"Do you still want to go through with this?"
His voice is shaking, insecure, and her head whips around when she hears him, because it's an hour till midnight and they're both traditional enough to follow the old superstition about the night before the wedding. But he sounds so scared, standing there in the door of the spare bedroom, and she doesn't know – "Why?" Now her voice is the one that's shaking. "Do you?"
He comes and sits beside her, takes her hands in his and looks her in the eyes. "I want to marry you more than I want to breathe, Barbara Lynne. But I don't – they're going to throw stones at you, love. They're going to call you names and look down their noses and talk behind their back, and there is nothing I will be able to do about it. You are walking into a firestorm of scrutiny, darling, into a world where appearances are everything and every mistake is put under a microscope. I've tried to tell you before, I have, but I couldn't, not the way I needed to, because – because a part of me was still terrified that you'd walk away, and I couldn't… but I have to now, because you still have time to get out. I know my world is strange to you, that you hate parts of it, and I won't trap you, darling, I can't. It would half kill me to lose you but I have to give you one more chance to get out."
"You're an idiot," is her flat response. "You think I don't know all that? Ever since you told me you wanted to marry me, I've been scared out of my mind that I'd let you down. That I'd find out I wasn't good enough, after all. That I'd prove once and for all I wasn't good enough to marry the Earl of Asherton. So if anyone should be asking that question, it's me!"
"Oh God," he whispers, because how has he let her down this badly? God, she… "Oh, no. Don't you think that. Never, darling. I want you because I love you, because you don't give a damn about the hollow pomp of the aristocracy, because you care more about what people are than the mask they wear. Because –"
"Because you think I can't do it either," she bites out, and jerks away, curled in a miserable ball on the end of the bed.
He almost gasps at the shock of agony that lances through his heart.
"I don't know how to make you understand," he says at last, "that I could not care less whether or not they approve of you. They probably won't, Barbara, because you are more true and real and good than most of them ever could be. I am an aristocrat, yes, but to me that means honour and dignity and duty, and I don't see that anymore, just arrogance and greed. You can play the lady for them if you like – there will be days you may have to, no matter how much I wish it otherwise, and I've no doubt you could carry it off, if you wish to. But only if you promise to come to bed with me every night as you. You are my rock, Barbara, the one who gives me strength to stand, my reason to get up in the morning. I only wish – I only wish I could spare you the cruelty, because I love you. I wish I could spare you the pain, because I have to wonder if I am worth all that you will face." He reaches out to touch her back, and miraculously, she doesn't flinch away. "I want to hate myself for asking you to step into this with me. But you are my reason to live, Barbara Lynne, and I am just weak enough that I have to ask you anyway."
She rolls over then, gazing at him with tear-drenched eyes. "And if I asked you to give it all up?" she asks quietly, as if she's afraid of the answer. "If I asked you to resign your title, walk away from it all and just stay with me in my little flat in Hackney?"
"Yes," he says at once. "If you asked me to choose, love, then yes. I would, with no regrets. Just say the word."
"My God," she says, staring into his eyes like she's never seen him before. "You would. You actually would."
"Have you ever doubted it?"
"Every day," she whispers, wiping her eyes. "How could I possibly be worth it? I can't ask you to walk away, you know that, I couldn't even if I wanted to. And I don't, I can't want to, not really. Your title is part of who you are, how could I not love the lord as well as the man? But how could I possibly be good enough for either one, never mind both?"
The answer is so obvious he almost laughs. "You are worth it, Barbara, because you are asking that question." He smiles and strokes her hair, feels her melt under the touch. "You're a part of me, too." She shudders, nuzzles into his hand like a cat, closing her eyes tight against the fierce lash of emotion. "So let me ask you one more time, because perhaps the third time really is the charm; Barbara Lynne, will you marry me? Will you be my countess, now that you know what we'll be facing, knowing that I will stand by you with every breath I have, and that I ask nothing more or less of you than for you to be exactly who you are?"
"Yes," she says, and her smile takes his breath away. "Yes. I will, with all my heart. I can't promise that there won't be bad days. There will be parts of how we'll live that I'll hate, and I can't promise that I won't fuck up or storm off in a temper or wonder what the bloody hell we were thinking, but I'll be yours. I'll try to make you proud of me." Her lip wobbles. "I still don't quite understand what you see in me, but I know what I see in you, and I'd rather face all this with you than any kind of life without you."
He looks at her and tries to remember how to breathe, because every time he thinks he can't possibly love her more he's proven wrong. "You are the bravest person I have ever known," he says simply, and she throws herself into his arms, shaking like a leaf, and just holds on.
"I'm so scared," she whispers, and he clutches her tighter.
"So am I. I am terrified, Barbara Lynne. But don't you think," he says as he cups her cheek in one large, calloused, infinitely gentle hand, "that we can face it as long as we are scared together?"
"I think," she murmurs, placing her hand in his, "that when I look at you I'm not so scared anymore."
He lowers his brow to hers, kisses her palm, presses her fingers to his lips, whispers that she is the love of his life and sheds more than one tear when she tells him, fiercely, that he is the only man she will ever truly love. He marvels at the strength of her, and part of him wishes she had asked him to forswear his title and come to her in that little flat in Hackney, because he dreads what is still to come, but all he can do is love her through it, hold on and promise her that he will spend the rest of his life trying to be worthy of what she has given him.
He only realises he's spoken aloud when she half-sobs into the air between them that he already is.
Judith knocks on the door at ten till midnight. Her face is apologetic as she takes in the two figures on the bed, wound so tightly together it is not clear where one ends and the other begins.
Barbara looks up, then uncurls herself from Tommy with a regretful smile.
He catches her hand before he goes, his eyes on hers more eloquent than any words.
"No regrets?" he murmurs, a thousand meanings in his voice, and she beams at him.
"Never again," she vows, and he presses a fervent kiss to her fingertips. "Just think." She is smiling, but her eyes are oddly shy. "After tomorrow, it'll be us against the world."
"Darling." He still hasn't let go of her hand. "Hasn't it always been?"
She surges forward to kiss him, his face cupped in her hands, her whole body trembling. He answers her with truth, with certainty, with unbridled love, as one hand tangles in her hair and the other fists in the shoulder of her shirt, the worn-thin cotton of the sweatshirt she borrowed from him earlier that night because she couldn't bear to not have his scent around her even for this last night alone.
"I don't want to go," she whispers when they part at last, because she doesn't, she never wants to leave this brilliant mercurial passionate gorgeous infuriating incredible man who is the answer to every question she never knew how to ask.
"I don't want you to," he says, soft and fervent, because everything she feels, he does too, and it still amazes them both that they've found heaven in each other. "But tomorrow, Barbara. Tomorrow, and all the tomorrows."
She dashes the tears from her eyes. "All the tomorrows, come what may. Our tomorrows."
It's funny, he thinks. He'd thought 'parting is such sweet sorrow' the most overwrought phrase in the English language until this very moment.
The next time he sees her, she's wearing white with roses in her hair, and tomorrow is finally, finally today.