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Equal in Every Way

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She waits for him in the kitchen.

The living room might be better, perhaps. It might create a more dramatic effect, like they’re characters in a film. Her sitting in darkness, him coming into the house, and then the switching on of a light to make him realise she’s sitting there waiting for him. But the hours of idleness that such an approach dictates are unpleasant to contemplate. Better to keep busy than to let her thoughts linger on the reason why she’s determined to wait for his return.

Because there will be an argument. Her anger is burning in her heart, a vicious living thing that longs to be set free. And she will set it free, she will let her fury rage. She will snarl and scratch and rip the truth out of his mouth the way he’s so often done to her.

In the meantime, she has work to do.

She makes sure the kitchen is spotless before she begins. The last thing she wants is to accidentally poison herself, or Philip. She scrubs the kitchen table, covers it in thick layers of old newspaper. She washes and dries the dishes from her supper and puts them away safely in the cupboard. There’s no food left out, not so much as a crumb of toast. It’s hardly sterile, but it’s clean. There will be no contamination. She makes certain the curtains are firmly shut, and the back window open just a crack, and then she sets out her tools. A pair of gloves she’d stolen from the surgery some weeks ago. The knife Philip gave her for Christmas. A bottle labelled ‘rat poison’.

She’s been slowly building a collection of such things. Some have been easy enough to obtain. Rat poison can be bought anywhere, without anybody so much as lifting an eyebrow at the purchase. Vera has two bottles of rat poison, in fact: one new, and one part-used that she’d bought last autumn, when she and Philip had been living in Mrs Flynn’s boarding house. Different brands of poison, different chemicals. This one is faster acting than the one she’d used to kill Mrs Flynn.

Other poisons have been harder to get hold of, though she’s put out careful feelers among some of the people she’s met through Philip. The criminals she’s met through him. Mr Wilson has been the most helpful of those, though she’s sure he doesn’t realise just how useful he’s been to her. The woman she’d been to back in March, the woman Mr Wilson had helped her to find, has been…quite amenable to telling Vera where she might find what she wants. On the understanding that those conversations have never happened, of course. Vera hasn’t followed up on all those leads, not yet. She’s never been particularly patient, but she knows she must take her time with this. Too much, too quickly, will draw attention, even in a city the size of New York.

But her garden is growing. That will help. Oleanders and foxgloves and hellebores, tended to the way Philip tends his guns. She’s learning as she goes, the plants here different to those she’d known in England. Still, soon enough she’ll have an array of weapons at her fingertips. Poisons to dip her claws into, as Philip might say. Some that kill, some that merely harm. An arsenal to rival his, though hers is subtler.

She’s always liked poisons, for that very reason. Subtlety is a form of camouflage, a form of disguise. A way for her to push aside those who stand in her way while seeming wholly unconnected to the crime. She’s only ever used them sparingly, and only once to kill. There are often other ways to get what she wants. A smile, a tear, a kiss. Her body is an instrument, playing out the lies she’s told in her life to get the things she wants.

Even so, her body is small and relatively weak. A man could harm her so easily. There are dangers here in New York that she hasn’t really acknowledged before today, dangers she faces because of her connection to Philip. She can’t be defenceless. She refuses to be defenceless. She won’t be Philip’s weakness, either in his eyes or anyone else’s. And she won’t allow him, of all people, to imagine that she needs protection.

Of all people, he should know better.

So she must arm herself. She knows how to handle her knife well enough to stick the blade into someone, perhaps not deeply but enough to draw blood. And she knows enough about her rat poison to be sure that even a small quantity, introduced into somebody’s blood stream, will cause a swift death. The two together will give her better protection than the knife alone.

The blade of the knife folds into the handle, so she is very careful as she dips the sharp edge into the strychnine. She wears gloves when she’s out, so she’s certain of her own safety with it, but there’s no need to be incautious in her preparations. She has no intention of poisoning herself this evening. Or anyone else, for that matter, although she does entertain an idle thought of finding some way to inconvenience Philip. Something mild, of course. But she doesn’t really mean it; it’s only a fleeting daydream, pushed away by the strength of her attachment to him. Her love for him.

No, she wouldn’t harm him, not even for what he’s done today. But oh, she’s so angry with him. She’s furious. It’s barely controllable, except that she has to be controlled, doing this. She can’t afford any mistakes. Her hands must be perfectly steady.

She holds the knife above the newspaper while it dries, not wanting to put it down and risk the poison soaking through the newspaper onto the table. It’s undetectable, once it’s dried. No trace of liquid on the blade, no smudge or smear to suggest anything has been applied to it. She folds the blade carefully back into the handle and sets it aside. There are some damp drops of poison the newspaper, and she waits for those to dry too. Then she carefully folds it up and puts it all into a paper bag. She’ll burn it later, in the garden perhaps. She’s probably being overcautious, but there’s no sense in running any risks. Her sense of self-preservation is as strong as ever and, despite her anger, she doesn’t want to risk harming Philip.

At last she scrubs the table, scrubs her hands, and puts the bottle of poison back into the cellar. It’s grown chilly, with the window open, so she shuts it, lights a cigarette and puts the kettle on for a cup of tea. It’s not late, yet. Barely past ten o’clock. Philip may be hours still. She’s braced for a long wait, but she needn’t be uncomfortable for it.

The lie is the worst part, she has decided. If he’d told her the truth, if he’d so much as hinted that he might ask somebody to keep an eye on her because of some threat…if he’d done that, she would have had a chance to argue with him. She could have reminded him of what she’s done, reminded him that she’s neither innocent nor fragile. She might enjoy the feeling of being safe with him, the certainty of knowing he would kill to keep her unharmed, but that doesn’t mean she needs his protection. Perhaps he’d have won the argument; he often does. No doubt he’d have insisted that she does need protection, that she doesn’t know what threats are out there. And he might be right, because she’s not had much involvement in his work. Knowledge and experience are often the best security. But at least they’d have talked about it. At least he’d have been honest.

Instead, he lied.

Maybe, she thinks, he hadn’t expected her to notice. It’s not a flattering thought, that he could forget how keenly she watches people, learning how different emotions look on their faces. Learning how they lie. Philip doesn’t lie often, and never to her, but she knows what he looks like when he does. He ought to know better than to think he could lie to her undetected.

He ought to know better. That’s the thought that keeps ringing in her head, keeping her fury alive and keeping sleepiness at bay. Philip should know her better.

She drinks her tea, smokes one cigarette and then another, listens to the sounds of the Bells going to bed, next door. An occasional car engine roaring in the street. The rhythmic ticking of the clock on the wall, counting each second that passes. It’s both irritating and mesmerising; Vera finds herself counting along with it, inadvertently, over and over until she realises and shakes herself free of it. She wishes it had taken longer to coat her knife with poison. She wishes there was something else she could do. Philip sometimes lays out all his weapons on the kitchen table and cleans each one methodically, thoroughly. One after another until he’s satisfied. Something like that, a ritual almost, has its appeal right now. Vera’s anger is sustaining her, lending her a kind of patience, but she feels stretched taut from the wait.

She remembers another time she’d waited for Philip to come home. Scared and unhappy and desperate that he should come back, after they’d quarrelled. Christmas feels like a hundred years away; so much has happened since then. She’s no longer afraid he’ll leave her, assured of his continued presence as she’s assured of his love.

But losing his trust, his confidence in her…losing his clear-sighted awareness of what she is…that’s what she’s afraid of, now.

At eleven, she pours herself a glass of whiskey. The good stuff, brought over from Ireland. Philip’s favourite, the one he keeps for the really bad nights. Or the really good ones. It’s going to get harder to get hold of, as the war goes on, and normally she leaves it for Philip, satisfied with the American stuff they can get here. It’s not precisely an unselfish act, not drinking it, for she doesn’t care enough about it to feel she’s giving anything up. But having a glass of it tonight…it’s a small but potent ‘screw you’ aimed at Philip, and she relishes the burn of it as she swallows it down.

At twenty minutes to midnight, when all the noise from the neighbourhood has faded away into the peace of a still night, she finally hears the key in the front door. Finally she hears the familiar footsteps in the little entrance hall. She pictures him taking off his hat and coat, locking the front door, then realising there are lights still on in the kitchen.

“Vera? You still awake?”

“Yes,” she says. She’s long since finished her glass of whiskey, but the bottle is still on the table. Philip comes into the kitchen, pulling at his tie, and his gaze sweeps over her and down to the table, towards the whiskey bottle and her empty glass. His eyebrows draw together in a frown. Confused more than irritated, she judges. Though that might change, of course.

“What’s wrong, darling?” he asks. It’s interesting, Vera thinks idly, that no lie leaps into her mouth. It doesn’t happen with anyone else; her instinct is always to lie, even when no lie is required. But not with Philip. He’s clawed the truth from her too many times, he’s torn her wide open and then soothed her pain with his approval. Even if she weren’t so angry, she thinks, so determined to have it out with him, honesty would still be what she offers Philip. Because she’s grown used to giving it to him.

He’s changed her so much. Too much, perhaps.

Still, in this case, honesty is a tool and a weapon, and she’ll use it as such. “I was followed home from work today,” she tells him.

And there it is, a brief flicker of something that crosses his face for barely a moment. A tightening of his jaw, a barely perceptible narrowing of his eyes. If she wasn’t watching closely, or if she didn’t know him so well, it might well go unnoticed. But she is watching, and she does know him. It’s gone in an instant, smoothed away into a believable expression of concern, but it’s too late. She has seen the truth underneath.

“Followed? Are you sure – no, of course you’re sure.” He comes further into the room, pulls off his tie and lets it drop onto the kitchen table beside her empty glass. Lies, she thinks. Liar. “But you’re alright?” he asks, glancing her over again. The concern, at least, is genuine. She’ll give him that much. He might be lying to her, but not about this. “What happened? Vera?”

She pours herself another glass of whiskey. Silence has always been his tool, not hers, but she’s borrowing his trick, tonight. He has to understand. He has to be made to understand that she can accept his protection, and might even be able to do so gladly, but she can’t accept a lie from him. Especially not a lie built on the shaky foundations of him forgetting how capable she is. How dangerous she is.

“Vera,” Philip says again, a demand and a question rolled up into the single word. He doesn’t need to say more; his expectation is implicit. But still Vera takes her time, lifting the glass to her mouth and letting the alcohol linger on her tongue. It’s so rare that she has the upper hand over Philip, and though she can’t say she minds that, not truly, not these days…still she relishes it, just for this moment.

“I was followed,” she repeats. “Not a very pleasant experience, but as it happened, there was nothing to worry about.” She meets his eyes, waiting to see if he’ll flinch. Not physically, she doesn’t expect that, but perhaps she’ll see that telltale flicker of his eyes again, the momentary unsteadiness that betrays his lie. Or, better still, perhaps he’ll realise his misstep and give her the truth, as she’s so often had to do since beginning a life with him. But there’s nothing. Just that careful blankness that hides so much, even from her.

It’s too much. It’s too little. Her temper flares again. In one swift movement, she flings the glass across the room. It smashes into the back door, sending a spray of glass shards and whiskey across the floor.

Now Philip does flinch, drawing away from the wreckage with an incredulous look. “Christ, Vera,” he hisses. “What’s the matter with you?”

“What’s the matter with me?” She rises to her feet, knocking her sheathed knife to the floor carelessly. The anger is a furious blaze in her now, a fire kept tended all day, all evening, and now stoked into an inferno that rages through her. If he admits the truth, admits the lie, it might quell it, but she’s not sure what else will. “You lie to me and have someone follow me, and you’re asking what’s the matter with me?” she demands. “What the hell do you think’s the matter?”

His mask fractures. Understanding dawns. She’s too caught up in her own anger to be able to parse the emotions that at last begin to show visibly in his expression, but at least she’s able to see them.

“Vera,” he says, quieter than she expects, softer and less bullish. Defensive, almost. As if he knows he’s on uneven ground, knows she has every right to be angry with his hypocrisy. He’s watching her cautiously, like she’s a wild animal that might lash out again at any moment. Good, she thinks; good. He hasn’t tamed her, after all. She’s still a dangerous creature. He’s not the only one who bites, and she’s glad he’s remembering it now. “Calm down,” he entreats. “Let me explain.”

“You lied to me,” she snaps. “After everything, you –,” She can’t say it again. The lie and the lack of trust and the apparent failure in his knowledge of her, it all chokes her, a hard lump in her throat that stops her speaking. It’s not an impending threat of tears, there’s no danger of her starting to sob like the fragile little thing he’s treated her as, but it stops her up as surely as tears would. After everything, she can’t say, you still don’t trust me. She swallows around the words and finds others. “How dare you,” she manages. “After all your talk about the truth between us –,”

“Vera –,” he tries again, but she doesn’t let him.

“Unless you’re going to be honest, don’t bother,” she scoffs. He’s silent, eyes glittering in the electric light, his mouth a thin, compressed line. A bitter laugh forces itself out, and she doesn’t bother trying to keep it down. A muscle twitches in his jaw. He’s angry. Angry at being found out? She doesn’t know. She doesn’t care. “I never took you for a hypocrite, Philip,” she adds, knowing this barb, above all else, will hit home.

“Ah, for fuck’s sake, calm down,” he exclaims, lifting a hand to scrub across his face. “I know, alright? I know I shouldn’t have lied to you!”

The acknowledgement, stated so frankly, makes her pause. She takes a breath to speak, but lets it out slowly as Philip kicks a chair away from the table. His shoes crunch on a shard of broken glass. She stands still and watches as he collapses down onto the chair, legs sprawled out and shoulders slumped. He looks…tired, she realises. Worn out, almost. His job is wearing on him, she knows, but he doesn’t usually let it show like this. He’s letting her see it, now. He’s letting her in again.

This is honesty. Or a start, at least.

He reaches out for the whiskey. He doesn’t bother going for a glass, he just takes a gulp from the bottle. Vera watches the bob of his throat, and she waits. Held still by his silence, she waits.

“There’s a guy who’s making noise,” he says at last. He doesn’t look at her; he’s staring down at the table top, seeing something else entirely. “Because of the people I’m working for. I don’t like him, and I don’t trust him, and he’s made threats that I need to take seriously.”

“Threats,” she repeats.

“Specific ones.” He has another drink, another glug of whiskey from the bottle. Then he pushes it away from himself, across the table, closer to Vera. It’s almost an invitation. She accepts it, grasping the bottle by the neck and lifting it to her lips. There’s no taste of him on it, just whiskey and cold glass. She takes a sip, lets it sit in her mouth for a moment, then swallows it down. Philip still isn’t looking at her. The heat of her anger ebbs a little, enough to let her try to understand some of the emotions he’s showing. Weariness, yes, and frustration, and anger. But not directed towards her, she thinks. Two ideas begin to connect in her mind, tenuously, too nebulous to put into words.

She finds a question to ask. “Threats against me?”

“Threats against you.”

She puts the bottle down and tries to keep hold of her temper. She tries to get inside his skin. It would be easy, with anyone else, but Philip has often eluded her. Over and over again, he’s been too slippery for her to get a firm grasp on. She knows him better now than she did six months ago, but he can still hide so much of himself away from her. She tries to consider how she would feel if somebody threatened him, how she would react. There would be fury and violence and blood; she would tear the world apart for him, and not regret a single moment of it. But she wouldn’t hide it from him. Not now, not after all these months of him coaxing and teasing and ripping the truth out of her. Not now that she knows she can trust him.

She wouldn’t hide it from him as he has hid it from her.

“I asked if there was anything I should know about,” she says at last, “and you lied to me.” She can’t get away from that single unpalatable fact. Whatever his motivation, he’d lied. An unforgivable sin when she commits it, but apparently not when he does.

“I said that was a mistake,” he snarls, reaching for the bottle again. She passes it to him without protest; their fingers brush against each other, but no more than that. He glances up at her, a swift, burning look that makes her silent again. Whatever he sees makes him sneer slightly, a tiny curling of his upper lip in disdain. For himself, or for her? Himself, she decides. He knows it was hypocritical; he accepts her right to point it out as such. “I didn’t want to worry you,” he says, after another gulp of whiskey. The bottle’s barely half full, now. They’ll finish it tonight, probably. This is what he saves it for, after all: the bad nights. The ones where he’s angry or swimming in darkness or disgusted with the world. A drop escapes his mouth and trickles down his chin until he lifts a hand and wipes it away, roughly. “I didn’t want it anywhere near you,” he adds.

“I’d rather worry about the truth than worry about why you’re lying to me,” she raps out. He winces, just a little. Ashamed of himself? Perhaps. He should be; he should never have lied to her and he’s admitted as much. She’s not sure she likes the reality of Philip being ashamed of himself, though. It’s not him. He’s fierce and dark and confident, and he never flinches away from looking at her, not even when others might. She doesn’t like the way he can’t seem to hold her gaze. It’s not like him at all.

She changes tack. “Do you want to know how I knew it was you who’d set a guard dog on me?” she inquires. Her anger is settling, slowly, into a coolness that burns just as fiercely. Philip’s fingers flex on the whiskey bottle, but he doesn’t take another drink. “I realised I was being followed quite quickly. He wasn’t exactly subtle.” She pauses, with a brief, cold smile. Philip makes a gesture with his free hand, an admonition to get on with it. “I wasn’t sure what to do at first,” she admits, “but eventually I stepped into the drugstore – the one near the subway.”

He says nothing, but he’s listening intently. All her instincts tell her that he’s utterly alert. Silent, still, but alert. A predator waiting to pounce on his prey. On her, no doubt, once he realises she’d put herself in harm’s way. But Vera’s not afraid of him, not tonight.

“I had a drink and then I asked him for a match,” she tells him.

“For God’s sake, Vera –,”

“As soon as I saw his matchbook, I knew you were behind it,” she interrupts, before he can tell her how foolish she was, how dangerous it might have been. “It was from the bar. Murphy wouldn’t let anyone in there who was threatening us. So he had to be there because of you.” He’s glowering up at her, a muscle twitching in his cheek. He’s furious at the risk she took, she knows. He’s holding himself back, ruling himself with a rod of iron. So much self-control. But she won’t let him gain the upper hand over her gamble. It was successful. It paid off. He can be angry at her all he likes: her rage is just as fierce, and his error is greater than hers. For once, she isn’t the one who’s lied. “I don’t need a bodyguard, Philip,” she says coldly, “no matter what threats anybody’s made.”

“Clearly you do,” he retorts, “since you’ve had one for a week, and you’ve only just noticed!” She inhales sharply. She clenches her hands tight; she longs for something else to throw. How dare he, she seethes. How could he? “Yeah, that’s right, a week,” he scorns. “So don’t get all high and mighty about not needing protection, Vera, because you damn well do!”

“Do you really think me so incapable?” she demands. “Have you forgotten what I am?”

“Of course not,” he says dismissively. “Don’t be stupid, of course I haven’t.”

”Then why –,”

“Because I won’t lose you!” he bellows. He’s furious, he’s bristling with it, all coiled energy held in check by sheer force of will. His fingers are white where they’re clenched around the neck of the whiskey bottle. She stares at him, struck momentarily dumb by his ferocity. Made mute by a few simple words that finally make one idea connect to another in her mind.

Oh, she thinks. Oh. That’s what this is. He’s scared. This is Philip scared.

He loves her. She knows he loves her. She trusts that now, right down to her bones. And the only time she’s ever seen him scared is when he thought he might lose her. That’s what he’s afraid of now, that’s why he lied to her and had her followed. He hasn’t forgotten what she is, who she is. Not precisely. It’s just that he’s scared, and fear can make people do irrational, illogical things. Even people like them.

“I won’t lose you,” he repeats. “I won’t. I refuse. You hear me? So yeah, I made a decision I knew you wouldn’t like, I found a couple of guys to keep an eye on you, but I don’t care if you’re angry about it because at least I know you’ll be safe!”

The axis of her world has tilted, and her feelings are settling into a new shape. She’s still furious with him for lying, still frustrated that he could so lose sight of her capabilities that he wouldn’t even tell her about these threats…but the intensity of his feelings is clear. It makes something stir inside her. Something slowly uncurling, a deep, dark thrill at what he’s saying. It’s a familiar spark of lust, stoked by his possessiveness, his grim determination to keep her safe. A heat that starts in the thrumming of her heart and creeps across her skin as he keeps talking.

“I shouldn’t have lied this morning, but I’m not going to apologise for doing everything I can to keep you safe,” he’s saying. “I’m not willing to take that risk. If I lost you –,” He cuts himself off, lets go of the whiskey bottle, and shoves his chair further back from the table. Glass crunches under his feet again as he rises. “It’s not going to happen,” he says, with heavy finality. “Not if I have anything to say about it.”

Silence. Vera moistens her lips, tries to think past the thudding sound of her own heartbeat, loud in her ears. Her anger is fading into the background, pushed aside by the lust he’s kindled. It’s still there, but muted. Smothered by an intense need to feel him, to have him, to brand his skin with bites and scratches and show him how much she appreciates his sentiments, if not his methods.

Because it’s seductive, this open desperation. His utter unwillingness to contemplate life without her, an unwillingness that matches her own, is an aphrodisiac. The power she has over him is breathtaking. It’s not complete; she’s neither naïve nor distracted enough to believe it otherwise. There’s nothing she can do or say to gainsay him when it comes to her safety. But it’s a power strong enough to be intoxicating, and she wants nothing more, in this moment, than to fuck him. She wants his skin against hers, she wants the taste of him in her mouth, she wants the bliss of owning and being owned, of being so close to him that she doesn’t know where she ends and he begins.

He’s still watching her, still very much the predator. A panther crouching down low, waiting for the perfect moment to pounce. He’s clearly expecting a continuation of the argument. And she’s still angry, of course she’s still angry, but fighting is the last thing she wants to do, now.

Vera steps around the table, closing the gap between them. The whiskey seems to have hit her; she feels slightly unsteady. Or perhaps it’s because of him. His eyes are so dark, his jaw set so firmly. She lifts a hand to touch him, but he grasps her wrist and stops her, as if he thinks she means to strike at him. They stare at each other, closer than they’ve been since he came home. She can feel his breath on her face, warm and slightly damp on her skin.

She telegraphs each movement carefully. Turning her wrist in his grasp, stroking her fingers down his jaw line and throat, coming to rest on the top button of his shirt. A quick flick of her fingers and it’s unbuttoned. Then the next one, and the next, until she reaches the waistband of his trousers and the end of the row of buttons. She doesn’t pull the shirt free. Instead she slides a hand beneath it, spreading her fingers across his chest so she can feel his heartbeat beneath her palm. He’s still tense, his whole body practically vibrating from it, but there’s a barely-perceptible change in his eyes, his face. It’s not a softening. He’s still hard as cold steel, brow lowered and lips compressed together in a frown. But his anger, like hers, seems to be receding a little.

“What would you do,” she murmurs, “if somebody carried out those threats?”

“Vera…” he says, barely more than a huff of air, not quite a protest but not an answer, either.

“Tell me,” she insists. She wants to hear it. She wants him to tell her just what he’d do to anyone who tried to hurt her. It’s a twisted desire, maybe, but she knows he won’t judge her for it. More than that, she knows he’ll indulge her. Despite his anger, despite her righteous fury, she knows he’ll indulge her in this.

His hands come to rest on her waist. It’s a promising sign. His fingers dig in, just a little. Not hard enough to bruise; that will come soon, or so she hopes.

“I’d tear them apart,” he tells her. She closes her eyes and leans against him, resting her forehead on his shoulder. He tugs her closer, so she’s pressed up against him. It’s almost like they’re dancing. “I’d start with their fingernails. Pull them out one by one. Hurts like a bitch, but they’d deserve it, for laying a finger on you.” She hums encouragingly and, just as she’d hoped, his grasp on her waist becomes harder. His two hands don’t span her waist, but he holds her firmly nonetheless, gripping her so tightly there’s no chance of escape. Not that she wants to escape. “Then maybe I’d take an eye,” he says. “For daring to even look at you.”

“An eye for an eye,” she quotes absently. He chuckles, a dark sound of amusement. There’s nothing holy about either of them, but still, it fits. An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. Vera noses aside his shirt, presses a kiss to his chest where her hand had been resting, just above his heart. Philip begins to tug her blouse out of the waistband of her skirt so that he, too, can touch skin. When he does, when his hands close around her waist without any barrier between them, it sends sparks flying across her whole body.

“I wouldn’t stop until there was nothing left but blood and bones,” he promises. She gulps a breath of air, lifts her head to look at him. She feels flooded with power, an electric energy that demands more, more. And he wants her just as much; she can feel his cock, hardening against her pelvis. Yes, she thinks. Yes. This is what she wants. There’s an insistent throbbing between her legs, a pulse of lust that grows louder with each passing moment. He’s barely touched her; he doesn’t need to.

“You’d destroy them,” she breathes. “For me.”

“Yes,” he says, and captures her mouth with his.

There’s nothing gentle about this kiss, nothing tender. It’s hard and demanding, lips and teeth and tongue. The kind of kiss that’s a battle for domination. A battle that he always wins, that she lets him win, because she loves it when he holds her down and marks her skin and claims her for his own. She relishes the headiness, the indescribable giddiness, of using her submission to make Philip come undone. He sends her flying into pieces, but he falls apart too. She does that. She does that to him.

His hands splay across her back, the heat of him burning like a brand. She grasps hold of his shoulders, to keep herself upright as much as to touch him. Her legs are barely cooperating, but he won’t let her fall. She knows that. He’s voracious, kissing her as if they’ve been apart for days rather than hours, greedy and desperate and breathtaking. And she’s the same; she wants more, she wants all of him, she wants to be full of him. Kissing isn’t enough, even a kiss like this, his tongue stroking against hers, his teeth catching at her lip, his mouth stealing her breath away and the scent of him flooding her nostrils. Then he leaves her mouth, leaves her gasping as he works his way down to her neck, to the pulse point there that he loves to suckle and nibble and mark.

“Tell me you know why,” he mutters, as breathless as she is, as he sets to mark her with teeth and tongue and determination. The glorious pleasure-pain of it distracts her, exquisite agony shuddering across her limbs, coiling in her loins. He bites down harder, hard enough to make her cry out, and somehow he’s got his hands on her buttocks and is lifting her up and back, until she’s perched on the edge of the table. But that’s better, because this way she doesn’t have to concentrate on keeping standing. She can concentrate wholly on Philip. “Tell me,” he insists. He rips her blouse apart, buttons flying in every direction around the room. The forcefulness delights her; his desperation delights her. “Tell me you understand why I’d do that, Vera, to anyone – anyone who so much as laid a finger on you.”

“Because you love me.” She gasps as he covers a breast with one hand; even through her brassiere, his hand is hot and her nipple hardens under it. He finds it, through the lacy fabric he finds her nipple and pinches it, toys with it, until she’s gasping and writhing, desperate for him. Oh, she wants him. She wants him to fill her up, to tear her apart, and put her back together at the end. She wants to stake her claim on him and let him do the same to her. Possessing and possessed, two halves of the same coin. Or an ouroboros, an endless circle, snake swallowing snake forevermore.

“Because you’re mine,” he tells her darkly. “Mine!”

She scratches her fingers through the fine hairs at the nape of his neck. “Yours,” she promises. He growls, deep in his chest, and kisses her again, as if he’s been spurred on by her honest acknowledgement. And he’s hers in return, he’s all hers. Her Philip. The thought of it fills her stunted heart. It makes a burst of heat ripple through her body. She arches up against him, rubbing herself against his leg, seeking friction. He laughs into her mouth, and she scratches harder, digging her nails into his flesh, drawing blood and relishing his growl. Marking him as hers. Because she’s his, yes, now and always, but he’s not the only one with a claim to lay.

He’s not the only one who’s scared of losing this.

She’s breathless when they part, gasping for air. Her mouth feels swollen, bruised almost. Her cunt clenches around nothing. Her knickers are wet. His cock is hard, straining in the confines of his trousers. She wants nothing more than for Philip to fuck her, but she needs something else, too.

Vera lifts her chin high and looks at him. He stares back, his eyes so dark, his lips just barely parted. He wants this, as well. Fear and possession and lust all colliding together into a shared urgency. But he seems to understand that she needs to say something first. He holds himself back. His hands fall back to her waist, hot against her skin. He doesn’t move further, save for the rise and fall of his chest.

“I’m yours,” she repeats, “but you’re mine, too.”

She means more than that, she means so much more, but for once words are not her ally. The truth, as always, is hard for Vera to speak. But Philip knows that about her; he’s always known that. He knows when she’s lying, he knows when she’s telling the truth, and he knows when she means something but can’t express it. He looks at her now, flush with lust, and she hopes desperately that he understands now, that he knows what she can’t express. He has to know that, to understand it, because anything else is unbearable.

She means that he’s hers. She means he’s a fool if he continues to forget, even for a moment more, that she has just as much to lose as he does. She means she’ll fight just as hard and as viciously as he will, to keep this. To keep him. She’ll tear all of Brooklyn apart, all of New York, just to keep him with her. It doesn’t matter what the danger is, nor what threats anybody has made: she is fierce and deadly and his equal, in every way.

He understands. Something flashes in his eyes, and his fingers press into her hips as he grips her tight, hard enough to bruise. Some tightness in his expression eases and then he nods slowly, conceding…something.

“Yeah,” he says. “I’m yours. Always.”

She surges up against him, claiming his mouth with hers. It’s an inelegant kiss, noses bashing together, teeth clashing against lips. It doesn’t matter. Need urges her to taste him, to touch him, to stake her claim as firmly as he has staked his, and he lets her, lets her try to drink her fill of him. He hauls her close, nudges his leg further between hers and kisses her as if he never means to stop. As if he never means to let her stop.

Always, she thinks, with a small, distant part of her mind that’s still working. Always.

Until suddenly they’re not kissing any longer. Suddenly he tugs her off the edge of the table and then spins her around, so she’s facing away from him. Vera gasps soundlessly, startled, but in a heartbeat she understands his intentions, because he presses up against her back, urging her down until she’s bent over the table. Breasts squashed against it, the scent of soap filling her nostrils, Philip’s hand on the back of her neck keeping her down.

“Stay there,” he breathes, but she doesn’t need the instruction. Not when she’s empty and desperate and wanting everything he can do to her. Nor does she need his hand on her neck, though it’s delicious to feel it there, his palm on her skin and his fingers threading through her hair. She stretches her arms above the head, grasping at the far edge of the table while he pushes her skirt up. She has garters holding up her stockings today, not a suspender belt, so there’s nothing to stop him pulling her knickers down. They don’t come off; he’s too impatient for that. Just down far enough to give him access. His hands are hot against her skin, hot and hasty, fumbling a little where normally he’s so sure. There’s a rustle of leather and fabric as he undoes his belt and unbuttons his trousers, one-handed and awkward because of it. Too long, she thinks. He’s taking too long. She needs him too much to wait any longer.

“Fuck me,” she insists. “Now!”

She feels his fingers first, brushing against her cunt, checking that she’s ready. Then his cock, and he thrusts in without finesse or care, just the same desperate need to be joined to her. His hand is tight on her neck, his cock deep inside her, and all she can do is hang on to the table and let him fuck her.

And he does, oh he does fuck her, hard and deep and full of feeling. A man staking a claim on a woman in the most primal way. There’s no rhythm to it, not really. He pulls out, thrusts in, sometimes hitting a spot inside her that makes her see stars, makes her pant out her pleasure in small, breathless noises. She can’t touch him like this, of course, can’t do anything but lie across the table and take it, take him. It’s surrender and submission, but at the same time it’s a glorious triumph, this power she has over him, the way she unravels him down to basic instincts. He’s utterly undone, pounding into her with abandon, until she’s shaking with the need to orgasm, barely able to keep her hold on the edge of the table. She can’t speak, can’t form the syllables of his name, manages nothing more than a soft, pleading gasp as he rolls his hips into hers, pushing ever-deeper. Where before she’d felt empty, now she feels full, so very full, and so close to a dizzying peak.

He comes first, with a jerk and a grunt, all but collapsing on top of her as he does. The extra weight, the feel of his cock pulsing inside her, the pinch of the edge of the table under her thighs…it all coalesces into pure sensation. Her mind is blank; everything has narrowed down to the physical alone. Electric tension coils tight inside her as she clenches her inner muscles around his cock, seeking just a little more, just a very little more from him to tip her over the edge into her own orgasm. Normally she needs at least some stimulation of her clit, and she’s had none of that today, not when he’s been so single-minded in his determination to have her, to claim her. But it won’t take much, even so. She’s on fire, she’s burning for him, writhing against the table in a futile hope to gain some extra bit of friction.

He pulls out just enough to thrust back in at a slightly different angle, so his cock strikes that sensitive place inside her. She cries out as she comes, great waves of pleasure washing over her, drowning her. She shakes from it, all her muscles twitching, pleasure robbing her of any control over her body. Philip’s weight on her back, his hand still on her neck…these hold her steady. These anchor her to reality while pleasure sends her, briefly, into a blissful state of unreality.

For a while afterwards, they don’t speak. Vera’s heartbeat slows, her breathing becomes more even. Philip’s hand moves off her neck, down across her shoulder, and then he takes some of his weight off her. Not much. He’s still a hot, heavy weight across her back. Too heavy. She can’t feel her feet; the edge of the table has cut off her circulation. But she doesn’t ask him to move, doesn’t try to lever him off her. She doesn’t want to lose contact with him. She’s content, for now, to stay as she is. The silence between them is comfortable. She doesn’t want to break it.

But at length he sighs, lifts himself off her, and helps her to stand up. Her knickers fall to the ground, and she tries to kick them aside, but her feet have gone to sleep and she wobbles perilously for a moment before he steadies her with a murmured ‘I’ve got you’. Pins and needles begin as blood rushes back into her feet, and she wriggles her toes, feeling rather ridiculous. But mostly she feels sated. And though she’s a little bruised and sore, her mouth chapped from kisses, and an ache between her legs that she’ll probably still feel tomorrow, it’s a pleasant soreness. It’s a worthwhile consequence.

Philip’s hands are lingering at her waist, as if he doesn’t want to let her go. She can understand that impulse; she shares it. She leans forward, resting her forehead against his shoulder, and inhales his scent as his arms come up to cradle her. He’s still wearing his shirt and his trousers hang low on his hips. She’ll have to sew every button back onto her blouse before it’s fit for wearing again, and no doubt her skirt is hopelessly crumpled. But none of that matters now. These are idle thoughts that flit through her mind and then disappear. All that matters is her and Philip. She closes her eyes and listens as their breathing becomes synchronised. She feels the strength of his arms around her. She feels…complete.

“I’m still absolutely furious with you,” she says after a while. It’s true; the anger is more distant, softened by the realisation of his fear and by the sheer force of his passion, but it’s still there. It will rise again in an instant, if he doesn’t change course on this danger he perceives she’s in.

“I know,” he mutters. He shifts slightly, presses a kiss to her hair. “I know you are.” He lets go of her, scuffs his feet through the broken glass on the floor. “What a mess,” he observes. His voice is mild; Vera can’t tell if he means the floor or the whole situation they’re now in, but she doesn’t push him. It doesn’t matter. He bends over, reaching for her knickers, but straightens with her knife, instead. It fell to the floor earlier, she remembers. It seems like hours ago. It feels like days since she’d sat here and carefully, deliberately coated the blade with a poison that will kill anybody who’s foolish enough to get close enough to her for the knife to bite.

“What’s this doing on the floor?” he inquires, one eyebrow quirked in amused curiosity.

“Oh, I was coating the blade with strychnine,” she says, reaching to take it from him. Philip doesn’t release it. He stares at her, as if he’s seeing her with fresh eyes. A laugh bubbles up in her throat, unbidden but not unwanted. It’s so delightful, being able to say such things and knowing that, far from rejecting her for it, he’ll positively welcome hearing about her vicious intentions. It still amazes her, how he peers into the darkest parts of her mind and worships what he finds there. Nobody else has ever done that, could ever do that. Just Philip. Her Philip.

“Strychnine,” he repeats at last.

“Mm-hm.” She looks at him coyly, through her eyelashes. “Quite deadly when ingested, or introduced into the bloodstream. They sell it for poisoning rats, you know.”

Philip puts the knife down on the table with very deliberate movements, then he cups her face in his hands and kisses her. She might have expected a gentle kiss, passion spent by what they’ve just done, but he’s ravenous, licking into her mouth, claiming her all over again. Vera clings to his shoulders and feels lust stirring again, despite her soreness.

When they part, he leans his forehead against hers. “God, I love you,” he says, like it’s a prayer. Like it’s a vow. He doesn’t wait for a response, which is just as well; she struggles with those words, even now. “Come to bed,” he demands. “I want to fuck you again.”

There’s only one answer to that, of course. Vera lets him lead her upstairs, leaving behind the mess they’ve made of the kitchen. There’ll be time enough to clean it up in the morning. As for the other mess…

Well, that too will wait for the morning.