And now, Emma was sleeping with Léon.
Elizabeth gulped. She’d known, somewhat, what she was in for when she’d picked up the novel. The scandal of it, the notion that it would never have been allowed in her tower, was half its allure. But God, did it make her squirm. The fact that it wasn’t explicit, that she had to think about what was actually being said, only made it worse. Made her curious. And, back when Rodolphe had been Emma’s lover, made her seek out other, even more unladylike things.
What an education she’d been getting.
Footsteps fell outside the door. As it swung open, she straightened, slammed the book down on the bedside table. Booker, already halfway through doffing his coat, paused and looked at her, one eyebrow climbing toward his hairline. The light from the corridor sketched a box around him, gave his features a dark, angular cast.
“Hi.” Her face was hot. She must have been going red. “Um.” She clasped her hands together. “How, uh. How did it go?”
There was a long, painful pause in which he stood there, unmoving save for his eyes, looking her over, blinking. The heat spread up into her ears, down her neck, over her chest. The squirming started up again. Could he see? Did he know? He sighed and stepped completely into the room.
“Went okay.” He’d been looking for work since they’d gotten there. She could have used her tears to keep them in the black, especially now that she could mostly control them, but she didn’t want to. Had her reasons. So, the burden had fallen to him. He tossed his coat onto the couch, sat down, began to unlace his boots. “Got paid. Suppose that’s what counts.”
“Right.” There was a lingering pressure in her gut, a twist that drew her thighs together. She swore, against all sense, that he could tell.
He dropped his boots onto the floor. They struck hard, tipped over. He left them where they landed. “Hey, you mind helping me some time, with this French stuff?” He leaned forward, resting his elbows on his knees. “Would be a hell of a lot easier to pull down work if I knew the language.”
There was something about the spread of his legs… She glanced at the book. Bad idea, reading it when there was a chance of him coming home. He was who he was, and it wasn’t right to think such thoughts about him. “Sure, of course. We can start tomorrow.” She stood up; the back of her hand brushed his knee, and the contact sent a jolt through her. “I’m…gonna get washed up.”
She strode toward the washroom, trying to keep her pace reasonable, knowing that she was failing. He moved behind her, and she heard him. Heard the floorboards give beneath his weight, heard hardcover knock against wood. He cleared his throat. She grimaced. “Madame Bovary?”
She turned back, queasy with embarrassment. “It’s a classic,” she said. “It’s considered to be the most perfect novel ever written.”
He smirked. “Mmhmm.”
Her throat and jaw worked. Her mouth tried to form words. When it failed, she scowled, stepped into the washroom, and slammed the door shut behind her.
The water ran, splashing against porcelain, then against itself, then against her skin. She tried to reconcile her indignation at his amusement with the thought that it was all so much nonsense. And a small, secret part of her, a part that relished the way her recent reading made her feel, reflected that she and Booker were in a hotel room, in a French city, pretending it was home, just like Emma and Léon.
Alcohol was a funny thing.
She hadn’t liked it at the start. That first sip of red wine had had none of the cherry and mahogany notes that the sommelier had told her to expect. Instead, it had tasted the way airship exhaust smelled, had crawled up her sinuses and made her gag and snort. But she’d kept at it, because she was in Paris, and Parisians loved wine, and she suspected its effects might be worth its taste.
She had been right, as it turned out. And, oddly, the more she drank, the less the taste seemed so bad, until one day, she’d ordered a white and found herself agreeing that yes, it did indeed contain a hint of pear.
Booker had told her it was all in her head. He preferred other drinks to wine, so she’d dismissed his opinion.
They drifted, now, the two of them, her head filled with her drinks and his filled with his other ones, down the streets that would take them “home.” They had yet to move from the hotel, for reasons that simmered beneath the surface of their interactions and that were never given voice. The February air was cool. Her skin, flushed from the alcohol, was warm.
“You shouldn’t drink so much.”
She was drunk. She was definitely, definitely drunk. But although he hid it better than she did, she was fairly certain that he was, as well.
“You’re such a hypocrite.”
"I’m not. Hardly had any.”
“Somehow, I doubt that.” They hadn’t been drinking together. He’d been in his Paris, and she’d been in hers, both of them trying to chase away their respective demons, and it had been happenstance that each had called it a night and then run into the other. She had no idea how much he’d actually had, but she knew his history, and she knew the signs. “Look at you, Booker. You can’t even walk straight.” As she said it, she grew dizzy, stumbled, caught herself.
“Who was it you were just calling ‘hypocrite?’” He said it with mirth, but he shook his head. “It’s different for you than for me. Ain’t fair, but that’s the way the world works, and I think you know that.”
The tone of his voice was paternal, annoyingly so. She didn’t like it when he sounded that way, didn’t like the reminder. The wine made her acknowledge why, and that made it worse. Something stirred within her. “I can handle myself.”
He paused. “Well, maybe you can, at that.” He gave her a look. “What do you suppose would happen, you open a tear when you’ve had a few?”
“I don’t know.” Profoundly stupid things, she guessed. She moved ahead of him, turned back. Swelled with a desire to ride impulse into Hell. “We could find out.” They were all around her, the doors, pulsating and begging for her attention; all she had to do was give in and choose. She could feel the rush of energy, a rush she hadn’t felt since she’d made her decision two months prior, and it increased her dizziness.
Booker listed to one side, then corrected. “Elizabeth…”
She stepped closer to him. There was a street lamp up and to the left of his head; it caused his face to glow. He was handsomer, she thought, than he had any right to be. “I’m sure there’s nothing to worry about.” There probably was. She was just having a hard time caring. “It’s not as if I don’t know what I’m doing.” She didn’t, not fully. But she reached for a small tear nearby, anyway. “Besides, if something goes wrong…” Dizzier still. “…I can just…stop.”
The tear spread outward. The world beyond cycled through states – a building was made of brick, then of wood, then of concrete blocks, then of nothing at all. Her head swam. It could be overwhelming, seeing everything, but the last time she’d looked, she had at least been able to tell the possibilities apart. Not so, now. Now, she couldn’t separate them, so they were all there at once. She pitched forward; the tear contracted, widened, contracted, and then vertigo forced her eyes shut, and it vanished completely.
An arm contacted her middle. A hand splayed across her lower back.
Booker pulled her upright. One of her hands found his waist; the other pushed into his chest. The heat of his body rolled over her. She looked up at him, and his eyes coaxed the stirring she’d felt into something more. He breathed, and his breath became the air in her lungs.
She shouldn’t feel this. It wasn’t right.
“You alright?” His voice was a caress.
“Yes.” It didn’t matter, said the wine. You want what you want.
His gaze traveled from her eyes to her lips, then further down. Something hard pressed against her thigh, and she knew, from her reading, what it meant. It wasn’t just her, then. Her heart galloped. He drew closer, his grip tightening. She felt his body shift, watched his lips part, watched his Adam’s apple bob. The tip of his nose brushed against hers.
The moment stretched. She formed a fist, bunched his shirts between her fingers.
And then, he pulled away.
He put a few paces between them and turned so that she was facing his shoulder. He brought a hand to his mouth, coughed into it, cleared his throat. “Probably, uh, shouldn’t do that again.”
The double meaning made her stomach drop. “Yeah. Probably not.” A lump thickened in her throat. For the rest of their walk, she found she couldn’t speak.
Once they’d gotten home, she spent much longer than she should have in the washroom, and wondered if he noticed.
She dreamed of him.
She dreamed of his weight, pressing her down into the mattress. She dreamed of his fingers, taking over the rhythm that her own so often danced. She had no idea what it would feel like to kiss him, or to have him inside of her, but her mind cobbled together sensations and allowed her to dream of those things, too. She woke up wet and aching, many mornings, and gazed over at his sleeping form, and thought about him moving from the couch to her bed and her arms.
It wasn’t right. It wasn’t right.
More and more, a quiet voice from deep inside whispered, “why not?”
She was pacing. It was eight steps, from one end of the room to the other, almost nine. He’d left before she had that morning, said he’d be back before nightfall. And here it was, hours past dusk, late enough that the moon had cleared the building across the way and was shining into their room, and he was still out.
There were so many ways that his kind of work could go wrong. She couldn’t help but think back, to drudge up memories that she spent entire days trying to repress, to imagine him prone and bleeding and dying, with her book-learning his only hope. He could be out there, right now, without her, breathing his last. She shouldn’t have let him go. Should have worked harder to steer him away from old habits. Should have taken responsibility for providing for them.
The doorknob rattled. She sucked in a breath.
When he entered, he looked at her and sighed, then reached up and rubbed at his temple. “Sorry I’m late.” She took a few steps toward him, looking him over, checking, assessing.
“Damn client lied. Told me this guy was working alone.” He shrugged off his coat. “Get there, and there’s four of these bastards, and wouldn’t you know…” There was a dark, oblong stain on his shirt, on the left side, just beneath his rib-cage. “They knew I was coming.”
Worry blossomed into fear. “Booker, you’re hurt.” She rushed forward. He tried to wave her off.
“Like hell it is.” She pressed her hands against his shirt and smoothed it outwards, trying to get a better look at the wound. He had been slashed with a knife – that much was obvious – but the hole in his garments was so small that she could make out little more. She pinched his shirts between thumb and forefinger, pulled outward, tenting the fabric. The fingers of her other hand dipped into the hole.
“Would you cut it out?” He batted her hands away. “I like this shirt, and you’re gonna tear it.”
“It’s already torn. And you’ve been stabbed.”
She sighed. “You can be so mule-headed.” She moved toward him again. The implications of what she was doing, of how her hands were moving, were a distant, unacknowledged care; she thought only of his injury, of its location, of the fact that it was near where his kidney would be.
She’d been good at keeping them provisioned, back in Columbia. Never mind that it was technically stealing, and that it often involved the use of a power she now tried not to use; she’d done it, and she could do it. She should have been the one to take care of them, whether it made her uncomfortable or not. She shouldn’t have let him put himself in this position.
“Whoa, whoa, whoa.” His hands came up to her shoulders. He gave her a gentle push. “What’re you doing?”
“I can’t get at the wound properly through your shirts.”
“I told you, I’m…”
The outer shirt fell open, parted. “Fine, yes. Just let me take a look, would you?” If it had gone deep enough…
He grumbled, but finally gave in, sighing as she undressed him. His union suit was of a single piece; to fully free his chest, she had to dip beneath his waistline, undo an extra button. The contact made him shudder and suck in his gut, and it was then that she was struck by the first inkling of impropriety. He was going to be half-naked. He was going to be half-naked and she was going to see him.
It wasn’t right.
She walked to the washroom, retrieved the antiseptic and bandages she’d stored beneath the sink, ran a cloth under the tap. Looked in the mirror. Told herself to focus. There was a purpose to this, a necessity. Nothing untoward about it, lest she choose to make it so.
When she re-emerged, he was sitting on the bed, leaning back, hands thrust out behind him, propping him up. The low light slid across the planes of his pectoral muscles, over the divot beneath his diaphragm, along the lines of his abdomen; highlighted his hair, the thin sheen of sweat that he’d built up. They had been careful, over the months that they’d lived together. Neither had gotten so much as a glimpse of the other. She took him in and knew the wisdom of their discretion.
The wound was an angry red line, starting at his lowest rib and arching over and down, around his side and onto the edge of his stomach. She dabbed at it carefully, cleared away the dried and drying blood. The actual cut was narrower than she’d feared. She ran her fingers along its sides; fresh blood welled and beaded, but there was very little of it, little enough to tell her that the flow had begun to ebb. Her pulse evened.
“What’s the verdict?”
“It’s…” She rolled her eyes. He wasn’t going to let her hear the end of this. “It’s fine.”
He cocked an eyebrow, amused. “Really.”
“Yes, really.” She held the cloth over the bottle of antiseptic, upended it. “That doesn’t mean it doesn’t need to be tended. You know better.” She pressed the cloth to the gash, and he winced, and let out a long, loud hiss.
“Yeah, I guess.”
She felt him watching her, as she bandaged him. Felt his muscles move beneath her fingers, felt him breathe, slow and steady. Her eyes drifted up, to the side, and then down, to where the sundered halves of his union suit formed a V, framing his belly button, disappearing into his pants. She bit her lip.
She looked up. Heat spread over her cheeks. “What?”
“Thanks.” He held her gaze.
“Sure.” Their voices had gotten quiet. Their bodies had gotten still. And her hand had migrated away from the bandage, was on his stomach, with her thumb pointed upward, nestled into his sternum. His hand grasped her wrist.
Heat and electricity arced between them. Here they were, again, dangling on the edge of damnation, his eyes boring into her, his mouth shaping unspoken words; the pressure of his fingers whispering suggestions, telling her that he, too, was wanting. She didn’t want to care anymore. God help her, she didn’t want to care.
“Elizabeth,” he said again, “we’re…”
She knew what he was going to say. She should have been saying it, herself. “Strangers.”
His breathing quickened. He swallowed and shook his head. “No, we’re not.”
“We met less than a year ago.” His fingers were moving, and so were hers.
“That’s a pretty little lie.”
“Is it?” Of course it was. Of course.
They shouldn’t do this. They couldn’t do this. It was wrong. It was bad enough that she hadn’t done what she was meant to do, that she had let him live. To give into what she felt, to cross that line, would be a sin beyond reckoning.
For a long moment, heavy with the promise of both release and regret, they did nothing save stare at one another. She watched as his irises darkened and his pupils dilated and wondered, if she looked down, whether she’d see the physical evidence of his desire. And when his free hand came up and gripped the back of her neck, pulling her toward him, she started, and could scarcely believe what was happening.
He did not kiss her gently. There was no exploration, no teasing, no finesse. It was raw and hungry, and her mind reeled, trying to make sense of the sensation of someone else’s tongue sharing space with her own, of someone else’s teeth digging into her lips. She slapped his shoulder and beat against his chest. He backed away, gasping.
He brought up his other hand, as if to cup her cheek. It hovered and trembled. “I thought you…”
She grabbed his head and kissed him again, mimicking him. Shoving her tongue into his mouth. Lapping at him, biting, sucking. His leg brushed against her, and then he pulled her close, so that she was between his legs, so that his hardness pressed into her belly. She wrapped her arms around his neck and ground against it. He groaned. Her heart skipped. Her hips moved. She bit his tongue, raked her nails over his scalp.
His mouth moved to her jaw. Her neck. Her ear. She was rendered weak, so much so that she had to lean on him to stay upright. She could smell him. There was sweat, and there was the grime of the day, but there was also him, seeping through, and it made her want to feel him and taste him and consume him. He bucked up into her and she whimpered. She forced her hands between the two of them and touched his chest, squeezed, flitted downward. Her fingers found his belt and began to work at it; his tugged at the tails of her blouse and freed them from her skirt.
Her shoulders were bare.
Her corset was undone. He was peeling it off of her. He was bunching up her chemise, pulling it over her head. She was half-naked and her shock and shame were distant, buried beneath layers of desperate lust. It was like in the books. It was like how they said. His skin was so warm against her own, so surprisingly soft, and the roughness of his hands was a heady contrast. A thumb and forefinger closed over one of her nipples and rolled it, back and forth. She stopped kissing him, pressed her forehead to his, and released a sound that came as much from surprise as from pleasure.
There were hands on her waist. They were dragging her skirt down, down.
She found the button that bound his trousers. One of his hands left her body; he used it to lift himself up while she pulled down his pants and his union suit. She squeezed his buttocks because she could, because it was there, because it was part of him. She moved a hand to his cock, firm and upright, unsure, testing. He let out a moan and it made him seem vulnerable and she kissed him hard in response.
Her skirt fell away, followed by her drawers. Her stockings were rolled down. She was naked, and she was wetter than her dreams had ever made her, and his fingers were dipping into that wetness, rubbing her. She rolled her hips and bit his shoulder. He circled her opening, then moved inward, slowly, curved his fingers, massaged the front wall. Her eyes and mouth widened. Her breath hitched. His teeth pinched the skin of her jaw.
She found herself on the bed, on her back, and didn’t know how or when she’d gotten that way. His mouth was moving down her body. He sucked on one of her breasts, and she arched into him. He tongued her stomach, and she writhed. He kissed her pubis mons, her inner thighs, the hollow behind one of her knees. Need pooled in her core. She grabbed his hair and pulled.
He chuckled. “Want something?”
She glared down at him. “Yes.” She’d read about it, and everything within her was begging to know what it felt like.
He trailed his lips and tongue up, up, to where her legs met her torso, to the edges of her vulva. She whimpered and whined. He licked around her center, struck every part of her except that which throbbed and ached for attention. Stroked her, long and slow, short and fast. Pushed his tongue inside of her. Moved back up, back down, and finally grabbed her hips, forcefully, crushed her to his face, pulled her clit between his lips and sucked.
There was nothing like this. Her dreams were pale and wan. She squeezed his head with her legs, threw back her own, closed her eyes. Covered her face with her hands. It took her so long to get to this point when she was doing it by herself. The thrill of getting this after so much pining, of allowing him to do this to her, had sent her arousal climbing to heights she’d never imagined. Her peak loomed over her, beyond a final ascent of pressure and heat and shooting, roiling pleasure.
He went back to licking her. Filled her again with his fingers. She pressed her heels into his shoulder blades. Tilted her head, looked down. Green eyes, deep, the bridge of his nose, the curve of her lower half flowing into him, right into his mouth. She wanted. She had him, and still she wanted. So much.
She cried out and convulsed. Her moans ran together, became one long, continuous wail. He grunted, and she realized that she’d dug the nails of one hand into the side of his face.
“Sorry,” she breathed. Aftershocks swept over her. Her muscles twitched.
“It’s all right.” He pulled himself up and kissed her, and her body rolled along his. The feel of his flesh – there was a sparking, sizzling sensation everywhere it touched her own. It dug into her. Oh, God, she had just orgasmed and it wasn’t enough, it wasn’t anywhere near enough. It made her want him more. More, more, more.
She slid her hands to his chest and pushed, as hard as she could. He shot back onto his knees, stared at her with his brows drawn together and his breaths coming in gasps. She scrambled up. Grabbed him. Guided him to one side, knocked him onto his back. When she swung a leg over his torso, his eyes popped.
“You didn’t stop at Madame Bovary, did you?”
She grinned and leaned down to suck his neck. Dragged her hand down his torso, squeezed his hip, took hold of him again. She stroked him, twisted her wrist, experimented with pressure, with the position of her fingers and her palm, guided by the bucking of his hips and the pitch of his moans. While she worked him, she kissed the hollow of his throat, the ridge of his collar bone; made her way down the center of his chest, licked one of his nipples. His hair tickled her nose and chin. She circled her hips, driven by a need that wouldn’t abate.
He bent his leg and brought it up between hers. She jumped at the contact. For all that she wanted more, she was so, so sensitive. But soon enough, she was grinding into his thigh. He stroked the small of her back, kneaded her backside. She bit his rib-cage and kissed his stomach, squeezed his shaft, and thought, suddenly, about what it would be like to taste him the way that he had tasted her.
Proper ladies didn’t do that. The marriage manuals said so.
Then again, proper ladies didn’t sleep with their fathers.
Her mental back-and-forth was interrupted by him hooking his hands under her arms and pulling her up. He threaded his fingers through her hair and kissed her, then settled her over him, reached down, nestled his cock between her labia, began to slide it up and down.
“Um…” she mumbled.
“What?” He sucked her bottom lip into his mouth.
“Can you…we…” There was an empty feeling, intense, greedy. Her body remembered his fingers and wanted what the rest of him had to offer. “…now?”
“Mmm.” His tongue touched the seam between her lips. “Alright.”
She looked down and watched him take himself in his own hand, position the head beneath her opening. The sight was deeply erotic. When he let himself go and clasped her waist, she took the cue and began to lower herself. Slow, slow.
She grimaced. He touched her face.
She had to take a moment once he was fully inside of her. Her lips formed an ‘O;’ she took a long, deep breath. The sensation was…strange. There was no way to describe it. They were joined, attached. A part of her body was coiled around a piece of his. Nothing else, she thought, could possibly be so intimate. She lifted herself up, dropped back down. It still hurt, a little, but it also felt good. She leaned back. Tried circling around him. Liked it. She planted her hands on his pecs, pushed down, and circled again.
“Ah…” This was it. This was what she’d been craving, without even knowing it.
His fingers spread over her lower abdomen and his thumb contacted her clit. She bit her lip. Everything was on fire. Everything was amazing.
She was bouncing on him. Clawing at him. Releasing sighs and moans every time she slammed her hips into his. He thrust upwards in time with her movements, touched her stomach, her breasts, her neck, her cheeks. They were so warm. She kissed his palm. She looked down at his body and was overwhelmed by how beautiful he was. Every muscle, every hair, every tendon and vein was perfect. He was perfect. Perfect.
Their foreheads met. He wrapped his arms around her, began to move hard and fast. Her mouth hung open, and so did his, and their lips touched but they weren’t kissing, they were only sharing breaths, and it made her hotter. It made her stomach twist. It added vigor to her moans.
Her second orgasm crashed into her and took her completely by surprise.
She grabbed at the wire headboard, twined her fingers ‘round filigree. He increased his pace. She came down and shot right back up again. Began to shake.
Her arms were suspended; she held fistfuls of nothing, of air. She was not in control of her body. She was one long, taut muscle, trembling through an unending spasm, a paroxysm of pleasure. Tremors ran up and down her frame and rendered her breathless and thoughtless. In a moment of lucidity, she took in his face and his eyes and collapsed into a churning well of emotion.
I’m so in love with this man. I am so, so, so in love with him.
He pulled out of her, when it was his time, as any responsible lover would. He came on both of their stomachs.
She’d have to make it a point to tell him that they were both sterile.
They wound up on their sides, with him curled around her from behind. His elbow rested against her stomach, his forearm against the space between her breasts, his hand against the intersection of neck and shoulder. She grasped his wrist and pressed her backside into his groin.
“So what now?” he whispered. His lips brushed her earlobe.
“I don’t know.” It wasn’t right. They shouldn’t have done what they’d done. They shouldn’t do it again. “What do you want?”
There was a long, heavy silence. Flurries of anxiety gathered ‘round her heart.
He clutched her tighter. “You.”
Relief spread through her, but there was something else, too. A nagging doubt, a cold, sobering sense of fundamental wrongness.
She decided to ignore it.
“Alright.” She turned her head and nuzzled his cheek with her nose. “You have me.”
He kissed her, and she responded.