A Second Valentine
Set a year and a bit after the events of Teach Me.
Dappled sunlight painted her skin, forming shapes and patterns that changed with the ebb of the summer breeze.
Elizabeth turned her arm, watching as the pattern changed again with the movement. Sighing in pleasure, she abandoned the practice, leaning back to enjoy the sun against her face. Wool prickled under her hand, the blanket she’d laid over the grass a homespun affair she had procured from the kitchens as she’d passed through.
This Italian heat was so very different from an English summer. The heat prised under one’s skin, warming from the inside out, such that it was impossible to stand the layers upon layers comprising English wear. Wicked creature that she was, she’d succumbed to the Italian summer and wore only the barest minimum of garments, those only that would save her from scandal should she encounter a soul. Not that she would. They were blessedly alone here.
Idly, she cast her gaze over the vista before her. The ground sloped gently, down into the valley where she could see the villa she and James had leased. Tall golden grass rolled gently, a great yellow sea dotted here and there with a solitary laurel tree. In the distance, the spires and turrets of Florence rose, the impressive Duomo cathedral obvious even from her vantage.
This belated honeymoon had meandered through five months, starting upon their arrival at the lakeside villa in Como, where they’d spent their days lazing in their bedchamber. It had continued through a Venice alight with Carnevale, the decadent festival inciting James to tempt her with anonymity and wickedness in the shape of Bauta mask. This latest sojourn had them in Florence, the birthplace of the Renaissance, and her favourite of the places they’d been. The light here was astounding, shading the sky in radiant colour that turned to magnificent pastels at dusk, and she could well understand why artists were drawn to this place, to attempt to replicate its majesty and inspiration through paint and clay.
Closing her eyes, she pointed her toes, enjoying the freedom of bare feet. Such thoughts on majesty and art were for someone more motivated than she. Letting her head fall back, she allowed herself to wallow.
“This is how I find you, madam, lounging sloth-like against…is that wool?” The coolness of his voice and the disdain of his words were belied by his action as his hand smoothed over her hair and trailed gently down her neck in greeting.
“Of course. What else should I be doing on a day like today?” She cracked an eye. James. Her husband. Lord, it still astounded her he was her husband. “And there’s nothing wrong with wool.”
He loomed over her, his body blocking the sun. Almost he seemed intimidating like this, his features cast in shadow and appearing as if a stranger. “There is nothing right with it, either. Especially in such a form.” As he sat himself beside her, shadow receded and he was again her James, clothing precise, dark hair carefully curled, though his ice-blue gaze warmed as he observed her loosened garments and bare feet.
He placed something papery in her lap. “You left this in my study.”
She turned the object over, her fingers tangling in the lacework cut into the edge of the heavy paper. Amusement filled her as she realised what it was. “You found the valentine.”
Bending his knee, he placed his arm atop it. “I could not help but find it, positioned as it was so prettily upon my desk, surrounded by orange blossom and rose petals. If I somehow failed to notice that, the note dangled in my wardrobe informing me I had better enter the study or there would be dire consequence to pay would have alerted me. And, failing that, the second note amongst my shaving implements would have pointed me there. Finally, if somehow I had missed the first two, or the valentine itself, there was yet a third, propped against my breakfast.” He raised a brow. “Tell me, how is it apropos you are giving a valentine in July?”
Lifting a shoulder, she examined the frothy concoction in her lap. Good lord, it was truly a sight. What had possessed her to attach so much ribbon?“Well, the valentine I gave you last February did not have the desired result.”
“Desired result.” Really, he had no call to sound so amused. “Truly, my dear, your talent for understatement astounds.”
Again she shrugged. She would not say anything further than that. They had not often talked of the February valentine, and what had occurred upon his discovery of it. She had not wanted to cause him discomfort, or a renewal of the panic that had gripped him them. If and when he wished to discuss it, they would. Until then, she would treat it as lightly as she could.
“Elizabeth.” Looking up, she found him regarding her. “And so you chose to replicate after the stunning success of the last because…?”
“Those were extenuating circumstances.” In imitation of him, she raised a brow. “You were obviously overwhelmed by the magnificence of my gesture.”
“Indeed.” Ice-blue eyes smiled at her, even as his expression remained impassive. “Well, I am here. What next?”
Fingers still tangled in the ribbon, she shook the concoction. “Did you not read the valentine?”
“Madam, I am here. ’Tis obvious I read it.”
“Now, there’s no need to be snide.”
The Arctic would have been warmer than his tone. However, she’d not let such stop her before. “Snide.”
His face shuttered, becoming imperious, though she could see the humour lurking beneath. “The Earl of Malvern is never snide.”
“Well, the Earl of Malvern just was ‘snide’, and no attempt at intimidation is going to change that.”
“Attempt? I’ll have you know that look quelled the queen herself.”
“Really?” Widening her eyes, she tucked her fist under her chin. “When?”
Brows drawn, he stared at her. Finally, he exhaled. “I was being facetious.” The faint hint of chagrin in his features was so very endearing.
“Honestly? Well, glory be! I had no notion of such, being as it is you are such a regular attendee of the queen. Since I’ve known you, I believe you were in the same general vicinity as her on two separate occasions.” Biting her lip, she stifled laughter.
He muttered in Italian, his scowl hinting at what he said.
“Not sporting, my lord.” She hit him with the valentine. “You know I cannot understand your meaning.”
He endured her punishment without reaction…and then said something in Italian.
“Well, this is just defiance and anarchy. Honestly, the British empire will fall with such as you as her representative. Whatever would your dear friend, the queen, have to say?”
Still he did not respond to her teasing. Ignoring her, he instead spoke in the same lyrical language she had no hope of understanding.
Gaze level, eyes intensely blue, he leaned closer, his hand rising to cradling her cheek.
The lyrical words flowed over her, spoken in his rich, beautiful voice that had seduced her from the first. His thumb traced her jawbone, her lips. Warmth wove through her, the faint stirring of arousal loosening her breath.
Finally, he spoke a tongue she understood. “Is this why you wanted me here?”
She opened her eyes. Lord, she hadn’t even realised she closed them. “Oh. The valentine.”
Amusement threaded his tone. “Yes, the valentine.”
The thing still sat in her lap, crumpled and damaged now. “Did you truly read the message?”
James smiled, and she knew again how fortunate she was he chose to share himself with her. No one else saw him so open, so unguarded. “‘Beloved James, though you think such things baseless and trite, I’ll always hope you might, consent to be my valentine, and I will love you come rain or shine. And though this verse is, vaguely trite and mostly baseless, you have accepted this valentine, and now you will always be mine.’” His smile widened. “I do believe you lost the rhyme in the middle there.”
“Rhymes are not my strong suit.” A curl of his hair had fallen to disorder. She tucked it back into place. “You remembered it?”
He said it as if it were naught, as if every husband would memorise his wife’s nonsense poem. Love for him overwhelmed her, consumed her.
His thumb followed her cheekbone. “And what did you hope to achieve with this verse?”
“I don’t know.” At first, she’d intended it as a bit of fun, maybe with the intent to tease him. Right now, though, she wanted none of that. Now, she simply wanted to bask in his touch. “I thought it might be construed as a lesson.”
His thumb stilled. “I don’t recall it on the curriculum.”
“It’s an addendum. I had a missive from the government to say it should be included.”
He stared at her. Finally, he spoke. “Now who is being facetious?”
With a smile, he let his hand fall from her and he lay on his back, holding open his arm. Taking his lead, she lay with him, fitting herself to the place he had made for her against him. Wrapping her arm around his waist, she stared at the sky as he stroked her back lazily, up and down.
“Where shall we go next?” she said.
“I think Positano.”
She looked at him sharply. He did not look at her, instead regarding the sky with an intensity she knew to be false.
Brows drawing together, she settled back against him. Positano. He’d told her before of the small village where he’d spent an inordinate amount of time as a youth, away from the dissolute influence of his father. She’d heard tales of village life and simplicity, of Sunday feasts and routine, and she’d heard the affection and longing he held for the place in each one. She knew what it meant to him. And she knew that, before now, he’d always been there alone.
“You would take me to Positano?” she asked softly.
“Elizabeth.” His finger under her chin tilted her gaze to his. He looked a bit uncertain, but resolute as well. “I would take you anywhere.”
She touched her forehead to his. “I love you.”
He closed his eyes, his breath shuddering through him. He did not say it back, but he didn’t need to. She had ever known of his love.
Before the ridiculous tears burning her eyes fell, she pushed herself up. “So,” she said brightly. “We’re off to Positano.”
“Yes.” Wryness filled his tone as he, too, rose. “Mayhap I should write ahead, warn them to brace themselves.”
“We should prepare.” All they had to do before they left Florence tumbled through her mind. Lists. She needed to make lists. She should really get back to the villa, there was so much to do. “We shall have to procure accommodation, and I suppose the packing must commence as soon as possible-”
He caught her arm. Pausing in the act of standing, she glanced down at him. Her heart started to pound.
Eyes dark with promise, wickedness drew his features, intent and purpose in every line. “Elizabeth. We are alone.”
Mouth abruptly dry, she nodded. “Yes.”
“And you gave me a valentine.”
Tongue darting out, she wet her lips. “Yes.”
“So…come here.” He drew her to him, and without protest she went.
His hand drifted up her arm, over her shoulder, along her collarbone. “There is a proper way to show appreciation for a gift such as a valentine,” he murmured.
She arched her neck and gave herself up to him. Her James. Her love.
His lips brushed against her ear. “Let me teach you.”