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New Leaves in Autumn

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"The carriage is ready, boss."

Tony hissed at Happy to shush, and Pepper rolled her eyes. It wasn't that Tony's plan was a bad idea: slipping out of the country a week ahead of schedule should cut the press out of his European plans. He owned the ship, and could order the captain and crew to secrecy at least until they were out of flag range of the city. No one would even know he'd left until the papers received the inevitable scandal-filled telegraphs from the continent.

However, "You're being dramatic, Mr. Stark," Pepper told him. "We're still inside the house."

Tony flipped up the hood of his black wool cloak and pulled it down, obscuring his face in shadow. His eyes caught a gleam of candlelight reflected from hall's great gilt-edged mirror, making him look positively devilish.

Pepper shook her head, and turned to the other half of the expedition. "Do try to keep him out of too much trouble, Captain Rhodes." At least his only concessions to stealth were a black and charcoal twill greatcoat and low felt hat, both of which were fashionable to the season in any case.

"I think I'll need all the help I can get keeping myself out of trouble," Rhodey equivocated. Yellow, Pepper thought fondly.

"It'll be fine," Tony interrupted, "Let's go." He turned to the door, but Pepper reached for his hand. She was still in a morning wrap with no gloves, and she could feel the warmth of his body through his skin-tight black kids.

"Take care," she said, even though she knew he never would.

"You know me," Tony told her. "Keep a candle in the window. I'll be back when I can." He pulled her hand to his lips and pressed a hard kiss to it. The heat of his mouth felt like a brand against her bare skin.

Then he was gone, leaving Pepper in the hall, with Jarvis holding the door, and her supposed secretary wearing his usual look of confusion. She wrapped her arms around herself and shivered. The servants hadn't even started the fires yet, and a silk wrapper over loose corset and petticoats couldn't stand against the pre-dawn chill of the first day of October.

"Well," she said, more to break the deadening silence than to actually talk to Mr. Nathaniel Rushman beside her. "I suppose that's that."

Rushman nodded, doing his best to seem sage. It didn't look right on a young man who stood at best five foot four inches in boots, and had the soft, well-fed figure of a boy from a family wealthy enough to buy even younger sons out of the draft. He'd managed to grow a full beard, but it couldn't mask a weak chin or bring balance to a face dominated by wide green eyes.

Tony's found a puppy, Pepper had thought when her husband had first brought him home, claiming he was a going away present for her. She had needed a secretary, after all, even if she'd planned to choose her own. Why Tony had decided on a young law clerk from one of the lesser the firms his company engaged, she hadn't been able to determine. She held a deep suspicion that Tony had collected the young man because he thought Pepper would think he was attractive.

She had to admit that Tony wasn't completely wrong. There was something under the perfectly fashionable but not quite tailored frock coat that she hadn't been able to work out. The way he moved, sometimes, maybe. Or how she'd catch him watching her, a little line between his eyes, lips pushed forward into a slight pout, as though he were trying to solve a puzzle.

Pepper had had more than enough of puzzles since the start of the Rebellion, and more than she'd wanted in the years since it had ended, too.

"It's almost as though Mr. Stark left early so that he wouldn't have to go to the ball," Rushman said. Pepper glanced sharply at him, searching for sarcasm, but his expression remained perfectly bland.

Pepper sighed. "We'll need an excuse for Tony to be indisposed," she told him, mind running over the possibilities. Sudden Illness was perhaps the best, made more plausible by the damage the Rebels had done to his heart. She'd burned all the press photographs of his return to New York, but the picture in her mind – how thin he'd been, how many lines just four months had dug into his face – would never fade. New York society too would remember, and after almost a month of solid rain, they wouldn't have trouble believing that Tony was having another fit of poor health.

"Can I get you anything, Mrs. Stark?" Mr. Rushman asked. At least the young man made a useful secretary. Not that she would ever admit it to Tony, but she probably couldn't have chosen better if she'd interviewed half of Manhattan.

"Breakfast at seven thirty?" she asked Rushman, loud enough for Jarvis to hear and make arrangements. "We can meet in the study after and write Mr. Stark's regrets, then perhaps a ride."

Mr. Rushman nodded, but something still held Pepper, and she hesitated, staring at the door. A flash of the moon setting yellow and full over the city caught in the cut glass widows, almost washed out by the grey, pre-dawn light. Outside, the clatter of Tony's carriage had long since faded into the bustle of deliveries and trade that even now filled Fifth Avenue.

She started at the feeling of a hand on her wrist. Mr. Rushman stood next to her, far too close for propriety, staring up at her with those wide green eyes. Before Pepper could shy away, Mr. Rushman said, "I'm sure Mr. Stark and Captain Rhodes will come through just fine," then dropped her wrist and stepped away.

Pepper found she had to blink hard, thinking that was a sure sign that Mr. Rushman didn't know very much about her husband. He hadn't often been just fine in their fifteen years of marriage. "I'm sure you're right," she said coolly, and Mr. Rushman nodded and backed into the parlour, bumping his hip into the doorway as he passed. Puppy, Pepper thought again, but found she could smile.

Pepper took her time, letting her maid pull in her stays and button her up layers of cloud-grey wool, before setting to work on her hair. No amount of oil could darken that red, but braided up and smoothed in hats and veils, it didn't look too scandalous. Pepper had determined to fight the trend of diminishing hats and bonnets to her last breath.

Letting Anna rub the tension out of her neck for a space, Pepper bided her time until she decided that Mr. Rushman had had plenty of time to finish addressing envelopes and change himself. More than enough time, it seemed, as he was already on the front step, courteously holding the reins of her Saddlebred mare while Happy waited by the mounting step.

Pepper ignored Mr. Rushman's proffered hand as she swung aside her saddle, but allowed him to arrange the skirts of her habit. If his hands lingered, not quite touching her boot, she couldn't say she minded the custom. Then Mr. Rushman nodded briskly, handed her her whip and turned away.

They rode in silence until they crossed Fifth Avenue into the park. It was still early, not gone nine, and as fair a morning as they'd had that fall. The rain, it seemed, had not blunted the brilliance of the young trees, not now that they'd begun to come into their autumnal finery. On such a day, it felt as though they had all the time in the world and the whole park to themselves. Pepper drew in the crisp morning air, held the breath, then let it out slowly.

She glanced sideways at Mr. Rushman, who was watching her again, it seemed. "Around the reservoir?" he asked, and Pepper smiled and said, "Why not?"

Pepper nudged the mare into a slow canter, enjoying the easy roll under her hips and thighs. She shot a glance back at Mr. Rushman, riding one of Tony's old race horses, half a length back on her right. He kept his seat well, rising easily with ever jolt of the trot her pace had forced him into. His riding clothes didn't fit him much better than his frock coat, but every time he settled back, Pepper noticed muscle under the taut cloth of his trousers.

Quickening her own pace allowed him a canter, and she inclined her head to call him level with her. "Do you mind if we talk about business, Mr. Rushman?" she asked.

He replied with, "Whatever I can do to help," which seemed to be his motto.

In all official respects, Pepper was in no way responsible for what went on at Stark Industrial Enterprises. That was Tony and the board of directors, though they didn't have as much power as they had in Obadiah Stane's day. Pepper managed the household, volunteered on the boards of several charities, collected new American art, danced at every ball in New York, and attended the opera. Everyone saw it, everyone pretended to believe it, and no one, officially, noticed how wretched Mr. Tony Stark was at managing his own affairs. Just like they didn't comment on how he so often delegated public interaction to a series of well-pressed secretaries. And if the secretaries tended to spend an inordinate about of time at the Starks' Fifth Avenue mansion, well everyone knew Mr. Stark preferred to work at home.

As they rounded the bend, a flock of mallards rose in a flurry of wings. Mr Rushman's horse shied, head jerking up and hooves skittering sideways towards Pepper. She kicked forwards, tapping the mare with heel and whip until she was clear. A moment later, Mr. Rushman was pacing her again, his mount still wide-eyed, but steadied.

"You'll need to be familiar with Mr. Stark's new steam engine, at least," Pepper told him, not breaking her stream of thought. "Mr. Stark's expected to get into London on the seventh, and presenting it a day after, and there'll be reporters at the door in no time at all."

Mr. Rushman looked a little flushed still, but he matched his tone to Pepper's, asking, "What kind of specifications may I have access to?"

"Not blue prints, but I can feed you enough dimensions and statistics to pacify Archimedes."

They kept on, sweeping around to the west side of the park, passing only the occasional fellow rider. Pepper felt pleased at the acumen of Mr. Rushman's questions, and how he seemed to remember the smallest detail Pepper had mentioned over the past few days. By the time they passed the lake, however, his expression had closed into pensiveness.

Pepper broke off her description of the French shipwrights Tony would be meeting on the second leg of his trip, and asked, "Is this too much for you? I'm sorry, we can take our time."

"No, thank you, Mrs. Stark; I'm keeping up just fine," Mr. Rushman said, but his brows stayed drawn together, lips pressed in a thin line. "It's just that this seems like a normal business trip. I don't understand why Mr. Stark would need to sneak out of the city before dawn."

"Other than his sense of the dramatic, you mean?" Pepper asked, smiling fondly. "That's a story for another time."

They rode on past the Green, saplings just barely screening the swaths of grass, and doing nothing to cut the traffic noise from Eighth Avenue, and Pepper let the conversation rest. Their shared silence felt comfortable, almost comradely, and she let it draw out. She nodded to the Van Horns as they clipped past on the brisk nine o'clock ride they'd taken every Tuesday and Thursday, probably since George Washington's first inaugural address. Mrs. Van Horn nodded back absently, before staring off into the park again.

Their bridal path crossed under a the bricked arch cutting tunnel below a road, and Pepper shivered under its shadow. She'd never been fond of the dark, and the riots five years previous had only increased her apprehension. Darkness reminded too much of cellars and not making a sound for the men outside to hear; Rhodey's hand over her mouth as they had huddled together in silent prayer.

The moment passed however, and they were in the sun again.

Pepper had opened her mouth to comment to Mr. Rushman, something cheerful and frivolous, when he said, suddenly, "Mr. Stark isn't afraid of public opinion, is he, Mrs. Stark?"

"No," Pepper said. "Not in the least. That's why you'll have to take care for him."

"And for you?"

She laughed, head tilting back to catch the sun as they turned east again. "I mostly take care of myself, Mr. Rushman."

"Hmm." After a beat, he commented, "It seems as though it would be nice to be looked after, every so often."

"I've often heard that's the case," Pepper said lightly. She didn't know if she could stand the kind of cosseting so many rich men set on their wives. It was quite possibly that flaw in her character that had caused her mother and Mr. Stane to encourage Tony and Pepper to come to an understanding all those years ago. "And what about you? Do you have a young lady to take care of you?"

"No yet," he said, and Pepper heard enough seriousness in his voice to turn her conversation to the state of the trails, and the general appearance of the park for the remainder of their ride.

She was glad to have carved out time in the day for the ride, but returned to a hundred things to do before that night. It seemed as though no matter that she arranged this every year, and planned for months in advance, the day of her ball never failed to turn into an exhausting blur of details.

So it wasn't until just after luncheon that she finally checked on the ballroom itself. Leaving the receiving room, she crossed the front hall and hurried up the curve of the grand stairway. A footman, illicitly shortcutting instead of routing back through the servants' stairs, froze in place, blanching when he saw her, but Pepper only frowned at him and continued up without pause to the great double doors at the top of the stair.

She found Mr. Rushman in the centre of the empty ballroom. He should have looked slighter than ever in the massive space, but somehow it didn't seem to diminish him as he stood, left hip slightly cocked, hands folded in front of him, head tilted tilted to take in the vaulted ceilings and skylight above. The servants had already taken the covers off the chairs and arranged them along the walls. Every pane of glass and brass fitting gleamed.

"I've reconfirmed all of your orders, gone over the menu with the cook and extra staff, and done inventory with Mr. Jarvis," he said, crossing the room in long strides. A strand of his coppery hair had curled free of the oil he used to darken it, and lay lank across his forehead. Pepper's hand half rose to smooth it back, but he caught the motion and did it himself.

"Good, good," Pepper said, folding her hands in front of her.

"Mr. Archer sent a note. His clarinettist has come down with a cough, be he's already found a replacement, and sent along his references. They seemed respectable, but you should look them over before I reply."

Pepper nodded again, thinking she should probably check in with Cook too, as well as with Jarvis about the extra footmen. At least the food would be set out along the side in a buffet, and she wouldn't have to worry if everyone could serve table properly. At some point, she need to try her dress again and make sure it didn't need last minute adjustments. This year's fashion in tight-buttoned, low-shouldered ball gowns left no room to manoeuvre.

"There's only one more thing that needs your attention, Mrs. Stark," Mr. Rushman was saying, and Pepper focused on him again.

"What is it then?"

Mr. Rushman's pool-green eyes widened and looked up at her though copper lashes. "Someone should test the dance floor. It might have degraded since last season." His expression might have been perfectly innocent, but for the edge of a smirk turning up his lips. Pepper suspected that he thought his beard hid more than it actually did.

She laughed and held out her hand. "Viennese Waltz, Mr. Rushman?"

"Certainly." She felt nothing of him through their gloves, neither heat nor cool, but he had a firm, steady grip, and his hand settled on her waist at just the right place. He tapped out the beat for two measures, bobbing his head slightly with the time, then, with the third, they were off.

Pepper had learned to dance in the old school, first perfecting following and form without music. She swung after Mr. Rushman, needing only the lightest touch to predict his steps. She didn't know if her feet had ever felt lighter, never mind that she was wearing walking shoes. These were the old familiar patterns that she'd followed a thousand times, but now they felt exhilarating.

It wasn't until they'd thrice circled the room that she realised why. Then, at the moment he stepped forward and she stepped back, he smiled up at her, languorous and utterly out of time with the fast waltz. Pepper's body responded with a flash of warmth that seemed to start in her chest and then spread down. Oh, she thought, that's all then, and smiled back.

Tony had, after all, picked Mr. Rushman as a going away gift, and he often knew what she liked.

She let herself slide a little closer in the next turn, her petticoats brushing the tops of his shoes. His fingers crept a little lower, towards her hip, and further around the small of her back, resting where corset met skirts. She squeezed his hand and felt pressure in return. A little heat had seeped through their gloves, and she felt herself flushing in response.

They circled the floor twice more, sailing between phantom couples, and turning until she started to feel dizzy. Their steps felt so sure that she didn't realise at first that he was gradually increasing their pace. Now the grand, high room seemed to blur past, and Pepper could feel her heart pounding. Her breath came in quick, shallow gasps under her corset, and she was sure if they stopped, she'd fall forward into his arms, but they didn't stop. They keep dancing, pressing onward in around the room again, and she found herself clenching his hand and shoulder.

Pepper closed her eyes for a moment, and focused on breathing, the rhythm of the dance and her heart beat seemed to be racing each other now, or building on top of each other, and she felt almost a little ill. Then, just as she felt as though she couldn't match another step without stumbling into him, he slowed. They were in a narrow turn that spun her around and around him, like ship trapped in a gradually decelerating maelstrom, her skirts spreading and flaring behind her.

Even when they settled into a stop, Pepper couldn't seem to catch her breath. She gasped, still holding on for balance. They stood like that for several minutes; he still held her at almost a formal distance, but she felt as though his hands bound them together, hot against her back, burning though silk, leather and steel.

When at last Mr. Rushman let her go and stepped back, he said, "It seems like there's nothing wrong with the floor." Pepper thought he would leave then, but, before he did, he took up her left hand in both of his. In a flash, he pushed her sleeve up enough to lay a kiss on the inside of her wrist. Then he let her hand fall and strode from the room.

Pepper watched him until he turned down then hall and out of sight, took a moment to drew nine long, steady breaths, and brushed back her hair with her hands, and went to talk to Cook. Anything else could wait.

She didn't see Mr. Rushman again until shortly before the ball, when Anna was putting the last touches on her hair.

"That's fine," she said as he tapped on the door, and Anna left them alone. "How do I look?" she asked, knowing full well the answer. The turquoise silk fit her like the finest doe-skin, lapping up to just cover her breasts, then giving way to a corsage of black lace, which draped low across her back and flowed over the tiniest possible puffed sleeves. Her polonaise folded over and again on itself, swagged back and forth in edges of peacock feathers, gathering up behind her, then flowing down into a brief train.

"You look perfect," Mr. Rushman said obligingly, and Pepper smiled and held out a handful of sapphires.

"Do you mind?"

He took the jewels, shaking them out into fine lace-work choker, and stepped around her train to encircle her neck in the cool stones. Pepper bent her head forward, exposing the back of her neck under a chignon of braids, looped curls and feathers. The clasp was too fine to work with gloves, and he paused pull one off with his teeth. Skin brushed skin for the briefest moment, then the hinge clicked into place.

"Thank you," she said, but didn't move until his lips brushed the place his fingers had just touched.

She turned then, and took his bare hand in hers.

"I'm going out tonight," he said, "But I can be back after the ball, if you need me."

"I definitely plan on needing you."

Mr. Rushman bowed over her hands. As he left, she felt herself longing for his touch. Tonight, she thought.

"I was so sorry to hear that Mr. Stark had taken ill again," Miss Everhart said, sipping delicately at her glass of punch. They stood off to the side a little, far enough away from the music that they could converse easily.

"This rain," Pepper said in explanation. She trailed her finger down the side of her own glass, leading a bead of condensation.

She couldn't say that she'd ever especially enjoyed Miss Everhart's company, the woman could be brisk, nosey and largely incapable of amusing small talk. That she had a habit of bedding Pepper's husband was a failing, but not one worth cutting her over, not unless Pepper decided to exclude herself from the company of most of the women in New York. However, Miss Everhart also read widely, kept in better knowledge of city politics than the mayor, and could smell scandal a mile off. Pepper had found such sources of information worth maintaining, and she was happy enough to trade society gossip for politics. Even if she always suspected that Miss Everhart was able to weave cloth of gold from all the straws people dropped for her.

Pepper also really needed a moment to rest her poor feet.

"Yes. I half thought you and Mr. Stark would go in for a change of air last month," Miss Everhart was saying. "Perhaps Italy, or even Egypt?"

Pepper offered a half shrug. "My husband doesn't find Italy particularly restful." She didn't add that she wasn't sure if he was allowed in the country after his last visit, but she couldn't imagine that the other woman didn't know more details than Pepper cared to.

Miss Everhart's face softened in sympathy, the curve of her mouth making her almost startlingly young and lovely. Pepper had to admit a stab of jealousy at her easy blond beauty, set off by too-narrow skirts panelled in soft grey and ashes of roses. "In any case," Mrs. Everhart continued, unperturbed by Pepper's soured expression. "I brought a bottle of Doctor Wellingford's Miraculous Cure for All Aliments. One of your footmen was kind enough to take it when I came in."

"I'll make sure Mr. Stark sees it," Pepper promised, falsely. "I hope you haven't been ill, Christine."

"Sound as ever." She tapped her fist against her sternum, setting coral and haematite beads rattling. "I suppose that–"

"Pepper, Pepper, Pepper!" Both women started and turned to watch with alarm Justin Hammer advanced on them, hand extended. His voice was too loud even over the music, and his vest too loud in any circumstance. "Don't tell me you're avoiding me?"

She was, actually, but he'd finally managed to corner her. When she turned to gauge Miss Everhart's reaction, she realised Christine had taken the opportunity to escape. "Mr. Hammer," she acknowledged, just brushing his hand with hers. "I'm afraid I must have missed you in the crowd. Did you come late?"

Hammer didn't take outright statements, let alone hints. The man was next to impossible to cut, even if Pepper could afford to try."Fashionably, of course. But I have to dance with our hostess, tell me you're free!"

Unfortunately, Pepper was, and could think of no one to ask to pretend a prior engagement. Thus unable to say, "no," she took a hearty swallow of punch and nodded.

She'd warned Mr. Archer of what to do if he saw her dragged onto the floor, and he called a quadrille next. Their square formed up with three other couples, Mr. and Mrs. David Wright across from them. Mrs. Wright looked at her with sympathy.

Pepper stepped into the form unhesitatingly, smiling to herself as Hammer muttered something about having wanted to try one of the new slow waltzes that the young people were talking about. He passed her to Mr. Wright, who spun her around and passed her back, then she stepped in to touch hands with Mrs. Wright. Minimal contact with Hammer, given that she was dancing with the man, and the forms were complex enough to take her mind off of even that. She'd always loved dancing, and Hammer was an adequate enough partner to let her forget who he was and fall into the moves.

Still, when she felt his hand on her back as they promenaded around the outside of the circle, she couldn't help but remember the last man to touch her there, and to wish that the ball were already over.

Pepper's feet ached, and her head spun a little from one glass too many – plus the weight of all those hair pins. On any other night, she would have crawled out of her bath and into bed. Instead, she felt the rising tension of what was to come. She let Anna go and lingered in the hot water, running a sponge down her arms, then up again and across the back of her neck, to the other hand and down her side. She deliberately avoided her breasts, but she could see her nipples tightening and feel the tension coiling between her legs.

Rising from the water, she towelled off with the same deliberation. The rough cotton scrubbed her skin to the fresh, glowing pink of a much younger woman. She pulled the last pins from her hair, and the single braid tumbled free, its loose ends tickling the middle of her back. A touch of jasmine on her wrists and neck, then she combed her scented fingers through the hair over her sex. The heat rose through her body, and she shivered.

Banked fires warmed the dressing room and her adjoining bed chamber, but Pepper slipped into a calf-length nightdress anyway. She knew the gown did more to entice than conceal, and the red of her private hair and dark circles of her nipples would visible through the translucent white silk.

Mr. Rushman was waiting for her when she stepped into the bedroom. He leaned against he fireplace, one hip cocked out, cravat gone and top button already undone. When he saw her, he let his eyes languorously run over her figure, than gave her that same sultry smile that he had when they'd danced. She couldn't imagine now what she'd ever thought was puppyish about the man.

"I like this better than the ball gown," he said, and she nodded.

Pepper could feel the silk brushing back and forth across her skin with every step, with every breath, and she thought the tension would drive her mad.

Every new lover felt like this, the slow build, the thrill of seducing and being seduced. She loved learning the new bodies, loved all the hands on her. She knew the advantages of a familiar lover, who were acquainted with every desired touch, and exactly how to elicit this moan or that cry. She appreciated it, but it didn't have the mystery of the unexplored. On nights like this, she felt like Captain Columbus must have, first stepping foot on the beaches of San Salvador, or like General Washington crossing the Delaware to victory.

She opened her mouth to urge him forward, but he anticipated her. Striding across the room, Mr. Rushman closed the space between them and caught her face in both hands. She leaned in a fraction to meet his kiss, then gasped at the force of it. He pressed against her mouth as though he wanted to devourer her. His body surged up against hers, groin pressing into her thigh, hands almost vice-like around her face. He drove her back a step, then another, until he had her pressed back against the wall. Only then did he release his hold, and that so he could pin her shoulders against the silk-covered walls.

Pepper's own hands had come up to run under his jacket, rubbing patterns across his back. When he deepened their kiss, pushing his tongue into her month, she caught double handfuls of cotton shirt and squeezed until the cloth gave way. The tear of rending garments only made him try to drive himself further into her. Even fully clothed, she could feel his hardness pressing into her leg.

Pepper shifted her hips to rub her thigh against him, and he moaned, twisting to grind into her in small fast circles. When Mr. Rushman brought a knee up to press between her legs, she felt a wave of heat spread up from the point of contact. She threw her head back as colour flushed up her cheeks, and clutched his arms as he kissed her neck. All she wanted was for the pressure to increase, but trying to bear down on him did no good. For such a slight man, his grip was intractable.

"Oh, Mr. Rushman!" she gasped, feigning shock, and he laughed in that high, clear voice of his. He still had a boy's voice, but the way his mouth played at her neck, a suck there, a nip here, beard scratching against her skin, felt anything but boyish. She knew it would leave a mark, and he knew it too.

Well, high-collared day dresses were in this year.

The wool of his coat itched through her nightgown, and she told him, "You have an advantage on me, Mr. Rushman."

"Mmmm?" He asked, face still pressed to her throat.

"Here I am in this scrap of silk, and you–" Her breath hissed sharply as his teeth found her earlobe. "You are nearly dressed for dinner."

"I like you better this way," he murmured, breath tickling delightfully against her ear, and then he laughed.

She wasn't sure she didn't either; her breasts felt both full and tight to the point of pain. If she shimmied a little, she could rub her body against his, despite his hold. She wanted to feel more, and she wanted to feel it right now, but damned if she'd ask him for it. Instead, she tilted her head forward and kissed him on the mouth when he came up for a breath. It was sloppy, and aggressive, and let him know in no uncertain terms that she had no patience left.

Mr. Rushman laughed again, and this time it was a low, dirty sound. It took a second to realise that it was his knee pressing harder, and not his voice that made her so wet. She had enough friction to press down, now, and let his hips jerk them against each other. The heat between her legs pulsed with every movement. His mouth widened under hers, and she swallowed his cry. She sank down again, and bit his lower lip as his mouth shaped into a wide oh. His fingers dug into her shoulders, and he arched his chest forward, crushing her breasts between them.

Just as Pepper thought that the sensation would surely push one of them over the edge of pleasure, he dropped his knee and stepped away. His lips lingered a moment longer, sucking lightly at hers. She tried to follow them out, but his hold on her never wavered. She frowned down at him. "I'm not finished," she told him.

He shifted his grip, pressing a forearm across her breastbone, and reaching a hand down into his pocket. When he drew it out again, cravat dangling between his fingers, he said, "Neither am I."

She felt a flash of fear, and blurted, "Don't cover my eyes! I need to see."

"Shhhhhhh." His voice hit that soft, low note again, soothing now, as he stroked the silk down her arm. "Not your eyes." The pressure above her heart eased, and he kissed the top of her breasts through her gown. "Just your hands, all right?"

"Hands are fine. I like that." Her skin had gone suddenly cold, so she rubbed against him.

His smile warmed her, too, all soft and apologetic. Mr. Rushman took a step back, and then another, before turning and leading her by the hand to the head of the bed. Pepper started to sit on the edge, but he shook his head and said, "This is better." Then he wrapped the cravat around each of her wrists, tying them snugly but not painfully in front of her. He stepped in again, lifting her arms above her and stretching on his tip toes to tie the loose end around the top of the bedpost. He left enough play in it to push her back against the wall, with her hands pulled loosely up and to the side a little.

She tugged at the cravat, but it neither gave nor tightened. Smiling, she rested her shoulders against the wall, spreading her legs and pushing her hips forward. "What are you going to do to me now?" She asked, gazing at him through her lashes.

His hand closed around the side of her knee and trailed slowly up the back of her leg. "You'll have to wait and see, won't you?" he said, and squeezed her buttock. He cupped the back of her neck with his other hand, and pulled her in for a tantalising kiss. The tongue pushing into her mouth promised things to come. She let him pull their hips together again, feeling his erection though his trousers, exactly as before.

To her great frustration, Mr. Rushman remained entirely clothed. She wished he'd at least take his jacket off, or open his shirt a little more, but when she tried to say so, he smothered her words in more kisses. Pulling at her bonds didn't get her anywhere either; she didn't think she could slither out even if she had the time and patience to work at it.

"Relax," he whispered. "Let me do everything." He pressed against her, his whole body along hers, his left hand travelling upwards from her bottom, bunching the nightgown with it. The draught against her bare skin made Pepper shiver again, even though the fire still warmed the room. Mr. Rushman didn't move, but stood stock still, one hand spread flat across the small of her back, the other still cradling her neck. He pressed his face into her neck and took slow, deliberate breaths. She felt like he was trying to inhale her essence, and with each breath, a hint of tension flowed out of her. Soon, their chests rose and fell as one, and she leaned forward as much as the ties would allow, resting against him.

She barely realised that he'd started to move again until his lips closed around her nipple. He sucked it deeply and with deliberation, slurping a little through the silk. His hands stayed the way they were, and instead of trying to arch her back and press into him, Pepper remained still in his arms. Her head lolled back against the wall, letting her trace the lines of the bed canopy with her eyes. Nothing could distract her from the waves of pleasure starting to spread up through her body again. He pulled away for a moment, and blew on the nipple before starting to suckle her other breast. The cool air on wet silk made her gasp.

Her breath seemed to shudder in her chest, but she knew that if she pressed into him, he'd pull away, so she stayed still as best she could. But none of her control could keep her from twisting her legs together, desperately seeking some kind of contact there. Mr. Rushman's teeth nipped sharply at her breast, and she felt a sob tear from her throat. "Please," she choked out, and he squeezed her neck reassuringly.

"'Please' what?" he asked, rising to look her in the face. His voice sounded perfectly even, but he couldn't hide how his eyes had grown wide and dark with lust. "What would you like me to do?"

"I want your hands all over me, everywhere."

Mr. Rushman smiled lasciviously. "In your cunny?"


"Or do you want my mouth?"

"Yes." She rose on the balls of her feet, pressing her body forward in long arc, curving at the hips. "Yes, please."

He smiled like he'd gotten what he wanted. Then he moved his hands.

She knew he was going to, she'd begged him to, but the warm press of his fingers between her legs still shocked her. He caught her cry in a kiss; his tongue on her lips mimicked his finger teasing her entrance.

Smiling viciously, Pepper bit his lip and, at the same time, slumped down, making the bed post creak, and pushed herself onto his fingers. She could feel the curve of his grin against her mouth, then his fingers curled in against her wall, and his thumb pressed against her bud.

This time she did scream. His lips were on her cheeks, her throat, her breasts, but she could feel nothing but that hand pressing into her. As his thumb moved in small, quick strokes, she found her hips bucking against him. As his fingers pushed deeper into her core, her whole body writhed. The ecstasy of his touch didn't feel like heat any more, but like light filling her, like the sun too bright to look at. She squeezed her eyes shut, but she could still feel its glare.

Then the edge of his nail bit into her bud, and her whole world flashed white.

When the room swam back into focus, she found herself slumped forward against him. He was stroking her hair, and laying soft kisses against the curve of her jaw. Pepper smiled and nuzzled into his neck. The jacket didn't seem so annoying any more, just warm and snugly; she kissed it absently.

His trousers, however, could be a problem. "If you let me down there, I can be of assistance."

Mr. Rushman was already unbinding her hands, but he shook his head. "I um... I don't really need it." He stammered, all his domineering confidence melted away. "Your leg, and..."

"Oh." Pepper felt a little disappointed, but the remaining glow of their love making didn't let the feeling settle in. "Maybe another time."

Having freed her of the cravat, he tugged down the covers and laid her between deliciously soft cotton sheets. "Will there be another time then?"

"If you want one." He folded the covers back over her, and she added. "If you want to stay the night, you can do that too."

Mr. Nathaniel Rushman smiled fondly and shook his head. He kissed her forehead one last time, and walked out of the room, closing the door softly behind him.

The house slept late the next morning, and Pepper permitted herself a half hour of sated luxuriance before ringing for Anna. Her feet, sex and wrists still felt sore from over use, but her heart was full. Through the curtains, she could see a sliver of the late morning sun playing on the rooftops, promising a crisp autumn weather.

Pepper took her time with her bath too, but dressed for the day instead of lingering in a wrap. She knew fifty small tasks awaited her downstairs, and she should at least put them in order before waving them off and taking a turn around the park. Perhaps not riding today, but she could take out a gig. The image of Mr. Rushman sitting beside her, thigh pressed to hers put a little more haste in her steps. In the privacy of the ride, she could tell him about Tony's real plans for Europe then; he'd be delighted. She caught herself humming in time with her train sliding from stair to stair.

Jarvis stood waiting to serve her in the breakfast room. "Has Mr. Rushman been in yet?" She asked as he slid her chair under her. "He's welcome to breakfast here." It might be a little early, given the day, but he'd always been more than punctual.

"No, Ma'am. I haven't seen him since he left the study last night."

"The study?" Pepper frowned at her coffee cup, pausing as she stirred in a second sugar. With another butler, she might have thought "study" was a euphemism for "your chambers," but Jarvis had worked in this house too long to worry after her sensibilities. "What was he doing there?"

"I don't know, Ma'am. I had assumed fetching you something."

The delicate coffee spoon fell from her fingers, chipping the translucent porcelain; a moment later her chair clattered to the floor as she pushed herself to her feet. Her skirts seemed to catch at her ankles as she rushed down the corridor to the study, heart in her throat.

Sunlight streamed in through the tall windows, making even the cherry wood shelves and burgundy upholstery seem airy. The room was utterly still and ordered: the only paper out of place a few wax-splattered envelopes left over from sending notes the previous morning.

She checked first the wall safe behind the portrait of Tony's mother, which was untouched, then the compartment hidden in the moulding under the shelves. Her fingers trembled at the keys, but fumbling through the three needed to open the locks in order.

Papers still filled the compartment, but she knew without sorting through what was missing. She knew then that Mr. Rushman was gone for good, and so were the blueprints for the next generation of the Stark engine.

Pepper stared into the hidden cabinet and started to laugh. She didn't stop for a long, long time.

Easter fell early in 1869, but though New York society returned like geese from their southern and European over wintering, no one could say they liked it much. Still, Holy Week must be observed, and with it the first gatherings of the spring season. That it felt very little like spring was besides the point.

Pepper carefully lifted her hood off her hair, taking care not to disarrange the hothouse lilies arranged in it, nor to drip any half-melted snow down the back of her neck. Happy had carried an umbrella over her, but the wet snow seemed to get everywhere nonetheless. From the slightly wilted appearance of the other ladies gathered in the grand lobby of the Academy of Music, it would be a universal complaint.

"Is Mr. Stark not attending tonight?" the omnipresent Christine Everhart asked, catching her just past the cloakroom.

"Oh, you know, his health, this weather," Pepper said vaguely. The snow after all had tipped the balance as Tony had wavered between revelling in of the tail-end of his latest notoriety, and the tedium of having to sit through an opera he'd seen three times already. Pepper had left him to his own devices, not at all regretting a night on her own.

Miss Everhart made a sympathetic noise, which sounded close to genuine. She at least had surprised Pepper by sticking with her through the scandal Tony created by appointing Captain James Rhodes, late of the USCT 31st Infantry, as the head of Stark Industrial Enterprises' European division. Companionship had otherwise been somewhat scant over the winter months. Then a new wave of scandal had enveloped the city's politics, and everyone else had had worse things to worry about.

Miss Everhart's attention had predictably flitted away to other matters, but Pepper felt happy enough to see her again. Smiling to herself, she turned to take in the room full of familiar faces and more familiar dresses. She couldn't say as she saw any new comers at all, unsurprising, given the snow.

When she came full circle, Christine was there again, reaching out to touch her arm. "Pepper, have you met the Countess Romanova?"

Pepper had never heard of the Countess Romanova, doubtless the latest landless aristocrat escaping from ruins of emancipated Russia, but she let herself be led across the room.

She noticed the dress immediately, much simpler than this spring's style, with its skirt of black watered silk adorned only with a spider's web polonaise of silver and jet beads. A blood-red sash circled the waist, the only colour in a sea of mourning black. A fine veil of translucent black silk hid her hair entirely, but left a crescent of pale skin between it and the low sweep of the dress' back. The cut should have looked ten years behind fashion, but instead it lent an impression of dignified austerity.

The countess turned at Miss Everhart's voice, and as she did, Pepper felt a sinking pull of déjà vu. Something in the stranger's carriage struck her as deeply familiar. Not so familiar, however, as the wide, pool-green eyes that met hers a moment later.

She had to force herself not to waver, though she knew her face must have betrayed her realisation. All at once, a number of incidents of that night almost half a year before settled into place – the refusal to remove clothes, a certain softness in the chest, the way his "cock" had remained perfectly stiff and immobile – and she had to bite her lip to keep from laughing all over again. "I cannot tell you how pleased I am to meet you," she said, when Miss Everhart made the introduction.

"Countess" Romanova, whose first name was alleged to be Natalia, inclined her head gracefully, and asked if Pepper had seen Fra Diavolo before.

"Many times," Pepper assured her – and it was most certainly the man that had been the disguise, surely no artifice could create those generous breasts or pinched waist – "I like the ending, how Zerline is able to trap the bandit chief."

Romanova raised an eyebrow. "Really? I never believed that the Diavolo could disguise himself as a marquis so convincingly that no one suspected a thing."

"Surely one doesn't go to a comic opera looking for authenticity," Miss Everhart interrupted, attempting to head off an argument.

"No, I'm sure nobody does." Pepper laughed, feeling almost giddy. "And what about you, Countess, have you seen this all before?"

A reciprocal smile pulled at Romanova's lips. "Only the original French," she said dryly, and Pepper wondered if the faint Russian accent was fake as well. "I understand there are new songs in the Italian."

"A few surprises." Pepper reached out to touch Romanova's arm, fingers brushing the edge of her black dancing glove. "Listen, if you have time tomorrow, you should call on me."

"I understand your husband is an inventor," Romanova said, making Miss Everhart frown at the non sequitur, not to mention the breach of manners caused by mentioning one's profession to a near stranger.

"Are you interested in steam engines, Countess?" Pepper asked.

"Ones that work, certainly," Romanova said, and Pepper could barely keep her polite smile from tightening into a smirk. She'd always wondered if the product of the stolen plans had blown up in Rushman's face or someone else's.

"Then I think we'll have a lot to talk about," Pepper said, thinking, And possibly a few favours to return.

From the smile Romanova gave her, that same, alluring, Nathaniel Rushman smile, she was thinking the same thing.


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