“They say he was part of some clandestine society when last he was in town. Not a club by any means. Something far more sinister.”
“I heard his elder brother died under…unusual circumstances. There was talk of foul play and that he was the culprit.”
“Lady Frey said that a cousin of hers once visited his estate and found it to be frightfully dark and closed in, as if he was hiding something dreadful.”
“Well,” said Sansa, interjecting before the girls around her could continue, “this Duke of Westerland sounds like a disreputable gentleman indeed. But, have either of you actually seen hide or hair of the man?”
“Well, no,” said Miss Jeyne Poole, looking contrite, “but there’s not a single person in London who isn’t talking about him.”
Miss Myrcella, elder sister of Tommen Baratheon, the Viscount Crownland, nodded. “He hasn’t been to town in nearly five years. He’s been all but a recluse.”
Sansa rolled her eyes. “Perhaps he had pressing business in his ‘frightfully dark and closed in’ estate. Not every gentleman in England comes to town for the Season.”
“But the ones seeking ladies of marriageable age and considerable fortune do,” said Myrcella, sly. “Maybe he’s penniless and hoping to catch an heiress with his title.”
“Who wouldn’t want to marry a duke?” Jeyne sighed.
“Even if it meant associating with the Duke of Westerland and making yourself the subject of gossip?” asked Sansa, blinking over her fan. “I don’t imagine your father would approve of that, Jeyne.”
Miss Poole looked down, blushing crimson. Sir Vayon Poole, a stern man, was a good friend of Sansa’s own father, Lord Eddard Stark, Earl of Winterfell. They had fought together at Waterloo, the battle in which Sir Vayon had earned his knighthood. He wanted the best for his daughter, and knew that remaining in the good graces of the ton was essential if she was to find a husband.
Gossip was the currency of a London Season. A single rumor could make or ruin a young lady’s reputation. Sansa’s mother, Lady Catelyn, had warned her eldest daughter of the perils of making her debut into society for years before, at last, she had been allowed to come out that March. Charming yet demure, she had expected to have a successful, but quiet Season. However, somehow she had managed to become chosen as the protégé of the ton’s most celebrated widow, Lady Margaery Baratheon, née Tyrell.
Lady Margaery was everything Sansa wanted to be: impeccably dressed in the finest fashions of the Season, invited to the best parties, and sought after by all the most handsome gentlemen in town. She had an easy confidence to be envied and was admired for her charitable works with London’s needy orphans. It seemed that after her husband, Lord Joffrey Baratheon, had died unexpectedly shortly after their wedding, her popularity had only grown. Only a few of the dowdiest matrons spoke ill of her brazenness in the face of her husband’s demise, but everyone else in town adored her.
“Sansa, darling,” said Lady Margaery herself, flouncing across the ballroom to where Sansa and her friends were standing. “Whatever are you doing hiding back here? Certainly your dance card for the night is quite full.”
“It is, my lady,” she replied, “but I found myself in need of brief respite before standing up again.”
“Well, you’ve had it, haven’t you?” said Margaery, taking Sansa’s arm and pulling her away from Jeyne and Myrcella. “It’s time you come and visit with my grandmother, Lady Redwyne. She’s been waiting to meet you since the start of the Season.”
Sansa allowed herself to be pulled along. She could not, after all, refuse to speak to the hostess of that night’s party. From what she had heard, Lady Redwyne was quite a fearsome woman. She spoke plainly and held very few audiences with the young women of the ton, as she judged them all to be flighty and dull. It was an honor to be called before her.
“Grandmother,” said Margaery as they arrived, “I want to introduce Miss Stark to you.”
Sansa dropped a curtsey. “It is a true pleasure to make your acquaintance, my lady.”
Lady Redwyne cocked a brow, surveying Sansa with vague interest. “So, you are the girl that my granddaughter has taken under her wing. You’re pretty enough and well-mannered, too, but I wonder if you’re really worth the effort. Last Season’s girl certainly wasn’t.”
Sansa paled, but managed a smile. “I certainly hope I am coming up to Lady Margaery’s standards, my lady. And yours, too.”
“Ha!” Lady Redwyne barked. “At least she has some wit, Margaery. I think I might just like this one.”
Sansa inclined her head graciously.
“Well, there’s no sense in you dawdling about in my company, Miss Stark,” said Lady Redwyne. “Go out and enjoy the dancing.”
Curtseying once more, Sansa backed away. As Margaery led their retreat, she leaned close to Sansa’s ear and said, “Well done. Now do as she says and dance the next quadrille with my brother Loras. Grandmother will approve of that.”
Sansa ended up partnering Lord Loras Tyrell for the next two dances. He was a fine dancer and very handsome, though nearly an inch shorter than her. From the very beginning of her Season she had worried that she would be too tall to be a favorite of the gentlemen, but Margaery had dismissed her concerns, telling her that height was an advantage to a woman, as she would stand out among the other girls. Sansa had not been altogether convinced of that, but she had nodded and squeezed Margaery’s hand by way of thanks.
Lord Tyrell left her by the refreshment table once their second dance was over. Sansa curtseyed prettily and bid him enjoy the rest of the party. Taking out her fan, she tried to cool her heated skin. The dance had warmed her, almost uncomfortably so. She longed to step out into the rose garden just outside the stifling ballroom.
“Myrcella,” she said to her friend, “I’m going to get a bit of fresh air.”
“Let me get Jeyne and we’ll accompany you.”
“Don’t trouble yourself,” said Sansa, “I’ll be all right on my own for a few minutes.”
Myrcella gave her a dubious look, but nodded. Sansa patted her hand and then released it as she slipped out the door and into the garden.
Once outside, removed from the din of the party, Sansa took a few breaths of cool air. She smiled as she looked around her. She was certain that Lady Redwyne’s roses were the finest in England. The whole garden smelled divine. A small fountain was bubbling from somewhere ahead. Following the sound, she found her way to a wooden bench beneath an arbor.
Though she was enjoying her Season and all that it entailed, she rarely got a moment’s peace. So, she was determined to take another few moments in the rose garden, listening to the pleasant splash of the fountain.
The scuff of a boot on the ground nearby interrupted the stillness. “Now what is a young woman doing out here all alone?” It was a man’s voice, deep and gravely.
Sansa shot to her feet, looking around her. “Who’s there?”
“Don’t be alarmed, girl,” he said. “I mean you no harm.”
She squinted into the dark, trying to make out his form. “Of course…sir. You surprised me is all.”
“I can see that,” he chuckled, taking a step toward her. “You jumped like a startled bird on a branch.”
As he came into the moonlight, Sansa’s eyes widened. He was a man of impressive stature, far larger than any of the men she had danced with that night. He wore a black evening coat against which his white cravat shone like a beacon. His dark hair was longer than what was in fashion; it brushed the collar of his coat. Though it was difficult to make out his features, she could see that he had a strong jaw. His nose appeared to have been broken at least once, and a long, white scar cut across his cheek and down to his chin.
Sansa shook her head as she realized that she had been staring. Curtseying, she said, “Good evening, sir.”
“And to you,” he said, bowing from the waist, “little bird.”
Her brows rose at that, but she quickly schooled her expression again. It was too late, though; the smile that quirked at the corners of his mouth betrayed that he had seen it. Sansa felt heat creeping into her cheeks, but raised her chin.
“You must always appear undaunted,” Margaery had told her more than once. “Never let anyone see your uncertainty, even if it threatens to overwhelm you. You must master your emotions.”
“What brings you here, sir?” Sansa asked, as if she was making polite conversation in the ballroom, not standing unchaperoned in the dark with a man whose name she did not know. “Are you well acquainted with Lady Redwyne?”
“I’ve met her once or twice,” he replied. “My father knew her quite well.”
Sansa did her best to ignore the suggestive nature of his comment. “Indeed. I just met her tonight. She is a singular lady.”
“That’s putting it kindly,” he scoffed. “Have you not heard her called Battleaxe Redwyne?”
“I…had not, no,” said Sansa, though it wasn’t true. Since she had come to London, she had heard it said that Lady Redwyne was hard as steel, her tongue as sharp as the bladed edge of an axe. Rumor had it that she had cut more than her share of unsuspecting lords and ladies down to size with it.
The man cocked a brow. “You’re not a very good liar, are you?”
“Dishonesty is not a becoming trait,” Sansa said, “especially for ladies.” His laugh grated against her ears.
“How very courteous,” he said. “Diplomatic even.”
She swallowed. “Sir, if I have offended you, I—”
“You’ve done no such thing,” he said, raising a hand. “It would take far more than that to give me offense, I promise you.”
“As you say,” said Sansa, looking down. She waited for him to speak again, but he remained silent. He was watching her, though. She could feel his eyes on her. “Well, sir, I should return to the ballroom. My friends are expecting me, I’m sure.”
“Of course,” he said.
She nodded, but as she turned to go, five strong fingers grasped her wrist. She drew in a sharp breath, turning back.
“Tell me your name.”
“I…” she started, words failing her in the shock of being so unexpectedly touched. It was completely improper for a gentleman to lay hands on her in such a familiar manner.
“Your name, little bird,” he said, his voice lowering to a growl.
“Well, Miss Stark,” he said. “Allow me to escort you back to your friends.”
She should have allowed no such thing, but when he slipped her arm through his, she didn’t protest. In fact, she was surprised by her own boldness as she said, “I have told you my name, sir, but you have not told me yours.”
His eyes flashed wickedly as he lifted her hand to his lips. “Clegane,” he said, his breath warm on her knuckles.
Sparks of sensation shot up her arm, making her breath come up short. “Lord Clegane?”
“As much as I dislike the sound of it, it's Duke.”
Sansa considered for a moment. She prided herself on knowing the names of all the peers of the realm, but she had never heard that one before. Duke Clegane? Certainly that was not right. Had he given her his surname rather than his title? If so, it would be very unusual indeed. Before she could stop herself, she asked, “You dislike your title, Your Grace?”
He shrugged one shoulder. “His Grace was my father, and my brother was to inherit the title after him. It was never meant for me.”
Sansa was unsure how to reply in the face of such candor. Few gentlemen she had met over the course of the Season would have divulged such private matters to someone who was all but a stranger.
“I’m sure you bear the title well, Your Grace,” she said after a moment.
“Though I have no choice in the matter, Miss Stark,” he said, “I do hope you’re right.” Settling her hand back in the crook of his arm, he led her out of the garden and up into the brightness of the ballroom.
The first eyes to fall upon them were, as expected, those of Jeyne Poole. She and Myrcella had been standing by the refreshments waiting for Sansa to come back from her brief interval in the garden. When Jeyne saw the duke at her side, though, her eyes went wide and she all but spit out her punch. Grasping Myrcella’s arm, she pulled her close and spoke into her ear.
Sansa’s stomach tightened with worry. She had gone out into the garden alone and was returning in the company of a gentleman. There would no doubt be whispers making the rounds of the room already. But, as Margaery had instructed her, she held her head high and stood her ground against the judgmental stares of the ton.
“Thank you very much for helping me find my way back from the garden, Your Grace,” she said, loud enough to be heard by the matrons nearby. “I had gotten so turned around that if not for you, I fear I never would have found my way out.”
Clegane eyed her, but thankfully said nothing about her lack of talent for lying. Releasing her, he bowed. “It was no trouble, Miss Stark. I’m glad I could be of service to you. Good evening.”
“Good evening,” she said, curtsying.
As he turned away from her, almost all the eyes in the room followed him. Sansa frowned, wondering what they knew that she did not.
“Sansa,” Myrcella hissed, tugging on her sleeve. “Do you have any idea who that was?”
"His Grace the Duke,” she replied, deliberately omitting the proper title he had not told her. “I…recently made his acquaintance. Not tonight, of course. Before.” That lie was not particularly convincing either, but she hoped she would not be questioned further.
Jeyne Poole’s jaw dropped. “You met the duke and you didn’t tell us?”
“The Duke of…” said Sansa, her mouth going suddenly dry.
“Westerland,” said Myrcella. “Sandor Clegane, Duke of Westerland.”
By the next morning, word of Westerland's presence at Lady Redwyne’s soiree had spread across town. Fortunately for Sansa, the mere appearance of the man far outweighed the fact that she had been in his company. It did not, however, escape her mother’s notice.
“What were you thinking going out into the garden unaccompanied?” Lady Catelyn demanded as she sat with Sansa at breakfast. “You could have been compromised, your reputation tattered.”
“Really, Mother,” she said as she took a slice of bacon, “I was no more than a few steps from the door.”
“That’s beside the point,” said Catelyn. “You should not have gone out there alone in the first place. I thought I told you about the risks.”
“You did,” Sansa sighed. “And if it will please you, I promise I will not do so again. I will insist that you or Jeyne come with me next time I need to take some air.”
“Watch your tone, young lady,” Catelyn warned, frowning.
Sansa made her apologies.
Satisfied, her mother moved on to other topics. “It’s a fine day to take the carriage out for a drive in the park,” she said. “Shall we invite Myrcella and Jeyne along?”
The idea of such rides was, of course, to see and be seen rather than to enjoy the day, but Sansa was not about to turn down an afternoon in the sunshine. After luncheon, she changed into a day dress, took her parasol, and joined her mother and her friends in the Stark family barouche.
They made the rounds of the lake first before venturing toward the open meadows on the eastern side of the park. Sansa enjoyed that part of the ride most because she could watch the boldest of the ton’s gentlemen gallop their horses across the fields. She was not overly fond of riding herself, but there was something riveting about a dashing man astride an equally handsome stallion.
There were four horses in the field when the barouche pulled onto the meadow path. Leaning against the side of the carriage, Sansa looked out to see if she recognized any of them. She spotted Lord Loras Tyrell easily enough. His green velvet riding jacket was piped with gold that winked in the sun. His was a long legged horse with a coat as white as snow. Next to him were Lords Jason Mallister and Danwell Frey, formidable horsemen both.
The fourth rider, though, stood a little away from the others. His horse was black with feathered legs and stood at least a full hand taller than the others. Sansa could see the sinewy muscles moving beneath its shining coat. There was no mistaking the rider for anyone other than Clegane.
His Grace the Duke, she corrected herself. She knew the proper form of address, of course, but because he had chosen to give her his surname at their initial meeting, she found it difficult not to refer to him as such.
“Goodness,” said Myrcella. “I’ve never seen such a large horse under saddle. I thought they were only meant to pull carts.”
“Does that look anything like a cart horse to you?” Sansa asked, frowning.
“Well, no,” she said, “but—”
“Look,” said Jeyne, pointing, “Lord Tyrell is waving to us. Myrcella, is my hair still in order?”
Sansa left the two of them to fuss over their appearances. She kept her eyes on the riders as they cantered from the far side of the meadow to the road.
“Good afternoon, ladies,” said Loras, grinning broadly as he reined his horse up beside the barouche. “You are looking well today.”
“Thank you, my lord,” Sansa said, as Myrcella and Jeyne were too caught up in their giggles and blushes to say anything of consequence. “Are you enjoying your ride?”
“Decidedly,” he said. “Don’t you say, Mallister?”
“I daresay I do,” said Lord Jason.
“What brings you to the park today?” asked Lord Frey.
“This weather is not to be missed,” Lady Catelyn replied. “After all the rain in the past fortnight, such lovely days cannot be wasted.”
Frey nodded. “Indeed, madam. Though I must say, your company looks far more pleasant than mine.”
Catelyn, Myrcella, and Jeyne tittered at the jibe. Sansa, though, did not. Her gaze had fallen on Clegane, whose expression bore none of the joviality of his companions. There was no malice in his eyes, but he simply seemed disinterested in the entire affair. Sansa, who sometimes felt the same when in the company of other ladies of the ton, found herself struggling to suppress a smile. He noticed almost immediately, and lifted a single brow at her.
“Your Grace,” she said, “as you have not been in town long, how are you finding it?”
“Unchanged,” he said gruffly. “A charade of propriety doing little to hide the merciless scheming and climbing of social ladders.”
The laughter behind Sansa in the carriage died out. She should, perhaps, have been equally scandalized, but she found that she was not. She knew that beneath the pretty façade of balls and gowns, the ton was a buzzing hive of ambitious conspirators and backstabbing gossips. It was the game they all played, even if they didn’t want to admit it to themselves.
“I see that you pull no punches, Your Grace,” she said. “That is…a refreshing perspective.”
He snorted. “Ever courteous, Miss Stark. Chirping politely like a—”
“Little bird?” she asked sweetly, cutting him off.
“Yes,” he said. “Very much like a pet songbird: pretty, but frivolous.”
“Westerland, really,” said Loras Tyrell. “If I didn’t know you better, I would think you meant to insult Miss Stark. As you are well aware, she and her companions are very accomplished. Such ladies are anything but frivolous.” He smiled at Myrcella and Jeyne, but when he turned back to the duke, his eyes were dark with reproof.
Clegane regarded him coolly, unaffected. When he spoke, though, he was somewhat more contrite. “I did not mean any offense, Miss Stark.”
“It would take far more than that to give me offense, Your Grace,” she said, echoing his own words from the night before, “I promise you.”
His smile was knowing, wolfish. “Indeed.” He tipped his hat. “Until next time, then, Miss Stark.”
“I look forward to it, Your Grace,” she said as he guided his horse back toward the meadow. Lords Tyrell, Mallister, and Frey excused themselves as well and followed him at a brisk canter.
“What a disagreeable man, that Duke of Westerland,” Jeyne was saying that evening as she and Sansa rode together toward house of Lady Frey, Marchioness of Riversland. Her ladyship was holding her annual blue and silver banquet. It was one of the most exclusive soirees of the Season, and thanks to Margaery, Sansa “and her chosen guests” had gotten an invitation.
“He’s not as bad as that,” she said, folding her gloved hands in her lap. “He’s perhaps a bit tetchy…”
“Tetchy?” said Jeyne. “That’s an appalling understatement. What he said this afternoon, what he called you…it was downright ungentlemanly.”
Sansa opened her mouth to speak, but Jeyne was not to be deterred.
“And the way he was looking at you,” she said. “It was…rapacious.”
“Oh, come now,” said Sansa. “His gaze is intent, that’s all. And I hardly know him. What reason would he have to look at me in any particular way?”
Jeyne sighed, exasperated. “You know perfectly well that you’re the prettiest girl out this Season. I’ve seen more than one gentleman looking you over approvingly, but His Grace…he looks at you as if you’re prey to be hunted. Have you not taken note of that? It’s unsettling.”
Sansa felt her cheeks growing warm as she thought back to the last smile he had given her that afternoon. Though she was loath to admit it, even to herself, it had been somewhat…predatory. However, she did not think it had anything to do with her beauty. Rather, she would hazard that he had simply taken her impudent—albeit genteel—retorts as a kind of challenge. Though that had not been her original intent, upon further reflection as she dressed for the party that evening, she found that she had indeed been rankling him. And she had enjoyed it.
“There is nothing unsettling about the duke,” said Sansa. “His conversation may not be the most good-humored, but that’s no reason to impugn him.”
Jeyne narrowed her eyes. “You’re taken with him, aren’t you?”
“Certainly not,” Sansa laughed. Yet, she could not help but recall the way his touch—his lips on her fingers—had set her to tingling on the night they met in the garden. She had been kissed on the hand before, but it had never sent a thrill down her spine until the duke had done it. Chewing the inside of her cheek, she called his face up in her mind’s eye.
He was not as handsome as the likes of Loras Tyrell, and he was almost too broad and tall. He had filled nearly the entire doorway when he had walked back into Lady Redwyne’s ballroom. The scar on his face was not disfiguring, but it did give him an imposing look. Matched with his size and sullen manner, she could see how Jeyne could find him disagreeable. By all accounts, Sansa should have, too, but she did not. In fact, she was curious to find out more about him. She wondered if Lady Frey had seen fit to invite him to her soiree.
“We’re here,” Jeyne announced excitedly. “I can’t wait to see the decorations. Everyone talks about them.”
“That they do,” said Sansa. “Shall we go then?”
Lady Frey’s blue and silver décor was a bit garish in Sansa’s opinion, but she still complimented the hostess on the effort she had put into outfitting the house for her guests. And there were quite a few of those. She was sure that no less than half of London society was in attendance. So much for exclusivity.
As with all the other functions Sansa had been to since the start of the Season, she spent most of the early part of the evening catching up with the other young ladies and, in some cases, their mothers and aunts. There were always new tidbits of gossip to share, from how Lady Manderly had once again worn her abominable green turban adorned with peacock feathers to how much attention Sir Trant had paid to one of the Blackwood girls. Sansa had exchanged a good number of her stories by the time Lady Margaery arrived to greet her.
“Hello, dove,” she said to Sansa, kissing her cheeks. “Don’t you just look divine in that blue silk. Did we pick that out together?”
“The silk, yes,” said Sansa. “The dressmaker just finished the frock a day ago.”
“Well, it’s lovely.” Taking her protégé by the arm, Margaery leaned in close to her ear. “Now, darling, I heard something quite alarming this afternoon. Loras said that he encountered you, Miss Poole, Miss Baratheon, and your mother in the park today.”
“He did,” Sansa said, “but I hardly think that’s cause for alarm.”
“Of course not, but the Duke of Westerland’s behavior toward you is.” Margaery gave her a concerned look. “Loras said that you greeted His Grace as a friend, but that he spoke harshly to you. Is that true?”
“It was not particularly harsh, no,” said Sansa. She explained what was said as best as she could remember. “So, you see, it wasn’t a slight. It was all in good fun.”
“Fun?” said Margaery, her brows rising. “I had no idea you were on such friendly terms with the duke.”
Sansa willed herself not to blush. “We are acquainted.”
Margaery tapped her fan to her chin contemplatively. “Well, if you are certain it was not his intention to insult you, then I will take you at your word. However, if you do see the man again, let us hope he is more civil.” She smiled. “Now, let’s put these matters aside. The dancing is about to start.”
As the evening progressed, Sansa once again stood up for nearly every dance. Though the conversations she had had with her partners had been pleasant enough, she found their company increasingly tedious. When the musicians laid down their instruments for few minutes, she quickly found her way to the refreshments to pour herself some punch. Glass in hand, she turned around and nearly collided with a man in a dark blue coat with silver buttons.
“Watch yourself, girl,” he said, taking hold of her elbows to steady her, “or you’ll ruin your pretty gown.”
“You Grace,” she said, looking up at Clegane. “Forgive me. I did not see you there.”
“I don’t often get that,” he said, one corner of his mouth turning up. “I’m rather hard to miss.”
“Well, yes,” said Sansa, taking in the breadth of his chest from where she stood at its center. “I’d imagine so.”
“Yet I managed to escape your notice,” he said.
A wry smile touched her lips. “This once, Your Grace, but from now on, I’ll keep a closer watch for you.”
“Will you?” he asked, his eyes darkening.
Sansa started when she felt his fingers tighten around her arms, his thumbs grazing lightly against the skin. His touch sent shivers up her back, making her sharply aware of the warmth of his hands, the light calluses on his palms. “I do always look out for my friends,” she said, though her voice was breathier than she had expected.
A slow, raptorial smile spread across his face. “And what makes you think I want to be a friend to you?”
She wet her lips, searching for a reply. Watching his gaze move to her mouth did little to inspire loquaciousness. “Well, Your Grace, it seems we keep finding ourselves in each other’s company, as friends often do.”
“Perhaps,” he said, “but there are other, more unfriendly reasons to keep company.”
Despite Margaery’s tutelage, Sansa could not keep the flush from her face. His salacious implication was clear. Every lesson the stern teachers at the Hornwood School for Young Ladies had given her dictated that she should have looked properly affronted and then steered the conversation hastily in another direction. As fast as she could, she was to give her excuses to the gentleman and make a decorous exit, seeking refuge in her chaperone and female friends.
She did none of those things. She remained where she was, standing altogether too close to the duke and staring up at him, seemingly unable to look away from his face. When she didn’t contradict or chastise him for taking liberties, his smile faded into something far more determined. She swallowed heavily. What had Jeyne called that look? Rapacious. Yes, it was, and it made a strange excitement pool in the pit of her stomach.
“Excuse me, Miss Stark,” said a young man as he arrived at her side. Startled out of her reverie, she turned to him and blinked until his face came into focus. It was Harrold Hardyng.
“Mr. Hardyng,” she said, stepping back from Clegane. His hands—which had still been at her arms, she realized—fell to his sides.
Harrold, heir presumptive to the barony of Arryn, made a neat bow. “Good evening, Miss Stark, Your Grace. I apologize for the interruption, but I believe I have the next dance.”
The look the duke shot him was venomous, and for a moment Sansa thought he might say something rude, but he simply continued to glare at him in silence. Hardyng cleared his throat, plainly uncomfortable under Clegane’s scrutiny.
Before the situation could deteriorate further, Sansa stepped in. “Of course, Mr. Hardyng,” she said, smiling brightly. “Do forgive me for not seeking you out sooner.”
“There is nothing to forgive, Miss Stark,” he said as he offered his arm. “Shall we take the floor?”
Adopting her most coquettish affect, she replied, “Nothing would please me more.” Before she allowed him to lead her away, though, she turned once more to Clegane. “Perhaps you might like to dance later, Your Grace?”
“No,” he said, curt. “I don’t dance.” Without another word, he turned and left her.
Sansa did not see Clegane again for nearly a week. True to her word, she looked for him at all the gatherings she attended, but it seemed he had all but disappeared. Until the night of Lord Oberyn Martell’s celebrated East Indian dinner party, that is.
Lord Martell, the Baron of Sunspear, had spent a good part of his life in the Indian colonies. Though he had loved it dearly—as he told almost everyone in his acquaintance—he had missed England. When he had returned, he had brought with him a number of Indian servants, which was interesting, but hardly worth gossiping about. What set tongues wagging among the ton was the woman that accompanied him from Bombay.
Mrs. Ellaria Sand was the widowed daughter of a shipping magnate whose fortune had been made, most disagreeably, in trade. Though gently bred, she had grown up under the hot Indian sun and married an army officer. Rumor had it that her husband had been aboard one of her father’s ships when it went down off the coast of Spain. Whether that was true, was anyone’s guess. Mrs. Sand rarely spoke of either her father or her late husband. There was no mistaking her attachment to Lord Martell, however.
Taking a mistress was nothing out of the ordinary. What shocked London society was the fact that she not only lived with Lord Martell in his townhouse, but also attended functions at his side as if she were his wife. They had a box at the theater and never missed a show. Mrs. Sand held salons—some of the finest in town, in fact—and had numerous friends among the married ladies of the ton. Over the years, they had come to accept her for what she was, but she always left whispers in her wake.
Sansa’s mother had, at first, objected when Lady Margaery asked Sansa to attend the Martell dinner party as her particular friend. Catelyn Stark thought it improper to expose her daughter to the type of people who carried on in such an indecent manner, but Margaery had managed to charm her, as she did everyone.
“I assure you, Lady Stark,” she had said, her tone saccharine, “that in all the years I have attended the party, nothing untoward has taken place. Unless you count the time Lady Grafton got quite sick from the spiced dishes.”
Catelyn had laughed at that and relented. And so, Sansa found herself walking at Margaery’s side as they made their entrance into the dining room at Lord Martell’s home, Dorne House.
“Lady Margaery,” said Martell himself as he greeted her at the door. “You are looking radiant, as always. And who is this lovely young woman with you?”
“My lord,” she said, “may I present Miss Sansa Stark?”
“Eddard Stark’s daughter?” he asked, brows raised. “I would hardly know it to look at you. Where he is dark of hair and, dare I say, rather severe, you are as bright as the last rays of sun on a summer day.”
“I’ve been told I favor my mother,” said Sansa, blushing.
“Ah, the lovely Lady Catelyn,” he said. “You must send her my regards.”
“I shall, my lord.”
“Good, good. Now, please come in. My darling Ellaria has seated you near her end of the table.” He gave Sansa a not-so-subtle wink. “Where the young gentlemen are.”
“Martell, you rouge,” said Margaery, tapping her fan against his arm in mock reprimand. He took her hand and kissed it as she and Sansa made their way toward the table.
There were a number of men and women milling around as they arrived. Sansa knew their faces and had memorized their titles, but her eyes did not linger on them for long. Instead, her gaze was drawn to the shadowy corner of the dining room where a familiar figure stood.
Clegane was dressed as finely as he always was, his coat and breeches perfectly tailored to accommodate his size. He had an untouched glass of champagne in his hand and looked decidedly bored. Sansa wondered why he even bothered to attend such parties if he thought them all a farce. Perhaps he was searching for a wealthy heiress after all, for she could not think of any other reason he would subject himself to the society he so disliked.
Whatever his motivations, Sansa felt that increasingly familiar twinge of excitement when she saw him. This time, though, it was laced with some uncertainty. If he spoke to her, what would she say? They could not resume their conversation from Lady Frey’s soiree; it would cause a greater scandal than any gossip about Lord Martell and his Mrs. Sand. And considering how little they had actually said to one another, she hadn’t the slightest idea how to carry on a conversation with him. The sensible part of her hoped that he would be seated far away from her, but the more daring side—which was newly discovered, it seemed—wished to be as near to him the seating arrangements would allow.
“We’re this way, Sansa, darling,” said Margaery, taking her arm. She guided them to two seats nearest the foot of the table, where Mrs. Sand would sit. Sansa had to admit that she was curious about her. If Lord Martell had been willing to brave the scathing talk about their relationship, he must have cared for her very deeply.
Between their seats, Sansa and Margaery found Lord Baelor Hightower, a young man whose middling good looks were more than made up for by his agreeable demeanor. He greeted them both with a smile and attended to their chairs as they sat. Margaery asked after his father, making the necessary noises when he told her he was ill. Sansa was content to sit in silence for a time as she watched the other guests begin to find their places around the table. Unavoidably, she looked back at Clegane in the corner.
As if he had felt her eyes on him, he turned and met them. The glazed look of boredom disappeared. Setting his glass down on the sideboard, he pushed himself away from the wall and began the journey down to her end of the table. She watched his progress, amused to see that everyone seemed to move away from him, letting him pass unhindered.
At his rumbling, “Miss Stark,” Margaery and Lord Hightower both looked up in surprise.
Disregarding them, Sansa inclined her head. “Your Grace, it’s a pleasure to see you this evening. It’s been some time since our last meeting.”
“I was away from town for a few days,” he said. “I had some affairs to settle at my father’s—my estate.”
“I hope everything is in order,” she said.
He lifted a brow. “I’m back here, aren’t I?”
“And just in time for Lord Martell’s party,” said Margaery, smiling. “How fortunate for you, Your Grace.”
“Indeed,” he said, giving her only a passing nod before turning back to Sansa. “I wasn’t expecting to see you here, Miss Stark. I didn’t know your tastes ran to the exotic.”
“Oh, yes, Your Grace,” she said. “Mine is a most adventurous palate.” From the corner of her eye, Sansa could see Margaery’s expression of disbelief. She almost laughed. In the months of their acquaintance, she had never taken to the more brazen flirtatiousness that her tutor often employed when enticing a swain. Instead she had relied on her other charms. It had worked, and she had seen no reason stray from that course, but something about the way Clegane insisted on baiting her with his innuendos made her want to give as good as she got. From the way he ever so slightly narrowed his eyes at her, she knew she had succeeded.
“Then you are in the right company,” he said.
“Certainly,” said Sansa, smiling sweetly. “The company of friends.”
Before he could reply, a gong sounded near the head of the table. Lord Martell, grinning, welcomed his guests and bid them sit so that the first course could be brought out. It seemed that a gentleman by the name of Lord Penrose was to sit across from Sansa, but after a quick word from Clegane, he beat a hasty retreat toward the head of the table and took up the place that Sansa assumed was to have been the duke’s. Clegane himself took the seat directly across from her. As he pulled his chair in and extended his long legs, his feet collided with hers. He was smirking when she looked up at him. Turning her nose up dismissively, she pulled her feet back and crossed them at the ankles.
“Your Grace,” said a woman from down the table. Her voice was a rich, deeper slightly than most ladies’. Glancing down the table, Sansa saw a petite woman with silky black hair swept up into a braided chignon. She wore a gown of deep red lined with gold. “I thought I had placed you nearer to my dear Oberyn.”
“You must be mistaken, Mrs. Sand,” Clegane said. “I was told to sit across from Miss Stark.”
Sansa barely managed to keep her face impassive. It was unconscionable to suggest that the lady of the house was not familiar with her own seating arrangements. Most hostesses took several hours to carefully lay them out. Sansa—and the rest of the guests on that side of the table—braced themselves for the inevitable rebuke.
Ellaria Sand, however, simply blinked at Clegane, looked down at Sansa, and then smiled. “Of course, you’re right, Your Grace. I thought that you might enjoy the conversation of such a charming young lady.”
Sansa forced a smile. She had not even been properly introduced to Mrs. Sand, yet she was calling her “charming.” That, she reasoned, was a quickly constructed falsehood to pacify the other guests. Margaery, though, was not in the least soothed. She was looking, open-mouthed, between Clegane and Sansa, trying to assemble the pieces of a puzzle that Sansa wasn’t certain she herself even understood. What was she playing at by teasing the duke so shamelessly? And what had possessed him to flout Mrs. Sand just to sit across from her? There was so little about the situation that made sense, but she found that it intrigued her.
The first course was a flat kind of bread served with a tangy brown sauce. Sansa hadn’t the slightest idea what it was, but it had a certain sweetness that she liked. By the time the second course had been served, everyone at the table had put the awkwardness of seating from their minds. Mrs. Sand was recounting a tale of her girlhood in India for Lord Harlaw and his wife, both of whom seemed enchanted by the notion of riding elephants. Margaery was speaking again with Lord Hightower, though the lifelessness of her expression betrayed the dullness of the conversation.
“How are you finding the chicken, Miss Stark?” Clegane asked, looking at her from over the rim of his wineglass. “Adventurous enough for you?”
Sansa had been forced to dab at her eyes after the first bite. The spiciness had caught her off guard. Clegane had seen it, of course, and smirked. “It’s good,” she said, “though it does take a little getting used to.”
He chuckled. “It does. Just wait until the curried fish.”
“Are you a connoisseur of Indian cuisine, Your Grace?” she asked to keep herself from worrying about the indignities she might have to suffer in the courses to come.
“Not particularly,” he replied, “but neither are you.”
Sansa raised a brow. “That’s rather presumptuous. What do you know of my preferences?”
“More than you might think,” he said.
“Really?” she said. “Give me an example.”
Folding his hands and setting them on the edge of the table, he said, “You prefer sweet to savory.”
She nodded. “Yes, but that was not so hard to discern after watching me eat the last two courses. Care to venture out of the realm of diet?”
“You like cards, but you play poorly.”
“That is…true.” When she used to play cards with her brothers Robb and Jon, they told her that she always showed her hand in her face. Margaery had said much the same thing about her when they had first met. Over the course of the Season, she had tried to keep herself from showing every emotion so clearly, but it seemed that she had not been successful. “What else?”
Clegane sat back in his chair, crossing his arms over his chest. “You don’t like to sing even though you’re good at it.”
“How did you…” she said, surprised. “I mean, how did you discern that, my lord?”
“It’s the way you speak,” he said. “Resonant, clear. My mother had a similar voice. She sang beautifully, and so do you.”
Sansa felt the warmth in her face. “I haven’t sung in years. Except in church, of course.”
“Of course,” said Clegane distastefully. “Do you like to go to church?”
“As much as anyone else, I expect,” she said. “Do you enjoy it?”
“I haven’t been in a church in fifteen years,” he growled. “And I don’t plan on doing so in the future.”
“Not even to marry?” Sansa asked. Both of her elder brothers had been wed in the past year. Robb married pretty Miss Westerling from London and Jon a girl from the country called Ygritte. It was an unusual name, but it matched her well.
“If I marry,” Clegane said, scowling, “it will be on my land and not in some parson’s hovel.”
Sansa looked down at her plate, startled by the vitriol in his voice. “Forgive me, Your Grace, for broaching such an offensive subject.”
“It’s not your fault,” he said as he took a deep drink of his wine. Behind him, a footman arrived with more. Clegane waved him away.
“Do you not like the wine?” asked Sansa. She herself had only had a few sips; as little as one glass made her quite giddy.
“It’s fine,” he replied. “I’d just prefer not to stumble out of here tonight. I did enough of that in my youth, before my brother died.”
“I’m sorry,” she said. “The loss of a sibling must be terrible.”
“Don’t waste your sympathy on Gregor,” he snarled. “He doesn’t deserve it.”
Sansa balked, taken aback by his spitefulness. “I take it you weren’t close to him.”
“Not after he gave me this,” he said, touching the scar on his cheek.
Sansa remained silent, unsure of how to respond. She wanted to know more, but it would have been indecorous to press him on the matter if he did not wish to volunteer anything further.
“Why, Miss Stark,” he said, his eyes flashing darkly, “no polite comment? No courteous quip? I thought you had one for every situation.”
She frowned at him. “In that I must disappoint you, Your Grace. I could have offered my sympathy perhaps, but I don’t think you would have accepted it.”
“No,” he said, one side of his mouth turning up. “I won’t be pitied because I don’t have a handsome face.”
“But you do.” She nearly clapped a hand over her mouth as soon as the words left her tongue. Clegane narrowed his eyes. She wanted to look down, to avoid his scrutiny, but she forced herself to hold his gaze. Undaunted, Margaery had said. So she would be.
“You don’t need to lie to me, girl,” he said.
“I wasn’t,” she said softly, and she meant it. Though he was scarred, his face had clean, strong lines. His eyes, though deep set beneath a heavy brow, were a fine gray. His mouth lent itself to sternness, but even a half smile softened his expression. Perhaps most young ladies would not have seen any comeliness in him, but Sansa found him strangely striking.
“Then you have poor taste,” he said.
“Maybe,” she said, “but we have little control over what we like and dislike.”
“You mean that we can’t change what we prefer.”
She nodded. “One man may think a lady very pretty while another may find her appearance disagreeable. The second man does not choose to do so; she is simply not what he prefers.”
“Some beauty is universally appreciated,” said Clegane. Though he did not say it, the heat in his gaze made it clear that he spoke of her.
She blushed, but did not turn away. “I’m certain there are some who can find fault in my face.”
“Perhaps,” he said, “but they’d be wrong.”
As dinner continued, Sansa spoke with the others around the table. The topics were familiar, safe in ways that Clegane’s never seemed to be. His forthrightness kept her on edge, though not unpleasantly so. She simply had to be prepared, as she could not fall back on well-rehearsed courtesies.
There had fortunately been no curried fish served as the meal progressed, but there wasn’t a single dish that did not leave Sansa’s mouth tingling. She did her best not to let on, though, so as not to give offense to Mrs. Sand.
Their hostess had long ago finished her tale about the elephants, but the Harlaws had not yet had their fill.
“Tell me, Mrs. Sand,” said Lady Harlaw, her round cheeks pink from the spicy food and strong wine, “how did you decide to hold your annual banquet on the Eighteenth of April? It seems a most unremarkable day.”
“For most, it is,” said Mrs. Sand, “but for me, it is the day my life was irrevocably altered.” She smiled. “It is the day I met my Oberyn.”
“You must tell us,” Lord Harlaw said. “It must be a fine story.”
“It is not so extraordinary, but I will tell you if you wish,” she said.
Turning, Sansa glanced down the table at her. She was pretty in a delicate way, her bright clothes drawing the eye and complimenting her olive complexion. As she prepared to tell her story, a particular fondness crossed her face. It was a pleasant memory for her, even if it was, as she said, ordinary.
“It was at a banquet not so different from this one,” she began, “though it was in Bombay. I was accompanying a friend that night. I expected us to be seated together, but it did not happen that way. My friend’s chair was nearer to the head of the table where she could easily converse with our host. My place was at the center.
“In those days, I was just out of mourning and all the unfamiliar faces discomfited me. Most of them took little notice of my uneasiness, but the man who sat across from me recognized it immediately.” Her gaze went to the head of the table, where Lord Martell sat. “He spoke gently to me at first, like he might a skittish horse. But before long, he had me laughing aloud. I spoke to no one else for the rest of the night. I didn’t need to. Oberyn was the most enchanting man I had ever met.”
Sansa smiled at that. Lord Martell seemed quite capable of charming most anyone, especially a pretty young widow.
“At the end of the evening,” said Mrs. Sand, “he asked if he could call on me the next day. I could not refuse. We have seen each other on all of the days since.” She took a sip of her wine. “That, Lady Harlaw, is why we host our party on this day each year. It is a celebration of the day we met. But, so too is it a way for us to bring others together. Perhaps there are two people here tonight who might not have met otherwise.” A knowing smile touched her lips as she caught Sansa’s eye. “Maybe such a meeting will yield a friendship, or maybe a deeper attachment. One can never know.”
Unable to resist, Sansa looked across to Clegane. He stared back, his dark eyes studying her face.
“How very romantic,” said Lady Harlaw with a sigh.
“Indeed,” said Mrs. Sand.
After the final course had been removed, the ladies at the table rose to retire to the drawing room. The gentlemen stood as they left, thanking them for their company. As Sansa got up, Clegane nodded to her, bidding her a silent goodnight. She inclined her head and followed the others out into the hall.
Catching Margaery’s arm, she said, “Before we go through, I should like to freshen up. I’ll only be a moment.”
“Of course, dove,” said Margaery, smiling. “Mrs. Sand said the retiring room is just down the way.”
Sansa thanked her before turning down the hallway. It was dimly lit in comparison to the bright dining room, but she managed to find the appropriate door without much trouble. Once inside, she took a deep breath. She had no particular need to adjust her appearance, but she regarded herself in the mirror anyway.
The spicy food had warmed her, making her cheeks flush becomingly. Her hair was still in order, set in a fetching twist from which a few curls hung. At the start of the Season she might have considered ornamenting it with flowers, but Margaery had told her that flowers, while whimsical, made one appear girlish. And the last thing she wanted to do was to look like a little girl if she was to attract the attention of gentlemen.
She had turned bright red the first time Margaery had told her that men did not only want an accomplished wife who was well-spoken, modest, and gently bred, but one who could stir up certain desires.
“Of course, not everyone believes marital matters should involve the machinations of desire,” she had said, “but there is something to be said for wanting to go to your marriage bed rather than being obligated to go to it.” She had taken Sansa’s hand. “If you can, find a man who inspires passion.”
“How will I know when such inspiration arrives?” she had inquired.
Margaery had smiled. “You’ll know.”
Sansa ran a hand down the silk of her gown, scowling. That was certainly the most unhelpful advice her friend had ever given her. Was she just to intuit something that was, according to Margaery, important for making a successful match?
She had read her share of scandalous novels—all of which had been hidden carefully under her bed—and she had a notion of what their authors thought passion to be, but she had never felt lightheaded or inarticulate around a gentleman. The desire described in novels seemed almost uncomfortable in its intensity. Sansa could not imagine having her heart beat so loudly that she could not hear her suitor’s words or for her hands to shake with nerves after a single kiss. She strongly doubted that Mrs. Sand or any woman of society would ever truly swoon at the sight of her favored gentleman, as the ladies in the stories did. Surely such portrayals were too ridiculous to be believed.
Yet, Sansa had always secretly hoped that they were closer to truth than to fiction. Though she tried not to allow herself to be too caught up in romance, she could not help but imagine what it might be like to lose oneself in another, to offer her heart and receive his in return. Perhaps then she might be inspired to faint into her beloved’s arms, to tremble at even the slightest touch.
Sighing, she shook her head. Margaery, her mother, her sister Arya…all of them would laugh at her for such foolish ideas. They were the stuff of daydreams and girlish fantasy, not the realities of courtship and marriage. Sansa was to find an agreeable enough man, allow him to visit her and her family, exchange a few endearments, and eventually agree to wed him. It would not be without emotion, certainly, but she doubted it would inspire passion like that in novels.
Unless, perhaps, she found someone that cared for her as Lord Martell did Mrs. Sand. Their affection was so clear and unabashed. No matter what improprieties the society matrons whispered about, Sansa was enchanted by them and the party they threw to celebrate their first meeting. It was a public show of dedication that was rarely seen outside of literature.
Sansa smiled at herself in the mirror. Perhaps there was a chance for her to find the same. Feeling buoyed, she pushed open the door to the retiring room and strode out into the hall. She had not yet gone two full steps when a hand grasped her forearm and pulled her into a darkened alcove.
“I thought you’d never come out of there.”
“Your Grace?” she said as she looked up at the man across from her.
“No, it’s Father Christmas,” he said, wry. “Yes, girl, it’s me.”
She pressed a hand to her breast, trying to steady her breathing. “Your Grace I…”
“Did I scare you, little bird?” he said, squeezing the arm he still held.
She intended to deny it, but she knew he would see it for the lie it was. “A little,” she said.
“My apologies.” His thumb brushed the soft skin of her elbow, sending a shock up her arm.
Swallowing, she extricated herself from his grasp. “You don’t really mean that.”
He smirked down at her. “Are you saying that I take pleasure in frightening you?”
“Are you saying that you don’t?” she grumbled.
“What are you doing here, Your Grace?” she asked, eyeing him. “It’s not gentlemanly to lurk in dark corners.”
“I never said I was a gentleman,” he replied, his voice low and deep.
Heat snaked down Sansa’s back, making her stomach clench. “You’re a peer of the realm, Your Grace,” she said. “Of course you are a gentleman.”
He rolled his eyes. “A perfectly proper response. I should have anticipated that.”
“Do you mean to say that you expected something improper?” she asked, the words leaving her mouth before she could stop them.
“From you, girl?” he said, cocking a brow. “You don’t have it in you.”
Sansa frowned. A young lady of her standing should not have given the impression that she was inclined to impropriety, and being reminded of that should by no means give offense. Yet, she felt that Clegane meant it as a slight. “Are you suggesting, Your Grace, that you find appropriate decorum unpleasant?”
“Unpleasant? No. Tedious, yes.”
“I bore you?” she asked, brows rising.
“Meaningless courtesies bore me,” he replied. “You do not. At least not when you speak your mind rather than chirping back what your governess taught you.”
“Miss Mordane gave me an excellent education,” said Sansa, “but my thoughts are my own whether or not they are expressed courteously.”
“Some of them perhaps,” he said.
“Well,” said Sansa, crossing her arms over her breast, “if it was your intention to detain and then insult me, Your Grace, you have done so quite effectively. Now, I would thank you to let me go. I’ll soon be missed.”
“With all the time women take freshening themselves,” he said, “I doubt a few more minutes will be noticed.”
“That may be,” said Sansa, “but this really isn’t the most ideal place to hold a conversation.”
“Why not?” he asked. “Not proper enough for you and your Miss Mordane?”
“You know the answer to that already. Why do you even ask?”
He leaned closer to her, his eyes flashing with mischief. “Maybe I didn’t have the benefit of a complete education, as you did.”
“I doubt that,” said Sansa, despite how her heart jumped at his proximity. “I believe that you simply enjoy needling me. Why is that, Your Grace? Do you bother all the ladies of your acquaintance in this manner?”
“Hardly,” he replied. “Not even a quarter of them would be worth the effort. Once you scrape away the layer of courtesy they all wear like armor, there’s nothing left. You heard them at the table tonight, prattling on about nothing.”
“I thought Mrs. Sand’s story of meeting Lord Martell was beautiful,” said Sansa. “They’ve loved each other for such a long time.”
“Likely not half as long as they’ve wanted each other,” Clegane said.
Sansa’s mouth fell open.
“Does that shock you?” he laughed. “That taking a mistress starts with lust rather than love?”
“I’m not a complete idiot,” she said. “I know about desire.”
“I don’t think so.”
She glared. “Don’t think what?”
His eyes darkened as he looked down at her, the humor fading. “That you know anything about desire.”
“I do. I—” The kiss cut her off. She made a small sound of surprise, but it was halfhearted at best. She was overwhelmed by the feeling of his lips against hers. His mouth was warm and, despite the suddenness of the kiss, soft. After a moment she felt his hand come up to the side of her face. The other went to her waist, drawing her closer to him. Unsure of what to do, she let her arms hang limply at her sides.
Her eyes, which had remained open, widened even more as she felt his tongue brush the seam of her lips. Stunned, she parted them slightly. A shudder passed through her when their tongues met. Never had she imagined that one did such a thing when kissing. It felt strange and new, but it was far from objectionable. No, she liked it. She liked it very much.
The rational part of her mind was screaming that everything about this was wrong, that Clegane was trespassing on her person without her consent. He was compromising her virtue. If they were caught in such an embrace, the scandal would imperil her reputation beyond repair. She would be a pariah, a shame to her family. Her chances for a good marriage would be destroyed. Unless of course her parents insisted that Clegane take her to wife. Saying that they were engaged was certainly the only recourse in the face of such disgrace.
The thought of marrying him set her head to reeling. They had met only weeks before. He was all but a stranger to her and yet she was allowing him to hold her close and kiss her in ways reserved for husbands and wives. And she was allowing it, she realized it. She had done nothing to object. She could have pushed away and fled without a backwards glance. She could have slapped his cheek. But she did not. She remained in his arms, enjoying his mouth on hers.
When he did draw away, she felt oddly bereft. There was coolness where his warmth had been, and it made her want to seek it out again. She nearly rose up onto her toes to bring herself closer to him, but managed to keep herself from it. It should not have happened in the first place. To want more was unconscionable.
“There, girl,” he said. “A taste of desire. It barely scratches the surface, but it’s more than you’ve had before, isn’t it?”
“Yes,” she said. Her voice was quiet and unsteady.
His fingers tightened at her waist, pressing her closer to his chest. He spoke in a deep growl: “You’ve never kissed a man before.”
She shook her head, her cheeks aflame.
“Well, it won’t be your last.”
“You mean to kiss me again, Your Grace?” she asked, looking up and meeting his eyes.
A greedy smile spread across his face. “Perhaps. But you have to ask for it.”
Sansa turned away. “I couldn’t.”
“Not now, no,” Clegane said, “but I think you will. You’ve a talent for kisses, little bird. It would be a shame to let it go to waste.” Brushing his knuckles against her cheek, he drew his other hand away from her. “Go back to your party now. They’ll be expecting you.”
Wordlessly, Sansa stepped out of the alcove and into the hallway. She could see a sliver of light on the floor from underneath the doors that led to the drawing room.
From behind her she heard, “Goodnight, Miss Stark.”
Glancing over her shoulder, she saw Clegane bow and then stride away from her. Taking a steadying breath, she made her way toward the tea and small talk that awaited her in the company of the other ladies.
In the days that followed, Sansa kept quite busy. She called on friends and went to the shops with her mother in the daytime. In the evenings she attended a number of small soirees. She even went to the theater with Margaery and Myrcella. Throughout all of it, she had hoped that it would keep her mind off the kiss. To a point, it did, but whenever she had a quiet moment by herself, her thoughts would inevitably turn to how it felt to be held or how warm Clegane’s mouth had been when she opened hers under it. It was only a taste of desire, he had said, but it had seared itself into her mind, and despite the reservations she knew she should have had, she wanted to know more.
She wasn’t certain whether she was disappointed or relieved that he was not at any of the parties she attended that week. It did not, however, stop her from feeling a stab of nerves every time she entered a room. She hadn’t an inkling of what she would do when she saw him. Would they share a knowing look? Would she blush like a fool? Perhaps he would find a way to draw her away from the others and inquire as to whether she wanted him to kiss her again. Her answer should have been no, but what she should do and what she wished to do were disparate matters altogether.
Miss Jeyne Poole, who missed very little, asked her more than once over the course of the week what was bothering her.
“You’re acting strangely,” she had said, her brows knit. “You’re as jumpy as a rabbit and never stop looking around. Are you expecting someone?”
Sansa had given her a noncommittal answer. Jeyne had accepted it, though it was clear she wasn’t satisfied. However, the issue was soon disregarded as all the young ladies were getting caught up in their preparations for the Lannisters’ gilded masked ball.
The Lannister clan, of which Sansa’s friend Myrcella was a member, were among the wealthiest families in England. Lord Tywin, Baron of Casterly Rock, was an influential member of the House of Lords, as was his eldest son and heir, Lord Jamie. His only daughter, Lady Cersei, had been married to the late Robert Baratheon, Viscount of Crownland. Lord Baratheon, Myrcella’s father, had died several years before in a hunting accident. All of the ton had mourned his passing, as he had been well liked.
Myrcella had been heartbroken, of course, but she had little time for the wound to mend before her elder brother Joffrey had followed his father to the grave. There had been an outpouring of sympathy for Lady Cersei then. She was in mourning for nearly two full years, but had since returned to society. It was said that her father expected her to remarry, but that she had flatly refused. At first, Sansa wasn’t sure such rumors could be believed, but meeting Lady Cersei at a salon lent them more credence. She was a strong and opinionated woman who seemed more than capable of making decisions for herself without the aid of her father. Sansa had to admire that, even if she did not think she would ever be like her.
Each year on the first of May, the Lannisters hosted a masked ball at their London estate. Nearly everyone in town was invited to the sprawling grounds to partake in the fine food and lively dancing. Stories of the goings on at the ball were talked about for months afterward. Sansa had been looking forward to it all Season.
She had had a dress made especially for it. It was sumptuous gold silk brocaded with delicate flowers. The neckline was lower than she was accustomed to, but somehow her mother had not disapproved. Instead she had rained compliments down upon her daughter as she twirled around in the dressmaker’s shop. Once the gown was boxed and ready to be sent to the Starks’ townhouse, Catelyn and Sansa had gone down the road to the shop that sold masks.
The proprietor brought out all manner of shapes and sizes, some made of velvet and others of leather. Catelyn chose a black one lined with gilt embroidery. It was simple, but became her very well. Sansa tried on a number of masks, but the one that drew her eye was gold and adorned with three soft, white feathers at the center, where it would rest on her brow.
“It’s lovely, darling,” said Catelyn as she gestured for the shopkeeper to wrap it up.
That evening, once she was dressed, Sansa’s maid set the mask in place and tied the ribbons at the back of her head. The bow fell just under the elegant bun the maid had set her hair in. When she had appeared in the vestibule downstairs, her father had said, “My girl, a grown woman. Soon enough I’ll be giving you away to a husband, Sansa. Where does the time go?”
She had smiled and kissed his cheek before donning her cloak and going out to the carriage that waited without.
The splendor of the ball was beyond anything Sansa had imagined. The hedges she passed through on the way to the house were bedecked with gilt streamers and the path was lined with golden candelabra that made the decorations wink in the light. The ballroom was like something out of a fairy story. Everything was gilded and glowing in the candlelight. Tables filled with delicious food were laid out just beyond where the dancers whirled around the floor.
Everyone was dressed in either black or gold, and all of them were masked. Even if Sansa had ventured to guess at their identities she was certain to have been mistaken. She would have no formal dance card that night; she would simply have to wait to be asked by a gentleman. She would know neither his name nor his face. She had never experienced such a mysterious gathering. It was said that there were certain liberties taken because of the anonymity the masks afford the guests and that young ladies should make sure to guard themselves accordingly. Sansa knew she would be in little danger when it came to most of the gentlemen in attendance. All save one.
Casting her gaze around the ballroom, she looked for the familiar figure of the Duke of Westerland. She was certain she would be able to identify him by his height alone. He stood half a head taller than almost every other man she knew. Even if he was masked, he would be unable to hide his size.
At first glance, she could not see him. It was early yet, though, and he would undoubtedly appear somewhat later.
“My lady,” said a man, drawing her attention. “May I have the pleasure of the next dance?” He was standing just to the right of her. He was of average height and wearing a golden jacket with black breeches.
Sansa curtseyed as he bowed. “You may, my lord.” She couldn’t be sure if that was the man’s title, but she had little other choice. She took the gentleman’s proffered arm and allowed him to lead her onto the floor. It was a quadrille, which she knew well and enjoyed. Her partner proved to be an adept dancer. He did not miss a step. When the music came to an end, Sansa thanked him and bid him goodnight. Another approached her just as he was departing and laid claim to the next dance.
It was quite some time before she managed to get away to the refreshments and pour herself a glass to punch. It was sweet and refreshing. Taking a moment to look around the ballroom, she tried to find her mother or Jeyne, but saw neither of them. It was a little strange to be completely without their company. They were always close at hand at most of the parties they attended, especially Catelyn, who made sure to keep an eye on the gentlemen Sansa spoke to. She was a reliable chaperone on all her daughter’s nights out, except this one it seemed.
“Had enough dancing for the night?”
Sansa recognized his voice immediately. Deep and gruff, it was distinctive. “Good evening, Your Grace,” she said, turning.
Clegane was dressed all in black save for his gold silk cravat. His mask covered the upper half of his face, but his scar could still be seen beneath it. There was no mistaking him for anyone else. Bowing, he said, “I see you’ve donned feathers tonight, little bird.”
Sansa raised a hand to her mask. “I thought them very fine.”
“They suit you,” he said.
“Thank you, Your Grace. You look very well tonight.”
He glanced down at his coat and shrugged. “It’s well enough.”
“Are you enjoying the ball?” asked Sansa.
“As much as any other,” he replied. “They’re all the same really. But at least the company is good.”
“Indeed. All of the ton must be here.”
“I don’t mean them. You know that.”
She was glad that the mask hid her blush. “I wouldn’t have presumed.”
“You should have. There’s no other reason I’d be here.”
“I…thank you, Your Grace,” she said, uncertain of how to respond to such an admission. “I had thought I might see you before tonight. Elsewhere, I mean. Have you been away from town again?”
“I have,” he said. “Business affairs.”
“Of course,” said Sansa. “It must be quite the task to manage both a townhouse and an estate.”
“My steward manages the estate for the most part,” he said, “but sometimes I am still required to be there. I’m glad for it, too.”
“Do you tire of town?”
“Easily,” he said. “The relentless gossip and backstabbing here is nearly intolerable. And the onslaught of soirees and dances swiftly grows tiresome.”
“Then why are you here, Your Grace?” Sansa asked. “I admit I do not understand. If you dislike London society so much, what reason do you have to remain?”
“I came to arrange for the sale of my family’s house here,” he replied. “My father bought it for my mother when they were first married so that she could come for the Season. He preferred to stay at the estate, and while he was unhappy without her, he would not refuse her anything. She wanted to be in society for half the year, so he found her a house and staff.”
“That was very good of him,” said Sansa. “He must have cared for her very much.”
“He did,” said Clegane. “He was never the same after she died. And he could not part with the townhouse even though he never resided there. It’s stood vacant for nearly ten years. I see no reason to keep it.”
“I understand,” she said. “And have you found a buyer?”
He nodded. “The business will be concluded next week.”
“And then you’ll be able to return to the country.”
“Not while I have a reason to stay.”
She blinked up at him. “And what reason is that, Your Grace?”
“If you want the answer to that,” he said, leaning down so that only she would hear him, “you’ll come to the library in half an hour’s time.”
Her heart jumped in her chest. “The library?”
“It’s just down the hall,” he said. “And it’s quiet.”
Sansa could not read his expression with his face hidden, so she could not tell if he meant it in jest. She did not think so, though. What he was asking was out of the question certainly. She opened her mouth, intending to refuse, but what came out was, “All right.”
He smiled. “Good. Half an hour.” With that, he turned and left her.
Sansa watched as the crowd swallowed him up. She was clutching her punch glass tightly, trying to get her bearings. She had just agreed to steal away from the ball and meet him in Lord Lannister’s library. Alone. It was a decidedly foolish thing to do. She would be putting herself and her reputation at greater risk that she had done when she let him kiss her at Lord Martell’s dinner party. They had been alone then, too, but there was a difference between a shadowed alcove and a library that lay behind closed doors. Kisses could be had in alcoves. Trysts happened in empty libraries.
She swallowed. No, she would not allow it to go so far as that. Her virtue would be given to no one but her husband and it would be done in a marriage bed, not haphazardly in the Lannister library. She desired Clegane; he had shown her that much. But, she would not offer all of herself. A few stolen kisses, though…that she could give, and gladly.
The ensuing half hour was perhaps the longest in her memory. She had to decline several dances, choosing instead to take a turn about the room and pretend to consider the delicacies laid out on the tables near the doors. Glancing out into the candlelit garden, she could not help but recall Lady Redwyne’s soiree, during which she had first met Clegane. They had never had a formal introduction, which should have prevented them from remaining acquainted, but neither of them had stood on ceremony. And now she was waiting impatiently to rendezvous with him in a most unsuitable fashion.
At last, when the clock in the ballroom read quarter to twelve, she glided into the shadows at the edge of the room. She had decided that if anyone were to discover her on her way to the library, she would tell them that she was looking for the ladies’ retiring room and had gotten lost. That would mean she would be escorted to it, leaving Clegane waiting for her. She wondered how long he would wait before he assumed she wasn’t coming after all.
Taking a last look around her to make sure that she was not being watched, she made for the door that lead to a darkened hallway. Feeling her way along the wall, she walked until her hand hit the frame of a doorway. She reached for the handle and thankfully found it unlocked. Turning it, she slipped inside.
Shutting the door behind her left her in almost complete darkness, save for the moonlight coming in through the windows. It illumined the shelves of leather-bound books. So she was in the right place.
“Your Grace?” she asked, barely above a whisper.
“Why do you insist on calling me that?” was the rumbling reply. He was standing in the shadows just beside the door, only a few steps from her. He was no longer masked.
“It’s the appropriate form of address,” she said, turning toward him.
“I’m tired of what’s appropriate,” he said as he slipped an arm around her waist and pulled her against him. “If you’re willing to come to me here, alone, then you’ll use my name.”
Sansa braced her hands against his chest, the brass buttons of his coat cold on her skin. “Your given name?”
“Yes, girl,” he growled, tracing the back of her dress.
She swallowed heavily. Only the closest of friends were so informal with each other, and ladies rarely ever took such liberties with gentlemen unless they were courting. She caught herself on that last word. Courting meant daytime calls to her parents’ house. It meant asking her father’s permission to see her. It meant chaperoned outings in the park or to the theater. It was decidedly not a rendezvous in Lord Lannister’s library.
“What are you waiting for, little bird,” Clegane said as his fingertips brushed the nape of her neck, “a written invitation?”
“No,” she said as she looked up and met his eyes. “Sandor.”
He grinned. “That wasn’t so difficult, was it?”
“I suppose not,” she said.
He cocked a brow, but said nothing. Instead, his hands went to the ribbon that held her mask in place. He tugged the bow loose and lifted the mask away. As he set it down on a table, he said, “So, girl, do you have something you’d like to ask me?”
She bit her lip. She had considered just how she might phrase it many times over the past days, but none of them ever seemed right. Unable to think of anything better, she simply said, “Will you…kiss me now?”
“Yes, little bird, I will,” he said as he bent down to her.
He was not as gentle as he was the first time. He pressed his lips against hers insistently until she parted them and allowed him entry. The heat of his mouth was searing, sending sparks throughout Sansa’s body. She welcomed it, having yet to encounter anything that affected her so strongly. Rising onto her toes, she reached up until her hands touched his shoulders. She couldn’t wrap her arms around him, as he was so much taller than her, but she could slide her fingers under his hair to brush the nape of his neck. He held her tight against him, lifting her to bring her closer to his mouth.
When he drew back a few moments later, he was breathing hard and his eyes were dark with the same desire she had seen when he had first kissed her. “Is that what you wanted?” he asked.
“Yes,” she said between her own quick, deep breaths.
“Did you think about me—about this—while I was gone?” he said, trailing his hands up her sides high enough so that he nearly brushed her breast.
“Every day,” she said. “I wanted to see you.”
“So, you understand another aspect of desire,” he said as he brought his hand to the side of her neck. “Yearning. Did you like it?”
“No one does,” he said, “but when you get what you’ve yearned for, it’s all the better.” As he kissed her again, he made a deep, satisfied sound in his throat. It sent shivers down Sansa’s spine. She want to hear more. So lost was she in the kiss that she hardly noticed that Sandor was slowly stepping forward, pushing her back until her legs collided with a large leather chair. Surprised, she pulled away from him.
“Sit,” he said, pressing down on her shoulders. “There’s something I’ve been yearning for. A different sort of kiss.”
She regarded him from her seat, waiting for him to say more. She was surprised when he sank down onto one knee and then the other before her.
“This will be new to you,” he said, “but you’ll like it. Trust me.”
“All right,” she said, though she nearly jumped out of her skin when she felt his hands at her ankles, pushing her skirt and petticoat up her calves. His fingers were warm even through her stockings. She drew in a stuttering breath as he reached the backs of her knees.
“Don’t be afraid, girl,” he said, his voice rumbling low. “I’ll do nothing to compromise your innocence, if that’s what concerns you.”
She nodded mutely, though she couldn’t help but think that she was already compromised. If someone were to find them together—alone in the library with him touching her as he was—she would be ruined. She should have told him to stop, gotten to her feet, and left without another word, but she was certain that if she tried to stand her legs would buckle.
Sandor slid his hands up along her thighs, brushing the slings of her garters. With gentle pressure, he parted her legs. She immediately wanted to snap them tight together again. She had never felt so exposed in her life. No one, not even her ladies maid, had seen so much of her.
"Hold your skirts,” Sandor said, pushing the silk up around her waist.
Sansa took them with shaking hands. Her heart was thundering in her chest, making the blood rush in her ears. Everything about this was scandalous—forbidden—but when his fingers grasped her hips and pulled her toward the edge of the chair, she couldn’t will herself to put a stop to it. Despite knowing how wrong it all was, she was fascinated by the feeling of his hands on her skin. It made her giddy even as the intensity of it grounded her in the moment. Nothing could prepare her for what he did next, though. He touched her in the most intimate way possible, the pads of his fingers at her center. She drew in a sharp breath, her whole body tensing.
“Easy,” Sandor said. He rubbed his free hand along her thigh, trying to soothe her. “It’s all right.” As he spoke, he began to make gentle circles against her with his fingers.
“Oh,” she managed as the sensation suffused her blood and set her to tingling. When she met Sandor’s eyes, he was smiling. She tried to return it, but a long stroke of his fingers sent her reeling. Her head fell back against the chair. He continued to work between her thighs for a few moments longer before she felt him move his fingers away. Not ready for it to stop yet, she raised her head again, but he was no longer in front of her. Her eyes widening, she saw his head disappear beneath her rucked up skirts. She gasped aloud when she felt the heat of his mouth against her.
Fire raced through her veins, making her burn from fingertips to toes. She held onto her skirts for dear life, unable to control the trembling in her legs. Sandor’s fingers tightened on her hip as he drew her closer to him. His shoulders pressed against the insides of her thighs, keeping them spread wide. His tongue was sin itself as he worked in delicate strokes. An odd pressure was building in the pit of Sansa’s stomach, making her ache in ways she had never experienced before. She opened her mouth in an attempt to draw enough air into her lungs, her head falling back once again. She was going mad; she had to be. She could not even begin to describe how his lips felt against her. It was good, so good, but becoming almost too much.
“Let go, girl,” Sandor said, though his voice was muffled. “Let it take you.”
She didn’t understand his meaning; she could hardly think at all. The tension in her belly was muddling her thoughts until all she could focus on was his mouth. Just when she thought she could take no more, blissfulness washed over her, making her vision darken. Every instinct told her to cry out, but she bit her lip to keep herself quiet.
As she descended again, she was gasping for breath. Sandor withdrew from her slowly, careful to keep a steady hand on her shaking legs as he pulled her skirt back down to cover her.
“How did you…” she started, though she was barely able to finish the thought.
“It doesn’t matter how,” he said as he got to his feet. “All that matters is that you liked it.” He held out his hand to help her up.
She was relieved to find that her knees did not give way beneath her when she stood. As she straightened her skirt, Sandor took his handkerchief from his pocket and drew it across his lips and chin. Once it was tucked away again, he reached out and touched Sansa’s cheek. “You did well. I’ve never tasted anyone sweeter.”
The heat of a blush rose up her neck and into her cheeks. “You do that…often?”
One side of his mouth lifted. “But I’ll do it for you as often as you want.”
Sansa looked down, her face hotter than ever. “I shouldn’t…if anyone were to find out…”
“As long as you don’t tell them,” Sandor said, “they won’t. What’s between us is no business of anyone else.” Taking her arm, he guided her toward the door. “Are you ready to return?”
She wasn’t certain she could go back out into the ballroom and pretend as if nothing had happened. Her world had been turned all but upside down. “I…yes.”
“You’ll go in first,” said Sandor, squeezing her shoulder. “I’ll follow in a few minutes.”
“All right,” she said. She sounded more confident than she actually was. Still, she took a step ahead.
“Sansa.” As she turned back, he drew her against him and kissed her soundly. His lips tasted different than they had before. Embarrassed yet further, she realized that it was herself she was tasting.
Sandor released her a moment later and reached for her discarded mask. Sansa took it and set it in place. Gently, Sandor tied the ribbons again. His hand brushed her neck as he drew away. He went to the door then, and turning the handle, held it open for her. As she passed out into the empty hallway, she heard the latch fall behind her. Taking a breath, she closed her eyes and wondered just what she had gotten herself into with Sandor Clegane.