Iris and Caitlin’s dialogue:
– “I can only pray that my father will make an equally handsome choice for me.” - said Lady Iris West.
– “Have you set your cap for a particular gentleman?”
– “Not entirely, no. I am still in search of the perfect combination of traits that will suit me best.” – answered Iris and looked at the three men, now talking with some seriousness. – “I should like a husband of Tarley’s station, but with Mr. Allen’s more jovial personality and Mr. Raymond’s appearance.”
– “God willing, you will have a spouse eager to indulge you in all things. You deserve it. Cast your eye upon Lord Thawne at supper this evening. He is comely, most charming, and recently returned from his Grand Tour. You will be one of the first diamonds he meets since his return.”
– “He would have to wait two years for my presentation.” – Iris retorted with more than a little disgruntlement.
– “You are worth the wait. Any man of discerning taste will see that straightaway.”
– “As if I shall have a choice in the matter, even if he was to find me intriguing.”
Winking, Cait lowered her voice and said:
– “Thawne is a close associate of Tarley’s. I am certain Malcolm would speak highly of him to our pater should that become necessary.”
– “Truly?” – Iris’s shoulders wriggled with the fevered anticipation of youth. – “You must introduce us.”
– “For a certainty.” – Cait set off with a wave. “Cast your eyes away from ne’er–do–wells until then.”
Iris made a show of covering her eyes, but Cait expected her friend would return to her perusal of the men as soon as the opportunity presented itself.
* * *
– “Malcolm’s tension is high.” – Barry Allen noted, dusting himself off and staring at his brother’s retreating back.
– “You expected otherwise?” – Ronnie Raymond collected his jacket from the ground and shook off the few blades of grass clinging to the superfine. – “He gains a leg shackle tomorrow.”
– “To the Diamond of the Season. Not such a bad fate. My mother says Helen of Troy could not have been more beautiful.”
– “Or a marble statue more cold.”
Barry looked at him.
– “Beg your pardon?”
– “That hair and creamy skin,” – Ronnie murmured. – “and those brown eyes…”
Raymond noted the amusement in his friend’s voice and strengthened his own:
– “Her coloring suits her temperament perfectly,” he said briskly. “She is an ice princess, that one. Your brother had best pray she breeds quickly or risk losing his cock to frostbite.”
– “And you had best watch your tongue,” – Barry warned, repairing his brown hair with a quick combing with both hands, “lest I take offense. Lady Caitlin is soon to be my sister–in–law.”
Barry studied him.
– “Have you some quarrel with her? There is an edge to your tone suggesting so.”
– “Perhaps there is a slight sting,” he admitted gruffly, “from her failure to acknowledge me the other evening. Her cut direct was a marked difference in manner from that of her friend, Lady Iris, who is quite charming.”
– “Yes, Iris is a delight.” – Barry’s admiring tone was so like Ronnie’s when speaking of Lady Caitlin that Ronnie raised his brows in silent inquiry. Flushing, Barry went on:
– “Likely Caitlin did not hear you.”
– “I was directly beside her.”
– “On the left side? She is deaf in that ear.”
It took him a moment to absorb the information and reply. He had not imagined any imperfections in her, although he felt some relief to know there was one. It made her more mortal and less Grecian goddess.
– “I was not aware.”
– “For the most part, no one takes note. Only when the noise is high, during large gatherings, does it become a hindrance.”
– “Now I see why Tarley selected her. A wife who only half listens to rumormongers would be a blessing indeed.”
Barry snorted and started toward the house.
– “You really should concede defeat in our recently interrupted wrestling match. You were moments away from seeing me the victor.”
Ronnie elbowed him in the ribs.
– “If Malcolm had not spared you, you would be pleading for mercy now.”
– “Ho! Shall we determine the winner with a race to the—”
Ronnie was running before the last word was out.
* * *
5 years later...
Malcolm is dead and Barry became the new viscount Tarley, Cait falls in love with Ronnie, they got married and now they are going to their honeymoon.
Iris sighed and looked out the window beside her. Through the sheers that afforded some privacy, one could see the steady flow of Mayfair traffic in front of the town house, but Cait ’s attention was focused solely on her friend. Iris had matured into a beautiful young woman, lauded for her glamour and stunning brown eyes framed by thick, dark lashes. She’d once been curvier than Cait and more vivacious, but the years had tempered both traits, forging a woman who was slender as a reed and serenely elegant. Iris had acquired a reputation for notable reserve, which surprised Cait considering how charming and outgoing Lord Thawne was.
– “You promise to write and return as soon as you are able?”
– “Of course. And you promise to write back.”
– “Just bring yourself back.”
* * *
– “Caitlin intends to travel to Calypso.” – Ronnie said to Barry. – “I couldn’t say “no” to her.”
– “Neither can Iris – forgive me, Lady Thawne.”
The last was said with difficulty. Ronnie had long suspected his friend nursed deeper feelings for Caitlin’s friend and had assumed Barry would pay his addresses. Instead, Iris West had been presented at court then immediately betrothed, breaking the hearts of many hopeful would–be swains.
* * *
Barry Allen, Viscount Tarley, found himself in front of the Thawne house in Mayfair thirty minutes into the two-hour block of time in which Lady Thawne was known to be at home to callers. He dismounted before he could change his mind and passed the reins to the waiting footman, then took the steps up to the front door two at a time. He resisted the urge to check his cravat, which he’d styled modestly with a simple barrel knot. His anxiousness was extreme, to the point that he’d dithered over which of his waistcoats was the most attractive foil for the deep green coat he wore for her, because she had once said green was a very attractive color on his person.
In short order, he was announced into a drawing room holding half a dozen callers. Iris sat in a butter-colored wingback in the center of the assemblage, looking as fragile and beautiful as he had ever seen her.
– “Lord Tarley.” – she greeted, extending her hands to him without rising.
He crossed the oriental rug with swift strides and kissed the back of each slender hand.
– “Lady Thawne. My day is brighter for having begun it in your presence.”
His pleasure would be dimmed when he left, as if he stepped out of the sunlight and into a shadow. He believed she was made for him, so much so he’d never once contemplated marrying anyone else. In his youth, he had thought it would be perfect for the Allen brothers to marry the best friends – West and Snow, and live harmonious lives. But Joe West had nursed grander plans for his daughters, and Barry’s position as second son was not of sufficient consequence even to bear consideration.
He’d never had a chance to have her.
To add insult to injury, Iris was denied even a proper Season, just as her friend had been. She was betrothed almost from the moment she was presented at court.
– “I thought you had forgotten me,” she said to him. “It has been ages since you last called.”
– “I could never forget you.”
Although there were nights when he prayed for such to be possible.
Iris ooked over his shoulder with a telling glance. A moment later, an efficient servant moved a damask-upholstered wooden chair to a place beside her. The other guests returned Barry’s brisk nods of greeting with smiles and effusive welcomes.
– “Please,” Iris said, gesturing at the chair. “Sit. Tell me everything that has transpired in your life since the last time we spoke.”
Barry settled into the seat, his gaze ravenous as it swept over her glorious features. Her brown hair was styled fashionably, with ringlets on her forehead and hanging over her ears. She wore a lovely gown of rose pink, and her neck was adorned with a cameo secured by a thick black ribbon.
– “I’ve come to reassure you. I got a letter saying that Lady Caitlin and Lord Raymond have arrived safely. I offered them an idea where to go to their honeymoon, because it’s nearby, so if you need her, you can visit her.”
– “My lord.” Iris’s lovely brown eyes warmed. “You are deviously clever. I adore that trait in you.”
Her last words caused a pang in his chest.
– “Oh, please. I did’t do anything. Besides, they will be there for a month.”
– “You are a godsend.” – Her smile faded. – “I miss her terribly already and she has been gone only one day. But listen to me go on so selfishly. She made a great attempt to hide it, but it was clear she anticipated the trip. In fact, she was quite eager. I should at least make an attempt to be excited for her.”
– “That is why I came by today. I know how close you are to Lady Caitlin and how her absence will pain you. I want you to know … I am at your disposal, for whatever you require, in the interim until she returns.”
– “You have always been so wonderful to me.” – She reached out and gently, all-too-briefly touched his forearm. An air of melancholy clung to her that disturbed him.
– “But you have enough new burdens without adding me to the mix.”
– “You will never be a burden to me. It is my privilege to be available to you whenever you may need me.”
“You may live to regret that offer one day,” – she teased, brightening. – “I am certain I could devise ways to torment you with it.”
Although her meaning was innocent, his reaction to her words was less so.
– “Do your worst,” – he challenged in a husky voice. – “I am eager to prove myself up to the task.”
– “Milady.” – The butler approached with a small, beribboned box on a silver salver. He presented the gift to her.
One of Iris ’s guests, the Marchioness of Grayson, began to tease her about secret admirers and how jealous Thawne would be, since his possessiveness over his wife was well known. He was unfashionably doting.
Iris opened the small accompanying card first, then set it on the chair arm beside her. Barry noted that her fingers were shaking as she opened the box, revealing a jewel-encrusted broach of obvious expense. Noting the pinched look around her eyes, he glanced at the card, which had been only partially refolded. He could make out very little of the slashing scrawl, but “forgive me” was legible enough. It tautened his jaw and sent a rush of questions through his mind.
– “Well?” – Lady Bencott asked. – “Do not keep us in an agony of curiosity. What is it and who sent it?”
Iris passed the gift into the countess’s waiting hand.
– “Thawne, of course.”
As the broach made its way around the room to much approbation, Barry thought Iris’s wide smile looked forced. Certainly she was too pale not to raise some concern.
He excused himself, unable to bear the feeling that something was wrong in her world, and he lacked the right to do anything about it.
* * *
Iris had just arranged the last white plume in her upswept hair when her husband entered her boudoir in a state of partial undress. His cravat hung undone around his neck, and his waistcoat was unbuttoned. Eddie was freshly bathed and shaved, if his damp hair and shadow-free jaw-line were any indication. He was undeniably handsome with his honey-hued hair and robin’s egg blue eyes. Together they formed a striking couple – he with his boundless exuberance and silken charm, and she with her mantle of reservation and faultless deportment.
Eddie jerked his head toward her abigail, Sarah, who was smoothing out minute wrinkles in the new blue gown Iris intended to wear.
– “I was hoping to see you in the pink with lace. It’s ravishing on you, especially with my mother’s pearls.”
She met the maid’s gaze in the mirror and nodded, ceding to her husband’s wishes. The alternative was an argument best avoided.
The abigail quietly and efficiently exchanged the dresses. After the pink gown had been laid out on the bed, Thawne dismissed the servant. Sarah paled and looked miserable as she left the room in haste, no doubt fearing the worst. Although there was a pattern to the escalation of Thawne’s moods, violence defied reason.
When they were alone, he cupped Iris’s shoulders and nuzzled the tender spot beneath her ear. As his fingers kneaded, she flinched and he noticed. Stiffening, he looked at the spot he touched.
Iris watched him in the mirror, waiting for the remorse to cross his expressive features.
– “Did you receive my gift?” – Thawne whispered, gentling his touch over the darkening bruise marring her right shoulder blade.
– “Yes.” – She gestured to where it sat on the vanity in front of her. – “Thank you. It’s beautiful.”
– “But pales in comparison to you.” – The movement of his lips tickled the shell of her ear. – “I don’t deserve you.”
She often thought they deserved each other. It was the saddest sort of irony that Iris had once thought she and Thawne had a precious affinity. An imprint from his childhood was left on his soul, manifesting itself in ways not readily evident.
– “How was your day?” – she asked.
– “Long. I spent the whole of it thinking of you.” – He urged her to turn and she did, sliding carefully around on the small vanity stool so that the mirror was to her back. Eddie knelt before her, his hands moving to clasp the back of her calves. Laying his head in her lap, he said:
– “Forgive me, my darling.”
– “Eddie.” – she sighed.
– “You are everything to me. No one understands me the way you do. I would be lost without you.”
Iris touched his damp hair, running her fingers through it.
– “You’re not yourself when you drink spirits.”
– “I’m not,” – he agreed, rubbing his cheek against her bruised thigh. – “I can’t seem to control myself. You know I would never deliberately do anything to hurt you.”
They kept no liquor in any of their homes, but he easily found it elsewhere. By all accounts he was a jovial drunk, a most entertaining and amusing fellow. Until he returned home to her, where the demons plaguing him resided.
Iris felt the wet of his tears soak through her chemise and pantalettes. Thawne lifted his head and looked at her with reddened eyes.
– “Can you forgive me?”
Every time he asked her the question, it became harder to answer. Eddie was most often the perfect husband. Kind and thoughtful. He spoiled her with gifts and tokens of affection, love letters and favorite treats. Eddie listened when Iris spoke and remembered anything she admired. Iris’d learned swiftly to be very careful with what she voiced a liking for, because he would attain it for her by whatever means necessary. But there were times when he was a monster.
There was still a part of her that was madly in love with the sweet memories they’d created in the infancy of their marriage. Yet she hated him, too.
– “My dearest Iris,” – Thawne murmured, his hands sliding up to the ties at her waist. – “Allow me to make restitution. Let me worship you, as you deserve.”
– “My lord, please.” – Iris circled his wrists with her fingers. – “We are expected at the Grayson ball. My hair has already been arranged.”
– “I will not disturb it.” – he promised in the low seductive tone that had once been capable of luring her into carnal depravity in carriages and alcoves and anywhere else they could find a modicum of privacy. – “Let me.”
Eddie looked at her with slumberous eyes. He was passion flushed and determined. When it came to his amorous inclinations, “no” was not an answer he accepted. The few times she’d attempted it, unable to bear the thought of his hands on her again even in tenderness, he had drunk himself into furies that made her regret denying him. Then he’d take her anyway, excusing himself with the orgasms he wrung from her. After all, he reasoned, she must have been willing if she’d enjoyed it so much. She almost preferred the pain of his fists to the humiliation of her own traitorous body.
Her pantalettes were wriggled out from under her, then slid over her stocking-clad calves and removed completely. His large hands cupped her knees and urged them apart. His breath caressed the flesh of her inner thigh.
– “So pretty,” – he praised, parting her with questing fingers. – “So soft and sweet and as pink as a seashell.”
The Earl of Thawne had been a gazetted rake before offering for her. He’d acquired more sexual skill with his hands, mouth, and cock than any man should have a right to. When he unleashed those talents on her body, it always betrayed her. No matter how determined she was to be angry for the sake of her own survival and mental well-being, he was more stubborn than she. Minutes or hours, it didn’t matter.
He proved his mastery over her again now, fluttering the pointed tip of his tongue over her clitoris. She vainly fought against the pleasure with closed eyes, gritted teeth, and hands clenching the edge of the upholstered stool. When the inevitable climax shuddered through her, tears sprang to her eyes.
– “I love you.” – he said fiercely.
What did it say about her, that she could experience pleasure from the touch of a man who brought her such pain?
Thawne began his sensual assault again, urging her to lean back and open herself more fully. As he pushed his tongue inside her, her mind retreated into a darkened space separate from her body. A small blessing, that. But a welcome one.