Chapter 1: Act I
“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.
Chapter 2: Act II
A/N: This chapter was updated and slightly expanded on 1/24/20 in preparation for Act III.
Young ladies of breeding were expected to exhibit their accomplishments in art, music, or another of the suitable pursuits—perhaps flower arranging or, more daringly, archery. That, however, was a pastime made exclusively for countryside estates and not the elite salons of London during the Season. Refinement was shown in delicate fingerings on the harp, in careful brushstrokes of oils or watercolor, in the lines of lovingly crafted verse. A lady without talents had far less appeal for the gentlemen seeking wives than those who displayed aptitude for the delicate occupations of the fairer sex.
Sansa had gladly attended private concerts among friends or seen a collection of paintings one of the well-known matrons of the peerage had installed, much to the pleasure of the young lady who had painted them. She had even once watched a group put on a bit of amateur theater in their uncle’s ballroom for a charmed audience who gave them a standing ovation as they curtsied by the footlights of the makeshift stage.
Her own lack of exhibition had never bothered her overmuch, but Margaery had said more than once, and in various ways, that it would be a boon to her. “It is part of a lady’s charm to demonstrate her abilities,” she had said. “Salons are quite fashionable these days and often well-attended by gentlemen of standing. If you’re looking to catch the eye of someone, show him that you are dedicated to an art.” Sansa did, of course, desire to be a cultured lady, though not only to catch a husband; it was a matter of flourishing for herself, too.
In the six days since the Lannisters’ ball, she had been spending a significant amount of time in the music room at her parents’ townhouse. She had even excused herself from attending afternoon tea or carriage rides in the park in order to plunk out clumsy melodies on the pianoforte. Her initial attempts were rife with errors and misplaced notes, but as she continued, her playing was much more agreeable to her ear.
At dinner the night before, her mother had asked after her sudden renewed interest in the music she had abandoned at a younger age.
“It came up in conversation at Mrs. Sand’s dinner party,” Sansa had replied. That much was true, though she did not mention that it had been a discussion with the Duke of Westerland. There was no shame in speaking with him, but after what had happened in the library at the Lannisters’ house, it was difficult for her to think of him without her face turning an unfortunate shade of red.
As she sat at the pianoforte that following Sunday, she paused her in playing to allow the memories to return. What they had done was scandalous, utterly forbidden for a lady in her first Season. It was improper for almost any lady, she reasoned, but especially one who was in no way formally attached to Clegane. But she had relished it. He had made her feel as if her soul had flown out of her body, leaving her boneless and breathless with pleasure. She hadn’t known that she could feel pleasure of such tremendous magnitude from a man's fingertips, his lips, and his tongue.
However, she had not been out in the evenings since that night and had not yet been forced to face him again. She wasn’t certain she would be able to and still maintain her composure. But it was hardly becoming to allow herself to be flustered; it would be an embarrassment that she could not afford. Margaery would not approve, and Sansa did not want to be scolded for acting foolish in front of their friends and honorable acquaintances. Her reputation was already hanging in the balance, and Margaery’s would be tarnished, too, if Sansa was caught in an indiscretion. She had chosen her, after all, to tutor. It would be shameful to be attached to her should she be ruined. Sansa didn’t want to bring infamy upon her friend after she had done so much for Sansa in the weeks since she had come out.
There was another worry, too, that niggled at Sansa’s mind: Though he had vowed to speak of it to no one, should Clegane choose to confide in some of his friends about their tryst, Sansa’s good name would be marred beyond repair. She had no reason to trust him—they were barely acquainted—and yet she found that she did. Despite his taciturn exterior and gruff manner, he seemed a man of honor.
Sansa considered the white scar that cut across his face. He had told her his elder brother had given it to him. In the past days, she had grown to wonder about it more, though she could not in good conscience ask him about its origins beyond the cursory explanation he had already given her. It was clearly something he did not offer up for the wagging tongues of the gossips he so blatantly disdained, though Sansa was sure speculation was rampant. She did hope that if they remained friends, he might someday give the story freely.
Sansa looked over the text of the song she had been playing. Clegane had guessed she sang well, complimenting of the resonance of her voice. He had compared it to his mother’s. It had been years, though, since she had ventured to sing anything beyond hymns. Perhaps, if she dared, she might try again.
Clearing her throat demurely, she set her hands on the keys of the pianoforte and struck the first chord of the prelude. It was only a few measures, and then the libretto began.
The first verse was stilted and uncertain, but gradually she started to find her way. By the middle of the piece, she was singing confidently, the words flowing smoothly in her soprano. When she fumbled with the keys, she pressed on over it, her voice filling the often unused music room. As the last notes faded, she found that she was smiling. Perhaps if she continued to practice, she might be proficient enough to play and sing at one of the gatherings of her friends. Perhaps Clegane would be there. Perhaps her voice would move him.
Sansa jumped in surprise, turning to see her father, Lord Eddard, standing in the doorway.
“Father, you startled me,” she said, hand at her breast.
“I’m sorry, my dear.” He stepped across the threshold into the room. He was a tall man in his middle forties, but he hadn’t let himself get round about the belly with too many indulgences and brandies in his study. He kept fit with walks and riding. Sansa had been told that sometimes he still fenced when the mood struck him. He continued: “I didn’t mean to eavesdrop, but I heard you from the parlor. You sound like an angel.”
Sansa looked down at her feet, clothed in delicate white leather boots. “Hardly, Father. But that is kind of you to say.”
“I mean it,” Eddard said. “You have a great talent.” He rubbed his chin thoughtfully. “I should like to see you cultivate it further. Would you maybe allow me to employ someone to train you?”
“Yes,” she replied, in a rising rush of excitement. “That would be most agreeable, Father. Thank you.”
He smiled and, coming close, touched her cheek. “I’ll speak to someone about finding you a singing master.”
Sansa beamed up at him.
“Will you play another?” he asked.
“Only if you listen from the parlor,” she said shyly. “I haven’t the courage to play for an audience just yet.”
Eddard bowed at the waist, as if he was a courting gentleman and not one decades married, and left her. Sansa took only a few moments to sort through the sheet music before deciding on a piece. As she struck the keys, she began to sing.
The morning next, Sansa was breakfasting with her parents, Arya, and her younger brothers when the bell at the front door of their townhouse rang out from the foyer.
“Whoever could that be at this hour?” Catelyn asked, pausing before she cracked the shell of her soft boiled egg with a silver spoon.
Sansa heard the front door open and then muffled voices and footsteps. The doors to the breakfast room swung open with a flourish and a rush of spring wind. In stepped a young man colorfully attired in an orange coat and stark white cravat; he was grinning from ear to ear.
“Robb!” Sansa exclaimed.
“Hello, little sister,” her brother said. He nodded to the others around the table. “Mother, Father, Arya, Bran, Rickon.”
The two younger boys sprang up from their seats and ran to embrace him. He laughed and hugged them both to him, tousling their hair. They were still too small to mind being mussed. Catelyn and Eddard rose more sedately, but were both just as happy to see their son.
“Robb,” said their mother, patting his cheeks, “what are you doing here?” She clicked her tongue. “And with no word sent ahead of your arrival.”
“I wanted to surprise you,” he laughed. “And I seem to have succeeded.”
“You have indeed, my boy,” said Eddard. “What brings you here?”
“It’s an unexpected visit. Jeyne has come to see her grandmother.”
“Has she taken ill?” Catelyn asked.
“No, no. She’s quite well. It’s her seventieth birthday, and Jeyne is her favorite grandchild. She would not have missed the party for the world.”
“How splendid,” said Sansa. She had hung back as the others greeted Robb, but as she spoke, he held out his arms to her. She went happily into them.
“Look at you,” he said, appraising with appreciation her muslin morning dress. “You are quite the lady these days, little sister. I should hardly have recognized you.”
She dismissed him, flattered though she was: “I saw you not six months past. I cannot look that different.”
Robb cocked his head to the side, raising an auburn eyebrow. “On the contrary, the Season has matured you. You’re grown up now. I’m sure you’ve already a pack of young gentlemen trailing after you.”
“ Robb ,” Sansa said, her cheeks coloring. “I see your penchant for hyperbole hasn’t waned since you were married.”
He looked duly affronted. “I never overstate things. I’m hurt that you would suggest such a thing, Miss Stark.”
“Oh, hush, you two,” Catelyn said, “and come finish your breakfast. Robb, are you hungry? And is Jeyne not with you?”
“I could eat a horse,” he said, taking up the seat next to Arya, who had held him tightly before sitting down again. “And no, she isn’t. She went straight to her grandmother. She’ll be staying there while we’re in town.”
“Does that mean you’ll be staying with us?” Arya asked.
“I’ve taken a room at the Horseheads,” he replied, taking a slice of ham from the tray at the center of the table. “No need to trouble yourselves over me.”
“It’s never any trouble,” Catelyn said.
“Leave off the boy, Cat,” said Eddard, taking her hand. “Young men stay at their clubs, not with their old fathers and mothers.”
Catelyn gave him a reproving look. “Calling me old, husband?”
“Never, my dear,” he said, kissing her knuckles.
Sansa smiled at her parents. She knew not all marriages were made for love, and theirs hadn’t been, but their affection for each other had grown over the years until it blossomed into something far stronger than just friendship. She could only be so lucky to have something like it in her own match.
“Robb,” she said as she tore off a bit of scone and buttered it, “what do you plan to do while you’re in town?”
“Well, I’ve got more than a few friends to call on. And of course I have to attend Lady Westerling’s party at Jeyne’s side.”
“When will it be?”
“In three days,” Robb said. “We’ve all been invited, of course, though the formal cards have yet to go out.”
“Lovely,” said Catelyn. “It will be an honor to attend.” She glanced at Sansa. “We will have to go out and find a small gift for her tomorrow.”
“I would like that very much, Mother,” Sansa said. She took a particular pleasure in gift-giving. Receiving was pleasant, but Sansa enjoyed making others happy with little trifles. She would have to inquire with Jeyne what types of things her grandmother fancied. Perhaps ribbons or confectionery.
Robb smiled at her. “You’re always so thoughtful, little sister. I’m sure you’ll find something Lady Westerling will be charmed by.”
“What shall we do today, then?” Arya said, her food long since forgotten in favor of listening to Robb. “You have to do something with us.”
“I’d be delighted,” he said. “I thought we might go for a walk in the High Gardens. Take the air.”
Arya made a face, crossing her arms. “I had hoped we could go riding. I never get to ride in town.”
“Maybe tomorrow while Sansa and Mother are shopping, hm?” Robb said. He chucked her under the chin. Arya wrinkled her nose, but agreed.
“I suppose if we’re to go walking, I should change into my day dress,” Sansa said. “If you will excuse me, I’ll return shortly.”
“We’ll wait for you in the foyer,” said Robb, smiling. “But take your time. I still have breakfast to eat.”
The morning rains had passed by the time Robb, Arya, and Sansa arrived at the east entrance to the High Gardens. The leadenness of the sky lingered, but Sansa opened her parasol anyway, for the sake of protecting her delicate skin. She twirled it absently as they walked, the white gravel crunching beneath their feet.
Arya was chattering happily at Robb about horses, and had been since they had left the house. Robb was a keen horseman, and Arya never let the opportunity to pepper him with questions go by. Sansa was listening in passing, but she focused most of her attention on the spring blossoms they passed. The fragrance was almost cloying, but not unpleasantly so. She named the blossoms she recognized, though she was far from well-versed in botany. She was making her best attempts at recalling the name of a small red flower by the fountain when she heard her name spoken in a deep, familiar voice.
“Miss Stark,” said Sandor Clegane.
“Your Grace.” Sansa hesitated only a moment before remembering her manners and dropping a curtsy. “Good afternoon.”
He inclined his head in that austere way in which he was wont to greet anyone. Perhaps it was his standing in the peerage—a dukedom—but Sansa had yet to see him bow to anyone. She wondered if he might go so far as to nod to the king. He regarded Sansa steadily, his gray eyes cool and appraising.
Unbidden, Sansa’s gaze went first to his scar, but then to his lips. She remembered the kisses they had shared and wondered if he had thought of her as she had him over these past days. He had been so often on her mind, and she had imagined what she might say to him upon their next meeting. She had practiced cordialities and friendly, unaffected greetings, but they all failed her now. She found she could only stand and stare at him.
The clearing of a throat from behind her shook her from her reverie. She turned quickly to Robb and Arya. “Your Grace, may I present my elder brother, Lord Stark, and my younger sister, Miss Stark? Robb, Arya, His Grace the Duke of Westerland.”
“A pleasure, Your Grace,” said Robb with a curt bow. Arya curtsied, but said nothing.
A silence crept over their modest gathering, and Sansa could see Clegane inspecting, gauging , Robb. He paid Arya little mind. Robb measured him in kind, though he was less direct about it. He had been raised with the utmost grace in social decorum, which never failed to win him friends and admirers. Clegane was far less concerned with gentility.
Sansa could anticipate the coarse, even demanding inquiries Clegane might launch at Robb, and she was determined to nip them in the bud. She wanted them on good terms, and Clegane’s expression could at any moment turn thunderous, boding ill for any further conversation. To avoid the calamity of that, she said, keeping her voice as even and polite as she could manage, “What brings you to the gardens today, Your Grace?”
“The same as everyone else, I’d expect,” he rumbled.
“You appreciate the flowers.”
Clegane shot her a frown, but when he saw the touch of a smile she wore at his expense, his face softened. He said, “Indeed.”
Sansa would have liked to have had an amused smile from him at the ribbing, but she was satisfied to draw the intensity of his gaze from her brother. She was certain Robb would be an intellectual match for him, but sparring with words and wits and measuring jabs was not what she wanted for them just then. If anything, she wished for Clegane to approve of her brother, and for Robb to accept Clegane in turn. Margaery would have had the skill to facilitate that delicate detente, but Sansa feared her own ability would fall short. She steered the conversation to something frivolous as her only means of keeping the peace. She was sure Clegane would see the ploy and disapprove, but she did it all the same. She gestured to the red flowers she had just been admiring. “Do you by any chance know the name of these? I’m afraid I couldn’t place them.”
“I don’t,” he said flatly, his eyes turning back to Robb. “Perhaps Lord Stark knows.”
Robb, to his credit and Sansa’s relief, laughed. “Unfortunately, no. If none of us are familiar with the plant, I’m afraid it will have to remain a mystery. Though”—he plucked one of the blossoms from its stem and tucked it into the buttonhole of his coat—“I’ll take it to a friend at the Horseheads. He’s got a keen eye for flowers.”
“You’re a member at the Horseheads?” Clegane asked, focus wholly on Robb again. Sansa wanted to tug his sleeve and make him look at her, but refrained.
“I am,” Robb replied. “Joined just this past year. Are you, Your Grace?”
Clegane shook his head. “No need for a club. I’m rarely in London.”
“Nor am I these days,” said Robb. “I suppose that’s why we were not acquainted until today.” He narrowed his eyes. “But you know my sister.”
It was Robb’s sleeve Sansa wished to grasp now, to tell him to keep quiet. She tried her best to insinuate herself into their exchange: “Yes, we met—”
“Miss Stark has been good enough to entertain my company in the past weeks,” Clegane said with unaccustomed formality. Though he stood tall, he rounded his shoulders slightly to rest his left hand at the small of Sansa’s back. At the touch, she shivered, and she had no illusions as to whether he felt it.
“Has she?” Robb asked, seemingly unperturbed by the peculiar strain amongst the three of them. Arya stood by blessedly unaffected. He continued: “She hasn’t said anything of you to me.”
“ Robb ,” Sansa cut in in desperation. “You’ve been home barely three hours. Was I to tell you every little thing about my Season in such a short time?”
Clegane’s hand again pressed against her back. “She has other particular friends to discuss, I’m sure.”
“O ther particular friends?” Robb asked. “Are you indeed particular?”
All of the blood that had been gathering in Sansa’s cheeks in her fit of pique drained out, leaving her pallid. She had no response, no appropriate way to address such a question. At just that very time, she wasn’t at all certain what she considered Clegane at all.
“I wouldn’t presume to call myself that,” he said, the ceremoniousness still in the pitch and timbre of his voice. “We are merely getting to know each other better.”
“Ah,” said Robb. He cocked his head toward Sansa. “Do you agree, little sister?”
She was ashamed, in Clegane’s presence, to chirp so timidly, “Yes.”
Robb clapped his hands, rubbing the palms together. “Splendid! Then you’ll have to walk with us for a time, Your Grace. I’m sure my sister would appreciate a change in conversation from matters of the stable.”
“I will,” Clegane rumbled.
Robb grinned and offered his arm to Arya. He launched into a story about his thoroughbreds as they strode a few paces ahead, leaving Sansa standing beside Clegane. The hand that rested at her back slipped cleverly around her waist and up then up as he offered his own arm to her. She took it, and they started off down the path.
The first few moments were spent unspeaking, straining Sansa’s nerves. Her heart was beating hard in her chest as she searched in vain for an appropriate topic of conversation. She moved her feet to keep up with Clegane’s long strides, but she felt strange in her body, weightless and distant.
“Breathe, little bird,” said Clegane. “Unless you plan to faint and force me to carry you home.” He glanced at her out of the corner of his eye. “But if you want to be in my arms, you have only to say.”
Sansa tightened her hold on his arm and it steadied her somewhat. “I would not make such a spectacle in the middle of the gardens, Your Grace, unless I was truly unwell.”
His lips quirked. “No, I don’t imagine you would. For your precious propriety’s sake, no doubt. Though is it out of concern for your reputation, Sansa, or mine?”
A tremor passed through her at the sound of her given name. “Would you be offended that I cared for your reputation, Your Grace?”
“Offended? No. But you’d be the only one of us who does.”
“You don’t care how you’re seen by your peers?” she asked, though she could already assume the answer.
“No,” he replied. “Their opinions make no matter to me, and they shouldn’t to you, either.”
“I’m afraid I cannot agree,” said Sansa. “One’s standing in society is paramount if one intendeds to keep one’s friends.”
Clegane scoffed. “Anyone who will only be seen with you when you’re playing their game is no true friend.”
Sansa considered. The friends she had—Margaery, Jeyne Poole, and Myrcella Baratheon among them—were dear to her, and she thought them as close as sisters. Far closer than she was with Arya, in fact. However, if she were to fall from the good graces of the ton , they would be faced with the choice of whether to stand by her or distance themselves for the sake of preserving their own reputations. Confronted with that reality, she wasn’t certain what they would do.
“But if you do not move in society with some manner of decorum,” she said, “how will you make such friends?”
“A fair point,” Clegane conceded. “You have many friends. I do not.”
Sansa glanced up at him. It was true that she had not seen him with other gentlemen of his age, save for the one ride with Lord Tyrell, Lord Mallister, and Danwell Frey, and he had said he didn’t belong to a club. When he was out in society, he held himself apart, speaking to only a few.
“ We are friends,” she said. “If not particular ones.”
Clegane raised a brow. “I’m honored,” he said, with only a note of wryness.
Sansa offered a small smile. “As am I, Your Grace.”
Clegane stopped, pulling Sansa up short as he turned to face her. “I told you not to call me that.”
Sansa glanced around her, looking for others who might overhear them. Wetting her lips, she said, “I shouldn’t use your name in company. It’s not proper.”
“Do you see anyone else here?” he said, expression darkening. “We’re alone, little bird, and when we’re alone, you’ll use my name.”
Quiet, voice quavering slightly, she asked, “Am I to be alone with you often?”
“Do you want to be?” Clegane said.
Sansa’s throat was tight with fear and exhilaration. If she said she did want that, would she be agreeing to another tryst? Certainly he would make no move upon her in the gardens. There was no place secluded enough, and no matter how enticing an embrace might be, she would do nothing in the sight of others.
“I…” she began. The next word was whispered: “Yes.”
Clegane’s smile was sly, and there was unmistakable and lascivious heat in his gaze. “Then you’ll come with me to the theater tomorrow evening.”
Sansa balked. The theater was hardly a place to be alone. “What?”
“I have a private box at Haymarket,” he said. “There’s an opera opening there at eight in the evening. I’ll come for you at half eight.”
Sansa felt a thrill at the prospect of spending a night with Clegane in a shadowed box, but there were considerations to take into account. “I must be chaperoned. My mother will not agree to an outing without a suitable companion for me.”
Clegane’s displeased frown twisted the scar beside his mouth. “Let me see to that. You deal with your mother.”
“I’ll need a formal invitation,” said Sansa. “A note or a personal call.” The latter would be preferable. After all, her mother had no notion that her eldest daughter was acquainted with the Duke of Westerland, let alone knew him well enough for her to be invited out in his company. Robb might run off to tell her directly, but Sansa doubted it. He’d likely forget all about it in the happy chaos of Lady Westerling’s birthday celebration.
“Fine,” Clegane said, curt. “I’ll take care of it. All you need do is wait for me at half eight.”
“Very well.” She paused for a moment and then added, “Sandor.”
Guiding her arm back through his, he moved down the path again. “I’ll take you to your brother, but then I must go.”
“So soon?” said Sansa. She had hoped they might talk more before he once again disappeared to conduct whatever business he had in town.
He nodded. “But I will see you again tomorrow.”
They met Arya and Robb a few paces ahead, where they had encountered a young man whom Sansa assumed Robb knew and were conversing animatedly. Clegane led her to them.
“Goodbye, Your Grace,” she said as he released her.
“For now,” he said. Nodding to the others and then to her, he went away.
Upon a brief but amiable conversation with Robb’s Jeyne the following day, Sansa was informed that Lady Westerling was fondest of confectionary, namely chocolate. The confectioner’s stood on Blackwater Street beside a haberdashery that her father frequented. It was not respectable for her to enter the shopping district by herself, but her mother had been feeling a headache coming on and had bid Sansa invite her friends to accompany her instead. Myrcella and Jeyne Poole had been quick to accept, donning their gloves and carrying their brocade purses around their wrists. Together they purchased a petite box of the confectioner’s finest truffles, each one decorated with delicate flowers and filled with ganache. It was placed in a small bag for Sansa to carry home with her.
As they walked, she listened to Myrcella and Jeyne’s stories from their latest salons and teas, and she smiled and made the necessary noises when they were called for, but her mind was elsewhere. Her mother had received no card from Sandor Clegane about the theater outing that evening, and Sansa had begun to worry that he had reconsidered. The very thought brought her spirits down. She had already chosen a gown for the night—lavender silk with a deeper neckline than most of her other evening frocks—and she would be very disappointed indeed to put in back in her wardrobe unworn.
“Will we see you at Lady Aston’s garden party next week?” Myrcella asked as they approached the Stark house.
“I believe so,” Sansa replied. “Mother is a good friend of Lady Aston’s aunt, Mary. I’m sure she’ll want to visit with her.”
“Oh, good,” said Jeyne. “We haven’t seen you about much since the ball.”
“I know, and I’m sorry,” Sansa said, taking Jeyne’s hand and patting it. “I promise you won’t miss me again.”
As they arrived at the door to the house, she kissed both of their cheeks and bid them farewell. They were about to go off down the lane when the door swung open and a tall figure strode out. Sansa’s mouth fell open as she recognized Clegane.
He paused on the stoop, looking down at her. His already impressive height was made even more so by the three steps that led to the door. Behind her, Sansa heard Myrcella and Jeyne gasp.
“Good afternoon, Your Grace,” she said.
He went down the steps slowly, never taking his eyes off of her. “Miss Stark. I’ve just been to see Lady Stark. She was quite forthcoming with her permission for our engagement tonight.”
“Was she?” Sansa asked, feeling the boring of her friends’ gazes into her back.
“Indeed,” Clegane replied. He cast a glance at the other girls, but said nothing by way of greeting. When he turned his eyes back to Sansa, he said, “Half eight.”
Sansa gave a mute nod and watched him walk away for the second afternoon in a row.
Jeyne and Myrcella were gaping at her a most unbecoming way, their eyes wide.
“The duke has asked me to join him at the theater tonight,” she said, lifting her chin.
She saw no reason to continue to hide their acquaintance. She would be seen with Clegane that night after all and certainly within hours the gossips would be hard at work spreading the tale. Sansa had not been favored with any particular gentleman’s attention that Season, and now that the first was the somewhat disreputable Duke of Westerland, this was certain to have tongues wagging.
“He called on your mother to ask you to the theater with him,” said Jeyne, still awestruck. “A duke .”
Myrcella appeared more collected, but she her tone was still laced with excitement as she said, “Is he courting you?”
“He’s made no formal declaration,” Sansa replied.
“But he came to your mother!” she exclaimed, perhaps too loudly. “He made himself known to her. Surely he has intentions.”
He certainly had intentions, Sansa knew, but they likely had nothing to do with courtship. She should have been troubled by that, as it was quite possible that his only interest was in a liaison that would last a few weeks and then be put aside when he left for the country again, but she found that she wasn’t. She would not compromise herself utterly for him, but she was willing to step a measure beyond what was proper if it meant she would once again taste what he had shown her at the ball.
“I can’t assume anything,” she said to Myrcella. “It’s only an evening at the theater. It could amount to nothing more than hearing a few arias.”
“Oh, it’s the opera ,” Jeyne sighed. “I’ve always wanted to go to the opera.”
Sansa smiled indulgently at her. “You’ll have your chance, dear.”
“But I doubt a duke will be the one to escort me.” She grabbed Sansa’s free hand. “You’ll have to recount it for us!. I want to hear every detail.”
“Not about the opera,” said Myrcella. “About the duke.”
Sansa squeezed Jeyne’s hand once before releasing it. “I will tell you what I can,” she said, though she knew full well that whatever transpired that night, she would say nothing of it to anyone.
She went up the steps into the house, waving to her friends as she went. Inside, she removed her bonnet and made for the sitting room, where she expected her mother was waiting.
“Sansa,” Catelyn said, looking up from a small book in her lap. “There you are. It’s a pity you didn’t return a few minutes earlier. You could have seen the Duke of Westerland.” Her brows rose high.
“I saw him as he was leaving,” Sansa said, setting her bonnet and the bag of chocolates down on the divan.
Catelyn folded her hands primly over her closed book. “Did you? Then you’ll know why he was here.”
“I do, yes,” said Sansa, coming to sit across from her mother. “We’re to go to Haymarket together tonight.”
“Indeed you are. Though I must say, it is quite unexpected. I had never met the duke before, and yet he appeared at the door around two o’clock. But apparently you know him well.”
Sansa looked down, willing herself not to flush. “I have had the pleasure of conversing with him on several occasions.”
“Apparently you’ve won his attention admirably, too,” said Catelyn. “He spoke very well of you.”
“He did?” asked Sansa, curious.
Her mother smiled knowingly. “Yes. I believe he is quite taken with you.”
This time Sansa blushed in earnest.
“Does that please you? Would you like to have his affection as well as his regard?”
“I’m afraid I’m not certain,” Sansa said. “I have not known him very long, and while I’m sure of his good character, there is still much to learn about him.”
“But you would like to learn those things?” Catelyn said.
“I would,” said Sansa. “I like him.”
“Well, then it’s good I gave my permission for this outing.”
“Thank you, Mother. I’m grateful.”
Catelyn sighed lightly, shaking her head. “I should have known this day was coming, when I would send you out in the company of a gentleman, but I don’t think a mother is ever really prepared to see it happen. Westerland is not of the character I might have expected you to attend to. He’s reserved, even dour, if I must be truthful. You are so light of spirit, my darling, and his appears heavier. Do you think that a good match?”
“It’s not a match I’m contemplating at this juncture, Mother. Our acquaintance has been a short one, and while he is intriguing to me, I have no designs on him.”
Catelyn got to her feet slowly, holding out her hand for Sansa to take. “I did not mean to imply that you had already set your sights on him. Though a duke is no small prize.” At Sansa’s discomfiture, she relented. “Never mind that now. Shall we go up and dress for dinner? It’s still a mother’s duty to see her children fed before they venture off into the world.”
Sansa smiled and nodded. “Yes, Mother. I should like that very much.”
Sansa regarded her reflection in the mirror with a critical eye. Her maid had finished with her hair, which was curled prettily and fastened up in a neat chignon at the back of her head. She had once again forgone any other adornment, choosing simple elegance over elaborate ornaments.
Her gown was fitted properly and elegantly suited her form, the sleeves puffed around her shoulders, and the lavender looked well against the cream of her complexion. Not one to wear rouge, she simply pinched her cheeks to redden them. She bit at her lips, too, bringing out the color. She could do no more after that to improve her appearance. With a sigh, she turned away from the mirror.
The clock in the foyer read twenty-five minutes past eight when she came down the stairs. Her father was conversing with his valet near the door, but both of them looked up as she arrived. Eddard’s smile was warm.
“My dear,” he said, “you look resplendent.”
“Thank you, Father.”
He dismissed his valet with a gesture, turning his attention to Sansa alone. “Are you looking forward to the opera?”
She nodded, feeling the skittish tumult of apprehension and excitement come to life in her belly. “I hope I will like it.”
“I imagine you will,” said Eddard, “as you are so fond of music. Speaking of that, I have secured a teacher for you. He will be coming to the house on Saturday afternoon for your first lesson. He’s called Master Marillion, and I’ve heard his original compositions are quite charming.”
Sansa smiled brightly. “That’s wonderful news, Father. I shall be pleased to make his acquaintance and become his pupil.”
Reaching out, Eddard touched her cheek with warm fingertips. “My darling girl, already becoming a woman. You have so many gifts. This Duke of Westerland should be honored to share your company.”
A voice from the doorway: “I am, my lord.”
Sansa turned and found Clegane standing at the threshold. The footman was behind him, apology in his face for not announcing the duke properly.
“Your Grace,” said Eddard, bowing. “I welcome you to my home.”
Clegane gave a shallow bow in response, the first Sansa had seen. “Thank you, Lord Stark, though I’m afraid we cannot tarry here. Miss Stark and I should not be late for the opening curtain.”
“No, of course not.” Eddard took Sansa’s hand quite formally in his and led her across the hall to where Clegane stood.
Clegane held out his own hand, and Sansa slid her gloved fingers into it. “Good evening, Lord Stark,” he said, though he was looking at Sansa.
She hardly heard her father’s parting words as she was drawn out through the door and into the cool air of the night.
A Brougham carriage was waiting outside, the driver perched on the front seat. Clegane opened the door for Sansa and handed her up. He followed behind her, sweeping the tails of his coat out of the way as he sat at her side. With a rap of his knuckles against the covered top, they were off.
As the carriage jostled along the street, Sansa felt her leg pressed against Clegane’s. There was space enough for them to sit apart, but she had no desire to move away from the warmth she could feel even through the silk of her skirt. Her hands were in her lap, but it would have been simple enough to shift them so that she could brush his thigh. The forwardness of such an action, however, was too much.
To keep her mind from wandering to the notion again, she said, “I should like to thank you once again for this invitation. I’m very much looking forward to the show.”
“Hm,” Clegane grumbled.
Sansa cocked her head to look at him properly. “Do you not care for the opera?”
“It’s well enough.”
“And yet you have a private box at the theater?”
“My father kept it for my mother,” he said. “She had a great love of music.”
“So you said at Mrs. Sand’s dinner,” said Sansa. “She was a singer of considerable talent. Did she often perform?”
“When she was young, or so I have been told. But I only knew her lullabies.”
Sansa endeavored to envision him as a child, nestled in his bed as his mother sang him to sleep. She wondered what kind of boy he had been: taciturn and focused on his studies or exuberant and often outdoors. Perhaps it was a mix of both.
“When did she die?” Sansa asked.
“Nine years ago,” he replied. “She had always been frail, but an illness took hold in her lungs and didn’t let go. She could hardly breathe by the end.”
Sansa’s heart clenched. She was certain she would not be able to bear watching her own mother struggle for breath as she wasted away from sickness. It must have been a terrible time for Sandor and his brother.
“I’m very sorry,” she said, venturing a tentative touch at the back of his hand where it rested on his knee.
His fingers twitched beneath hers. “She would be glad to have someone in her place at the theater again.”
“Then it is my honor to sit where she once did,” said Sansa.
He glanced down at her then, his gray eyes intent. He seemed to be studying her, weighing the truth of her words. She held his gaze unflinchingly.
The carriage rocked to a halt, and Clegane looked away. He opened the door and stepped out.
The lamps outside the theater burned brightly, and there were numerous lords and ladies, all finely turned out, making their way through the double doors. Charmed, Sansa threaded her arm through Clegane’s and allowed him to lead her inside.
The interior was sumptuous, the ceilings high and furnishings colorful. Theatergoers milled about the lobby, some of them holding cups of punch and others chattering amongst themselves.
As Sansa and Clegane entered, several heads turned in their direction. Eyes went wide and some mouths dropped opened. Sansa could feel her blush rising, but she forced herself to maintain her composure and hold her head high.
“Are you thirsty?” Clegane asked as they walked.
Sansa’s throat was dry, but she wasn’t certain she was prepared to mingle with the others, many of whom were clearly shocked to see her on Clegane’s arm.
“No, thank you,” she said. “I’d very much like to have a look at the stage before the show begins. May we go to the box?”
“Yes,” he said, steering her purposefully through the crowd toward the staircase that led to the upper levels of the theater.
She should not have been so fretful, she knew, but the stares had discomfited her more than she might have expected. She was not accustomed to being so scrutinized by so many. And when she had made her entrance at her first ball of the Season, the attention had been welcome. Tonight it was less so, if not offensive. It was a matter of her nerves: she was treading upon unknown ground with a man whom she knew only as solitary gentlemen who claimed to be not even that. Sansa had meant to present herself as a paragon of propriety, and yet here she was with the Season’s most disreputable member of the peerage.
“You shouldn’t pay attention to them,” Clegane said as they ascended the stairs. “What they think has no bearing on you.”
Sansa said nothing, wishing she could believe that.
“Are you embarrassed to be out in my company?”
“Of course not,” she said, strident. “I’m simply…a bit overwhelmed by the grandeur and all the people.”
Clegane gave a disbelieving huff. “You don’t need to lie to me, girl. I’m not the kind of man your supposed to be in company with. The Tyrell whelp or one of his kind are better suited to you. I know that.” He lowered his voice, leaning slightly closer to her. “Fortunately, I don’t care. You’re here now, and that’s all that matters to me.”
A thrill passed down Sansa’s spine. “I wouldn’t want to be out with Lord Tyrell tonight,” she said. “I’m glad it’s you.”
Clegane pulled his arm closer, drawing her in.
The box, Sansa found when they arrived, was perfectly situated. The long, red curtain hung down over the stage, the footlights illuminating it. There were six chairs in the box, though only one was occupied.
Clegane led Sansa to the hunched figure. She was a round old woman with her steely gray hair pulled back tight and spectacles perched on her nose.
“Lady Stonetree,” Clegane said, loudly and with great clarity, “meet Miss Sansa Stark.”
“What’s that you say?” the lady asked. “Susan Pork?”
“Sansa Stark,” said Sansa, “my lady.”
“Hmph, odd name, Pork,” Lady Stonetree mumbled. “Well, sit yourselves down. It’s bound to start sometime soon. Unless they plan to keep me waiting until I’m in my grave.”
Clegane gestured to the chair nearest the stage side of the box, and Sansa took it. She settled her skirts around her as Clegane sat between her and Lady Stonetree.
“Her ladyship was my grandmother’s particular friend,” he said. “She’s more than half deaf and blind to boot, but she was willing to chaperone. She did for my mother while my father was courting her.”
Sansa cast a sidelong glance at the old woman. “How is she going to enjoy the opera if she can’t hear or see it?”
Clegane shrugged one shoulder. “She’ll probably be asleep by the middle of the first act.” The corner of his mouth turned up devilishly. “That’s why I was so keen to bring her. She’ll pay us no mind.”
Sansa blinked at him in disbelief. He had brought a chaperone who was hardly that, leaving them all but alone.
“Does that trouble you?” he asked, trailing his forefingers along the satin glove that reached Sansa’s elbow. “Frighten you?”
“No,” she said, though it was whispered. “I’m not afraid of you, Sandor.”
“Good,” he said as he traced her dainty wrist. “I want you to enjoy our time together. Always.”
Sansa swallowed, feeling her stomach flip. She watched Sandor’s fingers—long and blunt-tipped—move between hers as if charting a map of her hand. When she looked up at him again, his expression was markedly soft. Before she could make sense of what that meant, the orchestra began to tune up.
Sansa was truly excited to hear the opera, and so she turned her attention to it. She was not unaware, however, of Sandor beside her.
The singers and music were beyond anything she had ever heard before. Their voices were transcendent, and each song took her breath away. During the brief intermission between the first and second acts, a footman brought champagne to the box. Sansa, as well as Lady Stonetree, enjoyed a glass, but Sandor declined. As she drank, Sansa looked out over the audience below, taking in the array of people. She sat down eagerly when the curtain rose once more.
The first aria was not yet over by the time Sansa heard soft snores from Lady Stonetree. It grated against the beauty of the music, but Sansa did her utmost to ignore it. What she could not ignore, though, was the sudden touch at her knee. She jumped, looking sharply over at Sandor. He didn’t spare a glance for her, instead sliding his palm up her thigh.
Her awareness of the opera suddenly dimmed, the playing of the orchestra muted, as all of her attention focused on Sandor’s hand. Lightly, he traced the length of her leg up to her hip. He paused there briefly, squeezing, before continuing up along her waist. She gasped as his fingertips brushed the side of her breast.
“Not too loudly, little bird,” he said, his breath warm against her ear. “It won’t be easy to wake her, but we still have to be quiet. Can you do that?”
She nodded mutely, not trusting herself to speak.
Sandor hummed just audibly, touching the nape of her neck. She started when she felt the first brush of his lips along her jaw. He stroked her thigh with his right hand as if to soothe her, but it did little to help as he continued to kiss down her neck and to the join of her shoulder. Sansa’s heart stuttered as the wet tip of his tongue touched her skin.
She was hardly given a respite from her shock before he deftly undid the top button at the back of her gown. The second followed a moment later. Her breath was coming quick and shallow, and for as much fear as she had of getting caught at this—whatever this was becoming—she could not help but hunger for it, too. She had had a taste of what Sandor Clegane could do to her, and God save her, she wanted more.
As the third button was released, the sleeves of her gown began to slip down her shoulders. She was inclined to pull them back up, but when Sandor’s hand slid up from her back to her exposed shoulder, the compulsion left her. The sensation was intoxicating, raising gooseflesh across her chest.
She could feel the calluses on Sandor’s palm as he moved his hand across her collarbone and then lower. Sansa held her breath, seeing his intention and bracing herself for it. He slid his fingers under the silk of her gown until they brushed the peak of her breast. He drew gentle circles, making her shudder. She felt heaviness in her loins, as if her stomach had dropped a few inches. Sandor continued his ministrations, touching her with light, teasing fingers, even gently taking her nipple between them and rolling it between the pads. She barely kept her composure as he did it, her head spinning with the sensations. When he did withdraw, she was both disappointed and relieved. His touch was exquisite, but also torturous, making her squirm in her seat and ache for him to explore more of her flesh.
As if he could hear her thoughts, he pulled on her sleeve again, bringing it down until he had bared her breast. She immediately wanted to cover herself, to hide, but before she could, Sandor bent his head and took the nipple into his mouth. Sansa stifled a cry, her hand clutching desperately at his thigh. His left hand was at her back, pushing her up into him. His right was fisted in her skirt, beginning to lift it.
We can’t. We can’t . The words were running wildly through her mind, but she could not manage to say them. Her voice was lost to her in the feeling of Sandor’s tongue against her breast.
Sansa was caught up in that, but she did not overlook his fingers against her leg, moving her skirt gently but determinedly up. As he reached the apex of her thighs, he eased his hand under her gown and between them, until she opened for him.
She could feel the wetness there already. He slickened his fingers and slowly began to move against her. Her reaction was immediate: heat shot through her limbs, making her tingle. Her breath came up short as her heart pounded. She was grateful for the booming voice of the tenor who was singing his solo; it masked the small sounds she could not keep from making.
Sandor moved his lips to her other breast, paying it the same attention. All the while, he worked steadily between her legs. She had spread them as far as the confines of her gown would allow and was pressing herself into his hand. It was done with a wanton need she had never known she possessed. Thoughts of impropriety and of the elderly woman who sat just a few feet from them fled from her mind until all that mattered were the insistent caresses that were quickly bringing her to the point of madness once again.
Blindly, she grasped at him, pushing her fingers into his hair and holding him to her breast. He moved both hands and tongue faster against her. Her body grew taut, her legs beginning to tremble. The tension at her center was excruciating yet glorious. Release came, at last, with the resounding crescendo from the orchestra. Sandor caught her cries in his mouth, his tongue sliding against hers in a searing kiss.
He continued to kiss her as she descended. She felt as though she were floating in a warm bath, flushed with the heat and utterly peaceful. She jumped at the sensitivity she felt as Sandor gave a last caress between her legs.
Unspeaking, he withdrew his hand and, quickly drawing his handkerchief, wiped it clean. Then he saw to Sansa’s gown. He tugged her sleeves back over her shoulders and did up the buttons at her back.
“Did you like that?” he inquired quietly.
She fought to find her voice again, but managed to reply, “Yes.”
He smoothed her skirt back down, setting it to rights as if nothing untoward had occurred. A particularly loud snore from Lady Stonetree reminded Sansa of her presence, and she found herself blushing once again. It was too dark for Sandor to see it, for which she was grateful.
“Good,” he said. “I mean to please you often, and well.”
Sansa gave a soft, “Oh,” somewhere between wonder and satisfaction. What he had already done was beyond her wildest imaginings, and she could not fathom what else he could intend. She reasoned, however, that there was a great deal she knew nothing about and would have to be shown.
Sandor’s laugh was low and deep. “I like that I can shock you, little bird. It’s something I don’t see often.” He brushed her shoulder and up to her neck. “It will be a shame when you no longer gasp and flush at my every touch. But we have a long way to go before then.”
Sansa wasn’t certain that that would ever happen. His very presence was enough to make her lose her head, and his hands, his mouth…
“But for now,” he said, “enough. Finish the opera, girl, and we’ll see what’s to come when we’re together again.”
Sansa’s ability to concentrate on the music had been severely compromised, and she struggled to follow the rest of the story. But the singing was lovely, and she was able to enjoy it. When the curtain finally lowered for the final time, Sansa got to her feet and applauded with the rest of the audience. Sandor stood beside her, clapping briefly before letting his hands fall to his sides. He turned to Lady Stonetree, who had startled awake, and helped her to her feet. The top of her head came only to his stomach.
“Thank you, boy,” she said, as if he was still a child and not a man who towered above her. “I’ll go down to my carriage now. Where’s that skinny thing that showed me up here?”
A liveried coachman appeared from just beyond the door of the box and offered his arm. Lady Stonetree took it and moved a number of shuffling steps ahead. She turned back to Sansa briefly, saying, “Goodnight, Miss Pork.”
Sansa gave a shallow curtsy.
“Many will stay for another glass of champagne and more gossip,” Sandor said to her when their chaperone had gone. “Do you want that?”
Sansa knew that she had something of an obligation to remain and make the rounds; it would win her favor with the ton . However, she was still reeling from earlier and could not imagine chatting idly with the operagoers after having done something so illicit just a half an hour before. It all seemed insipid after being affected so.
“I think I might like to take some air,” she said.
“It’s not a night to walk,” said Sandor. “Too cold when you have so little on.”
That might have been true, but the cold seemed precisely what she needed to collect herself before returning home. “I’ll be all right for a time.”
“Very well.” He held out his arm for Sansa to take. She slid hers through it, resting her fingers lightly on his solid forearm, and he led her out into the foyer.
Again, they were faced with the inquisitive looks of the gentlemen and ladies there, the latter peering over their fans and whispering behind them. Sansa lifted her chin, displaying the poise with which she had been brought up. Sandor loomed menacingly at her side, staring down anyone who dared look too long at them. Sansa tried to offer soothing smiles in the wake of his glares, but most everyone had already glanced away.
The bite of the chilly air stung Sansa’s skin as soon as they stepped out of the theater. She nearly shivered, but managed to steel herself, knowing that Sandor would have felt the tremble and insisted they take the coach directly back to her father’s house. She could not hide the gooseflesh, but she hoped the dark would mask it.
“We’ll go once round the corner,” Sandor said as they turned down the street. “Will that be air enough for you?”
“Yes, thank you,” said Sansa. Already she was feeling her head clear as they began their slow promenade. Sandor took one stride for every two of hers, but he allowed her time to keep up with him.
“Did you like the music?” he asked.
“It was remarkable,” she replied earnestly. “I’ve never heard anything like it. The purity of their voices was a wonder. I could never hope to sing like that.”
Sandor grunted dismissively. “They’ve trained for years. If you had that kind of practice, it’s likely you could.”
“No everyone has that tremendous talent,” said Sansa, “no matter their training.” She could not help but think of Master Merillion’s coming lesson on Saturday, however. She was delighted to study singing properly. Young ladies of breeding did not sing on the stage, but she might one day be able to entertain her friends in their salons.
“Maybe,” Sandor said, disbelieving.
Sansa looked up at him, though she was mindful of her feet on the uneven cobbles. “Did you enjoy the opera?”
“It was rather frivolous for my taste,” he said. “Mistaken identities, a garden party, a role for a jester disrupting the ballet. I prefer something with more substance.”
“A tragedy perhaps?” asked Sansa. She wasn’t certain that operas were tragic, like plays, but she assumed it was possible.
Sandor shrugged. “If the story was good, then yes.”
“Perhaps if there is one performed in the future, we can attend.”
Sandor look at her from the corner of his eye. “You want to come out with me again, then? Not afraid to be seen on my arm?”
“Why would I be?” Sansa asked. “You are a gentleman of good standing in society.”
“Somewhat good standing,” he replied. “My reputation is not without fault. I am seen as…reclusive. There are rumors about me that you may not want attached to you.”
Sansa had heard them, of course, such talk having been her first introduction to his name, but she was certain there were rumors about every member of the ton . Sandor was not shunned or disgraced, and it would not reflect poorly upon Sansa to be in his company.
“I’m not afraid of the tittle-tattle of drawing rooms and clubs,” she said. “We have done nothing—” She stopped short, realizing what she had been about to say. We have done nothing untoward . Oh, but they had.
Sandor’s smile was knowing and sharp. “What’s that now, little bird?”
Her face burned. “I…well, there’s nothing we’ve done, in a place where we might be seen, that they would disapprove of.”
“That’s true enough,” he said. His next words were lower, quieter, and meant only for her ears: “After all, what would be said of us if they knew what we had done tonight?”
Sansa said nothing, knowing the question did not require an answer. The way he had touched her, how it had made her gasp and writhe... She could not mask this shiver.
Sandor stilled, stopping them at the corner of the wide street and the small lane beside it. “We’ll turn back here. You’re chilled.”
Sansa didn’t protest. She allowed him to lead her toward the theater, where their carriage was waiting. He handed her up into it, and she settled into the plush seat. He took the place next to her.
“Do you have many engagements planned for the coming days?” he asked as they rocked down the street to the clip and clop of the horses’ hooves.
“A few,” said Sansa. “Tomorrow is Lady Westerling’s birthday party. She’s the mother of my brother’s wife.”
“Yes, I remember. Are you pleased to be going?”
“I am. I have only met her once, at the wedding, but she was a charming lady, and I look forward to seeing her again. I chose a box of chocolates for her gift.”
“You’re very thoughtful,” said Sandor.
“Perhaps, but it is customary to bring some manner of trifle to such a celebration, isn’t it?”
“I would not have done that, no,” he replied.
“Well, I suppose it would be your wife’s duty rather than yours,” said Sansa. Even in the half-dark she could see Sandor’s mouth turn down. She had stumbled onto a sore subject. Quickly, she attempted to step the conversation back. “But that makes no matter to you, now. A gentleman of your standing certainly has more important things to consider.”
“Things more important than matrimony?” he said. “Some would say there’s nothing more paramount than making a good match and carrying on the lineage.”
Sansa knew that well, especially since it was expected that she was out in society mainly to catch a husband. She proceeded with caution, knowing that Sandor had spoken in no uncertain terms about if he ever married. “There are other matters, such as the management of an estate, that are just as important.”
Sandor laughed lightly. “You’re trying to cater to my interests, I see. But you’ve guessed right. The estate is my primary concern. All else is secondary.”
“It must be very dear to you,” said Sansa.
The coach lurched to a stop, announcing their arrival at Sansa’s home. Her good breeding dictated that she should be composed and thankful upon leaving Sandor, and she would be, but she was also remiss to leave him, when his company had been so stimulating.
“Your Grace—” she started, out of habit alone. She was cut off, however, as his broad, warm palm engulfed her cheek.
“I’ll escort you inside,” he said, “but I want one last thing before I leave you.”
“What is that?” she breathed.
It wasn’t a passionate, ravishing kiss as had been those they had shared in the box at the theater, but instead a light brushing of lips. Still, it affected her deep in her belly and all the way up to the fluttering in her breast. She returned the kiss, close-lipped.
“When will I see you again?” she asked when they parted.
“I have business to attend to in the coming days,” he replied, “but I will call when I can.”
Sansa nodded, hoping that he would appear at her house again to seek her parents’ permission for another outing. If he were any other gentleman, she might have hoped he would come visit just for tea, but she somehow could not see him sitting in her mother’s parlor sipping from a delicate china cup and making polite conversation about the weather.
He ducked his head one last time for a final kiss, and then opened the door to the carriage. He helped Sansa down and led her up the steps to the house’s door. A single, curt knock brought the footman. He bowed and made way for Sansa to enter.
“Goodnight, Your Grace,” she said formally.
Sandor lifted her hand and brushed his lips across her knuckles. “Goodnight, Miss Stark.”
Sansa slept fitfully in the night, her dreams filled with shadowy figures on a darkened stage like that on which the opera had been performed. But the footlights were dim and the chandeliers unlit. She was frightened as the figures danced around her, trapped her center stage and began to pluck at her clothes. The fragile fabrics gave way until she was bare. She wept and tried to cover herself, but she would hear the laughing of the audience. Then she felt the kiss of soft wool over her shoulders, shrouding her from their gaze. She pulled it around her tightly, realizing it was a white cloak, bright in the darkness that surrounded her. Slowly she turned to see her savior and found Sandor looking down at her. He drew her to her feet and touched her face.
“Little bird,” he said.
Sansa woke with a start, sunlight streaming through her window and bathing her bed in yellow. She clutched at the night dress she wore, relieved to find it intact. She sighed, lying back against her pillows and trying to make sense of such a grotesque dream.
She was still feeling out of sorts when she went down to breakfast, but the happy noise of her family tittering away about the excitement of Lady Westerling’s birthday party that evening soon banished the melancholy.
“What will you wear to the party, Sansa, my dear?” Catelyn asked as she spread a bit of strawberry jam on her toast.
“I was thinking the blue silk,” Sansa replied. “I haven’t worn it since the dance at Hightower Hall last month.”
Catelyn smiled. “That one is very fetching on you.”
“I was going to wear blue,” Arya grumbled, cutting into her ham viciously. “The day dress I got for my birthday.”
Sansa looked across at her thoughtfully. “Well, you can certainly wear it,” she said. “I can chose another. After all, you don’t have the wardrobe I have.”
Arya made a face. “I don’t want to wear the stupid dresses like you have. I’d rather have a riding habit for every occasion. It’s so much more comfortable to wear the breeches underneath.” She stabbed a chunk of ham. “I wish I could always wear breeches.”
“You’ll have to make do with the dresses,” Sansa said, rolling her eyes, “or be the disgrace of the family.”
“Sansa,” Eddard warned.
She apologized, though Arya still stuck her tongue out at her.
“I’ve heard Jeyne Poole will be calling this afternoon for tea,” said Catelyn, deftly shifting the subject before her daughters could squabble further. “Is that right, Sansa?”
“Yes, Mother. Myrcella Baratheon will be here, as well. We were hoping to play a few hands of whist. Will you join us?”
Catelyn smiled. “That would be charming. I would enjoy it very much.”
“Well, I’m going riding with Father,” Arya declared. “That’s so very much better than whist.”
Sansa sighed heavily at her contrary sister and turned her attention back to her breakfast.
The afternoon passed cheerfully as Sansa’s mother and friends played cards and traded stories of the ton : who was seen batting their eyes over their fan at whom and who had danced together at the latest soirée. Sansa was asked to recount her tale of the opera, and she managed to do so without flushing scarlet at every turn. The beginning and end she had seen quite clearly and was able to explain the story of, but the middle bits were somewhat muddled. She glossed over them as best she could. She wished Myrcella and Jeyne a good afternoon at five o’clock before going up to dress for dinner.
She ate with her family as usual, but they didn’t tarry around the table. They were all due at Lady Westerling’s townhouse at eight o’clock. Bran and Rickon would even be in attendance, though in the company of their governess, who would take them home by nine. Arya, who was not yet out in society, would be permitted to stay on only because it was a family affair.
They took a single coach, though it was a tight fit for all of them. Eddard rode outside, which gave them some room to breathe, but it was still cramped as they rumbled along the cobbled streets. Sansa was glad to be handed down by the footman when they arrived at the house.
Inside it was warm and boisterous, with guests filling every nook of the first floor: women in elegant dresses and men in their best coats and cravats, even a few children scampering about. Somewhere in the distance, there was a string quartet playing a quadrille.
“Sansa!” called a willowy young woman with brown hair and a lovely smile. Lady Jeyne Stark, née Westerling, was making her way over, waving her fashionable feather fan. She took Sansa’s gloved hands in hers and kissed her cheek. “My darling sister, welcome! It’s so wonderful to see you. You look beautiful!”
“Thank you, Jeyne,” Sansa said. “As do you.” She wore a fetching red dress with gold embroidery around the décolletage.
Jeyne ducked around her to greet Catelyn, Eddard, Arya, and the boys, inviting them all in for refreshment and a dance or two. Ayra muttered some objection to the dance, but eyed the punch readily. Bran and Rickon found a pair of other children to play with, leaving their governess to trail behind them.
“Where is the Lady Westerling?” Eddard asked when it was just the four of them.
“In the sitting room,” Jeyne replied. “She’ll be thrilled to see you. Come this way.”
She led them through the throng of guests to where her mother—a stately woman who looked very much like her daughter—was seated. Sansa dropped a curtsy and presented her with the box of chocolates she had chosen.
“How kind of you, child,” said the lady, smiling. “These will be such a wonderful indulgence.”
“Happy birthday, Lady Westerling,” Sansa said. “It was my pleasure.”
She grinned more broadly. “My daughter has married into a good family. Such tender-hearted girls and clever boys.”
Arya was hardly tender-hearted, but Sansa didn’t mention that. At least it was true that her brothers were bright and spirited.
“Ah,” Lady Westerling said, glancing over Sansa’s shoulder toward the side of the room, “I believe there is someone who wishes to speak with you, dear girl.”
Sansa turned to see Margaery Tyrell and her bother Loras. Immediately she broke into a smile at the sight of her friend.
“Go on, then, dear,” Lady Westerling bid her. “Have fun.”
With another shallow curtsy, Sansa went to join the two of them. Margaery kissed her cheeks while Loras offered a bow. He looked very dashing in his fawn waistcoat and blue jacket. His hair was fashionably cut and fell just a little rakishly over his brow.
“Good evening, Miss Stark,” he said. “It’s a pleasure to see you here.”
He was so very handsome, and just the kind of young man Sansa should have fancied. And yet she found herself comparing him to Clegane. He was much smaller, and head and shoulders shorter. The hand that held hers was fine-boned and narrow-fingered, unlike Clegane’s broad palms and thick, callused fingers. Oh, how those hands had felt upon her body just the night before. She could hardly imagine Loras ever doing something as daring as touching her in public—even if it was a private box at the opera. And comely as he was, did she want him to?
“It is lovely to see you, too, Lord Tyrell,” she said with the utmost politeness.
Margaery was looking between them, a knowing, scheming smile on her round face. Sansa knew that expression and all that it entailed; but she would never have guessed that her friend would have wanted to throw her into the path of her brother. It was undeniable that they would make a good match by the standards of the ton , uniting two of the most influential families in England.
Two weeks ago, Sansa would have jumped at this opportunity with all her heart, determined to secure him, but now there was hesitation. What would Sandor do if he saw her with Loras? It wasn’t any of his affair, really; he hadn’t made any claim on her. And yet she knew there was some manner of tacit agreement they had come to when he had asked her parents’ permission to escort her to the opera. And the way he spoke of what they would do when next he had her alone… Well, that was a kind of promise all its own.
“Oh, listen,” Margaery exclaimed, drawing Sansa’s attention back to the present moment. “They’re playing a new song. Why don’t the two of you dance?” She fitted Sansa’s arm through Loras’s and pushed them toward the ballroom. Unable to refuse, Sansa allowed herself to be led onto the floor and set into place for the dance.
Loras was an excellent partner, never missing a step. As they moved around the floor, he asked her about her day: had she spent time with friends? Had she read any interesting novels lately?
“You play the pianoforte?” he said when she mentioned that she had spent an hour practicing that morning.
“Not exceptionally well,” Sansa replied, “but I’m going to be taking music lessons starting this Saturday. I’m quite excited for it.”
“I’d enjoy hearing you play sometime,” said Loras. “And perhaps sing?”
“Perhaps when I am better trained, my lord,” she said.
They came to a stop as the music ended, and he kissed her knuckles. “I will hold you to that, Miss Stark.” She turned her eyes down, charmed, and he continued, “Margaery and I play croquet in the park on Sunday afternoons, when the weather permits. Would you care to join us this week? I would be very glad to spend more time with you.”
Sansa didn’t miss his emphasis, his clear statement of interest in her. She felt a flash of nerves for what Sandor would say, but a game of croquet in the company of her friends was hardly something to gossip about. Only she would know what Loras meant by it.
“I would very much enjoy that, yes,” she said.
Loras beamed, a breathtaking smile. “Wonderful. Then we’ll see you there. Would you care for some punch?”
Together they went to the refreshment table and he poured her a glass, at which she sipped. Margaery came over to fetch her own glass. Loras excused himself to dance another, leaving Sansa in her care.
“My dear,” Margaery said, “how enchanting you looked out there with my brother. You make a beautiful couple.”
Sansa resisted the urge to chew her lips unbecomingly. “He’s the epitome of fashion and kindness. It was an honor to have his attention.”
Margaery grinned, flicking her fan against Sansa’s forearm playfully. “Oh, I have it on good authority he’d like to give you much more of that attention. He’s quite taken with you.”
“I hardly know him,” said Sansa.
“But you would like to get to know him better?” Margaery asked, insistent.
Sansa swallowed, opening her fan as both a way of delaying her answer and out of necessity; she was overwarm. “I would.”
“Splendid,” Margaery said. “Then we’ll see you on Sunday?” Of course she already knew the invitation would have been offered. Sansa would have been willing to bet she put the idea in Loras’s head. She wondered for a split second if Margaery hadn’t put the whole idea of Miss Sansa Stark into his head.
“Yes,” said Sansa. “You will.”
She danced another three times with Loras Tyrell, but also with a few other young men at the party. She chatted with some of the ladies, saw her brothers off to bed, and made sure Arya wasn’t getting into trouble. It wasn’t before midnight that the Starks finally got back into their carriage and returned home to retire.
Sansa undressed and braided her hair, donning her nightgown. She hoped the dreams of the stage would not return, but even if they did, she knew Sandor would be there with his white cloak to shield her.
Choosing appropriate attire for every occasion was a trait most desired in young ladies of the ton , and Sansa was determined to always appear in her best form. It was with care, then, on Saturday morning that she chose her pink day dress with modest sleeves and floral embroidery in which to appear for her music lesson with Master Merillion.
She had inquired with some in her acquaintance about the man and had heard tell of his good looks and agreeable temperament. He was a deft pianist and clever composer, though he had not written anything Sansa had heard performed this Season. Some of the older women, who had known him since he had first arrived in London some three years ago, spoke of him with prurient suggestiveness. He had, if their whispers were to be believed, a demeanor that would charm any lady, perhaps into indiscretion.
Sansa was certain her father would not employ a music master who could not be trusted with his daughter of marriageable age and, if Sansa was bold enough to admit, considerable beauty. But she would still be cautious in her enthusiasm for studying with him, keeping her energetic interest directed exclusively at the music.
She was seated in the parlor when the footman announced his arrival, and she stood to greet him. Appearing in the doorway with the morning sunshine on his face, he was revealed to be just as handsome has he had been described, with a long, straight nose and a defined, if narrow jaw. His hair was combed impeccably, though there was a hint of a curl to it. Had it been longer, it might have been quite girlish. He had a folder of what Sansa presumed to be music under his arm, and he made a very deep bow.
“Good morning, Miss Stark,” he said in a honey-thick tenor. “I am honored to make your acquaintance. I have heard a great deal about you in the past weeks of the Season. You’ve made quite the impression, and I can understand how.” He rose, smiling. “You are very beautiful.”
Sansa was glad she had resolved to take care around him, if he was already quick to pay her compliments. She said, “Good morning to you, Master Merillion. I’ve been looking very much forward to our meeting and to my first lesson.”
“Indeed, Miss Stark. Shall we begin, then? If you’ll direct me to where you have your pianoforte.”
Sansa moved toward him, feeling him watch her as she did, but when she reached him, he stepped out of her path and followed her deferenty. She took him to the music room, where he inspected the pianoforte.
“This must be an heirloom,” he said, running his fingers along its keys. “It was not recently made.”
“It belonged to my grandmother on my mother’s side,” Sansa explain. “The paintings are of the forests and fords of Riverrun, where the Tully family resides.”
Merillion hummed in contemplation. “A very remarkable instrument. As lovely as you, I venture.” Another smile. “Come stand beside it, Miss Stark, and let us begin.”
Sansa’s place, she discovered, was indeed next to the pianoforte, at Merillion’s right as he sat in front of the keys and played scales to which she was made to sing. Her voice was uncertain when she began, cracking some and wavering, but when Merillion described to her how to breathe and to sing from her belly rather than her chest, she became more sure of herself.
“You have an excellent soprano range, Miss Stark,” he said after he had paused to fill a glass with water from a nearby pitcher and had her drink to refresh her throat. “A true gift. With training, you’ll make one of the finest singers in London.”
“Oh,” she she shyly. “Certainly not.”
“Finest among the ton , then,” he amended. “We will have to rehearse a repertoire for a performance by the end of the Season.”
“Do you truly think that’s possible?” Sansa asked.
He plucked the glass from her hand and set it down, turning his eyes back to her. “Most certainly, Miss Stark. Most certainly.”
When she was finally too tired to sing on, she was told to sit at the pianoforte and oplay the scales she had just sung. It was tedious, but it helped her dexterity on the keys. Master Merillion was truly quite pleased with her—and said so many times.
“You’ll have to be accompanied when you sing at first,” he told her, “but when you are more practiced on the pianoforte, you will be able to play and sing at once. It will be quite the thing to behold.”
He left her with a few pieces to practice for the next week’s lesson, and then he bowed and took his leave.
Sansa went to luncheon and drank tea with honey, as she had been instructed to do to heal her voice. She anticipated she wouldn’t be speaking much at Lady Aston’s garden party that afternoon.
When she was finished with the meal, she went to wash up and dress for the party—another carefully chosen frock and slippers. Only she and her mother would be attending, though it was likely Myrcella Baratheon and Jeyne Poole would be there as well. She needed to catch up with them and tell them about her impending Sunday game of croquet with Loras and Margaery.
The Astons’ garden was covered in flowers and lanterns when she and Catelyn arrived at five o’clock. A little girl—a cousin of Lady Aston’s presumably—presented Sansa with a pink rose to pin onto her dress.
Almost immediately, she was set upon by Jeyne and Myrcella, who were wearing oddly complementary colors of yellow and green. They both had roses of their own, the colors of which didn’t suite them or their attire well. They pulled Sansa onto a shaded bench and demanded she tell them everything that had happened at Lady Westerling’s birthday party. Sansa’s voice was still weak, but she managed to relate everything they wanted to know.
“Oh, tomorrow will be such a pleasure!” Myrcella said, clapping her petite hands together with enough force to make her golden curls bounce. “With Loras Tyrell . He’s so comely, and such a fine horseman. I would guess he’ll win at croquet.”
“Surely he’d let the ladies win,” said Jeyne.
Sansa shot her a look. “I wouldn’t consider that a very gentlemanly thing to do, at all. One should always do one’s best.”
Jeyne said something else about the park, but Sansa didn’t hear it. Her gaze had been drawn directly to the front of the garden, where a long shadow was cast upon the white gravel. Sandor Clegane, dressed in brown and yellow, was standing there with an untouched glass of champagne in his hand. He was surveying the guests around him, looking displeased, but when he alighted on Sansa, his expression shifted to one of pleasure. Sansa knew she was blushing, though she willed the heat to dissipate before he came to her—which he was, in long, stalking strides. Jeyne and Myrcella fell silent as he stopped before the three of them, staring down at Sansa’s tittering friends.
“Miss Stark,” he rumbled.
In balletic motion, Sansa rose and held out her ungloved hand to him. “Your Grace, good afternoon.”
He took the hand and brushed his lips over her knuckles, having to bow down to do so. She curtsied, just a slight bend of the knees.
“I didn’t know you were going to be here,” he said, not immediately releasing his gasp on her. “I had resolved to be bored for an hour and leave early. I don’t think that will be the case, now.”
Sansa looked up, meeting his eyes, and permitted herself a smile. “I’m glad you find yourself entertained, Your Grace.” From beside her, she felt a tug, indicating that Myrcella was demanding an introduction. Pulling her hand back, Sansa gestured to her friend. “Your Grace, may I introduce you to Miss Myrcella Baratheon?”
Myrcella stood and curtsied far more deeply than Sansa had. “Your Grace, it is an honor to make your acquaintance.”
He inclined his head, which was dismissive, but Sansa was not about to correct him.
“And,” Sansa continued, “Miss Jeyne Poole. Miss Poole, His Grace the Duke of Westerland.”
“Your Grace,” she said, curtsying yet lower. Sansa tried not to roll her eyes, and she knew Sandor saw it. He smirked.
Paying neither Jeyne nor Myrcella any particular attention, he said to Sansa, “Miss Stark, will you walk with me?”
Her friends’ eyes went wide at the notion of a private conversation. The garden had a few nooks for sneaking away into, but nothing that would hide someone of Sandor’s size. There would be no impropriety at this party.
Sansa took his arm. “I would like that, Your Grace.”
They left Myrcella and Jeyne in their wake, going to the edge of the garden by a small fountain, unhurried. They didn’t speak right away, Sansa unsure how to begin, as she often was with him. He tied her tongue like no other man did, and set her heart to thundering. She could feel it now, beating faster than before he had arrived.
“You keep company with those simpering idiots?” Sandor growled at last.
Sansa drew in an affronted breath, stopping by a hedge to turn an admonishing look on him. “They are certainly not that. They’re my friends.”
“Have they anything substantive to say, other than talking about fripperies and parties?” he asked.
“Certainly,” Sansa replied. “We read books and discuss them. We talk about music, though I’m the only one who can play. Myrcella paints, though, and Jeyne is a fine dancer.”
Sandor scoffed. “Perfectly useless. Why do mothers think those ‘talents’ are something to be proud of?”
“They’re agreeable,” said Sansa. “Ladies must enrich the company they’re in, and art and dancing and music do that.”
“I never said music was useless,” Sandor said. “You’ve got to be clever to read music and play it. Anyone can throw paint on a canvas or put one foot in front of the other.”
Sansa raised a brow. “ You don’t dance.”
The gravel crunched under their feet as they walked on, and over it, Sandor said, “No, I don’t, but I can , if I must.”
“And can you paint, too?” He scowled down at her, and she barely contained a laugh. She said, “Maybe they can’t keep a ledger or play a minuet, but they are still lovely girls. I’m fond of them. Do you not see past your own friends’ faults to find the best in them?”
“I don’t have friends, little bird,” Sandor said. He stopped this time, coming around to face her. “Though you keep saying you’re one of them.”
She nodded. “I am. I would like to be a friend to you.”
“And if I don’t want to be yours?” he said.
Sansa’s good spirits fell. “You don’t want to spend any more time with me? Is that what you drew me aside to say?”
He raised his hand to her face, brushing her temple and down to her jaw. “The things I want from you are not friendly,” he said, low. The air stuck in her lungs, all of it thick with the smell of him. “Have you been thinking of the opera?”
“Yes,” she admitted.
“Good,” he said. “I’ve been considering our next outing. Do you ride?”
She did, though not nearly as well as Arya. “Not keenly,” she admitted, “but I can sit a horse.”
He ran his tongue along the edge of his upper teeth, considering. “You won’t be able to handle anything in my stables, then. But you can ride with me.”
“You mean ride double?” she asked, trying to wrap her mind around what it would be like to sit astride a horse with him.
He hummed, moving closer to her. “Just that. You’d ride in front of me, so I can steady you while I rein. I’d hold you against my chest, wrap my cloak around us both. Wouldn’t want you to get ill.”
She blinked up at him, lips parted. “Where would we go?”
“Ideally?” he mused. “Through the moors of my estate. But if we must remain here, then to the wooded parts of the park, where we need not be seen.”
Sansa could imagine it: the two of them astride Sandor’s great black stallion cantering between the trees, their hips pressed close together, his arms around her.
“When can we go?” she asked.
His smile was rapacious. “Tomorrow?”
She wanted to agree, but she was otherwise engaged. “I can’t. I’m playing croquet with the Tyrells at one o’clock.”
“That whelp Loras and his sister?” he demanded.
“Yes. I was invited to join them on Thursday evening at Lady Westerling’s birthday party. I cannot go back on my word.”
He frowned, but gave a curt nod. “No, you can’t. Go, then, but on Monday you ride with me.” Almost snarled, he added, “I won’t be here for much longer.”
Sansa, surprised, said, “You’re going back to your estate in the country.”
“The townhouse has been sold,” he said. “My business in London is almost concluded.”
“You will be away posthaste, then?”
He looked at her darkly, and she remembered what he had told her on the night of the Lannisters’ ball: “Not while I have a reason to stay.” She knew she was that reason, and with that knowledge came a tremor throughout her body.
“The new residents won’t be taking ownership for several weeks yet,” he said, “so I will be staying in the house to oversee the packing of the furnishings.”
Sansa schooled her features to hide her relief. “Will you take them to the country?”
“Some. The rest will be sold.”
There was something sad about that. Sansa was attached to her bed and dressing table in her room. The pianoforte was dear, and the chairs in the parlor so familiar. “Are they not sentimental?” she asked. “Your mother’s things?”
“No,” Sandor replied, gruff. “They’re just objects. Anything like them can be replaced.”
Sansa knew it wasn’t proper, but she pressed on: “Do you think the same of people?”
His brows knit, making the scar on his cheek twitch. “You’d think that serving in the army would make a man think that, wouldn’t you? You see hundreds die only to have their places filled by other boys barely out of their nurseries. That’s a kind of replacement, but no. I commanded men, and no one was the same. You can replace a dining table, little bird, but not a man’s life.”
“I know nothing of war,” Sansa said, “but I believe you implicitly.”
“I hope you never know anything of it,” said Sandor, forcefully. “It’s nothing but filth and blood and screams.”
Sansa wanted to recoil, but did not. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I would not want you to suffer that.”
He stepped closer to her, almost menacing, but she was not in danger. “I told you I don’t want your pity.”
“I don’t pity you,” she insisted. “I only wish that you would not have to face something that causes you pain.”
His gray eyes bored into her, as if trying to pull her apart at the seams and see past her veneer of social graces. But she wasn’t putting anything on; she spoke truthfully. Tentatively, she reached out and brushed her fingertips along the edge of his hand, their bodies hiding the touch.
“Why did you join the army?” she said.
He didn’t move to take her hand, but didn’t move away, either. “My father bought commissions for both my brother and me. He was twenty, I eighteen. He said it would make true men of us, rather than the dandies in the ton who went to boxing clubs and fencing clubs and shot only pheasant. My brother, as heir, didn’t need a career, but Father sent him anyway. Gregor was the perfect solider: tough, forthright, merciless. He had been that way as a boy, too, but bloodshed made it only more apparent.”
“It suited him, but not you?” Sansa said quietly.
“It suited me fine,” Sandor said. “I was good at killing. Maybe I even liked it, but never as much as Gregor did. He came alive the more lives he took.” He was pale, the distant, glassy look of memory in his face. “Bayonet or rifle, blade or cannonball, he loved watching men die.”
Sansa shuddered, trying to conceive of a man who took so much joy in death. Sandor said he may have enjoyed it, but there was something about the way he spoke that belied that.
“When did he die?” she asked.
“Waterloo,” Sandor replied. “Or four days after the battle was over. It took six bullets and sepsis to kill him. He howled and raved for nights on end before it was over.”
“Did you bury him yourself?”
“I spat on the bastard’s corpse and left him out to rot. If someone else buried him, I’ll never know.”
Sansa should have been shocked at his callousness, his uncaring dismissal of his brother’s life, but she wasn’t. Gregor Clegane sounded like a monster.
“Did you stay in the army much longer after he was killed?” she said.
“Six months, and then my father sent for me. I was to learn to manage to the estate.”
Sansa took his hand in earnest. “I’m very glad you came home safely. And that you’re here now.”
Sandor’s fingers were warm as they closed around hers. He was about to speak, she saw, but then he was forced to turn at the sound of someone approaching and calling, “Sansa, there you are! I’ve been looking for you.” It was Margaery Tyrell.
Sansa sprang back from Sandor, chagrined. She greeted her friend. “You were looking for me? Is there something the matter?”
Margaery swooped in and took Sansa’s arm. “No, dove. I’m just hoping you can settle a disagreement between me and Loras. He insists that Mozart is better than Bach. I don’t know a thing about it, but I know you do. Come, darling, you must speak to him.”
Helpless, Sansa was towed away. She cast a last glance back at Sandor, who stood stock still by the fountain. He made no move to stop Margaery absconding with her.
They finally stopped just at the entrance to the garden. Loras was nowhere to be found.
“What—” Sansa began, only to be interrupted.
“You cannot keep sneaking off with the Duke of Westerland,” Margaery said. “It is not proper. You know what kind of man he is; you’ve heard the gossip. He could ruin you.”
How close I’ve already let him come , Sansa thought.
“He’s not what they say he is,” she spoke aloud. “Rumors aren’t always true.”
Margaery tsked. “But you need not dally with men like him when you have real matches to make, my darling. Put him out of your head. He’s not what you need.”
Sansa snapped, “And Loras is?”
“Loras is one of many who could be good for you,” said Margaery. “He’s not so disreputable.”
“Westerland is not that,” Sansa insisted. “He’s a good man.”
Margaery sighed, motherly, condescendingly, as though Sansa was a child. “You have a big heart, Sansa, but don’t be fooled. He’s not good for you.”
Maybe I don’t want what’s good for me .
“He’s my friend,” she said. “Nothing more, I promise.”
Margaery didn’t look pacified, but she gave in: “Fine, but come be with the other guests for a while.”
Sansa did, but she still expected that on Monday afternoon, she would be at home, in case he called to take her riding.
Chapter 3: Act III
The pleasant clack of mallets on wood accompanied delightful birdsong in the High Gardens on Sunday afternoon. Sansa was of most companionable spirts in company with the ever-congenial Loras Tyrell and Margaery, out of whom he brought the best mood. She was, at times, severe underneath the veneer of effervescent cordiality, though she only showed it to Sansa when Sansa, as her most promising and chosen pupil, had trespassed upon uncertain or disagreeable ground.
It was in those times that Margaery’s expression grew stony, her tone clipped. She had done just that the evening before, when warning to keep away from Sandor Clegane had come upon Sansa's taking her leave of him. Or, that is to say, her forcible removal from his side.
Though Sansa had put on her best face for mingling with the other distinguished daughters of the ton in the following hours of the party, she had no true investment in pleasantries and chitchat. Margaery assuredly noted her quiescence, but had said nothing more by way of chastisement. If talk of Miss Stark’s placid demeanor was making the rounds, Sansa was prepared to explain it away with a white lie about a headache. It would win her sympathy and irenic pats of ladies’ hands against her demurely gloved ones. No more questions would be asked.
There was no trace of that severity in Margaery today. It was as if it had been bleached away by the spring sunshine—and by Loras’s presence. He was quick-witted and charming, his manner as easy and free as he was with his smiles. His laugh was ebullient, his fashionably cut mahogany hair shining with every turn of his head toward Sansa. While she had had her reservations about him as compared to the powerful effect Clegane had on her, she had to admit that his companionship was something she was taken with. She felt, somewhat despite herself, honored that Margaery had brought them together with quite obvious designs.
“Sansa. Dove, it’s your turn,” Margaery called from her place a few paces away from where Sansa stood with a croquet mallet in her right hand. She hadn’t realized her thoughts had been wandering so far from their game.
“Oh, yes, of course.” Her blue ball, its surface shiny with new paint, was lying in the grass just beyond the last wicket she had hit it through. She lined up the mallet behind it, laying out where its next destination would be, and then struck it with a report like a horse’s unshod hoof on packed dirt. It rolled with good momentum toward the next wicket, but in her enthusiasm, Sansa had hit it too hard and it bounced off the wicket’s thin metal side.
“Ah, what a shame,” said Margaery. “You were so close.” A light wind caught the ribbon-decked bonnet on her head, forcing her to grab hold of the back of it before it blew away.
“Let me tie that better,” Loras said. In four strides he was beside her, his clever fingers redoing the bow under his sister’s chin. Before he moved away, he landed a peck on her cheek, which earned him a bright laugh.
“Perhaps Miss Stark’s needs doing as well,” Margaery teased.
Loras took a wide-legged stance, his hands coming to his hips. He regarded Sansa with inquisitiveness. “Is that the case, Miss Stark?”
For all the lessons in flirtation that Margaery had so carefully given her, Sansa could not muster the desire to invite Loras so close to her person. It was not that she was disinclined altogether, but her interest in engendering greater fondness was not great at that particular moment. None of the stomach-fluttering desire for proximity that Clegane brought out in her could be found in her interactions with Loras. Sansa took the appropriate few seconds to fret over what that meant: she wished for the company of a disreputable gentleman over that of a far more suitable one. It was, according to every expectation of a young woman out in society for the first time, a foolish decision.
“I am quite well, thank you,” Sansa replied. She smiled in a way she hoped was not false, or openly conciliatory. “I believe it’s your turn, my lord.”
Loras kept his gaze on her for a short time—his handsome face betraying nothing of his thoughts—before he tapped his mallet against the side of his riding boot and went to hit the ball.
In the distance, on the bridle path through the forested acres of the park, Sansa saw two riders come cantering out into the open, one a man whose seat was less sure than most and the other a woman with the skirts of her habit whipping around her strong legs. They were speaking animatedly as they rode, their horses blowing deep breaths through wide nostrils.
Sansa remembered Clegane’s offer to take her up onto the back of his black horse and ride with her through the hidden places along that path. It would have been today, had she not promised herself to this croquet game. There was still the prospect of tomorrow, but nothing was guaranteed. Not that Clegane had ever given Sansa reason to doubt his word; he had arranged for everything he had proposed in their short acquaintance.
Glancing at where Loras stood in smiling conversation with Margaery, Sansa saw exactly the kind of gentleman she should be pursuing, but in watching the riders in the forest, she saw the kind she had come to crave.
One did not overtly curry favor with influential personages if one did not want to appear toadying and ill-mannered, but when certain gifts of that favor were given, Sansa was pleasantly surprised. It was one such occasion that Monday afternoon next when the elaborately and exotically attired Mrs. Ellaria Sand called at the Starks’ townhouse with a box of fragrant tea as “a gift for Miss Stark’s fine company on the night of my dear Oberyn’s dinner party.”
When she had arrived, Sansa and her mother and Arya had been reading in the parlor. The footman’s announcement had had Catelyn quite bemused; she had never made Mrs. Sand’s acquaintance. Sansa was no less perplexed, for she did not believe she had made any particular impression upon her during the party. Still, they had risen to greet her with their most welcoming smiles.
“Forgive the surprise, Lady Stark, Miss Stark,” Mrs. Sand said as she was offered a seat on the sofa next to where Sansa had been perched, “but I had been meaning to call on Miss Stark for some time and just had the opportunity today.” She offered the box, which was stamped with a dancing woman in flowing skirts. “And I was waiting for this to arrive from India.”
Sansa took it, running curious fingers over its lid. “May I open it?”
“That is the very idea, Miss Stark. Of course.”
Unlatching the wooden box, Sansa peered inside to find translucent sachets of tea leaves. They gave off a most piquant aroma, the likes of which she had not smelled in tea.
“It is called Darjeeling,” Mrs. Sand explained. “It is grown in the northernmost district of the state of West Bengal and has come all the way across the ocean for you.” She had a genuinely pleased expression on her sharp-boned face. She was not wearing cosmetics, but her lips were thin and beautifully colored. “It has a distinct floral taste, if you would care to sample it.”
“Oh, yes please!” said Sansa. “I shall ring for a maid directly.” She sprang to the bellpull, and when she had rung, turned again to Mrs. Sand. “It is so very kind of you to bring me a gift, Mrs. Sand. I’m afraid I have nothing for you.”
She waved a hand, the nails long and filed to a point, by way of dismissal. “Do not trouble yourself. It was not my intention to expect something in return, save for to get to know you better. I was told you have adventurous tastes and thought the tea might be a good entrée to visiting.”
Sansa caught her breath. The only person with whom she had discussed her tastes at the dinner party was Sandor Clegane. Either Mrs. Sand had overheard them or he had told her. “How, might I ask, Mrs. Sand, did you come to know that?” she inquired.
“A mutual acquaintance mentioned that you had enjoyed the foreign flavors at the party.” She smiled, slyly. “If not the spicier ones.”
“He would say that,” Sansa said before she thought to stop herself.
“Who, dear?” asked her mother.
There was no reason to misdirect her from the object of their conversation; he, it seemed, would make himself known in more than just his physical presence. Sansa replied, “The Duke of Westerland. We were seated nearby one another at Mrs. Sand’s dinner table.” To Ellaria: “I was not aware you often spoke to him.”
Mrs. Sand sobered demonstrably. “My dear Oberyn knew his brother, who had then been the heir presumptive of the dukedom. They were not on the best of terms, but their paths crossed more than once while Gregor—you would know that name, of course—was in the army.”
“The duke told me some of his brother, yes,” said Sansa with a measure of trepidation, uncertain how much Mrs. Sand herself knew. “He seemed to be disagreeable.”
Catelyn laid a hand on her breast, shocked at Sansa’s impertinence. Fortunately, Mrs. Sand laughed, if coldly.
“He most certainly was. I do not think anyone was fond of him, least of all his younger brother.” She smoothed the sleek orange silk of her skirt—far too formal for day wear. “But back to the matter at hand: I do not speak often to Westerland, but we encountered one another at a recent soirée, where the subject of you, Miss Stark, was raised. He suggested that he might have seen you there.”
“When was this?” Sansa asked.
“A few weeks ago at Lady Piper’s. I disagreed with him that we would find you there. The company was far too aged to suit a young lady in her first Season.”
Before more could be said, a maid appeared to take the tea. Mrs. Sand gave instruction on how it was to be prepared before the girl went out again.
“Where was I?” she said. “Yes, the soirée. It would have been quite tedious for you, I’m sure, Miss Stark. Westerland was bored, that is for certain. That is his way, I’m afraid, save for when he is in your company.”
All of the eyes in the room, including Arya’s brown and accusatory ones, turned to Sansa. She swallowed her embarrassment, though it was nothing new to anyone present that Sandor had interest in her companionship. She said, “I am glad I amuse him.”
Mrs. Sand gave her a tender look, as if she was indulging Sansa’s patent naivety. “Plain amusement is not something he seeks, I think. His interest is more amative.” She lifted a finger. “And that is something society has never seen in him.”
“I was not aware that he often moved in society,” said Sansa. “From our conversations, he implied he would rather reside at his country estate.”
“And he likely would,” Mrs. Sand agreed, “which is why there has been so much talk of his unusual behavior. That is not to say that it’s disagreeable. He remains laconic upon most of our meetings and with others—or so I have been told—but he is a touch more genial than he was at the start of the Season.” She gestured at Sansa. “Sometimes all a man needs to refine his demeanor is a woman’s touch.”
Sansa demurely averted her eyes, though she said, “I would not presume to have altered him. I fear none could change his nature, no matter their charm.”
Mrs. Sand hummed thoughtfully. “You’re modest, which only adds to your allure, Miss Stark. Men seek often what they are not themselves. He is coarse at the edges and requires erudition. You are the pinnacle of cultivated grace and have all the necessary tools to provide that. It is no wonder he is drawn to you.”
Catelyn, who had been sitting in contemplative silence, spoke up: “Do you find them a good match then, Mrs. Sand? And has the duke expressed his intentions?” She turned to Sansa. “He has not made any formal declaration to you, has he, dear?”
“He has not,” Sansa replied.
“That is not his way,” said Mrs. Sand. “I would be surprised if he went about a traditional courtship. But it is plain that he is cultivating a friendship.”
Sansa was reminded of his words of warning: that what he wished to do with her was not friendly at all. She was aware of herself, too. She did not want his companionship limited to chaste touches and cordial dances or games of croquet. Her desires were far more indecent. Where she should have been ashamed, she was not. However, she would say nothing of that to Mrs. Sand, and certainly not to her mother.
“Well,” said Catelyn, “it will not do to keep his intentions to himself indefinitely. Sansa has seen interest from other gentlemen. She was dancing with Loras Tyrell this past week, and they were in the park yesterday.”
“Ah,” Mrs. Sand said with some manner of disapproval. “Lord Tyrell is the foil to Westerland. It must be strange for you, Miss Stark, to entertain such opposing natures.”
Sansa could not disagree, and said nothing to the contrary.
“But,” Mrs. Sand continued, “is there one of the two you prefer?”
Sansa wet her lips, hesitating. She was aware of the safe choice, and likely the one of which her mother would approve, but she was not inclined to lie when it seemed Mrs. Sand was so perceptive. She replied, “They each have their merits, but insofar the duke has made a more striking impression.”
Mrs. Sand’s smile was all but feral. “I thought as much, and I approve.”
Sparing Sansa a reply to that, the maid arrived with the tea service, laying it down on the table for them all to sample. Sansa poured four cups, picking hers up and drawing in the steam and aroma before trying a sip. It was indeed floral and bloomed pleasantly over her tongue.
“This is splendid, Mrs. Sand,” said Catelyn. “Will you tell us more about its origins?”
From there, Mrs. Sand took the reins of the conversation and it turned to innocuous things. The Duke of Westerland was left behind, going unmentioned again until Mrs. Sand rose to take her leave. Curtsies were exchanged before Sansa went to see her off. It was at the door that she caught Sansa’s hand and said, “Don’t be afraid of your preference for Westerland. He’s an unusual catch, but not one to be overlooked.” She patted Sansa’s hand before releasing it. “Good day, Miss Stark.”
“And to you,” said Sansa, but Mrs. Sand was already striding purposefully out to catch her carriage.
Sansa did not return to the parlor and offered no explanation to her mother and Arya. She went instead to her bedroom, where she sat on the stool in front of her vanity and regarded herself in the mirror. She had meant it when she had said she did not believe she could change Clegane—nor did she want to. Perhaps the rough patches in his manner could be buffed away, but she wasn’t certain she was prepared—or knew how—to do so.
With careful touches, she unfastened the chignon into which she had tied her hair that morning and let it down to hang below her shoulders. It was a unique color: fiery but not as bright as her brother Jon’s wife’s hair. She had always found it fine and had received more than one compliment on it since she had been out. She combed her fingers through it, watching her reflection, and wondered what Sandor’s would feel like there instead of her own. The prospect was powerfully enticing. But to let one’s hair down in the company of a gentleman was not permitted, save on a wedding night. Sansa should not have dared to imagine such a thing with a man to whom she was not attached.
Did she want that attachment, however, she mused. Her mind could not be made up. She knew for certain, though, that her hopes were still high that he would appear that afternoon to spirit her away into the privacy of the High Gardens’ forest and take her into his arms.
“What are you doing in here?” Arya demanded some hours later, after luncheon, when she appeared at the door to the stables. Sansa was rarely in them and understood her sister’s defense of the realm where she could escape her siblings.
“I simply wanted for a walk,” Sansa replied. “I was thinking of taking a ride.”
Arya scoffed as she approached the horse box by which Sansa stood. It belonged to a long-legged mare Sansa recognized as the one Arya preferred. She pulled something from her pocket and fed it to the mare, who ate it happily and nuzzled Arya’s small palm. “You’re daydreaming of your duke.”
Sansa pursed her lips, a denial on them.
“Don’t bother to lie,” said Arya. “You fancy him.” She was stroking the mare’s cheek as the horse blinked adoring brown eyes at her.
“He said he might take me riding today,” Sansa admitted.
“But he hasn’t made his grand entrance and you are disappointed.” Arya shook her head. “Sounds stupid.”
Sansa scowled at her. She could not understand his sister’s disregard for all things pertaining to romance. She said anyway, “Would you not be, if Robb promised to ride with you and then did not?”
“Robb’s word is good,” Arya said. “He’d never break it.”
“And the duke has given me no reason to doubt his, either.” Sansa sighed through her nose. “Perhaps something urgent has arisen.” She got a roll of Arya’s eyes in response. She chastised her: “Just because you cannot be bothered with gentlemen does not mean they have no merits at all. Clegane is a man of honor.”
Arya shrugged. “Maybe, maybe not.”
Before she could say more, the footman from the house came trotting into the stables, casting his gaze around until he alighted upon Sansa and Arya. “Miss Stark,” he said hurriedly, “you’ve a visitor.”
“Who is it?” Sansa asked.
The apple in the footman’s throat rose and fell as he replied, “His Grace the Duke of Westerland.”
Triumphant, Sansa smirked at Arya, who gave a conceding shrug. To the footman: “Show me to him.”
They found Clegane standing in the foyer, his crisp breeches fitted to him and shined riding boots up to the knee. Despite his insistence upon his more barbaric nature, he was well-kempt, and had been upon each of their meetings. He clearly had some manner of compunction concerning his appearance, even if he made a to-do of statements to the contrary. He turned upon the sound of their footfalls, his gray eyes falling immediately on Sansa. The footman, ever-clever, delivered her to the foyer and slipped away without another word.
“Your Grace,” said Sansa, curtsying demurely. She noted Clegane’s vexation at her use of his title, but when she tipped her head toward the open sitting room door, he understood: there were ears in the house expecting propriety.
To her surprise, he bowed shallowly at the waist. “Miss Stark, good afternoon. We’re to ride.” A cursory glance over her riding habit. “You’re ready, I see.”
“I expected you to honor your word and come today,” Sansa said. “It was not a formal agreement, but you’ve always done as you told me you would. I expected no different today.”
Clegane’s narrow-lipped mouth twitched with amusement. “You put too much faith in me, but my business didn’t claim my attention.”
Sansa countered: “Did you not say it was concluded, Your Grace?”
He sucked his teeth and Sansa held back a satisfied smile; she had pinned him there. “For the most part it is,” he said, clipped, but then added, with more gentleness, “I would have made time anyway.”
Sansa allowed a true smile. “I am pleased to hear it, Your Grace. Shall we go, then? I must have a horse saddled,” she said, though she hadn’t forgotten his insinuation that they would ride double in the park. Surely, however, they could not do so in the open streets of London without causing scandal.
“Be quick about it,” Clegane said. “It looks like rain in a few hours.”
Sansa nodded and turned, nearly colliding with the narrow-faced footman. He said to her, “Petal is tacked for you, Miss Stark, and waiting with the groom.”
She could have embraced him. “Thank you, Aden. I’ll go there straightaway.” To Clegane: “I shall meet you just outside the house, Your Grace.” She gave him no time for a reply as she hastened back to the stables to find the docile mare she rode upon the rare occasions that she did.
The groom had brought Petal to the mounting block, and Sansa primly stuck her foot into the leftmost stirrup and pulled herself up into the saddle. Petal didn’t so much as shift under her, so gentle-natured was she. Arya’s mare would have danced away from the block, if Arya had even used it in the first place; she so often sprung up from the ground, even though she was so much smaller than Sansa was.
“Have a good ride, Miss,” said the groom with a smart bow. She raised her crop at him by way of salute and tapped Petal’s rotund sides to urge her out onto the street.
It was no surprise to find Clegane astride his immense black stallion. He wore no hat on his head, his dark hair in a neat tail at the back of it. The horse’s mane and coat shone, even if the sun was hidden behind silvery clouds in the midafternoon sky. Absently, it flicked its tail, but its nostrils widened to breathe in Petal’s scent. Surely he could not be interested in an older and calmer mare; he was more suited to the sleek, spirited one Robb had brought from the country.
Clegane eyed Petal with unconcealed dubiousness, but Sansa leaned forward to pat her neck, saying, “I am not an expert on horseback. She is kind to me.” She was disinclined to inquire further, but asked anyway, “Does that disappoint you?”
“No,” he replied. “Little birds don’t fancy horseflesh, do they?”
“I suppose not,” said Sansa. “Shall we go?”
Clegane reined his horse into the main thoroughfare and Sansa and Petal followed. Sansa had to tap the crop to the mare’s shoulder to get her into a lazy trot, but Clegane kept a strong enough hand on his stallion that he did not surge too far ahead.
“Does your fine horse have a name?” Sansa asked, posting with Petal’s strides, just as Clegane was doing—with far more grace than her.
“Stranger,” was Clegane’s terse reply.
“An unusual name,” said Sansa. “Is there a reason he is called such a thing?”
The stallion snorted as if in affront, but Clegane answered, “He was a scrawny foal left at auction. The breeder didn’t see promise in him—thought he would amount to nothing. Such a bloody fool.”
“Quite so,” Sansa said. “I take it you saw his potential and bought him for a pittance.”
Clegane snorted, almost like the horse. “True enough, and he’s become the finest one in my stables. I won’t ride anything else.”
Stranger certainly drew the eye, for many in the streets turned to watch him trot past, the fall of his broad hooves ringing against the road’s surface. They must have been wondering what Sansa and Petal were doing in such company, but Sansa had no desire to further disparage her kindly mare. She rubbed just above her withers with appreciation for her tolerance of Sansa’s imperfections in the saddle.
When they turned into the High Gardens, Stranger pulled at the reins, clearly yearning for them to loosen and permit him to run. When Clegane held him fast, he pranced agitatedly. Petal was unfazed by his antics; she had seen and known many a young horse in her time.
Still, Sansa said, “Shall we at least canter? I can manage that, even if I am not particularly keen on a long gallop.”
“That’ll do,” said Clegane. “Get going first; we’ll catch up when I’ve schooled some manners into this lout.” His strong legs flexed against Stranger’s sides and with a tug at the reins, he got the stallion to calm himself.
Gathering up her own reins, Sansa rapped Petal on the shoulder with her crop and kissed to her. “Come on, my dear,” she said by way of encouragement. “Let us be off.”
Petal gave a belabored sigh, but broke into a rolling canter. She caught her stride a few paces later, and Sansa let off the reins to allow her move freely. Petal seemed to appreciate it; she opened up her stride and bounced happily along the bridle path.
It didn’t take long for Clegane and Stranger to catch them up; Sansa could hear them approaching in powerful strides. When they drew up beside her and Petal, though, they kept pace. Petal appropriated a measure of Stranger’s energy, moving yet more freely and with pleasure. Sansa found herself laughing and enjoying the excitement of it.
They rode along the western side of the picturesque lake at the center of the park, passing carriages and parties of friends walking through the grass, the ladies in bonnets and men in their hats, their hands behind their backs properly. Sansa had once heard that it was only a measure to prevent young men from touching the ladies, but she was certain no gentleman would dare without having laid a claim on a particular lady. Save Clegane, of course, she noted. Even if he dressed and played the part of the gentleman in company, there were certainly baser parts of his nature he reserved for her.
When they crossed into the little forest at the park’s south end, Petal began to slow, and Sansa allowed it. The mare gave a toss of her head and dropped to a walk without much preamble or fuss. Clegane was swift to arrest Stranger’s pace, bringing him to a walk as well. It was not overly warm outside, but the stallion’s sides were damp with sweat, presumably from controlling himself to keep from galloping away with all his strength.
“That was lovely,” said Sansa, her cheeks flushed from exertion.
Clegane was unaffected, of course, but he said, “If you enjoyed it, then that’s fine by me.”
“I did,” Sansa offered. “I haven’t been riding in a long while. I had forgotten that it can be so agreeable. My sister says that so often that I fear I avoid the pursuit simply to vex her.”
“A spiteful streak,” said Clegane. “I wouldn’t have guessed that in you, little bird. But you’ve shown me before that there’s more to you than propriety.”
Sansa held her chin high, though she felt a touch of embarrassment still at his suggestiveness. Would he never stop teasing her, she wondered. Then again, she wasn’t certain that she wanted him to; it was part of his allure.
“Come this way,” he said, catching her by surprise as he guided Stranger down a small track cut into the wood by feet rather than the care of the groundskeepers. He took the lead, Sansa and Petal following with the mare’s nose close to Stranger’s tail.
At the terminus of the track lay a grove of tall trees in a natural circle, a patch of thin grass growing at their center. It was a place of great invitingness, perhaps like a fairy ring of old. Stopping at the far edge, Clegane dismounted and tied Stranger’s reins to a low-hanging branch. When Sansa reined up nearby him, he came to her and, taking her by the waist, lifted her down from Petal’s back. He held her against him for some moments, his broad hands at her back. His nostrils flared as Stranger’s had upon scenting Petal, and Sansa was certain it was the fragrance of her hair he was taking in. He released her, however, lifting Petal’s reins over her head to tie her up as well. She was unbothered by Stranger’s company, and he was disinterested in hers.
“Do you come often to this place?” Sansa inquired as she peered around the charming locale. “It’s quaint.”
“It’s private,” said Clegane, coming to her again. He drew her to him and lowered his head to kiss her mouth. She made no protests as he pressed his tongue inside—though not demandingly. He was not forceful with her, but neither was he timid. Sandor Clegane was the antithesis of timidity.
Sansa gave easily in to the kiss, pressing her hands to Clegane’s chest as he wrapped his arms around her back. He was so much taller than she was that it made great work for him to lower himself to where he could kiss her without lifting her off her feet and to his mouth. She was duly impressed by his stature, something that was so uncommon amongst the other men of the ton. They were small and slight, or short and round, but he was so utterly striking that he could not be missed in a crowd.
Glad for the hidden grove, Sansa permitted him to stroke along her spine, from the collar of her habit to the curve of her buttocks, hidden in the voluminous skirt. It seemed to frustrate him; he grunted in irritation as his exploration was arrested.
“I would have you, little bird,” he said, low and dark, “if it weren’t for preserving your virtue. I wouldn’t spoil you, despite the demands of my desire.”
Sansa looked up and into his face. His eyes reflected that very desire, and his hands were insistent with it, but he meant was said, of that she was sure.
“I’ve been compromised in some manner,” she told him. “A girl of good character would not have allowed even the least untoward touch.”
“There’s nothing wrong with your character,” Clegane insisted stolidly. “What we’ve done would not prevent you making a good marriage and going to your husband’s bed a virgin.”
Sansa rubbed the lapel of his jacket between her fingers with uncertainty. She dared not voice the thoughts that came to her mind: what if he was that husband? She had no reason to believe that he was interested in courting her properly, and he had upon one occasion been dismissive of marriage. Perhaps he intended to remain a bachelor in his country estate, passing the time in whatever way he habitually did. Many men shot pheasant or raised horses. He might drink brandy and read, though Sansa did not think that suited him well.
“You’re holding back,” he said. “What are you not saying?”
She replied, “Your consideration of my virtue does you credit. But do you always wish to seduce ladies of the peerage and never claim one for yourself as a wife?”
Clegane’s face shuttered, and Sansa knew she had spoken wrong. And yet she could not take it back; she did not want to. She waited for him to say something.
“Wives die,” he said, “whether of illness or in childbed. My mother did, and it broke my father. He lost himself in her absence. I don’t want to take that chance.”
Sansa might not have guessed that as his reason; it was far more intimate and of a sentimental nature than she had expected. She countered: “But more live than face death. You would choose to have no companion at all for a distant fear that she might lose her life?”
He was strident: “It’s not a distant possibility; it’s as immediate as any man dying on the battlefield.”
Sansa wished to stand up to him, to fight his perception, but it would spoil their mood, their enjoyable afternoon. She could safely say, now, that he would not pursue her, but so too would he not ruin her for any other man. Margaery would likely say that there was no purpose in spending her time with him if he had no intentions of courtship, but Sansa thought that foolish. She did not have to catch a fiancé in her first Season out. She could enjoy Clegane’s company while he was in town and let him go without protest when he returned to his estate.
“I am not necessarily in agreement,” she said. “However, I understand your reasoning and will not contradict you.”
Clegane’s big hand came up to cup the back of Sansa’s head, over the chignon, with unusual tenderness. “It’s better to be alone. At least for me.”
He was afraid, Sansa realized. That she could comprehend. Softly, she raised her own hand to his face and stroked her thumb along the line of his white scar. “You know yourself. You should do as you see fit.” She tipped her face up then, inviting another kiss. He gave her that until her knees were trembling and it was necessary for him to support her.
When they returned to the Starks’ townhouse, he stayed mounted, bidding Sansa good afternoon from Stranger’s back. Sansa inclined her head by way of parting and rode around the side of the house to the stables. A groom came to take Petal to be untacked and rubbed down. Sansa went inside to remove her riding habit and wash the dust of the park’s trails from her face and neck. She was detained, though, by her mother, who came to the foyer from the sitting room with inquisitiveness in her countenance.
“Did you enjoy your ride, my darling?” Catelyn asked.
“Very much,” Sansa replied. “The duke is a most impressive horseman. He puts me to shame, I am afraid.”
Catelyn came to her and took her hand, patting the back of it. “I am certain you held your own. Did he not wish to come in for tea?”
Sansa shook her head. “He has other business to attend to, I'm sure.”
“A likely story,” said Catelyn. “He’s playing coy, if I am not mistaken.”
Barely containing a laugh at the very notion, Sansa said, “He is not a suitor, Mother, but a friend only. I enjoy his company, but do not expect a formal statement of intentions.”
Catelyn’s face fell. “Surely you’re wrong. He has gone so far out of his way already.”
Sansa wrapped both of her hands around her mother’s. “Put it out of your mind, Mother. We are acquainted, and that is all.” She smiled. “Now, I must go to my room and wash for tea. Can we have some of Mrs. Sand’s Darjeeling today?”
“Of course, my dear. Of course.”
Catelyn went to order it, presumably, leaving Sansa to her toilette. She undressed slowly, folding her habit to be shaken out and cleaned cursorily up her maid. She doubted she would put it to frequent use, even knowing Clegane.
She could not feel true disappointment in having heard him say so decidedly that he would not marry; she had not set her sights on him as some young ladies would have done. Her interest in his title was minimal—it was more that she admired him as a man, both in physicality and temperament. She could imagine that he would make a good companion in the long years of wedded life. He would not stifle his wife, nor would he be the type to dictate every aspect of her daily pursuits. It was said, though, that some men changed when they were married and became tyrants. She could not believe that Clegane would be one of them.
Washed and dressed again some minutes later, she went to the sitting room, where a steaming cup of tea was already waiting for her. Bran and Rickon were there, both of them with plates full of finger sandwiches. Their teacups were untouched. They were still very young to take tea, after all. Arya was absent, and upon Sansa’s inquiry as to her whereabouts, she was told she was riding with Robb.
“He has been home again?” Sansa asked.
“He and Jeyne will be joining us for dinner,” said Catelyn. “They are returning to the country tomorrow.”
Sansa would be sorry to see them go. “We’ll see him off with his favorite roast, then, shall we?”
Her mother laughed gaily. “Most certainly.”
It was on Wednesday morning after breakfast that an unexpected visitor appeared at the townhouse. Generally, that was too early to call, but Sansa’s mother was very welcoming of Lord Loras Tyrell. He was turned out in his finest dove-colored coat and blue cravat as he came into the sitting room and bowed.
“Miss Stark,” he said to Sansa, “I was hoping that you might be willing to accompany me to Lady Breakstone’s salon this evening. My sister will be performing on the pianoforte and several other of our friends will be exhibiting as well. It will be a fine evening, and I should very much enjoy your company.”
Sansa had no obligations for the hours after dinner and was indeed quite keen on taking in the talents of the ladies of the ton. She replied happily to Loras, “That would be my pleasure, my lord. Thank you for thinking of me as a companion for you.”
He came to her then and took her hand. He kissed the knuckles, saying, “I find myself thinking of you often, Miss Stark.”
Sansa flushed, flattered. “That is very kind of you, my lord. Your attentiveness is most appreciated.”
Loras offered her a bright smile. “As long as you do not object to it, I shall continue to attend to you.”
Sansa was certain she could feel her mother’s approval from across the sitting room. If she had to abandon the prospect of the Duke of Westerland courting her daughter, it was most appealing to replace him with the ever-charming Loras. Perhaps even more so, for the Tyrells had a good name and title and lands for their eldest son’s wife to be lady of. No mother could disapprove of attention from Loras, and the potential such a match had for her offspring.
“That is so very good of you, my lord,” said Sansa, affecting demureness out of habit. She was indeed pleased at the attention, but it took some effort to reciprocate interest. Where she should have seen only excellent qualities of humor and good breeding, she saw imperfections against which she weighed Clegane. He was far from an ideal man himself, with his statue and gruff manner and scars, but he seemed more sincere than Loras, whose levity could be perceived as almost disingenuous. She chastised herself inwardly for judging him so harshly when he had been nothing but kind to her.
Loras smiled, still holding her hand. “I do hope to earn your esteem, Miss Stark. If joining me tonight is agreeable to you, I hope I can find other diversions for us in coming weeks of the Season. I shall endeavor to do just that, should you enjoy yourself this evening.”
Sansa, smiling as well, carefully withdrew her hand. It would have been improper for her to allow him to hold her for much longer. “I am certainly honored, my lord.”
Catelyn, stepping into Loras’s view, asked, “Can I offer you some refreshment, my lord? We would very much enjoy your company over tea and biscuits.”
“I thank you, Lady Stark,” he said, “but I must take my leave. I have an appointment at my club that I cannot miss.” He bowed to them both, though mostly to Sansa. “Until tonight, Miss Stark. I’ll come for you at seven o’clock.”
Sansa curtsied. “Until tonight, my lord.”
He went into the foyer and out the door, leaving Sansa and Catelyn in the sitting room. Catelyn was grinning from delicate ear to delicate ear.
“Oh my, Sansa,” she said. “How wonderful of him to think of you in such a way. You have made an impression on him. Are you excited?”
Sansa nodded. “He is a perfect gentleman, Mother. Any young lady would be excited at being the object of his attention.”
A crease of concern appeared between Catelyn’s auburn eyebrows. “You are circumspect. Do you not approve of him?”
“I do, Mother. Of course I do. I think I am simply surprised by the offer. I was not prepared to go out this evening. I do not know what I will wear.”
Catelyn took her by the arm, slipping hers through it. “Then we will go up to your wardrobe now and pick something.”
Sansa could not help but smile at her mother’s enthusiasm. It was somewhat catching. There was no reason for Sansa to be recalcitrant in the face of Loras’s interest in her. He was everything she should want in a suitor. And yet she still found herself thinking of Clegane and what she might wear that he would approve of. But a salon was not a place he would be, she was sure, and there was no reason to consider his opinion at all.
Putting him from her mind, she went with her mother to her dressing room and set to choosing gowns.
Sansa was attired in blue with yellow embroidery in the silk when Loras came to collect her at the appointed time. He was in finely crafted eveningwear with his curly hair combed to fall rakishly over his brow. He was quite stunning as Sansa took him in. She curtsied, which he answered with a bow. They bid Catelyn and Eddard, who had come to see her off, good evening, and then they were springing up into his clarence, which was outfitted in the red and gold of the Highgarden marchioness’s crest.
“You are looking very beautiful tonight, Miss Stark,” Loras said from across the carriage, where he sat opposite her.
“Thank you, my lord,” she replied. “I do hope my gown is appropriate for the salon’s company.”
“Indubitably.” He smiled, white teeth on display.
Lady Breakstone’s townhouse was smaller than the Starks’, but Sansa approved of the intimate setting arranged in her sitting room. The attendees were limited to some of the most elite of the haut ton, and Sansa was honored to be in their presence. She recognized many of the young exhibitors, though it was Margaery who caught and held her eye. She was stunning in the same red and gold of her family, her hair swept up in an elaborate arrangement at the top of her head. She smiled with the utmost radiance when she alighted on Sansa and her brother.
“Sansa, dove,” she said, “you’re utterly stunning in that gown! How agreeable you look. Even if you are not performing, you’re to be a star of the evening.”
Sansa blushed under the compliments. “You are too kind, Margaery,” she said. “You look lovely as well. I could not hope to match you when you are dressed so.”
“Enough of that,” Margaery tutted. “You always light up a room. Is that not true, Loras?”
“It is,” he replied, his face turned to Sansa with earnest admiration. “It is a remarkable quality in you, Miss Stark. Now, shall we sit? I believe the entertainment is about to begin.”
The elegant and gray-haired Lady Breakstone welcomed her guests in a deep, resonant voice, which would have been very suitable to singing. It was rare for older ladies to perform in public, however; they left the display of talents to the unmarried girls who were out to seek husbands among their admirers.
“Our first piece,” her ladyship said, “is Lady Ariana Blackwater on her harp.” She gestured to welcome the girl to her place in a chair at the fore of the room, before an Oriental dressing screen. Lady Blackwater leaned the large instrument against her right shoulder and, with a flourish of her long fingers, began to play an enchanting melody.
Sansa allowed the music to float into her ears, utterly captivated by its ethereal beauty. She was not familiar with the harp, though she had heard it played in orchestras before. The solo piece was far more stunning that its blending into a greater ensemble. Sansa was remiss that she had not heard such a performance before. So too did she imagine learning to play the instrument herself. She did not have the time in her days, however, for which she was sorry.
Lady Blackwater finished some minutes later and curtsied to applause. After her came a singer who also played the pianoforte as she sang. Another followed, this one playing a flute. Margaery was the next to exhibit, and she played a rousing Mozart piece on the pianoforte. Everyone was stunned by her prowess.
Upon the conclusion of the performances, refreshments were offered, and Sansa found her favorite treat: a lemon cake. She had to keep from taking more than one, instead savoring the single piece she allowed herself. She did, after all, have to keep her figure. Sweet punch with some kind of strong spirit mixed in had her head pleasantly swimming as she was introduced around and congratulated all of the performers.
“Do you play anything?” Miss Elaine Falker, who had sung an aria during her performance, asked Sansa.
“The pianoforte,” Sansa replied, “but very ill. I dabble in singing as well, though I could not match you, Miss Falker.”
“Certainly you underestimate yourself, Miss Stark. Perhaps sometime you could sing for us. I’m happy to come and sing with you, should you like that. I’ve taught other ladies to duet before.”
Sansa was sorely tempted, but did not feel she was ready to sing with someone as practiced and refined as Elaine. “Perhaps in a few months’ time,” she said. “I have a music master who is teaching me.”
“Surely it’s Master Marillion,” said Miss Falker. “He is a very gifted composer and teacher.” She winked slyly. “And certainly not hard on the eyes.”
“I had not noticed,” said Sansa, even if it was untrue. “I have been much more focused on his instruction.”
Miss Falker gave her an indulgent look. “Well, mind yourself around him, for he is keen on ladies and will charm you into indiscretion if you are not careful.”
Sansa was scandalized at the notion. “Certainly that’s not true,” she said. “He comports himself most respectably.”
“He does,” said Miss Falker, “but mind yourself and him.” She took out her fan and gave it a flick or two to cool herself. “Good evening, Miss Stark.” She left Sansa by the table with her punch in hand.
It wasn’t long before Loras came to her side again. “Did you enjoy the music?” he said to her.
“Most assuredly, my lord,” she replied in earnest. “It inspires me to continue on in my own studies of music so that I might someday participate in such a performance. Though in such talented company I would surely be less than impressive. I am an amateur at best.”
“We must all start somewhere, Miss Stark,” he said, smiling at her with soft brown eyes. “Are you ready to return home, or would you like to stay longer?”
It was well past eleven o’clock and Sansa was beginning to feel tired. She nodded to Loras and said, “I believe I should like to go home, yes. It has been a wonderful evening.”
“Indeed it has,” said Loras. “Your company has been the finest part for me.”
Sansa stopped to say goodbye to Margaery, who kissed her cheek and sent her off with well-wishes for a restful sleep. “I will come for tea in the next few days, my dear,” she said by way of parting, and Sansa was glad to hear it.
On the ride back to her home, she and Loras conversed pleasantly, if innocuously. She had indeed enjoyed his companionship, but she had enjoyed the music more. She might have felt guilty about that, but she decided she need not; she would likely come to look forward to seeing him again with a little distance to consider it.
He delivered her back to the foyer of the townhouse, kissing her knuckles. “If you do not object, Miss Stark,” he said, “I would like to call on you again this week. Perhaps more often than we have been seeing each other.”
Sansa smiled at him, even if her surety was not whole. “I would like that very much, my lord.”
“Then until later, Miss Stark.”
“Until then, my lord.”
Upon him taking his leave, Catelyn appeared from the sitting room. Sansa was surprised to see her still awake. “Mother? Are you not abed?”
“I was waiting to hear of your night out, Sansa,” she said. “It must have been wonderful. Come, tell me.”
Sansa was drawn into the room, where they sat together. She stifled a yawn even as she began to recount her story. Catelyn listen attentively, interjecting a number of times with sighs of pleasure.
“And Lord Tyrell’s company was agreeable?” she asked upon the conclusion of Sansa’s recounting.
“It was,” said Sansa. “As you surely heard, I will see him again soon.”
“You have caught me listening in. I’m glad to know that, though. He is a true gentleman.”
Sansa, growing even more tired, stood, saying, “Mother, I must retire. Surely you’ll come with me.”
Catelyn rose, too. “I will, yes. But”—she reached for a sturdy card that had been lying on the table beside her—“you might like to see this before you sleep.” She held it out to Sansa, who took and read the tidy cursive upon it:
Will you do me the honor of joining me tomorrow afternoon for an exhibition of rare treasures from all corners of the Empire? It begins at three o’clock and purports to show things the likes of which we have never seen. Should you agree, I will pick you up at a quarter to three and we will ride together to the exhibition. Send a card in the morning with your reply.
Sansa was caught by surprise, but not unpleasantly so. She had not expected to receive such a formal invitation from Clegane, who had only ever invited her in person for various activities.
“Will you go?” Catelyn asked.
Sansa didn’t hesitate to reply: “Yes. I would be very interested in such an exhibition.”
“Indeed,” said her mother. “And interested in your friend’s company, too?”
“Yes,” Sansa said. “He is a friend I much enjoy spending time with.” She raised one eyebrow. “Do you object, Mother?”
Catelyn shook her head. “If you like him and you are good friends, then I see no reason not to attend. However, I would caution you to consider what Lord Tyrell would say to you seeing the duke so often.”
To be quite frank, Sansa was unconcerned with Loras’s opinion of her days spent with Clegane. She told her mother, “I will, but I do not see why he would mind. It is not as if I can be restricted in having particular friends.”
“Of course not, dear,” Catelyn said. “Go to bed now, and pen your reply to the duke when you wake.”
Sansa said her goodnights and retired to her bedroom to undress. Before she lay down in her bed, though, she took a card from her dresser drawer and wrote:
I will gladly join you for the exhibition. I will await you at a quarter to three this afternoon.
Setting the card on her vanity, she went to sleep with the excitement of what the exhibition would be like in her mind. Her dreams were filled with exotic treasures and with Clegane at her side.
The Egyptian Hall was in Piccadilly, but Sansa had only heard descriptions of the fanciful building since its completion several years prior. It was bedecked in detailed renderings of the temples of the Nile—its interior spacious with dramatic high ceilings and nooks for all the many artifacts that had been collected for the exhibition.
Sansa had put on her most colorful day dress to suit, but it was far surpassed by shades of burgundy and emerald green and flashes of gold amongst the items on display. It was a startling and enchanting collection, which included machinery from cotton factories as well as an elaborate “saddle” for an African elephant. There were swords from Japan and vases painted with the smallest and most stunning of details from China. Indian textiles were lined up with Persian rugs, all of which Sansa was determined to take her time in admiring.
Sandor Clegane seemed less entranced by the displays, though he listened to Sansa’s appreciative observations about each piece as he stood at her side. He had worn a velvet top hat that day, and it only increased the looming nature of his posture. He drew almost as many inquisitive glances as the artifacts. Sansa was growing accustomed to those looks, less put off by the attention than she had been on that first night they had attended the opera together. Perhaps, too, the ton was growing accustomed to seeing them together. Sansa did not disapprove of that notion.
“Can you imagine riding an elephant?” she asked as they stood before the massive saddle, its wooden frame couched in vibrant fabric with tiny mirrors and jewels sewn in. “I cannot even fathom the size of one, if this is the saddle required to ride.”
“I’ve not seen one in the flesh,” Clegane replied. “I’ve been to the Continent, but never to the Orient or Africa.”
Sansa peered up at him, finding his countenance smooth and untroubled. “Would you like to?”
“I wouldn’t turn down an opportunity,” he said, “but I shouldn’t travel far from my estate.”
“But surely you have a housekeeper and a steward to mind it in your absence? They must be doing so now, whilst you are in town.”
Clegane frowned darkly. “I don’t like to leave it in their hands. It’s my seat, my place; I want to be there.”
Sansa turned back to the elephant’s saddle, contemplating. “That I can understand. If it is home to you, it is only natural that you would wish to be there. Is it the place where you spent your youth?”
“Yes,” said Clegane. “My father insisted that both I and my brother learn to ride and shoot, which could only be done in the country. We were taught to fence, too, but that could have been learned in London. We didn’t come here, though—not unless it was demanded of my father.”
“You fence?” Sansa said. “My brother Robb does as well. My sister Arya fancies it, too, though she is not permitted to study at a club.”
That did not stop her from having a private tutor, however. It was not spoken of outside of the Starks’ household, but Arya was keen with a foil, maybe even more so than Robb, as reluctant as he would have been to admit it. Sansa might have been affronted that a lady wanted to study swordplay, but Arya did it quietly and raised no fuss; she simply learned, for that was what she desired.
“I do,” Clegane replied, “with both a foil and a saber. A cavalryman needs to wield his saber on the battlefield.”
Sansa had not thought of him in battle since he had told her coarsely and frankly of his time in the army. She did not want to imagine him cutting men down from the back of his towering horse, slinging blood from the blade of his saber. He had said his brother had loved the killing and he himself had been good at it, but he had not implied that he too enjoyed the act of bringing death. She did not want to inquire further on the matter, but he continued of his own volition, guiding her as he did to a stand of Japanese katana blades.
“Both my brother and I were tutored in fencing together. I was better with a foil as a boy than he was, but what he lacked in skill he made up for in violence. He attacked relentlessly every time we had a bout; our tutor warned him many times to keep his calm and to his form, but he never listened. He was determined to win and would stop at nothing.”
“Did you best him in your training?” Sansa asked.
Clegane’s crooked mouth lifted at the scarred side. “More times that he could stand. Every time I came out on top in a bout, he made me regret it with fists to my stomach and sides. Never my face, though; father would have noted that.”
Sansa’s mouth dropped open. “He abused you in such a manner? Your own brother?”
“Easily,” Clegane rasped, “and with relish. He had no affection for me, and I none for him. I told you I would have spat on his grave, if I knew where it was.” He chuckled, though it was icy and sharp. He raised a hand to his scarred cheek. “Gregor gave me this.”
Aghast, Sansa murmured, “Oh, no, surely he would not have done so.”
“He did, and he would again, if he was still alive.” Clegane shifted his weight slightly, seemingly debating whether to continue. He did: “We were fencing when I was maybe thirteen. I had the upper hand in that bout, and Gregor was so furious that he hit my foil hard enough to snap the tip of his clean off.
“Our fencing master ordered us immediately to stop—it’s dangerous to fight with a tipped blade—but Gregor wouldn’t relent. Out of necessity, I fought on, but in the end, with a lunge and slash, he cut the sharp end of the foil across my face.”
Though he had claimed he did not want pity, Sansa took his hand and held it between hers. She could not believe that a boy could be so cruel as to damage his brother irreparably. Clegane did not pull away from her, going on:
“You wouldn’t believe the sheer amount of blood. I thought I was going to go blind from it. It splattered the wall and dripped down my white jacket in ghastly red. I could have fainted, but Gregor would only have laughed at my weakness. Fear and vanity kept me on my feet with my hands over my blood-covered face.”
“Oh, Sandor,” said Sansa softly, still clutching that very hand. She drew it against her breast, holding it between her own and uncaring at who might see such an intimate gesture. “Surely he was sorry for it.”
“No,” Clegane said, flat. “He had no regrets. He didn’t care.” A pause and then: “It took weeks to heal, and many stitches with a surgeon’s curved needle. I had to wear bandages for months after, to keep it from festering. The blood poisoning could have killed me. Gregor would have loved that.”
Sansa said, with stridency, “Then I am glad he is dead.”
Clegane turned to her, gray eyes reflecting her visage. “I didn’t think you’d wish anyone dead, little bird, even a monster like Gregor.”
“He sounds frightful,” she said. “And any man who could so callously hurt his brother deserves no esteem.”
Raising his free hand to Sansa’s cheek, Clegane said, “You never cease to surprise me. There’s a wolf in your family’s coat of arms. You have its ferocity, as much as your propriety hides it. That is more alluring than any gown or jewel or purported refinement of our class. I want to see more of that.”
Sansa looked into his face unabashedly. “You bring it out in me.”
“And do you like that?” he inquired.
She hesitated only for a moment before she replied, “I do.”
Clegane wrapped his fingers around the hands that held his and drew Sansa away from the Japanese blades. “Come dine with me,” he said. “Or have you not yet had your fill of the treasures here?”
“I will go,” said Sansa. “Where shall we dine?”
“At my townhouse.”
“I thought you had sold it already.”
Clegane nodded, but said, “It is not yet in the hands of its new owners, and the furnishings have not been removed. My staff remains there until I am no longer in residence. They can prepare a repast for us in short order.”
Sansa ventured a smile. “Then I would very much like to dine with you in your home, Your Grace.”
“It’s no longer my home,” he said, “but it will serve for you today.”
They ordered his carriage brought to the door and went into it together. Unlike Loras, who had sat across from her, Clegane took the spot at her side. He lay a hand on her thigh, over her day dress. Sansa did not shudder under it, but neither did she push into the touch. She didn’t know whether to expect an embrace or simply that one caress.
“Is the house far from here?”
“In Mayfair,” Clegane said. “Barely a quarter hour’s ride.”
The Starks’ townhouse was not so far from that, either, but from what Sansa could see through the carriage’s window, they were traveling toward the residences of the truly upper echelon of society. Many of the houses had been built in the early years of the last century by peers whose titles were still owned by their descendants. Sansa wondered when the dukedom of Westerland had been established.
“You’re pensive, little bird,” said Clegane, his hand squeezing her knee. “What’s put you in a thoughtful mood?”
“The origins of your name,” she replied truthfully. “Is Westerland an old title?”
“Not particularly,” came the answer. “Likely why it’s not as respected as York or Norfolk. The first duke of Westerland was made in 1703. Norfolk was established in the fourteenth century. You see the difference.”
“I do,” said Sansa, “but no one in the peerage would deign to look askance at you for it, surely.”
Clegane shrugged. “Only the truest of snobs, but you’re right to say not most would. Are you interested in English family history? A hidden passion?” He appeared amused.
Sansa shook her head, saying, “It was only a passing curiosity. I do not make a habit of studying the lineage of the peers, though I do have a certain knowledge of it. All ladies are taught the fundamentals so that we can move successfully in society.”
“So I’ve heard,” Clegane grumbled. “I would say that women are forced to learn the most frivolous things for the sake of socializing, but I had to learn it, too. I don’t flatter anyone with it, though.”
“You also do not have to make the kinds of agreeable impressions that young ladies do,” said Sansa. “If we want to make a good match, we must be knowledgeable and graceful in our handling of the ton.” She got a derisive snort.
“So much is put on marriage,” Clegane scoffed. “Do you not care about anything else in your life?”
Sansa brows knit as she turned a stern expression on him. “Of course I do. I want friends and to learn things like music or about art. I like to read. I am not decided on catching a husband in my first Season. I can enjoy my years out if I so choose.”
Clegane turned his eyes down to her. “You have that luxury, yes; you’re the most beautiful woman in society.”
Flushing, Sansa glanced down at his hand on her thigh. “There are handsomer than me,” she said.
“No,” Clegane said. “There aren’t.” Guiding her face back toward him, he added, “That you choose to be with me doesn’t go unappreciated, little bird. I’m not a good man, or a well-mannered one. You could do far better.”
Sansa was aware of that—she thought of Loras—but upon deep consideration, she had come to understand that not every man’s company had to be ideal for her to enjoy it. She countered, with a tinge of cool disappointment, “But we are not keeping company with designs upon each other. We are friends, so it makes no matter whether we are a suitable match.”
Clegane’s face hardened, but he didn’t disagree. Instead, he said, “True enough.”
Shortly thereafter, the carriage came to a stop outside a finely appointed townhouse, its windows tall and curtained with gauzy white and its front door painted a pleasant blue. Potted plants stood to each side, lush and green.
Clegane handed Sansa down onto the cobblestones, ushering her up the steps and into the house. The foyer soared above her when she entered, the wide staircase to the second floor sweeping up with red carpeted steps. The floor was a shining white marble rather than the parquet of her family’s own townhouse. The heels of her shoes echoed with each step she took.
“This is beautiful,” she said. “When was it built?”
“Decades before I was born,” Clegane replied. “Sometime in the twenties.”
“Nearly a hundred years ago,” Sansa said reverently. “I can only imagine the many people and many stories this house has seen.” She sobered. “You must be terribly disappointed to leave it.”
“I’ve told you I was rarely here. What few memories I have of the place as a boy aren’t particularly cherished.”
Sansa was sorry for it. “Well, I am certain the new owners will be pleased when they take up residence. Will it be long?”
Clegane folded his hands behind his back, looking up to the ceiling painted with cherubs and clouds. “I’ve told them a few more weeks. The Season is still young.”
“You still have your reason to stay, then?” asked Sansa.
He came to her, brushing her cheek with the backs of his fingers. “Yes, little bird. I do.”
The fall of feet interrupted them, and Sansa turned to see a housekeeper come bustling into the foyer. Keys jingled at her waist.
“Your Grace,” she said, “you’ve returned early. And”—she glanced at Sansa—“you’ve brought company.” There was the hint of a smile on her pink lips. “This must be the esteemed Miss Stark.”
Sansa was surprised that the housekeeper had heard tell of her. She liked to think that Sandor had spoken of her to his staff. It suggested she was more often on his mind than she might have imagined.
“It is,” said Clegane. “Miss Sansa Stark, may I introduce my housekeeper, Mrs. Rivers?”
Sansa stood by while Mrs. Rivers curtsied shallowly. She did not seem to make a great fuss over personages of status. Her practicality suited Clegane’s moods, it seemed.
“We’ll be needing dinner, Mrs. Rivers,” he said. “In the meantime, we’ll be in the library.”
“Of course, Your Grace. The brandy is where it always is.” Slyly, she smiled, and then turned to go—presumably to the kitchens.
The Starks’ library was small, but the room Clegane led her into was twice its size. Sansa barely contained a gasp of pleasure. The furnishings were sumptuous, the leather chairs welcoming. Books lined each wall, some behind glass doors and others on open shelves. Their spines were pressed with gilt lettering, each one surely bespoke.
“This is wonderful,” she said. “Are you often here?”
“I have a study,” Clegane replied, “but I prefer it here. You can sit. I’ll light a fire.”
A servant could have done that, Sansa knew, but she was not overcome with shock to see Clegane remove his hat and coat and crouch to kindle the fire himself. Sansa looked around the room a bit more before she chose a chair, and by the time she sat in it, the flames in the fireplace were crackling, the logs catching over the paper Clegane had used to light it.
“Do you want brandy?” he asked, going over to a cabinet and producing a half-empty bottle.
“I do not imbibe often,” Sansa replied. She meant to say more, but he interrupted her: “You wouldn’t.”
Sansa frowned at him. “I was going to continue. I do not imbibe often, but I could take a little just now.”
Clegane laughed lightly. “More surprises, little bird. Very well.” He took two snifters from the cabinet and splashed the brandy into them. He brought them to Sansa and offered one to her. She took it and sniffed at the strong liquor before taking a tentative sip. It burned, but it tasted fine. Clegane said, “We’ll make a lush of you yet.”
“How dare—” Sansa started, but she saw the mirth in him and backed down. “You tease me ceaselessly. Does it give you pleasure to vex me so?”
“It does,” he said, smile on his face. “Your pique is delightful to behold.”
Sansa was admonishing, “It is not becoming.”
“No, but I don’t care if it is or not.”
She conceded, “I should think you do not.” She took another sip of brandy as he came to stand beside her chair. She did not inquire as to whether he would sit as well.
“I’ll be leaving the books for the new owners,” he said after a moment. “There’s no place for them at the estate.”
“How very sad!” Sansa exclaimed.
Dismissive, he said, “It was part of the sale price. I made a good profit from them. But one or two would not be missed. Is there a something you’d like to have?”
“I wouldn’t know where to start,” said Sansa. “There must be hundreds I might enjoy reading.”
“You can take them in,” Clegane told her with a gesture at the shelves. “Dinner will be some time yet.”
“I would need hours,” she lamented. “Perhaps another day.”
One of Clegane’s hands came to rest against her shoulder, by the join of her neck. “You can come whenever you want.” A pause. “I don’t think your parents would be very pleased with you being alone with me in my house, however.”
Sansa had not thought of that, but he wasn’t wrong; they should be chaperoned. “I believe they trust you will treat me honorably.”
The hand massaged her where it lay. “Do I treat you honorably? I don’t think so.”
She swallowed heavily, which he could surely feel. “You would not spoil me,” she said, shakily.
“No,” he said, “but I will take what I can.” Plucking the snifter from her hand, he set it on a side table and pulled Sansa up into his arms. She went willingly, pressing herself against his chest. He was in his shirtsleeves, she realized, his forearms bare; it was the most undressed she had ever seen him. At that, she did shudder.
“Are you cold, little bird?” he inquired. “I can warm you.”
“I’m fine,” she replied. “But...do not let me go.”
He made a deep sound of approval in his throat and gathered her to him for a kiss. How she relished his embrace! She could not see Loras Tyrell holding her in such a way, and even if he did, she wasn’t certain she would have this manner of passionate interest. That seemed reserved only for Clegane, who melted her like candle wax with the barest touch.
“You were beautiful in the exhibition hall,” he murmured against her mouth and cheeks as he laid kisses there. “Finer than any of the things on display. People looked at you as a jewel as much as any stone.”
Sansa drew in a breath as he sucked her exposed neck and down to her décolletage. One hand rose to her breast, cupping it as the nipple hardened under the linen. Sansa’s desire ignited as had the fire, running through her body like liquid flames. Her fingers curled into the fabric of Clegane’s shirt, surely wrinkling it. Neither of them could be bothered to care.
Taking a strong hold of her, he steered her toward the chair she had vacated. It was he who sat in it, however. He boldly lifted her skirt until her stockinged legs were bared. “Sit astride me,” he bid her. Powerless to resist, she crept to him, putting one knee on the left side of his thigh and the other to his right, effectively seating her center in his lap. Her skirts were rucked up almost to her waist.
Directly, Clegane’s warm hands came to her thighs, moving over the delicate stockings topped with lace. He toyed with it there, tantalizing. He nuzzled the crook of her neck, his breath hot against her skin.
“Your scent,” he murmured, “like rosewater.”
“Yes,” Sansa said, breathy.
Clegane himself had a clean and musky scent about his person, one that drew Sansa in and made her want to lose herself in the aroma. She had heard that some men were perfumed, but he did not have an artificial smell. There were notes of leather and soap, and his mouth tasted now of brandy. She wondered what delights of passion he would have for her that evening.
He cupped her buttocks under her day dress, his fingertips moving suggestively toward the space between her legs. She shifted ever so slightly to make him welcome there; already she could feel the wetness.
“Are you so ready for me?” Clegane growled. “I could have you here, just like this. You’d ride me better than your mare.”
Sansa was at first confused, but the meaning of his words slowly began to dawn on her, and she blushed furiously. How scandalous it was to even make such a crude comparison, and yet she was excited by it instead of afraid. She knew the essentials of martial congress, but had not fathomed that a women could be taken in such a way. Or it was, perhaps, the man who was taken in that arrangement.
Clegane continued: “Touch me, little bird, so I can at least know that much.”
Sansa regarded him, unsure, but when he took her hand and lowered it to his groin, she understood. Under her fingers was steel, or so it felt. With timidity, she explored what she knew to be his manhood. He was thick and hard, from the seam of his trousers to nearly his navel. It was fascinating; she had never seen such a thing in her life. And seeing was what she wanted to do.
She went to the buttons at the front flap of his trousers, making to ease them free of their holes. She was arrested, though, when he grabbed her wrist.
“No,” he said, voice strained. “If you venture there, there’s no turning back. You’ve done all I can bear.”
“But you have done far more to me,” said Sansa. “I would only reciprocate.”
He kept hold of her wrist, bringing her palm to his lips. “I wouldn’t be able to stand it. I don’t trust myself to hold back and preserve your innocence.”
“I am far from innocent now,” Sansa told him.
Groaning, he shook his head. “There are lines that cannot be crossed, and you know that. I won’t spoil you, as much as I want to.”
Despite the dissatisfaction of that fact, Sansa could not fight him on it. She did not want to be truly compromised before she was married; the shame would never leave her.
“Let me go, then,” she said softly, “and we can resist.”
Clegane pressed a last kiss to her palm before guiding her up and off of his lap. While she set her dress to rights, he adjusted himself in his trousers. So far, the arousal had not subsided. Neither had Sansa’s; the place between her legs was still slick. She was loath to leave so unsatisfied—but if he could not take pleasure, she did not want to, either.
They were quiet as they finished their brandy, and shortly thereafter, Mrs. Rivers came into the library and announced that dinner was served in the dining room. Clegane offered Sansa his arm, and she took it, allowing him to guide her through the townhouse to where they were taking their meal.
The repast was laid out across a table that could easily sit twenty, though only in the corner where they would sit. Clegane took the place at the head and Sansa the chair to his right. A footman slid her chair in for her, and she thanked him, even if that was not required to her. Clegane marked the courtesy, she could tell, but did not speak of it.
Dinner was composed first of a course of potato and leek soup, followed by a main course of roast chicken that that surely been cooking longer than the short time since they had arrived. It had likely been for the duke’s dinner anyway, even if Sansa had not joined him for it. Clegane sliced it with decorum, serving her a piece of juicy white breast meat. To the side were butter-sautéed green beans decked with rosemary breadcrumbs. There was wine, though Sansa took only a little; it was only a bit after half eight.
“How do you spend your evenings?” Clegane asked between bites of chicken. He didn’t eat primly, but not in a ghastly, unmannerly way.
“It depends on the night,” Sansa replied. “Often I am out with friends or at soirées.”
“Did you not have plans for tonight?”
She said, “I did, but have decided to forgo them.”
“In favor of my company,” said Clegane with the hint of a smile. It made the scar on his cheek twitch.
Sansa was not repulsed by the scar; in fact, she found it dashing on his distinguished face. He had the look of the aristocracy, but did not flaunt it as other gentlemen did. He was oddly reserved in company, speaking little to few, save for Sansa, to whom he was always attentive. In comparison to Loras, his focus on her was nearly absolute. She could not help but be flattered.
“Yes,” she said. “Your company is much appreciated. Thank you for taking me to the exhibition today. I do not believe I had yet said that to you. It was something the likes of which I had never seen.”
“You could have gone by yourself,” he said. “With your family, I mean. It was open to the public.”
“Perhaps, but it was finer to receive your invitation and attend exclusively.” She cut a piece of chicken, gaze cast down at her plate. “It would have been less enjoyable with Arya and Mother and Father.”
Clegane’s eyebrows lifted. “You prefer me to them?”
Sansa chewed and swallowed, choosing her words carefully. “It’s not that I don’t enjoy being with them,” she said, “but I’ve known them all my life. You are new to me, and...exciting.”
A dark gleam came into Clegane’s eyes, as rapacious as ever he had been. “I like to excite you, little bird. I would do more if I could.”
“Yes,” she murmured. “I know that. But we cannot.”
Clegane sighed heavily. “Not for lack of wanting.” He gestured to the chicken still on the bone. “Do you want more?”
“No, thank you,” she replied. “I’m quite satiated. It was delicious. I do hope you give my compliments to your cook.”
“I brought her from the estate,” he said. “She’s indispensable.” Pushing his empty plate away, he rose. “We should get you home before you’re missed. I did not send a note to your parents explaining your staying on for dinner. They might be worried.”
“They know I am safe with you,” said Sansa.
Clegane ran the tip of his tongue along his upper teeth. “You’re far from that, but let them believe it if they will.”
They rode together in the carriage back to the Starks’ townhouse, Clegane stopping her just before she alighted to kiss her mouth.
“I’ll call on you again,” he said, as if it was given. Sansa assumed it was.
“Goodnight, Sandor,” she said, and left him.
There were some questions that a girl did not ask her mother, even if they were of matters that only married women should have the requisite knowledge. Sansa was not blind and she was not deaf, and so she well knew that women who were yet unwed but far more daring than the daughters of the ton. They were well-acquainted with the more intimate minutiae of dealings with men. One such young woman was Sansa’s maid, Elyse.
It wasn’t that she often shared stories of her escapades with Sansa, but her lady was well aware that she gave herself freely to different swains, of which she had many. She was, after all, a pretty thing of one-and-twenty, her face elfin and hair the color of tall wheat. She came to the Starks’ household highly recommended, even if her more lascivious dealings in the houses of her acquaintances were known—at least to Sansa. Catelyn likely knew nothing of it, and for that Sansa was glad.
It was, then, that evening after Sansa had returned from Clegane’s townhouse while Elyse was unfastening her hair and combing it before she retired that Sansa ventured to ask, “How is it that men can be pleasured?”
The maid’s nimble fingers stilled against Sansa’s scalp. “My lady,” she said with a meek note of fright, “whyever would you want to know that?”
Sansa was not keen on elaborating, but neither did she want to play the matter down and avoid getting the truth from Elyse. She replied, “I am to be married someday, and I would like to know how to, ah, take care of my husband. I know that there is the act of love itself, but surely there are other ways to please him, too?” Daringly, she added: “There are ways of pleasing a woman that vary as well.”
Elyse’s blue eyes took on a curious sheen as she regarded Sansa in the mirror. “Do you know a great deal about a lady’s pleasure? Have you found your secret places?”
“I do not think they are particularly secret,” said Sansa. “It is common knowledge what is between a woman’s legs, and that is where her husband will...well, explore her intimately.” She got a stifled snort of amusement for the careful phrasing. “What I mean is that, yes, I do understand that we can be touched in certain ways to bring us pleasure.”
“Have you done it yourself, my lady?” the maid inquired.
Sansa had not thought of that, to own the full truth. She had craved release, but in so doing she had always hoped to receive it at Sandor’s hands rather than her own. However, for fear to admitting to much, she lied: “Yes.”
Elyse hummed appreciatively. “High time, too, my lady. It should be something you learn when you’re just blooming into womanhood, not when you’re as close as you are to marriageable age. A woman should know her body before a man ever lays a finger on her.”
“Oh, yes, of course,” Sansa was quick to say, hoping desperately that she would not give herself away. “Do men know themselves as we do, then?”
“Even more,” said Elyse with a smirk and one hand on her hip. “They can’t ignore it as we can. If they’re in a mood, it’ll show as plain as day. You understand what I mean, don’t you?”
“It starts young, and they learn to manage it early. Some youths get their hands around their c—ah, touch themselves more than once a day...for years.”
“Certainly not,” said Sansa. “So much?”
Elyse laughed. “Every youth in England has, I swear that to you. Even your own brothers.”
Sansa gasped in affront, closing her eyes to keep from thinking of it.
“My apologies, my lady. I should not have said that.”
“It’s all right,” said Sansa, waving her off. “I would prefer not to dwell on it. I will turn my mind to others.”
The maid cocked an eyebrow. “Have someone in mind?”
Sansa felt the heat burning in her cheeks, and knew Elyse could read her. She said, chagrined, “Perhaps.”
Elyse grinned. “Good! You should have your eyes on lovers. I know not all ladies of your station would dare to take a lover before their wedding beds, but it does one no harm to imagine it.” She began to braid Sansa’s hair, still watching her in the mirror. “What kind of pleasure do you wish to give this swain of yours?”
“I am not sure how to even begin,” Sansa replied. “Do they wish their— Do they wish to be touched?”
“Assuredly, my lady. They like their own hands well enough, but yours would be far better to any man.”
“How?” Sansa asked.
Glancing about as if searching for something, Elyse said, “It’s simple enough. Ah!” She picked up the long-handled hairbrush she had been sweeping through Sansa’s hair. Handle toward the ceiling, she curled his fingers around it moved her hand up and down. “Like this is all it takes. Faster or slower, if they ask for either.”
Sansa recalled the length of Sandor’s manhood, and the thickness of it. It was far larger than the hairbrush.
“It can take a while,” said Elyse, “of only a minute or two if he’s young and unpracticed.”
“I do not imagine he is untried,” said Sansa.
Her maid nodded. “Then you’ll have to work at it. Grip it well, but not too tight. The part where he feels the most is at the top.” Another fox’s smile spread across her lips. “That’s where your mouth goes when you come to that.”
“What?” Sansa sputtered. “You use your mouth?” She should not have been so shocked, of course, for Sandor had used his upon her in the Lannisters’ library at their first clandestine meeting.
“They live for that,” Elyse told her. “You can reduce a man to a quavering mess with your tongue.” She looked down at the hairbrush and frowned. “I’ll not put this in my mouth, but you do like this.” She parted her lips and moved the handle of the brush against her cheek to give the impression she was swallowing it down.
“Oh my,” Sansa muttered, overwhelmed by the prospect of tasting Sandor in such a way.
“When they finish, it’s not so clean as when we do,” Elyse warned. “They can make a right mess with their spend. It’s not a taste most like: thick and warm and wet.”
Sansa swallowed, frightened at such a notion. “Do you swallow it?”
Elyse tipped her head to the side and back upright again. “Some do. Other spit it out. Neither is very becoming, if you ask me. But I don’t care for the whole affair anyway. I’d rather have it where it’s meant to go.” She covered her mouth. “Oh, well, I know you couldn’t have that just now, my lady.”
Sansa took her hand and patted it. “I know.”
“There is a way to come close to it, though,” said the maid. “If you use a bit of butter, or something else slick, you can put his manhood between your thighs and let him take his pleasure like that. It’s strange at first, but all of this is, if you’ve never done the like before.”
“Butter?” Sansa asked, displeased. “But the mess.”
“Nothing about these kinds of things isn’t messy, my lady. Books and love stories say it’s all dreams and uniting of hearts, but it’s worldly pleasure, and that comes with its messes.”
Sansa said, “I understand. I suppose that is why it is confined to the bedroom.”
Elyse shrugged one shoulder. “If you can afford a bed or don’t share a room with others, it’s confined there, but we aren’t all so lucky.”
“Oh. I did not realize.”
“It’s fine that you don’t, my lady. You’ll have fine featherbed and a good husband to share it, I’m sure.” She ran her free hand over Sansa’s hair. “You can pleasure your man before you let him bed you, though. You need not give him everything. And”—she winked—“he can pleasure you in kind.”
Sansa weighed the consequences of disclosing her affairs with Clegane, and decided that though she wanted to confess and share in the joy of it, she would keep mum.
“I shall consider it,” she said to Elyse. “Thank you for your candor. You’re a dear.”
Elyse asked, “Is there anything else you need, my lady, or will you sleep now?”
“I’ll sleep, but I thank you. Goodnight.”
The maid dropped a curtsy and left the room, closing the door softly behind her. Sansa stayed only for a moment by her vanity before slipping into her bed.
Sandor had told her she should not touch him, lest he be tempted to take her virtue, but with what she had learned tonight, she was prepared to show him that she could give him pleasure as he did her, without ruining either of them.
Chapter 4: Act IV
Sunday morning’s church, a sermon from Matthew about loving thy neighbor and thy friend, put Sansa in a buoyant humor. Upon returning home, she excused herself early from luncheon with her family and called on Myrcella Baratheon at the Lannisters’ townhouse, where Myrcella had been in residence since her father Robert had died in a hunting accident some years prior. Her mother, Cersei, was a daughter of the Lannister family and had, according to the gossips, returned happily to the home of her childhood upon her widowing.
Myrcella’s uncle, a perennial bachelor, also resided there, and it was said that he and his twin sister were particularly close. However, that very uncle, Jamie, was also said to have been spending his time with the unusual Lady Tarth, who did not move gracefully in society, but stood deliberately out of it to pursue gentlemanly pastimes such as fencing. If the tittle-tattle was true, Sansa could see her being somewhat akin to Sandor, who also disdained the ton.
Myrcella, at Sansa’s arrival, drew her giddily into the sitting room to take tea and exchange stories. Of course, her friend desired to know about the salon Sansa had attended with Lord Tyrell more than anything, for Loras was much talked about among the fashionable young ladies.
“He is so very agreeable,” Myrcella said between sips of Earl Grey. She had a dreamy look about her, a wistfulness of countenance. “I should so much like to have him attend to me as he does you, Sansa.”
“You will no doubt have many suitors of your own,” Sansa told her, an attempt to soothe. “You are very comely and so mild of manner. Gentlemen look for such qualities in a companion.”
Myrcella countered: “But if Lord Tyrell pursues you further, that will remove him from the pool of eligible gentlemen for the rest of us. It would be unfortunate to lose him, though to your singular benefit.”
Sansa did not care for that suggestion; her interest in Loras was, after all, limited in its intensity. “There has been no such discussion of that,” she said resolutely. “He is a good man, but I do not have my sights set with determination upon him.”
“I would,” said Myrcella. “He is so fine.” She pursed her lips, eyeing Sansa from her place on the sofa. “You are still keeping company with the Duke of Westerland, I’ve heard. You were at the Egyptian Hall together.”
“Yes,” Sansa said, her hackles rising at the disapproving intonation in her friend’s voice. “He was kind enough to invite me to join him for the exhibition.”
“You cannot find him pleasant to entertain, surely. He is unduly taciturn almost all of the time. Dourness is not becoming in a gentleman. Or in anyone, frankly.”
Sansa kept her expression from turning to a frown by taking a drink from her teacup, but when she set it down in the saucer again, she said, “He is, perhaps, not a wholly charming man, but he has many merits that he shows when he is given the opportunity.”
“And you give him that?” asked Myrcella.
“I do. I do not wish to see only the poor qualities in men or ladies. There is more to anyone than their courtesies.”
There was once a time where Sansa would not have said such a thing, but Clegane’s influence was no small thing, she had realized. He had made formerly consequential things frivolous, even if Sansa was aware that she remained beholden to them in order to retain her place in society. She could not, as he did, cast aside the formalities, the fripperies, and expect to survive as he did. Men had many luxuries in eccentricity that women did not.
Sighing, Myrcella conceded: “If you believe you are doing right, then you should continue in your pursuit, but—”
Sansa interrupted her. “I am not pursuing him. We are friends only.”
There was disbelief in Myrcella’s face, but she did not accuse Sansa of dishonesty. Instead, she turned the conversation to a soirée she had attended the night before, where she had danced not once but three times with Lord Hightower. Sansa listened absently and made the necessary noises of interest, but her mind wandered to other things, namely if she might have another rendezvous with Clegane in the coming days. Also to her family and how she missed Rob while he was away in the country with his fine wife.
Sansa thought then of Clegane’s love for his estate, his blatant prioritizing of its care, and wondered what it might look like. Was the house there grand or modest, the lawns kept neatly or allowed to grow fragrant grasses with the changing of the season? She could not believe it was without its wildness, for that suited its master well.
She took her leave of Myrcella an hour later, claiming another engagement, which was not precisely true. She was simply disinclined to stay any longer. A walk home seemed far more enticing. This part of town was safe enough to allow her to make the journey without being set upon by anyone unsavory. If she tired, she could arrange for a hackney back to the Starks’ townhouse.
Parasol unfurled and resting against her right shoulder, she ambled down the roadside to keep out of the foot and horse traffic. The air was clear and rain absent as she strolled, and she smiled to herself at the simple pleasure of it. So caught up was she in the pleasant afternoon that she hardly noticed them approaching her until they were just in front: Margaery and Loras Tyrell. It was as if she had conjured the latter from her chat with Myrcella.
“Miss Stark,” he said upon meeting her. “How good it is to encounter you here! But alone?” Sansa made her explanation and got a bright laugh for it. “You are fresh and energetic of spirit, Miss Stark.”
“Yes, dove,” said Margaery. “It is a quaint quality. But you must accompany us now. We’re bound for the park in Mayfair.”
“That sounds lovely,” Sansa said, smiling. “I would be most pleased to join you.”
The park was elegantly laid out, with vibrant greenery and well-maintained walking paths. It was not altogether often that Sansa found herself there, much preferring the High Gardens for their size and chance to meet friends. She had met Loras and Margaery in Mayfair, however, which was a happy coincidence. Their company was proprietous, but less frivolous than Myrcella’s.
“You look very handsome today,” Loras said to her as they walked. “If I may be so bold.”
Sansa favored him with a soft, flattered expression. “That is very kind of you to say, Lord Tyrell. I do try to keep up an appropriate appearance. Margaery taught me so much about the fashionable designers of this part of London when I arrived for the start of my Season. I’m afraid I was not altogether aware of what attire was best.”
“And you have taken so well to it,” said Margaery. “You are the star of the Season, as I’ve said before.” She patted Loras’s arm where she had hers linked through it. “And no one can keep their eyes off of you, especially my dear brother.”
“Margaery,” he admonished, “pray do not embarrass me in front of Miss Stark. I want her only to think well of me.”
“I do,” said Sansa. “You are the perfect gentleman. You have done nothing at all to discredit your upstanding qualities.”
Loras gave her a wide smile. “You flatter me, Miss Stark. But I gratefully accept the compliments. It would give me great satisfaction to know that is your impression of me.”
“Indeed it is,” Sansa told him. Perhaps she had been exaggerating her esteem, but it was not wholly untrue, either. Loras was a good man and a well-behaved one. He was certainly more appropriate a companion for her than was Sandor Clegane. She continued after a moment: “What is it that brings you to the park today?”
“Only some fresh air and exercise,” Margaery replied. “It is good for the body and mind to venture out from the parlor from time to time.”
“I agree,” Sansa said. “My father and mother have always encouraged their children to take the air and not remain sequestered in our townhouse or restricted to the ballrooms of our friends. I’m glad you also think so.”
“Most assuredly,” said Loras with levity. His demeanor was, as stated, a charming one, and it suited the properness of his dress and reputation within the ton. He was never brooding or discomfited in society, and he was well-loved by both gentlemen and ladies—albeit for different reasons. He strode confidently by his sister’s side, unbothered by seemingly anything at all. The colors he wore were bright but not overstated; his wavy hair was styled impeccably. He was the ideal son of the upper classes, with everything to recommend him. Sansa should, under every sensible circumstance, be already enamored with him.
“Sansa, darling,” said Margaery as they crossed a delicate wooden bridge over a shallow pond in which one could see sleek and exotic orange and white fish moving slowly through the water, “it has been so long since we’ve been to the modiste together. Perhaps you would like to go and have something prepared for a ball? I am not yet supposed to disclose this to anyone, but in two weeks’ time, we are to host one at our home. My grandmother, Lady Olena Tyrell, is insistent upon me finding a new husband and she wants to begin the search by bringing all the finest gentlemen of society into the house for me to peruse.”
Sansa, surprised, said, “I hadn’t any idea that you were planning to seek another husband. Are you glad for the prospect?”
“Glad enough,” Margaery replied. “I cannot be supported by my first dowry forever. I must make a new match. And if I do not bear children, my grandmother would be most distraught.”
As evidenced by her work with London’s orphans, Sansa’s friend very much enjoyed the presence of children and would make a truly wonderful mother. Sansa said, “That is good news, then. It will be the talk of the ton if you make a more formal expression of your intentions at the ball.”
“We shall see about that,” said Margaery. “I will be more discerning in my choice now that I am older. Joffrey was a difficult man and I should like to be happy in my marriage.”
She had not been so candid about her displeasure with her husband before, and Sansa felt a swell of emotion for her, and for any woman who was trapped in a loveless match. “Oh, yes, of course,” Sansa said. “I would wish nothing less for you.”
Margaery favored her with a soft look. “And I the same for you, dear Sansa. Is that not right, Loras?”
“It is,” he said, turning to Sansa. “It very much is.”
She regarded him warmly, recognizing his genuine admiration of her. Or at least that is how she perceived it. He could, she reasoned, come to care for her, which could not be objectionable to either party or their families. Still, Sansa felt queer under his attention, as if she was seen only for her appropriateness as a potential wife. There was no true indication of such, and yet something about his suit seemed false. It was an unfair sense, she was sure, but she could not seem to get out from under it. There was no reason not to spend more time in his company, though, and discover if he was truly invested in making a match or not.
They were walking so companionably together, that Sansa did not quite realize how close they were to the familiar front of the Westerland townhouse until they were nearly upon it. She recognized the blue door and dog’s head knocker, finding herself slowing her pace to take it in.
“Is something the matter, dove?” Margaery asked as she noted Sansa’s hesitation. She followed Sansa’s gaze to the house. “Do you know this residence?”
It would not be wise to disclose that she had been into Clegane’s home if the gathering had not been open to others than herself. It would do nothing to help her reputation, and would surely tarnish her in Loras’s eyes.
“I was only struck by the colors,” she lied. “And the unusual knocker. It is very well-fashioned.”
Margaery looked less than impressed. “Perhaps. Shall we continue on?”
Sansa was about to agree and follow when the door opened wide and across the threshold came the Duke of Westerland himself. Sansa caught her breath at the sheer size of him filling the doorway. He was dressed in dark blues and grays, which did favors to his eyes and complexion. It did make the scar on his face stand starkly out, but that did not bother her in the least.
He was clearly set on hastening away from his home, but it took him only seconds to alight upon Sansa and her friends. He ignored them, however, focusing solely on her. He paused and then strode purposefully toward their small group. His shadow had not yet fallen upon them when Margaery began to frown.
“Miss Stark,” Clegane said by way of greeting, though he did not bow.
“Your Grace,” she said, curtsying.
He made no effort to couch his words in gentility: “What are you doing here?”
“Walking,” she replied, wincing inwardly at how unrefined the answer was. “With my friends.”
Only then did Clegane’s attention turn to them. He did not look impressed by either Margaery or Loras. “Were you bound somewhere?”
“I was intending to make my way home, but I encountered Lord Tyrell and Mrs. Baratheon on my way. We were catching up.”
“I could accompany you home,” he said gruffly.
Loras interjected: “As could I, Westerland. While your offer does you credit, your services are not needed.”
Sansa heard the opposition in his tone. He was clearly displeased that Clegane was inserting himself into their company.
Clegane turned a disdainful look upon him. “Don’t need your credit, Tyrell. And you live in Mayfair. It’s out of your way to see her home.”
“And it is not for you?” asked Loras icily.
“I was already bound in that direction. And I must continue on my way posthaste.” He said to Sansa, “Will you come with me or not?”
As much as Sansa would have enjoyed a walk at his side, she thought it far too rude to leave Margaery and Loras in such a manner. She replied, “I thank you, Your Grace, but no. I can find my own way home, or can indeed have Lord Tyrell escort me.”
Clegane scowled, his scar twitching. “Fine. Good day.” Without another word, he stalked off down the lane. A few people on the pavement scurried out of his way, so imposing was he.
“What a bad-tempered man,” said Margaery. “He does nothing to win admiration or friends with such an attitude.”
“He is not always so unpleasant,” Sansa said. “It is likely we caught him in a mood already. Perhaps his morning was not a good one.”
“That is no excuse to behave boorishly,” Loras said. “He would do better to return to the country, where he would not be so offensive to those of us with better constitutions.”
Sansa had to fight a considerable battle to keep her expression impassive at the insults. She managed to say, “I am sure he was just in a bad humor. Shall we continue in our walk? I cannot stay much longer before I am expected home.”
“Let us not tarry,” said Loras. “I shall walk with you home.”
It was against Sansa’s better judgment, but she refused with a definitive: “I sincerely appreciate the offer, Lord Tyrell, but I am feeling tired and would like to take a hackney.”
“I can send for our carriage, Miss Stark,” he continued. “It would be no trouble.”
She shook her head. “I will be just fine on my own. I hope to see you again soon, however.” She curtsied to him and was given a kiss on the cheek by Margaery.
“We will make arrangements to go to the modiste, dove,” said her friend. “I’ll call.”
Sansa didn’t have to go far to find a carriage to take her back to the Starks’ townhouse. It was a short ride, on which she took some time to recover her composure. Clegane always managed to unsettle her, though not unpleasantly. She did not like that he did not treat her friends with esteem, but they were also the antithesis of him: refined and gently bred with excellent standing in society. He was still ever-disreputable.
When Sansa arrived home, she retreated to her room for a time. There she collected her thoughts, dwelling on the contrast between Loras and Clegane. If she had to choose between them to walk with her home, it would have been the latter, and she was concerned to think of what that meant for the coming weeks of her Season. Still, Clegane had warned her well that he would be leaving soon, and that would put an end to their association, which would free her to, she thought, enjoy Loras’s suit more than she presently did.
Perhaps that was true, anyway. She could hope.
Music had, even in such a short time since her instruction had begun, come to visit great joy upon Sansa’s Saturdays—and the other days of the week, when she played the pianoforte and practiced the arias Master Marillion had given her during her lessons. It was clear to her and to anyone who heard her rehearsing that her voice’s range and quality had already improved. Her fingers on the keyboard had grown less clumsy, too, bringing refinement into her practice pieces. She was not prepared to both play and sing before an audience, but there were times when she would give private concerts for her family in the evenings after dinner. Her father was particularly fond of those times; Arya and the boys could have taken or left it.
Nearly a week had passed since Sansa had been in Mayfair with Margaery and Loras—and seen Clegane in the process—but she had met her friend at the modiste in the High Street to be fitted for a new gown for the Tyrell ball. Invitations had finally gone out, and the festivities were discussed in every salon and sitting room in London. Margaery Baratheon, née Tyrell, was considered a catch by every gentlemen, young and old, of the ton . She came with a fat dowry and an ancient name. Her beauty, too, was an enticement to any man who beheld her.
Sansa’s gown would not be inexpensive, but her father had been more than willing to put it on his account when he understood in the importance of the ball. She would not outshine her friend, but would be glad to stand beside her as she faced the wave of curious suitors. Margaery had, too, told her that she would be admired and perhaps catch another gentleman’s eye—though she clearly favored Loras for Sansa.
He had been absent from their outing, but Margaery had conveyed his greetings. Sansa had bid her return her regards as they looking through new ribbons for their bonnets. Margaery chose a bold red one that suited her coloring and Sansa selected robin’s egg blue. She had adorned her summer bonnet with it herself when she returned home. Her mother had expressed how fine it would look on her.
Master Marillion arrived at the appointed time on Saturday afternoon, and he guided Sansa through scales to warm her voice up before she dove into her more challenging music. He had started her with simple songs, but she had soon proved herself worthy of more unique and complicated pieces. Marillion was deeply pleased with her efforts and progress, saying as much as the final whole note she had sung faded with the chords on the pianoforte. From the back of the room, her parents applauded.
“Sansa,” said Catelyn after Sansa had given a shallow curtsy, “you must exhibit your talents. Really, you are doing remarkably. It is wonderful to listen to you. And you look so beautiful as you sing. You have an angel’s voice.”
“Surely not so fine as that, Mother,” Sansa said, “but thank you for saying it. It is high praise.”
“And well deserved,” Marillion offered, rising from the bench where he had been accompanying her. “I agree with Lady Stark: a concert would be highly agreeable.”
Sansa, flushing, asked, “Truly? You think I am ready for that?”
Marillion smiled his lovely smile, the one which had charmed so many ladies, and replied, “I assure you that you are. I am certain your friends would be most glad to hear you sing. I can play for you, of course.” He rubbed his chin thoughtfully. “And there is a piece I have been working on that I think would suit you well. You could debut an original composition!”
“Oh, how wonderful!” Sansa exclaimed. “It would be a great honor to be the first to perform one of your arias, Master Marillion.”
“Then I shall complete it directly,” he said, “and we can start with learning it at our next lesson.” Looking to Catelyn and Eddard, he asked, “When could a concert be arranged, my lord, my lady?”
They exchanged a glance, but it was again Catelyn who spoke: “Perhaps in two weeks’ time, when Sansa has had the opportunity to learn the music and with days enough to send out invitations? Our ballroom can only seat so many, so we will have to choose carefully who to invite.” She laid a hand over her heart, sighing. “How wonderful this will be, Sansa.”
“Yes,” Sansa said. “I can barely contain my excitement! I do hope that is apparent.”
“It is, Miss Stark,” said Marillion. “It certainly is.” He went to gather his music and tuck it into the folio he carried. “I might suggest we arrange for a lesson between now and Saturday next to insure we allow Miss Stark time enough to learn the aria. Would that be acceptable? Perhaps Wednesday morning?”
“That will do,” Eddard said. “I will arrange for your compensation, Master Marillion, and for your attendance at the concert.”
Marillion bowed. “I thank you, my lord. Good day to all of you.”
He took his leave then, and the footman saw him out the door. Sansa remained in the music room with her parents, pleased and yet plagued with nerves over the prospect of a performance. Her friends would surely attend, and she would be the center of attention. She didn’t always desire to draw so many eyes at once, but she wished, for one night, to be the lauded performer.
“Well,” said Eddard to her, “I believe that you will make a most memorable impression on anyone who attends the concert, Sansa. I’ve not heard a finer voice outside of the opera.”
“You exaggerate, Father,” Sansa told him, “but I thank you for allowing me to cultivate my singing. I enjoy few things more than music, now.”
Catelyn came to her and took her hand. “You will have to have a new gown.”
Sansa conveyed her surprise with raised eyebrows and bright eyes. “I have just had one commissioned for the Tyrell’s ball, Mother.”
“I know, darling, but this is a very special occasion.” To Eddard: “That should not be objectionable, should it, my dearest?”
Eddard shook his head, a smile on his lips. “It is most certainly a requirement of such a special night. Call on the dressmaker this coming week, the two of you.”
Sansa embraced him. “Thank you, Father. I hope I will make you proud.”
“You always do, Sansa. Every day.”
They left the music room, closing the French doors behind them, and went into the foyer. Eddard begged their leave to go to his study, but Catelyn stayed to collect the cards that had arrived in the past few hours. She looked cursorily through them before lifting one toward Sansa.
“This one is for you, dear.”
Sansa took it, finding the stock thick and well-made. Inside the envelope was a note from none other than Sandor Clegane, his hand heavy but clean.
Please join me at Vauxhall Gardens on Monday night for dinner and entertainment.
It was simple and to-the-point, and Sansa most decidedly wanted to attend. She turned to her mother and relayed the invitation.
“You’ve never been to Vauxhall,” Catelyn said, “so I would not object to you accompanying the duke. I would assume you would like to accept.”
“Yes,” said Sansa hastily. “It has been some time since I’ve seen him.”
Catelyn regarded Sansa with interest, but did not comment on her eagerness. Instead, she said, “Then pen your reply and I will see it sent to Mayfair before the day is out.”
“How do you know his residence is in Mayfair, Mother?” Sansa asked. She had not volunteered the information that she had been to his home or that she had encountered him in the park in Mayfair the preceding week.
“It is not something he conceals,” Catelyn said. “Word makes the rounds. But he has sold the townhouse to an unknown buyer, I have heard. Is that true?”
Sansa nodded. “He will soon be leaving town, or so he has told me.”
Catelyn hummed. “You will be sorry to see him go, surely. Perhaps you can correspond when he leaves.”
Letters were a poor substitute for what Sansa had come to expect with Clegane, and she was not certain he would wish to retain contact with her upon his leaving. She was not quite prepared to ask him, either. Instead, her mind turned to his comments about her voice at Mrs. Sand’s long-ago dinner party. It was that which had inspired her to play and sing again, and her concert could not miss him. In fact, if there was anyone in her acquaintance she wanted to hear her most, it was him.
“I will go now and write my reply to him,” Sansa said.
She took his card with her to her room, where she wrote on her own stationery:
I will most happily join you at Vauxhall on Monday. And I would like to invite you first to attend a performance of Master Marillion’s newest composition, which I will be singing. You wished to hear my voice once, and I would hope you would come. We have yet to decide upon a date for the concert, but I simply wanted you to be apprised of its happening. I do hope you will still be in town in two weeks’ time.
It was daring to address the card to him by his given name when her mother might see it, but she did not bother to care at that juncture. Her desire to see him was already growing, and the hidden nooks at Vauxhall might afford her the privacy to explore him as intimately as he had done her.
Holding the card to her breast, Sansa sighed. She might have known well that Clegane did not intend to court her, but at the moment, a secret part of her heart hoped that hearing her sing would inspire him to change his mind.
Vauxhall Gardens’ fame was renowned. Established in the last century as a space for colorful entertainment, the shows featured anything from jugglers and tightrope walkers, to plays and debuts of new music. There were sometimes fireworks as the night went on, after supper, which could be enjoyed in the boxes set into hedges and adorned with Corinthian columns. It was to one of those very boxes Sandor Clegane steered Sansa upon their arrival at the gardens just past six o’clock on Monday evening.
He had collected her in his carriage at the Starks’ townhouse promptly as the clock struck six, though he had given little indication of when he would arrive by way of his card. It should have been construed as rude to not apprise one’s guest of the start of their visit, but Sansa could not be displeased with him, so struck was she by his presence when he entered the foyer.
He was clothed in a black velvet coat with stark white trousers and shined boots. His cravat was the color of a dark red vintage. The hat he wore gave him greater height, and his hair was clubbed neatly the base of his head. Sansa had never seen a man look more stunning than he did in that moment, when his eyes tracked to her and held there, taking in her green gown and delicately curled hair.
“Miss Stark,” he had said with a deep bow. Upon offering his hand, Sansa put hers into it and he kissed her gloved knuckles. “Good evening.”
“Your Grace,” she said in reply, her fingers and arm tingling as if he had run his whole hand up its length in a teasing caress. “Thank you for thinking of me to join you at Vauxhall.”
He gave a slight incline of his head. “If you’ve never seen it, it shouldn’t be missed. This is your first Season; I assumed you hadn’t.”
“I have not,” Sansa told him, “but I am most excited to partake in the pleasures.”
Clegane’s eye flashed with suggestion, and Sansa flushed. “And there are many to be had. Shall we go?”
And so they went, coming to their supper box, where a footman helped Sansa to slide her chair in and poured wine for both her and for Clegane. She took a sip first, finding it strong and rich—the color of Clegane’s cravat. He ignored the drink, instead keeping his focus on Sansa. She might have been unsettled by the intensity of his regard, were it coming from anyone else.
She asked to ease the tension, “Have you been well since we last met? I considered that perhaps you have been busy with the packing of your townhouse. You were in a hurry when I saw you in the park, with Lord Tyrell and Margaery.”
“I had urgent business,” Clegane replied.
“Though not urgent enough to have taken a detour to escort me home?” said Sansa with earnest inquisitiveness.
Clegane said, “It would have waited. But you didn’t want my company anyway. Did you go back with the Tyrell whelp?”
Sansa held her head high, defiant of his hostility. “Lord Tyrell is an upstanding gentleman.” She paused for a moment and then: “But no, I took a hackney.”
“At risk to your person?” Clegane growled, suddenly incensed. “Are you daft, girl?”
“I was in no danger,” she countered. “I have taken public conveyance before to no adverse consequence. Would you have preferred I went with Lord Tyrell?”
Clegane swept his hat from his head, clearly frustrated, and fixed her with a glare. “That foppish pup isn’t worth a glance from you, let alone your company. He plays at being everything proper, but it is all on the surface. There is nothing to him beyond the courtesies and dances and flirtations. Why do you tolerate him at all?”
Taken aback at the vehemence of his denouncement, Sansa fumbled for words. She defaulted to the very properness he disdained. “Your Grace, I am shocked by your saying such things. You impugn Lord Tyrell’s character so mercilessly. Do you hate him so?”
“Don’t call me that, girl,” he snapped. Sansa nearly recoiled, but held her ground by the barest inch. “And it’s not hate—only disgust at his pretense. Do you not see through him, that there is nothing behind the façade?”
Sansa did have some measure of skepticism about his intentions toward her, if not about his overall demeanor. There was a gut feeling that his interest in her was not sincere. And yet she was unsure how much of that to express to Clegane, who was already so piqued at even the mere notion of him escorting her home from Mayfair.
“I do not purport to know him intimately,” she said, “but he has been nothing but solicitous to me since we became acquainted.”
Clegane scoffed with audible scorn. “Who do you know intimately, little bird? Your pretty chirping friends? The men who slaver over you in the ballrooms?”
Sansa felt the prickle of tears in her eyes at the onslaught. She managed to ask, “Why are you saying these things? What have I done to inspire such cruelty?”
A warring change of emotion traversed his countenance: remaining fury, cold realization, blatant regret. When he finally settled, the ire dropped from his posture, his face softening. He said, “You’ve made no missteps, little bird. I was… I do not like Tyrell, and his overt attentions toward you are vexing. I did not mean to direct my anger at you.” He glanced down at the fine china on the table before him, touching the edge of a napkin, and then back up. “My temper can get the better of me. Is it something you can forgive?”
Sansa’s calm was affected, but she did nod. “I forgive you, yes, but you must promise going forward to rein in such outbursts when we are together. If you are displeased with me or with anyone else, you should tell me in a restrained manner, rather than allowing rage to consume you.” She pressed her lips together. “You frightened me, Sandor.”
He extended his large hand across the table, an offering of peace, and Sansa took it. He said, “I am not a restrained man, little bird. I should frighten you. You should not be here, alone with such a brute.”
“You are not that,” she said, resolute. “Perhaps your temper does get away from you at times, but you are still a gentleman for whom I have great regard.”
Stroking the side of her hand with his thumb, he said, “I don’t deserve that. Even if Tyrell doesn’t deserve you, neither do I.”
Sansa blinked at him, weighing what she might say next. She decided upon: “It is not a matter of who deserves what. I choose to spend my time with Lord Tyrell on occasion and with you. I will also be in the company of my friends, frivolous as they might be. There is no one who dictates with whom I spend my time, Your Grace, but me.”
One side of his mouth twitched. When he spoke, he was amused. “Your meaning is clear, Miss Stark: it is not my place to question you. After all, I have no hold over you.”
“Indeed you do not,” she said. “We are friends, as you have so long insisted, and nothing more.”
Clegane studied her, growing sober again. “It has not been so long. A month or so.”
“More than that,” said Sansa. “Though I have not been keeping close track. But friendships have been built upon fewer weeks together than this.”
“Marriages have been built on fewer weeks than this,” Clegane said, low.
Sansa balked. She had not expected talked of matrimony from him, when he was so dismissive of it. “Is there a matter of marriage that concerns you of late?” she asked.
He averted his eyes, uncharacteristically hesitant. His fingers moved slightly under hers. “No,” came his answer, however. “There’s nothing. Let’s have our supper. The play is about to start.”
It took the first course for Sansa to truly recover from the duke’s outburst. She did not wish to witness his displeasure again. Still, upon reflection, she might have been afraid in the moment, but her fear dissipated as she watched him as he took in the comedy being performed while they supped. He might have raised his voice and grown taut with anger, but she did not think he would ever do her violence. Still, she did not wish to be someone he truly disliked or had done him wrong, for there would be no mercy for them. Such a strange juxtaposition that was: a terrifying rage from so massive a man as compared to his gentleness with her.
When the play was finished, a man and a woman juggling flaming torches came into the courtyard to the sound of lively trumpets. Their feats of daring held Sansa rapt for a time, before Clegane once again offered his hand.
“Walk with me, little bird,” he said.
She offered no protest, abandoning their table and taking his arm as he led her away from the fiery display and into the shadows of the hedge-lined paths.
A few other couples passed them by as they wended their way through the maze-like tracks lined with white gravel. There came a giggle from some hidden nook, or a man’s murmured words, but it floated away before it stuck in Sansa’s ears.
“I came here as a boy,” Clegane said after a time. “My father thought I was too young, but my mother wished for me to see the wonders. We didn’t stray to these paths after nightfall.”
“No?” asked Sansa. “Are they not a place for children?”
“Not in the least,” he rumbled. “These are places for trysts, little bird. Do you not know this place’s reputation?”
She replied, “I do.” It did not take much steeling of herself for her to press on: “Is that why you brought me here?”
Clegane’s gaze flashed down at her, his smile knife’s edge sharp. “I won’t tell you it wasn’t my intention,” he said.
Sansa’s heart jumped in her breast, excitement thrilling down her spine and into her fingertips where they rested on Clegane’s arm. But before she could speak anything by way of reply, he continued: “I will not make demands of you in this place, girl, where there are so many pricked ears, but if you’re willing—”
She interrupted him directly. “I am.” A pause and then: “Sandor.”
He wasted no time in alighting upon a dark place set back in the hedges, where a small wrought-iron bench stood in the recesses. Drawing Sansa into the dark, he pulled her against him and bent his head to kiss her.
She went into the embrace with enthusiasm, having dreamt in past days about being once again in his arms. Her own were trapped between their tightly pressed chests, the palms flat on the lapels of his fine coat. His mouth was soft but insistent, his tongue prodding at her lips until she opened them for him. The spices from their dinner lingered in his taste, though not unpleasantly so. Sansa’s head whirled more than it had with the wine she had drunk.
They kissed for no short time, until she was breathless with desire and he was boldly stroking her back and shoulders, fingering the buttons of her gown in a hint of daring to undo them and bare her. She might have allowed it, as she had at the opera what seemed like an age ago, when they barely knew one another, but that was not her intention this evening. It was his pleasure she wished to see.
Sliding one hand down from his chest, she brushed her fingers across his lower belly and then to the evidence of his arousal between his legs. He tensed immediately at her touch.
“No,” he said gruffly, his voice ragged with passion.
“Let me,” said Sansa softly, making no move to take her hand away. Instead, she gripped his manhood through his breeches to trace its impressive length and girth. He made a choked sound, shuddering.
“You’d be walking a dangerous path, little bird,” he warned. “My control is not limitless, and you cannot be spoiled.”
She said, daring as she continued with her caresses, “Surely you would not take me here.”
He exhaled, his breath moving across her brow where it was tipped up toward his face. “I would not. If I have you, it will be in my bed and my bed alone.”
Sansa gasped at the very idea of it. She had not imagined what it might be like to go so far as to lie in his bed; it was forbidden for a young woman unpromised and unwed. Still, the notion made her shake with anticipatory want.
Clegane seemed to read her and raised a hand to her face. “You like that idea.” His expression was intent, shot with fervor. “Do not give me the impression that you would come to me there, or there will be hell to pay. I will not be able to stop myself from taking everything you will give. Would that be everything, little bird?”
“I could not,” said Sansa. “And I will not lead you further to think that I would. Let me pleasure you now and put the rest from your mind.”
He groaned, deep and nearly desperate. “Do you know how to pleasure a man?”
She moved to the buttons of his trousers, slipping the first free. “I have been told the ways I can,” she replied, “but I have not yet attempted it. I am afraid I will be clumsy. But if you will tolerate that—”
“Your hands, no matter how unpracticed, will undo me,” he said, a full-chested rumble. “Touch me, little bird, and bring me to rapture.”
Given leave, Sansa unfastened the remaining buttons and bared his manhood to the night air. The darkness made it difficult to see him, but her fingers were free to explore his shape, which she did liberally. He was steel under soft skin that slid ever so slightly up and down as she stroked him from base to tip. He was not unlike her maid had described, though far thicker than the handle of a hairbrush. She could not fathom taking so much into her mouth, but neither was that her design just then; she wished only to please him with her hands.
His breathing grew labored as she worked, his hands going to her upper arms and holding her tightly there. “You’re keen,” he managed to say, “if untried.”
“Tell me how you desire it,” Sansa said. “Give me guidance.”
“Faster,” he told her, low. “Your hand at the tip; it is where I can feel the most.”
Sansa did as she was bidden, giving the crown of his manhood the greatest attention. It seemed she did right, for his grip on her tightened almost to the point of pain. She did not care; she wanted only to drive to him to madness as he had done her.
They were concealed well by the shadows and the hedges, but Sansa still had to fight the compulsion to freeze in her motions when she heard the crunch of gravel as others passed them by. They were speaking and laughing, utterly uninterested in the goings on in the nearby alcove.
Sandor’s voice joined the sounds of their passing: “Think of them, little bird, so close while we do such lascivious things, and yet unaware of us. What would society say if they knew you were so eagerly stroking my cock?”
Sansa peeped with fear, a small sound of distress. She would never recover from the infamy.
Sandor continued: “You’ve trespassed further than I would have guessed you might have, girl. And God, that is no complaint. You are more than I ever thought: a treat beyond measure. Fearless as a wolf and as greedy for passion as any strumpet.”
“I am not that!” Sansa protested, though the evidence to the contrary was considerable: she did not stop in her caresses of his manhood, so enraptured was she by his reactions. The chance of being discovered thrummed through her blood, even if it would be disastrous if they were.
“No,” he said soothingly. “But neither are you a delicate flower of society. You would be wasted on anyone who did not dare you in your trysts.”
Flushed, Sansa could not deny it. If she were confined to a frosty match, where there was no spark of desire or danger or both at once, she would wither. Now that she had had a taste of what ardor could be, she found herself addicted.
“Do you always seek such risk in yours?” she asked.
“Never before you,” he replied. “And doubtfully again. No one will match you.”
Salacious pride welled in her, for she would leave her mark upon him when he returned to the country. The pleasure she gave him would not soon leave his mind, of that she was sure. Efforts renewed, she felt the wetness at the tip of his manhood increase, easing slightly the movement of her hand over him. At the change, he groaned.
“Kiss me, little bird,” he demanded, “and guard your gown.”
She did not directly understand his meaning, but it was made clear shortly thereafter as he caught her up in a deep kiss. He gasped into it, his body going taut as warm spend covered Sansa’s fingers. She was duly startled, having never experienced such a thing before, but she knew directly that she had brought him to ecstasy as she had hoped.
After a time, he took hold of her wrist and bid her stop touching him. As she released her hold, he produced his handkerchief and began to clean her fingers. Light shone down as the moon broke the clouds, illuminating the pearlescent wetness before it was wiped away. Sansa was fascinated.
“Did it please you?” she asked gently.
“Yes, little bird,” he replied. “Immeasurably.” He lifted her clean hand to his lips and kissed each fingertip and then the center of her palm. “It’s growing late. You should be returning home.” Sansa’s disappointment must have been plain, for Sandor drew her in for another kiss, saying, “I will arrange another outing soon, I give you my word. I won’t neglect you for a week as I have before.”
She smiled at him, glad of that. “I shall hold you to that promise.”
He returned her smile, one side of his lips lifting as his scar twitched. “Do that, girl.”
His clothes set to rights, they ventured back out onto the path and toward the entrance to the gardens, where they could call for his carriage to convey them back to the Starks’ townhouse.
It was not a long journey and soon they were at the door, Clegane handing her down onto the pavement and seeing her up the stairs. At his knock, the door was swiftly opened. The footman stood aside to allow Sansa across the threshold.
“Until next time, Your Grace,” she said by way of parting.
Clegane bowed formally. “You won’t wait long.” The sincerity in his face was the last thing Sansa saw before the door was closed.
Alone with the footman, she pressed a hand to her breast and sighed.
“If I may say so, Miss Stark,” said the footman, “the duke is in your thrall.”
She looked to him, surprised at his forthrightness. “Do you truly think that?” she asked.
He nodded once, slowly. “I do not blame him, and neither would anyone. Your virtues are many, Miss Stark, and have not gone unnoticed. He is an unusual man, but when someone looks at you in the manner he does, his feelings are great.”
Sansa dared not hope. “Perhaps,” she said. “Your observations are appreciated. Thank you and goodnight.”
The footman bowed to her and left her there, stunned, pleased, and already looking ahead to when she would see Sandor again.
It was on Tuesday afternoon that Catelyn called Sansa to the sitting room to show her the fine stock of the invitations for the concert that were to be sent out that afternoon. They were beautifully printed and had an open space near the bottom of the card where Sansa could make her own note of well-wishes to each recipient. It was a thoughtful personal touch that she lauded her mother for.
“Are you excited?” Catelyn asked as Sansa took up a pen and began to make her notes on each card.
“Immensely,” Sansa replied, earnest. “But nervous. I should hope I do not let that affect me and ruin the performance. Master Marillion’s aria is so lovely. I can only hope to do it justice.”
He had shared it with her in the morning, when they had rehearsed it for the first time. Sansa’s joy had been overwhelming as she learned to make her way through the runs and flourishes. It was far more complex than she had expected, but she was certain she could master it, and would do it and herself credit upon performing it.
Her mother hummed, patting her hand. “You surely will, darling.”
It took Sansa but two hours to address each card to all of her friends and some acquaintances who her mother thought would speak well of her after taking in her exhibition. It was not something of which Sansa was particularly proud—to seek the approval of matrons of the ton so blatantly—but she saw the sense in it.
However, she was aware that while her reputation for refinement was a benefit, she did not necessarily require more suitors’ attentions this Season—another aspect of why she was to exhibit her talents. With Loras Tyrell turning his interest upon her and her friendship with the Duke of Westerland, her time was monopolized already by fine gentlemen. She needed not settle on someone so soon after he entrance into society. Indeed, she was disinclined to be spoken for directly. That wasn’t to say that she could not remain in society after she was married, but it did change the tenor of her movements amongst the ladies and gentlemen in London. She would not dwell upon it that moment, though, she resolved.
She waited to address her cards to Margaery and Loras until the end of her list, writing fondly inviting them both to the concert. Only one card remained after that: one to His Grace the Duke of Westerland. She regarded the empty space at the bottom, wondering what she should write. She realized that he had not acknowledged the invitation she had extended to him in her card replying that she would join him at Vauxhall. Perhaps he had forgotten. But she did not think he had. The choice not to mention it must have been intentional. Why, she could not guess.
Picking up her pen, at last she began to write with the upmost informality:
Your bird will sing this night. Please come.
It was the most earnest implorement she could fathom, and she hoped it would move him. Sliding the card into its envelope before her mother could set eyes on it, she addressed it and laid it on the pile of others. Among all of them, she believed his was the most important to her. Her singing, should Clegane attend, would be in no small part for his enjoyment.
“I am finished, Mother,” she said to Catelyn. “Shall we post these?”
Catelyn nodded, offering a smile. “Let us to that, darling, and let the acceptances roll in.”
Sansa felt the requisite flutter of joy and watched her mother take the cards to be sent out.
Sansa’s gown for the Tyrell ball arrived the afternoon preceding the event, and it took her breath away. Composed of delicate pink silk overlaid with featherlight floral lace, it fell just above her satin slippers in the perfect fit. Her bosom was appropriately covered, even if the neckline—at Margaery’s insistence—was cut deeper than Sansa might have chosen for herself.
When she was so attired on the appointed night, she came slowly down the staircase and into the foyer of the Starks’ townhouse. Her parents, who would be in attendance, were waiting for her there, both of them turned out handsomely to move in the highest echelon of London society—of which they were, of course, an integral part.
“Sansa,” said her father with audible fondness, “you are looking very beautiful. You’ll be radiant in the Tyrells’ ballroom.”
“Thank you, Father,” she said, demure. “Shall we go?”
She sat quietly throughout the carriage ride to Mayfair, where the coachman delivered them to the brightly illuminated home of the Tyrells. They waited a few minutes in a line of inbound carriages, guests alighting from each and making their way into the house, where they would be greeted by Lady Olena and Margaery. Perhaps Loras would be at the entryway, too, but Sansa did not believe he would be obligated. The party was not in his honor, but in his sister’s; it would not have been suitable for him to insinuate himself into her night and draw attention from her.
But upon seeing Margaery as she entered, Sansa knew it would be impossible for anyone to overlook her. Her gown was a shimmering silk in an explosion of colors as rich and varied as a peacock’s tail. That very bird’s feather was tucked into her upswept hair. She was utterly resplendent.
“Sansa, dove,” she said as they curtsied to one another, “it is wonderful to see you, and looking so lovely. Welcome.”
“ You are the star of the night already,” said Sansa in earnest. “No one will soon forget your beauty. Not that they would in your ordinary dress.”
Margaery laughed brightly. “You flatter, my darling, but I thank you. Go on now and enjoy yourself. There is refreshment and soon the dancing will begin.”
From inside, Sansa could hear the ensemble tuning their instruments. She smiled, already happy to consider dancing. “I shall see you again later?” she asked her friend.
“Of course, dove, of course.”
The Tyrells’ home was stunningly appointed, though its colors were muted—perhaps to draw more eyes to Margaery’s resplendent attire. Sansa was not yet inclined to refreshment, so instead, upon seeing her friend Jeyne Poole, went to her side.
“Is this not spectacular?” Jeyne asked after Sansa had laid a peck on her cheek. Plain though she was, Jeyne was elegantly turned out in blues and grays to suit the formality of the ball. Sansa was still so dearly fond of her. She was, after all, a gentle and kind soul who valued the truth and never held it back, even if it was spoken courteously.
“It is,” Sansa replied. “I believe I even see Mrs. Sand and Lord Martell here.” She pointed to where they stood together, chatting with Lord Rickard Karstark and his good-natured daughter Alys.
“Have you drunk more of the fine tea Mrs. Sand brought to you?” said Jeyne. Sansa had told her weeks ago about Mrs. Sand’s unexpected visit and her generous gift. Jeyne had been most surprised, and excitedly so. Mrs. Sand was still a figure of mystery and scandal to her; she had not made her acquaintance.
“I have been cherishing it,” Sansa said. “I have it only once a week, usually after my music lessons. It soothes the throat.”
Jeyne grasped her hand, the fan that hung at her wrist striking Sansa’s arm lightly. “Oh, I am so looking forward to your concert! Master Marillion, I have heard, has been singing—forgive the pun—your praises to his other students. I imagine he is inspiring great jealousy among them. Surely they want to be lauded as you are.”
“Oh, I certainly hope not,” said Sansa, abashed. “I would like to preserve my reputation for modesty.”
“Tosh,” Jeyne said dismissively. “You are not the one doing the bragging; it is your music master. It only increases your allure.” She gave a small, wistful sigh through her nose. “Would that I could have that magnetism.”
Sansa placated her with gentle words before their conversation turned to other things. In those delicately passing minutes, the musicians appeared and began to play a quadrille. Sansa was moved to dance, though she had no partner as of yet.
However, it was not long before her gaze fell on Loras Tyrell, in his green and gold finery, making his way determinedly across the ballroom toward her. Excitement welled at his appearance and clear favor. It was, perhaps, the first time she had felt truly joyful for his interest.
“Miss Stark,” he said as he stopped before her and bowed from the waist, “you are looking utterly beautiful this evening. I might not dare hope you would favor me with a dance. Or perhaps more than one, if I could try my luck.”
Sansa smiled, curtsying low. “You may, my lord. It would be my pleasure.” Rising, she gestured to Jeyne. “Are you acquainted with Miss Poole, my lord?”
“I am not,” he said, “though I am very glad to meet her now.” He bowed to Jeyne, too, though not as deeply as he had to Sansa.
“It is a pleasure to know you, Lord Tyrell,” Jeyne said in her soft voice. “Sansa speaks so very highly of you.”
It was a bit of a fib, Sansa knew, but she could not counter it without embarrassing both Loras and herself.
“I am honored,” he told her, his dashing smile once again in place. “Her regard is valued beyond description.”
Sansa’s blush came up deeply. “It is easy to give, my lord. Your company is most agreeable, and so will partnering you in a dance—or several—be tonight.”
Loras turned to Jeyne. “Then will you excuse us, Miss Poole?”
Jeyne nodded, curtsying again. “Enjoy your dances, my lord.”
Sansa put her hand into Loras’s proffered one and allowed him to lead her toward the center of the ballroom, where many guests were standing up for another dance. Loras and Sansa took their places near the middle of the group and exchanged warm smiles. Sansa knew him to be a fine dancer, and she hoped she could match him.
As the music began, they were off.
There were few other things Sansa enjoyed more than dancing, though music was now one of them. She did not think overmuch of that just then, as she let herself fall into step with the sprightly Loras, who led her confidently and made pleasant conversation as they moved across the ballroom’s parquet floor. It was the most she had spoken to him since he had started paying her attention, and she found she was glad for it.
“Miss Stark,” he said as they rounded the floor toward the entrance to the ballroom, “may I be so bold as to request an intimacy?”
Sansa, curious, replied, “That depends on the nature of that intimacy, my lord. I have certain boundaries that are not to be crossed.”
Save for with Sandor Clegane, that was. But that she would only admit to herself.
Loras’s hand was warm, soft, and gently gripping hers as he asked, “May I address you by your Christian name?”
That was not what she might have expected, true, but it was not an unreasonable question for a gentleman who had expressed such concerted interest in spending time with her. It was easy enough to agree.
“Yes, my lord,” she said. “That would please me greatly.”
“Good,” he said, teeth bright white as he bared them merrily. “I should like, then, to ask that you call me Loras.”
They were forced away from each other to follow the other dancers, and Sansa took those few moments to permit herself some pleasure at the new development. In his request, she had seen sincerity, which she could find no fault with. There was no reason to turn his attentions away now that he had declared further interest in pursuing her.
Her face flushed and spirits high, she did not at first take notice of the looming figure by the open doors to the garden. However, as she saw him fully, she could not look away.
The sheer curtains adorning the doors blew in from behind Sandor Clegane, though they stopped short of his person, as if afraid to touch him for fear of retaliation. His gray eyes were on Sansa, a deep scowl twisting his mouth. She nearly stumbled under his gaze, Loras stepping up just in time to steady her as they found each other again in the dance.
“Are you unwell, Sansa?” he asked, his concern apparent.
“No, no,” she replied, doing her utmost to eschew the sense of being watched. It brought gooseflesh to her skin, though, and she felt the tips of her breasts harden beneath her bodice. Thankfully, it was only a few measures more before the song finished and the dancers gaily applauded theirs and the musicians' efforts.
“Shall we rest?” Loras asked. “May I fetch you some refreshment?”
“Some punch would be wonderful,” Sansa replied. “I find myself overwarm. I might take some air by the gardens.”
Loras, his fingers still around hers, squeezed. “Then I shall find you there.” He left her, and Sansa placed the hand he had held against her chest. She snapped her fan open and it gave blessed relief.
She turned with trepidation toward the garden doors, expecting to find Clegane there still looking murderous, but he was nowhere to be found. The curtains fluttered in the light breeze, free of him, as a pair of young women stepped out into the garden, tittering.
Sansa found she was not relieved to find him gone, where she might have expected it just minutes before, when he had been glowering so fiercely at her. Instead she was dismayed, if not a measure bereft. A conversation with him would have been a fine addition to the evening, and she wished to know why he had been so wrathful.
She could venture a guess, but it spoke to an attachment to her that she was not certain he had, for if she was correct, seeing her in company with Loras inspired jealousy in him. She knew he disdained Loras and disapproved of her spending time with him, but it was easy to recognize now that he could barely abide it at all.
Such a realization should not have thrilled her, but she could not help herself feeling that. He was, at most times, aloof in society, but there was no mistaking his displeasure at seeing Sansa in Loras’s sole company. She had felt the anger from across the room, and for a moment had expected him to stalk over and demand outright that Loras leave her be. And yet she knew he dared not, for even he did not want to bring scandal upon her. She did not believe he cared for his own reputation, but somehow respected hers.
So deep in thought was she that she did not realize until he was upon her that Loras had returned with her glass of punch.
“Would you care to walk in the gardens?” he asked as he held the glass for her to take.
Sansa nodded, gratefully accepting the glass and taking a measured sip. It cleared her mind somewhat in its alcohol-infused sweetness. “Thank you,” she said to Loras, who smiled radiantly and offered his arm to escort her into the fresh air of the gardens.
Once outside, Sansa breathed deeply, her body cooling under the moon’s light. The sweat that had formed between her shoulder blades grew clammy and she longed for a shawl.
“Have you been enjoying the ball, Sansa?” said Loras from beside her, his voice a honied tenor.
“Very much, my— Loras.” She caught herself, earning a light chuckle.
“I like how you say my name,” he told her. “I had hoped I might hear it from your lips someday.”
Sansa turned to him, careful not to spill the punch in her left hand. “Have you? I’m flattered by the thought. Our acquaintance has been a fine one so far.”
He said, “It has been, and I only hope that it will grow deeper.” He stopped quite suddenly and Sansa felt the fingers of her glove dampened as punch splashed over it. “Sansa, I would like to make my intentions known to you, so that you might grant me permission to continue along this path, or put a stop me if you have no interest.”
Surprised at the vehemence of his words, Sansa said, “Whatever could be so affecting, my— Loras? Have I angered you?”
“Not in the least,” he was quick to assure her. “The opposite, in fact. Sansa, I would know if you will permit me to court you properly. I admire you and wish only to spend more hours and days in your company.” His expression betrayed nerves, though more a seeking hope. It was the most pleading, vulnerable look she had ever seen him wear, and it moved her. She could not refuse him or she might have assumed it would break his heart.
An acceptance was at the tip of her tongue, and yet she could not help but think of Clegane and his tremendous posture just a short time before. She would only incur more displeasure if she allowed Loras to make his intentions known to the ton . But Clegane had been perfectly clear: he did not wish to marry her or anyone else. He had no intentions, and Loras was a fine man.
“Yes, Loras,” she said. “I would be honored.”
His face split in a relieved smile, and he drew her hand up to kiss it. Thankfully, it was the clean glove. Sansa would have to divest herself of both of them before returning to the ballroom, though; bare hands were better than stained satin.
“You have made me a very happy man,” he said. “I consider myself highly fortunate.”
For all the propitious reasons Sansa could fathom, his declaration was perfectly gentlemanly and commendable; but it did not carry the kind of passion she had from Clegane, and it fell flat in her ears, leaving her to feign the enthusiasm she did not acutely feel.
Despite that, she smiled and said, “As do I.”
Loras once again kissed her knuckles. “Are you sufficiently recovered as to dance again, or would you prefer to have a longer respite?”
Sansa was not just then prepared to jump back into a dance, and so she demurred, saying, “I should like to speak to my friends. After all, I have some fine news to relay to them.”
“Yes, of course. I will take you to them.”
Together they returned to the ballroom, and Loras delivered Sansa not to Jeyne or Myrcella, who was also in attendance, but to Margaery. Sansa’s friend must have known exactly what her brother had asked her, for she was beaming and drew Sansa close to whisper in her ear: “You have, of course, accepted him?”
Sansa replied, despite the welling uncertainty thoughts of Clegane brought, “I have.”
Margaery all but squealed with delight. “I hope,” she said, “I can soon call you my sister.”
Suppressing nerves and second guesses, Sansa said, “Yes, that would be most agreeable.”
A card came early the next morning, when Sansa was breakfasting with her family. The footman had entered the room offering apologies for disturbing the meal, but claiming that the man who delivered the card was insistent about its urgency. Eddard held out his hand for it, however the footman said, “It is addressed to Miss Stark, my lord,” and brought it to her.
Sansa recognized the fine paper and the handwriting upon the face of the envelope. “Excuse me,” she said to the gathered Starks and went into the foyer and then to her bedroom. It was only when she was there did she take the card out and read Sandor Clegane’s words.
Your company in the High Gardens is requested at one o’clock in the afternoon. I will come to collect you then.
It was like any other card he wrote: terse and to-the-point. Nervousness fluttered in Sansa’s stomach, for she was certain she could sense his umbrage even in the few words on the card. There was lingering distaste from the night before, when he had disappeared after seeing her dancing with Loras.
Considering Loras, Sansa had not yet told her mother or father that she had agreed to a courtship. Her silence was, perhaps, telling of her uncertainty, but she was not willing to admit that she was not resolved in her gladness. When she returned to breakfast, she would tell the whole family, with hope to their approval.
Tucking the card back into its envelope, Sansa set it on her vanity and picked up her own stationery to reply.
I shall be ready at the appointed time.
So finished, she delivered the card to the footman to have sent to Mayfair. He was quick to bow and see to it. Sansa then went back into the breakfast room. Three pairs of curious eyes turned up at her arrival: her mother, her father, and Bran. Arya couldn’t be bothered with Sansa’s affairs and Rickon was distracted with stabbing the pieces of ham Catelyn had cut for him.
Sansa took her seat again and stopped to breathe. And then: “His Grace the Duke of Westerland has invited me to join him for a tour of the High Gardens in his carriage this afternoon.”
“And he needed to extend that invitation with such insistence this early in the day?” asked Eddard.
“I believe, Father, that he simply wished to insure it was received in good time so that I might be able to make space in my day for it.” Sansa held her chin high. “He is not an inconsiderate man. He has great respect for my schedule.” It was not totally true, she thought, but she wished to impress his propriety upon her family, even if it was exaggerated to encourage their acceptance of her friendship with him.
“Well,” said Catelyn, setting her fork and knife neatly down on her plate, “you will have accepted him, then. When will you be going?”
“One o’clock.” Before further questions could be asked, Sansa continued: “I have some news, Mother, from last night’s ball, that I would like to share.” She gave a soft smile. “I think you will be pleased to hear it.”
Catelyn’s auburn eyebrows rose with interest. “Oh? Please, do share it.”
Sansa said, with resoluteness, “Loras Tyrell has asked to court me, and I have accepted him.”
To Sansa’s surprise, it was Arya who spoke first. “Him? Ugh, he’s awful. So full of himself and so tedious.”
Affronted, Sansa demanded, “And how would you know that? You are not out in society. You have not spoken to him once!”
Arya was unruffled. “I hear things. I pay attention. He’s boring. The duke is much better.” She narrowed her clever green eyes at Sansa, the touch of a snide smirk on her lips. “I think you know that, big sister.”
“Arya,” Eddard warned, “that is enough. Lord Tyrell is the very picture of a gentleman.”
“That’s the problem,” Arya grumbled, turning back to her now-cold food.
Catelyn picked up where she left off, saying, “That is most wonderful, Sansa. As your father says, Lord Tyrell is a fine man, and he comes from such a good family. You would be a handsome match.”
Sansa demurred. “We have not yet discussed that matter, Mother, but I will gladly entertain his interest further.”
“Excellent,” said Eddard. “Then we hope to see more of him in the coming weeks of the Season.”
The meal was finished shortly after, leaving Sansa to spend the rest of the morning working on her embroidery in the sitting room. Arya disappeared to the stables while Bran and Rickon went to their studies. Catelyn, who sat on the sofa across from Sansa, threw frequent looks in her eldest daughter’s direction, but Sansa did not wish to venture any further details about Loras. That was, after all, what she presumed her mother wanted to hear about. Instead, she wondered what the afternoon with Clegane would hold.
The sun was hidden behind gray clouds by one in the afternoon, when he handed Sansa up into his cabriolet. The single horse that pulled it was a bright chestnut and seemingly good-tempered—far more so than the stallion Stranger. Sansa had on a bonnet, her hair tucked well under it to keep it from becoming disordered in the open air of the carriage. Clegane took his place next to her and, picking up the reins, flicked them to get the horse moving.
He had said very little other than greeting her at the door to the townhouse, leaving her simmering in nerves, twisting her gloves in her hands and looking straight ahead, at a loss for what to do. If she were in anyone else’s company, she would begin the conversation, but Clegane’s circumspect mood had her mute.
As they pulled away from the townhouse, Clegane steered the cabriolet deftly through the busy streets and toward the High Gardens. Sansa expected its paths to be full when the weather was warm and seasonable. She and Clegane would not be afforded the privacy they had been at Vauxhall, and she could not decide if she was sorry for that or relieved.
“Are you unwell, girl?” he said quite suddenly as they rounded a corner to the clip-clop accompaniment of the horse’s hooves.
“No,” Sansa replied. “I am very well.”
“But you haven’t said a damn word other than, ‘Hello, Your Grace.’”
She pursed her lips, turning to see him around the sides of her bonnet. “Nor have you.”
He rumbled, “I didn’t greet myself.”
“That is not what I meant, and you know that well,” said Sansa sharply. “What would you like to talk about, then? The weather? The goings on in society? The dealings at your club? Are those not the frivolities you disdain so much?”
“You’ve a fire in you today, little bird,” he observed, sober in tone.
Sansa huffed, unable to deny it. “Well, if you must know, I am piqued at your avoiding me at the Tyrell’s ball. You did not come to speak to me. You were as a ghost: there one moment and dissipated into mist the next.”
Clegane drew himself up to his full posture, his shoulders tensing, but his hands were still soft on the reins; he didn’t mistreat the horse for his upset.
“You did not seem to require my company,” he said, flat and cold. “You were more than occupied with the Tyrell whelp.”
Sansa bristled, though she had expected that sentiment. “I can spend my time in anyone’s company I desire,” she said. “Loras is a gentleman and—”
“So it’s Loras, is it?” Clegane growled, aiming a hard look in her direction, his scar twisting. “You’ve grown quite intimate.”
“We have,” said Sansa, her voice strident, her tone defensive. “What does it matter to you? You have no claim on me; you made that abundantly clear from the very start. You do not want to court me, and he does. I have taken his suit.” She knew should would be overstepping her bounds and purposefully antagonizing Clegane with the statement, but she said anyway, “Margaery is certain we will marry, and my mother makes no effort to hide her own aspirations for that.”
Clegane turned the carriage onto the gravel path into the gardens, and for a moment said nothing. And then came his reply. “‘Aspirations.’ What a way to phrase it. Social climbing and scheming. I thought better of you, little bird. It seems I was wrong in that.”
Despite wishing to maintain her composure—or at least her anger, for he deserved it—tears came to her eyes. Never had she heard such a blatant condemnation of her character—even though to anyone in the ton, it would not have been a slight. That was the currency of society. Only to Clegane was it distasteful.
Grabbing for the reins, Sansa attempted to pull the horse to a stop. Clegane pushed her away, but reined the horse up to the side of the path.
“What in the hell is the matter with you, girl?” he demanded. “You could have ruined her mouth like that!”
“I’m sorry!” Sansa said, her voice breaking with the tears. “I did not mean to hurt her. But you are so terribly cruel, Sandor, when you promised at Vauxhall that you would not be. I shall not tolerate it any longer. If you are only going to say awful things to me, then let me leave here. I will walk home.”
Shock was plain on Clegane’s face. He had not expected such an outburst, and neither had Sansa seen it in herself. But a man who was meant to be her friend could not speak to her in such a way and hope to remain in her acquaintance. If anyone were to see them arguing so openly, rumors would make the rounds of their falling out, but just then Sansa could not be bothered to care, so upset was she at all of it, from his ignoring her at the ball to his anger at Loras or his callous taunting of her place in society.
“You are childishly jealous of Loras,” she dared venture as she turned in her seat to face him. “That is why you stormed away last night. You were staring daggers at us first, and then you stalked away because you were so jealous. It is most disagreeable, and I shall not tolerate it!”
Clegane dropped the reins to let the horse relax her head, and Sansa expected him to glare at her, to speak to her harshly again, but he did not. He was watching her with a fascination unlike she had ever seen him do before.
She sniffled, saying, “Why do you stare so?”
His hand came up to her cheek, his large fingers warm against it. “You see me, little bird, as no one else does. I can hide nothing from you, it seems.”
Sansa blinked at him, confused.
He continued, “Yes, I was jealous. I am jealous of that sniveling fop Tyrell. He is”—a pause—“all things that I am not in your eyes. You call me disagreeable. I am. Your parents have been only tolerant of me, while they must welcome Tyrell with open arms.” He took his hand away, looking down. “I’m leaving London.”
Sansa, reeling, stammered, “What?” as if she had not known that was his intention all along.
“My townhouse is sold and the furnishings are packed,” he said. “Tyrell has spoken for you. It’s time I take my leave.”
New tears welled, though far from angry ones. Sansa turned away from him to hide them; she could not allow herself to feel the sorrow that was growing at his going away. The prospect of not seeing him again broke her heart in ways she could not have anticipated. She had never had a friend leave her before; but he was more that one of her society friends. She dared not put a name to the feeling of bereavement already taking her over.
“Little bird,” he said softly. “Look at me.”
Sansa closed her eyes, but one tear betrayed her and fell down her cheek. She looked up at him before she wiped it away. Let that be the evidence, she thought. Let it speak what she could not.
Clegane was regarding her with tenderness—another unfamiliar expression. He looked regretful, too, as he said, “It’s better for you to be with Tyrell. Or if not him, someone else. A true gentleman, not such a disreputable one as me.”
“You never purported to want to court me,” said Sansa. “Did you lie?” With even more ice in her voice, she pressed: “I thought you hated liars.”
He flinched as if struck. “I deserved that.”
Sansa’s breath came short and shallow. “Answer me, Sandor. Did you lie?”
There was a long silence, but then he replied, “It doesn’t matter now. I am going tomorrow.”
“No,” Sansa spoke with more conviction than she would have believed she had. She did not give him orders, and yet here she was trying. “My concert is on Sunday. You must come hear me sing before you go. It is my first and last demand of you.”
Clegane’s face reflected his thoughtfulness, and then he gave a nod. “As you wish, little bird.”
Sansa held back a deep sigh, instead nodding in return.
“Shall we ride on?” Clegane asked.
She likely should have spent every minute she could with him before he disappeared from her acquaintance as he had from the ball, but she could not fathom sitting too close to him after such an exchange. She said, “I would like to go home. Take me home, please, Sandor.”
He made no objections, turning the cabriolet around and setting off for the Starks’ townhouse. They did not speak as they traveled, and Sansa did not tarry to bid him farewell. When he help her down from the carriage, she ran inside and straight up to her room. There, she lay on her bed and wept.
The conversation amongst the guests gathered in the ballroom downstairs filtered up to Sansa only as muted murmurs. She was standing before her vanity mirror in a gown of robin’s egg blue, her maid ordering the last curls in her coiffure. Her cheeks were red, her lips soft and pink. She looked the part of the Haymarket ingénue making her debut on the grand stage.
Master Marillion had guided her through her warm-up scales an hour before, and she had been singing the odd run in her bedroom to keep her voice ready for her performance—but not loudly enough as to give away her competency to the guests before the appropriate time.
“You must surprise them, Miss Stark,” Marillion had said with his flirtatious smiles and winks. “It will impress them beyond words, and they will have nothing else to speak of for days. No one has heard you sing before this. You must astonish them!”
And so she had kept her voice hidden. But now, as the clock was striking six, it was time for her to descend the stairs and perform for all her assembled friends and acquaintances. It thrilled her; she was dearly hoping that they would be astonished. She was herself very proud of how far she had come.
The footman was present to open the door to the ballroom to admit her, and he whispered as she passed him by, “Best of luck, Miss Stark.”
Chairs had been procured for the occasion and were arranged in two sections on either side of the aisle down which Sansa would walk. As she stood now at its head, conversation faded and eyes turned to her. From the front of the room, her father rose and announced, “Ladies and gentlemen, may I present my daughter, Miss Sansa Stark, who will be singing for us this evening.”
The audience began to applaud and Sansa dropped a curtsy where she stood. A subtle gesture of beckoning from Marillion, however, had her making her way toward where the pianoforte stood, and he waited at its side. There, she curtsied again and waited for the applause to quiet. She had been instructed not to address the crowd as the performer—for she was the star and therefore aloof—but to let the music speak for itself.
The aria’s title had been printed on the cards handed to each person in attendance and did not require an introduction. Marillion had thought it only appropriate to allow Sansa to name it, since it had only a number when he arrived with it and she had asked why it did not have a proper title. She might have thought it would have been a difficult task, but it had not been. The name had come easily to her: “The Song of the Caged Bird.”
Oh, she knew it was perhaps melodramatic, for it was not her perception that she was caged; her freedom in society was significant. And yet she thought that from a certain perspective, her position could appear as barred in. She was, after all, expected to behave with the utmost propriety and grace with no accounting for her wilder inclinations. There was satisfaction and comfort to be had in a cage, but upon being shown the wider world by none other than Sandor Clegane, she could not help but see the bars of hers.
Marillion had not pressed to know the inspiration behind her title; he had simply accepted it and written it in his slanted, untidy hand at the top of the sheet. From that moment forward, Sansa had known she would be singing every note to Clegane, wherever he was in the ballroom. He had made his promise to come, and Sansa was certain he would not go back on it.
In her place by the pianoforte, Sansa gave a nod to Marillion: her indication that she was prepared to begin. Marillion himself gave a short bow before he took up his seat at the pianoforte and, with one long look at Sansa, began the opening bars of the aria. In the moments just before Sansa began to sing, she peered out over the crowd for one man’s gray eyes.
When she alighted on him where he stood at the back of the room, far away from the rest of the audience, gooseflesh prickled its way up her arms and to the back of her neck. So charged with excitement and fear, she let the music pour out of her.
It was said that truly beautiful music could transport one out of one’s body and onto a higher plane. Sansa could not speak for the audience, but in that moment her own voice carried her to a place where only she and Clegane stood. All the chairs and the finery of the ballroom and even the pianoforte disappeared, leaving the two of them alone with the music.
He was watching her as if indeed nothing else existed, his lips slightly parted as if he was breathing through his mouth, and his chest rising and falling so exaggeratedly that Sansa could see it move. It seemed that he never blinked, though she knew he did; perhaps they closed their eyes for that split second at the very same time so that they might not miss a moment of each other.
I love him.
The realization came with a crescendo in the aria, a run of complicated notes that made her voice a flitting bird in the heavens. She could not settle on the exact time where her heart had chosen him—maybe it was that minute—but chosen him it had. So acknowledged, that love blossomed like spring flowers in her breast, bringing forth even truer, purer notes as the aria began its descent to the conclusion. Her whole being sang for him, to him, and from the fire in his expression, she believed he understood.
Her libretto and the last notes on the pianoforte concluded together, leaving a vibration in the air even after both were silenced. Sansa recovered her breath, blinking the room back into view. As the faces of the audience appeared before her, she saw the amazement, the awe, the pleasure. She had done well. She had astonished them.
Loras Tyrell was the first to get to his feet to applaud her. He was at the very front of the room, though Sansa had not at all noticed him. The rest of the audience hurriedly followed him to stand and applaud. Cries of “brava” reached Sansa’s ears, and she curtsied delicately. She basked in the glow of their admiration for no small amount of time, but there were other songs to perform, so she raised a hand for quiet. Marillion beamed at her as he began yet another piece for her to sing.
“Sansa, my darling, that was exquisite,” said Margaery, grasping Sansa’s hand and batting her long eyelashes at her friend. “I was utterly transfixed. I had no idea you had such a gift. Dove, whyever have you been hiding it?”
Sansa smiled indulgently. “I was waiting for the right moment.”
Margaery sighed. “Well, this was certainly that. You have enchanted us all, most of all my brother.” She cast a glance toward Loras, who was speaking with Lord Hightower and Lady Karstark, but his attention continually wandered back toward Sansa.
She said, by rote, “He is a true gentleman. I am so very glad he could be in attendance.”
“Indeed,” said Margaery. She opened her mouth to say something more, but it snapped shut as a moue of displeasure tainted her fair face.
Sansa followed her gaze up to Sandor Clegane. He had arrived beside them, and his shadow fell over them both. Margaery seemed to shrink in it, but Sansa held herself tall.
“Your Grace,” she said softly.
He paid her no courtesy, simply saying, almost a command, “Come with me.”
If Margaery protested, Sansa did not hear it; she went without question with Clegane through the ballroom, into the foyer, and then into the shadowed sitting room. He drew her into a corner, pressing her against the wall. Without preamble, he kissed her.
Sansa melted into his embrace, holding him by the arms and opening her mouth for his tongue. He kissed with desperation, with a need she had never known in him before. She gave it back to him equally, for now that she knew she loved him, she had only this night before he was lost to her.
“Sansa,” he murmured against her lips, and again as he kissed along her jaw. “Little bird, your songs… I have no words for it.”
“You need not say anything more than that they moved you,” she said as she bared her neck for his lips.
“My God, they did,” he said. “You are a songbird, just as I thought you would be. Your voice will haunt me always.”
Sansa’s breath caught. “I would not be a ghost to haunt you. I wish only to give you joy, Sandor.”
He made a pained sound into the crook of her shoulder, his arms tightening around her. “You have. It has been a long time since I had reason to find any joy in my days.”
It was impossible, then, not to break. Sansa asked, her voice thick with sorrow, “Then will you not stay? Must you go?”
He gave a shuddering exhalation, slowly moving back to see her properly. In what little light there was in the sitting room, Sansa thought she saw dampness on his cheeks.
“Yes,” he said, “I must. I cannot— No. I do not belong in London, in society.”
Sansa took hold of the lapels of his jacket and rested her head on his chest. Resigned, she said, “I shall miss you with all that I am.”
He cradled the back of her head. “And I you, little bird. Kiss me once more and then I will be gone.”
Blinking away her tears, Sansa did as she was told. Their last kiss was soft, and Sansa would always cherish it. She wondered as they returned to the foyer if she would stop loving him, if she would ever be able to find a man she would not compare to him. She was not certain, and just then, she did not care to think of giving another the place he had carved out for himself in her heart.
They stopped at the door, facing each other, Clegane towering over Sansa. He took her hand and lifted it to his mouth for a dry press of lips to her knuckles.
“Goodbye, little bird,” he said.
Sansa let her hand fall to her side. “Goodbye, Sandor.”
He left swiftly, closing the door behind him and leaving her alone in the foyer to gather herself. She heard her name from the ballroom, curious voices seeking her again. If anything would distract her from the sorrow of losing Sandor, it would be the guests, Marillion, her parents. Pushing her grief away, she donned her society armor and returned to the ballroom, where she was once again greeted with applause. It warmed her, but did not reach the now-hollow place in her chest.
To seek fulfillment in one’s daily life was, for some, more difficult than for others. Sansa had never considered herself unfulfilled among the comforts of her family’s wealth and station, her own appearance and graces, or in her acquaintances. But upon the Duke of Westerland taking leave of London and thereby her, Sansa felt bereft—adrift amongst the colorful backdrop of the haut ton, in which she had once been at home.
Her melancholy did not go unnoticed in the three weeks that followed Clegane’s departure. Catelyn kept a hawk’s eye on her, encouraging her to start new embroidery or to take the air with the family when the weather was fine. Her favorite meals were served at dinner, and even Arya was tactful in her presence. Still, joy was difficult to find in the activities that had once been the highlights of her days in town.
Myrcella and Jeyne took note of how subdued she was at the salons they attended after Sansa’s debut performance. She was, as expected, the talk of society, but her quietude came with its own whispers. Was she ill? Had someone died? The brightest star of the Season had, right after a resplendent display of her talent, dimmed inexplicably.
Music still gave Sansa solace, but her voice seemed more an echo than a confident call for anyone who might listen and fall under its spell. Marillion sought to bring out her finest again, but she struggled to produce the elated melodies that had come when she had had Sandor to sing for.
Most unfortunately, Sansa’s dispassion was, too, plain to Loras Tyrell, who was still often in her company as her suitor. She put on smiles and danced animatedly with him at balls, and yet her heart was not in her time with him. It was, if anything, performing what was expected of her without earnest interest in the outcome.
And that, she knew, was marriage.
Margaery tittered over her own potential matches when she and Sansa were together, clearly in hopes of inspiring Sansa to excitement over her own prospects. Again, Sansa playacted her way through the visits, but took no delight in them. The vibrancy of her days had leached away as she had not expected; and she did not know how to recover it.
One Wednesday evening that was as nondescript of any other in the past weeks, found Sansa at Lord and Lady Belgrave’s high summer party. The ballroom was elegantly laid out with ribbons and drapery the color of July skies. Sansa’s gown was red, which clashed most lamentably with the décor. A month ago, it have dismayed her greatly, but that night, she could not be bothered to care. The askance looks she earned from the other ladies in the townhouse did not distress her, even if her friends were tactfully concerned about the misstep in wardrobe.
She had accepted a dance with Jonathan Blackbar, the Earl of Bandallon, halfway through the festivities. She found him a less-than-adept partner, but he made good conversation, which served to occupy some eight minutes of the so-far tedious evening. Sansa allowed him a press of lips to her knuckles after the dance. He then faded back into the gaggles of other guests, not to be noticed by Sansa again.
The spread of refreshments was an impressive one, and Sansa took some time to partake in champagne, fruit, and cured meats before considering returning for another dance. She watched the others idly, unmoved by the goings on, the social climbing, the parade of daughters like young horses at market for the consideration of eligible gentlemen. Quite suddenly it had come to disgust her, for after all, Clegane had disdained the Season’s pretenses so intensely.
“Sansa,” came a smooth tenor from behind her.
She hurriedly swallowed the bite of strawberry she had just taken and turned to find Loras in his Tyrell finery standing there with his hands—soft, Sansa had discovered after the few and proper caresses he had offered her—at his sides.
“Loras,” she said, setting the half-eaten berry on a plate to be collected by the servants and taken away. “You have found me. Are you looking to dance?”
He took a step closer to her, as only someone who knew her more intimately would do, and said, “Not just now. I was admiring you from across the room and was hoping you might take a turn outside with me.” He offered his arm and a warm, familiar smile.
Though the food and wine seemed far more appealing just then, Sansa discarded her glass and slipped her arm through his. Together, and under the scrutiny of the other partygoers, they made their way out onto the very small terrace beyond the ballroom. There was a light, too-cool wind that disturbed Sansa’s coiffure and raised gooseflesh on her arms.
“Are you enjoying yourself tonight, Sansa?” Loras asked.
“Very much,” she replied, with some semblance of the truth. It was certainly better than spending a night playing whist with her mother and father, of which they had been doing a great deal. “And you?”
He was keeping his fine eyes forward, but Sansa could tell all of his attention was on her. His regard was far more unobtrusive and gentle than Clegane’s intent gazes. She greatly missed them and how they set her heart to fluttering. Loras’s looks had never so much as stirred her blood.
“Most assuredly,” he said, his brown hair shining in the moonlight. “But I can lay most of that enjoyment at your feet.” Drawing them to the far side of the terrace, he came around to face her.
“Sansa, you are the most beautiful and most agreeable lady I have had the pleasure to know. My sister already considers you her dearest friend, and nothing would give her more pleasure than to see you become family. I, too, would dearly wish for that.” He took both of her hands into his, and said, “I perhaps should wait longer, but I find myself no longer able to keep my feelings at bay. I hold you in the highest regard and must express my affection and admiration for you. Sansa Stark, would you do me the honor of bestowing upon me your hand in marriage?”
There, at last, was a dropping of Sansa’s stomach, a truly passionate reaction. But it was not pleasure; it was a heaviness shot through with disappointment. For all the years of her girlhood she had imagined her beloved’s proposal: how it would be like rapture and something she would never forget. The memory would be cherished for all of her life. But this was not that proposal; it was something that would fade not with years but with days. It was nothing like she had desired.
Uncertainty came into Loras’s expression when she did not reply directly, and while she did not want to make him wait for longer than was proper, she could not force anything from her lips. Her tongue was stuck against the top of her mouth, her spirits low.
“My dearest,” Loras pressed, “I must hear your answer. You torture me with your silence.”
Sansa snapped to herself, regretful for causing anyone pain. “Forgive me,” she began. “My heart and my words failed me. I was not expecting such a question tonight. You are...right to say that it is sudden.”
Loras pulled her hand to him and laid it against his chest. “It is me, then, that must beg your forgiveness. Still, I cannot take back what I have said, and I do not want to. I have dreamt these past weeks of you becoming my wife. You are everything any man could want.” He sighed, smiling once again. “So, please, Sansa, will you marry me?”
Her mind raced, desperate to make a choice and abjectly frightened to do so. She had had a taste of love and was unsure if she could live without it. And yet most unions were made with practicality in mind and not true affection. Loras purported to have that affection for her, but she sensed that it was not as true as he made it out to be. He was a suitable match in every way, save for that strange sense of falseness he exuded even in his most ardent pronouncements.
Plagued by uncertainty and fear, Sansa could only say, “I am honored, Loras, truly, and I will think deeply about your proposal, but I must have the time to do so. Give me three days, until Saturday, to consider it. I shall then plan to meet you in the High Gardens on that day at two o’clock. I shall give you your answer then.”
Loras’s mouth pursed and pinched in a way Sansa had not seen before. It was a fleeting change and was soon replaced by his usual affability.
“I cannot deny you that,” he said. “I shall wait with bated breath until Saturday.” Releasing her hand, he put her arm through his again. “Shall we return to the ball? There is certainly a dance we can enjoy.”
Sansa could think of nothing worse than parading around the ballroom for another few hours pretending all was well. She had to get away from the ball, away from Loras, and away from the airs of the ton immediately.
“I would like a rest for now,” she said to Loras. “I would like to find my mother. I shall set aside the first dance at the next ball for you.”
He said, “Thank you, dear Sansa. I will cherish that moment.”
When they reentered the ballroom, Sansa excused herself and all but ran to Catelyn’s side. Directly, her mother saw her distress.
“What is the matter, Sansa?” she asked in hushed tones. “Are you unwell?”
“Yes, Mother,” Sansa replied. “I would like to send for the carriage and return home.”
Catelyn touched her flushed face and nodded. “I will find your father.”
Sansa was quick to counter: “No, no. I will go alone. The carriage will return for you. I would not want to spoil your evening. I know how fond you are of Lady Belgrave.”
Catelyn took a moment to consider, but then said, “Very well. Send the footman for the carriage and I will see you out.”
“Thank you, Mother,” said Sansa as she kissed Catelyn’s cheek.
They waited only for a few minutes before the Stark’s carriage arrived at the doorstep and the footman handed Sansa up into it. Her mother’s wave was the last thing she saw before she drew the curtains over the window and fell back against the blue velvet seat.
She was hot all over, flushed and flustered. Her nerves ran so high that her breath came short. Closing her eyes, she pressed a hand to her breast and willed herself to be calm.
It was no use.
In the closed-in air of the carriage, which smelled of leather and horses, tears began to form. As they crested and fell, Sansa bent over at the waist and let out a broken sob.
When Sandor had gone away, she had returned to greet those who had come to her performance without tears. Despite her sorrow and numbness in the weeks that followed, she had not wept. But now the anguish and—yes—anger poured out of her in an unchecked flood.
He had shown her what passion and love could be—even if he did not intend to do such a thing—and then he had gone away as if it had been nothing to him. True, he had not told her aught but the truth about his intentions toward her and their liaison, but he surely must have known what it would do to her.
Perhaps he did believe that no one could love him for his unusual and sometimes boorish behavior, for his temper and his scars, but he could not have been more wrong. His disrepute was what drew Sansa to him—more fool her. He was as drink could be: something one imbibed so much in that one became unable to go without it for even a single day.
Novelists and poets wrote of the pain and suffering of love and love lost, but Sansa had believed it hyperbole. The truth came hard to her: such heartache was true and unrelenting. She was not sure if her heart and her soul would ever mend from the holes Sandor had torn in both.
Still, the prospect of marriage to Loras, a man who was suitable in every way, but she did not at all care for, was something she could not abide. She would have love in her marriage, or she would have no marriage at all.
Sansa’s bedroom had become a haven away from her fussing mother and soberly inquisitive father, both of whom she knew were only concerned for her welfare, even as they hovered and clucked to the point of driving her mad. She needed to be free of them from time to time, and often the only place she could find solitude was there.
She had gone through the day after Loras Tyrell’s proposal in jitters at every turn. She was certain her parents had an inkling of what had transpired, but as far as she could tell, Loras had not come first to them to seek their permission for Sansa’s hand. She was nothing but relieved for that. To broach the subject to her mother would certainly send her down the path of planning an engagement party and writing up the announcement for the newspaper. No promise or vow would ever make an engagement more formal and intractable than that short bit of print. Sansa had looked forward to seeing her name beside that of her betrothed, but it could not—would not—be Loras Tyrell.
She had not come to question her decision in the carriage; it was the right one, even if it would mean spinsterhood. If she was someday given her dowry to do with as she pleased, she could make a fine home for herself in town and serve as a chaperone for the younger ladies just coming into society. Though that would not be for some years; she was far from a matron with winkles when she smiled. In the meantime, she would continue to move in society, but gradually the interest in her as a bride would fade, along with her beauty.
Dressed in her nightgown, Sansa sat at her vanity combing her hair and looking herself over. A few trinkets and jewelry sat on the vanity’s top, their small stones twinkling in the light of the still-burning stubs of candles. The light of the one she had nearby only made her complexion appear sallow and dull. Displeased, she went to blow it out, but before she could, there was a knock at her door.
“Come in,” she said, watching the reflection in the vanity’s mirror.
To her surprise, it was her sister Arya who entered, closing the door behind her. She, too, was in her nightgown, which was, Sansa saw, growing too short for her. It would not be long before Arya would be a lady in her own right.
“What are you doing here?” Sansa asked, immediately sorry for the shortness of the tone.
Ayra wrinkled her nose, seemingly considering leaving just as suddenly as she had come, but replied, “Something is wrong with you. You have been acting strangely all day. What is it?”
Sansa drew in air through her nose, prepared to dismiss Arya’s concern. But she knew her sister would not fall for untruths; she was far too perceptive and sly. And it would be a boon to share her secret with someone, if only to let off the heavy weight on her chest.
“You have to swear on your life to tell no one of this,” Sansa said, rising to face Arya. “I cannot have you wagging your tongue at Mother and Father.”
Arya scoffed. “I would not, and you know it.”
Sansa did. Going to her bed to sit, she gestured for Arya to join her. When she was sat beside her, Sansa said, “Loras Tyrell has asked me to marry him.”
Whatever reaction Sansa might have expected from her sister, it was not the disgusted noise Arya made. She sounded truly revolted by the very notion.
“What?” Sansa asked.
Arya shot her a disgruntled look that matched the distaste in her voice. “You’re not going to accept him, of course.”
Sansa was taken aback. Anyone with good sense would have understood a Stark-Tyrell match to be a good one. Then again, nobody had ever said Arya Stark had good sense.
Reading Sansa’s vexation, Ayra continued: “He’s terrible. Boring. He dresses like a peacock, and he spends more time looking at the other gentlemen than at the ladies.”
“Arya!” Sansa cried. “Those are terrible things to say. Loras is a gentleman.”
“Maybe,” said Ayra, “but he would not make a good husband, especially for you.”
This was, perhaps, the most direct Arya had ever been in addressing Sansa or her character. Sansa was shocked at the blunt candor.
Despite knowing that herself, Sansa challenged Arya by habit alone. “And why is that?”
“He is unbearably tedious,” Arya replied, as if it were apparent to anyone and everyone. “Plays at being perfect, throwing his smiles, but you would be sick and tired of him a week into your marriage. You don’t even like him, admit it.”
Sansa’s mouth worked like a fish’s in a most unbecoming manner. “I do,” she managed to say. “He is agree—”
“Don’t you dare say ‘agreeable,’” Arya snapped, pointing a petite finger at Sansa’s face. “Day dresses and patient ponies are ‘agreeable.’ Husbands are dashing—inspiring of your love and admiration.”
Never before had Sansa heard such romance from practical Arya, who did not care for poetry and ballads of true love.
“You cannot marry him,” Arya continued. “I would stand up in the church and object. Tell me you won’t, Sansa.”
She left a few seconds of quiet for Sansa to choose her words, for which Sansa was grateful. Sansa took them to look into her sister’s earnest, elfin face and search for ulterior motives or teasing. There was none; Arya truly did not approve of Loras.
“I am planning to refuse him,” Sansa said at last. “On Saturday in the High Gardens.”
Arya’s narrow shoulders rounded as she blew out a breath. “Good. He’s just awful, and you deserve better.”
Sansa found herself smiling. “You have never cared for who I keep company with before. Why do you care now?”
“Because even I can tell you would rather have the Duke of Westerland.”
Sansa’s despair must have shown, for Arya took her hand as she had not since she was a toddling babe.
“There,” said Arya. “Anyone could see you prefer him.”
“I do,” Sansa said softly, “but he has gone back to the country and will not return.”
Ayra shook her head. “Not forever. He will come back for you.”
Sansa met her sister’s eyes, her own wet. “I do not think so, but thank you, Arya, for your honesty.” She withdrew her hand from Arya’s grip and said, “I would like to go to bed now.”
Arya got to her feet and went to the door. “He will return,” she said. “He does not do what everyone in society thinks he would. They expect Sansa Tyrell, but he will give them Sansa Clegane.”
With that, she slipped out into the hallway, leaving Sansa on the bed to wipe away unshed tears and pull the blankets over her head.
It was on the cusp of rain Saturday afternoon when Sansa made her way to the High Gardens to meet Loras Tyrell, gray clouds heavy and threatening. Even the air smelled of the impending damp. Sansa had ordered Petal tacked to ride. She might have walked, but upon finishing her business with Loras, she wished to make a hasty escape. Horseback was the best manner of egress.
The mare was restive despite her good temper, perhaps because she wished no more than Sansa to be caught in a downpour. It would make little difference, though, in the end, for both of them were on an unchangeable course toward their meeting.
Together, mare and lady trotted up to the great ash by the shore of a decorative pond, where Loras was waiting with his own horse tied to one of the tree’s branches. He was finely turned out in his riding clothes, and he had a resplendent smile for Sansa when she arrived. He came to Petal’s side and helped to lift Sansa down from the mare’s back. As he set her feet—in their laced-up riding boots—on the soft grass, he leaned in and pressed a kiss to her cheek. She withdrew slightly, and it did not escape his notice.
“Are you well, my dear Sansa?” he asked.
“I am,” she replied, even if she did not feel it. Still, there was no reason to delay what she would have to tell him, and for that reason, she looked him squarely in the pretty eyes and began: “Loras, the truth of your heart at the ball moved me deeply. I am truly honored that you would make an offer for me.”
He caught her hand, squeezing it. “Then you will marry me,” he said.
Sansa carefully extricated her hand, watching as his face fell. “I am sorry, my lord, but I cannot accept.”
The genial expression Loras had always worn in her presence melted immediately away, replaced by a hateful glower that nearly stole her breath. She would not have known he could look so vicious.
“How dare you?” he snarled, quite unlike himself as she knew him. “You agree to be courted and spend your days in my company, and yet you refuse my offer for you hand? The affront is unfathomable, Miss Stark, and I will not tolerate it. You shall accept me, and we shall be married by high summer.”
Sansa recoiled in aversion to his ire. “No, my lord, I will not. I have enjoyed your company, but I do not love you.”
Loras came forward, latching onto her forearm to the point of pain. “I do not care who you do or do not love. Our match is a strong one that both of our families will approve of. We will bring each other wealth and status. Is that not what every lady desires?”
Two months ago, Sansa would have agreed with him, but not now—not with him raging and frightening her more so than Sandor Clegane had ever done. After all, she trusted Clegane; he had never put on false airs to hide his cantankerous nature. Loras, however, had clearly misled her to believe he was good-hearted. Such men could not be predicted, and therefore could not be trusted. He could do anything; she could not predict if he might hurt her.
“Unhand me, my lord,” she said stolidly, “or I shall scream.”
He twisted his grip on her arm, making her cry out softly. “You would not dare humiliate me so, for it would bring just as much infamy upon you. You will keep your mouth shut and do as I tell you.”
Fury born of fear welled in Sansa’s belly, igniting her blood and spurring her into madness. “I will not,” she said as she kicked him hard in the shin. He yelped and released her, leaving her to stumble back a pace.
Sansa, fire in her eyes, stared lividly at him across from her, where he stood grimacing against the backdrop of the placid lake.
“You are mistaken, sir, if you believe I will bend to your will only because you demand it of me,” she told him, firm and unabashed. “I am no simpering maiden to fall for your charms. At least not when I have seen you for what you really are. I will not be cowed and trapped in a loveless union of convenience, no matter the pounds or repute at stake.” She drew herself up to her full height, which was a match for his. “I have given you my answer. I am going now. Good day.”
She turned away from him in a furl of her riding habit and went to gather Petal’s reins. The mare seemed to sense her agitation and danced in place. Sansa soothed her with a pat on the neck and a quiet word before she stuck her foot in the stirrup and used all her strength to pull herself up into the saddle.
Loras was stuck in place, his color high and body tense with anger. Sansa knew she could never have been happy as his wife, if this was how he acted when he did not get his way. It was no less than a child throwing a tantrum would do—utterly unbecoming and ungentlemanly. What redeeming qualities he might have were far outweighed by his now-apparent faults.
Good riddance to him, thought Sansa.
He remained in his place under the ash as Sansa urged Petal into a canter away from him. He could enjoy a view of Sansa’s back and her horse’s rump as they left him behind, much where he belonged.
There would be no escaping the social repercussions of her rejection of him; she knew that well. But she was readier to face the whispers and scandal of the ton than she was to condemn herself to a life as Lady Tyrell.
Arya’s words from before came to her mind: Sansa Clegane.
Sansa lamented that dream—for that was all it was. Still, she would much rather face a life with the tendrils of a fantasy to cling to than a joyless existence beside a man she did not love and no longer held in any esteem.
To lose the shine to one’s reputation among the ton was remarkably simple. Sansa had seen both ladies and gentlemen become infamous for a fortnight or two after a social misstep. Such stains could be washed away with time and graceful recoveries, but it still did not make the days of disrepute any less difficult to bear.
It took only a day for word to spread that Miss Sansa Stark had spurned Loras Tyrell’s affections. The minutiae of the act were not known, but it would have been impossible to hide the fact that they were no longer keeping company. And it was more than likely Loras had done what he could to besmirch Sansa’s reputation out of spite. She could not fault him for that; after all, she had made him look a fool.
At the salons and soirées she attended in the days following her refusal of Loras’s proposal, whispers were hissed behind fans and into delicate ladies’ ears. Accusatory gazes followed her wherever she went. And then there was Margaery and the scene she made—no doubt by nefarious design—at Lady Ashwood’s afternoon tea and garden party.
Sansa had been sipping a cup of tea when her friend had stormed onto the lawn and accosted her in a most unbecoming manner. She had been red in the face and pointed a plump, manicured finger at Sansa, uncaring of the ladies standing by gawking.
“It had all been arranged,” she said shrilly. “You were going to be my sister. Loras was so fond of you, and you could not do any better in husbands. You have taken his affection for you, tossed it upon the ground, and ground it in with your shoe. I am truly affronted, Sansa. I expected so much better of you.”
Sansa had stood by and allowed her to release her anger, unperturbed. That calm only served to enrage Margaery further.
“Have you nothing to say for yourself?” she demanded. “You should be ashamed of such coldness toward both my brother and me.”
“I have done nothing to be cold to you,” said Sansa, “and I did not set out with an intention of doing your brother any disservice. I thought it better to put an end to an acquaintance that would have not have benefited either of us. Or, I suppose, you.”
Margaery had reeled back as if struck, her mouth open in shock. “You are utterly shameless in your lack of kindness or thought for others. My brother is devastated and humiliated. I believed you were my friend. You are the furthest from that I can fathom.” She mimed wiping a tear from her eye, but Sansa saw no evidence that there was any wetness there. “I shall have nothing more to do with you, Miss Stark. Nothing at all.”
With that, she had whirled about and stopped away from the lawn, away from the party. Sansa had watched her go impassively.
“Miss Stark,” said Lady Ashwood shortly after Margaery had disappeared, “are you well?”
Sansa had set down her teacup and nodded. “Yes, but I fear I should take my leave before I bring greater scandal upon your home. Thank you for the invitation. Good day.”
She had returned home to find her mother in the sitting room with her embroidery. Catelyn had looked up inquisitively as Sansa entered. Sansa spared her having to guess what was the matter, explaining it cursorily.
“Oh, dear,” Catelyn had said.
She had been quite disappointed when Sansa had come home with both the news that Loras Tyrell had proposed and that she had refused him. Catelyn’s face had first brightened and then quickly shuttered.
“But, Sansa,” she had said, “I thought that you were so fond of him.”
Sansa had taken her mother by the arm and smiled softly at her. “He is a gentleman, Mother, and a fine one, but I do not love him.”
Catelyn had sighed. “You know your father and I did not marry for love. It grew between us.”
“I know,” Sansa had said, “but I cannot do as you did.”
Understanding—if tinged with sorrow—crossed her mother’s face, and she patted Sansa’s arm. “Very well. If you believe the choice you made was the right one, then I cannot stop you. I hope simply that do you not come to regret it.”
Sansa’s reply had been easy: “I will not.”
Despite the infamy in the wake of the confrontation with Margaery, Sansa continued to appear at social functions. The following Thursday found her at a ball in Mayfair not far from the house that had once been Sandor’s. She had passed forlornly by it on her way from her own townhouse. Her mother and father had asked what she was looking at, but she had turned away and said she was only thinking idly.
The guests at the ball had watched her entrance with suspicion, but Sansa had held her head high and gone to greet her friends Myrcella and Jeyne. They, too, had been surprised at Sansa’s refusal of Loras, but upon her explanation, had accepted it readily.
“I dream of marrying for love,” Jeyne had sighed.
Myrcella, ever more practical, had admitted that she would make a match without such deep devotion. Sansa could understand that and said nothing to the contrary.
That night in the ballroom, the three of them were standing together in quiet conversation. Myrcella remarked on several of the ladies’ gowns, and Jeyne was watchful of the gentlemen who danced better than others.
It soon became clear that none of them would be asking Sansa to dance, and she realized that her presence by her friends caused the gentlemen to avoid them as well. With a sweet smile for both of them, she excused herself to stand by herself.
In a corner by the open French doors, she took in the colorful display of society. It had, unfortunately, lost much of its magic in the weeks since the Season had begun. She wondered if it would also be so tarnished, and that made her sad.
So consumed was she by her thoughts that she did not immediately note the arrival of a guest—almost two hours late. The music continued on, but all eyes in the room turned to the head of it, where Sandor Clegane, the reclusive Duke of Westerland, was standing.
Sansa’s heart stuttered at the sight of him. He was as imposing as ever, even if turned out in his finest green jacket and fawn-colored trousers. His usual tall boots were absent, replaced by proper ankle-height shoes for a ball. He cast his gaze around the room until he alighted on Sansa’s hidden nook. As if tied by a string, she was drawn toward him.
He made no secret of his seeking of her: going directly across the ballroom. They met at the center, just to the side of where the dancers were stumbling their way through the end of the dance. They were distracted by the meeting of Sansa and Sandor, as was everyone else in the room.
As Sansa stood facing him, elation surged. With it, though, came confusion. She asked, in a most unrefined way, “What are you doing here?”
He did not reply directly, but held out his hand. “Dance with me, little bird.”
She peered down at the proffered hand and then up to his face again. “But you do not dance,” she said. “You told me that the night we met.”
“I remember,” he told her, “and that is most often the case. But tonight I do. If you will stand up with me.”
Without question or hesitation, Sansa slid her fingers into his hand. “I would be most honored, Your Grace.”
Closing his fingers around hers, Sandor led her to the head of the gathered dancers. The orchestra was, if anything, somewhat mystified, but when Sandor ordered a quadrille, they were quick to comply. As the music began, the pointed attention of the ton faded, until all Sansa could see was him.
He was not the most adept in his footwork, but he managed well enough that Sansa was not afraid to speak to him as they danced.
“You did not answer my question,” she began. “Of why you are here. I thought you had no intention of returning to London.”
“A reason presented itself,” he said.
Sansa wanted to frown at the cagey answer, but was too pleased to see him again, hold his hand in hers, and stand beside him that she did not wish to press.
“I see,” she said. “And how long will you be staying? And where, may I ask? You sold your townhouse.”
His nostrils flared like a wary stallion’s, but he told her, “I took a room at the Horseheads. It will hopefully not be long that I have to stay.”
“I understand,” Sansa said. “You have no particular affection for town.”
“No,” he said, “but there are certain people in it for whom I would gladly return.”
Under the scrutiny of his gray eyes, Sansa flushed. “I did not think that was so, or you might not have left in the first place.”
They came around to face each other and she could see the warring regret and discomfort in his expression.
“It was necessary,” he said. “Some distance between myself and the unexpected temptation I faced had to be arranged. But I see now that I was not meant to stay away forever.” He moved without particular grace through the next few steps as they drew toward the close of the quadrille. “There were things unsaid between us,” he said in his deep, resonant voice. “I treated you ill.”
Sansa said, “You did what you thought was right. I cannot fault you for that.”
“But it was not right,” he replied. “I came here to correct it.”
Before he could continue, the music stopped and the dancers stepped away from each other. Sandor, though, kept hold of Sansa.
“Come into the garden with me,” he said. There was little choice, for he led her determinedly away from the ballroom and toward the French doors.
Clouds covered the sky when they stepped out into the summer air, muting the colors of the flowers. It was not completely unlike the first night they had met in Lady Redwyne’s garden, but it was a night all its own. Something was going to happen, even if Sansa knew not what. She was simply so glad to see Sandor that she could not think much past the joy in her heart.
At first he kept his back to her, but then he came around to look her in the face. She was never more glad to tip her head up to see him.
“I have been at my estate,” he started, which was not what Sansa might have expected. “I’ve told you of it, if only a little.
“You said it is very beautiful,” said Sansa. “Wooded, with meadows a little wild with long grass.”
The hint of a smile touched Sandor’s lips. “You have a good memory. And you paint a fine picture. It is indeed very beautiful. I want to show you.”
Sansa could imagine traveling out of London and to the place he so loved. She wished to understand his fondness for the place. She wanted to share in his delight. “I would very much like to visit,” she said.
Sandor’s next words came sharply: “I don’t want you to visit.”
Sansa drew in a breath, not having anticipated such vehemence after his quiet pronouncements before. “Then why—” she asked.
He brushed his left hand over his his hair agitatedly, just at the edge of mussing it. Safely tied back into a club at the base of his neck, it looked handsome on him. Without further warning, he said, “Is it true you refused Tyrell your hand?”
“Yes,” Sansa said. “Everyone in town knows I did.”
“Why?” Sandor demanded. “Was he not all you desired in a husband?”
“He has many good qualities,” Sansa replied, “and I enjoyed our acquaintance, but I have no particular affection for him.”
Sandor narrowed his eyes. “You will marry only for love?”
“I…would prefer it,” she said. “And I have time yet to seek it out. I do not need to marry in my first Season. Nor my second, if it comes to that.” She looked hard at him, feeling a twinge of anger at the onslaught after he had left her so bereft weeks before. “Did you return to London to interrogate me about my sentiments regarding matrimony?” she asked.
“No,” he growled, glancing away. “I knew I would make a bollocks of this. I’m not suited to it.”
“To what?” said Sansa.
“I want take you back to Clegane Hall with me.”.
Sansa’s brows rose. Again he surprised her. “I—” she started. “I mean, that is quite impossible. My father would not give me leave to travel away from town without my family. They are to stay here until the end of the Season, and then we should retire to our home in the Lake Country.”
“I don’t give a damn where they go,” Sandor snarled. “I only want you.”
Flustered, Sansa fought for words. “But such a visit would not be appropriate. A young lady cannot travel to a gentleman’s estate with him alone.”
Sandor’s eyes were aflame. “No,” he said, “but his wife can.”
Sansa’s gasp came with expediency. That was the furthest thing from her mind. He had told her he would never marry. And now this. She could not make heads or tails of him and had never been able to do so.
Sandor sighed heavily. “Little bird, I am not going to give you an impassioned proposal. I’m a second son and a soldier; I don’t speak in elegant riddles.” He took a step closer to her. “I came here to say that I want you with me. In my house, in my arms, in my bed. I want to give you my name and all that comes with it.”
Sansa stared up at him, her lips parted and her eyes stinging. It was true that he did not speak eloquently—as Loras had done—but there was nothing unimpassioned about his words. There was a raw honesty about them that moved her. Yet, she was not quite willing to answer him until she knew one thing.
“And what of your heart?” she asked, laying a hand against his chest. “Would you give me that?”
“Whatever there is of my heart to offer, little bird,” he replied, “it’s yours.”
She closed her eyes, leaning into him.
With steady hands, he drew her in, taking her by the chin to tip her face up. “Do you intend to make me wait in suspense?” he asked.
“No,” he said, a dark word that vibrated in his chest. “You will not have me.”
“No!” Sansa exclaimed, urgently. “I mean, yes. Yes, I accept. I will marry you, Sandor.”
Taking her face between his hands, he stooped to kiss her. She pressed herself against him, setting her arms at his waist. When he deepened the kiss, she welcomed him with passionate abandon. They did not part for a long while, but when they did, she remained close to him.
Somehow, she had changed his mind; she had inspired him to matrimony. He had asked for her hand. She could not think of any one thing she might have given more readily.
“I love you,” she whispered to him as they stood in each other’s arms.
He nuzzled the crown of her head. “I love you.”
Sansa wept silently into his jacket, the tears those of happiness.
“Leave with me,” Sandor said, low. He brought her chin up again and bent to kiss her jaw.
She offered her neck for his taking. “And go where?”
“Anywhere but here. I need to taste you.”
Despite heat that shot down her spine, she said, “We cannot. I must not be alone with you. Not until you have declared your intentions.”
“Have I not just done that?” he said. “You will be my wife, Sansa.”
She nearly burst with elation at such small but earnest statement. “But you have not yet sought my father’s blessing. Nor has an engagement been announced. It would be improper to go with you now.”
“To hell with propriety.”
Pressing a hand against his chest, Sansa pushed away from him. “If we are to wed, it will be done properly.”
Sandor grumbled something she could not make out, but then said to her, “Very well.”
When they returned to the ballroom, once again they were the center of attention. Sansa caught Myrcella and Jeyne gaping at them from where they stood by the refreshments, and her mother and father were also curiously inspecting the two of them. Sansa slipped her arm through Sandor’s and smiled at the lot of them, unashamed. Soon enough, after all, they would be husband and wife.
The Starks took leave of the ball after midnight, all of them quite tired. Sandor had made his excuses before them, giving Sansa a single, daring caress on the cheek before he went out.
In their carriage, the horses trotting to pull them home, Catelyn said to Sansa, “I did not expect to see the Duke of Westerland again so soon. Are you pleased to have your friend back?”
Sansa nodded, saying, “Most assuredly, Mother.” Slyly, she added, “I believe he will be coming to call soon.”
“Will he?” asked her father. “Well, we do not know him well. Perhaps this is our chance to do so.”
“I should very much like that, Father,” said Sansa. “Very much indeed.”
The early hours on Friday were torturous for Sansa. The minutes seemed to pass like years as she breakfasted—eating little to spare her knotted stomach—and joined the family in the sitting room for reading and cards. Her fingers fumbled the cards, revealing her hand more than once, and her father asked at least once every half hour if she was unwell.
“No, Father, I am perfectly well,” was her reply, over and over.
Luncheon came and went, leaving Sansa further agitated. Out of desperation, she went to stables to see if she could find Arya, but her sister was nowhere to be seen. Bran and Rickon were not the company she wished for just then, even if she was terribly fond of joining their lessons from time to time. She was charmed by their cleverness, and would be very proud to watch them grow into gentlemen like Robb.
With no other recourse than to retreat into music, Sansa went to the pianoforte and practiced her scales. She sang a bit along with them, but found little strength in her voice. Perhaps, too, it was so that she would hear the knocking at the door when it came, heralding Sandor’s arrival.
When, at last, that rapping did come, her fingers stilled on the keys and she nearly stumbled over the bench getting to the music room’s door. It took all of her will not to run into the foyer to greet her betrothed. If she did that, she thought, she would jump directly into his arms and her parents would be quite scandalized. That was not the manner in which to announce their betrothal.
She found him in riding clothes standing just inside the door, the footman taking his hat. Upon seeing Sansa, his usual taciturn expression faded to one of pleasure. He stepped toward her, and she met him at the center of the foyer. He took her hand, held it, and kissed her knuckles. Her heart turned over in her breast at the slightest touch of his lips.
She could and would now dream of what it would be like to go to his bed and allow him to taste all of her. It would no longer be a forbidden sin, but the rite of a husband and wife.
“Your Grace,” came Eddard’s voice from behind Sansa. “You are most welcome here.”
Sandor regarded Sansa’s father with solemnity, making a formal bow. “Lord Stark, I insist you use my surname. I have little patience for the charade of formality in society.”
Eddard’s surprise was plain, but he nodded. “I understand your disinclination to it. I will venture to do avoid the traditional titles, if you so desire.”
Just then, Catelyn appeared at his side, favoring Sandor with a soft, inquisitive smile.
Eddard took her arm, saying, “Clegane, you know my wife, Catelyn, Lady Stark.”
“It is a pleasure to have you in our home,” she said.
Sansa silently applauded her for leaving off the duke’s title and yet avoiding all informality. Her mother was a model of propriety, even in the face of someone as unconventional as Sandor Clegane.
Catelyn continued, “Would you care for some tea? The sun is not too strong in the sitting room at this hour, and Sansa was given a most unique variety of leaf by Mrs. Sand some weeks ago that you certainly must sample.”
“Gladly,” said Sandor. “Perhaps we can retire to the sitting room now, so that I might address to you a most pressing request.”
Both Eddard and Catelyn seemed, for a moment, concerned, but both collected themselves and led the way into the appointed room. The light was indeed pleasant in the afternoon, illuminating Sandor’s handsome, if severe, features.
“Will you sit?” asked Catelyn with a gesture at the sofa.
Sandor made no move toward it. “Not just yet. I have, as I said, a request to make of you and your husband, for you are mother and father to Sansa”—he cast a warm look at her—“who is most dear to me.”
“Well,” said Eddard, his dark eyebrows raised once again, “I believe I might have a notion of what this request will be, though I had been under the impression that your acquaintance was friendly.”
“I was deluding myself if I thought it could remain so,” Sandor told him. “Sansa is a singular woman, and I would be a fool not to see that.” He held out his hand to her, which she crossed the room to take. “Lord Stark—Eddard—I spoke to your daughter before I came to you, and she has agreed to marry me. Your consent, in my view, is not required in light of that, but I would be pleased if you would give us your blessing.”
Sansa turned, open-mouthed, up to look at him. A father’s consent was required, and yet Sandor dismissed it so easily. Would he have carried her away to Gretna Green had her father not blessed their union? That scandal would never have blown over, but she was not sure if she would have cared much for her reputation anymore.
“Your Grace,” said Eddard, “and I address you as such as an acknowledgement of your station in the peerage—I can say that a father wants nothing more than for his daughter to make a good match that will ensure her health and comfort for the rest of her life. I have heard your fortune is vast and your lands well-kept, but I would ask you now if you have the means to keep Sansa in the comfort she has enjoyed these eighteen years.”
Sandor blinked once, slowly, and replied, “My income is not small, and I care for my estate more than any place in the world. I have recently sold my father’s townhouse, but could easily acquire another should Sansa wish to stay part of the year in town. I could be persuaded to come as well, if only to prevent myself from being without her company.”
He squeezed her fingers and went on: “I will see that she will want for nothing, from gowns to trips to the continent to rich food and drink. I strive to live by my father’s example. He loved my mother deeply, and sacrificed anything of his own to see that she was comfortable. It was not very much he had to give up, for the richness of the estate’s lands and the family fortune, but he was willing to go without for her sake. I would do no less for my wife, for Sansa.”
Sansa could feel tears welling in her eyes, but only out of joy and love. “Father,” she said, “I too would give away the things I cherish for the sake of Sandor’s happiness. You have given me a wonderful life, and I believe with all my heart that he will do that same.”
Catelyn placed a hand against her breastbone. “You wished to marry for love, my dear. Is this love?”
“It is, Mother,” Sansa said. “Truly, it is love.”
“Then,” said Eddard, “I can offer no objections to the match. Sansa will be kept well, and she will give and receive love. Is that not true, Clegane?”
Sandor drew Sansa in so that he was looking at her rather than her father. He told her, “It is true. I love and will love her from this day until my last.”
Though her parents stood by to see them, Sansa reached up and cupped his scarred cheek. “You said you did not make romantic pronouncements. Yet, you just did.” She turned her face toward Eddard. “Father, please. I want nothing more than to marry him.”
“You know I can deny you nothing, Sansa,” he said fondly. “If he is the man you wish to wed, then I gladly give my blessing.”
Sansa released Sandor just long enough to embrace her father, both of them laughing and grinning.
Catelyn took Sansa into her arms next, and kissed her eldest daughter’s cheek. “You will make a beautiful bride. And no doubt all of society will come out to see it.”
“We will marry at my estate,” Sandor said in a tone that brooked no argument. He had not discussed it with Sansa, but she was not displeased at the prospect.
“In the autumn, then,” said Catelyn.
“Surely they will not wait that long,” Eddard countered.
Sandor continued, “I would not wait more than a fortnight, and if Sansa has no objections, we will cut her Season short to retire to the country.” To her: “Are you opposed?”
She considered for a time. She would be sorry to leave her friends and the social opportunities the Season afforded her. True, she had been all but disavowed by society after refusing Loras Tyrell her hand, but if she returned to the ballrooms and salons as the Duchess of Westerland, they would accept her again. She did not require their attention or approval, but to have it was only a boon.
“Perhaps,” she said to Sandor, “we could be married at your estate and spend a few weeks there while you arrange for another townhouse, and then we could return to London to finish out the Season. Would that be acceptable?”
He did not seem altogether pleased with the notion, but true to his word to give her what she wished for, replied, “If that is what you want, then you shall have it.”
She went then to him, and he folded his arms around her. It was brief and very chaste, but he kissed her mouth.
When they parted, Catelyn rang for the tea and the four of them sat to await its arrival. While Sandor was, at times, terse in conversation, he spoke cordially with Lord and Lady Stark, telling them about his upbringing in the country and then his time in the army. He was far more forthcoming with them than he had been to anyone other than Sansa, as far as she could tell.
They drank their tea and passed around a plate of biscuits until the pot was empty and the hour was approaching six. Sandor rose first.
“I shall begin laying plans for the wedding day,” he said, “though I will leave the details to you, Catelyn, and to Sansa. I am at your service should you need arrangements made in the country.” To Sansa: “Will you see me out?”
She went with him to the door, where he paused and drew her to him.
“In two weeks’ time, you’ll be my wife,” he said, low, “and I shall finally take you to my bed.”
Sansa shuddered in his embrace. “I shall count the days.”
With a wicked grin, he bent to kiss her once more before he was gone.
It did not take long to send a piece to press in the newspaper. It was, therefore, simple enough for Sansa to craft her engagement announcement for the Sunday issue. The wording was not elaborate, for she did not believe Sandor would wish for that. The pronouncement still affected her when she opened the paper to see it that morning.
His Grace the Duke of Westerland announces his betrothal to the esteemed Miss Sansa Stark, eldest daughter of the Earl of Winterfell. The happy arrangement was made to the joy of His Grace, Miss Stark, and their families. The union will take place a fortnight hence at Clegane Hall. Letters of congratulations may be directed Miss Stark at the Earl’s London address.
Catelyn had neatly trimmed the square from the page and said to Sansa that she would have it made into a keepsake. Sansa had had no objections.
There was not a soul in the ton who missed those announcements and society gossip in the newspapers, so it was no surprise that when Sansa arrived at Lady Corbray’s ball on Monday evening at Sandor’s side, all eyes in the room turned to them.
They had dressed to complement each other, and made for a fine couple in the mirrors around the ballroom. Sansa could not avoid seeing Margaery and Loras Tyrell, who stood by the refreshments table with their cabal of friends, and was deeply satisfied to witness their expressions of utter affront and fury.
Everyone was well aware that Sansa would be making a better marriage—or at least a more socially ranked on—with a duke than she would have with Loras. Her social capital and power in the peerage would only increase. Under most circumstances, all the eligible ladies would have been abjectly envious, but Sansa knew there was no particular desire among any of them to snag the taciturn and reclusive Westerland. Still, she would have a position above almost all of them as his duchess—including the Tyrells.
Sandor had made it clear that he had little desire to dance, but Sansa refused to partner any other man that evening. He stood up with her at her insistence, and did not complain.
They were rarely apart for the hours of the ball, but upon an occasion that he had excused himself, Sansa was approached by the most elegantly attired Mrs. Ellaria Sand. Sansa had seen her out, but had not spoken to her alone since she had brought the Darjeeling tea to the Starks’ townhouse.
“Miss Stark,” she said, curtsying. “Though soon to be Your Grace, I see.” She smiled as slyly as a cat. “Did I not predict this? Dare I say, at the party all those weeks ago.”
Sansa curtsied in return, offering a happy countenance. “Perhaps you did, Mrs. Sand. You seem to have a keen eye for matchmaking.”
Mrs. Sand laughed huskily, in her pretty alto voice. “From time to time, but I did not take any action to push you together, other than a passing suggestion. And it was Westerland himself who requested the seat beside yours at that party.” She hummed, tapping her fan lightly against her chin. “I believe he had chosen you already by then.”
Sansa found her cheeks coloring. “I do not think so, though I might like to speculate that was the case. But I had not chosen him at that time, either. He was still a mystery to me then.”
“But no longer,” said Mrs. Sand.
“To a point still,” Sansa told her. “He has not yet revealed all he is to me, and it will likely take time, for his is careful to show his true self. But he has given me his heart in exchange for mine, and it will only open more with time.”
Ellaria took her hand and held it between hers. “I am envious of your ability to wed the man you love.”
Sansa might have asked why Ellaria could not marry Lord Martell, but she knew well the answer: their union would not be accepted with Mrs. Sand’s mysterious widowing. They had already stirred scandal with their affair; they need not flout the ton further.
“I am glad for it, too,” Sansa said instead. “I could not have been only a lover to him and live with that alone.”
“I understand,” said Ellaria. “But you are also young and come from a noble family. It is suitable you wed.” She gave Sansa’s hand a last pat. “And now you shall. I offer my congratulations, Miss Stark.”
Sansa curtsied to her once more, saying, “I thank you, Mrs. Sand.”
Ellaria left her there, and shortly, Sandor returned.
“Are you well, little bird?” he asked when he noted her thoughtfulness.
“I am,” she replied. “Mrs. Sand come to congratulate us. She was pleased at our engagement.”
Sandor snorted. “Yes, I can imagine she was. She rearranged her table for me at that dinner party. She didn’t have to, but she did.”
“Perhaps she was deferring to your station,” said Sansa.
He shook his head. “She doesn’t care enough for the peerage for that. She saw the fire in my eyes at seeing you again. I did not hide my desire well.”
Sansa laid a hand against his chest as she stepped close to him. He did not take her into his arms for propriety’s sake, but she could sense his yearning to do so.
“I am glad you did not,” she said. “Your desire awakened mine, and in so doing, showed me love. I would wish nothing different than what happened, as it happened.”
Sandor covered her small hand with his large one. “I would only change that I offered for you sooner. I should not have denied you so long.”
Sansa gave him a gentle, doting smile. “As long as it brought you to me, I do not care how long it took.” She cast a glance out at the dancers, and then at a shadowed hallway. “Would you steal away with me for a rendezvous? Shall we risk the scandal?”
“Oh, yes, girl,” he said. “Let us show these tittering fools what a scandal can be.”
Sansa held up a finger. “Only if they find us.”
He grinned. “They won’t.”
Together, they found a hidden nook. Their kisses were as fevered as they had been that first night, and would be, Sansa knew, until their dying day.
Sandor remained in London only another six days before he took leave of it for his estate in order to make preparations for the wedding. Much would be done at Sansa and Catelyn’s behest, but he was determined to manage it so that all would be arranged before the Starks arrived for the ceremony. Sansa sent him off with kisses and passionate words. It was not sorrowful, as their last parting had been, but full of promise for what was to come.
In the week of his absence, Sansa packed her clothes and effects, spent time with her family—as she would not see them again for a time after she was wed—and visited with Myrcella and Jeyne, who were beside themselves with joy for their friend. Sansa would miss them sorely until she returned to town.
The Saturday before the wedding day, the Starks loaded Sansa’s luggage into a cart to follow their carriage to the country. Sansa was dressed in fine traveling clothes and jittery with nerves and excitement at finally seeing Sandor’s beloved estate. She was sure it would show her more of his soul, of which she wished to see and understand all.
She conversed with her father and mother as they went along the bumpy road north. Arya amused little Rickon by making faces while Bran watched the countryside pass by. He was always a pensive boy, rather than the wild and energetic Rickon. He had been asking for a dog of late. Eddard had considered, but Rickon was still young and Eddard was uncertain whether he would be able to care properly for it. Bran had offered to help, and Sansa believed their father would soon capitulate.
They changed horses at Harlow, continuing hastily on. Sansa grew only more restless, and her mother more than once laid a hand over hers by way of comfort.
“Any bride is fretful, my dearest,” Catelyn said. “I was disquieted for days before your father and I were wed. But you are not reconsidering?”
“No!” said Sansa stridently. “I wish with all my heart to marry Sandor. I”—she paused to cast her eyes down bashfully—“only wish it were sooner.”
Her mother gave a small, pleased sigh. “Oh, to be in love as you are. I am very happy for you, Sansa. I could not wish for more for my eldest child.” She glanced at Aryra. “I fear the next will be much more difficult to see wed.”
Arya snorted. “You will drag me to the altar, Mother, I swear it,” she said.
Sansa pursed her lips at her sister. “Just wait. You will find someone who stirs your heart, and you will go happily into his arms."
“Do not bet your dowry, Sansa.”
It was another two hours on the road, the carriage growing stifled, before they finally came to the gates of Clegane Hall. Sansa nearly pressed her nose to the window to be the first to set eyes on the house. When she did, she gasped in wonder.
Sandor had told her it had been constructed in the previous century, of fine limestone. The years had weathered the whiteness some, giving it a gray hue. It was imposing, with two wings that stood out on each side of its main section. The roof was of slate and at least six chimneys soared above it. There was no smoke to be seen against the summer sky.
While most country house lawns were tidily manicured, with clipped green grass, the spaces around the house were left to grow wild. Long grass waved in the breeze, the leaves of the trees sighing on their noble branches. Kept without perfect properness, but still striking beyond words, it suited Sandor perfectly.
A sweeping and wide staircase led up to the door from the carriage circle before the house, and Sansa was elated to see Sandor standing at the top of it. He wore a brown jacket that had been worn in, it seemed, and his hair was not clubbed, but in a tail. It was a rustic appearance, rather than his cleanness in town, and Sansa thought he looked even more handsome in such clothes.
When the carriage stopped, Sansa was the first to alight, hastening to meet him in the middle of the staircase. They did not embrace for that sake of appearances in her parents’ presence, but he took her hand and kissed it.
“How do you find it?” he asked.
Sansa did not have to ask what. “The house is wonderful,” she replied, “just as you said. It has a stately severity, but not unpleasantly so.”
Sandor regarded her with steady gray eyes. “Could you feel at home here?”
“I have yet to see inside,” said Sansa, desiring to touch his face in reassurance, “but I do believe I could.”
Taking her arm, he said, “Then let us go so that you might take it in.”
He gestured to the footmen and other servants to help the Starks inside. However, he met them in the foyer to greet them properly. Strangely, Sansa noted that Arya was, perhaps, the most pleased to see him. She seemed quite pleased to have him as a bother-in-law in short order.
“I imagine,” he said to them, “that you would like to refresh yourselves after your journey. The staff will show you to your rooms, where you can rest and wash the dust away. After, the grounds are yours to explore. Dinner will be served at eight.”
Eddard told him, “Thank you, Clegane, for the fine welcome. We shall retire for now and dress for dinner.” He turned to Sansa. “Come along.”
She turned to Sandor, whose expression soured at the summons away from him. However, it was to be expected that they would not be left alone before they were wed the next morning. It was a disappointment, for Sansa wished to be held by him and so too kissed. Distance from him was only becoming more excruciating.
“Yes, Father,” she said reluctantly, following a petite maid up the stairs that wrapped around the foyer. Sansa was surprised to find such a young girl in his employ.
“Good afternoon, Miss Stark,” the maid said as they walked. “I am to be your lady’s maid. The duke hired me on to see to you.”
Sansa was charmed at his thoughtfulness. “What is your name?” she asked the girl.
“Laura, madam,” she replied.
“It is a pleasure to make your acquaintance, Laura.”
The maid led her to a set of double doors in the east wing, which revealed an expansive bedroom filled with natural light from four tall windows. The bed was canopied with yellow silk and stacked with plush pillows.
“How wonderful!” Sansa exclaimed, turning about the room to see it all.
Laura stood with her hands clasped before her, clearing studying Sansa. “The entire house is very wonderful, madam,” she said. “There are ten rooms just like this one. And the one in which your mother and father will sleep is twice the size. I had never seen the like before I came here.” She flushed. “Of course, we all knew and had seen Clegane Hall, but never had I been inside.”
Appreciative of the maid’s guilelessness, Sansa went to her and took her hands in her own. “Then we shall accustom ourselves to this place together.” She received a tentative smile. “Now, will you help me to undress so that I might wash up?”
“Of course, madam,” she said, and set to work.
Clean and dressed in her dinner gown an hour later, Sansa ventured down to the center of the house once more. Laura had oriented her slightly, but half the enjoyment she would derive from the next while was exploring herself.
She found a sitting room off the foyer, an impressive dining room where a few servants were setting the table for dinner, and to her pleasure, an extensive library that smelled of paper and old leather. She went into it, running her fingertips along the gilt spines of the books, wondering how many Sandor had read. She remembered him saying a little of his habits, that he did not stay inside and read often. He was more a man of the land, and surely he spent a great deal of time out with the horses he bred and raised.
Sansa was standing by the window of the library when she heard footsteps behind her. She knew even before she turned who had come to her. Waiting as if she had not heard him, she smiled when he slipped his arm around her waist and pulled her against his chest, her back to him.
He whispered in her ear, his breath hot, “I’ve been waiting to find you alone, little bird. I nearly came to your rooms and sent your little maid scurrying.”
Sansa hummed. “You were good to hire her to for me. I like her. She is very capable.”
“Good,” he said. “If she did not suit, I would find another. You are to have all the comforts to which you’re accustomed.”
“I did not have a lady’s maid in town, or at our home in the country.” She lowered her hands to cover his; they were so small in comparison, and cooler than his where they rested against her belly. “You have already gone further than my family ever has. I have no fear for lacking in comfort.”
He stooped down to kiss her neck, which set her to shuddering. “You shall have anything and everything you could desire.”
“What I desire most,” she said, slowly turning about so that she could see him, “is you.”
Sandor made a deep, hungry sound in his throat, running his palms up the sleek back of her gown. “I would have you this instant,” he said, “if you would permit me. Dinner be damned.”
Sansa laughed lightly despite the tingling of blood dropping between her legs. “And what would we tell my family when we both appeared a mess in the dining room? No. You will have me—and I will have you—the proper way tomorrow afternoon.”
“It shouldn’t be so long away,” he grumbled. “Why must it be a Sunday morning? We’re not be married in a church.”
That had been a point of contention between him and Catelyn, who had insisted they marry under God’s roof. But Sandor would not have it, insisting on the garden gazebo at the estate. Sansa had had no objections to his arrangement, and had gently changed her mother’s mind.
“It was part of the negotiations,” Sansa told him. “A compromise. The vicar will marry us still, and the vows will be sealed with my family as witnesses.” She traced the collar of his coat thoughtfully. “Do you wish your father and mother could be here to see you wed?”
“The wedding makes no matter to me,” he replied, “but I would have liked for you to have met my mother. She would have approved of you. You could have sung together.”
Sansa caressed his scarred cheek. “I would very much have liked that. Though I am sure that she watches you still and will proudly see you stand up beside me tomorrow.”
He sighed, long and deep. “I don’t deserve you, little bird. You are my salvation.”
“You deserve to be saved,” she said softly, and rose onto her toes to kiss him.
Dinner was a gay affair: one in which Sandor was as animated and engaging as Sansa had ever seen him. He listened intently to her father’s stories of Sansa’s girlhood, and her mother’s additions to those. He interjected some of his own anecdotes, none of which Sansa had heard before: how he had learned to ride his first horse, when his father had taught him to shoot, his first fencing lessons, and fumbling attempts at dancing.
“I’ve improved little,” he admitted over the third course. “Your daughter must lead me rather than the other way around.”
“Perhaps one day,” Catelyn said, “you will host a ball here at Clegane Hall. All of town would turn out most happily.”
Sansa was the one to speak then. “Not anytime soon, Mother. I believe we shall enjoy peace and quiet after the Season.”
Her mother’s delicate auburn brows had drawn together. “But you will return for the final weeks of it, of course.”
“We will,” said Sansa, “but there is no hurry.” She looked upon Sandor, who gave her a rare and earnest smile.
“Your Grace,” Arya said from down the table, “may I see the horses tomorrow after the wedding?”
Sansa huffed. “How am I not surprised that is what you care about, sister?”
Sandor calmed her with a gesture and replied to Arya: “I shall arrange for the stablemaster to introduce you to all of them as soon as luncheon is over.”
Arya beamed and dug back into her dinner.
After dessert was served, Sandor offered Eddard brandy in the library, which Eddard declined.
“I take little drink,” he said. “I hope you do not take offense.”
Sandor assured him he did not. “You will go to your rooms again, then,” he said as he rose. “You may breakfast in the morning room. I will...not be there. After all”—he looked to Sansa—“I should not see my bride before she is dressed for the ceremony.”
Sansa’s heart was so full she thought it might burst free and take wing. “I shall be ready at eleven,” she said. “I await it eagerly.”
“As do I,” Sandor said. “As do I.”
The family went up to their rooms after that, Sansa finding Laura already waiting with her nightgown and a fresh bowl of warm water to wash her face and clean her teeth. Sansa did it all by rote, so distracted was she by the prospect of what would happen the next day. She would no longer be only Miss Stark in her first Season, but the Duchess of Westerland, wife of her beloved Sandor.
With such thoughts in her head, she tucked herself into bed and fell into a deep sleep.
Sunday morning came with birdsong from the forests and meadows surrounding Clegane Hall. Sansa had woken when Laura had come to light the fire in her room, unable to stay asleep any longer for wanting the clock to ring eleven. She could not, though, rush the day, and had taken her time in dressing for breakfast.
It was hardly past seven when she arrived in the morning room to find her family already gathered. They were to take only an hour to have their meal before Sansa was to go up for her bath and dressing for the wedding. Her white gown had been pressed and laid out the night before, a vision in silk, pearls, and embroidery.
She ate only a little before her mother accompanied her to her room. Her father sent her with well-wishes, as did Bran. Arya said little, and Rickon was too distracted with a toy soldier to bother with her. Sansa waved to them all, a last goodbye to the life she had known before that fateful night in Lady Redwyne’s garden, when Sandor had surprised her and opened up a new world for their taking together.
Her mother said, as she was bathing, “My dearest, I must tell you of what is expected of you in the marriage bed.”
Chagrined, Sansa told her, “I have heard of it from others before, Mother. I know what I must do, what I must give.”
Catelyn demurely did not inquire as to whom Sansa had asked, pressing on: “Then I will tell you only that for the small bit of pain, there is so much pleasure to be enjoyed. From the way the duke looks at you, I can see he will be passionate but kind.”
“He is very passionate,” said Sansa.
She pressed her lips together, unwilling to allow all of the truth to pour forth, but wanting to admit that she was not completely unschooled in love—Sandor’s doing alone. “We have exchanged some intimacies already. Though I have not given myself to him.”
Catelyn was not as affronted as Sansa might have expected. “I should have suspected that,” she said, “but I was willing to believe that your association was friendly, as you told us it was.”
Sansa hid her face in her damp hands, abashed. “I should not have lied to you, Mother, but he had been so insistent upon not marrying, and I did not want to give up his affections. It was...pleasure I had never imagined.”
“I might reprimand you for such forward behavior, Sansa,” her mother said, “but you were discreet enough to keep it from me, so there is no doubt the rest of the ton was just as deceived.”
“Oh, it sounds so terrible when you call it deception,” said Sansa. “I knew the position I was putting myself in was a precarious one. I could not let him go, Mother. Truly.”
Catelyn combed her fingers ever-so-softly through Sansa’s hair. “Girls have done worse things than have affairs with disreputable gentlemen. You did not compromise yourself completely, and in light of that, I can forgive the rest. Passion and love are potent draughts, my dearest. You are not the first or the last to drink of them and wish not to give them up. At least you know now that you will enjoy his attentions in his bed.”
Sansa giggled. “Yes, Mother, I do know that.”
When her bath was finished, Sansa was patted dry with a flannel and in her dressing gown was sat before the room’s vanity to have Laura arrange her hair. It was an elaborate style that was done under Catelyn’s direction. She herself was not practiced at fixing a coiffure, but she knew what she wanted and Laura was able to shape Sansa’s fine hair into the proper style.
Though they made her look somewhat younger and more innocent than she felt, white flowers were woven into her hair to make a floral crown. In the mirror, she thought she had never been more beautiful. When she donned her gown, she could not imagine being more happy than she was in that moment.
“Oh, my dearest,” said Catelyn with tears in her eyes, “I am so proud of you.”
Sansa went into her mother’s arms. “I love you, Mother. Thank you for all you have done for me. Without you I would not be here.”
Catelyn kissed her daughter’s cheek. “I think you would have found your Sandor without me. It seem you were drawn together no matter what.”
Together, they went to the foyer, where Eddard was waiting. He offered his arm to Sansa, telling her how lovely she looked. Her mother and the other Stark children went out ahead of her, presumably taking their places in the garden, leaving Sansa with her father.
“You have chosen a fine man, Sansa,” he said to her. “I would not have said that at the start of the Season, but in these past weeks, I have come to know him better and see that he is a suitable match for you. You will not bend under his strong will, and he shall not be cruel to you. I could wish for nothing more for you.”
She embraced him. “Thank you, Father, for you blessing.”
Arm-in-arm, she and he made their way out of the house and into the garden. There were clouds in the sky, but Sansa did not mind; the colors of the trees and native blossoms were enough to brighten the occasion. And all that mattered, after all, was Sandor in his place by the gazebo, waiting for her.
When she arrived next to him, her father guided her hand into Sandor’s and stepped away to join the rest of the Starks. With them watching, the vicar began the ceremony.
What the exact words from the Bible were, Sansa would never be able to recall. All the world around her seemed to blur except for Sandor’s hand in hers and his person at her side. It was as if he was as radiant as the hidden sun, a point of heat and light that shone only for her. Her soul reached for his, and she could sense the union of their spirits even without the vicar’s blessings.
It was only when he offered for them to seal the vows with a kiss that she awoke. Sandor’s lips were soft against hers in a chaste press. She was not disappointed by the brevity, for she would enjoy far many more kisses when they were abed.
At last, the vicar pronounced them man and wife and the Starks applauded. Sandor continued to hold her hand as they all proceeded back to the house for luncheon. Sansa could hear Arya already chattering about the horses she would see, and despite it, knew she would miss her sister. Even if she protested, Sansa thought, one day Arya would find her own beloved, as she had.
The stablemaster appeared directly after they were finished eating, and Arya was spirited away to the horses. Catelyn and Eddard were to be given a tour of the estate while Rickon and Bran were set loose to play in the nursery. Sansa watched as they all melted away. It was then that Sandor took her by the hand and drew her up the stairs and to his room.
The décor was darker and more masculine there, and the bed was expansive. At last, Sansa would be laid out upon it for Sandor’s taking. He would have her as he wife—as he had long wanted and always been denied by her. She would go happily to him now, removing all of the layers of propriety along with her wedding gown. There was nothing keeping them apart anymore.
When the door was closed, Sandor remained by it while Sansa stepped deeper into the room. He was watching her intently, but she did not venture to ask him what thoughts were in his mind. Indeed, he spoke them.
“I’ve dreamt of this vision,” he said. “Of you in this room. I had not imagined bringing any woman here, and I’m glad I never did. This place is for you alone. My little bird. My wife.”
Sansa extended her hand in a silent summons, and he came to her. There, in the center of the room, on the soft rug, he sank to his knees. Sansa cradled his head against her middle, stroking his hair.
“You will have what you wanted today,” she said. “You can, at last, ravish me. Will you show me the height of your passion?”
“I will take care with you this first time,” he told her, his words muffled in her gown, “but I promise you passion, little bird. I swear to that.”
She hugged him close. “Then rise, husband, and take me to your bed.”
Sandor elicited from her a sharp exhale as he stood and at the same time scooped her up into his arms. Her gown was stretched taut over her as he bore her to the bedside. She might have thought he would lay her upon it, but he did not. Instead, he set her on the floor there and took her face between his hands.
The kiss was as fevered as any they had ever shared—perhaps more so. Sansa’s stomach dropped, her nipples tightening. It would take only a touch, the very suggestion of his fingers against her skin, and she would be slick between her legs and ready to accept him.
She knew the size of his cock and instead of apprehension felt excitement. Deep inside her, she felt the primal desire to be filled. At that, a whimper escaped her.
“We’ve always had to be quiet,” Sandor murmured against her mouth. “Clandestine places where we hid ourselves and our misdeeds. Not here. You can cry out here, girl, and I assure you, you will.”
Sansa trembled in his grip and, daringly, nipped at his lower lip. “The song of a bird no longer caged,” she said.
Sandor chuckled. “And more.”
He went then to the buttons of Sansa’s gown, cleverly releasing them to bare the back of her neck. He gave her teasing caresses there, until she was all but begging him to undress her further.
“Eager,” he said between kisses.
“Yes,” said Sansa. “I have been waiting so long. Please, Sandor.”
He groaned into the crook of her neck. Pulling away, he began to ruck her skirt up along her thighs, over her hips, and then her belly. When it came over her shoulders and head and she was bare for him, she was overcome not with shyness, but with assurance that she was what he wanted. He made that certain as he breathed heavily through his mouth, looking her over.
“Sansa,” he said, but no more. Instead, he cupped her breasts, thumbs circling the already tender peaks. She sighed at the sensation, feeling a throb between her thighs.
“You’re perfect,” said Sandor as he touched her body in all the ways that her nakedness afforded. “And mine.”
“Yes.” It was barely more than a whisper, but it rang as if shouted with truth.
He moved away from her only to strip himself unceremoniously of his groom’s jacket and shirt. Sansa had never seen him so exposed, and laid her hands against his chest. The hair there was soft, springy, and dark. She was glad to run her fingers through it.
“I want to learn every inch of you,” she said to him. “Will you show me more?”
He took her by the wrists and kissed both of her palms. “Lie down and I will.”
Sansa went easily onto the bed’s soft coverlet, the bows of her garters catching and coming loose. So invited by that unintended event, she untied them completely and pulled one stocking and then the other off of her legs. There on the bed, she was nude.
Sandor disrobed hastily, discarding his shoes, trousers, and socks. He stood for her appraisal for a moment before joining her on the bed. His cock stood out from the thatch of hair between his legs, suitably long and thick. Sansa ached to touch it.
“Am I to your liking?” he asked.
She was quick to reply, “You are the most handsome man I have seen in my life.”
His scar twitched as he frowned. “Don’t lie to me, little bird.”
“I am not lying,” she said, rising up onto her knees. “I would have no other man, save you. I have wanted to see you bare for months, to touch you. Spare me further suffering and come to me here.”
He crept across the bed to where she lay, but did not lie atop her. Rather, he parted her legs and settled between them to pleasure her with his mouth. She let her head fall back as he began his work, melting under his ministrations. That first time he had done it came back to her sharply: the library at the Lannisters’ masked ball. It had been wonderful then, but everything was intensified as they shared their marriage bed.
It did not take more than a few minutes for Sansa to rise to him. The ecstasy came up, crested, and splashed over her as he lapped at her with his tongue. She did as he had said and cried out. It was far from the morning’s birdsong, but she was not concerned about prettiness in that moment. There was nothing but Sandor and her pleasure.
He drew away from her before she grew too sensitive and thereby uncomfortable, moving up her body until he was supporting his weight on his hands on either side of her head. When she came up to kiss him, she tasted herself.
“Are you ready?” he asked her, meeting her gaze, his own burning.
Between her legs, she could feel the weight of his cock. She parted them only further in invitation. “Take me,” she said.
His frame shook once, but then he reached between them to guide himself into her. There was pressure, a stretch, and then a sharp bite of pain. He stopped, but Sansa demanded, “Go on.” With a strong thrust, he drove into her. Together, they moaned.
It seemed as if long minutes passed with them joined and unmoving, but as Sansa stroked his back, he began to slide out of her and then back in. It was strange being so penetrated, and yet Sansa was not displeased. She welcomed him into her body as she had her heart.
He did not speak as he took her, and neither did she want him to. The soft sounds of pleasure he made and the kisses he landed all across her face spoke volumes. His earthy smell was all around her, his skin growing slick with his efforts. Sansa was lost in the sensation of it all, and making sounds of her own, when he gave a final deep thrust and spent himself inside her. He called her name as he did.
They lay entwined for some time, until Sandor had recovered his breath. He rolled to the side and pulled Sansa against him. She pressed in, feeling the gradual slowing of his pulse.
“Was it what you expected, little bird?” he rumbled.
“It was good,” she said. “For the first time. There are many more ways to do it, or so I have been told.”
His laugh was like grinding stones. “Yes, there are many more ways. I’ll teach you every one.”
She nuzzled herself in under his chin. “I would not have guessed all those months ago that I would be your wife.”
“Nor would I,” he said. “But you’re happy for it?”
“I am.” She closed her eyes, feeling Sandor against her and around her. She said sleepily, “Have I made a reputable gentleman of you, Your Grace?”
Sandor kissed her temple and said, “Reputation be damned. You made me whole, little bird.”
Sansa smiled, for she was content in disrepute.
Thanks to everyone for reading, and especially those who waited ages for updates. oxoxo