“I think I like this best of all,” she said to him.
The early morning light was pushing in at the windows, forcing the shadows to the corners, the space behind the chest of drawers, the hollow at her throat. The room held the fragrance of the small nosegay of lavender stock and lily-of-the-valley that she had carried at the ceremony, now sitting in a tumbler drafted into service as a vase. She had not thought such a familiar place could feel so different; she had been in the room numberless times and had spent a pleasant morning changing the linens, dusting the furniture and moving here and there a few small items, a framed picture, a little dish to hold bijoux, the trappings of a home. She’d surprised herself by peering thoughtfully at herself in the glass and wondering if he would notice if she changed the way she dressed her hair, if her eyes would look the same the next day. Then she had spent minutes looking out the window, looking but not seeing anything much but the sky, such a pale blue it was as if it were all cloud.
Now, he lay beside her and the counterpane she had smoothed across the bed so gently yesterday morning was rumpled, one corner drooping nearly to the oak floorboards. She had woken first, just long enough to reflect on herself watching him breathe, observing the line of him against the sunlight. He looked younger and older at once, his brow unfurrowed, the grey in his beard and at his temples evident. Something about the way his throat led into the firm muscle of his shoulder felt so much like the boy he had been and she felt desire in her fingertips and then trailing up through her wrist and forearm, to stroke him there, save that she would not wake him. She had not thought they would sleep without nightclothes, but this morning, it seemed that could only ever have been the way of it. He had smiled at her in the night when he took the nightgown from her, a little feral but all the more attractive for the shock of it in his dear face, and declared,
“I don’t want this.”
The nightdress, with its delicate frills and precious ivory silk ribbon strung at the neck, a gift from her sister, now lay upon the floor, a discarded chrysalis. He had touched her so intently and so deftly, it was as if he had taught her to know herself in this way as he had sought to in so many others. It was as if she had learned her own skin’s defining importance through his hands and his mouth, the press of him above and around, and oh, how deliciously, within! She had cried aloud with it and he had let her, let her, then kissed her so he might swallow the sound, greedily licking it out of her mouth. She had been eager and not even a little shy, which startled him a bit; he had not expected her tender, ardent touch to match his own and she’d heard it in his gasps, his complete pause when she drew him deeper and closer, the relief he’d felt evident within his patient love. He had murmured in her ear as he spent, “Oh, my beautiful wife! Mine, mine, my own lovely girl!” She had already had her pleasure but it was redoubled seeing his. She had pulled him close to her, wanting to keep him, and had whispered back, tousling his dark curls,
“Yours, only yours, love.”
Yet all that and the sleep that came after, his hand on her belly, hers upon his, still fell short of this moment of waking to find none of it a dream. Or rather, a dream they had had together, and so vivid and right it had broken through to become reality. She had not thought they would marry, for such a long time, and had not admitted to herself how much she wanted it until he had proposed. Even then, there had been complications and delays, and she had struggled a little to maintain the joy of that first acceptance, the first dizzying kiss, how she had taken his hands in her own. The knowledge that these mornings would become ordinary, that she could one day turn away from him, confident of finding him behind her, always within reach, seemed the manifestation of their vows. If she said as much to him, surely he would smile as her musings, the proud smile of a fond husband, so she had tried to find something more succinct, more apt. She wanted him to understand, not to indulge her.
“Best of all?” he asked. His voice was a little rough with sleep and she found she liked hearing it so, just as she liked watching him stretch his arms out above his head and then towards her, reaching whatever he could. He caught at some of her loose curls, grazed a finger along her jaw, the touches of a man who could not quite believe his good fortune, but who meant to make the most of it. He looked at her, a warm look that recalled the heat of the spring night and she felt something close to flustered.
“Last night was… eminently satisfactory, of course,” she tried.
“Oh dear. That simply won’t do. I must endeavor to do better,” he said as he moved his hand down to her waist, atop the sheet. She had not let herself wonder, well not very much, about what this morning would hold, how he would treat her as a husband, and she was quite delighted with him. She knew he was not trying to conceal his earnestness with humor, but that this was how he would talk to her from now on, in their bed, or if they were alone in a hallway, the parlor with its lamps lit. She could anticipate his beard brushing the soft skin of her nape, his hand more gentle on her shoulder than when he pulled his cravat loose at the end of a tiring day. He would always offer an invitation she might accept.
“You shall ‘endeavor?’” she replied, teasing a little while she moved closer to him, not waiting for the pressure of his hand to tug her forward. She laid her head against his bare shoulder, turned her cheek to his chest and let her hand rest against his heart. All those evenings of decorum in a place that was not their own, among so many others! During those conversations about books or political philosophy or ethics, the larger world, his dark eyes regarded her so keenly—she had not allowed herself to long for a moment like this, the same conversation but richer and safer, wilder. She might say anything at all now! She had not thought the most serious bond of marriage would permit them such lively play. But that was what last night had been, in equal part with communion and devotion, and now again, as she fondled the short curls scattered across his broad chest, daring him with her hands, her tone, her attempt at a coquette’s glance.
“I am a man of unconventional ambitions,” he said, as gravely as he could manage. She would have smiled at that, the juxtaposition of truths: his professional interests always focused on discovery of the new within the known, never prestige or fortune; marriage to a wife whose own interests hardly fit within the domestic sphere; and his clever, gentle hands, wandering to the crook of her elbow, skidding along her vertebrae as she arched her back, to the exquisite, hidden warmth between her legs he had wanted revealed to her even more than himself. She would have smiled but for his caressing hands and his own smile, affectionate and merry, and so she sighed and let him challenge her. It was, after all, why she had married him and there were hours yet before they were expected anywhere.