The wet heat of his mouth almost made her scream. Esme jerked, her fingers sinking into the hard muscle of his shoulders. Tracing the steel of his mech limb. She bit her lip as he tongued her, hard and deep, suckling on her clitoris and bringing her to the edge again with ruthless determination.
Esme shattered. It took her hard, leaving her panting and breathless, Rip pulling back to drag in his own shuddering breath. She flinched as his fingertips trailed down her thigh, so sensitive and wrung out that she could scarcely bear it. “Oh God, oh God,” she whispered, again and again.
Rip slid up her body, dragging her into his arms. She felt like crying again, as if he’d utterly destroyed her. And then she was and he tugged her tighter, locking her face against his chest as if he could hide her from the world. “Easy luv,” he whispered, pressing a kiss to her hair. He breathed out a rough laugh. “Makin’ a man think he’s done wrong.”
“No.” She curled her fingers in his shirt and glanced up, tears spiking her lashes together. “That was amazing. I just… I just…”
A slow smile curled over his lips. “Aye. Overwhelmed are you?”
Esme nodded, pressing her lips to his throat. She could feel the hardness of his erection between them. This wasn’t finished yet. Sliding her hand between them she cupped him through his pants.
Rip sucked in a sharp breath and rolled her onto her back, coming over her. Resting on his elbows, he toyed with her hair, staring down at her with a look of sharp longing on his face. “I want to,” he admitted hoarsely. “Want you so much.”
“But?” she whispered, hearing the unspoken word.
Rip shut his black eyes with a shudder. “I could barely control meself through that,” he admitted. “I can’t risk it, Esme. Not yet.”
“I trust you,” she said, stroking his face.
He shuddered. “I can’t, Esme. I can’t.”
The ache of need was almost unbearable. Frustration snaked through her. But she could feel the tense line in his shoulders as she stroked her hands up over his shirt-covered back, soothing and whispering under her breath.
“I’ll wait for you, John,” she whispered. “Always.”
I’ll wait for you.
Something twisted tight in Rip’s chest, like a hand closing around his heart. Hope? An incredulous disbelief? A cur like you couldn’t be that lucky. But that was his mother’s pimp’s voice he heard. He had to believe he deserved this, that Esme could truly be his. Otherwise he’d have ended up staring at the world through a bottle years ago, with Whitey’s voice echoing in his ears.
Rip curled against her, tucking her bodice up and making sure she was warm. She was so small against him, her breathing settling as she fell asleep. Rip listened to the rain softening on the roof. He felt like the luckiest man alive.
There was only one thing that marred his happiness.
If he couldn’t learn to control himself, then he might never be able to give Esme what she wanted most. She’d said she would wait, but how long? He hadn’t lied when he’d claimed that she’d be happiest as someone’s wife, someone’s mother.
She was almost five-and-thirty. Long past her best child-bearing days. What if he couldn’t give her children before it was too late? What if it took him too long to control himself enough? Blade had admitted that it had been years before he himself could feed directly from the vein without taking too much, though he’d had no one to teach him how to control the craving.
Rip hugged her tighter, pressing a kiss to her hair. He’d speak to her about it. But not now. Christmas was only a few days away and he knew how much she’d been looking forward to it. Once it was over, he would sit her down and offer her the chance to stop this before it was too late for both of them.
Even if it would kill a part of him inside.
There were three days until Christmas. Then two. And then one. The men spent most of their time hunting through Undertown and keeping guard on the rookery whilst Annie recovered. Esme busied herself with the other women and the children, preparing the Warren for its first Christmas.
There were no signs of it in the heart of the City where the Echelon ruled, but traces of jollity sprouted everywhere in the East End.
Mistletoe seemed to dangle from every rafter in the Warren; Esme quite suspected whose hand had done that when she saw Blade laughingly snatch another kiss from Honoria. Indeed, he’d managed to lure Esme and Rip beneath it once or twice, where they’d been forced to share a chaste kiss. Neither of them had mentioned what had happened that night and it irritated Blade to no end.
“I only want what’s best for you, Es,” he’d lecture her.
“I know what’s best for me,” she would reply with a straight face as she bustled about her work. Only when she turned away would she give herself the opportunity to smile as Blade sighed in exasperation behind her. There was no surer way to get at him than to keep something from him.
Every night she would sneak into Rip’s room in her nightgown and fall asleep in his arms. Of the other, though he gave her as much pleasure as he could, he would never let her touch him.
Her smile faded slightly as she stuffed the goose, ready for the morning. It would happen. When Rip was no longer afraid he’d hurt her. Still, she couldn’t shake the feeling that he wasn’t quite telling her something.
Christmas came in a blaze of white. It had snowed again during the night and Esme woke in Rip’s arms, watching the drift of it through his glass window.
“’Ave to get a bigger bed,” he murmured, snuggling his face against her hair.
“I don’t know,” she replied, burying herself in his arms. “I quite like this one.” Lifting her head, she pressed a kiss to his lips. His eyelashes fluttered open. “Merry Christmas.”
A slow smile spread over his mouth making Esme’s heart flutter. “Why so it is,” he drawled. “Do you want your present?”
“It depends on what it is,” she replied with a naughty little smile.
Rip’s eyes darkened. “Wench.” Spilling her onto her stomach with a laugh, he reached over her and dragged something out from underneath the bed. The press of his body drove her into the mattress and Esme almost moaned.
“’Ere,” he said, handing a small, brightly wrapped box to her. “Your other present’s downstairs, under the tree, but I wanted to give you this before…”
Before anyone else could see.
Esme sat up, the blankets pooling in her lap. Her heart stammered as she reached for the small box. It was jewellery. It had to be. And though she told herself not to expect anything, she couldn’t help remembering the way he’d spoken of marriage.
“What is it?” she whispered.
“Open it.” His smile was almost gleeful and she realised he’d probably never done anything like this before.
Tugging off the bright paper, Esme opened the velvet box. Then gasped. A small silver ‘E’ winked in the light with a strip of black velvet to tie around the throat.
“D’you like it?”
“Oh, John,” she whispered. “It’s perfect.” Her trembling fingertips stroked the letter. She’d never been given anything of the like.
Reaching up, she kissed him on the lips, feeling the chafe of his stubble against her cheeks. Rip smiled in a lazy manner, then captured her face in both hands, the cool steel of his mech limb a startling sensation. He kissed her deeply, turning it hot and hard, his tongue caressing hers. Esme melted against him with a soft moan.
It was over before it began. Rip drew back, his forehead resting against hers as he fought to capture his breath. Esme stroked his chest. “Let me please you,” she whispered. “I could--”
“No.” He pulled away, his face expressionless. Blackness gleamed in his eyes; the hunger.
A sharp ache filled Esme’s chest. The fierce need shouldn’t have roused so quickly. Rip had better control than this. Unless it was true… unless she was his Achilles heel. And always would be.
“I’ll wait,” she whispered, sinking onto her knees. She pasted a small smile on her lips as tied the ribbon around her throat. “Thank you for my present.”
Rip looked away. Shuttered. She almost felt like reaching out, to ask if that was the only thing bothering him. “Aye,” he said. “Weren’t much. But you ought to ‘ave pretty things o’ your own. Come. I can ‘ear people stirrin’.”
The moment Esme tried to put her apron on, Rip tugged it off. Balling it in his fist he threw it at Will’s chest. “Apron’s yours, lass,” he called.
“But pink suits your colourin’ so much better,” Will shot back, then tossed it at Rip’s face.
Blade snatched it out of the air midway and slung it around his hips. “Don’t want to get me waistcoat mucky,” he said, flicking imaginary lint off the red velvet waistcoat. With a devilish wink, he dragged the pan with the goose off the bench and headed for the oven.
“What’s going on?” Esme laughed breathlessly.
A second later she squealed as Rip slung her up over his shoulder, one hand planted firmly on her backside. “Thought you ought to ‘ave the day off,” he said, the rumble of his baritone shivering beneath her hips. “We’ll prepare lunch.”
“But you don’t know what you’re doing!”
Rip swung her through the door into the sitting room with Honoria and Lena looking up in surprise at their appearance. Esme’s cheeks burned.
“’elped you enough times. I swear I won’t burn the duck.”
“It’s a goose!” Esme slid down his body as he dangled her over a stuffed armchair. Arms sliding around his neck, she stared into his eyes as her toes found the edge of the armchair. The press of his body did wicked things to her breath. Hard against her softness.
He felt it too, embers of heat flickering to life in his eyes. A slow, devastating smile curled over his mouth. “Why look at that,” he murmured, his gaze lifting. “Mistletoe.”
Esme glanced up. “How convenient,” she replied.
When she looked back down their eyes met. Slowly he reached forward and pressed a chaste kiss to her lips, his cool breath teasing her. The brief dart of his tongue wet her lips and Esme softened, sinking against him. She wanted him so much, though she couldn’t forget the other people in the room.
Rip drew back, a look of knowing smouldering in his half-closed eyes. “Later,” he mouthed.
Esme let her arms drop and found her balance on the armchair. “Don’t you burn my goose,” she said, trying to recover her breath. “Or the beef haunch.” Her face blanched. “You’ll need to get that in the oven first. Tell Blade to take--”
Rip backed away. “Sit,” he admonished. “Drink some mulled wine and relax.” There was a challenge in his eyes. “That’s an order.”
Esme gave in. As Rip left the room, she exchanged a helpless look with Honoria.
Honoria held up her hands. “I’ve been banished too.” A wicked look filled her eyes. “Though I find myself quite pleased about the circumstances now. What a curious development.”
She wasn’t speaking of the goose.
“Lena,” Honoria barely turned her head. “Why don’t you go and drag Charlie and Lark out of bed. It’s past time for them to be up.”
With a sigh Lena climbed to her feet. “I’m not a child, you know. Why can’t I stay to help interrogate Esme? I daresay I’ll do a better job of it than you. After all…” She flashed Esme a saucy smile. “I’ve been aware of it for weeks.”
Honoria arched a brow and Lena held her hands up in defeat. “Fine.”
“Now,” Honoria said, getting up and filling a glass with mulled wine as Lena thundered up the stairs. She handed it to Esme. “What haven’t you been telling Blade? He’s desperate to know what’s going on.”
Esme accepted the glass with a sigh of resignation. “Promise you won’t tell him?”
Honoria’s smile widened. “Only if you reveal everything.”
So Esme did.
The morning passed in a fury of giggles and whispering, with Lena, Tin Man and the children venturing forth to feel the shape of the wrapped boxes under the tree. Meggie had decided to stay with her mother in the bedroom, as Annie was still too stricken to leave her bed.
Esme curled back into the armchair, the mulled wine easing her senses until she barely gave her kitchen a thought.
Dinner was served with a flourish, Blade bowing at the head of the table as he removed her pink apron and tossed it aside with gusto. Carving the goose and the beef – both nicely browned but not overcooked – turned into a theatre act until Honoria laughingly took the knife off Blade and handed it to Rip. Rip finished the carving with swift economy.