"Something's bothering you, Drake." Jackson pushes another shot of whiskey across the table and Bennet stops its glide with a well-placed hand. "Spill."
"No," Bennet says. "If something were bothering me -- and I'm not saying it is -- you're the last person I'd tell. You don't like me."
"Now, I wouldn't say that." Jackson grins toothily. "You're a pain in my ass, but you're all right."
"You damn me with faint praise." Bennet tips the glass back and enjoys the whiskey as it heats the back of his throat. At least Jackson's buying. "Fine, then, I don't like you. Is that a good enough reason?"
"Sorry, not today," Jackson says, taking another drag and then stubbing out his cheroot. "Susan asked me--"
"You're here on your wife's business?"
"She wanted me to make sure you're not going to back out of your arrangement with Bella."
Bennet stares at his companion, gobsmacked. "Back out." Repeating Jackson's words is likely making him seem a fool, but he's not sure how else to respond. "I asked her to marry me, and she said yes; I wouldn't give that up for the world."
"I figured as much," Jackson agrees. "I told Susan you were reliable. She knows you're a good man."
"So now we've had a few drinks, and I can go home and assure my wife that you're not going to abandon yours, not that she's your wife yet but the day is inexorably coming, so I am asking you again: what's eating you?"
Bennet downs his drink. He's not at all certain that confiding this to Jackson is a good idea, but the alcohol has loosened his tongue. And for all that he objects to very nearly everything about the man, he does share Reid's belief that Jackson is ultimately trustworthy. "Would you believe I'm afraid?" There -- he's said it. Named the demon taken up residence in his chest.
"Bennet Drake, afraid?" Jackson scoffs, but something in Bennet's face must reveal that he means it; Jackson sobers. "You've piqued my interest; say more."
"I can't provide much." He's fumbling for the right way to say what he means. "Not on a copper's wages."
"She's not marrying you for riches." Jackson's voice is wry.
Bennet takes a deep breath and ploughs on. "I fear that after long variety Bella will grow weary of the same plain fare."
Jackson's gaze is all too discerning. Bennet can feel heat in his face where his blush has surely risen. He doesn't only mean the bread and meat at table, and Jackson knows it.
"Variety," Jackson repeats, and glugs the end of his booze. "The variety of callousness and lack of consideration, you mean? The variety of violence and humiliation of which men are capable?"
There's more venom in his voice than Bennet has ever heard from him. He's taken-aback.
"The variety of ill-use?" Jackson goads. "Or maybe you mean the variety of ways a whore is expected to pretend at pleasure and gratitude."
He feels as though Jackson has struck him, a slap to the face from an unexpected quarter. Of course he knows that many men treat such women poorly. But to think that this is how Bella might see him, as another audience expecting her to perform?
Some of his horror must be showing in his eyes, because Jackson sighs. "Damn it." He scrubs a hand over his face. "Now I owe you another round." Jackson sounds chagrined. "I didn't mean you, Drake."
"Go to hell," Bennet says, looking about in search of another drink.
"You're a rare bird." Jackson's voice is unusually gentle, for him. "I've lived with Susan long enough to know what sort of men frequent a house like hers. You know it too."
"So Bella said yes because I'm not as brutish a masher as most." What a miserable notion.
"That's not what I meant." Jackson's eyes reveal the truth of his apology.
"What did you mean, then?"
"The life of variety isn't all it's chalked up to be. Take my word for it. I've lived all over this world and sometimes I don't think any of it's worth a damn." He lights another cigarette. "Bella's a lucky girl. Anyone at Susan's would trade places with her in a heartbeat if they thought you'd go for it."
Bennet sighs. "Apology accepted. When you bring me another drink. I'll have a stout."
"I say one wrong thing and now I'm your goddamn barmaid?" Jackson grouses, but he's already standing up to make his way to the bar.
Stepping out with Bella is the highlight of his every day. That she accepted his proposal is more good fortune than he deserves. But Jackson has planted a new fear in his heart: not only that the plainness of his circumstance might prove dull, but that Bella might hide some part of how she really feels.
"Let's drink to your beautiful wife," Jackson says as he slams two pints of beer on the table, "and then I'm going home to mine."
A walk in the park, a package of hot chestnuts wrapped in paper which they share between them, Bella laughing and eager on his arm. Bennet fancies that the other courting couples must be wondering how a battle-scarred duck such as he might merit such a swan.
As twilight deepens, they sit on a park bench. The chestnuts long gone, Bennet warms her hands in his, and presently he draws her near for a kiss. They are seated, they have nowhere to go, and the kiss lingers longer than usual. Presently he becomes aware that their joined hands are perilously near to his lap, where evidence of his arousal is becoming ever more palpable. Reluctantly he breaks the kiss and pulls back. Bella's eyes are bright and her mouth is reddened. It makes him want to kiss her again.
And then the question arises in his mind unbidden: does she truly enjoy my company, or is this performance? And, sharper still, will she truly find pleasure in my bed, or will that be peformance, too? He takes a deep breath, resolved to make the matter plain.
"There's something on your mind, my love," Bella observes.
"There is," Bennet agrees.
"Is it something which might be softened, were it shared?"
"I hope it may," he admits, "but you know my words don't come easy, and these less so than usual."
"I can wait," she says simply, and she does.
After a long moment he decides how he might begin. "I know that your life, and your work, has not afforded you much choice," Bennet says haltingly. "One does not easily say no, in Miss Susan's employ."
"Susan is kinder than most," Bella offers.
"I've no quarrel with Miss Susan." How to make his meaning plain? His tongue feels thick in his mouth. "Just -- know that you can say no to me."
"Say no to you," Bella echoes.
Nothing for it but to say what he means. "If I should ever suggest an intimacy which you don't desire." There it is, he can feel it: the blush which has been his most embarrassing companion since he first spoke with a girl who'd budded breasts. "You may speak freely -- you must," he corrects himself. "Please. I beg of you. I've lived long enough with the company of my own right hand; I can take care of myself, if you should prefer."
It should not be so mortifying, discussing such things with a woman he knows perfectly well not to be virgin. And yet he's poke-axed, saying these words aloud. And compounding that is his body's thrum of hunger. Hunger for exactly the kind of thing he's telling her she needn't acquiesce to.
"And if I should say yes to such suggestions?" Bella's voice is light and encouraging.
"I would welcome that dearly," Bennet admits. "As I trust you know. But the choice is yours."
"I've made my choice," Bella reminds him, and squeezes his hand tight.
Bennet closes his eyes. This last might be easier to say if he can't see her face when he says it. "All I'll ask. The only thing I ask. Don't pretend."
"Bennet," she murmurs. There is chagrin in her voice, and understanding, but he wants to be certain that he has been heard.
"Don't pretend at pleasure." He's proud that he's managed to say it without choking on the words. "Do me the courtesy of honesty."
"Bennet. Love. Look at me?"
Helpless, he opens his eyes to the woman beside him. There is no judgement in her eyes, only kindness.
"You know what I've been. What I've done." Bella's voice is pitched for his ears alone; anyone who sees them in the park might imagine that they plan their nuptials in these quiet tones. "Most men would refuse to dignify me with a proposal. Others would expect that pretense you mention, not once but always."
"I don't," Bennet says fiercely. "I don't expect it. I don't want it. Do you understand?"
"I would never pretend with you. I swear it, Bennet. You don't pretend with me," Bella points out. "You never have." There is a softness in her expression; is she remembering the once he paid Susan for her time, and then asked her forbearance to simply sit with him a while?
Bennet has thought of that night often. Of the permission she granted him to be merely a lonely man in need of an embrace. Ridiculous, to hire a woman's company for such a purpose. Most of Susan's girls would have laughed, or insisted he must truly want some other service. But Bella hadn't done.
And since then, he hasn't come to Long Susan's with money. Only with flowers, or a sweet, or such small courting gifts as he can afford. It feels wrong to think of hiring her time piecemeal when he has asked her to grant it to him freely.
"I can't show you a false face," Bella promises. "Never you."
"I believe you," Bennet says. And he does. The knot of anxiety tied by Jackson's inopportune commentary has begun to ease.
Bella's eyes dip to his mouth and linger there a long moment. When she looks back up to meet his eyes -- is he imagining, or is there desire in her gaze? He leans ever-so-slightly in, just a little sway, faint enough that she could pretend not to have seen. But she doesn't pretend. She closes the gap between them. The kiss which follows feels like a promise.
When they break Bennet feels dizzied from her proximity and from his own desire. "The hour grows late," he manages. "I should walk you home." He rises.
"Not for much longer," Bella says lightly, and stands to link her arm in his.
He cleans his flat. He spends every evening that week with sleeves rolled up, scrubbing like the scullery maid he dimly remembers his mother to have been. With the anticipation of Bella's arrival he is newly-aware of every crack in the ceiling, every mended dish. Will his flat seem mean to her? Suddenly the rooms which had seemed empty and echoing, inhabited by only one, seem as though they might be close and confining for someone other than he.
And then there is his bed. Which will become their bed. He takes the linens to be laundered and starched, and makes up the mattress as finely as he is able. Crisp military corners he can manage, but he doesn't know how to make the bedchamber beautiful.
And maybe beauty is too much to aspire toward. Maybe the best he can do is serviceable and clean. An absence of dirt, like the absence of the violence to which Jackson alluded. He can't offer much, but everything he has, everything he is, he will offer freely. Plain fare, but dare he hope it will satisfy?
On the day before their wedding, he buys as many flowers as he can afford, a small extravagance which he arranges in every jar and vessel he owns, spreading the blooms with nervous hands.
He scarcely sleeps. In the morning he dons his most serviceable suit. Spends long moments adjusting his necktie, trying to judge himself in the mirror as Bella might see him. It is fruitless. He cannot imagine what she sees, other than a man who works long hours, a man marked with scars, a man whose worries have engraved deep seams around his eyes. Though she called him the best of men, that once. Said all the girls thought of him so.
The best of men. The approbation warms him, still. Though it is a far cry from the kind of consuming passion of which the penny dreadfuls speak. Is it enough?
They are a small party, in the end. Reid comes alone. Jackson and Susan. Drake himself, and Bella. The wedding is at noon. By 12:15 they are signing their names in the parish registry. By 12:30, out to breakfast, the customary meal in the bride's home being out of the question.
Bennet feels dizzied by the speed of the proceedings, and dazzled by the beauty of the woman beside him, fingers wrapped around his arm. He covers her hand with his own and she smiles at him through the tuft of white tulle draping rakishly from her hat. While they are out, two of the men from H division are retrieving Bella's trunk and installing it in Bennet's bedroom. All of her worldly goods, on their way to his home, even now.
Reid offers a toast to their happiness which seems heartfelt despite his own continuing marital sorrow. When Jackson stands up with his glass Bennet tenses in anticipation of something inappropriate or cutting, but Homer merely wishes them joy and downs his stout. Susan is by turns businesslike and charming, no visible sign of sentiment, but her embrace of Bella lasts longer than Bennet expected, and when they let go Susan's eyes appear suspiciously watery.
And by two o'clock he is unlocking his flat and pushing the door open for his bride.
The first thing Bella says upon entering is "Oh, Bennet, the flowers!"
"I thought you'd like them," he offers. She has always seemed to treasure the posies he brings.
She is walking from foyer to tiny parlor to dining table to kitchen, trailing her fingers along the furniture. The sideboard with its china plates and pewter tankards. The small stove, pots hanging on the wall. Taking inventory, perhaps. Bennet is doubly glad now to have cleaned everything so thoroughly. The one door she doesn't enter is the one which obviously leads to the bedroom. Bennet hangs his hat and shrugs out of his coat.
"The flowers are lovely," Bella agrees, "but so is the whole flat. It feels like you."
"It does, does it?" Bennet can't help smiling back. Her enthusiasm is contagious. "What does that mean, then?"
"It's simple," Bella says, clearly considering as she speaks, "and comfortable, and without pretense."
"I suppose that's good."
"And I feel I could spend a great deal of time here, and be content."
She's not just talking about the flat, is she? Bennet's tie feels constraining, and his shirt cuffs. He looks away and busies himself with removing his cufflinks so he can roll up his shirtsleeves. He wonders whether his heart is hammering audibly.
"We've time before supper," Bennet offers, trying to sound as though this is an ordinary conversation for him. For them. "We could walk in the park, if you like?" That would be more like normalcy. She might like that.
Bella looks down for a moment, then meets his eye. Her cheeks are pink; were they so pink, before? "Or we could stay in," she suggests.
Bennet swallows hard. She might mean something else entirely. A book, or a game of backgammon. Though his fingers itch to remove her gown. He wants to worship every inch of her with kisses. He has no idea what she wants from him. This is torture; how does anyone bear this?
"If I'm not being too bold," Bella adds. She's standing straight, her chin held high, but is she trembling?
"Never," Bennet promises. "That is -- I mean to say -- whatever you wish for; I'm yours to command." Using those words makes it easier, somehow. He is a soldier, still. Pledging his new allegiance.
"Come here?" she asks, and he does. Two steps, not such a great distance to cross. And then they are kissing.
This is different from the chaste brush of lips at the church which left his mouth tingling. Different from the kisses after every toast when their party clinked their glasses. Different even from the kisses they have taken on their walks, in the park. The blood is rushing in Bennet's ears and he is excruciatingly aware that they are alone, at last. Alone in his flat. And that there is a bed just through the open doorway.
He feels drunk on her kisses, and that emboldens him. "I should like to stay in," he murmurs against her lips, between kisses. "If we can keep doing this."
"I would be quite distressed if we were to stop," she murmurs back.
That's as clear a signal as anyone could give, isn't it? In for a penny, he thinks, and bends to swoop her up into his arms. Her laugh of delight is the sweetest sound he has ever heard. She slides an arm around his neck, tangling her fingers in his hair. The unthinking intimacy of the caress takes his breath away.
Bennet carries her over the threshold of their room.
Bennet has imagined this scene more times than he can count, in the dark of night with his nightshirt bunched up and his hands working his cock as he dares to imagine Bella's hands may someday do. Sometimes he imagines a slow seduction lit by lamplight. Other times, blissful discovery of Bella's body by touch in the dark. The one thing of which he is absolutely certain is that he wants to bring her pleasure. He would like to think that he is the sort of man who would always seek to do so. But it seems even more important now and here. Given how frequently she has been asked to make her body available for the pleasures of others. Not today. Never more.
He lets Bella gently down to stand beside the bed on her own feet, then moves behind her to unfasten the buttons of her gown. A kiss on the nape of her neck makes her shiver, but she doesn't pull away; instead she lets her head fall forward, exposing more neck to his touch. He dares to do it again, and she makes a small sound of satisfaction. Before he can kiss her there a third time her dress falls free, revealing the pale corset and petticoats beneath. "Unlace me?" she asks, and he does, fingers fumbling a bit with the knots.
When she lets it fall away he can see marks along her ribcage where the stays held her close. He kneels and presses kisses to each one, starting with the small of her back, then urging her with his hands to turn so that he can kiss the lines the corset engraved on her belly.
He wants nothing more than to lift her skirts and bury his face in her underneath. But this lip service might not be a caress she welcomes, and to leave her standing up seems uncouth at best. "Shall I divest you of these?" His voice emerges low and gravelly; her nod is hasty and her fingers are already at work unfastening. The petticoats slip to the floor, a stiff pile of froth at her feet. Beneath them her drawers are soft and pale beneath his hands which seem dark in comparison.
"Everything, if you please," Bella says, sliding her thumbs into the waistband. Bennet's erection aches and he ignores it resolutely as he helps her pull down the last fabric remaining on her body between them. Her ginger curls are framed by millk-white thighs, impossibly enticing. He can't resist wrapping his arms around her and pressing his face to her belly, inhaling deep.
He feels the twitch as Bella chuckles. "Your whiskers tickle," she informs him, but she doesn't push him away. Instead her hand strokes his hair, then cups the back of his head.
They remain that way for a long moment before Bella protests. "It's not fair; I can't touch you," Bella says plaintively, and Bennet surprises himself with a laugh. She gives a gentle tug. "Come up here."
His knees protest momentarily as he stands, and for an instant he is lightheaded. He sways on his feet and Bella steadies him, unfastening his necktie and the buttons of his shirt. He undoes his vest and shrugs it off, letting it join her clothes on the floor. When Bella runs her fingers along the inside of his braces, it is only an effort of will that keeps him from sighing at her touch. She pulls the braces down over his shoulders. His heart is thudding like heavy artillery in his chest.
He spares an instant to hope that his scars and his ink will not put her off, then reaches down to tug his shirt over his head. While he is momentarily so occupied Bella reaches to unfasten his trousers. Her fingers skim over the evidence of his desire and he bites back a gasp, wanting desperately to thrust into her quick and clever hands.
"Is there something you wanted?" Her words are innocent but the gleam in her eye is anything but. If she is troubled by anything she sees, she hides it remarkably well. No: she has sworn to be honest, and he believes her.
Her pleasure comes first. He is determined; nothing will sway him from this. "There is," Bennet confirms, and before she can move he picks her up again to deposit her on the bed.
"Bennet!" she laughs, squirming a little. But she stills when he presses his lips to the fine jutting bone of one ankle, then climbs onto the mattress between her legs. He is watching her closely, on guard for any subtle hint that she might not welcome the advance.
"Yes please," Bella murmurs, and lets herself fall back against the pillows as her thighs part further.
"You don't know what I had in mind," Bennet protests, though in truth a woman as worldly as Bella must be able to imagine every possibility which might arise from this tableau.
"Yes to anything," she says, eyes locked on his, and with a groan he bends to taste. Her soft cry -- surprise? pleasure? -- heats his blood further.
He braces her open with thumbs and forefingers and lavishes her with the attentions of his mouth. His own desire is so ardent that even rubbing against the bed grows uncomfortable, but he doesn't care: he could stay here forever, learning her taste, discovering what draws forth her broken pleas for more.
He is almost certain she has climaxed twice before he dares to broach her with a finger, and when he does she gasps his name and he has to clutch at himself with his other hand to keep from spending on the coverlet like a schoolboy.
"Yours to command," he murmurs, fighting to remain unmoving, to resist the ache which calls him to bury himself in her now.
"Come here," she suggests, and he relinquishes his place between her legs. He means to lie beside her but she tugs him straight up, his body blanketing hers. He braces himself on his hands, not wanting to crush her. "Kiss me," she asks, and when he obliges he is swept away by her fierce ardor. Some women might have shied away from his mouth, after what he's just done, but Bella kisses him as though she can't get enough. Though he's trying to maintain a respectful distance his cock drags against her abdomen and he breaks the kiss to gasp into her neck, struggling for control.
"Please, Bennet," Bella murmurs, half into his hair and half into his ear. "Don't stop." Her thighs open further. It is as explicit a permission as one could imagine.
"I won't last long," he mutters, feeling a flash of anticipatory shame. Especially without the barrier of a skin between them.
"Nor I," she promises. With a hand he schools not to tremble he guides himself inside.
In the event it does not even occur to him that she might be dissembling. Her cry of satisfaction is too real, the welcome of her body too pressing. He rocks into her and she pushes back, bracing her feet against the mattress to meet his rhythm. The struggle to keep from spending is both exquisite and excruciating.
True to his word, he succumbs sooner than he would have wished. And when he does, she gasps and shudders beneath him again, to all appearances carried along by the sensation. "Oh," she chokes, and for an infinite moment they are joined at the peak, hovering there, as though they could remain.
Her arms remain twined round him; she seems uninterested in letting go. So he slides his arms beneath her shoulders and permits himself the luxury of staying there, his face pressed into her neck. In time he slips free from her quim, and she makes a soft sound, but she doesn't push him away. Her hands stroke slowly from his shoulderblades down his spine and back up again.
He is not aware of sliding into sleep.
When he wakes, the bed is empty and the bedroom door is closed. The light is that of late afternoon. He must have been deep in dreams, not to have noticed her departure. A pang of chagrin: he has left her alone on their wedding afternoon! And there is little enough to do, in the flat. He rises and pulls on his drawers. Considers his shirt, then leaves it where it lies; after what they have just done, surely she won't be put off by the sight of his chest and arms? Then, taking a deep breath to steel himself for whatever he may find, he pushes the door open.
Bella is curled into the loveseat, her feet tucked beneath her, reading what he recognizes as one of the few novels he owns. She is wearing one of his nightshirts. Of course; her own garments are still packed away in the trunk, and she wouldn't have wanted to wake him by opening it. Even so, the sight of her enfolded in his shirt causes fierce feeling to stir his heart. Even more so, the smile which breaks across her face when she sees him in the doorway.
"A good nap?" she asks.
"I confess I scarcely slept last night," he offers, by way of apology.
"Nor I." Bella's smile is wry. "What kept you awake?"
"Wondering whether I ought to have scrubbed the floor again," Bennet admits, and is rewarded by her laugh.
"You cleaned the flat yourself? You didn't hire someone?" She sounds genuinely surprised.
"I didn't think of it." Truly, he hadn't. "Besides, I spent my coin on flowers."
"You truly are the sweetest of men," she says, and he smiles, abashed. "Come, sit."
He would make his way to another chair, but she slides over, clearly making room on the loveseat. So he joins her. It takes a moment's adjustment, but soon they are ensconced there together. He cannot help but recall that first hour when he asked if she might keep secret his yearning only to hold her and to rest. That his life has changed so thoroughly between then and now seems scarcely to be believed.
"You didn't need to go to all this trouble."
"'Course I did," Bennet says. I wanted to make a good impression, he thinks. I want you to be happy here. But he offers neither of these aloud. "And what kept you awake, last night?"
"Fear," she admits freely. "Not of you," hastily, "never of you!"
Is his despair at that prospect so visible? Already, it would seem, Bella can read him like a book. "What, then?"
"That you might yet think better of your proposal. Truly, my nerves didn't settle until I stepped into the hansom this morning."
Her admission leaves him pole-axed. "Never," he says through a throat suddenly thick with emotion. "I know how lucky I am."
"You may be obligated to remind me of that, from time to time."
"Daily," Bennet promises. "Morning and night. As often as you could wish."
Perhaps it is only natural to move from such an affirmation to a kiss. And then, when Bennet would have regretfully pulled away, Bella recaptures his mouth and keeps him close. Her every expression of ardor warms him. Further evidence that he does not presume. He feels as though he is storing up touches, kisses, sensations, against the void of loneliness which has for so long been his lot.
When finally they stop, Bella's lips are reddened and her smile lights the room. "Aren't you cold?"
Bennet shakes his head. "I'm a furnace," he says. "Unless it's the dead of winter. Made my time in Egypt an utter misery, that did."
She traces one of his tattoos with a fingertip. "Then tell me about this." He feels the touch as though it were a caress, and has to resist leaning into her hand like a dog begging to be petted.
"It's a long story." The tale of how he came to choose this ink. Reid has heard some small part of it, but he's never told it in its entirety.
"We have time," she points out, and curls against his chest. Utterly at-home. As though she belongs there. He draws her nearer and drops a kiss onto her hair.
"So we do," he agrees. "All right, then. Let me think how to begin."
He holds his wife close -- him, Bennet Drake, married to this woman! And they've time enough for stories, and for supper, and tonight if he is truly fortunate -- and it would appear that he is -- she may sleep in the circle of his arms.