Actions

Work Header

Man with a Heartbeat

Chapter Text

Oldtown, The Reach
Late Spring

 

Brienne rested her head against the window as her taxi wound its way through Oldtown’s teeming boulevards, lost in the dreamy glow from the ancient iron street lanterns. Like it always did, her pulse adapted to the ancient, poetic thrum of the heart of the city.

The spring evening lured lovers to stroll hand-in-hand along the banks of the Honeywine, past the stone bridges with their arches lit from below.

She sighed, a stray lump caught in her throat.

Tarth held her heart, and King’s Landing was home, but Oldtown was where her dreams dwelled.

She’d arrived there young, eighteen—a girl who hadn’t yet met the boundaries of her world.

A tear slipped out and fell for the girl she’d been. Or perhaps for the woman she was.

She straightened in her seat and wiped her eyes. The woman she was was late. Her flight had been delayed.

Marg had texted that she hadn’t missed anything during the small rehearsal at the Starry Sept. Relax, Marg insisted. If she was up for it, she should join everyone at the hotel bar once she arrived.

The porter showed her to her room and she saw the little swag bag provided for guests. Marg would have selected each soap and cream and nibble by hand. She turned on the water for a quick shower and selected a gel from Highgarden.

The steam helped clear her mind. Her week had been busy; she’d had to prep Pod to handle things without her for another few days.

She’d spent the weekend before on the Arbor with Marg and her cousins for the hen do. They’d gone through more bottles of wine than anyone cared to count and laughed and danced themselves to exhaustion. Even Brienne had joined in, safe in the welcoming circle of Margaery’s family.

Now she faced the serious business of being maid of honor. She dressed and went down to the bar. Live music filtered in from the open terrace overlooking the river. The lighting was dim, and she turned in a slow circle, searching for anyone she knew.

And, of course, she spotted him. Leaned against the bar.

She could only see his back, but she would know him anywhere—the golden curls, the broad shoulders, the air of a man who hadn’t a care for anyone’s good opinion. As she approached, she imagined running her fingers through his hair, sliding her hand over his shoulder.

Not that she ever would. They were friends, which was fine. Better than fine. It was good. Friends could walk up to one another and lean against the bar as if they hadn’t a care in the world.

He must not have known she’d arrived, because he did a double-take as she settled next to him.

“Tarth.” He said it with a smile, so she returned one of her own.

Like a friend would.

“Hello.”

He gestured toward the terrace. “They’re all getting drunk on wine.”

“Gods,” she said, “after last weekend, I don’t need to see Arbor red or gold for a year.”

“I won’t tell you what I don’t need to see for a year after the stag night.”

They both laughed.

“Whiskey looks good,” she said, nodding at the tumbler the bartender had placed before him.

“Damn.” He looked down in surprise. “I waited twenty minutes for this. You take it. I’ll wait for another.”

“Don’t be silly. I don’t need anything. Show me where everyone is seated.”

He held up the whiskey, a boyish grin tugged at one corner of his mouth. “We could share?”

Friends would, wouldn’t they? “If you’re sure?”

“I’m sure. Follow me.”

The night air was perfect as she followed him out onto the packed terrace. He glanced back at her as they picked through the crowd as if to assure himself she was still there.

The little corner full of Tyrells and Lannisters greeted her with happy cries that she’d made it.

“Darling.” Renly kissed her cheek. “We were afraid Garlan would have to be maid of honor.”

“Funny,” Garlan called.

She knew everyone: Marg’s brothers and cousins, Daven and Bronn, Renly, the bride and groom. And Jaime.

The last time most of them had been together was for his nameday—and hers—the first week of winter. Tyrion and Marg had decided that the fact they’d been born thirteen years and one day apart meant they should have a joint surprise party.

They had been surprised.

Tyrion and Marg’s house had been decorated with gravestones and black balloons and little spectral foam representations of the Stranger for him. For her, colorful streamers and unicorns and swords. The guests were a strange mix of Lannisters and Tyrells and people from the antiques trade.

“This party is in the midst of a serious identity crisis,” he told her after they opened the door for what they’d been told was an emergency wedding planning session that happened to fall on Jaime’s nameday.

Even their cake had been split down the middle, black with a grey forty on his side, and on hers, blue and pink with a silver twenty-seven.

“I’m twenty-six until midnight,” she’d muttered, and he’d howled with laughter.

He looked at her now with the same expression he did then, as if they were the only ones who understood how ludicrous everything was.

The two of them took the last remaining settee in the corner. It was meant for two smaller people. Which was fine, they were friends. The seat was tight, so it was easier for him to rest his arm along the back of it, like a friend might. It didn’t really matter that she was aware of every molecule of his body alongside her own as they pressed themselves together. They’d shared tight quarters before.

And if the scent of him, golden-skinned and warm, made her want to press her nose to his neck, that too was fine. She could deal with it.

They shared the tumbler with its two fingers of whiskey. She took a tiny sip and set it on his knee, and he took a little sip and held it in the hand draped over the settee, and they passed it back and forth that way as everyone else went through bottles and bottles of wine. In their corner, it was only the two of them and one single tumbler of whiskey that never emptied.

The group conversation lulled and he leaned toward her ear to talk, because the band was loud, and it was difficult to be heard. “You’re not very thirsty.”

She leaned toward his ear because she didn’t want to repeat herself—it was loud. “Someone has to be sober tomorrow.”

“I take it we’re ‘someone?’”

“It comes with the job.”

“Oh, I forgot,” he said. “The wedding planner tells me that you and I have to dance at the evening reception. We’re meant to signal when everyone else can join in after the happy couple’s first dance.”

“No one told me!”

Mischief flitted across his features. “Too much work for you?”

“I can’t dance.”

“Those photos Marg posted last weekend say otherwise.”

She felt her freckled cheeks go pink. Her wine-fueled, sad little solo whirl across a couple of dance floors on the Arbor hardly counted.

“Not couples kind of dancing,” she said. “They were always trying to teach us at school. I never could let anyone lead.”

He rolled his eyes. “You lead, then. I’ll follow.”

“I can’t do that either.”

He chuckled and pinched his nose. “Can you stand there and sway?”

“Yes. I suppose.”

The way his head tilted toward her as he searched her eyes made the shadows on his face deeper. She wanted to lean toward him. “No one’s going to be watching us anyway, Tarth. No one will notice if you stumble through a dance.”

“You will.”

He tried to swallow a smile.

“Brienne!” Renly called.

She jerked herself out of her Jaime-filled haze and looked up. “Hm?”

“Is it true Marg wandered fully clothed into the sea last weekend?”

“I don’t recall,” she said with an amused glance at Marg.

Marg giggled. “It’s not my fault! I was very drunk, and the water was the perfect color, like, I don’t know—”

Tyrion gazed adoringly at his bride. “Azure?”

“No.” Marg shook her head. “Like—”

“Aquamarine,” Desmera said.

“That water’s not really green,” Daven said.

“I live there,” Desmera snapped.

“But it’s not, Des,” Marg insisted. “It’s . . .”

Jaime cleared his throat. “Brienne blue?”

Marg pointed at Jaime and broke into a blinding smile. “Yes! Exactly. Brienne blue.”

“Aw,” Renly smiled and winked at her. “Brienne blue.”

She looked around, confused. Bronn pointed two fingers at his eyes, then turned them and pointed at her.

Oh.

Her face would be a new shade of red, of course—one of the dark, devastating blushes that saved itself for special occasions. She couldn’t look at Jaime, she didn’t dare. All she could do was move her lips into a shape that might have been a smile. The conversation moved on.

She took a sip of their whiskey and set it on his knee. He reached out before she released her grip, and their fingers tangled. Startled, she looked at him. He stared at their hands, his jaw tight. She licked her lips, and he turned to stare at her mouth.

Had she made him uncomfortable? Did he sense that she—

“Time to dance,” Marg said as she pulled Brienne’s arm.

Flustered, Brienne stood, then turned back to Jaime. His gaze was fixed on her face. She took off her handbag and put it beside him on the settee.

“Will you—”

He took the strap in hand and nodded. Curt. Serious.

She followed Marg to the dance floor and fought for composure. Her crush, or whatever it was, had got too far out of hand. There was no reason for her to stare at him like some sort of lecher. Embarrassed, she stood still as a boulder while the revelers heaved and gyrated around her and wondered how she would ever face him again.

“Tarth.”

She turned around, and they were nose to nose. He stood there with her handbag strapped diagonal across his torso. His face looked almost grim.

This was it. Now was when he would tell her he wasn’t interested. That she’d got the wrong idea. They were friends. She was mortified.

He leaned toward her ear. “We could practice?”

“Hm?” Her brow wrinkled as she leaned back a bit to look at him.

“Dancing.”

“Oh. Um— Ok?”

The band played a fast song, but Jaime held his hand up like they were in a ballroom. She took it; her skin ignited where they touched.

He searched her face. His other hand skated around her waist, and he spread his fingers wide. Then he pulled, drew her flush against him. It was like pushing herself against a warm, living wall. She moved her other hand up his shoulder. Their faces were so close they had to go cheek-to-cheek.

Her breath came shallow. He moved her, swayed her; her hips followed along. His cheek smoothed against hers, the hint of stubble set her nerve endings ablaze.

“Can you do this?” His lips were so close to her ear that she felt his breath like a caress.

She shivered and nodded. He pulled back just enough to look into her eyes.

“Brienne!”

She startled and pulled away from Jaime, then looked down.

Tyrion waved toward Marg. “Shots!”

Brienne looked at her friend, whose cousins had handed her two shot glasses of clear liquid.

“Help me,” Tyrion said.

“You have to be able to stand up tomorrow!” Brienne shouted in Marg’s ear.

Marg gave her a drunken smile. “You stand up for me, babe.”

Tyrion and Jaime helped clear a path off the dance floor. Brienne signaled Marg’s cousin Megga who was meant to stay with her that night.

Megga shouted, “I’ll be up in five!”

Brienne and Jaime hauled Marg onto a lift with Tyrion following behind.

“You’re all so sweet,” Marg said as she leaned against the wall of the lift with her eyes closed.

“Superstitious about sharing a room the night before?” Jaime asked Tyrion as they entered the suite. It was large, packed full of luggage and wedding odds and ends.

Tyrion shrugged. “Why tempt fate?”

Brienne pointed to a swag bag she saw in the sitting room. “Mine had painkillers,” she said to Jaime. “Please, will you see—”

“Yeah.” Jaime nodded and started sorting through the bag.

Tyrion put Marg to bed, and Brienne closed the curtains in the bedroom.

They went out into the sitting room to wait for Megga. Jaime stood at the enormous floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the city. She and Tyrion joined him. The Hightower cast its insistent glow over the meandering Honeywine and the butter-rich stone of the city’s buildings.

“This city and its magic spell,” Tyrion muttered.

Jaime glanced at her over Tyrion’s head.

Megga entered then. Jaime gave her the painkillers he’d found, and they left. The three of them piled into the lift. Tyrion got off on the next floor down.

Never had she heard every creak and noise in a lift the way she did as the doors closed behind Tyrion. She stared at her shoes. They rode two more floors down.

Jaime had pressed the button.

It was also her floor.

She stepped off the lift and heard him walk behind her. They were even in the same part of the hall.

“Tarth.”

Almost afraid, she turned to look back at him. He held her handbag out to her, his face blank.

“Oh. Thanks.”

“Night,” he said. Then he swiped his key into the door beside him. She entered hers across the hall.

She kicked off her shoes and put her phone on the charger. As she brushed her teeth, she turned off the lights and went to her window, threw the curtains open. The view wasn’t as fine as Marg’s, but she pressed her forehead to the glass and let herself fall into the beauty of it just the same.

A knock sounded at the door.

Jaime’s curls were visible through the viewer. She opened the door and stepped into the bathroom.

“Come in,” she called around her toothbrush, “brushing my teeth.” She rinsed in the basin and glanced in the mirror as she wiped her mouth.

When she walked back out, the door was slightly ajar, but he hadn’t entered. She threw it open wide.

Jaime filled the doorway, one wrist braced against the frame, the other hand on his hip.

He pinned her with a look, heated.

Predatory.

“I have a heartbeat.”

Her lips fell open.

She stepped back; he stepped in. In his fingers, he held a colorful pack of condoms—identical to the one she’d seen in her swag bag.

He wanted her. It had to mean he wanted her.

Wide-eyed, she shut the door and threw the locks closed. He advanced through the shadows until they almost touched. The clean, warm Jaime scent of him filled her senses.

No green remained in his eyes, only black. He swallowed and stared at her lips. “Did you just lock me in?”

She nodded.

He backed her against the door. Their torsos pressed together, his fingers firm on her hip. Her pulse thudded low in her pelvis; she never wanted him to move. Stuttering breaths escaped her lips.

How could this be? How?

He held his mouth a whisper from her own as he skimmed his fingers up her neck.

Their lips touched, soft, then, oh—

She’d never really been kissed before, she realized. Whatever she and Hyle had done involved hands and mouths and tongues and necks, but it wasn’t this.

Jaime gasped as she scraped her nails against his scalp, into his hair.

“Talk,” he whispered. “Words. Tell me—”

“Want,” she said, and she kissed him again, the rhythm of it natural as breathing now.

Buttons went. Shirts fell. She ran her hands up the planes of his back. He fingered the clasp of her bra.

“What do you want?” he whispered into her neck.

“Skin.” She swallowed and bared her throat to his teeth. “You.”

The bra clasp gave under his fingers. He hummed in the depths of his chest; the sound cascaded down her spine. He cupped her breast, his thumb swept over her nipple. She trembled.

Clothing dropped—trousers, underwear.

His cock curved up against his abdomen; she touched it, and he made a noise that caused the muscles of her cunt to clench.

He smoothed a hand over her cheek and tilted his head toward the bed. “We don’t have to, ah— If you—”

“No, we do,” she whispered into the corner of his mouth. “We absolutely do.”

He smiled and kissed her again and took her down to the bed, the city lights poured through the window and illuminated his skin.

Ragged breaths were all she could manage when his hand drifted between her thighs. Her hips responded as he soothed his palm along her most sensitive skin. The sound of his fingers entering the slick lips of her cunt made them both groan. Her back arched off the bed. He dipped between her folds and let his fingers glide up to her clit and—

“Yes.”

She clawed at his shoulder. How could he be better at this than she was?

“I’m clean,” he whispered against her ear. “Second surgery. Tested. Mariya and I never—”

“Me too.” She gasped. His fingers on her clit held her enthralled. “Clean—ah! But not on— On uh-ah—”

“Condom.”

“Condom. Condom. Condom.”

He nuzzled at her breast while his fingers kept her on edge. His mouth hovered over the peak and held there as he met her gaze. He licked his lips, his tongue almost—

Her chest rose and fell with every pant, and his lips moved closer and closer to her nipple as it hardened to the point of pain. All she could do was dig her fingers into his shoulder and drag him to her breast.

At last, he took her nipple in his mouth, and she arched into him and came with a stuttering keen. He growled into the skin of her breast and looked up at her.

Dazed from her orgasm, she smoothed her hand over his face. He took her thumb in his teeth. Her breath sped again.

His cock was hot and hard against her thigh.

The Warrior made flesh, he loomed over her, and his hand moved between them. The condom. She opened her thighs, and he settled between, the head of his cock nudged at her swollen opening—it was almost a relief—she tried to draw it in where it ached, where she was wet, empty.

She nosed at his lips. “I need you.”

He slid inside and filled her. She gasped. He gasped too.

Not her dildo. Nothing like her dildo. He was bigger, thicker. Alive.

He moved—slipped out slow, then back in, and it was—

She groaned. She needed. Moved her hips to meet his slow thrusts. Sounds poured out of her mouth, nothing coherent.

He was the same, every thrust brought a half-formed thought from his lips. “Brienne. You feel— Gods.”

Sweat-soaked, they writhed together as he thrust in and out, over and over. His hands gripped her hips, her thighs, slid around her back.

His commentary never stopped. “Knew it would be good. But this— Yes. You are—”

She felt him tense, shudder, then he roared through closed teeth as he came.

They were nose to nose, her hands framed his face. His eyes closed. Electric pulses sparked from her core down her legs to her toes. She didn’t want him to move. This was lovely. This was . . .

He opened his eyes, and he kissed her, gentle, thorough, then he rolled away. They both stared at the ceiling. The room was dark, but she could see his face from the corner of her eye.

As their sweat cooled, she started to think.

Sex. She’d had proper sex. With Jaime.

Never for a moment had she thought he was interested in her until he knocked on her door. Why would she? Part of her still couldn’t believe it had happened, despite the fact they were lying together naked. Friends had sex. Maybe that’s all this was. That would be fine.

She would make that be fine.

The duvet rustled as he turned his head to look at her. “Why do you look like you’re solving equations in your head?”

Marg always complained about people who took hook-ups too seriously, and she didn’t want to be gauche.

She cleared her throat. “I was thinking that . . . that was . . .”

He blew out a puff of air. “Sex. That was sex, Tarth.”

Tarth.

There was no sentiment when she was Tarth. She trailed her fingers over her bare stomach; she felt exposed. Naked. Even in the dark.

He rolled toward her and cupped her cheek. “All right?”

Nothing clouded his eyes, no regret. She touched the scar on his clavicle and smiled.

His nose wrinkled, and he looked down at his cock.

“Fucking condom,” he hissed as he grabbed for it and rolled off the bed. He flipped on the bathroom light but didn’t close the door.

“Is your alarm set?” he called. “My phone is in my room.”

He planned to stay. She heard him start to piss.

What was this? What were they?

“I’ll do it now,” she called back, her voice hoarse.

“They’ll never forgive us if we’re late,” he called. The tap turned on.

She set two alarms and put her phone down just as he emerged from the bathroom.

He held something white in his hands. “For you? Uh—”

Gods. To clean her. And she was just lying there, filthy.

“Oh. Yes. I should—” Fast as she could, she stood and took the towel from him. It was damp and warm. He ran warm water for her. Like a friend.

“I wanted to—” he protested, but she closed the bathroom door.

She used the toilet, like Marg had always told her she should after. The tap was still warm. She looked up into the mirror. Her face was red—not just from her flush, but from the rubbing and kissing. As she straightened up, she realized she was red all over. A mouth-shaped mark decorated her breast. The towel seemed inadequate as she started to clean herself and she looked at the shower and—

After she showered and groomed and brushed her teeth and stared into the mirror for at least twenty minutes trying to convince herself she’d had sex with Jaime and he was still in her bed, and that was fine, she wrapped up in the fluffy white hotel dressing gown and left the bathroom.

He was asleep, lying on his stomach, face toward the wall.

She slid into bed on her side. Her phone said she’d been in the bathroom for over an hour. Somehow, she slept.

They woke later in the night. He touched her hair, the dressing gown opened, and he buried his face between her thighs. After she came twice, she told him it was time to use another condom.

“You’ll be sore tomorrow,” he whispered.

“I do not care.”

When the alarm sounded in the morning, she groaned. She looked at her phone and realized she must have shut off the first alarm. She sat up, tugging the dressing gown around her in the bright morning sunlight. Even a friend may not want to wake up and look at her broad shoulders and freckles.

She glanced over her shoulder at Jaime. His curls were tousled blond against the white pillow, his skin golden—she wanted to touch him. She knew how now.

He stirred. “Tarth?”

Tarth.

Friend.

Fine.

“We slept through the first alarm,” she said.

“Shit.” He sat up on his side of the bed.

“Good thing we have our own showers,” she said.

“Uh. Yeah.”

She stood and trod on one of his shoes. Picking it up, she glanced around for the other and pulled it out from under the desk. He was watching her, eyes narrowed. His trousers were beside the wardrobe; she tossed them to him. He stared hard at her as he stood and put them on, watching her with a heavy brow.

She held out his shoes, and he took them, pausing to scrutinize her face.

What did people say at this moment?

“Thank you,” she said. “I can scratch one night stand off my bucket list.”

He blinked; his brows went up.

He didn’t laugh. Maybe she’d been rude? They were friends. What did friends do?

She held her hand up, fingers splayed.

His jaw dropped open as he stared at it.

She hadn’t given anyone a high-five since school. This was ludicrous. A blush flared up her cheeks.

He glared at her and tapped his palm against hers, then collected his shirt from the floor and left.

Margaery’s suite buzzed with life. Marg was knelt before the toilet as her mother and grandmother and aunts pointed fingers at her cousins in turn.

The wedding planner had her go next with the hairdresser in Marg’s place. She didn’t tell the man that the careful waves he put in her stubborn hair would be gone in an hour.

Marg emerged from the bathroom looking determined and a bit green. They sat Brienne for makeup.

“Just the eyes,” Brienne said.

The makeup artist’s face fell. “But, your skin, I—”

She knew from experience that her freckles looked like grime under anything except makeup so heavy it looked like she’d just dipped her face in cream.

“Eyes and lips,” Marg told the makeup artist.

Marg grabbed Brienne’s hand and squeezed. On any other day, she’d be pouring her heart and questions out to Marg, but not today. Maid of honoring was her only focus.

The ride to the Starry Sept was a blur of trying to ensure Marg wasn’t sick all over her massive gown. And trying not to notice the way her body let her know it had been thoroughly shagged the night before every time she sat.

At the sept, Marg’s parents helped steady the bride as Brienne helped the wedding planner shepherd the younger bridesmaids down the aisle—all Tyrell cousins.

Brienne looked at Marg. “Ok?”

“Absolutely.” Marg winked. She straightened her shoulders and looked ready for anything.

So Brienne left her and walked into the sept. It was enormous, and the walk seemed to take forever. They’d given her roses to carry. She hadn’t touched a real one since Ronnet; she couldn’t wait to throw them in the bin. She saw Jaime at the front, of course, in his grey morning suit looking like a god, and not at all like the sort of man who would have spent the night before in her bed.

The ceremony was brief. The only time she caught Jaime’s eye was when he helped Tyrion with Marg’s cloak, and she had to step forward to adjust Marg’s gown. Their gazes clashed for just a moment, but then it passed.

Margaery and Tyrion looked happy. That was what mattered.

Once the couple started their recessional, she moved and took Jaime’s arm—somehow managed it without looking at him, her grip on his bicep light as they went. She would hardly have noticed him at her side if it weren’t for the Jaime scent of him mixed with cigarette that made her want everything she couldn’t have.

Afterward, the guests left or went to the hotel for drinks, but the wedding party had to stay with the photographer. She and Jaime were in nearly every photo. She didn’t know why she wanted to ignore him, but she did.

He was smoking alone outside the sept when she left with the other bridesmaids.

There were more photos at the hotel. The families this time. The photo with Tyrion’s side of the family was just with his father and Jaime. Their sister had urgent business in Volantis that Marg told her was a cover for the fact Tyrion had disinvited her to the wedding. Jaime looked grim.

Renly whispered in her ear, “Apparently Jaime was cut off and disowned, so this is even more awkward than it looks.”

She looked at Renly—tall, dark-haired, handsome-as-could-be. For a few years, she’d fancied herself in love with him. It was laughable now that she once thought that was love.

The wedding breakfast was a relief, even if she and Jaime were seated on either side of the happy couple at the high table. Everything was fine up until the speeches. Marg had asked her to make one.

Mace Tyrell’s speech was long and tedious and set a very low bar. Tyrion was funny and witty, and of course, she had to follow him.

They handed her the microphone. She thanked the Tyrells first, then turned to the ushers. “Bronn and Daven, you managed to stand—and remain standing—throughout the ceremony, so well done, all expectations were met.”

The men waved at the crowd to cheers and shouts.

She glanced at Jaime. This would have been so much easier before last night. “And Jaime.” His gaze slid warily to her. “You not only stood as expected, but looked ungodly handsome doing it, so extra points.”

A muscle worked in his jaw, but he waved at the crowd.

It was a relief to look at Marg. “Margaery once told me I should check for signs of fever if she ever said she was getting married.”

That got polite laughter.

“When we returned home after Marg first met Tyrion, she referred to him as a very nice weekend fling—”

“I said he was a smoking hot one night stand!” Marg shouted.

The room erupted in laughter.

Brienne waited until they quieted. “She said it, not me. I knew things had become serious when she told me she gave him her wifi password. Tyrion makes her laugh, but more than that, he understands her—and he adores her—which is everything I’ve ever hoped she would find. To the happy couple!”

She took a sip for her toast and promptly sat. Jaime wandered over and took the microphone from her, sparing her a long glance. He stood behind Tyrion and put a hand on his brother’s shoulder.

“Tyrion inherited all the hook-up talent in the family. My last one night stand just said ‘thanks’ and gave me a high-five as she shoved me out the door in the morning.”

The crowd roared: shouts, laughter, applause.

Brienne’s face raged. No one would ever guess he meant her, but it didn’t matter.

He waited for the room to quiet. “What’s worse is I was about to propose. Bit awkward.”

That got a fresh round of laughter.

She crossed her arms and stared straight ahead as his speech continued. It was warm and funny, and he roasted Tyrion just enough.

Everyone went to their rooms to change after the cake, so of course, the bride, groom, maid of honor, and best man found themselves in a lift together going up. They left Marg and Tyrion joking about quickies as they bolted off the lift, walking as far apart as possible in the narrow hotel hallway.

She heard his key card go, then he cleared his throat. “You look well in that gown, Tarth.”

He was trying to be nice. Her friend.

Lip between her teeth, she made herself look at him, then down at the carefully constructed high-waisted gown Marg had chosen in a color referred to as ‘blush.’

“Thanks. Uh.” She smoothed her fingers along the bodice over her ribs. “It’s padded. So. And you too. You look, well—well.”

He stared at her open-mouthed and perplexed as she frantically swiped her card and ducked in her room.

The evening reception was loud and less formal. Brienne picked at her food, feeling the dance loom like an execution.

Jaime had disappeared, which he’d apparently been doing all day. She hadn’t noticed. She needed not to notice. The high table clustered together to solve the riddle and huddled all around her to do it.

“Where is he?” Tyrion asked Daven and Bronn. “I’m a bit worried, if I’m honest.”

“He’s taken half a dozen cigarettes off me today,” Bronn said. “And my lighter.”

“Did he sleep with one of your cousins last night?” Tyrion asked Marg. “That one night stand bit was odd. He doesn’t. That’s not . . .”

Marg glanced around at her dozen or so unattached cousins scattered around the room. “No one mentioned, and you’d think they would.”

Ironic that the only way to escape the conversation was to stand up and say: “I’ll find him.”

So she did.

He was standing atop the hotel’s little garden wall along the Honeywine, where smokers were banished. The sun had just set and left its corona on the horizon. He looked like the prototype for a debonair gentleman in his dinner jacket with his curls buffetted by the soft breeze.

She gazed at the cigarette held in the corner of his mouth. He watched her approach, hands on his hips.

“The bride and groom are concerned,” she said. “The dancing starts in half an hour.”

“Fuck,” he said. He grasped the cigarette and rubbed his thumb on his eyebrow. “I’ve been shit as a best man, haven’t I?”

“They seem worried, not angry.”

“Very good of you to come tell me.” He took a hard drag and blew the smoke straight at her as he closed the distance between them. He held his hand up. “High-five.”

“Fuck off, Jaime.”

His brows went high. “I should fuck off? Me?”

“I don’t.” She knew she was turning red. She knew how it would look in the short dancing dress Marg had picked for her, with the damned thing concocted in the same wretched shade of blush. “You know I don’t know how to— I’m sorry if I offended you with the high-five. I don’t know the rules. I’ve never done this before.”

“As if I’ve done it before.”

“I’ve seen you do it before.”

“Piss off, Tarth. You said one night stand.”

“Wasn’t it?” She nicked his cigarette and took the deepest drag of her life. “You’ve never looked at me before— Considered me. It was one of those cliched wedding party hook-ups. Or Oldtown making everyone barmy.”

He took the cigarette back and turned in profile to her, so he could face the water. “You’re the one whose only criteria for a sex partner is that they not flatline before the deed. Not mine.”

“But that’s literally what you said! You showed up at my door, mocking me again about that offhand remark—”

“Because you seemed to— You flirted—”

She sputtered. “I? Flirted?”

He whirled on her. “What do you call it? You walked in that bar. Smiled. At me. For once, not looking at me like I’ve come to burn your crops and raze your cities to the ground. I thought maybe, at last . . .”

“At last?”

“This was destined to fail. I knew it was destined to fail.”

“Wait. Wait. What was destined to fail?”

He snarled around his cigarette, chomped it between his teeth. “Us, for pity’s sake.”

“Us.” She was lost.

He glanced at her, then did a double-take. His eyes softened, and he tilted his head. “Brave to the core of your soul, stubborn, sharper than you ever want anyone to know, kind, honest, resilient, impossible woman. You think I’ve never considered you before?”

She nodded.

“You never see it.” He exhaled. “It’s Old Wyk. You would have done what you did for me for anyone else. Anyone. So you think I would have taken a bullet for anyone, but I wouldn’t.”

“What?”

“I’m not a hero. I spent a year trying to understand why I was compelled to search like mad through that castle until I found you—”

“Hm?” Dacey had told her afterward that he asked everyone he stashed in the priest hole if they’d seen her. She didn’t think much about it.

“Hm.” His lips gave a wry twist. “I didn’t think twice when I saw Hoat with that gun.”

He’d said so in his testimony at Vargo’s trial. Called it instinct. Protective instinct.

“Ah.” She tried to follow his logic, her pulse rushed.

“Ah,” he growled. “It made no sense to me then. All I could think about was getting home to her. Then I went home, of course, and she— Well. Who cares about that. But they made me go to therapy, and he asked me why all the time. ‘Why, Jaime? Why do you think?’ Seven hells. I don’t think about why. Why doesn’t help with anything, generally. He got in my head, though, and I started to wonder. And the whole time, these dreams and memories that weren’t memories of you saying things assaulted me.”

“Oh.”

“Oh.” He grimaced and looked down at his cigarette, then turned to face the river again. “I was besotted. Am. I am besotted.”

“With?”

He exhaled a cloud of smoke and draped his hand over his face. “You need me to say it?”

She did. She really, really did.

“Yes.”

“You.” He didn’t even look at her when he said it.

A hundred thoughts clogged her mind. A thousand. Most of them were just urges to either touch him or dismiss this as a tremendous joke.

He never lied to her, though.

“So why don’t. Why didn’t—” She sucked in air over her teeth. “Why is it destined to fail?”

“You’re so young—”

“Late twenties?”

“And you’ve never— You have wild oats to sow, Brienne.”

“Have I ever struck you as wild?”

He grinned and licked his lips as he glanced at her from the corner of his eye. “After last night? Yes.”

She took the cigarette. It burned low. “That was with you.”

“Yes, and I could have been anyone. Anyone breathing. Anyone with a heartbeat.” He smirked at the river, and she wanted a portrait of him like this, in profile.

He took a drag. “With Hunt and that lot, you thought it was just the bet for them. You never saw that they were jealous and wanted to take you down a peg. Most of them were raised in the trade the same as you were, and had the same advantages you did, but you made more of yourself in two years than they would in twenty. But they also were happy to sleep with you. Hunt would have been happy to sleep with you. Other people will want to sleep with you.”

There was so much he had wrong, and she didn’t really care why anyone joined in the bet. All that mattered now was him, and them.

“I’m in love with you,” she said.

His face moved in small ways, the muscles pulling here and there, around his eyes, his mouth, his jaw. “You might think that after last night because of the sex and my—how did you put it—ungodly handsomeness.”

“You think I don’t know the difference between a crush and love?”

He sighed. “I think you don’t know you could tear me to shreds.”

“What?”

“I have a heart to break, Brienne. That’s what comes with having a heartbeat.”

“You daft—” She grasped his face in her hands. “What do you hear? In your dreams? What do you think I said that I didn’t say?”

His hands slid around her waist, he drew her near. “You want me, you need me. Guess what kind of dreams they are—”

“Jaime, I said all of it. On the transport plane. I thought you were going to die. I think even then I was— I am. I’ve been trying to deny it for a long time.”

“Hm.” His shoulders straightened, and he drew up to his full height and gave her a grin that was almost evil. Thank the gods she was a little taller, or she’d be lost forever—

“In that case.” He stubbed out his cigarette atop the stone wall. “I was going to propose when I found you wrapped up like a sausage in that absurd dressing gown last night, but I was afraid you’d think I was coming on too strong.”

“Yeah, that’s— That’s too strong.” She kissed him, long and slow.

He broke the kiss with a grin. “I was trying to work out how I’d convince you to move into mine.”

“Again. Too strong. And obviously not, I love my house—”

“But the cats.”

“They’d adjust? They’re cats.”

“It’s too small, they’ll tear it apart—and us while they’re at it.”

“I’m not selling my house.”

“Let it out.”

“Let yours out.”

“Oi! Lovebirds!” Bronn approached them from the ballroom. “They’re about to start the dance, and you’re meant to be there.”

They waited until Tyrion and Marg’s dance was finished, then Jaime pulled her onto the dance floor. She hoped the lights were low enough that no one could see the red lip stain she’d left all over his face. He held up his hand, and she took it. He pulled her in, and they swayed—it was so much easier when she wasn’t afraid to touch him.

“We can’t leave until they leave,” he whispered in her ear, “but one nice thing about a dress is that it’s very easy access for a quick shag in a toilet stall.”

Heat spread over her cheeks, and her pulse thudded. “You can’t embarrass me.”

“I live for it.”

“We don’t have a condom.”

“Do you know me at all? Check my pocket.”

“Later. In one of our rooms. And don’t get used to me in dresses, I hate them.

“I know. You belong in tweed.”

“You hate the tweed.”

He made a sound in his throat that did terrible things to her. “I want you in tweed,” he murmured against her ear. “I bemoan the warm seasons because you put it away.”

She kissed him as they swayed in a crowd of people who were starting to stare. And he kissed her back—thorough, demanding.

The song changed. They moved off the floor and sat again at the high table, but side-by-side this time, while the dance floor worked up to a whir.

He put his arm around the back of her chair and leaned over to whisper in her ear, “I’m probably going to propose again in the morning.”