She heaved a soft sigh as she snuggled against him. Drawing his finger along her shoulder, Will smiled. They had needed this day, both of them — a chance to escape both the mounting pressure of classes and the mounting drama of their respective houses. A chance to get away, sit in the sunlight, and hold each other.
Some women would shun the sunlight as a cat shunned water. Not his Jessie. She sought it, loved nothing better than to find a nice warm patch of it and settle in with a book. He held her closer, remembering how he had written his parents to ask them, in the new castle they were preparing for after the wedding, to make sure there were sofas by the windows, and a big sunny garden, for his lady to enjoy her books.
… Except, well, he hadn’t exactly mentioned his lady. They would understand, though, and to be honest, Will was not entirely certain how he felt about that. It was one thing to say that a writer of romances should be able to look into the vagaries of the Sim heart and suss out the motives behind even the most cryptic writing it was speech; it was quite another thing when said writer was your mother.
“It’s such a lovely day,” Jessie murmured, smiling as she leaned her head on his shoulder. Her copper curls spilled onto his collar and neck.
“Don’t fall asleep on me now,” he murmured.
She looked up. “Who says I’m falling asleep?”
Your eyes, when they droop like that, he thought, but only smiled.
“I mean, if I was falling asleep,” she mused, and he felt her muscles where they leaned on him tense and coil, “would I be able to do this?”
With no further warning, she sprang onto his lap. “And if I was falling asleep …”
“… would I be able to do this?” Her lips went for his neck, raining a trail of feathery kisses.
She looked up for a bare second, blinking like a blushing maiden from one of his mother’s romances. “Whatever is it, William?” she cooed. He took advantage of her distraction to half-shrug and tuck the sensitive skin from her reach.
Naturally, she went for the other side of his neck.
“Jess!” he cried out, convulsing and trying not to laugh.
“Maybe I’ll — I’ll — just make you — ack! — make you talk!” he managed to get out between chuckles.
“You can’t,” Jessie answered, barely leaving off her kissing long enough to speak. “Laughing too hard.”
“Then I — Jessie!”
“Hmm?” She looked up, grinning at him —
Will stopped those damn tickling kisses the best, and indeed the only, way he knew how — short of saying uncle.
And yet her fingers still found the skin on the side of his neck — and tickled it too, though she knew her fingers didn’t have half the effect of her lips! Still, Will half-shrugged, again, to keep them locked in place.
When he had finally made his reacquaintance with the inside of her mouth, they pulled away, slowly, softly, Jessie bestowing a last kiss on the tip of his nose. Then she pretended to pout. Then she grinned and rested her head on his shoulder.
“And you say you’re not falling asleep,” Will laughed, and held her closer, trying, as always, to shift so that he could feel her heart beat against him. Could she feel his? It always beat so fast and hard when she was in his arms …
“Mmm,” Jessie murmured. She shook her head, but did not look up.
” … Jess?” he asked after a moment of quiet, his finger pressing along her spine. “Are you … are you getting enough sleep?”
She pulled back. “I could ask the same of you,” she answered, drawing her thumb along the thin shadowed skin below his eyes. He watched her pretty mouth frown, and then smile. “I mean, you do live in the same house as both of my brothers — I know what that’s like!”
“Is that why you had the tower room?” Will asked.
“Nothing to do with my mum’s books always putting the princesses into towers?”
She blushed and he knew he had her.
“Because if that was all it was,” he added, grinning at her, “you’d be disappointed to know that … that our bedroom is going to be in one of the towers.”
Jessie tilted her head a little to one side. “What?” Will asked.
“Just wondering if it defeats the point of having a tower room if the prince lives there, too.”
“I’m no prince.”
Jessie smiled down at him, resting her forehead on his head. “Even if no one else in this world ever thinks so, you will always be a real prince to me.”
He had once said that to her, or something very much like it, when they had cuddled together under the stars and she had lain in the crook of his elbow and whispered to him, so low he was unsure if she really wanted him to hear, that she was unsure if she would ever be, could ever be, a “real princess.” He still had no idea of what she had meant by “real princess,” but if there was some difference between her and all the other princesses of the world, then the problem was with those other princesses — never, never his princess.
He grinned at her, then frowned. “Jess, your eyes look bloodshot. Are you sure –”
She pulled away and tossed her hair over her shoulder. “That’s because you’re getting the Cyclops effect.”
His eyebrows went up. “Well, at least one of us will be getting enough sleep after the wedding,” he murmured.
“Oh, you intend to let me sleep, Sir William?” Jessie tried to laugh even as her face and chest turned as red as her hair.
Once again, Will had reason to be thankful that his more olive-toned skin did not hold the blush hers did. “Maybe,” was all he could reply, “but even — even if — well, you can always sleep through the mornings.”
Something — a shadow — crossed her face, and she was off his lap in an instant.
She never smiled like that unless something was wrong.
“What is it?”
“You’re …” He edged nearer to her, brushing a strand of hair out of her eyes. “What’s wrong?”
“Nothing’s wrong.” She never sounded that cheerful unless she was sad.
“Are you …” He almost shifted closer, but froze — what if she was nervous of — of him? Sad and scared about their wedding night? He couldn’t force himself closer to her if that was what she was feeling!
But Wright, what was he supposed to do? He couldn’t talk to her about — about that! Some woman had to do that! Her mother, her aunt, his mother even, but not him!
As if he needed more proof that Jess was not her normal self, she did not tilt her head to one side and ask, “Am I what?” as was her wont when he could not go on, and she was willing to answer his question. Instead, she rose and turned to the pond.
He only got up, though, when she said, “I just need to stretch.” Jess only made excuses when she thought excuses needed to made — when she was conscious of guilt. She had never learned the princess-y art, as she put it, of doing exactly what she liked and pretending that it was all right, simply because she was doing it. Jess considered that a flaw. Will thought otherwise.
“Jess?” he asked.
She said nothing and wandered over to the rail. He wandered next to her.
It was Jessie’s way, when she wanted him to talk about something and he could not find the words, to sit beside him, and watch him — or not watch him — and say nothing until the silence drove him mad and he finally said something. And then she would smile at him, and tilt her head to one side, and rest her hand on his shoulder or his knee, and wait some more. Eventually, it would all come tumbling out, sometimes so jumbled that Will could barely make sense of it himself and it was a miracle she could understand his words singly, never mind together.
He would see if she enjoyed a taste of her own medicine.
Will rested his hand on the rough wood of the railing, tracing a design with his finger. He watched the fish bubble up to the surface, their gaping mouths opening and shutting, waiting for a bit of crumbling stale bread or a worm on a hook, whatever the Sims on the other side of the water cared to throw down. He listened to the birds calling to one another in their springtime frenzy of matching and mating. He did his best to ignore the mounting sounds of a fight between two other students on the opposite shore of the pond.
Mostly, though, he watched Jessie, and listened for the slightest change in her breathing, her sighing, her shifting — some sign that she was ready to talk.
She said nothing. She leaned her elbows, safe from splinters in her velvet sleeves, on the railing. She watched the trees opposite, or the birds within them. She let one knee bend, slowly, her foot rising up behind her and circling with its slipper.
And then she started to play with her betrothal ring.
Her betrothal ring. The du Lacs had a bloody set of betrothal rings — when they had known the papers were almost ready to be signed, Lancelot had called Will home and shown him all of the betrothal rings the family had collected over the years. There were sapphire rings, amber rings, ruby rings. Rings set in silver and platinum and gold, even a battered set of copper rings that, apparently, the first du Lac, the first Lancelot, had given to his betrothed because at the time he was but a poor bastard knight of Gaul and could afford to give her no better. But none of them were Jessie’s ring. He’d picked one with an amethyst, for her eyes, but had not been happy with it.
Then he had gone to a jeweler to buy Jessie a pair of earrings for her birthday, and — he had seen it. A single diamond — a large single diamond — set in a plain gold band. It was simple, understated. Elegant. It was Jessie. The earrings were forgotten, as was the amethyst ring, and this had become both her birthday present and her betrothal ring in one.
The moment the cloth had been torn from the box, Will was certain he had chosen wrong, that she would be upset or offended or worse, disappointed. She would never understand, she was too busy worrying about being a “real princess” to understand that there was more to being a princess than showy jewelry or sparkling crowns or dresses whose value could buy a prosperous farm and hire hands to work it for a year —
And then Jessie had gasped, “Oh, Will,” put it on her hand and shown it off, and Will had known that he had, against all odds, picked the right ring.
Will smiled up at Jess, remembering. She did not smile. She did not look at him. She didn’t seem to notice him looking.
Apparently, she could play the silent game longer than he could. “Jessie?” His hand reached out to her arm.
She turned around and tossed her hair back. “I’m fine.”
She would have never said that if she was fine.
“Jessie …” He inched closer, wrapped his arms around her waist. She melted against his chest. Perhaps whatever it was … wasn’t him. “How can I help you if you don’t tell me?”
A pause. “It’s nothing.”
Well, that was an improvement from “Nothing’s wrong.”
“Then why don’t you tell me about it?”
“I … I don’t think you would understand.”
“I can try.”
She shook her head. Her long hair was caught between her waist and his, pinning it; she only succeeded in tangling the ever-jumbled curls still further. “I don’t think — I don’t think trying would work.”
“Because — because I am — because you’re not –” She wiggled from his arms, swift as a deer fleeing the hunter’s arrows, and looked at him — pleading — twisting her ring. “What — what if I said it was about the wedding?”
Somehow, over the rushing in his ears, Will heard himself gulp, and asked, “What — what about the wedding?”
She stared at him, her violet eyes widening, pools deep enough to drown in. “Will, I’m scared.”
“Scared — scared of –”
“After the wedding.” Watching him panic, she shook her head. “No, not — that after. I mean — after.”
“After you say ‘I do,’ you’ll still be you.”
“Er — yes?”
“And what will I be?”
“Other than that?”
“I … don’t know?”
Jessie swallowed and nodded. “Exactly — exactly.” She started to turn —
Will touched her elbow. “Wait — what else do you want to be?”
“Me! Like you’ll be — you!”
“You’ll still be you.”
“No, no, I won’t — I’ll be your wife!”
“Aye, but –”
“I’ll be your wife. Expected to keep your house and bear your children and hang on your arm at parties, and do what you say, and –”
“Jessie, Jessie, no. It won’t be like that.”
“How do you know?” she asked, her voice starting to crack. She gasped and looked away.
“Because — because I know I don’t want it to be like that,” he whispered. “Wright, Jess. I want to marry you — not whatever you’re describing. That — that sounds like a nightmare for both of us.”
She glanced at him, her eyes glassy. “It — does?”
“Because …” Will bit his lip. “Because how could you be happy like that? And how could I be happy, watching you be miserable?”
“Other men do it.”
“Other men aren’t marrying you.” He reached for her hands. “I just — I just want you to be happy, Jess. And to let me be with you, even when you’re not, and to try to make you happy again.
“That’s all I’m really asking of you. That’s all I could ever ask of you … my Princess.”