She was still pink from her bath and the water, which had been almost scalding, left her skin feeling vulnerable so she shivered more than usual beneath her paper-thin chemise. The tang of rose persisted on her skin and the back of her neck seared where the white lace had been scratching all day. Her heels were scraped bloody in her shoes and they were now over-sensitive and felt alien to her. The stone was bitter cold on her toes. She sat on the edge of the bed just to relieve herself of the ice. The day had been long and she was half-dreaming already, and would be half-asleep were her heart not thundering with expectation.
She could hear his breathing in the room already. Darkling, I listen. It was hardly light enough to make him out in any degree more specific than the crooked black shape beside the window.
“Call me husband,” he breathed. His voice sounded weaker than usual.
“Husband.” But her voice was little better than a hoarse whisper. Richard seemed satisfied at this, however, and cocked his head into a sliver of moonlight a little and Anne could see how he was inspecting her as one inspects a noble work of art. Tracing an eye over the line of her jaw and how the shadows fell upon it, something to be admired but never to be touched. She cleared her throat thickly and then she said, “Richard.” And the name felt like a sin.
He sighed at this and drew his gaze down the canvas and Anne felt the curve of her flank grow hot beneath the thin material as his eyes traced it, like an animal in the bushes as the prey passes by. His uneven gait across the stone fell awkwardly on her ear but he was soon sat beside her and, though one hand – whilst the other hung limply and palely on his lap – moved up her form as if to touch, not a part of her skin was subjected to him. He traced curves in the air but dare not bring the fingers down to her. She received a thrill from this. Anne wondered why he did not touch, and quickly amused herself with the thought of him being too afraid. She must take what amusement she could in this cold bedroom, with the sight of the bed boring a hole into her mind.
She looked him in the eye quite boldly and asked, “Call me Anne.”
He snarled. She noticed it. He was challenged by this. Unrelenting, she cocked an eyebrow at him and a moonlight-dazzled gaze intensified on him. Her hand caught his and held it steady. Almost an exclamation of surprise, he choked out, “Anne.”, and Anne felt her eyelids sink.
“Allow me.” Feeling steadily bolder now, as she saw his expression shift as the dark clouds did across pinpricks of starlight, one moment he seemed thrilled by her, excited by her, stirred, and the next he seemed confused, appalled perhaps at her forwardness. Unknown to woman, she thought, this was the only game in which he had no advantage. Her hands stopped at his shoulders and the muscle beneath tensed.
He gave her a look: half agony, half innocence.
Her fingers pressed at the buttons and slipped them carefully through the loops of fabric, one by one, meticulously, careful to control her breathing lest he should believe her to be afraid. She began at the top and, working her way down, his chest was revealed to her until she was able to peel back the thick black fabric, and cast it off. The cold air of the chamber must have hit him, as he momentarily seemed to shake, before he stilled. He did not look her in the eye.
He was not mangled as she had expected, nor was he disgusting to her sight in the least, much contradictory to her expectations from having observed him clothed and deformed and lame.
Around his abdomen, the muscle was sound and sturdy, strengthened by the difficulty of his limp, she supposed, and though it was thin with neglect it was handsome in its way. She studied it in silence, and he allowed her to. She wondered whether he felt shame at it. His right shoulder was almost collapsed, the arm hanging from it dead and almost purple and it lay unmoved on his lap. She pressed her fingers into the deadened limb. It felt like wax at first. It was cold as death and the skin was smooth and firm and odd. As she pressed, she felt how the muscle was spongy. She could feel through to the bone which was brittle and unnatural as if it had been carved cheaply. A toy for a child perhaps, broken in a moment. She passed her strong muscle over it, to feel it's inferiority. But no sense of discomfort passed through his features, for he could feel nothing. She could cut his veins open and he would not flinch.
She felt a sudden urge to pick up his dead hand and press it hard to her bosom or kiss it. It might give him some agony, to know of a kiss whilst being unable to feel it or to know of a body without being able to enjoy it. But she left his arm where it lay and moved around the bed until she was knelt behind him. He did not stir at this; she half expected him to, in some flight of nervous agitation. Anne was unsure whether it was trust in her that kept him still. He could not have known what she would do: she could kneel behind him and cut his throat and he would be powerless to stop it.
But she had no knife, no weapon, so she continued to view his deformities, as if he were an exhibit to her curious eye. She had always wondered, seeing the Duke’s faltering step storming down stairways, what his body looked like. It was a morbid curiosity.
The hump on his back was like a bulbous canker spawning from the bark of an oak – the sort she would walk beside in her garden in summer’s eaves of her girlhood. It jutted out on the right side of his back whilst the left side had wasted away so his skin had shrunk around his ribcage. The back of his was a far grislier sight and could have frightened her, were it not rising and falling unevenly with the breath in him and were it not warm to her touch as any other body was. Her hand fell tentatively on the swollen flesh at his spine. She heard his breath catch.
The movement occurred without her conscious thought and so whether through duty to her husband, or through some flash of genuine affection, she could not understand the cause behind the kiss she lay of the nape of his neck, but she could feel the ice-cold spurning as he started away from her with an agonised stealing of his breath. It was as if she had branded him with her mouth, and the cold dewy skin that spread white over twisted muscle was seared blood red with her touch.
The tension in her was sapped by her embarrassment, and she deflated where she sat, and watched and listened as his breaths thundered in his heaving form. She wondered guiltily whether he could, or if he was deformed in that aspect too. She dared not ask.
After a few moments had passed in silence, he drew himself up quite suddenly and paced a little by the window. Anne watched him, powerless to ease his suffering, and unsure as to whether she wished to relieve him of it, or instead to do everything in her power to make his anguish feed upon him. He dragged his lame leg across the stone. The noise of it was suffocating. Then he stopped, lit from behind by the moon so that he was half-obscured in silver silhouette: half-angel and half-demon, his body’s sweat gleaming.
Anne saw his mouth move. He was searching for words.
“They will expect...” he muttered with a vague gesture towards the bed which lay empty and cold and sterile. Anne shifted as Richard moved to the bed and carefully, unnaturally as if he was disturbed by thought, unmade it. The harsh grating of blanched fabric against fabric rang in her ears; a Duke’s sheets should be softer, she thought, though she assumed he must not feel it. Or perhaps it feels better on hardened flesh. “Come,” he bid, and she obeyed and sat where he asked on the edge of the bed and waited as he rose and opened the drawer of the dressing table and rummaged. Her throat felt tight as her head throbbed with wondering what her husband could be searching for but before she could drive herself to flighty terror he returned with a pin which she saw flashing like a silver hair in the moon which, though dim, was making slow and stately passage through the window. “Your hand.” There was something gentle in the way he asked which, if she were to close her eyes, she could feign being said by another husband. But Richard asked it and so to Richard she proffered her hand which she thanked God did not tremble.
The pin came down upon her finger which, in his palm, Richard had momentarily cradled.
Richard’s eyes turned upward to observe her face and she saw a dark intensity harboured in his eye, much alike to the gaze he had given her that day he wooed her, and, like a wild thing, he had borne a blade to his naked chest and bid her give him the word. It was like a madness deeply shrouded; the exterior shows were lust. She need not flatter herself - being now as she was dejected and beyond a pretty rose of youth - but she knew the look well: she was a widow, after all. A certain hunger that, far from being appeased by feeding, is made animal by satiation. An acute danger, but a singular vulnerability which instilled within her the first kindlings of power over him. Though his mind was unknown to her, this body of his, like a snarled root, or the crest of a wave in the storm, or the sliver of wracked moorland the moon gives whiteness to, was weak to her. He wanted her. But he would not have her.
She could make his body hurt, she thought, as the sharp stinging of her finger receded to a dry and dull throb. She could make it hurt or, if she could not, at least she could make it ache.
He pulled back the bedsheet with a sudden movement that made her skin cold, found a spot about halfway down the bed, pointed to it and, knowing his mind, Anne dropped her blood on to the white cloth. She took the ball of her hand and smeared it a little - for authenticity. For a moment he seemed puzzled at this before he cleared his throat harshly in an action Anne knew was realisation.
He moved to start away from her again, but her hand caught his arm and held him fast and hard. Richard would strike her for no less any other time. But she had weakened him and so he snarled and stayed. Anne was perfectly calm. She had read once that this was the way to deal with a wild animal.
There was still a little blood seeping from the prick in her finger. As if shushing an ill-behaved child, she pressed her finger to his lips and watched his pupils dilate as the red ribbon trickled down into his mouth. She wondered whether he enjoyed the taste of her blood – he would taste it again before long, she feared. She knew. His face flushed, she had never seen it so. Sallow cheeks fitted him better than this hot sweat. The corner of her mouth twisted into a smile. Richard's eyes sparked in the low light. She pulled her hand away sharply as she saw something rising unbidden in him. Darkening, he seemed poised to either spit at her or have his way with her, and as the impulse to take her for his own grew stronger, his eye blackened and his body bristled, and Anne felt the air between them sapped and her chest collapsed. He gave a low chuckle instead and a flash of that devil’s grin.
“I know what you want, Anne.” He thought her a whore - how simple! It was far more than that. I want you dead, Anne thought. “But I will not.” His voice sounded unconvincing even to him, and it seemed impossible for him to leave now unsatisfied, but he slipped into a shadow with a low grunt, pulling his leg behind him, and the scraping of his shoe and the click of the door told Anne that he had left. Gone to warm another bed, if he had enough warm blood in him.
He had forgotten she was not a virgin. Only virgins bleed. Or, perhaps, he had never known, and it was a fact he had half-heard and less-understood as a boy and no carnal experience in adulthood had disproved it.
Or, perhaps, he had only wished to see her weeping blood.