Hilda had the fire roaring and porridge going by the time Claude emerged from the tent. His hair was a mess, and he had bags under his eyes, as if he hadn’t slept. Even so, the sight of him warmed her. The memory of his mouth on her, of his strong hands…. A pleasurable shiver ran through her.
“Good morning,” she said as she threw two handfuls of dried fruit into the pot.
Claude shot her a smile that didn’t reach his eyes. Her heart clenched, and her mouth flattened. She vaguely remembered their conversation the night before. He’d seemed upset when he left the tent for his watch. Apparently, he still was. But why?
He noticed the pot bubbling over the fire. His eyebrows rose. “You made breakfast? Seems like effort.”
“I know, but I figured I’d thank you.” Heat flooded her cheeks, and she twisted the ring on her finger, which felt more like a real wedding band with every day that passed. “For last night. I really enjoyed it.”
Claude blushed. “Me, too.”
Hilda’s heart lurched. He was adorable when he blushed. But he knew exactly how handsome he was and didn’t need her to say it. If only she could tell him how she really felt. She’d been so happy when he’d mentioned marriage, but she knew him too well. Usually, she was fine with him using her, since his schemes were often mutually beneficial, but she had her limits. Entering into a marriage where her husband didn’t truly love and trust her was one of them. She stirred some nuts into the porridge, dished up a portion, and handed it to him.
His fingers brushed hers as he took the wooden bowl. The heat inside her flared higher. She’d never been shy about getting what she wanted, and right now, she wanted him. A lot of tension had built up between them over the years, and one night had only released a tiny portion of it.
He looked up at her, mouth full of porridge.
“Shall we play again before we pack up?”
Claude put down his spoon and swallowed. “I admit I was thinking along the same lines.”
Hilda smiled. They were aligned more often than not.
That didn’t sound good.
“I was thinking, why not make it even more interesting?”
Ah, another one of his schemes. “How so?”
“If I can make you say my name in the throes of passion, you have to agree to marry me.”
Hilda snorted. She had better self-control than that. There was no way she’d lose. Although losing sounded sort of like winning.
“And if I win?” she asked.
He inclined his head. “Name it.”
“I want to know all your secrets right then and there. No waiting for whatever grand reveal you have planned.”
“Fair enough. So long as it doesn’t put anyone in danger, I’ll tell you anything you want to know.”
“I would never do anything that you didn’t want.”
That would rather defeat the purpose, she supposed. The idea of him calling her name, pleading for release, set a fire low in her belly. Having Claude at her mercy sounded like a dream come true.
Hilda extended her hand. “Deal,” she said, and they shook.
Oh, this was going to be fun.
Claude’s mood seemed to improve after that. His confidence was one of things that made him so sexy, and it had returned in spades. Hilda kept her gaze on him as she ate. Every time he looked her direction, she made sure to lick her spoon with long, slow strokes of her tongue. His throat bobbed, and he shifted where he sat. Good.
Once breakfast was over, it was late enough they had to pack quickly and be on their way, with no time for extra fun. They debated the merits of camping versus staying in villages as they went. It would be faster to go as the crow flew, but it was also riskier due to bandits and deserters.
The villages might not be much better, though. Some might be stationing enemy troops or wiped off the map by the war. In the end, they decided on a route that included both methods.
To Hilda’s relief, their first night was one in a village. Just because her injuries had healed didn’t mean she enjoyed sleeping on the cold, hard ground. The need to take watches when they camped also meant she didn’t even get to sleep with her head on Claude’s shoulder. After last night, she wanted to share a bed with him more than ever. Not only had his touch been magical, but she was surprised how much she missed waking up and seeing his handsome face next to her.
She wished she could marry him, regardless of his game. Her family’s permission might be hard to get now that he’d forfeited his title. Also, as close as they were, she wasn’t sure she could trust him. Maybe war had made her blind to the complexities of their relationship. His abdication stunt had shocked her, and she had no idea what his situation was in Almyra.
They rode into town at dusk. The single inn was small, but it was clean and, because of the war, empty. The people—mostly elderly and children—had a lean, hungry look to them. The majority of adults had gone to fight.
“I hate this,” Claude said as they climbed the stairs to their room, and Hilda knew he didn’t mean the fact they had to carry their own bags due to the innkeeper’s advanced age.
“I know,” she said. “I do, too. Hopefully, it’ll all be over soon.”
He nodded and opened the door to their room. A simple bed sat inside, along with a small table, a single chair, and an empty fireplace. A single window looked out onto the stable. There was barely enough room between the walls and the furniture for them to stand.
“Cozy,” Hilda said. “Good thing I like you so much.”
“Are you sure? Did your brother tell you to?” Claude said as he put down his bags.
Ah-ha. So that’s what was going on. A light, bubbly sensation filled her chest. If her words had upset him so much, maybe his offer of marriage wasn’t just a scheme after all. Or not only a scheme, at least. Could he…could he be in love with her?
Only one way to find out. She had to make him say her name.
They went down to dinner, which was home-baked bread served with a thin stew. The wine was on the sour side. Neither of them complained. In fact, Claude slipped more gold under his bowl after he settled the bill. He caught her gaze as he did so, eyebrow raised, and she nodded her approval. His smile was genuine, the first one she’d seen since the night before. The tightness in her chest eased a little.
Hilda excused herself to go to the privy and wash up, and on her way back, she begged a small dish of oil off the innkeeper. The oil was cheap, but it didn’t smell rancid. She wasn’t going to be ingesting it, anyway.
Claude was organizing their things when she returned. He was already stripped to the waist as he shook out their nightshirts and folded his tunic for tomorrow. The view was too good to waste, the muscles in his back and arms rippling with every movement. His schemes were such a defining aspect of his personality it was easy to forget he was a skilled warrior. She kept her gaze on him as she quickly and quietly stripped. She crept up behind him and tapped him on the shoulder.
He turned, and his eyes widened. “What are you—”
“Sit down.” Hilda caressed his chest and herded him to the edge of the bed. His legs hit the mattress, and she pulled down his trousers. He was already half-hard by the time she pushed him to sitting. She took a step back, just out of reach with the dish of oil in hand, and let him have a good, long look.
It did the trick—Claude became fully erect, and she hadn’t even started yet. His cheeks grew red. It was difficult not to fall upon him immediately, but that would spoil the fun.
Hilda dripped some oil into her hand and rubbed it on her breasts. Her gaze locked on his face as she massaged herself. His lips parted, and his breathing quickened. She hefted her breasts, teasing her nipples, and smiled as his cock twitched. There was no way he was going to win the game.
Another coat of oil and Hilda was ready. Claude blinked at her, gaze heavy with desire, as she situated herself between his legs. Rats, she was getting damp, and she was going to need both hands for this. Maybe she could get him to return the favor later.
Claude gasped as she enveloped his cock with her breasts. She moved up and down, grazing his tip with her lips and tongue whenever the opportunity presented itself. He groaned and curled his fists in the blankets. Hilda increased the pace of her ministrations. He was deliciously hard and hot as her breasts slipped around him. His hips thrust in time, and he was making fantastic sounds.
Moisture gathered at the apex of Hilda’s thighs. She burned for him. But she couldn’t stop now. He threw his head back, his eyes squeezed shut, as his stomach muscles clenched.
“I’m,” he said, panting, “I’m going to—”
Hilda gasped as he came on her chest, holding her breasts around him until his thrusts stopped. When he stopped, she released him, running a finger through the fluid running down her oiled skin. She’d never seen semen before.
Claude flopped back onto the mattress and pressed the heels of his hands against his eyes.
“I’m going to lose, aren’t I?” he said with a groan. “Are you sure I can’t convince you to elope?”
Hilda giggled and stood up, using his handkerchief to clean off her breasts. “You could just tell me all your secrets now.”
“I see.” His eyes slid closed. “I’ll have to seriously consider it.”
Which meant he wouldn’t. Hilda sighed. What was he so afraid of? She’d never known him to be fearful. But he also always had reasons for his actions and decisions. This time, she had no idea what they might be.
Hilda turned and picked up her nightgown. Her body throbbed. Maybe she could wait until he was asleep and then—
Claude’s hands clamped down on her hips and pulled her onto the bed. “Sorry for coming on you like that. I should have given you more warning.”
“Don’t worry about it—”
“Shall I return the favor?”
Claude positioned her on the pillows, spread her legs, and settled between them. “Oh, wow.”
A jolt passed through Hilda as he ran a finger over her vulva.
“You’re really ready,” he said, color flooding his cheeks.
She turned her head, face heating. “So, what are you going to do?”
“If you want me to stop, say so.”
Claude lowered his head between her legs. Hilda frowned. “Wait, what—”
Her words turned into a moan as his tongue parted her folds. Oh, goddess. His strokes were a little clumsy and tentative at first, but he quickly improved. She tangled her fingers in his hair as his mouth explored her. When he suckled her clit and gently tugged her nipple with his fingers, she thought she’d explode. His name worked its way up her throat, but she clenched her teeth around it. She refused to lose the game.
Her pleasure built, a bonfire that consumed her flesh, bones, and soul. Her hands tangled in his hair and pressed him against her, and she cried out when she came against his mouth. Tremors traveled the length of her body. She threw her head back and gripped him until the shaking stopped.
The moment she released him, Claude surfaced with a gasp. “You are really strong,” he said wiping his mouth. “I almost suffocated. Guess I’ll have to tie your hands to the headboard next time.”
Hilda throbbed at the notion. “All right. You feel so good.”
“My line,” he said, voice husky. “And the fact that you just agreed to being tied up is very, very hot.”
They cleaned themselves up and got ready to go to sleep. Hilda cuddled against Claude. He was strong and warm and gentle against her.
“Admit it,” he said with a yawn. “I almost had you there.”
“In your dreams.”
“I just lived one—no, two—of my dreams.”
Claude gave her a squeeze and kissed her forehead. Hilda closed her eyes and sighed. This was usually her favorite part. Tonight, although they were pressed together, his arms around her, the distance between their hearts had widened. A hollow ache settled in her chest. She had no idea how to fill it.
Then a horrifying thought occurred to her—what if Claude asked her family for her hand, and they refused? Could she watch him ride away without her? Would he ride away without her?
Hilda had always obeyed her family. It was less work and made things run smoothly. When she and Claude had spoken of his parents eloping, he’d said it wasn’t a matter of could, it was a matter of would. She saw what he meant now. They could get married tomorrow, if she just said the word.
None of that changed the fact she couldn’t marry a man who didn’t love her. Sure, he was her friend and enjoyed her body, but he also kept secrets from her. Something was happening in Almyra, and she wasn’t about to commit to him until she knew what it was.
“Claude?” she said. “I want to be your partner. I want you to feel like you can trust me with any secret. I would never slip up or betray you. You must know that by now.”
Claude didn’t respond. He was already asleep. Hilda sighed and listened to the strong, steady beating of his heart until she followed him into slumber.