Her cotton gown clung to her, twisting about her until she felt bound—kicking her legs, she tugged at the fabric to unwind it, freeing herself. Alice sat upright, eyes blinded by the darkness of her bedroom, and sighed. Sleep eluded her, tired as she was, and there was no question as to why.
She sighed again, partly in irritation, but in no small part of frustration.
She scowled, the anxious feeling growing stronger. She felt restless, agitated. The sensation puzzled her, and—like any irredeemably curious person—she dwelled on it, pondered it, sought out its secret.
Alice lay back in the bed, tracing backwards the paths in her mind, applying her personal brand of logic to the now-lessening anxiety. She clearly recalled the time she'd spent at the window, the calm and fatigue setting in; then he had appeared, and she'd felt—she struggled for a word, refusing excitement and anticipation, as they implied something she didn't want to admit (even to herself, even now, even in the dark). She settled on sweet terror, cringing at the phrase, but unable to produce a more suitable alternative.
Oh! how her heart raced at the recollection of his visit—his eyes, burning with an intensity she'd never before witnessed…her heart had thundered then, too—at his words, his gaze, his brief touch. If she permitted the memory to linger in the forefront of her mind, she could almost feel the warmth of his fingertips against her own.
The uncomfortable anxiety twisted her again, and her puzzlement returned. Undoubtedly, this odd sensation was connected to Reginald.
She let it wash over her, immersed herself in it. Here was a feeling unlike any other she'd known—it certainly wasn't an infatuation, for she knew those, had experienced one not so very many years ago. Those feelings she could easily recall: the giddy excitement at seeing the boy, the private daydreams of romantic proposals and at least one elopement…pure fantasy, all in her imagination. The feelings disappeared with him every time he left her presence. He was too readily forgotten. This, with Reginald, however…
Alice shook her head, pushing the thought from her mind. Impossible.
She sat up again, reaching for the lamp on her bedside table. She fumbled in the dark with the match, her fingers trembling slightly, and—once lit—she secured the globe and held the lamp aloft, its flickering glow lighting her way downstairs. Her mind still churned.
She hesitated at the bottom of the staircase, then turned to the parlor and the bookcase waiting therein. Pulling a knit coverlet from the settee, she curled into a chair closest to her books. The lamp set aside, she glanced at the spines, seeking something to distract and lull her brain into drowsiness. One volume in particular struck her as promising: Great Art of the Continent: a Gentleman's Tour Abroad, by Richard Doyle, Esq.
Alice snorted in a very unladylike manner. Surely Mr. Richard Doyle, Esq., would be dull enough to put her to sleep. She pulled the book from the shelf, vainly tried to remember how it had come into her possession (dimly recalling a birthday party or some other celebration—perhaps a distant, uninteresting relative had given it to her), and cracked open the pages. She began at the beginning, in that mecca of culture called Italy.
Alice, it should be said, indeed possessed an eye for things of beauty. The inherent value of paintings and sculptures did not escape her, but she was far more selective than many connoisseurs deemed necessary. In short, she loved beauty for beauty's sake, nothing more. She did not concern herself with implications and interpretations, layers of meaning or intent—she merely observed, decided whether or not she thought it pretty, and moved on. This same approach applied when looking at photographs and plates of the finest works on the Continent, and she rapidly skipped through the pages.
Suddenly, however, she was turning back a page, drawn to a photograph of the Statue of David. Her eyes darted over the image, lingering briefly there before she looked away, her cheeks aflame.
She had never seen a man unclothed. Infant boys, yes—but how could one compare a baby to a grown man?
Determined, she looked again. There was no one to know, after all, no one to pass judgment on her for her curiosity in such matters. She lifted the book closer, wishing Mr. Richard Doyle, Esq., had spent his time and fortune on more or better photographic plates, as this one had left something to be desired in its results. The David's…parts…looked terribly small, especially compared to the rest of him.
This is what the matrons whisper about? she wondered. There's nothing of note here, nothing at all! Why, I shouldn't be afraid of my husband if he looked like this. He looks like a child!
She laughed to herself, her blush still warming her cheeks, and rested her head against the back of the chair. She closed her eyes, smiling at memories of all the secretive, furtive whispers, the admonitions to "be more understanding" of the newly-married girls and their "duties" to their husbands.
I should think lying with a man would hardly be a duty, if men are such as this. She yawned, pulling the coverlet higher. I think I should find such a duty rather uninteresting. Certainly nothing to be afraid of!
"And what have we here, Cricket? Oh, naughty!"
Alice's eyes popped open and she shrieked, the book tumbling from her lap to the floor. "Reginald?"
He was peering down at her over the back of the chair, eyes dancing in wicked merriment. "You were looking at a naked man!"
"I was doing nothing of the sort!"
"Don't deny it, Alice—I saw it." His grin was victorious.
She hmmm'd in disapproval and bent to retrieve the book, smoothing the pages before snapping it shut. "I don't know how you managed to get into my house, Reginald, but you must leave. I'm going to bed."
"That photograph's not accurate, you know."
Her face bloomed with color. "I beg your pardon!"
"No begging necessary, nor pardon, either. Besides," here his grin widened, "I meant the poor lighting. It makes for terrible shadows and utterly ruins the look of the piece."
Alice blinked, her blush unfading.
"However…I must confess: it's not the best representation—if I do say so, myself."
"I—I—I don't know what you're talking about!"
He stepped around the chair, leaning over her. All pretense of humor was gone from his face. "Oh, but I think you do." He drew closer, brushing her cheek with his as she pressed herself into the back of the chair. "Alice…Cricket…I would be more than pleased to satisfy your curiosity…" Her eyes widened, his breath hot against her ear. "…on any subject."
She turned to look at him and their mouths met—a quick brushing of skin against skin, her lips parting in a little "o" of surprise, and then he was upon her, his ungloved hand fisted in the hair at the nape of her neck, his teeth grazing her lower lip, unintelligible words tripping off his tongue as he kissed her, pulled away, then returned for another taste. A warmth blossomed in her womb, burning quickly through her veins out to her fingertips—she felt electrified; she trembled and did not understand why. She turned away from him, gasping, and placed one hand on his chest and pushed with all her might. He staggered back, eyes dark and cheeks reddened.
"You taste marvelous."
Alice doubted she could turn any pinker than she was at that moment. "You are appalling, Reginald! How—you say the most ridiculous things!"
"It's true, though. You're delicious." That hell-bound grin returned. "And to think, that's only your mouth!"
She stood, wrapping the coverlet about her. "As opposed to what, pray tell?"
"Sweet cricket, don't tempt me."
They faced one another in silence, her heart thudding loudly so that it roared in her ears. Nearly a minute passed as they stared, waiting for the breaking point, when—
"Damn it all—I can't help myself—"
—and he was crossing the floor, his hands sliding under the coverlet and over her gown, smoothing the cotton over her body and pulling her against him, he was kissing her again, his nose bumping hers—she smiled against his lips, and he laughed softly against hers, then his mouth moved to her throat, teeth gently nipping at the white flesh under her jaw.
"You're cream—sweet, delectable cream—" he kissed the hollow of her throat, "and I should like very much to have you for tea."
She clung to him, very nearly limp, and reminded him, "You have me for tea almost every day."
He smiled against her collarbone. "No, my sweet—I would like to have you for tea." His thumb grazed her side, scant inches from her breast. "You would be delightful spread upon my table."
Alice suspected her entire body had flushed pink at his words, and could not account for the quaking thrill, an answering thrum in her belly. "Reginald…" She attempted to admonish him, but the name came out almost a plea.
He brushed her hair from her face with one hand, the other securely twisted in the excess of her gown, keeping her close. "You can do anything you like, Alice. Or let me do it for you…" He pressed a kiss to her jaw, back down the column of her throat…she bent with him, permitting him to trail a line of warm kisses down her breastbone until her collar stopped his advance. He reached up and fingered a button, eyes meeting hers and finding no denial; the button slid from its confines and the fabric parted. He repeated the action twice more, exposing to his view the soft, white flesh between her breasts. Reginald dropped to his knees, she sank back into the chair, and he kissed that delicate skin, suddenly laving it with his tongue in a smooth lick up to her throat.
He reached for the next button, spreading the gown open wider—she felt a chill in the air—
Alice's eyes popped open, her breath caught. The room was dark, and she was very much alone, save Mr. Richard Doyle, Esq.'s poorly-captured image of the David lying upon her lap.