When the servant opens the door to her private library, Lady Catherine thinks it is Tessa with the lemonade. Instead it is one of the maids, come to say Tessa has taken it to the parlor, where Lord Seaton is waiting. “How does he look?” Lady Catherine is certain he plans to propose again, and just as certain he knows she will refuse.
“He looks quite determined,” the maid says, cheeks flushing. If it weren’t for this infernal heat, Lady Catherine might think it was Lord Seaton’s appearance that inspires her maid’s reddened complexion.
He is handsome enough, compared to other men. But even after Lady Catherine has powdered her face and neck and come down to the parlor, her first thought upon seeing him is disappointment. “Lord Seaton,” she says, stepping into the room and sketching a small curtsy.
He turns abruptly from the window overlooking Lady Catherine’s large drive, closes the distance between them, and takes her hand. Lady Catherine is sure he refrains from kissing it only because the last time he did, she asked for his handkerchief and then wiped off his saliva with it. “Lady Catherine,” he says, straightening up, “I will not leave until you have heard me out.”
“By all means, then — please begin.” A dash of annoyance slips into her tone; heat has made her patience with Lord Seaton wear thin. That this is the third time this week he has come unannounced to her house is not helping his case.
He has come to talk marriage, of course. Lady Catherine sits in one of the straight-backed chairs around the tea table and takes one of the lemonade glasses. The other would have been Tessa’s if Lord Seaton hadn’t got it into his head that he could still convince her to marry him. Lady Catherine could have written her letters and finished planning the menu for the dinner party she will host in two weeks time, for the county’s widowed Ladies. She could have watched Tessa’s olive throat as she swallowed her lemonade, her lips as she licked the sweet-sour taste from them. Lady Catherine realizes she is smiling into her glass and sets it down before she embarrasses herself.
Then Tessa brings in a plate of biscuits and sets them beside the lemonade, the picture of the demure and silent servant girl that Lady Catherine inherited from her late husband, and Lady Catherine finds her eyes darting over Tessa’s hands, nimble and deceptively dainty.
Lord Seaton clears his throat, and Lady Catherine quickly looks back up at him. “Lady Catherine, would you—” He looks with a frustrated air at Tessa as she slowly arranges the biscuits on the plate, then back at Lady Catherine, who is readying herself for the inevitable. “Would you do me the great honor of marrying me?”
Lady Catherine wishes she had a fan. It’s too hot in this room. Perhaps the butler could open a window? But no, there is no time to call one. Lord Seaton wants his answer, and he must have it in order to leave. “I’m sorry,” Lady Catherine says as apologetically as she can. “I cannot accept your proposal.” Now get out, she thinks.
Lord Seaton’s mouth opens and closes, and his fists clench at his sides. Lady Catherine’s eyes drift back to Tessa. Her shift sticks to the line of her spine when she bends to put the biscuit plate onto the table. She stands and leaves the room with a curtsy to both Lady and Lord. Lady Catherine acknowledges her with a nod; Lord Seaton eyes her with distaste. Before she has left the room, he is saying, “That is another thing, Lady. I understand your late husband enjoyed having exotics serve him, but that you keep them—that one, for instance—well, people will think you actually like them.”
Lady Catherine lets her fingers curl over the armrest. “I’m not sure what you mean, Lord Seaton.”
He looks earnestly at her. “People are talking, Lady Catherine. The mourning period is over, and your…unusual choices are becoming the subject of gossip. They’re calling you eccentric.”
Lady Catherine closes her eyes and counts to three before she opens them. “Are they talking? I hadn’t realized.”
“But if you marry me, that talk will cease!” Lord Seaton sits abruptly in the chair beside her and puts his hands over one of hers. “As your husband, I would keep you from making such improper choices. You must understand—even if you do not feel for me as I do for you, this marriage will benefit us both!”
His eyes are wide and blue, his hair yellow and clinging to his ruddy face where the ribbon at the nape of his neck has lost control of it. Lady Catherine wants to pat his cheeks and send him home to his mother. She also wants to slap him for having the audacity to question her choice in servants, and to try to threaten her with being the subject of gossiping busybodies. She settles for something in between the two: “Lord Seaton, I cannot marry you, and I will not marry you.” She removes her hand from his and places it in her lap. “If you would like some biscuits and lemonade,” she continues, “one of my exotics has left some here for us.”
Lord Seaton flinches when she says “exotics” and stands with a fierce expression on his face. “Lady Catherine, I ask you for the last time: will you marry me?”
Lady Catherine stays seated. “No, I will not.”
He leaves the room without another word, and Lady Catherine is glad of it. She does not need to marry him—her property is hers, her money is hers, and her life is hers. She has no intention of giving any of it away, much less to a puppy like Lord Seaton.
She calls for Tessa after her uninvited suitor leaves, and Tessa takes the biscuits but leaves one of the glasses of lemonade. Lady Catherine takes it to her study and resumes planning the dinner party menu, looking up every so often at the darkening sky and wondering where the day went, and then feeling upset at Lord Seaton for wasting her time.
At long last, she is done with the menu and deems the moon high enough in the sky that she can safely return to her room. Most of her servants will be asleep by now, and those who are awake know not to call on her unless it is of utmost importance.
Lady Catherine treasures her nights in a way she cannot treasure her days.
She enters her bedroom to find Tessa sitting at the open window, sleeves pushed up to her elbows and one of Catherine’s Japanese fans fluttering in her hands. Sweat glitters on her olive skin. Her chestnut hair is pulled back in a chignon that looks like it was not always so bedraggled. The heat weighs heavily upon them all. Even now, at night, its presence is constricting as a corset.
Lady Catherine closes the door to her bedroom and slumps into the chair at her vanity. Tessa jumps at the sound and comes to her, nimble fingers slower than usual in unlacing her mistress’s dress and lifting it over her head, leaving her in stockings, shoes, garters, and chemise. Those peel off too, each in its turn, until finally Lady Catherine is naked in the heat and breathing in the thick air in relaxed lungfuls. She holds up a hand when Tessa starts to undo her hair, however. It is braided around her head, a dark, sleeping serpent that would choke her with its constricting heat if it were out and about. “Leave it,” she sighs, standing and facing Tessa with her pale body unhidden by the cascade of red-tinged dark hair that usually falls to her ribs.
Tessa looks, grey eyes less ashamed now than they used to be when staring at the curve of Lady Catherine’s hips and breasts, at the tease of hair between her legs and the pink of her lips when she smiles. Lady Catherine has never been ashamed to stare at Tessa, though she does not do it when she knows the wrong people will take notice. In front of Lord Seaton, however, she could not help letting her eyes drift. Tessa is whipcord grace and soft skin, losing the borrowed brown of the sun with time in Lady Catherine’s service, but not her natural olive undertones, nor the curiosity in her grey eyes. Her hair was shorter when Lady Catherine inherited her, but since their arrangement began, Tessa has been growing it out. Catherine loves running her fingers through it; gripping and pulling it so Tessa’s mouth goes where she wants it to.
Tessa stares at her, and Lady Catherine knows the heat she feels is not entirely from the stale air filtering in from outside. She steps into Tessa’s space, and Tessa sucks in a breath, as if Catherine were close enough to be swallowed like the liquid air between them. “I think tonight is a letter night,” Lady Catherine says. Tessa steps back, likely to get her emancipation papers so Catherine can add another letter to Tessa’s freedom; that is how this ritual always begins, after all. But Catherine can already feel the way Tessa’s full lips will feel against hers, and she yanks the front of Tessa’s shift so she can feel more than a memory.
Tessa stumbles forward and her hands reach for Catherine’s arms to steady herself. Her cotton dress flutters against Catherine’s bare skin, and Catherine presses against it, against Tessa, and she can feel herself getting wet. Tessa’s lips meet hers, not quite halfway, but close enough for Catherine to be pleased. Tessa’s arms wrap around her, hands sweating slightly where they rest on the small of Catherine’s back, and rolled sleeves cool and dry against her ribs. Catherine drags her thumbs across Tessa’s cheekbones and lets her fingers settle and grip Tessa’s hair. Tessa answers Catherine’s grip by nibbling on Catherine’s lower lip and closing her eyes.
Tessa’s tongue is slick against Catherine’s, and it sends an answering tongue of fire licking through Catherine’s insides. Catherine presses her chest to Tessa’s, ready to take this to the bed. She wants to feel Tessa’s naked skin, wants to slip her fingers inside Tessa and drink in her shudders and muted moans.
But Tessa pulls her, instead, and sits them down at the bay windows. Outside, the moon is a sliver in the sky, and the stars are bright over the water. The cushioned window seat is too hard when Tessa pushes her onto it, but there is a pillow beneath her head when she settles, and Tessa is kissing her, so she doesn’t mind the way her back feels unnaturally flat against the seat. The heat in her body is not sun-heat anymore, but inner fire. The breezes that shudder in from the sea are warm, but not as hot as Tessa’s breaths on Catherine’s neck. The panting air cools Tessa’s wet trail of kisses in a way that sends shocks down Catherine’s spine.
Catherine’s hips jut against Tessa’s thigh when Tessa’s mouth closes over one of her nipples, sucking the skin around it into her mouth as well, and lashing it with her tongue before withdrawing her mouth with a playful nip. When she moves too slowly to the other nipple, meandering across Catherine’s chest with light touches of her lips and ghosting of her fingers, Catherine grips her hair again and moves her where she wants her. Tessa chuckles as she licks everywhere but where Catherine wants her to. She knows that in the bedroom, Lady Catherine will never pull rank and order her with full authority. If Lady Catherine wants something from Tessa here, she will have to ask, from one woman—one lover—to another, and hope she is convincing enough to receive. “Tessa,” Catherine says with playful annoyance, “you missed.”
Tessa says, breath warming Catherine’s nipple in such a glorious fashion it must have been purposeful, “You dislike my aim?”
Catherine hooks a leg around Tessa’s and grinds into her. “Stop playing—I’m wet enough.”
Tessa sighs and rests her forehead between Catherine’s breasts. It is oppressive for a moment, sticky with sweat, but Catherine doesn’t care because it is Tessa, and she has tasted too much of Tessa for sweat bother her. The heat, however, is not the kind she wants.
“You’re not going to let me play, are you?”
Catherine chuckles and takes Tessa’s fingers in her hands. “You can play,” she says. She moves Tessa’s fingers between her legs, to the wetness waiting for them. “Play th—”
Tessa moves her hand with a practiced twist that hits Catherine’s clit with a thumb and plunges two fingers inside of her simultaneously. Catherine moans the rest of her sentence and blushes when Tessa smirks up at her.
“You enjoy teasing me too much,” Catherine says when Tessa’s hand stills.
Tessa’s fingers pull out a ways and slip back inside, casual ownership in the lazy way they toy with Catherine. Catherine loves that Tessa is this way with her now; she suspects Tessa knows this, though they have not spoken of it. Tessa’s head rests on Catherine’s stomach now, and her left hand makes patterns on the sensitive spot just above Catherine’s hip bone. She licks Catherine’s stomach every so often, or nibbles at her navel, and Catherine shudders, legs beginning to twitch and thrash and tug like tangled, drunken marionettes. “What would you like me to do?” Tessa asks, voice devoid of the smugness Catherine would feel if their positions were reversed.
Catherine’s response is a moan. Tessa’s thumb turns to rub Catherine’s clit, and she moans louder.
“Is this what you want me to do?” Tessa’s voice is like silk. She always sounds calm when she is playing Catherine’s body like a harp. Catherine knows, though, that she can be dripping, clit hard and sensitive to even a whispered breath, and still Tessa could speak as if she were serving tea or asking a riddle. It is something Catherine envies, and yet would not want for herself—Tessa’s eyes close sometimes when Catherine moans; when Catherine is loudest, Tessa always kisses her, as if to swallow the sound and keep it. “Do you want me to touch you like this?” Tessa asks.
She withdraws her fingers most of the way, and just as Catherine is following them with her hips, trying to push them back in, Tessa begins playing Catherine’s clit like if she rubs it just right, Catherine will scream.
Catherine’s lips pull into a half-smile, half-snarl; if she screams, it will not be the first time. Her head digs into the pillow, and her hips slide down, trying to push back on Tessa’s fingers that keep their maddening pace when Catherine wants them to go faster. She is almost—almost—
“Or perhaps this?” The fingers stop, and Catherine wants to cry.
Then a hot tongue licks her up and down, tongues her clit, and Catherine does scream, head half in the pillow and fingers curled at her sides and grasping for Tessa, Tessa.
The fingers return, sliding in below where Tessa’s tongue still laves her clit, and Catherine is glad that the playing is over. She feels wound tight, heavy and sparking like crashing flint in her fingertips, her belly, her shaking legs, her center. “Tessa,” she gasps, “Tessa—”
Tessa hums against her, and then plunges her tongue inside Catherine, following her fingers. Catherine feels herself dripping onto the hard cushions, so hot and ready to come she wonders that she is still coherent enough to know she hasn’t done it already.
As if reading her thoughts, Tessa’s mouth withdraws to a hot breath against her, thumb of one hand rubbing her clit and fingers stretching her, plunging into her with wet, sucking sounds that make Catherine moan. “Catherine,” Tessa says, calling her by her name as she never does outside this room. Catherine whines an answer that she hopes is satisfactory, that she hopes means Tessa will not stop what she is doing until they both die of exhaustion. “Are you ready?” When Catherine whines again, Tessa bites her thigh and plunges her fingers fast and hard and deep, and Catherine feels a last press against her clit and feels that coiled spring inside of her snap.
She is immense and hot as the sun, and she is fragile and sensitive as a bird in the nest of Tessa’s hands, and she is coming with Tessa’s fingers inside of her and Tessa’s lips against her thigh, coming with Tessa’s name on her lips like it unlocks heaven’s gates.
When she catches her breath, she realizes she is hot, and Tessa is working her up again. She pulls Tessa’s fingers away; she is still sensitive, and she wants to touch Tessa’s bare skin. “Off,” she says, tugging at Tessa’s shift with lethargic movements.
Tessa tugs off the shift, having some problem initially with the rolled up sleeves, and removes her underthings until she, too, is naked. Catherine feels her clit throbbing, growing more excited as she is able to touch Tessa’s nipples, pull them into her mouth as Tessa bends over her, hands on the window seat to steady herself and back arching as she tries to escape the sensations caused by Catherine’s mouth, and at the same time press into them. Her back bows, and her hands tug at Catherine’s hair but find little purchase. Catherine wishes she had let her hair loose, even though it’s stifling, just so she could feel Tessa’s fingers tangling in it and pulling her this way and that.
Tessa is wet against Catherine’s hip, and though Catherine isn’t surprised, she is still pleased to know that Tessa enjoys these times more than her voice lets on. As much as Tessa seems to enjoy their arrangement, she is too perfect in her secrecy, in the way she acts as an indifferent house servant outside of Catherine’s bedroom. Catherine nips Tessa’s nipple, and Tessa’s weight falls that much more heavily on her; Catherine feels better, and presses her thigh against Tessa until Tessa realizes she can move while Catherine touches her.
When Tessa ruts against her thigh, she does so with abandon. Catherine loves to keep her thigh steady as she can, muscle tensed and hard beneath Tessa as she rides Catherine, a quiet, formidable force. Catherine feels the roughness of the cushion instead of its softness, and the way Tessa’s arms lock around her with the strength of a fighter instead of a scribe. She revels in the sloppy kisses that Tessa tries to give her, kisses that throw off Tessa’s rhythm until finally Tessa gives up and kisses Catherine’s jaw, kisses her neck and sucks and nibbles on Catherine’s ears, tongue giving way to teeth, and teeth to breath like the sea but so much more sensual. Catherine’s hands clench at Tessa’s back, clench her behind and pull her closer, playing with her there while the wet streak on her leg gets wetter, while Tessa’s grinding becomes slicker and faster and harder.
She teases Tessa: “What do you want me to do?”
Tessa says, voice beginning to break, “Help me, please.”
Tessa is not too proud to ask for what she wants, and so Catherine gives it to her. She says, in Tessa’s ear, “Are you ready?”
“Yes.” Tessa’s voice is barely audible.
“Ok,” Catherine says, “You can come now.”
At first, Tessa keeps moving. Then Catherine bites Tessa’s shoulder and runs her nails up Tessa’s sensitive back, and Tessa grits her teeth and shakes and stills. She slumps against Catherine, head resting against Catherine’s shoulder, and Catherine grins. Someday, she will make Tessa come with a word, a command. Tessa knows she wants this; tonight, they were close, and Catherine is pleased.
Catherine lightly strokes Tessa’s back with her fingers. It is slick with sweat. The night air cools the back of her hand. Tessa shivers, and Catherine says, “Is there a pitcher in the bathroom?”
Tessa makes to get up, says, “I’ll get it,” and Catherine pulls her back down and rolls her onto her back.
Tessa frowns. “But—”
Catherine kisses the corner of her mouth and says, “Don’t move.” She grins so Tessa knows she’s not giving real orders tonight, and when Tessa stays put, it’s with a grateful smile. She is glistening with sweat, with the lines of Catherine’s saliva, and it is hot in an oppressive way now that Catherine is no longer distracted by Tessa’s proximity.
She brings the pitcher, bowl, and cloth from their place in the bathroom. She wipes off Tessa reverently, head to toe, and smiles when Tessa’s initial shivers give way to comfort. “It’s cooling off,” she says when she finishes with Tessa and starts on herself.
“Mmm,” Tessa says, not opening her eyes.
Catherine says, “You can’t sleep there,” and takes the pitcher back into the bathroom. When she comes out, Tessa’s eyes are open, but she hasn’t moved otherwise. “Bed,” Catherine says, turning out the lamps.
Tessa looks balefully at her. “Can’t we sleep by the window?”
“You’ll catch a cold,” Catherine says, “and then you’ll have to sleep in your own room until you’re better.”
“But it’s so hot,” Tessa whines, getting up nonetheless.
Catherine pulls the blankets to the foot of the bed in answer, and slides under the sheets. Tessa slides in after her and curls up facing her, reaching out a hand to lace her fingers loosely in Catherine’s own. Catherine is glad Tessa doesn’t try cuddling tonight—it really is too hot.
Still, her presence is comforting, and her slowly evening breaths are soothing to hear as Catherine drifts off to sleep.
Tomorrow afternoon, she will get dressed and walk out of her bedroom, and she will be Lady Catherine again, and Tessa will be her librarian, her scribe, her house slave.
But tonight, they are merely Catherine and Tessa. And perhaps, tomorrow morning, they will have time enough to play before they put on their roles for the day.
Notes: Betaed by nijiro_sumi. Any mistakes remaining are there because I am stubborn.