Title: Before the Fire

Author: antipholusluciana

Disclaimer: These characters are based on those created by Charles Dickens in the novel Bleak House, which is in the public domain. I make no money from the writing of this fan story.

Rating: M

Pairing: Esther Summerson and John Jarndyce

A/N: This story is based loosely on elements of Bleak House. I enjoyed both of the television miniseries (1985, 2005), but for acting performances, my favorite dramatisation is the BBC Radio production from 1998, which starred Michael Kitchen and Claire Price, so my descriptions of the characters are based on those actors.

SPOILER: I felt there was much more mutual attraction and spark between the characters as these two played them than in any other version, and Kitchen's portrayal of Mr Jarndyce is somewhat more self-assured and ardent in his pursuit of Esther, which made the conclusion all the more poignant—in the radio version, Esther sobs as if her heart is breaking when Mr Jarndyce releases her from their engagement. So this is definitely an A/U rendering in fulfillment of that chemistry.

It was often the pleasant habit of John Jarndyce and Esther Summerson to sit of an evening near the cozy coal fire of Bleak House's library as he read and she mended or executed a bit of needlework. Young Ada and Richard were so frequently off in a world of their own after dinner, taking walks beneath the stars or practising new pieces at the parlor pianoforte. It was the rare winter Friday that Jarndyce hadn't any guests, but the house was unusually quiet this evening, as Richard had insisted on journeying to London to learn of progress in the Chancery case, and Ada had taken Charley with her to call upon their London friend Miss Caddy Jellyby.

Occasionally during these quiet times Esther or her guardian would one or the other of them speak, or he'd gladly let the book in his lap languish as they conversed about household matters, or Richard's future, or books and music. This evening, however, Mr Jarndyce was silent for so long that Esther looked up to find that he was no longer reading. He stared into the fire with such a far-away expression that she found herself examining his face, trying to interpret his thoughts.

It was far from the first time she had paused to steal a glance at him in the evening firelight. Though he was considerably her senior, the lines of his jaw and graceful profile were still firm, and among the many moods to be read in his engaging blue eyes, there often was a sparkle of youthful spirit that Esther found immensely appealing. His left forefinger poised pensively at his cheekbone and his lips resting on the other fingers, he cast his eyes downward for a moment. Esther also loved the surprising length of his light eyelashes and the way his Caesar cropped curls made a soft grey halo about his well-shaped head. She knew from a portrait in one of the drawing rooms upstairs that he'd had a profusion of dark curls in his youth; the only vestige now was the occasional tiny renegade flip of hair at his nape.

Esther startled as she realised that he had lifted his eyes and now was looking with a puzzled half-smile at her face. She blushed, hoping that he would not be offended if he had taken notice of her long perusal of his features.

"Dear Guardian," she said, smiling back a bit tremulously, "I've never seen you this deep in thought, even in your Growlery. Have you a great weight on your mind?"

He in turn drank in the sight of the young woman who sat at his right. The good little woman of his house was not a raving beauty in the painterly sense, but how lovely she looked—and always had looked—to his eyes. Against the firelight her fine dark blonde hair took on a golden luster; her fair skin also had a glow from the warm light. He had to take a deep breath and prevent himself from gazing for too long into her enormous green-brown eyes.

"Oh, Esther. So many things; and yet, as I've told you, it won't do to think of it." For a fleeting moment she could see such torment in the way he shut his eyes and drew his brows together; the look of pain wrenched her insides.

Esther impulsively rose and knelt beside him, laying her cheek upon his knee to look up at him and taking his hand in hers. "Oh, Guardian, how sad it makes me to see your melancholy. So often I wish I might somehow take it away, make you happier…"

John tentatively reached out to touch her hair, though he was concentrating hard on controlling his trembling. To have her head resting on his knee was so sweetly childlike, and yet his desire for her made it difficult for him to view her as an innocent. Esther closed her eyes at the heaven of his touch on her hair. Were such daughterly gestures the only way she could be close to him? she wondered.

His voice was gentle, but his tone firm. "Esther, you are so young and vibrant. You bring me more happiness than I could ever tell you. But I worry about your prospects, if I seem to depend upon you so much that you don't make your way out into the world to know the society of younger people."

She opened her eyes, but didn't focus them. "But I have Richard and Ada… others we have met all seem so foolish to me, Guardian. Oh, I don't mean to imply that I'm better than they are, but they seem so intent upon making merry that sometimes they're unfeeling and mean-spirited. I get so tired of the endless gossip and the way they put down those who haven't as much money, or the dreadful way they even sometimes make fun of unfortunate people…"

"But surely Mr Woodcourt…?" It gave him a lump in his throat to mention the handsome young doctor who visited most often to have tea with Esther and Ada, as he had sensed Woodcourt's attraction to Esther also immediately. Even now Jarndyce fought the pangs of jealousy he'd felt from the first moment he'd noticed it.

Esther was silent for a moment, her eyes again shut as she tried not to let him hear her take a deep sigh of contentment. She was precisely where she most wanted to be, but how could she tell him that? She was so afraid of frightening him, of destroying their deep and comforting bond of the past year.

Only a few months after she'd come to live with him he had surprised her by rousing her in the wee hours of the morning, so restless with the sudden need to tell her something of her history that he had sat upon the edge of her bed and whispered her awake. She remembered how her bleary confusion had given way to a thrill of hope that she couldn't even explain—hope that he had come to confess some feeling for her? Even the sorrow of remembering her godmother's coldness was subdued by the comfort of his presence as he spoke. His soft deep voice caused in her a strange surge of pleasured weakness, especially as he explained how he had longed since her childhood to protect her, and how little she owed him given the joy she brought to his life. As a test of his depth of emotion, she had told him that he was "a father to her." Yet the brand of tenderness with which he had kissed her goodnight had not been paternal.

"Mr Woodcourt is an exemplary person, that's true," she now said slowly. "But… but there is a way that a woman must feel about a man before she can consider… I mean, his attentions have been honourable in every way, and yet…"

"Is that why…?" John was not sure he had a right to ask what he was wondering.

Esther raised her head and looked at his quietly agonised face.


He looked at her, tried again to smile through his discomfiture.

"Have you ever thought of marrying?" She watched his clear eyes carefully.

He looked down. "Once there was a young lady whom I loved with all my heart. We were engaged to be married, but she was … killed when her carriage overturned on the way to Sussex. The first several years without her were so hard for me," he told her, his voice strained.

Esther's heart ached for him as he squeezed shut his eyes, trying to shut out the painful memory.

"But I don't brood upon it as I used to, in part because…" his eyes met hers, and he took a chance. "Because I think I have fallen in love with someone else."

Esther's eyes widened. She still was not sure he returned her feelings, or if he felt that he could act upon it if he did. If he didn't love her as she loved him—if it were someone else he were interested in—she would feel such an awful fool, and she might unintentionally make him so uncomfortable that he wouldn't even want her to be around him. Her eyes filled with tears at these thoughts.

"Here, Esther!" He leaned forward quickly and helped her up so that both were standing. "What's wrong, my dear?"

She threw her arms around his neck and began to cry, angry with herself for it but unable to suppress her fervor. He held her awkwardly and gently rubbed her back, trying not to think about how much he wanted to tighten his arms around her and kiss her. Close to her ear he whispered, "Why are you crying?"

She pulled back from him and looked straight into his eyes, where he thought he saw the answer, but he wasn't certain until he felt her soft lips come up beneath his, warm and gentle but held firmly there against his mouth long enough for him to register what was happening and to return the kiss, more and more deeply until there was no mistaking the nature of it; not the kiss of a guardian for his ward, but of a man impassioned by his lover's surrender.

"Esther," he murmured, "my darling…" he took her lips again, trying to keep his hands on her corseted waist, to not let them wander all over her body as they longed to. "I didn't think you felt it, too."

She wept with happiness as she looked up at him. "I didn't know that you did. But I've wanted you to. I've wanted you to for nearly a year, Guard— John."

He stared at her, still hardly able to believe it. "All this time we've been dreaming about each other," he said wonderingly. "And I have long thought of asking you to become the true mistress of Bleak House. But I couldn't decide if it was right, Esther. I'm so much older…"

"But somehow you aren't," she implored, looking longingly into his eyes. "To me you seem young and strong. I feel as if I belong with you more than with the people my own age, dear Guardian. And I dream about you; oh, you don't know how I dream about you…"

"I do know," he told her, his voice deep and quavering with emotion, and then he kissed her again. She felt the flicker of his tongue against her lips and it seemed with that imperceptible act as if she were catching fire. She suddenly wanted a sensation of which she had no experience; she wanted nothing so much as to have her body beneath his.

Esther tugged his hand, pulling both of them to their knees. She remembered the dream she'd had just two weeks before, in which he'd held her right here in just this way, their thighs close together and her heart beating rapidly as they kissed again and again.

Now, as in the dream, she lay on the thick Persian rug before the hearth, looking up at him with breathless desire. "Please…" she whispered, and he took her into his arms with an open-mouthed kiss that made her moan with a passion of which she hadn't even known she was capable.

He lifted his head to transfer his kisses to her neck after fumbling with the tiny collar buttons of her dress. How he wished that it were truly her body he grasped, and not the whalebone stays, but for the moment he thought it might be best that she was not easy to undress. He was going much too fast, but it had been so long since he had felt a woman's softness, and this woman had captivated so many of his thoughts all these months.

His young ward sat up and looked at him with sloe eyes, beginning to unfasten the buttons of her bodice. With a supreme summoning of control he stayed her hand for a moment.

"Esther, my darling girl. This is all happening so fast. I don't want you to do anything you might later regret."

Her eyes searched his. "There is nothing I want more. But I… not if you don't want it." She fought back tears, and her attempt to hide the terrible sadness on her face reminded him of the first time he had ever seen her. He pulled her into his arms again and said, "I love you. And I'm going mad for want of you… but as I said before, I've thought for a long time of marrying you. If you wanted to wait, I would be willing."

As a girl Esther had been told by her aunt that it would have been far better if she had never been born; that her mother was her disgrace, and that she was her mother's. Part of her had never fully believed she was deserving of love, so to have one of the people she most cared about in all the world reciprocating this kind of devotion made her deliriously happy. The first to make it possible for her to experience familial love was now the first to give her romantic love. His kisses were helping her evolve from the fear that she might only be dreaming, to an agency over her own desire; to a conviction that she was deserving of both love and of passion.

She caressed his ears and his hair, then pulled him into another rapturous kiss. After it she whispered, "I would have to have you even if you wanted me only for one night. But what you've said fills my heart with joy."

John's hands explored the soft rise of her breasts as he devoured her lips, pushing her back to the rug so suddenly that she cried out and was knocked breathless for a moment. He made a long low sound as she ran her fingers through his hair and instinctively began to return the heat of his kiss. It sent a shiver of delight up her spine to know she was bringing him such pleasure. He paused, his eyes searching hers again. "Come to bed with me then, Esther," he whispered.

He helped her to her feet and they walked, so close that they moved as one, and went up the stairs. The servants had retired long ago and the great house was silent and draughty; the contrast of his cozy room, with its fire and large bedstead, was especially luxuriant. He closed and locked his door and then he turned to the young woman who stood before him. Her eyes held his as he embraced her and then she closed them blissfully as his lips possessed hers again. A part of her mind was uncertain, and just a bit fearful of pain, but her body was hungering for his and she longed to know what it felt like.

John Jarndyce had often seen his young ward in earlier years without her knowledge, and in an objective way had seen a sweet child; even a quiet beauty in her teens. Recently he had realised that his mourning for his beloved Millie had at last abated; what made him know this was the way his pulse increased each time Esther walked into a room, not to mention if she so much as brushed against him (as she was all too accustomed to doing).

And now it seemed both wondrous and strange to be holding her and feeling such wildness for her. He gently pulled away the pins in her hair and watched with enchantment as it flowed over her shoulders.

Her dear face held an odd expression of open desire mixed with uncertainty as she tossed back her long, silky hair. All he could do was dazedly shake his head, overwhelmed that what had seemed all too unlikely was now about to happen, as they stood right here in the room where he so often had dreamed about it.

"I'm so excited by your touch… but I'm not sure what to do," she confessed.

Her gentle guardian smiled. "It will come naturally to you, for the most part," he said quietly, "but I shall delight in teaching you the rest..." After further loosening the top of her dress, he softly stroked the curve of her throat with the backs of his fingers. Jarndyce slowly leaned forward to kiss her, which felt every bit as exhilarating for both as had the first time.

Esther moaned softly as he increased the intensity of the kiss; the feeling of his hand cradling the back of her head sent a charge right through her. She sighed as she relaxed in his embrace, swooning and letting her head fall back languorously as he trailed his lips over her neck.

"Dearest love…" he sighed, then kissed her hard, which made her heart leap and her arms wind around his neck to lock him there. Both were breathing more audibly now, their eyes shut as they drank in the sheer sensation of each other.

She still felt stunned by these unfamiliar, giddy feelings, but as he drew away she clasped his face and eagerly pulled him toward her again. Just where her lower body pressed against his, she could feel his hardening and lifting. A soft low groan of desire escaped him as he moved against her ever so subtly.

She thrilled at the sound he made, seemingly beyond his control. To think that she, just on the brink of womanhood, could have that kind of effect on an experienced man.

He looked into her eyes lovingly, then slowly shut his eyelids at the feel of fitting himself so close against her. His stirrings were almost as exciting for her; he drowned her small cry of pleasure with an even deeper kiss. With the touch of his tongue on hers, she felt something flowing within her, and she thought she would faint from a sensation of ache mixed with pleasure that seemed to well up from her abdomen to her head.

"Esther…" How she loved the way her name sounded in his breathless whisper. "Are you sure you are ready, my love?" She hugged him close and he felt her nod her head vigorously, which made him smile and gently rub her back. Then he lifted her up in his arms and carried her to the curtained bed, where he softly set her. Her face again showed a mixture of desire and fear; he felt a pang of sympathy for her as he bent to tuck a strand of her hair behind her ear. She could see the worry in his tender grey-blue eyes.

"It will be all right," he reassured her as he pulled her into his embrace again, laying her across the bed. She melted in his arms as he took her lips again and she felt him gently open her mouth with his.

Slowly and with some assistance from her John removed her clothes, kissing her sweetly as he proceeded—the dress, under-things and corset—until she lay on the bed in only a silk chemise and pantalets. He had removed his jacket earlier, and now she looked into his misted eyes as she began to undo his waistcoat, then his cravat and collar. As she unbuttoned his shirt he shut his eyes in anticipation of her soft hands on his chest and shoulders. She shed the last of her garments and lay upon the velvet counterpane invitingly, stretching and instinctively hoping to entice him with the upward arch of her slim body.

"You are so lovely," John told her, shaking his head in disbelief at her apparent flawlessness.

He gathered her into his arms and again made her dizzy with his caress. She had never felt anything as stimulating as his hands stroking every part of her skin—at least she never had, until he took one of her nipples into his mouth and moved his tongue teasingly around it. Suddenly she knew exactly what to do. She knew she wanted him unclad and with his skin touching hers as much as possible, and she knew she wanted to wrap her limbs about his hips.

John finished undressing and pulled down the bedcovers, inviting her to slip beneath them along with him. She purred when his hands returned to her soft breasts, the skin of her taut waist, the curve of her hip. He held her body close against his as he ardently kissed and nibbled her throat, and she softly clutched at his silvering hair.

Esther could feel his hardness pressed tightly between them, and she took a nervous breath just before his mouth began a slow massage of hers again. He teased her lips open with his tongue and began to kiss her deeply, whereupon she felt another rush of moist heat between her legs. She was so transported by his kiss that it took her a few seconds after it to realise that he was watching her face, a hint of a smile on his as he enjoyed her enraptured expression. Then she felt his hand slide up the inside of her thigh and move her legs apart so that his fingers could stroke her, explore her. She bucked upward at the shocking pleasure of it and moaned deeply, which aroused him incredibly.

He made an impassioned sound; huskily added her name to it, and his mouth was then on hers so forcefully that she experienced a thrill of fear for a split second.

She wanted him, and his gentleness was beautiful, but seeing him lose control was exquisitely exciting as well. Her heartbeat quickened as his hands braced her wrists against the pillow above her head. He tried to slow himself down, but his need for her was so consuming and urgent that he was afraid that making this last would prove impossible. "You're so wet," he whispered, "and I must have you. Oh, Esther… how I hate to hurt you…"

But for her own sake he gave her no further warning, but pushed into her passage and broke her maidenhead in one swift stroke. He pulled back slowly and studied her face. She had winced, but her features were relaxing with the sensation of his movement out, and she wrapped her arms invitingly around his shoulders. She was so moist that little of the sting remained, and the beginnings of the opposite response were already evident to her. John moved in a bit deeper. A twinge of pain again—but Esther focused on the widening strand of pleasure she could also feel.

He looked with concern at her face at the same time that he tried to calm his rising passion, and was flooded with relief to see a hint of a smile on her lips as he deliberately took his time. The long, drawn-out quality of his motion gave him a chance to savor the sensation of her hot, wet passage grasping him tightly, and he almost yelped at the intensity of it. Esther stroked his hair again; held his head as if letting go would mean completely losing her senses.

Acting only on instinct, she experimentally rocked her pelvis upward and he did call out, burying his face against her neck and bracing her hips with his hands. Then she stretched her arms up the pillow and emitted the most beautiful sound he had ever heard; a long soft moan of ecstasy as the pain was swept away and she experienced only the sensation of his slow deep exploration. It was indescribably intoxicating to know he was bringing her to this, and he was so stimulated that he murmured her name and began to move faster to feel the delicious torment of friction of her walls along his member.

Although her lover's increasingly deep thrusts brought on a faint echo of her earlier pain, this was overwhelmed by the acute pleasure mixing with it, until all Esther wanted was to push her lower body upward to meet the rhythmic movement of his loins and to begin that blissful climb toward release together.

Any worries John may have harbored as to whether he could still be this intimate with a woman were evaporating in the warmth of her obvious enjoyment, and her tempestuous response only added to his own gratification and endurance. He sighed against her mouth and slowed for a moment to snake his hand gently between them so that he was teasing her tiny bud of skin at the same time that he languidly filled her again and again.

His beautiful Esther was neither frightened nor tentative—so womanly in his embrace, so uninhibited. She was his alone, but without the awkwardness or suffering he had feared for her, and he was so grateful that it was so.

This was the pinnacle of all the magic she had ever felt with him, she thought. The thing that was destined when they were out on a rambling walk together through the woods, and he helped her up a rocky incline and his eyes met hers for a long moment as they were touching. Or when they talked of everyday matters before the hearth on long, cozy evenings, and the firelight made both their faces glow as they laughed over some small amusement. This was what was meant to be each time he paused in conversation and they looked at each other, and suddenly there was a current between them.

Now Esther's cry of surprised rapture was in unison with John's; his stimulation of her outside was making her contract around him inside, with intensely pleasurable results for them both. She suddenly felt the beginning of the climb that she knew she could not avoid; her gasps and moans became shorter and her whole body tensed to grip his. He could feel her nearing the climax and he gently turned her face to fervently kiss her lips at the crucial moment. She lifted her body up against his once more until an overwhelming trembling overtook her and she spasmed almost violently, moaning into his mouth, "Oh, dear Guardian…" He held her against him as she met her fiercely blissful release.

The image of her arched body as she jerked upward away from the mattress and threw her head back in ecstasy was beyond stimulating, and only seconds later John shuddered and reached his own deeply satisfying release inside her.

They lay in each other's arms long enough to calm their racing hearts and rapid breathing. Small, tender, almost shy smiles bloomed each time their glances met, until his eyes glistened and she hastened to make certain that his tears were indeed happy ones.

He lifted his head and looked tenderly down at her adorable face. "My darling…" he began, but he was again overcome with emotion at the look of trust and worship in her sparkling hazel eyes.

Nevertheless, he smiled at her. "You know, I rather doubt I will have much need for The Growlery any longer."

She laughed melodically, again running her fingers sensually about his ears and neck and the back of his head, touching him as she had craved to all these months, and blushing to think in a flash of the ways she had yet to learn to touch him.

"What will Ada and Richard think, when we tell them we're in love?" John asked her, arching one eyebrow mischievously before lightly skating his lips along the curve of her throat.

"Mmmm… I think their response will be the same as was mine, when Ada told me that Richard and she were: She will say, 'Either of us could have told you that!'"