Prudence was sitting at his dressing table when Anthony came up that evening; she was wearing one of his old dressing gowns, with her hair hanging in limp brown curls tied with a black riband at the back of her neck. The dressing gown rather swam on her smaller frame, but for a moment as Anthony looked at her clean-cut, quiet profile, he felt an unaccountable lump in his throat, almost like grief, for it was as if the lad Peter Merriot had returned to sit in Sir Anthony’s bedchamber, as he never had in life.
Then Prudence turned, and the loose folds of the untied dressing gown shifted, revealing and concealing the curve of breast and feminine hip, and the illusory Peter was gone. The knowledge that under the satin she was naked swiftly replaced Anthony’s ache of regret with another ache entirely.
‘Tony!’ She smiled, the sweet open smile without a hint of coquetry that had first drawn Anthony to Mr Merriot, and which still made him secretly grateful every day for his brave, straightforward wife. She was not an uncomplicated woman, and he would be a fool to pretend her incapable of deceit, but in her way she was an entirely natural creature, free of artifice. If sometimes her nature and the old gentleman’s schemes had compelled her to take up boys’ clothing, well, Anthony adored her the more for it.
He bent and kissed her lightly, resting one hand on the curve of her shoulder, the silk of the dressing gown sleek and smooth to his touch.
‘Are you for bed, child?’ he asked, untying the riband so her chestnut locks could spill over her shoulders. She had had a very tiring day, he supposed, and he ought not to resent it if she were too tired.
She closed her eyes and sighed as he combed his fingers through her hair; she liked that near as much as he did, and stretched like a contented cat. He admired the white line of her throat as she tilted her head back. ‘In a little,’ she said, and then her voice dropped near to a purr, ‘unless you were to join me earlier.’
So she was not too tired. ‘I might be persuaded.’
She turned to lean on the back of the chair, looking at him with a deuced peculiar expression. ‘If I—that is, if Peter Merriot had gone to stay with you to Wych End, what would have happened?’
Anthony blinked, a little taken aback; this did not seem like a line of questioning likely to lead to a mutually enjoyable exercise of marital rights. But Prudence had let the dressing gown fall open again, so that the soft white curve of a breast and a rosy nipple peeped out from its folds, and her eyes were bright and lips parted a little.
She had been an adventuress and a woman of the world; he might as well tell her the truth.
‘I should have taken him riding, of course; and there might have been cards in the evening.’
‘Is that all?’ Prudence said placidly. ‘Lord, I need not have feared for my virtue at all.’
He came round the other side of the chair and she shifted to face him; but she gave not an inch when Anthony set his hands on the arms and leaned over her. ‘I should also have let him know, by little looks and touches, that my interest was not strictly brotherly, if you take my meaning.’ Looking at the dip of her lashes as she avoided his eyes, and the charming stain in her cheeks, he rather thought she did.
‘And then, if he seemed amenable, I should have leaned over, some evening, just like this—slowly, slowly so that he might draw away if he wished—and kissed him. Are you shocked, my dear?’ he said, very low.
Prudence’s eyes were very wide, and by the way her gaze flickered to his arms bracketing her in the chair, she was quite aware of his physical advantage. He did not think she disliked it, but then, she always seemed pleased when he came over masterful, and was most willing to cede him control. She licked her lips.
‘I confess I am not very shocked. When the old gentleman had his gaming-hell, there was one patron I always had to be careful not to allow privacy with me; he importuned me once, and I only narrowly escaped being found out. Although,’ she added thoughtfully, ‘I do not think he had any interest in girls, and I suppose he would not have been able to denounce me without explaining how he knew.’
‘I am sure he could have found some convincing lie,’ Anthony said, at once fascinated and protective of this younger Prudence he had never known. ‘You were right not to trust in his disinterest.’
‘In truth, I thought sometimes that you wanted the same thing,’ said Prudence. ‘I would not have been so worried about you finding me out, else.’
‘I suppose you were correct,’ Anthony murmured, leaning closer. ‘And I thought myself so subtle. Have you any objection to kissing me, then?’
‘None in the world,’ said Prudence, lifting her face.
He caught her mouth ruthlessly with his, and she responded willingly enough, but with a hesitance he had not found in her since their wedding night. Quite early on their wedding night, for from the first Prudence had met his ardour equally with her own, and his suggestions with willing and even eager enthusiasm.
Hesitance was not like Prue.
But it was, perhaps, like Peter Merriot, he realized, and could not stop himself from smiling against Prudence’s mouth. Clever, clever Prue! To think she claimed herself a creature of no imagination!
‘What is’t, my lord?’
‘Only that we might be better disposed on the bed.’
‘I am not certain my virtue would be better disposed,’ Prue said, to which Anthony snorted, but she went, and sat on the bed like a young buck at the card table, an effect somewhat spoiled by her general state of dishevelment and the over-large dressing gown. ‘Come then, Sir Anthony, what would have been your next assault on the bastion of Mr Merriot’s virtue?’
‘Well,’ he said, still somewhat bemused by the turn of Prue’s thoughts this evening, ‘heartened by my success, I suppose I would have pressed my luck and tried to persuade him out of his breeches.’ He fitted action to words as best he could, parting the folds of the dressing gown and running his hands over the silky skin of her inner thighs. She had splendid thighs, pale and soft, but under the smooth skin they were sturdy and lithe with muscle, the sort of thighs a man liked to have wrapped around him. At present they quivered a little at his touch as he pressed her legs wider and the silk fell away, revealing damp brown curls and something entirely different from what he had once expected to find under Peter’s breeches.
‘If Mr Merriot had the decency to wear them.’ Prudence’s voice shook a little, and she gasped when Anthony leaned forward and blew a little breath over the sweet pink folds of her quim.
‘Indeed, if he did. And then there are more personal forms of persuasion,’ said Anthony, and, hooking her legs over his shoulders, he proceeded to demonstrate.
She forgot entirely to pretend shock or innocence this time, but relaxed fully to his ministrations, occasionally sighing or moaning, and once in a moment of extremity burying her fingers in his hair and tugging, but overall she was quiet. Only the little circling motion of her hips and the harshness of her breathing told him she liked it; Prue was not a woman given to shrieking and crying out in bed.
Most of the time Anthony found her quieter expressions of pleasure entirely satisfactory, but tonight, he thought, he might very well find a way to make her scream.
And so, when he could tell by the intermittent high catch in her breath and the insistent rocking of her hips that she was near her crisis, he stroked one finger down her cleft and dipped it into her quim to wet it. Prudence wriggled and sighed, and then squeaked in genuine shock when he slipped that finger further back and into her arse in a smooth easy glide. ‘Tony, what—’ she gasped, and then her gasp turned into a soft broken cry as she spasmed under his hands and mouth, her back arching, a lovely flush spreading down her neck and chest.
Anthony would allow that his smile was a touch smug. He crooked his finger a little and Prue whimpered, still shuddering a little, and apparently at a loss for words.
‘And if that went well,’ he said, smiling at Prudence’s dazed expression, ‘then I expect I would have set about coaxing him to allow me a certain liberty with his person. He did always have well-fitted breeches.’
Prudence went even pinker. ‘I only wore what the tailor gave me!’
‘It’s not the tailor who gave you that arse,’ said Anthony, momentarily curious how she would take such a crudity. He withdrew his finger a little, and to his surprise Prudence’s eyes rolled and he could have sworn he felt her push down against his hand. ‘But if we are to continue in this vein, I ought to fetch some salve; it is far more pleasant for you that way, and I have no wish to hurt you.’
She seemed to lose some of her tight-strung tension at that, although he still would not call her truly relaxed, not with the fine trembling that shook her. She bit her lip and nodded, still blushing, and then glanced down to where his own breeches had become distinctly tight. ‘I should like to try. But you are a...large man in all ways,’ she said quietly, almost in a whisper. ‘Can it work?’
‘I’ve no doubt of it, my dear, if we are patient, but only tell me if I must stop.’
She nodded again and leaned back with her eyes closed, all placid acceptance again, but she made a little sound of loss in the back of her throat as he withdrew.
When he returned, he found that she had rearranged herself, the silk of the dressing gown slipped half off her shoulders but drawn again to cover her breasts and thighs, and when she saw him she flushed as violently as if it were the first time. It was in a way—and for him as well, a thought that caught his breath for a moment, that this was something that they would share with no one else.
He bent to kiss her again, and this time she did not hesitate; she arched to meet him, her mouth soft and wet against his, her hands grasping his shoulders as he brushed away the confounded dressing gown and pressed slippery fingers between her thighs. ‘Pull your knees up, my dear.’
She did, with a calm obedience that stirred a deep affection in his breast: his magnificent Prue, who trusted him utterly with her heart and self.
The salve eased his way, but she was tight as a glove, still nervous, although there was a fine sheen of sweat on her brow when he looked up and she had bitten her lip. The gown had fallen completely open again, and the rounded softness of her breasts rose and fell with her quick, laboured breaths. ‘Tony,’ she said, in a voice he had never heard before, and suddenly she was moving with him, open and accepting, as he worked a second finger into her arse and bent them a little, stroking. She was wet where her sex brushed against his wrist; so wet he could smell the scent of her arousal. He could have watched her shake apart like this, with nothing but his hands driving her to her peak, and rested content; but she had asked him what he would have done with Peter Merriot. ‘My dear, do you feel yourself ready yet?’
Prudence opened her eyes. ‘Ought I to turn over?’ she said, her voice a little distant and dazed, but there was something—something in her face that Anthony wished very much not to see there again.
He set his free hand under her chin and met her faintly troubled grey gaze. ‘It would take a great deal more effort to pretend you were a boy tonight, my dear Prue,’ he said as gently as he could, ‘and beside, I should like to look at my wife.’
‘Oh,’ she said, but that faint tension in her had bled out. She smiled again and moved her hips a little, pressing against his hand. ‘Then ought we to get on with it? Only—slowly, Tony, please.’
‘Slowly!’ she said again, when he had stripped off his breeches, slicked himself up, and knelt on the bed between her parted thighs.
He was slow about it, very slow, slow enough that his thighs were trembling a little. He held her legs bent up and apart, and she had her eyes closed and was breathing very fast, her lip caught in her teeth, but he knew her well enough to see no pain there, only a great concentration. Slow, O Lord, he could be slow, though it cost him; but there was nothing sleepy about him just then as he pressed on, slowly and inexorably. And then all at once he felt Prue welcome him in. She gave a little cry, and he had to let go her thighs and fall forward onto his arms, gasping.
‘Tony.’ She looked up at him with her eyes very wide, looking near as poleaxed as he felt. ‘I could not have imagined.’
He kissed her, harder than he meant to, and with less skill than he liked; but he needed nothing more in that moment than to show her what he felt, and there were no words. She arched up against him, ardent and equally clumsy, her teeth catching at his lower lip. Somewhere in it all he must have moved, for she gave a dry little sob in her throat and clutched at him.
‘Tony, Tony, please,’ she gasped, and he was lost entirely, and so, it seemed, was she, for his quiet Prue was no longer quiet, but panting and whimpering as he moved in her.
She did scream, in the end, and a few moments later his own crisis followed. It was all he could manage to extricate himself gently and collapse beside her.
They stayed like that for some time, and then Prue’s hand found his, and their fingers twined together. He managed to roll onto his side so he could reach up and brush her sweat-damp hair back from her face. ‘Did you enjoy that, my dear?’
Prudence gave him a dreamy smile fit to swell any man’s head, and Anthony found himself glad—and he had to allow, a touch smug—that it had gone so well.
‘It’s a lovely thing,’ she said, ‘like cake.’
Anthony choked a little, and for a moment forgot that he was stroking her hip and stilled. ‘Like cake.’
‘Oh, yes.’ Her eyes crinkled with humour. She was blushing faintly, a fine rosy stain along her cheekbones. ‘Better than anything on occasion, but I should not like to have it every day and grow sick of it.’
Anthony laughed and leaned forward to kiss her. ‘I do not think I could have married any other woman who would compare cake and sodomy, my love. But I am glad you liked it.’
‘Oh, very much.’ Prue’s voice had gone low and husky, and her blush had spread fascinatingly as far as the tops of her breasts. She nestled against him, quite content, and he put an arm around her, equally content.
A little while later, Anthony was growing drowsy and just thinking he ought to be a gentleman and go fetch a wet cloth to clean them both up, when Prudence said, a little diffidently, ‘Do you think—’ and rested a hand against his hip, almost high enough for chastity. ‘Do you think that you might have allowed Peter the same liberty?’
For once Anthony could think of nothing to say; the thought had not even crossed his mind, and certainly not as something Prue would ask.
‘Faith, have I at last surprised the mountain? It’s only an idle thought, Tony, you need not answer.’
He was not at all sure he would have; it was not a liberty he had ever allowed anyone. But if Peter had asked— ‘I might have allowed it,’ he said slowly, ‘if our acquaintance was long enough.’
Something—curiosity, perhaps—flickered over Prudence’s placid features, and for a moment her fingers flexed against his hip, all unconscious. ‘For you I would certainly allow it.’ He met her gaze, aware that his pulse had quickened a little.
Her eyes widened, and he saw her throat work as she swallowed. ‘I—do not see how that could be possible.’
‘I am sure a way could be contrived.’
She made a speculative little noise in the back of her throat. ‘I wonder if you could ever be in a flutter,’ she murmured, glancing up at him through her lashes.
For the second time that evening, Anthony found himself truly surprised, and for the first time in longer than he could remember, a little bit nervous. It had long been his habit to set his paramours in a flutter; he certainly did not allow them to do the same to him.
But perhaps a small corner of himself wondered what it would be like, to be so overset by another. If he could allow that from anyone, it would be his splendid, surprising Prue. It would only be fair to give her the chance. ‘No one has yet managed,’ he said, clasping Prudence’s hand and smiling, ‘but you are most sincerely welcome to try.’