LACE (c) Copyright, Renee Carter Hall, 2001

Orsetta rose with the sun, as always. There was always work to be done. Today, the laundry, waiting to be scrubbed clean and bright as the sun glittering on the distant waves.

Martino had already left. He never lingered in the morning anymore. He liked to, in the beginning; he had loved the early combination of dark, aromatic coffee and the new sunlight on her breasts. He even used to say that, then.

But now he was off to his work hours before sunrise, off to the boat and the docks, to the day's wind and the day's catch. She reminded herself that the sea was part of him, that it always had been. Once a sailor, always one--she'd known that long before their wedding.

The sailor's blood was easier to forgive, though, when it didn't keep him out long past sunset. She knew the kinds of women who worked by the harbor. Perhaps he visited one. Perhaps more than one.

Other women, she knew, would let him leave, would not want him back if he were unfaithful. She wished it were that simple.

How she'd loved the romance of those earliest days... that sweet, slow lovemaking, when there was yet no question of his devotion. And sometimes in his afterglow, he'd tell her the story again...

The ship sliced through the gray-green water, sails full and tight.
Martino stood on deck, lightly leaning on the wooden rail, enjoying the salt-misted spray on his face. Each moment brought the crew closer to their home--and brought Martino closer to the port where Orsetta waited to be his wife.

He watched for land every free moment, waiting to see the familiar coast of his birth. He would be married the day after he returned from sea. Everything was planned and perfect.

Martino looked into the distance, and a thrill went through him--there was land! An instant later, though, disappointment followed. It was only a speck of land, an island so small it had eluded the map-makers. No doubt the captain would want them to stop; the fresh water barrels below decks were nearly dry.

He was right--a few minutes later, the captain appeared and ordered the change in course. The next thing Martino knew, they were dropping anchor and heading for shore, searching for fresh water and supplies.

He was the one who first heard the sound--a high, sweet singing, like a child and yet a woman. When the others heard it, they began to search for the source, murmuring among themselves about the strangeness of the tune, and at last they reached a lagoon draped in lush, feathery ferns and hanging vines. When the entire crew had gathered by the clear pool, the singers appeared.

"Mermaids!" said Martino.

"What voices," said his shipmates. "Beautiful..."

The mermaids sang as they went about their slow work--coyly combing their long hair, arranging pretty shells on the shore, or tending to the
lilies and water-plants that grew all around. The sailors stood and

As day turned into night, Martino grew worried. No one--not even the  captain--wanted to leave. Even those sailors who had loves at home, as he did, seemed to have forgotten everything. Martino left them and went to the shore, and as he lay down to sleep, he thought only of Orsetta and how to break this enchantment to get back to her.

The next morning, he tried to talk to the mermaids, but none seemed to be able to hear. His shipmates were no better. Each sailor had chosen a maid and was idly combing her hair, or gathering flowers for her, or polishing shells until they shone.

Then, just when he had given up, a bright foam rose from the water, and another mermaid appeared, even more beautiful than the others, with pearls woven in her sea-dark hair.

"Martino," she said, "you do not like the song of my people?"

"Please," said Martino, "you must set them free. We have to leave."

The mermaid queen gestured to the sailors. "They are happy. They will never know cold or hunger again."

"Many have families. Wives--children--who wait for them. Please, think of them."

The queen thought of this for a moment, then said, "Who are you, that our song does not reach you?"

"If you know my name, you must know more of me. I'm to be married as soon as we return. I won't stay here."

The queen's eyes glimmered, and again she waved at her mermaids. "But they are beautiful."

"Yes--but they are not her. I tell you, I must leave--I will leave. If
you won't release them, I'll go alone."

The queen shook her head, puzzled. "You are the first mortal man who has not been touched by our song."

"I love her," said Martino. "I hear and see no others. You may not

The queen stopped him. "For a man who so forsakes any other, and for the sake of she who will be your wife, I will release them. First,

The queen spun a sheet of delicate foam in her hands, and this she presented to Martino. "A gift from us," she said. "Such love calls for
this, at least."

Martino took the foam carefully, but it stayed whole and beautiful, and it drifted in his hands like the soft rippling of the pool. "Thank you," he said.

The queen nodded and was gone, taking her maids with her. Martino and the sailors were alone.

They found water on the island, sweeter and clearer than any they'd ever tasted. Martino kept the foam in his trunk, safe and secret. None of the other sailors remembered the maids, but Martino could see in their eyes that they would be haunted by the song forever. Again he watched for land and waited, and soon the waves brought him home.

On their wedding day, Martino took the foam from his trunk and placed it in Orsetta's hands. It was no longer misty water but the finest lace, woven into delicate patterns that made him think of the mermaids'

Orsetta gathered the day's wash, thinking of his story. Perhaps he'd only invented it--a charming little tale to make his new bride blush and think how lucky she was. He'd not been one to think up stories, though... She smiled, remembering his clumsy attempts at love poetry.

Orsetta sighed and set her mind on scrubbing the bed-linens. As much as she wanted to give up, to tell herself it didn't matter, she knew she couldn't abandon what they'd shared--what they could still share, if only...

She put the linens in the rinse water and reached for the next item--her ivory sleeping-shift, worn soft and smooth from so many washings. The fabric always felt so cool and light against her skin, even in this summer's heat.

Perhaps it was too plain for him, she thought, plunging the simple dress into the warm water. She'd seen things in the town shops like what those women no doubt wore--garments cut low and high in all the right places, to reveal the swells of breasts, the slow curve of inner thigh.

She still had that lace, in the trunk with their wedding things... Worn alone, it would reveal her body in teasing patterns, delicate sprays of shadow and light. She could cover only what was essential. The rest of the morning, Orsetta scrubbed and rinsed automatically, all the time devising patterns to cup her breasts, to barely hide the cleft between her legs. Once all the wash was billowing in the salty wind, Orsetta went to their bedroom, lifted the small bundle of lace from the trunk, and began to cut and sew.

In the end, there was just enough. She paused before the full-length mirror, turning to admire the delicate panties, so much like what Martino wore under his breeches. She'd decided to make the top half as the tightest, shortest bodice she could contrive, creating a garment that barely contained her breasts while also exposing her belly and shoulders.

Orsetta laughed and ran down to the shore, feeling as if her bare skin were begging for the touch of sunlight. She knelt in the wet sand, letting the waves rush over her, letting the ocean roar out its secrets into every part of her, letting the world bathe her in light and water. She stayed out so long that her skin tanned deeply, leaving only the lace-pattern fair. As the sun set, she returned home to wait for Martino.

Hours passed, and still he did not come. Orsetta viewed the darkening sky with dismay. Any other day, she would have eaten alone and gone to bed, but this evening the waves whispered a new idea. She slipped on her linen dress, added a light cloak to ward off the seaside chill, and walked to the harbor.

A few boats were still out, but most had come in for the evening, their sails rolled tight and decks deserted. Martino's fishing boat was at its place in line, slowly rising and falling with the calm waves, so she turned her attention to the taverns that lined the nearby streets.

The first one she tried glowed with ruddy light and was louder than the storm-tossed sea. Men paused when she entered, some staring openly, and when they returned to their drinks, she could hear them sharing illicit whispers with each other. Scantily-dressed women eyed her suspiciously. Martino was not there, and she sighed with relief.

The second tavern was dark and drafty, and she shivered under her  cloak. The men there made her feel far too aware of the revealing lace under her dress, as if they could see through the loose fabric to her creation underneath. Others stayed keenly focused on their cards or dice. The air bristled with knife-sharp tension. She scanned the tables for Martino, then left quickly.

Once she pushed open the door of the third tavern, she knew she should have looked there first. The floor was clean-swept, and the table games were marked with good-natured laughter. Most of the patrons looked much like her husband--young men relaxing from their day's work before returning home to their families.

Martino was at the bar at the far end of the room, and she had to pass by each table before she reached him. Conversation stilled. By now she had learned to walk as though she carried a secret that everyone wanted to hear. A slight smile crossed her lips at the feel of the lace on her skin. Only she knew it was there, but every man who saw her watched and guessed.

"Martino." She spoke softly, but in the silence, the word had the power of a summons.

He turned and, for a moment, didn't seem to recognize her, though she wore the same style as always. "Orsetta?"

At first, his expression made it clear that he wasn't sure whether to be proud, embarrassed, or angry about her appearance at the tavern. Then he softened. "I'm sorry you had to come here. I'm seeking help with repairs--that last storm near finished the mast, you know, and any man does his best bargaining over ale, so I came here, and I've just been...


She wondered why he sounded so uncomfortable--until she looked down. The breeches he wore were loose, but not loose enough to hide the slight bulge that grew as she watched.

Face reddening, Martino turned to the barkeep. "Your upstairs rooms?"

The man smiled knowingly. "First at the stair-top's open, if you will."

Martino fumbled with the cloth bag at his waist, produced a few coins, and slid them across the bar. The man pocketed them with a nod, then turned back to his work.

The room was coarse--a roughly-carved bed, scratched table, bare window, low fire--but neither noticed. Martino embraced her with a passion unlike him, then slid his hands under her dress, cupping her buttocks  with a firm, savoring grasp.

"What do you wear underneath?" he murmured, and she stripped off the linen and showed him.

His fingers wandered over the lace, touching cloth and skin in fluttering strokes. He shed his tunic, then his breeches, groaning when she reached to grasp the member now jutting freely at his hips.

"Where do they make such things that enchant men?" he asked, tracing a  finger along the curve of one breast.

"I made it. Today. From that lace... I thought..." She couldn't find any other words; his hands were rapidly stealing them from her.

He brushed his fingertips over the lace at her hips; it seemed to waft away like mist. "You've been in the sun."

"At the shore," she said, pulling him onto the bed. "The ocean... I never understood before--why you loved it--more than me sometimes--"

"Never more than you." He pulled away enough to look down at her, and she saw sudden pain in his eyes. "I never meant for it to seem that way. They say the sea's a mistress--I didn't think it could be for us, but seeing you down there... I felt like I hadn't seen you in months, and the truth is I probably haven't."

He kissed her mouth, her throat, her breasts; the lace slipped away easily. "Orsetta, I've had no other but the sea--and from this night I'll have her no longer, not before you, never before you..."

Here, at last, was the man she'd wed; here was the promise that what they'd had could be restored. The ocean would belong to both of them now, a love to share and be filled by anew.

She tasted salt on her tongue as his heat moved in her. They could never stop the waves that rushed at them, the demands of time and coin; she couldn't keep him with her every moment, but in the sweet clarity of their joining, she felt the love of the shore for the tide--the knowing, deeper than thought, that told her he would always be hers, would always come back, no matter what else pulled him away.

She arched her back, moving her hips in time with his. The lace was no longer lace, but a flowing mist that caressed them, drenched them, took their breath, pulled them deeper. Below them, the tavern rang with song and laughter, sounding more and more distant as her gasps grew closer.

He kissed her, breathed her name, urged her on. "They'll hear," she protested.

"Let them," he said, laughing. "Let them hear how a man should love his wife."

They moved toward it together, their bodies striving to somehow be even closer, until she could resist no longer, until a low, ecstatic cry welled in her throat, until climax shook them both and the last wave bathed her in warmth.

A light breeze cooled their skin as they rested, and Martino brushed her damp hair from her forehead. "I feel as though we were just wed," he sighed.

Orsetta smiled. "I think we were, again."

She rested her head on his shoulder and closed her eyes, drifting into satisfied sleep. Far away from their bed, far from the room and the tavern, beyond the shore and across the sea, she could hear the queen of the mermaids singing quietly for joy.

Renee Carter Hall's speculative erotica has appeared in *Clean Sheets* and *Blue Food* and is forthcoming in *Matriarch's Way* and *Best Women's Erotica 2002*. She lives in Virginia with her husband.