Characters/Pairings: Arthur/Gwen, background Merlin/Gwaine
Word Count: 13,800
Summary: Modern AU. Rich and famous Arthur Pendragon is looking for a marriage of convenience to distract his father from controlling his life so much, but the last thing he expects is for his best friend Merlin to introduce him to a girl who has no idea who he is.
Notes: Written for this stunning artwork by neptune47 for the merlinreversebb. Very special thanks to cruentum for reading it over and keeping me honest.
The first thing Arthur did when they reached the tiny pub in Camden was take off his coat and tie. Gwen tried not to gawp like some teenager as he slipped his cuff links into his trousers pocket and began rolling up the sleeves, but between the hard muscles of his forearms and the blond hair curling appealingly across the back of his strong wrists, she was right there back on the pavement in front of Medlar, wishing she hadn’t caught him in such an awkward position so he could wrap his arms around her, too.
“What do you want to drink?”
She tore her gaze away from the hook on the wall where he’d hung her shawl with his jacket, still stuck on the memory, and found him waiting by her chair, an expectant smile tipping his mouth. “Sam Adams’ll do, ta.”
Ordering a beer might’ve been out of place at Medlar, but if Arthur had a problem with it now, he didn’t let it show. He left her at the small table they’d manage to commandeer in the Friday night crowd and wound his way to the bar. Nobody gave him a second glance except a pair of girls at the end of the counter. When they tittered behind their hands, heads tilted toward each other in conspiracy casting sly glances at Arthur, Gwen braced for more. They could approach him, he might flirt back, a camera might materialize in one of their hands to snap a quick pic. In Arthur’s world, anything could happen.
He returned to their table with a Guinness, her beer, and a smile just for Gwen. No acknowledgment of the girls. No cameras from them, either. Gwen took the bottle with a frown.
“What’s wrong?” Arthur took the chair next to her rather than the one opposite. “Change your mind about what you want?”
His knee nudged hers beneath the table, purely accidental but it did the job to snap her back to the moment. “No, it’s great.” To prove it, she took a long sip. “Just thinking about what happened back at the restaurant.”
“Don’t.” He covered her hand with his. His fingertips were wet and cold from the drinks, but that wasn’t why Gwen shivered. “We’re here to have fun. My father is not part of that.”
“All right.” So hard to dwell on the negative when Arthur didn’t. “So what is Arthur Pendragon’s idea of Friday night fun?”
With a sideways shift in his chair, he succeeded in both strengthening the contact of their knees and putting his broad chest and hips on display as he gazed out over the crowd. “Something like this, actually.”
“Drinking?” she teased.
“We’re in the middle of Camden. That’s hardly disappearing.”
“Yeah, but the thing of it is, nobody here cares.” He jerked his chin toward a group of older men congregated around the snooker table in the corner. “A friendly game, a pint or two, it’s easy.”
Somebody cared. The girls at the bar kept looking over at him. But Arthur remained oblivious, so perhaps in his estimation, in the sheltered little world he inhabited, this really did count as disappearing.
“What about you?” he asked before she could comment on it. “What is Gwen DeGrance’s idea of Friday night fun?”
“Anything that doesn’t involve work.”
“Sometimes. I’m not complaining. I love what I do. It’s just…” Sometimes, the focus on her job blinded her to other things in her life. Like realizing Tom was getting himself into trouble before it was too late. She shuttled that thought back to the tidy little drawer she kept those feelings in. Now wasn’t the time for self-recriminations. “I don’t get many free nights, let alone a Friday one.”
“That means we should make the most of this one.” Grabbing her bottle and his glass, he surprised her by rising to his feet. “Come on.”
Gwen gave their abandoned garments a quick glance, but Arthur didn’t seem to care about them, crossing the few feet to the dartboard on the wall. It made her uncomfortable leaving them behind. He might not worry about replacing a jacket, but her shawl had cost her a small fortune in a market in Bruges. If somebody took it, she wouldn’t be able to easily get another.
He paused with a single set of darts in his hand. “Don’t you play?”
“No, I play.” Pretty well, actually, courtesy of a highly competitive brother and father. “Aren’t you worried about your coat?”
Though he looked past her at the hook, he shrugged anyway. “Not really.”
“Someone could take it.”
“And we’ll see them if they do.”
He had a point. Leaving the shawl behind, she joined him at the board. When she held her hand out for the darts, however, he didn’t move.
“You don’t like it,” he said.
She sighed. He wasn’t talking about the darts. “Not really.”
“You think I’m a spoiled little rich boy who will just buy a new one if something happens to the old.”
Her cheeks flamed. That had crossed her mind.
“Can I ask you something that’s been bugging me since Medlar?” Arthur didn’t wait for her approval. “How do you know so much about my father’s business when you didn’t know anything about me?”
Just when she thought she understood his kind of linear thinking, he threw her off her game with something completely unexpected. “Because of Merlin, mostly.”
“Why? What did he do?”
“What do you mean? He didn’t do anything.”
“He must’ve. You’re not the type to go into something like this blind, but you had no idea who I was.”
His character assessment was right on the money, but Gwen didn’t ponder the whys or wherefores he’d come to it. “He didn’t,” she insisted. “We met for lunch on Wednesday to catch up since I was back in London, he heard about my dad, and next thing I know, he’s saying he’s got the perfect solution.”
But as she explained it away, it dawned on her that Arthur was right. She’d been up for hours on Thursday night researching everything she could about the Pendragons. If she’d done a simple Google search the night before, they might not have had such a rocky start. Of course, they might not have had a start at all, because she would’ve seen the picture of Arthur with that pretty blonde actress and called Merlin to cancel. Which Merlin had probably already guessed.
“That little sneak,” she said, shaking her head. “He kept me out Wednesday on purpose.” And she’d overslept Thursday as a result of their so-called catching up, running off to meet the pair of them with barely enough time to make sure her socks matched let alone doing anything to primp her appearance.
“If it makes you feel any better, he didn’t tell me much about you, either. He said it was just to wind me up, but I’m starting to wonder.”
So was she. She’d think Merlin was matchmaking except Arthur was hardly her type at all.
“Why would he go to those lengths?” she mused.
“Does it matter at this point?” Her startled response to his blunt question elicited a shrug. “I mean, you’re here, I’m here, and we’ve already made up our minds to do this thing. Do I wish Merlin had been a little more upfront about what he was doing? Yeah, sure, but it’s worked out for the good.” He paused. “I think it has, anyway.”
He did, too. She saw it in his eyes, though he’d gone slightly wary in the face of her realization. Gwen hated being manipulated, but in this instance, she’d have to forgive and forget. Merlin would never do anything he didn’t believe in. Seeing two friends, two people he cared about, who could help each other out would have been an irresistible force.
“I do, too.” She plucked the darts out of his hand to prove it. “So are we playing just for fun, or do you want to make a wager on how much I can beat you by?”
He laughed, loud enough to garner at least one glance in their direction. “You think you’re that good?”
“There’s only one way for you to find out, now isn’t there?”
With a mock-bow, he swept a hand toward the line marked out on the floor. “Ladies first, then.”
The revelations about Merlin and the last doubts on how the evening was turning out were cast aside with his casual acceptance of her offer. She tested the weight of the first dart between her fingers, while Arthur downed a third of his Guinness.
“Anything in particular you’d like to play for?” she asked.
“You’re the one who wants to make this more interesting. I defer to your choice.”
Her mind raced. Any number of naughty suggestions popped into her head, none of which would be suitable, not for a first date, not for a marriage of convenience. Just because she could finally acknowledge her attraction to him didn’t make it right to do so, especially when he’d been nothing but gentlemanly the entire night.
“Loser buys the next meal we have together.”
He made a face. “That’s a rubbish wager. We’re going to have lots of meals together.”
“It also means that when you lose, I won’t feel guilty about asking to go back to Medlar.”
“If you like it so much, I promise you’ll be sick of it before you have to divorce me.”
Gwen didn’t think she’d ever reach a point where going to Medlar would become routine. “Well, the loser could make the next meal we have together instead.”
Arthur laughed. “That’s hardly a prize if you win. I can’t cook.”
“Maybe it’s not about the winner getting something great as it is the loser getting stuck, then,” she said with a smile.
The cock of his brow was posturing at its best, but it was so obviously fake, there was no way she could get annoyed by it. “So you’d take a naff prize just to see the loser squirm? Is that what you’re telling me?”
Put like that, it sounded rather mean-spirited. Still… “Yes, that’s what I’m saying.”
With Arthur watching from the sidelines, she took her first throw. It wobbled on release, her eye not fully on the board, and missed the triple ring she’d been aiming for.
“You’re never going to check out at that rate,” Arthur commented.
She shot him a frown. “You distracted me.”
“And how did I do that?”
By being there. By making her laugh. By not being what she’d expected.
Gritting her teeth, she threw her second dart. This one found its mark. So did the third.
Arthur’s smile vanished.
The taxi idled at the curb, the reminder that the night would be over in seconds, the time it took Arthur to walk her to her door and return to take the ride back to his own flat. It had come too fast, a certainty to which Gwen clung stubbornly even after confirming the time on her phone. She wanted the pub to stay open another hour, or for them to have left dinner a few minutes earlier, or any number of permutations that would have given her more opportunity to get to know this version of Arthur.
Or really, just to spend the time with him. She was a little too tipsy to lie to herself at the moment.
A chill had settled in the air by the time they’d emerged from the pub, and Arthur had draped his jacket over her shoulders before she could so much as shiver. Now they stood in front of her door, and she knew she had to give it back, but a small part inside refused to take it off just yet.
“You’ll have to give me fair warning about when you want to collect,” Arthur commented.
He leaned against the metal railing edging the short stairs. Most of his face was in shadows. The sign for the shop next door blocked the streetlight. But Gwen saw enough, like the crooked twist of his smiling mouth, for her heart to give a little jump.
“I thought we were even. You won the second game.” She shouldn’t have won the first, though he denied all the way to the taxi that he’d missed some of those shots on purpose.
“We didn’t place a wager on the second. But no fuss. I can take my lumps as well as the next bloke.”
“And you really want to make me a meal?”
He laughed. “Not particularly.” The smile softened. “But it’d be worth it.”
Her skin went hot. Moments like this had come faster and faster as the night progressed, when she caught glimpses of him just watching her, when he’d touch the small of her back as he showed her a specific throw, even when he’d left her alone to go get refills and come back empty-handed when he spotted a guy chatting her up. His arm had gone around the back of her waist, then, drawing her into the heat of his body, and though he’d never said a word to the stranger, nothing like “Oh, she’s my fiance,” or “She’s with me, mate,” his ownership was loud and clear. Gwen certainly heard it.
She liked it more than she would have thought possible.
“Here.” Shrugging off his jacket, she stepped closer, avoiding the space between his legs though that would’ve been the most logical place for her to approach. It was also the most dangerous, because then she’d be reminded how well they fit, and the questions of whether or not they’d keep their arrangement platonic when they were entirely alone would rear their insistent heads. Again. And she didn’t need that on top of everything else. “Thank you.”
He didn’t take it right away, his fathomless gaze locked on her. “There’s no cameras around here, you know.”
She glanced around out of reflex. “I didn’t think there was.” It was too late, and she was still nobody, just an anonymous face for the paparazzi to identify in the next couple days.
“It makes it hard.”
“It makes what hard?”
“I want to kiss you.” Finally reaching for the coat, he chose her momentary surprise to use the garment to tug her closer. “And I don’t have them around to use as an excuse.”
Her attempts to thwart physical contact were dashed by the nudge of his thigh against her side, as well as the way his free hand lightly grasped her hip. A few more inches, and he’d be touching her bottom, fingers caressing more intimate flesh than the curve he currently did. Gwen tried not to squirm to strengthen the connection, but her thighs already quivered, and her throat had gone tight at his low words.
She swallowed. “I won’t stop you if you try,” she whispered.
Arthur ran his tongue over his dry lower lip, his lashes ducking as he looked at her mouth. “What happened to doing all this for the media attention? This doesn’t help your dad.”
No, it didn’t. By all rights, she should withdraw.
“Do you think the rest of it will help?” She wasn’t moving, but she couldn’t answer his question, either, not without lying to both of them. “Tonight. How long do you think it’ll take for them to start digging around?”
“Not long. Are you worried about him?”
“I hope thinking about it didn’t spoil tonight for you.”
“It didn’t.” After her run-in with Uther, she hadn’t given Tom much thought at all. “I feel guilty that I get nights like this when he’s still stuck in prison, though. It doesn’t seem fair.”
His soft snort came with a small shake of his head. “Life isn’t always fair. Otherwise, my father would’ve given up trying to control mine a long time ago.”
“You stood up to him tonight.”
“Only after you did.”
“I just did what was right.”
Arthur sighed. “So’m I.”
His lips sealed over hers, hesitation gone, polite inquiry thrown out the window. She would’ve known it wasn’t a kiss just for show even if he hadn’t made the no camera comment. It took what it wanted, firm and edged with hunger, then coaxed her to give back tenfold. The tip of his tongue teased along the seam of her mouth until she opened to him, and she abandoned her hold on his coat to put her arms around him the way she’d wanted since Medlar.
He did the same. The hard strength of his body felt even better than she’d imagined.
His breath was even quicker than hers when they parted, though she had to lean her forehead against his open collar to stop the world from spinning. “I’ve wanted to do that since you showed up at my flat,” he murmured.
She smiled against his chest. “Maybe I should’ve made the wager for a kiss instead, then. We could’ve done this sooner.”
Though he chuckled, the gentle graze of his thumb down the side of her face spoke volumes. “I think we picked the perfect time.”
On second thought, so did she.
Gwen’s phone woke her from dreams about strong arms and dancing blue eyes. The jazzy ring tone was oddly familiar, but in her hazy state, the best she could do was reach blindly for where it sat on her nightstand.
“Gwen? Did I wake you?”
Her father’s voice sliced through the fog, and her grip on the phone tightened. “Dad? What’s wrong? Why are you calling? How are you calling?”
“Nothing’s wrong. I’m home.” She could hear the smile in his voice. “I’m out.”
“Out?” Gwen felt like an idiot repeating him, but she was either still sleeping or her ears were clogged. “How is that possible?”
“I walked out the doors and I got on the tube.”
“You didn’t break out, right?”
He chuckled. “And I came home where they could find me? Give the old man a little more credit than that.”
“A miracle, I guess.”
She listened in stunned silence as he told her about his early morning visitor, a solicitor he’d never heard of but who knew more about his case than even Tom did. “It’s not over, not by far,” he went on. “But Mr. Geoffrey says it’s just a matter of time.”
“And they released you. On a Saturday.”
“He said he had to pull some strings, but yeah, I’m home.”
As he continued to chatter, Gwen’s thoughts raced. She’d never heard of this Mr. Geoffrey, and as far as she knew, only one person might have the clout to have influence over the courts on a weekend. She waited until Tom finally stopped to take a breath before faking a yawn.
“Oh, I’m sorry,” Tom immediately apologized. “I woke you up, didn’t I? I was so excited—”
“No, it’s fine, Dad. But…can I call you back in a little bit? Let me have a cuppa so this makes more sense.”
He let her go with a promise to talk later. As soon as they disconnected, she scrolled through her contacts for Arthur’s number.
“What did you do?” she said in lieu of a greeting.
“Um…answered the phone?”
His amused tone annoyed her more than anything else. “You know what I’m talking about, Arthur. My father. Don’t tell me you don’t know about it.”
“How do you know about it already?”
“He’s out. He called me.”
“Well, that was fast.”
“So you don’t deny it was you?”
“No, but this wasn’t how I wanted you to—look, have you had breakfast yet? Or coffee. Let me bring you a coffee.”
“I just woke up.”
He chuckled. “You didn’t drink that much.”
“I can meet you,” she said, swinging her legs over the side of the bed. “Just tell me where.”
“Do you have a horrible objection to my coming over?” he asked. “We’ll have more privacy that way.”
“Getting hounded already today?”
Her attempt to joke about the paps fell flat. “Please, Gwen?”
When he said it to her like that, so simply, so sincere, how could she say no? “Give me half an hour to get the place presentable.”
Twenty-eight minutes later, she opened the door to an artfully disheveled Arthur, bearing a cardboard tray of steaming coffees and a small bag. He hadn’t shaved this morning, and the faded T-shirt he wore looked like something she would’ve slept in at uni, but his eyes were clear and bright, his smile genuine as she led him into her tiny kitchen.
“I pulled in a couple favors last night,” he said without preamble, once they were seated at the table. “But I’ll admit, I didn’t think things would happen this quickly.”
“Why did you do it at all?” That was the part she didn’t get. Their agreement was to expose her to the media, not for him to pay for it all himself. “You didn’t even ask me.”
“You would’ve told me no.”
“Because it’s not your responsibility.”
His gaze dropped to the orange scone he’d been pulling crumbs off as he spoke. “There’s responsibility, and then there’s doing what’s right. I saw that last night. And what’s not right is asking someone like you to go through with my daft scheme about marriage, when my father is bound to make your life miserable in the process.”
“I knew what I was getting into.”
“No, I don’t think you did. But you still defended me to him, without hesitating, and that’s worth more than you could even know.”
This somber side of Arthur was new to her, evidence of depths previously unexplored. She liked it, as much as she liked the Arthur who had decided to give her a lesson on dart form, and the Arthur who had walked out of his building to greet her with awe in his eyes. This Arthur was as authentic as the one she’d first met, with layers upon layers to make him one of the most fascinating men she’d ever met. He was an idealist forced to live in a realist’s world. That he’d allowed her glimpses beneath the veneer was worth almost as much as the steps he’d taken for Tom.
“That still doesn’t explain why you’d call in these favors,” she said. “That wasn’t necessary.”
“Yes, it was.” Abandoning the scone, he settled back in his chair, his shoulders slumped. “I’m letting you out of the deal.”
“What?” But they’d had such a good time last night. “You said you wanted someone your father can’t manipulate.”
“I do. But as it turns out, I can’t in good conscience ask that of someone else when I let him do it to me, now can I?” He shrugged and reached for his coffee. “If I married anyone right now, he’d be all over me, and her, and nothing would really change. That’s not fair to anyone, let alone someone I actually like.”
The argument was sound, his self-analysis accurate. She’d thought it an insane plan from the start, but then again, hers had been equally ridiculous. The difference was, she actually had what she’d set out to achieve, while Arthur was back where he’d begun. Worse off, even, if Uther didn’t let their date go.
“What will you do until you get control of your trust?” she asked.
“The same I’ve always done.”
“But then Uther wins.”
His smile did nothing to banish the defeat in his voice. If anything, it heightened it. “Doesn’t he always win?”
No, not this time.
Arthur spewed the coffee he’d just drunk, more of it splashing out of the cup when the lid popped off from the hard jerk of his hand. Gwen leapt from her chair to grab the tea towel hanging from the oven handle and dabbed away the puddles on the table first, then dried off his dripping fingers. He stared at her, much like he had at the park, heedless to the fact that she was now making excuses to clean off the front of his shirt when very little had actually splattered there. But such a nice chest, it was a shame not to touch it when she could. Especially since she seemed to have robbed him of his power of speech.
She hovered at his side, the damp towel ready for more. “Did I get it all?”
“What?” He blinked down at his body. “Oh, yeah, I’m good.”
He wasn’t, not really, since he still wore that bewildered expression after she slid back onto her seat. “So? What do you say?”
“About marrying you?”
“That’s the question on the table, yes.”
“But you don’t have to. I told you. It’s a rubbish plan.”
Gwen smiled. “It is, but that doesn’t mean we can’t still go through with it.”
“Is this about Mr. Geoffrey? Because I’m not paying him, you know. All I did was call and tell him about the case. He’s the one who agreed to take it on pro bono. You don’t owe me anything.”
“I know. Which is why I asked.” He looked adorable, sitting in her kitchen, so obviously confused by her declaration. Funny how just forty-eight hours before, the same look had annoyed the piss out of her. But she knew him now—or knew him better, anyway—and she could see that it wasn’t born of malice or conceit. Even more reason to ask. “Look, last night was…not what I expected, to say the least. I thought the whole date nonsense would be a bit of a bore.”
Arthur snorted. “Gee, thanks.”
“Be honest, though. You did, too, right?”
A faint pink stain crept into his cheeks. “I didn’t want it to be.”
“But you were prepared for it, nonetheless.”
“Where are you going with this?”
“Just that it wasn’t. A bore, I mean. It was pretty wonderful, actually, from dinner to darts to…” It was her turn to blush. “…after.”
When he reached across and caressed the back of her wrist with his coffee-warmed fingertips, she knew he felt the same way. “Except for the part where my father acted like an ass, the whole night was one of the best dates I’ve ever had,” he said. “And even that part was worth it.”
Bolstered by his validation, she turned her hand over and tangled their fingers together. “If you hadn’t asked me out again by tomorrow, I was ready to call you and do it myself.”
He laughed. “I would’ve had to be in hospital to take that long.”
The way he kept running his thumb along the side of her palm distracted her from what she was trying to say, her chest tightening, the back of her neck flaring hot. She ran her tongue over her suddenly dry lips and tore her gaze away in time to see Arthur’s nostrils flare.
“I know your father’s going to make it difficult for me,” she went on, amazed her voice wasn’t wavering like her stomach was. “But I can take it if you can. I’ve got nothing to hide.”
“What if he cut me off entirely? I might need a place to live.”
“Well, if we’re married, I imagine we could try living together, too,” she teased. “My flat’s not too naff, and I do make a decent wage. Maybe not Pendragon worthy, but—”
“You’re Pendragon worthy,” Arthur interjected.
With a swift swoop forward, he grazed a kiss across her mouth, adding even more warmth to her already overwhelmed senses. When he tried to sit back down, however, Gwen caught his nape to hold him in place so she could seal his lips with a harder, hungrier kiss. Tongues touched, tip to tip then deeper, inside, sweeping to each other’s depths like she’d craved since last night. She moaned, and he was up, twisting around the corner of the table to better reach her, their movements awkward and more than a little clumsy but oh so right as their bodies finally crashed together.
She rubbed against him, sparks dancing through her veins at the way they fit so well. Her head spun, her skin tingled, and still, both of them chased for more when they parted for precious air.
Arthur was panting when they stopped, his eyes dark and penetrating. “You don’t want a big wedding, right?”
Still struggling to breathe right, Gwen shook her head.
“So you wouldn’t mind something quick.”
“We probably couldn’t get you a decent ring soon enough.”
They could just go down to Ernest Jones as far as she cared, though she suspected that wasn’t what Arthur had in mind. “It’s not about the ring.”
His eyes searched hers. “What is it about then?”
“Possibilities,” she answered without pause. “Having someone there who’s on your side.”
“Normal people get married for other reasons.”
Her smile burst wide. “Since when is Arthur Pendragon anywhere close to normal?”
“And that’s all right with you?”
“If it’s all right with you that I’m as normal as they come.”
“Not true. Not in the slightest.”
All of this was likely mad. Tom would scold her for taking such a risk. Her co-workers wouldn’t believe for a second that good old Gwen had eloped with one of London’s most eligible bachelors—according to Arthur’s claims anyway. But the only opinions that mattered were hers and Arthur’s, though he had yet to actually agree.
“Is all this your way of saying yes, you’ll marry me?” Gwen asked.
She would never forget the look on his face, the mix of delight and awe and desire, when he finally uttered those two words.
Merlin grinned at Gwaine, sprawled in the corner of his couch. “It’s done.”
“They’re really going through with it.”
“Not only that, they’re talking about eloping.” Merlin flopped down and leaned back into the crook of Gwaine’s arm. “Arthur wanted to know if I could get time off work to be a witness if they did.”
“Good for them.” Gwaine tightened the embrace, playing with the front of Merlin’s shirt. “Guess that means I get to collect now.”
It took control not to respond to Gwaine’s teasing, but Merlin had had years of practice. He was even better at feigning innocence. “What’re you talking about? I did all the work.”
“One call to Gaius. I’m the one who took those pictures of the pair of them in the coffeeshop for you.”
“Well, I’m the one who made sure they got online so Gaius could trick Uther into seeing them. That’s a lot harder than pushing a tiny camera button. Hey!”
He laughed out loud when Gwaine suddenly flipped him to the side, pinning him against the cushions. “I get to collect,” Gwaine repeated.
He was still laughing when Gwaine kissed him. Life was good. The two friends he cared about most in the world had done the right thing and sussed out how good they were together. It might’ve happened anyway, if he’d ever figured a way to get the two to meet more naturally, but when this particular chance presented itself, he couldn’t very well throw it away.
All they needed was a nudge.
Merlin had been more than happy to oblige.