Marius Alexander Ysvorod of Domitrian, crown prince of Dobrenica, woke to the sound of someone breathing.
Remembered elation pulled his gaze to the tousled blond head on the other pillow. Its wheat and gold and lemon yellow strands wove with entrancing carelessness into a long braid that looped and snaked to vanish under an upturned wrist.
Kim. His wife.
He restrained the compulsion to touch, desire spiked by anticipation: like those interleaved strands of long blond hair, rapture layered in polysemy.
His body pulsed with the last echoes of passion, and with the sweetness of memory—the wedding, the journey to Venice, watching his wife (his wife!) take in one of the most beautiful cities in Europe with all the intense appreciation that characterized her.
And finally? The warp and weft of pleasure.
His first, disastrous marriage had begun to fade into remembrance of a defensive alcoholic haze. Its horrific finish engendered another kind of pulse, the gut constriction of horror. Poor Ruli—shackled into a travesty of wedded life by duty as much as he had been. She had not deserved that end.
He rose up on an elbow, lured by the curve of Kim’s cheek. It still unsettled him how alike Kim and Ruli appeared, then he’d blink and the resemblance was gone: Ruli’s jaw was narrower, her nose thin and missing that charming bump, but more profound was the difference in their countenances.
He leaned with exquisite care, for he would not wake her for the world. Even in sleep her expression was utterly unlike Ruli’s; the corners of her mouth still shadowed in laughter, a palimpsest of lingering joy.
He had respected Ruli’s sense of duty in going through with that marriage, but sharing a suite had scarcely been tolerable. He had felt crowded by her yammering French music, her fashion mannequin friends, the put-upon catch in her voice, the scent of her perfume, and had had to put several rooms between them, as if physical isolation could mitigate the emotional anguish.
It had not.
He stretched out his hand, cupping the air above Kim’s temple. His palm ached with the need to touch, to stroke, to draw closer, and a wave of tenderness washed down him in a glissade of bliss—carillons on glass—to pool in warm insistence at his root.
He had never in his life shared a room. Even at school he had had his own private chamber, small as it had been. He had never liked sleeping in someone else’s bed; his lovers had understood that, and generous in nature, had accepted his idiosyncrasies.
He leaned back against his pillow and crossed his arms behind his head. This desire to sleep beside her for all the days of his life, would it change? It signaled a tectonic shift in paradigm—
A hand entered his field of vision, banishing thought. His head turned to follow the slim fingers to wrist, up forearm to the soft skin inside her elbow with its blue vein gently ticking her heartbeat, thence along the contoured upper arm to a round shoulder, her honey-colored skin flushed rosy from sleep.
Their gazes met and meshed, her warm brown eyes narrowed in mirth.
He moved, capturing her arm so that he could press into that hollow in her elbow a contemplative kiss.
Her lips parted.
Warmth flared up into insistence, and her eyes widened. She flung her braid back and sat up, the sheet falling away from all the delightful curves that wrung from him a deep sigh.
He reached for her, but checked when the smooth muscles under her satin flesh stiffened subtly. “No?” he whispered.
“It’s just, I don't want to inflict on you my morning death breath,” she said, flushing to her ears.
His answer was a thorough kiss.
She returned it with such enthusiasm that the pearlescent pre-dawn glow filtering through the elegant curtains had strengthened to a minatory shaft of late morning light before they relaxed with a sigh.
“Why did my bones have to dissolve?” Kim addressed the ceiling. “Here I am, sweating like a horse. How am I going to get to that bathroom when you've reduced me to jelly? It's good jelly, but . . . I know. You can go first,” she added. “While I make a supreme effort to stand up.”
“How about,” he whispered into her collarbones, “we go together?”
After another interlude they sat facing one another in the bathtub, naked as the day they had first entered the world. Kim let out a sigh of contentment.
He said, “What are you thinking, your highness?”
She made a wry face. “That still feels so . . . pompous? Fake? I mean, I used to dress up for the Renaissance Pleasure Faire and we your majestied and your highnessed each other all over the place, but it was. . .” She shrugged, splashing her hands in the bath water, “Street theater.”
“But court protocol is the essence of theater,” Alec said. “What else can it be? It’s a play everyone agrees to act out, each knowing his or her part in our pretense at civilized being.”
“And someone’s got to be king,” Kim said. “I know. We’ve been over it, and I am not complaining. For one thing, the bennies are fantastic.”
“A royal palace? Or are you referring to the chauffeured Kingmobile?”
She lifted a ballet-trained leg, and with the precision of a duelist twitched her toes on a part of his anatomy that provoked a tidal wave. “You.”
When the water resettled at last, she observed, “You were awake.”
He laughed. “Just now? During our wedding? Or is that an existential observation.”
“This morning,” she said. “It just hit me. I didn’t wake you up. You were already awake.”
Experienced by now, he looked past her statement of the obvious to the implied question. “Contemplating all the permutations of happiness,” he said. Sure enough, the faint pucker in her brow smoothed.
He could have stopped there, and he knew she would have been content with that, but he could not resist this new pleasure, no, a rarity—a luxury—a gift, of being able to share his thoughts. As he thought them. Without pondering risks and ramifications. “I never believed I would like sharing a bedroom,” he said.
Her brows lifted—the genetic shape of Ruli’s, but Kim had never used tweezers in her life, and Ruli’s beautifully groomed eyebrows had so rarely quirked in laughter—and she said, “Well, after you’ve heard enough of my snores, or I’ve smacked you in the mazzard turning over, or strangled you with my braid, you might change your mind.”
Her jokes, he had begun to understand, were the impulse of a nature raised to regard happiness as conditional at best. Kim, who insisted so blithely that she had had the most tranquil of childhoods, prowled warily round the concept of trust.
He was going to return a noncommittal answer, but then she surprised him, as she sometimes did, with a parallel line of thought: “It’s tenderness, isn’t it? That makes the difference? I’m trying to understand it.”
By now they had toweled off, and she stood limned in light as she combed out her tangled mane. He wished she could go about just like that, robed only in that long hair. He would worship every breeze.
Unheeding, she went on. “Not that you weren’t tender with your sweeties, I’m sure. But it’s just that I was kinda the same. Liked my space. Liked my dates, but when I was done with them, they could go away again.” She faced him. “We’re not done.”
“We will never be done,” he said, and watched her laugh. “Where shall we go first?”
“You’ve been to Venice.” She pulled on a flimsy blouse, her voice muffled. “The closest I've come, if we don't count Venice Beach south of Santa Monica, is pictures of all the obvious stuff. And I want to see the popular places,” she added hastily, emerging with ruffled hair. “They're popular for a reason, I figure. But first, surprise me!”
He was very ready to do that. By the time they had eaten breakfast and walked out into the brilliant light of Venice in September, he had mentally sorted his choices, at the front those he guessed she would appreciate most.
But scarcely had they stepped over one of the fairy-tale bridges, green with moss half-obscuring a sly gargoyle slanting its wicked gaze up at them, he felt Kim stiffen at his side.
He made a fast scan for threat—peaceful water with its rippling shadows of Renaissance palazzos—gondolas tooling lazily—birds drifting spread-winged on currents of balmy summer air.
“Do you see her?” Kim whispered, gazing straight at a smoke-blackened stone wall. A deep breath, and then, “I wonder what she wants?”
A ghost, of course. A ghost he could not see, whose history lay somewhere beyond a turn in the air that he could not perceive: a history and a mystery, and here was Kim walking with intent, because of course she must champion those who might have longed for justice for days or for centuries.
Surprise me, she had said, but it was she who surprised him, every day, every hour.
“Alec? I think . . . do you mind if I just follow her a bit?”
“Lead on,” he said as their fingers interlaced. “Wherever it takes us.”