At first, he ignores it. He’s not naive; he may not have been privy to the exact nature of their relationship, but Sir Malcolm knows that no matter what they’ve been through, Miss Ives and Mr. Chandler (Mr. Talbot, he reminds himself, though having met the man who sired him, he can understand the man’s need to distance himself from that name) care about one another a great deal. And really, who is he to judge them for taking their happiness where they can get it? Especially after what they’d been through, and after Ethan had refused to give up on her and saved her. It seemed only natural they’d end up together, so Sir Malcolm lets it be.
There are times he almost says something; he walks in on them in the parlor on the sofa about to kiss, judging by the somewhat startled looks on their faces. Sometimes they can just look at each other too long and Sir Malcolm has to leave because of the sheer intimacy of it. He is almost envious of what they have; in all his life he has never made anyone so uncomfortable as to make them leave the room just by gazing at his beloved. But still, he ignores it.
He ignores it up until one morning, perhaps two months after Ethan and his return to London, when he rises early. Sir Malcolm decides he may as well start his day despite the fact that the sun is barely risen. He has hired another man to do Sembene’s former duties, such as cooking, and he decides to go see about breakfast. Sir Malcolm dresses and leaves his room. He stops short almost immediately. At the other end of the hall is Miss Ives, clearly trying to leave Ethan’s room stealthily. Sir Malcolm might’ve still just ignored the very clear evidence of them being lovers, except for the fact that Vanessa turns and looks at him.
A startled look passes quickly over her face before she hides it, feigning indifference. She is in her undergarments, what looks to be her clothes from yesterday in her arms. Oh, there is no way to ignore this anymore. Sir Malcolm is half tempted to wake Ethan-if he isn’t already awake, and that thought is mildly nauseating-to have a conversation with him, but decides it can wait until a later hour. He will also have a conversation with Miss Ives about discretion, he decides, as she continues to stare at him.
“I was just going to see about breakfast,” he says, stupidly. The last thing he wants to do is acknowledge this as reality, but he could not bear the silence any longer.
“Alright,” she nods, and offers nothing else.
They spend another few excruciatingly uncomfortable moments in a standstill, both waiting for the other to move on or say something. Miss Ives is the one to break it, turning and continuing slowly into her room. Sir Malcolm sighs, a headache blooming behind his eyes as he goes downstairs. It’s going to be a long day.
“Tell me,” he sighs, staring at her wearily. At first Ethan had thought that Miss Ives’ behavioral shift had been the usual one to who they were to the public-up until the moment he got her alone, and she still remained distant to him, almost cold. It was puzzling, and more than a little concerning.
Her brow is furrowed in worry and she’s wrapped her arms around herself, standing near the fireplace in the parlor. It is just after lunch; they are the only two in the house, and he had tried to kiss her. She’d dodged him, and then moved away. Ethan wants, badly, to reach out and try to touch her again, but he’s afraid of spooking her further. His only options are to try to persuade her to share what’s troubling her, or wait her out, and he’s not particularly fond of the latter these days.
As he waits for Vanessa to decide if she’ll respond, Ethan mentally runs through what he’s seen of her today. She’d let him wake her up early this morning and after they’d sleepily sated their mutual desire, they’d lain tangled together for a while before she insisted that since the sun was starting to rise, she should go back to her room to dress for the day. Miss Ives had seemed receptive to his response suggesting she could move some of her things into his room. She had laughed at him when he had tried to pull her back into his bed when he insisted she come kiss him goodbye before she left. Once their day started, their moments together were few; late nights and early mornings were their time, and they always made the best of it.
After that, he’d seen her at breakfast. She had been reserved, but that was not abnormal. Sir Malcolm was present, after all. Then Miss Ives had had an appointment with the alienist, and Kaetenay, who insisted for some reason upon staying in London, had called on Ethan, and he’d dealt with that. Lunch had been even quieter than breakfast; Ethan was never in a good mood when he had to spend time with Kaetenay, and he’d been so absorbed in his thoughts he honestly couldn’t say whether or not Vanessa’s reservedness was unusual in any way at that point. Sir Malcolm and his new man had gone out on some errand and Kaetenay had left after lunch.
That left them where they were currently, in the parlor, Miss Ives curled in on herself, clearly struggling with something, and Ethan desperately trying to understand what he could’ve done wrong to upset her. It had to have been him, after all, if she was both refusing to let him near her and answer his pleas to open up to him.
“Don’t,” her voice cuts him off in a harsh whisper. She flinches a little at the tone of it, but makes no move to apologize. It confuses him further.
“I can’t fix it if you don’t tell me what I did wrong,” he points out.
“You’ve done nothing wrong,” she replies coolly.
“Clearly I have,” he mumbles, and she flinches again.
He approaches her slowly, like he would a wild animal. She neither backs away nor encourages him as he gets into her space. When Vanessa refuses to look up at him, Ethan places a finger under her chin and lifts it. She glares at him a little, but he doesn’t back down.
“When I left your room this morning,” she swallows, taking a breath before continuing, “Sir Malcolm saw me.”
“Oh,” he breathes.
“In my undergarments,” she adds unnecessarily. Ethan winces, finally understanding what must be troubling her.
“Are you sure he saw-”
“He spoke to me,” she breaks free of him and turns away again, “We stood there for at least a minute, Ethan.”
“Oh fuck me,” he mutters, because he’s fairly certain at this point he’s gonna be dead by sundown.
“Isn’t that what led us here?” she mumbles, a rhetorical question so soft that he barely hears it, but he does. It takes him a full minute to process the fact that she’d just made a lewd joke before he laughs in a manner that could only be described as borderline hysterical. She turns and shoots him a sharp look in response, and it forces him to sober himself.
“Do you really think he had no idea about what we are before this morning?” Ethan asks, because he’s fairly sure himself that the older man had known they were together. But knowing something and seeing such blatant evidence as Miss Ives leaving his room at sunrise in only her undergarments were two very different things, he muses, cringing internally. Yeah, he’s definitely gonna die by sundown.
“I am sure he knew,” she admits, her hands dropping from her arms. A wave of relief rushes through him; he is making progress towards calming her down.
“Okay, well,” he reaches out to grab her by the shoulders, running his hands soothingly down her covered arms, “It’ll be alright, Vanessa.”
“You know better,” she gives him a look.
“We’ll figure it out,” he sighs, as close to an agreement as she’s gonna get from him. She continues to frown, but when he pulls her in for a hug, rubbing circles into her back, she only leans into him further. One crisis has been averted for the time being. As for the other, more pressing matter, they’ll face it too. Even if he dies by sundown at the hands of her probably upset father figure, who he realizes was more aloof than usual when he’d seen him today. Ethan winces internally again, and as if sensing his growing fear, Vanessa shifts to wrap her arms around his neck and kiss him softly in reassurance. For once, he doesn’t try to deepen the kiss.
The last thing they need right now is for Sir Malcolm to find them in his parlor.
“Mr. Talbot, may I have a word?” Sir Malcolm smiles at him dangerously and adds, “In private?”
It is after dinner, and the three of them had been in the parlor. The last of their guests had trickled out; Victor and Miss Hartdegen had just left, and Kaetenay had left even earlier, much to Ethan’s relief. The man had made it a point to get a moment alone with Ethan to nag him into confessing what was troubling him; he’d laughed harder than Ethan had ever seen him do before, and it had pissed him off, leading him to go help in the kitchen to avoid Kaetenay.
Miss Ives shoots him a worried look, and then shoots a look that is half concerned, half angered on his behalf at Sir Malcolm, who only stares at her back, giving nothing away. She turns her gaze back to Ethan for reassurance, and he gives her a small nod of encouragement. Vanessa stands gracefully, leaving and closing the parlor doors behind her. Ethan gulps as he turns to Sir Malcolm, whose serious expression has only further set on his face since Miss Ives had left. Ethan has half a mind to get up, grab her, and run out of the house, but he forces himself to stay put and get the confrontation over with.
“I’m sure Miss Ives has informed you of what occurred this morning,” Sir Malcolm breaks the uncomfortable silence that’s descended. Ethan finds himself simultaneously relieved and terrified that he is not the one to have to begin this conversation.
“She mentioned it,” he replies carefully.
Sir Malcolm nods thoughtfully, “You must realize by now, that for all my faults, I do view her as a daughter of sorts.”
“So you must understand then,” Sir Malcolm leans towards him, a threatening look on his face, “That I have concerns about the nature of your… relationship, with her. It is highly improper, for a start. I must ask, what are your intentions with Miss Ives? Will I continue to risk seeing her stealing around this house in only her undergarments at the wee hours of the morning? I must say, I do not like that thought at all.”
Ethan winces, “We thought-”
“That I would not be awake to witness that display?” Sir Malcolm leans back into his chair, managing to look all the more threatening for doing so.
“Look, sir-” Ethan stops, shakes his head, takes a breath and starts again, “This thing we’ve got, it’s so new. We’re still figuring it out.”
“Do you intend to wed her?” Sir Malcolm asks.
“If she’d let me, in a heartbeat,” he responds without thought. They have not even put words to the feelings that have made them lovers, but Ethan has never been more certain of anything than his desire to spend the rest of his life with Vanessa, if she’ll have him.
Sir Malcolm nods, and Ethan can’t read if he’s approving of his answer but the older man presses on, “From everything we saw and heard, you leaving her hurt her in ways I am sure we do not fully know the extent of. Can you swear to me now, boy, that you’ll never leave her side again? I do not think I need mention the sizable collection of guns that I own, do I?”
“Your absence cut her as well,” Ethan replies without thinking, barreling on despite the incredulous look Sir Malcolm is sporting at his insolence, “I could ask the same of you, for what it’s worth. But I know what my leaving did, better than you. She cries in her sleep sometimes, so afraid from nightmares of the things she did. I will never leave her again. I would sooner die than hurt her like that ever again.”
After his outburst, there is a tense silence. It is not awkward and thick with secrets as before, but it is all encompassing, and once more there is a stalemate. Then Sir Malcolm nods, more to himself Ethan thinks, and stands, looming over him. He gives him what could almost be called a smile, and claps a hand on his shoulder, squeezing it painfully hard.
“Now that we understand one another, I think we can move on. What do you say to a drink?” Sir Malcolm is already moving off of him to get a bottle of brandy. It’s not Ethan’s usual poison of choice, but the relief at having survived the conversation is so great he can’t say he minds.
Ethan nearly jumps out of his own skin when he enters his room and finds Miss Ives pacing around it. She starts as well at his entrance, relief clear on her face before she masks it. She is undoubtedly curious, but Ethan needs a moment to gather himself before he can relay their conversation to her. He takes the time to undress, amusement coursing through him at the way her eyes fix on his chest once it’s bared to her. He takes advantage of her momentary distraction to move closer. Ethan gathers Vanessa’s small body into his arms, and feels her let out a shaky breath against his chest. Then he feels her mouth there, her tongue flicking out, and he gently pushes her away; after the conversation he’d just gone through, he’s too spooked to give into his desire for her.
“What happened?” she asks, growing serious.
Ethan doesn’t answer for a long moment, taking her in. Miss Ives is stunning, whether she’s in the gowns and accouterments she wears like armor into the battle that is London’s upper class society, or as she is now: in a nightgown that’s too unbuttoned, her hair down and much shorter barefoot than in her boots. There’s that familiar furrow in her brow again, and a slight pout on her lips at his lack of forthcoming about what he’d discussed with Sir Malcolm that he wants to kiss. He reaches slowly to cradle her face in his hands, marveling at how small and soft her face is in comparison to how big and rough his hands are. She doesn’t seem to mind; she never has.
Ethan leans in to kiss her, slowly. He takes his time, savoring the way she melts under his touch, mouth parting when his tongue sweeps across her lower lip. Ethan acquiesces, deepening the kiss for a while, until they have to pull apart to breathe. Their lips separate for only a moment before she leans back in, playfully nipping at his bottom lip. He pulls back, and she lets out a small whimper in protest. It is incredibly endearing, and his resistance almost crumbles, but his resolve to put words to what they’re doing is too great. He presses his forehead to hers for a long moment before pulling back, hands still cradling her face.
“I love you,” he tells her, softly.
“Vanessa,” he swallows back a wave of emotion threatening to overwhelm him, “I’ll tell you all about the very fatherly talking to I just got, but not now. Now I want to talk to you, about us. I know we haven’t said the words, and that we don’t really need to, but I can’t not say them anymore. I love you. I love you so much -”
“I love you too, Ethan,” the smile on her face is so sweet, even with the hint of confusion in her blue eyes at what prompted this exchange. He huffs out a relieved laugh at her response.
The serious, puzzled look is back on her face as she asks, “What made you think to name this thing?”
“Sir Malcolm asked me what my intentions with you were,” he admits, “I realized, we hadn’t said those words. But I’m with you because I love you. And when we lay together, it’s because I love you, and I want to express my love through touchin’ you. My desire for you and my affection for you are one and the same.”
She doesn’t realize she’s crying a little until his thumbs are tenderly swiping the tears off her cheeks. His mouth finds Vanessa’s again, and when it deepens hands wander. He still pulls away from her. She gives him another puzzled look.
“Not tonight, darlin’,” he says, gently. A look of understanding comes over her face, followed by a teasing glint in her eye that spells danger.
“He scared you,” she states.
He doesn’t dignify it with a response, choosing instead to pick her up. She lets out a little yelp followed by a laugh as he carries her and deposits her roughly onto his bed. Ethan covers Vanessa’s body with his own, careful to keep the weight on his arms as he looks down at her, amused by the indignation on her face when he does nothing further.
“I love you,” she murmurs again, softening, a hand reaching to touch his cheek. He closes his eyes and leans into her touch, nuzzling his face against her hand. She laughs a little at the rough scratch of his beard against her delicate palm.
“Still not tonight,” he deadpans.
“I love you,” she repeats.
“Is that all you can say now?” he can’t help but play with her a little. She growls at him and shoves him off.
He falls on his back next to her, and she immediately climbs on top of him. She’s given up trying to seduce him, content simply in trying to burrow into him as close as she possibly can. Ethan wraps one arm around her waist, debating if it’s worth the struggle to get them under the blankets, tangled as they are. He decides against it as he buries his other hand into Vanessa’s hair, finding a way to pull her improbably closer. She hums a contented sigh against him, closing her eyes. The lights are still on, but they manage to sleep that night regardless, happy and at peace as they are with one another, safe in their mutual love.