After laying awake for nearly an hour, she finally slips from the bed and reaches for the silk robe draped over the foot of the bed. Belting it around her slender waist, she wanders over to the window seat and curls up on the cushion. She looks out into the night, over the moonlit gardens of the inn in Charleston, South Carolina they'd both chosen for their honeymoon, and wonders why her eyes sting with tears.
It's not like this was the first time they've been to bed together. Only the rare couple these days aren't intimate before their weddings, and there is nothing rare or unique about them. She'd waited until the fourth date before initiating sexual intimacy, one date later than her mother had urged, and she and Michael had shared a bed on a semi-regular basis through their long courtship and short engagement.
So why does it feel different now?
Lauren's mind drifts back to earlier in the day, to the ceremony which bound her to the man in the bed behind her, sleeping so peacefully, so sure that she loves him with all her heart and that their life together is full of promise.
How she wishes it were so.
The minister's words--a minister because a senator's daughter couldn't be married by a justice of the peace--rolled through her, the meaning sliding beneath her skin. Till death us do part. She controlled the instinctive shiver and wondered why this was so difficult. The rehearsal had gone off without a hitch. The writing of the vows--lies--had been a snap. But listening to the actual words, repeating them before God and friends and family, was much harder than she'd ever expected.
Surreptitiously she glanced out of the corner of her eye at her mother who beamed back reassurance. Her father was proud as well, but he was clueless as to what was really going on. Her mother, at least, knew what she was going through.
Michael repeated his vows in a strong, soft voice, and she felt the sound go through her like a knife. He meant them.
He loved her.
Panic filled her and she nearly bolted, but her training held her in place, forced the words from her, and then it was over and the minister was pronouncing them husband and wife, and Mr. and Mrs. Michael Vaughn, and Michael was kissing her.
Lauren let herself melt into the kiss--the passion between them, at least, was real--and relied on Michael to guide her down the aisle, one hand clasped tightly around his arm, the other gripping the bouquet of lilies to her breast. She breathed in the exotic scent and let it clear her head.
Everything was a bit of a blur of people, good wishes, smiles, and laughter until the music started and Michael took her in his arms. Lauren looked up into his eyes and saw the happiness there and emotion nearly choked her. He must have seen panic or something on her face, because the joy slid away, replaced with concern.
"Are you okay, Lauren?" he asked softly.
She could only nod, plaster on a fake smile, and reply, "It's been a rather stressful day, wonderful but stressful. I'm just tired and...looking forward to later this evening." Wrapping her arms around his neck, she rested her head against his chest and swayed to the music.
"No regrets then?"
"Of course not, Michael. I love you." And the lie came easily to her lips once again.
Later that evening, after the meal and the cake, her mother pulled her aside and sat them both at a table in a corner. She smiled and nodded at passer-bys, all the while her fingers dug into Lauren's arm.
"You nearly didn't go through with it, didn't you," she stated, her voice low, a fraudulent smile on her lips.
"It doesn't matter," Lauren hissed back, finally pulling free. "I know my duty."
"It doesn't have to be hard, Lauren." Her mother glanced at Michael who stood across the dance floor talking to some of his friends. "He is handsome and young, and, he's in a dangerous profession. Maybe he'll be killed, leaving you the grieving widow in a position of influence."
"Hush. Don't be an idiot. Do you really want to spend your life with him? He's so...good. Didn't you say his code name was 'boy scout' for god's sake?"
"I don't wish him dead." Lauren fought to keep the concern from her eyes, smoothing her brow and swallowing down her emotions. "I've played this part for nearly a year. I knew what I was getting into. You've played your own role for nearly thirty years now. If you can do it, I certainly can."
They stood beside the antique four-poster bed, the lights low, a few candles scattered around the room. Soft music played on the stereo, setting the mood as they clinked glasses and sipped champagne. Lauren let her eyes drift down from his eager, hopeful expression over his smooth, muscular chest to the thin line of hair rising up his flat stomach from the navy pajama pants that rested low on his hips. Heat flooded her and she smiled in genuine desire.
This was good between them, very good.
Setting aside their glasses, they embraced, their lips meeting in a tender, sweet kiss that quickly deepened. Michael's thumbs caught the straps of her silk gown, pulling them down, baring her breasts. Lauren rubbed them against his chest, moaning as her nipples hardened and heat pulsed between her thighs. She clung to him, passion spinning quickly out of control and driving all thought and concern from her mind.
When he urged her onto the bed, she went willingly and pulled him down with her. The consummation of their marriage was easy, sweet, tender and erotic, and the pleasure was very real.
As was the unusual feeling of guilt that followed.
She presses a flushed cheek to the cool pane of glass and lets her eyes drift shut. This is harder than she thought it would be.
And she knows why.
She cares too much for him.
The first lesson she was taught was not to care, and she's failed already. She just prays the true emotion she feels for Michael won't be her undoing. Her life is the Covenant's. The small part of her that wishes her life and love was Michael's has to be ignored.
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