~ Hampshire, England. 1816 ~
Winters here were always of the bitterest kind.
Everything hardened by frost. All of nature slaughtered and gnarled and made ugly by it. Everything deadened and driven away until yellow spring sunshine butters it all up. The ground wintry solid and as unyielding as the bite of stinging chill in the air.
Every loud footstep from under her cracked boots crackled and crushed with ice-crusted mud. Her treads echo off about her in the oppressive silence of the air.
Iris Ashton walked along the lonely pale road. The path ahead scattered with linen-white snow, thick like cloth, settling down in ghostly sprinkles - like fluttering ash.
Snow comes from a sky as thick and as soft as a eiderdown. Graphite grey smeared all over the horizon signalling the worst yet to come. Sky is heavy and blotted with it. Flecks already kiss and cling at her hair and her blue wool coat collar.
She can feel them land and melt on her cold numbed lips. Feels her raspy silver breath run them away.
The trees in the dark wood surrounding her on either side of the ribboning track and the pallid ground; stand majestic and strong. Like a darkly Prussian-blue swathed army standing silent attention. Frost crawls determined up their sturdy trunks. The horizon peeping through the trees is white, like a puff of spilt flour. The craggy black tips of the regimented trees scrape at the thick churning sky.
One hand laden with her heavy wicker basket. Hanging solidly down by her thigh. Handle creaking so under her glove from it’s heavy contents. Her elbow is locked straight and aching fully from the strain of it.
Mother had sent her off on one of her errands; paying calls to give some wrapped linen food parcels to the church. Cold meats and half-loaves of day old bread to give to the poor and needy. And on the way back she’d stopped and called for tea with her doddery great Aunt Lavinia. A more belligerent old dragon never drew breath.
Iris was her favourite of all the Ashton girls. All three of them. Unfortunately the lot of being the eldest and families general paragon of hope, fell onto Iris. Next was her sister Flora who is fifteen, and then there was Posy, at sixteen.
A whole compliment - a bouquet - of Ashton ladies. As the gossip columns always so proudly and wittily declared.
Iris was the level-headed, sensible elder sister at three and twenty. The one who was seen and never heard. The one with unremarkable grey eyes and fair skin. Her teeth were supportable, and her conversation was, well, fine, really.
She didn’t have dazzling honey blonde hair or a sultry head of brunette curls. Her hair was brown. Not chestnut. Not sizzling auburn blaze. Just. Brown. Like mud. Like bark. Like flat Turkish coffee.
The sensible Ashton girl, with eyes as dull as dust, and hair the colour of twigs.
She was pale, with a oval face and a stout figure that was passably pleasing. She had a fine bosom that some men liked to gawp at, and mother insisted she had a touch of child bearing hips. Which would strongly come into her favour when she’s married. As she had once said;
“Your future husband will be much delighted with such a valuable commodity, Iris.” Her Mother remarked once when she was a young girl and she was tugging and yanking her long hair into a plait ready for bed.
Iris can remember how badly she wanted to do something out of spite purely to ruin that chance. But really she couldn’t alter the shape of her skeleton with much ease.
Maybe she wasn’t a diamond of the first water. She’ll never be one of those girls who glide elegantly through a ballroom like a bevy of silk swathed swans. Preening, poised and primly perfect.
To her own mind and credit she was just - plain. Tolerable.
She is sometimes remarked to be too acerbic with her tongue, or her remarks. She’s certainly got a backbone and another quality that stumped men of the ton - a mind of her own making. She doesn’t suffer fools and she likes to venture that she is a blue stocking with a decent and level understanding of this world.
She’s sufficient- she supposed. Simply that and nothing more. She’ll never have poems written about her, or have a man declare he fell wildly in passionate love with her with one glance.
It suits her well enough. The fact that she looked like a dusty dull unrefined ornament next to her polished preening sisters. She’d rather fade into the wallpaper than be a dazzling spectacle of ridiculousness, like that of her two siblings.
Her simpering, inane sisters. Who flirt with any man donning a scarlet coat in the Militia. Flora and Posy, who worry obsessively about ribbons, and seek to pay no mind to anything, of any real consequence.
Iris is never one for fits of jealousy, but she is sometimes envious of their light-hearted puerile, worries. About making up their bonnets or, the next ball, or the most unbecoming stain on their new pelisse.
Aunt Lavinia greatly despised the merest sight and intimation of the younger Ashton ladies too. Iris is usually requested to go to tea with her Great Aunt, alone.
“Silly chit of a girl. The pair of them.” Was her relative’s most favoured and overused phrase.
She’d cackle it as one of her clawed elderly hands - talons - gripped her teacup. And she wouldn’t be happy until she’d griped and moaned and complained about every beast and man put on this earth. For they’ve all been put there with the sole purpose of vexing her greatly -Naturally.
Tea today was no different to any other occasion she pays a visit.
Iris sits with the sniping old matron in her freezing-cold front parlour with a piffling fire barely going. Her Aunt is always bedecked in enough black muslin to cover all of Hampshire.
A black lace matron cap staunchly on her head. Black fichu covering at her shoulders. An inky shawl on her arms and on each of her skeletal fingers sit glimmering gleaming rings which clackclackclack and scrape when she moves and points that every disapproving finger. Big fat stones of amber and ruby and topaz weighting down her frail claws.
Iris always teeters politely on the most uncomfortably hard settee opposite her. Cradling the hot spode bone-china cup of tea that her Aunt shoves in her hands. Sugar staining sickly saccharine on her lips - she never let her guests have unsugared tea.
Quite why she is the favourite Ashton, Iris has no clue. She is always interrogated by the woman as she barks nosy question after nosy question at her.
“Yes, Aunt. No, Aunt. I don’t believe so, Aunt.” As the harridan gripes about beef or sugar or candle taxes, or the local Reverend, or the gaudy new fabric on display in dressmakers window.
A whole ream of grudges being spewed out that wrinkled puckered mouth. Face pale, craggy and screwed up with lines like a sheet of crumpled parchment paper.
Her dark eyes shine forth like raisins sunk deep into scones. Glittering black and always always always dissatisfied with the whole world, and determined to find fault with everyone in it.
Iris brings her the ointment her Aunt asked for. She was suffering a hacking cough that worsened in the winter. Lavinia insists its a damp affliction brought on by unclean air.
Iris bought the woman a bottle of liniment rub, spiced with rosemary oil, camphor and spirit of wine. Her Aunt harrumphed at her offering. Stabs her walking cane into carpet in disfavour. Shoves the bottle away and insists Willow bark tea is what will cure her ailment.
Next she’ll be insisting on leeches and blood letting to balance out the humours-
Iris doesn’t fight her stubbornness - it’s a battlefield over which she will never win or hoist a flag of victory.
She drinks down three more cups of the cloying tea, interrupts the interrogation and insists rather bravely that she must be on her way - for Lord and Lady Hearst are throwing a ball this evening. On their vast estate. And she needs to scurry home to ready for it. That earns her another harrumph in response. Lavinia detested balls.
“Breeding ground for senile men and stupid women. And all that inane leaping about they now call dancing...” She grimaces.
The whole county is in uproar for this ball - little else to recommend or appreciate in this bleak dull midwinter. Whispers flourishing around town seemed inclined to favour that a mysterious Lord from the continent is in attendance tonight...
A Lord. From Bavaria no less. Apparently he owned a vast castle high up in the snowy forest smothered mountains.
Quite why he’s bothered to travel the length of Europe to this savage spit of society in the Hampshire countryside, she cannot fathom. If she was lucky enough to live in a castle, she’d never be seen again.
She recounts that scrap of gossip about the prospective Lord to her Aunt. Who thunks her cane loudly on the floor and scoffs in derision;
“Foreigners are always a grave source of disappointment - and they are so riddled with lice and ill bred manners.” So wisely declares Aunt Lavinia.
She says that about anything to do with anything and anyone not born or formed on good british soil.
She had said the very same thing last week about the pews at Church-
She leaves the little bustling hamlet. Shuts her Great Aunt’s warped cottage door. The wood shuddered, catching on the doorstep. Her arm shot through with needles of pain. Aches slipping up her back, her neck and sparking her shoulders. She hooks the heavy basket onto the crook of her elbow and sighs as she plods homeward.
Away from the small tudor, mouldy mustard walls of Lavinia’s cottage. A pretty little house. Always cold. Formed of thick stone walls and mahogany creaking stairs. Austere bare furniture sparsely filled every room. Wedged into a street with crossed glass windows and a petticoat brown tiled roof.
It was a meagre six miles from here to home. And she appreciates the walk. Or atleast she might be more inclined to favour it, were her coat more substantial.
As it is the blue wool thing is possibly a might too small for her now. It tugs and pinches so across the shoulders. And the hem ends right up her calves. Pebble-grey Kidskin gloves on her fingers, knuckles knotted stiff and her fingertips are tingling with cold.
The hem of her plain cotton voile dress, is dark with damp from the snow. The bluebell cobalt of it leeched darker at her hem. She’s shivering because her stockings aren’t the warmest wool. Her legs are trembling cold and she only wore her lightest chemise. However she is glad she bothered with the scarf.
She hadn’t put on a bonnet today. She can’t stand the fuss of one. Ribbons flapping at her ears. It was uncommon - but she went without.
Simply tied her hair back into a low coiffured bun secured with a snip of wheaten muslin. By now and with lugging this basket across all of the Hampshire countryside, some straggles of hair have come loose. Flopping uselessly to her shoulders.
She ducks her chin into her scarf to escape the exposure of a battering bitter gale, and continues trudging on with wearied, aching determination. She always trudges on. She has too. Is always the one who must endeavour to continue, no matter how bleak she feels.
It gets tiring, carrying great tonne boulders of expectations on her shoulders. She likes to think she bears the task nobly.
As her Mother takes great pains and lengths to always endlessly remind her; she is the vessel in which all hopes for the survival of the Ashton family, are stored.
She will make a good marriage match; to a gentleman of high rank or fortune - preferably both. She will save the estate from destitution. Her sisters from ruin. And her father from debtors prison. She will be the one to keep her family in the moneyed style to which they are accustomed. They will not lose Westwell to the bailiffs.
They have risen far within the ranks of society. And they will not lose their clutch or their pride. Or their respected place among it. Her fathers estate is not a vast one; but it is more than his father before him had. A meagre merchant selling spices and furs out of Putney during the Restoration.
Now the Ashtons are country gentry. With a modest dwelling of an estate, abutting a working farm. Westwell. A manor house of not much splendour and merely thirteen rooms.
Built of gold cotswold stone with huge white windows looking out onto a self-effacing garden of some prettiness. There was a pond where swans flocked in summer. Enclosed wilderness all around. A plank of wood swing hanging off one big oak chestnut that stooped over the front of the house. To the back the garden is walled, full of sculpted beds and privets and the wide green lawn is rather uninspiring in this decimating winter
They had one gardener. Two maids. A cook and a Housekeeper. They live comfortably and hardly ever exceed their income.
Her father hopes to change that this calendar year. He wants his eldest daughter promised to someone upstanding and rich.
Her mother will settle with wedding her to any man who looks pleasing in a cravat and still has all his own teeth.
She treks on through the snow. Hoping. Dreaming so many things.
Wishing her basket was lighter. Wishing her parents had sired a son. So that this evening she wouldn’t have to be bound into a pinching dress, and paraded around the Hearst’s ballroom as if she’s some prized slaughter pig at a county fair.
Wishing that she could instead stay home in her untrimmed, plain nightgown. No laced stays crushing her ribs. With a hot brick at her feet. A dog-eared Swift novel in her hands. Cracked open to the good passages. She’d read by tapered candlelight and be perfectly contented, poised to encounter spinsterhood.
Instead, a painful evening of savage society awaited her.
Poison filled smiles from nasty debutantes or their matronly mama’s. Sniping at her dress or her hair or her pale skin, or her lack of fortune. Crushed mangled toes from dancing with some portly red-faced Lord-whoever-from-wherever. One who stank of port, had bad breath, and tried to pinch her bottom with fat lecherous sausage fingers, when he thought no one was looking their way.
She has no aspirations for marriage or love. She’s not a fool. She doesn’t have her head swimming with fancies from novels. No rapturous desires of tall, sable-haired men, with chiseled marble bodies seducing her astray. No cloaked villain sweeping her away in the dead of night to send her to ruin, to then have her dashing savour ride in on horseback to rescue her.
If she’s one thing at all - it is sensible. She doesn’t like to reflect on the proposition of marrying some stranger simply to arrange the business of money and bearing him heirs. She’s not a broodmare-
She’s a woman. She has a thumping proud heart and a strong-working brain and she hopes there’s more measure to her life, than submitting her body and weak will over to be governed and quieted by a future, faceless husband.
She’s sure many girls of three and twenty have felt this way. She’s sure many generations upon generations of them will continue to do so, until women cease to be sold like chattel - or like cattle at market.
Sold solely to men for the priceless untarnished commodity that lay between their thighs. And based and viewed purely on that frail scrap of fleshed dignity, alone.
She wraps her coat tighter around herself. Distinctly feeling a sense of dread starting to slither sickly cool up her spine from the prospect of the evening ahead.
Mother will wrangle her into her finest restrictively crushing silk gown. Have the maid tug and pull her hair and wrench it into a pleasing style. Jabbing hair pins in her head. Mother will see to it that she splash plenty of Yardley’s water of jasmine blossom, orange and lavender on the pulses at her wrists, and at her neck.
Then, she’ll be practically shoved into the chest of every single eligible gentleman in the room tonight in the hope they deign her to be pleasing. She’ll be pushed and prodded and manoeuvred and pumelled-
And she’s exhausted. She only hopes she finds the strength to endure such torture-
She kicks through the frosted ground. Pebbles scatter and skit in her wake. She nudges the sparkling white stones with the toe of her cracked brown boots. Her feet were slowly growing numb. Toes stinging with cold. She should have worn some thicker stockings. Then again, money was not exactly a moderate opulence at home. They had to husband their resources as a family very carefully- which meant Iris couldn’t have some new leather half-boots for romping about the wilds of the countryside.
But she could have as many new hair combs, fans, or gloves and embellished stockings as she wanted. Anything that might help snare a man into visions of matrimony. Not wasted on such a thing as a new wool coat to help keep her warm in winter; or boots that didn’t let the muddy puddles seep in.
For appearances sake, the Ashtons wealth went solely into ballgowns, perfume and finery for their girls. Some household money of course went into sensibilities like candles, meat, flour and soap. Iris was taught that she should be hugely grateful for everything that was lavished upon her.
Flora so often griped at her that she was so lucky to have such amounts spent on her. She got new gowns of printed cottons and muslin and silks and whatever she wanted. Where her and Posy had to make do with alterations and hand-me-downs to their dresses and bonnets.
Flora was so blinded by jealousy and immaturity that she didn’t quite look - really look at her sister - and realise that Iris didn’t really want any of those things-
She ruminated on all tonight might bring her. She wondered what kind of state her silly sisters would both be in when she gets home. Already donning their paper curls, lacing each other into their stays and chemises already. Arguing over who wore the best pair of silk slippers they had between them.
Mother will be in one of her bitter moods. Trying to determinedly order all her girls ready for tonight.
Moods sour with each other already and they’d be seething and spitting nasty fury at Iris. She had new things especially for this ball tonight. New pair of satin gloves and a printed silk dress. They did not. They never did.
Iris would lend Flora her old reticule - the one Mother had bought for her from Bond street. And she’d give Posy her pearl hair comb to slide into her auburn coiffure. A little balm to both of them to gently encourage some sisterly affection. She didn’t want to be at war with them all night.
She’s halfway down the narrow pale road, kicking snowy stones, when an almighty sound kicks up over the horizon, barrelling in her direction. She turns her head back and hears the distant rhythmic rumbling of hooves hitting track and the clack and creak of enormous coach wheels.
Hardly surprising when this is the biggest road leading back to Pembleton, her little village.
She sees through the fog of snow, a huge black shape dominates the road. Moving fast. She lifts her skirts and steps onto the crunching grass so that the raring coach might pass her safely by. At the tremendous speed it’s going she reckons she didn’t have long before it caught up to where she’s walking.
She hears it gaining, closer and closer. Wood and hooves and snorting horses eating up the distance of the road. She dares a glance at the impossibly loud and fast carriage.
It’s a beastly thing. All looming black wood. A black liveried driver in grey wool coat. Two footmen clad the same, on the back stand. Black sturdy luggage safely stowed on the roof. Two hulking beasts of shimmering onyx shire horses are stamping and galloping and heaving the great thing along with no difficulty. Silvery wisps of air pour from their nostrils and the dripping whites of their eyes look nearly devilish past their full cupped blinders. The tack of black leather lost on their gleaming coal coats.
The noise is deafening now. It’s almost passing her. Kicking snow and frosty gritted mud out from under the churn of the hungry wheels.
She’s curious as to who could possibly be residing in such an opulent coach. No one from these parts, she’s certain of it. The richest Lord from here was two villages over on a vast estate. Lord Hexham. Who was one and eighty and had a hunched back. And he was a doddery old recluse. He hardly went raring around town in such an imposing manner.
When it draws level with her she dares a vertiginous glance up at the small arch of the door. A crest is splashed there in gold and scarlet. Like a splash of blood on a gold sword scabbard. Or a healing wound.
It’s no shock that the crest there is unfamiliar to her. It’s entwined with wolves and scarlet banners, and a shield crossed with swords. Some monstrous carnivorous coat of arms perhaps? Maybe this person’s ancestor’s had won victory in some ancient bloody battle dating back to the Normandy landings.
She looks up from the door and to her very great shock, she glimpses a man’s face.
It was a dark carriage, drawn to privacy with scarlet velvet curtains covering at the windows. But the one this side closest to her is peeled back.
Her heart thumps loud in her neck and her chest claws with slight panic and embarrassment having caught this gentleman’s eyes.
Such savage, unyielding eyes.
Bitterly black. Slicing outwards from an alabaster pale face. She barely made out features of a full proud face. A blunt roman nose, full pouting lips, and raven sable hair. Length; rakish.
It makes her inhale a sharp breath. Quickly averting her gaze. Embarrassed. Lowering her eyes.
Gawping openly at the upper echelons was never a good idea. They probably held her in the same standing as that of the mud on the bottom of their very polished boots.
He was probably some uppity Duke or Earl who didn’t wish to be gazing at the common stock. She looks to her feet. Feels the wind whip at the tendrils of her hair. Unfolds them from her scarf and whips them back over her face. Baring her neck. Snow lands on her skin. Flecks of it melt ripping like bee stings onto her hot throat.
Pale, corded, thrumming throat. Bared to the wind and the snow and the cold-
He can hear her pulse and it’s like a sweet sirens call.
She feels the strangest sensation then; no one was looking at her. But it feels like they did. It feels as if eyes are pinning her down. Raking over her skin and assessing her.
When she looks back up, dazed, the rattling loud coach is past her now. Off into the distance, into the snow.
Foggy white and smeared and blurring into the horizon. Roaring away up the track road. Away from her sight. She blinks after it’s wake. Snow tangling into her lashes. She’s shivering now if she wasn’t before, and she can’t fathom why.
She switches the basket into her other arm. Let’s it take the painful strain of the still heavy thing. Items within clunk and thump around. She steps off the crusted grass and back onto the stony pave of the hard road.
She continues on; winding homeward. She thinks about her silk gown, and new pearl earrings. And then of darker things; like devilish horses, and eyes. Eyes darker than inky shadows and deeper rich, like charcoal.
As the coach thunders off into the snow. Rutting and cracking over every bump on the road, Kylo shifted back on the scarlet bench seat. He lifts the curtain on the back window with a suave flick of his fingers, and set his black gaze once more back down the track road.
Looks back upon the lone girl in the blue coat who was walking there.
The scent of her still cloyed up in his throat - Oh, and in all the best ways.
He scented her from a mile down the road. Lavender, clary sage and sharp heat of bursting peppermint on salty skin.
The musk of her made him pant and his chest ragged. His arousal and bloodlust stirred in his chest. The drooling gnashing hell hounds of his appetite waking up and baying to be fed.
He watches her hair sway over her neck. A big gust of frosty wind blew her flavour right into his path.
His eyes rolled back in his head as he savoured her.
It made his mouth water. He’d all but outright moaned. It’s been a few moons since he last fed. His nails dig into the upholstered scarlet bench. Muscles strained. Veins corded tight in his body. Pulled taut.
His butler, Jomar. Speaks up from where he is sat opposite.
Blue silk Dastar covering his silver hair. His goatee beard was arrowhead shaped and always neatly trimmed. It stood out all the more from his bronze skin. His Punjabi cadence Kylo always thought was like cinnamon dashed in milk. He had a comforting warm voice.
“I wonder, shall you like the society hereabouts, your lordship?” He seeks curiously. Melting walnut eyes finding Kylo’s over his gold half moon spectacles, and looking past the small red leather backed Voltaire, open in his hands.
Lord Ren smirks. His eyes glimmer. Cool and hungry. Silver black like daggers.
“Absolutely.” He wets his lips. “The local cuisine looks delicious.”