Her bare feet padded silently down the smooth wooden steps, then came to rest on the cool marble floor below. Will was sitting right there.
Jessie hesitated, one hand resting on the banister. Yes, they were married now, but … but there was still such a thing as being too forward. So to speak. Wasn’t there?
As she waited there, not a sound in the house but the rustling of Will’s broadsheet, she wondered once again what she had been thinking. It had seemed such a good idea an hour ago. A minute ago, even. But now …
Well, there was no helping it now. If she turned and ran rabbit-like up the stairs, there was every chance that Will would hear her retreat, look up, and the game would be up. And she’d have a great deal of explaining to do. No, she didn’t want that.
So Jessie coughed. “Will?”
Will looked up. “Je–”
The smile turned into an O.
“Um,” Will began. “Um.”
“Well?” Jessie asked, trying to sound as brazen and bold as she was sure she looked — well, from the neck down, in any case. “What do you think?”
The broadsheet fluttered forgotten to the floor.
“Um,” Will said again as he got up and walked wondering to her, slow and shaky as a man in a dream. His eyes seemingly couldn’t find a part of her that they wanted to settle upon.
“You don’t like it,” Jessie answered for him, trying to smile. Stupid, stupid, stupid. What had she been thinking, fashioning this ensemble out of fabric scraps and magic? It was too revealing. Too … too not-ladylike.
And so what if he’d seen her naked every night — not counting those when she was indisposed — since their wedding? This was different. It was meant to be different. It was meant to be titillating and daring, but now she saw it for what it was. A tease. A sign that said, “Look, but don’t touch.” It wasn’t bold. It was vulgar.
“You know, I’ll just go change and –” Jessie started, and stopped when Will laid a wondering hand on her waist. He stroked it with the barest backs of his knuckles, mouth open in wonder.
Then he looked up and grinned.
“You do like it?” Jessie squeaked.
“Well — well, why didn’t you say so? I thought — I thought –”
Will gulped. “You — you have to give a man a moment to recover after you show him that, Jess.”
“In a good way.” He smiled, tucking a loose strand of her hair behind her ear. “In a very good way.”
Jessie giggled and did her best not to adjust the straps. She decided she wouldn’t tell him that she had to use magic to keep the damn thing to stay up. She really didn’t have the figure for this. But then again, there were advantages to having used the magic. The … it couldn’t really be called a bodice, the top wouldn’t fall off. At least, not until she wanted it to.
“So …” Jessie smiled, and whispered, “Want to go swimming?”
Jessie felt her face fall. “It’s … it’s meant for swimming …”
“It … it is?”
She bit her lip. He probably didn’t like it after all, and was just telling her he did in order to not hurt her feelings. She should go up and change …
But Will was stroking her side again, and watching his brown hand move along her white skin thoughtfully. “Jess … you’ll burn to a crisp.”
Jessie blushed. That had been a painful lesson, that first day spent all in the water and on the shore. She’d turned bright red everywhere that wasn’t covered by her shift. And a few places that were covered by her shift, or were supposed to be, but that her shift had … shifted.
“I put some salve on. The recipe Morgan gave me,” she volunteered. “I should be fine.”
“If you’re sure …”
“Of course I’m sure! Why …” She batted her eyes at him. “Don’t you trust me?”
“Oh, aye, I trust you,” Will responded. “It’s every other man on the island I don’t trust, should they get a look at you in that.” His hand made another exploratory stroke along her side.
“Will! Do you think I’d let them see?”
His hand came to rest. “You can stop them?”
She nodded. It had taken a fair bit of practicing, but she’d had time. She’d gotten it down. Now, when it was just they two on the beach, anybody who wanted to look suddenly had a thousand-and-one pressing duties weighing down their minds, or else found themselves staring at the waves, the seagulls, or the sparkling sands. Not the newlywed couple frolicking in one stage of undress or another amongst them.
“Besides,” Jessie purred, “even if I couldn’t … you don’t think I can handle peeping Dons myself, hmm?”
“I’d prefer you didn’t have to,” Will replied with a true lawyer’s literalness and a truer lawyer’s evasion.
“That’s not an answer.”
“‘Tis the truth, though,” Will shrugged. Then he smiled and brought his hands around her waist. “Besides, if you were to turn every man on the island into a frog for peeping at you … well, that would lead to its own set of problems, wouldn’t it?”
“The economy would collapse.”
“Aye, and we’d have a bunch of angry fishwives beating our door down.”
“You sure? I mean, considering why their men were turned into frogs …”
“Point,” Will replied. He nuzzled her neck. “In that case, we’d have a bunch of angry fish mothers.”
“Ooh,” Jessie hissed. “That’s worse!”
“So it’s a good thing I’ve got those wards down,” Jessie murmured. Her fingers hooked underneath his hood. “Now, let’s get you to catch up, and then –” Her fingers moved up, nearer to his neck …
“Aack!” Will jumped away. “Jess!”
“You are just too ticklish! It’s almost not even funny anymore!”
“Aye, almost, she says …”
“Well, you wouldn’t want me to lie, would you?” She batted her lashes.
“I don’t think I’d ever have to worry about that.” Will’s hand snaked around her waist again, pulling her close. “You’d tell the truth in your actions soon enough.”
“Now you’re just asking to be tickled.”
“Hmm,” Will murmured, the back of his hand brushing against her stomach.
And Jessie’s stomach dropped. She knew what he was feeling. Too flabby and not flabby enough. They’d been married for almost half a year! There ought to be something starting by now …
But no, her courses had never been so damnably regular, so right-on-time as they were now, after the wedding. There were plenty of sensible female voices in her mind — her mother’s, Morgan’s, even Guinevere’s — telling her not to worry, it only had been six months, there was no reason to fret. Sometimes babies took their time.
There was another voice, though, louder even as it whispered, telling her that there was plenty of reason to worry. This was her job. This was the point: produce an heir. They’d have to go home soon. And since the whole point of the wedding trip was to get the bride pregnant … if she came home not pregnant …
“Jess?” Will asked.
Jessie tried to smile. “Let’s go swimming.”
Will’s eyes narrowed, and Jessie tried to widen her smile. Will was having none of it, though. Instead, he tangled his fingers into her hair, pulled her closer to him by her waist, and kissed her.
And gone was that insidious voice — it could never whisper long when Will was kissing her. Or doing any number of other pleasant things to her. Not when her whole body was too busy responding, pressing closer, clinging —
— he bent her backwards, only her arms on his neck and his hands on her back keeping her from falling —
— and if the insidious voice was inclined to say anything, it was only this:
Maybe this time, we’ll get a baby.
Jessie shut her mind off to that.
And so she didn’t notice the faint click as a door opened and shut. She barely registered the soft voice of the steward calling, “My lord? My lord, there’s a message from –”
She did, however, notice Lamoriche’s shouted, “Aaack! My lord! My lady!”
Will and Jessie froze.
“I thought nobody could see you!” Will whispered.
“Not — not in the house!”
Lamoriche was backing away slowly, his jaw fallen and his dark eyes terrified. Then, so quickly Jessie barely felt it as it happened, Will pulled her up and stepped between her and the steward. “Lamoriche?”
Lamoriche said nothing, though his jaw worked quite obviously. His gaze was fixed somewhere in the top third or so of Will’s tunic … probably about where Jessie’s breast was. Jessie did her best to smile while basking in the uncomfortable knowledge that not just her face but probably her whole body was turning the same sort of lobster-red hue that was supposed to accompany only a day spent salve-less in the sun.
“Er — er, my lord,” Lamoriche began.
“There’s a message for you, sir. From the mainland. The man — the man said it was important …”
“Very well. Let’s have it in the kitchen,” Will replied. Lamoriche stared.
“The — the kitchen, my lord?”
“Aye. You can lead the way.”
“Oh. Oh, right, my lord. Of course.” Lamoriche shuffled off, twisting his hands together. Will cast a quick and rueful glance over his shoulder before following his steward.
Leaving Jessie alone. And — without Will holding her and looking her up and down — strangely cold.
There was nothing much for it, though. Not if she wanted that swim. And the house was build to catch and contain cooling breezes off the sea, so it was no wonder that in less than a shift she would be chilly.
Distraction, that was all she could hope for. And the discarded broadsheet would do nicely.
Perched on one end of the sofa, she opened it and began to scan the closely-engraved columns for hope of something interesting.
A review of a new romance — not one of Lady Guinevere’s — caught her eye. Jessie tucked her legs under her and dug her shoulders into the pillow behind her back. A sudden giggle escaped as the author of the review began to describe the heroine — “trite,” “empty-headed,” “devoid of any characterization whatsoever.” “Marry,” the review went on, “it must be said that the heroine has naught but her beauty to recommend her to the hero, and the author goes on about the heroine’s beauty for pages and pages. This reviewer, after a few adventures, began to wonder why the hero did not instead seek to pursue the lady’s fair damsel, who not only has a personality, but also helped the hero every step of the way. Truly, this romance would be better called Lunette than Yvain, ’twas she who did all the work …”
From time to time, Jessie thought she heard voices from the kitchen — even once thought she heard Will exclaim, “Damn!” — but even though she put the broadsheet down and listened, nothing followed. So she went back to reading.
At least, she read until soft shoes scuffed along the marble and tiles. “Jess?”
Jessie looked up.
“I … I have some bad news. About your aunt.”
For the second time that day, the broadsheet fluttered forgotten to the floor. “Morgan?”
“No — no — Morgause.”
“Oh.” She got up to grab the broadsheet —
Will touched her shoulder. “Jess, wait. We … we need to get home.”
“Why?” She felt the blood begin to leave her face. “She didn’t — she isn’t –”
“Worse,” replied Will.
“Whatever you’re thinking, it’s worse.” He swallowed. “Jess …”
Come on, Will, just spit it out —
He began to rub her arm. “Jess, we — we think she tried to kill a little boy.”
Jessie stared. “What?”
“What happened? Who — who did she hurt?”
“A little boy,” Will replied. “It was Lord Pellinore who wrote to me. It was a bit … sparse on details. He thinks that … he thinks that she was trying some sort of magical experiment. To — to make herself younger?” Will bit his lip.
“Younger … that sounds like Morgause.” But what could she be trying to do that would require trying to kill a little boy? Or maybe Jessie was looking at it wrong. Maybe the boy had merely stumbled someplace he shouldn’t have, seen something he ought not to have, and Morgause … Jessie’s stomach turned.
“Jessie?” Will asked. Jessie blinked. “Lord Pellinore wants … wants me to prosecute the case.”
Jessie blinked. “Oh.”
“You — you’re not — upset? She is …”
“She’s a menace,” Jessie replied, and gulped. “Will — are you going to be all right? She –”
Will shrugged. “Don’t worry about it. I’ll be fine.”
“But she –”
“I’ll be fine.” Will stroked her cheek. “Morgan’s on our side.”
Jessie felt herself begin to breathe again. “Oh. Good.” She gulped and pushed her hair back. “I guess — I guess I should start getting things packed, then, and — and seen to, and –”
“Jess, wait!” Will cried, and pounced.
“Let’s,” he whispered after a long lovely moment, “let’s go for that swim first.”