It was the most incredible, perfect, romantic night Sansa ever could imagine, and she’d spent years imagining romantic dates. She had a diary from high school – okay, perhaps from more recently, if she was being honest – with a list of what would comprise the perfect date. She’d been short of the mark. First off, she’d missed “sexy civilian dress uniform” because she hadn’t known until she met Sandor that she had a uniform fetish. Huge, unforgivable oversight. Secondly, candy was far superior to flowers. Not that there was anything wrong with flowers, but chocolate-covered strawberries were like a promise that they’d be devoured together later that night.
The problem with young Sansa’s diary list, she realized, was that it described a G-rated date. That was fine for teenagers – alright, the list was a teensy bit more recent than that – but she’d realized the moment Sandor had helped her into his truck that this was not going to be a G-rated night. And when he picked her up and lifted her out of the truck, as if she was light as air, her pulse had fluttered like bird’s wings. She’d been literally swept off her feet. Literally!
She’d never felt like this with anyone before, so magnetically drawn in. So needy. So short of breath. Then again, nobody had ever put so much effort into romancing her. She’d looked forward all week to being in the Florian and Jonquil ballroom with the music and the crystal chandeliers and the ballgowns, and now that she was here, all she could concentrate on for more than a minute at a time was ending the night and getting Sandor in her bedroom. Shameless.
Not that she wasn’t trying to pay attention to Brienne. It was just difficult to focus. She stared in the ladies’ room mirror, her lipstick in hand, examining Brienne’s reflection. “I’m sorry, what were you saying?” she said for about the fifth time since they’d met.
“Don’t worry, it wasn’t important.” Brienne didn’t seem angry – more amused than anything, if her subtle smile was any indication. What had Sansa been doing again? Oh, right, lipstick in hand.
“You seem like you’re having a good time,” Brienne said. “These social things give me hives.”
Brienne fidgeted in the restroom’s lounge, picking up the soft hand towels and fancy lotions set out for guests and putting them down. Sansa put her hand on Brienne’s arm to reassure her. “I’m having an amazing time. And everyone looks so good in uniform.”
Brienne rose one eyebrow. “Everyone? Or someone in particular?”
Sansa bit back a grin. Good was not the word she’d use to describe Sandor in uniform. The word she’d choose would be more like jacked. “Ahem. Well. You look great in the uniform, too. Blue suits you.”
Brienne snorted in skepticism, but her mood seemed improved by the break from her rude date and Jaime Lannister’s snide comments. Men could be such jerks. It was quite a contrast from Sandor’s silent but reassuring gestures that reassured Sansa. It was wonderful to have an evening out without constantly being on her guard for barbed remarks aimed at her intelligence or her upbringing. Sandor didn’t just make her feel beautiful – he made her feel safe to be herself.
Brienne tapped her on the shoulder. “I’m sorry,” Sansa said, “were you saying something?” Gods, maybe she should be just a bit more self-conscious, if only to be polite.
Brienne laughed. “Are you ready to head back?”
Sansa decided not to mention that she’d only retreated from the ballroom to give Brienne room to breathe. They left the ladies’ lounge, Sansa babbling about how she knew Yara Greyjoy as they headed to the lobby, as if Brienne had asked.
They ran straight into Tyrion Lannister and Petyr Baelish, who seemed caught up in an argument outside the restrooms. Both attorneys wore elegantly tailored, three-piece suits and silk ties, and they both held large glasses of amber liquid – real glasses, not the plastic ware Yara was serving. Tyrion Lannister was scowling, and Petyr was snarling something under his breath, but he stopped as soon as he spotted Sansa and Brienne.
“Well, well, good evening, Sansa,” Petyr said. His broad smile wasn’t quite friendly, and his eyes glittered coldly.
For the first time, Sansa realized it might not look proper being here with Sandor while he was investigating her crime. It simply hadn’t occurred to her. She’d been too wrapped up in wanting to spend more time with him, with … with wanton lust, to be totally honest. Not something she could explain to her lawyer.
Joffrey’s Uncle Tyrion seemed thrilled to see her. He handed Petyr his glass so he could fold one of her hands inside both of his. “Sansa Stark! What a pleasure to see you again. What brings you here tonight?”
“Umm …” She wasn’t going to try to lie, was she? She didn’t have a cover story. “Just enjoying the night, I suppose.”
“But you must be here with a date, right?” Tyrion said. “Although I know Joffrey wouldn’t skip a night painting the town red to socialize with us old people.”
It suddenly felt like Brienne, Petyr, and Tyrion had her under a microscope. A strand of hair fell across her nose, and she forced herself not to bat it away. Brienne’s weighted stare bothered her the most. Would she tell Sandor that Sansa had acted embarrassed to be here with him? That was unthinkable, absolutely unacceptable.
Sansa squared her shoulders. “Actually, Detective Clegane was nice enough to ask me here tonight, and we’re having a wonderful time.”
“Oh, really?” Tyrion stepped toward her as if he was questioning her on the stand. “I’m so very glad to hear that you’re enjoying yourself with Detective Clegane, as unlikely as that sounds.”
“Why would that sound unlikely?” she asked.
Tyrion simply grinned in response and reclaimed his drink.
Petyr rested his hand on her shoulder. “Why don’t you and I take a little walk? I’m sure your friend won’t mind if I talk to my client for a moment.”
Tyrion nodded at Brienne. “That will give me a chance to get acquainted with the accomplished Detective Tarth, whose testimony could be such an asset in court with just a little coaching.”
Brienne’s eyes widened in apparent alarm. Sansa silently mouthed an apology and let Petyr lead her a few feet away, his hand on the small of her back. He walked so close that she could smell scotch on his breath.
“I can’t abandon Brienne to another Lannister,” she said. “Maybe we should do this another time?”
“I’m just watching out for you, my dear,” Petyr said. They’d stopped walking, but his hand was still touching her back. “I thought we decided it was a bad idea to talk to the Hound without your lawyer present. You don’t want to incriminate yourself.”
“I thought everything was settled,” she said.
But her case wasn’t finished, of course, and she knew that. Out of habit, she reached up to twirl her fingers in her hair. Petyr intercepted her hand and brought it back down to her side. She was torn between annoyance at his interference and irritation at herself for having such a childish habit. Just as she thought that at least he was no longer touching her, he returned his palm to her spine. Ugh. If only she could afford to push him off.
“Listen to me,” he said. “The Hound didn’t ask you here to be friends. He doesn’t make friends. This stinks of a Lannister scheme to me.”
“But, but I just don’t think so, Mr. Baelish—”
“Uh-uh. Petyr, remember?” He stepped closer, even though it forced him to look up at her. “Listen, this isn’t the best timing for you. I’m trying to settle your case with Tyrion Lannister right now.”
“Right now?” she squeaked.
“A successful man never rests. I’ll bet the Hound knows that. People have called him many things, but nobody’s ever accused him of being lazy.”
She took a step backwards. “I should go. Thank you for your advice, really, but I need to find Brienne …”
Except now that Sansa glanced around the lobby, Brienne was nowhere to be seen. Instead, Sandor was there, purposely studying the generic hotel artwork instead of her, which didn’t fool her for a second. Tyrion Lannister was still there, too, appraising Sandor openly. His expression was gleeful, quite the contrast to the Lannister family functions, where he’d always seemed so glum.
Sandor’s fists were clenched at his sides, and although he was completely still, she could almost hear him grind his teeth. Oh, he was angry. This wasn’t good. She hurried across the lobby, pretending she couldn’t hear Tyrion calling her name, and steeled herself for Sandor’s outburst.
“Is everything alright?” he said quietly.
That was it? She stayed in placating mode, just in case. “Um, yes, fine, I just didn’t expect to run into my lawyer here, ha ha.”
“You seem nervous.” He narrowed his eyes at Petyr, who had already caught up with Tyrion and was gesturing at him rather forcefully.
“I’m fine,” she said. “I could use another drink.”
He wasn’t angry at her. He was angry at Petyr on her behalf, which warmed her skin all over. Protectiveness was familiar and manageable and – dare she think the word – gallant. She wanted to hold onto his arm again, but she could feel Petyr and Tyrion’s stares. Better wait until later. She’d just make sure Sandor’s captain saw him being mandatorily present and then blow this popsicle stand. She’d never wanted to leave a party this much before, and she’d desperately wanted to leave a lot of parties. It was practically her trademark. But tonight was different. Just thinking about how she’d ask Sandor back to her apartment had her inhaled breath pounding against her chest.
How dare Petyr imply that Sandor had asked her here to interrogate her? Anyway, she’d asked him to the gala. Well, no, he’d asked her. Ugh, it was complicated, but it had nothing to do with the tapestry. She was almost positive.
Back in the ballroom, she was tempted to order a glass of champagne, even if the flutes Yara was giving out weren’t elegant crystal. How had Petyr connived a way around that? Sandor was still like a compressed spring waiting for the chance to leap. He hadn’t said a word to her since the lobby, and his quiet seething was starting to worry her again. He kept looking around as if they’d be ambushed. She knew he wasn’t angry at her, but she didn’t know how to reclaim the golden glow they had at the start of the evening. She couldn’t come up with any small talk, and she was usually so good at that. Thinking of the lawyers talking about her, right here, right now, made her nauseated. What if she’d just messed up her chance to have the case dropped?
When she and Sandor approached the bar, Yara was simultaneously pouring drinks for men in tight designer suits and gesturing with desperate head twists to the corner of the room behind the bar. Sansa followed Yara’s pointed looks to where Brienne was surrounded by her date, Hyle Hunt, and two other men in dress uniform. Brienne’s cheeks were bright red and her shoulders were hunched. Hyle Hunt grabbed Brienne’s jaw and forced her face into a smile.
Before she could say anything to Sandor, he plowed through the bar crowd. She skipped to catch up in her high heels. Sandor shoved Hunt’s shoulder, pushing his way into the circle.
“What the fuck’s going on?” he growled.
“Fuck off, Hound,” Hunt said. Like, really? Did the man have no common sense?
Sansa’s nerves were jumping like popped corn, but she told herself that she didn’t have anything to worry about. These bullies surrounding Brienne were no match for Sandor, who was four or five inches taller than any of them.
“Brienne, are you okay?” she said, attempting to sound cool and probably failing.
“I’m fine,” Brienne said in a resigned tone. “There’s no reason to make a scene.”
Sandor talked right over her; he probably hadn’t even heard her. “I’m trying to have a perfect fucking night here and you assholes are fucking it up.”
Oh, he was trying to have the perfect night, wasn’t he? “That’s so sweet,” she said, without meaning to say it out loud. All four men whipped their heads around to stare at her.
“This is none of your business, Clegane,” one of the men said, a freckled redhead with knobby hands who did not look good in the dress uniform. “Why don’t you and your teenage date shove off before she has to watch you lose your temper?”
Sansa gasped. “I’m in my twenties, thank you very much.” She thought her dress was more flattering than that. Honestly, the nerve!
Sandor was in the guy’s face, snarling down at him. “You asscrack, you say anything about her again, and I’ll fucking fold you like an envelope.”
“Three of us, one of you,” Hunt said offhandedly.
“What a stupid man,” Sansa said to Brienne, who put a hand to her forehead. Undoubtedly, her horrible date had given her a headache.
“What the hell?” Ah, Commissioner Lannister was here. Sansa was sure that would fix everything. “Hound, what are you doing this time?” Eh, maybe not. Jerk.
“There’s no cause for any kind of public incident,” Brienne said.
Jaime rolled his eyes. “Tarth. Aren’t you supposed to be the Girl Scout? Why are you in the middle of an impending brawl?”
When Brienne straightened out her slouch, her height was impressive. She practically loomed over Jaime Lannister. “You are the most useless man I’ve ever met. Are you sure you’re the commissioner?”
Sansa wished she had time to be amused by that. She wove around Brienne and Jaime so she could see what Sandor was doing. He had Hunt by the scruff of his neck, shaking him, while the scrawny ginger yelled in his ear, and the third idiot circled them. This was so brave, coming to Brienne’s rescue. Although it was dawning on her that three men were more than he should’ve taken on at once. The ginger elbowed Sandor in the stomach, and he dropped Hunt, snarling wordlessly. If only there was something she could do to help him.
“It would be nice to have one public function where the Kings Landing police department didn’t completely embarrass themselves.” That was Petyr’s voice.
Sure enough, Petyr and Tyrion came over to question her. “Are you alright, Sansa?” Petyr asked.
“Is there anything we can do for you?” Tyrion asked.
“Do you suppose—” No, Jaime Lannister was going to be of no help. Brienne went to jump in, but Jaime restrained her by the arm, hopping in front of her while flashing her the world’s smuggest grin.
“Get the fuck off me,” Sandor said. Hunt managed to push him off balance, and he stumbled but remained standing.
“This isn’t looking so great,” Yara said, coming up next to Sansa with a bottle in each hand.
“No, it’s not,” Sansa admitted. “Sandor was very chivalrous, though, don’t you think?”
“It’s not my opinion that matters.” Yara handed Sansa one of the bottles. It was champagne. “Do you know how to open that?”
“Sure. Hey, do you think I look like a teenager tonight?”
Sandor slammed his skull into Hunt’s forehead, which would’ve been a fantastic way to end things if the other two henchmen weren’t throwing their jackets to the ground, loosening up their shoulders.
“You look very sophisticated,” Yara said. “So, give that a good shake, and let’s step a little closer.”
“Thank you. It’s been a very sophisticated evening, for the most part.” Sansa shook the champagne bottle and lost track of Sandor for a moment so she could grab the cork. Fortunately, Yara had already loosened it. “Ready?”
The three goons closed in on Sandor in tandem, trying to pull him down so they could reach his face. Behind her, Petyr was still talking about deplorable police behavior. This was not going to look good on her permanent record, however that worked in the real world, but she couldn’t leave Sandor to defend himself alone. Her only real regret was that she’d gotten hardly any pictures for Instagram earlier. She should’ve coaxed Sandor into standing still for selfies before they got here. Oh, well, hindsight was 20/20.
“Release the kraken!” Yara cried.
Sansa popped the champagne bottle just as Yara did. The liquid spurted up with a force that resisted her effort to aim the stream at Sandor’s attackers. She lifted the bottle with both hands, champagne shooting like a fire hose. The sight of it landing on the knot of people around Sandor opened something in her chest and made her feel light and full of air. She gave out a little, demure wolf howl – wooop! – just enough so Sandor knew it was her, and as the last of the champagne landed in her hair, she tried not to dissolve into giggles.
She and Yara high-fived as the four policemen stopped fighting to wipe champagne out of their eyes. Blech, it really was sticky stuff. Sansa hoped her dress wasn’t ruined – it did not make her look too young just because her cleavage wasn’t hanging out of it, for the love of the Maiden.
Sandor caught her eyes, and she was transfixed by the intensity and heat in his stare. His gray eyes were definitely smoldering, and that was so much a thing with him. “You,” he said. The roughness of his voice on that one syllable reverberated through her body. “You … just … get over here.”
The adrenaline rush from the champagne attack kicked in, and she started shaking, frozen to the spot. Sandor reached her side and took her hand, and goosebumps traveled up her arm. He led her out of the ballroom, storming through the onlookers without a look back at her trailing him, clutching his hand.
“Where are we going?” she said, her mouth suddenly dry.
Sure enough, he took her to the elevator bank and slammed the button with his free hand, still not looking at her. Her heart pumped like she was underwater. A door dinged open, and she followed him into the elevator, not sure how to explain herself.
When the elevator door closed, he put his hands around her waist and lifted her up until they were eye to eye. If his gaze had been intense in the ballroom, now it was molten silver, sending sparks shooting through her lower belly. She gasped as her back touched the wall. She needed him closer and threw her arms around his neck. His lips were on her ear, sucking her earlobe, trailing kisses down to her collarbone. She moaned at the contact. He was still holding her off the ground, and it was absolutely incredible how strong he was. She wound her legs around him, reeling him closer, nuzzling his face to get his lips up to hers.
Ding! The elevator opened right next to the ground floor reception counter.
“Shit. Fuck.” Sandor put her on the floor and flailed at the buttons. “I forgot to … which one is the close button? Fuck, that’s open, fuck.”
“Sandor.” She came up behind him and rested against his back. “Forget the buttons and take me home.”
Her breath was quick and shallow, but so was his, and it took him a few seconds to strain meaning out of her words.
“You want to go home?” he said uncertainly.
“With you.” She hadn’t had a taste of him yet, and she took his hand off the elevator buttons and nibbled the back of his hand, tasting champagne and salt. Her breath caught in her throat. She looked up at him through her eyelashes, wondering if he could hear the hammering of her pulse.
“Right,” he said. “Right, yes, driving, valet guy, now.”
“Now,” she agreed.
As they hurried outside, she wondered if she’d be able to keep her hands out his hair while he drove back to her place. As it turned out, she couldn’t, but honestly, a ten-mile drive had never felt so much like forever before. Fortunately, the night was just beginning.