The foyer is larger than the bedroom of her old flat. The parlour could fit the entirety of her flat in it. It’s been three months since she married John and left her old life behind but Melody is still getting used to it. Everything just feels too big, too grand, too expensive. She spends her days wandering the house and peering at baubles and shining marble and lavish paintings but mostly afraid to touch for fear of breaking something. This place isn’t a house – it’s a bloody museum.
The only place she feels truly comfortable is the upstairs library and the bedroom she shares with John. The library is full of plush, comfortable furniture and warm light and it smells like old books. It’s where she spends most of her time. And John let her redecorate their bedroom immediately after they were married, telling her to do what she liked with it and damn the cost. Melody couldn’t stomach spending a small fortune on a bedroom but she managed to make it feel more like their room on a relatively thrifty budget.
John had actually smiled when he saw it, holding her close and murmuring in her ear that it felt like home. Wrapping her arms around her middle, Melody wanders the halls of the house and clings to that memory, listening to her footsteps echo. It’s been a bigger adjustment than she ever expected and there are some things she doesn’t think will ever get any easier – like having someone wait on her hand and foot, for instance.
She stands in the doorway of the kitchen, watching Clara prepare their evening tea. She’d been wary of having a maid at all but John wouldn’t hear of not having one and to be honest, she’s grown quite fond of Clara since then. She’s a lovely girl – quiet as she goes about her duties but quick to put John in his place if he needs it and always happy to have a lengthy chat in the kitchen when Melody gets desperate for company. And it’s always fun to sit back and watch Clara and Amy team up to exasperate John into a foul temper.
Watching Clara drop six sugars into John’s cup and add a little milk, Melody jumps at the sound of the young maid’s voice in the otherwise silent house. “Still no sugar for you?”
Of course Clara had known she was hovering. Clara seems to know just about everything that goes on in this house. John says it’s because her eyes are so massive. “No. Thank you, dear.”
“At least a bit of milk then?”
Melody shakes her head. Before, she always took her tea black because she had no other choice but now that there is an abundance of little sugar cubes and pitchers of milk, she finds that she cannot tolerate the sweet taste. She’s too used to bitter now and sometimes she worries that it means something, that she’ll never truly fit into John’s world of sly charm and family money. “No,” she says, regret curling in her stomach. “I can’t.”
Clara shrugs, throwing a small smile over her shoulder. “Suit yourself then. You taking your tea with your husband or in the library?”
“With him.” Melody smiles and steps forward with pleading eyes and outstretched hands. “Let me take it up?”
Leveling her with an uncertain frown, Clara settles a hand on her hip.
“Please? I’m going to go mad if I don’t find something to do.”
“Read a book, then.”
Clara huffs. “You know he hates it when you do my job. I hate it when you do my job. Makes me feel all sorts of useless.”
“Well how do you think I feel?”
Clara groans. “Oh, sod it. Take the tea.” When Melody brightens, reaching out again for the tray with a grin, Clara holds up a hand. “Just make sure he knows it was your idea.”
Nodding eagerly, Melody leans in and kisses the girl’s cheek. “You’re too good for us, you know.”
Clara snorts, handing her the tray and watching with another sigh as Melody bustles from the room and up to the second floor of the house. Her skirts sweep the stairs as she goes and not wanting to drop the tray, she keeps both hands balancing it and hopes she doesn’t trip. She makes it to the top without incident and balances the tray with one hand as she pushes open the door of John’s study, shutting it behind her with a foot.
He looks up from his latest manuscript, softens at the sight of her, and then raises his eyebrows at the tray she carries. “You know, we have a maid for that. Perhaps you didn’t see her – she’s just a wee lass. Didn’t step on her, did you?”
Melody rolls her eyes. “I made her give it to me. I was already coming up to see you anyway. It seemed silly to have her trek up here as well.”
“That’s her job, wife.” He takes great delight in calling her that and Melody can never manage to stifle her smile when he does. She puts the tray on his desk and he sets aside his pen, brushing away the page he’d been working on and leaning back in his chair to give her his full attention. “Come here.”
Her heart leaps but she resists just for the sake of it, smirking as she gestures to the tea. “It’s going to get cold, sweetie -”
“Sod the tea then.” He scowls. “I don’t even want it.”
She lifts a brow at him and edges just a bit closer. “What do you want?”
John reaches out without warning, snagging the skirts of her dress and dragging her toward him. She laughs, allowing herself to be caught as she tumbles into his lap. He always wants her near and she’d never have thought a man like John would be so affectionate but he never seems to stop touching her. She wraps her arms around his neck and rests her chin on top of his head, smiling when he buries his face against her cleavage. He keeps a firm grip on her skirts like she might try to run off if he lets go and she wonders if he feels it too – that tentative, fragile string keeping their hearts and their lives entwined.
His lips press against her skin and she listens to his soft inhales and exhales, letting go of such thoughts. She closes her eyes and rakes her fingers through his hair. This feels right. In this new world where nothing else quite fits, John makes sense. He always has, even when he was just a stranger who wrote the plays she loved. They suit one another. For now, that is enough to keep the fragile string from fraying.
Dinner invitations from John’s high society adoring public and sycophantic friends has become a regular part of Melody’s weekend routine. Friday, Saturday, and Sunday evenings are spent in some lavish townhouse or another, in the company of people who have looked down their nose at her since she married into wealth she neither asked for nor wanted.
Usually she doesn’t mind. She knows John hates accepting dinner invitations just as as much as she does. She knows he goes through the whole charade because he needs these people and their patronage. Sometimes she even likes those they dine with – especially his producer Mr. Lethbridge and his daughter Katherine. Tonight, however, they’re dining with Madame Lem and there is no one in the world Melody finds quite so odious as this woman. Not even Mr. Lux.
She pushes her food around her plate with her fork – the right one because last time she’d used the wrong utensil at dinner she’d been subjected to giggles and disapproving looks until John picked up the wrong fork too and started eating with it, glaring at any smiling faces – and tries to tune out the conversation going on around her. She spends most of these dinners waiting for the appropriate time to leave. John never lingers longer than he absolutely must.
“Oh come now, John. Just a hint.”
John watches Madame Lem smirk around a sip of red wine and shakes his head. “You’ll find out along with everyone else, Tash.”
“But I simply must know something.” She puts aside her glass and brings a hand up to touch the severe but elegant updo at the back of her head, as if to make sure she still looks impeccable. Her dark eyes bore into him and her lips curl into a smile. Melody bristles. The woman always looks at John like she wants to eat him. “What’s it to be this time? Another tragedy? The trials of marriage, perhaps?”
Melody glares, opening her mouth, and is instantly quelled by John’s hand on her knee under the table. She snaps her mouth shut again and picks up her fork, stabbing at her food. He squeezes her knee and she sighs through her nose. “Not really my area, Tash. Surely you remember I like to write what I know.”
Madame Lem shrugs delicately, looking disappointed as she picks up her wine again. Her gaze flickers to Melody and Melody stiffens, steeling herself for more thinly veiled insults. Madame Lem may be a horrible excuse for a human being but she’s also a very wealthy widow, a benefactor John counts on. Being outright rude to her is out of the question. She spends a lot of time baring her teeth at the woman and trying to pass it off as a smile. “Aren’t you hungry, Melody?”
“I do hope the food is satisfactory.” She sips from her glass, lifting an eyebrow. “Though I dare say you might find it all a bit too rich for your tastes. Quality food might take some getting used to.”
“Not at all, Madame Lem.” Melody gives her sharpest smile, ignoring John’s fingertips drawing soothing patterns over her knee and up her thigh. “The only thing I find too rich for my taste is the company.”
Tasha blinks at her.
John snorts into his wine.
Deliberately picking up the wrong fork, Melody turns back to her plate and begins to eat.
Within half an hour of her little outburst, John has made their excuses for the evening and bid Madame Lem farewell, escaping the house to meet the carriage waiting for them. John helps Melody inside and shuts the door behind them, settling onto the bench beside her as she tugs off her gloves. “Insufferable woman,” she mutters, tossing her gloves to the other side of the carriage and starting on the damned jewelry she’s always worried she’ll lose. “I hate her.”
“I know, dear.”
“Don’t patronize me, John.”
“I’m not!” He watches her with a smirk, taking her diamond earrings and necklace when she holds them out. “If it’s any consolation, I hate her too.”
“You’re my wife.” He tucks her jewelry into his coat pocket and tugs her across the distance separating them until she’s snug against his side and his lips brush her temple. “I hate everyone you hate. It’s called marriage.”
“I hate you too.”
“You don’t.” He kisses her neck and she struggles to stay angry. “You married me.”
“Well, you had money and I was poor.”
He stifles a noise of amusement against her neck and while part of her feels rather accomplished about making him laugh, she still cannot quite bring herself to curl into his side and kiss him like she wants to. She pushes him gently away and retreats to her corner of the carriage, shrugging when he frowns after her. “What is it now?”
“Nothing. I’m sorry you had to cut your dinner with Tash short because of me.”
He sighs. “Melody -”
“You cannot possibly be about to reassure me there was never anything between you two.” She stares at him incredulously, crossing her arms over her chest. “She looks at you like she already knows what you taste like – and she’s still hungry.”
John scowls. “Well I wasn’t a sodding monk before you, you know!”
“Of course not.” She sniffs. “I just thought you’d have better taste.”
“If you’ll notice, I didn’t marry her, did I?” He snaps. “It was just a fling. A very brief fling that I’m rather regretting at the moment.”
Melody glares. “Perhaps you should have married her. Then the two of you could have been insufferably rich together.”
John stares at her, his lips thinning as he purses them in silence.
Melody drops her gaze to her lap, where her hands are laced tightly together, her knuckles white and straining. She feels her shoulders drop. At the moment she’s the one being insufferable and she’s fully aware none of this is John’s fault. Granted, he could have chosen a better partner to have a fling with than Tasha bloody Lem but it was long before he ever knew Melody. She can’t fault him for it. It’s only herself she’s finding fault with these days. She feels like she hardly knows herself at all. Who is she without her little flat and her two jobs and never having a moment’s peace? She hardly knows.
She lifts her head to glare at him for making this difficult and finds John smirking back at her, his eyes soft and holding not even a trace of resentment. She relaxes a little and snips, “For your previously deplorable taste in women.”
He outright grins at her and she feels her heart skip a beat as he holds out a hand to her. She takes it, letting him pull her back into his side and finally allowing herself to relax against him. His lips brush her hair and he sighs. “My ridiculous little muse,” he murmurs. “I do love it when you’re jealous.”
She huffs. “Will you lose her backing now?”
“It hardly matters,” he says, walking his fingertips up her arm. “I don’t need her the way I used to. There are plenty of others who will donate in her place.”
And if they never have to dine there again – well. More’s the pity.
Melody tilts her head to look at her husband curiously. “Why didn’t you marry her, sweetie?”
His lips twitch and he shrugs, letting his eyes drift fondly over her face for a moment. “You said it best, dear. She was far too rich for my taste.” He closes the space between them and kisses her before she can slap him, his hands covering hers and holding them snugly against his chest. She feels him smile against her mouth and bites his lip for it, laughing into his kiss when he only holds her tighter and kisses her harder.
By the time the carriage rolls to a stop outside of the house, they stumble out with flushed cheeks and Melody has once again been reminded of why she agreed to give up everything she has ever known for this life. John is still worth it.
Sighing loudly, Amy picks up a card from the pile in the middle of the table and adds it to her hand, her expression one of intense ennui. Melody stifles a smile and studies her own cards, knowing that no matter how bored her daughter is, she still hasn’t abandoned the game and left the parlour. One thing she’s grateful for is how little things have changed between Amy, Rory, and herself. Most of their evenings are still spent in the parlour, if a bit of a bigger one now, and it makes her a bit giddy to know that in a house with so many rooms, her little family still chooses the one she’s in.
“Have you any sixes?”
Amy studies her cards with her chin in her hand, blinking slowly. “If I say yes, will this be over?”
Melody purses her lips and shuffles her cards, holding them between her thumb and forefinger before aiming right at her daughter. She lets them go and they fly in all directions but mostly right in Amy’s face. She shrieks, ducking and holding her arms over her head, laughing brightly. Melody crosses her arms over her chest and smiles. “I win.”
“You’re a ruddy cheat. And I’m going to tell Clara you’ve made a mess.”
Melody snorts and flicks another card at her from the pile on the table. “Snitching on your own mother? My, how money has changed you, darling.”
She glares and opens her mouth to retort but the soft sound of Rory clearing his throat from the settee interrupts her. “Sorry,” he says, peering at them over the top of one of his medical textbooks. “I hate to interrupt but you know, studying over here. For exams. Didn’t know if you noticed.”
Amy rolls her eyes. “Sorry, numpty.”
“Yes, sorry, dear.” Melody mimes sewing her lips shut. “We’ll be quiet.”
Rory goes back to his reading, muttering sure you will under his breath.
Exchanging a quick, amused glance, Melody and Amy pick up the cards and begin their game anew. They’re in the middle of the next round when the front door opens and slams shut, the sound of stomping boot steps indicating that John has arrived home from another tedious day at the theatre.
“In the parlour,” Melody calls out, not looking up from her cards. She listens to the sound of his footsteps and bites back a smile when she senses him behind her. “Hovering is rude.”
His fingers brush her shoulder. “Your hand is shite.”
She laughs. “It’s Go Fish, sweetie. Not poker.”
Amy mumbles her agreement. Melody flicks another card at her.
Tipping her head back, she frowns up at her husband. “Unfortunately, there isn’t much to entertain ourselves in your museum.”
“Our museum,” he corrects, mouth twitching as he holds out a hand to her. She takes it, allowing him to help her to her feet. The moment she’s standing and brushing off her skirts, his hands settle on her hips to draw her into him and she goes willingly, already smiling. He looks tired and just a bit grumpy but his eyes are soft and she can already see him letting go of the day’s stresses. It makes her just a bit smug that she still has that effect on him. “Lethbridge is coming to dinner tonight. I’m sure he’ll be happy to be your diversion.”
Still sitting on the floor, Amy lights up. “Kate too?”
John nods, reaching behind him for the parcel she hadn’t noticed before. “And if that doesn’t work, perhaps this will do.” He presents it to Melody with a self-conscious little flourish that makes her melt. It isn’t the first time he’s brought home a gift but she hasn’t grown used to it yet and bristles at the frivolity nearly every time – expensive new shoes, gowns, silk shawls, jewelry, once even a bloody caged bird. She’d never accepted gifts from him before they were married and now she supposes he’s making up for lost time.
Hesitantly, she takes the parcel from him and has a proper look. Books. Brand new, pristine books with embossed leather covers. A whole stack of them tied together with a velvet ribbon. Her throat tightens and she stares at them with shining eyes. “John…”
“Thought you might like something new to read,” he explains gruffly, shrugging. “You’ve already gone through the upstairs library, haven’t you?”
She nods wordlessly.
His anxious gaze flickers from her welling eyes to the books in her hands and she wonders not for the first time if he ever had anyone to give gifts to before her. It’s why she never scolds him for being extravagant with her. It’s possible her dear grumpy husband has been waiting a long time to give someone these things. “You haven’t read these already, have you?”
She shakes her head, clutching the parcel to her chest and squashing it between them as she burrows into his arms and presses her face against his neck. “They’re perfect, sweetie. Thank you.”
She hears him swallow and feels his hands at her back. “You’re welcome.”
“Oi, and where’s mine?” Amy smirks at him from her spot beside the coffee table, lifting an eyebrow. “What sort of step-papa are you, anyway?”
John sighs, rummages through his coat pocket without releasing Melody, and tosses her a bag of imported chocolates. “Don’t eat them all. I’m not buying new dresses if you get too fat to fit into your own.”
Amy squawks at him, glowering, and Rory shuts his book with a sigh, giving up peace and quiet in the Smith-Pond household as a lost cause.
It’s only after dinner that Melody finds a moment alone with her husband. She sits curled up on an armchair in his study with one of the new books he’d bought for her, content with the background noise of his quill pen scratching against the page as he writes. She strokes her finger down the page and turns it over but she doesn’t continue reading, biting her lip as her mind drifts.
It had been a pleasant evening with Mr. Lethbridge and his daughter. They’re always warm, charming companions – a vast difference between the usual company John keeps. John and Mr. Lethbridge had spent a good portion of the evening talking about the new play and bickering about the set construction but they seemed to enjoy disagreeing. Kate had invited Amy and Melody to spend a day together this week, to take tea downtown and perhaps indulge in a bit of window-shopping. It isn’t what Melody considers a lively afternoon but any change of scenery is welcome at this point and Amy had been so excited she couldn’t say no. It’ll be good for her. For both of them.
The angry sound of the quill pen scratching out a few lines startles her from her thoughts and she looks up to find John scowling at the page, wadding it up and tossing it over his shoulder. “Rubbish,” he mumbles to himself.
“Possibly,” she agrees. “But that’s for me to judge.”
“You, on the other hand, need to believe in yourself so if you can’t say anything nice about your writing -”
“Then it must be shite,” he interrupts, his tone dripping acid.
Melody sighs, shuts her book, and gets up. She rounds his desk and stands behind him, lacing her fingers through his silver hair. He nearly melts into his chair, tense shoulders drooping and a soft sigh leaving his lips. Melody bites back a smile. “Perhaps you need a break.” She drops a kiss to the top of his head and feels him bristle, twitching. “Come to bed, sweetie. Things will be clearer in the morning.”
“I’m not tired,” he grumbles, sounding like a petulant child.
She rolls her eyes, slipping her fingers from his hair to trail them teasingly down the back of his neck. Her lips brush his ear as she leans in, smiling. “Neither am I.”
He shudders, tensing a little under her touch, and she hears him swallow. She takes an enormous amount of satisfaction in watching his fingers tremble as he drops his pen. “Right,” he says, and his voice sounds strained. “To bed then.”
She laughs softly, letting him take her hand and pull her away from his desk, out of his study and up the stairs to the bedroom. Since they married, her methods of distracting John from his fits of self-doubt and writers block have changed significantly but he isn’t complaining and she certainly isn’t either.
His mouth is on hers the moment their door shuts behind them and she grins, hands already tugging at his cravat and the buttons of his waistcoat. He bites her lip, growling in annoyance at the complicated laces of her dress and corset. She softens their kiss and reaches behind her, fingers against his as she helps him to undress her. Falling into bed for an afternoon tumble or just a lot of excessive snogging and caressing at his desk usually clears John’s mind and sometimes even sparks a new idea. It’s nice to be needed, to even now be his muse. He claims she always will be but Melody isn’t convinced. Surely after a few years in her company, he’ll have grown far too used to her to find any inspiration in her eyes or in her body.
Her dress pools at her feet and her corset soon follows. John buries his face in her neck and leaves biting kisses against her skin, his elegant fingers bunching up the material of her shift. Melody closes her eyes, her breath ragged and her knees weak as he maneuvers them both, stumbling toward the bed. She falls back onto the mattress and crawls toward her pillow, giggling when John follows after her and tugs insistently on her slip. She turns to face him, pulling the offending garment over her head and tossing it away.
John hovers over her, his hands gentler now as they stroke her bare skin and his eyes still slightly wild but softer as he looks down at her. Chest heaving and belly tight with anticipation, Melody reaches for him but he beats her to it. He brushes her curls out of her eyes and tucks them behind her ear, letting his cool knuckles dust her cheek. She swallows, meeting the heavy weight of his gaze, and that fragile string twisted around them has never felt so indestructible as the moment he whispers, “My little muse.”
She smiles. It hadn’t taken her long to learn what he meant when he said it like that, with such awe and reverence, just a touch possessive. “I love you too,” she replies softly, and his blue eyes twinkle with mirth. “Now come here, husband.”
As he leans in to kiss her, Melody clings to him in their tangle of heartstrings and warm bed sheets, hoping she will always be enough.
The little flat above Lux Antiques had been her home for so long there isn’t a day that goes by Melody doesn’t think of it with longing. She loves her life now. She loves John and she loves that her children are cared for and she doesn’t have to worry about making enough money to feed them. But in a way, life in the little flat was simpler. It was easier. They may not have had much money but they were content.
It’s a feeling Melody is nearly a stranger to now, wandering the halls of the townhouse without a thing to do. She likes to work. Work makes her feel accomplished and independent and capable. She misses it dearly now, in her new, charmed life.
Standing on the pavement, she stares up at the Lux Antiques sign, takes a deep breath, and squares her shoulders. The familiar jingle of the bell as she walks through the door makes her smile and she stands there for a long moment, listening to Mr. Lux call I’ll be right there from the back storeroom. She inhales, breathing in the faint smell of dust and suddenly more at home than she’s been in months.
Waiting for Mr. Lux to make an appearance and pleased that he doesn’t seem to have hired any one else yet, Melody takes a turn about the shop, pausing to peer into the glass case at the new pocket watches inside. Behind her, the shop bell jingles again but she doesn’t turn around to look and the new pair of customers do nothing to acknowledge her either, already quite engrossed in conversation.
“Still, it was awfully charitable of him, wasn’t it? Taking her in like that.”
“Well, what would you call it?”
“Pure madness, dear.” The two women pass Melody in a rustle of expensive silk and perfume but she pays them no mind, still staring into the glass case at the watches, listening intently. That voice – it’s so familiar. She knows that voice but something tells her now is not the time to turn and look. “It’s one thing to feel sorry for a poor widowed seamstress and quite another to marry her. For God’s sake, what man marries his mistress? But then, John has always been the sentimental sort. It’s probably why we never worked. I have no patience for sentiment.”
Stiffening, Melody tightens her grip around the edge of the glass casing and swallows back her indignant rage, tasting it like bile in the back of her throat. She blinks away the infernal stinging in her eyes and finally puts a name and a face to that odious voice. She clenches her jaw, listening as Madame Lem and her companion continue to gossip about her, oblivious to her presence.
“You know, I always thought you would marry John, Tash. I suppose it’s a blessing you never did – the man is clearly mad.”
“Not mad, dear.” Madame Lem laughs. “Going through a phase. It will pass. It always does.”
Tasha’s companion makes a small noise of appreciation over an antique vase and asks absently, “How long do you think it will last?”
“I’d imagine until he grows tired of her embarrassing him at social functions.” Madame Lem sighs. “It’s not her fault, poor thing. She just doesn’t belong. The sooner John realizes it himself, the better.”
“Perhaps the two of you can give it another go then.”
“Perhaps, dear. Perhaps.”
Melody lifts her head. “I wouldn’t count on that, darling.”
The startled gasp behind her is delicious. Melody unclenches her jaw and smiles to herself, enjoying the stunned silence behind her as Mr. Lux comes barreling into the shop from the storeroom, out of breath and red-faced. “I’m terribly sorry about that. My assistant left me some time ago and I’ve yet to -” He stops, staring. “Melody. What are you doing here?”
Feeling eyes on the back of her head, she smiles thinly at Mr. Lux and says, “Just browsing. Lovely to see you again.” She turns on her heel, steeling herself as she comes face to face with Madame Lem.
Tasha’s companion has the good grace to look guilty, darting her gaze away to stare at the floor, but Madame Lem has already overcome her shock. Her smile is sharp and her eyes are glittering as she greets her with a pleasant, “Why Melody Smith. Didn’t anyone ever tell you those who eavesdrop never hear good of themselves?”
Melody gives her a smile full of teeth and barely concealed malice. “Why, no. That’s what being poor and ill-educated gets you, I suppose.” She presses her fingertips to her mouth, eyes widening. “Oh dear, there I go again – embarrassing myself in public.”
Looking confused, Tasha opens her mouth to undoubtedly give some tart reply.
Melody doesn’t give her a chance, tilting her head and letting her smile widen. “If only I had grown up to be a vicious cow with only her money for company.” Tasha blinks at her but Melody only hums. “But then again, John probably wouldn’t have married me. I’d be far too much like you and we both know he was never going to stay, don’t we, darling? That’s the thing about men with sentiment – they like women with a heart.”
Madame Lem narrows her eyes, glaring spitefully at Melody but remaining blessedly speechless nonetheless. Satisfied, Melody slips past her without another word. The little bell jingles as she slams the door shut behind her.
By the time John arrives home from the theatre that evening, Melody is still fuming over her encounter with his horrid ex-whatever they had been to each other. Despite her bravado in the shop, not all of Madame Lem’s words missed their mark. She feels them like wounds in the vulnerabilities of her armor and she paces the empty house, aggravating them until they’re too sore to bear. It doesn’t help matters that the moment John walks through the door, he sweeps her into a familiar, giddy waltz and looks smugly down at her, proclaiming, “I’ve bought you something.”
Usually, she can stifle her hatred for being spoiled but after the day she’s had and in the midst of her foul mood, her annoyance only reaches new, simmering heights. She escapes his grasp with a scowl, brushing his hands from her waist and taking a few steps back. “I don’t want it,” she mutters, and turns on her heel to flee. The parlour has a bar car so it seems like the best place to go, and as she walks, she can hear John following after her.
“What do you mean you don’t want it? You don’t even know what it is yet!”
“I don’t need to know!” She calls over her shoulder. “I don’t want anything. I have more than enough, John. Stop this excessive spending – it’s maddening.”
He pauses in the doorway, watching her pour herself a drink with a frown, his arms crossed defensively over his chest. “What’s the matter with you?”
“You’ve gone straight for the whiskey. I know from experience it’s not nothing.” He sighs when she doesn’t answer him, taking a long pull from her glass instead. “I know you don’t like the gifts but -”
“Exactly, John.” Melody slams the glass down and picks up the decanter to pour again. “I don’t like the gifts and you know it, but you continue to buy them anyway. I wish you would have some respect for my bloody feelings – I’m not used to needless extravagance!”
“Of course you’re not,” he snaps, dropping his arms. “I never expected you to be. But I want you to get used to it.”
She takes another sips from her glass again, slower this time. “Well, I don’t want to get used to it.”
“Melody,” he grits out. “Why not? What possible reason could you have for not wanting to get used to having money?” At her continued, stubborn silence, he snaps, slamming a fist against the bar car and rattling all the bottles it holds. “Tell me.”
“Because,” she bursts out, temper flaring to match his. “What if it goes away?”
John stares at her, looking stricken.
Melody stares too, horrified. Not once had she ever realized the true root of her reluctance to spend a pound of her husband’s money until just now, as the words left her mouth. She’s still worried they don’t belong together, just as everyone seems to be saying behind her back, that they’re too different and one day, he’ll realize it. That his high society friends will make him see he’s better off with someone like Madame Lem.
Hating herself not only for being such an insecure twit, but for letting John know it, Melody glances away quickly and bites her tongue. She stares at the array of glittering bottles on the bar car. One glass of this whiskey had probably cost him more than she had made in a month’s wages at Lux Antiques. Latching onto the thought in sheer desperation for something to say, anything to distract John from her heart spilled out and messy at his feet, she says, “I went to see Mr. Lux today.”
Flummoxed by the change in topic, John studies at her in silence for a beat. He still sounds ill-tempered and wounded when he asks, “Why?”
She draws in a breath. “I wanted to ask him for my job back.”
He scoffs. “You don’t need a job. Why would you work in that dust bin if you didn’t have to?”
“Because I’m going mad here, John!” Melody slams her glass on the table and turns to look at him incredulously. “I sit here in this – this bloody museum day in and day out while you’re off at the theatre or off in your own head when you write and I feel like I’m suffocating! I need a purpose.”
He stares at her, wide-eyed, and she wonders briefly if he ever realized how stifling this life could be. He’s used to it but for someone who has been free her whole life, this gilded cage is still just that – a cage. She doesn’t blame him for not realizing. It’s certainly not something she ever brought up with him. It felt ungrateful. To be given everything and to want for nothing, yet still be so unhappy, so restless. But she doesn’t care about being ungrateful any more. String or no string holding them together, if she doesn’t get out she’s going to die.
“I know you don’t want me to work, I know you don’t think I need to but I’m too used to it, John. I’ve worked my whole life. I don’t know how to be still – not without feeling trapped.” She wraps her arms around her waist, lifting her watery gaze to stare at her husband. “I’m aware that having a working wife will undoubtedly sully your precious reputation but if I don’t get out of this house for at least a few hours a day, this isn’t going to work, John.”
Finally, faced with the threat of her leaving, he blinks hard and shakes himself from his stupor. The baffled expression fades, immediately replaced by a scowl more fierce than even his usual one. His hands clench into fists and he looks like he wants to throw something. For a moment, she worries it might be the whiskey. But then he breathes through his nose, irritated and bristling as he looks at her. Melody stands her ground and meets his stare. “You think I give a damn what anyone thinks of me? Of us? I thought you at least knew me better than that -”
“Shut it,” he snaps, frowning. “And bloody well go back to work if you’re so eager! I’m not stopping you!”
“Of course, you sodding madwoman!” He huffs, raking a hand through his hair. “I only wanted you to know you didn’t have to work any longer – I never said you couldn’t. As if I could stop you anyway.”
Her mouth twitches and she looks away. “True.”
He shakes his head and licks his lips, a pained grimace on his face that she doesn’t understand until he speaks. “You really believe all of this is going to go away?”
She shrugs, reluctant to admit such a weakness.
John sighs. “You didn’t have to marry me, you know.”
Head snapping up, she meets his stare incredulously. “Of course I know. I wanted to.”
He lifts an eyebrow at her. “So did I.”
“I know that too.” And she does. But there isn’t any guarantee he’ll keep wanting it, that he won’t change his mind the more time he spends witnessing how little she fits in amongst his horrible, uppity friends.
He sighs again, softer this time, and extends a hand toward her. “Come here.”
She goes because she always does, because that string tugs her toward him as inexorably as Icarus toward his fate, because not accepting John’s hand when he offers it is something she has never been capable of and she hopes that never changes. It would mean the string has finally snapped.
He laces their fingers together, pulling her into him, and Melody tries to fight the way every part of her calms and rests at his nearness, clenching her jaw stubbornly against the urge to lean into his chest. He releases her hands, fingertips brushing her hips, then up her arms and into her hair. He clenches curls in his fists and makes her look right at him. It’s only then that she notices how out of his depth he looks, how terrified he’ll say the wrong thing.
Melody bites back a fond smile, wondering if she should give her husband a piece of paper to write on instead. Everyone else’s words come to him easily, all the characters tumbling around in his head never want for something to say, but he’s never been very good at expressing his own. She waits patiently, watching his eyes flicker around the room, never landing on her for long.
“I’ve never been married before.”
She nods. “Yes, but -”
“Shut it,” he snaps again, finally meeting her eyes and glaring. “You’ve had your tantrum, dear. It’s my turn.”
Pouting a little, she glares right back but stays quiet.
“I’ve had plenty of opportunity before you, you know. My money and status more than made up for any shortcomings I might have.” He swallows, winding a curl around his index finger as he avoids her eyes again, staring at her shoulder. “No one ever interested me. Couldn’t imagine spending my entire life with someone. Until you, anyway.”
Melody stops biting her lip, letting her smile grow and spread across her face.
“It took me this long to settle down and you know how terribly finicky I can be.” He scowls, glances at her again, sees her smiling, and softens. “I’m… happy, dear. And I’m not going anywhere.”
Finally allowing herself to lean into him just a bit, basking in his touch in a way she hadn’t let herself before, Melody swallows around the lump in her throat and asks, “Even when I embarrass you at parties?”
His brow furrows. “I thought Lord Davros’ new wife was his daughter – and told him so. And last week, I told Lady Grant her little dog would make a better steak than the meat she served at dinner.” Melody stifles a tearful snort of laughter and he looks proud of himself. “If anyone should be embarrassed, my dear, it’s you.”
Brimming with new adoration for the man she thought she couldn’t possibly love more than she already did, Melody wraps around arms around his neck and closes the distance between them, surging up on her tiptoes to kiss him. His hands tighten in her hair as their lips brush and he responds as eagerly as ever, crushing her against his chest and opening his mouth to taste her. Always whiskey, he murmurs between kisses, and she laughs. He nips at her sharply, smiling when she retaliates, tugging his bottom lip into her mouth and sucking until neither of them can breathe.
When they finally part, breathless and clinging to each other, John rests his forehead against hers and asks, “Would you consider a compromise?”
“You don’t need more than one job.” He eyes her seriously for a moment, waiting to see if she’ll protest. When she doesn’t, he says, “I don’t want you working yourself to death like before. I – I want to look after you, damn it.”
He seems embarrassed that he even had to admit it and Melody fights down the warmth blooming in her chest, smiling widely all the same. “Alright, sweetie. One job in the afternoons.”
Looking relieved, John smirks and says, “And you have to let me spoil you occasionally.” She bristles, opening her mouth to disagree but he gives her a look and fidgets. “You… deserve things. Let me give them to you.”
She sighs. Damn him. “Fine.”
He studies her with narrowed eyes, suspicious. “Really?”
The corners of her mouth lifting into a smile, she nods. “I suppose I’ll have to get used to it.”
Eyes softening in understanding, John nods once and mutters, “Good. And this is your house too, you know.”
She blinks up at him, puzzled.
“I’ve been waiting for you to make changes.” He lifts an eyebrow. “So far only our room is different and that’s because I made you. Take charge, wife. I’ve never had to ask you to before.”
Shrugging, though the thought of transforming this stuffy place into a real home is more than tempting, Melody stares at his cravat and says, “It was your house first. I didn’t want to -”
“What? Intrude?” He scoffs. “It’s our house now, you daft woman. I want to see signs of you in every room. I want to smell citrus and see piles of your sewing all over the place and just bloody once I want to come home to you in nothing but your sodding shift. It’s your home too, Melody. Stop acting like a guest.”
Swallowing back a thrilled grin, Melody lifts her chin and eyes him quietly. “Alright then. But don’t be surprised if you come home to yellow walls and dress forms in your dining room and your wife only half-dressed.” He bites back a pleased groan, cursing under his breath, and she sways toward him with an amused hum. “Well?”
He frowns. “Well what?”
“You said you bought me something.” She lifts an eyebrow, waiting for the image of her in her slip to leave him long enough to allow him to focus on something else. “What is it?”
“Oh. Right.” He blinks. “You hate this house.”
“I don’t -”
“You called it a museum.”
“Well…” She winces. “Yes, but – hang on. Please tell me you didn’t sell the house, John.”
“Of course not.” He scowls. “Don’t be ridiculous. This is prime London real estate, Melody. We can’t sell it.”
Growing impatient, she snaps, “Then what?”
“I bought you a cottage.”
She stares at him, mouth open.
“Out in the country,” he explains hastily, fidgeting the longer she goes without yelling. “I thought we could go there during the summer months. I can write in peace and you can do whatever you please.” He smirks. “Frolic about like the uncivilized creature you are.”
She smacks his chest. “John -”
“There are stables, so I bought you a horse -”
“What?” He frowns. “You can’t have stables without a horse, dear. It’s wasteful.”
Incredulous, she prods a finger at his chest. “What’s wasteful is buying your wife things she doesn’t need and did not ask for -”
“You said I could spoil you.”
“Not with a house!”
“Cottage,” he corrects smugly.
She fumes silently, fingers twitching to slap him. “John -”
“I said I wasn’t going anywhere. That’s what this cottage is. It’s a promise.” He meets her gaze steadily, frowning a little as he watches her. “Do you believe me or not?”
Tongue caught between her teeth, Melody studies him for a long moment – the sincerity in that anxious gaze, that always-smug mouth and those twitching fingers he probably can’t wait to use to drag her in and against him. He loves her. And she believes him. “Fine,” she says again grudgingly, struggling not to smile at him. “I’ll accept your bloody cottage and your bloody horse, you infuriating sod -”
John doesn’t bother telling her to shut it this time. He just kisses her instead.
She can’t think of a better way to seal a deal and the tangled string between their hearts tightens, stronger than ever.