“There are things worse than war: cowardice, betrayal, selfishness.”
-- Earnest Hemingway
Chapter 1: Prologue
“Did you miss me?”
d’Artagnan was standing in her room—their room. Four years, nothing but letters—few, far between, and lacking any true news from the front, but his words, none-the-less—and now here he stood. Half-naked, water glistening on his bare chest and dripping from his freshly-shaved chin, lips tipped up in a confident smile cheekily asking if she’d missed him.
Constance had half a mind to toss his pauldron at him and storm out. No word, no warning, no way of knowing to anticipate him. That her long vigil of loneliness and worry was coming to an end. Simply absent from her life one moment and present the next, all sinew and smiles and scars.
She stared at him, taking in the sense of power that shadowed the lean muscle and raw energy that had always comprised the man before her. His dark eyes, a shade just before black, met hers unflinchingly, but she saw something skitter and shake in their expression—seeking reassurance.
He sucked in a shallow breath and though he didn’t move a muscle, she felt him pull away from her, retreating behind a wall she hadn’t realized was there two heartbeats earlier. It was that unconscious attempt at protection, that uncertainty of his place in her world, that drew her forward, the shock of his arrival dimming in light of the reality of him—his skin, his breath, his strength.
God how she’d missed him.
His mouth was on hers before she could answer him. He tasted the same; he smelled the same. It was enough to weaken her knees, but she needn’t have worried about falling. He lifted her easily and in one motion kicked the door behind her closed, the latch falling neatly in place across the catch, and lay her gently beneath him on her—their, she reminded herself—bed.
“Charles,” she breathed, and his lips tripped up in a small, surprised smile.
She’d been practicing his name—his true name, not the one she now shared with him—in the quiet of the night when the loneliness was at its peak. When she worried that the three days as husband and wife they’d been gifted before he’d left for the front were all the peace she’d ever know in her lifetime. When she’d imagine his hands on her, tracing their invisible path along her skin, her need a physical ache that only he could soothe.
His hands weren’t imaginary now, however. Dexterous fingers made quick work of the leather corset and brais. Constance helped by shifting her hips just so, allowing the layers of skirt and petticoats to slip down to where d’Artagnan could easily push them away. Her eyes closed in an instant, biological reaction to his touch, but she forced them open. She wanted to see him—to watch him see her.
“You are so beautiful,” d’Artagnan whispered. “You are exactly as I remembered you.”
“It’s only been four years,” she smiled indulgently. “Can a person change so much in such time?”
His dark eyes slid across her face with such a level of raw emotion captured there she felt as though he’d touched her. Her breath caught and she reached for his cheek, surprised when he pulled slightly away. He was positioned above her, body planked so that he held himself carefully apart, not one piece of his skin touching hers. The look on his face was open and desperate and Constance felt every cell in her body reach for him.
She’d heard him say her name many times, but not like this. Not with this hitch and break and thread of desire slipping through it. Good Lord, but it made her blood heat as though he’d kissed her the way he used to, the way he’d done the very first time she’d met him.
Ignoring his tension, the tight muscles along his torso keeping him safely away from her, Constance reached up and grasped the back of his neck, threading her fingers through his long, dark hair, tugging him toward her until she captured his mouth with her own, feeling again the shape of his lips on hers. Her touch seemed to melt him and he folded forward, pressing skin to skin until Constance gasped from the contact.
Not ready for the yawn of years between them to build hesitancy in him once more, she curled a leg around his waist and pressed upwards until he had no choice but to tip to his side and allow her to turn them over. Once upright and straddling him, Constance stared down at his face, her hair spilling down her back and over her bare shoulders where his initial embrace had loosened it from her careful pins.
“Yes, I’ve missed you,” she finally supplied. Keeping his hands captured against their—yes, their—pillows, she leaned forward and traced the curve his cheek with kisses. “I’ve missed your face,” she continued down his throat, feeling him swallow, “I’ve missed your voice,” she carried her caress over one shoulder, skimming the knotted scar there with her lips and drawing a surprised hiss from d’Artagnan, “I’ve missed your hands.”
“What you do to me, woman,” d’Artagnan fairly growled and Constance felt a pleasant shiver course down her spine and settle in her belly.
It reminded her of their first time together—desperate and clumsy at first, asking with glances, with touches, if this felt good, if that was permissible. At first, Constance took charge, offering her reassurance that he was welcome—everywhere—and wanted. But the moment d’Artagnan drew her close and rolled them over, she felt something inside of her uncoil. A release of the responsibility she’d been carrying since he left.
He’d grown stronger in their years apart.
His hands were rough in different places—not just from a sword hilt or horse reins, but from weapons she couldn’t begin to imagine in this moment. His body had changed—the long lines of lean muscle had tapered and collected in strength in his arms and shoulders she hadn’t felt before. Her hands trembled as they brushed across scars his body hadn’t born when he left her—a thin, white line wrapping around his ribs from back to front, the raised knot of pink flesh at his shoulder, a seam around his left eye.
Afterwards, Constance got up from their bed and, without grabbing a dressing gown, walked boldly bare across the room to the pitcher of water next to the wash basin. Pouring a bit into a mug, she returned to the bed, pausing for a moment to take in the sight of a man—her man—in a bed that had for so long only been occupied by one person. d’Artagnan lay on his back, the sheet covering him to his waist, one leg free and resting at an angle across the white linen. She could see another scar on his thigh that looked to be as long as her hand.
His arm slid up from where he’d canted it across his eyes and he peered at her, something close to sorrow finding itself a home on his face.
“What is it?” she asked, surprised when her voice held no more weight than a whisper.
“We’ve missed so much,” he replied, the familiar husky timbre causing gooseflesh to raise on her bare skin. “The world seems pitted against our happiness.”
Constance felt her lips draw together in a patient smile; reactions so carefully shielded from the cadets were lost to the freedom of having d’Artagnan back with her once more.
“I don’t think that’s so,” she argued, sitting next to him and curling her legs up so that her knees rested against his side. “You came home to me; that says the world wants us together.”
His sad smile as he took the mug from her set a block of ice in her belly.
“d’Artagnan,” she said, calling his attention with the edge to her voice. “Who didn’t come home?”
Eyes darting to the side, d’Artagnan pushed himself upright in the bed. He rested his shoulders against the headboard, oblivious of the sheet sliding down to his knees with his movement. Constance spared a thought to modesty, to feeling slightly shy about their nakedness after so many years apart, but dismissed it as she took in the lines around his eyes, aging him in moments.
“Tell me,” she practically ordered, sitting up on folded knees, her hand resting on his ribcage. “Was it Athos—“
“Athos is fine,” d’Artagnan reassured her with a brief shake of her head. “Athos was heroic. A true Captain. He and Porthos both kept me alive.” He glanced at her, the momentary light in his eyes causing her heart to speed up. “We even brought Aramis back with us.”
“Aramis!” She exclaimed. “But…what—how—“
Pulling his knees in, d’Artagnan shifted his weight in the bed, dropping the empty mug to the floor and scooping her up against him. “There will be time for all that later,” he said, cradling her in a steady grip, his hand cupping the side of her face as his thumb slid softly across her lips. “Right now, I just want to be with you. Be myself with you.”
Constance frowned, reaching up to pull at his longer hair, her eyes searching his for a glimpse behind the shadows she saw lurking there.
“d’Artagnan,” she murmured.
“Charles,” he corrected. “I liked hearing you say my name…,” his chin quivered briefly and she slid her hand to his jaw, “I—I haven’t heard it…in a long time.”
For a moment, he seemed to turn to glass before her eyes and Constance realized she was quite possibly one of the only people in world who could see through his bravado to the man inside.
“Welcome home, Charles,” she smiled, then drew him down for a long, slow kiss that set her lungs on fire.
He was aggressive this time—not enough to bruise, but certainly enough to let her know he was after something specific. And he did not stop until he found it, turning her body into liquid gold, her mind suddenly awake as though the last four years had been a foggy dream. She’d forgotten what he could draw from her, what she could give him in return, and how utterly sated she found herself at the end.
He slept then, sprawled on his back, legs tangled in the sheets, arms tangled around her. Though it was now dark, Constance found herself wide awake, energized. They’d been married four years and this was only her fifth night lying next to her husband. By all accounts they were an old married couple; if God were to grant it—as He had not with Boniceaux—they could easily have a child or two by now if the war had not intervened.
After lighting a candle next to their bed, Constance lay curled on her side, watching her husband sleep. Exhaustion was clear in the lines that drew his face down in a frown, in the shadows that brushed like smoke and ash beneath his closed eyes. She gently traced the scar around his eye, then brushed her fingertips along the knotted tissue at his shoulder. His letters hadn’t spoken of wounds such as this. He’d barely mentioned loss or hurt; it was more the monotony of a soldier’s life broken by the rush of battle he conveyed to her. That and how much he loved and missed her.
Running her fingers down the length of his arm and skipping over to his ribs and the long, pale scar there she thought of how she drank in his words, keeping every letter as though by reading them he’d return to her and break the tedium of worry and burden of responsibility of the garrison. She’d shouldered her new role gratefully, eager to step in as caretaker of the cadets and keeper of that garrison when Treville had been appointed Minister. With Feron as Governor, someone needed to keep the place in order so that there was something for their men to return to…and without d’Artagnan at home, constantly getting himself into and out of trouble, Constance had very little to occupy her time.
Exhaling slowly, allowing herself the luxury of relaxing against her husband’s warm body, Constance rested her head on d’Artagnan’s unscarred shoulder and drifted. Sleep was reluctant to claim her, but she didn’t mind; it was enough to be close to him again. And it was only because she lingered in the space between waking and sleeping that his distress caught her attention.
It was so subtle—a shift in his breathing, the bend of his lips, the hand at her back twitching slightly—that she almost wrote it off to his typical restless sleep. The man was never still, this she remembered vividly. But as she pushed herself upright to her shoulder, she saw the sheen of sweat on his brow and felt a tremor course through him like a wave.
“Charles,” she whispered, gently, a hand at his side.
She watched the dream dig deeper, sinking talons into his consciousness and dragging him low, away from her voice, her touch. He shifted, his head turning on the pillow as if in denial. He was whispering something now, words too rapid and garbled for her to discern.
“Charles,” she said, louder this time. “Wake up.”
It almost physically hurt to watch him struggle. The tortured sounds that built at the back of his throat were captured by his tightly-pressed lips and the result hit the air like a plea. Constance sat upright, took his face in the palms of her hands and turned him toward her.
At the sound of his name—their name—his eyes flew open. He pulled in a lungful of air, darting a frantic look past her shoulder toward the door. She quickly released his face, pulling her arms toward her in almost instinctive protection as she saw him reach to his side—no doubt for his sword—and swing his legs free of the sheets. He was out of bed and backing toward the corner of the room, eyes still on the door, before she had a chance to exhale.
“d’Artagnan,” she said again, gentler this time, reaching a hand out toward him. “It’s me. You’re home with me.”
His dark eyes shot around the dimly lit room once more, his body completely taut, hand poised at his bare hip. Constance cautiously shifted on the bed, drawing his frantic gaze to her with her motion. She smiled at him, moving slowly, her hand still extended toward him.
“It’s me,” she said again.
“Constance,” he breathed.
“That’s right,” she nodded, smiling, her eyes burning with unshed tears of confusion and concern. “You’re home.”
At that word, he seemed to come back to himself, straightening slightly and shoving an impatient hand through his tangle of hair. It visibly dawned on him that he’d managed to back himself into a corner and he closed his eyes, color flooding what had previously been an unnaturally pale face.
“Oh, damn,” he muttered, pressing his back to the wall and sliding down until his backside hit the rough-hewn floor. He covered his face with trembling hands. “I’m so sorry, Constance.” His voice echoed dully from behind his hands.
Frowning slightly, Constance climbed from the bed and pulled the sheet with her, the movement fluttering the candle flame. She sat next to him on the floor, flourishing the sheet out to cover both of them, and pressed close to his warmth. She could feel fine tremors shuddering through him, not unlike the aftermath of their love making. Her belly tightened with worry, unaccustomed to seeing this man afraid. Not like this.
“Tell me,” she said quietly.
“It was just a dream,” he confessed, dropping his hands to rest his arms on his tented legs. “Just…forgot for a moment.”
“It’s understandable,” Constance nodded against his shoulder. “You were away for a long time. Saw…a great many things, I’d imagine.”
She heard him swallow.
“What haven’t you told me, d’Artagnan?”
He looked over at her, surprised. “What do you mean?”
She put a hand on his arm to show she wasn’t accusing, merely asking. “Your letters were so…limited. You never told me when you were wounded, who you lost, how you survived.”
d’Artagnan shook his head, reaching up to brush a curl behind her ear. “You didn’t need to hear that, Constance. I didn’t want you to…to have that ugliness in your mind.”
Feeling a surge of fire twist in side her, Constance turned so that she could face him yet still keep them covered. “You’re wrong. I do need to know. Especially now.”
“No.” She stared at him, willing him to see her determination through the flicker of candle flame. “I am your wife, Charles d’Artagnan. Your wife.” She stared at him, her lips twitching with a need to let loose a torrent of words. “I poured my heart into my letters to you. Sharing with you the story of responsibilities here I gladly accepted. I kept your men and your garrison fed and clothed and safe—as much as possible for a women—for all the years you were away fighting and I could do nothing for you but pray. Pray and hope and watch for any sign of your fate in every letter that reached me from the front.”
“I don’t want your apologies,” Constance said on a hiss, gripping his forearm with both hands and shaking the appendage slightly in her fervor. “I don’t want your remorse. I want you. I want all of you, everything. The pain and nightmares, too. You owe me that much.”
He suddenly looked achingly young, staring back at her. She saw even in the dim light of the candle that he believed her, that he trusted her words were true. As she continued to watch him she saw a kind of latent pain linger in his gaze as though his soul was resigned to feel it forever. It changed him in an instant from the hot-headed, brash youth who had ridden away from her into a man she realized she didn’t fully know.
“Help me, d’Artagnan,” she pleaded, her eyes burning with her own sense of loss and loneliness. She leaned forward, resting her chin on his forearm, his breath brushing her forehead with his exhale. “Help me know who you are now.”
He went still beneath her hands, then gently pulled away, pushing to his feet, the sheet dropping to the floor to pool around her as he crossed the room. He stood with his back to her, hands resting on his narrow hips. The shadows that danced from the candlelight dusted the planes of bare skin and muscle and Constance curled up, arms clasped about her legs.
He was silent for some time, the room breathing around them.
“What if you don’t like what you hear…,” he finally asked, his whole being held still as he waited for her answer. “What if you don’t like…who I’ve become?”
Constance took a breath, exhaling slowly. It was a very real fear, she knew. Time, distance—they both changed people. Add war to that…loss and longing and a need for redemption, and the man standing with his back to her now could very well be a stranger.
As she watched, however, d’Artagnan reached up a hand and rubbed at the back of his neck in a nervous gesture that was familiar and honest and every bit the man she’d fallen in love with all those years ago.
She pushed to her feet, the sheet wrapped around her and trailing behind as she crossed the room. Positioning herself in front of him, she reached up, cupping his face in her hand, her thumb resting just beneath the scar on his eye.
“Believe this,” she said with as much strength as the moment allowed. “I love you. There is nothing in this world, no word or deed or loss that could change that fact.” d’Artagnan shifted so that their bodies drew closer, tipping his head down until their foreheads touched. “I’ll love you until I die, Charles d’Artagnan.”
She could feel the tremble in his limbs as he wrapped his arms around her, bringing his mouth to hers, and drinking in her kiss as though it would heal all the broken places inside of him. When they separated, she grabbed his hand, dragging him back to the bed. Settling against him once more, both covered again by the sheet, she rested her hand on her chest.
“I don’t know where to begin,” d’Artagnan confessed. “So much…so much happened since I saw you. And I honestly…I don’t know if I want to remember it all.”
“Start at the beginning,” she suggested. “What happened when you reached your first outpost?”
d’Artagnan was quiet a moment and she let him think, noticing this difference in him as well. He’d always been so quick to act, blindly following his gut where it led him and depending on his uncanny luck—and Athos’ watchful eye—to keep him safe. Watching him pause to think, even about a memory, or a selection of words, was a difference she would have to get used to.
“It was hard at first,” d’Artagnan began, “especially for Porthos. He was…he was a bit of a handful, you might say. For Athos, I mean.”
Constance nodded. “Because of Aramis.”
“Yes,” d’Artagnan agreed. “We all felt his loss, but Porthos…he was angry. It was…it was the kind of anger that had nowhere to go.”
He rolled his neck as though the memory was a hand at his throat. Taking a slow, deep breath, he rested his shoulders against the headboard, dropping his head back and staring into the middle distance. Constance was careful not to move, sensing a fragile stillness inside him, as though once shattered it would never be whole again.
“He quiet for a long time, and Porthos…he just isn’t quiet. You know.” He didn’t wait for her to agree. “He walked around with bowed shoulders, as though…well, like gravity had a different effect on him. It pulled on him stronger in his grief.”
d’Artagnan quieted for a moment and Constance reflected on his words, thinking about how inseparable Athos, Porthos, and Aramis had been for so many years—long before d’Artagnan had ever crashed into their lives with his fight and fire. To have one of them gone—especially by choice—had to have been a crushing blow, breaking the balance they’d all depended upon to keep them safe and sane.
Without seeming to realize what he was doing, d’Artagnan reached up to his shoulder, rubbing at the knotted flesh that marked a spot just beneath his clavicle.
“Tell me about that one,” she implored, watching him.
He startled slightly and dropped his hand, blushing again.
“Tell me how you got that scar, d’Artagnan,” she repeated. “I want to know.”
He looked down at her and his expression darkened with the shadows of the room. “You may not like what you hear,” he reminded her. “And…I couldn’t bear it if you…if you walked away.”
Constance pushed up to her knees and leaned across him to kiss his scarred shoulder, then his neck, then his lips. Her mouth inches from his, she whispered, “I’m not going anywhere.”
d’Artagnan licked his lips, swallowing hard, then nodded.
Constance sat back, wrapping her arms around her legs and watched as his eyes drifted away, his words falling from lips that seemed to forget they were even moving.
“It was the first real skirmish after we’d reached the front. Athos was riding among the men, every inch the Captain. I was…well, in a word, I was terrified. And then there was Porthos. He moved through the camp like he’d given up listening to the better angels of his nature and the devil on his shoulder was his very best friend….”