"Please leave us," she murmurs to the guards, and there's a pause for a nod from Rodrigo before they exit and close the doors behind them.
He is splendid in his Papal raiment, if a bit undone; the tri-crown has been safely taken from his head, the gilded and brocaded mantum has already been removed by his valet (mute, of course, as all of their personal servants are), the pallium is safely put away, and the valet is currently working on the inner vestments. Rodrigo raises an eyebrow and shrugs out of the fanon and chasuble.
"What may we do for you, my child?" he says, half out of reflex and half, she thinks, just to irritate her.
She raises a finger, and the valet immediately exits the room as she takes two steps closer to Rodrigo. "You," she says, stressing the singular, "have not come to see me for weeks now. Have I displeased you somehow?"
"Not at all. But you are aware of how many demands on our time there are."
Which is true, but Vannozza is no fool. Giulia Farnese has been enjoying his company nearly every other night. Cesare tries to deny it, a show of obedience to his father she would not have expected, but Vannozza has learned well the Borgia manner of gathering information. The widow Farnese is young and lovely and Italian enough to make Vannozza spit. Rodrigo is besotted, which she can forgive, but he is also lying to her again, and that she will not have.
"You must be tired," she says, reaching to his waist and removing the cincture. "It has been difficult, recently. Would a rest from your duties and your mantle be welcome?"
"More than anything," he mutters, and yes, he is still malleable this way. She has not lost this.
Rodrigo is fussing with the closures at the shoulder of his alb, the innermost of the vestments, and is too proud to call the valet back and request help. She steps close, brushes his fingers aside, and opens the buttons. He shivers delicately as she draws her fingernails over his jaw and opens the buttons on the other side. The robe falls to the ground between them, unnoticed, as he stands before her in his white cassock and zucchetto. She brushes a kiss to his cheek as she leans up to speak for his ears alone.
"There are no demands on your time tonight. Let Rome and her citizens have Pope Alexander, let him belong to them, for you, Rodrigo, you belong to me."
He looks stricken, torn, and catches her by the wrist as he turns his head to reply in kind. "We cannot. There is too much risk to everything we have built."
"Risk?" she repeats, truly angry with him. "The Pope can take mistresses to his bed and place them in the Vatican itself, but he cannot fuck the mother of his children? That is the risk? We agreed, Rodrigo - we do not lie. If you truly do not wish my company, you may simply say so and have done with me."
"No. It is not so, Vannozza. I simply - I swore to Rome I would do better, when I became Pope. Giulia is a weakness, one I must purge. I will not allow you to weaken me further."
He's dropped the royal "we", thank goodness. Dealing with his obsessive adherence to the most curious and random parts of ecclesiastical law will be another. But she is Vannozza dei Cattanei, and she will have him in her arms tonight.
"I remember what occurred. What you swore," she says, capturing his eyes with hers and allowing her fury and sadness to be visible. Rodrigo has always prized her honesty and passion above all else. It will work in her favor. "The Papacy was placed upon you, ultimate power set upon your shoulders. You gave the urbi et orbi blessing upon receiving the tri-crown, and you gave your sermo inthronisticus when you took the Holy See, but never once did you speak the words 'I foreswear'. Don't you dare forget that before you were ever Pope, you were mine. You swore to me that you would love me and our children. Do you foreswear yourself now?"
His head rests against hers, and he buries his face in her hair. She can feel his body begin to betray him, causing his knees to tremble and his frame to sway toward her and his manhood to rise for her. A woman could weep at such power.
"Oh, meu grand amor. You could tempt the devil himself."
The Valencian endearment makes her smile, and she cups his face with her hands. "I shall settle for tempting you. Come to me tonight. The garden entrance and passage into the villa will be unguarded. Will I see you?"
She feels the last thread of decorum snap in him, and he pulls her into his arms. His mouth finds hers with a punishing, consuming need, and she meets his passion with her own. His mouth tastes of wine, and she finds herself becoming near-drunk on so much of his touch when she has gone without for so long. She shudders in anticipation of tonight, when she will have even more.
He breaks the kiss, brushing a thumb across her mouth. "By midnight."
"Good." She smiles, and watches his eyes soften. "I will count the hours."
"Until then," he promises, gently releasing her and retrieving the forgotten vestment from the ground.
She has made preparations; dismissed the newer guards, kept only the ones she has ensured the loyalty of, sent Gioffre to his grandmama's and Lucrezia to Giulia's. Her daughter is infatuated with the woman, welcomes any time to see her, and if there is one thing Vannozza cannot begrudge the widow Farnese, it is her seemingly-honest and true friendship with Lucrezia. Juan is in the barracks and Cesare had assured her with a bawdy grin that he would not have difficulty in securing a bed for the night.
Sometimes she weeps for what her life has become. Her children molded into perfect likenesses of their father, her only daughter to be married to the most expedient way of expanding Borgia power. But then she looks at her villa, at her middle son in a gonfaloniere's armor and her eldest son in cardinal's red, and how happy her youngest son is. She remembers what life with Theo had been like: love, yes, but a life of scraping together every ducat they had, of perfuming herself and presenting herself at court to attract attention, of lying with any man with a fortune in hopes of paying her husband's debts.
As Rodrigo had reminded her so very recently, he'd saved her from that. Given her and their children everything they could ever want, and even loved her with a passion that, though his attention has wavered, is yet strong. And she is not ignorant of his love, but watching him rescue and bed and treasure another destitute woman hurts more than she'd ever thought possible. A courtesan is never jealous of the other women in her client's life, but what of when the courtesan becomes a near-wife? What of when she bears his children and watches him ascend to even more prosperity and allows herself to dream that she may ascend, too?
Foolish is what it is. And Vannozza has never before thought of herself as a fool. She resolves to remind Rodrigo of what he once had, of the beauty he swears she still possesses.
At five after midnight, she hears the clatter of horse's hooves, and a group of men outside the walls of her villa. Rodrigo would not dare to bring more than two guards, and mostly likely not on horseback, which could be overheard by anyone still about. She suddenly regrets not keeping more of the servants, and removes the stiletto from her girdle, concealing it in her hand beneath the sleeve of her nightdress.
Her feet are bare on the portico as she slips outside. It is a warm night, and while she can see no evidence of burglary, she makes her way toward the open garden. Perhaps they have discovered that the garden entrance is unlocked, and made their way in. She rounds the final column, and feels a tug to her wrist and a strong body pinning her to the stone. She opens her mouth to scream, but it is covered by lips she knows well the taste of.
Rodrigo does love his plots.
He breaks the kiss, laughing softly. "Think you I am a brigand, my dear?" His fingers slide down her bare arm to curl around hers on the stiletto, bringing it between them. "Will you plunge this into my heart, lay open my throat and spill holy blood?"
A twitch of her hand - or his - could cut both of them. The thought makes her breath catch, makes her close her eyes in a moment of terror. He gently plucks the stiletto from her fingers, tucking it into the belt of his doublet. She opens her eyes and well, he's certainly dressed the part of the brigand. He is wearing a rough shirt of charcoal cotton, borrowed black trousers, an old doublet with fraying silver needlework at the edges, and a cape with a hooded cowl. His eyes glitter beneath the cowl, and he looks more powerful, more alive now than he ever has in all his Papal finery.
"Not a brigand," she says. "For you have stolen nothing. All within these walls is yours, is it not?"
His eyes flick around - to the garden, the entrance to the house proper, her in her nightdress with her hair tumbling about her shoulders. "Everything? And what of you? Are you still mine?"
She reaches up to pull the string at her throat, opening the nightdress and baring the tops of her breasts. He makes a sound low in his throat and presses her tightly to the column, thigh thrust between hers.
"I am, if you will have me," she replies, and he spins her around in his arms, lifting her off the ground and heading for the entrance to the house and their bedchamber.
They could be twenty again, a brazen flirt of a courtesan too young to know her true power and a cardinal whose lips mouthed prayers and whose eyes stripped bare every woman in the room. Young and free and besotted with each other, stumbling down the corridor to her bedchamber, losing clothing along the way. She unbuckles his doublet and pulls free his shirt, running her hands beneath the cloth on his bare back. He swears viciously and goes completely still, and she stops at the door to the bedchamber.
"My love?" she asks, slowly stroking her fingers down his back. "What is it?"
His breathing is coming fast, as if he's just sprinted here from the Vatican, and she goes to pull away, but he shakes his head and pulls her closer.
"We are not permitted - the Pope is never unclothed. Not even when I sleep. I - no one has -"
Her heart breaks a little, for him. She remembers proud, indolent Rodrigo lazing in her bed, covered only by sunlight. Remembers being tossed over his shoulder and deposited in the bath with him. Remembers entire weeks, from matins on Monday to Saturday vespers, where neither of them put a stitch of clothing on. He has absolutely nothing to be ashamed of.
Giving him a clear view, she pulls her nightdress over her head, drops it on the floor, and moves her hands to the laces of his shirt. Her eyes ask the question - permit me? - and he swallows, the only hesitation he will ever show her, and nods. She pulls the first lace, and watches eagerly as a triangle of flesh is revealed, as anticipated as the first time she watched him strip out of his cardinal's robes. Pulls the second lace and the cotton parts further, and she presses a kiss to his bared sternum.
Her breath quickens once again as she pulls the final lace of his shirt and opens it enough to pull over his head. She eases it off him, and oh, almost there. He is almost returned to her, and she lays a hand over his heart - pulse thudding quietly against her touch. Before she can undo his trousers, he stops her with a hand on her wrist.
"Una disculpa? Before we lose ourselves?"
She can feel her blood heat at their pet name for the French manner of love, which is considered the height of depravity by Roman society. Roman society, she has always thought, does not know what it is missing.
"Ah," she says, curling her fingers to cup his manhood. "Will you lose yourself so quickly? I could consider that an insult to my mouth."
He laughs, pulling her into the bedroom and tumbling her gently to the bed. "You misunderstand, bellissima. Your mouth will be quite unoccupied, I hope. I wish to hear you."
She cannot help the high gasp she gives at the thought of his mouth upon her most secret parts - it is deliciously wicked, and she loves when he "apologizes" in such a manner. He draws one of her legs up slowly, folding it to the side and then repeating the motion with her other leg. She would be a bit embarrassed by her readiness - she is wet enough to coat her thighs and can smell it in the air - if it were not for Rodrigo's pleasure in her response. He groans into the skin of her knee, presses his mouth there and bites hard enough to bruise. Her hips rise, for nearly every manner of his touch is welcome to her, and she sighs with pleasure.
Though not pleasure enough to notice the smug look on his face. He does this nigh-constantly, distracts her, gives her a tempting look from under those eyes of his, and then goes on to do whatever he pleases. She can't very well have that right now.
Her hand laces through his hair and pulls sharply, getting his undivided attention.
"Prove to me you have not lost your talent for apologizing, Rodrigo."
Whether it is in response to her use of his given name or her show of control, she knows not, but his hands tighten on her thighs. He forces her to open further, back arched, and puts his mouth to her. She could scream already at the hot, slick pressure of his tongue, licking her juices from her as devilishly clever as he's ever been. She wonders if he does this for Donna Giulia.
He drives her higher and higher, growling into her sex. His tongue is firm and slick against her, circling around her folds, plunging shallowly into and out of her cunt. Her hips snap upwards, and his hands come up to hold her as still as possible. It's not enough, not nearly enough, and she begs him for more. He looks up bemusedly at her, mouth covered in her wetness, and his voice comes out a bass rasp.
"More, my lady? Whatever could you be referring to?"
She pulls his hair again, sliding her hands down his back and raking her nails back up. "You know very well, ximplet. Finish it."
He needs no further direction, returning his mouth to her sex and trailing his fingers through her wet curls. He slides two into her without any trouble, and his answering moan of pleasure sends a wave of desire over her. His fingers fuck her steadily, the way she likes it when she's in this sort of mood. She cannot stop shaking, thighs trembling on either side of his shoulders, the quick, desperate grind of her hips when she's so close to climax she can taste it. She finally falls over the abyss, his name in a constant stream from her lips.
Her eyelids flutter open to reveal Rodrigo, head resting on her left thigh, stroking his fingers idly across her still-trembling stomach and watching her. She raises an eyebrow at him - as if he's never made her climax hard enough to shatter glass before - and regards her with a mixture of wonder and desire.
"Your passion is breathtaking, mi amo. It always has been."
"May I return the favor?" she inquires, and though he's hard against the sheets, he shakes his head. "Whyever not?"
And there, there's that smile she's missed. "I have better plans for tonight. I plan to make you as breathless as possible, and just when you're begging me to stop, I plan on having you. Does that meet with your approval?"
Oh, most definitely.