She fit right in.
Will hung a moment in the doorway, watching her — though, given the purple of the walls and the hangings and rugs, he could barely make her out. Still, she looked like she belonged. She lounged sideways on that bench as if it had always been hers, as if this was not the first but only one of many nights where she would wait there, reading or resting or talking, for him to come home and chase everyone else away so that they could be alone, they two.
Two. They two. For they were two now, and one, in a bond that would last the rest of their mutual lives. Just the thought of it made him dizzy. He reached absently for the door and leaned against it, partially to let his head settle, partially to watch her.
Jessie was not reading or talking tonight. Will could not even be sure she was resting. Her face stared into the flames of the log he’d ordered to have burning when they got home, for nights were chill in this castle of stone. Her foot moved slowly in time to some music only she could hear. He could not see her eyes, nor whether they were closed or open. He would not be surprised if they were closed. It had been a long day. She had not hesitated when his mother suggested that they get ready for bed as soon as they had alighted from the carriage. Will himself had only stayed behind to down a fortifying Scotch.
But there was still the night to live.
He leaned a touch more of his weight on the door and was startled to feel it slip from his grasp. He only barely caught it in time to prevent a slam, and not at all to prevent a dull thump as it slid back into the frame. Jessie jumped.
“Don’t get up,” Will heard himself say as he crossed the few steps that lay between them. Jessie blinked up at him, but without another word leaned back down again.
He stopped. The light from the two candles nearest the bench — the only light left in the room, discounting the dull red light of the fire — flickered between them. She’d sworn to obey him this morning, but surely she wasn’t taking it that literally? He’d never wanted a wife who just meekly did whatever he said — what if he was wrong? What if he was making her unhappy, and she never said? What if that wife wasn’t Jessie, who could probably define “obey” in six different ways but who knew her own will well enough to never let it be utterly supplanted?
She looked up at him with a drowsy, contented smile that made him sigh in relief. She wasn’t just obeying him. She was using his words as an excuse to do what she had wanted to do anyway. That was his Jessie.
His Jessie. Now his and no one else’s. And he was hers, but he’d been hers since he was fourteen and had seen the sunlight glint off her hair and watched her smile at him, and suddenly Tom’s-sister-Jess, the scrawny redhead who would run after her brothers when there were no girlfriends to be had, had turned into a clever maiden with heart-stopping beauty before his eyes. It certainly had almost stopped his. Really, as far as he was concerned, the wedding had only made things official on his end.
After a moment, he realized that in the course of watching her, he’d forgotten to keep moving. And now he was faced with difficulty. He’d look like an idiot if he told her not to get up, and then asked her to scoot over so he could sit by her. Yet the chair seemed impossibly far away.
He dropped to the rug beside her instead.
If he knew her, she was watched the back of his head with a bemused look, then shaking her head and smiling. He smiled too as he stared into the flames. They leapt and licked and floated like Jessie’s hair had, that time they were eleven and Tom had dared her and Leona to jump into the moat.
“Are you sleepy, Jess?” he asked.
“Mmm. Not that sleepy.” She tugged at his ponytail. “You’re not getting off that easy, buster,” she continued, trying to laugh with the nonchalance of an experienced woman. But her voice quavered a little, and her hand trembled faintly. He scooted sideways to look at her and found her wearing the smile of parties and state occasions — those times when she was trying so desperately to prove (to whom, he had no idea) that she was a princess, a real princess, and in her element no matter how much she really wanted to be in the library.
“Jessie …” he started, intending to be the gentleman and tell her that they didn’t have to do anything tonight, when they were both exhausted. If nothing else, they could rest a few hours and start then.
But then Will saw the way her nightgown fell over her hip and waist, outlining them in soft fabric the way her stiff everyday and formal gowns never could, not even the sinuous wedding dress that had almost knocked him over when he first saw it coming down the aisle on the King’s arm.
The only way they were going to rest before consummating their vows would be if he was on the bench.
“What?” she asked.
“You’re … you’re beautiful.”
Jessie smiled, the smile she wore when she wanted to believe him but couldn’t, then she leaned forward — her nightgown shifting and molding around her breasts, the ties gently sliding down the slope — and caressed his cheek. “And you’re wonderful.”
He grasped her hand and kissed it. “I love you.”
“I know. I love you too.”
Will continued to hold onto her hand, caressing and kissing each little fingertip — but he glanced over her fingers at her face. And so he saw her smile, really smile. “Care to come up and join me?” She leaned up on her other elbow.
Will smiled. “If you insist, Princess,” he whispered and swung up beside her.
“Mmm,” she murmured and rested her head on his shoulder. “So soft.”
“Well,” she blushed and backtracked, “softer than the bench.”
Will felt the frown stealing over his face. “Jessie, if you don’t like it …”
“Don’t say that. It’s perfect. It’s all — perfect.” She leaned her head on his shoulder again. “It’s so perfect for me I have to wonder how you can stand it.”
It was perfect for him, too, but that was only because she was in it. His throat wouldn’t unstick long enough for him to say it, though. So instead he watched her look around the room.
“You even have my books,” she whispered. “Already all lined up on the shelf.”
That was not nearly the feat she would make it out to be. Half of her things had come here directly from Camford. The other half had been moved out while they were saying their vows and dancing and feasting. But that wasn’t why they were there.
“You wouldn’t be happy without your books,” he replied, drawing her a little closer.
“And I won’t be social with them,” Jessie laughed. “Your poor mother is going to think that you married a hermit.”
“My ‘poor mother’ knows exactly who I married, and is the last woman in the kingdom to fault a daughter-in-law for wanting some time alone with her books besides.”
“And what about your poor father?”
“He won’t mind, either.”
Jessie looked up. “And why is that?”
“My mother will tell him not to.”
Jessie giggled deliciously and fell against him, her laughter making her quiver all over. It made him want to pull her onto his lap and kiss her all over, but then she would stop giggling — and he didn’t want her to stop giggling yet.
But all good things must come to an end, and so did her giggling, eventually. She sighed and leaned against him. “I haven’t even gotten the grand tour yet. Is it all this wonderful?”
“I hope you’ll think so.”
“That’s not an answer.”
He stroked her collarbone with one finger. “We can do the grand tour tomorrow,” he murmured. “And then you can tell me whether it’s wonderful.” After a moment, he added, “I hope you don’t mind if we get a little lost, though. I’m still finding my way around myself.”
“You? Lost? Someone could drop you in the middle of the Dousa Desert and you’d still find a way to get home.”
“Only if you weren’t with me.”
Jessie turned to him with a raised eyebrow. “I know I’m not the world’s best navigator, but …”
“But if I was with you …” He grabbed her hips, reveling in the feeling of smooth, firm silkiness separated from his fingers by only a thin weave of cloth. He lifted her onto his lap. “I’d already be home.”
His fingers tangled in her thick hair, twisting tendrils around his fingertips. And Jessie smiled.
She kissed the tip of his nose. “Then if somebody does drop you in the middle of the Dousa Desert, I shall have to do my best not go out looking for you, because if I found you, we would both be very, very lost.”
“But home,” she agreed. She leaned her forehead on his. “It’s almost worth trying,” she mused. “Just to try to explain the feeling to our friends when we got back.”
“When, you say.”
“Oh, we’d manage,” Jessie whispered. “Somehow or other, we’d manage.” Her finger trailed down the nape of his neck. “We always do.”
And I have no idea how I’ve managed so long without you.
Jessie smiled at him, softly, as if she could read his thoughts. And then he kissed her, as if he could read hers.
He was no longer that sixteen-year-old fool whose heart’s desire had dropped into his lap one fine summer’s afternoon and left him wondering, Thank the Lord — now what do I do? Will still remembered standing breathless even after that first dizzy kiss had ended, staring down at the gorgeous woman in his arms in what was simultaneously the happiest and most terrifying moment of his life. He had stared so long in shock that Jessie’s smile had begun to falter and her eyes to glisten with something other than love.
Her kiss had brought him to such heights, and that blinking, faltering smile had told him just how far below him the ground actually was. He could lose her. The nameless terror that had gripped him now had a name and a solid shape. He could lose her. He’d held her close to him then and bestowed a thousand tiny kisses on her temple and cheek and jaw before he finally worked up the courage to try her lips again.
It would be a full year before Will could force his too-thick tongue to say, I love you, but he always thought that embrace and those little kisses were the first time he had told her so. And because she was Jessie, she understood without needing to hear the words.
But Will was no longer that stupid boy who had fumbled and faltered and paused when he should have charged ahead. Back then, he had been scared stiff to try something new for fear he would scare her off. Now, though, he was a man. He knew just how to move his tongue so she would moan in the back of her throat, just what part of her side to stroke so she would gasp and cling to him closer, just how to dart his finger along her shoulder and collarbone and chest so that she practically grabbed his hand and stuffed it down her dress herself. He knew, too, just how to shift her so she wouldn’t feel the bulge starting to form beneath his tunic.
Sometimes, though, he forgot that Jessie was a woman now and had a few tricks of her own. Such as the trick of letting her fingers dance along the nape of his neck, and the trick of manipulating a leather thong so that it fell off her hand without him noticing until his unruly hair fell around his face.
When he finally pulled away for air, she was grinning. “What?” she giggled, as she always did.
“Not fair. I didn’t …” Touch was not the word he wanted. “I didn’t mess up your hair.”
“One, I really don’t think that’s possible, two …” She ran her fingers between the freed strands, as she for some reason loved to do, and giggled again. “My hair is already ready for bed.”
“And what makes you think mine wasn’t?”
“You don’t sleep on a ponytail like that.”
If he’d been a braver man, he would have said, Sleep? Who said anything about sleeping? But he wasn’t, and so he asked instead, “Why not?”
“It hurts, silly.”
“I’ll take your word for it.”
“You should,” she replied, and even though the candles were dim and the fire low, he saw her eyes go to his neck.
Oh, no — “Ack! Jess!”
She broke off those damn feather kisses just long enough to giggle, “I have ways of making you agree!”
He’d been a callow boy still when she had kissed him on the neck once and watched him practically collapse in laughter. If he’d been a little older, he probably would have guarded that spot from her with all the jealousy of a dog guarding its prize bone. But there was a part of him that was glad he hadn’t been older, that she had found that spot. It would be a sad world that did not include Jessie kissing his neck and making him squirm in laughter.
That part of him, however, usually had the sense to stay quiet when he was being tickled without mercy.
And the other parts of him, those that could rise above the tickling, were already plotting their escape. She was a sorceress, but he was still taller and stronger. He just needed to place her hands so he could make sure she didn’t hurt herself —
A sudden spring and they were flipped, Jessie on the bottom and him on top. As she always did when he tried that, she stared up at him with her violet eyes huge and surprised for a moment. Then they narrowed.
That was always the moment to start kissing her before she started tickling him again.
Her arms wrapped around him as they ever did, clinging and holding herself up even as he held her close. Will slipped his hand under her back, under her hair, to cradle her head and not let any part of her that didn’t have to touch the unforgiving bench.
Yet after a few moments, Jessie’s hands stopped clinging to him. Instead they slowly moved down, then hesitated when they ran across the worked silver of his belt. He couldn’t feel her fingers for a moment then, but he could feel faint pressure — her fingers feeling his belt.
The pressured traced down his sides, across his stomach, to the belt buckle. Then, hesitation. Next — deft little touches, and suddenly a release of pressure and the soft tinkle of silver sliding from the silk of his tunic to the silky wood of the bench and finally to the floor.
He might have wondered at that, but he had no time — those curious little fingers, hesitating again, but only for a moment, kneaded his tunics and shirt between them and slowly dragged it up. Then, quick and silent, they slipped inside.
It was his turn to moan as the silk of her skin brushed oh-so-gently across the bare skin of his side and stomach. A day ago he would have panicked, and now his heart leapt up in familiar fear. His mind calmed it quickly: they were married now. They could do this. They could do whatever they wanted to do. So, instead of tearing himself away as he would have a day ago, he leaned closer to her and did his best to get his tunic off without actually letting go of her.
Somehow or other, overtunic was shed, and then undertunic, and finally the shirt. They lay in silver-and-blue heap at the foot of the bench. Clomp went one boot, forced off his foot, clomp went the other as it joined it. Then Will moved far enough away to see her.
Her face followed his, so taunting and so close. Her hand, however, lay light on the skin of his belly, then slowly traced the thin line of hair that led from navel to chest. The arm that was propping him up shook and threatened to fall.
Her lips met his, moving hungrily about, even as finger started back down again. This time, it did not stop until she had hooked it around the hem of his braises.
“Hey,” Will whispered, finally moving away. His free hand tangled itself in the tie of her nightgown. “No fair. You need to catch up.”
Jessie blushed so fiercely he wanted to start kissing her again, and keep kissing her until the blush went away and they both stopped thinking long enough to finally give in to desire and worry about the consequences later. He had always held himself back before, but now? Now there was no longer a need. The only thing that kept him still was the knowledge that he had to take things slow, for her sake.
That and her little laughter. “Oh, no,” she whispered. “Not on this bench, mister. I don’t need satin sheets, but I do demand sheets.”
There was that to consider, too.
“Very well,” he said, and slipped off the bench, and slipped one arm beneath her knees and the other around her shoulder and lifted her up. “If you insist, my lady.”
She squealed a little and grabbed at him, as she had even the first time he had lifted her up like this and spun her around. “Ack! Will!”
“I can walk!”
“Maybe …” He kissed her collarbone. “But I don’t want your feet hitting the ground again tonight. I want you walking on air.”
She laughed lightly against his shoulder, but all she said was, “Blow out the candle, Will, please.”
“Why?” he asked, lowering her so he could watch her face.
She didn’t meet his eyes — at least not before she was able to turn a quizzical stare and a raised eyebrow onto him. “Because of all the things I want lit on fire tonight, Will, the table isn’t one of them.”
It was impossible to argue with that logic, and even if it wasn’t, it was impossible to deny the nervousness in her eyes. He blew out the candle.
Besides, he realized as he deposited her on the bed and crawled up beside her, there was still light a-plenty in the room. There was the low fire, the moonlight creeping in through the window, her luminous skin. He wouldn’t miss anything.
And he would be able to see her well enough that she would believe him when he told her how beautiful she was.
To test that theory, he smiled; to prove it, she smiled back. Then she wrapped her arms around his neck. “Come on,” she whispered.
“Let’s do this.”