"What would you say if I asked you to marry me?"

"What?" She stares at him, completely blindsided, and for a moment he looks almost abashed.

"Look, I know we – we can't. Not right now, anyway. But I need you to know that – that's what I want with you, Barbara. You and me, for the rest of our lives. I want to swear it in front of God and country, and…"

"Oh, Tommy." Her eyes are kind, and he can feel his heart begin to break. "You dear, dear man. Are you thinking about this practically at all? Yes, of course I want – want you and me for the rest of our lives, I do, and I couldn't have started this if you didn't feel the same way. But did you really think about what you're asking?"

"And what is that?" Oh, he's definitely pissed off now.

"You're a Lord, Tommy, with all that goes with it. You have an entire society I can't begin to understand – "

"Well then fuck them!" he snarls, and now she sees real temper in his eyes. "Fuck them all. I want you, Barbara, as my wife, as my partner, as my Countess, and fuck them all if they don't like it! You're all you need to be."

"No," she says, and there's no self-recrimination in her tone, but she loves him, so much, for saying it, for declaring himself willing to defy his entire world for her, even if it's both mad and impossible. "No, I'm not. An affair with me is one thing, marriage is quite another."

"And I've told you, I don't care. Judith is a capable hostess, if it comes down to it, but frankly I could never go to another Society event in my life and be completely happy if it meant having you. But aside from all of that – what the hell makes you think you're not good enough? Because I know you, Barbara, and that's what this is – you think you're not good enough for me. This isn't because you're not willing to take on the fight, you've never shied away from a challenge in your life. It's because you don't think you're worth that fight. So I am going to ask you one question. Only one. Do you want to marry me?"

"Yes," she whispers, head bowed, because she can't fight herself any more. God, if he's truly serious... "Yes, I do. More than anything. But –"

"Shut up," he says crisply, and her mouth snaps closed. "That is all I need to know. That is all I have ever needed to know. The only way you could let me down, Barbara, is to walk away from me because you're too scared to trust me and too scared to try."

She can't help herself then; she walks into his arms and holds on tight, clings to this man she loves more than life despite everything that should keep them apart, and he presses a kiss to her hair in the old, familiar way. "Then," she murmurs as she looks into his eyes, at peace with the only decision she could have ever made, "when the time is right – when it's our time – ask me, and I'll take that leap of faith. I can't make any promises, except to love you for the rest of my life, but – "

"Shut up," he says again, and kisses her hard. "That's the only promise I'll ever need from you, Barbara. The dice will fall as they may, and however they come up, we'll deal with it – together. Love manages."

Curled up in bed later that night, she listens to the steady beat of his heart and holds on for all she's worth. She's terrified still, and she knows he is too, but when she looks back on all their years together, she realises he's right. Even from that very first day, they managed, as long as they were in it together. She will throw herself off this cliff with him, and trust them both to fly, because he has defied her expectations from day one and it only makes sense that he should defy this one too. Thomas Lynley has a long history of doing the unthinkable and impossible where she is concerned. How can she do anything else but meet him halfway, when she'd go twice as far and fight twice as hard for him without a thought?

It's not over, not by a long shot, and it won't be easy. There will be night after night of discussion, of dealing with her fears, what her role will be, of the compromises they'll have to make, of how to make it work.

But it will work, and as long as they hold onto that…

Well. Love manages.