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Lovely, Dark and Deep

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Daine shifts back and forth on her feet, trying not to make it too obvious to Aunt Barzha. She wishes Rikash had come along; for all her relationship with her cousin has been rocky, she'd like at least one friendly face, and his is much friendlier than Aunt Barzha's. And Aunt Barzha is the one who agreed to this.

"Stop fidgeting," Aunt Barzha snaps.

"I'm not," says Daine, mutinous to the last.

She thought she might get out of being married. She's not a desirable match for anyone, for all that her aunt married well. All she really knows about her father is that he didn't marry her mother and his skin was dark. Her mother would have run away with him, except her family found out and stopped her, just because of the skin, as far as Daine knows. His skin was all it took to make him objectionable.

Once her mother died and she went to live with Aunt Barzha, she thought she might have to marry Rikash, just because no one else would, with his personality. But he was as excited by that prospect as she was, and then, once they became friendly, he told her he never planned to marry either, and he wasn't planning to let his mother make him.

Aunt Barzha told her of her engagement a few weeks before her twentieth birthday; Arram Draper, Baron of Pirate's Swoop, was too busy with his scholarly pursuits to court a proper wife. Daine had visions of him, some wizened old academic, near-sighted and absent-minded.

"It won't be so bad," Rikash had told her. He doesn't do comforting, but he at least does practical. "He'll be too absorbed in his books to pay attention to you. You'll find something to do and your relationship with him will be limited to a few pleasantries and some unpleasant marital duties. If you're lucky, he'll die in a few years, and you'll be a respectable widow."

"Forgive me for not being excited," she said dryly. "I don't want my best possible future to be my husband dying."

Aunt Barzha raps smartly on the door of the Baron's estate, bringing Daine back to the present with a jolt.

"Stand up straight," Barzha hisses. "Behave yourself."

Daine keeps right on slouching and fidgeting.

The man who opens the door is very, very tall. His skin is a only few shades lighter than Daine's, the same shade as coffee with a little too much cream, like Rikash likes it. His hair is long and bound, and his smile is kind. He's dressed too well to be a servant, but Daine has no idea who else he might be.

"Lady Barzha, I presume?" he says. He bows to Aunt Barzha and then turns his smile on Daine. "And Miss Daine. A pleasure. I am Nu--Arram," he corrects. "Arram Draper."

Daine stares and then says, stupidly, "No, you're not." Because he can't be. She's never seen a scholar that looks like this. His clothes are really quite fashionable, and he can't be more than ten years older than she is. He's even a little bit handsome. Surely he could find a wife without resorting to her.

Aunt Barzha sucks in a harsh breath, but Arram laughs, a surprising, boyish laugh. "I assure you, I am. I may not look like a baron, but I can't seem to get out of being one, no matter how hard I try. Please, come in."

Daine follows him into the house, which is surprisingly cluttered, for how large it is. There are books on most of the tables, and papers everywhere. How many books must he have, to cover this much space?

"I'm sorry it's not cleaner," the baron is saying as he leads them back. "It was rather short notice. Not that I have to tell you, I'm sure."

The last he throws over his shoulder to Daine with a disarming smile, and she's at a loss. He's nothing like what she expected, not from a baron or a scholar.

He leads them up the stairs and pauses at a door. "My Lady," he says to Barzha. "I'm sure it's been a long journey and you would appreciate some time to yourself before the ceremony. Please," he opens the door and beckons her in. "Make yourself at home. If you need anything, ring the bell and someone will attend you. Otherwise, I shall see you at six." He smiles at Daine. "Your rooms are this way, if you'll follow me."

Aunt Barzha looks like she might object, but Daine already thinks she'd prefer spending time with Arram to spending time with Aunt Barzha. And that's something, at least. "Thank you," she says. "Until six, Aunt Barzha."

Once they're a few doors down, Arram drops his voice and says, "If you want to leave, now is the time to tell me." She looks up at him, stunned speechless. "I don't know how my mother and your aunt came to this agreement, but I can't imagine you were consulted. I'm no prize of a husband, and if you'd like to go, I'll make sure you may. But it must be now."

Daine tries to speak, but it takes a few attempts before she manages, "Go where?"

"I don't know," he admits, shoulders slumped. "I could give you some money--"

"You want to pay me off and send me away?" she asks, barely remembering to keep her voice down.

"No!" he says, so quickly she has to believe him. He huffs and runs his hand through his thick hair, pulling some strands out of the tie in his agitation. "No, I don't--" He gives her a sheepish smile. "I don't want you to be forced into something you'll hate. If this marriage isn't something you want, I would spare you."

"And yourself."

"It's complicated," he says. Maybe he's like Rikash, and it's her gender he dislikes. He's quiet for a minute and then says, "I told my lady mother I would marry if she could find me a bride who wouldn't bristle at my skin or my name."

"Arram?"

"I prefer Numair," he says. "It's--the name my mother gave me. My father disapproved, it's too foreign. Much like my mother herself. But he's dead, and he can't stop me calling myself what I like."

"Baron Numair," Daine repeats.

"Just Numair. If you're not leaving, you should call me by my name." He sounds, Daine thinks, a little hopeful.

"And you should call me Daine. No one's ever called me Miss Daine before, it doesn't even sound like me."

He laughs. "Daine, then."

"And Numair."

"I can't imagine I'l be a good husband," he says, apologetic. "I'm sure you've heard about me. I am always in my books, and I probably would forget my head if it wasn't attached. But I suppose if it wasn't, I'd have bigger problems," he adds, with a wink, and Daine can't help laughing. He's just so--different.

"Well, I don't know the first thing about being a wife," she says. "But--I'll be yours."

His smile is soft, and Daine feels her heart speed up. She hadn't expected to like him, but he's nice. "I'm very glad to hear it," he says. He bends down and kisses her hand. "Until six, Daine."

"Yes," she says, a little faintly, and adds, "Numair," just to see him smile when she says it.

*

A servant comes around five to help her get cleaned and dressed. The girl is young and pretty and doesn't look unhappy, although Daine can't quite get up the nerve to ask her how she likes the master. Numair gave her the chance to leave and she didn't take it. It's too late to decide to run away now. He'd be so hurt.

So she lets the girl dress her up in her nicest gown, which isn't terribly nice, honestly, and fiddle with her hair, and even apply some makeup, and then it's time to go to the hall and get married.

There aren't many people in attendance. Aunt Barzha is there, of course, and an older woman with dark skin and dark hair Daine assumes is Numair's mother. There's a tall, lanky man with a large nose hanging off to the side, a little removed from the proceedings, but he's the only one to smile at Daine when she comes in.

She goes to stand by Aunt Barzha in front of the priest; Numair isn't there yet.

Maybe he decided he didn't want to marry her after all. It would be humiliating, but maybe she wouldn't find another husband. Maybe she could just go on living with Aunt Barzha and Rikash. Aunt Barzha isn't so bad, not all the time, and once Rikash takes over as the lord of the house, she'll probably be happy. They might have to get married, just for convenience, but that's all it would be.

She nearly staggers with relief when Numair runs in, hair escaping from the tie, cuffs undone, and flushed. "I'm sorry, I'm so sorry, I got distracted," he says. The tall man goes over and helps Numair with his cuffs with a fond (if somewhat exasperated) smile, and Daine wonders if he could be Numair's lover. She wouldn't invite a lover to her wedding, but she's never actually had one. Maybe it's different from what she thinks.

And then he comes to stand across from her and smiles at her, and she finds herself stupidly hoping the other man isn't a lover, after all. "I am sorry," he tells Daine, taking both her hands in his. His are very large, and they feel nice around hers. "I'm not very good with arriving to things on time. Just wait until you hear our dinner bell. It's loud enough to wake the dead, but still not loud enough for me."

"It's all right," Daine murmurs, and Numair gives her hands a quick, reassuring squeeze.

The priest clears his throat and begins. The ceremony is short and painless; the only shock is hearing she's marrying Arram. She's already disassociated the name with him. Arram is the stuffy old academic she imagined who never leaves his study; Numair is the very tall man with the nice hands and nice smile who works so hard to make her feel at ease with him.

She sees him wince when he hears the name too, and she's bold enough to squeeze his hands this time. His surprised, grateful smile makes her gut twist.

And then the priest says, "You may kiss the bride," and Numair leans down and kisses her, soft and quick, and Daine's whole body thrums with it.

Aunt Barzha and Numair's mother have to travel, and they leave as soon as the wedding is over. Numair's mother shakes Daine's hand and says she'll be back for a longer visit soon, once Daine is settled; Aunt Barzha says, "Goodbye," and then leaves without another backwards glance. Daine knows she never wanted to take her in the first place. Becoming the guardian to her disgraced sister's bastard daughter was never something that thrilled her. But she'd hoped for a little more.

"I see your aunt isn't overly affectionate either," Numair remarks, soft.

Daine shakes herself out of it and smiles up at him. "It's fine. She's taken good care of me."

"Then I'm grateful to her," Numair says. He turns back to the hallway. "I believe dinner is ready. It won't be much of a wedding feast, I'm afraid. I don't have very many neighbors with whom I am close. I thought about inviting my Lord Trebond and Lady Alanna, but Lord Thom doesn't like getting out much and Alanna--" He pauses and smiles. "Well, you'll meet her sooner or later."

The tall man from the wedding isn't at dinner, so it's just her and Numair at his overly large table.

"To be honest, I have no idea what to say," he says, with a wry smile, after Daine's servant from the afternoon brings in their soup. "I've never been good at conversation."

"What are you studying?" Daine bursts out. Numair looks surprised, and she flushes. "You said you were a scholar," she murmurs.

"I am," he says. He clears his throat. "I tend to be eclectic in my interests. I'm most interested in learning; the world truly is full of things. I've been working on astronomy recently. Do you know anything of astronomy?"

"I don't even know what it is."

"The study of celestial objects."

"I don't know what celestial objects are either. Or what eclectic means," she says, and that makes him laugh, but not unkindly.

"My mother tells me this is why I don't have friends. Celestial objects are the bodies we see in the sky--the sun, the moon, the stars, the stars, the planets. Eclectic means--varied, wide-ranging. It means I'll read anything."

"So, what do you study about the moon and stars?"

"Their movements, their relations to our own planet and to each other, their size and rotations. If it's something you're interested in, I have plenty of books."

"I'd never thought about it before. I didn't know you could study that."

He laughs. "You can study almost anything, if you want to." He gives her a contemplative look. "And what are your interests, Daine? Academic or otherwise."

"I like animals," she says, without thinking, and blushes. It sounds so childish.

But Numair looks delighted. "Do you? Excellent. Which animals? We have a few dogs and cats on the grounds, for mice, and deer like to graze here as well. George saw a bear once, but those don't usually come very close. And you can hear wolves at night."

Daine laughs too, surprised by his enthusiasm. "Just animals, I suppose. I've always liked them. I used to take care of the squirrels that our cat got, when Ma was still alive, but Aunt Barzha didn't like that. She let me feed the birds, at least."

"You're welcome to feed our birds as well," he says. "Although they might be in some danger from the cats."

Between talking about Numair's various animals--all of whom, Daine is happy to hear, he has named, and sometimes cares for himself--and Numair demonstrating various things about astronomy with dishes on the table, the meal passes more quickly than Daine could have thought possible, for her first dinner with her new husband. It's easy to forget that's who Numair is, and not just enthusiastic young man who wants to tell her all the things he likes.

After dinner they move naturally first to the kennels, so Daine can meet the dogs, and then to the massive library, where Numair shows her the section on animals.

"You're free to read anything you like, of course," he adds. "Everything is at your disposal. If you need help finding something, only ask me or one of the servants."

They stay there in companionable silence, each reading their own books, until Daine begins to yawn. Numair notices and stirs, alarmed. "I hadn't realized how late it had gotten. And you had a long journey. Forgive me, Daine."

Daine smiles. "There's nothing to forgive," she says. "I only just noticed how tired I am myself."

Numair stands and stretches. "Well, I'll take you back to your room," he says. "I can't imagine you've already learned the layout of the place."

"My room?" Daine asks, surprised. It's their wedding night. Aunt Barzha had warned her about the wedding night. There are expectations of her.

Numair actually blushes, all blotchy red up his neck and over his cheeks. "I would not make you--" he starts, and cuts himself off. "No one is here to check our marital bed," he says. "We can wait to share it until we're more comfortable with each other."

"Oh," she says, softly, unsure what else to say.

He clears his throat, still looking uncomfortable. "Of course, if you'd like to share my bed, you are welcome to. I'd only like to make this--as painless for you as possible."

"Thank you," says Daine. "My bed would be lovely."

He nods. "Right this way, then, Daine."

*

She wakes with the dawn as usual and goes down to the kitchens to fetch bread and seeds to feed whichever animals are willing to come and take it from her. Numair must have told the staff, as he'd said he would, because none of them are surprised.

The grounds of Numair's estate--her estate now too, she supposes--are lovely, close to a forest she can't wait to explore, if Numair doesn't object. He doesn't seem like the type to object.

She spreads the bread out a decent distance from the house, so that the cats will at least have to work a little harder if they want to catch whatever comes to eat it. Then she starts around the curated lawns directly surrounding the house, before it turns into woods or roads.

She spots the tall man from the wedding with a rifle and a few of the dogs, heading into the woods himself to hunt. He's too far away to speak to, but he raises his hand in greeting and gives her a smile, and Daine waves back.

He doesn't look like a scorned lover. Of course, he might have shared Numair's bed last night, if she did not.

She turns away from such thoughts. Numair could be polite, or he could be uninterested in her. Either way, he seems like a good husband, and she's lucky to have done so well. Everything else will sort itself out in time.

She has breakfast on her own; the servant in the kitchen tells her Numair almost always takes his breakfast in his study, and also his lunch, but offers, without much conviction, that he may change his ways now that he's married. Daine gives her a smile and assures her she isn't worried, which is, surprisingly enough, the truth. Whatever else he is, Numair is obviously kind and eager to make her feel at home. That counts for a great deal.

In the afternoon, she meets the tall stranger coming back from the woods with some rabbits on his shoulder. He smiles just as kindly as before and offers his hand. "Sorry for not introducin' myself sooner," he says. His voice is rough, but pleasant. It reminds her of growing up, of the people who lived near her mother, and she finds herself liking him. "I'm George. I work on the grounds here."

"Daine," she says, taking it. Up close, she can see he's a little shorter than Numair, and his eyes are hazel and full of laughter. He's about Numair's age, she guesses, and his hands are calloused from hard work. "It's nice to meet you, George."

"You as well," he says, falling into step with her as they head back toward the house. "Settlin' in all right? Numair make his way out of his study to see you?" The servants call him Master Arram, and her surprise must show, because he smiles. "Me and him go way back."

"I haven't seen him today. The servants said I shouldn't expect him until dinner."

George shakes his head. "I told him he should be payin' you more mind. But he has trouble draggin' himself out of his books."

"I don't mind," she says. "I'll see him later. I've been enjoying exploring."

"Good someone does. Numair never comes out to enjoy it."

"You said the two of you go way back?" she asks. He doesn't quite speak like a servant, not as respectful as the others, and she's having trouble placing him in the image of the household she's formed.

"His father took me in when I was little," George says. "Not quite charity, but close. He's never had much by way of friends, so I looked after him a bit."

Daine smiles. "Like a big brother, then?"

George's returning smile is a little odd. "A bit like."

He drops his rabbits off in the kitchens and then follows Daine to the staircase, where he hollers, "Numair, you're neglectin' your wife!"

Daine's not sure how close they are to Numair's study, but there's barely any pause before she hears the sound of feet rushing down, and Numair is there, hair unbound and going every direction, still in his dressing gown. George is laughing, but Numair doesn't seem to notice.

"I'm sorry, Daine, I wasn't trying to neglect you, I thought you'd like time to yourself to get settled in, but I should have at least come down, or made an offer to show you the grounds, or--"

Daine is laughing now too, she can't help it. "George was exaggerating," she explains, breathless from the laughter. "I just told him I hadn't seen you today. I don't mind, I was keeping myself occupied. You don't have to apologize."

Numair glares at George, who winks at Daine and turns, waving over his shoulder as he leaves. "See you around, Daine. Good luck, Numair."

Numair huffs, still glaring at George's retreating back, but then turns back to Daine with a sheepish smile. "I should have at least offered," he says. "I meant to come down for breakfast, but I received a letter early this morning from a professor of mine, and by the time I'd read it and replied I realized I'd already eaten lunch. Have you found everything? Did you get something to eat yourself?"

"Yes, I ate. And I explored the grounds a little. I think I'll start exploring the woods tomorrow, if that's all right."

"Perfectly," says Numair. "Just make sure you let George know, in case he's out hunting. And wear something bright. I don't think he'd shoot you by accident, but it's best to be safe." He looks outside and winces. "I did mean to come see you before this. It's almost dinner time. I did warn you I'd be an awful husband, but I was trying not to start so soon."

Daine reaches over impulsively and takes his hand, squeezing gently. "Numair," she says. "You aren't being an awful husband. You've been wonderful."

He blushes again, clearly surprised. "Can you tell me the specifics of what I'm doing well? So I can repeat it?"

She laughs. "You're giving me time and space and making sure I'm comfortable," she says. "And I am. Comfortable."

"Your standards seem awfully low," he says.

"They might be. I wasn't expecting to find anyone who'd be considerate at all. It wasn't likely I'd make a good match either."

"Well, as long as I'm benefiting from your lowered expectations, I suppose I shouldn't complain," he says. He looks down at himself. "There is some of the afternoon left, at least. Have you had a chance to look around the house?"

"Not yet."

"In that case, I'll make myself presentable and give you that tour. It's the least I can do."

She catches his arm before he can leave. "You really are--I feel very lucky," she says, not meeting his eyes. "To be married to you. Please don't think I don't."

"I feel lucky myself," he says, voice gentle. He squeezes her hand before taking it off his arm. "I'll be right back."

*

Her first encounter with George--and George and Numair together--has Daine pretty well convinced that whatever George is, he's not Numair's lover, but she's not absolutely certain of it until almost a week after the wedding, when she sees George coming out of the woods with a short, stocky, red-haired girl who looks to be a few years older than Daine.

"Afternoon, Daine," says George, when she meets them.

"Good afternoon. Looks like a good haul."

"Very good," the unknown girl agrees. She's not exactly a beauty, but there's something appealing about her. And she has the most striking violet eyes. George doesn't quite seem to know how to stop looking at her. "Although I'm keeping mine."

"Caught on our land, no less," says George, shaking his head. "Never thought the aristocracy would turn to petty theft." He tweaks the girl's nose, grinning when she makes a face. Then he turns back to Daine. "But where are my manners?"

"What manners?" the girl mutters.

He ignores her. "Daine, this is--"

"His assistant," says the girl.

He rolls his eyes. "If you'd like. My assistant, Lady Alanna of Trebond."

Daine tries not to look too shocked. The girl is wearing breeches and carrying a rifle. She can't possibly be a lady.

Alanna scowls. "Just Alanna is fine, thank you. I'm not much of a lady."

George's face clouds a bit, and it doesn't take much guessing to figure out why. Someone like Daine can marry someone like Numair, because gentlemen can do whatever they want to. Ladies need to marry well.

"I'm Daine," she says. "Numair mentioned you."

"Oh, good, you're calling him Numair," says Alanna. "George said you were good for him."

She flushes at that. "I don't think I'm doing very much for him." They've settled into a nice, easy routine so far. Numair never takes breakfast with her, but he sometimes takes lunch, and he's gotten good about sending a note if he won't be joining her. He found out she's been bringing herbs home from the woods, so if he takes lunch with her, he'll usually follow her around in the afternoon, finding out about herb lore and letting her show him recipes her mother used to use. He does truly seem to be interested in everything.

Evenings they spend in the library, more often than not, with him reading about astronomy and her reading about the scientific side of animals, which she'd never studied.

There's been no mention at all of her sharing his bed.

"He's talkin' to another person at least once a day," George remarks. "That's good progress for Numair."

"Baby steps," Alanna agrees. She shifts her quails on her shoulder and smiles at George. "I'd better bring these back to Thom. I'm going to invite you over to dinner now."

"I'm goin' to say no."

"You could come."

"I couldn't."

She sighs and bumps her shoulder against his. "Then I'll see you tomorrow. It was nice to meet you, Daine."

"You too." She and George both watch Alanna go; Daine turns and raises her eyebrows at him once she's gone, and George looks away. "Why don't you have dinner with her?" she asks.

"I don't belong there." His smile is crooked and wry, and Daine's heart goes out to him. "I wouldn't have a thing to wear." He ruffles her hair before she can respond. "Speakin' of which, you should go to dinner yourself. Don't want to keep Numair waiting." She opens her mouth, and he smiles again, wistful now. "It's fine, lass. Go home."

She asks Numair about it at dinner, and he makes a face. "It's--I'm working on it."

"Working on it?"

"Yes," he says, looking down at his plate. "It's very complicated. I'll tell you. Soon."

"Why not now?"

He looks away. "As I said, it's complicated."

"All right," says Daine. He looks so uncomfortable, she can't bear to press him. Instead she says, "I found the healing weed I was looking for, by the river."

He takes the change of subject so gratefully she can't bring herself to be upset that he won't tell her.

*

Their easy routine continues for the next few weeks, and Daine finds herself relaxing, getting used to her new life. It's an improvement, which was much more than she ever thought she could hope for out of marriage. Her husband is kind and easy to like; she's not sure if he likes her so much as she likes him, but that's nothing to complain about.

It's a Thursday when Daine comes downstairs and is shocked to find Numair already at the table and dressed in the coat he wore to the wedding, and she instantly knows something's happened.

"What is it?"

He scowls into his coffee. "Is my being here so out of the ordinary that you think something must be wrong?"

"Yes."

"My mother is coming to visit," he says, sighing. "She'll be here this afternoon. She wants to make sure we're settling in and I haven't done anything--" He makes a face. "I'm not sure what she expects me to have done, but she wants to make sure I haven't."

"That doesn't sound so bad."

"I hope it won't be, for you. I'll--" He looks away from her, blushing, and clears his throat. "You will need to share my room. While she's here."

"Oh," she says, blushing herself. "Of course."

"I'm sorry."

"That's nothing to apologize for. I don't mind sharing your bed."

He jerks his eyes up, clearly startled. "No?"

"We are married," she says. "It was something I--expected."

"Ah." He fiddles with his fork. "Well, I'll try to keep her away from you as much as possible, but--for her visit you may need to stay indoors. I don't think she'll approve of my wife traipsing around the forest, even if I do approve. She doesn't come out very often, and I think so long as I remain married, she won't be too concerned."

"She doesn't think you'll try to get out of it, does she? Even now that we're married?"

"I don't know what she thinks," he admits. "She loves me and wants only what's best for me, but we've never agreed on what that is. I will do my best to make sure she realizes we agree on you."

And then he leaves before she can say anything, which is just as well. She's not sure what she possibly can say to that.

She goes out in the morning, before Numair's mother arrives. George is out tending the horses and clearly in a foul mood himself.

"What's wrong with everyone today?" she asks, sighing. "First Numair, now you."

"His mother and I don't get along."

"Why not?"

George gives her an odd look. "She didn't approve of his father takin' me in, and she doesn't approve of him keepin' me on." He shrugs. "It's a mother's business to look out for her son, of course. My own mother does the same. But I'll be scarpering off until she's gone."

"Staying with Alanna?"

That gets her a snort. "Staying in town with Ma. If I won't have dinner with Alanna, why would I stay on her grounds for a week? I don't fancy torturin' myself."

After that, Daine decides she should probably give up on talking to anyone. She goes inside and finds some needlework to start, so maybe Lady Draper will think she's a good wife who knows how to keep a house.

Numair reappears just before four, looking as if he wants to die. "I love her," he says. "I do. But I am a constant disappointment to her."

Daine straightens his collar. "It's only a week. We'll get through it."

And they do get through that first day fairly painlessly. Daine has some experience as a hostess, and she's not bad at the more domestic arts. Numair and his mother, for all their relationship is obviously fraught, care for each other, and Daine mediates well enough that she feels rather accomplished by the end of the night.

It's not until they're taking their leave that she remembers she's going to Numair's bed. She glances at him and can see him watching her with the same tension she's feeling, and she's not sure if that's a good or a bad thing. At least he understands. She supposes that's something.

She follows him into his room without a word. It's a little larger than hers, his bed made up with dark blue sheets that look very inviting. He clears his throat once the door is closed. "A servant brought your night things, and clothes for the morning," he says. "I can--I'll go while you get--" He's bright red, and Daine finds herself strangely calm.

She undoes the button at her neck. "It's fine, Numair," she says. "You are my husband, you don't have to go."

She starts removing her dress, and he makes a strange, choked sound and turns away, looking resolutely at the door. Daine can see red all up the back of his neck and he starts to remove his own clothing. He's not watching her, so she's free to watch him as much as she likes. His back is broad and smooth, and his muscles are more defined than she would have expected. He does fence with George twice a week, maybe that's what does it.

When he starts to remove his trousers, she has to look away too. She tells herself she just needs to find her nightshirt, but she's equal parts terrified and curious about what the rest of him looks like. They haven't discussed what sharing a bed means, but the longer she knows Numair, the more she wants to be his wife, someone he can truly depend on, someone he wants in his bed every night.

"Are you finished?" he asks, voice soft.

"Yes."

They look each other over at the same time. Daine isn't sure what he sees, exactly--her nightgown is plain and gray and a little short. It's certainly not flattering, unless he thinks well of her legs. He wears a long nightshirt, and his hair is unbound. He looks softer than usual, and younger. She knows now that he's only twenty-eight, no ripe old age, but he feels more like her equal, like this.

He licks his lip and gestures to the bed. "You can pick your side."

She pulls the covers back and slides in. "Your bed is nicer than mine," she observes, and he laughs.

"Well, it is my house. I get to have the best things."

"I thought being a good host was giving the best things to your guests."

He gets in next to her, far enough away that they aren't touching at all. The distance in the middle of the bed feels vast. "They don't have to know how nice my bed is," he says. "You're the only one who will ever know."

The thought makes her flush with happiness, and suddenly it's easy to roll across the bed, right up against his side. They've never touched so much before. He's warm and solid, all firm muscle and heat beneath her fingers, and when she closes her eyes and breathes in, he smells like ink and herbs.

"Oh," he says, a soft, surprised sound, and his arms come up around her slowly. She feels his face against her hair, his nose bumping her scalp. "Goodnight, Daine," he says, and she just snuggles in closer.

*

She wakes up from a dream where she's in the woods with Numair and he's kissing her neck and sliding his hands under her clothes to touch her everywhere to discover that it's past dawn, she's on top of Numair and rubbing against him, and she doesn't want to stop. She opens her eyes reluctantly and sees that he's awake too, and they just look at each other for a long moment. His hand comes up slowly, sliding into her hair, and he says, "Daine," in an almost reverent voice.

She wets her lips and she can see his eyes dart down to watch. Her heart is pounding so hard she's surprised he isn't worried about it. She's a little worried about it.

The kiss is just as soft as the one at the wedding, at least to start, but he doesn't pull away this time, and Daine doesn't either. She melts against his chest, almost sick with relief that he wants to kiss her. He slides his other hand up her back, pulling her nightgown up just enough to make her shiver and push closer to him. She can feel the hard length of him through his shirt, and when she rubs against him, curious, he groans and deepens their kiss, sliding his tongue into her mouth. It's the best thing she's ever felt.

He rolls them over, pushing her down onto the bed under him, without breaking the kiss. Daine roves her arms over his back, feeling the muscles under her fingers. Numair's hand finds her breast and she gasps. He pulls back from her enough to grin, and Daine's sure she looks completely dazed with happiness.

He's about to kiss her again when the bell strikes seven and they both freeze.

"Breakfast in half an hour," Numair says, dropping his head onto her shoulder with a sigh. "Not nearly enough time."

"It's not?" Daine asks. She doesn't know how long this usually takes.

Numair smiles and kisses her again, much more swiftly. "Not for everything I want to do to you."

She blushes at that, and Numair slides off her, getting out of bed and going over to the wash basin. He splashes water on his face.

"What about, um," Daine says. She can still see the bulge at the front of his nightshirt. "You can't go to breakfast like that."

"It does go away on its own," he says. "Although given how I woke up, I'm sure it wouldn't take me long to deal with it myself, either." She cocks her head, curious, and he sighs and kisses her again. "I'll explain later. You should get dressed yourself."

She nods, but can't help saying, "Numair?"

"Yes?"

"We're not just--we're going to do that later, aren't we?"

He grins. "Oh, yes. Absolutely."

*

The day passes very, very slowly. Every time she brushes up against Numair, even slightly, it's as if her whole body lights on fire. It's nothing at all like she expected, based on what she'd heard from Aunt Barzha about marital duties. But it must have been like this for her mother, or else she never would have had Daine in the first place. Not if she hadn't wanted Daine's father so much.

She makes excuses to go to bed a little early, claiming a headache, and by the time Numair joins her, she's naked under the sheets. She's nervous and more than a little overwhelmed, but in the best way.

"You don't really have a headache, do you?" he asks, sitting down on the side of the bed. "I understand if you do, I--"

She tugs the sheets down enough that he can see she's not wearing anything, and it's gratifying to see his jaw drop as he stares at her breasts. "You're too nice sometimes, Numair."

"I'm trying to make sure you're comfortable and happy," he says, leaning in for a long kiss.

"You tried so hard I thought you didn't want me in your bed at all," she says. It feels silly now that she's put it together, but he really did make it difficult for her.

"Ah," he says, sliding his hand up to her breast again. It feels even better with no fabric between them, and she moans. "No. Quite the opposite of that. I didn't want you to feel obligated because of my--"

She drags him down to kiss him again before he can finish. "I think I'm clear now," she says, with a smile.

Numair doesn't stop talking, though. He slides down to nuzzle at her neck and says, "I couldn't believe it when I saw you. I was waiting for you and your aunt by the door, and I heard her telling you to straighten up, be more proper, and you talking back. I was so glad you talked back. And then you talked back to me, on top of being so beautiful. And you love being outdoors and teaching me about herbs and even seem to enjoy listening to me prattle on about astronomy. I like you so much I was terrified of making a mistake and scaring you off."

His other hand is between her legs, and he's rubbing firm, sure circles against her skin. It feels so good it's making her shake. "How do you know what you're doing so well?" she asks, breathless.

"I may not have any practical experience, but I have read a lot," he says. "I am glad I wasn't mislead."

"Yes, but--" Daine starts, her hips pushing back against her hand without any real instruction from the rest of her. "This isn't how--I know what's supposed to happen on the wedding night."

"This isn't our wedding night," he says. "But we'll get to that. We have plenty of time."

He gets her ready first with his hands, and then with his mouth, and by the time he finally slides into her she's so desperate that if there is any of the pain Aunt Barzha promised, she doesn't notice it. He kisses her everywhere, murmurs nonsense about how wonderful he is, and when they're both finally spent and their marriage is very thoroughly consummated, he pulls her against his chest and says, "I'm going to have the servants move all your things in here."

She yawns and closes her eyes. "Good. That saves me having to do it."

*

She's so distracted by being properly married that she doesn't remember to ask Numair about George until the last day of his mother's visit. She thinks it's going well, all told; his mother seems to like her, and feel Numair is being a good husband. Daine is sure she looks lovestruck most of the time, but that surely can't be a bad thing. Young brides should be lovestruck. It's a shame more aren't.

Numair's mother asks about Lord Thom and Lady Alanna at dinner, and that's enough to remind Daine to ask, once they're alone, "Why doesn't your mother like George?"

"When did she say that?"

"She didn't. George did. He said he was going to town while she was here. But he came to the wedding, so--"

"He came to the wedding because I was nervous and I begged him," says Numair. He worries his lip. "And my mother dislikes him because he's my elder half brother, and I want to legitimize him and make him Baron."

It's so far from anything Daine expected that she's rendered momentarily speechless. It makes sense, it explains all the things that never quite added up, and they even look a little alike, once she gets past skin color. But she doesn't know what to say.

"Why didn't you tell me?" she finally asks.

"For the same reason I didn't ask you to sleep with me," he says. "I didn't feel it was fair to you."

"What's unfair about my knowing about George?"

He sits down on the bed with a heavy sigh. "He's why I didn't want to marry. Because I thought it would be terribly unfair to marry a woman as a baron and then ask her to give up that title so I could give it to George. And I didn't want to make you make that decision."

She sits down next to him. "Why do you want to make him Baron of Pirate's Swoop?"

"Two reasons. First, I think he'd make a better Baron than I do. He's much better with people than I am, and I'm so absent-minded. I'm not cut out for taking care of the barony, and everyone knows it. They like me in a somewhat exasperated way, but George would do better."

"And the second?"

He smiles wryly. "Alanna, of course."

She laughs. "I should have guessed."

"They've been best friends since we were children," he says, taking Daine's hand and idly tracing patterns on her palm. He does it when he's thinking, she's noticed. She loves it. "She was always following him around, asking him to teach her how to hunt and trap and fight. It was obvious when he realized how he felt about her, and even more obvious when he realized he could never marry her."

She can picture it too easily; she's seen George's face too many times when he looks at Alanna and thinks no one is watching. "Does he know? That you want to make him baron."

"Yes, but he doesn't think I'll ever be able to. And it was a long time ago when I told him I'd try. He might think I've given up."

"But you haven't."

He sighs. "It's not fair to you. It's why my mother made me marry, she was sure I wouldn't do that to my wife."

Daine kisses him. "I don't care," she says, honestly.

His expression is guarded. "About which part?"

"Being Baroness of Pirate's Swoop. I never wanted to be a baroness to begin with. I married you because I met you and I liked you. That's all. George will let us use his library and gather his herbs and feed his birds, won't he?"

"I can't imagine he would object," says Numair. He sounds vaguely poleaxed.

"Then you should do it," says Daine, standing and going over to her nightstand to get changed. "Whatever you have to do. You have my blessing."

Numair stares at her for a long moment, and then he crosses the room to her in three large steps, takes her head in his hands, and kisses her deeply. "I love you," he says, with reverence. "Every day, I cannot believe my mother found me someone so wonderful. Surely she must not have realized, or she wouldn't have let me marry you."

Daine laughs, pleased, and shoves him gently. "Please don't talk about your mother right after you tell me you love me."

"Never again," he promises, and he does stop talking about his mother.

He doesn't stop saying he loves her, and Daine doesn't mind, not at all.

*

Numair's mother is very upset when she leaves, which Daine assumes is good news for George.

"I told her you weren't any more interested in being a baroness than I was in being a baron," Numair says happily. "She was almost incandescent with rage. She seemed to assume you had married me for my title. I never thought I'd see anyone so upset she hadn't married her son off to a social climber."

Daine laughs. "Has she agreed, then?"

"I think that's a rather strong word, but the truth is, she can't stop me. I figured out she couldn't and gave her one last chance to do the honorable thing and give her blessing. That was what spurred her to find me a bride."

"Why did you go along with it?"

He makes a face. "Because I found out about it when you were already on your way. And then I saw you, and I couldn't--well, I'm not so unselfish that I could say no to you. If you'd wanted to leave, I would have let you, but I couldn't bring myself to tell you to go."

She laughs. "You should have told me that from the beginning. I would have been charmed."

"I should have. I need all the help being charming I can get."

She elbows him. "You don't. I liked you from the start too, you know. When she told me I was marrying a shut-in academic I thought you'd be seventy and on the brink of death. That's why I was so surprised when you introduced yourself. I thought you wouldn't have any trouble finding a wife." She grins. "As it turned out, you just never tried."

"I'm glad you think I'm noble, and not simply inept," says Numair dryly. "It's such an improvement." He laces his fingers in hers and squeezes. "You're sure you don't mind? I'm going to talk to George and then file the request to have him legitimized. As the eldest, he has the right to be the baron. He could decide to turn us out."

She snorts. "That sounds like George."

"Yes, well. He could."

"If he does, I'll still have you?"

"You'll still have me. However, I will be useless in any kind of survival scenario. All of my knowledge of hunting and tracking is theoretical."

"Mine isn't. I'll take care of you." She kisses him. "Go talk to George. You'll still have me too."

"I'll still have you," Numair repeats, wonder and disbelief in his voice. "Who needs a barony?"

*

She realizes she's pregnant two months later, the day they're moving of the master bedroom and into the room Daine stayed in for her first few weeks. George is letting them keep Numair's bed, even though it's nicer; he says he doesn't want to sleep where they've had sex. She's pretty sure he's just being nice, but she can't blame him for the other part either. She's thinking of the stains on her old mattress, the one she had at Aunt Barzha's, and how embarrassed she'd been when she first discovered she'd bled on her sheets. And then she realizes she hasn't bled, not for a month, and she's always known what that meant.

She waits another two weeks to tell Numair, through another missed cycle.

"Do you like children?" she asks him.

"I'm not sure I know any children," he says absently. He's annotating a star chart; there's ink on his nose, his bottom lip, and, somehow, his left ear. "And I assume it varies on a child-by-child basis. But as a concept, I'm not opposed."

Daine has to laugh. "Well, I was asking in the specific."

"Which child?"

"Ours."

He snaps the nib off his pen. "Ours?"

"You do know what happens when you have sex, don't you?"

"Yes, but--ours?" He runs his hands through his messy hair and looks around, wild-eyed. "I'm sure there must be a book about parenthood here. We have books about everything. How far along are you? Are you in pain? Are you having any cravings? Do you need--"

She laughs and kisses him. "Numair. Calm down! Breathe. Be happy for a minute, won't you?"

"Happy?" he asks, and his tone is so blank that her good mood falters.

"You aren't happy?"

"Oh," he says, snapping out of whatever he was feeling. "Oh. Yes! Of course!" He picks her up and swings her around. "I'm thrilled. I just--I hadn't even thought of it. I realize that is ridiculous."

"I'm used to it," she says. "For someone so smart, you really can be quite--"

"Stupid," Numair supplies. "I consider it the foremost blessing of my life that you seem fond of me in spite of it."

She never knows quite what to say to that kind of thing, still feels awed by how much love she's found he has for her. It's not as if she doesn't feel the same, but it doesn't feel as if they should possibly be this happy, not when neither of them really chose it, not when she thought she'd never find anyone like him.

It's too much to explain to him, so she just kisses his nose and says, "Because of it. I like feeling smarter than you."

His laughter follows her out of the library and to the staircase, and she can still hear it as she heads outside into the sunlight to find George and Alanna and tell them the good news.