A week later, on the night of his birthday, Claude decided to show Hilda he was feeling better.
“Do it now,” Hilda panted.
Claude kept hold of her breast as he pushed inside her from behind. She moaned, and the heat inside him flared as she closed around him. He remained still as she stretched to fit. She was wet and ready. His thorough foreplay had ensured that.
“Good?” he asked, voice rough.
Another sound left him as he began to thrust. His hands tightened on her breasts, his breath coming in short gasps. Thank the gods she was willing to do this with him. Being this close with her was better than he’d ever imagined.
“I liked it more face to face,” she said.
“Nn.” He took a breath. “Want to change?”
“No, it still feels good. Just rub my clit too.”
“You know men aren’t the best at multi-tasking, right?”
“I’m sure you, of all men, can figure it out.”
Claude rocked back until he was on his knees and she was leaning against him. Now it was less complicated for him to toy with her nipples and stimulate her. The concentration required to pleasure her dulled his own senses, which was just as well—he had a better chance of lasting longer that way.
Hilda inhaled sharply as he stroked her, and her orgasm crashed over her moments later. She pulsed around him, uttering little cries. He put his hand over her mouth to muffle the sound. The last thing they needed was Holst bursting in on them.
“Oh gods,” Claude whispered, voice strangled. Being inside her while she orgasmed was transcendental. He pushed her back on all fours, grabbed her hips with both hands, and buried himself to the hilt. He managed only a few more thrusts before he came with a moan.
Hilda flopped onto her stomach, and he collapsed on top of her. They stayed like that for a few moments, trembling and breathing hard as the sweat cooled on their bodies. Finally, he rolled to the side, spent.
Claude let out a contented sigh as Hilda pulled up the blanket and settled next to him. It was a struggle to stay conscious, but he forced himself so he could enjoy the feel of her. He loved the way her body fit his. The moment he had the thought, his mind sharpened and melancholy set in, just like it always did when he thought about how wonderful she was.
“Since it’s my birthday, I want you to be straight with me, for once,” he said. “No dissembling, no games.”
Hilda raised her head from his shoulder and looked at him, brow furrowed. “What is it?”
“Is our relationship only physical? Or, best case, friends with benefits?”
“I mean it.” He hated the disappointment in her tone. “Do you have any feelings for me at all?”
“Of course I do. I think you’re wonderful.”
“That’s what you think of me, not how you feel.”
“You haven’t told me, either. Can we talk about this later? You’re spoiling the afterglow.”
“It’s my birthday, remember?”
“Oh!” Hilda sat bolt upright. “I haven’t given you your present yet.”
Claude frowned, remembering the little party Hilda and her family had thrown him earlier that evening. “You gave me that box of chocolates.”
“As if something like that would be your real present.”
Hilda slid out of bed, threw on her clothes, and tiptoed out of the room. Claude stared at the door. The sex wasn’t the present? Silly woman. All he wanted was for her to say she loved him.
The opening and closing of the door snapped him out of his thoughts. He drank in the sight of her as she shed her nightgown and slid back into bed. Her feet were cold. He didn’t care.
“Here.” Hilda handed him a small painted papier mâché box. It looked handmade.
Claude untied the ribbon holding the box shut. Inside, on a bed of muslin, nestled a golden armband. Several antler-like symbols were worked in green and black enamel around its circumference.
“Each of the antlers is…” She looked away as she trailed off.
Claude fastened the armband around his bicep. “Yeah?”
“A year I’ve…cared for you.”
Seven symbols. Seven years, including this year. The entire time they’d known each other. Tears sprang to his eyes. He blinked them away before they could fall.
“Do you like it?” Hilda asked.
“It’s beautiful. Did you make it?”
She nodded, cheeks pink.
“It must have taken you a while,” he said, brushing it with his fingertips. The craftsmanship was superb.
Hilda smiled. “I’ve had a lot of free time this past week.”
Claude’s heart swelled inside his chest, but it also ached. He wasn’t sure whether to shout or sob. Instead, he took her hand and looked her in the eyes.
“Tell me the truth. Are you in love with me?”
Hilda averted her gaze.
Claude squeezed her hand until his fingers trembled. They both still wore the fake wedding rings. That had to mean something, right?
“I can’t hold back any longer. I’m in love with you.”
“I know.” She removed her hand and turned away, arms wrapped around herself. “Would I have been willing to die for you if I wasn’t crazy about you? Pretend to be your wife? But there’s so much I still don’t know about you, and I can tell you’re afraid I’ll find out. So yes, against my better judgment, I adore you. That doesn’t mean this will work in the long run. We both have to be willing to be vulnerable.”
His heart soared when she began talking, but by the time she’d finished, it sat in his chest like a stone. He was damned either way—if he told her, she’d leave him now. If he didn’t tell her, she’d leave him later.
But any moment with her was precious, so he’d take what he could get.
Claude pulled her into his arms and tried to ignore how she wouldn’t relax. “Please, my love, trust me. You have to see for yourself and make your own decision. It’s the only way you’ll truly understand.”
“It’s hard to trust you when you don’t trust me or my feelings for you, especially when I think I’ve proven just what lengths I’ll go to for you.” Hilda brushed the backs of her wrists over her eyes, so quickly he almost didn’t catch it. “I’ll go with you, but only because I can’t bear to be without you.”
“I think I’ll go back to my room now. You need to get your rest and mend if we’re going to take that trip. I’m glad you like the arm band.”
“No, don’t go.”
Claude reached for her, but she was too quick, and he still wasn’t fully healed. She threw on her nightdress and was gone before he could catch her. He flopped back onto the pillows, wincing. His fists clenched. Damn it. He’d go and grovel if it would do any good, but while she was sure to enjoy it, it wouldn’t change her mind. There was nothing to do but wait. If she truly loved him, if she felt about him the way he did about her, she’d come around eventually. In the meantime, she was right—he needed to focus on healing. They needed to get to Almyra and his family quickly, now more than ever. He settled into bed and tried to go to sleep.
It had been one hell of a birthday.