 

She knew right then the answer to the question she had asked of him previously. Perhaps it would always be like this, with them.

 

Suddenly she felt a shiver, cool air washing over her. She turned and noticed his body no longer covered hers. His back was to her.

 

Daphne mustered all her strength to turn towards him, her hands running leisurely up and down his sweaty back. He froze momentarily at her touch, before succumbing to her.

 

He rolled over so she was cuddled by his side. His hand played with a strand of her hair, while the other was slowly grazing down her arm.

 

"How do you feel?" he asked after a few minutes of comfortable silence.

 

She stretched up to kiss him once, softly, then laid her head back down on his chest.

 

“Better.”

 

No words needed to be said to express how incredible and amazing that experience had been. Words couldn't do it justice anyway.

 

He laughed softly, his hand returning to play with her hair, "I must say you are a natural, my dear. Though, I suppose I should expect nothing less."

 

“And whatever is that supposed to mean?”

 

“Hmmm, well let’s say I have long known of the true fire behind the demure diamond of the season,” he smirked down at her.

 

Her hand flattened over his heart so she could feel its beat under her palm. "A diamond I am not," she said softly.

 

“Oh, I know.”

 

She scoffed against his chest, playfully patting him.

 

“I only meant that… I have always seen you, just as you are.”

 

As if she still harbored doubts, this man continued to conquer them all. She knew very well of what he spoke. The freedom with which she operated in his company. The utter lack of pretense.

 

Their courtship had been a reprieve, an escape from the pervasive culture of dissemblance.

 

How fortunate she was to have found a match that allowed her to just be.

 

A privilege, she must admit, she did not even hold within the confines of Bridgerton house. She always felt a responsibility to show her best face, to set a proper example, to make her family proud.

 

But now…now, she wanted this life. This feeling. With him, forever.

 

Not just together in the sense that they were now, limbs tangled in each other. She wanted him. She wanted all of him to be hers. She wanted to hold him and kiss him and touch him and love him. She wanted to laugh with him, jest with him, commiserate with him.

 

She wanted to be his forever.

 

“I understand.”

 

He reached to take hold of her hands, outlining every extremity, taking a moment to finger her wedding ring embossed with a collection of stones. He frowned slightly, “What do you think of this?”

 

Daphne stifled a yawn, turning to examine her outstretched hand. She hadn’t a moment to think too deeply on her latest accessory, her mind rightfully occupied elsewhere.

 

There were four pearls, equal in their size and pigment. Around them a pattern of scattered rubies, adorning each pearl. At the heart of the pearls, a diamond, unmistakable in its clarity and luminosity.

 

 “Mmmm, it’s certainly beautiful, unique. I like it.”

 

“Certainly not the grandest ring I could have procured that still adheres to the Ton’s polite sensibilities…but,” as he trailed off, she watched him intently. His eyes remained transfixed on her hand, twirling the ring between his fingers. “I got it because it reminded me of you.”

 

“Of me? How?”

 

He sighed, as if summoning the words.

 

“The pearls represent your strength of character, your intelligence, your compassion, your wit. The diamond center, the crown jewel of your wiles, the face you must show the Ton as my Duchess. And the rubies, well, consider that the fire below, that only I am privy to, of course.”

 

Daphne bit her lip trying to keep her emotions at bay.  

 

How had she found such luck?

 

To have found her best friend in her husband.

 

A man who truly knew her.

 

A love match.

 

She could scarcely believe it even now.

 

She leaned forward, meeting his lips in a feather of a kiss, "You have me," she whispered against his mouth. "Always."

 

Simon seemed to sense the desperation behind her kiss, and pushed her back a little. He ran his fingers over her lips and brushed away the tear that had fallen. His eyes asked the question silently.

 

Daphne attempted to collect herself, “I think I am just so very tired.”

 

He squinted at her, likely not quite believing her assertions, but left his thoughts unremarked.

 

“I do suppose we should rest. We must rise early to complete our journey to Clyvedon.”

 

Clyvedon.

 

They would be at Clyvedon Castle in mere hours.

 

As Duke and Duchess.

 

Husband and wife.

 

The exhaustion of her body was no match for the fortitude of her mind, which was now buzzing with anticipation.

 

How could she have overlooked such an important detail?

 

Suddenly she became aware just how ill prepared she was to be a Duchess. To preside over the duchy.

She attempted to review the series of obligations her mother had instilled in her. She was to extend an invitation to the vicar first…or perhaps the steward? No that couldn’t be right…

 

Now the head housekeeper, what was her name? She realized she had never known. In all the three days she hadn’t the time to properly study such matters.

 

She would be sure to confer the list she had prepared on the carriage ride, making a mental note to fish out the paper from her belongings.

 

She quickly turned to Simon, unsure how to broach the subject of her anxieties. She could not have been lost in thought for more than just a few minutes.

 

Yet, she noted his face was serene, his breaths deep and even.

 

She could not help but smile, he looked so peaceful in his sleep, his countenance free from the false bravado he wore for the Ton. She curled up against his side, hopeful that the cadence of his breath would soothe her worries and coax her to sleep.

 

Daphne let out a soft sigh, her mind slowly drifting.

 

This night had been a most potent cocktail indeed.

 

Anguish to bliss.

 

Bliss to anguish.