And yet she was once more dark and light in his arms, her face hidden, her body gleaming. Then she had been moist and molten, humid with the summer. Now her flesh was cool as marble, save where he touched it—and yet the summer lived still in the palm of his hand where he touched her, sweet and slick, ripe with the secrets of a hot, dark night. It was right, he thought, that these vows should have been spoken as the first ones had, out of doors, part of wind and earth, fire and water.
“I love you,” she murmured against his mouth, and he seized her lip between his teeth, too moved to speak the words in reply just yet.
There had been words between them then, as there had been words tonight. The words were the same, and he had meant them the first time no less than he did now. Yet it was different.
The first time he had spoken them to her alone, and while he had done so in the sight of God, God had been discreet, hovering well in the background, face turned away from their nak*dness.
Tonight he said them in the blaze of firelight, before the face of God and the world, her people and his. His heart had been hers, and whatever else he had—but now there was no question of him and her, his and hers. The vows were given, his ring put on her finger, the bond both made and witnessed. They were one body.
One hand of their joint organism crushed a breast a little too hard, and one throat made a small sound of discomfort. She drew back from him a little, and he felt rather than saw her grimace. The air came cold between them and his own skin felt suddenly raw, exposed, as though he had been severed from her with a knife.
“I need—”she said, and touched her breast, not finishing. “Just a minute, okay?”
Claire had fed the child while Brianna went to make her overtures to Reverend Caldwell. Bursting with porridge and stewed peaches, Jemmy could scarcely be roused to suckle briefly before relapsing into somnolence and being taken away by Lizzie, his wee round belly tight as a drum. That was as well for their privacy—drugged into such a gluttonous stupor, it was unlikely the bairn would wake before dawn. The price of it, though, was the unused milk.
No one living in the same house with a nursing mother was likely to be unaware of her br**sts, let alone her husband. They had a life of their own, those br**sts. They changed size from hour to hour, for the one thing, swelling from their normal soft globes into great round hard bubbles that gave him the eerie feeling that if he touched one it would burst.
Now and then, one did burst, or at least gave that impression. The ridge of soft flesh would rise like kneaded bread, slowly but surely pushing above the edge of Brianna’s bodice. Then suddenly there would be a big, wet circle on the cloth, appearing magically, as though some invisible person had thrown a snowball at her. Or two snowballs—for what one breast did, its fellow rushed at once to follow suit.
Sometimes the Heavenly Twins were foiled, though; Jemmy drained one side, but inconsiderately fell asleep before performing the same service for the other. This left his mother gritting her teeth, gingerly taking the swollen orb in the palm of her hand, pressing the edge of a pewter cup just under the nipple to catch the spray and dribble as she eased the aching fullness, enough to sleep herself.
She was doing it now; modestly turned away from him, an arisaid gathered round her shoulders against the chill. He could hear the hiss of the milk, a tiny chime against the metal.
He was reluctant to drown the sound, which he found erotic, but nonetheless picked up the guitar, and put his thumb to the strings, his hand on the frets. He didn’t strum or strike chords, but plucked single notes, small voices to echo his own, the thrum of one string ringing through the chanted line.
A love song, to be sure. One of the very old ones, in the Gaelic. Even if she didn’t know all the words, he thought she’d take the sense of it.
“On the night that our wedding is on us,
I will come leaping to thee with gifts,
On the night that our wedding is on us . . .”
He closed his eyes, seeing in memory what the night now hid. Her n**ples were the color of ripe plums and the size of ripe cherries, and Roger had a vivid mental picture of how one would feel in his mouth. He had suckled them once, long before—before the coming of Jemmy—but no more.
“You will get a hundred silver salmon . . .
A hundred badger skins . . .”
She never asked him not to, never turned away—and yet he could tell by the faint intake of her breath that, often, she was bracing herself not to flinch when he touched her br**sts.
Was it only tenderness? he wondered. Did she not trust him to be gentle?
He shied away from the thought, drowning it in a small cascade of notes, liquid as a waterfall.
It might not be you, whispered the voice, stubbornly refusing to be distracted. Perhaps it was him—something that he did to her.
Fuck. Off, he thought succinctly to the voice, marking each word with a sharp-plucked string. Stephen Bonnet would have no place in their wedding bed. None.
He laid a hand on the strings to silence them briefly, and as she slid the arisaid from her shoulders, began again, this time in English. A special song, too—one for the two of them alone. He didn’t know whether anyone else might hear, but it made no difference if they did. She stood and slid the shift from her shoulders as his fingers touched the quiet opening of the Beatles’ “Yesterday.”
He heard her laugh, once, then sigh, and the linen whispered against her skin as it fell.
She came nak*d behind him as the soft melancholy yearning of the song filled the dark. Her hand stroked his hair, gathered it tight at the nape of his neck. She swayed, and he felt her press against his back, her br**sts soft now, yielding and warm through his shirt, her breath tickling his ear. Her hand rested on his shoulder briefly, then slid down inside his shirt, fingers cool on his chest. He could feel the warm hard metal of her ring on his skin, and felt a surge of possession that pulsed through him like a gulp of whisky, a heat suffusing his flesh.
He ached to turn and take hold of her, but pushed the urge down, heightening anticipation. He bent his head closer to the strings, and sang until all thought left him and there was nothing left but his body and hers. He could not have said when her hand closed over his on the frets, and he rose and turned to her, still filled with the music and his love, soft and strong and pure in the dark.
SHE LAY QUIET in the dark, feeling the thunder of her heart boom slowly in her ears. The throb of it echoed in the pulse of her neck, her wrists, her br**sts, her womb. She had lost track of her boundaries; slowly the sense of limbs and digits, head and trunk, of space occupied, returned. She moved the single finger glued between her legs, and felt the last of the tingling shocks run down her thighs as it slid free.
She drew breath slowly, listening.
His breath still came in long, regular exhalations; thank God, he hadn’t wakened. She had been careful, moving no more than a fingertip, but the final jolt of cli**x had struck her so hard that her h*ps jerked as her belly quivered and convulsed, her heels digging into the pallet with a loud rustling of straw.
He’d had a very long day—they all had. Even so, she could still hear faint sounds of festivity on the mountainside around them. The chance to celebrate like this came so rarely that no one would let something so inconsequential as rain, cold, or tiredness keep them from the revels.
She herself felt like a puddle of liquid mercury; soft and heavy, shimmering with each heartbeat. The effort of moving was unthinkable; but her final convulsion had pulled the quilt off his shoulders, and the skin of his back lay smooth and bare, dark by contrast with the pale cloth. The pocket of warmth around her was snug and perfect, but she couldn’t luxuriate while he lay exposed to the chilly midnight air like that. Tendrils of fog had crept under the tent flap and hung ghostlike and clammy all around them; she could see the faint gleam of moisture on the high curve of his cheekbone.
She summoned back the notion of bones and muscles, found a motor neuron in working order, and sternly ordered it to fire. Embodied once more, she rolled onto her side, facing him, and gently pulled the quilt up around his ears. He stirred and murmured something; she stroked his tumbled black hair and he smiled faintly, eyelids half-opening in the blank stare of one who sees dreams. They dropped again and he took a long, sighing breath and fell back asleep.
“I love you,” she whispered, filled with tenderness.
She stroked his back lightly, loving the feel of his flat shoulder blades through the quilt, the solid knob of bone at the nape of his neck, and the long, smooth groove that ran down the center of his spine to arch into the swell of his buttocks. A cold breeze rippled the tiny hairs of her arm, and she pulled it back under the covers, letting her hand rest lightly on Roger’s bottom.
The feel of it was no novelty, but thrilled her just the same, with its perfect warm roundness, its coarse curly hair. A faint echo of her solitary joy encouraged her to do it again, and her free hand crept between her legs, but sheer exhaustion stayed her, limp fingers cupped on the swollen flesh, one languid finger tracing the slickness.
She’d hoped it would be different tonight. Without the ever-present danger of waking Jemmy, free to take as much time as they wanted, and riding the waves of emotion from their exchange of vows, she’d thought . . . but it was the same.
It wasn’t that she wasn’t aroused; quite the contrary. Every movement, each touch, imprinted itself in the nerves of her skin, the crevices of mouth and memory, drowning her with scent, branding her with sensation. But no matter how wonderful the lovemaking, there remained some odd sense of distance, some barrier that she couldn’t penetrate.
And so once more she found herself lying beside him as he slept, reliving in memory each moment of the passion they had just shared—and able in memory at last to yield to it.
Perhaps it was that she loved him too much, she thought, was too mindful of his pleasure to take her own. The satisfaction she felt when he lost himself, gasping and moaning in her arms, was far greater than the simple physical pleasure of cli**x. And yet, there was something darker under that; a peculiar sense of triumph, as though she had won some undeclared and unacknowledged contest between them.
She sighed and butted her forehead against the curve of his shoulder, enjoying the reek of him—a smell of strong and bitter musk, like pennyroyal.
The thought of herbs reminded her, and she reached down again, cautiously so as not to waken him, and slid one slippery finger deep inside to check. No, it was all right; the slip of sponge soaked with tansy oil was still in place, its fragile, pungent presence safeguarding the entrance to her womb.
She moved closer, and he moved unconsciously, his body half-turning to accommodate her, his warmth at once enclosing her, comforting her. His hand groped like a bird flying blind, skimming her hip, her soft belly, in search of a resting place. She seized it in both hands and folded it, secure beneath her chin. His hand curled over hers; she kissed one large, rough knuckle and he sighed deeply, his hand relaxing.
The sounds of revelry on the mountain had faded, as the dancers tired, and the musicians grew hoarse and weary. The rain began again, pattering on the canvas overhead, and gray mist touched her face with cool damp fingers. The smell of wet canvas made her think of camping trips as a child with her father, with their mingled sensations of excitement and safety, and she nestled deeper into the curve of Roger’s body, feeling a similar sense of comfort and anticipation.