Dancing first, he had said.
As the afternoon's shadows stretched to evening, his clasp on her hand was firmer, his arm on her waist more insistent, as he spun her, reeling her out, reeling her in, careening through the garden walks. She knew what it would be like, coupling with him. She was not Hero, not some shamefast, eyes-down, unschooled city maiden. Her early years had been spent in the countryside, and she had seen enough stallions top their mares to know how the evening's festivities would end. Which was why she was hardly astonished, when he dragged her into the narrow court beside the garden, the one where the chicken coops were stored, hardly astonished when he pressed her against the stone and seized her face in his hands. She was ready for him, braced for him, determined he would no more get the better of her in this than in aught else.
But then, an inch from her face, with the warm stucco scratching her back and his warmer body pressed against hers, he stopped. Simply stopped, his mouth inches from hers, his thumbs still stroking the side of her face, and though she cast about for the right challenge, the wry sly comment that would twit him for it, none came.
"Beatrice," he said softly, his breath shivering her ear.
She pulled back and met his eyes, and found them dark and solemn. She had not known they could do that, change colors so completely, and her chest tightened a little. The hairs of his close-cropped beard were the color of wheat.
"What ails you, Signor Benedick," she found breath to say.
"Beatrice," he said again. "Shall we indeed be married? Do you want this?"
It pulled her feet from under her, that he would ask her, that he would give her this chance even now, after their public profession, after all that had happened. His eyes were so utterly undressed she wanted to look away, but they caught and held her. "Because if you don't – if you truly do not wish it – then I will walk away, and we will never speak of this again. As a sister you shall be to me." His hand dropped from her face, but as it dropped it managed to brush her breast in what she could not imagine to be an accident, and she knew his jade's trick. Not above a little persuasiveness, was Benedick. And yet his eyes were dark and unblinking on her, and her throat felt parched, and she knew it was not all from the dancing.
"You do not speak," he said softly.
Her lips twitched upwards as she remembered how he had stopped her mouth earlier, and she tilted forward and pressed her lips against his. As she closed the distance between them she brought her hips against his, and she felt his flinch, the slight recoil, and it brought her up short. She pulled back and frowned at him. "And yet it is you who flinch from me, Signor," she said.
His hands were back at her waist, pulling her closer. "Aye, that I do, mistress," he whispered. "For should you feel how much I desire you, you would know how completely you have mastered me." He edged her back against the wall, pressing his hips into hers, and it gave her a pleasurable jolt to realize they were much of the same height, and his hips were exactly level with hers, and then the pleasurable jolt became a steady thrum as he pressed himself against her, and she felt the hard length of him, felt him gasp into her neck as she rubbed against him.
"Beatrice," he groaned. "Beatrice," he said, more roughly this time, and his hands at her waist pushed her a few inches away, and she saw that his breathing was as fast and labored as hers. "By the gods. . ."
Very deliberately she hooked her hands into the trouser loops she found and rocked him back against her. Slower this time, steadier, and she adjusted their position until he was rubbing against her there, oh right there, and they kept their eyes locked, their mouths open to swallow air.
"Let me go, Beatrice, or by'r lady in three seconds I shall hike that lovely skirt and fuck you right here against the wall like a dairymaid, priest's blessing or no, wedded wife or not. Is that what you—ah, God, God. . ."
She lowered her hands to cup his arse, bringing her mouth to his ear. "Perhaps it is," she breathed, and he was not asking permission now. His hands grabbed fistfuls of skirt and slammed her against the wall, and had she found breath to laugh she would have crowed aloud at seeing him so undone, except she could hear her own breathing, hear the groaning in her voice, and knew that she was as unmanned as he, and then he was fumbling with his trouser placket, hasty, desperate.
"Yes," she managed, and threw her legs wide, curling a brown thigh around him just as he thrust home, and her head shot back and hit the wall a trifle harder than she might have wished, and her eyes stung from it and from the pain that shot like red fire upwards from her groin, and her voice broke on the cry.
He froze on the instant, already buried in her. When she was eleven she had fallen from the laurel tree to the west of the garden, and had landed with a thump on the gravel, and for a few dizzying seconds the blue sky had spun overhead before breath had returned. It was like falling from a tree, it was like dancing until you were faint, it was like teetering on the edge of the wall.
"Beatrice—ah, Christ, Beatrice, forgive me, what have I—"
"Don't move," she said, when the air rushed back into her lungs, and he obeyed, cradling her there against the wall, his shaft a pulse within her, his arms firm around her. She sank her head against his shoulder.
"If I move," he whispered after a bit, "it will be good."
She shook her head, her eyes closed.
"Dearest. You must trust me."
She nodded into his neck, and he slowly pulled out a bit, and slowly, ever so slowly, back in, and then again, and by the third time the burn and the fire of it had lessened, and something else, something else entirely, was taking its place. His fingers tightened on her rump, and she tried, tentatively, thrusting against him as he thrust into her, and oh, the warm deep pleasure of it, so alien and indescribable and hungry that she gasped aloud.
He moved just the tiniest bit faster, and the thought flitted across her brain that he certainly knew what he was about, and the wrench of jealousy struck cold in her belly for just a second before she squashed it, and now she felt only his lips on her jaw, his fingers on her back, his shaft stroking, stroking her, and oh oh oh there was a warmth that flooded her to her toes, and she must have more and more and more, and she began to push and thrust and rock against him, her fingers tight in his hair.
"Sweet one, sweet Beatrice—" And she wanted to throw her head back and laugh aloud at that, that he could call her sweet whose mouth had never dripped aught but tart around him, but it was not a jest, she knew exactly what he meant, this man whose barbs and taunts were sweeter to her than honey on walnuts, than the sweat that beaded at the base of his throat, and she ran her tongue over it just to see, and relished his groan.
"Yes, yes, love," she said, tasting the word on her tongue. She felt him shudder beneath her to hear it, and then he shifted, angled up a bit, and the warm steady stroking became sharp, unbearable, too much, too good, too fast, and she was crying out with each thrust, shaking, shaking as the heat shot down her legs and her arms, and black spangles spun behind her eyelids.
"Bea—Beatrice—God, Christ—ohhh. . ." Wet heat flooded her, whether hers or his she could not tell, and her body arched and curled and quaked around him, they were sweat and fire and flood, and their legs spasmed and gave beneath them, and only the wall held them. It took long moments for the earth to settle back into its accustomed place, as they slumped unmoving against the courtyard wall. She was the first to find her tongue.
"Well, Signor Benedick," she panted, her voice gone quite hoarse, "if you wish to gain the upper hand of your friend young Claudio, this time you can be the one to cry foul to the priest, and there'll be none to gainsay you."
His back shook with laughter under her fingers. "Shall you swoon away dead for me, if I do?" he murmured.
"Only after I have beaten you senseless with the altar candle."
He chuckled, but made no move to disentangle them. They stayed knotted together for another few minutes, and he began to brush feather kisses up and down her neck. "Beatrice."
He raised his head and met her eyes. "That is not what I. . .ah, dear one. Forgive my clumsy, selfish, addle-pated idiocy."
She arched a brow. "That, I am going to want written on a scroll, that I might carry it with me always."
"I shall have a locket inscribed."
She ran a finger down his beard. "Look not so, love," she said softly. "I am glad for it. Too wise to woo peaceably, you said? Too eager to woo at all, I should say."
He slipped out of her, and it felt as though her spine went with him, so boneless was she. He caught her as she swayed, and frowned as he looked down. "Hold still."
"Oh." The pain shot through her again, duller this time, but a not unpleasant ache. There was blood on her thighs, and she winced at it. "Sorry."
"I shall ignore for now the obscenity of your apologizing to me," he said, tugging at the arm of his shirt.
"Benedick, what on earth are you—" The fabric gave, and he tore at the sleeve. He leaned over to the small basin of rain water perched on the wall, dipping the cloth into it, and knelt. Gently he wiped her thighs, her center, following the swipes of the cloth with kisses, kissing his way back up her body, her belly, her waist, her breasts, before pulling down her skirts and smoothing them. He leaned against the wall beside her when he was done, and they watched the first of the evening stars slip into place over Sicily.
His voice when he spoke was quiet. "I can do better than a hasty tumble against the poultry yard wall, you know."
"Oh, I doubt it not. Have I not heard these many years of the fearsome exploits of Benedick, terror of the ladies from Compostella to Durrazzo?"
His eyes went solemn again, and she knew that for the rest of her life her heart would turn over in her chest at the sight of it. "There was only ever one lady," he said, and she smiled at him, and he leaned and caught her lips in his, slow and lazy as they had not troubled to before, and she gave herself over to it.
"You must tell me about her someday," she said, still smiling against his lips.
"Oh, I shall. A nasty, ill-favoured thing she was, with the breath of a nanny goat and the grace of an ox in rut, her voice like the sound of Scottish horns being sodomized by a bull calf. But I loved her, it's true, and though she left me—"
"Left you? How shocking."
"'Tis true. But she bequeathed me her capacious girdle, which I had made into this shirt, and which alas, I fear shall never be quite the same."
"Oh, I can mend that," she said with a mischievous gleam, tugging at the other sleeve until she heard the satisfying rip. He groaned.
"A right buffoon I shall look at my wedding," he said ruefully, as she tossed the remains of his other sleeve over the wall. He held up his hand, forestalling the rejoinder that twitched her lip. "No, no, spare yourself the trouble." He ghosted another kiss along her jaw, brushing her hair back, tucking stray tendrils out of the way. "We shall be missed," he murmured. "We should go back. I have no desire to meet the point of your uncle's sword before I have met the priest at the church door."
"Wedding? Church door?" She slipped out from under his encircling arms. "Signor Benedick, I fear there has been some mistake. Now that I have had my way with you, I see no need to make an honest man of you. Had I known your virtue to be quite so pliable. . ." She laughed as he lunged for her, dancing just out of his reach, relishing his low chuckle, and she let his hand close on her wrist as she tugged him back into the shadows of the garden, into the torchlight and the music and the tipsy shrieks of joy.
Dancing first, he had said. And so they had, at that.