A/N: Happy birthday, Noirreigne! I hope you will accept this birthday gift as a sign of my love, admiration and appreciation for inspiring me to start penning Gossip Girl fanfic.


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The sun shone brightly over the extensive grounds of Stonecrest, the ducal estate. The 4th Duke of Grenville had been obsessively in love with his Duchess. He doted on her so much so that he became fixated on creating the most stunning garden for her that spanned over three acres. Included in that expanse of space, Stonecrest boastfully was home to one of the most famous "puzzle mazes" in all of England. On approximately half an acre of the grounds were the eight foot high hedges with multiple looping paths, peppered with a handful of lover's alcoves and scattered benches. Proudly displayed in the center of the maze was a beautiful outdoor pavilion—named Robin, after the 4th Duchess of Grenville. With six separate paths that led away from the meticulously constructed wooden structure, the maze was always an adventure.

Blair Waldorf, daughter of the Earl of Wexford, Harold Waldorf and his wife Eleanor, stared at the grandeur on display from her guest room window on the second floor of the house. She always felt overwhelmed by the sight of the maze and garden. The sheer beauty of nature at its manicured finest, never failed to take her breath away. She had looked forward to the annual week-long house party that was held at the end of Spring, in May each year. Being the daughter of an Earl, as well as being one of the most popular debutantes for the past three seasons, had only been part of what secured her invitation this year.

She thought back to the first party she attended two years ago. That's when she had met him. A sad smile crossed her face. Since they had parted with words of anger nearly three months ago, he had all but vanished. No one knew where he had disappeared to, or had caught sight of him. As various people postulated that it had been rumored this or rumored that, not one claim had been founded. Her heart skipped a beat as she wondered if he would be here this week. Of course it was foolish for her to wonder—it was his family's estate, after all. Part of her couldn't help but think he would have to know that she had not only been invited, but accepted as well. There was no way for her to decline the coveted invitation without drawing the alarm and curiosity of both her mother and Serena.

Come to think of it, the 9th Duke of Grenville, Bart Bass, had welcomed her a bit too warmly upon her arrival. She was not unaware of his partiality towards her, and couldn't help but notice the extra care given in his greeting. Blair had desperately wanted to ask if his son, Chuck Bass, the 7th Marquess of Dearne, was currently in residence, but pride demanded she restrain herself. The normal icy blue eyes had been soft, as though Bart could read her thoughts, and she had barely kept from flushing in embarrassment. It seemed that Chuck's father kept a closer eye on him than either of them had thought, his knowing look spoke volumes. Glancing around the bedroom assigned to her, she had been surprised when she discovered she had been placed in the family quarters for the first time. The sheer size and quality of the room, coupled with the view overlooking the gardens, was a clear indicator that the Duke was granting his favor onto her.

It pained her that Chuck had yet to contact her, especially since she had not entirely been in the wrong. He had led her to believe that he was assiduously courting her. It had all been just a slip of the tongue. It had just been a passing reference to the future when his entire demeanor had changed. She should have noticed all the physical miscues that could have prevented her from speaking further out of turn.

"What makes you so certain that 'we' will be in each other's company next Christmas?"

"Are you suggesting we would spend Christmas away from one another? Don't be ridiculous, Chuck! I won't stand for us to be apart on holidays, not after we're married—" Blair's eyes widened as she clamped a hand over her mouth, realizing just what it was that she had insinuated.

"I didn't ask for you to refuse the Prince's offer—I told you that was your decision. I haven't promised you anything."

"I was mistaken to think that you might hold me in some regard," she whispered. "Please leave, Chuck."

"Not like this," he pleaded. "That's not what I was trying to say. Blair, you know I care—"

"Clearly, not enough," she interrupted. Suddenly, she was alight with anger. He had misled her! "You may not have explicitly promised me anything, but I wasn't wrong to think that there was something between us."

"Of course there's something there! You are the only woman I have ever spent time with. The only other time I have had use for speaking to a woman before, was if I wanted to get between her legs!" Chuck tried to explain.

"And is that supposed to comfort me? So you don't think of me as a whore? Thank you," she bit out sarcastically. "You may not have verbally asked me to turn down Prince Grimaldi's proposal, but don't you dare deny that you were begging me with your eyes!"

She glared at him as she icily said, "You will not make me feel ashamed because I have the audacity to love you and tell you so. But until you can admit that you love me too, I don't want to see you."

"Blair, please." He reached out and touched her elbow.

"Goodbye, Chuck," she whispered as she stepped out of the gazebo, and ran through her moonlit garden and back inside the house.

Blair hadn't looked back to see his reaction. She had methodically climbed the stairs to her bedroom, quietly opened the door and then flung herself onto her bed and allowed herself to cry hysterically into her pillow for the remainder of the night. In fact, it wasn't until her maid, Dorota, had come to fetch her for breakfast that she had realized how quickly the night had passed. It had only taken a glance in the mirror to see her eyes had puffed up, and even a cold compress over the next entire morning would be able to make her presentable to her mother.

She really didn't know how she had managed to make it through that day, nor the week that followed. Blair had pled fatigue to her mother to escape from social events for the week. She had not allowed herself to seek comfort in her mother Eleanor's embrace when Blair saw the worry etched in her face. She was certain that if she convinced herself that this entire thing had never happened—that Chuck had never been in her life—then she could get past it. As the days turned into weeks and nary a word was heard from him, she had become quite the accomplished actress, not even flinching or betraying any trace of emotion as his name was mentioned.

The pain which had pierced her and been excruciating at first, had finally dulled into an intense ache, always present and impossible to ignore. Blair felt like she had just been going through the motions, and wondered if she'd ever feel whole again. But slowly, she had learned to treat that pain as thought it were a constant companion. She would not let some man ruin her hopes and aspirations, and she certainly would never expose so much of herself to anyone again.

Blair stretched face-down onto the comfortable bed in her room, her fingers petting the beautiful brocade embroidery on the silk, cornflower blue coverlet. Her mind had trapped her in her memories, and she couldn't stop from remember the first moment she had felt his presence.

At the first Spring Celebration Blair had attended she had been caught up in the thrills of her first full season. As she had been in the first pack of arrivals, she, along with Serena, Kati and Is, had left their belongings to their maids and quickly rushed outside to explore the famed gardens. Blair had managed to separate herself from them by being bewitched by the intoxicating orchids that decorated an arched trellis. She had leaned in to carefully stroke the sturdy, yet smooth texture and couldn't help but sniff at the exotic fragrance. She had been caught completely unaware, when she suddenly felt eyes following her movement as well as the sound of feet on the portion of the gravelly path.

She whirled around only to be caught up in the most arresting eyes. Blair didn't know how long he had been staring at her, but his gaze was piercing. When their eyes finally met—his lips had quirked into a slow and predatory smirk. Her breath had caught in her throat and as his eyes leisurely traveled down the length of her body. Blair had never before experienced such an intense…stare. It was a frank perusal that she should have found insulting, but instead she felt breathless—invigorated.

The man standing in front of her was beautiful. Her fingers itched to push back the lock of hair that fell across his forehead. His eyes were hypnotizing, and she wanted nothing more than to lose herself in them. His shoulders were broad, and he was meticulously dressed—a crisp white shirt, a handsomely fitted dark purple jacket with a canary yellow cravat. Just as he took a step towards her, the sound of footsteps and high-pitched laughter stilled his movement. With a look of disappointment, he shook his head before winking at her, and then disappeared down a different path. She had been staring off into space by the time Serena, Kati and Is had reached her, breaking her from the cocoon that she had been caught in.

The second time she had seen him was at the masquerade ball, on the final evening of the week-long party. While Blair had earnestly looked for the mysterious man in the yellow cravat throughout her entire visit—he had never once materialized. She hadn't had a chance to reconcile how someone had managed to skip every organized event—he hadn't even shown up to a single meal. It had made her wonder if he had snuck onto the property—but the cut of his clothing and the aura of entitlement spoke of someone who not only would have been invited, but belonged there.

Serena had asked her multiple times during that first week where her head was at. Blair was usually so sharp, her eyes always taking in every last detail—but she had felt unrest ever since she had seen that man. She had managed to convince Serena that she was just overwhelmed by the weeklong event, and that the she really found the estate and the grounds to be magnificent. But the image of his warm brown eyes led her astray, as Blair had never remembered feeling so wanted before. She had many suitors, but none of them had looked at her like that—as though she were the most desirable thing he had ever seen. She had shook her head free of all thoughts of him, and had gotten herself ready for the dance that evening.

Blair looked at the simple, yet detailed mask atop of her dresser. While it was black in color, it was made with a sheer organza fabric, with sparkling, silver ribbon sewn throughout. She was relieved that she demanded Dorota add a ribbon, so she could secure the mast to her face. Most of the men had their masks fitted in that fashion, while women opted to attach theirs to a stick so their hairstyles would be left untouched. The idea of walking around throughout the ball, holding the mask to her face, seemed pointless. She wanted her hands unencumbered as she floated through the party—never having to reveal her true identity, just because her arm grew tired.

It turned out having both her hands free had aided her that evening. Several of her suitors had gotten particularly grabby—with the combination of alcohol, a disguise and the enchanting gardens with countless nooks that enticed would-be lovers. While her suitors had tried to secure her interest in a private tour of the gardens, Blair nearly shuddered in disgust. Part of the reason she kept these men as suitors, was so it enhanced her popularity—but not a single one of them had tempted her to even give up her first kiss. It was astonishing, really, that she garnered five marriage proposals in the first three months of her Season—and she had not encouraged a single one of them.

Blair walked quickly down one of the maze's paths, having just escaped one of the more drunken and repulsive men of the evening. When he tried to place her hands on her chest, she had kicked him squarely in the shin, before disappearing into the safety of the maze. Not paying attention, she almost ran into another drunken man who stood leering at her. She quickly changed directions, lifting her skirts enough to aide her in her escape—deeper and deeper into the maze. Hearing a loud circle of laughter, her heart leapt in her throat, as she looked back to see if she was being followed.

Suddenly she ran straight into a hard body, which stilled her running motion. Strong male arms held her firmly, yet gently in a loose embrace, and for the first time that evening, fear was replaced with relief. Blair looked up to her savior, only to find a red devil's mask that covered the almond-shaped, caramel colored eyes that had haunted her all week. She gasped as his lips twitched into a smile, but as the group of drunken male voices grew louder and louder, his eyes grew protective. He took her by the hand and guided her through a different path. Just as they had turned the corner, he drew her into his arms, cocooning her against him. Lifting a hand, and rubbing his thumb over her lips, he whispered, "Shhhh!"

Blair stood frozen, as her body felt the warmth from his body transfer to hers. There was something about his touch that drove all rational thought from her mind. His eyes were fixed on hers, as he continued to caress her lips slowly, languidly dragging his thumb across them. She closed her eyes as her lips parted to his touch.

A minute later, she heard his sharp intake of breath and a deep groan as he murmured, "Such a natural temptress."

Her eyes flew open as she hastily pulled away from his reach. Before she could break into a sprint, his hand clasped her elbow. But, it was his one word that stopped her from leaving.

"Please."

"Who are you?" Blair asked.

He shook his head. "I'd prefer my presence remain unknown to all. After all, isn't tonight a masquerade? A chance to be anyone or anything one wishes?"

She pondered the thought for a moment, then nodded her head in agreement. It would not do her reputation any good if he knew who she was, either.

"But are you a guest here? I have not seen you since—" Blair stopped herself from continuing. She didn't want him to know that she had thought of him all week.

"You could say that I'm a guest," he posited. Then he smiled. "It was the thought of you that dragged me from my quarters—you are absolutely exquisite."

A smile stretched onto her face, as she faintly blushed. Even his voice carried a lyrical quality, it was smooth and silken—seductive.

"Is this your first time here?" He continued to charm.

"It is," Blair confirmed.

When the man held out his hand to her, she did not hesitate, and let him lead her down yet another path. Instead of placing her hand on his arm, he laced his fingers through hers and they walked hand-in-hand.

"Are you enjoying yourself?"

"I am now," Blair said cheekily, as she glanced up at him through her thick, dark eyelashes. "And you?"

His eyes focused on her mouth with the same predatory appraisal he had given her the first time they saw each other. Her breath caught in her throat, her heart pounding so loudly, she thought her ears would pop.

"There are many things I can think of that I would enjoy greatly. All of those things involve you lying naked beneath me, in my bed," he drawled.

Blair couldn't stop her eyes from closing as she pictured his words in her mind. His soft hands stroking her body, his mouth demanding her submission. Suddenly she felt as though her body was afire, as her body subconsciously tilted towards his. And then his hand tugged on hers, bringing her body back in contact with his. His free hand tipped up her chin, and then his mouth brushed delicately against her. She whimpered with a need that she did not understand. His tongue darted out, urging her to part her lips for him. Blair acquiesced easily, needing for him to quench a hunger building from within.

Once his mouth took control, she clung to him, as the sensation of his tongue toying with hers nearly caused her to swoon. Blair grabbed his shoulders for support. When he pulled away, her eyes opened, to meet his brown eyes that were full of awe.

"Who are you?" He demanded.

Before she could answer him, the drunk laughter from before shattered the bubble they had enclosed themselves in.

"My Lady, oh, My Lady, wherever shall you be?" One man slurred.

The fear must have returned in her eyes, as concern edged the corners of his lust-filled gaze. Softly he apologized, "It appears as though our time has come to an end. Let me get you out of here safely. But I beg of you, tell me your name."

Blair shook her head as she reminded him, "Tonight is about mystery, remember?"

He smiled in chagrin, but nodded in understanding.

"Lady Blair!" A man bellowed at the top of his lungs. Soon another voice joined it, and then a third. All the men screaming her name at the top of their lungs.

She cringed in discomfort until their voices faded.

"Blair," he whispered reverently.

She looked up to see a look of triumph on his face. She shrugged helplessly, but felt a thrill at the way he spoke her name. Without warning, his mouth dove down to steal a quick kiss, pressing his lips against hers. He peppered butterfly kisses along her jaw-line, and up to her ear, before murmuring, "Until next time."

Blair felt as though she were in a daze—swimming in the sensations that he had just unleashed on her. Again, he took her hand in his, and led her down a series of paths until they reached an exit.

"You can make it safely to the house from here. I'll watch until you reach the doors," He vowed.

Her mysterious man had become her protector. With relief, she knew that no one would discover where she had been or who she had been with. She turned to him and smiled gratefully. "Thank you."

"The pleasure was entirely mine," he replied. He brought her hand to his lips and kissed it gently. "Good night, Blair."

"Good night."

And as she returned to the house, Blair could feel his eyes on her, and it made her feel safe.

It all seemed like a distant memory—a dream, really. The first time she properly met him—it had been by pure chance. Serena had begged her to keep her company, and come back with her to Stonecrest. Excited to revisit the magnificent estate that she hadn't had enough time to explore, Blair hadn't been able to resist. She ignored the silent voice inside her head, asking her if she wasn't irrationally hoping the mysterious gentleman of the maze would somehow magically be present as well.

Blair, like the ton itself, had been shocked by the announcement that her best friend's mother, Lady Lily van der Woodsen, was to become the next Duchess of Grenville. Society had been positively abuzz that the Duke was to remarry—especially since this would be the fourth marriage for Lady van der Woodsen. But then again, Lily had also managed to marry up each time. Her first husband had been a soldier, who had died at war. She had ended up marrying his cousin, a Baron, but he had been shot by a stray bullet during a hunting expedition two years later. Viscount van der Woodsen, Serena and Eric's father, and by far, Lily's longest marriage, had been killed in a carriage accident six years ago.

It had been whispered that the Duke was being careless in marrying Lady van der Woodsen, that he might just be the next in the line of men who met with an untimely death. In fact, everyone had been rather surprised that either of them wished to marry again, at all. The Duke was a reformed rake that had appeared to taken delight in transforming back into one, once more. The ton frowned heavily upon this union, but since this was by far the wealthiest dukedom of the land, not one unkind word had been publicly voiced.

Lily and Bart had decided that the best way for them to acclimate to one another, would be by spending time together as a family. The best gossips were convinced that the Duke's son, Charles' return from his travels was due to a summons. Over the past three years, he had been all over the world, sampling its riches in a lavish lifestyle. Not only was he handsome, he was a notorious womanizer, who had never been known to spend the night with the same woman twice. Women had been unable to stop from throwing themselves at him since an early age, his skills in a bedroom rumored to be legendary. Yet somehow, Bart had apparently thought it ideal to have his son under the same roof as his future bride and her children.

Serena had been absolutely beside herself when she found out about the upcoming nuptials. Her temper tantrums were well-known in their circle, and until she had wringed a promise from her mother that Blair could accompany her to this morbid experiment, she had shrieked non-stop. Of course, she hadn't even asked Blair if she had wanted to join them. She had agreed to join Serena in an attempt to minimize her friend's misery.

It felt surreal returning to Stonecrest. True, it had been over a month since she had attended the Spring Celebration. But this time, instead of being one of many, she was more than just a visitor, she was the guest of Serena van der Woodsen—whose mother was engaged to the current Duke.

Blair's mind flickered briefly to her encounters with the mysterious man. Her eyes closed for a moment as she imagined the feel of his firm lips against her soft, pliant ones. She could practically smell his uniquely intoxicating scent—eucalyptus with a hint of clove. The maze was calling to her, as it had been since the moment they arrived. When she nearly stumbled over her feet from mooning over the thought of him, she chided herself softly. There was most likely zero chance of her seeing him again. She sighed as she looked around the wide hallways. Blair realized she had no idea which corridor she had gone down. Just as she was about to turn around and retrace her steps to the main hall entry, a door slammed open.

"Charles, must you always be such a disappointment? When will this childish behavior end?" The voice of Bart Bass echoed loudly down the hallway.

Blair gasped. The infamous Charles Bass was in residence. She stepped back, looking for a place to hide, this would not be the most desirable way to meet the Marquess.

"I enjoy nothing more than living up to your impossibly low standards of me, Father."

The voice was rich as velvet, and so familiar. Blair shook her head furiously. No, it couldn't be…

Before she could further ponder that thought, a body to the voice appeared in the hallway. She could not stop the yelp from escaping. It was him.

The man who had haunted her dreams since she had first seen him, was none other than Charles Bass, the future 10th Duke of Grenville.

He turned his head towards her, his eyes widening a fraction. His face betrayed no emotion, other than the façade of idleness.

"Charles!" The Duke's voice bellowed.

The Marquess turned away from her, and faced the door he had just come out of. With a theatrical bow, he said, "Your Grace, I will no longer infringe on your time and see myself out."

He shut the door loudly, and without so much as another glance towards her, he strode down the hallway and disappeared into a door that appeared to lead outside. The door to the Duke's office swung open, as Blair jumped back, and hid behind a large pillar.

"Charles!" Bart looked in both directions before muttering curses to himself, and slamming the door shut.

Blair's heart was pounding loudly. Counting to ten, she pushed away from the wall, and quickly followed down the path that the Marquess had gone down. She wasn't even thinking, there were no conscious thoughts forming, she was operating purely on instinct. As the wide French doors led her to the South end of the grounds, she looked around helplessly, he was nowhere in sight.

There were three options in front of her, she was about twenty feet away from one of the entrances to the maze, the conservatory was to her right and the gardens to her left. Again, the maze called to her, and she continued what may end up being a fruitless search for the Marquess. She had just reached the first fork in the maze, when she heard a loud curse. While his long strides may have kept him from her sight, his voice had clued her on how to find him. Standing in front of a rosebush, he stood, wincing in pain, as he looked at his hand—a large thorn stuck in his finger.

Blair walked over to him and took his hand. He looked at her in surprise, the electricity that danced between them from the mere contact of their hands.

In an unsteady voice, she said, "Please allow me."

He nodded curtly.

She released the light grip she had on his hand and bent down to lift the hem of her dress. She heard a sharp intake of air from him, but was too busy tearing off a small piece of her petticoat to investigate. She unknowingly flashed him more than just a quick glimpse of her creamy, porcelain skin—from her bare ankle to her mid-calf. Blair dropped her skirts and looked up as she saw a fleeting look of disappointment cross the Marquess' face. She retook possession of his hand, and tied the lace fabric to his finger, as she carefully removed the thorn.

"There," she said softly. "All better."

When she lifted her face to meet his gaze, she was taken aback by the sheer intensity of his look. His eyes felt scorching and she tore herself away, and stared back down at his hand that was still between hers. There was a small pool of blood forming, and before she could stop herself, she brought his hand to her lips, and gently suckled the droplets from his wounded finger. As her teeth lightly grazed his skin and her eyes closed, the hiss the Marquess made sounded as though he was half in pain and half in pleasure. The sound urged her to continue the tender ministrations, as the slightly bitter taste of his blood slowly permeated onto the surface of her tongue.

Abruptly, the Marquess yanked his finger out of her mouth and stumbled backwards. Her eyes fluttered open at the loss of contact. The wild look on his face illuminated just how wanton her gesture had been. Blair flushed a deep shade of red, raising a hand to cover her mouth.

"Thank you," he managed to answer hoarsely.

"I'm sorry, my lord," Blair stammered. She dropped a quick curtsey, and rushed back in the direction she had come from, and out of the maze.

Embarrassment flooded her cheeks, she couldn't believe the impropriety of her actions. As quickly as her steps would allow, she crossed the grounds and reached the clearing that led to the fountain. When she was safe from any prying eyes of the house, she collapsed onto a cement bench, and gulped in large breaths of air. Confusion swarmed her mind, her behavior was incomprehensible. Even as she reflected on the actions from just a few minutes ago, she could make no sense of it. This connection, or whatever it was that was between them, from the first time she felt his eyes on her person—rendered her incapable of controlling her actions, she simply reacted.

Blair stood up in a panic. She was to be here for an entire month! She wanted to crawl underneath the very bench and die of humiliation. How was she ever going to manage to be in the same house as him, let alone the same room? She paced back and forth, scolding herself under her breath. Serena would know something was wrong if she suddenly pled illness or asked if she could leave early.

It took her almost an hour to calm herself. The first luncheon bell sounded, and she had resigned herself to fate. She was a Waldorf, daughter of an Earl, she would carry herself as was expected of someone in her position. When she entered the dining room, she was surprised to find that she was the last person to arrive, as five expectant faces turned to her. Bart sat at the head of the table, with Lily to his left. She was shocked to see the Marquess to Duke's right, with Eric to the left of him, while Serena sat next to her mother.

With a polite smile, Blair slipped into the seat next to Serena. "I'm sorry to keep everyone, the gardens are simply mesmerizing."

The van der Woodsen siblings smiled warmly at her, to them, she was practically family. Even Lily had an ease to her, as she waved dismissively. The Marquess sat back in his chair with a look of amusement—one that grew when he noticed the rigidity of her body.

"Blair, I understand its charm," Lily said blithely. "Besides, we were all early."

Bart gestured towards his footman, and shortly after, a small army of servants came to lay out their plates. As everyone selected their desired portions from the carrying trays, the only sound heard was the scraping of silverware against the fine bone china. The silence that descended was a blessing, and Blair prayed the meal would end quickly so she could make her escape. She kept her eyes downwards, the entire time and hadn't noticed that the Marquess had removed the cream scrap of lace she had tied to his finger, earlier.

"Lady Blair," Bart said in a curt voice, breaking the silence. "I don't believe you've met my son, Charles."

She daren't lift her eyes to meet the Duke's gaze, as she was clueless on how to respond to the query. Before she could even begin to wonder at how the Marquess would counter her unspoken words, his voice sliced through the air.

"Chuck."

Her head swung up to meet his challenging stare.

He smirked as his sculpted lips twitched into a patronizing grin. "Call me Chuck."

Bart humphed, and Blair managed to just catch the Duke rolling his eyes at what he clearly felt was the Marquess, no, Chuck's childish tactics.

"Charles," Bart stressed carefully. "Lady Blair is the Earl of Wexford's, only daughter. She and Serena are childhood friends, I ask that you make her stay an enjoyable one."

The warning in the Duke's voice was clear. There was a filtered message that she was unable to cotton onto, but the looks exchanged by the pair were frightening—Bart's so intense and Chuck's so defiant.

"Lady Blair," Chuck purred, placing emphasis on her first name.

Her heart melted at the cadence of his voice. There was something so uniquely inviting about it, despite the exterior coldness of the man who dispensed the words. She shivered unconsciously.

"If there is anything I can do to make your stay pleasurable, in any way, please, do not hesitate to ask. I am completely at your disposable," he finished charmingly.

Blair swallowed hard. Her mouth was dry, as if there was sand in her mouth. She was uncertain as to how the words would sound coming out of her mouth. Fortunately for her, Serena and Eric saved her.

"That's good of you, Chuck," Eric said with a friendly grin. Even though he was the youngest of everyone present, his energy, as always, was infectious. With a look of chagrin he confided, "I'm so glad you're here. Being outnumbered by those two—" he pointed at her and Serena, "your entire adolescent life was bad enough!"

Childishly, Serena stuck her tongue out at her brother, with utter disregard to the company. "Who says you've outgrown your adolescence? I do believe you're still at Eton."

Ignoring her, Eric turned back to Chuck, "Do you see this? This is what I grew up with."

Serena snorted and nudged Blair. She whispered loudly in a mournful tone, "I told you we should have left him at the fair with those gypsies all those years ago. They offered us a whole pound!"

Blair stifled a laugh.

"I'm so jealous of your being an only child, Chuck!" Eric continued to whine. "What I wouldn't have given to trade places with you. You have no idea how annoying one sister is, but add a second."

Eric sighed dramatically.

As she opened her mouth to return the verbal volley, it was the expression on Chuck's face that gave her pause. Beneath the frozen look of discomfort was a bit of wistfulness—as if he wanted nothing more then to chime into the ribbing. She felt compelled to rescue him from that familiar feeling—one she would no doubt have shared, had she not grown up with Eric and Serena.

In a haughty tone, Blair condescended, "Some of us are born to levels of perfection that you can never hope to aspire to. I had hoped by now you would have grown to understand that, little Eric."

Bart's hearty laughter surprised everyone, as they all turned towards the head of the table. Identical looks of shock graced the van der Woodsens' faces, while Chuck seemed perturbed by the foreign sound of joy.

"My dear, Blair," the Duke said congenially. "You are quite the welcome addition to this table. I pray you continue to speak freely during your stay with us. I see that your wit will be enjoyed by us all."

Blair shot a sly look at Bart. "Thank you, Your Grace. My mother always said that greatness recognizes their own kind."

The van der Woodsens and Chuck seemed stunned at her audacity, but Blair knew that she had nothing to worry about. The Duke had thrown down a verbal gauntlet, and she was more than up to the challenge. Lily nervously cleared her throat, as Eric and Serena stared worriedly at each other. She ignored the stare of awe coming from Chuck, even though all she wanted to do was shoot a wink at him.

The merriment that appeared on Bart's face was evidence enough. He nearly howled in laughter and Blair joined in. As the Duke's guffaws echoed throughout the large dining room, Lily relaxed and contributed her chuckle. Soon Eric and Serena rounded out the cacophony of mirth. It was only Chuck who remained on the outside of the circle looking in, as a stiff smile sat forced on his face.

Wiping the tears from his eyes, Bart approvingly said, "Lady Blair, your reputation does not do you justice. You are even better than advertised—the man who will one day call you his wife, will hopefully be deserving of you."

Blair blushed with happiness. The Duke's reputation for being reserved and disapproving was near legendary. His approval was sought by everyone and rarely handed out. That was in part why the proposed union between he and Lady van der Woodsen was found to be so shocking. Lily was known to be almost progressive in contrast to the Duke's need for order and control.

Serena squeezed her hand underneath the table, understanding how important it was to Blair to be thought highly of. With a smile on her face, Blair stared down at her plate. It was an embarrassment of riches, really—to go from the heights of humiliation just over an hour ago to the pinnacle of social success—the Duke of Grenville approved of her.

A relaxed calm washed over the dining room table, as they continued eating in silence. It was only when she looked up to smile gratefully at the footman, who came over to refill her glass, that she noticed Chuck sneaking a glance of wonder at her. Instead of engaging in a battle of cryptic looks, however, she opted to finish eating her meal in contented peace. Blair could not allow the display of weakness in the maze to affect her small victory. Besides, allowing herself to ignore his intense stare would level the playing field. In their three brief encounters, he always seemed to escape the victor, while she left breathless and intoxicated in defeat—it was time for those odds to change.

A few minutes later, Bart and Lily excused themselves from the table, as the two ventured off to opposite ends of the house. Just the four of them remained seated, the sounds of cutlery and chewing slowing down, as each was finishing their meal.

"Chuck," Eric exclaimed. "Was that a billiard table I saw?"

The Marquess nodded.

"Do you think the Duke will mind, if I have a go?"

"Feel free to claim it as your own. If I'm not mistaken, it is only in use during the Spring Celebration," Chuck confirmed.

Eric hesitated for a moment, as though he was waiting for Chuck to offer to join him. When no words came, Eric jumped up, and with a wave, he scampered off.

"I'm going to go find my mother," Serena announced. "There are some gloves and lace I couldn't find in my trunks. B, are you coming with me?"

Blair paused in thought. Whenever Serena became fixated on gloves and lace, it was exhausting. She shook her head.

"I'm so enamored by the grounds, I think I will take another turn in either the gardens or the maze," she said apologetically.

Serena smiled brightly and nodded. "Good day, Chuck! B, I'll find you later, or see you at dinner!"

When the sound of Serena's footsteps had faded, she hadn't even a moment to contemplate her disquietude of being left alone in a room with Chuck, before he cleared his throat.

Softly, he spoke, "If you would like a guide, I would be more than happy to accompany you."

Blair tilted her head as she stared at him appraisingly. This was a remarkable contrast to his behavior earlier. Despite the cool logic in her head screaming at her to decline his offer, she found that she could not. Like a moth to the flame, she wanted to explore whatever this pull he had on her was. Buoyed by the confidence the Duke had instilled with his flattering words, she nodded in agreement. "Thank you. That would be lovely."

Chuck stood up and walked around the table and pulled out her chair. She was startled by his chivalrous gesture, and slowly got to her feet. When he offered his hand out to her, she took it with grace.

He led her onto the terrace with a slow and relaxed pace, keeping her hand on his arm, by placing his hand over hers. The pressure of his hand was firm but unobtrusive. As he carefully guided her down the stairs, he finally spoke. "How much of the gardens have you explored?"

"Just parts of the maze, really…" she trailed off, blushing deeply. Blair managed to collect her thoughts, before answering again. "The grounds are so extensive, but the maze has endless facets to be discovered. It's almost like a puzzle, not knowing where each piece will lead you next."

With a shy look, Chuck confessed, "I'm very partial to the maze myself."

She smiled brilliantly at him, glad that some common ground was being found. His eyes twinkled back at her—perhaps a rapport was beginning to develop.

"As a child, I used to spend all the time my governess let me out of the house, running around there. It irritated my father to no end, how I would run up and down the paths—often getting lost," he continued to confide. "It took me a couple of months to realize that if I looked carefully, I could follow the string tied to the base of the hedges, and I'd find my way out."

"The strings?" She asked in confusion.

"The strings," he confirmed with a childlike grin. Just as he was about to launch into words, he stopped himself. With a mildly curious look, he asked, "When you were here for the Spring Celebration, did they give the history of the maze?"

Blair shook her head in chagrin and sheepishly admitted, "If they did, I either didn't pay attention or missed it completely."

"I haven't been in residence for one in about four years," Chuck admitted. "I'm not sure if my father has changed the schedule of events. But they used to organize an official tour of both the maze and garden. I would be more than happy to share with you, if you're interested?"

She nodded in agreement as an eager smile crossed her face. There was something fascinating about history to Blair—somehow it managed to make her feel both completely relevant and insignificant all in one. If anything, it made her strive for even more greatness, so that she would stand out and make at least a ripple in the fabric of existence.

"My great-great-great-great-grandfather, the 4th Duke of Grenville, was said to be so in love with my great-great-great-great-grandmother, that they thought him to be mad," he whispered mischievously. "Even before she had agreed to be his bride, he had long discussions with his head gardener, as well as gardeners of England's most beautiful estates. He longed to make Stonecrest so breathtaking that his future bride, my great-great-great-great-grandmother, could just look outside so she would understand the magnitude of his love. He also knew that it would come in quite handy whenever they fought—all he had to do was gesture outside, and all would be forgiven."

Laughter came from her freely—she was surprised by this unexpected side of him. His ability to spin the story in such an engaging and clever manner spoke to a playful nature she was just beginning to get a glimpse of. She wondered how many people bore witness to this part of him.

"Legend—or at least our butler, Arthur—tells us that the 4th Duke of Grenville hired every available hand, forced the house and outdoor staff of all six of his estates to work tirelessly for an entire month. The Duke was determined that when he proposed to the future Duchess, at least the blueprint would be planted, so she could picture how glorious the garden would blossom into. You see, the Duke had been courting the future Duchess for years—he had seen her but once, and that had been enough for him to succumb to Cupid's arrow."

Instead of looking around her, Blair watched Chuck's face as he unfolded his family's history, she was simply captivated. He had become animated as he dispensed the anecdotes, a look of amusement on his face, as he recollected the storied tale. She waited in anticipation for him to continue.

"Apparently, my great," Chuck gestured as he motioned that he would avoid repeating the word an additional three times. "Grandmother had harbored a secret grudge against my great grandfather since her childhood. At some party they had been at as children, when she had been a mere six years old, while he had been a mature fourteen—Great grandfather had inadvertently pushed her and gotten her favorite dress muddied. All she remembered was crying as he teased her mercilessly for acting like a baby. Great grandfather was apparently unrepentant and outright refused to apologize to her. Allegedly he told her that she should apologize to him, as she had gotten in his way, and now there was a stain on his shirt cuff."

"Well, I certainly hope she made him work hard to earn her affection," Blair said, both in part from indignation and in sympathy to the late Duchess.

He chuckled. "It took almost five years, copious amounts of groveling and this garden, before she even allowed for him to court her."

Blair chortled triumphantly.

"Of course, when she turned him down after his grand romantic gesture—he was disheartened. But when he escorted her back to her home, and delivered her back to her parents, she had these parting words…"

Chuck had stopped moving and turned to look at her seriously.

"What? What did she say?" She asked excitedly.

He let the suspense stretch and cocked his eyebrow at her. Blair tugged on his arm impatiently as she rolled her eyes in irritation. When he leaned over to stare at her closely, her heart sped up uncontrollably. She cleared her throat and he stepped back with a smile. Finally, he divulged the mysterious words, "Well, I suppose you'll have to come back tomorrow and try to convince me, all over again."

"Oh!" Blair exclaimed happily as she clapped her hands together in glee. She didn't notice the slight narrowing of his eyes at the fact that she was no longer physically connected to him. Nor did she place any objection when he reached out to secure the former position of her hand resting in the crook of his arm.

"The rest, as they say, is history." Chuck concluded. "Now tradition holds that each Duke makes a personal alteration or addition to the grounds, in honor of his new Duchess. It seems, however, that all of the changes have been restricted to the maze. If memory serves, at least one path has been altered by each Duke—hence the string I followed as a child. But it was the 5th Duke that had trellises erected to each of the designated lover's nooks and the 6th Duke added the topiary trees scattered throughout. The 7th Duke commissioned the opposing fountains and the 8th Duke is the one that weaved the orchids you were so very fond of into the trellises."

"What did you father do for your mother?" Blair asked expectantly. She was so enthralled by the history of the Bass men, and was bubbling with curiosity for what the stoic Bart Bass had done for his late wife, Misty, that she hadn't realized that they had reached the center of the maze.

Instead of speaking, Chuck merely escorted her to the West side exit of the maze, which was trimmed with rosebushes. Quietly, he answered, "I've been told that my mother loved roses."

Blair pulled away from him, to walk up to the small, but extensive rose garden within the maze. She reached out to touch one of the silken lavender petals—sterling roses, every last one of them. The fragrance wafted into her nostrils, as she became immersed in the scent. She sensed, rather than heard, Chuck approach. Before she could stop him, he reached over to snap a stem off.

"No! Wait!"

His movements stilled as he turned to look at her. Lurking in the depth of his eyes, was just a hint of a schoolboy who had been scolded.

"I…it's just—I mean," her words tangled. "The thorns."

"Thorns?"

"Your finger…from earlier," she clarified. Blair prayed that her cheeks were not deepening into a dark shade of red.

Chuck withdrew his hand from the stem slowly. With a polite nod, he murmured, "I'll have the gardener cut an arrangement for your room."

"That's not necessary," she rushed out.

"You don't like them?" He asked confusedly. "Perhaps, they are just not your favorite?"

"No! The roses are lovely, I'm quite fond of their purplish hue," Blair quickly reassured him. "But there's no need for them to be sent to my room, when I can just walk to the gardens."

His lips quirked into a wry smile. "They mustn't be your favorite. I've never known a woman who refused flowers."

"Peonies," she admitted. "Peonies are my favorite. Not that the roses are any less beautiful—you just don't need to go to all the trouble."

"I'd hate for you to feel as though I forced them on you," he replied stiffly.

Wanting to soothe his bruised pride, she found herself boldly suggesting, "Perhaps, you can just escort me to visit them here?"

After a full minute passed, Chuck returned to his previously agreeable self. "A daily constitution, I suppose."

"If you so please."

"You'll have to prepare to be thoroughly educated about the care of these roses, if I commit to this," he teased lightly.

"A budding horticulturist?" She bantered back.

It was his turn to blush, as his ears turned a shade of pink. Mumbling so softly, she had to strain her ear to catch his words, "I wouldn't say horticulturist."

Clearing his throat, he explained himself. "I plant a new rosebush each year, in honor of my mother's memory. The gardener isn't too pleased, but since he's supervised me since I was seven, at least he knows I won't make too much of a muck of it."

"I think that's wonderful," Blair said appreciatively. Behind the façade of the indifferent and emotionless man she had seen outside his father's study, was this boy within. And she desperately wanted to know that boy.

A comfortable hush fell upon them, and when he offered her his arm, she took it easily. No further words were spoken as they walked back in silence. When they reached the terrace doors into the library, he kissed her hand and bowed, before excusing himself.

For the remainder of her stay, the routine had been established. After virtually every luncheon, Chuck would stroll with her in the maze and throughout the gardens. On occasion, Eric and Serena would venture out with them—but more often than not, it was just the two of them. The tenor was never quite as revealing as that first day, but Blair welcomed the calm. She loved that Chuck would relax in her presence, telling her the most interesting stories about his travels or the most outlandish rumors about the ton. Frequently they just walked in silence, and regardless of which version of Chuck appeared—she looked forward to them all.

The month passed quickly and uneventfully—save for their daily walks. On the final afternoon of her stay, Chuck had surprised her by asking for her address, as well as permission to call on her when he returned to London for the wedding. In a daze, Blair had agreed, but she had been entirely clueless to his intentions. The entire time, he had never once overstepped the bounds of propriety, which she had been disappointed by. While she had enjoyed his company, his wit and his intelligence, she had kept waiting for the spark to ignite, as a delicious tension always seemed to hover between them. But perhaps she had read too much into their first two meetings, he must have thought of her as a mere flirtation. He was almost brotherly in his behavior, except for the rare moments, she was convinced she saw the barest hint of lust.

Blair left Stonecrest on a warm afternoon, completely uncertain to where she stood with Chuck Bass.

.

.

.

Two months had passed when the combination of the Bass and van der Woodsen clan had returned to London for the nuptials. The Duke, for some unknown reason, had decided that he wanted a celebration that rivaled no other. And Lily and Serena had been completely overrun with activity from the moment they arrived.

Chuck had called on her almost immediately, but the easy rapport of their time at Stonecrest seemed to be a distant memory. He had only sent her one letter, and that had arrived shortly after she had left his estate, inquiring after her travels. The man who had sat with her stiffly in her drawing room had seemed to be a virtual stranger. He was cool and aloof, almost rebuffing any attempt she had made to ease him into conversation. So, it had come as a relief when he stood up abruptly and ended the call.

The true reason for his odd behavior had not materialized until the evening of the wedding celebration. After dancing with her, he had led her to the balcony, only to announce stiltedly that he had decided he wished to travel and planned on leaving the very next morning. Stunned by the news, she had been speechless. Blair did not even remember the words she had responded with. For a brief moment, she thought she had seen regret in his eyes. He had promised to write her and then led her back into the ballroom. Sometime during the celebration he had disappeared without saying goodbye, and she told herself that it didn't mean anything.

As the months had trickled by slowly, she had only received one short letter from Chuck and Blair had managed to adjust herself to the idea of letting him go. She had been pleasantly surprised when a Christmas package arrived—an array of beautiful ribbons and lace, along with a hand-painted trinket box. Only two words accompanied his scrawled signature, Happy Christmas. By the time she had received a second letter, it was late February, and the missive was only two lines longer than the first.

She had already arrived to the conclusion that whatever connection they had shared over the summer, while intriguing, had been fleeting. Blair did her best to be more considerate to her array of suitors that she had deftly avoided since last summer. Of the six men that pursued her the most devotedly, it was Prince Louis Grimaldi who appealed to her most. He was always so shy and unassuming, yet embarrassingly attentive. It was a welcome respite from Chuck's intense coolness. Blair couldn't have known this, but she wore the pain of Chuck's departure and failure to return like a veil of sorrow. And Blair Waldorf, in the depth of her agony, was a breathtaking sight to behold.

She had happily noted that both her mother and father, while warm to the idea of Prince Grimaldi, were completely uninterested in forcing a match for her. Blair couldn't ignore the looks of concern, humor and a sad understanding that crossed their faces. Though whatever it was between her parents, Blair wanted more than that for herself. She knew that it was a bit idealistic for her to want to find a love match, especially when marriage was generally thought of as an advantageous connection. It wasn't that she thought her parents didn't love each other, because she could see their care and love—but it wasn't passion. And knowing she would be stuck with whomever she married for the rest of her life, she wanted to want to be with him. Blair wished for a married life that wouldn't feel like such a duty—she wished for it to be a choice. She was grateful that her parents were giving her as much free reign as possible. It appeared that they would let her choose for herself—at least for now.

Over the past two months, she had allowed Louis, the opportunity to spend more time with her. When it was time for the annual Spring Celebration at Stonecrest, and Chuck had not arrived, as he intimated in his third note, Blair had finally dropped the pretense of waiting. She had to force herself to resist the allure of continuing to hope that he felt something more for her, even though there had been a beautiful flower arrangement in her room at his ancestral home with a note that simply read I'm sorry I couldn't make it. –Chuck. So while Blair did not exactly bestow Louis her favor, more often than not, she extended him the privilege of escorting her to events and saving a waltz or two for him.

It was early June—just a couple of months shy of a year—when Chuck finally reemerged from his lengthened travels. The rumors of his return were substantiated by his arrival on the front doorstep of the Waldorf townhouse in London. Unfortunately, Blair was not home to receive him, and was left to wonder at the bouquet of peonies he had left behind. The same pattern emerged over the next three days, Chuck arriving after she had left her home, only to leave exquisite flowers—hydrangeas, orchids and gardenias, in his wake. After the fourth missed encounter, Blair couldn't stop herself as she wondered if perhaps she had given up too soon?

When Serena had questioned her that evening about her relationship with Chuck, Blair was speechless, as her friend had never noticed anything before. Before a plausible reason could be spoken, Serena had explained that Bart had been snooping around. It seemed that Chuck had called on Blair first, even before he had showed his face at the ducal residence. As she sighed in relief, she evaded the question, simply citing that perhaps she had been the only one who had written him letters, and this was Chuck's gesture of gratitude. Easily satisfied with her response, Serena had let the subject go. But Blair couldn't help but wonder, why now? Especially since Chuck had not attended a single social event or even shown his face at his club.

Serena had changed the subject by asking her how it felt to be officially wooed by a Prince. Blair had forced her social skills to save her from herself. Her friend went on and on about how the ton was abuzz that Lady Blair was well on her way to becoming a Princess. She had smiled wanly and had provided the stock answers that would be acceptable. Blair didn't know how to explain to Serena that it was Chuck, and only Chuck, who mattered to her at all.

When they had finally seen each other, it seemed as though the Chuck she knew from her time at Stonecrest had returned. Absent was all the stilted oddity that had shrouded them during his last visit. He had smiled easily this time, allowed for smooth-flowing conversation, even making the effort to charm her mother. Blair had no idea where all of this was leading, but she had her suspicions that the next few months were going to be quite interesting.

.

.

.

The strange yet dangerous ritual emerged, almost by chance. Blair still could not explain how she had allowed these clandestine midnight meetings in her mother's garden to continue. Truthfully, she knew, she could not resist this side of him—the one who would pick a lock on the gate, just to sit next to her in the gazebo. Her hands itched as he would occasionally brush his fingers against hers, the gentle stroke making her skin tingle with excitement. Other times he would casually drape his arm around her shoulders, allowing her to rest her head against his chest, and listen to the steady drumming of his heart. And yet at other times, he would stretch out on the bench, resting his head on her lap. Some nights he would overflow with words—though he managed to divulge everything, while he gave away nothing. Virtually every night for a month, they met in darkness—and for an hour or two they luxuriated in each other's unchaperoned company.

But tonight was different from every other night, as Blair stood pacing in the garden long before he would arrive. Tonight, she would have to end these encounters that meant everything to her. All she wanted to do was ask him if he was growing to love her, if Chuck thought there was a chance that he may love her one day. But she found that she could not bring herself to ask him that question—she didn't know if she could suffer the humiliation that he did not feel for her, what she did him. Her nerves were frayed and her heart quickened at the thought that she would never again be alone with him—never again feel that mix of rapture and agony.

"You're waiting for me," Chuck slurred.

Blair turned around startled—he had somehow managed to creep into the garden without her hearing him. From the looks of it, he was a bit foxed. Chuck's cravat was loosened, his hair rumpled—as though he had run a hand through it a thousand times, and his eyes had a glassy sheen, it were as if he was unraveling. He leaned against the wooden pillar, thoroughly assessing her from head to toe.

"Chuck!" She uttered softly.

He pushed off from his position, and slowly stalked towards her. Blair's heart started beating rapidly as she could feel the tension in the air. He stumbled slightly, before righting himself. When he had finally reached her, he placed his hands on her waist, before slowly sliding them down to her hips. Chuck pulled her body close to his, and nuzzling her ear with his nose, he whispered, "So beautiful and so untouched."

Then with a level of dexterity that she wouldn't have expected, due to his less than sober state, he locked her in his embrace, cradling her so she sat in his lap. She couldn't stop her hand from toying with an errant curl that fell across his forehead. When he closed his eyes, and a hint of a smile crossed his lips, Blair wanted nothing more than to feel his lips on hers—it had been over a year since he had last kissed her.

Again he whispered, "Blair."

Her eyes unconsciously slid shut as she smelled his breath mixed with a much fainter hint of scotch than she had expected—and yet he was every bit as intoxicating. She rested her forehead against his, and just basked in his embrace. Something that felt this natural, surely it must be right, and surely, he must feel as strongly about her as she did towards him?

Just as she had drummed up enough courage to start the descent of her lips towards his, the words tumbled from his mouth. "Do you think I'm a disappointment? That I'll never amount to anything?"

Blair's eyes flew open at the pain that laced through his words. Chuck's eyes were still closed and tenseness filled his body, but she could also feel the sadness rolling off of him. She cradled his face in her hands and soothed him the only way she knew how. As she rubbed her thumbs softly against his cheekbones, she softly said, "No, you could never be a disappointment. You can be anything you want to be."

He peered at her through his thick, dark eyelashes. Suddenly she felt him relax just the slightest bit. He pulled his face out of her grasp and let out a sigh as he looked away. In a quiet voice, he confessed, "I'll never be good enough for him. My father will never take me seriously."

"Prove him wrong. Show him with actions, so that he can no longer ignore your words. I believe in you, and you should, too," she reassured him firmly.

"How?" Blair heard the desperation in his voice, the longing for approval. "He doesn't even see me."

"I see you."

Chuck turned back to look at her, she knew the love she felt for him shined in her face. He reached out and held her by the chin. His eyes bore into hers, and she was drowning in the mix of emotions she found in their depth. He sat up and brought his face so that it was level to hers. With a painstaking slowness, he gently brushed his lips against hers. That simple touch was enough to bring her body to life—she leaned into him, running her fingers through his hair, and parted her lips to his.

He lethargically nipped at her lips, fueling her impatience. She wanted him to plunder her mouth with his tongue, and send her to the heights of pleasure and sensation that only he could evoke in her. He traced her lips with his tongue, and she could not suppress the mewl of dissatisfaction. Blair felt him smile against her mouth, as he proceeded to nibble on his lips, until without warning, he plunged in and took full possession of her mouth. She was lost in a sea of overwhelming passion, and she dug her fingers into his skull, to keep her from being swept away. His hands roamed up and down her back, as they eventually settled on her bottom, pressing her closer to him.

Just when she thought she could not take any more, he drew back, and placed wet kisses against her cheek before trailing them down her neck.

"I have been waiting over a year to taste you again. You are just as exquisite now, as you were then," he growled against her skin. His teeth lightly scraped the skin of her clavicle, and a moan escaped her. Chuck's tongue traced languid patterns across her neck, before he made his way back to her ear. As he bit lightly on her lobe, he hotly said, "Tell me you're mine, Blair."

The words triggered similar words from earlier that very evening, words spoken by another man. She unfurled her fists that had clutched his hair in passion, and she wrenched herself out of his embrace and stood up.

Blair took a deep breath as she resumed her pacing from earlier that evening. She felt the intense stare that Chuck was boring into the side of her face. Although she had been determined not to ask him, after the kiss and the way he had whispered those words in her ear, she desperately needed the confirmation that she was not alone in feeling this.

"How do you feel about me?" She blurted out before she gave it any more thought.

A look of confusion crossed his face. He stared at her quizzically.

With more than a hint of annoyance, she ground out her question again. "How-Do-You-Feel-About-Me?"

His eyes narrowed as apprehension filled his face. In a very flat tone he spoke one syllable. "Why?"

"I have a right to know, don't I? You have spent almost every evening of the past month, in secret, with me, asking for nothing. Tonight, you're foxed, confiding in me and you kissed me," Blair snapped. Without warning, her chin quivered as she was overwrought with emotion. "Decisions need to be made, Chuck. So, I'm asking you, how do you feel about me?"

He sat up stiffly before remaining motionless, deep in thought. In a tight voice, as though the words were being dragged out of him, he stuttered. "I—I—"

She blinked back the tears that threatened to flood down her cheeks. He was going to give her nothing—force her to make a decision without having all the information.

"Icareaboutyou." The words came out in a rushed jumble. He took a deep breath, before muttering under his breath, "Much more than I should."

"Care how?" Though a wave of relief flooded her body, it wasn't enough. If she was going to turn down Louis' proposal, she needed Chuck to tell her she meant something, anything, to him. Blair crossed her arms and tapped her foot impatiently. "As a friend? A sister? A lover? A wife?"

"I just care, period," he barked. "Why? Is that not enough?"

Her chin trembled in defiance. "Those words you said to me, Tell me you're mine? Prince Grimaldi asked me earlier tonight, if I would be his…his wife."

The silence was deafening. His eyes looked wild as he stared at her with a mixture of anger, revulsion and pain. Chuck's eyes pled with her for one quick instance before the iron doors to his soul slammed shut—the steely look of indifference firmly in place. He cleared his throat. "Congratulations."

"Is that all you have to say?" She asked him, unable to keep the tremor out of her voice.

"What else is there?" He whispered.

"A reason that I should decline his proposal?" Blair threw out recklessly. She couldn't cling to her pride if it would cost her him.

Silence.

"Whatever decision you make, Lady Blair, must be your own," Chuck said stiffly.

They were back to addressing each other formally. He was not going to offer her any incentive to decline Louis' proposal. Blair bit her lip, as tears pooled at the corners of her eyes. Whatever this was between them, it appeared he was unwilling to further explore it, and simply let it go.

"Lord Bass, it's probably advisable for you to leave," Blair said, just as stiffly.

Chuck stood in front of her, and looked down into her eyes. For one brief moment, he let his guard down, and she could see the longing that resided there. He took her hand and pressed a kiss to her palm. "I wish you every happiness."

And then, like a thief in the night, who had stolen her heart long ago, he was gone.

She didn't know how long she stood there frozen, still in shock of everything that happened that night. But Blair felt the tears burn like scars imprinting on her cheeks, as she refused to wipe away the evidence of her heartbreak. Her throat felt raw from the tears, and her nose unable to stop its sniffling. She picked up the wrap that had long been discarded, and laid on the ground. Bundling herself in it tightly, she rubbed her arms as though the friction and heat on her skin, would be able to warm the ice in her veins. She then quietly made her way through the garden and back into the house and to her bedroom.

Blair had tossed and turned all night, sleeping dreamlessly and fitfully. She had been exhausted when she awoke. When Dorota had cringed, unable to meet her eyes, she knew sleep had not provided her a soothing haven to offset Chuck's actions. If anything, Blair had expected that the Marquess' inability to commit to her would be enough to tip the scales for the Prince. But instead of thinking of a future with Louis, she had only been able to think of Chuck. Blair had felt wretched, she hadn't known what about her was not enough for him to want to be with her. What had further distressed her was Chuck's fragile state of mind last night. He had sought her for comfort and his words kept dancing in her head—tell me you're mine. She was his—always had, always would be.

With renewed determination, she needed to at least give Louis one final chance to change her mind. The Prince's words had been so different, Please Blair, I want nothing more than for you to be mine. He had been sweet and delicate and so earnest. Just thinking about it now, she realized how timid he had been, he hadn't even attempted to steal a kiss. Her hand went to her mouth, as she closed her eyes, remembering the heavenly feel of Chuck's lips on hers. It was that passion and complete enthrallment that she couldn't bear to live without.

When Prince Grimaldi arrived shortly after breakfast to call on her, and inquired if she had made her decision, Blair launched herself towards him. She threw her arms around his neck and pressed her mouth against his. She was pleasantly surprised when Louis did not pull away repulsed, but instead, deepened the kiss, slipping his tongue between her lips. Blair tried with all her heart to pour the love that Chuck had rejected into the moment—and it was Louis who pulled away, flushing in excitement. She smiled at him tepidly, but she knew, she would never be able to manufacture a fraction of the excitement with Louis as she shared with Chuck.

And as though Louis could sense that the kiss was not one of felicitation but a test—one he had apparently failed, he looked almost despondent. "Blair, please, tell me what it is that I have done? I love you, desperately. Whatever it is you want from me, it's yours. I want you to make me the happiest man on earth, by waking up next to me every day for the rest of my life. You are the only one worthy enough to be my Princess."

Her heart skipped a beat at the beautiful words that fell from his mouth. Blair wished for nothing more than to want him, to be a Princess—as she had always dreamed of as a child. But even the allure of a crown or a royal title was not enough to tempt her into a life of mediocrity. Having tasted passion, she found she could not resist the lure of love and romance and excitement. She delicately comforted him, "Louis, I am grateful for your singling me out for the honor to be your wife, but I'm afraid I'll have to decline."

He clutched her hand and placed it on his heart. In an impassioned speech he begged, "Blair, my heart only beats for you."

She gently pulled her hand from his grasp. "I'm so very sorry."

"Was it something I did?" Louis asked mournfully.

Blair shook her head. "It wasn't what you did, you are a perfect Prince, any girl would be lucky to have you."

"But…" he prodded.

"It's who you're not," she whispered.

Her words seemed to trigger a response, as he looked resigned in defeat.

"I had hoped that I was just imagining things, but now I know the truth. Your heart has long been engaged elsewhere, has it not?"

She nodded. "I tried to fight it, with all of my might—but the heart wants what it wants."

With a graceful bow and a sad smile, Louis took her hand one last time. "You are a jewel that deserves to shine. I hope you find happiness with whoever he may be."

The Prince kissed her hand, then strode out of the room and didn't look back.

Blair collapsed onto the settee. Why, why, why? Why couldn't she love someone as simple as the Prince? The voice inside her said, because he's not Chuck.

A knock on the door had Blair sitting up, very properly. When she saw it was just Jasper, their butler, she relaxed and resumed her previous state of frustration.

"Lady Blair, this was just delivered for you." A delicate bouquet of peonies was placed in front of her, and a card rested on his tray. She picked up the card with one hand and the flowers in the other.

Noting the familiar crest on the card, Blair's heart skipped a beat. Carefully she opened the note, like in all of his previous correspondents, Chuck was brief. Lady Blair— My sincerest congratulations. –Chuck Bass.

She wondered what it had cost his pride to make this gesture. As much as she wanted to ignore the sweetness of his efforts, Blair found she could not. She placed the lovely flowers on the table and crossed the room to the writing desk. Pulling out a piece of parchment and a quill, she smoothed over the paper. She dipped the pen into the pot of ink, and just as she was about to scribble a note, she quirked her lips in confusion. What should she say? She placed the quill down, as she tried to word the note as carefully as possible. An hour later, when she was still looking at the blank piece of parchment, she simply scribbled four short words and summoned for Jasper. Hopefully he would hear her message loud and clear.

My answer was no.

.

.

.

She had not had to wait very long for Chuck to respond to her missive. He had returned to her home the very next morning. For the first time in well over a month, he had shown up during normal calling hours. Blair had been secretly pleased that he had looked exhausted, as though he hadn't been able to sleep since they parted. It was the first visible sign that he was as affected by her decision as she was. The murmurs of surprise in the drawing room had not bothered Blair one bit. She had forced herself to act as though she shared in her other guests' astonishment that the Marquess had deigned to show up at all—it was well known that Chuck had rarely, if ever, made house calls.

But what had earned the looks of envy was the distinctive box of Eripret chocolates that had sat in his hands. Andre Eripret was currently the most sought after chocolatier in all of London, and he was especially infamous for his temperamental nature. It had often been said that he was worse than an artist, succumbing to wild mood swings. Yet, his creations were heavenly and fetched almost ten times the sum of a regular box of chocolates. Judging from the size of the box, it had been more than apparent that Chuck must have spent a small fortune on the treat. The jealous mamas and debutantes would later spread the news like wildfire, the Marquess of Dearne, it appeared, had shown Lady Blair an honor, unlike any other. It would later be discovered that not only had Chuck paid more than twice the exorbitant price—additional bribes had been doled out to secure the box that very morning.

Luckily for the Marquess, he had timed his visit perfectly, just as it was time for her other visitors to make their way to the next destination. It had been humorous for Blair to watch the facial expressions of her callers, as they had been torn with indecision if they should overstay their welcome, to be privy to the juiciest gossip. Eleanor had made not-so-veiled comments, suggesting that it would be rude to dally at her house. She had even deftly accompanied them to the door, allowing for Blair to have had a brief moment alone with Chuck. He had allowed her to see the relief in his eyes that she was not betrothed—and had continued to communicate that fact as he had placed lingering kisses on each of her inner wrists. While she had been thrilled that he had opened himself up to display the intimate gesture, it had not clarified where they stood with one another.

Her mother had been careful to stride back noisily, and had even called out to Jasper to bring a fresh pot of tea. Eleanor had done so to ensure that both Blair and Chuck were a respectful distance apart when she had returned. Her mother had looked entirely too amused with herself as her eyes had not missed the flush in Blair's cheeks, nor that Chuck had stood facing the window. He had ended up staying for the ideal length of a call, and had not left until he had received Eleanor's permission that he be allowed to meet Blair at the British Museum in two days time. Blair had had more than a sneaking suspicion that her mother had given strict instructions that the three of them not be disturbed by any visitor, even if it had been the Royal Highness, himself.

When the Marquess had left, her mother had still had that sly look about her as she had methodically peppered Blair with numerous questions regarding the relationship between them. It had been too much for her in that moment—no one had ever had any true inkling that something existed between them. It had often been written off that the friendly camaraderie between them was due to the union of his father to her closest friend's mother. But Eleanor had been far too observant for Blair's liking. Blair had not even been able to explain to herself what she shared with Chuck, and so she had sat there sputtering. As tears of frustration had started to form, her mother had surprised her by cradling her like she had when Blair had been a little girl, and had soothingly stroked her hair.

No further words were broached by either party, except for Eleanor's advice to her. "Be certain he's what you want—you've already let a Prince slip from your grasp. Who knows how many others you might miss out on? Trust yourself on what you need and what you are unwilling to live without."

Blair looked up at her mother in complete surprise. To hear Eleanor voice words that spoke of deep understanding was unexpected. She supposed that it was easy to forget that parents were once the age of their children.

With a sigh, her mother explained, "I love your father, I truly do. He has given me you, and for that I will eternally be grateful…"

"But?" She asked curiously.

"I had my suspicions that all was not as it should be, but I convinced myself that I was being silly. I may have acted the part of being mature and sophisticated, but I was just a little girl, playing an adult," Eleanor confided.

It felt so odd to be having such a revealing discussion with her mother—so unlike anything Blair had ever expected. While she loved and idolized her mother, the way most girls did, she had also feared her just the tiniest bit. She had never even admitted to herself aloud that it would hurt her feelings when Eleanor would freely dispense to Serena the most gushing of compliments, as Blair rarely received such glowing words of praise. Yet, she could feel her mother's quiet approval—it just wasn't always vocal. Her father was always the one who lavishly doted on her, spoiled her as though she truly was a princess. The level of assuredness that her parents had provided was always offset by the underpinnings of denial.

"Are you unhappy?" Blair asked, as she began to feel slight pangs of alarm.

"I could be happier," her mother answered simply. "And I don't want you to make the same mistakes I did."

She nodded her head, trying to absorb the magnitude of her mother's statements.

Eleanor prudently warned, "I would tell you to take all the time in the world, Blair, but you aren't getting any younger. In fact, once it becomes common knowledge that you turned down Prince Grimaldi and are keeping other men at bay…"

"I know, Mother," Blair said quietly. "You and Father have been more than patient."

"We want a good match for you, but more than that, we want you to be happy. However, we cannot give you an infinite amount of time to do so. We've given you two full seasons, and we'll give you this next one," Eleanor said. "But after that, if you haven't gotten the Marquess to come to heel, or selected someone else, then I am afraid your father and I will have to choose for you."

Blair tossed the words in her head, and no matter which vantage it was viewed from, she could see no fault. "I agree, Mother."

Eleanor leaned over and clasped her hand. Blair squeezed her mother's hand in thanks. Before any further words of wisdom could be spoken, the moment was lost, as the sound of the next set of their callers filled the foyer of their home.

After that, Blair had made the cautious effort to allow Chuck to take the lead in exploring and enhancing their connection. She had committed to the fact that she would have to allow him to court her at his comfort. While she hadn't dared to truly consider that he might be debating taking her as a wife, the recent turn of events from his return this summer had her thinking otherwise. There was absolutely no way that he would have behaved as he had, if it was only some sort of flirtation or dalliance.

The morning spent at the British Museum two days later had turned out to be incredibly pleasant. In some shape or form, the heated discussion from Chuck's midnight visit had changed the entire tenor of their interactions. No longer did Blair feel so timid or uncertain around Chuck, as she had had in the past. In fact, the more she revealed herself to him, the more he seemed to respond in kind. It had been at the lending library, a few days later, she had let slip a rather caustic remark towards a fellow debutante she considered to be a social-climbing upstart. Chuck had surprised her by providing some rather titillating information about said debutante's family. Blair had noted the approval in his voice as he agreed with her assessment. It had been a relief to discover that their opinions on social stature and positioning were in alignment—neither would have to hide their disdain at those they felt were beneath them. This had only led to the further discovery that the two shared even more in common than she could have hoped for. It had appeared that nearly every one of their core principles matched.

A few days after that, Chuck had met her at the posthumous Richard Wilson exhibit. They had strolled around the room in companionable silence, admiring the Italian-based oil techniques that had added a whole new dimension to his landscapes. All of their interactions, moving forward, had been orchestrated very carefully—it had been in some ways a very, very public display of their ultimately undefined relationship. The schedule had taken on somewhat of a predictable pattern, nearly every other day—three days would be the absolute maximum between outings. Chuck would always plan a different chaperoned activity which always took place between the late morning to early afternoon hours—when most of the ton was too busy to truly have taken notice.

Whether it had been a simple walk through the park, a museum he had long wished to attend, a poetry reading or one of the many gardens in the city, Vanya and Dorota had dutifully trailed behind. Chuck's valet and Blair's maid had tended to be rather generous with the distance they followed behind, the love that had bloomed between the two servants, the root of distraction. Although Chuck and Blair had been given more than enough room to steal away a few private moments, neither had ever pushed the boundaries. A silent understanding had been reached—they had both known how magnetic their pull was, until they, or rather Chuck—had decided to designate a label to their relationship, the absence of physical contact had seemed the best course of action to take.

While never verbally having admitted it, Chuck had seemed wholly uneager to extend their daytime outings into night. He would occasionally show up to an evening event that Blair attended, but other than a waltz or a short conversation, he had never lingered. There should have been rumblings that he had singled out Lady Blair, but due to his subtleness, even those who loved to gossip had withheld their speculation—waiting for some sort of tangible proof. Even Serena had been completely uninterested in asking questions, as Blair had never been able to provide a straight-forward answer.

And so August had turned into September which had turned into October and now it had faded into November. As plans were being made for Chuck to head home to Stonecrest, and for her to be back at the Waldorf country estate for the winter, Blair had wondered if the shift in scenery would negate any advancement from the past few months. It never failed to amaze her that every time she saw him, she had still felt a nervous tingle and her stomach was aflutter. With her birthday fast approaching, she had hoped that Chuck would alleviate her fears by gifting her with something symbolic of the connection that they had formed—as it had turned out, he had gotten her the most perfect present.

Quite frankly, she wasn't expecting to see him on her actual birthday, especially since she had seen him yesterday at the park. While they did see each other regularly, Chuck always seemed to favor inserting at least one day in between meetings. When Jasper announced that Blair had a visitor just as she was exiting the dining room, she had no idea who it might be.

She walked into the room, only to find Chuck standing at the window with a rather small picnic basket. Her heart had skipped a beat, as she wondered just what the cause of this impromptu visit was. When he turned around, Blair gasped. Chuck's eyes were watery and red, and he then started to sneeze uncontrollably, unable to say a word. Before she could even ask what was wrong, she heard her mother sneeze as she entered the room. Soon enough, her mother matched Chuck's look of misery, as Blair's eyes wildly alternated between the pair.

"Only one thing can be the cause of this," Eleanor hissed. "There must be a cat in the room!"

Blair's heart thumped excitedly, as she looked at the basket in Chuck's hands. He wouldn't…would he? She thought back to their outing two weeks ago, when they passed a shop with kittens in the window, her attention had been captivated. Blair had desperately wanted a kitten growing up, partially to lessen the loneliness she felt as a child, but due to Eleanor's allergy—she had never been allowed one.

Chuck looked at Eleanor in complete contrition. It was more than enough for her to deduct what was hidden in the basket. Squealing in excitement, she threw her arms around Chuck's neck and looked up at him in expectation—altogether forgetting her mother's presence in the room. "Really?"

He managed to smirk as his free hand found its way to resting on her hip.

"Happy birthday," he murmured.

Eleanor loudly cleared her throat, causing them both to withdraw from the natural embrace. Clapping her hands together, Blair took the basket from Chuck, sat down in a chair, and lifted the top of the picnic basket.

"Ooohhhh," she cooed. "It's so darling!"

"He," Chuck clarified in amusement. "I don't think he will approve of being referred to as 'darling'."

She cradled the tiny kitten in her hands, gently stroking the soft furry patterned skin that was marmalade and white in hue. Her finger reached out to stroke his tiny nose that had a sprinkle of black freckles, as the kitten shook his head, his eyes still tightly shut. Unable to stop herself, she leaned over to nuzzle him to her cheek, sighing in happiness, at the little ball of fur.

Simultaneously both Chuck and Eleanor sneezed.

"Blair, you'll have to give that dreaded animal back. Please tell the Marquess you cannot accept it," Eleanor said irritably, as she glared at Chuck.

"I cannot return him." He said flatly. "Rather, I won't. Like it or not, that damned cat is a present."

Eleanor narrowed her eyes at the Marquess. "I will not be forced to live with that thing." She wiped her eye for affect.

Glancing at Blair, whose face was alight in happiness, as she cuddled the kitten close to her, Eleanor had given pause. The final determination was the soft smile that rested on Chuck's face, as he watched Blair in her delight. Making a big production, her mother exited the room, "Blair, don't get too attached to that thing—I will speak to your father about this tonight. We may have to return the Marquess' lovely gift later."

Before Blair could object, her mother swept out of the room in a huff, leaving the two alone.

"A word or two of gratitude would be appreciated," Chuck hinted.

Spontaneously, she leaned over and kissed him on the cheek. "Thank you, my lord."

She returned her attention back to her pet, unaware of how much her gesture had pleased her guest. Blair continued to make sounds at her kitten. "What am I going to name, you, you gorgeous, little thing?"

"Nuisance?" He suggested unhelpfully.

"Chuck!" Blair scolded. "You'll hurt his feelings!"

He snorted. "That thing does not have feelings."

"For someone who was sweet enough to get him for me, you're acting awfully disgruntled," Blair said in a playful, but chiding, tone.

"He's a little terror, that has caused me to sneeze non-stop since I picked him up yesterday," Chuck whined. Incorrigibly, he posed another option, "How about calling him 'drat the cat'?"

With a look of mock discipline, Blair shook her head at Chuck. She thrust the kitten in his face as she teased, "Are you afraid of the poor little kitten?"

The Marquess' eyes started to water again, as he let out a quick succession of more than ten loud sneezes. "Blair!"

Hastily, she withdrew her gift so that he was not as proximate to Chuck, and shot him an apologetic look.

"While, I am pleased that you are delighted with your present," he told her, pausing only to sneeze. "You are going to have to keep that cat away from me!"

Cat, she decided quietly. She was going to have to name him Cat, silly as it might be. Blair was floored that Chuck had made such a wonderful gesture and she rushed to placate him. She placed Cat back into his basket, but faltered for a moment when Cat meowed in displeasure from being separated from the warm comfort of her cuddles.

Blair turned to the other unhappy creature in the room, who had pulled out a dark purple handkerchief and was blowing his nose loudly. She couldn't help but smile at how adorable he looked—his eyes still puffy and watering, his nose red and the slight hint of torment from the continuous sneezing. She walked over and sat next to him, as he crossed his arms and pouted childishly.

Blair rested her forehead, against the side of his face, as she reached over, and laced her fingers through his. She whispered in his ear, "I love Cat, he's perfect. Thank you, again."

He turned to face her, so that their eyes were just millimeters apart. Chuck bantered back, "Cat, huh? Did you know that 'cat' is a noun, not a name?"

There was a twinkle in his eye, and she could tell just how proud he was that she loved his gift. She rubbed her nose gently against Chuck's, closing her eyes as she breathed, "Cat's an original—he doesn't follow trends, he sets them."

Just as Chuck's lips had brushed against hers, and he had captured her lower lip between his teeth—the front door slammed loudly. Blair moaned in resentment, as Chuck pulled away—a look of frustration flashing in his eyes.

Her father's voice had echoed through the hallway, and just before the moment could begin, it had ended. Shortly thereafter, both had retired to their respective familial estates. Blair had been exceedingly thrilled that Chuck had opted to pen real letters this time, instead of just scrawling a few brief words here and there. And while she received only a missive about every three weeks—he had made sure to post his separately from Serena's, which had made her all the more delighted by his secretive nature. Despite the fact that Cat had been tagged as a combination birthday and Christmas present, he had also sent her an enormously large box of Eripret chocolates just before the holiday—much to the delight of her parents.

Blair had posted Christmas presents for Serena and Eric—a bolt of gorgeous yellow organza for the former and a billiard stick for the latter. She had also enclosed a small square box for Chuck that housed a rather ostentatious, but perfectly suitable wool and silk, patchwork scarf with navy polka dots. It had been impossible not to notice the rather colorful accents he had to his wardrobe. Where the combinations of color and fabrics might look comical on most—Chuck carried it off with aplomb. Blair had hesitated slightly before she the purchase, it truly was almost too intimate a gift—but she weighed both Cat and his behavior afterwards, and found it to be more than appropriate. She was still silently cursing her father for interrupting their kiss—it had been months. She had forced herself to tamp down the disappointment that Chuck had not tried again during their remaining outings, nor when he had come to say goodbye the following week.

Much to her delight, the presents had gone over well, and Cat had kept her in good spirits over the long and quiet winter. Even her mother had become partial to Cat, as the constant exposure seemed to have lessened Eleanor's violent reactions. As the months had passed by, her mother would only occasionally sneeze and rarely had her eyes watered. Plus, Cat had surprisingly loved the outdoors, and even though he had fallen into a pile of snow on more than one occasion, he constantly scratched for her to let him out. Blair couldn't help but think that those developments would serve as good arguments if Chuck would object to Cat when they…no! She couldn't even let herself begin to travel down that path. Until he had admitted that he loved her and was planning a future with her, she had to be careful. In some ways Chuck was like an unbroken pony that startled easily—spooked by even the slightest mention or hint of commitment and permanence.

When it became time to go back to the city, Blair had been so exuberant to return that she had not noticed the looks of amusement on her parents' faces. She had thought herself to be subtle, but there was no mistaking the fact that her heart had been engaged, and the pretense of being excited to see Serena had fooled no one. Even in the carriage ride back to London, Blair had kept petting Cat, the serene smile of anticipation threatening to bubble into absolute pandemonium. Eleanor had sneaked a peak at the note from Chuck, detailing when he had expected to be back in town, and they had both been slated to arrive on the same day.

And when Blair had been eager to go to bed that evening, in preparation for the next morning, her parents flashed her knowing looks that she pretended to ignore, especially since Serena was not arriving until later in the week. She went up the stairs and curled into her bed with Cat by her side, staring out the window at their gazebo, wishing she and Chuck had agreed to a midnight meeting. She had been without his company for months, and it had become almost unbearable. Blair had decided on the way back into town that whatever it took to make Chuck love her, she was going to do—because she did not think it was possible to live the rest of her life without him. It had been pure torture for her not to regularly see his beautifully sculpted face or look into his intensely expressive eyes. She missed his touch, as well, even something as simple as his hand occasionally resting at the small of her back.

She drifted in and out of sleep, as she had been almost too excited to sleep properly. It was the sound of rocks dancing against her window that caused Cat to meow loudly and woke her. Her heart instinctively lurched, as she jumped out of bed and rushed to her window, pulling back the curtains. When she looked down—there in all of his glory, was an eager-faced Chuck Bass with a familiar-looking scarf around his neck, staring straight up at her. She smiled so widely, she thought her face would surely crack and she nodded enthusiastically at his gesture to meet him at the gazebo. In her ebullience to finally be reunited with him, she had not even glanced in the mirror—she just slipped on her brand-new cherry red spencer and crept down the stairs, mimicking Cat's stealth.

The door off of the library led to a short set of stairs into the garden. Once Blair had carefully closed the door behind her, she had flown down the stairs, ran across the yard and straight into Chuck's open arms. He had burrowed his head into the crook of her neck, as he held her just as tightly as she held him, her cheek rubbing against the silk and wool scarf she had bought him for Christmas. They had just stood there as the minutes passed by unnoticed. She had been unable to think, just absolutely immersed by the thrill of simply being with him, again. If she had died in that moment, her life would have still felt complete, he was with her and that was all she had needed.

Instead of breaking the full body contact, he merely scooped her in his arms and carried her into the gazebo for a semblance of privacy—settling her so she was cradled in his lap. She snuggled against him happily and wanted to demand that very instant that he take her to Gretna Green and marry her. From the way Chuck's hand tangled in her hair and sighed contentedly, it gave her hope that he had missed her just as much.

It could have been an hour for all she knew, when he finally touched his cheek to hers and whispered, "Hey."

"Hi," she said shyly, as her fingers idly stroked the back of his neck.

He purred as he nuzzled her ear, his breath electrifying every nerve in her body—the heat permeating through her thick woolen coat. Somehow that small, seemingly insignificant movement, caused her body to arch, and suddenly his mouth was placing hot wet kisses along her throat—his teeth lightly biting into her skin. She could not suppress the sob of pleasure that his ministrations wrenched from her. This was what kept her up late at night, the need to feel Chuck's mouth and tongue, lavishing attention all over her body. Blair grabbed harder at his coat and whispered in his ear, "More."

Chuck growled possessively as his mouth took possession of hers, and his tongue dove into her mouth as his hands pulled on her hair, forming her mouth against his. Blair's hands slid up his chest and clutched at his shoulders. Her nails dug so deep, she knew he felt them through his shirt when he hissed in pain, "Kitten, watch your claws."

Strangely, that tempted her to dig even deeper as it became her turn to attack his mouth with hers. He let her explore every corner of his mouth in a rush, not even complaining when her teeth would tap against his. When she breathlessly pulled back, he tauntingly whispered, "If you wanted to play rough, all you had to do was ask."

She noted the twinkle in his eyes as he said the words. The lust was still there, smoldering beneath the surface, but his jaw was throbbing, as though he were trying to keep his impulses in check. When he leaned over and playfully bit her on the cheek, his fingers tickling her at her sides, she broke into spontaneous laughter. It was just enough to diffuse some of the sexual tension around them. Her palms rested against his shoulders, rubbing circular patterns in an attempt to soothe where she left her marks. After her heart had slowed down to its natural pace, she gently teased, "Cat has missed you very much."

He laughed softly, one hand splayed across her knee, while the other hand was again, tangled in her curls. "Missed torturing me, more likely."

"I'll have you know, Cat, loves the outdoors. Even in the snow, he would beg to be let out, and walk around with me," Blair began to plead her case in defending her beloved pet. With a very hopeful tone in her voice, she explained, "Did you know Mother stopped sneezing so much, once she had acclimated to Cat. Her eyes almost never tear up anymore."

"Is that so?" He asked while smirking at her. "More likely than not, he'll be the end of me! I can see it now—he'll creep up on me while I'm sitting innocently and make sure to rub his hair all over me—death by sneezing."

"When were you ever innocent?" Blair retorted smartly. "Besides, it's a given that he would enjoy the outdoors even more when it's warmer. He was so cute over the holidays, though, jumping into pile after pile of snow!"

"Will that be your new Christmas tradition? Watching Cat drown in the snow?" Chuck snorted. "What will happen when someone wants to whisk you away, take you to somewhere with a warmer climate? Where the sun shines brightly and there is not one snowflake in sight?"

"Chuck Bass! Christmas without snow? Are you mad? I'll have you know that whether you like it or not, we will be having a white Christmas next year," Blair rolled her eyes.

"What makes you so certain that 'we' will be in each other's company next Christmas?" He asked quietly, the stiffening of his body went unnoticed by her.

"Are you suggesting we would spend Christmas away from one another? Don't be ridiculous, Chuck! I won't stand for us to be apart on holidays, not after we're married—" Blair's eyes widened as she clamped a hand over her mouth, realizing just what it was that she had insinuated.

Very carefully, Chuck put his hands on her waist and removed her from his lap, setting her on the bench as he stood up. He paced in slow, deliberate movements, before suddenly becoming irrationally angry. Cruelly he brought out the painful memories of their past, "I didn't ask for you to refuse the Prince's offer—I told you that was your decision. I haven't promised you anything."

"No, you haven't promised me anything," Blair agreed quietly. She looked down at her hands, as they scrunched up the wool of her coat, before making the most terrifying admission of her life. "I suppose I was foolish to hope that one day, you would love me as much as I love you."

She felt his gaze on her, but she refused to make eye contact with him. Blair bit her lip, commanding herself not to burst into tears on the spot.

"Blair—" Chuck stuttered. "I…that's not…I mean—"

"I was mistaken to think that you might hold me in some regard," she whispered. "Please leave, Chuck."

"Not like this," he pleaded. "That's not what I was trying to say. Blair, you know I care—"

"Clearly, not enough," she interrupted. Suddenly, she was alight with anger. He had misled her! "You may not have explicitly promised me anything, but I wasn't wrong to think that there was something between us."

"Of course there's something there! You are the only woman I have ever spent time with. The only other time I have had use for speaking to a woman before, was if I wanted to get between her legs!" Chuck tried to explain.

"And is that supposed to comfort me? So you don't think of me as a whore? Thank you," she bit out sarcastically. "You may not have verbally asked me to turn down Prince Grimaldi's proposal, but don't you dare deny that you were begging me with your eyes!"

He stood there with his mouth agape.

"You confided in me," her small voice accused.

Chuck ran a hand through his hair, as he stood there staring back at her mournfully.

She glared at him as she icily said, "You will not make me feel ashamed because I have the audacity to love you and tell you so. But until you can admit that you love me too, I don't want to see you."

"Blair, please." He reached out and touched her elbow.

The physical connection that used to comfort her, now felt tainted. Where moments ago she'd relaxed into his touch, she just couldn't bear the thought of his hands on her any longer. Blair jerked away, and felt a small sense of triumph at the look of anguish that crossed his face. Focusing on the singular emotion, she suddenly wished to lash out and hurt him the way he had hurt her. But as she opened her mouth to hurl insults and barbs, Chuck looked deflated, as if all the fight had left his body. Then she realized, she just couldn't do it—she loved him far too much to make him feel the way he had made her in this moment.

"Goodbye, Chuck," she whispered as she stepped out of the gazebo, and ran through her moonlit garden and back inside the house. Not once did Blair allow herself to look back.

.

.

.

Blair sat up in bed, wiping both the tears and sleep away from her eyes. It had happened again, the same as it had several nights each week—she had fallen asleep to thoughts of Chuck, only to awaken with the memory of their last fight. She was exhausted and felt as though she were suffocating all over again, at the hands of his rejection. The sun was still shining, but it was headed Westbound, which indicated that she had most likely missed lunch. Glancing around her room, she saw a tray sitting on her dresser and walked towards it. Lifting up the cover, she found two scones with some butter and a small bowl of strawberries. She brought the tray to the table and chair by the window, and began to eat.

She stared aimlessly outside, focusing her gaze towards the conservatory. But as always, the maze called to her, her eyes darting occasionally to its hedges. When she was finished eating her modest substitute for lunch, she could not stand to be indoors any longer. Blair thought to ring for Dorota, but she was certain that her maid was gossiping with the other servants, trying to discover what she could of Vanya. There was a small amount of guilt that ran through her veins, knowing that she and Chuck had been the cause of throwing obstacles in her beloved maid's love life. Truthfully, she had believed if Chuck ever asked for her hand, it would delight their servants almost as much as it would Blair.

Grabbing a brush, she ran it through her hair quickly, before tying her curls back with a ribbon. She rummaged through her dresser drawer, and found the light shawl that would serve her well if the late spring air turned to a chill. Somehow she managed to navigate her way through the entire house, without running into a single soul, except a stray servant here and there. It seemed that fortune was smiling down on her, as the select handful of other guests was taking their afternoon constitutional. Walking down the familiar terrace steps, Blair found that her feet led her directly to the maze—its pull, like its future master, undeniable.

The masochistic part of her wanted to revisit every square inch of the grounds that was familiar to her because of him. Her entire life had changed course starting from the very moment she had stepped into that maze, and culminated when she discovered him staring at her. As she walked towards the alcove, with the orchids interlaced with the wooden trellis, she felt a tingle run up her spine. Blair spun around slowly, looking carefully at the various paths that forked from where she stood. But she did not see a single soul, nor could she discern any sound or movement—perhaps her mind was overactive with imagination. Just closing her eyes, she could practically feel Chuck nearby—she shook her head, she needed to exit the maze before she drove herself to bedlam.

Blair sighed as she eyed the orchids one final time. Her gaze latched onto one particular bloom that was on the precipice of falling off. Despite the reminder that Chuck was associated with it, she tucked the flower behind her ear, as the scent permeated through her nostrils. Humming lightly to herself, she resigned herself to exiting the maze as quickly as possible.

The sound of footsteps on the gravel path, once again set off an alarm in her mind. Before Blair had even turned in the direction of the noise, she knew without a doubt that it would be Chuck standing in front of her. It was the sharp intake of breath that confirmed her suspicions were correct.

She turned to meet his gaze, and found herself gasping, as well—the sight of Chuck staring at her longingly, wholly unexpected. He looked deliciously disheveled—his hair a mess, sans cravat and coat, with his sleeves rolled up and his hands and fingers, stained with soil. He opened his mouth as though he wished to speak, but then stopped, before finally bowing curtly. "Lady Blair."

"Lord Bass," she curtsied.

Chuck's eyes bore into hers intensely. She wished she could read in his eyes what his mouth always seemingly had trouble articulating.

"You've been gardening," Blair offered softly, a hint of melancholy behind the words. She though back to the moment when Chuck confessed how he planted a rose bush each year in honor of his mother's memory. The state of his hands was evidence that the tradition was being kept. Chuck had only ever mentioned his mother briefly, it was one of the few topics that Blair had felt was off limits.

Chuck raised a brow before nodding, then cleared his throat before he asked, "I trust your room is to your satisfaction?"

"More than," Blair agreed politely. There were so many words she wished to say, questions she wanted answered. Her eyes searched his, trying to find any indication that he wished to speak to her. And even though it caused her heart to clench at the sight of him, her body thrummed with nervous energy, alive now that she was finally near him again.

He maintained the distance between them, forcing her to reign in the impulse to fling her arms around him, and beg for his forgiveness. Seeing Chuck made whatever it was they had fought about seem irrelevant, meaningless. Blair knew with all of her heart, that he was hurting as much as she was and that he ached for her comfort, as much as she dreamed of his love. If he would take just one step towards her, she could allow him to hold her.

Once again, Chuck gave her nothing, but instead made her feel the fool who wore her heart on her sleeve.

Awkwardly, the words stumbled from his mouth, "I should be going. Good day."

And just as quickly as she had seen him, he had disappeared. Blair stood there sputtering, staring at the empty space he had just occupied. That was the sum total of their interactions? He hadn't seen her in nearly three months, and the only words he could come up with were good day? She felt the tears stream down her cheeks, as she furiously wiped them away. Fool had been an understatement—she was pitiful, pathetic.

Her feet carried her as fast as they could—across the grounds and back into the house. She ignored the curious looks and stares of her mother and Serena, as she ran past them and locked herself in her room. This time, Blair sobbed loudly and uncontrollably—nothing had been as it seemed. Chuck would never love her. Every appeal made by Dorota, Serena and her mother to check in on her, was ignored for the next few hours. She knew she was appearing to be the most ill-mannered houseguest Stonecrest had ever seen, but she was being swallowed alive. In the morning, she would collect herself and make apologies. Tomorrow, Blair would tell her mother that she would marry the first man Eleanor and her father selected for her. But tonight, she needed to cry—to say goodbye the girl who had believed in love. By tomorrow, the old Blair Waldorf would be dead and buried.

It was nearly midnight, when Blair heard Dorota's distinctive whisper, "Lady Blair."

As much as she wanted to dismiss her maid's request, what had happened that afternoon in the maze between her and Chuck affected Dorota, too. She lifelessly walked towards the door, opening it ajar, before stumbling back to the bed. How she wished Cat was there to curl up next to her, and offer her some semblance of comfort.

"Lady Blair," Dorota said hesitatingly. "Vanya give me note from Lord Bass, to give to you."

She shook her head furiously, as tears threatened to spill again.

"Please, just read," her maid implored, and Blair found a letter forced into her hand.

"Just read letter, if you don't like, you don't go, and tomorrow we will leave here forever, yes?" Dorota inquired.

It was her maid's choice of words, you don't go, that made her sit up in bed, fumbling with the note. Perhaps, Chuck may not love her, but if he was willing to tell her why she wasn't enough, she had to know. Blair skimmed the contents of the note, her heart suddenly becoming a fraction lighter.

Meet me at the place I first knew you were to be mine.

Her eyes wildly jerked towards her maid, who was nodding excitedly in encouragement. Despite how much Dorota was in love with Vanya, she would never send Blair somewhere in which she would knowingly be hurt. Blair did everything possible to calm her nerves, and tamp down the glimmer of hopefulness that his note had inspired. And without thought, she finally reacted. She flew down the stairs, out the doors and towards the maze. Once she stood in front of its entrance, she faltered. For a moment, she actually wondered if she would refuse him another chance. Again, she read the note—he had never committed such intimate thoughts into ink. Buoyed by that knowledge, she stepped into the maze to find him.

Her steps were light and barely discernible to the ear, and judging from the way Chuck was pacing back and forth, he was not aware of her approach. She took a few moments to simply look at him, but he must have sensed her presence, because suddenly he froze in movement and turned to stare at her.

"Blair," he breathed in relief. "You're here."

She nodded uncomfortably, feeling overly exposed—but she needed to see whatever this was, to its end.

A play of emotions flickered across Chuck's face—excitement, tension, nervousness and hope. She watched in wonder as he struggled to keep his expression blank. But he shrugged as a cross between a boyish smile and smirk settled on his face. He walked up to her, taking one hand in his and placing a kiss in her palm. Blair's eyes closed as she melted on the inside from that simple gesture. Chuck turned his face, so that his cheek rubbed her skin and her thumb reached out—gently stroking his lip.

Before either of them could lose themselves in the comfort of each other's touch, Chuck pulled away, but not before placing one final, delicate kiss on her thumb. With his hand loosely in possession of her wrist, he looked into her eyes. "May I?"

"May you, what?" She answered a bit breathlessly.

"May I have the pleasure of escorting you through the maze this evening?" He asked softly.

It was then Blair realized that hundreds of small lanterns strategically lined the floor of the maze, providing the incandescent glow. As she stared in awe at the sheer magnitude of planning Chuck must have put in, he busied himself with tucking her hand into his arm. She reveled slightly at the familiar position, his hand lightly but possessively covering hers. They fell into a slow and lethargic pace, as he guided her through the garden. While her ears itched to hear what words were going to be spoken, she was reminded that never was there such an excruciatingly peaceful yet exciting moment, than to simply walk in silence with Chuck at her side.

He cleared his throat as they approached the center of the maze. Blair suddenly felt the clamminess of Chuck's hands, as he gripped her fingers tightly. Her heart skipped a beat at the realization that he would finally give voice to the thoughts and emotions that had been locked deep inside of him. Suddenly, her hands were also damp with perspiration.

Without meeting her gaze, he hoarsely said, "You have been incredibly patient with me, more than I ever had the right to expect. Blair, you've given me everything that you are, and asked for nothing in return."

The admission caught her off-guard. She sniffled as his words cut to her heart and caused her eyes to tear.

"The gift of your love is the most precious thing in the world, and that you would bestow it to me, is humbling. I'm afraid I have done nothing to deserve it, so I am hoping that you will accept this as my recompense to you," Chuck said fervently.

Her eyes had been glued to the side of his face as he spoke. But when he gestured towards the candle-lit pavilion in front of him, Blair gasped in surprise. She pulled away as it was clear to see the addition of hundreds of peonies that were newly planted, encircling the entire structure. Blair walked around in surprise, as her heart beat wildly, not daring to believe what this meant.

Chuck approached her, and took her dainty hands into his large, strong ones. "I planted the peonies because they, like you, have now taken root. From the moment I first saw you, the seeds were planted into my soul. I have been unable to resist opening my heart to you, no matter how much I tried to fight it. It plagued me that with a simple glance, I felt like I had known you my entire life. I craved exposing myself to you, completely—body, mind and soul. Instead of trusting our connection, I ran away from you. But everywhere I went, you were there. I couldn't escape from my feelings for you then, nor do I ever want to."

He paused, only to bring her hands to his mouth and kiss them reverently. "You are a part of me, and I was foolish to ever think that I could fight what was between us. You are the only part of me that is whole and good."

Chuck fell to his knees and looked up at her, her hands still locked in his. "Blair Waldorf, I love you, so much, it consumes me. Marry me. Be mine, as I have always been yours."

Her chest expanded quickly, and for a moment, she couldn't breathe. The number of emotions that flooded through her was overwhelming. She felt the tears trickle down her cheeks. Blair opened her mouth, but no sound came out except for a sob.

Chuck stood up and leaned over, kissing away her tears, his tongue tracing the trail against her cheek. He whispered in her ear, "I love you, Blair. Without you, I am nothing. Please, tell me you're mine."

"Yes," she whispered shakily, with a laugh. "I'm yours."

The look on Chuck's face spoke of pure happiness. He wrapped his arms around her waist, and swung her around in a circle. She squealed in delight, as her hands found their way to his shoulders. For a moment, they just stared at one another, giddy with the knowledge that they would never again be without the other.

Chuck cupped her face tenderly, "You amaze me. And I will never tire hearing those words from your lips. Mine."

He brought his lips to hers, at long last. The familiar sensation of heat flooded her veins as his tongue languidly danced with hers, capturing her complete attention. She wrapped her arms around him tightly, pulling her body flush against his. His hands slipped from her face, and down her body, holding her even closer.

When Blair felt a drop of water against her cheek she pulled away, only to find that it was Chuck's tears, mixed with hers. She reached up to gently wipe them from his eyes, as he turned his face into her hand, reveling in the conciliatory gesture.

"Chuck," she said softly. "I will never stop being yours."

She felt him smile against her hand. When he looked up at her, she could only see contentment, as he nodded. With a smirk, he asked, "Does the future 10th Duchess of Grenville approve? Or will I have to work harder to earn her favor?"

"Well…" Blair pondered thoughtfully. "I am rather fond of peonies, almost as must as I love you."

With a growl of laughter, Chuck retook possession of her mouth, making her the happiest of women. Her hands fisted into his hair, as he molded her body to his. Fleetingly Blair thought of how she had always loved this maze for bringing her to Chuck. Now, she had reason to love it even more—it was where they flourished.

.

.

.

Fin.


A/N: Dedicated to Noirreigne, as always, who is more than just my regular beta, but a friend who is also like a sister to me. Happy Birthday, and I'm so sorry that it's belated, don't know if you noticed just how long this is.

For my beta, Unacorazonquebrado aka My Little Pony: Twilight Sparkle, I am on my hands and knees thanking you for the speediest beta-ing and all your awesome feedback and comments. You rocked my world in so many ways, I can't even begin to thank you properly. We were working under the gun from the beginning, and you made the mad dash at the end a million times easier. And if Noirreigne couldn't beta my story, I don't think there could have been any better of a choice than you, your beta skills were glorious.

For my sigma, Iluvenis aka Curious Georgina, GAH! Thank you for spending countless hours encouraging me and helping me work out my timeline. Your abilities as my timing coordinator, again, are perfection. I am so thrilled that you are my friend, my co-conspirator and partner in crime of HAHAHAHAHA-ing.

For my Ollie, thank you for your constant words of praise and boundless ability to egg me on to finish this—including staying up way too late to talk me through my crazy spells, even if you distracted me half the time!

I apologize sincerely to any of my readers who are irked that I paused writing my other fics to produce this one, but without Noirreigne, I would not be writing, at all.