Obligatory Disclaimer: The Mouse owns all, save for my own original characters.

A/N: Okay, so I'm stepping away from Norrington -- and a strong female character. And as dashing as I think Norrington is, there is something innately sexy about Cutler Beckett. So I appreciate you indulging me and my new story. And thanks so much for taking a peek.

Feeling more than slightly overwhelmed by all the bodies jostling and pressing against her as she made her way across the ballroom, Claire smiled politely to various people who called out her name but stayed her course to get across the dance floor. The room was unbearably warm, so Claire quietly slipped from the confines of the party and stepped onto the veranda, into the quiet night air. The house was overflowing with guests, all well wishes for her older brother who had just announced his engagement to Miss Suzanna Bartlow.

Soon to be Missus William Russell.

Leaning her weight against a porch post, Claire pressed her cheek against the cool, painted wood and looked out into the darkness. It was not that she begrudged her brother anything. But she just wished that, for once, the world would stop revolving around her brother and give her a little time in the spotlight. Having an older brother who had moved through the ranks of the East India Trading Company with as much speed and tenacity as William had made Claire proud, but the important position he held within the company made him, once again, overshadow his younger sister.

And now, the engagement.

Claire knew that men held more importance in the world than women, but as much as she adored her older brother, she was tired of hearing about how smart William was. About how clever he was. About how funny he was. About how handsome William was.

A sigh slipped past her lips in a most unladylike way. Nearly all of her friends were heartbroken over the fact that they had not been picked to marry William. In fact, when Claire had broken the news to her friends, she was met with a chorus of wails. She rolled her eyes at the memory and took in as deep a breath as her stays would allow. The fresh air helped erase some of her irritation, but Claire knew it would instantly return as soon as she went back inside. So she lingered in the cool evening air.

Seven years younger than her only sibling, Claire found she had an aptitude in languages and math that her brother did not share. But he had a way with words that drew people to his side like children to freshly baked cookies. So while their tutor pressed Claire for harder and more difficult studies, it was her brother who got all the accolades. When he went off to the university, Claire worried that he would suffer in his studies without her there to help. Chuckling quietly to herself, Claire mused that William had to have found someone to pay to help with his assignments in her absence. There was no way he could have passed his courses all on his own.

Claire heard the door open, interrupting her thoughts, and sounds of the party's merriment spilled out into the night. Expecting a berating from one of her parents because of her absence, Claire was surprised when the door shut with a soft click. Boots tapped a soft tempo as they crossed the porch. When they stopped next to her, Claire turned and was surprised to see her brother's best friend, Cutler Beckett standing next to her.

Feeling her cheeks burn, Claire quickly turned away, finding the swaying trees suddenly very interesting. It had been nearly two years since she had last seen her new companion and Claire knew that she looked older although he looked no different with the passage of time. She had always thought him handsome, if a bit of a dandy. His clothes were impeccable and of the very latest style, but that was nothing unusual. It was the powdered wig that he wore which was so surprising. His normally chestnut tresses were hidden under a mountain of white. She wanted to ask what warranted the sudden appearance of the wig, but feared her inquiry would be construed as rude rather than curious.

But dark stubble peppered his jaw line, as if he forgot to shave, shadowing the dimple in his chin. The bowl of a brandy glass was carefully balanced on his fingertips. His blue eyes shone like liquid sapphires in the moonlight and the ghost of a smile tugged at his lips. She studied his profile and came to the conclusion that he was one of the most intimidating – and yet attractive – men she had ever laid eyes upon. Being alone with him in the dark made her swallow hard in an attempt to push back her uneasiness. Despite the passage of time, Claire knew there was an edge to him that she never wanted to cross.

His hands were clasped behind his back, the glass tucked into the nest of his fingers, and he rocked slightly on his heels. His gaze was on the Heavens above and a slight smirk twisted his lips. Claire had grown up with Cutler always in the house. In fact, since he had been running the halls longer than she had, Claire often felt like Cutler belonged to her family more than she did. Even now she deferred to him, waiting for him to speak.

"'Tis a beautiful night. Seems a shame that we are the only ones with sense enough to know it." The self-assurance in his voice made Claire smile. For others, the words spoken would have been small talk, a way to fill the silence. But from Cutler, the words were fact. His poise was impressive, something that Claire had always aspired to but, inevitably, she ended up retreating into her shell when faced with conflict. She just hoped that this would not be one of those times.

Dipping her head in acknowledgement, Claire murmured, "The sky sparkles like a bag of diamonds spilt upon velvet. It is as if Heaven above blesses the announcement tonight. And as always, a pleasure to see you, Mister Beckett. But I am sure my absence had been noticed by now. I fear I must return to the festivities or I shall incur the wrath of my family. Please enjoy the moonlight a few moments longer for me, please."

His head tilted back and his tongue darted out quickly to wet his lips. It was a nervous gesture and Claire was baffled as to the reason. "Actually, 'tis Lord Beckett now."

The abrupt revelation startled Claire. "A thousand apologies mi' Lord. Congratulations." Claire dropped to a half curtsey, unsure of how to reconcile her gaffe to a man that certainly moved to a higher rank in society than she, but who had grown up in her home.

He waved her apology off with a detached air, but then turned to face Claire. The weight of his gaze was nearly unbearable and she stepped back slightly until she bumped into the porch post. Cutler's lips twisted into an amused grin when he saw her discomfort. "And your family knows that I am out here with you. I spoke with your father and told him that I wished to steal you away for a few moments."

Claire paused for a moment, her racing heart threatening to burst out of her chest. If he could show such poise, such aloofness, then Claire resolved to appear unflappable. It was just a matter of pretending. "A few moments? But of course. My time is your time. But I know not what you would want from me. I had always presumed I was the annoying younger sister of your best friend. Of what service can I be?'

"I would like to call on you next Sunday after church."

Glad she was not taking the sip of a beverage lest she choke on it, Claire could not have been more surprised if Cutler had said that he was quitting the East India Trading Company. Cutler was the reason Claire's brother was employed with the company and everyone figured that both men would die of very old age while still in the employ of the company. "I beg your pardon?"

Setting his brandy glass down on the wide porch railing, Cutler then crossed his arms across his chest, looking at Claire down the length of his nose. "Earlier this evening, your brother had so eloquently reminded me that I now have a position in society that I did not have before. And with that position comes expectations. Soon, I will need to have a wife on my arm and a myriad of children 'round my hearth. I have always found you to be one of the most tolerable women that I had ever met and you have certainly grown into one of the most becoming that I have ever laid eyes upon. So what say you? May I see you next Sunday?"

"Mi' Lord, I have no idea of what I should say…" The world was suddenly off-kilter and Claire wanted nothing more than to slide down the length of the column and sit, but she pressed her back more firmly against the porch post behind her, grateful for its strength. Her brother's best friend, the man who had treated her like the younger sister he never had, was… interested in her? And if she said yes to Cutler dropping in to see her, then that paved the way for her own betrothal. Was the man standing before her the man she wanted to spend the rest of her life with?

"Well, say yes. And please, after all these years, can you not call me Cutler like you did when we were younger?" He scoffed, which made Claire feel about as dense as a block of wood.

"As you wish… Cutler." Claire stood there, trying to formulate words in order to express her surprise and hide her discomfort. Seconds stretched out to minutes as she struggled to articulate herself. Her mouth opened and closed several times, but nothing spilled forth. She could see his frustration building, which only made her vocabulary all the more elusive.

Anger tinged his words. "If you do not wish for me to call on you, then just say so."

Claire knew that the man before her had a temper and the peevish tone of his voice was a warning that he did not suffer fools – or indecision. She would have to stop gaping at the man and answer him… quickly. "I… I am just very surprised. And pleasantly so. Please do not take my silence as anything other than shock. I… I had no idea that you ever wished to spend time with me. I am flattered and very appreciative. How could I refuse such company?"

The look on his face was unreadable, his features a mask. But his words burned right through her. "Claire, you have known me long enough to know that I do not appreciate empty words. Flattery might be the currency of those who play such flirtatious games, but since I do not care to use such flowery words I expect the same directness from others. So, please, tell me exactly how you feel and worry not about hurting my feelings."

Claire felt her stomach tighten and had to look away. So no fancy expressions for the man before her, but candor was not option with Cutler either. After all this time, she knew that there was only one way of which to speak with the man before her – and that was to tell him exactly what he wanted to hear.

"Cutler… I am extremely flattered, of that I do not exaggerate. And I am very surprised. But… I had no idea that you would ever think of me as anything other than a schoolgirl with her hair in braids. And I did not know that you and my brother had talked about such things; he mentioned nothing to me. But if my parents gave their consent, then I would very much like to see you after Service."

"Your brother knows nothing. The only person I spoke with was your father. He seemed to think that we would be a fine match. Of course, this was after I told him about my acquirement of the title. How could he have said otherwise?"

The flippancy of which he talked stunned Claire, but she had to admit that Cutler was right. Her father thought highly of Cutler for getting her brother the position he held with the East India Trading Company, as well as the years he spent growing up under their roof. Even without the title, the pairing would be a fine one. Just why was it that Claire felt slightly apprehensive about the idea of living the rest of her years with the man?

It has to be because you think of him like a brother. More like a cousin. He is more family than potential beau. But he is handsome. Financially well off. And with a title comes lands. Maybe I could grow old out in the country, surrounded by my children and a barn full of animals.

"If my father agrees, then it shall please me all the more."

Cutler smirked and shook his head slightly. If only she knew… if her family only knew… the plans he had for Claire. Oh, there was no doubt that she was very appealing. She was certainly attractive and extremely intelligent. That, on its own, made her a well-suited partner to him. But she was so naïve… So sheltered… So innocent.

So desirable.

Closing the distance between them, Cutler's blue eyes caressed every feature on Claire's face. Her soft brown eyes framed by unnaturally long black fringe of eyelashes. A pert, upturned nose – with a smattering of freckles dusting the bridge – rising above full, pouty lips. Her skin was alabaster white and her features were soft and pleasing. Her figure was trim and her height was slight. He smiled to himself as she tucked a stray lock of chestnut hair behind her ear.

The intensity of his gaze caused her to shiver slightly and Claire hoped that he would think that it was the night air and not her nerves. But instead of looking away, like she wished, Claire held his gaze. She rolled her shoulders back and looked at Cutler with what she hoped was a cross between curiosity and concern.

Bracing one hand against the post above Claire's head, Cutler looked down at the woman before him. He could see her pulse frantically beating at the hollow of her throat and the gentle swells of her breast that rode above the neckline of her gown, rising and falling in time with her breathing. She trembled slightly, but he was impressed at how she tried to appear carefree, but she just looked fragile. In fact, she looked just like the porcelain dolls he remembered her playing with as a child.

His knuckles grazed the soft skin of her cheek and Cutler had to smile as Claire tried not to flinch. As he reached the sharp line of her jaw, Cutler had to remind himself not to see if his hand would fit around her throat. Instead, his hand moved to the back of her head, his fingers snaking through her hair. Claire could feel her coif pulling loose and knew that people would suspect the cause when she went back inside. A sudden jerk of her head pulled a small cry from her lips and Claire saw the amusement in Cutler's eyes.

He silenced her surprise by lowering his lips to hers and laughed quietly against her mouth when Claire went rigid in fear. Slipping his other arm around the hollow of her back, Cutler pulled Claire against him so she could feel his passion. As soon as their hips touched, her mouth opened in protest and her hand began to push at his shoulder. Ignoring her physical protest, Cutler took advantage of her parted lips and let his tongue delve into the velvety recesses of her mouth.

Knowing that she was pure, knowing that she was untouched, made his pants feel even tighter. And while she was not meeting his kisses in return, her reaction was nonetheless evident – and receptive. A slight moan came from the back of her throat and the tips of her breasts hardened into steel points that bore into his chest. The hand that had been pushing at his chest now clung to his upper arm. The other hand cupped his elbow – not quite a protest, but not quite an embrace.

Cutler did not ravage her mouth, as much as he wanted to, but slowly and thoroughly kissed her until he got a tentative response. Once he got what he wanted – his kissed returned, no matter how slight – Cutler released her and bowed slightly. There would be time to enough to push her further sometime in the near future. And how he would forward to that.

"I will leave you so that you may have a few moments to repair yourself. If possible, save me a dance for later." And with a kiss to the back of her hand, Cutler treated back into the house, noise and light spilling onto the porch before the door closed behind him.

Claire touched her lips lightly with the pads of her fingertips, enjoying the lingering sensation of Cutler's mouth on hers despite the confusion tearing apart her insides. Her first kiss. And while she knew she should be upset that he took such liberties against her person, Claire could not help feeling a sense of accomplishment. Her friends whispered of such acts. She was one step closer to becoming a woman.