Ben would never get enough of kissing Mal now that he had full permission to do so. She tasted like the strawberries that she loved to steal from the kitchens, but also like freedom—something he’d both always had in abundance and yet never truly had.
His room was dim, lit by only moonlight through the window, but his beast eyes turned on in the dark, a tiny benefit of a curse that remained locked and chained inside him. If he opened his eyes, he’d be able to see every inch of her face—swooping lashes; gorgeous eyes; heart-shaped lips (so soft… gods!); the long fall of hair she’d come back from the Isle with, rich purple lightened with just a hint of blonde.
But when their lips were fused together, Ben never wanted to open his eyes.
They broke apart to breathe, and Ben found himself fascinated anew by the graceful curve of her neck. Mal tilted her head to allow him greater access. He worked his way down from her ear, snaking kisses all the way to her shoulder. His fingers brushed against the collar of her shirt, tugging it slightly to the side to reveal more skin. His other hand crept beneath the hem of her shirt, splaying against her warm stomach.
Mal jerked away, not only from his mouth, but from Ben completely. His eyes snapped open at the sudden chill. She sat curled in a ball, arms around her knees, at the foot of the bed.
Still caught in that dazed place between desire and reality, Ben panted, “Mal… what’s wrong?”
She shook her head, resting her chin on her knees. There was some relief in the fact that she was panting, too, but her soft gaze had tightened.
A sudden realization hit. This physical aspect of their relationship was new. Before cotillion it had been all lingering glances, hand holding, and chaste kisses on cheeks and foreheads—a frustration he was long used to. It might not be true in all parts of Auradon, but in the royal circles Ben was born and bred in, a certain restraint was expected.
He and Audrey, for example—they’d kissed, of course, and even made out a few times, under the bleachers, in a closet once. But Audrey would never, ever have plopped herself down on his bed, kicked off her shoes, and crooked her finger for him to join her like Mal had tonight.
With all those signals opening his mind to more possibilities, had he presumed too much?
“Mal…” He scrambled into a sitting position. “I’m sorry if I…” His voice cracked. “I hope you know I would never do anything you didn’t want me to. You can tell me no anytime, for any reason.”
Her eyes blinked up at him, and then her closed-off posture relaxed. She scooted a little closer, so they sat shoulder to shoulder. “I wasn’t worried about that.”
“Are you sure?” Ben couldn’t stop the question. “I know… I mean, I’ve gathered from various comments… girls on the Isle weren’t always safe…”
“The word you’re looking for is rape, and it wasn’t just a danger for girls.”
Her matter-of-fact tone made him wince. Partly at the cruelty of the word, partly at knowing she said it so easily was that it had been common in her life, and partly from the guilt that he couldn’t seem to shake at how all the VKs—not just Mal, Evie, Jay, and Carlos, but all of them—had grown up while he’d been attending banquets and riding his horse.
Mal touched his arm, and this time she was the one gauging his mental temperature. “That’s one thing that never happened to me.”
“The others?” Ben didn’t want to know, but he had to.
She nodded and snuggled into his side; his arm looped around her. Despite the fact he’d wanted to calm her fears, he took strength from her.
A slight head shake and he knew what she was going to say. Ben’s gut squeezed.
“Carlos.” Mal met his gaze head on. “It was a long time ago and has no bearing on tonight.”
“Then why did you pull away?”
“It wasn’t sex. Sex is… can be fun. Easy. Stress relief.”
He blinked at that. No one in his circles had ever suggested sex for stress relief. It was “Commitment” with a capital C. “You’ve…”
“Sex?” Mal shrugged one shoulder. “Sure.”
He thought about that for a moment. He wasn’t really surprised, given what he knew about the Isle. The past didn’t really matter to him. He also wasn’t upset that she was more experienced than him. But then why…?
“Was I doing it wrong?”
She trembled next to him, and then suddenly she was laughing His cheeks burned even hotter, and he hoped dragons couldn’t see in the dark.
Even if she couldn’t see his blush, she seemed to realize he wasn’t laughing with her and got a hold of herself. “No, Ben. Nothing like that.” Her face grew serious again. “I’m not a virgin, but I’ve never… made love. There’s a difference.”
She nestled closer again, and he looped his arms back around her. “So, that’s why…”
“You can tell me, Mal.”
“I…” Her lips twitched. “You almost touched my scars.”
His mind cast back to the times he’d seen her in formal dress. She tended to prefer high necklines, but he had seen her with shoulders bared. Hadn’t he?
Mal whispered a couplet and twirled two fingers. A tiny globe of light floated above them, casting the room in a light purple sheen. “I’m half fairy, Ben. Giving up the spell book limited my arsenal of spells, but it didn’t eliminate the magic. Magic will be part of me forever. One of the spells I memorized conceals my scars. I use it any time I won’t be fully covered.”
“I wouldn’t care about scars,” Ben said.
“I just…” Her voice grew fierce. “I want you to see me as beautiful, not broken.”
“Everything about you is beautiful.” He hoped the truth of his words shone through to her. “They might make me sad, but they would never diminish how I feel about you. I love you, Mal. Forever. Conceal yourself for Auradon, if it makes you feel better, but you never have to hide yourself from me.”
“I don’t like to look weak.” Even saying those word was an admission, the cost of which he could feel in her tense lines.
“The things you survived make you strong to me.” Since the moment Mal had stepped out of that limo, she’d been the strongest girl—no, the strongest person, Ben had ever known. Everything she’d been through and yet still good at her core. “You are amazing, Mal.”
She scooted away from him, and he immediately missed her warmth, but he couldn’t look away from her face. That kissable mouth was drawn up in a tiny smirk, and her head tipped just slightly to the side, considering him.
Then, in one motion (once she decided, Mal always moved quickly), she grabbed the hem of her shirt and tugged it over her head.
Ben’s eyes roamed across her body. One scar ran jaggedly across the soft part of her stomach (knife?). Another, rounder, (horn-shaped?) marred her chest, just below the shoulder he’d been kissing. There were a few others—older, paler—but those two were the most obvious.
A pang of sadness rushed through him at whatever pain she’d had to endure from those wounds, but that pain was in the past. Today, he saw and endless expanse of pale skin begging to be touched, breasts cupped in a simple, cotton bra that was so much sexier than the silk and lace confections he’d seen hanging in the windows of that one particular store at the mall. His throat dried; he wanted to touch her so badly, but he felt more nervous than before.
“You’re drooling, Ben.” Her voice was tart, as usual, but he could discern a hint of vulnerability beneath.
“You’re beautiful.” He scooted closer, slowly enough that she could back away if she wanted to. She didn’t. He held out his hand, and she nodded once. His fingers traced the scar from one side of her stomach to the other. Her breath caught, but she didn’t move away. Then he laid his hand flat on her belly, absorbing that warmth and softness.
When he felt bumps rise on her skin in response to his touch, he looked up. Her eyes had darkened with desire—no green in sight.
“You’re strong,” he whispered, and then gently kissed the scar on her shoulder. “You’re powerful.” He kissed the curve of her neck. “I love you.”
“I love you, too.” Her words were barely more than a sigh, but her arms twined around his neck and she shifted herself up onto his lap. He groaned and as her lips came down on his; his fingers tangled in the weight of her hair. The magic globe of light snuffed out, leaving the room in dim shadows.
In that moment, the world receded—no worrying about the new Isle kids on their way, or his kingly duties, or whether he was doing the right thing. This girl, this time… this was right, and even if it wasn’t, as long as Mal kept making those happy little noises, Ben didn’t care.