Hiding in the cupboard under the stairs wasn’t the most grown-up thing she’d ever done. Her parents' funeral, both of them taken at the same time, was bad enough, but this party afterward was too much: too many people, too crowded, too loud. There was a knock at the door and a boy, a year or two older than she was, poked his head in.
“The walnuts are ripe. I just need to find something to crack them with. The cooks shooed me out of the kitchen.”
She looked up at him wide eyed. “I have a nutcracker upstairs. My… my father gave it to me.”
“You must be Beatrice, then. I’m Benedick.” He peered at her closely, taking in the red rimmed eyes, and tucked the nuts into his pocket. “I’m not that hungry, actually, it was more an excuse to get away from all of this.” He made a vague hand wave encompassing the entire wake.
“There’s still some almonds, if you know where to look, or pears.”
She ventured a somewhat watery smile. “Bet I can climb higher than you can.”
When the sun began to set, they came back in and had cold meats and sallets with anyone else who was still hungry. Her uncle Leonato came to sit beside her. “You’re coming home with my wife and me. We wanted to leave tomorrow, but we can stay longer if you need more time to pack or even just to make peace with your loss.”
Beatrice put her hand on his. “Can we come back? Perhaps in the spring? I’ll know what I want or miss better then.”
Leonato kissed her hand. “I’d planned to come back at planting time, see how the estate was running. It would be no trouble to bring you along.”
Beatrice nodded. “Thank you, uncle,” she said quietly. “I think it’s time for bed now.”
They both knew it was well before her usual bedtime, but Leonato nodded. “Make certain you have a bag or two packed, we leave early in the morning.”
When she left the room, Leonato turned to the boy who was shoveling down his second fish pie. “You left your post, young Benedick. Don Iago was looking for you.”
Benedick nodded. “At least I’ve eaten before my punishment.”
“I saw you out climbing trees with Beatrice. I’m surprised you have any room left to eat with all the pears and almonds you gobbled. I also told Don Iago that he should go easy on you for your kindness to my niece. I know playing with a child isn’t the first choice of a boy who fulfills his duties as a page as diligently as you do.”
Benedick glanced up, uncertain whether Leonato was teasing. He was usually diligent in his duties. He wanted to be picked as a squire next year by one of the best officers. He didn’t know why it seemed so important to get a girl who’d been crying in a cupboard to laugh in the fresh air, but for the afternoon, it had seemed like the most essential thing in the world.
“Lady Beatrice is really smart, you know.”
It was Leonato’s turn to look surprised. “Why do you say that?”
“Have you met Monsieur Duchard? He’s the tutor to the pages. He said I can’t even be considered for squire until I can calculate the volume of cones. Well, Lady Beatrice explained it to me.”
“She’s only eight.”
Benedick nodded. “As I said, she’s really smart.”
“Thank you, Benedick. I will have to rethink her tutelage.”
Benedick rose from the table and said, “Where will I find Don Iago, sir?”
“He’s in the gatehouse. It was easier to provide room for everyone there. You pages are sleeping in the hayloft.”
“Thank you, sir.”
On the next day’s journey he heard all about Benedick’s problems with Euclid from his niece. She was really smart.
It wasn’t her first party by any means, but it was the first one since Leonato had become governor of Messina. Her aunt had died giving birth to her cousin Hero when Beatrice was ten. Leonato had gone off to the wars, leaving Beatrice and Hero to the care of nurses and tutors, and fought well for Don Iago. After he came back, Don Pedro, the heir, had lived with them as a fosterling for two years while he was learning how to run a country estate. She’d heard her uncle and Don Iago talking about all the things a good ruler needed to know, and the vagaries of crops and estate management was part of it.
Don Pedro was now returning to visit them and bring the formal letters instating Leonato as governor. Beatrice was learning all the necessary arts for being a good chatelaine, and tonight’s party was part of that training. She was the highest ranking lady of her uncle’s house, and thus she would be expected to act as his hostess. Many of the other women of the household, from the cooks and housekeeper to Hero’s nanny Ursula had helped her and given her advice, but tonight rested on her shoulders. If she did it right, no one would notice; they would merely have had a lovely time at the Governor’s party. If she did it wrong, it would reflect poorly on Leonato.
By the time the dignitaries sat down to dinner and the informal picnic in the public park had started, Beatrice knew that all her preparations were perfect. Everything was going like clockwork and when Don Pedro escorted her to the dining room, she finally allowed herself a sigh of relief.
Once the dancing after dinner had begun, Beatrice found herself relaxing with her back to a wall watching it.
A cocky young man leaned next to her and said, “Couldn’t find walnuts or almonds. Is there a pear tree nearby?”
Beatrice smiled widely and said, “Benedick.” She turned and saw him as he was: tall, angular, and surprisingly handsome. His grin was wide, but somehow still managed to feel conspiratorial. “You’re obviously past your apprenticeship in the wars,” she said as she noted a couple of small scars on his hands and a tiny one on his face.
“Second lieutenant. We’re purely decorative. It’s been made clear to me that we’re far less valuable to the army than an infantry private much less an experienced artillery sergeant.”
Beatrice laughed, and he leaned in. “Would you like to dance?” he asked.
The rest of the evening found her alternating between some of the more energetic dances and the terrace where they could talk. It was one of those evenings when they felt they could say anything and the other would understand. They talked about books and laughed together at the absurdities of plot.
Beatrice would check every once in awhile to make certain that the band was getting its promised food and drink breaks and that the dessert table had been set up in the smaller dining room and all the other little details necessary to run a party. Benedick came with her and stood quietly to one side while she handled any problems her designates mentioned before escorting her to the next area or back to the dance floor.
“You must be very bored with all this frippery.”
“I was thinking they should have us shadow you for a month as part of our officer’s training. I’ve learned more in the past two hours about making people feel appreciated, remembering the relevant details, and delegating tasks appropriately than I did on the lines. With you in command, we’d have won in half the time.”
“You mock me.”
He put his hand on her waist and pulled her into a small niche. “I do not, could not, mock someone so bright and beautiful.”
She looked up at him in astonishment and blushed.
“Look, Beatrice, we’re leaving tomorrow or the next day, and you’re only sixteen. Next year, we’ll be using the old fort for maneuvers and practice for the better part of two months. May I see you then? See if you still have time for me?”
“Of course, Benedick. You’ll always be welcome.” Her body swayed close to his, her face upturned to be kissed.
Benedick took her face in his hands and tilted her chin down to kiss her forehead. “Not yet, sweet Beatrice.”
The following morning he kissed her hand when the troops departed. A week later she received her first letter from him.
By the time Don Iago’s men, under the command of Don Pedro, returned for maneuvers, Beatrice was seventeen. In the past seven months, she’d received a letter a week from Benedick and sent him one in return answering all his questions and asking many of her own. She felt a fluttering in her chest when the officers of Don Pedro’s headquarters came to dine with them on the second night, even though she knew it was highly unlikely that a second lieutenant would be in the group.
Don Pedro introduced the men to Leonato -- reminded him of past acquaintance in some cases -- and at last said, “This is the newly promoted First Lieutenant Benedick. He’s working at headquarters as my secretary at the moment, but we’ll have him joining all the exercises as well.”
“I’m well acquainted with Lieutenant Benedick,” Leonato said. “I owe him a debt of thanks for his actions at the funeral of Beatrice’s parents.”
Benedick said, “Please don’t mention it, sir. I’ve just recently managed to make Don Iago forget that his page disappeared for the better part of a day.”
Don Pedro smiled. “The military is a far stricter taskmaster than my father,” he said.
Benedick returned his smile. “I’ll bear that in mind, sir.”
“Come, gentlemen, cook will have my head if I let her dinner get cold.” Leonato shepherded them into the house.
Benedick managed to be last through the door. He took Beatrice's hand and gave it a quick kiss as he passed.
Beatrice cheeks hurt her smile was so wide.
The next few weeks found both of them being soundly teased by their friends and family. Even nine year old Hero joined in the teasing about Beatrice and her boyfriend. The barracks and the officers’ club jibes were less innocent, but didn’t get too out of hand. They found quickly that Benedick defended the lady boldly and that Don Pedro was fond of her, too.
While he didn’t ask formal permission of Signor Leonato to court Beatrice, Benedick’s actions were those of a respectful young man in love. Leonato allowed them to walk together in the soft summer evenings if Benedick had no watch duties. Don Pedro gave Beatrice leave to come to headquarters on occasion to see the type of work they did.
And through it all, they talked. They didn’t agree on everything. They argued. They cracked their wits against each other. They even climbed trees and yelled into the wind together. And over the weeks, they also learned how to be quiet together.
This time when Beatrice swayed toward him, innocent, hopeful, and knowing all at once, Benedick kissed her lips. When they could without exciting suspicion, they found little corners where they could read together -- or at least that was what they claimed if anyone found them. Those corners saw them learning to touch each other, long drawn out moments of shared air and beating hearts, the slow drag of fingertips over sweat-dewed skin, and the tiny sounds they made as they pleased each other.
Sometimes, especially at first, it was Benedick who stopped them before they went too far. Other times it was Beatrice who sat up and said, “We can’t,” before adding, “But, oh, how I want to.”
Three days before his unit was due to leave, after the official farewell party, Beatrice quietly left her room and met Benedick in the stables. Every kiss and touch wound them both further toward the peak, but Benedick still quietly asked before he entered her, sliding in slowly to minimize any pain she might have in giving herself to him. He made love to her nearly reverently, bringing her to her peak and gazing with near awe as she broke in his arms. His release followed hers, and they lay together for several hours dozing and loving before Beatrice absolutely had to get back to her bed or risk getting caught.
“See me off?” Benedick asked impulsively.
Beatrice rose on her toes and kissed him breathlessly. She grinned brightly and said, “Yes.”
The following day she went into the town to order sugar before it was time to make the late summer jams.
Several of the young soldiers had been given passes into town in order to have a little free time before the long march. One of them tried to come up and speak to her, but another pulled him back and said, “Can’t touch that one, she’s Lieutenant Benedick’s girl.”
Beatrice pretended not to have heard, but felt a little pride at being ‘Benedick’s girl’ just as in her household, he was called ‘Beatrice’s young man.’ But waiting her turn for the sugar merchant to come free, she heard them talking some more. Lieutenant Benedick was popular with the ladies. There was always at least one, and usually more, waiting at the fence to say goodbye when they left town. The older of the two wondered if the officer’s mess had it’s usual bet about whether Benedick had been able to score with the local girls -- never prostitutes, he didn’t need the pros -- because Benedick always won. Not once had Benedick paid out the forfeit.
She found it more and more difficult to keep herself still. She wanted to run away, and it was a relief when the merchant’s wife came out and offered her tea and took the request for sugar loaves for the household. Beatrice even bought a few spices they were not yet in need of, so that one of the boys from the merchant's would accompany her. It made her feel safe from the barrack room gossip.
That evening at the officer’s club, before he went on night duty, Benedick paid out his forfeit. When asked, he said they’d never had enough time alone, and he hadn’t had a chance to woo anyone else.
Benedick looked for Beatrice on the day they left, he had a letter and a gift to give her. It was a promise to offer for her hand as soon as he’d talked to his parents about drawing up a marriage contract. She didn’t see him off, and she never read the letter.
“Ursula!” Beatrice looked for the woman who’d nursed and nannied Hero, who’d helped turn Beatrice from a hoyden into a young woman capable of running a household.
“Yes, Lady Beatrice?”
The relief in Beatrice’s face was palpable.
“What is it, bud?” Ursula said kindly.
Ursula closed her eyes and breathed. “I see.”
“No, bud, no. First of all, we all have times when we miss our courses. Maybe you’re coming down with ague, maybe you miscounted. But even if it is as you fear… there’s many a woman saved by a timely wedding. It was Benedick who charmed you?”
Beatrice nodded, not trusting her voice.
“That’s good. He’s not already married, nor promised I believe. He’s free to marry you, and you like him well enough.”
“Oh, Ursula,” Beatrice sobbed. The whole conversation she’d overheard came out then and how she hadn’t said goodbye and how she was sure Benedick thought of her as another mark in his book and not as a worthy fiancee.
“Now, sweeting, men say things. They accuse us of gossip and say worse themselves. I’m sure your young man’s not as bad as he’s painted. And even if he had been in the past, anyone with eyes to see could tell that he loved you.”
Beatrice shook her head. “How can I believe that?”
“Oh, milady, forgive me, but you’re so very young sometimes.” Ursula patted her shoulder and let her sob until the storm passed.
Once Beatrice was sniffing and seeming more herself, Ursula said, “I’m going to tell cook to make you an omelet and a nice posset because you have a migraine coming on. Come, lie down. I’ll get a cold compress for your eyes.”
Beatrice let herself be soothed and fussed over.
When Ursula brought up a tray for her, there was an omelet fines herbes with plenty of parsley and a sweet lemon barley water to wash it down. Ursula would never tell anyone that she’d chosen lemon barley water because it would disguise the taste of pennyroyal. Beatrice’s relief when her monthly time came two days later, was all the thanks she needed.
Over the next several months Benedick heard of Leonato and occasionally Beatrice from Don Pedro. There were no letters from Beatrice, even though he’d resumed his weekly letters to her. The only mentions made in the more personal parts of Leonato’s letters to Don Pedro were that Beatrice had been sad and somewhat rundown since the unit had left Messina. He longed for a letter which would tell him more.
When they returned to Messina nearly eighteen months after he left, he found Beatrice changed. She wouldn’t stand to one side and talk with him about books or music or the other guests at the party. If he found her alone in a room, she’d leave it.
The worst part was they couldn’t talk. She wouldn’t stand still long enough for him to ask her why, what had changed. He’d even asked Leonato, in very general terms, if he would be open to an offer from Benedick for Beatrice’s hand. Leonato had shaken his head and said, “Gladly for your sake, but I fear she will say no to the business.”
Benedick had thanked him and gone off to wander in the garden. A group of people, men and women both, had gone by. Beatrice sounded merry and content until his name was mentioned at which point she took her leave. He didn’t know what had happened, but if even mention of his name was too much for her to stomach, then he stood no chance to marry her.
Somehow, he wasn’t upset when they missed their visit to Messina the next year.
Three more visits by Don Pedro’s soldiers, spaced well apart, saw young Hero grown to a pleasant -- if a little bland for Benedick’s tastes -- womanhood. Benedick was a major now, mentoring Lieutenant Claudio and a favorite of Don Pedro’s for his caustic wit.
There were diversions and celebrations and balls and he kept up what the others called the “merry war” with Beatrice, though there was no merriment on his part. He heard Don Pedro ask for her hand and Beatrice, not realizing the Prince was serious, offending him with her rejection, which she then softened.
Benedick nearly turned and walked away until he heard her say, most unfairly, that he had once won her heart with false dice.
This time he did walk away; he needed some time alone. All he could think was that he wasn’t mistaken. Beatrice -- so smart, so beautiful -- had truly loved him. Maybe there was yet hope for them to be together.