Lord Melbourne sets down his pen, stretches and sighs, feeling the pull of muscles in his back, the clicks of his spine as he straightens up from his desk.
It’s late – no surprise there. Caroline had always complained that he worked too hard, too long, too much.
Now the reports are read and his comments made, he becomes aware of the gnawing in his stomach. Dinner suddenly seems an age ago and all he can think about is toast, hot and dripping with butter, and a steaming mug of tea alongside.
No chance of sleep now. He slips from his room, down quiet, empty corridors and staircases towards the kitchen. As he gets closer he hears the clatter of cutlery and pans. Clearly he’s not the only one in need of a post-midnight snack.
He pauses on the threshold, breath catching as he sees who it is. She’s standing over the stove, hair in loose waves halfway down her back, in deep blue and green plaid pyjamas, Dash at her feet.
‘Melt the butter and chocolate,’ she reads from an open book on the counter.
He leans against the door frame, watching with a fond smile.
And then a sharp inhale, a whine from Dash as she jerks her hand away from the pan and to her mouth.
‘Are you alright, Ma’am?’
Victoria whirls around, eyes wide with surprise. Stares at his slightly dishevelled appearance: no jacket or tie, waistcoat unbuttoned, top button of his shirt undone, hair tousled from where his fingers have repeatedly raked through it.
‘Lord M,’ she manages, as he steps closer and glances at her hand.
‘You should run that under some cold water, Ma’am.’
She complies, watching from across the room as he picks up a spoon, stirs the contents of the pan and studies the recipe: brownies.
‘Cooking not your forte, Ma’am?’ he asks neutrally.
‘You know Mama, Lord M. Do you think she ever allowed me to set foot in the kitchen as a child?’
From where she holds her numbing hand under the tap she watches him move effortlessly around the kitchen, pulling ingredients from the well-stocked cupboards.
‘You, on the other hand, look perfectly at home.’
‘I do know my way around a kitchen, Ma’am,’ he admits.
‘You’re up late, Lord M?’
‘Reports, Ma’am. Lots to do, even from Balmoral.’
‘And you came down here in search of sustenance?’
‘Yes Ma’am. Tea and toast, to be precise.’
By now the kitchen is filled with the rich scent of melted chocolate. He removes the pan from the heat, leaves it to cool while he weighs out sugar and ground almonds, cracks eggs into a bowl.
‘I couldn’t sleep, had a sudden craving for brownies but we don’t have any.’
‘You will in around thirty minutes, Ma’am.’
‘Slightly less, Lord M. I prefer mine on the very gooey side.’
‘Of course, Ma’am,’ he smiles, inclining his head slightly.
He adds the rest of the ingredients to the pan, mixes carefully, pours the thick, dark batter into a tin, slides it into the oven and glances at the clock on the wall.
‘How is your hand, Ma’am?’
She turns off the tap, holds it out for his inspection. He takes her slender fingers gently in his, examines the mark.
‘Will I live?’ she asks playfully.
‘I should think so,’ he smiles.
Their eyes meet, and he allows himself to keep hold of her hand just a moment longer, just a little more than is either necessary or appropriate.
And then he remembers who they are, who she is, looks away and lets go. Rolls up his sleeves and is about to begin tidying up when he’s stopped by her hand on his elbow, turning him back to face her. Her fingers flutter between them, hesitant, then light on his collar.
‘Chocolate,’ she explains.
He stands stock still as she brushes ineffectually at the mark staining the pure white cotton, hands firmly by his sides when they yearn to slip around her waist and draw her to him.
Again he’s the one to step away, trying to ignore the way her hand lingers before dropping to her side. This time he crosses the room, piles the utensils into the pan and carries them over to the sink. Runs hot water and begins to wash. He hears Dash’s claws clicking on the tiled floor as the dog follows Victoria in her search for a tea towel, as she begins drying. He can’t help enjoying the simple domesticity of it, can’t help imagining-
He forces his mind to stop going down that path, focuses instead on the pan in the sink, on removing every smear of chocolate. Doesn’t allow himself to so much as glance at the woman beside him.
Dishes washed, dried and packed away, brownies out of the oven and in the middle of the huge kitchen table, he knows it’s time to go.
‘I’ll leave you and your brownies in peace, Ma’am.’
‘I was rather hoping you might stay and indulge a little with me, Lord M.’
Although his head rationally explains why this would be a monumentally bad idea, there’s no way he can refuse her. Who could? It would need a much stronger man than him.
‘I’d like that very much, Ma’am.’
They sit opposite each other, the tray between them, a spoon each. She takes the first spoonful, right from the centre. He starts from one corner, the crisp crust giving way to soft, dark, steaming interior.
They’re sinful – and so is the sound she makes when she tastes them. It does funny things to him, that moan. It’s not a sound he’s ever heard her make before, nor one he’s likely to hear again, and it sends his mind to dark, forbidden places he’s been trying so hard to ignore.
He knows he’ll never be able to think of anything else when he eats chocolate from now on.