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[astro] It's a very dangerous and lonely thing, to be a spy [18+]

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simply
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Screaming. Shouting. Shots. So many gunshots. Time sped up, spinning and spinning, moving around her despite her being frozen to the spot. Gray eyes dropped down to her child-sized hand – had she truly ever been this small? – that clutched another inside of it. The nails were manicured, vividly pink, against the black and white field of her vision. She tugged at the hand, pulled at it, trying to lift up the fallen woman.

Suddenly, everything was in screaming, blinding color. Red liquid seeped out from under her mother’s body, touching her bare toes. She wiggled them, like she was at the ocean’s edge and feeling the snow for the first time. People moved around the room, cursing and checking the beautiful, albeit dead, woman on the ground at her feet. Beautiful blue eyes looked up at her, fear still in them as all life had drained away into the puddle around her feet.

“Grab the fucking girl for christsakes.”

“What are we supposed to do with her? She’s bloody dead. We should just leave her. We don’t owe her anything, especially if we all end of dead as well – what’s the fucking point?” Gunshots continued to ring out around them, out on the large Wymberly lawn that she liked to build snowmen with her brother – when permitted, of course. Where was he? Where was Remy? He would know what to do.

“She died giving us this fucking intelligence and I’m not going to leave her daughter at the mercy of a misogynistic dictator.” The voice was deep, but feminine and held all the weight of authority. Strong arms wrapped around her and lifted her up and away, away, away. Instinctively, she clung to her mother’s hand, trying to use her strength to drag the limp body along. Someone was screaming so loudly, shrill and sudden. The sound was deafening and she wished it would stop. It was so loud. But, it was her voice. She was screaming. “Shut her the fuck up. We have to go. NOW.” A hand clamped over her mouth and everything squeezed tightly, forcing the air out of her lungs. Everything grew dark.

A deep inhale as she awoke, keeping her eyes firmly closed. Deep meditative exhale and slow, nostril focused inhale. The same nightmare, over and over and over. Rose had taught her the appropriate coping mechanisms, but nothing had ever stopped the dream from occurring. As a child, and even into her teenage years, everyone had insisted that they would stop eventually. The trauma had occurred when she was so young, so innocent – surely time would dull the pain and dull the sharpness of the memory.

Fuckers were wrong.

Clover – Azalea in a life long since dead – swung her legs off the side of her twin-sized bed in the small apartment above her shop. The routine of her morning was always the same. Brushing her hair and twisting the long, black strands into a tight bun at the top of her head. Deft fingers pinned down any stray strands. A splash of cold water on her face and a small smear of jelly against her lips to keep the moisturized in the crack-inducing winter air. A soft pair of cotton slacks in deep navy were draw over her hips and secured high on her waist. She tucked an oversized button-up top into the bottoms, before finishing the simple ensemble with a thick tan belt and matching knee-high boots. Looking in the tarnished mirror above the sink, she was pleased with how plain she looked. No muss. No fuss. Oversized clothes to

A single slice of plain toast, washed down by water that was relatively clean, if not a few days old from siting on the counter. She leaned against the frame of the large glass doors that led out to the porch that overlooked the street. It was a hazy day, winter looming on the horizon – no more than three months away. In the distance, the seamtress heard the practicing shots of the militia. Frowning, something moved against her elbow and stormy eyes flickered downward.

“Good morning, beast.” A loud meow filled the quiet studio apartment in response. “I already filled your damn dish with some leftover rockfish a patron gave me. So don’t act like I don’t give you your due, my liege.” She scratched the black cat behind his ears before picking up her keys. Thick brows furrowed momentarily as she scanned over her home calendar to discern the day’s events. Her scribbles and arrows were almost illegible, but with good reason. No one else needed to know how to read it, to truly decipher the meanings of the little symbols on it. “I’ll be late tonight. Some old cunt of a general needs a new fucking jacket. Not like he doesn’t already have a closet full of the exact same jacket.” The aforementioned beast gave another meow as it stretched and settled onto its perch on the windowsill.

Clover locked the door to the apartment behind her with a deft click, indicating a lock much stronger than it might initially appear. The wooden stairs down to the shop squeaked in protest at her heavy boots, before she opened the door and moved about opening for the day. She settled the fabrics that arrived the night before into their proper places on the display. Knowledgeable hands lingered on a particularly fine silk that instantly popped into her mind as a sultry chemise. A smile curled her lips. If there was any left over, she’d have to make herself one. Bernard would enjoy it, surely. Thoughts of her occasional lover filled her head. He wasn’t the best fuck she’d ever had, but it was enjoyable enough to seek him out when other options were not available. It had been a while, perhaps she would seek him out tonight after her final appointment. Imaging the rest of her evening in her head, she unlatched the outer door, at the same time as the cobbler across the street.

“Mornin’ Chloe! Looks like a storm may be abrewin’ out that way.” He said through his thick beard, dappled with white.

“It does! I sure do hope it won’t cause too much of a fuss. I have quite a few appointments today. Miss Terril is supposed to stop by for a new gown. She seeing you too?” Her voice immediately changed from the crude inner monologue to her charmed voice. It was well cultivated, this manner of speaking. Calm, quiet and timid. Never loud enough to draw any attention at all. Plain. Plain. Plain.

“Thinkso.” He turned his sign over from closed to open, as she did the same. The swirling script beckoned clients into Rose’s, whose larger sign hung above the door. Rose’s written there in clear lettering with red painted flower buds adorning either side. Beneath was carved Modiste. Alterations. Clothier. Clover’s – known to everyone as Chloe - adoptive mother ran the most coveted tailoring shop in all of Thebes, and Northam, if she wasn’t being modest.

She had also successfully run the largest Resistance operation in the country. Both of which she passed on to her daughter.

Clients came in and out all day, buying small things – hats, gloves, socks – but a few made appointments for finer items – dresses, suits, ties. Apparently, the bloody High Commander would be attending a small gala amongst Thebesian elite in four weeks time.  And if that motherfucker was going to be in attendance then everyone had to be dressed in their absolute best, and the best was always something extravagant and overpriced – fortunately for Clover. The noon bell at the center of Thebes chimed, ringing out twelve precise notes. In unison, the bell to her shop tinkled above the shop door. Gray-blue eyes rose to meet the bright face of her apprentice, a young boy with slender fingers and thick brown hair tied at the nape of his neck.  He limped in, having fallen out of a tree as a boy and it never was rightly set. It was the only thing that saved him from mandatory service and permitted him to take up his true passion, his true talent.

“Momma sent you a biscuit and ham for lunch, Miss.” He moved over to the long wooden counter and set down a neatly wrapped parcel. The smell of crispy ham, freshly pan seared, wafted up and she closed her eyes to inhale it deeper.

“That woman is a saint, Dennis, a saint.” Chloe said, smiling as she unwrapped her lunch.

“So you say.” Brown eyes rolled at his comment as he set to organizing the new buttons that had just arrived.

“And we know what we say about me, yeah?”

“You’re never wrong.” Dennis groaned in response, hoisting himself up on a bench.

“That’s it. I am always right.” She laughed, giving his shoulder a sisterly shove and setting to work on the biscuit. It was buttery and flaked across her tongue, sending an explosion of flavor through her. Clover hummed as she ate it, a little song from a time long before this life. The widowed Mrs. Boston crafted such delicacies from the basics that memories would occasionally drift through her mind. Her mother’s lullabies, her brother’s laughter and the merriment in his hurricane eyes.  “Mmm,” she wagged her biscuit holding fingers in his direction, “do you think you can close up for me tonight? I was hoping you’d get started on Mr. Keller’s white shirt. I have to go to the…” she leaned over as if inspecting her calendar, though she knew full well what her schedule was.  The pause lengthened.

As a child, Rose had made her memorize everything. Dates. Details. Colors. And she had to be so observant, so aware of everything that was going on around her.  At the same time, it had to appear as though she was disinterested, as though sewing and cloth were the centers of her small, plain universe. “The Belvedere estate. One of the generals needs another new militia uniform for something.” Dennis snorted in response and Clover smiled. He would make a good member of the resistance, when he was older, when he could be completely trusted.

The bell chimed again and eyes lifted from the few crumbs that remained of her lunch. They met striking emerald gaze, framed by long and flawless black hair. The owner of the features exuded elegance, grace and a magnetic allure that everyone was powerless to resist. Hell, Clover had even succumbed to the Terril woman’s wiles once, before deciding that it was not a dalliance she wanted to partake in long-term. A broad smile took over her lightly tanned face as she rounded the counter to greet the new arrival.  Dennis stiffened at the sight of her and then squirmed, focusing too hard on sorting the array of buttons.

“Elora. I take it you’re needing a new dress,” a pause, “for the Umstead Gala?”

“Of course. The High Commander will be in attendance.” She greeted the seamstress with a kiss on both cheeks in turn. “And you know how I feel about men in power.” A playful smile played her perfectly plum lips, the very same grin that had landed the tailor in the woman’s bed nearly two years ago.

“Mmm, the same as we all do, I think.” A soft giggle escaped her, the carefully polite laugh she used when anyone might be listening. Her real laugh often resulted in the occasional snort – it drew too much attention. “Now, what color were you thinking of?” And they set to work, sorting through fabrics and lace. Occasionally, Clover would beckon her apprentice over and instruct him in the proper fabrication of the desired dress and how to coordinate it with an appropriate fabric. He diligently wrote down the measurements that she called out, even though Elora Terril’s body had been the same perfect size for the last three years.

“Dennis, would you mind fetching the red lace from the back storeroom?” He hopped to his feet, favoring one leg slightly, at her request, taking a quick parting look at Elora as he went. Immediately, Clover straightened and met the heiress’ eyes. “What news?” Her tone shifted from honey-sweet the punctuated and neutral.

“The Belvedere girl is getting wed soon, so the gossip goes.” Elora turned her striking emerald eyes back to the mirror, examining her eyebrows to make sure no strand was out of place. “The old general has given his consent for their marriage, after a year of the poor Lane boy courting her endlessly. A slight step downward for a Belvedere but the rumor is it is a love match. Small time spice trading family towards the western border.”

“Are they to reside in Thebes? When is the wedding?” The black-haired woman gave nothing away, even to one of her closest confidantes.  Perhaps, the appointment at the Belvedere’s estate was for a wedding suit for the elderly general.  She wondered, briefly, if she would be hired to fashion a wedding gown. It had been about a year since her last white dress commission.

“All details that I don’t yet have, though they would be foolish to not invite the Terrils to the ceremony. I am certain reliable information with be available shortly. And undoubtedly there will be a bridal shower – perhaps I will volunteer to host it.”

“That could prove advantageous.” The seamstress mused, running through a plethora of scenarios in her mind.

“I’ll have Lawrence reach out to the groom. I bet they would not be opposed to making the acquaintance of such a large munitions importer from Espania.” Elora gave her friend a coy grin. Clover smiled back, briefly, mind too busy working out a number of different angles. The Terrils were one of the few that knew who she was. Maybe five people in total knew that she was the puppeteering mastermind of the Northam Resistance. Aaron Striker was one of the others and the figurehead she hid behind. Many suspected he was the namesake of the little shamrocks composing their widespread network. During his pause, Dennis reemerged from the stores in the back with two different red lace options.

“Oh splendid.” Elora’s face returned to her mask of beautiful elegance. Clover took the fabrics and held them against the chosen color. “Yes, I think this one will do nicely.” She fingered the darker, more sultry choice. “Well, I must be off. Perhaps you could bring the gown by when it is completed, Chloe darling. It was been ages since you visited.”

“I’ll see if I can pencil you in.” The resistance leader smiled, setting aside the chosen swathes of cloth and knowing that it was going to be a very long week indeed with so many important events looming on the horizon. She’d have to hire that god damned Jessica to help manage the workload. The girl had gifted hands but an attitude that rivaled the devils. The Amazonian woman sauntered out of the store and was offered a hand by no less than two gentlemen as she made her way across the street to have a new pair of heels fashioned for the Umstead Gala.

The rest of the day passed in easy fashion and she even had a little downtime to begin styling Elora Terril’s dress after completing the raunchy little number her favorite escort had commissioned. All of her clients had varying tastes and she came up with the most exciting lingerie that even Clover’s creative little mind could not have fathomed.  The time arrived for her to depart and she instructed Dennis clearly on what she needed and then left him the spare key, letting him know she would retrieve it on her way home this evening. The seamstress had two keys, and only two keys, to the shoppe. Being away from one for an extended period of time was worrisome and so they infrequently parted.

The Belvedere estate was not located in central Thebes – none of the Northam “nobility” stayed in the city proper unless it was at one of their misstress’ apartments. The common folk lived above shops, considered middle class if there was still such a thing held over from the twentieth century. The poor lived on farms surrounding it and worked at the pleasure of others. They did not own the land they cultivated, tilled, and managed. It would be nearly impossible to walk if she wanted to arrive within the next week. For fall, the snow was light but there was still a decent three inches covering the ground outside of Rose’s. Sighing, she surrounded herself in her jacket and trudged towards the nearest carriage station.

The ugly carriage driver eyed her suspiciously when she requested the estate, clearly thinking that she was not appropriately dressed to be a consort. He said nothing and charged her before even climbing onto his seat, like she wouldn’t be good for it when they arrived. Fucking prick. The price was steeper than she knew they would charge someone else, but she was timid and had to maintain that façade. The moustached Belvedere general would see that cost added into their bill, certainly. Chloe the seamstress dwelled on old memories, of times long passed, as the carriage bumped along the roughly cleaned streets. She remembered the general, with his upturned nose that hovered above the thin moustache and his angry brown eyes. She had seen him frequently as a child at Wymberly, as a favorite of her over-bearing father. The man had not made her uncomfortable with his glances, as a few of the other military men had, but he certainly was difficult to look at.

 

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Arriving, Clover exited the carriage without a hand from the driver. Retrieving her bag, she held it on her bent arm as her weight shifted to one side. Her jacket’s hood was up around her head, keeping small flakes of snow from melting into her black hair. The estate was not large by Wymberly on the Marsh standards but certainly to someone that lived in a single bedroom loft. Stormy eyes roved over the exterior of the house, worn brick and nearly six bedrooms if she judged correctly. Everything about the place immediately registered in her steel trap of a mind, from the tall evergreens on either side of the door to the fact that only the curtains in the upper right window were open to allow in the fading evening light. Swallowing, the seamstress ascended the steps and rang the bell. The house was wired for electricity, unlike her bedroom, and a loud bell echoed throughout the house. Removing her gloves, she drew down her hood under the protection of the awning. Slender fingers drew down a short strand of hair in front of both pierced ears. Simple gold dots resided in her lobe and a small cresent moon in the helix of her right ear, perfectly covered by the carefully placed strands.

“May I help you?” An older gentleman with a large scar running from his forehead to his neck opened the door. Before she averted her eyes, she noticed the dismissive way his eyes roved over her form, taking in her plain breeches and pulled back hair.

“Miss Paice, sir. I’m the seamstress, for General Belvedere.” She kept her eyes downcast, not meeting his gaze. Timid. Plain. Timid. Plain. They were her mantra. Yet, as much as she tried to hide it – successfully most days – Azalea Gabriella Evelyn Walther was anything but plain. Dirty blonde hair was routinely dyed an onyx black and her face remained unadorned by makeup. Eyebrows were thick and plucked only enough to have a passable shape. Her nose curved upward just slightly and her jawline was strikingly sharp. She caught many an eye of men and women, but not enough for them to become obsessed, not enough to draw too much attention.

“Of course.” The man sniffed, as if expecting a man or someone much more pleasing to look at. “He is expecting you this evening. He will be returning from the Beloit shortly. Please, follow me.” He closed the door behind her and her intelligent eyes quickly scanned the entrance. A pair of stairs led directly up to the second story landing, four rooms exited immediately off of the dining area and she suspected the fifth door at the end of the short hall was the servants’ quarters. Quiet steps followed the butler up to the second story. Gaze swept across the oriental carpet beneath her feet at the top of the landing. “Wait here, Miss. I’ll come for you shortly.”

The silence, being utterly alone, permitted her the chance to explore everything without moving from her location. There were two, maybe three, servants present in the house from what she could hear. There were two obvious entrances, the front door and the back that led through the servant’s chambers. The resistance operative suspected, however, that there was another exit – a private one. These large estates usually did, for a variety of nefarious reasons – the most common being an entry point for mistresses of high-ranking militiamen. Suddenly, there was quite a ruckus. Clover managed to catch sight of a man in military blues dismount a horse through a far away window. She was unable to see him clearly through the window. Minutes passed and she turned towards the front door, expecting someone to enter and finding only silence.

Behind her, the butler cleared his throat. “Miss Paice.” Clover jumped, pretended to be startled by the arrival she had heard coming almost the moment the man had been instructed to retrieve her.

“Oh, oh, my apologies. It’s just such a lovely view.” She apologized, keeping her eyes down and letting a blush dapple her cheeks. That had been a difficult skill to master, the purposeful blush. Let’s get this over with. Fucking old bastard was likely going to comment on her physique, mention that she’d look so much prettier if she gave him a smile. The ancient individuals that the High Commander surrounded himself with were the worst of the whole lot.

“General Belvedere is ready for you now.” His voice was calm, neutral. She shuffled after him, keeping her head down and moving at a respectful pace. The butler led her to the room at the back. It was large, with a sitting area and a four-poster bed far against the wall. It was extremely tidy, the kind of neatness that came with a military upbringing. A large mirror rested beside the window, ready to provide her with ample light. A man stood beside it, clothed only in a white shirt and tight-fitting boxer-briefs. It was the standard uniform for the militiamen beneath their wool clothes. Something was immediately off. The hairs on the back of her neck prickled. “Miss Paice for you, sir.” He directed her with a wizened hand to a chair in which to place her bag. Frozen, she noticed his feet first, bare and obviously young. The skin along his legs was tight and covered perfectly formed muscles.

Clover’s eyes traveled slowly up the man before her. Every single muscle was chiseled from fine marble, no, they were flawlessly sculpted from a deep tan clay. All of her training, since she was seven years old, flew out the window to her left. Before her was no grotesque old general with a tiny moustache that looked like a pen smear on his upper lip.

Someone was going to die for this. They had told her General Belvedere needed a new tailored suit, not what resided before her now. The old, loyal General Belvedere who had to be nearing his eighties. The one that she expected to swallow her gags as she measured his inseam.  Someone was going to pay for this misinformation.

Because before her stood the most fuckable man she had ever seen.

God damn. How was it fair that anyone was that fucking attractive? Soft lips parted as her eyes met his. Molten gold gaze captured hers and belied the intelligence he held there. His lips were full and inviting, leading her to wonder what they would feel like against the inside of her thigh, right above her serpent tattoo. Heat coalesced in her core and without meaning to, stormy eyes flickered to the large bed in the corner. Ah fuck, this was not going to go as seamlessly as she planned. Turning away from him, she brushed back one of the little strands of dark hair in front of her ears. She opened her large pack and withdrew a folding stool. She opened it and set it down before the mirror, feeling the heat off his body as she leaned over. Fuck.

“If you wouldn’t mind stepping up on the stool, please, General.” Clover was careful to keep her voice extremely soft. She might have faltered when she first looked at him, but the professional in her quickly took over. “My notes indicated that you needed a new set of dress blues. Is that correct?” The seamstress couldn’t help herself and met his gaze again. A bolt of electricity shot through her and ignited a low fire in her stomach.

Fuck. Fuck. Fuck.


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astrophysicist
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—  can the killer in me tame the fire in you?  —

 

+  —  T H E N  —  +

 

The first time Quinnley Belvedere watched a man die, it was a sunny April Tuesday.

An unusually mild winter left behind meager snowcover as it yielded to the arrival of spring, and the rapid onset of warmer weather had everyone—but especially the seven-year-old Belvedere twins—itching to break free from the stifling indoors where they’d been confined since November.

With the sun streaming through the tall windows of the family library, the antsy siblings could hardly concentrate on the day’s lessons. Not even Master Ventra, a highly-regarded tutor of arithmetic and the sciences, had possessed the ability to refocus his two rowdy pupils; like moths drawn to a flame, their bright gazes could not resist the allure of springtime. Exasperated, but much to the children’s delight, the staunch academic had released them early with the promise their father would not be informed of this rare leniency…on pain of multiplication tables.

Outside, patches of deep green grass peeked through the melting drifts of the lawn. Quinn and Maria squelched through them, cheeks ruddy against a breeze that still bit with the chill of winter, until they found themselves outside the stables. It was rare the twins were afforded time in the afternoon simply to play, and even rarer to be free from the watchful stare of a tutor or a governess. So it seemed the perfect time to slip inside amongst the stalls, to release the build-up of youthful mischief that was so often tamped down.

Their boots, caked though they were with mud, were silent on the hay as they crept through the dimness. Only the occasional snicker of a contented horse broke the muffled quiet of the earthy air. Maria led the way, Quinn on her heels, and they slipped into the last empty stall on the left whose gate had been propped open with a chain.

Their father’s favorite white horse usually occupied this space; they were sometimes allowed to feed sugar cubes to the mare before riding lessons, something each of them looked forward to far more than the lessons themselves. The little ritual had once calmed Maria, who had initially (and understandably) been frightened of the large beasts.

It made sense that the animal was absent; General Belvedere was at Compound, they knew, meeting with the High Commander in preparation for his annual springtime travels. He wouldn’t be back for hours—probably not even before they were tucked into bed.

The space was immaculately clean for a stable stall. Fresh straw carpeted the ground, spongy beneath their soles, and the basin in the corner had been recently filled with a dense blend of hay and alfalfa.

“Where d’you think the stable hands keep the cubes?” Maria asked in a whisper, dancing around the perimeter of the large stall.

“Dunno.” Quinn tugged at a particularly long strand of green hay protruding from the feed pile, inadvertently pulling a full tangled clump to the ground. When he looked down, a shine of metal glimmered beneath the golden straw on the floor. He nudged at it with his foot—heavy and solid, like a rock. Intrigued, he crouched down and cleared away the bedding with a quick sweep of his small hand.

“Mia,” he hissed. Where normally she would be wont to ignore him in her quest for the sugar, the urgency in his voice grabbed his sister’s attention immediately. She hopped lightly to his side, bright brown eyes opening as wide as Quinn’s when she followed his stare to the item at their feet.

A small revolver. Dull gray and dusty. And old.

They stared at it for several long moments. Their father was important enough to own guns—some hunting rifles, and three prized handguns he kept locked in a safe in the study. Quinn had seen them, touched them even, but always under the general’s hawklike gaze. Even to two children, it was obvious that this wasn’t meant to be here.

“Is it Father’s?” Maria asked, daring to tap its scuffed handle with her toe. “It doesn’t look like Father’s.”

Don’t,” Quinn hissed.

Maria withdrew her foot as if slapped, then inched her boot closer in defiance…but stopped short of touching it again.

As the progeny of a well-respected, high-ranking general, and coming from a bloodline as steeped in the military as the Belvederes, the twins knew enough even in their youth to understand how precious and dangerous this sort of weapon was. His father had drilled respect for armament into their heads since they were old enough to understand what a gun or a dagger or a bow even was, and what they could do if mishandled.

“He wouldn’t leave this here,” said Quinn with a certainty that might have been comical, coming from a child his age.

“Should we take it inside?”

Somewhere deeper in the stable, a door closed. Both twins flinched at once and exchanged terrified glances as rhythmic, shuffling footsteps punctuated the previous stillness. And before they could figure out what to do—run or hide or cover up their startling find—a figure darkened the stall door.

The tall man halted abruptly, just as startled to see the twins as they were to see him. He dressed in the rich olive of the estate’s livery attendants, but the uniform was ill-fitting—sleeves too short, shoulders too narrow.

“Who are you?” Quinn heard himself demand, his child’s voice high but steady despite the pallor of his face. “And where is Jeremie?”

Maria straightened her posture next to him in solidarity.

The man coughed. “I’m John,” he replied tentatively, his voice gravelly and deep. “Jeremie is sick today. I’m filling in for him. Who are you?”

“Jeremie doesn’t get sick,” Maria declared.

Quinn began to tremble. He had been in trouble before, of course. He wasn’t afraid of that. He wasn’t even afraid of his father’s lash-whip, seldom though he’d actually been on the receiving end of it. But this—all of this—was wrong. Even if he couldn’t quite put his finger on why.

The strange attendant’s eyes flicked down to their feet. Maria leaned down with uncanny swiftness, sweeping the revolver into her two minuscule hands. Her arms shook as she extended the weapon, but whether it was from its weight or her own terror was unclear given the cold determination in her eyes.

The man had the good sense to look startled. But then his lips curled upward, baring crooked teeth in a vicious grin. “Hand that over to me, little girl,” he said, taking a long stride forward and extending his arm. “That’s too dangerous for children. You don’t know what you’re doing.”

Maria kept the barrel pointed roughly at his chest. With two trembling thumbs, she pried back the tarnished hammer as if to prove him wrong. She’d seen her father do it a hundred times. The cylinder turned with an ominous click, and then everything happened at once.

The man lunged.

Maria fired.

The gun clattered to the floor, but after the deafening explosion of the firearm, Quinn could only hear the ringing in his ears. Maria stumbled back, tripping over her boots.

But Quinn’s eyes were glued to the man lying prostrate on the ground. Thick crimson blood seeped into the straw and bubbled up from a wound in his torso, a small hole in the space between his heart and his belly. The Belvedere boy stared, frozen in place, as the puddle grew to a lake, its expanding shore nearly grazing the toe of his boots.

He didn’t know how long Maria had stood at his side, looking down at the stranger’s face as it grew whiter and whiter. And they watched, together, as the light—however malicious it had been—faded from the man’s blue eyes, and the steady spurting of blood ceased its gush.

Dead. The word echoed through his mind with a hollow, yet melodic, sort of certainty.

The rest of the afternoon was a blur. One of them—he honestly couldn’t remember who—retrieved the revolver and brought it to the house, which set off a chain of events that began with their mother’s stifled scream and ended with a full estate lockdown. General Belvedere returned immediately from Compound with an entourage of armed militiamen, and Quinn and Maria were whisked away to their rooms under the supervision of Governess Nannette and two burly soldier guards stationed at the door.

They questioned him. They questioned Maria. Separately, together, and then separately once again. Children’s testimonies could be fickle, but each twin recited identical stories; the details of their experience had been burned into their memories with clarity as bright as the cloudless spring sky had been.

They learned afterward that the intruder had been a rebel operative on a mission to assassinate their father. He had strangled the stable hand Jeremie and stolen his uniform, storing his weapon of choice in a place the general was practically guaranteed to be later that evening. It would have been an ambush at point-blank range, a solid plan—until two mischievous children had gotten in the way.

In effect, the twins had saved their father’s life. But in doing so, it had changed them forever. Or perhaps awakened something intrinsic that had been there all along.

For months after the incident, Quinn watched the life seep from the intruder’s face whenever he closed his eyes. Saw the sneer fade from his lips as his muscles slackened in death. Watched the spurt of crimson gush and gush, softer and softer with a failing heartbeat, a weakening geyser of red…and then slow to a stop. Again and again and again. Every detail vivid.

Governess Nannette, a lovely older woman who, for all her hardened features and strict rules, genuinely cared for the young Belvedere siblings, tried to get Quinn and Maria to speak about the incident in the weeks and months of the aftermath. Her barrage of questions was endless, and the boy didn’t know what to say. Because when asked how he was doing, how he was feeling, the honest answer was fine.

Because Quinn Belvedere had not been traumatized by what he’d witnessed.

He’d been fascinated.

 

 

+  —   N O W  —  +

 

The entrance read Avondale, but no one ever called it by its title.

The hulking iron glyphs above the gates formed a heavy nametag that contradicted the airy, open grounds and the modest but imperial manor they guarded. Quinn Belvedere had passed beneath the letters countless times in his life, and each time he wondered why the distinguished name had fallen out of favor.

He’d always rather liked it.

He supposed he had the power to resurrect its usage, if such a thing really mattered. It had been two long years since Quinn had inherited Avondale and all its affiliated wildlands, yet still it hadn’t completely sunk in that he, not his prick of a father, was head of the household. No matter how large a staff he oversaw, how many financial logs he kept and balanced, how many acres of untamed grounds he wrangled into sculpted gardens…it never really felt like his.

The manor was a crown on the rounded top of a grassy hill. Stately walls constructed of warm yellow limestone rose from the manicured knoll, with views of Thebes to the northwest and the sea to the distant east. It was a house built for summer, when architecture was designed to help its inhabitants withstand sweltering sunny days and stagnant humid nights. With its sweeping white colonnade on either side of the grand entrance, and numerous large windows trimmed with scrolls of darker stone, Quinn had no doubt it had done exactly that. Before the Cold, anyway.

The dark-haired general turned up his collar against the bite of the autumn wind, pausing to look up. He frowned. The sculpted brackets tucked beneath the eaves were in need of a fresh coat of paint. But that would have to wait until the thaw, which was many miserable months away.

For someone who was rarely home, he didn’t know why it bothered him so much.

The door opened for him as soon as he reached the top of the stairs, the silver-haired butler greeting him with a deep bow as he stepped into the warmth of the vestibule. “Thomas,” Quinn huffed in salutation, nodding his thanks.

“We weren’t expecting you until the weekend, Master Belvedere. After Lady Belvedere arrived,” the man said, peeling the general’s damp coat from his shoulders. “Your room is being prepared as we speak.”

“I have work to do before all that,” Quinn replied curtly. Fine mist clung to his hair, blackening the deep brown. He raked his fingers through it with a frown. “If you could ready the fire in the study…”

“Consider it done, sir.”

“Excellent.” He turned to his two guards without bothering to sweeten his sour mood. His problem was not with them, but with…well, everything. He offered the men—both highly capable fighters, guardsmen qualified to protect every rank including the high commander himself—an abrupt dismissal to the staff quarters, then prowled to the staircase.

Quinn’s reputation preceded him, and he knew it. He’d earned it. A once-in-a-generation combat artist, they’d called him in training all those years ago. Quinnley takes after his father. The officers had whispered amongst themselves on the periphery of the sparring courts. The Belvedere boy is going places. And he certainly had—rocketing through the ranks, becoming one of the youngest to earn a Chief designation…and, no less, a position as vital and dear to the high commander’s heart as Overseer of Training.

And he hadn’t deigned to stop there; indeed, since his promotion two years ago, he’d already put training reforms in motion and become one of High Commander Walther’s closest advisors.

Quinn privately reveled in the jealous sneers that had contorted the weathered features of Walther’s other trusted compatriots. General Mandeville, who had been one of the high commander’s prominent sidekicks for the better part of a two decades, had taken it particularly badly when, just the previous year, the high commander had passed him over to appoint Quinn his domestic stand-in for a sudden trip abroad.

Quinn had put the old snake in his place. His father would have been proud.

The dark-haired warrior sidled into the study, a room that went untouched except for one or two days each month, when Quinn holed himself up there over a weekend to sort through routine matters of the estate and their family funds. A fresh fire sputtered on the hearth, but it had yet to heat the chill in the air. With a disgruntled sigh, he plopped unceremoniously down in the leather chair at the desk. A cloud of dust took flight with the motion, and with a half-smile of boyish amusement, he dragged a finger through the thin coating on the mahogany.

It was something his father might once have raged over, but Quinn couldn’t be bothered. He’d given the staff little time to prepare for his premature arrival, and if a little dust in an unused room was the price he paid, well…he could live with it.

The dreary weather did little to illuminate the room despite the large windows. Even the fire seemed reluctant to cast its glow. Quinn watched the flames dance across the fresh logs, allowing his mind to drift as he draped a hand over the canvas-bound ledger perched at the edge of the desk. A moment of peace—so rare these days. With his duties as a general and a chief and an advisor and as the head of his family’s business, down time was a rare luxury there simply weren’t enough hours in the day to afford.

He didn’t know how long he remained there, motionless, before a knock snapped him back to the present.

“Quinn,” a familiar alto hummed from the other side of the oaken door. “I’m coming in.”

Maria Belvedere did not wait for a response from her brother before she whirled inside, closing the door behind her with perhaps a little too much force.

“I didn’t even hear you arrive,” the general declared, casually lacing his fingers together over his abdomen and leaning back in his chair.

“Well, you wouldn’t have, would you, what with…” Her eyes, flashing the same liquid amber as her brother’s, made a point of sweeping the conspicuously undisturbed desktop. “…all this work you’ve had your nose buried in.”

Quinn snorted. “Do I have to remind you whose fault that is?”

“That you’re shirking your responsibilities and brooding in the dark?” Maria grinned and tucked a long wave of brunette hair behind an ear.

“You weren’t even supposed to get back from Washentown until tomorrow.” The general matched her smile with a smirk of his own, but it faded with an exasperated sigh. “Do you know what a logistical ordeal it is, having your wedding here?”

“I only agreed to it on your recommendation, General.” Her words were terse, but her face shone with mirth. “And you weren’t supposed to be here until this weekend.”

“You know my reasons.” Quinn cleared his throat and flipped open the ledger, conjuring yet another cloud of dust as the white pages splayed.

“Yes. And they are sound ones,” she replied, the gleam in her eyes transitioning to one of appreciation. “But…”

Quinn met her gaze with an annoyance she did not deserve, silencing her with a look. “The security considerations alone, with the High Commander and his entourage—”

“Of which you are a part—”

“—are the reason I’m home two days early.” Annoyance flashed in narrowed eyes, but Maria only squared her shoulders. She remained one of the few in Northam who didn’t shrink away on the rare occasions an emotion breached his careful composure, and for a moment, her insubordination prompted a flare of indignation.

“Careful, Quinnley,” Maria warned as if reading his thoughts, bracing the heels of her hands on the opposite edge of the desk. “You don’t want to make dear old father too proud.”

At that, he bristled. She leaned forward in challenge, which only infuriated him further. She always knew how to push his buttons—but when it came down to it, she could hold her own. She wouldn’t have been a Belvedere if she couldn’t, and he expected nothing less. Still, it had been a trying day, and his patience was running thin. “What exactly are you saying, Mia?” he asked, the childhood nickname slipping out by force of habit.

“I’m saying…” She bit back something more forceful and sighed. Picking battles with care was another one of her skills, having grown up with an ambitious twin brother and a domineering military father. “I’m saying let me help.”

“I promised security protocols to the High Commander on Monday.” Speaking the deadline aloud somehow made it more real, and his frown deepened. “It’s a nightmare.”

Maria trailed a manicured finger through the dust on her side of the desk, just as he had done an hour before. “Oh, little Quinnley,” she drawled, her brown eyes gleaming with the same bright, intimidating ferocity he’d often seen stare back at him in his own reflection. “So high and mighty. All those laurels…and yet with your head so high up in those clouds, you didn’t notice that they’ve turned to brambles around your feet.”

“How poetic.”

She tapped a rhythm on the mahogany with her sculpted nail. “Did it even occur to you that I might have drawn up some plans already?” If she hadn’t known better, she might have rolled her eyes. “Like I didn’t know you were going to insist on having the wedding here from the beginning.”

Surprise flickered in Quinn’s face, and Maria smirked. “Don’t forget who earned higher marks in strategy and management,” she quipped.

“By two points—

“Three. I wouldn’t have expected anything more from someone so much younger and less mature.”

At that, Quinn laughed. His twin sister—just twenty-two minutes older than himself—was perhaps the only soul in the world who could drive him to infuriation in one breath and genuine laughter in the next.

She was also the only person privy to the man who was left when all the ranks and titles were stripped away. It was a rare freedom, and one he did not take lightly.

“Let me know if the honorable Brigadier General and Chief has any interest in looking over a lowly civilian bride’s attempt to help,” she went on, her sarcasm accompanied by a series of melodramatic facial expressions. “He just might find most of the legwork is done.”

He rolled his eyes. “Of course I want to see what you’ve put together.”

“I’ll walk you through it after dinner.”

“Will Mr. Lane be joining us?”

“Not until next week. Caught up in business in Washentown. Which gives you and me the perfect opportunity for training while you’re home.”

Quinn swore, but his lips curled into a haughty smile. “We can see how much good those three points do for you then.”

 

 

+  —  T H E N  —  +

 

The first time Quinnley Belvedere had taken a life had been a smoky autumn Saturday five years later.

At twelve, he had only just broken even with Maria in height. He and his sister trained in physical combat every other day after lessons, alternating with additional classes in military strategy and history. The Belvedere legacy was one of military pride and honor, and their father—when he wasn’t away on business—personally oversaw their education of both the mind and the body. The stern patriarch had not failed to notice his son’s frustration at being regularly bested by his comparatively long-limbed sister.

“Girls grow sooner than boys,” his father informed him for the hundredth time, and Quinn began to wonder if the man was actually reassuring himself more so than his son. “You will catch up to Mia soon enough. And surpass her.”

“Will you let Mia be a cadet next year?” he asked.

The general pursed his lips. “She knows it is her own decision, as the law allows. And she is a Belvedere, so she will be ready should she choose to attend,” he drawled. A non-answer, one designed to sate the inquirer without revealing the man’s own opinion. It was little wonder Marius Belvedere had secured a place in the high commander’s inner circle; he was a political mastermind as much as a military one. And Quinn knew better than to press the matter further when information was not volunteered.

The grizzled Belvedere patriarch was a brutal man by any definition, but he was also a loyal one. Quinn knew his father loved Maria—at least in the distant, protective, reticent way he was capable of—but given the choice, the military man would rather have sired two sons over a son and a daughter. The prospect of his daughter attending basic training was a major source of contention between himself and his wife—because having a female successfully complete the official regimen would be a tremendous display of familial strength and superiority, one that upheld the Belvedere legacy. But on the other hand, that very same reputation could be irreparably tarnished should she enroll and fail, or worse, enroll and be killed.

The twins had overheard their parents fighting about it more than once as they approached the proper age, but one particular night it had come to a head. The siblings pressing their ears to the other side of the locked study doors, hardly daring to meet each other’s gazes in the darkness.

“She won’t last a week,” they heard their mother insist. Not with any sort of malice, but rather a cold matter-of-factness that was somehow worse. The Belvedere girl’s hands balled into trembling fists at her sides as she listened. “Are you so stubborn that you can’t see how this might harm her marriage prospects? What respectable general will want a wife who could rival him in combat? Or worse, what if she gets maimed? Or… sullied?”

Quinn gripped his sister’s arm to keep her from bursting into the room to her own defense, locks be damned. “The law gives her the choice,” their father had responded, his muffled baritone all business. “And I will make sure she is prepared if she wishes to proceed.”

“You need to forbid it,” their mother had shot back. “You and your bloody legacy…using her like some kind of trained pet you can show off to the generals. You want to play politics? Think how much better she can serve our family as a wife, as an influential member of society. I think it’s time to consider dissuading her a little more forcefully before this goes too far.”

“Perhaps if you took even the slightest interest in your children’s training, you would see that Maria is proving to be quite capable. They know what my expectations are. They work for it.” Quinn felt a small kernel of appreciation flare to life in his gut…not just at the man’s defense of Maria, but that the stalwart general might actually feel some kind of fatherly pride. “If you are so intent on swaying her toward marriage over glory, Irina, it might behoove you to do some legwork of your own instead of treating your daughter like a stranger and begging me to tear down a foundation you refused to help build.”

“As if you’re not just as worried about a dent in your precious family crest,” Irina spat. “As if you don’t spend eight months of every year anywhere in Northam but your home. You might have amused yourself the past winter in the training gym with your kids, but don’t make the mistake of thinking their responsiveness to you is anything but the product of your absence. You’re nothing more than a novelty, especially now that they’re older. And instead of using your ridiculous celebrity to steer them in what is so obviously the right direction, you swoop in like some hero with no connection to reality and make their own mother out to be the villain.”

“That’s enough,” the general growled. “I will not deny my daughter what the law says is her right. I did not write the rule, but my title and my uniform bind me to it. If that’s all it takes to make me out as some kind of hero, then the fault is not with me. Perhaps the reason you’re so afraid of what your children might think of you is because they’ve caught a glimpse of the truth.”

Quinn had shivered at the ice in the man’s tone, but evidently their mother was unruffled. “Your blind commitment to law and order will be the ruin of this family, Marius Belvedere,” she’d snapped. “You’ve always been a selfish prig. Don’t think I don’t know there are always ulterior motives.”

Approaching footsteps had forced the twins to flee their position in the corridor for fear of being found outside. Maria was understandably moody and furious the remainder of the week, and did an admirable job taking out her aggressions on her brother—who tolerated it only so far before he began to push back. Their father terminated the day’s session early after neither sibling could properly focus, requesting instead that Quinn accompany him to Compound while Maria spent the afternoon with their mother.

Quinn sat across from his father in the carriage, his question about Mia still hanging in the air. Answered, but not answered.

“I suspect you overheard your mother and I quarreling the other night,” the general finally said, as if reading his son’s thoughts. “Is that the reason for your behavior this week? And Maria’s mood?”

Quinn’s chest tightened, but he raised his chin as he forced himself to meet his father’s unreadable gaze. To his surprise, the general chuckled. “I will not back down from my position on the matter of your sister,” the patriarch drawled, dark brown gaze unwavering. “But I will confide in you, Quinnley, that if she chooses to enter the training…she is in for a very rude awakening. I will do everything in my power to prepare you, both of you, but I can only provide the tools. It is up to the individual cadet to wield them to their advantage, and to hone them.” He paused, as if weighing his words. “But the truth is, even if she completes the regimen, Maria will never find a place amongst the military ranks. She would simply be delaying the inevitable.”

Quinn’s surprise must have shown on his face, because the general went on. “Surely you didn’t think she could ever be a general.” There was that matter-of-fact tone again, the same one they’d heard from their mother behind the study door. “But you, Quinnley, you are destined for bigger things. Not just in rank and title—though surely that as well—but in action. And that is why you will be attending Compound with me twice a week from now until your thirteenth birthday. A perk of your bloodline and your talent. Consider this training of a different sort. Consider this…preparation.”

As swiftly as his heart sank for his sister, the rare praise from his hardened soldier of a father caused his youthful ambition to flare into a hungry blaze. Because as much as he cared for Maria and could sympathize with her plight, Quinn had always known what his own future held—and frankly couldn’t wait for it. Power, yes, and influence, but also skill. He wanted to be the best. He wanted to be revered. He wanted to be feared. He wanted to carry on his father’s impressive legacy, to carve his own place in history for the Belvedere name.

General Belvedere led him through Headquarters and then outside to the training courts, which were in the process of renovation. Quinn’s heart hammered in anticipation.

“In five months, you will be here,” his father explained, pushing through a set of heavy steel doors to a large gymnasium that reeked of sweat. An elevated platform—a fighting ring, Quinn realized—rose from the stained concrete floor in the center of the room, its perimeter lined with taut braided rope. Around it crowded dozens of boys of varying heights, all likely around Quinn’s age, each clad in the drab khaki of first-year trainees.

General Belvedere’s iron grip weighed heavy on his shoulder as they hovered at the edge of the room. The lesson overseer called out two disparate numbers, which quieted the recruits’ whispers to a hushed silence. After a moment, two boys climbed awkwardly into the ring…and began to spar.

If it could be called that. It was messy. Clumsy. Embarrassing.

Quinn found himself stiffening with discomfort. Not at the reckless violence, not even as the taller fighter drew blood from his opponent, but at the sheer inelegance of it all. He must have pulled a face, because his father let out a low, wolflike chuckle. “Not impressed?”

“I was better than that before I even had training.”

“Care to show them how it’s done, then?”

Quinn’s pulse thundered in his ears. “What?”

But his father was already stepping forward, raising his hand to the sergeant overseeing the session. “This will be your reality in less than half a year. And Maria’s, too, if she wishes,” the general muttered to his son, eyes glittered with something Quinn couldn’t identify.

The sergeant saluted with an arm across his chest and a low bow. “General Belvedere,” he exclaimed, a little breathlessly. “To what do we owe this honor?”

Beaming a charming smile, the general gestured to Quinn. “My son is slated to join the spring wave of cadets,” he crooned. “I thought he might benefit from a bit of a trial run today, if you’ve the time to spare.”

“Of course, sir. For you, there is always time.” The sergeant himself was young, perhaps not long out of training himself, but he did not seem surprised by this request. Unbeknownst to Quinn, it was not uncommon for high-ranking families to bring their sons to an early session or two—usually when they needed to be frightened into good behavior, or made to take their own preparation seriously.

Quinn leveled his shoulders as he approached the ring, trying not to let his fear show as he ducked beneath the ropes and felt the attention of thirty pairs of eyes look him up and down. He still wore his uniform from his own training lesson earlier that day—dark cotton, in stark contrast to the beige attire of the others. His opponent, Number Ninety-Three, climbed up to face him. He was a full head taller than Quinn, and a confident sneer spread over his broad face as he made a point of looking down at the black-clad outsider.

When the whistle blew to start their match, the world went silent.

Ninety-Three launched himself forward before the shrill tone had even ceased echoing in the gym chamber, but Quinn was ready. He stepped out of the way as casually as if avoiding a puddle on the street, and the blond adolescent collided roughly with the ropes.

A collective hiss from the crowd fell on deaf ears. All Quinn could hear was his heartbeat, even as Ninety-Three’s knee found his gut, even as his fist crashed into his jaw. But he quickly caught on to the rhythm of their exchange, irregular though it was. The Belvedere twin danced away from blow after blow and wedged in several hits of his own, outmaneuvering the brutish boy’s predictable attacks even when the recruit had the upper hand of physical strength. But that didn't mean he could go forever. He couldn't tread water forever; sooner or later, he would have to sink or swim.

His opportunity presented itself as though in slow motion. Ninety-Three spun, stumbling over his feet, arms spreading wide to keep his balance—a split second’s chance, but that was all the Belvedere boy needed.

Quinn kicked upward with as much force as he could muster. His foot collided with the recruit’s throat beneath his jaw, not only knocking him flat onto his back, but forcing the wind from him with a hollow, sickening whoosh.

Ninety-Three crashed to the floor and went limp.

For a moment, he was transported back to the day Maria had shot the intruder in the stables, hovering over an altogether different body on the precipice of death. Only this time, his foot was on the victim’s chest. Pressing down, down, down, his own breath ragged with exertion even as the blond boy’s halted beneath the pressure of his boot on his sternum.

He had imagined it a thousand times, how Maria must have felt when she pulled the trigger of that dirty revolver and sent the assassin to his grave. And in his darkest thoughts, accompanied though they always were by a twinge of guilt, he had to admit to himself that he’d been jealous.

But he’d never thought it would feel like this. Like nothing.

No thrill, no excitement, no rush of power, just emptiness—a sudden void, as if the snuffing of a life had taken something palpable with it on its departure. Perhaps even a piece of himself.

Quinn stumbled backward until his hand found the rope, gripping it until his knuckles turned white. He’d gone too far. And now the boy was dead, motionless beneath the horrified gazes of four dozen adolescents and their sergeants…

And the unabashed, undeniable pride in his father’s predatory smile as the general brought his hands together in a singular, horrible source of applause.

 

 

+  —  N O W  —  +

 

Maria Amoreena Belvedere, soon to be Maria Amoreena Lane, had not been capable of throwing her brother to the training mat in fifteen years. But that wouldn’t stop her from trying.

He was holding back. It infuriated her, but she wasn’t a fool. She knew what her brother was, and she had no delusions about her own abilities.

“Elbow up,” he was saying. “Shoulder braced.”

She grunted as her blow landed against his forearm. The general deflected the hit with the same effort he might brush away a pesky mosquito in the summertime.

Maria may have been petite, but she was a Belvedere through and through. The twins’ academic lessons had always been supplemented with classes in politics and strategy, intensives taught by their father when he returned home from his travels each year for winter interim. Marius Belvedere had been a notorious four-star general, renowned not only for his work establishing rural training camps throughout Northam, but for his close companionship with the high commander himself.

Given their family’s extensive and successful military history, Marius had not excluded his daughter from an education generally reserved for boys—even if it was, as she suspected, only because her father had wished she were male. Maria had trained alongside Quinn as children, much to the dismay of many other families…but their disapproval was restricted to gossipy whispers behind their parents’ backs, because no one dared contradict General Marius Belvedere—or his stern wife Irina.

“It’s a miracle you graduated from basic training, you know,” quipped Quinn, brushing off yet another weak blow and countering with one of his own, a comically slow effort that had Maria rolling her eyes.

“That was ten fucking years ago,” she shot back with a laugh. She reached up and mopped the sweat from her brow with her forearm. “Not all of us made a career of it.”

Quinn clicked his tongue disapprovingly, but it was mostly in jest. Maria was a perfectly capable sparring partner. Not just anyone could endure all five brutal years of basic training, let alone the very few women who tried. Nevertheless, her words rang true; the men who graduated were usually immediately assigned to regiments and deployed for service. Maria had not been afforded that opportunity. And while private sessions and individual dedication had proven adequate to maintain her skill, it had been too long since she’d been truly challenged.

They wrapped up their session, with Maria far worse for wear than her brother, and parted ways to ready themselves for dinner.

 

++++

 

Quinn arrived to the dining room with his nose buried in a ledger. Maria arched a sculpted brow as he made his way to the head of the table without looking up. “What’s this?” she said, already sipping on a voluptuous glass of red wine. “Has the high commander made a bookworm out of you while I was in Washentown?”

Quinn grunted, skimming the typewritten page to the end before closing the volume. “I need a glass of that,” he declared, ignoring her jab. “What is it?”

She poured him his own serving. “2065 Château Deneuvre,” she said. “I had Thomas dig into the pre-Cold collection today. To celebrate.”

The general threaded the fine crystal stem through his fingers, the delicacy of his movement as he brought the glass to his nose belying the strength in his callused hands. He softly inhaled the rich scent of the wine…and wrinkled his nose. “I can only assume you have bad news, if this is what you’ve chosen to toast with,” he said, at last taking a sip. “You could have at least chosen the ’64.”

Maria struck him, not gently, in the arm. “You spend too much time with the High Commander.”

“The High Commander prefers gin,” drawled Quinn. “It’s glorified antiseptic. No elegance whatsoever.” But he grinned, abandoning his act. “So, what’s the celebration?”

Maria laughed. “My fiancé has secured a new contract with the Indian Continent.” She smiled against the rim of the chalice. “It was signed weeks ago, but he received his first shipment just yesterday. The reason for his delay in coming to Thebes. But a major boon for his—our—business.”

Quinn nodded his approval. “That’s fantastic, Mia. Will you and Maxwell be traveling there?”

“Not until the summer,” she explained. “But the deal does mean I’ve given myself some additional spending power. Now, about my dress...is your tailor still planning to stop by this weekend?”

“I offered to pay for your dress, you know,” the general said, pulling a face. “And you refused, out of respect for Maxwell’s family coming from…lesser means.”

The Belvedere girl shrugged, but a mischievous smile tugged at her lips. “Now I can say it was a splurge to celebrate the trade deal.”

Quinn rolled his eyes. “Yes, the tailor is slated to arrive Sunday afternoon. I will ask if he’ll stick around after the appointment for a consultation.”

“Is it that awful old Mr. Tracey?” She groaned into her wine glass. “His tastes were out-of-fashion when Mother was getting married. And he’s deaf as an adder, so trying to explain anything is hopeless.”

“No, this is someone new. He came highly recommended.” The general drained the remainder of his wine to the dregs. “But you can judge for yourself.”

Quinn helped himself to another pour of the tolerable Château Deneuvre, savoring yet another moment’s break from paperwork and record-keeping. Even with the ledger taunting him from its place on the table, and the prospect of reviewing security protocols with Mia after dessert, he found himself in a far better mood now than when he’d arrived earlier that day. He just hoped it boded well for the weekend.

And if not, at least there was a near-bottomless wine cellar at his command.

 

++++

 

It had taken three insistent knocks on the study door to break Quinn’s concentration that Sunday afternoon. He’d rushed back to his room for the tailor’s visit, an appointment he would have certainly forgotten about otherwise. There was simply so much to do…

At least this particular chore would be quick.

The general knew the routine of a tailor’s visit—forced pleasantries, a few dull questions, a couple of measurements, and they’d both go their separate ways. He’d been through it a hundred times before.

He slipped out of his trousers, folding them neatly and draping them over the arm of an upholstered chair, then slipped out of his overcoat and sweater. The air was chilly on his bare skin, and he glanced to the window, where a flicker of motion caught his attention. A sigh expanded his broad chest. The previous few day’s drizzle had thickened to lazy snow as the temperature plummeted, and he watched as the flakes drifted to the lawn. At least he didn’t have any obligations in the city that day. But the last thing he needed was late Sunday inclement weather to muck up his already bursting weekly itinerary.

The general didn’t turn immediately at the sound of the door opening, or the soft footsteps on the carpet. Only when Thomas announced his visitor did he spin, amber eyes narrowing as they settled not on some portly tailor in an impeccable three-piece suit, but a svelte, dark-haired woman in nondescript clothing who seemed to want to look everywhere but at him.

“Ah. Miss Paice,” he said smoothly, just as much by way of greeting as processing the realization that somewhere along the lines had been a grievous error in communication.

Not that he minded. The schooled expression in his eyes gave way to a glimmer of amusement as he stepped onto her folding stool before the gilded mirror. He glanced to his reflection. Clad only in boxer-briefs and a tight cotton shirt, a lesser man might have shrunk away with insecurity, but not Quinn; he wore his hard-earned physique with an ease that belied his power, and he did not shy away even when the soft-spoken seamstress leaned close.

“For my sister's upcoming wedding,” he replied, watching her from his perch. “That's correct.”

The seamstress met his gaze suddenly, with such marked abruptness that he lapsed into a pause. The cool blue of her steely eyes pierced his with an intensity that sent an unbidden thrill down the length of his spine, and he arched his brows in surprise.

“You know,” he drawled, shaking off the sensation and donning an easy, approachable smile. “I’m wondering if we might…push the boundaries of the traditional formal blues. The High Commander will be in attendance, and I will be giving my sister away. I’d like to look the part.” A contemplative pause. “No, I’d like to look better than the part.”

He cast his light brown gaze back down, searching to meet hers…suddenly curious to get a read on the expression he found there, and curious as to whether it might incite the same shiver all over again. “Do you think you make that happen?”

 

— i know there's something waiting for us —
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simply
(@simply)
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Topic starter  

Clover caught his raised brows and turned away to set to task. The General’s evident surprise was likely due to her obvious gawking. She’d be lucky if she wasn’t fined for insubordination to a man of his stature...or worse. The seamstress focused her attention on the contents of her satchel. She drew out two different measuring tapes - one a pale blue with navy numbering, contrasting the black one with white writing. Draping the darker of the two across her shoulders, gray eyes flickered over his form in an assessing manner more than a lustful one.

Gaze settled on that charismatic smile after looking at his neck and shoulders. Warmth slid through her at the sight of it and she quickly looked away. “Mmm,” the seamstress responded as he began speaking. The request did surprise her. Few in the High Commander’s employ would seek to push any boundaries regarding the uniform. They typically sought to identically emulate the ruler of Northam. The whole imitation bordered on obsessive. Once, Azalea’s father had worn a black suit to an event, most likely because his favorite uniform was covered in the blood of innocents. Rose’s was subsequently able to charge excessive amounts for any black fabric for nearly four months. The dark-haired woman rounded behind him and then foolishly met his eyes in the mirror.

“Of course I can.” Clover retorted, the words coming out a bit haughtier than she intended. The spy blamed it on how being in such close proximity to him had unnaturally unnerved her.  Their eyes locked through the reflective surface, molten gold burning into her soul. Feeling terribly exposed, despite wearing more clothing than her client, attention turned to his collar, where she began to measure. Keeping all the numbers in her mind, after a few, her hands would scribble the information into a notebook. The recording was unnecessary, as her memory was impeccable but normal people didn’t memorize sequences for amusement as children.  That would have drawn unwanted attention, bordering on suspicions.

Even if she was acting very conspicuously now around the devastating attractive Belvedere.

“I have a fantastic midnight navy fabric that we could use for the jacket and pants.  A soft, extremely pale blue for the shirt.” Clover appeared to almost be talking to herself as she envisioned him in such an ensemble. The mental image send a torrent of heat flaring through her. Fuck. Just get through this job. “Black lapels, with just the slightest difference from the fabric until light hits it. Unless you want the more traditional high collar.” Returning to stand before him now she slipped her arm around his waist, so she could catch the dangling end of her measuring tape. As she did so the tender inside of her arms brushed against his waist, feeling the heat between them. The temperature was searing and it took all of her mental fortitude to not leap back at the scalding touch.  Delicate fingers held both ends of the tape around his waist and her gaze focused on securing his hip and waist measurements. The next...the next would be to measure his inseam, which usually was the part the seamstress dreaded so completely.  Now, it was for an entirely new reason. “The question is whether you would like epaulettes, as well.” She spoke casually, in an attempt to ease her own ridiculous nerves. “The particulars do need to be decided today, with the timeframe that we’re on. I could sketch some options for you after completing your measurements.”

Swallowing, Clover kept her head bowed slightly before her finger set one end of the numbered strip against his inner thigh. Electricity shot up her arm and raced across her clavicle. A slow inhale brought itself through her teeth as she lowered her hand slowly down to his ankle. Did she have to run her finger down the entire length of his thigh before dropping to his medial malleolus? No, but inexplicably it felt thrilling. Without a word, she measured his ankle, calf and thigh just above his knee without the tantalizing touch she administered with his inseam. Finally, the Resistance leader rose to stand before him.

“Would that be to your satisfaction, General?” The words escape her in a suggestive tone that startled her when it met her ears. Fuck, had she completely lost her mind? Head titled upward, stormy blue eyes captured his and her head cocked slightly to the side.


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“Mmm. Let's just say I’m interested in seeing what I can get away with.” The words were a croon as Quinn met the woman’s gaze in the mirror. He pressed his lips together against a smirk, which lit his amber eyes with mirth.

The general was not looking to be a trendsetter; he was under no pretense that his choice of wardrobe at his sister’s wedding would hold any influence over the fashion tastes of the other Thebesian elite, and frankly, he didn’t care one way or the other. He had nothing more to prove to them. But he was interested in pushing boundaries. A strict line segregated tradition from sacrilege, and Quinn intended not just to toe it, but to strut its length with his haughty chin high.

The flicker of surprise on the seamstress’ face at his unusual request was more than warranted. He wasn’t concerned about the high commander’s reaction to an unconventional choice in wardrobe, but he realized he was likely the only person in Northam who could genuinely sport such nonchalance. Despite himself, his lips curved into a confident smile. Indeed, the Walther dictator was so taken with the young Belvedere general that Quinn’s brazenness would earn a wink and a chuckle…where anyone else might find themselves fined, bleeding, or worse.

Nevertheless, the general did not wield his carte blanche lightly; it was a political windfall he’d rightfully earned, and one he would never take for granted despite what might appear to others as reckless decisions to defy the status quo. But that didn’t mean he wouldn’t use it when he could.

The high-achieving general was many things, but he was never reckless.

Much like the high commander himself, every move Quinn made was deliberate. What others might perceive as foolhardy acts of defiance were in fact small, calculated steps to determine precisely how far his leash could stretch. A thousand inane, negligible precedents, sown like new seeds in an old-growth forest—and all with the benefit of asserting his own unrivaled political power amongst the commander’s subservient inner circle.

His unusual request of the seamstress was yet another demonstration of his unique freedoms, with the old, sniveling generals aligned in his crosshairs this time—the ones who had counted the late Marius Belvedere amongst their ranks for decades, and who had immediately reneged their roles as mentors to up-and-comer Quinn the moment the old general was forced to resign his post.

Envy and ambition made dangerous bedfellows. The battle-hardened snakes had tried to slam closed every door General Marius had left open for his son, which only fueled Quinn’s determination. And despite their best efforts to undermine him, to discredit him, the young Belvedere only grew more untouchable by the season…and now, armed with a Chief designation and a brutal résumé of personal achievements, he delighted in watching them seethe.

As Brigadier General, he might not have outranked them, not technically, not yet—but everyone in Thebes knew who High Commander Walther favored as his Second. And it certainly wasn’t tight-lipped Lieutenant General Mandeville, or watery-eyed Crenshaw, or sour-faced Lawson. So even something as mundane as flaunting a variation in the uniform he wore to his sister’s wedding brought him supreme satisfaction—it was a reminder that he was far, far beyond any of their hollow threats, and that was not about to change.

“I wear nearly identical uniforms every day. For this, I am happy to defer to a professional’s best judgment.” He lifted one hand in a gesture to the seamstress at the same moment that she reached around his waist with her measuring tape, and his forearm brushed her shoulder. Featherlight though it was, the warmth that radiated up his arm from the accidental collision was…surprising. Almost as surprising as the sudden pressure of her hands drawing down the length of his bare thigh.

The general looked down at the woman with a curiosity he didn’t bother to veil. He’d been through enough tailoring appointments to know that fingertips on skin to such a degree was not strictly necessary…but he also made no effort to reprimand her. Despite the daring touch, she remained all business, her measuring tape flashing pale blue against his olive skin, her attention downcast. Another thrill shot down his spine. To initiate such intimate contact, yet to pretend all was usual? Very bold, he thought, intrigued once again.

Boldness was something the general could appreciate.

He was no stranger to advances from the opposite sex, from coquettish Thebesian elite to daring maidservants hoping to win his favor to lusty barmaids angling for the clout of a high-ranking lay. Even the occasional member of the same sex had deemed the risk of exposure worth the dire consequences for the chance at landing in the infamous young Belvedere’s bed. So this, if it were indeed a come-on, was certainly not unusual. But he had never bedded a seamstress, never mind one so delightfully…odd…and the prospect was enough to replace preoccupation with his impossible day with thoughts of glistening skin and tangled sheets.

The woman drew herself up before him. There it was again, that same jolt when his warm brown eyes met the cool steel of hers—and for a moment, he was thrown by the sharpness he found there. An edge that seemed to contradict the intimacy of her touch, the soft flush of her cheeks. Had he misread her actions and arrived at an inaccurate assumption?

But then she spoke, and the suggestion in her tone—which seemed to confirm his suspicions—spurned an equally suggestive quirk of his brow. “Miss Paice,” he addressed leisurely, “if you think a midnight blue overcoat with black lapels will do, then I have no choice but to trust you.” Narrowing his eyes, he studied her for a beat through long lashes. “I will place the matter of epaulettes into your…” He stepped down from his perch suddenly, reaching down to capture one of her hands in his own with a gentleness that belied his strength. Turning it over, palm-up, he studied her slender fingers before flicking his gaze back to hers—closer this time, close enough to see the flecks of cobalt amidst the storm. “…your capable hands,” he finished, releasing his grasp.


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The original proprietor of Rose’s possessed very liberal views of sex that starkly contrasted the official Northam line of female piety and goal of was many children as the body could produce. The seamstress and Resistance leader instructed Clover that even as a woman in a strict country, she had physical needs that must be met. The manner of her instruction was as it always had been, to the point and without any embellishment. Initially mortified but the discussion, her protege took to the recommendation ardently in her late teens. Rose taught her how to be careful with lovers, and how to make sure that they also gave her pleasure when they took their own. It made for interesting dinner discussions, but sculpted Clover into the confident woman she was - at least in secret and in the bedroom.

Even now, standing before the most beautiful male specimen she had ever seen, she heard Rose’s words in her mind. Take what you need and leave it behind. You, you, cannot afford to be distracted by physical attraction, emotional connection. You must be strong, solitary, if you ever hope to bring him down. The memory was faint, now, through as she felt the heat of his body when he stepped down to stand before her. Steel eyes flickered upward, further than she accustomed to. The seamstress was quite tall for a woman, yet the General still had inches on her.

The purr of her false name sent a delicious warmth racing down her spine and she purposely bit a small part of the inside of her cheek to keep from letting him see. That heat paled in comparison to the burning that occurred when her took her hand. Unable to look away from his golden features, Clover scrutinized his face while he studied her long fingers. His features were more stunning up close. Brown eyes swirled with glimmering ribbons of gold against unblemished skin. His nose was a straight line down and stopped above a gentle Cupid’s bow of soft lips. The hair of his beard, kept short and well-groomed, was a mixture of dark browns and deep blondes.

Hand fell back to her side, released, as his words met her ears. Unable to stop herself (did she really attempt it though?), the spy bit her lower lip. She held the position as she met his eyes once more. “Mmm,” she hummed at first, “and how do you know how adept my hand skills are, General?” The title rolled off her tongue in a caress before she stepped back, letting a cool space of air hover between them. “Are you always so swift to compliment someone without a sufficient demonstration of their abilities?”

Somewhere in the back of her mind, the logical part of her was screaming at her to stop. This was too far, too much, too sudden. It was not well planned and started with significant false intelligence. This could be a terrible ploy. Someone could have found out. Someone might suspect. She could use him though, gather information if she started a relationship with him....No, far too risky. It was better to keep things professional.

If only she could convinced her body and her mouth of that.

The storm of desire in her eyes tore away from his liquid stare. Fingers that twitched to tangle into the thick curls of his hair instead turned to retrieve a sketchbook from her satchel and a sharpened stick of graphite. She flipped the pages upward, settling on a crisp white sheet. She tucked the pencil into her hair as she turned back towards him. The hum of electricity filled her ears as they lapsed into momentarily silence. Gray-blue eyes flickered over his features before she cocked her head. Eyebrows furrowed together in annoyance at the light. Gaze surveyed the room before she took his hand with a featherlight grasp and drew him closer to the bed, a centralized spot from the multiple lamps in the room. It cast beautiful light and shadows against his skin. Heart rate amplified and she swallowed, releasing his hand.

Clover stepped back and let her eyes roam over him. Withdrawing the pencil, she began to sketch him. She started with a rough outline of his body - broad shoulders tapering inward to a seductive V. Some rare emotion possessed her then and she drew close once more. As she would draw, occasionally she would reach out a finger and brush it along a muscle, as if tracing the light.  Feet took her around him, drawing and pausing and touching him briefly. At one point, he turned his chin to examine her. In return, she used her pointer finger to tilt his face forward once more, but not before he would see her smirk. She almost had the sketch done, but instead she allowed her ring finger to brush along the lower curve of his spine. Deft fingers released the top two buttons of her white shirt and she released her hair from its confines. Excitement flooded her and she schooled her face into a mask before rounding around once more to stand before the military man. If she ever hoped to be ride of this undeniable desire, she’d have to follow some of Rose’s rules. Take it. Then leave it behind. 

A heady moment hovered between them as hungry eyes roved over his form once more. Fuck. The seamstress held out the sketch for the general to examine. It was a rough drawing but highly skilled. It indicated the sharp of the coat, the lapels, and the detailed embellishments at the cuff. A snake wrapped itself around the wrist of each arm, a homage honoring the High Commander and his seal.  Within the twists and curves of the snakes’ bodies resided small details of the Belvedere insignia.

“Do you like what you see, General?” She breathed, all logic melting away like snow in the sunshine.


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The dark-haired woman’s voice was a sultry hum, and suddenly the late autumn air didn’t feel quite so chilly on his bare skin. There was something in her eyes—no, he realized suddenly, a lack of something—that intrigued him to such a degree that made it difficult to look anywhere else.

Fear…he detected not a single trace of it. And although her expression certainly was not defiant, neither did it possess the reverence he was so accustomed to seeing in those who didn’t already belong to the militia’s highest ranks—the careful deference of a person who knew exactly what General Quinn Belvedere was capable of, and exactly what might happen should he be crossed.

But the seamstress’ visage betrayed none of that. Instead, her steel-blue eyes flashed with unwavering conviction, as though she had every right to take up space in his bedroom, as though she were born to stand before him, shoulders squared and chin high. Utterly unapologetic. The woman who had initially entered his bedroom looking everywhere except at Quinn, who had then gone on to take his measurements with a professional efficiency even the militia might envy, seemed to have discarded her trepidation somewhere between the brush of her forearms against his waist and the suggestive trail of her fingers down his thigh.

“No, not as a rule,” he confessed to her question about passing premature judgment. A casual shrug lifted his shoulders, even as his attention remained intensely trained on her face. “But I don’t make a habit of consorting with incompetence, let alone commissioning it. You, Miss Paice, are preceded by your reputation.” He arched a knowing brow, fully aware of what it was like to be cloaked in expectation before he even entered a room. “I believe my faith in your hands to be a safe bet. So safe, in fact…it’s not a bet at all.”

His words might have come across as threatening if spoken with an alternate tone. But Quinn’s voice was a low purr, the tonal embodiment of the confident smirk still worn by his features. He continued to watch her as she retrieved a sketchbook and graphite from her satchel, looking away only when she brazenly took his hand in her own to lead him toward the bed and into the light. From anyone else, he might have rebuked the gesture—it was more forward than what he was used to from someone he’d hired to do a job, and he couldn’t abide by an undermining of his authority. But a sensation of electricity shimmered over his skin at their touch, traversing the length of his arm to settle delicately in his chest, and he held himself in the position she directed without a single utterance of protest.

Quinn wore the light like a garment. Despite the large windows, the dreary late-autumn weather did little to supplement the electric glow from the sconces on the wall, which radiated a steady amber over the landscape of his muscled frame. As a soldier and a fighter, he possessed a keen awareness of his body—its position in space, the angles of his joints—and not just its physical strengths, but its aesthetic ones too. He posed with as much control and stillness as a statue carved from stone, and he held her swift adjustments to his position just as steadfast and motionless.

She circled him slowly, appraisingly…perhaps even predatorily, if he allowed his imagination to reign. The general silently thrilled beneath not only her attention, which he noted lingered leisurely over the cords of muscle that wrapped his limbs, but also her scrutiny as an artist. When he once dared swivel his head to watch her, she corrected his movement with the end of her pencil, and his mouth twitched into a suggestive smile. Very bold, he thought again.

But not as bold as that. A shiver quaked his spine as her fingertips flitted against his lower back, heat blooming in his core.

When she stepped back before him, he was surprised to see that the seamstress’ dark hair cascaded unbound over her shoulders. Her face was unreadable, but Quinn’s was not—he kept his roguish smirk precisely where it was, and even deigned to lean forward a fraction. The scent of her freed hair drifted to his nostrils, and he inhaled the soft, spiced perfume with a slow, indulgent breath. Had she loosed her tresses purposely, knowing how the gentle waves framed her face and lengthened her slender neck? His gaze drifted down the strands, noting, too, the extra peek of skin between the collar of a shirt that had previously been fully buttoned. He parted his lips to comment, but she pressed paper into his grasp—which he took tentatively, waiting a beat to cast his attention down to the page.

But when he did, his expression grew serious. The likeness was staggering, even for a gestural sketch. Varied line thicknesses perfectly captured how he carried himself, from the bold strokes down the leg that supported his figurative weight, to the wispy whorls of graphite that illustrated his coiffed hair. Even his expression, quick though the lines were, somehow managed to capture the essence of him, from his strong brow to the faintest hint of his lopsided smirk.

But what was perhaps more impressive was the way she had rendered the garments. From the cross-hatched shadows to the bare paper highlights, the silvery graphite draped over his two-dimensional figure like real fabric, supple yet structured where it counted. The sharp cut of the overcoat was daring indeed, with narrow lapels that stretched like blades down his chest. The embellishments, too, were a play on the typical embroidered cuffs of standard military uniform, but elevated to a level unrivaled by any insipid regulation design. Long thorned vines ripe with roses twisted around each wrist, the brambles weaving deftly around the scaled bodies of twin serpents. A pattern of outlined feathers filled in the gaps near the hem and completed the composition, abstracted but undeniably avian.

It was an ensemble far better than any the general could have imagined for himself. When he looked up at last, his face was unreadable—and he held her stare. “Clearly,” he said at last, “you’ve done your research.” He held out the sketchbook to the seamstress, their hands brushing on the fore-edge of the pages.

The general’s expression did not soften, but rather intensified. There was something profoundly attractive in expertise, about someone who knew their craft to an exceptional level. He straightened his posture and took a slow step forward, tightening the space between them. “I like what I see,” he affirmed, the huskiness of his voice a warm croon against the crackle of the fire and the cold breeze against the windowpanes. His eyes strayed down to where she’d undone the top buttons of her blouse, and at last the glimmer of a smirk returned to his gaze. “And I think I would like to see more of it.”

He reached up and curled his fingers around a lock of her dark hair, his movements performed with slow, deliberate ease as though to communicate that he posed no threat. “What is your name, Miss Paice?” he murmured, the innocent question sounding entirely lascivious from his tongue. “I’d like to put a full name to the masterpiece.”


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The tremble in his muscles was fleeting and a simple blink would have caused her to miss it entirely. A wonder of what that movement would feel like against her skin burst to life in her mind. The physical response solidified her decision, resulting in her hair pin slipping into her pocket. From what little she knew of this irresistible General Belvedere, the spy assessed that he was observant, intelligent. So much so that she could practically feel his attention even when his eyes were not directly on her person. Though, she wouldn’t be opposed to his eyes exploring more of her...Clover could only imagine how her skin would burn beneath his gaze.

The gleam in his eyes and the smirk on his lips sent a delicious shiver running down the entirety of her spine. That was the precise look she had wanted to see and yet the sharpness of his own need surprised her. There was no turning back from this moment, even if there was a single molecule in her body that didn’t want to rip the scant remainder of clothing from his bronzed flesh. Clover had been attracted to a wide variety of individuals and the concept of a single type of person baffled her. There were so many delightful things about different people that to spend all her time focused on a single person seemed preposterous. The hunger in the General’s gaze, however, made her question that very sentiment. If someone looked at her like this, there would be no need to fumble through with other, far more awkward, encounters.

It was fleeting, as she handed the pad to him and curiosity drew his amber eyes downward. This quality of paper that composed the drawing book was impeccable, permitting the strokes of her pencil to glide across the page, to smudge where she needed to blend. Often, the seamstress would sit in the sill of her window, thumbing the pages. They were well worth the expense to someone who loved to draw, to create. Yet, they were frivolous for a spy, a rebel. And despite that fact, every year she bought herself a single pad of twenty four pages. Two pages a month.

And she drew him on one of those.

For how could she not? The moment her stormy gaze rose the length of his exquisite form, their eyes had locked and something came apart inside of her. A carnal need to possess him and be possessed by him. Liquid heat swirled in the pit of her abdomen, anxious energy buzzing beneath her skin as he scrutinized her handiwork. The seamstress’ favorite detail was the twining of snakes and rose vines, flanked by the long brush of hawk feathers. The Belvedere crest was one she remembered from the hallway at Wymberly.  Wood stretched down the floor, worn at the edges and indicating there had once been a carpet hiding the center. The walls were adorned with paintings and accomplishments, depictions of Northam’s success under Walther rule. The High Commander’s children would race down that hall, with Azalea’s little legs carrying her first over the finish line only when her elder brother held back to let her win. Sometimes, they would walk together, when mother had one of her migraines. Beautiful insignias of her father’s most trusted generals lined this segment of the corridor. The Belvedere crest had drawn her attention even at six years old, because she had laughed and asked Remy why someone would be flowers over a sword or a lion or an elephant (her current favorite animal of the day).

The only better sensation than the paper back underneath her fingertips was the brush of his skin against her own. Something delightfully predatory lurked in his eyes as he stepped closer towards her. The space between them lessened and still the distance was far too great. The Rebellion leader itched to close the distance, to throw herself at him all the while leaving the room as swiftly as possible. The tumult of emotions thrilled her, further fueled by the return of his smirk. “Mmm, I aim to please.” She purred back, finding the words completely honest.

Clover stood before him, face in shadow as the sun began to set amongst the trees of Avondale. Trapped in a limbo built of desire. The light still gently illuminated his features, her focus on his gaze until he spoke. The question was mundane, except from his mouth. A heady tension filled the space between them, pulsing with their unacknowledged desire. A slow, seductive smile curled her soft lips. The General was perhaps the only man she had ever met to persist with the innuendos, the flirting, rather than immediately reaching out to her. A man with restrain. Intriguing. A blush rose to dance along her cheekbones  at his compliment, catching the double entendre of masterpiece. Even with the prickle of embarrassment, steely eyes never left his. “How very bold of you, General.” A low whisper, sensuous and beckoning. “To ask a girl of propriety her name, when she is alone with you.” Dark head tilted upward, causing his twirling finger on her hair to brush against her warm cheeks. “Chloe.” She exhaled.

On her inhalation, the warm scent of wood and spice filled her nose, intoxicating her. A low noise of desire almost left her, startling her but permitting her to stop it from escaping. “And you, General? I am afraid that my extensive research failed to yield your name.” With the tilt of her head upward, their mouths lingered near one another. She could almost taste him, heat roaring to life in the pit of her stomach. The desire was hungry, clawing inside of her as a ferocious and caged beast. Acutely aware of his bare skin mere centimeters from her fingertips, Clover longed to melt into him.

“Unless your plan is to maintain a proper, professional working relationship?” The punctuation of the adjectives belied their true meaning as the seamstress meant anything but. Choose indecent. Her eyes begged. Choose inappropriate. The part of her mouth permitted their breath to mingle like lovers between them. Choose this.

 


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As a rosy flush bloomed across her cheeks, a warm pang of satisfaction fluttered behind his ribs. Quinn mirrored her wanton smile with a crooked one of his own. “Mmm, yes. Well, I’m a bold man,” he countered breathily, narrowing his eyes. “So perhaps you’ll forgive me when I confess that I’m hoping you’re not as proprietous as you say.”

She spoke her name—Chloe—and a thrill rushed through him that he couldn’t quite explain. She gave voice to the syllables on a low exhale, and the name took flight between them like a spark ascending from the fire on the hearth. It was an old name, uncommon but not unusual, and altogether fitting of the enigmatic woman who stood before him. Quinn was overcome with the need to taste that name on his tongue; he wanted to feel it rumble from his chest in a passionate growl, to whisper it into the waves of her hair.

For now, however, the general settled for a murmur, a deep hum that reverberated low in his throat. “Chloe,” he echoed. The seamstress tilted her head upward, and the finger idly twisting a lock of her hair brushed featherlight against her cheek. His caramel gaze, reflecting the fire and the lamplight, glittered suddenly with a look so primal it was nearly predatory. “Miss Chloe Paice,” he continued, reveling in the heat that raced up his arm at their touch. He lowered his hand slowly and leaned ever closer, angling his chin down to maintain their locked stare.

Chloe was truly striking. Her beauty was a whisper, not a shout—warm and intimate, a secret borne on sensual breath, silken lips brushing against an ear. Quinn’s gaze pointedly roamed her oval face, tracing the sharp line of her jaw and lingering for a heated beat on her full lips. Dark hair cascaded in stark contrast to her pale, softly freckled cheeks, which only made her elegant features all the more captivating—set off, of course, by her startling eyes. They were the dense blue-gray of thick spring rainclouds gathered on a distant horizon, and just as ethereal—shrouding far more than they conveyed, but rich with the promise of a storm.

So many people were so easy to read; not unlike a wardrobe, they wore their thoughts and feelings for the world to observe, changing emotions like changing clothes. Quinn was more than just adept at deciphering such shifts in costume; he was a bloodhound, observant and practiced, sniffing out truths and lies and clues and emotions in even the most battle-hardened individuals. He wouldn’t have gotten where he was without knowing how to suss out intentions. But the seamstress, this strange woman who dealt with literal garments, was as much a mystery as the most practiced warmonger. It was remarkable how eyes of cool slate could gleam with a fire within, and yet betray nothing of what fueled the flames.

Flames he wouldn’t mind being consumed by for the night. Again and again.

He wasn’t entirely surprised when she returned the question and asked for his name. Unlike his late father, Quinn’s was not yet a household name outside of the Thebesian elite—not when old General Marius’ death six months ago had been kept absolutely quiet from all but the regime’s inner party. With Maria’s upcoming wedding, however, that news was not far from becoming public, and then everyone would know of the new head of the Belvedere household. Perhaps that was the reason for Chloe’s initial behavior…had she been expecting her appointment with General Belvedere to be with Marius, only to be blindsided by the son?

“I imagine it’s an occupational hazard to find yourself alone in rooms with half-naked men,” he drawled with an entirely suggestive chuckle. “But how often do you have to ask their names?” He lifted his hand once again, curling a finger as he brought it near her cheek. It hovered there, so close he could feel the heat radiating from her skin, but he did not make contact. Mirth shone in his light brown stare, and he drew a long breath. “My name,” he breathed, “is Quinn Belvedere. And it is a sincere pleasure to meet you.”

The general’s fingers found another strand of her hair, and he swirled it loosely around his pinky before his hand dropped back to his side. “Chloe,” he said again. The delicate perfume of citrus and spice wafted to his nose, and he found himself hyperconscious of their mingling breath, and the heat of their proximity. Desire coiled tight in his stomach as he dipped his head lower, their lips barely a fingerbreadth apart. “I don’t know about you, but I am sick to death of plans.” One corner of his mouth ticked upward. “Proper, professional ones, especially.”

Without breaking eye contact, he reached forward and eased the sketchbook out of her hands. He clutched it close against his torso, in part because there was so little room between them, and in part because it gave his restless hands something to do other than reach out to her. “What I’d like to do,” he began, pulse hammering against his breastbone in anticipation, “is get to know you a little more…” The general’s voice was coarse but assured, his eyes molten. He looked down to the book of drawings in his grip, then stepped back just far enough to lift it between them. His thumb toyed with the crisp edges of the paper, indicating his interest in looking through the collection. “May I?”


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The rumble of her name ignited tingly heat across the back of her neck, sweeping across her shoulders and down her back. Even though it was her twice-false name, the seamstress would happily go by no other moniker than Chloe if he said it just like that. Though perhaps it would feel even more enticing against the lobe of her ear, the hollow of her throat. Images flickered through her mind that would be extremely lewd in good company. Fortunately for her, the Northam General did not seem to be particularly puritan in his morals. The hope to enact some of her visions filled her, swirling with the low heat he had ignited inside of her.

The Belvedere heir tilted his head and the dimming light from the window danced a lovely waltz across his olive features.  The gold in his eyes gleamed deviously as he studied her face in turn. Clover smirked slightly, before allowing her lips to part just so in order to exhale the breath she had inhaled through her nose to savor his aphrodisiac-like aroma. The excitement he elicited was not merely physical either, though it was the primary component to be certain.  Something about him puzzled her and the rebel enjoyed puzzles, deciphering them and figuring out their little nuances. The man before he was a cipher that she needed to decode, preferably with his clothes off.

“It is but never before with a man of your...” Clover permitted her eyes to flicker downward over his chest and abdomen. Eyes captured his again with a lascivious gleam. “Standing.” She finished after a long pause. Quinn. Quinn. Chloe thought about tasting the name on her tongue but then he said hers again. A jolt of emotional lightning shot through her with a staggering intensity. The seamstress knew if she pursed her lips, just slightly, then she’d be able to taste him. If she just leaned forward a few millimeters, it would be the tipping point. Her hands would roam over his flesh, her mouth would savor his skin and feel the muscles flex beneath them.

But the man before her eased the sketchbook from her hands instead and surprise flickered across her rosy cheeks. And what I would like would be to tear the fabric from your body and explore it along that couch, the floor, the bed. Instead, she warily examined the pad in his hands. Those pages were sacred, as there were so few of them for the seamstress to utilize during a year. The other pages, so far into the season, were filled with anatomical variations and sketches of her cat in different positions. Another was the small blooms on the trees at the end of her road. Clover’s favorite, however, consisted of a series of diverse buttons and a smattering of tangled twine that had caught her eyes one day in the shop. She had been unable to get it out of her mind and devoted it to paper.

The woman breathed slowly, wondering what he was going to do with her pencil and her paper. Would he draw on one? Would he judge her work and find it inferior, trivial? Would it ruin the delicious tension they had brewing between them? Swallowing, the rebel leader reached up and tucked a few strands of hair behind her ear.  “I don’t know what insight you hope gain from looking through my hopeless scribbles.” A touch of anxiety slipped into her confident exterior before she shifted and then gave him a seductive half-smile.

“But you may,” she gestured to the pad, “on one condition.” A delighted glimmer entered her gaze, suggestive and promising. “For any question that you ask while looking at them, I also get to ask one in return.” Delicate fingers ran back and forth along the exposed part of her own collarbone. A thread of desire made her wonder what his mouth would feel like running along the very same skin. “Does that sound like something you could do, Quinn?” Finally, Chloe savored his name on her tongue, feeling the flick of her it against her teeth. Speaking to a high-ranking military official in such a manner was near treasonous. But she hoped he was just an impious as he wanted her to be.


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“And if I refuse those conditions?” A hint of authority crept into the rebuttal, but the general’s features donned an impish smirk. He dipped his chin in a single nod of agreement. He leaned closer to her and breathed in the perfume of her hair, drinking in the subtle scent as much as the heat he could feel radiating from her body. This was going to be…interesting.

His own portrait stared back at him when he cast his gaze back to the book, and he flipped the pages over together until the exterior faced up in his palms. The binding was utilitarian and unadorned, with uncovered binder’s board covers that had softened along each edge with wear. His callused thumb ran along the dull fore-edge for a moment before he opened the tome to its first page.

The image that greeted him wasn’t what he’d anticipated—although, truthfully, he hadn’t had any idea what to expect. Artists were not a breed he regularly interacted with, unless the military cartographers counted. But their work was always strict and accurate, more mathematical than expressive. By contrast, Chloe’s drawings seemed to spring from the page with life. Even rendered in simple graphite, her mastery of texture and value loaned airiness or weight, highlight or shadow, drape or rigidity depending on the subject matter she portrayed. And frankly, he’d never seen anything quite like it.

A black cat made several appearances, sometimes in great detail—from the glint of whiskers to the strands of glistening fur as the feline napped, its body curled—and other times in fast, energetic lines, as though Chloe had rushed to capture the creature’s pose before it moved. Quinn’s mouth twitched into a lopsided smile. “Impressive how you can capture so much personality with just a few lines and some shading.” He tapped the unsharpened end of the pencil against a particularly charming gestural sketch of the cat lying upside down. When the seamstress did not elaborate—the gleam in her gray eyes waiting for the question rather than volunteering any information at his attempt to skirt her terms—he ventured the innocuous query with a grin. “Who is the little beast?”

The general pursed his lips as he continued his appraisal, pausing on a piece that took up an entire horizontal page. He rotated the book for a better look. At first glance, it looked like a scribble, albeit one rendered in impeccable detail. On closer inspection, however, he realized it was a tangle of thread or twine, complete with a meticulous pattern of tightly-plied fibers—chaotic, like brambles, framed on the page with purpose. He touched the blunt end of the pencil to the page and gently followed one of the strands. “Tell me about this one,” he said, looking up to meet her stormy stare. It wasn’t a question, yet he was more than willing to pay her toll.

Drawing a long, slow breath, Quinn’s voice deepened. “Because what I see is something complicated”—he paused, pointedly allowing his gaze to sweep over her face before it once more ventured to the sliver of milky skin between her unfastened buttons—“masquerading as something mundane.” He reached out with the hand that clasped the pencil, using its unsharpened end to tease the seam of her collar and nudge the garment open wider. A shiver danced down his spine that had nothing to do with the chill of the room or his state of undress. “And I can’t be fooled so easily.”


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The commanding tone set tiny pinpricks trailing up the back of her arms. In that moment, Clover knew she’d bend to that authority if uttered in a very intimate capacity. Dangerous gaze roamed over his inclined head, looking at the swirls of hair, the locks she longed to run her fingers through, to pull back and hear the air hiss through his white teeth.  The movement of his fingers opening her treasured notebook drew her attention. Anxiety coiled up and around her stomach in serpentine fashion.

Their proximity made it easy to determine which image he was studying. Stormy eyes roved over the loaf shape her four-legged companion had taken, usually in a windowsill in a stray beam of dazzling sunlight. The glowing compliment on her abilities made her genuinely blush and the seamstress resisted the urge to shift. However, she did not fail to notice the roundabout way he sought to glean information from her without meeting the terms of their agreement. Instead, she merely raised her brows slightly with her lips remaining firmly closed. Delight sparked in his molten gaze at her continued silence. The thrill of knowing that he recognized her own intelligence was intoxicating.

“My roommate.” A coy smile curled her rosy lips slowly. A question did not immediately leave her. Instead, she surveyed him as he examined the strokes with rapt attention. Even if he wore nothing at all, Clover felt the more naked in the room, standing before him as he held her sketches.  Watching the general examine her work, appreciate her work, made warm tendrils twist inside of her. The heat wrapped around and around her midsection, coalescing in a deep desire between her hips. Liquid need began a steady beat, a humming and sensual pulse in her core.

The assessment surprised her and she looked from the drawing to his shifting eyes and back again. Had the general just unknowing insinuated she was a rebel leader in the guise of a simple seamstress? The private knowledge made her smirk before her lips parted as she drew a shaking breath through her now parted lips. The smooth, rounded butt of the pencil tracked the collar of her shirt and slightly brushed her skin.  The fabric shifted outward, reveal the shadowed line of her collarbone. A steadily inhalation brought a deepening to the hollow of her throat. Heart rate accelerated as she noticed amber eyes flicker down at the movement, the swell of her breasts hiding just beneath the white buttons still holding her shirt together.

“Mmmm,” the rebel murmured as she stepped closer so that the tome pressed against her skin beneath her chest. Eyes of shimmering steel roved over his chest, muscles taunt. Veins in his hands moved fluidly over the strong hands holding the collection of sketches. “Another inquiry without letting me even ask my first.” The heady moment stretched between them, gold meeting silver across the page. “Are you as greedy of a lover as you are in this verbal exchange?” The question slid out before she could stop herself. Clover was bold, Chloe was not supposed to be. What was done was down. Fuck, she’d give anything to taste him. She’d let him be greedy with her skin, with her time, with his mouth.

“I have nothing to hide, you just haven’t quite uncovered...” gaze flickered to her own shirt briefly before returning to the twirled twine and buttons, permitting her fingers to slip from her neck to the first clasped button, “it all yet.” Practiced fingers, slender snd deft, released the button from its capture. The fabric slightly sprang apart, but not enough to reveal  the lace bra lace she wore beneath. “It is tranquil.” Clover’s voice turned a gentle whisper as she looked fondly at the drawing. It had been drawn on the anniversary of Rose’s death and where there could have been sadness in the simplicity of the subject, there were threads of joy and gratitude woven into the smudges and lines. “It is a reminder and tribute to the woman that raised me.” Honesty permeated the words, her free hand following a single twist that rolled off the edge of the page where his thumb resided. Delicately, purposefully, she trailed it with her middle finger. Skin brushed his as she drew her finger around the back of his hand. Hovering there, the cadence of her voice shifted to something low and thrumming.  “If you could have a single thing - any thing - in this moment, what would it be?” The inquiry fell from her lips seductively as she traced absent shapes on the back of his hand. The touch was featherlight and send electricity racing up her spine.


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Their eyes met over the sketchpad, sending a shockwave of heat and electricity through Quinn’s nerves like flittering webs of lightning in dense stormclouds. The gleam in her half-lidded eyes was sultry as a summer evening—one of those exceptionally rare nights in the thick of July when the wind stilled and the air thickened and the crickets crooned from the sweet dewy grass. A night when Avondale’s large windows were propped open wide, beckoning any semblance of a breeze inside, and sweat clung to his skin while heat settled deep in his bones. Heat that he felt now, somehow, despite his state of undress, the chill of the late autumn room, and the flakes that continued to swirl beyond the panes.

He wanted her to say his name again. Few ever called him by his first name; now that his parents were dead, it was only Maria and occasionally the high commander who addressed him as Quinn or Quinnley over the more standard and respectful General…or, even more commonly, by his surname now that there would be no confusion with his father. So the novelty of hearing it on another’s mouth—and from a set of lips as enticing as Chloe Paice’s—left him craving the sound all over again.

But hungered though he did for the chord of it, the flame burning in his chest leapt from a smolder to a blaze at the question she brazenly tossed between them. She stepped closer, the pressure of her abdomen against the book stretching the loose fabric of her shirt to reveal the swell of her breasts beneath. The general’s caramel gaze turned molten as his attention flitted from the page to that maddening curve. A salacious smirk tugged at his mouth as he dragged his stare back to hers. “Is that what you imagine it’s like, making love to me?” he drawled, his baritone low and ragged. He allowed his eyes to float back to where her chest hovered over the paper, and his tongue darted out to glide along his lower lip. “I’m…insulted.

But the syrupy way he voiced the word suggested he was the farthest thing from it. And as she reached up to unfasten yet another button, Quinn found it increasingly difficult to listen to her explanation of the drawing despite his genuine curiosity. The fabric sprang apart with the release of her deft fingers, revealing a daring flash of skin that he found himself struggling not to reach for. “‘The woman who raised you’ implies that that woman was not your biological mother,” he responded, his lascivious tone completely at odds with what he said. “And I wouldn’t think anyone would dedicate this amount of detail to a person they did not admire.”

Whatever else he might have said stalled on his tongue at the jolt elicited by her sudden, deliberate touch. Gooseflesh that had nothing to do with the temperature of the room rippled up his arms until the sensation twined around his spine, coiling tight as the wicked tension building in his core. “Hmmm,” came his deep hum as he pondered her query, a smirk darkening his features. There were so many things he wanted in this moment, and all of them ended with the brash seamstress tangled naked in his sateen sheets. His desire was a heady gleam in his eye as he met her stare, one that was mirrored in Chloe’s—hers a silvery flame, his a golden magma.

“The single thing I want in this moment,” the general purred, “is not so much a thing as an activity.” He paused, relishing in the seductive pout of her lips, the curious tilt of her head. “I would very much like to finish what you’ve already started with those buttons of yours, then lay you on my bed…” Drawing out the word, his attention once more trailed down to her chest, and then again to the tome in his grasp. “…and try my hand at capturing the sublime and terrible beauty of Chloe Paice.” He lifted the pencil and reached out to trace it down the center of her milky sternum, featherlight and teasing. “And then,” he continued, hardly above a whisper, so soft it might not have been more than a breath, “I want to show you exactly what kind of lover I can be.”


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The desired affect on the General was achieved and Clover kept herself from smirking. The movement of his tongue resulted in her breath catching in her throat. Fuck. To feel his mouth against her exposed flesh, trailing down her chest. If this is how he responded to insults, then the seamstress would have to craft a range of insolent remarks to stoke this flame even higher. She admired his attempt at focus as well, enjoying the casual words encased in his husky baritone of desire. She could listen to him talk about the most mundane of activities so long as he coated each syllable in that delicious tone.

And that damned purr. The hum from his chest vibrated through the sketchbook and beneath her breast. The knowledge that she may feel the sensation without the separation of the bound pages between them sent ripples of need echoing through her limbs. Fingers itched to discard the tome (as treasured as it was) onto the floor and fling herself at him. This carnal desire that the Northam General elicited was like nothing she had ever experienced in her entire life, including when she was a budding teenager on the cusp of womanhood. Something deep and unknowable inside him sang a forbidden siren song to the darkness that dwelled inside of her.  An inferno erupted through her, burning everything in its path and leaving exposed,  flickering nerves in its wake. Sketching her be damned. She wanted him to rip the clothes from her skin and take her right here on the floor.

The heady moment elongated, stretching between them and filling with a palpable tension. Flames of silver blazed to life in her eyes as she met his gaze, fueled by the golden glint in his own. Clover brought the left side of her lower lip slightly between her teeth, dropping her gaze to survey him until she looked at his hands and then trailed back to his eyes. With her free hand, she brushed back a strand of loose black hair from her face. “You respond so well to insults.” She teased, removing her hand from his, and retreated a few slow steps back. Empty hands rose to the next button and released it in a  painstakingly slow fashion. Then another. Then another. Carefully, she tugged the bottom out of the high-waisted trousers and finished unbutton the palatine white shirt. It hung against her frame and revealed only a thin silver of pale skin.  With ease, she slipped out of her ankle boots and socks, leaving them beside her on the ground.

Clover turned her back on him, walking over to the bed. With each step, an anxious thrill twisted around her stomach. A shiver snuck down her spine and sent a prickle of goose flesh along the backs of her arms. Despite the nervous chill, the seamstress shrugged off the shirt and left it to flutter to the ground behind her. She came to the edge of the mattress, eyes roving over the thick comforter and multiple blankets. Dark hair brushed against the bottom of her now bare shoulder blades as a thin strip of fabric stretched across her upper torso. A slow inhalation slipped through soft lips as she turned around to find his eyes watching her.

She settled onto the edge of the bed, pulling herself onto it, and leaned back onto her elbows. Every deep, purposeful breath made her chest rise and fall without the shirt obstructing his view. The bra was composed of soft, nude cotton covered by a bright white lace that left gently scallops beneath the underwire.  She had made it herself, something she liked seeing on her own skin.

“Have you ever sketched anything before?” She asked, arching an eyebrow.  Despite the confident exterior, butterflies  fluttered about beneath her ribs. “Starting with the human form is ambitious.” The word filled the air with a seductive promise. A lazy smile lifted one half of her mouth. “There are so many small details to capture. The way light and shadow play on the skin - the contrasts, curves,” she ran a delicate finger along the top swell of her breast, “dips,” it moved languorously between her breasts and traveled down the center of her bare abdomen. She stopped at the high waistband of her pants.  Defiant of her anxiety, she held his eyes and then gestured for him to stand before her.

“I’ll be a compliant subject.” The smirk reappeared briefly before her tongue ran along her lower lip. “Though sitting still can be so dull. I feel like it’s only fair to be entertained while I lie here.”  She looked down at herself, contemplating before casting an apparently bored look out the window. “Tell me about the last woman you brought to your bed.”


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If the spark between them was lightning, then the roar of his pulse was the resulting thunder. The general tore his attention from her smoldering eyes and watched as her fingers slowly released the next button across the swell of her chest…a wordless response to his shameless words. Desire coiled tight in his core as the pristine white fabric, freed from the waistband of her trousers, fluttered open to reveal a tantalizing sliver of skin from her neck to her navel.

A hum of appraisal reverberated low in his throat, unbidden and primal. His eyes tracked her as she glided toward the opulent bed, attuned to her every move like the predator he was—the sway of her hips, the roll of her hands as she dropped the shirt to a pool of white cotton on the floor, her soundless footfalls on the plush rug, the rise and fall of her shoulders as she breathed. And when she swiveled to face him, her torso bare but for the elegant lace bra across her chest, he couldn’t suppress the lascivious grin that curled his lips.

“I’m not sure anything I’ve ever put to paper could be considered a sketch,” Quinn said, watching gratuitously as the seamstress settled herself on the fine duvet. Like him, Chloe wore her state of undress with earned confidence. If she felt any breed of self-consciousness beneath the thoroughness of his stare, she certainly didn’t show it, and that made the sight of her all the more intoxicating. Muscles rippled as he rolled his shoulders back, his smirk darkening as he amended, “But I’ve never been one to ease into things gradually.”

He tapped the sharp end of the pencil against the page without looking down, lightly dotting the top corner of the paper with a haphazard cluster of speckles. He knew the human form—well enough to know how to wound, how to kill, how to pleasure—but reproducing its likeness on paper was a vastly different undertaking than any of those things. “Perhaps later you could give me some anatomy lessons.” His amber hawk’s eyes watched as her fingertips traced the curves of her torso, not missing when her tongue glided over her lower lip. “Some pointers to really capture the human figure. Now…hold still.”

Poised though the pencil was in his strong hand, the general found he didn’t quite know where to begin with his sketch. Perhaps this was not such a good idea, he thought…but that notion quickly dissipated as soon as he glanced back to the reclining Chloe, whose bare skin glowed temptingly in the golden lamplight. If the evening progressed in the manner he hoped it would, whatever he managed to scribble on paper would be long forgotten well before the stroke of midnight.

A low laugh shook his shoulders at her query, expression turning mirthful at the memories it conjured. Firelight. Blonde curls. Sweat. Twisted sheets. “I am not one to kiss and tell, Miss Paice,” he crooned with a smarmy grin, suddenly finding the pencil moving of its own accord. He began in broad strokes, plotting out her pose with quick tick marks to indicate the top of her head, the tilt of her shoulders, the curve of her hips. “But suffice to say she will not be forgetting our time together any day soon. I am…” A pause as he examined her position, eyes trailing over her figure with far more than simple artist’s regard. “…very attentive.”

The graphite flashed silver in the wake of his hand’s movements, scratching across the toothy page with a grace more befitting a warrior than a dancer. His lines were calculated and controlled, a far cry from Chloe’s fluid, natural strokes and thoughtful shading—the work of a man who had only ever sketched routes on maps or strategic diagrams, where precision was vital and style a hindrance. Here, it translated to a composition whose proportions were mostly accurate, but whose rendering was static and geometric. Her likeness was lost in a regiment of simplified shapes and outlines, more Braque than Leonardo, something that might pass for a rough underpainting over a finished piece.

Nevertheless, it was far better than he’d imagined he could manage—considering his utter lack of artistic experience, that he’d spent minutes and not hours on the piece, and the fact that his subject was the most strangely beguiling woman he’d met in years. Quinn was hyperaware of her gaze upon him, as gray as the powdery graphite staining his fingers and hot as the hearth’s fire as she studied him through her long lashes. Each time he looked up to reference her pose, his breath hitched in his throat; her features wore a seductive smirk that made it increasingly difficult not to toss the pencil and the sketchbook to the floor and join her on the mattress.

“But what of you, Chloe?” Her name dripped from his tongue like syrup, thick and indulgent. The drawing was far from complete, but he paused, twirling the pencil between his fingers. His gaze bored into hers as he took a step forward. “What must a man do to earn a place in Chloe Paice’s bed?”


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Clover remained stoic beneath his assessing gaze, moving with the nonchalance of someone extremely at ease in their own skin. The seamstress hummed softly, pleased by the warm allure of his words. “I wouldn’t be opposed to providing a guiding hand in the development of your art. Are you an apt pupil or do you require a firm hand in your instruction?” Glimmering steel eyes captured his in that moment and she quirked a dark brow. The suggestive gleam remained, attempting to twine tightly around him and bind them together.     The General made efficient, purposeful strokes. His movements exhibited something calculated in a contradictory abrupt manner and still he reminded her of tiger toying with its prey.

A welcome shiver rippled from between her shoulders, racing down the backs of her exposed arms, as he laughed at the secret memory of a previous lover. She watched as the recollection brought a warmth to his skin and a momentary distance to his eyes. Clover ached to know more, to live vicariously but he kept her wanting which only fueled her desire. The idea that she wanted something she couldn’t have surprised her. As leader of the Rebellion, a tryst of this nature was entirely forbidden. Yet, the illicit nature of this affair only increased the sharpness of her need. It consumed her and she was left only with the conclusion that if she was to rid herself of her ridiculous attraction to a high-ranking general was to take him to bed and find it to not live up to her imaginings. Very few of her partners had managed it and she sought them out only out of necessity.

Many men talked as he did, touting their sexual prowess and failing to tempting meet the expectations they had given. Especially those as handsome as he was. Men such as General Belvedere could get by on their looks alone and often, Clover considered, they would proclaim how amazing he was just due to his title. The little way she justified her actions now was that he could only let her down. She’d be rid of the urge to bed him after one quick roll in his sheets and that would be that. Even so, part of her thrilled at how attentive she longed for him to be. All of this the seamstress pondered, while examining his artistic technique from afar. He often examined her, eyes flickering to this or that part of her body before returning to the page. The manner in which he drew reminded her of many military men she had encountered before. The purpose was a portrait, but somehow through Quinnley Belvedere’s gaze, she knew that he was attempting to also capture the emotion of the moment. Clover admired that and even if her body already hummed with desire for his touch, she’d wait for him to complete his task.

The question made her grin and stormy eyes flicked to the stagnant graphite. Pushing herself up, elbow came to rest on her knee and she propped her chin on bent fingers. Dark hair cascaded to the side as she tilted her head to examine him more thoroughly. Heat took form inside of her. Curling and twisting like a snake, the ache in her stomach proceeded to coalesce in a serpentine coil. He was devastatingly handsome, all warm tones and soft shadows. She wished then that she had captured him as he was now, nearly bare and full of bravado. The way his lip ticked up to one side in a cocky smirk and the promising gleam in his molten brown eyes. He approached, closer, and she smiled lasciviously in reply.

“I wouldn’t worry so much about the initial offer.” The coy smile melted as she laughed. It was her true laugh, delicate and slightly higher than the false chuckle she often gave. “The difficulty lies in maintaining a standing invitation.” Clover’s brows rose then, taunting him from her new position. Fuck. Why did she even mention that? The deed was once and done. There would be no further meetings between them, despite the magnetic sway he seemed to hold over her usually domineering will. She held his stare for a heady moment before reclining once more into her previous pose.

“Some artists find it helpful to closely examine the subject of their piece to get a better...feel for the lines.” The seamstress completely fabricated the suggestion, not knowing much about other artists (though she didn’t really even consider one.) There were museums, sculptors and painters for the upper class. The woman before him was not privy to the galleries and salvaged art from eras long gone, though she often longed to see them. She was merely a tailor and a spy. And he was the Northam general she was dying to take to her bed, against all sense and better judgement.  She held his name on her tongue, ready to wield it to bring him to her. Soon. Vibrations coursed through her limbs as she remained externally still. Soon. Gray-blue eyes glanced at his lips, his neck, his torso before finding the eyes that electrified her watching her carefully.


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“Mmm, and who said I was worried?” Quinn’s words were a heady croon. With his gaze fixed firmly on hers, his strong shoulders thrown back with assured ease, his smooth retort projected an immovable confidence—one he found evenly met with the seamstress’ own. Neither the desirous shine in his eyes nor the cocky twist of his mouth wavered against it. She matched his assuredness with her own flavor of bravado, all sensuous lines and steely resolve, her presence radiating a natural authority that called to his own and sent a thrill rocketing through him.

The general took yet another languid step forward, tightening the space between them as his gaze roamed indulgently over her form. Her dark hair tumbled over her bare shoulders as she propped herself up, a curtain of black tresses that gleamed in the firelight. He quirked a brow and glanced down at his page. “I thought you were meant to stay still,” he said, his voice coarser than he’d intended, but his features shifted—his smirk morphed into something more focused, more thoughtful, and once again, the pencil in his grasp seemed to move of its own accord. He pressed harder into the paper, sending dark gray lines cascading over his rough outline of her shoulders as he shaded the waves that framed her face and skimmed her collar bones.

The sharpened tip dulled as he scraped it over and over again across the surface. The strokes came easier now as his wrist and hand loosened, and he began to fill in the details he had delayed in favor of laying out the map of the composition—the shape of her eyes, the pout of her lips, even a hint of the scalloped lace across her ribcage.

Perhaps she was right about examining the details up close. It did make things...well, easier wasn't quite the right word, but it certainly did something.

He took two more paces forward until his thighs brushed against the edge of the mattress. Gaze sharpening, he began his closer scrutiny with her neck, leaning in near enough that he could smell the spice on her skin, the citrus in her hair. He hugged the sketchbook to his broad chest and reached out with the blunt end of the pencil, pressing it lightly against her jawline. When it reached her chin, he urged it gently but insistently upward, tilting her face toward the window. “Look this way,” he purred, his words hardly a breath. In stark contrast to the warm glow of the sconces, the fading daylight from the wintry outdoors cast a blueish sheen over half her visage, painting one of her gray eyes cobalt blue while the other still glinted gold. He curled a finger from the pencil as though to brush against the soft skin, but he paused, allowing only the stick of graphite to connect with her flesh. “There,” he whispered, his lips hovering open as his gaze slowly traversed her face, “perfect.”

A wave of expectant heat swept through his limbs with such fervency he tensed his jaw against the force of it. Quinn had had his fair share of lovers in his lifetime, from rousing one-time tumbles to standing-appointment rendezvous, and he was no stranger to the pull of physical attraction. But he couldn’t recall a time he felt so thrillingly intoxicated by a prospective paramour. And it was far more than just skin and curves and smoldering glances. Chloe Paice may have been a mystery, but something about her called to him with a familiarity he had seldom felt with anyone else before…if ever. This was no demure Thebesian darling blushing at his undivided attention, nor was she a bawdy jezebel propositioning him on rank and reputation alone. The seamstress carried herself unabashedly like his equal despite her lack of title or status, as evenly matched in wit as rising desire.

The general was unable to halt the lascivious grin that tugged at his lips. The intensity of his stare slipped like a caress from her face to her chest to the dip of her waist and down the length of her clothed legs. Bringing the tip of the pencil back to the page, he made a show of adding more shading…but the more he added to the drawing, the less he cared about the final result. Chloe Paice was more than just a figure he wanted to replicate or a mystery he wanted to solve. She was a glass of wine he wanted to savor, to parse the individual notes and flavors that made the sensuous whole.

And what a drink that would be when he finally brought the chalice to his lips…

He pulled back, glancing once to the book and back to the seamstress, then drew in a slow, controlled inhale that belied the thundering pulse in his chest and the electric thrum in his veins. “And now for the big reveal,” he said suggestively. But rather than holding up the composition for her assessment, he extended the tome to her to take—an unceremonious gesture, as though the whole thing were an afterthought. Because now, with his self-control stretched to its dangerously taut limits, his thoughts were only of the muse who reclined before him. “I would tell you to be gentle,” Quinn murmured, hunger shadowing his eyes, “but if I’m honest, that’s not the way I like it.”


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simply
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The witty confidence he exuded was Clover’s aphrodisiac. She struggled to prevent an amused curl from overtaking her lip and ended up with a lopsided smirk. Hungry eyes roved over him as he approached, his arrival causing a barely discernible bump against the edge of the mattress. A shiver coarsed through her the moment the pencil touched her jaw. Obediently, more out of surprise than true compliance, the seamstress tilted her head but kept her eyes upon his face, his chest, the sketchbook. Perfect. Heat seared her skin internally, consuming her in the flameless fire of need. There was no release, only burning desire as his eyes raked over her reclined form. If only it wasn’t just his eyes...

Swallowing, she carefully watched him pull back and settled the sketchbook in a manner that indicated he was done with the task. With a fluid grace, Clover rose to retrieve the bound papers. The artist in her was eager to see what he had accomplished. Stormy eyes flickered down to the page as her hand encircled the tome. However, the general drew her attention back to him nearly immediately. Soft rose lips parted in surprise at the words that filled the air between them. If there was not such a thick tension between them, she might have thought she imagined it. The heat in her core was nothing compared to the ache that settled between her hips at that innuendo. An eager excitement flashed in her gaze and she unabashedly allowed them to rove over his body, lingering on the minimal clothing that remained. She said nothing, instead, just allowed her lips to slowly curl into a seductive smile as she brought her gaze back to his. She held it, heavy and waiting before dropping it to the paper in her hand. Her eyes failed to focus on the markings at first, instead lost in a hazy cloud of desire.  Mind wandered, wondering at the taste of his mouth and the noise he’d make when she ran her fingers up his spine, only to dig her nails in at his shoulder.

Finally, vision cleared and she focused on the firm lines of her portrait. The background was just soft, smudged graphite around a white halo of her form. His technique was raw and rough, almost clinical. Clover didn’t hide the flicker of surprise on her features. This was his first sketch of a human, so far as she knew, and it was startlingly good. Of course, her hands were less defined than the rest of her (but who honestly enjoyed drawing hands?) Her pants didn’t have enough movement to them, more structural than the flowy fabric possessed.  The lace of her bra was drawn in with more detail, sending a wave of hot yearning rushing over her. Without realizing, she traced the curve of her neck. It was undeniably her.

“Impressive for an amateur.” The rebel murmured, rising up to her knees on the mattress. They were not separated by much now, heads level even though hers remained slightly inclined downward.  “The attention to detail is admirable...though...” she hummed low in her throat, drawing her bottom lip between her teeth as she contemplated. The heady moment stretched on until she raised her eyes to his. Their faces were mere inches apart, she could feel the warmth of his breath and smell the slight buttery oak of the wine he had previously enjoyed. Steel eyes were a tumultuous storm of blues and gray, the lightning of desire flashing through and nearly sparking visibly between them. “It lacks the subject’s emotion. What she’s thinking. What she’s feeling. What she...longs for.” Clover lowered the sketchbook to her side, holding it in one hand. “There are ways to convey it. The position of the limbs. Tightness in certain muscles. The eyes. The lips.” Words left her in a salacious purr as her free hand moved with her words. She ran it up his arm, dancing along his muscles that flexed in response to her featherlight touch. She brushed along the angle of his jaw and then finished by barely trailing her thumb along the vermilion border of his lower lip. Electricity shot up her arm and she struggled with the last of her willpower to keep from drawing him close.

“With an instructor’s firm hand, we might make an artist out of you yet. But I warn you, I can be very, very demanding. I will accept nothing less than complete and utter devotion to the task at hand.” Clover arched a brow, eyes flicking to his lips. A long pause as she moved her mouth closer. Lips parted and their breath mingled heavily between them. With the slightest movement their mouths might touch. Instead of closing that minuscule space, the seamstress asked, “do you think you could handle that, Quinn?” As she formed the first syllable of his name, their lips brushed infinitesimally and a shiver racked her entire body.


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astrophysicist
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If Quinn Belvedere was an artist—and he would never claim that designation in any seriousness—then graphite was not his medium, whether or not he had managed to avoid embarrassment in this particular endeavor. No, his medium of choice was the human body—how he honed his own flesh, how he could make combat look like a dance, how he could command his muscles and limbs with such exactness he might as well have been sculptor and clay at the same time. The whispers that followed him in his early career had been right; he had been a prodigy of the human form then, and had since sharpened himself into a deadly weapon forged from his own blood and sweat.

So anatomy was nothing new to the up-and-coming brigadier general. He had learned biology’s secrets—the pitfalls and advantages of the human form’s structure, with its impressive arsenal of strengths and equally fascinating list of weaknesses. He might not have been able to render it with an artist’s grace on a blank page like the talented seamstress, but the body was its own brand of canvas…upon which he knew how to paint bruises, or not. To draw blood, or not. He knew how to inflict pain. How to kill.

But also how to survive. And, of course, how to pleasure. Which was perhaps an art form all of its own, of which he had every intention of demonstrating his mastery to Chloe Paice.

Cloaked though his thoughts were in the potent haze of desire, he was surprised to feel a pang of nervousness as the artist took the proffered sketchbook from his grasp. In his untrained opinion, he hadn’t humiliated himself too badly with his drawing—he hoped, at the very least, his attempt would be admirable for an amateur, even if it was not actually impressive. Despite the indisputable confidence he wore like a second skin, he was suddenly unsure his pride could bear a bad review…particularly when the promise of a rapturous evening hovered in the cool air like hot steam. Strange how this woman could make him feel so exhilarated and trepidatious at once, and with something as benign as a sketch, no less. Damn his own whim of a suggestion.

His hawk’s eyes locked on her face, searching for any sign of a reaction as she studied his work. A flicker of surprise played in her previously guarded gaze, and he held his breath, unsure at first if it was a pleasant shock or an offended one. But then she brought her slender hand to her neck, where a finger traced across lightly flushed skin, and his self-assured smirk crept back across his lips. “Rave reviews from an artist of your caliber, Miss Paice,” he murmured, looking slightly upward as she rose to her knees before him on the edge of the mattress. He tilted his head, caramel gaze sliding to her mouth before returning to her stormy eyes. “I hope you won’t take my drawing’s lack of…feeling…as an indication that it escaped my…notice…”

The words faltered as her touch traced slowly up his arm, sending a searing thrill quaking down his spine to settle deep and restless in his core. Their faces were inches apart now, and with his head still cocked to the side, all it would take to close the gap would be the smallest of movements from either of them. A heady breath expanded his chest at the skittering of electricity that danced over his skin in her fingertips’ wake. And when her thumb brushed against his lower lip, he reached up to capture her wrist in his grasp, quick as a viper. He held it there firmly, her hand hovering in the scant space between their faces, the pad of her thumb still in contact with his lip.

Teasingly, wordlessly, Quinn parted his mouth and arched a brow. “I never shy away from a challenge,” he purred after a charged pause, his words hardly louder than a whisper as his lips moved against her touch. Eyes trained on hers, he squeezed her forearm tighter and brought her palm slowly to his mouth, where he placed one firm, lingering kiss, and then another. As he lowered her arm back down, he leaned into the heat of her, ever closer, his gaze dark with desire even as they flashed bright with salacious mirth. The sound of his name on her sensuous lips was gasoline on the flame that blazed in his gut, and emboldened, he reached up a curled finger to brush against her sternum.

“I can handle anything, Chloe,” he whispered, savoring the feel of her name on his tongue. He drew that finger down, dancing over the soft lace of her bra, and continued until it brushed her waistband. Hooking his finger between the material and her flesh, he tugged forward without warning, bringing their torsos together with only the thin cotton of his white t-shirt separating their skin. He snaked one arm around her waist and brought his opposite hand to her neck, locking her in an embrace that had his pulse slamming so aggressively against his ribs that he thought the seamstress could surely feel it herself. Leaning in, his lips brushed against her ear as he murmured, “Try me.”

All at once, he pulled back, releasing her from his arms. But rather than retreat, he lifted the hem of his shirt over his head in one swift gesture, the garment falling unceremoniously to the carpet. The electric lamps gilded his now-bare olive skin, and the shadows, like the graphite that still stained his hands, shaded his chiseled musculature like a living painting. Even the impressive constellation of scars across his flesh glinted in silvery patterns in the flickering firelight, not unlike the cross-hatching in Chloe’s sketches.

The general’s chest rose and fell in deep, measured breaths that belied the firestorm consuming him from within. He closed the space between them once more, bringing his face close enough to hers that their exhales mingled. “Since I’ve finished my drawing,” he whispered, gazing at her through half-lidded eyes, “I’d like to make good on my second promise.”

With no other preamble, he kissed her. It was neither tender nor rough, but rather a question, a test of the waters—and he withdrew slightly, lips tingling almost painfully in the sudden absence of her mouth as he broke away. His whole body trembled with the same electric sensation he’d experienced when their eyes had first met, this time amplified a thousandfold. “Fuck me,” he heard himself growl, so guttural it was unclear whether it was a command…or an expression of incredulity at the force of the need consuming him now. His jaw flexed against the effort of restraint, and his hands itched to wrap around her waist and pull her against him once more. “Let me show you just how devoted I can be.”


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simply
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The quick grasp on her wrist sent an electrifying tingle running up her spine and across her shoulders. The thrill of surprise mingled with the burn of desire deep inside of her and she made no move to withdraw her hand. His full lips pressed against her palm’s fate line causing the whole room to shift beneath her in a heady rush.  The self control she possessed to not gasp and melt against him was immense. Hot breath rushed across her thumb and along the soft flesh of the inside of her wrist. Bright flames burst to life in her eyes that were usually turbulent seas of blue as the bend of his finger ran along the delicate flesh of her chest. Despite the earlier control, Clover inhaled sharply and did not tear her eyes from his.

The sound of her pseudonym from his lips made it her new favorite sound. Briefly, she wondered what it would sound like to hear Clover from his lips. The thought startled her. Never once since Rose died had she thought of someone saying her true name (as Azalea was long dead).  The mere sound of him forming those syllables to fill the space between them...fuck...an unbidden longing swelled inside of her. Any other moment it would have been enough to shock her back to logic, to bring her to her abandoned senses. Instead, it made her need for him even more intense. She may not be able to have that, but she would sample all else that he had with the zeal of a starving woman.

Lost in temporary emotions, suddenly, she was flush against him. A small murmur of surprise left her lips and then she was bound to him. Warmth from his hand sent prickling gooseflesh up and down the curve of her back and she suppressed a hum of hot desire by just exhaling softly. Oh, she planned on trying him. She planned on trying every single thing that the brigadier general had to offer. It would be once. Only once. But she would take all that he was willing to give if only for the purpose of purging this ridiculous and immediate desire from her system.

The percussion of his heart pounding against her chest and his seductive words froze her in place, lost at how to remove all of his clothes as swiftly as possible. Then the moment abruptly terminated and her brow furrowed. The creases smoothed the moment his hands reached to lift one of the barriers of clothing from his body. A long inhalation was taken through her nose and held in her chest at the sight of him. Each muscle was distinguished, shadow and light playing along his tanned skin. To enhance the contrast, silver lines of varying intensities crossed his flesh. Immediately, Clover longed to draw him despite the fact that the sketchbook had fallen out of her grasp at some point in the past seconds.  “Fuck...” she breathed, uncertain that she has even whispered the word aloud because his mouth was on hers.

General Belvedere tasted of fine wine and the gentle heat of summer fields. Clover moved to take a large sample of the flavor before he was gone again. A growl was swallowed to prevent him from hearing her irritation at being so repeatedly taunted by his touch. In stark contrast, his words cause an explosion of heat across her hips and between her thighs. It coalesced in a tight knot deep in her core that begged to find release.  Clouded gaze flickered across his face as a devilish smirk ticked up one corner of her lip. Amusement danced in her eyes. “Yes, sir. It would be my pleasure.” She murmured in response to the growled command that left her wanting so much more.

Clover had no more restraint left in her body as she grabbed him to her again, pulling him by sliding her hand up the back of his neck to tangle in his gold-touched brunette locks. Rose lips hovered before his, longing to taste him before brushing up his jaw. The stubble tickled her chin as she came to rest by his ear. “I’m not particularly patient...” she purred softly as the light through the window completely vanished, dousing them in only an electric gleam and flicking fireplace flames, “so I just take what I want.” As she murmured, her free hand toyed with the waistband of his briefs, inching them lower until her thumb danced across his hipbone. While distracting him with wandering fingertips, the seamstress captured his mouth with her own suddenly.

This was no inquisitive meeting of their lips. It was not gentle or probing or hesitant. Clover wanted him, unwilling to wait a millisecond longer, and she expressed it in a demanding kiss. Need pulsed through their connection. Teeth grazed his bottom lip, before she tore away and tugged him towards her on the mattress. Another woman might have pulled him atop her, longing to feel the weight of him. Instead, Clover took the reins as Chloe had been left at the door - unbeknownst to the general. Positioning him horizontally along his bed, she slid herself over him. Legs rested on either side of his hips, applying a gentle pressure, as she hovered above him. Blue eyes glimmered with electricity as she rested the tips of one hand in the middle of his chest. She relished the look on his face, as she doubted he was used to not being in control of every single situation he was placed in. Quinn Belvedere was a high-ranking general in Northam’s army and now he was completely at a lowly seamstress’ mercy.

Quirking an eyebrow, she allowed her other hand to trace his scars, waltzing along the olive and silver contrast. “You are exquisite, Quinn.” She breathed, meeting his eyes. “Absolutely breathtaking.” And he was. Of course he was physically but the tone of her words released what she really meant. The confidence, the skill, the wit, the intelligence. That’s what intoxicated her so. Once she drank him in to her satisfaction, Clover moved to devour him. Mouth tasted his collarbone, his throat, his earlobe. She nipped small places in an attempt to elicit usually suppressed noises. There was casual sex and then there was what she wanted from him. She wanted what he hid, what rested beneath the controlled exterior. The rebel ached to experience the man that sought to skirt the High Commander’s rules while simultaneously currying favor. She wanted the enigma that had attracted her upon initial glance, longing at first sight.

And she wanted him now.


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astrophysicist
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Quinn may have been more demon than saint, but he was a man of honor. His rank and reputation weren’t things he could simply shrug off like an overcoat, and unlike far too many of his cronies, he refused to abuse his station for the purpose of coercing a pretty woman to his bed. He derived no enjoyment from an experience in which his partner was not an equally enthusiastic participant. Of course, there was a certain arrogance in selflessness; half the fun, after all, was watching and hearing exactly how thoroughly he pleased his partners, how they writhed with pleasure beneath his gaze and his touch. And he couldn’t deny that he liked the feel of their eyes on him, the maddening, magnetic sensation of knowing just how much he was hungered for…

And the predatory gleam in Chloe Paice’s gray eyes made him want to roar. He grinned against her mouth as her lips captured his in a voracious kiss. The spicy perfume of her skin filled his hungry inhales—sharp, like black pepper; warm, like cardamom—and he deepened the kiss, fueled by the raw, unadulterated need she stirred in him. This was not the sweet, trepidatious exchange of a high society Thebesian lady. This was wild and ravenous, like the rush of a fight. Sudden and all-consuming. His body was aflame, his focus trained on her and her alone; he was a weapon and she’d lit his fuse, ready to detonate. And he couldn’t have been more thrilled that she was his mark.

Her teeth dug into his lower lip, tugging it. A hum of pleasure vibrated low in the general’s throat, and his hands wrapped around her waist, pulling her toward him. More. He wanted more. He wanted everything. And the fact that she seemed just as ready to devour him as he was to consume her was perhaps the most maddening of all. The split-second flicker of confusion on Chloe’s features when he pulled away to remove his shirt brought another devilish grin to his face, and he let himself be studied once again by her scrutinizing gaze. He tried to imagine what her artist’s eyes might see—soft shadows made into harsh lines as his muscles flexed, the texture of his skin and his scars.

So unaccustomed was he to a lover daring enough to take the reins that for a split second before he found himself on his back, he almost planted himself in place in defense. But the moment his body recognized that it was not some kind of bizarre attack, he flew fluidly to the mattress, arching his back against the plush duvet as the woman pinned him with her thighs. A smirk lit his features as he gazed up at her. She took what she wanted, as unabashedly as she’d drawn her fingers down the length of his inseam, and she was completely undeterred by his position and title. She’d taken a serious risk in behaving this way with a general as highly ranked as Quinn…and with great risk came even greater reward, because the military man was more than happy to acquiesce.

Just as before, he did not wither away from her roaming stare. His bare skin was searing beneath her palm on his chest, his eyes molten. “You like what you see,” he growled—not even remotely a question, a simple statement of fact gleaned from the lustful glimmer in her stormy eyes. Her lithe fingers traced a selection of scars, leaving pulses of electricity in the wake of her exploring touch. There were many of them—a sizable collection that told the story of a brutal career in combat—and he would have let her follow the trail of each and every one, from the jagged crescent-moon on his left shoulder to the pin-straight silver line that stretched down his right side to disappear beneath the waistband of his briefs. And every mark, every freckle, every muscle in between.

He shuddered involuntarily as the thoughts coincided with her movements, clouding the present and his longing until they were one in the same.

His heartbeat accelerated at her words, and not just for the simple reason of her compliment or the sound of his name sung by her sultry voice. The knowing intensity in her blue-gray eyes spoke to the sparkle of his own, and the reason for the ferocious attraction they’d felt all along clicked suddenly into place. Their evenly-matched wit. Their equal boldness of speech and action. Their respective areas of skill and expertise, experts in each of their fields. But above all, the shadows in him had called out to the shadows in her and gotten a response, and each seemed to recognize just how rare it was to find that kindred darkness. It rose within him now like a creature, a predator, as her mouth against his flesh drew an animal-like purr from his throat that reverberated against her insatiable lips.

As she leaned over him, her teeth nipping at the sensitive flesh of his neck, Quinn’s hands traced the soft lace of her bra until they found the hooks in the back. Deftly, he tugged the metal fasteners from their loops, freeing her breasts as he flung the garment aside. Now unimpeded, his hands dug roughly, hungrily into the flesh of the seamstress’ back, running the slender length of it until his fingertips slipped beneath the waistband of her trousers against her upper backside. He curled his spine upward as though performing an abdominal crunch, pulling her forward with his hands against her rear, then pressed his lips to the soft flesh of her breasts.

The blaze in his chest blasted to an inferno as his lips, tongue, and teeth explored that tender skin, as his hands gripped her and pressed her tight to him, as he listened for the hitches in her breathing and the sounds of her pleasure. He tailored his actions to the reactions of her body, doing a little more of this, a little less of that, constantly adjusting technique in his quest to learn everything about Chloe Paice…what made her moan, to be sure, but hopefully soon, what made her scream.

Their lips met in a hard crash, moving so ferociously against one another’s that it was a marvel they did not bleed. Quinn hoisted himself up to a sitting position, Chloe still on his lap, then pulled away just long enough to wrap his arms around her waist and twist her onto her back as though she weighed nothing at all. It was his turn to pin her in place, one hand clamping both of hers together above her head. He leaned in close. “Remove your pants, Chloe,” he commanded in a firm rasp, even as his other free hand ventured down to tease at the button at her waistband. Relinquishing her hands so that she might oblige, he pressed his mouth to her neck, relishing in the sensation of her rapid pulse beating against his lips.

Because, he thought wickedly as he drew himself down and down and down, if he had his way, his lips—and tongue, specifically—would be pushing that pulse to skyrocket in short order.


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