He took her hand in his, palm to palm.
“D’ye know what handfasting is?”
“Not exactly. Sort of a temporary marriage?”
“A bit. In the Isles and the remoter parts of the Highlands, where folk were a long way from the nearest minister, a man and a woman now would be handfast; vowed to each other for a year and a day. At the end of it, they find a minister and wed more permanently—or they go their own ways.”
Her hand tightened in his.
“I don’t want anything temporary.”
“Neither do I. But I don’t think we’ll find a minister easily. There are no churches here yet; the nearest minister is likely in New Bern.” He lifted their linked hands. “I did say I wanted it all, and if ye did not care enough to wed me…”
Her hand tightened, hard.
He took a deep breath and began.
“I, Roger Jeremiah, do take thee, Brianna Ellen, to be my lawful wedded wife. With my goods I thee endow, with my body I thee worship…” Her hand twitched in his, and his balls tightened. Whoever had worded this vow had understood, all right.
“…in sickness and in health, in richness and in poverty, so long as we both shall live.”
If I make a vow like that, I’ll keep it—no matter what it costs me. Was she thinking of that now?
She brought their linked hands down together, and spoke with great deliberation.
“I, Brianna Ellen, take thee, Roger Jeremiah…” Her voice was scarcely louder than the beating of his own heart, but he heard every word. A breeze came through the tree, rattling the leaves, lifting her hair.
“…as long as we both shall live.”
The phrase meant a good bit more to each of them now, he thought, than it would have even a few months before. The passage through the stones was enough to impress anyone with the fragility of life.
There was a moment’s silence, broken only by the rustle of leaves overhead and a distant murmur of voices from the tavern’s taproom. He raised her hand to his mouth and kissed it, on the knuckle of her fourth finger, where one day—God willing—her ring would be.
It was more of a large shed than a barn, though some beast—a horse or mule—stirred in its stall at one end. There was a strong, clean tang of hops in the air, enough to overpower the milder scents of hay and manure; the Blue Bull brewed its own ale. Roger felt drunk, but not from alcohol.
The shed was very dark, and undressing her was both frustration and delight.
“And I thought it took blind people years to develop a keen sense of touch,” he murmured.
The warm breath of her laugh brushed his neck, making the tiny hairs at his nape stir and prickle.
“You’re sure it’s not like the poem about the five blind men and the elephant?” she said. Her own hand groped, found the opening of his shirt, and slid inside.
“ ‘No, the beast is like a wall,’ ” she quoted. Her fingers curved and flattened, curiously exploring the sensitive flesh around his nipple. “A wall with hair. Goodness, a wall with goose bumps, too.”
She laughed again, and he bent his head, finding her mouth on the first try, sightless and unerring as a bat snatching a moth from the air.
“Amphora,” he murmured against the wide, sweet curve of her lips. His hands slid over the wide, sweet curve of her hips, cupping smoothness cool and solid, timeless and graceful as the swell of ancient pottery, promising abundance. “Like a Grecian vase. God, you’ve got the most beautiful arse!”
She vibrated against him, the quiver of laughter passing from her lips to his and into his bloodstream like infection. Her hand slid down his own hip, and up, long fingers fumbling loose the flap of his breeches, groping hesitantly and then more surely, gradually rucking his shirt up to disentangle him from the layers of fabric.
“ ‘No, the beast is like a rope’…oops…”
“Stop laughing, damn you.”
“…like a snake…no…well, maybe a cobra…gosh, what would you call that?”
“I had a friend once who called it ‘Mr. Happy,’ ” Roger said, feeling light-headed, “but that’s a bit whimsical for my tastes.” He grabbed her by the arms and kissed her again, long enough to put a stop to any further comparisons.
She was still quivering, but he didn’t think it was laughter. He slid his arms around her and pulled her closely against him, amazed as always by the sheer size of her—a good deal more amazed now that she was nak*d, those complex planes of bone and muscle transformed to immediate sensation in his arms.
He paused for breath. He wasn’t sure whether the sensation was more akin to drowning or to mountain climbing, but whatever it was, there wasn’t much oxygen left between them.
“I’ve never been able to kiss a girl without stooping before,” he said, making conversation in hopes of getting his breath back.
“Oh, good; we wouldn’t want you to have a stiff neck.” The quiver was back in her voice, and it definitely was laughter, though he thought it stemmed as much from nervousness as humor.
“Ha ha,” he said, and grabbed her again, oxygen be damned. Her br**sts were high and round, pressed against his chest with that unique mixture of softness and firmness that so intrigued him whenever he touched her. One of her hands slid hesitantly between them, groping, then withdrew.
He couldn’t bring himself to stop kissing her long enough to finish undressing, but arched his back to let her push the breeches down over his hips. They were loose enough to fall in a puddle around his feet, and he stepped free of them, still holding her, only making a small noise in his throat when her hand came back between them.
She had eaten onions with her dinner. Blindness sharpened not only touch, but taste and smell as well. He tasted roast meat, and sour ale, and bread. And a faint sweet taste that he couldn’t identify, that reminded him somehow of green meadows full of waving grass. Did he taste it, or smell it in her hair? He couldn’t tell; he seemed to be losing track of his senses as he lost the boundaries between them, breathing her breath, feeling her heart beat as though it lay in his own chest.
She was grasping him a trifle too tightly for comfort, and he broke the kiss at last, breathing heavily.
“Would you consider letting go for a moment? I grant you, it’s an effective handle, but it’s got better uses.”
Instead of letting go, she dropped to her knees.
Roger made a slight move back, startled.
“Christ, are you sure you want to do that?” He wasn’t sure whether he hoped she did or not. Her hair tickled against his thighs, and his c*ck was quivering, desperate for engulfment. At the same time, he didn’t want to frighten or repulse her.
“Don’t you want me to?” Her hands moved up the backs of his thighs, tentative and ticklish. He could feel every hair on his body spring erect, from knees to waist. It made him feel like a satyr, goat-legged and reeking.
“Well…yes. But I haven’t bathed in days,” he said, rather awkwardly trying to detach himself.
Deliberately, she brushed her nose over his stomach and down, inhaling deeply. His skin pebbled with gooseflesh, the shiver having nothing to do with the temperature of the room.
“You smell good,” she whispered. “Like some kind of big male animal.”
He grasped her head hard, fingers twisted in the thick, silky hair.
“Too right about that,” he whispered. Her hand rested on his wrist, light and warm—God, she was warm.
Without his actually intending it, his grip loosened; he felt the fall of her hair brush his thighs and then stopped thinking anything coherent, as all of the blood left his brain, heading south at a high rate of speed.
“Mi oing i’ i’?”
“What?” He came out of his daze a few moments later as she drew back, brushing the hair away from her face.
“I said, am I doing it right?”
“Oh. Ah…I think so.”
“You think so? You don’t know for sure?” Brianna seemed to have been regaining her composure as fast as Roger had been losing his; he could hear the suppressed laughter in her voice.
“Well…no,” he said. “I mean, I haven’t…that is, no one’s…yeah, I think so.” He had hold of her head again, urging her gently forward.
He thought she was making a low humming noise, somewhere deep in her throat. It might be his own blood, though, thrumming through distended veins, purling in violent eddies like the trapped water of the ocean, seething through the rocks. Another minute, and he was going off like a waterspout.
He pulled away and before she could protest, lifted her to her feet, then urged her down, onto the heap of straw where he had thrown her clothes.
His eyes had adjusted to the dark, but the starlight from the window was still so faint that he could see no more of her than shapes and outlines, white as marble. Not cold, though; not cold at all.
He approached his own duty with mingled excitement and caution; he had tried this exactly once, only to be met with a faceful of a feminine hygiene product that smelled like the flowers in his father’s church on Sunday—an off-putting idea if ever there was one.
Brianna was not hygienic. The scent of her was enough to make him want to dispense with any preliminaries and throw himself on her in a pure abandonment of lust.
Instead, he breathed deeply, and kissed her just above the dark smudge of curls.
“Damn,” he said.
“What is it?” She sounded faintly alarmed. “Do I smell terrible?”
He closed his eyes and breathed. His head was spinning slightly, and he felt giddy with a combination of lust and laughter.
“No. It’s only that I’ve been wondering for more than a year what color your hair is here.” He tugged gently on the curls. “Now here I am face-to-face with it, and I still can’t tell.”
She giggled, the vibration making her belly shake gently under his hand.
“Do you want me to tell you?”
“No, let me be surprised in the morning.” He bent his head to his work, surprised now by the amazing variety of textures, all in such a small space—a smoothness like glass, tickling roughness, a yielding rubberiness, and that sudden slippery slickness, musk and tang and salt together.
After a few moments, he felt her hands come to rest gently on his head, as though in benediction. He hoped the stubble of his beard wasn’t hurting her, but she didn’t seem to mind. A subterranean quiver ran through the warm flesh of her thighs and she made a small sound that made a similar quiver dart through his belly.
“Am I doing it right?” he inquired half jokingly, lifting his head.
“Oh, yeah,” she said softly. “You sure are.” Her hands tightened in his hair.
He had started to lower his head again, but jerked it up at this, staring up across the dim white reaches of her body toward the pale oval of her face.
“And just how the hell do you know that?” he asked. His only answer was a deep, gurgling laugh. Then he was beside her, with no real notion how he’d got there, his mouth on her mouth, the length of his body pressed to hers, aware only of the heat of her, burning like fever.