Beatrice couldn’t take her eyes off her husband, and it wasn’t for the thrill of being married to him.
“I thought I told you to get rid of that shirt.”
Benedick’s borderline-unibrow rose into his hairline like a breaching whale. He plucked at the faded tee under his jacket, emblazoned with the name of a band Beatrice couldn’t quite make out. “What’s wrong with it? This is from their world tour.”
She didn’t have a chance to ask which band’s world tour—not that she wanted to, because it would only stir up nostalgia and then the tee would never go—because Hero and Claudio chose that moment to appear.
They were still in the “can’t keep my hands off my spouse” stage, which, coming from them, looked overblown enough to induce a gag reflex. Benedick had tried to entice Beatrice into joining his pool for how long that period of matrimony would last. Beatrice had to dig deep to find grace enough to decline.
Hero detached herself from her husband long enough to gasp, “Sorry we’re late, taxi,” before tripping into her seat.
Benedick muttered something about back seats under his breath. Beatrice kicked him under the table, but he only grinned and pressed his foot over hers.
Claudio threw himself down languidly in his own chair, looking as spineless as a ferret and just as devious. How long would it take Beatrice to get over the desire to sock him on sight?
“We haven’t ordered yet, no,” Benedick said to forestall any more PDA.
Claudio pouted and shifted his hand from Hero’s arm to his menu. Hero, biting her lip hard enough that Beatrice was surprised it didn’t bleed, dutifully turned to her own menu.
“How are Uncle Leonato and Aunt Imogen?” Beatrice asked her cousin.
Hero laughed. “Heartbroken, poor creatures. Papa says the house is too quiet now.”
“Yes, Beatrice’s voice does carry, doesn’t it?” Benedick asked his menu.
Before Hero could work through this, Beatrice pressed on. “You aren’t really going to paint the bedroom yellow, are you? You’ll never get any sleep.”
A little more softly than before, Benedick queried, “Oh, is that what’s stopping them?”
He really was full of it today. Claudio looked wolfish, while Hero had the grace to blush. “Really, sir!” she cried. To Beatrice she said, “I was thinking a more muted tone, and plenty of accents.”
The waitress arrived before she could dig through her purse for samples. Hero was the sort of girl who planned everything, and the more elaborate plans were often given cute journals covered in stickers and ribbons and stuffed with pictures.
Claudio, with more frowning, stumbled through his selection, failing to thank the waitress after handing her his menu. He was followed by Hero in her flawless French. Benedick smirked behind his own menu. He’d chosen the restaurant, he’d informed his wife, because Claudio’s French was atrocious.
Once the waitress had gone (after Beatrice thanked her perhaps a little too loudly), Hero said, “Benedick, Claudio pointed out your villa on our way here. It’s absolutely perfect! You have your own beach, too!”
Benedick offered her a genuine smile. “Not mine, strictly speaking. The seagulls claimed it generations ago and no one has been able to take it from them. Trust me: I spent most of my childhood trying to best them.”
“And most of your academy years,” Claudio reminded him.
Benedick and Beatrice shared a private look, too brief for Claudio and Hero to catch. While Benedick told Hero about his boyhood and the summers spent at the villa that now belonged to him, Beatrice mused over memories she had buried so deeply she’d started to think them only dreams: stolen weekends on the shore, feet buried in a moon-dappled tide, a borrowed hoodie sagging around her shoulders, the tang of cigarette smoke in her throat.
A kiss that prompted a punch, followed by tears and more kisses and more hitting.
Benedick’s hand found hers under the table. His thumb traced her knuckles, and even Claudio can’t miss the look they trade now.
By the time their food arrived, Beatrice was starting to regret her choice. Benedick saw her glancing from her own plate to his and laughed.
“Has she always been like this?” he asked Hero as he slid his plate across to Beatrice.
Hero smiled. “Even when she’s the one cooking the food. I can’t tell you how many times she’s threatened to abandon a recipe halfway through because suddenly she’s craving fish and she’s making something with chicken.”
Beatrice, mouth full of boeuf bourguignon, could only glare at her cousin, but irritation couldn’t stand in the face of such a delicious meal. Rolling her eyes over the flavor, she loaded up her fork and offered it to Benedick.
Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Claudio lean back with a grimace.
Benedick broke several codes of conduct by waving his own fork wildly at his surrendered plate, his eyebrows speaking volumes while he chewed. Beatrice nodded enthusiastic agreement.
After they’d finished with Benedick’s plate, they moved on to Beatrice’s original selection of marinated duck on a nest of potatoes. Hero had already finished her salade nicoise at that point, while Claudio was picking disconsolately at his soup, which, apparently, was not what he had meant to order. He happily scooted the plate toward the waitress when she returned to inquire if they wanted dessert.
“Yes, please!” Hero said.
Claudio shot her a look she didn’t quite ignore.
Just for that, Beatrice ordered double dessert for herself. She was already stuffed, but made herself finish both dishes under Claudio’s judgmental eye, ignoring Benedick’s silent offer of reinforcements. If she was suffering, she could only imagine how he was getting on; he hadn’t had proper feeding in ages and didn’t seem to have room enough for a decent meal.
“Don’t they feed you in the Navy?” she’d asked him a few days ago.
“Spectacularly. The man you see before you is one withered with long years of pining. Now that I have my lady, I shall sigh no more.”
Claudio had tried excusing himself and Hero several times, having caught on to Beatrice’s plot to keep them there as long as possible. Hero had stoutly refused to budge. When Beatrice’s mouth was full, she chatted with Benedick about his work and the villa and his family. Benedick, the best of interlocutors, replied at length and in detail, so that Hero might best appreciate the particulars of restoring the villa’s foundations and grafting the orange trees in the garden. The only subject on which he was decidedly brief was his father, and no one but Claudio tried to press him there.
“I’ve met the old man,” Claudio had told his wife as Benedick tried to shift to a different family member. “Frightful, that man. I’d rather face a court martial than his wrath.”
Hero had shuddered in spite of herself, looking to Beatrice for confirmation, but Beatrice had only been able to shake her head. She’d met none of Benedick’s family yet save his baby brother Sebastian, and she was given to understand by both Seb and her husband that they were an exception in their family.
It was Claudio trying to goad Benedick into abusing his own father that made Beatrice set aside her plate and start her good-byes. That was distraction enough for Claudio, who practically launched to his feet.
“Marvelous to see you,” he said, not sounding all that delighted.
He and Benedick shook hands while Hero, one arm linked through Claudio’s, hugged first Benedick and then Beatrice and entreated them both to visit.
She and Claudio had their hands all over each other before they’d even left the restaurant.
Benedick caught Beatrice’s hand and wandered toward the counter. “Are we that plainly in love?” His lips twisted a bit.
Beatrice rested her head on his shoulder, almost tipping him before he corrected his balance. “Not at all. Most people would think we were sick of being in the same room.”
After paying, they trailed out onto the street, blinking in the overbright Padua sunshine. Beatrice gagged on the salt tang of the sea. It made her homesick, even though Benedick was right next to her, arm twined through hers.
“I give it another month,” Benedick murmured.
“For our dear Hero and that scoundrel Claudio.”
Beatrice leaned away enough to punch his shoulder. “Benedick! Don’t say things like that!”
He looked surprised before he reviewed his words. “No, not divorce.” Frowning, he turned back toward home and the sea. “I mean the extravagant public displays of lust.”
Beatrice had to laugh, in spite of herself. “By then Hero will probably be pregnant,” she muttered. “She’ll then have to spend two more months convincing her husband it’s pregnancy and not creme brulee.”
Benedick’s chuckle sounded a little forced this time. “Do you think so?”
Beatrice only nodded; then, because her husband seemed in danger of falling into some brooding mood that would carry through to dinner, she stopped in the middle of the sidewalk and kissed him.
As always, it distracted him from whatever crisis had previously threatened his serenity. She felt his grin before she stepped back.
“Would you like to join my pool, my dear Lady Disdain?”
“I am not betting against my cousin. I don’t care if you’re right.”
“Oh, it’s for a good cause!”
“The only cause I’d support is a new wardrobe for you.”
He frowned at his shirt again. They’d turned onto their own street by that point. The scent of the sea was almost overwhelming. Benedick shrugged out of his jacket.
“If you hate it that much, I’ll have to take it off.”
Beatrice caught his hand. “Not outside! The neighbors will report me for husband abuse!”
Benedick’s shock gave Beatrice enough time to slip her hand from his and take off down the street. Benedick, calling her a dragon, chased her past the house and across the sand, straight up to the tideline. She stopped him before he made it to the sea.