(1310-08-26) Her Secret
Summary: After a chirurgeon examines and treats the injuries Olivia sustained in her riding accident, Matthieu asks her some difficult questions, while fighting the surge of sudden complications.
RL Date: August 23, 2018
Related: What Lies Beneath
matthieu olivia 

Rocaille Townhouse - Upper Hallway

The interior design of the lower floor is echoed in the upper hallway, generously lit by a few windows during the day, while at night, a number of oil lamps lead the way to the private chambers of people currently residing here.

When looking out of the windows, you see: It is a summer night. The weather is hot and overcast.


While a spot of trouble occurs in Le Cascade, a runner has been dispatched in advance to instruct the servants in the Rocaille mansion to prepare one of the lavish guest rooms in the opposite end of the main wing. The cause would be apparent once a carriage bearing the black, green and gold colors of the Siovalese sovereign ducal house arrives; Lady Olivia has been injured, and will be spending the night.

Another messenger and carriage had been sent out once the woman was escorted in the premises by one of the family's Marsilikos-based chirurgeons (a female, to account for the young woman's modesty), nearly dwarfed by Matthieu de Rocaille's jacket on her shoulders, heading for the Night Court, presumably to retrieve some of the courtesan's things, so she would have something to wear for tomorrow, and appear, for the most part, like her usual self. For now, however, the healer's examination will occur while she's situated on a comfortable mattress. She has been provided a few things to change into, in order to get out of the rest of her sodden clothing.

Two men wait out in the hallway, to keep the examination and diagnosis private. Gabriel is perched closest to the window overlooking the gardens below, a knee propped on the sill and frowning at the shadows outside. The ducal heir is not far from him, his back against the wall, arms crossed over his chest.

"I didn't know she couldn't swim," Gabriel remarks, finally breaking the silence.

"I heard from Raoul at some point that she's not overly fond of water," Matthieu replies, brows drawn down in thoughtful contemplation. "Aside from him, I doubt anyone else knows why, and it isn't as if we could ask him at the moment."

His expression is as neutral as ever, but the Cassiline never has to read the man's face to have some inkling about his thoughts. There's a serious look cast in his direction. "What is it?" he wonders.

After a few heartbeats, Matthieu responds: "It wasn't normal."

"What do you mean?"

"When I pulled her out from the lake, her eyes were…" He sighs, lifting a hand to rub fingertips over his eyelids; a visible effort to collect his thoughts into one comprehensible picture. "…it was strange. Being terrified of drowning is understandable, but there was something else. It isn't dissimilar to what I see, sometimes, in the mirror when I get up in the mornings. It's like…a haunting."

His words darken the Cassiline's expression further, pushing off the window to look at his friend squarely in the face. "You think something more insidious happened?"

Matthieu lifts his head, his eyes meeting Gabriel's. After a moment's pause, he speaks again with straightforward, but deliberate care: "I hope not."

Doubtless, a statement that underscores so many meanings.

Before Gabriel can say anything else, the door to the guest suite opens and the healer steps out - a matronly woman dressed in simple, but well-kept robes denoting her profession. A hand lifts, to pull her spectacles off her nose and return it to the front pocket of her skirts. "My lords," she greets, dropping them a shallow curtsey.

"Simone," Matthieu greets with a nod that is almost curt. "How is she?"

"A little bump on the head and plenty shaken," Simone reports dutifully. "I recommended some tea and herbs to help her sleep this evening, but she isn't in any danger. Not even from a cold, and the injury to her head is shallow enough that she won't scar."

"See to the tea." Brusque as always, Matthieu turns to head for the suite, with Gabriel following at his heels, to see to their guest for the evening.

—-

Matthieu and Gabriel will find Olivia propped up in bed when they enter the room, a mountain of white, lace-trimmed pillows piled like a cloud behind her back. She wears a white cotton shift that has no doubt been borrowed from the wardrobe of one of the ladies that keep rooms within the Rocaille residence whilst visiting the city, and still damp hair has been neatly braided so that it falls in one fat rope across her left shoulder. She wears no veils, for there'd be little point now, and her eyes are pansy-dark within the paleness of her face. She looks small and vulnerable where tucked within the expanse of the bed, though the only evidence of the ordeal she's been through is the purpling bruise that's starting to darken beneath the cut to her temple.

"I'm so sorry." It's difficult to tell whether it's shame or embarrassment that shadows her voice, and the twin spots of colour that appear in her cheeks are made to appear that much more vivid when contrasted by the unnatural pallor of her complexion. Without the armor of her veils her emotions are far easier to read, and she sucks her lower lip between her teeth before drawing her knees high so the covers tent around her, arms wrapping her shins to catch them fast about herself. "All this fuss. You should have just pushed me out from the carriage when we passed the Night Court."

—-

"Please," Gabriel remarks, leaning his shoulder against the doorframe, crossing his arms over his chest; his mouth slants in a lopsided angle, the trickster's expression returning. "Who do you take us for, Livvy? A pair of Caerdicci thugs?" Dark eyes soften visibly. "I'm glad to see that you're…you know." A pause, awkwardness on his features. "Dry."

"It's not a problem." Ever the decisive one, Matthieu strides over to where she's bundled herself up on the bed, easing down on the side of it. The mattress depresses under his weight, a forearm braced on one knee and his hand curled around the walking stick he holds in the other. His approach has made his limp more pronounced, but as always, he is not one prone to show or even admit whatever frailties that assail him at the present moment. Eyes like silvered glaciers scrutinize her face carefully, making note of the darkened color of her eyes.

Finally: "I sent for the tea, as well as a courier and carriage to your Salon in order to retrieve some of your belongings. I thought you would want your own clothes in the morning. Is there anything else you require for your present relief?"

Gabriel takes a few steps outside of the room. "Let me go check on that tea," he says, gesturing sideways before the sound of his boots mark his exeunt, closing the door softly behind him. His friend turns his head to regard his departure, expression thoughtful, but otherwise, for now, he is silent.

—-

"I feel so stupid." Olivia pulls herself from her pillows, and rests her chin on her knees, her eyes falling heavily upon Matthieu before sliding away. It's an avoidance, an inability to look him in the eye when she further adds, "I have never been comfortable around water." But she has, hasn't she? If Matthieu thinks hard he might recall how the four of them would hop across stones in the shallows of the river, with either himself, Gabe or Raoul sometimes holding her hand. Certainly there was none of the fear present then that had manifested within her today, and an almost painful silence follows her words. "Simone," she's discovered her name, "… says the cut will heal with no scarring. There might be a bruise, but that will soon fade." Undoubtedly Olivia will have received that particular information with relief, for there's no place in the Night Court for anything short of perfection. One hand uncurls from her legs, and there's a testing press of her fingers to her temple where the oiliness of an ointment's been smeared on the cut. A tentative smile. "It looks worse than it actually is. I hope you weren't worried." But of course he was, she knows that he was, recalls the way that he'd looked when he'd pulled her back from the dark place she'd been, and remembers the way that he'd cradled her in his arms.

—-

I've never been comfortable around water.

It's an exaggeration, or a fib, something that he knows is not accurate, which is precisely one of the reasons why he has been ruminating in silence for the last hour as Gabriel probed him with questions. One wouldn't be able to determine it by looking at him, Matthieu's expression always somehow managing to hold onto that same neutral, stoic air that he uses to approach most things. He watches her from where he sits, listens to her self-deprecation, all perhaps to mollify him and the Cassiline, should he have been around to hear it. At the moment her spiel ends, the silence lingers and his eyes remain on her pale beauty not to appreciate it, but to pick apart the puzzle in his mind that centers around her and what he knows of her to take a look at the gears and cogs underneath. There is concern there, there's no doubt, but there is something else.

Finally, his head lowers, a deep exhale escaping him. His hand lifts, signet glinting in the light as he pulls his fingers through his hair. There they are again, these small hints of frustration, wondering - and not for the first time - how Gabriel manages to do it. He would trade whole portions of his ability to plan ahead for an hour of his ability to engage another person in ways that get him or her to trust him so easily.

"I was," he tells her, ever so frank. "Worried." His hand lowers, and her tentative smile meets his more serious visage. "Olivia, you're familiar enough with my character to realize that I try not to run roughshod on whatever boundaries we have with one another, but what happened at the falls wasn't normal. Your secrets are your own, and if you would like me to step aside and let you hold onto this matter and handle it in however way you wish, you needn't but tell me and you'll never hear me broach the subject again unless you yourself do. I won't be happy about it, because I believe this is serious enough that I wouldn't be able to help but try and intervene, but all you have to do is say the word and I'll be silent on it. Forever, if that is your wish."

He shifts, his head bending towards hers, pitching his baritone quietly. "But if it's not, I would like for you to tell me where this sudden terror is coming from…or at least tell me that your brother is aware."

—-

Olivia wipes the greasiness of the ointment from her fingers, the edge of the coverlet bearing the brunt of that punishment before she gently touches those self-same fingers to the heart that dangles upon her wrist. There's pain in her voice. "Raoul knows." The chain upon which the heart is suspended is distractedly thumbed, the links rotated about her wrist as lashes that spike with the suddenness of tears, blink hard and lower to rest on her cheeks. "It was in Hellas," she finally says, her voice strained beneath the weight of the words that it carries. "And I nearly drowned." Her sentences are short in structure, her throat tight about her words so that it feels as if they're struggling to escape. Perhaps they are. She swallows hard, and drops her head to her knees, using the angle of them to blot the wet from her eyes. "I told you the other day that I have loved. His name was Felipe. He died." Her voice cracks. "I won't lie to you, Matthieu. I loved him. I did. But something happened…" Her head lifts, eyes still dark, but the dilation of her pupils where she'd pressed her face to her knees makes them darker still, and there's something haunted in her expression when her gaze locks with his.

Her voice is a whisper. "… I killed someone."

—-

I loved him. He died.

I killed someone.

There's nary a trace of reaction on Matthieu's features - perhaps he is hiding, and some might even find it disconcerting when neither statements, extreme ends of life's spectrum, and all from the same story, fail to cull much of anything from his face. Even his eyes. But however neutral, there is nothing cold or even distant about his demeanor and he is disciplined enough, painfully so, not to commiserate or even tell her that he sympathizes. Because while he has done these things - he has loved, he has lost, he has killed…he has gone so far as to condemn men to die within a day upon arriving in Marsilikos - he weathers the consequences of such actions differently than Olivia does. To make noises that he understands wouldn't be entirely accurate, because he is not her. Their lives were always intertwined, but they are two very different people.

He says nothing to press her further, either. Instead, his hand lifts, fingers curled at the knuckles, to brush a stray tear from her cheek, letting that single bead of moisture find some other place to land upon his person. His eyes on hers, levying that single note of consideration and care that he can't otherwise express as eloquently in words, all he does at the moment is wait if she decides to tell him more.

If not, he'll act then. But for now, he holds onto his silence to listen to the rest of the story, if she deigns to give it.

—-

Olivia's lost, so terribly lost. With their eyes so tightly locked, Matthieu will see the flinching from her memories before she's inexorably plunged back into them. Her voice comes from deep within. Far away.

"I met Felipe in Marsilikos. He was the Hellenic Ambassador, and we spent much of our time together. He contracted me to return with him to his home. But there were politics. Rivalries. There were problems for him of which he would not speak. Perhaps he should have." She leans into the press of Matthieu's thumb to her cheek, her eyes closing for that moment as he wipes a tear clear. "We were on a boat, taking a trip to one of the smaller islands when it happened. The day was perfect, and I have never seen a sky that was as blue as the one that day. He came from behind. A knife. I saw Felipe's face for but a second as he was toppled over the rail and into the water. His blood. Then his hands were on me. He wore an earring. Here." She touches the upper arch of one ear. "I remember his laughter, and I grabbed for him as I fell from the boat. He fell with me. I was tangled in my silks, his arms. Him. He had the knife in his hand, but he too was caught by my silks, and there was blood." A sob breaks. "Not mine. His."

—-

Her lean into his hand causes it to yield, to open up his fingers until the pale ivory curve of her cheek fits into the cradle it makes. Matthieu's unreadable face finally exhibits some hint of what his body contains as the tale unfolds; the brief tightening of those ice-blue eyes veined with silver. The roughened pads of his digits slip into the loose tresses left unbound by her braid, applying the barest pressure. It's an invitation, he will never force her, to guide her face into the hard curve of his shoulder, warm and unyielding underneath the fine cotton his shirt is made out of, opened only slightly by the throat - he hates to be constricted there, after all. As it was before at the lake, he doesn't know what else to do but this, to provide her with something to hold onto in hopes that he could function as an effective enough barricade against all of her nightmares. He knows it is not so simple, but this is all he can do, and in this instance, he would rather do something than nothing.

If she ends up there, his hand will shift, to support the back of her head.

Finally, he speaks, his face lowering - not to the point where his nose and mouth touch her scalp, not like what had happened earlier, but the shadow his face casts eclipses the top of her head. "You are the gentlest creature I know," he tells her quietly. "And I'm certain that 'difficult' does not even begin to describe the experience. But it was necessary, what you did. You had every right to defend your own life. You had every right to do what you had to in order to save it."

He pauses, and then ventures: "Is this really why Raoul is in Hellas?"

—-

Olivia yields readily to the pressure of Matthieu's hand, and it's with another sob of relief that she finds herself tucked to the curve of his shoulder. Like a child being comforted by its parent, he'll feel each and every sob that her confessions costs her. Hot tears spill freely to soak in his shirt, and one arms curls around his back, with her hand lost somewhere within the small of it. "I couldn't breathe. I couldn't breathe." She rocks against his chest, and the fingers of her other hand curl in the front of his shirt. "It was so dark. So very dark. His arms went loose and I felt the warmth of his blood in the water." She recounts the bones of it to Matthieu, and though her words are scant in detail, the horror of the event would be read in the anguish of her voice. "But yes. It is why Raoul is in Hellas."

A shiver ripples through Olivia where she's hugged in against Matthieu, and it's not something that's a hangover from her misfortune at the waterfall, but the memories with which she does battle. "This isn't something that can be known by anyone here in Terre d'Ange, Matthieu. I beg you, don't mention this to anyone else. I fear for Raoul, and I wish he'd come home."

—-

His hand slips away from her hair when she presses flush against him, one arm curling securely around her, letting her use him as a brace. His head lifts, thoughtful eyes fixed on the far point of the room as her sobs spill from her, soaking the front of his shirt with her tears. Truth be told, some part of him was relieved, largely due to his own memories, remembering the ravaged body of a woman he hated thrown by his knees, body bloodied and slick with violence. If Olivia hadn't done what she had, she would have been murdered…or worse. Matthieu has tasted just how cruel the world could be for three long and bloody years, the idea of anything similar happening to someone he truly cares about curdles his stomach and renders it sour.

His grip on her tightens at the thought of it, features hardening into a mask, jaw set and his lips pressed together. The face he wears now isn't all that different from what she saw upon him the night he returned to Terre D'Ange. Her rocking motions against him only pulls her more securely into him, until his athletic frame envelopes her in full, and she is lost in the cage of his arms.

He doesn't even know how to begin - Gabriel will have to know. But he pushes this aside in favor of holding this fae creature he knows as she weeps for the loss of her love and the last vestiges of her innocence.

"I'll be discreet," he tells her, blue-silver eyes lit with intense focus and unbridled determination, easing away, but not too far - just enough so he could leave the span of both sets of fingers on either sides of her face, so she could look up at him. "But I can't begrudge your brother his efforts to rectify the damage done to you and your honor. At the same time, I understand how frightened for him you must be. What can I do, Olivia? Tell me what you want me to do. I may not be able to persuade Raoul to come home, knowing him, but I can send agents. I'm not without resources." Because of course he has them - a considerable network, built through his progress ingratiating himself all over the country in preparation for his destiny. "I can make certain he'll at least be looked after and once he's successful in his objectives, I can have my people bring him home safely. All you have to do is say the word." His thumbs move, in a real and concentrated effort to banish the freeflow of her tears.

Despite himself, his head lowers further until his forehead rests against her own, the strands of his platinum-blond hair tangling into her own.

"Tell me," he urges, so quiet it's only their position that enables her to hear him.

—-

"It's been three years, Matthieu." Olivia's voice is much reduced when he lifts her face and cradles it within the span of his hands. Her forehead is cool where his presses to hers, and he'll feel the light flutter of her breath against his mouth with the closeness in which she's now held. "Raoul writes letters and there's politics behind it. He works with Felipe's family, and tells me not to worry. But how can I not. He puts himself in danger, when the danger for me is now past. It won't bring Felipe back, and his assassin is dead."

Her eyes close, and there's a shift of her weight where she sits, the bed dipping as the coverlets wrapped across her legs are pulled free from where anchored by the mattress. "I wish now that I had not told Raoul, I should have known that his nature would not let this lie. I won't ask anything of you Matthieu, save what I already did. That you don't mention this to anyone, except Gabe if you must."

—-

She wants him to do nothing, and he isn't certain if he can. Regardless of what she says, the fourth member of their childhood circle is out there in his attempts to address the wrongs done to his sister and her lover and when politics are involved, not only can it get dark, but dangerous and messy in a hurry. Hellenese machinations are just as bloody as the rest of the world's, and infinitely more subtle than the games the Consiglio Maggiore plays in the Caerdicci states, or the assassinations the senate publicly endorses in Tiberium. Olivia fears for him, but Matthieu trusts Raoul and as he falls silent, the gears in his head turning, deep down he knows that her brother wouldn't have pursued it if the danger was truly over. The assassin is dead, yes, but the puppet's master is still out there and he'll eat his own shoe if that isn't who Raoul is really after.

Which means two things, in the end, for him: one, that it isn't over, as Olivia has surmised, and two, she is right to fear for her brother.

He is resolved, but there are distractions - the weight on her forehead against his own, cool to the touch, and the sylphlike caresses her breath leaves on his mouth, reminded of what was in her eyes when he finally deigned to look at her face in the falls. The temptation is less potent than it had been, his blood spiked with strain and adrenaline as it was, but the knowledge of her heartbreak tempers that, also. And so his head eases away from hers, so he could look her right in the eye.

"You know that I can't keep this from Gabe," he tells her, his hands slowly slipping away from her face. "And once I tell him, I'll probably have to convince him that now isn't the time for the two of us to be gallavanting to Hellas to assist Raoul. But as I mentioned before, you can count on me to be discreet." He searches her pale features, something gentling in his air, though his own expression maintains the same look. His fingers lift to draw a tress behind her ear. "You should try and get some rest."

—-

"I know you can't keep it from Gabe." Olivia's head is heavy in Matthieu's hands when he pulls away to look her in the eye. "And I'd not expect you to. You and he, you're one and the same. You always were, and always will be." Her hand catches to one of his as it slips from her face, and for a moment there's the briefest pressure of her fingers about his. "Raoul tells me that I was never the target, it was always Felipe. I was in the wrong place at the wrong time. It's not as if there'll be anyone coming here from Hellas to seek me out, I'm a nothing. A nobody." Her fingers remain curled about his as if there's a comfort to be found there, though her eyes remain fixed firmly on his. There's no turning away of them when he gently tucks the wisps of hair behind her ear, though when he mentions that she ought to try and rest, worry chases its way across her face. "I'm scared to close my eyes again Matt. Scared of what I'll see."

—-

One and the same.

Matthieu's lips quirk upwards in a faint smirk. "One, but not the same. We're two very different people," he tells Olivia and while his voice remains quiet, still, it is underscored with the unmistakable confidence of one who doesn't just know what he is talking about, but an expert in the subject. "But there's a reason why we've been paired almost from the womb by my father. It's easy to find devotion and loyalty in the Brotherhood, as such is required from every Cassiline, but that wasn't enough for him." He pauses, the quality of his gaze turned inward, his tone absent - she has seen this from him before, these telling gauges of the complicated relationship between father and son, as this manifests most prominently whenever he speaks of Fernand de Rocaille, Duc de Siovale: "My future would be set if I'd inherited even half that man's foresight." Hopefully he has.

"And we didn't always get along. In fact, our first years together were rather contentious."

He's ready to let go of whatever liberties he has already exacted upon her today - all out of necessity, because something twists within him every time he sees her pained, but there's a pregnant pause when she catches his hand and clutches it that way. It stays where it is, curled loosely. As for the words that follow, he can't help but sigh. "The true target was apparent," he allows. "But the issue isn't your importance to the killer, but your importance to your brother. You may have been there accidentally, and perhaps the assassin hadn't even anticipated your presence, but the fact remains that you almost died in the execution of his mission. Were I in Raoul's shoes, I would be doing very much the same thing that he is presently."

He may very well have been ready to leave her, but the way she holds his silver-and-blue stare keeps him where he is, coupled with the look on her face and the plea using the more familiar shortened name.

I'm scared to close my eyes again, Matt.

After a moment, his fingers slowly link into hers, and hold them securely. "I'll stay with you," he tells her, the offerance simple and direct. "But you must try."

—-

"Your father would be proud of you." Olivia says, speaking with conviction about something that she has no real insight on. She's never met the Duc. It's more that she puts her own feelings upon Matthieu's father with her statement, speaking from her own heart as to how she herself might judge a son. "Any father would." Her eyes drop from his and to their hands, and the pressure of her fingers on his increases a little as she lifts his hand and presses her cheek to his knuckles. "I'm so sorry, Matt. For everything. For the mess that I've made of your day, and for keeping you from anything that you might have planned for your evening. I'm not usually as useless as this, and I've learned to shut away the events of Hellas in a part of my head that I try not to visit. But today…" Her voice peters out, and she draws a heavy breath, swallowing hard against whatever thoughts now snap at her heels.

"I'd like to have you close while I rest. I'll be fine once sleep claims me."

—-

Your father would be proud of you.

Matthieu responds to that with silence that is probably more revealing than anything else he could say. As always, her kindness is ever an insistent foundation in which everything he knows of her is rooted upon. His thoughts on the matter are, as usual, locked within the labyrinthine halls of him, in its darkest of hearts. Fernand has always been a complicated matter as far as his young heir is concerned, but hardly anyone actually knows what spins the gears of his mind there. It is a relationship that isn't without affection, but…

"You need to stop apologizing," he tells her, fingers shifting faintly when her cheek presses upon it and he quietly attempts to gird himself at the gesture. She is vulnerable, and he's still shaking off the effects of tension and adrenaline in his system. Duty. Responsibility. These have long since been his most defining characteristics, but he is still a man and she is unknowingly and innocently testing his resolve with every soft and gentle gesture and entreaty - things that he has gone without beyond the three years he has been missing.

I'm not usually as useless as this.

His hand turns, to cup her cheek fully so he could tilt it back and look her directly. "You're astonishing," is what he tells her. Not beautiful, or seductive, or alluring. Such things are commonplace in a country bathed in the graces of angels. She calls herself useless when she has carried her own burden for three years, the loss of her love and the innocence so integral to her canon, without so much as breathing a word to anyone but her older brother, without so much as turning to another for support. And it clearly hasn't gotten in the way of her own ambitions. What else could she be but that?

"Hence, do not concern yourself with that. You're alive, and you're recovering. At the moment, these are the only things that ought to matter."

He's about to usher her back on a recline. He even shifts, but her last statement stops him and he pauses. Those silvered eyes drop to look into her own and their thousand gradients of blue. He holds her there, leaving her with the full brunt of that quiet, intense, thorough scrutiny, and when he finally speaks, his voice takes on a pitch so quiet, it's almost a murmur.

"How close do you want me?"

—-

Still waters run deep, and Olivia is perceptive enough to read between the lines of what Matthieu doesn't say in response to his father being proud of him, and to let herself be diverted from further talk of him. The hint of a smile ghosts her lips at his faint chastisement. "I can't help but apologise Matt. I've ruined your day, and caused worry for both you and Gabe. No doubt I've also caused worry back at Rose Sauvage, and I'll have to walk back in there tomorrow with my tail tucked between my legs. And all because I had this notion to learn how to ride. I doubt that you'll feel like offering to help me again." The smallest shift of her head has her cheek turning further into his hand, and he'll feel the softness of her lips where she brushes a kiss to the edge of his palm.

There's an honesty that he'll find when looking in her eyes, as if the secret that she's shared with him has stripped her naked of the artifice she might usually employ, and she looks at him the way that all men want to be looked at by a woman. He tells her that she's astonishing, then asks her how close she'd like him to remain. Clearly she's expected to say something, but it's almost as if she's a bewildered girl of six again who's not ready to make such choices, and for a second, panic steals her thoughts from her head. It's an awkward moment before she speaks. "Just hold me."

—-

"You can tell your constituents the truth in that you spent the night in the house of your childhood friends, catching up on the last three years," Matthieu tells her, as usual so deft in the art of the spin. He was bred to be a political animal and he has had his fair share of instances in which he has had to spin the truth in a way that is still truthful without the more confidential parts of it slipping into the public eye. The words are deliberate and purposeful, meant to aid her in whatever worried explanations she might entertain in her head. Even more importantly, turning his mind to a simple problem enables him to still the effects of the way her mouth brushes against the heel of his palm. Before, she and he had the protection of her veils. Today…

"As for the ride, we'll keep trying," he continues after that very minute pause at the wake of her kiss. "It's a good skill to have and it could save your life one day."

She looks up then after that and the expression she wears, soft-lipped and soft-eyed, has his jaw clenching subtly at its hinges - and it is made all the worse by the knowledge that she isn't being an Alyssum, that she, too, is stripped of her expert artifice. She is not making this easy, and his already crumbling resolve is all the more shaken by it. She may stare at him in the way that all men want, especially from a woman who looks like her, but at the moment, he isn't one of them because she isn't just a woman. She is Olivia d'Albert no Rose Sauvage, who he has known for most of his life, and with her enthralling scent and fragile beauty comes the weight of history that only one other woman could boast. He would prefer to die first than buckle in the state that he is in, and use her in the way so many of her patrons have. He can't. He won't.

Maybe he shouldn't have asked. What would he do if she asked for a kiss or more? At the moment, there's no way he could resist—

Just hold me.

Relief nearly drowns him where he sits. His head lowers and his breath leaves him in a low chuckle - and it's so rare to find more from him than a slight smile. His hand leaves her face, so he can turn and recline next to her instead by the headboard, one leg flat on the mattress, the other foot braced against the frame on the side. An arm lifts, leaving the space againt his side vacant, to be tucked in against his chest once she comes close.

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