Esme fell silent.
“Why didn’t you tell me?”
She couldn’t stop herself from looking up then, meeting his gaze helplessly. Every hopeless look over the years, every time she sought him out to sit with him, the teasing arguments in the kitchen as he taunted her and stole her ingredients… She’d turn around and her carrots would be missing, Rip protesting his innocence so skilfully that she couldn’t help but laugh as she tried to find out where he’d hidden them. Pressing against him, her clever hands darting beneath his coat – though not entirely in search of whatever he’d stolen – until his cheeks would colour and he’d present them with a flourish.
Baking his favourite lemon tart, just for him. Kissing his cheek when he brought her a new ribbon and wishing she had the courage to turn her lips to his. “I thought I did,” she whispered.
Their fingers still interlinked. Rip gave a soft, bemused laugh. “You never said it. Never. I’d ‘ave remembered.”
“I thought I showed you—In everything that I did, in everything I said.” Her cheeks heated. “I practically threw myself at you in the street the other day! And you pushed me away!”
His metal thumb stroked hers. Rip thought about her words for a moment, frowning slightly, the way he always did when he wanted to get his own words right. A man of caution. “Six months ago I wouldn’t a pushed you away.”
She watched his hand stroking hers. “What changed? What--”
And then she knew.
Esme’s breath caught as their eyes met.
“I know I said I were right.” Pulling away, Rip scraped his metal hand over the back of his thickly muscled neck. “I told Blade I ‘ad it under control. I just… I couldn’t stand bein’ trapped in the Warren anymore. I needed to get out. Start workin’ again. I ‘ate bein’ useless.” Those green eyes danced to hers and she saw the flare of hunger in them, his pupils dilating. A look just for her, that told her everything she ought to have known. A look that stripped her bare of the heavy velvet dress and left her feeling naked. “It ain’t so bad, with other women. Just you. You throw me off the edge, Esme. I want you so much it ‘urts. And then I can feel the ‘unger creepin’ up, threatenin’ to take over. I don’t want to ‘urt you.” He shook his head emphatically. “Never.”
All this time she’d thought that he didn’t want her. And he’d been afraid to lose control, to take her blood – or her body – for fear of hurting her. “Oh, John,” she whispered. “I could have helped you. I’ve been a thrall for years. I know what to do. Sometimes Blade would--”
The vicious look he shot her stopped her in her tracks. The look of a man who wanted to hurt something – preferably his enemy. Esme slid closer, sliding her hand over his knee. “You have nothing to be jealous of,” she reminded him. “It was only blood.” Growing bold, she squeezed the hard muscle in his thigh as she knelt closer, digging her thumb in as she stroked the soft leather of his pants. Rip sucked in a sharp breath, his eyes glittering.
“So you do want me?” she asked, her whisper full of all manner of sin. “Just to clear up any misunderstandings?”
“Aye.” Voice rough, his eyes dropping to her bodice. Rip let out a harsh breath. “Christ, I’m only a man.”
Her hand slid higher, stroking the smooth leather over his thigh.
“Esme.” A warning.
One she took no heed of. She felt light as a bird, a smile crossing her lips as she crept closer, pushing between his knees. He wanted her. The way a man wants a woman. The way a blue blood wanted his thrall. She was so happy she felt almost giddy.
“And when you spoke of me marrying tonight… were you speaking of someone else?”
Those emerald eyes glinted. “You’d be best off--”
“No.” She put her finger to his lips. “I’ve had my share of misunderstandings. I won’t suffer it anymore. Do you want me to marry another man?”
She read the answer on his face. Fierce, almost violent. Possessive. Esme shivered, her finger lightening against his lips. She let her hands drop to the buttons at her throat.
Esme slipped her shoulders out of his coat and then tugged one of the buttons free. The red velvet frock-coat buttoned to her throat, but it fit her like a glove. And he noticed. She saw it on his face as he watched her undo several buttons, harsh hunger tightening his expression with demonic need. Her nipples tightened, a fierce heat igniting deep in her belly. Her own hunger. Her own need. It had been years since she’d lain with a man, and she wanted this one so much it hurt.
Every muscle in his body tensed, the leather creaking softly over his thighs. Still, he didn’t reach for her, just looked up at her with that tight expression.
“Do you want to touch me?” Esme whispered, her knuckles brushing the smooth curve of her breasts as she worked the buttons lower. “Or perhaps… to taste me?”
That drew another heated glance that lit her on fire. She couldn’t stop herself from reaching out, sliding her hands over the heavily muscled expanse of his shoulders. A groan wet her lips. “I want to touch you,” she whispered, leaning closer. A light kiss against his throat. “I want to taste you--”
Her tongue darted out and licked the distended vein in his throat. His pulse kicked against her lips, racing hard. His body might be as still as a statue but he felt this. Tension practically vibrated in him.
“Esme, stop,” he groaned. His hand clenched in her skirts as he hissed out a sharp breath, palm flattening over her bottom as he urged her against him.
She nipped his throat, drinking in the masculine scent she knew so well, the stubble of his jaw rasping against her cheek and lips. Hands darting, stroking, digging into the hard muscle as she pressed against him. This time she felt no sense of rejection at his words. She knew exactly what lay behind them.
Darting a glance at his eyes – they weren’t black yet – she captured his face in her hands and slid into his lap. Her skirts rode up her thighs, bunching between her and his hips. Still, there wasn’t enough fabric for her not to feel him.
“Oh.” Esme’s smile widened as she shifted against him, stockinged knees driving into the rug beneath them. This time there was no stopping her. She slid her hands over the roughened black stubble of his scalp and kissed him hard.
No hesitation. Not this time. Rip grabbed her, hauling her against his chest, his hips driving up into hers. Somewhere in the distance, rain began to patter on the roof.
“Want you,” he growled. “Want you so damned much.”
She tore her lips from his just long to gasp. “I want you too. I feel like I’ve wanted you forever.”
Rip squeezed her against him fiercely, as if he couldn’t quite reply. Then her hands were digging at his shirt, tugging it free of his pants. Fighting with his braces as she shoved them off his shoulders, her mouth greedy on his, tongue darting against his own. Finally she had the shirt free of his pants. Her palms flat against his rippled abdomen, she pushed him flat on his back and sucked in a ragged breath.
Rip fell back onto the rug on his elbows, not so much a sign of submission, but an acceptance… for now. The look in his eyes promised that she wouldn’t have this chance again.
Esme didn’t care. Her blood fired as she tore his shirt open, baring the heavy slab of his chest to her gaze. Smooth hairless skin met her gaze, the colour of honey. She’d always thought the warmth of his skin owed its colour to the sun, but though his hands and face were darker, his body was golden in the lamplight. One day he’d lose that, as the craving virus colonised and faded the colour from his skin. Or perhaps not. Ever since Honoria had discovered that her vaccinated blood lowered Blade’s virus count, Esme had been thinking about asking for the vaccination herself. To keep her man as human as he could possibly be, with the virus raging in him.
Thick muscle, his abdomen chiselled as it narrowed down to his hips. She couldn’t stop looking. She didn’t think she’d ever want to stop touching him.
“Esme.” He drew the folds of his shirt together, as if unnerved by her stare.
Esme caught his hands. “Don’t,” she said. “I want to look at you. I love your body.” Her fingernails dug into his abdomen. “All of you. All mine.” Leaning down she kissed him again, lips tracing his own. He would never be handsome in the way society dictated, but she loved the way he looked. Hard, powerful, full of a dangerous, feral grace. A man. Not like those dandies of the Echelon, who padded their coats or wore girdles. Rip was solid muscle.
Slowly she kissed his cheek, tongue tracing the heavy scar through his eyebrow. Rip’s breath came hard, his hips flexing beneath her.
“You don’t know what you do to me,” he whispered.
Sliding a hand between them, she cupped it around the heavy length of his erection. “I’ve some idea.”
“If you don’t stop that, I’m gonna ‘ave you on your back,” Rip breathed.
Tempting. She looked up and he saw it in her eyes. His own narrowed, darkness leeching out from the pupils as if to swallow his irises. The hunger.
Catching her hips, he rolled them and Esme fell back with a breathless laugh. Pinning her wrists to the rug, he loomed over her, his hips resting between hers. Careless of the fall of her skirts, she locked her legs around his hips, her stockings gliding against the smooth leather of his trousers.
Black eyes met hers. The hunger in all its ascendancy. Esme lay still, surrendering to him completely. Knowing how to control the fierce fury within him.
For long seconds, he breathed in harshly, clenching his eyes shut as if to fight it. Esme simply relaxed, letting him control her. The desire for sex and blood warred within him. She just had to give it a little push in the right direction.
“Touch me,” she whispered, arching her back just enough to press her hips against his. The friction made her breath catch. “I want your hands on me.”
His eyes met hers; demon-black. “Where?”
“Undo my buttons.”
The complexity of the task made him focus. Esme slid her hands over his neck, luxuriating in the feel of his knuckles against her skin as he slipped each button free. The frock-coat tugged open, her shirt-waist pressed tight against her skin.
Rip leaned down and brushed his mouth against hers. She could feel the tremors in his body, the rigid steel of his arms as he held himself immobile. Slowly he divested her of the shirt, leaving only a corset and shift. The scent of her violet water grew stronger as he undid the busk that ran down the front of her corset and Esme gasped against his lips as his hand curved over her breast.
“Yes,” she whispered, her hips flexing against his.
Slow. Gentle. Torturous. Rip lowered his mouth to her throat, but only briefly. With a sharp exhale he swiftly moved lower, his lips trailing over the curve of each plump breast, lips dragging her shift lower. Tugging it down, his tongue darted over her nipple as he slowly suckled it into his mouth.
Esme groaned. It had been so long since she’d been touched that she couldn’t remember if it had ever felt as good as this. Teeth rasped over her nipple and she couldn’t hold still any more.
“John,” she whispered. “Oh, God, John. I want you. Now.” Darting a hand between them she reached for the buttons on his trousers.
Rip shook her away. “No,” he rasped. “Need to be in control. Just lemme--” He took her mouth again, breathing hard against her lips. “Lemme go slow.”
The rain rattled on the tin roof. She should have been cold but Esme barely noticed the chill against her naked skin. All she could see was Rip, his shoulders blotting out the entire world. All she could feel were his fingers, sliding down her skirts and dragging them up. Fist bunching in the velvet.
The chill bit at her legs, but she moaned into his mouth, cupping his cheeks and kissing him breathlessly. His hands slid over her stockings and Esme spread her thighs. “Yes.” A gasp.
Fingers trembled on her garter, then the smooth skin of her inner thigh. When he found the damp cotton of her draws he let out another rough exhale. Tugging them open, finding her, wet and ready and arching beneath him…
It was bliss. Esme moaned, turning her head and sinking her teeth into the flesh of his shoulder as his fingertips darted over her heated flesh. White light exploded behind her eyes, the world disappearing until all that remained was Rip and the dull roar of the rain on the roof. Her body trembling, trembling… On the precipice.
Then his hand was gone. Esme blinked. No.
“Get this off.” He paused and tugged at her drawers. Fighting them free. She caught one last glimpse of the black of his eyes, then he shoved both hands under her bottom and slid lower.