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Between Wolves & Doves

Chapter Text

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

~ 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.

 

Adequate.

 

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 mother hopes to change that this calendar year. She wants her eldest daughter promised to someone upstanding and rich.

 

Iris thinks her shrew of a mother would settle with wedding her to any man . So long as he looks pleasing in a cravat, and still has all his own teeth.

 

She treks on through the snow. Hoping. Dreaming. Dreaming for so many unattainable 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.”

 

 

 

~

 

 

 

 



Chapter Text

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Night falls dark and still over the landscape brushed with snow. Westwell’s gardens seemed crushed under the icy weight.

 

It seemed the heavy blanketing of it muffled and blotted out all sound. But it’s a peaceful intrusion.

 

The huge square windows of Westwell Manor are flaked with frost and each square of glass glimmers gold with the tall candle holder placed in each one. A stick of fire and gold warding off that indigo night that shrouded heavy and deep in the sky above. Trying to spill into the window.

 

Iris is sat in her small bedroom. A tomb or a cell, really, was how it felt to her some days. Wall to wall draped in pretty Morris flowered wallpaper of white sprawling flowers with navy and blue birds and country vines.

 

Her double bed with twisting pillars of dark mahogany twine up to the wheat thick canopy that is draped over it. The mattress is layered in a fluffy champagne coloured eiderdown and white embroidered scalloped-lace pillows. The floors are dark walnut wood, and they creak wildly. Groaning. Cold and heat seeps easily through the cracks between them in winter. Chilling her toes. And in summer the warmth of the creaking cracking house bleeds upwards.

 

The walls of her bedroom are sparse but some have photo frames of embroidery or pressed flowers she’s collected over the years held neatly in small wooden frames. She has a small stool by her bed with the tapered candle lit on a brass holder. Apricot flame coming off the long drip of the Chantilly candle. Casting pools of orange up the warm-ivory-bone of the walls. A jug of dried wildflowers sat on that little stool spices up the air. Dried lavender and clary sage, wild shasta daisies and a green-pink hydrangea bulb. Her little stack of modestly worn books lay piled neatly on the floor next to her bed.

 

Iris is sat at her dresser, pulled near the window. With the roaring fireplace just to her left. Above the mantel hung a gilded mirror on the chain. Candlesticks alight, set on the dresser and on the alcove of the sash window. Two candles flank the oval of the mirror she’s sat looking into.

 

Mother is behind her, dressed and ready in her purple muslin gown and her white fichu. Stabbing pins into her daughters hair. Every time she sticks in another pin, Iris winces. Blinks through the stinging pain of it. She was attempting a more fashionable colonial coiffure. Easier to produce.

 

“Your hair is much too thick to curl properly.” Her mother addresses her idly. Snappily. Tugging back a section back behind her ear.

 

“Posy and Flora have much finer hair.” She offers.

 

As ever. Iris doesn’t know what to say to that. Should she offer an apology? Should she agree? Disagree? She fails to know how to be.

 

So she remains silent and watches her mother’s reflection in the looking glass as she almost crossly dresses her hair.

 

Caroline Ashton was maturely beautiful woman. With skin as clear as fine porcelain - like smooth cream. Even if sporting wrinkles by her mouth and eyes belying her later age. She had hair exactly the same as Iris’s. Except her mother’s was such an opulent shade of cinnamon-black. Stroked with streaks of silver like lightning bolts had struck through. Her eyes were clear silver. Two discs of shining moonstone. Very mysterious eyes, Iris had always thought.

 

Lately those eyes seemed permanently hardened over like rainstorms. Clouded over with disappointment at her eldest.

 

Always wishing she could do more to see more of the love that used to linger there. Nowadays it seemed like Caroline could only look at her and see the blemishes. Only see the wrongs.

 

The frown lines seemed deeper. The cutting remarks appeared more frequent. She was always telling her to sit up straighter, correcting her posture. Smoothing out the wrinkles in her dresses. Always picking. Forever finding something lacking.

 

Iris likes to think she was doing it out of an abundance of love. But it’s becoming clearer and clearer to her that it’s really about the opposite. It’s not about her wanting to provide for Posy or Flora or Father.

 

It’s purely selfish. It’s all about her ensuring they don’t lose any respect in the ever omnipotent eyes of society.

 

If her mother thought less about their image; perhaps Iris could love her more.

 

As it is. Coldness and distance lay weighty between them. Thicker and frostier than the snow outside. The ground between their geniality and affection lay strewn and twined with thick vines of barbed thorns. No way to tread such hallowed ground without drawing blood.

 

“Posy and Flora have had their hair in bows all day.” She points out. She shuts her eyes and grits her teeth as another pin slams into her skull. Yanking her hair right at the roots.

 

“And they’ve taken all week to fret over choosing their dresses.” Iris adds.

 

She looks up to see those steel swords of mama’s eyes cutting into her in the reflection. Mouth was a grim line.

 

“You should know by know what’s expected of you, Iris. And not take the matter so lightheartedly.” She warns.

 

“They can take balls seriously, as real chances of finding matrimony. Why can’t you?” She asks with a cruel tone.

 

“Mama. Flora and Posy haven’t taken anything seriously since they day they were born.” Iris insults plainly. Speaking truth.

 

“You know they only delight in attending ball’s and assemblies because they wish to make greater spectacles of themselves in front of soldiers from the militia, and get flirted with, by any creature sporting breeches.” She adds.

 

“Atleast they try.” Caroline cuts in.

 

“And I do not?” Iris asks. Flatly exasperated. She huffs.

 

“You only danced with three men at last months assembly. It’s simply not good enough. You must try harder. Your sisters may have prettiness and confidence in unholy abundance. And they apply it. You wither away and that will never gain you a husband. For heavens sake- What upstanding man wants to marry the silent wallflower?” She declares gruffly.

 

She fiddles with her new satin gloves sloped in her lap. Her dress was ivory silk printed with frail gold flowers and embroidered scalloping on the hem.

 

There’s Van Dyke pointed lacing around her neckline and the same embroidered trim on the three-quarter sleeves. White helped ‘lift’ her ash eyes apparantly. It was fresh out it’s box from the dressmakers, Madame Larousse, on Pembleton high street. Indian printed silk and Italian lace. The most expensive fabric in stock.

 

Their maid, Julia, had earlier laced her stays so tightly over her cotton chemise, Iris worried she broke several ribs. Her nails stung into the wood of her bed post.

 

Mother was stood getting her gown ready on the other side of the room. Watching her eldest have the breath thumped right out of her lungs. “Tighter.” She ordered. Iris clutched a hand at her stomach.

 

“A man could go a long way without seeing a bust like yours Iris. We must take advantage of it.” She comments wryly. Julia tugs tighter on the strings. Iris’s jaw clenched all the more.

 

By the time she’s finished her waist is tucked right in and her breasts clasped high on her chest, almost so high they hit her chin and there’s scant space between her cleavage and her areole tumbling free, this gown is so low cut.

 

She tugs it up higher when mother isn’t looking. Spectacles of her fertility not quite on such prominent display now.

 

She fancied this silk of it was so fine and thin - and clung so tight to her body, one breath of wind would closely reveal her wide hips. And doubtless her chemise and garters could be glimpsed through the thin sheer sheen of it.

 

And here she was now, submitting to her mothers inspection and brutal torture. Laced up in her silken gown. With her best stockings, and slippers. Earlobes dropping pearls, and a head full of silver decorative pins and an ivory comb.

 

Speaking of which, the latter is just being wrestled into the weave of her coiffured braided bun, at the back.

 

“There...” Her mother says. Fussing with a few strays. Tucking them in where they should belong. As she picks at Iris’s mud hued hair. She idly asks her questions.

 

“Will you be dancing with Armitage tonight?” She asks. Insinuated, more likely.

 

Iris averts her eyes and pats the back of her hair. Checking it in the glass.

 

“Will he be in attendance?” She asks offhand. As if she had no clue.

 

“Of course he will. Brendol knows the Hearst’s very intimately.” Her mother shrilled.

 

“You will dance the first minuet with him and I’ll hear no more fuss about the matter.” She orders. Cold eyes finding her daughters in the mirror.

 

Armitage Hux was the son of a strict local army colonel. Tall, dashing, hair as brilliant as copper and eyes as cool as teal sea-foam in contrast. He was lean and willowy in stature. Always bedecked finely in his uniform. Buttons gleaming, blushing blood of a red coat brushed and pressed to within an inch of it’s life.

 

He’s not a bad man - he doesn’t drink or laugh at her. Or try and fondle her in a darkened corner.

 

He just strikes Iris as being incredibly vain and undeniably haughty. He thinks all the world should be owed to him. 

 

He only wanted to talk medals and glory and rank. How he was a model soldier. And so admired the bravery of gunfire and glory in battle. He’d never even seen battle - his father bought him a conscription and shook hands and pulled favours to get him a high rank in the military. Sergeant Hux, he now was.

 

He didn’t seem to be able to equate soldiers and uniforms and weapons with actual war or combat. But liked to boast about how deadly he was. His sharp reflexes. His skill as a swordsman and marksman. Iris felt like stuffing cotton in her ears - or sticking her eyes with pins all night - anything but listen to Armitage spew out his toy soldier reveries.

 

“He is a very agreeable man. You would do well to land him, Iris. He would make a most affable husband and a good match.”

 

“I barely know him, Mama.” Iris pointed out.

 

“You don’t need to know him. That is no hindrance to a proposal of marriage.” She says crossly. “You need not know your husband. You merely have to do your wifely duties by him.” She reminds.

 

My duty of keeping my mouth shut and my legs and womb wide open, Iris thinks.

 

“I thought I heard he was courting Mary Simpson?” Iris pipes up. Uncurling two tendrils of delicate hair from in front of her ears.

 

“She has barely a thousand pounds a year. Brendol would never stand for him marrying such a girl.” Caroline declares mightily. Speaking in derision of the girl who was beneath them in every sense.

 

“Besides. Lord Hearst says there will apparently be a very rich gentleman from the continent in attendance tonight too. A Lord Ren, from Bavaria. It would do well to seek him out.”

 

“Every matronly mama worth her salt will be throwing their daughters in his path. I do hope he doesn’t trip on the sheer number of them crushed underfoot.” Iris says lightly. Pulling on her gloves.

 

“And if he is a Lord, why has he deigned in all his lofty power to grace us with his presence, and to come to a small county rather than go to vastly over stocked marriage mart in London?” Iris questions.

 

“Don’t be so blockish, Iris. Maybe he has business here to attend. Mrs Wilson told me this morning that he’s bought Hellford Park out in its entirety. Now that takes an extraordinary fortune.” She corrects.

 

Iris looks directly at her mother. She spies the gleam of want in her eyes. The hunger that such a sum she could snatch up in her hands.

 

“Lord’s marry Heiresses to sugar mills who are poised for ten thousand pounds, or widowed old Duchesses with vast crumbling estates. Why would he in his lofty state and means, lower himself to wed a girl of simple country gentry, with a barely three thousand pound dowry?” Iris sarks.

 

Mama gives her a pointed look. Like a ream of needles pressing in her skin.

 

“Then you will make a even better spectacle in front of him. And show him how elegant and courteous country girls can be and see if you can’t win him over that way.” She insists direly. As if she were plotting a serious military offensive.

 

“If he is a Lord, he will be titled. Titled means landed money and dignity.” Her hair is yanked yet again. “He could well be the answer to all our prayers.”

 

Your prayers, Iris points out rudely inside her head.

 

“He could be a hideous old letch.” Iris says, rightly.

 

Mother stabs one final pin into her head. As if in revenge. “Looks aren’t everything- Money. Station, and respect? That is forever enduring.”

 

So are things like love, intimacy, friendship and happiness. Those things endure too. But Iris can’t imagine her acerbic mother has ever felt happy or loved a day in her life; she likes to think her marriage, when it comes, shall be different.

 

She ends the conversation on that dazzling note. Iris’s scalp is on sore-fire by now.

 

The door opposite them creaks as it’s burst open. Impending footsteps barrelling down the creaking floorboards of the corridor shortly before signalled their arrival. Flora and Posy.

 

Fully gowned and gloved and perfumed to high heaven, with their hair pulled in elaborate coiffures on their heads. They had perfect curls. Perfect flounces and ruffles on their dresses. Cheeks a healthy pink. Eyes wild bright with excitement.

 

They look like blooming silk roses in a summer garden. Iris feels more and more like a singed daisy in her own gown.

 

Flora was dressed in a cobalt muslin, with a roller print of dandelions laid in pinstripes down the fabric. Posy was in a demure blush pink cotton. With lace trim tumbling over the neckline. And Iris sees she wins the honour of wearing the rose silk slippers. Flora is in some ivory ones that have seen more mends and fixes than is earthly possible. For silk slippers didn’t come cheap.

 

Both her sisters have much lighter colouring; they both still have the chowder grey Ashton eyes.

 

Flora’s hair however, is darkly mousy brown. Golden like toffee leaves that come off the trees in autumn. Posy is far more chestnut red. Blazing bonfires and russet red embers. Overall more enchanting than that of Iris twigs and sticky-mud hued locks.

 

They are a barrage of noise and silliness as they barge into Iris’s room. Flora flops onto the end of the well made bed and Posy nosily inspects herself in the looking glass over the fireplace. Preening. Voices overlapping.

 

Mama! Did I tell you what Fleur told me earlier today?” Posy insists. Flora speaks louder over her, in order to be heard.

 

“Mama....Have you seen my pink silk shawl for I’m sure I left it in the drawing room.”

 

“I haven’t seen your shawl, Flora. You should take better care. And what did Fleur say, my dear?” Caroline asks in a soft voice.

 

Whilst fixing strayed hairs at Iris’s nape. Pulling and pinching. She had no softness reserved in store for Iris. She rather wants to roll her eyes at that.

 

“There will be a gentleman of certain lordly magnificence at the ball tonight.” Posy sing-songs. Aiming her teasing words at Iris. Who gives her a cutting look at her bubbly behaviour. Steel daggers made of her grey eyes.

 

“He’s said to be most handsome, sable haired, and devilishly tall. And he’s single. And Lord Hearst says he’s a recluse who barely leaves his castle, so we’re very honoured he’s coming and he has eighty-thousand a year.” She awards with great enthusiasm. Flora giggles.

 

“Maybe you should set your cap at him, Iris.” Flora jabs teasingly. “We could all be vastly improved by such a match you know. I could finally stop wearing these hideous thin old slippers.”

 

Iris wished to point out that she wasn’t being induced into matrimony merely to vastly improve the quality and state of her siblings footwear.

 

And quite wondered if he sister knew all that she’d have to undertake in making such a match - all she’d have to give up to be some man’s wife. All she’d have to do-

 

“She won’t. For she’s already got a suitor whose madly in love with her.” Posy insists.

 

“Hux is not in love with me, Posy. Don’t be ridiculous.” Iris says. For starters she wasn’t his red uniform or his army commission. Those were the things he was resolutely enamoured with.

 

Standing from the dresser as she speaks, and going to where her new slippers were laid out by the maid on the bed. Flora eyes the silk things with jealous disdain. Iris fixes her satin gloves up over her elbows. Disappearing under her sleeves. Mother is too busy fussing with Posy’s neckline - tugging it up to cover more of her second youngest’s chest. She protested so at the action.

 

Iris took the opportunity to slide a small pearl hair comb into Flora’s hand. Her favourite one. The one with coral flowers and paste amber gems on it.

 

Iris flickers a look over the mother and a silent understanding passes between the sisters. ‘Put it in, in the coach in the dark. So she doesn’t see.’

 

Flora smiles awfully wide up at her sister. Grateful that she shared out her pretty things. Flora was the youngest - the youngest daughter deserved nice trinkets too.

 

“If you’re all ready we’d best be off soon. The roads are icy. It will take an age. I won’t have us be late.” Mama orders out to all her girls.

 

She turns her head to Iris “Fetch your things and the velvet cloak. And for heavens sake don’t be long. We don’t have all night.” She frets.

 

Marching out the room after rearranging some of Posy’s curls. Barking at Flora as she passed to fix the wrinkle in her gloves. The door grated and whines as she shuts it, lock rattling in the frame.

 

Iris savours the silence - the crackling of the fire. The owl hooting off in the tree tops outside her window. She lets it soothe her. Let’s out the deepest sigh as they’re now left alone.

 

She crosses to her wooden wardrobe cabinet by the door, and opens the door to search for her blue velvet cloak. She throws it around her shoulders and ties it up. Posy hands her sister her cream silk reticule.

 

“She just wants you to marry well.” Posy says with some attempt at comforting.

 

Iris nods, glumly stroking her sisters hand in thanks. Looking into her earnest young face. Still so full of innocence and hope.

 

Her heart shaped little face so full of impish naivety.

 

“She might do not to make me feel exclusively like a breeding mare to be sold to the highest bidder for marriage at every conceivable turn.” Iris says wryly.

 

Angrily shoving a meagre few possessions into her reticule from her dresser. She looks down at her empty dance card that mother would see absolutely filled with names by the end of the night.

 

She wipes away an angry tear from the corner of her eye with a handkerchief that Flora gives her. Her anger crowded and crackled the room. These two didn’t deserve her ire, after all.

 

She sighs yet again. Letting the churning anger eating at her bleed out. Frustration filtering away. She plasters on a smile. Posy steps forwards to her exasperated sister.

 

“Can I borrow your diamond droplet earrings? They’d go very well with my dress...” She asks coyly. With her hands behind her back.

 

Iris rolls her eyes. Maybe they did deserve just a little bit of ire after all-

 

“You are both enormous pests.” She says. Guiding them out her room.

 

“Come on. Lest we hold mother up and I don’t much fancy our chances then.”

 

She corrals her pests of sisters downstairs. Makes sure they too are cloaked and ready. They have their gloves and she does uncurl Posy’s palm as they’re heading out the door, dropping the diamond and earrings into them. They sparkle in the moonlight.

 

“Lose them and mother will have your head.” She whispers to her in caution as they alight the warmth of the house into the cold sting of the night air.

 

Snow crushed under their slippers as they make for the coach. Slipping to step up inside the cold wooden enclave of it. Rubbing their cold hands together to create some heat.

 

It was just the Ashton ladies in attendance tonight. Father cared little for balls. Something mother sniped at him for regularly. Ernest Ashton would far rather stay home of a night with his ledgers and his books and his brandy than subject himself to the silly gossip and frivolity of idiotic society people present at balls.

 

Her father was a tall, quiet man. Sturdy and aged as an old oak. Strong and strapping figure even in his later years. He quietly took interest in the world where her mothers inclination was to devour it.

 

He had an open broad face. With tame blue eyes and thick greying hair. He was a studious man. Often kept to his study or the gardens. He enjoyed his ornithology and his Entomology books. He collected butterflies. All pinned out in cases in his study. Lining the walls.

 

It was a place she found infinite comfort in. Wandering into her fathers study. His entomology collection like dots of silken colour in their cases. Old leather books and volumes and manuscripts. Edifying proud in their papery silence. The old wood of his desk worn by years and years. The smell of the study. Of old leather and pipe tobacco. And peppermints from the little jar he kept on his desk.

 

He didn’t press Iris in the same way her mother always prevails to do. But then she sees the frayed gems and worn and mended holes in his clothes. The faded material in his waistcoat. How he hasn’t bought himself new shoes in two years.

 

That’s how she can put up with every snipe and every cross word that spits out her mothers mouth.

 

Iris sometimes quite wondered how her parents ever stood each other for any length of time to bear any children. They were entirely separate people whose interests did not align. They agreed on very little. And settled for that.

 

It’s so cold in the coach they can see their breath as they bump and shift along the icy roads. Trees make terrible dark shapes in the near distance, beyond the frosted glass of the coach door window. Iris sits, peering out. Watching the full bowl of the moon slither white off the silver and black landscape. Off the snowy fields and perched on the roofs of the hamlet of houses they pass by.

 

The carriage crawls slow up the winding drive of the Hearst’s three acre estate. Horses hooves hitting the hard paved path. Clopping in the night air. Skipping over the frost. They’re but mere minutes from exiting the coach, when mother decides to speak up and issue a few last desperate words of strict orders upon her eldest;

 

“Take every opportunity Iris. I won’t have it said in the gossip sheets tomorrow that you didn’t even try.” Caroline insists. Fussing with her own thick muslin cloak draped over her lap.

 

Iris looked at her mother then. Across the dark carriage as she tuts at the specks of lint sullying Flora’s cloak where she’s sat next to her. Picking it away.

 

She strongly suspected Caroline Ashton could have the whole world in her palm or on a string; and even then she’d find fault in it. Pluck displeasing bits of it out like loose threads.

 

She has that irate frown darkening her features. Cloudy set in her eyes. Posy’s little gloved hand reached across and held her sisters tight. Squeezing it in comfort sat there in the dark. Iris turns and looks to see Posy’s heart shaped face beaming up at her.

 

“You should let us introduce you to Captain Clifford’s friends Iris. They really are the most splendid fun. I’ve heard many of them say they quite fancy you, you know.” Posy grins. Whispering hushed to her sister to keep her spirits buoyant.

 

Iris strokes her hand and she can’t help smiling. More at her always sunny hopes. How bright her outlook on life was. She saw ball’s for the fun they were meant to be.

 

A dance, a party, a celebration.

 

Posy wasn’t yet tarnished by the knowledge that her hopes for future happiness depended on her behaving well and taking things seriously. It stopped being fun and became a chore. Iris lost her starry eyed wonder about ball’s years ago.

 

She hoped she could help Posy keep her gleaming eyed wonder and fun for just that bit longer. She would suffer every second of misery to keep it that way if she must.

 

She squeezes her hand back. “Thankyou. That’s very sweet. But I fear I shall be otherwise engaged in dances.” She excuses.

 

Besides, most of the young Militia men she met were very wet behind the ears. And all madly enamoured with exhausting dances and infatuated with every beautiful young lady in attendance. Declaring they fell head over heels with every girl they so much as walk past. She finds their overeagerness and exuberance a little trying.

 

Before long, they draw up the grand old stone columns abutting the front of the huge house.

 

An immense hulking beast of a thing. Lit with autumn-blaze torches in the night. The coach lurches to a creaking uneven stop. Jolting. And a helpful gold liveried footman in a powdered wig steps to and opens the door to help the ladies out.

 

Caroline doesn’t even glance at the man. Looks right through him. Flora flutters a flirty smile. Posy and Iris offer a polite snippet of thanks.

 

The Ashton ladies make their way up the torch lit steps and into the greatly heaving bustling foyer of the Hearst’s grand house.

 

Renford Manor was one of the finest houses in the county. The gardens were splendid. There was a maze and a famed marble garden gazebo.

 

A great split imperial staircase opens into the large cool foyer. All ivory marble. Hues of Eggshell and ice. Imposing, echoing and cold. Footsteps rattle like claps up to the ceiling. Distant notes of the small orchestra float through the air like zipping flapping insects.

 

Everything glimmers. The chandeliers that drip with gold and crystal. The old pearl and sharp onyx pointed tiles on the floor look like they’ve been scrubbed raw. They gleam almost too brightly.

 

They hand over their cloaks to more footmen to be put away. Letting their ball gown splendour come forth. Iris is almost crushed by the amount of people there are in attendance here tonight. Lady Hearst was known to stuff her parties to the seams. The whole county, and all of the two neighbouring ones, had most likely been invited.

 

Mama encourages them all up the staircase. Idly smiling greetings in passing to her matrons of her acquaintance. Iris skims one hand along the smooth cold of the marble banister. Holding her skirts up as her slippered feet hit each step. Steps firm and steady.

 

They come to one of the big main ballrooms. Looking through the scope of many double doors, leading onto another room and the next and the next furniture pushed aside. There was such a crush of so many ladies and numerous gentlemen packed in. Coats of all colours on the men. The spectrum of silks and cotton dresses so vast, it quite made her head spin.

 

Flora excitedly giggles and slips away. A flurry of laughter erupts and she joins hands with a little gaggle of her more intimate friends.

 

Iris raises a brow at her behaviour, not surprised to see that she caught a glimpse of a fair few red coated members of the militia in that particular direction. Mother huffs and gruffly tells Flora, through gritted teeth, not to linger too long.

 

Iris and Posy linger by mother as they chat to an elderly companion. Mrs Bishop. An ever worrying woman, Who ventured the world was going to end if there was slightly too much rain. She was practically apoplectic about the snow. Iris shares a look of pain with Posy. Who excuses herself with a bob of a curtesy to go find Flora.

 

“Pest.” Iris smiles at her as she slips away from conversing will dull matrons about the impending end of civilisation and the earth as they knew it. Anymore and Iris will be forced to rush for  a vinaigrette of smelling salts to revive the poor dear when she swoons.

 

Iris stands with her hands folded demurely in front of her. Her eyes wandering over the party in full swing behind her.

 

The crush of noise, music and heat and bodies. Candies flicker doomed shapes copper and black up the light walls. The tall windows are guarded with heavy emerald draperies. Cascading waterfalls of apple green. Spilling and tumbling like grassy hills.

 

The windows glimmer like yellow square gemstones from the candles in their stands dotted everywhere. The dark floorboards glow with it too. Patches of orange inbetween the shadows.

 

The ballrooms, of which there were three, all adjoined by French pocket doors, are kept fairly dark. Lit only by the honey slither of candles reaching apricot slithers of light at every corner. People chatter and laugh to the din of a faint violin chorus of Mozart.

 

Laughter, Baritone gruff and the sparkling light of ladies chuckling delight flutters up to the ceiling. The room seems to burst at the seams with it all. Like a room full of butterflies. The heat, the noise, the voices and music. It was almost too much. Everything is palpable and it stings and rips at her eyes and ears.

 

They eventually depart from the hysterical Mrs Bishop. Leaving her fanning herself on a settee. Trying not to succumb to a fit of the vapours.

 

They make their way through the ballroom. Chatting and conversing and being mangled in the almost too heaving crowds. She loses count of the amount of times her toes get stepped on. Or elbows sharply prodded into the soft of her back as people pass.

 

Eventually; much to her mother’s delight, Iris is propositioned by a young gentleman from the militia, into a dance. There seemed to be no sight of Hux yet. Much to Mama’s chagrin.

 

He’s very polite and puppyish, delivers her safely back to her mothers side when the polka dance is through. Kisses her hand, declares her daughter a fine dancer, then is off onto the next partner.

 

They are lingering on the far side of the dance floor, just idly watching. In full view of the doors and the adjacent ballroom. Through the two sets of double doors either side of a great roaring stone fireplace. It’s light casting copper over every dancer.

 

“We won’t waste our time on him.” Mother harrumphed when he leaves. Looking with disdain as they watched him ask Primrose Charleston to dance the next.

 

“Mama. It was merely a dance.” Iris points out with a futile smile. “Don’t tell me you were picking out wedding attire and embroidered initial pillowcases.” Iris mocks.

 

That earns her a sharp look. She smiles in forbearance right back at her mother.

 

Her cheeks now pinkened and her eyes bright from the exercise. She likes dancing. When her partner isn’t a clumsy one, or reeks of port or body odour, or wine, or has wandering letching hands. It’s actually rather enjoyable.

 

“We should be setting our sights rather more higher than some penniless officer.” She insists. Watching the couples twirl and sway in front of them.

 

“Heaven forfend I dance with a man sheerly for the joy of it.” Iris concludes.

 

Caroline tuts in exasperation. Mumbles under her breath. “You do so vex me greatly sometimes, Iris. Even worse than your sisters.” She grumps.

 

Deep down inside, Iris is a little proud of that accomplishment.

 

A flurry of footsteps and squeaking squeals and suddenly Flora and Posy burst into view where Iris and her mother are stood.

 

Their voices are high pitched and they’re panting with excitement. Flora slings her hands into Iris’s and twirls her around with elation. Iris stumbles in the circle Flora leads her in. Posy is stood by Caroline grinning up a storm.

 

“Mama, Iris. He’s here! He’s here and he’s coming this way!” Posy giggles. Iris and her mother remain perplexed.

 

“Who is, my dear?” Caroline seeks. Frowning a little.

 

“He is surely the most handsome man I ever seen. And so tall. Did you see him Flora? That chest...” Posy flatters.

 

“Taller than any man I’ve ever met. And so well built. Such stature.” Flora says back.

 

“And he has dark eyes, Did you notice?” Posy asks.

 

“Of course I noticed! Very dark eyes. They are positively enchanting.”

 

“Bewitching.” Posy giggles.

 

“And his shoulders in his coat. So large.”

 

“For goodness sake, lower your voice-“ Iris chides at the both of them, glancing around the ballroom. Trying to decipher who they were so flustered and flapping about.

 

Her eyes don’t make it past the door-

 

The room seems to have slowed. The dancers are distracted. People around the fringes of the ballroom chatter louder. Deafening din rising. Gossip flourishing.

 

For Lord Hearst is at the entrance of one of the double doors, conversing with someone, and that someone walking by his side, is one of the broadest and most strapping men Iris has ever seen in her whole life.

 

He wasn’t just a man.

 

He was entirely too much, man.

 

That’s Lord Ren. The handsomely rich one all the way from Bavaria.” Flora hisses to them all. “I’ve never seen a gentleman more strongly built, or beautiful.” She giggles loudly.

 

“I beg of you, lower your voice.” Iris chides. Pearl earrings jitter as she moves her head. Ash eyes governed by lintels of her brows creased up in a light frown.

 

Everyone’s eyes in this small stale society, is fixed solid upon the sight of this newcomer. Hungrily devouring this unfamiliar brooding man.

 

Obsidian jacket. Snowy shirt. Scarlet cravat like a bloodied noose around his neck, with a seers eye of a winking diamond pin studded in the knot. He radiates charm and magnificence. And masculine appeal.

 

“He’s in mourning to be wearing such dark colours.” Mother presumes. “How unusual for a man.”

 

“Don’t fret, Mama. Lady Hearst assures me he’s most certainly single. Now, Iris might have her chance at him after all...” Posy cackles.

 

Iris rams an elbow into the bony cradle of her sisters petite hip.

 

“Do try and endeavour to behave.” She chides to Posy. Whispering harshly.

 

This mysterious Lord is unfashionably attired in all black. Perhaps he is in a state of mourning? Ink black breeches cling tight to his strong thighs and wide wide hips and shining boots come to his knees - the wrong sort of footwear for a ball but he doesn’t appear to notice. Or even care.

 

He had an air about him that couldn’t be ignored. The dark clothes. Sable hair. It was long too. Far too long by societal standards. It curled at his neck. Swept in tumbling waves back from his face.

 

He’s scanning the room like he hates everything and everyone in it. A soured scowl on his face. The softness of his full lips are pursed and there’s a predatory quality to the way his eyes flicker around the crowds. He seems above it all. Distant. Untouchable. He was a Lord - he held himself superior as one as if a different species.

 

“Fleur told me he’s quite the scandalous man....” Flora begins.

 

“I heard he was married. Once before, but she turned mad and killed several servants. So he locked her in the dungeons and she’s still here raking her fingers to the bone at the stone walls to get out.”

 

Iris wants to roll her eyes. Now it’s Posy’s turn for interjection;

 

 

“And I heard that his castle is haunted and full of ghosts. And he seduces young noble women and then sacrifices and feeds them to the devil. Maybe he’s prowling for next victim?” She gasps frenziedly.

 

“You two need to stay clear away from anymore novels.” Iris scoffs.

 

She lets her eyes slip back over this Lord’s frightening exterior. She focuses on the dark pits that were his eyes. They seemed oddly familiar. As if she’s glimpsed them before. In a fanciful daydream, maybe- or maybe it was a dreadful nightmare.

 

They’re too far away to make out their true colour. But it must be a truly dark for the way they eat up all the light and glitter like rough cut gemstones lost to shadow.

 

His arms folded behind his back pulls his coat right across his chest. Exposes the musculature of him: he is big and beastly. There was no denying; his figure is redoubtably masculine. Intimidating and strong- meaty arms, no tapering away at his waist. He was entirely built of great slabs of muscles.

 

A warriors figure through and through.

 

Iris thought that such a body frame belonged in a previous age. A more ravening one. A cutthroat one. That stature was suited to a gigantic rampaging viking or a crusading knight in steel armour.

 

Quite why she thought so she can’t fathom. That big shape of his seemed unsuited to the setting of a dainty English ballroom. It seemed more natural for him to be on a battlefield slicked up and splattered in the blood of his enemy’s.

 

She watches as he boredly sizes up the room before him. An arcing sweep of his eyes and he’s done with it. Thrown aside all interest. Devouring all pitiful excuses for life. As if he’s looking or searching for something...

 

Then he looks right at her-

 

His eyes spear directly into her. See’s her. Meets her grey gaze and keeps it. Steals it away beyond her reckoning.

 

One side of his lip curls up. His eyes churn to look nearly honey gold in the light. Trick of the mind. All in her head. It was surely just the candles malforming the shade-

 

But it seemed more than him just seeing her. It was as if he could gaze right through her. Pierce her skin. Puncturing her very soul - she’s sure.

 

Her whole body feels his looking at her. She thrashes and aches.

 

If she has one. Some flimsy scrap of quivering human spirit in her, it is quaking and trembling now, and very much intoxicated by this man.

 

Her cheeks flush and she feels that betraying annoying heat slither down her neck and flourish at her breast. She swallows and blinks and tears her eyes away. She looks at her shoes cause she’s suddenly got a spinning head and her mouth is woolly.

 

That look and those savage eyes had set a flame blazing right down to her bones. There’s something she feels deep down that almost seems strange. Uncertain yet resolute. A tug on her stomach. An unknown yearning.

 

She realises quickly that this was the same pair of eyes that stole her breath this very afternoon. The gentleman from the imposing black carriage. Twice now she’s locked eyes with him and stared.

 

He must think her either a raving simpleton or a gawping lunatic.

 

“Iris. I do believe he’s staring at you.” Posy hisses with a wide impressed smile.

 

“Oh he is! He’s definitely staring.” Flora squeals. Tugging and shaking her sisters hand.

 

“Iris. Stand straight. Stop stooping. Chin up for heavens sake- look decent.“ Mother shrills through a gritted smile. Smiling demurely in the intended direction of Lord Ren. Preening herself like a flustered hen.

 

Iris dares another look up. Clasping her hands together delicately in front of her. At the front of her skirts. Him and Lord Hearst are mere feet away now.

 

“He’s coming this way! Mama! He’s coming over...” Posy grins. Flora laughs with her.

 

By now, Iris’s heart resembles a mad creature clawing at its cage, desperate to be free. Thumping and thudding her neck. Quivering nervous breaths leave her lips. Heartbeat hammering and pulsing in her ears.

 

He’s looking at Posy or Flora, she thinks. He must be. They always draw men like magnets. He’s not looking at me- he’s not. Really. He’s not-

 

They are closer now. Lord Hearst and Lord Ren are mere metres away. The entire room seems to be holding its breath. Another dance starts up and she’s glad for that distraction.

 

Her cheeks remained flushed and she raises her eyes when the air shifts around them. She can scent the brandy and violet water coming off Lord Hearst. There is his stout waistcoat and his perfumed wig. Lord Ren appears unscented. But a fusion of aromas simply pour off his vast body.

 

Sandalwood oil. Probably used on that thick rakish mane of his. There’s something else too, something earthy darkly rich, that mingles with the musky new wool of his coat. Peppermint or spices. She can’t tell. It’s damnably distracting.

 

“Praise the lord in heaven. We are saved.” Her mother mumbles gladly under her breath. Smile wide and gentle. Artificial and superficial to hide her truer nature.

 

Lord Hearst and Lord Ren are right before them now. Right in front of them. “Mrs Ashton.” Lord Hearst begins in greeting. Iris watches her Mama curtesy politely to the old lord.

 

“Might I have the pleasure of introducing you to Lord Ren. An old acquaintance of mine...”

 

Iris looks from the doddery old form of the red faced Lord Hearst, up and up up, into the face of the dark stranger. The top of her head would barely come to brush at his collarbones. His eyes are still fixed on her face. A shock jolts through her like she’s been burned.

 

“Lord Ren, this is Mrs Caroline Ashton. And her daughters. Miss Posy Ashton. And Miss Flora Ashton...” Lord Hearst introduces. Flora and Posy bob demure little curtseys at him. Bowing their heads and smiling prettily like fools.

 

He barely glances toward them. His eyes were fixed on Iris.

 

“And this is her eldest daughter, Miss Iris Ashton.” Lord Hearst beckons to her. Stood back behind her two sisters, and almost guarded by her mother.

 

She curtseys. Chin to her chest and she bows her neck in a manner she hopes comes across as graceful.

 

Lord Ren smiles. It’s terrifying in its power and beauty.

 

It moves the corners of his lips. And he comes in a step closer. Advancing.

 

Posy and Flora flatten back a little. When one hand comes around from his back, Iris could see he had thick leather gloves on. As if entranced she reached out where his hand beckoned to hold hers.

 

She slipped her satin gloved hand into his big offered dark palm. It sits right in the middle of the wide thing. So dainty in comparison.

 

He brings her silken hand up. Bows down and lays a kind kiss to the back of it. His eyes hadn’t left her since he entered the room - they didn’t start shying away now.

 

This is a man who is not shy. Not any bit of him.

 

He draws her hand down, very slightly. Freeing his lips.

 

“Enchanting to meet you, Miss Ashton.” He says.

 

Iris never knew a voice could be so deep. His voice sunk right to the core of her. Right through flesh and bone. Sinking deep. She’d expected a Bavarian accent. Or a continental lilt. But his accent is precise, crystal-cut English.

 

She blinks. Remembering she had a verbose vocabulary to make use of.

 

“It’s an honour to make your acquaintance, Lord Ren.” She gasps out with some hint of strength in her voice. When she lets her hand slips from his, her body feels strange. Her whole arm is left tingling.

 

She finds herself sighing as she pulls her hand back. He straightens his back with ease. She knows her mothers eyes are looking sharply at her so she remembers her politesse.

 

She feels like the whole world is watching them converse.

 

“Are you, enjoying... your time in England?” She seeks. “I understand you are recently arrived.”

 

“Very much.” He looks amused. “I haven’t been on these shores in- quite an age.” He says. She can’t help but feel there is something cryptic to his meaning.

 

“Do you mean to stay long, in Hampshire, your lordship?” Flora asks. Batting her long lashes up at him so much she could fan out a chandelier of candles if she’s not careful.

 

His eyes calmly flick across to the smallest Ashton sister. But linger back on Iris.

 

“Not long. But after tonight I think I’ve found sufficient reason to extend my stay.” His smile twitches smoothly once again.

 

Are you enjoying Hellford Park, your lordship? Surely it is the finest house in the county, is it not?” Posy enquires.

 

Another flicker of those charcoal eyes to the other little Ashton. Really, there were too deuced many of them, Kylo thinks.

 

“It is an immaculate house. The snowy woods are very pleasant this time of year.” He agrees.

 

“Of course. The climates in Bavaria are surely similar. I imagine there is much snow on your own estate, your lordship?” Iris asks.

 

He seems pleased with her interjection. As if she were the only soul whose voice he wished to hear.

 

When he looked at her, it was like they were the only two people in this room. The only two that mattered. It’s just them, in the candlelight, cast by flame. As if no pairs of eyes are watching - when in reality there are hundreds looking in. 

 

“Indeed. The summers are short, and the winters are long and frigid. I am somewhat familiar with the clime of snow. It falls more gently here than in Bavaria.” His eyes glare warmly across at her. Increasing her blush.

 

Caroline steps in with a saccharine smile that showed far too much teeth. A leer it could rightly be called.

 

“You must come and dine with us at Westwell, Lord Ren. We would be honoured to receive you. We can promise you an elegant dinner service, and cards. Why we dine with six and twenty great and fine families around the county. We would be very much favoured with your visit. I wager you won’t get finer, prettier companions or better conversation elsewhere...” Mother boasts.

 

He smiles right at Iris and it spears into her hot chest like an iron poker stoked too long in the fire. Red hot.

 

“Indeed. I Thankyou greatly for the invitation. Madam.” Then his eyes grow blacker. “You have very fine daughters. God has blessed you three times over.”

 

Flora giggles a beaming smile. Posy bats her lashes and grins. Iris fiddles with her hands and examines the floorboards, reddening at his charm.

 

“I often think so, myself.” Mother preens.

 

“Of course all my girls are immensely beautiful. But, it is my Iris who is revered around these parts as a local beauty.” She lies.

 

“Mama.” Iris blushes crimson. Averting her eyes.

 

“A rumour well circulated indeed.” Kylo’s looking at her. And to her amazement. She bravely looks back.

 

“And she deserves every such compliment I can bestow.” Kylo adds.

 

“You are too kind, Lord Ren.” Iris smiles slightly at him. It makes his chest pound harder. Watching her bosom heave at the neckline of her dress.

 

His mouth waters. That same scent from this afternoon hits him square in the jaw like a rounded fist. He all but moans at the erotic pleasure of it. Of her sweet scent drifting up his nose. Stoking at his eager hunger.

 

He will tear something apart tonight, rip it limb from limb, and glut himself on that sweet penny-metal flush of blood spilling down his parched throat. And as he does- as he feasts and drinks and crimson drips from his maw, he will think of this moment; of her aroused scent tangled in his nose. Stirring his own lust to boiling point.

 

He bids the Misses and Mrs Ashton’s a goodnight.

 

Lord Hearst had more introductions for him to make. More simpering sickening people to meet. All the same. Savagely polite and viciously boring. Their superficial kindness and flattery turns his stomach.

 

A bevy of swans the lot of them. Preening and pathetic. He could barely hide his disgust at the stench of rotten perfume that beat off each one of their hot pulsing throats. All the vapid girls that desperate Mother’s shoved in his chest to make introductions.

 

It was like the sheep throwing their own sweet little lambs out into the slobbering wolves.


If this were a less guarded age he might have already slipped away under guise of a romantic tryst in the garden, to drink a few of them dry.

 

Posy and Flora squeak and shake Iris’s arm after he passes. He is led around the ballroom, that great vast man. Introduced to all the good and the great. They gabble and squawk at their sister about how she’ll be the next Lady of Hellford Park.

 

She shushes them and sees it makes Lord Ren lock eyes with her from over where he towered loftily across the ballroom crowds.

 

Her heart starts beating wild again. A demure smile and she takes her eyes away elsewhere. And that heartbeat calls out to him like the pound of a war drum. A bell summoning him to worship.

 

Oh yes. He thinks. She is the one.

 

 

And she’ll do splendidly.

 

 

 

 

~



 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

When the coach door enclosed him in darkness and silence at the end of the evening, he tosses his head back to the scarlet velvet wall behind him and sighs out a deep releasing exhale. One of gladness.

 

It felt like the most cleansing breath he’d taken all damned evening.

 

Polite society hereabouts was exhausting- he rather preferred the one of years past.

 

The coach lurches away. Hooves clip on the icy midnight road, splashed in watery silver moonlight and mushed grey snow.

 

He listens to the glorious sound of his driver steering the horses to take him away from that stuffy ballroom and all its conceited occupants.

 

His body rattles and shifts on the softness of the upholstered bench with the rickety rumbling and turning of the carriage wheels. He lets it ground his restless temper.

 

He tries to recall the differences of when he last stepped foot on this island. What he’d said to Miss Ashton was no incorrect lie. He hadn’t been on these shores in an age. Not in 600 years atleast-

 

The last time he was here was during the crusades.

 

Everything was truly different in comparison. Back then he’d donned a hauberk chain-mail coat, with a conical helmet and a kite shield. He’d come here armed with only a horse, a long bow, a lance and his mail armour.

 

He’d been a Knight back then. In the third crusade of 1189. Fighting under the blood soaked banner of an Christian king to reclaim the Holy Land from a Sultan. He forgets the kings name, theres been so many he’s served. The lionhearted one perhaps? Faces and names of mere humans fade back into his mind like fog.

 

He’s seen so many lives begin and end. Even kings fade eventually. Too many mortals to list.

 

He remembers how hospitality and society was vastly different then. It was peasants and lords. Not all these lords, and dukes and earls and titles.

 

He recalls the wide unpolluted pure of cobalt sky and meadows of yellow daffodil flowers stretching on for miles. The kiss of their innocent nectar in the air. Exotic new spices, cloves and saffron and salt, animal sweat, dung, and musky furs and hides.

 

Salt of the earth humble houses were squat little wood straw huts. Dominated by the reaching slanted cold shadows, that came from the immensity of the rich grey-stoned castles.

 

People revered one God and their masters. Kylo was a knight. He was as good as both.

 

He has memories of great fine feasts with roast suckling pigs or boars turning on the great hall spit over the fire. The glaze of flame crackled pork skin and the dirt of ash. He recalls to this very day the sweet honey spice of mead on his tongue.

 

He remembers gorging himself on that honey-wine and devouring still bleeding slices of roast venison. That juicy ichor dripped down his chin. He ate meat off the bone like a starved dog. Drank flagon after flagon of barley ale to celebrate war and shedding the blood of the infidels.

 

He’d greedily dined with the Lords at their courts, scarfed down their hospitality like a beast. Then he’d gone and ripped apart a peasant girl or two in the forest afterwards.

 

Blood pulsing with matter and protein, and stomach groaning full with wine and blood. The next day when they found the decimated bodies they blamed the innocent deaths on the wolves. How appropriate-

 

He can remember this country in the spark of its infancy. He was there to see it born.

 

He was in Runnymede in Surrey in 1215, outside the fringes of the very room, watching, as the band of feuding Baron’s made the unruly King sign the Magna Carta. The cornerstone of British law. The first time a higher power was held accountable.

 

And now look at the pitiful state of it-

 

He’d been in the ballroom tonight of this grand house when those higher powers had sneered at his choice of footwear behind their snifters of French brandy and their fans. Foppish young ladies and men and all ignorant as to their place in the world they think they improve.

 

He was there at the very inception of all the powers and laws these vapid people obsess and fuss over. The one that gave all those preening lords and ladies their cursed little country and their dignity.

 

Maybe if he were a nicer, more patient man he could settle for people flattering him and wheedling him with idle compliments at every turn. Maybe if he were more vain, and knew his own handsomeness, he could accept those honeyed words. The sickly ones that rotted in his ears. If he was like them he could indulge their meaning.

 

He’s not like them. He never will be. And he’s glad of it.

 

He’s older. Laughably older. He’s a warrior. He’s seen every facet of life and history and war imaginable. And they are all nothing but specs of insignificant dust to him.

 

They think they matter, when all they do is fuck and breed and drink and dance. They marry well, and produce offspring to hold up their fetid titles, and stately homes. Then they die. And the next generation begins the same thing all over.

 

Some of those ignorant men tonight had the sheer nerve and effrontery to sneer up at him. Thinking he was so foreign and unfamiliar that he wouldn’t find the insult in their sniping adulations. The way they dug at his incorrect attire, his gloves, his boots. His dark clothing and his longer unfashionable hair.

 

Were he in a less forgiving mood he would have snapped a few necks in that room tonight. Stopped a few hearts from beating by breaking the ribcage open and reaching in with his bare hands.

 

He could’ve- it was vastly too tempting. But he had to assimilate to this petty crowd and open bloodshed wasn’t the way to do so. He has to remember rules and politesses about where to stand and what to discuss. It’s infuriating-

 

He reaches a leathered hand to his neck and yanks open his neatly tied cravat. Jerking it lose from his neck so he could take a damn breath. Shoves the tie pin from it deep in his pocket.

 

Irritation pounds at his temples reminiscent of a headache; his throat is crackling and sore-dry.

 

He’s imbibed many glasses of Portuguese port and piddly French red wine. The crushed grape of its taste still sits on the back of his tongue and it’s simply not enough.

 

He needs to feed-

 

Aching to feel the blushing heat of it drool down his chin. Frothy pink where it blends with his drooling mouth.

 

He’s been hungry ever since Miss Ashton crossed his path that very afternoon. Her blooming innocent scent unfolded for him like the rarest flower.

 

That lavender oil and clary sage essence of her fragrance. He likes her eyes. So shy and soft. Grey like Howlite.

 

People say they couldn’t see beauty in pale eyes but he very much disagrees. Pale. Like the pearled moon, like clouded open skies. Like the gentle purity of creamy rose petals.

 

That girl he glimpsed tonight was shades away from the shy creature he saw walking along a pale road. With a crease of concern on her brow.

 

Arms and hands aching with strain and numb from her labours and holding that basket.

 

Even in her ill fitting coat and her cracked shoes and worn dress he’d seen more of her. More of her obvious true beauty.

 

Her hair this afternoon was riotous and wild and he so likes wild things.

 

Tonight she’d been trussed up, and decorated and tamed in a flimsy silk gown and made to look like every other girl donned in their best. To parade in the ballroom like a swan showing off its feathers.

 

Or like a snowy little dove-

 

He smiles to himself. Time was - back in some far less strict age - he’d have cleverly concocted some excuse to get her alone at that ball tonight.

 

A darkened room for a lovers tryst. A room out of use and earshot of everyone where he could be her lover just for the night. Where he could kiss her senseless. Sate the craving.

 

Crowd her to the wall of some parlour, tear those silly slippers off. Rip those papery silk skirts right up the middle. Make her cry out in pleasure on his cock. Make her thighs shake with rapture that makes her sweet core drip right down to the insides of her stockinged knees.

 

He’d feed on her too. Oh, he’d make a feast of her. Make her last.

 

The little delicate morsel she was. What a mouthful. He’d mouth everywhere. Her gorgeous breasts, her neck, devour between her thighs at a place where he’s certain no other man has ever been.

 

Shove his muzzle in her neck and lick the sweat off her soaped salt skin. Taste that awful cloying fragrance she put on. Growl at her that she should never bother with scent again to entice him. He didn’t want the citrus rot of perfumery and flowers.

 

He wanted her. Her bare skin. He wanted the clean pure innocence he smelt off her from his carriage that afternoon. Her skin. Body. Her unguarded neck.

 

He’d bite and suck and feed. He’d feed as they are joined as one with him slipped up inside her. And he’d happily watch that white white dress turn crimson garnet.

 

He damns civility. He growls and tears the infernal cravat right off his neck. Not only is he raging hungry, but he’s now got an appetite for things that just blood won’t sate.

 

His appetites for Miss Ashton.

 

He balls up the cloth of his cravat and shoves his deep in his coat pocket. His shirt neck now gapes wide open. Down is pecs. Almost to his chest. Baring him to the cold that he’s too deadened and numb to feel.

 

When the coach bumps over a rickety track in the road, he gazes out the window, feeling the chilled glass brush his icy hands. Even through his thick skinned leather gloves. Lined with silken rabbit fur. An irony when his hands were ones that didn’t even need keeping warm.

 

He peers out the tiny icy slither of the window pane in the door. See’s that they are now heading through some tiny hamlet. One far from home. Somewhere quiet where there’s a quaint roadside tavern under the heavy bruising of a night sky.

 

A run down roadside coaching inn by the looks of the squat old building wedged into the earth, compressed under a heavy blanketing snow. The roof sags in the middle. There’s tiles missing. A wonky chimney which coughs and chokes out little smoke.

 

The crusty paint peeling sign above the door announces it’s called ‘The Horse & Wagon’ In faded wheat gold paint. He sees the small square spits of Tudor windows to the front are glowing with candles and many men are crushed within. Drinking away their riches. Or drowning their sorrows. Escaping their nagging wives or their crying children. Getting away from the responsibility of all the hungry mouths they had to feed.

 

He pounds a big rattling fist once on the carriage roof. Careful not to plough his ravened fist through the wood. He could tear it apart like brittle match wood if he wanted.

 

The coach shudders, whip cracks, horses whinny and snort in protest. Kylo wets his lips and climbs out down the coach.

 

“Going in for a drink. Don’t wait on me.” He instructs. His driver tips his hat and the carriage churns up wet and muddy snow as it lurches away.

 

He strides to the warped door and shoves it open. Creaky and shuddering old thing. The aroma of the dingy place hits him like being cut down by stampeding stallion.

 

The decay of sweat. The heat and filth of working men. Body odours. Stale ale and musty unclean floors.

 

His heavy treads from his expensive boots skid on the muck lining the grey flagstones as he steps in. As tall as the door, and more so, he had to stoop to get in. His shoulders too wide for the tiny door.

 

The bar is crowded with labourers and farm hands. They have their backs turned to him. But the miserable portly barman assesses Kylo with offence and derision as he comes in. With his probable educated accent and his fine clothes.

 

This was normal men’s refuge from their masters or the fine men and lords they serve. The scowl on the tubby mans face tells kylo this.

 

In a previous life, any man looking with such open derision at his lord and master rightfully entitled them to be pilloried for a month, or flogged until he can’t stand, Kylo thinks.

 

He looks around the dismal offering of this atmosphere. Settles on a table in the mouldy walled corner. Damp dripping from the sagging ceiling over the exposed stone.

 

The tables are wonky chunky oak ones. The only light in the place are from melted and misshapen candles in brass black stands on each uncleaned table. Kylo sits with a full vantage of the bar. Next to the fireplace. Soot and ash spewed all over the floor. Crunching and crushed under his boots.

 

A waify little barmaid appears in a dirty donkey-brown wool dress. Her hair the shade of red rust scraped back off her face in a low bun. Stained chemise under her rumpled dress.

 

She still had the flush of youth in her cheeks. The baby-weight of it on her face too. She was still a girl and yet she had to work serving the foul pigs in here. He pities the poor thing. She couldn’t have been more than fourteen. And he knew men lost to drink could turn truly vile.

 

“Serve the gentleman, Maggie.” The miserable barkeep growls. She does as she’s bid. The way he says ‘gentleman’ was as if the word turns his stomach.

 

Kylo’s sat in shadow in his corner. Fully confident the girl can’t see him. Doubtless she’s had to approach more rowdy awful men than him. She doesn’t seem scared. Why should she be? She doesn’t know she’s approaching a man who’s scarier than all the rowdy and randy drunk men she’s seen, put together.

 

She focuses her innocent little brown eyes at him. He sees the flush on her cheeks. And the dew of labour on her chest. There were splashes of drink sullying her crumpled linen chemise sleeves. She’s soaked in sweat and smells of drink and dirt. “What can I get you, sir?” She asks. Her accent was low born.

 

“Ale.” Kylo asks for. All the alcohol this place would serve is spirits or beer. No cordials, port or madeira to be found in here. This isn’t the place for that. This is the place to get drunk quick - he hopes.

 

She nods and scampers back over to the bar. She brings him back a filthy tankard of ale that he doesn’t even dare touch.

 

He reaches his pocket and gives her two silver shillings. She turns away but he stops her by grabbing her wrist. Bones grate under his leather palm. Turning back she looks afraid.

 

“Please, sir-“ She tries to protest.

 

Kylo reaches out again and puts three crown coins in her hand. She looks at him with surprised wet eyes. Bordering on offence at his insinuation. This was an inn. There were rooms upstairs- she thought he wished to buy her time.

 

“Nothing like that.” Kylo assures her with a cross frown. He prefers his partners willing. Not paid.

 

“That’s for you and your family.” He nods to the bar. “Not for him.” He states firmly.

 

She smiles and quickly pockets the coins. He likes travelling with coins in his coat. Knowing what he could idly spare to a deserving soul could feed a family in reduced circumstances, for an entire week.

 

She walks away happily from his table. He slouches back in the shadows again.

 

He lets the fetid ale sit in front of him and suffers this putrid place so that his dinner might show itself soon.

 

He listens to the men cackle, hacking booming laughs, share stories and jokes, and drink and stoutly ignore him. Which is what he wanted. He planned for that. It always serves him and his appetite well.

 

He waits and watches. As any good hunter does. And he’s one of the top predators stalking this earth-

 

He was the second vampire ever made. The only devil worse than him is the one who made him. And the only one Kylo’s maker bows down to, is the original demon himself who bought them all into creation. The one who fell from heaven.

 

He continues his waiting game.

 

Eyes slipping over every man. Watching them imbibe. Watching the sense drain from their thick heads. Watching. Looking. Searching. Wondering who who who it will be.

 

He doesn’t have to prey for very long. He never had to in filthy, discarded and squalid places like these.

 

Kylo’s eyes zip to the bar where some letching man now has his hands tugging at the bar maids skirts and trying to get her in his lap.

 

The assailant was young. Not very handsome. Ruddy faced. Tanned. A farm hand at his best guess. Broad backed with a square jaw and wheaten hair. Kylo leans forwards in his chair. Eyes churning. Stomach calling.

 

She wrenches her skirts away from him and gives him a stout slap across the face. Before scurrying away scared, heading out the door at the back to fetch the things her boss barked at for her to go get.

 

His friends all jeered and laughed and told him he got what was owing to him.  A red welt spreading across his face.

 

Kylo’s stomach knots up in anticipation.

 

The affronted farm hand sloshes down his pint. And starts after the girls retreat. Kylo slips out the front door with a smirk. And a belly full of rage.

 

His feet crunch on the snow. Where he stands. He rips his gloves off and shoves them in his pocket. He’s a feeling he’ll need his bare hands soon. Nails already growing sharper. The promise of a hunt hangs in the air. 

 

He slips around the side of the tavern. To the ale barrel store out back. He’s nearly there to the out sheds when he hears it. The crack of a slap harshly ringing the air, whimpers. Gasps of pain. Pairs of feet shifting in the snow.

 

He rounds the corner. Silent as his shadow trailing behind him.

 

He sees the farm hand with his hand over the girls mouth. Crushing her to the tavern wall by the back door. Hidden by the barrels, boxes and crates stacked all around. He’s trying to stuff his hand up her skirts again.

 

“Give us a kiss, lass. You know you want to-“ He smirks.

 

Hunched over the poor girl. Leering at her. Snarling that no one makes a fool out of him. Her eyes are so wide and terrified. Whites of them and sticky in the dark night air, like pearls.

 

Kylo can’t stop the low growl slipping from his throat. The natural part of him- the animal- slipping free.

 

He marches over with his blood raging fury through his body. Temples pulsing with strain and need. He fists a hand in the boys collar and yanks him back, slamming him up into the wall instead. See how he likes it.

 

He holds with death. He doesn’t hold with rape.

 

Not in any sense. Not to young girls with their whole lives ahead. He was born and bred in a time when women were revered as highly as men. They were treated and respected as equal. Not handled and oppressed, bred and showcased and sold like livestock.

 

He turns the letch to face him. Marvels in the scared screams that come from his mouth. He likes hearing how horrible he is in his most feral state.

 

His eyes are glowing gold now. Golder than coin. Golder than sun and wheat and everything precious.

 

Only he looks terrifying. Gold eyes. Edges rimmed with raw red.

 

The girl cowers on the snowy floor next to them. Tears streaming down her innocence puppyish face. One cheek reddened by a slap from a harsh hand. Kylo looks down at her. The farm hands feet dangled high off the floor, kicking at him.

 

“Run along girl. Go home.” Kylo warns. Looking down at her. She scrambled back and heaved herself up to stand on shaking legs. 

 

“W-What are you gonna do with him?” She asks. Edging away down the wall.

 

“You don’t wish to know.” Kylo smiles squeezes the guys throat. Spit splutters out his mouth. He gurgles on his shouts of terror.

 

She scarpers away in the snow. It clings powdery wet to her skirts and she run’s around the building and off into the dark. He’s not worried for her safety now. She won’t encounter a more dangerous creature than him out there tonight.

 

The man before him whimpers. Kylo rakes his eyes over his face. Rubs his thumb along the pulsing jugular in his neck. His sharp nails quickly piercing the skin. Notes of hot sweet copper and pennies bloom up in the air.

 

“Please. D-Don’t hurt me please-please sir.” He begs.

 

Why do people think begging will save them? Like any amount simple pleading will keep them from harm. It won’t even scratch the surface.

 

“I’m giving you a little taste of how scared that girl was when you followed her out here. Not very palatable is it? You beat her with your bare hands. You caused her pain. She suffered you. Now you’ll suffer me...”

 

“And I will make sure, it, hurts.” Kylo’s promising with mirth in a savage whisper.

 

When he smiles there are two glimmering sharp fangs where his pointed canines used to sit. Gleaming wet in the light. The farm hands eyes are shrieking with fear.

 

Kylo strikes quickly and cleanly. Hands fisted into this grubby workers clothes. He growls as his teeth sink and he tears through the flesh like the skin is no more to him than wet paper being gouged at by knives.

 

He groans as he drinks. Laps it down. As the hot viscous filled his mouth and slid warm down his throat to his belly like a trail of fire.

 

His blood tasted of apples and coins. Sharp and bronzy bitter.

 

Kylo can feel it smeared over his mouth. Slipping down his chin. Onto his chest and staining his open shirt. He’s crushing the man’s windpipe in his free hand. The other planted to the wall. He feels the wretch twitch and sag under his hands as he slowly eats away his life.

 

The part he always likes the best- when the fight drains away and the muscles loosen. And everything unwinds. That’s when the blood comes quicker. Thicker. Less of it being pumped around a panicked body.

 

There’s no panic anymore. There’s nothing. Not even life.

 

He greedy with meals. He drinks until he’s had his fill and his appetite is about as large as his body.

 

He feasts until blood is staining his hands. His chest. And smudged all across his chin. He even saw some drop on his boots. His teeth are stained crimson and his belly heavy with the bliss of being so full. He hadn’t fed since he arrived here. It’s nectar euphoria flushing into his blood.

 

When he’s had enough. He easily drags the bloodless corpse away from the tavern.

 

Discards his useless body in a nearby icy ditch at the side of the road. He reeked of Gin. And Kylo thinks it a fitting end that it looks like the drunkard stumbled into the path of an oncoming carriage and got torn and crushed to bits under the wheels.

 

He kicks snow over him and leaves. Sucking the blood off his fingers as he walks.

 

He’s not sure how or why. But he finds himself knowing to head through the woods. The opposite route to home. Trekking through snow in his leather boots. Forest and ice brushing at his wool jacket shoulders from the low hanging branches in the trees. Wisps of snow land in his hair. Floating all around and catching on every gnarled bark of each tree.

 

He finds he ends up in the oddest of places. Westwell manor.

 

He looks up at the large block of the Manor house. Gold brick. White sash windows. An ivy smothered roof. Cracked roof tiles that had seen better days, freckled in melting snow and moonlight. Just like the snowy gardens.

 

He stands shaded under the old horse chestnut tree, and looks up to the one room, high up in the house. In the middle. There’s a candle glowing amber in the window. Turning the glass into a sheet of apricot cornelian standing stark in the bruised black night.

 

He just wants a glimpse. He’s aching for it- he thought it was the bloodlust that pulled here. But perhaps he’s wrong- it’s deeper than all that feral nature.

 

Just a glance. Just the one. Can’t hurt. It’ll help him make up his mind

 

And there’s his little dove. Draped in a white nightgown. Sat in her window alcove.

 

Up against the frosty glass with a shawl bundled around her shoulders. A novel cracked open and sloped in her lap. Her delicate face exposed by her hair. Now in that messy, freed arrangement. Tucked into a wild plait tied with beige muslin at the end. The nightgown it so big it slides off one pale shoulder.

 

Kylo aches at the sight. His bones ring with wanting. Maybe this power is no more than desire.

 

He shuts his eyes and he can smell her. Can imagine the simple taste of her hot skin on his tongue. Wants to feel his eyelashes kiss the crook of her neck as he does the same to her shoulder. Wants the drum of that pulse in his mouth. Is this desire? Or is it more?

 

She turns the page and smiles a little reading the passage. He smiles too. As if they are linked. Already joined as one. It makes him feel something stir.

 

He softly whispers words that echo out into the frigid cold night. So only he can hear them “Sweet dreams, little dove.”

 

Kylo’s not felt like this, or this strange pull of attraction in all his 1,027 years walking this earth. And now it’s here, she’s here-

 

He wonders- 

 

Maybe she doesn’t know it yet- he doesn’t fully know or understand it himself. They shared something like a deep connection as soon as their eyes met. He felt it. And he never usually feels things such as those. Not for another human.

 

Kylo is in serious danger of outstaying his welcome- but he just wants to look at her. To admire her for a second longer. As openly as an astrologist studies the beauty and wonder of the moon. Perhaps he can make sense of all this.

 

As Iris moves to close her book, blow out her candle and climb into her much cosier bed to warm her feet; she glances out the gardens, up past the pond and up at the bright cyclops of that pearly winter moon. 


She could’ve sworn she caught sight of a hulking man stood, looking up at her from under the chestnut tree. She blinks and rubs away the cold fog smeared on her window and there’s nothing there- idle trickery from her tired mind. 


He vows he will see her again; he’ll make sure if it. As he walks home in the cold night. Dripping dried blood and agitated with desire. He declares to himself that he will do everything in his power to uncover more. To make something sensible out of all this mess.

 

After all. Kylo Ren is a creature of little patience. But this feeling, this situation. That is what he will patiently unpick. 

 

 


~

 

Chapter Text

 

 

 

 

 

The sky remained hard. Resolutely letting snow sift from the thick great heavens, like icing sugar drifting down. The ground also continued to be frosty hard and scattered with patches of hidden silvery ice.

 

No sooner than the sun had risen over the tumbling flat frosty vista of Hampshire hills and frost crusted meadows, than Iris is up, and going about her daily chores all in the life of a gently bred - yet unwed- daughter, of fairly considerable means.

 

She takes food parcels to the poor. Calls on sick relatives or companions for tea. Pays calls. Fetched supplies for cook from the butchers or the grocers, or the fishmongers in town.

 

When one of the maids is ill, or is suffering a passing heartbreak until the next suitor comes along, Iris is the one to step into the void and fulfil their tasks. She collects the eggs from the chickens at the farm, or makes the ailing girl a hot milk posset or a cup of hot chocolate to cheer them.

 

It seemed like every other week their maids, Meg and Julia, seemed to go getting their hearts broken. Some farm hand. Or the boy from the butchers shop. The milliners son, or the strong handsome one who works in the drapers shop. As ever; Iris steps into the fray when - another - devastating crisis comes their way. She helps cook in the kitchen with supper. Or she helps out with idle cleaning around the house. Or see’s to the chores on the farm.

 

This morning is no different. Meg took to her bed with an ailing heart of the most acute kind. For the boy she fancies had become engaged to another girl. Iris brings her a cup of chocolate after breakfast and lends her a handkerchief and a shoulder so she can have a good long cry about it.

 

So household tasks fall onto her today. Fetching in what cook needed from market for supper. Even though she’d have liked to have spent a morning reading her book, or helping Julia get on top of the household washing. She’s wanted to take down the parlour curtains and give them a good scrub, for weeks now.

 

Or today she had ideally wanted to lend Flora and Posy a hand in drying some flowers, and french lavender and roses. For perfumes and bathing oils. They had to use their home grown stock from the gardens carefully. It was a long winter. And the convenience of summer blooms are far off yet. Dried flowers cost a pretty penny up the market.

 

Her duties are endless. She’s got calls to pay. Off to the butchers to buy sweet meats and game for the jugged hare cook is making tonight. She needs to buy beeswax candles and salt, and some more soaps.

 

And Posy and Flora are allowed to purchase two new ribbons each. They’ll walk into the village with her. No doubt nattering all the way there about what colours they want. And all the way back that they should’ve chosen different ones.

 

Iris steps outside in her wintry best and her cracked leather boots. Two pairs of wool stockings this time. Her navy blue wool pelisse over a thick white cotton dress. For good measure, she puts a bonnet on to keep her ears warm, and wraps a gold embroidered shawl around her shoulders.

 

Posy and Flora are trussed up as if they’re off to go personally meet the Prince Regent. Flora is in her gold pelisse with her pink dress under. And Posy had her powder blue coat over her mint green dress. They’re both wearing bonnets that they made up themselves. Their hats staggering under the weight of ribbons and cloth and trims and flounces.

 

Iris’s was far simpler - No fuss. No trims. A gold straw bonnet with grey ribbon tied under her chin.

 

Iris has to chide Posy, when they step out of doors, for forgetting to wear her gloves. She insists she hasn’t a decent pair and slips back into the house to go up to Iris’s room to conveniently borrow her grey rabbit fur lined gloves. Making her elder sister roll her eyes. The plot was clear.

 

They had a heavy basket each to carry. Some old granary loaves, soused herring, and some jars of Jam from their kitchens to go to the poor. They’re not even at the end of the drive and Flora is whinging about the weight of her basket. Iris heaves a sigh and grabs it off her.

 

She trudges behind them. Both arms carrying heavy baskets.

 

Her and Posy link arms, giggling, walking along merrily, animated and discussing last nights ball. Or, more accurately; making sport of the people who’d attended.

 

“Did you see that awful Lavender gown Jane Penwell had on?”

 

“I thought it suited her very ill indeed.”

 

“And did you hear about Lawrence Fisher? Apparently he’s now to be courting Lucy Miller.”

 

“I cannot stand her. Last night she was so boastful about the lace trim on her dress. She’s vile. And I haven’t had any new lace on my dress for over a year! Not since last summer. I’m sure she does it deliberately, just to vex me.”

 

“You are far prettier than Lucy Miller. She has ten million freckles and no conversation at all. She’s a pale ugly little thing.” Posy’s insisting fiercely to her younger sister.

 

Iris is amused by the sheer frailty of their worries.

 

“And besides, Mama said she had a letter from Mrs Thornby today, and apparently Lord Ren and Iris were the talk of the ball all night, last eve.” Flora says cheekily.

 

Turning over her shoulder to scrutinise her sister with a smug grin that flashes her straight little row of teeth.

 

Iris rolled her eyes. Strongly suspecting that as of now, her and Lord Ren would be gossiped about in front parlours for weeks. This was a sleepy country village with little amusement and not much variety to sustain it.

 

Mama’s and girls of the Ton would fall on the new shred of tittle-tattle like wolves.

 

“He left the ball last night without talking to any other girl, mama said.” Posy explains.

 

“The poor man probably didn’t have time enough to get through all the desperate Hampshire girls, eagerly throwing themselves at him to make an acquaintance.” Iris thinks aloud.

 

They walk up Westwell’s frosted drive and out onto the snowy lanes that cut through quaint countryside and woods.

 

The golden sun is in its early rising, striping ribbons of thick satin gold through the trees. The ruddy browns and ash greys and ochre coppery rusts of the Turner-esque English countryside. Of fields and hedgerows and treetops. The grass is no longer green. It’s a musty white. And that same cloying powder clings onto the dead taupe leaves and branches of every tree. The air is bitter to breathe in.

 

Iris takes a deep lungful of it, and its like a chest full of sharp pins. Needling at her lips and her neck. She should’ve thought to employ a wool scarf. As it is she can only tuck her shawl tighter around her shoulders. Tucking the heavy baskets into to dig deeper into her elbows. The frost numbs her feet, and sneaks up her skirts and snatched cruelly at her legs.

 

She clenched her numb fingers, scrunching and unscrunching them up in her much too thin gloves.

 

Posy and Flora continue their giggling and swapping tidbits of gossip about Lord Ren.

 

“You know he didn’t even dance with anyone!”

 

“A great sin, I’m sure. Punishable by death.” Iris thinks to herself under her breath.

 

“He probably didn’t have time-“ Posy remarks.

 

“Or he doesn’t know how.” Flora supposed.

 

“A man that lofty, of course he can dance. Maybe he prefers not too.”

 

“Maybe he has a false leg, or, or a war wound!”

 

Iris rather wishes her ears were purely ornamental by this point.

 

Give me a pair of vestigial ears anytime you wish. She idly prays. Turning her eyes skywards.

 

“Maybe he’s shy-“ Flora squeaks. Posy clasps her hand over her mouth and laughs so loudly it startles the chaffinches out the trees.

 

“I don’t think he can afford to blend into the wallpaper with a stature like that.” Flora grins.

 

“His shoulders were twice the width of me.” Posy says dreamily.

 

“Did he have soft lips Iris? For you must’ve felt them through your gloves... Were they heavenly?” Flora demands to know. Both sisters walking in step alongside her now.

 

She side eyes them. “That is not a proper thing to discuss. And well you know it Flora Jane Ashton.” Iris insists. Concealing her secrets to herself.

 

She wasn’t telling her sisters how her whole body burst into shivers popping and skipping up her spine. How his touch made her skin feel like it was dancing of its own accord. Free from her body. She shivered yet she was blushing hot.

 

His lips were the softest, sweetest things that had ever come into contact with her body.

 

Her whole arm felt dizzy afterwards. It wasn’t possible. But that’s how it felt. Hours after she was still rubbing the patch where his lips had lain on her satin gloves.

 

When she got home after the ball, she peeled her glove off and looked at her hand.

 

It still looked ordinary. Her skin wasn’t red or marked - but it felt like it should be. It felt as if something utterly astounding had happened to her.

 

The memory of his eyes gazing their arrow-striking glare into her own haunted her head all night long. Swam behind her closed eyelids in her sleep. Those opulent piercing eyes.

 

“We won’t tell a soul.” Posy promises

 

Oh, look. Here is the Barton’s cottage. Flora pass me the ointment for Mr Barton.” Iris demands.

 

Seeing the little boxy cottage coming into view. Roof thick with iced thatch. Walls butter yellow. With fat pink sickly rose vines creeping up the walls. Iris sees the chimney is smoking. They must be home keeping warm on this frigid morning. Acrid woodsmoke from the house drifts across the woods.

 

They deliver the ointment into Mrs Barton’s hand. Along with some jam, a loaf, and pickled goods to see them through the wintry cold week. They were a frail elderly couple after all. And Iris likes helping people. She always had. Her mother always insisted she’d been cursed with an unshakable vein of kindness.

 

Which often meant as a child she was forever taking in birds wounded falling out their nests in the gardens. Leaving carrots out for the wild rabbits. Seeds for the birds. Feed for the little monk-jack deers. She shared all her dolls as a girl. Forever saw to caring for the people and creatures which surround her. She visits the infirm with medicine. Reads to the lonely old matrons who’d lost all the grandchildren of their own.

 

Now she’s grown that inclination hasn’t left her. She likes making sure none of the infirm elderly, or the more impoverished friends of her acquaintance suffer through the bitter cold climes. They never have to struggle alone. Iris is a balm to the hurting. She gives what she can. And is a friend to everyone kind enough to recognise it.

 

Before long, the trio of ladies dispense their generosity upon those who need it. Giving what sustenance and leftovers they can spare. It’s not much really- when all is said and done. But it’s helping in any little way possible. And that’s what matters.

 

They come eventually into Pembleton high street. The every busy and jagged row of higgledy Tudor houses. Separated by a lane of sticky brown mud where horses hooves and carts churn up the dirt. Carts and stalls line the streets. Modest shopfronts sell their wares. The air is full up of woodsmoke and the scent of roasting nuts from the brazier on the stand nearby.

 

Iris loses Posy and Flora very quickly to the haberdashers, where the ribbons hang from great silken trails in racks from the ceiling. Every colour Imaginable.

 

She sees them fussing over Belgian lace and leaves them be. She steps into the butchers for Cooks desired hare and sweet meats. She buys the candles, salt and the paper wrapped little cakes of soaps from Mr Milton’s shop next door.

 

She crosses the street to the grocers. Fills her basket with green leeks, onions, potatoes and carrots. She tucks everything in her basket, around the poor lamented hare with its fur still on, and covers it with a patterned linen cloth.

 

She has a shilling spare- she wanders over to Mr. Greeley. The proud proprietor of the roasted nuts stall. She buys a bag of warm, buttery sweet chestnuts.

 

Hides them from Posy and Flora. This was her one little indulgence for today. She sneaks one of the hot things onto her tongue and savours it.

 

She strides back up the line of shop windows. Looking and listening to the clack and bustle of the street behind her. Clopping hooves, rattling carts, ponies and traps clunking along the high street. Friends and acquaintances stopped to gossip and chat in the street. Young and old. Of every walk of life.

 

She looks in the drapers window. The reflection off the glass, showed her a watery image of a gaggle of matronly mamas stood behind her across the street, loudly gossiping in her direction. Pointing and gesturing toward her.

 

She rolls her eyes in huffing annoyance.

 

She wasn’t enjoying being the inconstant centre of attention. Open to such censure and fascination in odes to the Hearst’s ball last night.

 

Also in odes to the mysterious new stranger to these shores, too. The dark, dashing, and taciturn Lord Ren.

 

Every wet-behind-the-ears girl in all of Hampshire was busy envisioning their swirled initials joined with his in their embroidery. A big handsome stranger from far off lands. It was the precursor to the stuff of romance from drippy novels. A harbinger of a great love story.

 

Maybe not hers. Lord Ren may have kissed her hand and called her handsome. But so have countless other rich suitors, and then two months later them and their pretty blonde heiress of ten thousand pounds, are lavishly married and installed in a house in Brunswick square. She’s sure he’ll eventually find some far more moneyed girl to march into matrimony.

 

It won’t be her- not her turn to pick out her wedding clothes. It never is.

 

She lets the whispers and doubts about her, flourish from unimportant mouths.

 

She never cared for the savagery of society. She won’t start being missish about it all, now. It won’t serve her any purpose-

 

She can only hope the next scandal or engagement or elopement, or any other source of fascination to the bored inhabitants of this county, comes flooding in quick to snatch away all unhealthy - and rather undue - interest in her.

 

She waits outside the haberdashers for her pair of silly sisters. They eventually come out. Comparing their new ribbons with each other’s. Flora has a pink, Posy has some frothy white lace.

 

Posy hands Iris a teal silk ribbon. “For your hair. It would become you so well. And it will go with your eyes.” She insists.

 

Iris smiles. Wrapping the long length of satin around her grey glove. It was very pretty.

 

“Pray how did you afford this?” Iris narrows her eyes in smiling suspicion at the pair of them.

 

“I saved up my allowance.” Posy insists plainly. Iris continues her look. She tilts her chin down a notch. Let’s her eyes harden to steel. Arched her muddy shaped brows.

 

“...And the haberdasher’s son is so very obliging.” Flora beams. The younger Ashton’s giggle together knowingly.

 

Iris sighs again. Strongly suspecting she could safely boast that she had two of the silliest siblings in the entire country. Hell, in the entire British Empire.

 

“Let’s take our leave shall we...” Iris says. Slowly heading away. Down the street in the opposite direction they came. It took them home down on the woodland path.

 

She picks up her pristine white skirts and steps over the mud. Baskets heavy with her goods now thunking against her hip as they walk. One filled with meat. The other with candles and potatoes and other luxuries for supper.

 

Posy and Flora trail behind her. Discussing how best to use their ribbons. On bonnets or around the waistline of their favourite dresses. Iris drowns them out and listens to the crunch of her feet on the frost. The silver wisp of her breath as its whisked away up into the reach of the sky. She likes how sun glimmers off frost like sparkles and diamonds and gems. Like something fine and rich.

 

They just come across a curve in the lane. Leading through an open meadow full of frosted grass and withered wildflowers. When a thundering sound gallops into being, hitting the hard ground in succession from beyond the bend.

 

Iris looks up, attention captured swiftly by the beast of a large rider atop a colossal shimmering black horse, moving quick towards where they are walking along the quiet little lane. The peace shattered by the horses hooves pounding the earth.

 

A great hulking beast of a man sits astride it. Who indeed almost matches the brutally-enormous muscled intensity of the creature he rides.

 

Lord Ren.

 

Iris startled and went to move aside. But he sees them and is already slowing the horse. She draws a deep breath and watches as he tugs the reins to reel in his galloping mount. Reducing to a canter, a trot and then to a slow stop. Hooves churning up frost and spitting wet and crushed muddy grass, under its enormous stomping treads.

 

The sun in fiercely shining behind him. So Iris can only make out the silhouette at first. There’s no mistaking that singular body for another man. The primal size and bulk of him is unmistakable.

 

But then he shifts forwards on his horse as it stops. Lumbering towards them all. And that winter sun shines amber over his shoulder and she’s met with the full face of the handsome man she became acquainted with yesterday. His breath and that of his horses turn to silver smoke in the cold air

 

He passes the strops of its black reins into one gloved leather hand. His attire not much changed since yesterday. Still all black. The shining calf riding boots. The breeches that sit entirely too snug to the sturdy trunks of his legs and hips. The tailored black wool coat. White shirt tied with an elaborately knotted wine coloured cravat. Diamond pin studded central into the tie of the cloth.

 

His hair is free and rumpled by the wind. Desirable and untamed. Wild. He wears no top hat on his head like most gentlemen of civility did, when out riding.

 

Something about that lack of full dress she admires. Maybe he likes to feel the wind tangle his hair. The suns kiss his pale skin. The wind stinging at his cheeks. Likes galloping across the terrain at full speed on his mammoth sized beast of a horse.

 

“Good morning ladies.” He nods to them all. Still seated on his horse.

 

“Miss Ashton.” He smiles directly down at Iris as his horse shifts and stomps and nibbles the dewy wet grass below.

 

She ducks her head and curtseys. “Good morning. Your Lordship.” She says politely. Dwarfed by his horses shadow.

 

He holds her gaze for a second and smiles. Eyes more opulent charcoal in their shade than ever, this morning. He even had a kiss of pink colour in his cheeks. He looks healthy. Less alabaster pale. She strongly suspects its because of the icy wind stinging his cheeks as he rode.

 

He unlatched his right boot from the stirrup and smoothly swings himself off the horse. Grips the pommel at the front of the black saddle and swings himself down. Feet land to earth with a crunching thud. Frost and grass crushed underfoot.

 

His long wool riding coat flaps at his knees. Billowing open at his chest to show just his white shirt beneath it. Such thin layers. He must’ve been freezing.

 

“If I may be so bold, Miss Ashton, allow me to see you along to your intended destination?” He asks kindly. One big hand patting the solid flank of his horses shoulder when it huffs at his dismounting.

 

Iris’s cheeks go flaming red. She’s sure of it. Throat dry she manages to answer.

 

“Oh. Forgive my impertinence Lord Ren. But I don’t wish to take you out of your way. Only we are heading in the opposite direction to your path.”

 

“With your permission. I should like to walk with you. I’ve done a sufficient amount of riding for this morning.” He tells her.

 

Iris smiles. Flattered that he’d rearrange his ride, just to see her safely home. Just to walk with her for a moment or two.

 

Posy digs a sharp elbow into Flora’s ribs. Which jolts the youngest into speaking. “Iris. We were just going up the lane here to call on Charlotte Morris.”

 

Iris gazes pointedly at Flora with a piercing state that could’ve rivalled a dressmakers needle. “How remiss of you not to bring it up until now...” Iris glares a little.

 

“Should you mind?” Posy asks. Fluttering her lashes.

 

“Of course not.” Iris says flatly. “Mind the hour home and do for heavens sake be sensible.”

 

“We are the very vision of sensibility.” Flora beams.

 

Iris quirks a wry brow at the both of them. Teeth grit.

 

The two most transparent pests on the planet. Their plot was clear as day- One of sneaking away and leaving their elder sister unchaperoned and alone with him.

 

They turn away giggling and make for the little lane opposite. Gabbling and whispering all the way. Loud giggles follow them like fluttering birdsong.

 

When she turns back to Lord Ren he looks slightly amused. She blushes.

 

“I feel I ought offer an apology, your lordship. They are- most puerile and trying at times.” Iris offers as she shifts to step nearer to where he is.

 

He smiles gently. “They are young girls who fancy themselves cunning, I wager. No apology is necessary for that.” He declares affably. Patting his horses neck.

 

He brings the big horse around. Holding the gathered reins in his left hand. He leads his gigantic horse around with a click of his tongue and some soft words in urging Bavarian. The big creature follows his lead. She moves and alters the heavy baskets on her arms.

 

He sees this. Kylo frowns at the heavy weights at both her elbows. She shouldn’t be tasked with fetching and carrying like a damned pack horse. He extends a hand. “Allow me, Miss Ashton.”

 

“Oh, no it’s- I couldn’t.” By the time her protestations die on her lips. He has one basket in one hand, the other, he tied the handle to a saddle bag strap on his horse. Lays it rest against the saddle.

 

She’s mortified that a Lord offers to carry her basket for her.

 

“That’s truly a magnificent horse. I’ve never seen the like before.” She says. The steeds eyes glitter as if it knows it’s being discussed. “What’s his name?” She asks rummaging in her basket he holds. Hand slipped under the cloth.

 

“Erland.” Kylo says. The horses ears twitch.

 

“Erland. A majestic name. For a majestic beast.” She smiles at him.

 

She steps up to the horse and strokes her gloved hand down the flat bone between his eyes, leading down to his snout. Scents of hay and oats and animal sweat pour musky off his coat.

 

“He’s a lovely animal.” She says. Stroking his solid flank.

 

“Percheron. He’s a French draft horse. His breed originated in the Huisne valley in western France.” Lord Ren tells her.

 

“Bred for use as war horses, and pulling stagecoaches. This one has a fair mount of Arabian blood in him too. Makes him far too proud and headstrong.” He announces. Erland flicks his swishing tail at his owner. Snorting at him.

 

“I bought him with me from Bavaria. He’s the best riding horse I’ve had for a while. Stubborn temperament.” He offers. He watches her stroke his head. Touch the soft spot behind his ears.

 

“You like animals, Miss Ashton.” He states.

 

Most girls, as far as he’s aware, deigned horses as smelly, ugly creatures, whose only purpose was beneath them. Or to pull their carriages. She seemed to like this big equine creature very much.

 

“I do. Especially ones who are as beautiful as him.”

 

“Careful. Or else that flattery will shoot right to his ego.” He warns lightly.

 

She smiles.

 

Erland’s hairy velveteen muzzle cheekily nudges at her shoulder for more affection. He clearly likes her touch. Kylo tugs on his reins and frowns at him.

 

“Benehmen Sie sich.” Kylo rumbles in a firm Bavarian command at his horse. Calling him back. Telling him to be good. Rubbing his stocky shoulder. The round strong bones of him and the hot silk of his coat underneath his gloved palm.

 

She smiles. Lets the carrot she fetched from her basket, sit in the flat cradle of her gloved palm. She offers it to Erland, who snuffles it up and crunches on it. Breaking the frail vegetables skin with his big teeth. Munching it all down. Nuzzles her for more when he’s done.

 

He snorts when Kylo speaks up. “Anymore and you’ll get fat. You great beast.” He assures his horse in that soft foreign dialect. Shoving his snout into Miss Ashton’s hand for yet more treats. Erland’s head was so big and his power so strong, he could’ve very realistically knocked her over with one push.

 

She steps back and takes her place alongside a Lord Ren so they can continue in their walk. He’s a busy man. She doesn’t wish to hold him up. They fall into step easy. Her on Kylo’s left, Erland in his big lumbering enormity on Kylo’s right. His master has his right hand holding his stallions reins. The other easily carries her basket for her.

 

“Did you enjoy your introduction into Hampshire society, Your lordship?” Iris can’t help but ask him with mirth creeping into her voice and on her smile.

 

He turns his head to look at her. “The sheer amount of handsome and accomplished young ladies hereabouts is staggering.” He comments with dry humour. “I wonder if this isn’t the most accomplished county in all of England.” He states.

 

Iris finds herself smiling. Every desperate mother worth her salt last night would be crowing her daughters praise to high heaven. Enough to induce the possibility that her very accomplished, pretty and upstanding daughter might have a chance at landing him.

 

“Mothers can be so very domineering when the subject of marriage arises.” Iris promises. Looking down to step over a particularly frosty puddle.

 

Kylo looks across at her. Watches her profile. Along the curve of her nose and the swell of her smiling lips. It occurred to him then, that she didn’t know of her beauty. She was not aware of its potency. He could sense it; this was a girl who overlooked her own worth and highly underestimated her attractiveness.

 

With her pebble-ash eyes shining in the marigold sun like that, sparkling as if made of moonstone gems, and her rosy smile so unguarded and free. She didn’t see her beauty then. Not the way he could. Didn’t see it lay in the kiss of pink in her cheeks or the merriment of her face. On the geniality of her laugh and smiles.

 

“I know I shouldn’t comment on such things. But I do feel so dearly for every new suitor who comes to this village. Every Mama and every daughter must veritably drown poor men with their female offspring.”

 

Kylo raises one brow. “Rest assured. I’m not a man so inclined to favour polite safe conversation.” He promises her. He doesn’t tiptoe around propriety.

 

“And I will admit I lost count of the young ladies I was introduced too last eve. My ears were quite ringing with names and sickly smiles by the end of the evening.” He confesses.

 

She smiles wide again. Looks across. “I do sometimes wish that the people here could look beyond the scope of their own ignorance. To look beyond the defining goal of matrimony.” She confesses.

 

“Why should a woman’s worth be tied onto who she weds? Can she not be her own person and find a man to suit that.” She avows. Letting her stalwart brain run away with her rather passionate mouth.

 

“That’s very forward thinking of you.” Kylo says to her with a kind smile. Her face falls. She’s inspired insult with that comment.

 

She’s flushing with embarrassment.

 

“Mother would faint if she heard me confess that to you. Do forgive me, for the impertinence of my tongue.” She begs. Face wrinkling into a worried frown.

 

“You have a mind. Miss Ashton.” Kylo says. “It’s entitled to make itself known.”

 

“I’m a gently bred, unmarried, woman. And the eldest daughter, Lord Ren. My mind should be silent at all times. And possessed only, night and day, by thoughts and longing for matrimony.” She says. Quoting one of her mother’s rants.

 

“Well. You have my word. I’m most blessedly glad it’s not.” He says. Turning to look deep into her eyes.

 

She seems curiously confused. “You are?”

 

“Indeed.” He answers plainly.

 

“It means you are the one woman in this entire county with whom I can conduct a refreshing conversation. One that doesn’t revolve around reminding me again and again, that I’m a rich man who desperately needs a wife.” He offers.

 

“I’m glad to hear it.” Iris says laughing. “Not often I happen find someone on the same page as myself.”

 

“English men may find your so called ‘impertinence’ intolerable, Miss Ashton. For they were raised to know no better. But I am not a English man. Where I came from, it is applauded that a woman might speak her mind and have judgements and executions of her own.” He supplies.

 

“Our way of life here must seem so strange and strict to an outsider.” She dares. The defining pinnacle of English country society was its savage nature, after all.

 

“I don’t see much of the society in Bavaria.” He explains. “I see to the welfare of tenants on my land. I go hunting every season to pass the time. I’m afraid I rarely indulge in attending parties and balls.” He tells.

 

“A castle must be an incredible home.” She guesses.

 

“Even so- it can be very limiting being confined to it in the cold dark winters. Very little company. Little to entertain. I found myself wanting a change of scene. I had looked for some land opportunity’s to enclose in over here. When Hellford became available. It seemed a good opportunity to travel. Sink my teeth into a new venture.” He smarts. Eyes darkly roaming over her face with that handsome smile.

 

She nods. “I quite understand.” Erland clops alongside them in the misty morning sunshine. Snorting breaths silver and wispy still in the biting air.

 

“What are the winters like in Bavaria?” She enquires.

 

He smiles. “Beautiful. But bitter.” He explains. “The snow can be deep. As tall as me some days when it falls.” She smiles at his description.

 

“The castle stands out of a tall pine forest. A lake and a river to the east. One of the biggest woods in the country. Full of wolves, boars, and deer. It’s quite a wilderness in its own right.”

 

“Goodness- wolves. Isn’t that terribly dangerous?” She frets.

 

Not as much as me. He thinks. Matter of fact, when he steps foot in that forest, he is the most bloodthirsty dangerous animal in it.

 

“The beasts respect the boundary of my castle. I respect the forest is theirs. It’s a symbiotic relationship.” He tells her.

 

“Surrounded by wolves. You must feel very at home here too, then.” She jokes.

 

He laughs. “There’s something familiar I grant. Though the wolves back home don’t don lace caps and thrust all their daughters at me.”

 

She laughs at his remark. And suddenly, she goes spinning off course. Her worn boots slipping on a sneaky patch of frost and ice. No grip to their soles in this devilish cold. A yelp leaves her mouth as she skids. Blood flashing flushing hot and terrible suddenly. The shock of slipping stabbing at her stomach.

 

He acts quick. He lets go of Erland’s reins and steps that big form forwards and snatched one arm out to grab her. Slips back around her waist, cups the back of her hip, and yanks her tight to him to stop her falling.

 

She gasps and trembles as her vision spins, to be quickly halted by a sheer wall of cold, dark clad muscle. She barely registers where she is now.

 

Because she’s pressed right up into Lord Ren’s redoubtably firm chest. Her palms crushed flat on his lapels. His arm seizing her back and cupping her onto him to stop her slipping. She can feel under her coat how her breasts are crushed flat to him. Can feel his breathing heaving up and down, much like her own.

 

A shaky gasp leaves her mouth as she looks up, peering past the peak of her bonnet with flaming cheeks. Realising that they are slanted very close together. His face is right there, and he’s gazing down at her.

 

She’s in his arms. Buried into his chest. And it feels incredible. Such musculature and sheer masculine mass under her palms. Her head swims. He’s dizzying. Hypnotising.

 

Eyes as dark as burnt-ember molasses flecked with gold, and his lips look so invitingly pink ripe and soft- she curses at herself for that treacherous thought and her blush rises more. His wool coat and cologne nearly smacks her in the nose as she almost collided into his pectorals.

 

Kylo can hear her fluttering heartbeat. Like a racing preys pulse beating wild. Frail and fast, like a baby birds. A huge drift of her fragrance absolutely drowns him, pulls him under. Clary sage, French lavender and peppermint. Sweet and calming. Addictive. He wants to lean down and taste the salt of it off her neck...

 

It seems an eternity passes before he speaks.

 

“Are you hurt?” He asks. Making sure she didn’t turn one of her ankles. Or damage the bone

 

“T-Thankyou. I’m, I’m well.” She gasps. “I’m so sorry- I” She explains moving her hands down off his chest. He nearly swept her up off her feet. Now only her tiptoes brush the icy ground. The only part of her barely rooted to earth. Lost in those eyes.

 

Domineering, commanding, brutal, eyes. Eyes that had seen this world ten times over. But never gazed upon anything comparable to her-

 

Erland brings them both back down to earth. Snorting and fussing. Swishing his tail and nudging his nose at his masters shoulder.

 

Sense swims back through the fog of attraction and the heady bloom of lust. Kylo unleashes her back and her hip from his hold.

 

Quite liking the feel of her he accidentally - and literally - caught underneath her coat. The plump of her thighs and the shapely flesh of her hip and her bottom. There’s doubtless a figure to rival Venus herself, under this shapeless coat and thin dress. She slowly drags her hands off his chest and steps back. Avoiding the ice beneath her toes. Her gloves rasp on his fine wool coat.  

 

“You fell. Miss Ashton. No need to be sorry for such a thing.” He tells her.

 

“You’ve a steady hand, Lord Ren.” She compliments. Thanking him further. He still held her basket in the arm that had not reached out to catch her. He looked as if he barely had to flex out an arm to catch her. Just twisted his body. His reflexes were sharp and cunning. As strong as he was.

 

He reached out and retook Erland’s reins.

 

They continue walking carefully along the little lane. For Westwell is just beyond the tree line now. It saddens her that she’ll be home soon.

 

Back to her daily chores. Back to scrubbing curtains, and helping cook roll pastry and mediating the silly shouting screeching arguments that Posy and Flora have over who gets to take turns to wear their favourite bonnet

 

She reflects how restoring it is to talk to someone so fully - without having to watch or guard her tongue. It’s even more enlightening to talk to someone such as him. Someone who, like her, feels like an outsider. Never fully fits in. And harbouring no desire too.

 

She feels her heart sink, morbid mournful and grey settling in her ribs, when they come to the meagre gateway along the short drive to Westwell. The twin stone pillars signifying the gateway were old and crusted with frosted moss.

 

Kylo calls Erland to halt. She pats the wonderful beasts strong shoulder in goodbye. He rubs the great velvet plain of black his forehead at her. Kylo untied her basket and handed it to her.

 

“I’d have no hesitation in seeing you to the door directly. But I fear your mother might see fault with our being left unchaperoned.” He disclosed. Giving her back the groaning full wicker basket with a clever grin.

 

She shivers when their hands brush. If she had any doubts in her attraction, that betraying little Judas of a tingle that thrashed her body, made her realise otherwise.

 

She likes him-

 

“Astute observation, your lordship. I Thankyou for your discretion.” She blushes. Hooking the baskets back on her arms. Adjusting the shawl where it had slipped down from her shoulders.

 

She looks down into her basket, and smiles. “A token of gratitude.” She explains before handing over the still warmed bag of chestnuts across to him.

 

He cradled them in his leather gloved hand. Appreciative of the gift. He rarely ate food. There wasn’t much need for it and it wasn’t the manna that’s sustained him. He had little joy in any human sustenance - apart from humans themselves.

 

When he did eat food, it was red meat that was still rare, juicy, and dripping blood. And he only drank sharp deep red wine.

 

He reaches over and took her hand. Once again dropping Erland’s reins. He took her dainty hand and brought it up and bows to kiss her palm.

 

He’s tired of satin and calfskin under his lips. He rather wanted to grasp a taste of her skin. Soon.

 

“Always a pleasure, Miss Ashton. I hope the experience of your company repeats itself shortly.” He compliments.

 

She smiles, apples of her cheeks creasing dimples with her widened smile. She nods politely and curtseys. “Your Lordship.” She curtseys gently. Bonnet tipping forwards. Criminally covering that beautiful face of hers.

 

She turns and he watches her walk up the pale lane to home. Sun striping through the trees onto her bleached linen white skirts. Bleached by sunshine. And softly scented of fresh cotton and French lavender.

 

Miss Ashton is made up of good intentions and possesses a giving heart as pure as gold. Pure. That’s his little dove all over-

 

He looks down in his hand and weighs the small bag of nuts she’d gifted him. He lifts it to his nose and inhales their scent. Buttery, sweet, burnt and acrid.

 

He tips his eyes back up to watch her. Thought creases up his brow. He’ll never know how it is to have such a virtue as a kind heart.

 

She was made up of honour and purity and softness. Doves feathers, lavender and rose petals. And he is made of cruelty. Of war and broken glass and shards of steel. He was made between ash and snow and a landscape soaking swimming festering in blood. 

There’s no kindness in him. No mercy. Barely any love in him either. 

 

He cares little for humans. After he was turned. That’s just how he became. They became meaningless specs of nothing to him. She has no idea what he is- who he is- he’s sent entire scores and countries of men shrieking to their deaths and writhing in agony into hell, cursing his name on their lips.

 

And here she was handing him this little harmless gift, like he wasn’t one of the most fearsome beasts put on this earth.

 

She’s not far away when she turns back - just as he’s about to mount Erland to ride back to Hellford Park once more. He tucks her meaningful present into his coat pocket.

 

“Erland... Is that a Bavarian name?” She turns and asks curiously. A kind frown on the lintels of her eyebrows. She tilts her head curiously. Her grey eyes glitter innocently off the sun like honey poured onto slate.

 

She’s so innocent. And it strikes him so deeply right then. How much he admires that.

 

He hoists himself into the saddle using the pommel. Feet slipping in the stirrups. Hips resting back onto the cantle behind him.

 

“It is a Norse name.” He calls to her. Erland is whinnying excitedly. Stomping his hooves to get out to the open fields and get his blood pumping. Kylo can feel the excitement shivering through his stocky legs.

 

“What does it mean?” She seeks.

 

“In old Nordic tongue, I believe it means ‘Outsider.’” He tells her.

 

She smiles. “Well. I trust you both know you have atleast one friend in this Hampshire county.” She smiles.

 

“Good day, Lord Ren.” She beams brightly. She turns away and she’s already missing the gaze of those melting cocoa eyes appraising her warmly.

 

Her skin still thrashes from the memory of his touch. All over her skin is alive with the memory of that strength of his. His chest under her hands she’s never felt the like- he was as cold and solid as marble. Some Greek god manifested out of carved stone and come to life.

 

He turns Erland back onto the snowy road. Clicks his tongue and urges him to run with a sharp dig of his shoe into his side. He feels the ice and the wind sting his skin for all the ride home.

 

He thinks about her parting gift and her touch against his body for the rest of the day - truly he does. It’s moved him.

 

He hasn’t been moved so much by another being in all of his years.

 

 

 

~

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Not two days later and the Ashton’s are bid to the Phillips to dine.

 

They are all in Westwell’s meagre foyer. Mother is fussing with Fathers cravat knot. Posy and Flora are fighting over who gets sole use of the looking glass. They tease at the spilling curls of their hair, they pinch at their cheeks to make them pinker.

 

They’d already been scrapping all afternoon over who got to wear Iris’s sapphire earrings. Their screeches rang like sharp little butterflies all throughout the house. Posy won the battle for the gems in the end of all things. Iris stayed well out of it. She bid good fortune to the winner.

 

She’s dressed tonight in another one of her ‘’matrimony inducing’ gowns. According to her mother. But she won’t deny it is a very pretty piece. It sits daintily rasped just off her shoulders, with three-quarter length sleeves. Indian silk fabric, the colour of dusky robin egg blue. It makes her hair look more brilliant, according to their local dressmaker, as she flapped swatches around Iris’s ears to help her mother make a choice.

 

The neckline at the back drapes low to a row of matching blue buttons marching down her spine. Julia helped tease the teal silk ribbon Posy secured her, into her low done coiffure. Which sat braided and low at the back of her neck. Silver pins shining among the tumble of her dark hair.

 

This wasn’t a ball and she could gladly forgo gloves. She’s wearing pearl drops from her earlobes. And mother insisted on a draping necklace around her throat. Simple silver necklace. With an oval aquamarine beryl, and a freshwater pearl dropping off it. It sits low in her clavicle and mother ensured the cut of her dress was low. Drawing attention to Iris’s shoulders and her comely bosom.

 

She does as she’s bade - as ever. She steals a second in the mirror to check her coiffure. Now Posy and Flora are by the door, arguing over slippers and slipping the dainty things on their feet. Spitting fury at each other.

 

Iris toys with her hair just for a second in the glass. At the wispy muddy bits that curl in front of her ears. She plucks them out of the hair arrangement. Aswell as one gentle curl down the nape of her neck. She lets it rest there. Clasping delicately at her skin.

 

The care-worn face of her beleaguered father appears behind her in the looking glass reflection. With his greying rust hued hair, his squared fashionable sideburns and his tired, deep eyes the colour of jade marble.

 

He loosens the linen knot his wife had just pinched tighter around his neck. His eyes warm like a sun baked green meadow when he peers at his eldest. Wrinkles bunch and crease at his eyes and at his mouth when he smiles. He had such a ruddy, open face.

 

“You look very well tonight my dear.” He comments softly. Tugging at his tight collar. Fixing his green velvet lapels. Iris smiles at her father.

 

He always was the gentle backbone of encouragement to her. Never once raised his voice to her. He never seemed to grow angry or vexed. Or have a swing of a temper. Those nasty sharp attitudes belonged solely and respectively to her mother. She’s the one who shouts and snipes. Father remains taciturn.

 

“Thankyou, papa.” Iris beams at him. Turning around as he handed her, her indigo blue cloak. Iris seemed to be the one he favoured. Posy and Flora have slithers of acerbity in their temperaments, like mama. Iris seemed to flourish after his more witty and lenient nature.

 

She brushes the lapels of his bottle green jacket down. Eyed the fraying seam that’s been stitched up in his shoulder. The faded linen of his shirt. It almost makes her want to go through with this marital farce that’s being forced so thoroughly upon her.

 

“You look very handsome tonight too, might I add.” She smiles. Adjusting his cravat for him. Loosening it from the choking noose mother had tied. “I know how little you care for the Phillips.” Iris smiles thankfully. Not letting mama hear.

 

“Mrs Phillips is most agreeable. Her husband however? Most odious man alive. It seems all he can converse about is how cumbersome the grouse is this season.” He relents quietly.

 

“I deem it unwise to try and escape the acquaintance now. Mama would quite have a fit.” Iris supposed. Hushing quietly as she soothes down the points of his collar.

 

He gives her a sober smile of agreement. His conduct and his temper always so agreeably timid. Humble. Like waves breaking on the dashed sharp rocks. Always yielding.

 

She finishes with his coat and he goes to pick up his hat from the stand in the foyer, nestled by the front door. Julia is just helping Mama shrug on her coat. And pin her purple and black trimmed shako hat on securely.

 

She harshly jerks her calfskin black gloves up her wrists with tugging severely sharp motions. Her coat is trimmed with the same onyx and lilac as that of her hat. And her dress beneath is a punchy lavender mauve. And she’s wearing her black lace fichu around her neck in a matronly manner.

 

Posy and Flora have gone for their best washed silk dresses. Trussed up like twins. Posy is in a muted sage-emerald. And Flora has gone for a waxy and humble tulip-orange. Both have a white lace trim at the waist from the new Belgian lace they bought. Dainty white slippers and stockings on their feet.

 

“We must go now. The dratted carriage better be here soon, or else we’ll be late.” Mama snaps. Fussing with her coiffure. Issuing orders to the maid after their departure.

 

If Iris was lucky enough to be spared this outing? And be in their positions. She knows where she’d be. Curled up in the oak farmhouse chair in the kitchen, book in hand, with a cup of chocolate nearby as she warms her toes near the stove.

 

As it is; she’s off for an evening of white soup by candlelight, strict conversation and a dazzling staggering show of the Phillips wealth. One that will grind mama’s teeth that they can’t compete with such affluence. And one that will have Flora, Posy, and father bored to tears within minutes. Wanting to gouge their eyes out with the ivory soup spoons for something to do.

 

Iris will not have the time to be bored; she will have to comport herself and display her loveliness to every eligible man in attendance.

 

She is at the door pulling on her warm gloves when Posy and Flora skip happily up to their elder sister. Posy sing-songs something about Lord Ren. “Maybe your suitor is invited tonight, Iris?” She teases.

 

Iris levels her a look. Father turns around with his solid brow shooting up to his hairline. “I didn’t know you had a suitor, my dear?” He supposed kindly.

 

Iris jams an elbow into Posy’s ribs. “That’s because I do not have one-” She insists blithely. Growling intemperately at her pest of a sister.

 

“She does! She does Papa! And she’s smitten.” Flora speaks up. The little tick. Iris tries to swat at her with her gloves.

 

“You say this about any man who so much as glances in her direction. Posy.” Mother says. Stepping past them all.

 

“We should be so lucky that one of them might form an attachment.” Mother mutters under her breath. Fixing her cuffs and stepping out the front door to see the carriage drawing up ready to escort them all to the Phillips’.

 

Iris shares a look of teeth gritting annoyance and forbearance with her father. Who pats her shoulder and gives her one of his crinkly smiles of comfort.  She steps up into the cold box of the carriage via the step. Shoving herself far across on the bench.

 

Posy and Flora ram themselves onto the same bench with Iris. Sharp little elbows and knees digging into their sister; complaining of the lack of room they had. Mother and Father sat opposite. Not speaking. Which was their normality. Her sisters squawks and fusses more than aptly filled the silence.

 

It’s not long before her mother starts speaking at her father about the household gossip of the day. She seldom expected him to respond.

 

“Simpson told me today we must hire a new pair of hands for seasonal work up at the farm soon. We can not afford such an expense and reliable staff is so hard to come by in winter. I heard the Norris’s lost one of their farm hands just last night...”

 

Iris tries to pay attention over Posy and Flora’s inane squabbles about their washed silk embroidered shawls. Posy has lost hers yet again- Flora was the suspected thief.

 

“Apparently they found the man not five paces from the local tavern in the ditch. He’d drunk a skinful and then got run down by a coach. The fool...” She comments. Iris turns to look at her parents.

 

“That is unfortunate. Poor fellow.” Father remarks in a detached manner.

 

“Mrs Bishop wrote to me today too. And according to her, a manservant in her employ has gone missing. Her hall boy. And another labourer from Milton Farm was found just this morning in the woods outside Pembleton. Frozen stiff with cold, reeking of Gin, and he’d been attacked for the coins in his pocket. I honestly don’t know what this world is coming too. Really I don’t.” She remarks.

 

Iris doesn’t know why. But a coiling slither of a snake wraps around her spine and squeezes.

 

She shivers. And more worryingly, she can’t go about placing exactly why...

 

“Perhaps a wild animal is loose hereabout these parts?” Father speculated. Uninterested.

 

Mother harrumphed a snort of displeasure. “I say men who fall afoul of too much drink deserve everything they get. It’s simply not decent.” She says snappily. Sniffing loftily. Hands crossed in her lap. Brushing imaginary sullying specs off her skirts.

 

Because of course she’s the type of woman who thinks insobriety and being lost to drink rightfully deserves being torn to pieces.

 

“I do hope they don’t invite Mrs Norris tonight. She’s such a trying woman. And her daughter is such a useless untalented chit.” Mother says to herself. Posy and Flora hop on into the gossip.

 

Iris watches out the window. She admires up on the smudged glow of the full moon. Sat pearly and proud in a sky netted full of of bursting white stars. So cold. So beautiful. Untouchable. Shrouding the dark world in silver from miles and leagues and scores away. She can’t understand how people don’t see beauty in this.

 

It may be a cold, pallid light. But she doesn’t think so. It’s the misty magical cyclops of the night sky. The governing beauty. The crowning keystone of it, in her view. Chariot of pearl.

 

She lapses into simply watching the night woodland pass by. The shadowed gnarled trees curling up to the heavens. Snow and frost still biting the air. It was thawing somewhat. But it’s not vanished just yet. It still crawls up the trees and lurks at the hard ground.

 

They arrive at the Phillips modest Manor House. Not two miles outside Pembleton. A most pretty house. Abutting the lane leading directly up next to the small local chapel.

 

There’s pink rosevines dead in winter, but still smothering most of the front of the white stone house. A modest Georgian manor of thirty rooms. Windows big and square and shining gold onto the gravelled drive that their coach crackles and shifts over as they arrive. Chimneys proudly blaze smoke. And the place looks merry and set on welcoming guests to a delightful dinner.

 

The Ashton’s are seen inside by the astute white wig clad butler. He takes their coats to the cloakroom, gives them to the footmen. And then shows them to the drawing room, the main parlour, where everyone is gathering. Fireplace making the room stuffy.

 

Candlelight drips apricot blaze of every wall. The parlour is furnished in trims of green and cream. Trimmed with luxurious velvet. Large gilded gold terrace doors overlook the frosty manicured gardens. Mrs Phillips does so love her tea roses. The air in the garden chokes with them even in this deadening winter.

 

They all graciously curtsey and bow to their hosts. Mama sits with Mrs Phillips and the other elder matrons. Mrs Phillips sits with her little toy poodle in her lap.

 

The fluffy little thing drowning under the weight of a ridiculous big pink silk bow tied at its neck. Papa begrudgingly folds his hands behind his back and gets beckoned over for a glass of port with Mr Phillips. He sends a look of dismay at his eldest.

 

Posy and Flora sit and gossip with their friend. Primrose Phillips. Their daughter. Iris stands alone. She wanders to admire the painting hung up by the terrace doors.

 

She leans closer, admiring the dark tones of the painting. The brushwork and the detail of the of the still life captured. A case of flowers. It’s very remarkable. She wished her parents appreciated such art over austere sketches of county churches.

 

Her spine suddenly alights with thrashing hot nerves. Like she’s been scorched by a candle flame and had the burn soothed straightaway with ice. It’s sharply powerful.

 

She turns where she had her back to the fireplace and all the gossiping Mama’s. Her breath catches just a little at the sight of Lord Ren filling the white parlour doorway.

 

Coming to bid his hosts a good evening. And his thanks at the invite. Mrs Phillips genially flatters the big man. He towers over all the elegant ladies sat down on their settees like some huge tall dark tree she imagines standing in some foreign forest. Massive and wide. Struck by lightning. Charred to dark cinders.

 

His eyes gaze downwards, and his jaw grits as Mrs Phillips ineffectual little lap dog starts emitting a low yappy growl. Snarling at the sable haired Lord.

 

It’s pathetic little maw pulling back over it’s tiny blunt slobbering teeth that gnash at him. Kylo raises a brow and looks down at the fetid creature.

 

He spears a slicing glance right at it for barely a second and then it’s cowering away.

 

Whimpering into its mistresses lap. Burying its head into her armpit and cowering. She’s cooing and fussing the awful snappy little thing. Promising it a plate of sweet meats, and a saucer of warm milk.

 

“I do so apologise, Lord Ren. Such a contrary creature. For my Puffin is never usually so shy of strangers.” She offers in her pitchy high voice. Almost as squeaky as that of her dog.

 

Hugging the intemperate thing and bouncing it in her lap, coddling it like a firstborn baby. Big silk rosebud bow fluttering in the air. Ugly scrunched up little face and nose of it hiding from him. The dog recognised now who the alpha in this room was.

 

Kylo tilts up a fleeting corner of his mouth in an attempt at a courteous smile.

 

“It’s nothing to apologise for, Ma’am. I am often cursed myself, with the same affliction of being wary of strangers.” He says in good humour. Making the ladies all titter laughter.

 

Iris blushes when he looks away from them and nods his bowed parting. Turns to look across to her. Focuses. Vision concentrated solely on her.

 

Those onyx gems of eyes settle on the back of that neck of hers. Slice into her. Lingering along the dip of the material that skimmed her fine shoulders and spilled down her shoulder blades.

 

His gigantic frame is not subtle in striding a swathe across the candle lit parlour. Coming straight to her. Making no secret about who he favours. Opening them both up to the speculation of the whole room-

 

He doesn’t care not even one bit.

 

The cool shade of him passes over her shoulder. Her cheeks flushed and she turns and politely curtseys to him. A politely soft “Lord Ren.” Leaves her lips. She feels the hair on the back of her neck raise a little in excitement. Bristling to stand like needles.

 

He smirks. His kind were the reasons humans had that tingling gut sense. That primal indicator of visceral fear. The hairs on the back of the neck existed solely for the simple reason that blood lusting creatures, demons, such as him walked this earth. She should learn to trust in those instincts more.

 

Danger present more than ever. For now, there’s a devil at her shoulder.

 

“Miss Ashton.” He greets simply. Hands composed behind his back. Big chest swells again. No part of this man is small. Every muscle is a huge slab, big and brutally built. Long strong plains of him at every turn.

 

He takes her hand and kisses it. He’s not wearing gloves. Neither is she. His hands are ice- must be the cold out of doors, she thinks.

 

Their bare hands touch for the first time. Skin on skin.

 

It’s electrifying. Sparks skip and shimmer through them.

 

He bites back a growl as he finally finally finally gets a nose full of her bare skin. Touches her hand. His nose nuzzles her flesh for a second.

 

Just one scant second. And then he has to enforce every shred of willpower he owns and knows, in order to pull away.

 

She’s as exquisite as he dreamt. As he lusted about. Her skin is the most dangerous thing about her. Because it’s the hardest thing he’s had to do to resist tasting more of it. The gorgeous scent and the salt of the bare skin. Hint of spicy lavender. Chalky bergamot soap she used. The fragrance of silk on her skin.

 

Bewitching. Her scent sends a tremor through his usually dead spine.

 

Tonight his garb as is midnight ink dark as it usually is. Velvet black waistcoat. Obsidian breeches and shining proud boots and brushed overcoat. With a cream cravat and a white shirt. Like the full moon out in that black sky tonight. Pearl trim backed with sable. His cravat diamond pin glitters - oddly enough - like a far off star.

 

If he looks like a winters sky shrouded by a pearly moon. She looks the opposite. Her blue dress is the colour of the brightest searing shade of a summers sky. Her eyes made brilliant by it. And he likes the silk blue ribbon tumbled prettily into her hair. Like some stream trickling through a golden meadow on a midsummers eve.

 

“If I may say, how beautiful you look tonight. Miss Ashton.” He smiles. Hands folded back once more. His wide chest puffing out freely. His intimidating size at its usual ferocity.

 

She feels her cheeks heat a little more. “Thankyou your, Lordship.” She flusters. “I’m sure I deserve no such meaningful praise. It is only a plain silk dress.” She dismisses.

 

“Made striking by she who wears it.” He insists. She smiles at her feet. Diverting the attention.

 

“How is that big beautiful horse of yours?” She asks nicely. He smirks a little. His eyes are charcoal-honey from the the nearby candlelight. He likes her enquiry.

 

“He is very well. Misbehaving himself plenty. And nearly threw me yesterday on account of mutiny and protest for want of more carrots.” He jokes.

 

Oh dear.” She laughs. “I seem to have caused dissension in your own stables.” She apologised. Sorry he almost got hurt.

 

“He shouldn’t be too perturbed at me. I’m the only one who rides him out.” He offers.

 

“I should like to ride more. We only have the two horses on the farm and they are often reserved for use in labour out in the fields. And there always seems far too many errands stacked against me to indulge in the pastime.” She tells.

 

“Then I must beg you come over and use Erland as much as you should wish to. He is rather fond of you. And Hellford is a vast estate of which ride on. I should be delighted it gets use beyond someone other than myself.” He offers.

 

“I thank you for the invitation. I’ve never fully seen all of Hellford.” She explains. “Only the front parlour and that was very long ago. I was only a little girl then.”

 

“You must come again and honour it with another visit.” He concludes.

 

“Hellford’s grounds are very handsomely kept. The rose gardens are exquisite. And there’s 4 acres of woodland with plenty of good riding routes. I’d be vastly happy to show you them, any time you should like.” His smile tipped a little at the corners. Breaking up the stoicism of his usually stern scowl.

 

“That’s very kind. As long as you are sure it won’t interrupt any of your business endeavours.” She offers politely.

 

“My business was concluded days ago. I’m most happily and currently at my own leisure.”

 

She smiles in agreement. “That must be so relaxing.”

 

Iris wished she had one day whereby she could be at her own peace. Do as she liked. Go wherever she wanted and not have anyone else’s expectations hanging over her like heavy nimbuses.

 

“It has its merits.” He smiles lightly down at her. Before his eyes flicker to the painting over her shoulder that she was admiring.

 

“There’s even a Velasquez in the foyer at Hellford. Just begging to admired by appreciative eyes.” He adds. Her face lights up.

 

“I’ve never seen a real Diego Velasquez in person. Only pictures from books in my fathers study.” She says in amazement.

 

“His ‘Los Barrochos’ hangs in my hallway.” Kylo says with a hint of pride. “Now you simply have to visit, to come see it. Purely on unselfish grounds, Miss Ashton. Just for the arts sake.” He smarts.

 

She smiles back. Apples of her cheeks pinking up again. “I would be delighted. No art should go unappreciated after all. You’re quite correct.” She smiles with good natured levity.

 

His eyes gleam almost warmly, with wickedly pleased satisfaction. Crushed charcoal and honey of his eyes are captivating to look into. To drown in. That’s exactly what she does.

 

Across the parlour, where a whole gaggle of mama’s and daughters are watching the room, speculating about it. They weren’t aware, but many eyes were glued to Iris and Lord Ren.

 

Posy and Flora shared a pleased giddy look that the first time they’ve actually seen the severe man almost lets a smile crack his marble statue façade, and it’s because of their sister.

 

“I think your dear Iris may have caught the biggest, richest prize in the pond. Mrs Ashton.” Mrs Phillips says with a smug proud expression, leans towards Iris’s mother and gently taps her hand. They were fond companions after all. Mrs Phillips other podgy hand, laden with pearl brackets and fat gemstone rings, was fondly stroking at Puffin’s ears now he’s calmed down.

 

Caroline looks across at her eldest as she converses with Lord Ren. A slight frown crinkles her brow.

 

“She would do vastly well to land a Lord.” Miss Smith Interjects. Sat on Caroline’s immediate right.

 

She was a willowy woman. Figure like many twigs glued together. Gawky face. Beak of a long nose that she took great delight in shoving into business that was not her own. She was a harmless woman really. The general village busy body, and a spinster at three and fifty. Another close confidant and friend in the gossip vine for Caroline Ashton.

 

“For Hellford is such a handsome house. Biggest land holding in all the county... Think what a lucky girl she would be to be mistress of it!” Miss Smith adds. Giggling in excitement like a young girl.

 

Mrs Phillips steals another glance at the handsome couple. “They do make a fine pair. For she’s fairly handsome and he’s rich. Their children would be such darling things. Very dark colouring. But I fear he’s not to everyone’s taste...Something very, prohibitive, about his manner that I cannot place.” She decides.

 

“I heard he takes little joy in anything. It is most odd.” Miss Smith agrees with their host most eagerly.

 

“He does not dance. He barely drinks. His conversation is little and dry. And beyond the sport of his estate he rarely circulates in society. That must the foreign way of things in Bavaria.” Miss Smith sniffs with disdain. Turning her nose up at the merest intimation of something foreign.

 

“Foreign and continental European manners are certainly nothing to admire.” Mrs Phillips declares. The ladies three then look at the young couple again.

 

Mmmm. I would suspect that an attachment is starting to bloom thereabouts...” She adds cunningly. As casually as if she was looking out her window and deciding the weather.

 

“If they do marry. One can’t doubt the match would indisputably fine. But we would rarely see her if she marries a man so limited from the ton... what a cruelty that would be on her! Not to mention his estate is in Bavaria. What a grave loss she would be to us all.” Mrs Phillips croons sadly.

 

Caroline looks over to her daughter. Where the shadow of the inexcusably large man and his dark shade looms over her. They are conversing quietly and genially with each other. If she’s not mistaken, she spots a brush of pink to Iris’s cheeks.

 

“Indeed. I cannot doubt as fine a proposition as he would be... I would be more greatly comforted by her being settled here. At home. Nearer to us all.” Caroline insists to both her companions.

 

“What about Brendol Hux’s son? Armitage. Wasn’t there a téndre between them some while ago? Now there. Perhaps that may be rekindled to better everyone’s satisfactions?” Miss Smith nods gladly cupping Caroline’s hand. As if Iris’s affairs were her very own to meddle with.

 

“Indeed. I should not wish for poor Iris to marry so high above her dignity. She shouldn’t quit her sphere. Lord Ren should go and find himself an Heiress or a nice Duchess, if he must marry. That would do him well.” Mrs Phillips ultimately decides.

 

Stouton, the excellently precise butler, enters the room and gives a dignified sharp nod to Mrs Phillips. Who announces to the room that dinner is ready. As the highest ranking gentleman in the room, Lord Ren escorts the lady of the house in to dine. Everyone follows in their lead.

 

The dining room is very prettily done in shades of red and gold. The table groans with the amount of polished silverware. Glassware twinkles in the light off the fire and the numerous candles. Air spiced by the silver tiered platters of exotic fruit sitting in the table centre at measures intervals. Deep scent of plums and fleshy red apples gently radiate their sweet scent up the air. Red grapes drip from these rich arrangements.

 

Everyone is seated according to rank and hierarchy. Mrs Phillips crowns the head of the table in her gown of demure blush muslin. Train drifted behind her like a galleon setting sail when the stout portly woman moved.

 

Kylo is placed to Mrs Phillips’ right. Iris is lower down in rank. But she is placed two places opposite him across the finely laid table. Smooth as a square of white marble is the laid linen tablecloth.

 

Mrs Phillips oversees the serving of the white soup. A frothy pallid broth made of veal stock, egg yolks, ground almonds and cream. To be eaten demurely along with the light conversation. Of which is quick to flourish along the table in this bored-rigid country society.

 

Kylo sups down his soup, and he is caught by the change in topics as it shifts. Mr Phillips is speaking up to Mr Ashton about it.

 

“Did you hear that the Norris’s lost one of their farm hands last eve. Just dreadful news...” Mr Phillips croaks up. Shaking his head into his wine glass.

 

Kylo watches Iris innocently turn her head in the conversations intended direction. Two seats down from her. His eyes follow the pretty turn of her head. He tried not to look too closely at the elegant line of her pale throat. Nor at the little drop of red wine that lingered in the corner of her lips.

 

He imagined it dripping its smooth rolling path down her neck. Over that pearl necklace. Only he didn’t exactly imagine it was wine...

 

More people engage in the horrid nature of the conversation. Society being shocked by it. “Where was the Norris’s farm hand found?” Miss Smith piped up. Eager for details. Aghast. Clutching her chest in overdone fright.

 

“Middle of the woods apparantly. He’d run for some time away from whatever terror hunted him. Looked like an animal had set to him something vicious, according to the local magistrate. Poor fool.” Mr Phillips announces morbidly.

 

Ah yes. Kylo remembers the one. The second farm hand he’d feasted on.

 

He’d watched from the shadows as the letch tried to snatch a young maids purse outside the chapel. She’d been coming back from a dance on her own late at night. He’d watched the man grope her with fat wandering meaty hands. Squeezed her bottom and her bosom and terrified her. Told her gruffly he could either take her money or her virginity. Left her sobbing in the dirt and ran off cackling with her purse.

 

Kylo followed his foul stench. Gin and rot of sweat and various vile body odours souring his nose. He wasn’t hard to find.

 

Followed the disgrace of a man deep into the heart of the woods. The idiot soon caught wind of his feral aggressor and ran fleeing. He caught him. And he ripped him to pieces and drank him all down. Was still picking bits of him out his teeth, come to mention it.

 

His tongue idly strokes the front of one of his canines at the memory of it.

 

“Is it man or beast that killed him?” Mrs Phillips asks.

 

“Someone up near Lord Hearst’s estate say that a wolf had been spotted thereabouts lately.”

 

“A wolf!” Miss Smith shrilled. “Oh, good heavens.” She frets. Dramatically dripping her soup spoon.

 

“Do not be uneasy. Miss Smith.” Mr Ashton declares. Patting her hand nicely where he’s sat next to her.

 

“It is folly. Surely. There haven’t been wolves in this country since the Hundred Years’ War.” Mr Ashton declares. “Fret not.”

 

“Of course those are the rumours circulating on the estates. Especially surrounding Hellford.” Mrs Phillips pipes up. Turning her attention to Lord Ren. Many pairs of curious scared eyes swivelled to the man near the head of table, as he took a sip of his red wine.

 

“I’m afraid I cannot offer any consolation nor relay any satisfaction upon the matter. I have seen no such beast on my land, Mrs Phillips. Maybe it is a stray dog... after all...” He trails away. Eating another mouthful of the white soup.

 

“There is always such gossip prone to over exaggerate these things, is there not?” He drawls lowly. His dark eyes flicker up and land in Iris‘s own. His smile smoothly twitches. He couldn’t help it.

 

His meaning scared her. For she did not know it’s intention. His eyes looked different when he remarked upon that. They looked... odd. Like cloud passing over a sunny day. Something then swarmed his eyes. And it looked feral.

 

A shiver rockets down her spine. Makes her breath spurt out ragged and catch in her throat.

 

Posy is sat on Iris’s left and she’s determined not to be left out the conversation. She must have her share in it. “My friend remarked that he heard it was a huge black Wolf with bright yellow eyes the colour of sunflowers.” She remarks.

 

“Posy. I think that may be idle speculation.” Iris insists lightheartedly.

 

Posy frowns stroppily. “I heard it directly from Mary Sampson’s mouth. And she never tells tall tales.” She insists firmly. Iris nods and goes back to eating her soup.

 

“Maybe it’s the work of a mad man?” Miss Smith pipes up worriedly. Iris swore she hears the room collectively heave a sigh of annoyance into their soup spoons.

 

“Some nasty beastly mad man roaming the countryside and cutting people up who come across his path. He might be vicious. What’s next? He could decide to come and murder us in our beds.” She panics pithily. “Cut our throats in the night!!” She says frenziedly.

 

Oh I shall have to get Barlow to put another bolt lock on my bedroom door or I shall never sleep again!” She declares.

 

She did so fuss over the most inconsequential of things. Like the time she swore that the black plague was making a comeback - for she heard her maid sneeze three times in a row one day whilst bringing her tea. She was so prone to hysterics and exaggeration.

 

Kylo wants to roll his eyes at her stupidity. Maybe his next victim should be her- maybe he should slaughter her in her bed. Rid the world of her vapid panicking.

 

Iris smiles gently across at the flustered spinster. “Don’t overexert yourself, Miss Smith. I’m sure it’s just town gossip conjured up with the intention of frightening us.” She soothes.

 

“I’m sure it’s not as evil as it first seems... There may be more reasons as to why they lost their lives.”

 

Kylo does look at her right then. His little dove. Sat there with her brow all creased up with worry for this vapid inconsequential woman.

 

She truly does have a heart of gold.

 

Mrs Phillips speaks up again. “You know I did hear that two of the men were known drunkards. And one of them was found next to a lane. It seemed he wandered into the road after drinking a skinful and was struck by a speeding carriage. Poor soul.” She declares.

 

“And the other man was robbed. Though he was rumoured to be the horrid purse snatcher who lurked around the chapel last week. Some other desperate thief must’ve caused his unfortunate death out of want of his loot. There, there, my dear. All is well.” Mrs Phillips ladled comfort into her friend. Smiling heartily at her.

 

Miss Smith seems to settle down. She nods. Hand clasped dramatically to her chest. Mr Ashton pours her more wine and she takes back great thudding gulps of it.

 

Iris shares another fleeting look with Lord Ren. He smiles delicately at her. Mr Phillips resumes his usual spouting on and on about the grouse season. He ropes Kylo into an invite to come shoot his grouse whenever he pleases. Miss Smith keenly traps the ladies into a conversation about printed cotton.

 

They talk all through the next course about more savoury things. They are served broiled partridges with gravy for the next, and an entire haunch of roasted venison. Cooked to retain just a tinge of pink. And just a slight dribble of ichor when the meat was sliced into. Served with stewed sopping celery drowned in cream. And buttered carrots and boiled potatoes. The food swamped the table in great big heaped portions on silver platters.

 

Kylo was glad they didn’t cook such a rich meat until it was a slab of boiled grey toughness. He tears his sharp teeth into the slices of roast deer and eats his big fill. Licks the iron-copper tinge of blood off his lips. It lightly sates the animal gnawing at his belly. But he needs proper blood.

 

Needs the liquid metal rush of it pouring down his throat and staining his white teeth crimson.

 

The full moon was bringing out his more feral senses. It always does. Gets him restless and baying for blood with a hell of a thirst. The need to feed more intense than ever.

 

As the pudding arrives, Kylo is sipping more claret and letting his suave black gaze wander over to Miss Ashton again. She’s talking to one of her innumerable silly pests of a sister.

 

He lets his eyes stroke along her, and admire her for a second. Such a gaze doesn’t go unnoticed by Caroline Ashton. Down the table she sees Lord Rens gaze linger on Iris- and she wonders...

 

Her reverie is broken by the arrival of pudding. As it was still colder, a steaming great whitepot pudding is served. Bread and butter and cream with currants dotted into the sponge. Flavoured with mace and nutmeg. Alongside this is served a tower of marzipan fruit and cold fruit tartlets. Lots of sugar and whipped cream and strawberries steeped in sugar syrup.

 

Lord Ren does not oblige himself in sweets. He’ll have his fill later. Find some wandering idiot drunk to indulge his true appetites.

 

Evebtually, the ladies separate from the gentlemen. They are left around the table to smoke cheroots, or sip port, as the ladies retire to the parlour for embroidery or gossip.

 

Kylo watches his little dove stand and head away. Smiling demurely at him before she goes. He snatched up every second of it.

 

She turns and walks away, led by her sister. He longs after the nape of her neck as she departs. The pale arch of it kissed by dark twirls of hair.

 

She feels like she can’t breathe until she gets out of the room. She takes a deep breath and wets her lips as they come to the second parlour.

 

Mrs Phillips particular favourite room. For her particular use. Iris can see why; it’s gaudy and decorated to drowning point with rosebud fabrics. Its nature was definitely intended to be ladies room. Draped and stuffed with pink velvety drapes, cream carpets and gold gilded French furniture. Pillows and cushions stuffed onto the settee in blush rose print. Ruffles and flounces and so many more eye-watering trims.

 

Iris feels a little nauseous walking into the sickly sweet room. But she sits dutifully on the settee by the window and sips whatever snifter Mrs Phillips put into her hand. Negus, Iris thinks it might be. A favourite punch at balls. Port mixed with boiled water, nutmeg and sugar syrup. 

 

Mrs Phillips insists something warming helps aid with the digestion. Flora and Posy are feeding little nuggets of sweet meats to Puffin the toy dog as he yips for more. Mother is talking with her matrons again.

 

And Iris is sat looking out at the moon. Candlelight casts up one side of her face. She lets it’s watery gently light wash over her. Listen to the matrons giggling in their corner. And Posy and Flora gossiping with Primrose.

 

She thinks how nice it must be to be entirely thousands of miles away. Alone in the sky. Free of burden. Just being known for casting beautiful light onto the earth.

 

“Pleasant, isn’t she?” Comes a deep voice at her side. Deeper and thicker than oozing warm honey.

 

She smiles. The gentlemen have come in. Fresh from their all male talk and their port and their smoking. Brandy and cheroot smoke sticks to his coat. Though he didn’t imbibe in either. Just more port.

 

Lord Ren is stood by her side again. Arms behind his back in their usual place. Looking up at the very orb of a thing that’s firing his blood. Then he glances downwards and sees the earth-bound mortal form of the woman who does the very same. Only she’s touched on more softer, hidden parts of him.

 

“Such beauty.” She remarks. She tilts her head up at it. “Some remark it is a cold light. But-“

 

“I disagree.” Lord Ren adds. Interjecting. Smiles down at her. When she looks up. The flash of her pale skinned neck and the side of her jaw cast in the moon and the candlelight makes his mouth water. Her eyes are divinely silver. Just like another soul he knows and loves...

 

“There is mystery. For even the moon has her burdens and her secrets. The brightest thing in the sky has the darkest side that’s never revealed to a soul.” He supposed. His eyes catching in hers.

 

She can see by the weighting of his granite eyes. That he means that phrase very deeply.

 

“Much the same as people. I grant. Enigmatic, if they so choose to be.” She says.

 

“Some darker sides of people, Miss Ashton, should never see the light.” He tells her.

 

She feels like he’s speaking from experience. She opens her mouth to ask. But her mother hissing her name and gesturing her over with a spurring-curling motion of her hand, breaks the hypnotic spell his eyes gripped on her.

 

She looks back up at him. He extends a hand to help her up. There’s that thrill of electricity again. Needles up her arm and wracks at her spine.

 

“I think it likely my mother will encourage us home soon. I’ll take my leave of you now.” She says sadly. Though she doesn’t wish too- he feels her sadness and her dread.

 

She curtseys. Bows her neck to him. Dips at her knees. He doesn’t relinquish his gentle clasp of her hand.

 

“Until next time, Miss Ashton.” He drawls low.

 

She dies on the spot when her turns her palm over and presses a kiss to her sensitive weak hand. Holding her fingers with one hand and rubbing his thumb over the spot he just kissed.

 

His lips are devilishly soft and when he looks up at her her spine crumbles. She shivers and he hears it. Her chest flutters a breath with it.

 

“I bid you good evening, Lord Ren. It was a pleasure.”

 

“The pleasure was entirely mine.” He hushes so low. He manages to make his words sound sordid. Rascally and humming deep. So deep her bones rang with it and all her the soft tissue meat of her, quivers.

 

This feels like seduction.

 

Knee weakening seduction. She feels her cheeks beating out unattractive pink heat. Flushed from head to toe. Breath stutters into her pathetic shrivelling lungs. She doesn’t know what this is- what this man is wielding onto her. She’s never felt the likes of it before.

 

She takes her hand from him, drags her eyes from the addictive granite pools of his, and steps aside to go to her mother. As she bade. She feels his eyes on her back as she walks away across the room.

 

She curls her hand into a fist. So she might better preserve the searing memory of his kiss.

 

It’s ridiculous and silly. But she keeps her hand fisted shut the whole way home. Thinks back to the hunger in his eyes and feels flushed whenever she remarks how it sat there- all for her and her alone.

 

 

~

 

 

The whole world seems asleep. When the vampires roam to feed. Kylo swore this whole sleepy county is deaf and dull now. Even the very last scullery maid of every grand house, and kitchen skivvy had extinguished the very last candle hours ago. Night looms thick and bitter.

 

The moon in all her pallid smudgy eminence, still owns the whole sky and blots out the glory of the stars. Gently kissing onto the navy heavens. Kylo has hunted under that very same silver moon.

 

It recharged the restless rough animal in his bloodstream.

 

Tonight, after dining, He took his leave. Took to the woods. Waited. Chased down his prey and drank his fill. Toasting his success under that watery bright light. Left the mangled and twisted body like a mortal offering of a sacrifice to the old gods. Basted the landscape in the blood he didn’t want, watering the icy crusted dirt of the earth. Staining the snow.

 

Humans all went back into the earth at the end. Returned to the mud and soil and rot of where they came from. Decayed to frail dirty bones and that’s all that remains. He was just helping them get there a tad quicker.

 

Crimson blooms down his white shirt and white cravat. It trails down the corner of his mouth and chin until he licks it clean. Sucks up the remains with his fingers til his face is clean. Garnet however is still marring his white square teeth.

 

His eyes are still golder than coin. Fresh off the hunt. Dappled in blood. And he finds himself stepping through the dark-dead, grey wood. To a place that now seemed familiar to him.

 

The house is dark. Every window dull. Even the dormers in the attic where their maids slept, even there all is deathly dark like the eye of a skull. He sets his sights on one bedroom window in particular.

 

Her window was cracked open- and when he gets up to it, silent as a shadow, he sees why. The fire makes her room too muggy. This way the stifling sticky heat had somewhere to escape too.

 

Her curtains are drawn, twitching on the breeze. And the fireplace lit at the end of her bed, across the room in the Morris wallpapered alcove of the hearth, casts the room in amber. As if she’s encased in it. Trapped. Preserved like an item of jewellery in this flamed room.

 

That wasn’t too far away from an accurate description. She is trapped. One day she’ll be sold into marriage by her mother. Then she’ll be trapped by the fetid husband she’s supposed to serve obediently; to wait on hand and foot, and dole out his heir and a spare, like she’s shelling peas.

 

He sneaks his big hand under the crack in the sash window, silently lifts it up and slips inside. Curtains rustle and he leaves them pushed apart to fit through. Steps down onto her windowsill, then onto the floor. His clothes barely make a rasp. His shoes don’t even scrape the whining buckled floorboards.

 

He’s inside, and his golden eyes catch onto the sleeping little dove, huddled up as a lump into the quilts of her bed.

 

Her hair is loose and crumpled around her head. Face turned away from him. Night down slipping off a shoulder. Wispy thin. Like gauzy moth wings. Exposing her chest, the shadowed mounding globes of her breasts. Swelling and falling.

 

He can see the thud of her mortal heart wrack her skin. Pulsing her throat. Thudding out her wrists. Beating that lavender and bergamot soap scent out to his senses. Calling to him. Enslaving him. The creature she could never have a hope to tame.

 

He gazes at her as he rounds the end of the bed. Softly paces around it. She won’t wake. His nature makes highly sure of that. Vampires are after all, darkly magic animals. Predatory too. He can stun his prey the way he wants. The way he needs too. He’ll lull her body into deep sleep like a newborn. Seduce her weak mortal self to bend to his will.

 

He sits on the mattress near her hip. Watching her face sloped peaceful in gentle rest. His blood crusted hands reach out, drying rust caked at his nails, big fingertips slipping over her knuckles where her hand lay down by her side. The other folded across her waist.

 

He strokes along her arm. Watches her rest. Soothes his animosity with the tactile soft of her innocent skin.

 

His fingers travel upwards to her hair. He lifts it off her neck and rakes his fingers through the golden-brown wave of it. It drifts through his fingers like spun bronzed-gold that smells of French lavender.

 

A big wave of heat and perfume of bare skin hits him when he peels her hair away. Warm from where she’s cosily snuggled into her pillow.

 

He moans desperately. Like a wounded animal. The most gut-wrenching sob falls out his mouth.

 

He can’t help it. Moth to a flame. He’s drawn across the bed until his lips hit at her skin. Tracing the jugular in her throat. He tremors with need. From being within the barest millimetre of being able to taste her warm skin. That manna sent from heaven, put on this earth for him alone to savour.

 

“What in gods name are you doing to me, little dove?” He gasps. His speech muffled into her skin. He kisses at her hot throat and growls low in his when he feels her blood beat under his tongue.

 

This close to her- and he didn’t want to tear open her throat with the white knives of his sharp teeth. She’s worth more than that.

 

Oh, he knew she’d taste so sweet to feast on. He just knows it. She will. She’ll taste like thick honey and coins and sugared copper.

 

“You take me so beyond any lust or any need I’ve ever felt in my entire life.” He promises to her.

 

He’s still close. Kissing hot embraces of butterfly kisses at her neck. Gold eyes glittering so stark in the blue and amber half light of her bedchamber. Like yellowed cats eyes.

 

“What is this?” He asks her. “What I feel for you- how does it never stop?...” He begs to know. Begs to be shown clarity over this force.

 

His chest brushes into hers where she lays on the bed. He kisses up to her jaw. His adoring fingers skim over her cheek. Finding her cheekbone and trailing along its shape under her tender skin.

 

He kisses her jawbone and moans again. Hum of his deep voice soaking trembling into her skin from his hot blooded mouth. Copper souring in his tongue and teeth.

 

“I so long to kiss you.” He aches for it. Aches so deep it’s a physical pain in his gut. He groans, hard already at the merest thought of it. And that was just at tasting her mouth-

 

“But I want you awake and willing in my arms when I kiss you for the first time. I’ll have you trembling and weak for me. Now I just have to wait to be able to taste those pretty lips.” He whispers onto her chin.

 

Adores her face like this whilst he can. Top of his nose presses under her jaw and he takes a deep breath of her neck, whimpering with need.

 

He pants into her neck once more. “Sleep well. Little dove.”

 

He strokes her cheek kisses it one last time before he tears himself off the bed and slips away. Leaving her room as smoothly as a silent shadow.

 

 

 

~

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

 

Hellford park was a domineering house. It was as proud as it was beautiful.

 

A high and grand edifice of squared buff sandstone with the very same in all its trimmings. The roof is welsh slate. And the front of the house echoed it’s Palladian and baroque design. The Doric order pillars out front hold up a looming triangular outset to the building. There are three floors. Three towering floors all full of windows.

 

The house sits vast in its horizon. Dominating. She had walked up through the woods from Pembleton. A good twenty minutes of walking down the front drive merely to get to the place. Through a resplendent wrought iron black gate that looked nearly eerie in the morning fog. The cawing of throaty crows echoed around the tall dark trees that nearly eclipsed the sun. She opened that creaking gate and slipped on through. Feeling like a doomed trespasser on Lord Ren’s land.

 

When the walk along the paved road clears of the governing country nature, each side of her not now lined with massive oaks, and the dark wood thinned out, the sun shone down on her in speckles through the spreading tree tops.

 

She listens to the cooing call of wood pigeons in the far off trees. The sizzle of wind ruffling the dead leaves on their branches. Sizzling and spitting and rattling in the air. And the cold bitter landscape seems buttery warm, the colour of dandelion sunshine lifts every facet of nature. Melts the snow. Makes the countryside all merry again. Thaws it from the unfeeling and cruel fingers of frosty winter.

 

Though she can still see wisps of her breath flutter the air. And she tugs her rabbit lined gloves up her wrists to keep warm. Her soles crackle along the road in the misty frost.

 

She’s on yet another errand this morning. In her battered blue wool coat, her quite hopeless brown boots. She hadn’t seen the need for a bonnet, and now her ears are feeling the price of such a poor decision. Tipped with icy pink.

 

The dappling sun tangled in her hair. Where it’s scooped back off her face in a semi braided coiffure. She had her plain wool dress on. It was a boring shade of chowder grey pinstriped with white. But it did it’s occupation of keeping her warm better than her old pelisse did.

 

She comes up to the view of the house. Admiring how vast and proudly it stands. Resolute even under the strong sun. The sky behind its roof is a net of crepe cotton blue splashed with smeared white clouds.

 

From the vantage point on the road, where she is, far far far down below the humongous beast, the vast wall of windowpanes wink icy in the sunlight across at her. The huge pond to the front of Hellford Manor, is deep glass green, and navy skipped with gold from the mirrored reflection of the sky.

 

Her steps rap sharply on the hard road, clapping off the house and bouncing back to her. Mingled in with sounds of the woods, of the birds and the trees and the wind ruffling through it all.

 

She steps up to the cavernous entryway and the door that’s eight feet taller than she is. Doesn’t know if she’ll get a reply knocking here- she hopes she does.

 

She knocks her gloved hand loud and clear on the door. Taps her knuckles loudly three times. Hears it ricochet off the house behind and in front of her. Probably drifting through that elegantly extensive marble foyer that was bound to be inside. Manor this grand was bound to have a colossal foyer for entertaining.

 

She stares up at the great big white painted door in fervent hope. A few seconds pass. Nothing but the silence of her own anticipation.

 

She’d brought Lord Ren some welcoming gifts that high society hereabouts has decided to bestow on him. The ladies and matrons of prominence are thankful for his mentioning he’d keep an eye open for the terrorising wolf on his land.

 

Mrs Phillips sent him a box of Turkish dried fruits and sticky figs drowned in honey. Miss Smith sent a bottle of port and a selection of sweet meats. Her own mother had declined to send him anything.

 

Iris was affronted at her sudden distant behaviour when days before she’d been clamouring for her daughter to prostrate herself at his mighty feet. So she snuck to the kitchen earlier and secreted away two dead partridge’s when she wasn’t looking.

 

Cook was on her side covering for her. She’d spin Mrs Ashton a cunning tale that the cat got into them and she had to discard them. Let’s hope Iris’ mother didn’t decide to take action against the innocent tabby.

 

She’d also put in some of cooks chutney and her famous jam. She was a crass red faced, battle axe Irish woman of stout size and many years. But she liked making sure the people around her were well fed. She was a kindly woman to Iris.

 

Many times as a scolded young girl, belittled for improper behaviour, or something petty Caroline nitpicked over,  she’d find herself hiding from mama in the kitchen. Wedged between the stove and the butchers block. Red faced and sobbing tears.

 

Cook - Mrs Murphy as she doesn’t like to be commonly known as - would crossly stop whatever she was doing. Whatever soup or sauce she was preparing, whatever un-plucked game bird awaited stripping by her hands, or whatever haunch of meat needed seasoning, she would stop.

 

Wiping her hands on her grubby apron. She’d pour Iris a cup of chocolate, sit her by the open stove and put a warm rug around her shoulders. Tell her to dry her eyes on her handkerchief. She always had one to hand. “There now. Dry your eyes. Pet.” In her soothing County Kildare, Irish brogue.

 

“Here’s to hoping the road rises up to meet you yet.” She’d always say. Her way of wishing all the pain and obstacles to her happiness be plucked free right out of her life. Mrs Murphy knew, even back then, what strain Iris was being put under to be the perfect daughter. Drowning under expectations at such a bonny young age.

 

So when Iris went to her this morning, interrupting her making her brown onion soup and scotch collops ready for supper, she asked for some donations to a man whose been kind to her, and to the scared flustered hens of matrons in the village. Cook raised a brow. “I see.” She said cannily. With an all-knowing understanding to her tone.

 

Steered Iris into the cold larder and gave the game, the jam and some other goods. “This wouldn’t be that infamous Lord I’ve been hearing whispers about, now, would it?” She asks with a hand on her hip. Iris blushes.

 

“He’s- merely an acquaintance.” Iris insists sweetly.

 

Aye. And I’m the goddess queen of the upper Nile.” She smarts flatly.

 

“Be off with ya now pet. Before your mother gives you what for.” She says gruffly. Plonking two rosy pink apples in her hands for her journey to Hellford park. Before jabbing her thumb the back door over her own shoulder. Continuing rolling out her pastry with sticky-flour and buttery hands. She watches Iris head out with the baskets. One on each arm as usual. She smiles when she leaves.

 

A good girl she was- much rounder temper than her silly sisters. Cook loves Iris like a daughter. And in damn sure more of a maternal way than her dragon of a mother ever did.

 

Surprisingly, Iris didn’t have to wait too long at Hellford’s grand oak door before it is shuddered open with a whine from the other side.

 

The very pleasant face of Kylo’s butler greets her. A red dastar turban covering his head. His arrowhead shaped goatee was black shot through with silver. Straight as a yardstick. And oiled finely. He appears very well groomed and meticulous. A fine warm scent of lime blossom and something like citrus or oranges woven into his cologne.

 

She smiles warmly at him. Hands across her calling card through the gap of the door. “Good Morning. I’m so sorry to disturb you- but I’m just paying a call to deliver some-”

 

His warm face breaks into a warm beam. One of honesty and recognition. “He told me we should be expecting you, Miss Ashton.” He smiles gladly. Already apprised of her being here. Widening the door for her.

 

“Please do come in...” He urges. Iris likes the warm cadence to his voice. The distinctive accent of his sounds like honey syrup or spiced cloves. Comforting and rich. A voice that promises nothing but warmth and friendliness in its offering.

 

Where he widens the door, Iris catches a glimpse of the exotic threads of his clothing. Something akin to a silk coat covers his top half. Indigo ink silk with buttons that glimmered like raindrops in rain. It’s almost military style in its fashion. He is a lean, towering man with broad shoulders. Though not as powerfully foreboding as the man he serves. His coat covers most of his legs. His knees are clad in loose fitting black trousers of thin substance. Puffy at the knees. Tucked into impressively shiny black boots.

 

The sun catches on a bangle on his right wrist when he moves. Hitting against the silk of his peacock blue sleeve. When she stopped in, she sees the coat is embroidered with twirls of silver thread stitched into vines. It was such a beautiful garment. She’s in awe of it.

 

She steps in from the cold, thanking him, and the huge house engulfs her. It’s warm for such a colossal place. And she was right. The foyer is entirely marble.

 

Marble pointed tile floor. Walnut panelled walls and wainscoting coat the house. Set with gilded gold frames resting on them, surrounding impressive paintings. Black votives of candles stand lit and flickering amber flame. A gigantic mouth of a limestone fireplace is directly ahead on the wall. It’s twice as big as her bedchamber, that one hearth alone. Roaring flames lit within. Around the neatest pile of logs that blazed. Not even a spec of ash was out of place. There’s no decoration. Hardly any vases or relics. That’s strikes her as odd.

 

“Pleasure to meet you, Miss Ashton.” He bows his head respectfully and tucks his hands behind his back. “I am Raajaa Jomar. Lord Ren’s butler.” He introduces himself.

 

“Pleasure to meet you. Mr. Jomar. I only called by to give Lord Ren a few tokens of gratitude from some local families.”

 

He smiles and accepts the baskets from her. “Of course. How kind. Do follow me to wait in the parlour. I will see to finding his lordship.”

 

He leads her through the impressive house. Walking her deeper into the expensive bowels of the place. She walks demurely behind him. Aghast at the display of wealth that lines every wall. It hangs in the dripping crystal and spotless chandeliers. The way the tiles underfoot gleam like they’ve been scrubbed mercilessly.

 

Paintings ooze oil and grandeur dour wealth from their spots on the walls. Ancient portraits of powdered wigs and styles of the 1700’s. Robes a la Francaise and beauty spots on powdered faces and craggy noses, casting a disapproving eye out at her.

 

He brings her to a double door entrance of a richly furnished parlour. Decorated with red and white. Fire roars in the pearl marble of the hearth. She steps onto the fine cushion of a scarlet Aubusson rug. Sees her reflection in the huge antique mirror above the mantel. The room is trimmed in old French antiques. Side tables and end tables around the garnet red settees that bleed gold gild at their tops.

 

“Do please make yourself comfortable Miss Ashton. I will arrange for a tray of tea and refreshments be brought to you.” He bows his head politely again.

 

She feels like calling out to stop him. She was only here to pay call delivering a basket after all. Which she now sets both things down on the immaculately polished low table, set before her. She sinks into the luxuriously soft settee. Plump velvet feather cushions catch her back and prop her up.

 

She feels rather nervous. Here, in this grand place in her shabby coat and ragged boots.

 

She’s looking out the white glass of the terrace doors into the finely trimmed dutch gardens. Neat shrubs arranged in symmetrical patterns with paths cutting through to the lawn. A fountain crowns the central spoke of the flowerbeds. Blooming waxy tulips in summer spring up there. In punching reds and fierce oranges.

 

In no time whatsoever, a waify scurrying maid appears in the doorway. Thin arms laden with a silver tray of a tea service. She smiles a beaming polite grin over at Iris. Who bids her a good afternoon. She sets the tea and a plate of warm jam tartlets before her, and they discuss the weather. She bobs a cute curtsey when she’s done and nods a parting and a good afternoon at Iris.

 

She found it slightly odd to have someone curtsey to her. Sat here in her shabby boots and too-small-pelisse. She almost wants to laugh at the absurdity of it. Not in cruel jest to the sweet maid’s behaviour- just that in her household, she barely outranked their maids. She helped out with the cooking, the cleaning, as did her sisters.

 

That didn’t seem to place her worthy of a curtsey. She had no title after all. Was likely never to bare a title or be among nobility.

 

She drinks some of the excellent tea. A fine rich blend no doubt. She nibbles the corner of a sticky jam tartlet and listens as the carriage clock on the mantel strikes twelve. Dinging softly around the opulent room. Along with the crackling of the fire spitting spewing out embers and ash in the hearth.

 

She idly awaits company- drains another cup of tea. And stands to better admire the frosted gardens from the big windows. Lifting the scarlet red curtain out of her sight as she admires.

 

A different maid enters across the room. Clunking the heavy door. “If you please, Miss. I’ll take you to his Lordship. Mr Jomar says he’d do it himself only on account of him getting caught up chatting to the cook.” She explains.

 

Iris leaves her baskets in the parlour on the table. She goes directly with the girl. Who leads her through the house and out across a courtyard, and points to a little track road down to the working stables. She apologised that she had to skip back to the kitchens to attend to some errands. Iris says it’s quite alright. She can find her way from here.

 

She walks up the pea-shingle paved road. Seeing the U shaped courtyard ahead, under the stone arch of the gates leading into the stables. Stalls surround the shape of it. Running around the perimeter. She can smell hay and animal sweat and the stench of hops. As she walks closer a repetitive clunking noise rings in her ears. The clatter of wood tumbling onto stone. Coming from the direction she’s intended toward.

 

She passes under the arch, cool shade of it tickles the back of her neck. She comes into the clearing of the cobblestoned courtyard. Horses stamp and shift in their stalls surrounding the walls. She spies Erland in his stall. Munching on something he’d recently been fed. Carrots most likely.

 

She comes into plain view of the whole stable- and then she lurches right to a sudden stop. A gasp punched out her lungs. Chest seizing up.

 

She’s now stood facing a very shirtless Lord.

 

Chopping logs with a heavy axe. Blade of it glints wicked sharp in the sun as his thick arms swing it over, crossing it over his body to strike sharp down the centre of the log before him on the stand. The wood tumbled and clunked to the ground.

 

Chest gleaming slipping shimmering with sweat from his exertions. Stood in his obsidian breeches and boots to match, even in the winter cool of the courtyard. His shirt lay discarded on the nearest stall door. Folded cotton crumpled there.

 

She idly wonders as her eyes take all of his naked state in, why he was doing this himself when he probably had tens of hundreds of servants who could do it for him. She knows she not supposed to look. But she’s seen the bare beauty of him now and her eyes don’t wish to be rid of it-

 

She didn’t have any concerns that his frame was in any way unimpressive. But seeing him in such a bare manner merely reconfirmed what she already knew. He is broad in the shoulder, wide at the waist.

 

His chest doesn’t taper it remains a solid stack of muscle. His thick thick build of his arms flex. The trapezius lines slipping outwards from either side of his neck are intimidatingly big. As is the reach from his shoulders down over his pectorals.

 

He is a hugely broad warrior of a man. Crude. Monumental.

 

A few seconds have passed since she stumbled onto the sight of him. Though it felt longer. He raises his eyes to the movement of her. Though he hadn’t needed too. He could sense her walking up the front drive to come to him. Felt her presence here ever since she set foot on his land.

 

He unsticks the heavy axe from where it lodged chipping into the wood block stand below the logs he’s cutting up. He lets it hang down by his side. Grins wickedly across at his guest. Wall of muscular chest panting. Abdominal muscles flexing. His breath spirits silver out his smile up into the bitter air.

 

His smile is sinful and his eyes are shady with promiscuous motive. “Miss Ashton...” He greets her rakishly.

 

Fully aware of what the sight of him will do to her. How much it will stir her blood, get her blushing. The potent effect of him enchanting her lust. Dazzling her weak mortal senses.

 

“Your lordship. Do forgive me. I’d no idea you were-um. So-“ Her eyes flicker across to his chest again, darting away quick. But he saw her snatch a look through blushing hot cheeks.

 

“Informally attired?” He finishes for her confidently.

 

She gulps and nods. “Yes- I do beg your pardon.” She’s now turned three quarters away from him. Giving him a ample view of her profile. Looking rather like she wants to scamper back to the safety of the house. Those pink cheeks and her flustered breathing that pulses out her neck in a sudden unexpected rush of lust... It gets his temper straining at its hold when he senses it.

 

It’s captured the side of him that she should absolutely not want to rouse.

 

He lays the axe down. Standing it against the brick wall near the log shed. Shifts closer. She can hear his boots scrape on the cobbles. Dusted with hay and splintered wood chipping’s from his laborious work. His fine booted soles crackle and shift with it. He brings his shirt into his free hand. Leaves it folded down by his side.

 

“To what do I owe the pleasure of this visit?” He seeks smugly.

 

Her brain malfunctions. Caught on his choice of word. Pleasure. Pleasure. Pleasure-

 

She wills the impertinent thought away.

 

Feels him coming closer. The way his eyes stab into her coat. Rake along the back of her neck like dragging flint knives being drawn along her skin. She tries not to shiver too much at the not-entirely-unpleasant sensation.

 

“I just paid a call to deliver some tokens of gratitude from obliged Pembleton residents.” She offers.


“There’s um. Port and figs in honey. Some partridges. And some very excellent jam... Miss Smith, The Phillips and us Ashton’s all send our compliments.” She babbles.

 

He chuckles warmly. Stepping ever closer. Sparing her blushes and gazes. He slips the rumpled cotton of his shirt over his head and lets it fall, untucked, down to his thighs.

 

The open v neck tips to hang between his nipples. Dusky bronze discs of them. And the coarse smattering of dark hair brushes his chest too. She shouldn’t know that about a man.

 

“That’s very generous of you. I’m very fond of partridge. Do be sure to thank your family for me. For such a thoughtful offering.” He insists in a drawl that gets her smile increasing.

 

She chuckles. Feeling safer about meeting his eyes now. “Miss Smith was delighted. With your assurance of looking out for the murdering beast. She has decided to forgo the extra bolt on her bedroom door.” Iris explains.

 

“I fear she’s now quite enamoured with you. She said she means invite you over to take tea, very soon.”

 

Kylo raises a brow that instantly told Iris how very ridiculous and inconsequential her found the always-flustered Miss Smith.

 

“I might accept the invitation on the provisory condition that you accompany me. To keep me from beating my head against the wall in sheer desperation.” He smarts.

 

Iris chuckles lightly. She tries to swallow it down but she can’t.

 

“She is a little trying.” She confesses. She was a harmless woman. Just admired the sound of her own voice rabbiting on too much. And she fretted about every beast, man, and creature put on this earth. Everything was cause for suspicion with Miss Smith.

 

“She’s the most trying woman in all of the British Empire.” He declares lowly. His smile crooks up on one side.

 

Iris thinks for a second. Looking down at her shoes. “I do so hate to disagree with you, your lordship. But I fear that title must instead be awarded to my mother.” She smarts.

 

He chuckles rightfully loud. It’s warmer than all the winter sunshine that slopes down on them. Crinkles form near his eyes and his divots beside his mouth.

 

“Anyway-“ She begins. “I should take my leave. I’ve lingered far too long. You must have matters to attend...” She smiles. Dipping into a short curtsey. Flicking her eyes back up to him after she does.

 

“Nothing so urgent could possibly draw me away the honour of your visit.” He insists. Making unabashed eye contact with her. Face so open and genial. Eyes all melting honey and granite.

 

“I wouldn’t wish to importune you.” She says crossing her hands and holding them in front of her.

 

One ink brow curves up. “From my incredibly laborious and eventful morning of, chopping firewood?” He lets her infer her own conclusions.

 

“Well. I do have errands to take heed of. Back at Westwell.”

 

He smiles like the devil. Like he knew how Satan himself leers- which he very truly almost does. He’s seen the closest thing this earth knows to a demon, grin at him. White pearly smile so savage and handsome.

 

“Defer them.” He presses nicely. “I promised you a tour did I not? Come take a ride of Hellford Park with me and Erland.”

 

Iris swallows. “You wish me to- spend time with you, alone? unchaperoned?” She checks.

 

His eyes glow with that savage glimmer once more. The one that makes his eyes look like the most melting shade of black imaginable. Oh yes he did.

 

“I promise to be the very saintly soul of propriety.” He pledges. Cupping a hand over the black vacuum where his mortal heart once laid in his big chest.

 

“I won’t stand for indulging in any behaviour on my part if it severely discomforts you.” He vows seriously. She believes him. He was respectful enough to let her truly escape this endeavour if she wanted. He would never inopportune a woman for the benefit his own comforts.

 

Even if she stirs him up so violently like the way this woman does-

 

She tries not to follow where his hand lay on his body with her eyes. Tries not to look at that divine sticky chest again. Her head swims with comparisons of marble Greek gods swimming in salty tepid seas. Emerging dripping from the cobalt ocean.

 

She blushes. Yet again her silly female heart betrays her. She hesitates for a second- she should say no. A polite girl would be a shrinking violet and scurry away at such a bold suggestion.

 

She should turn her back and apologise profusely, head on back toward the house. She should walk home, the cool air stinging at her hot cheeks. She should go and think about scrubbing their curtains back home. Or arranging flowers. Or donning her apron and helping cook on with peeling the maris pipers in preparation for supper.

 

She looks at his eyes again. Words fly from her mouth before her brain comprehends how it came to an answer. He truly was an enchanting creature.

 

“I’d be delighted.” She nods bravely.

 

It wasn’t what should be done. But it’s what she so desperately wanted to do.

 

Westwell has had 23 years of her looking after everyone and everything in it. They can miss her for a meagre few hours whilst she finally puts herself first.

 

“Allow me to briefly adjourn and attire myself correctly. Then I’ll see to having the horses tacked up.” He excuses himself. Smiles all wicked, and turns to head for the doorway in the brick wall near the logs he was cutting up.

 

She flushed and almost fell faint to a dizzy spell. Seeing his finely muscled back as it lumbered away from her. Slicked with sweat.

 

She watched the savage blades of his shoulders, as sharp as that axe blade he’d been swinging. Her eyes stuck on the three slashes of scars that rake deep over the left jutting bone hill of his scapula. Where an animals claws had long ago cut and torn into his skin.

 

If she knew just precisely how long ago- she’d faint.

 

A time she can’t even comprehend. An age away. An age she’s only studied in books. An age he can moderately remember anymore. It was several centuries past him now.

 

He remembers towering pine tree tops scraping at the sky. How bitter bitter snow blazed and churned between the tips. The ruddy tang of houses back then cast solidly out of timber and roofed with straw. The smell of the sticky sap bleeding out the wood. The ash from the open fires and the clog of acrid woodsmoke sunk into the fur pelt he wore around his shoulders. The beast that had scarred him on his back and left him to rot away with fever of the wound. Left Kylo clinging desperately onto life by his dirty fingernails.

 

He found that creature. He sunk his knife into that brutes belly and gutted it. He wore that black pelt with savagely earned pride. The gloom of longhouse where feasts, battles, births and politics were celebrated. The place that reeked of ash, the stench of smoking meat and the sour reek of stale urine from the odiferous tannery, when the frigid wind blew and shuddered into the village in the right direction.

 

Back breaking labour was crucial for survival. Farming and hunting and warring. Truer dignity in hard work than any of these perfumed dandies of the fashionable ton knew about.

 

He’d been brought up in those freezing acetous lands. He’d farmed for oats and barley and rye in the summers. Then one winter, he trained as a soldier. Upholding the honour of his family and willing to go and to defend his people.

 

Then he went to war- His fate was violently and horribly rearranged.

 

He’d marched right on in to fight a battle from which he’d never return home. Never would he be the same man. He was offered instead, a sweet mercy of a deathless death. And he greedily snatched it with both hands- glutted himself on its chance.

 

It was all so different back then. Life was so brutal. Compared to the pomp and ridiculous circumstances the narrow minded people in this village are governed ruthlessly by, by things they think matter.

 

When he thinks of the contrasts to the two societies it makes him sick. All the stuffy airs and graces and endless bowing and scraping. Veiled insults cloaked as compliments. Velvet draped over daggers.

 

He vastly preferred this world back when it was a more feral one. Atleast then he knew where he stood.

 

When there were no falsehoods or lies floating out sugared words from simpering sickening smiles. Here, when one thing was said to his face, quite another was hissed behind his back when he turned. Maybe he was just a relic of a time long since over-maybe maybe maybe.

 

He goes into the stable rooms, where he left his jacket and other attire earlier. Luckily there’s a washroom out here that was used on hunts if the work got bloody. He washes himself down from the basin and jug of cold water, and clears away the salt of his sweat. Pats himself dry and redressed in his fine jacket, white shirt and white cravat. Atop a burgundy waistcoat.

 

When he steps back out, buttoning his thick wool jacket. Silver buttons blazing proud in the sun, he sees Miss Ashton at Erland’s stall. The stubborn animal nudged into her shoulder again as she strokes his handsome velveteen forehead. Remembering her. Thinking she had more treats to bestow.

 

He comes across and chides his horse in the Bavarian tongue he was trained by. “Nett Sein. Erland.” Kylo barks across low at his horse as he walks over. Be kind.

 

He then adds, chiding him, that he shouldn’t be disrespectful to ladies. Croons to him. Speaking fluently in his own language. Stroking his nose as the horse turns and nibbles at his masters coat shoulder and snuffles his hair with his hot, hay scented breath. Kylo pats the chunky meat of his solid corded neck.

 

She strokes a hand over his silken mane. Hair harshly stiff and bushy under her gloves. Parted to one side over his neck and shoulders as the animal bows his head down for the handful of oats Kylo held out for him. Erland snuffles them up in a mere matter of seconds. Chews on the cud’s and almost headbutts his master for more.

 

Miss Ashton laughs. “You were right about his stubborn blood. So I see.”

 

“One of the most obstinate beasts on four legs.” Kylo promises with a grin.

 

“Would you mind riding one of our mares, Miss Ashton? They are generally easier of temper.”

 

“Not at all.” She accepts.

 

He steps back and urges her over to the next stall. Here, a shimmering white horse awaits them. Brushed coat glistening the way untarnished snow lays sparkling in the sun. Bright and pure.

 

This horses mane and snout is an ash grey. The same colour bleeds up past her fetlocks. There’s some dappled patches of pebble grey also on her flanks and rear. She was the sweetest mare with the softest temperament. She stays in her stall but gently cautiously seeks Kylo’s hand to eat the food her offered her. He strokes her neck fondly.

 

“This is Kana. Shortened from the old Norse word for Birch tree.” Kylo’s introducing her. The mares ears twitch with her mentioned name. “So named, if I recall because her coat resembles the colours of the trunk.”

 

“She’s beautiful.” Iris insists. Rubbing up the flag bone between her eyes. Kana appreciates the caress with an equine little snort.

 

Across from them. The stable boy has brought Erland out his stable to tack him for their ride. Kylo and Iris stay stroking the sweet white mare. Stood at her stall.

 

“Do you ride them out often?” She asks.

 

“Every morning with Erland if I can manage it. Sometimes at night too. If sleep evades me.” He tells. Sleep always evades him. The one curse of immortality.

 

“This poor old girl deserves as good a chance as any to stretch her legs.” He smiles.

 

Another stable hand comes out and gently leads the white mare from her stall. She stands quietly as she’s tacked. Erland however? He pounded the cobbled floor with a scraping hoof and was twitching with excitement to be ridden. He bays and snorts and huffs until he gets his way.

 

When his bridle and bit are slipped on, Kylo steps over and soothingly rubs his shoulder. “You, are an intemperate old beast.” He chides to his horse, as the stable boy lifts the fender to secure the cinch strap around Erland’s strong belly.

 

After they’ve tacked her mare, the stable boys see to their other work. Bidding them a good ride. Kylo leaves Erland for a moment and steps around Kana to help Miss Ashton safe into the saddle.

 

He takes her hand as she holds her skirts decently and levies herself up to her horses height via a handy wooden footstool. There is still a shimmering spark of contact when his hand closes around hers to hold. Even though they are both wearing gloves. The thrill of it is wilder and more potent than ever.

 

She sets herself side-saddle. Takes the reins in her gloved hands. Gets used to the sturdy solid weight of the animal beneath her.

 

Lord Ren heads back to Erland and hoists himself onto his strong back. In all his tall glory he didn’t need assistance into the saddle.

 

He leads their walk out under the stone arch of the stables, and into the winter sunshine. He pulls Erland up flush to her and Kana’s side when the path widens out.

 

They walk a to a slow paced trot through the dewy grass, that follows along the merry ash and taupe brown of the silver and white of birch winter woodland to their right. He was entirely correct about Kana. The sweet horse was gentle and unassuming in her nature.

 

Iris sighs happily as she sees the sunlight cast an enchanting amber through all those pale trees. The waxy nectar of tulips drifting in the air from the Dutch gardens nearby. It was like something beautiful out of a dream.

 

“You were right about the beauty of the ride. Your Lordship.” Iris remarks as she watches the amber stripes slope through the birches.

 

He turns his head and catches that very same view she’d remarked on. He’d seen a million woodlands in his life. Over numerous centuries. And the place he spawned from was between tall pines and a ground eaten up thick with snow. He’s seen every copse of nature on every continent that exists. This view was stale to him. But he appreciates her admiration of it.

 

“I suppose it is.” He says offhand.

 

“What made you choose to settle at Hellford Park?” She asks him. “If that’s not an impertinence.” She adds. Smoothing her grey gloved hand over Kana’s neck.

 

He smiles. “The house seemed of a decent size. The land holdings were vast. And I appreciate having my own space away from society. My worst nightmare is being wedged into a modern townhouse in London. With all the smog and the ton being rammed down my neck. I far prefer the country. The quieter pace of life.” He tells her.

 

“Easier for hunting and sport...” He adds.

 

“I feel easier knowing nature is on my doorstep. I need only walk out and be in it.” He explained.

 

“I can’t bear the thought of a town life. I bless every year that my family haven’t the capital to rent a place in town.” Iris tells him. Probably not something she should admit. But she felt like her honesty was safe with him.

 

“The most of town I’ve ever seen is a season in Bath when I debuted at sixteen. We managed to stay with my aunt and cousins. I thank heavens we’ve never repeated the experience.” He makes a firm sound of fond agreement.

 

“I’ve seen the way you take to country life.” Kylo smiles at her. She nods across at him.

 

“Same as you. Your Lordship. I appreciate the peace and quiet. Able to go and walk in the woods and be where my thoughts and wishes are my own. No one else’s expectations get forced upon me.” She says.

 

“Nothing I like better to soothe my mind than walking around the Hampshire wilderness...” She comments as they head along a lane under a glade of golden elm trees.

 

“I hope you don’t going adventuring out after dark, Miss Ashton. Even such tame country places can grow afoul after nightfall.” He warns her. Even in this genial little village he’s glimpsed the vile echelons of scum hereabouts.

 

“Oh. I never run errands outside Westwell after dark.” She puts his mind at ease. “Mother thinks my evenings are best spent extensively reading of the Mirror of the graces and better improving my embroidery.” She tells him.

 

He’s honest in his answering remark. Where most men she associated with would call her fine and sensible for indulging in etiquette novels. Kylo can’t think of anything more intrepid.

 

“I can think of a million better ways in which I’d rather indulge my evenings.” He offers sincerely.

 

“I don’t tell her that I often escape to my room to read my Johnathan Swift novel and to get a bit of peace away from her and my sisters.” She says with glad derision.

 

Kylo smiles at her. “A far better use of your time, I’m certain.” He tells her.

 

“Do you have any family?” She asks. And then she winces. “Sorry if I’m irritating you with nagging questions-“

 

He smiles. He’ll answer any question she aims his way.

 

“I did. A long time ago. It’s just me left now.” He imparts.

 

She glances back at the gigantic house of Hellford. Save for staff, he had no one in it.

 

“Doesn’t that ever get lonely?” She’s asking.

 

“Don’t you?” He questions back nicely. Melting eyes catching hers. Sunlight spun them to amber glowing off dark walnut.

 

She can’t help but nod. She doesn’t have many friends in this world. She has a greek harpy for a mother - talons, scales forked tongue and all. Her sisters were about as dense to understand as a Chelsea boot. Air headed and with no substance. And her father, loving though he is, is usually preoccupied in his study or being bullied down by mother. She doesn’t really have anyone.

 

“I’ve never been left alone a day in my life. I’m permanently surrounded by noise and people yet- I’ve always felt... lonely.” She admits. Looking down to her hands where she held Kana’s reins.

 

“It’s a privilege to finally have liberty to be able to express that to another living creature.” She smiles gladly at him.

 

Kylo looks over at her. Brow furrowed. She does so many things for other people. She cares after every member of her dratted family. And she’s got this two tonne grey weight of sadness pressing down on her shoulders.

 

It’s no secret he doesn’t care for the piddling and idle emotions of fleeting mere humans. But he so cares for her.

 

“You never have to feel lonely if you don’t wish too.” He offers.

 

“You have my confidence. And all that my acquaintance and friendship can offer to you. Miss Ashton.” Whether she likes it or not- she does. She has it. He firmly and fondly tells her so.

 

“I’m very thankful for it. Vastly thankful.” She promises. “I could use a friend just now. With all the terrible circumstances happening in Pembleton.” She relays with a note of grimness.

 

Erland snorts. Kylo pats his neck to sooth him. “Yes. The uh- madman Miss Smith raves about.” He recalls. “I’m sure it is the imaginings of her overworked mind.” He tells.

 

Iris supposed that was a very accurate statement. Kylo had only met the awful woman once, too. And he already had sussed her flighty panicked character. That spoke volumes of her temperament.

 

“Not to make mention of the supposed wolf thats said to be stalking these parts...” She adds.

 

“An exaggerated tale, do you think?” He asks.

 

“Well. I do subscribe to my fathers notion that wolves did die out centuries ago- but who knows? An animal that big and vicious, I’m all astonishment it hasn’t been spotted before now. This is a farming county. There’s poultry and livestock for the taking. Why would it bother with drunkards in the middle of the forest.”

 

“Easier to stalk. And pick out- I imagine.” He smiles just a little. His gleaming eyes hold back his many dark secrets.

 

He hears her inhale a shaky breath. He hears her throat pulsing next to him.

 

“You know, you shouldn’t be afraid.” He starts. “Of the alleged wolf. If, heaven forfend, there is one.” He surmised.

 

“Why ever not?” She searches. Face pulled back. A little shocked.

 

“Because wolves are not just blood thirsty beasts. They are intelligent and sociable animals. They are more likely to be spooked by a human than want to kill them. The reason those men were attacked? They were half clumsy, gone on drink and weakly vulnerable.” He tells.

 

Iris swallows. Brings Kana to a stop. “Lord Ren...” She gulps. “You talk as if you-“

 

She takes a deep breath to fortify herself. “As if you know of such a thing...” She finally remarks.

 

He stops Erland and doesn’t shy - from her glance or her question.

 

“I know merely how wolves operate. Miss Ashton. Nothing more.” He says openly.

 

Of course he does. She thinks stupidly. His home. Back in Bavaria. He said it was surrounded by wolves. He’s no doubt seen some people succumb to the packs of them.

 

There’s silence for a minute as Kana and Erland chew at their bits. Clacking and shifting its crunch in the air. Erland leans his head over and snuffles Kanas snout. The creak of leather eases out in a squeak from The reins in Kylo’s hands.

 

She nods. Cheeks beating. The shame of foolishness slithering up her spine. “Forgive me-“

 

“I would if there was something to forgive.” He smiles.

 

She ducks her head. Cheeks pink as she tips her chin to her chest. She sighs in bliss as she looks out at the open field before them. Before she gets a niggling flare of a brilliant yet stubborn idea in her head.

 

“For once in my life...” She insists, almost angrily, Kylo’s eyes shift to how she shoves herself, adjusting on Kana’s saddle. She bunches her skirts. Leans back and he sees a flash of a white cotton chemise and pearly wool stockings as she swings her legs over, the both of them now astride the saddle.

 

“I intend to do something completely and utterly dishonourable and unfeminine.” She says.

 

Kylo’s smiling at the sight of her skirts draped up almost over her calves where she’s sat on the horse. He watches her adjust the reins in her hands and skip her feet into the solid stirrups.

 

With a gentle kick into Kana’s flank she braces herself on the horse, as the mare proceeds to lurch into a gallop, breaking into the frosty meadow in front of them. Her blue coat flaps behind her. Kylo smiles after her lead. Adjusts Erland’s reins and spurs him on after her.

 

For just that afternoon, for just those heart pumping minutes of uninterrupted bliss- Iris feels the sun bleaching onto her face, and the wind stinging and ripping at her hair. She feels her body and her soul stirring. For just those few minutes, she doesn’t feel like a trapped suffocating girl. Like a toy being manoeuvred in the dolls house that was her strict life.

 

They gallop up the field and through another one. Coming up a trail that rises onto a hill in the sunny wood. She slows down when she gets to the top. Lord Ren catches up behind her. Erland could really get up a speed when he got going.

 

She comes to a stop where the hill levels out. Looking across all the acres of Hellford park. She’s still winded from the ride. Sun and wind having kissed her cheeks a bright pink. Where she ducked past low branches in the forest, Kylo spies a green leaf nestled captured in her hair. Making her comparable to some frolicking wood nymph.

 

He draws Erland up by her and Kana’s side. Listens to her panting as they take in the view of Hellford together.

 

“Truly is a beautiful house, your lordship. I hope you’ll be very happy here.”

 

“A truly fine prospect.” He agrees. Looking out at all his wealth. All his grandeur and land.

 

“Finest land holding in all of England I expect.” She smiles. Still panting for breath. He can hear how her blood beats like sweet syrup around her body. He can smell her skin and he is just- a man whose found heaven on earth.

 

“Indeed it is. Nothing quite like it.” He admits. Iris doesn’t see how he turned to look and admire her rather than the view. Intoxicated by the tug and pulse of the artery her throat. It thunders her neck and it’s all he can hear or think about.

 

Kissing her. Tasting her neck. Her skin. The subtle perfume of her body. Her caresses.

 

He might aswell be a man half starved-wild at this point.

 

They ride back to the stables. Slowly together. Conversing along the way. She changes back to side saddle as they get closer - didn’t wish for his stable hands to catch sight of her and remark on how unladylike she’d been.

 

Kylo slips off Erland and hands him across to be untracked. He marches up to Kana’s side and takes Iris’s hand to help her slip down from the mares saddle.

 

Only, fate seems determined to drive them into each other’s arms at every foreseeable opportunity. Her skirts snag on the pommel and this makes her fall onto her feet too fast.

 

Kylo’s there to catch her. She’s once again, wedged now between Kana’s back and his chest. She thuds down to the ground with a soft “oof.” Escaping her lungs.

 

That escalated when she looked up and found him so, brilliantly close. He towers over her, he’s twice her width in his shoulders alone. But he’s gazing at her so tenderly. His hand had shot to her waist to steady her outside her coat. The span of it reaches from her ribs almost to her hip.

 

It’s somehow more dizzying to be nearer him now she’s seen what form lies under those clothes. The sheer immensity of this man.

 

He looks up into her hair and smiles a tipped up curl of a crooked grin. His fingers reach up and skim away the leaf caught in her hair. She blushes and laughs a little when he shows her.

 

She touched over the spot his fingers had skimmed. The skin still burned with heat and cold from the leather of his gloves.

 

“I had the most pleasant afternoon.” She encourages. Swallowing nervously again. He can smell her hot throat. Her hot bare throat and it’s addictive- to be so close as this to his biggest temptation.

 

“Thankyou very much for your hospitality, Your Lordship.” She adds.

 

“And you for yours.” He thanks her for the baskets she’d bought. He breaks the trance. Turns back and calls to one of the stable boys to ready the carriage to take Miss Ashton home.

 

“Oh, please. You needn’t bother. I don’t mind the walk.” She tries to fuss

 

“I insist on seeing a lady safely home. It is all of five miles from here to Westwell.” He announces. She smiles in gratitude.

 

He parts with her at the coach door, after it’s brought around. He holds her spare hand as her other clutches at her skirts and she steps up into the scarlet black box of it- to think on all that had passed between them since she first saw this coach mere days ago.

 

If only she knew how much-

 

He kisses her hand in parting. “A delight as ever, Miss Ashton. I do hope you visit Hellford again.” He urges.

 

“As do I.” She beams back. Leaning forwards to look at him through the carriage door. He smiles before he steps away. Hands behind his back again. He nods to the driver, who cracks the whip on the horses and the coach lurches away. Takes her home. Safe away from him.

 

She passes the ride to Westwell in his comfortable carriage, remarking with a sly smile to herself about the pleasantness of the afternoon. Looking out the window as the carriage shakes and cracks and tumbled speedily along the road, she noticed how the sun is dipping low into a evening sky. Misty purple and burnt peach copper. She wonders if she’s been missed at all.

 

As soon and she alights the coach, thank’s the driver and slips inside Westwell’s front door. No sooner than she pushes the door shut, flat to her back on the wood to close it. And she is ambushed by her mother.

 

The foyer is dark save for the amber fire. Daylight dies in the window frames. Here there is gloom waiting for her. Her crushing boa of a life wraps around her neck again.

 

She is greeted with a pursed thin lipped glare of displeasure. Mother rips herself up to a stand from the armchair by the fire and snaps her book to slam shut. Loudly. Like a slap. Looking across at her daughter.

 

Happiness shatters in her chest like a glass vase being dropped. The splinters and shards clog up her once happy heart.

 

“Where in the devil’s name have you been?” She demands to know.

 

“Paying call to Lord Ren.” Iris says. Moving into the house. Intending for the stairs. She doesn’t wish to be bitten by this poisonous viper. Not tonight. She’s had such a wonderful day to reflect on.

 

“I beg your pardon?” Her mother remarks.

 

“You heard me perfectly well.” Iris says flatly.

 

“I dropped off the basket Mrs Phillips and Miss Smith sent to him in gratitude.” She adds in explanation.

 

“I can’t think what gratitude they could possibly owe to that man.” She curses.

 

“Why do you think so ill of him? What possible vexation has he caused you?” Iris accuses.

 

“Pray tell why do you praise him so?” Her mother narrows her eyes.

 

“He is a kind man. And he has the phenomenal benefit of having a working brain unlike all the preening idiots I usually have to comport myself in front of.” Iris explains.

 

“I will not tolerate anymore stupidity. Think of our reputation to uphold. You were gone half of the afternoon. And I’d no clue as to where. And now you’re telling me you were in the company of a man, unchaperoned?” She shrills.

 

“Yes I was.” Iris spits out plainly. “And there was no impropriety in it. Before you start accusing me of that.” She adds.

 

Lifting her skirts and beginning to stomp away up the stairs. Mouth bitter and full of anger dashed with sadness. Mourning her beautiful day.

 

“Do you have any idea what this could do to us? To our family name? Running around unsupervised with a man like that-”

 

Iris turns back. Fuming. Hair wild. Eyes bright with rage. Glittering spitfire red from the hearth.

 

“For once in my life, mother. I did not think! And I was glad of it! I did not need reminding of the fact you use me as a chess piece for this family’s hopes. Seizing my skirts and dragging me from square to square to make sure I catch a man of fortune and hale breeding.” Iris fairly yells. Voice scraping hoarse through her throat.

 

Her mother stands in the foyer like some grim harbinger of doom in her plum muslin dress that looks black in the gloom. Her face sternly cross and icy at her daughters outburst. Her pale claw of a bony hand gripping the banister.

 

“You will not associate with him again.” She tells stonily.

 

“I wrote to Armitage Hux today. He travels back from London tomorrow and I’ve stated he is excessively welcome to come to tea.” She explains.

 

“You will put on your best dress and make him welcome. And let him entertain the idea of a marriage match. Don’t be a fool Iris. A man like Lord Ren would never wish for your hand. Learn that now and be done with it. It’s time you took our family situation seriously.” She comments with finality.

 

She takes her hand off the banister and walks away. Words ringing in her ears like knives stabbing at her brain.

 

Iris’ pounding heart hardens over with grey nausea and glass shards that stab her lungs. Her eyes flood with quivering and filling up of silvery tears.

 

She slips up the wooden stairs to her room and collapses into great fits of tears. Muffling her sobs with her hand. She wipes off her face and her stinging eyes.

 

Kylo felt her dread, all those miles away at Hellford Park. He felt it like a punch to the gut. 

 

 

 

~

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

When he came to her that night, her tears of grief were still drying on her cheeks. Catching in the fires light, like ribbons of sparkling amber.

 

If he had a soul, it would be crumbling in despair for glimpsing the sight of her like this.

 

“Oh, My little dove.” He sighs, weary and heart sore for her. She didn’t even have anyone to cry to or to embrace in her sadness. She always had to cry alone.

 

Tears staining onto the clasping embroidery of her laced pillow. Her supple form curled up into a fitful tense shape on the bed. Her toed off brown boots are strewn on the floor by the end of the bed.

 

Concern weights down the heavy lentil of his stern brow as he rounds the end of her bed to come closer. His big hand cupping the polished twists of the wood pillar of the mahogany frame. He steps over her boots. Coming to tower over where she rests on the mattress.

 

She’s still wearing her gown. The ash grey wool she wore earlier today. Her hair is still bound. Though it’s strictness is softened by wisps that have worked their way loose. Spilling over her cheeks and straying across the pillow. Like dark twisted roots.

 

She won’t wake. She never does. He sets himself carefully on the bed. Feels it give and creak beneath his weight. He watches her rest. Brings his hand up to stroke a thumb across the soft cushion of her damp cheek. Wet and salt clings to his skin.

 

He whispers to her. “I felt it. I felt your sadness. I felt it reach out to me. Calling to me.”

 

He leans down and kisses the tear away. When he does, when he tastes that sadness on his lips - a shatter of emotion and memory cracks through him. Like thunder splintering and charring an old oak. He is struck by it. Well and truly.

 

He can hear her mothers snarls, feel the crush of guilt and righteous anger drowning his sweet little dove. Being told she must obey to her family expectations. Start making them proud. Start thinking of marriage.

 

He sighs deeply as he pulls away. He didn’t even register the pretty floral of her skin he so loves. Not tonight.

 

Tonight, he is not a baying monster seeking for blood. He is a suitor who has deeply concerned, rushed to her side as he felt the worst woes of his lover.

 

He felt her despair. Her dying hope. He felt the waning happiness of their day wither. Like a dried flower hardening up in the frost or the heat. Seizing up it’s bright petals. Or shedding them. He’s felt how her family’s expectations strip her bare and leave her shredded and bruised.

 

Here, he just feels his jaw grit at the rage of it all. He grows wilder with anger. Can feel the black of it, thick like rotten honey, bleeding flushing into his veins.

 

“I wonder, do you feel me too? Are you so struck by all the things I perceive?” He asks to her. Not intending at all for his questions to be answered.

 

Their bond is strong - this cannot be denied. It’s tug engulfed them both from the second their eyes met. That blazing dazzling storm that took his breath away. The tempest of her influence quakes inside his chest.

 

Yet this...fondness, for her. A mere mortal. A simple, human girl. It is not so perishable. To look upon the last love and bond he has felt in his life, it seems so dangerously frail in comparison. Adoring her is like cherishing a birds eggshell. Like a faint ember glowing, about to extinguish. Yearning and waiting to be made bright.

 

Humans. All of them are so fleeting. So quick to bud and even quicker to fade. Like a dying little spark. Extinguished before it barely even thrives.

 

He can feel this spirit. This entwining of their souls. This dense entanglement of emotion. Can sense how it hungers to grow. Like him; it’s a bloodthirsty beast. Demands heart and cartilage and inky black ichor of blood to sustain it.

 

His yearning is more than he ever thought. And he knows how she wants it desperately also. Wants him. Their feelings have found symmetry in each other. This is the first time a woman has been more to him than a collection of veins to drink off.

 

“I confess; I care not if you can sense me yet. Because I sensed you the minute I saw you, Iris Ashton. And now I feel how trapped you are.” He explains softly.

 

“Little Dove. There is nothing I wouldn’t do to see you freed.” He promises.

 

He’s stroking her hair back off her face. Trying to soothe away the crinkling frown in her brow. The one that spoke highly of her turmoil.

 

“I would rip those pathetic beings you call relatives to pieces for making you suffer like this. I wouldn’t even drink them. Dove. I’d kill purely for the pleasure and the sport of it.” He pledges.

 

Somewhere in his mind, faintly, upon a distant echo of an echo, he can hear his makers voice. He can hear Draegan calling him a savage, chiding him for those words. He always was the one between the two, blessed with more leniency.

 

“Your mother is desperately trying to keep us apart. It will not be so. I will not stand for it.” He confesses.

 

“I will not.” He makes plain. Shakes his head. His words are quiet venom with the resolute strength of iron, but he’s softly caressing her cheek. Taking away all the tears and salty sadness with his fingertips.

 

“I have a foul temper and when people deny me the things I want. They will inevitably lose.” He growls.

 

He will kill. Maim. Slaughter and hunt without any whiff of so called or feared consequences. He’s a vampire. He’s above emotion. He does not subscribe to petty human clemency. There is no point in mercy being instilled in such savage beasts, after all. It would wither and die in the face of all the foul things he’s committed. The gore. The pain. The massacres. The bloodlust.

 

“I came tonight because you cried out for me. You cloud up every moment in my head. You live behind my closed eyelids when I rest at night...” He expresses.

 

He reaches his hand to cover her collarbone. Very close to the space over her heart. Warm skin soothes his icy palm. It’s been so long since he felt the flurry and flush of warmth. He can feel the quivering muscle tremble and tick under her skin. Gushes and guides her blood. The rattle of it pulses and echos through her vulnerable bones.

 

The fragility of her tiny timpani heart, beating away her time.

 

“And now your body beats for me. Each pump of your heart I can hear; and it sounds like it’s calling out my name. And I will always answer to it.” He promises. “I cannot ignore it, even should I wish too.”

 

He cannot fathom the enormity of this strangle hold she has across him. He can only nurture it’s budding into being. He will help blossom and thrive, whatever this may be.

 

He quirks a slight tip of a smile. It breaks the stoic nature of his scowl hardened face. Like strong waves being dashed on the rocks. It yielded.

 

“When I think back upon you sitting astride Kana today, it makes me smile. I had not thought you to be such a wild creature so ready to dash the rules.” He says in mirth.

 

He’d only looked at her and seen the etiquette she adheres too. He was pleasantly surprised to find she was no shrinking violet. He’s enamoured with uncovering more such stubborn wilderness within her.

 

“How glad I am for it. That little spit of fiery spirit that not even your foul mother can hope to tame. I’ve always been so enamoured with wild things.” He smiles.

 

He rubs his thumb across her forehead. His own brow creases when he feels the tremble and agony of her aching head. The raw sting of her red eyes. He rubs until that grey nimbus of her pain passes away. Like smoke on the gentle breeze. He soothes it away.

 

He is sure to put vastly happier thoughts into her head. Plants them there like seeds ready to sprout. He helps her recall every smile they’ve shared. Every ghost of a touch. Every look of their eyes clashing that sent rattles of desire wracking down her spine. His too, though she had no clue as to the potency of her charms.

 

No clue whatsoever- it’s one of his favourite things about her. Here is a power she doesn’t even know she wields. He will gladly instruct her to see it used.

 

He lets her see them this afternoon. Riding side by side in the frosty sunshine. Stroking the horses in their stalls. The way he caught her and reeled her in when she slipped off Kana’s back. He lets that warm happiness flow through her like golden ambrosia. The sweet honey nectar of happiness they share together.

 

He will have more. He will make it so.

 

He feels how her body is growing colder. He twists around and sees the fire in her hearth is crumbling low. Barely sustained. He crosses and sees to it. Stokes it with the iron poker and piles on more logs to see her kept warm.

 

Silently he walks back to the bed, to her side. Pulls up the fluffy eiderdown over her where it lay crumpled at her feet. The feathery down of it rumples and crushes and he tucks it around her prone body. Her human well-being, hangs loosely by a fine thread compared to his stronger senses.

 

He exhaled an amused sound to himself. “And they say I am the creature who bears no soul.” He speaks in detriment to his caring touches.

 

But so long as he is near, he will not see her suffer. From cold. From sadness. From anything that may ail her.

 

He has seen worse things than his own kind being blights upon humans. He’s witnessed plagues, wars, outbreaks of diseases too foul to name. The awful crippling frailty of suffering a human existence.

 

He places his hand on her elbow, atop the covers he shrouded her in. Her dreams eased by his influence. Her strains and stresses plucked away by his hands. He could do more than merely enchant her senses. He could alter them. Make her witness things if he wished to.

 

“How is it a creature like me can find such solace in even being near you.” He asks gently. Big fingertips of his grooming through her hair. Feeling the spun-bronze soft of it combing through his fingers.

 

He may never have an answer to that musing. An eternal query for him to ponder over through his ages. All he knows, is that he won’t be kept apart from her. Not for anyone’s wishes.

 

He stays until a cresting red-gold dawn. Blood and gold copper coins, spill slanted across the sky. The birds outside in Westwell’s meagre garden begin their song to herald to the new day.

 

He leaves her. Parts with a kiss to her cheek and before he slips from her sight and off into that blaze of a dawn, he leaves his initialled kerchief crumpled up in her hand.

 

The thought as to her confusion of how it got there, will make him smile. Now she has a token of him. That happy thought keeps him smug in temper, and buoyant for the whole day. He hopes it will jab at her acerbic mother.

 

Should teach her that no one stands in Lord Ren’s path. And even fewer live to tell the tale of having done so.

 

 

 

 

~

 

 

 

Iris really did applaud her mothers cruel sense of efficiency. Not but the next day, and Sergeant Armitage Hux and Mrs Hux call at Westwell to take tea.

 

As they alight from their carriage, Iris is sat at the window armchair. Watching their newcomers. A flash of brilliant red catches her eye, stark in the icy landscape of the frosted green and creamy cotswold stone gravel drive.

 

He wore his full ceremonial uniform under his black cape. Wool coat the shade of split veins. On his head, covering the copper of his short hair, sits a cocked half moon army hat. Fluffy red and white plumage darts up, sprouting from one side. Blood spattered on snowy doves feathers. The ultimate homage to war.

 

He looks terribly neat and well groomed. Meticulously so. Coat brushed. His cape is spotless. His white breeches are about as pristine as the snow that fell around the estate last night. His black boots gleam. Freshly polished and waxed. Iris bites her tongue when she sees he’s fully dressed for battle. Even his gold rapier sword hangs at his side. Bumping against his hip.

 

Hux turns and helps his mother down from the carriage. She is a stout woman of late age, with greying hair and a face that always looks pinched. Her pale face hidden in her frilly bonnet. A ruffled frill secured around her neck. A chemisette collar of rippled muslin, peaking in cresting white waves. Tied in a bow around her neck. Brushing under her chin. Collar starched and stiff. Holding her chin precariously high. Incredibly precocious.

 

Then again, the woman did always adore and admire looking down upon people. Haughtily peering down on her lessers.

 

Much of her dress is covered by her deep plum pelisse. She has lilac gloves on and is pinching her skirts up. Afraid of the mud. Sniffing in disdain at muddying her rose pink and mauve half boots with it. Iris shuts her book with a harsh snap. A sigh leaves her lips.

 

She sets her book aside. Mother appears in the parlour. Lifts up the arched curtain to better glimpse at their guests. She turns a casting eye over Iris’s dress.

 

“Your skirts are wrinkled and your hair is loose at the back. Fix it.” She instructs snappily with quick hurrying. Before turning back to seat herself elegantly on the settee opposite.

 

Their parlour was not quite the finest room in Britain. But it was cosy. Heavy blue velvet drapes line the windows with gold tassels trimmed on their edges. There is upholstered walnut settees and arm chairs with white and pink rosebud pattern on the seats.

 

The fire is lit and roaring amber in the austere grey of the stone hearth surround. Mother arranged an ostentatious vase of tall spilling blooms on the French end table across the room, by the door. Perfuming the air with violets and bluebells. Sugared fruit of exotic variety lay in the only silver bowl they have in the house. Polished especially. Desperate to show off their finery.

 

Mother is fussing with the crocheted lace doily on the table. Tugging it straight. Setting her grey satin skirts to fold nicely and neat around her knees. Tugging on her finest shawl around her shoulders. Hissing at Iris to set her legs straight. For she always sat most uncommonly. With one knee folded under the other.

 

Iris is in the upholstered linen armchair opposite to the settee. In the chair has seen better years. A twin set. They creak and crack under her weight. But it’s always done that ever since she was a child. It’s her favourite spot. The light is adequate for reading. Until Posy or Flora come marching in and clamour and demand the chair for they have to fix up their bonnets for church on Sunday. Heaven forfend they are seen out in the same bonnet twice.

 

Luckily today they preen and fuss in the parlour mirror before the housekeeper shows their guests into the front parlour. Posy is in a duck egg blue with a green ribbon at her waist. Flora is almost matching in a cotton white with a peony pink ribbon. They preen a moment longer until the door handle cracks and twists across the room. The two littlest Ashton’s dart quickly to take their places. Squeaking with giddy excitement. Plonking artlessly onto the furniture.

 

Iris’s mother frowns at her eldest daughters dour smile. She’d tugged her out of bed nearly at dawn this morning. Ordered her up. To bathe and wash and then dress her hair for Hux’s call.

Laced her tight into stays and her whisper-blue silk dress. Barely blue. Like a sky just turning at twilight. It had three quarter sleeves and handsome train. It it showed off the prettiness of her neck and shoulders. Especially when she wore her pearl sapphire earrings. They sparkle all across her neck.

 

She puts down her book on the end table. And looks up into the parlour doorway as Mrs Hux enters, preceding her son. Their stout almost-elderly matron of a housekeeper, Simpson, opens the door to them and curtseys. Announcing them. “Maratella Hux and Sergeant Hux. If you please, Ma’am.”

 

Maratella glides in first. Still with her parasol hooked upon the crook of her arm. She snaps her fingers at Simpson to take it and her bonnet.

 

“I would have disrobed more in the hall. But your entryway is most drafty and I do so fear getting dust on my bonnet. For it will never be gotten out easy in all this fine lace.” Simpson takes her bonnet and her parasol off her. She curtseys to Caroline.

 

“Mrs Ashton. You do keep such a snug parlour.” And then she turns and offhandedly stresses Posy, Flora and Iris. The whole bouquet. As if suddenly surprised they’re all here. “Oh. And I dare say such a pretty flock of gels.” She compliments.

 

“You remember my youngest’s. Posy and Flora. And of course, Iris. My eldest.”

 

Hux nods and lays particular care in Iris’s intended direction. He turns back to Mrs Ashton.

 

“I feel I must ride into town to immediately fetch the constable. Ma’am. You have been charged with a criminally beautiful set of daughters. Mrs Ashton.” Hux flatters. With an easy charm of a smile.

 

Two thirds of the Ashton bouquet giggle wildly, enamoured with the praise. The remaining third bites her tongue to guard it. To keep from rolling her eyes.

 

“You are very good, Sir. Please. Do come, be seated. I have rung for tea.” Mrs Ashton floats delicately to retake her seat. Mrs Hux daintily comports herself next to her friend.

 

Armitage remains stood. Arms tugged behind. Sword clanging his belt where he stands with a jaunt to one hip one leg kicked out.

 

“How are you? My dear Mrs Ashton...” Maratella greets. Taking Caroline’s hands into her own. She wore spotless calfskin gloves. Before she unbuttons the pearl fastenings and makes a show of peeling the expensive things off her tubby hands. Delicately pinching each fingertip and caressing the thing off her hand like she was doing it for exaggerated show. She wasn’t. She was merely acting elegantly as she thought she must.

 

“I am in good health. I thank you Mrs Hux.” She answers. “Your Armitage looks extremely well. London air must agree with you, Sir?” Mother simpers.

 

“It did serve me most splendidly. Ma’am. But I am more than pleased to be home. And most thankful for your invitation.” He bows politely and his sea foam green eyes flicker over to find Iris. She smiles meagrely at him, averts her gaze.

 

He cuts the figure of a tall man standing there, behind his short mother with his hands crossed precisely behind his back. Trying to make his lean chest look impressive with all his gleaming medals and polished gold buttons resting stitched to their black braiding wool patches. Soot. Gold. And blood. All in one uniform.

 

Armitage Hux had missed the main war of late. The Napoleonic wars which happened of 1815, just this last year gone. Iris wondered if Hux really ever equated the finery of such a uniform, with real true war.

 

Here he is. Trussed up like a clockwork toy-soldier. With his boots shining and his composure spotless. He’s a young man who has not seen the full horror of war. Iris can’t exactly boast of knowing any more than he. But his uniform spoke of such hope. Time will tell if he can seize the bravery needed to march onto a battlefield.

 

“Iris looks exceedingly well. Do you not think so Armitage?” His mother urges.

 

“Indeed she does. Most handsome.” Hux says to the matronly mama’s. But he’s smiling right at her. He crosses the few short steps to the unoccupied twin chair where she’s sat by the window. Gracefully deposits himself into the chair.

 

Iris takes a subtle breath before she turns towards him. Sat demurely with her hands clasped on her knees and her back straight. When all she really wants to do is lounge. And slouch. And do anything to put him off the idea of marriage.

 

She was doomed to its sentence. She’d have rather sat here today and stuck pins in her eyes. Rather than conform to conversations about the weather, the local gossip, the tea or the snow outside. When all their mothers were really trying to arrange, was, when it boiled down to it? A forced mating ritual between the country gentry.

 

The way Mama and Mrs Hux are peering at them from their settee, is like they can already envisage the wedding clothes. And the names for the Hux babe they want to see, soiling in its cloth, and squalling loudly it’s bassinet.

 

Iris is sick to death of all this match making- but. She is the eldest Miss Ashton. She persists. When all she wants is to flee the room screaming.

 

“How did you find London this time of year? Must be miserably cold and busy.” Iris seeks.

 

“Yes. It was rather. Lucky my visit didn’t extend for too long. I am not so enamoured of city living. The society may be fine and resplendent. I did not suffer for a dinner invite the whole time I was in town. But the lifestyle suits me very ill. I much prefer my time spent back here at Walford.” He tells.

 

“And how is your regiment?” She enquires. He answers. They talk about his militia training. His fellow officers. His sword. His commission. They just lapse to the weather. When the door handle creaks again and in comes their procession of maids with the tea and cake.

 

Assam tea with a side of Cooks buttery baked ginger biscuits. Seed cake, and finger sandwiches. Made of fluffy pillow soft white bread. Filled with sliced tongue, or ham, with cornichon or yellow piccalilli.

 

Cook has even made her violet macarons. Gorgeous silky little round cakes of smooth, bright purple. Wedged either side of cloying sweet ganache. Almonds and sugar and all things made sweet with violet essence.

 

Iris knew mother must’ve gone through a fair amount of their family budget for such an indulgent French fancy. Sugar and eggs and coconut didn’t come cheap. Of course she would pour every hope and penny farthing they had spare into this venture. Anything to catch a suitor.

 

Caroline pours, and Julia hands around the cups. Leaves a macaron perched on Iris’s saucer. Waggles her brows at Iris, poking with good natured chiding fun for Hux, who was sat opposite her. Looking most keen.

 

Iris sips her tea from her blue and white spode cup and pays their silly maid no mind. Just because they both flutter eyes at anything of Male born, with nice thighs framed by their breeches.

 

He’s a soldier too? The maids will state that every romantic girl must get her heart broke by a soldier, just the once.

 

Hux sets his tea on the end table between them. Leaning a tad closer to initiate more intimate conversation.

 

“Do forgive my speaking bluntly, Miss Ashton. But I believe it is brightening up. Would you care to take a turn on the lawn with me?” He seeks. They had finished their tea. After all. And she must be polite.

 

“I’d be delighted to. Sergeant Hux.” She accepts. She stands and deposits her empty teacup down. He tells their Mothers of their plan. He sees Iris into the cold foyer and they pull on their coats. She wished she could find something repulsive in him. But really, he is a gentleman. He holds the door. Helps her into her pelisse. He’s not a horrible suitor. Maybe if he was she could hate him more keenly. 

 

She wished she could be repulsed by his every action and snobbery. But he is, genial. He smiles warmly at her.

 

He takes her arm when they get outside. They walk along the drive in companionable, yet slightly awkward silence. Iris just knows their mothers will be fussing like clucking hens at the parlour window watching them. Planning a wedding for the spring after a suitably long engagement. Posy and Flora will be marvelling at every barest touch they share.

 

‘Did you see how he took your arm?’ Or ‘How he doted upon you... I should so like for a man to hold a door like that for me.’

 

Hux breaks the silence. They walk arm-in-arm around the curvature of the frozen pond.

 

“I know men aren’t supposed to be appraised of such matters. Miss Ashton. And if you’ll forgive me, I shall speak plainly-“ He declares to her.

 

He brings them to a stop. Ten to rly reaches out. His gloved fingers take her hand. She admires it. The plumage on his hat is battered in the wild wind. The only sounds she can hear is her bonnet ribbons fluttering and snapping on the wind. The birdsong chipping sweetly at her ears. The terrified drum of her heart.

 

“I came here today with the express purpose and intention of paying court to you, Iris.” He tells her. A hopeful smile on his lips.

 

His eyes crinkle at the corners with hope. His stark inky cape flaps on the breeze. She smells wool and boot polish. Stuck on the frosty landscape that glittered in his eyes.

 

Her chest breaks. Crushing in on itself.

 

She looks up into his face. The sun kissed gold upon her icy-white cheeks. Red tinted from the cold breeze. She swallows. Tipping her head slightly back so she can see his face past the woven peak of her bonnet.

 

Her mouth gapes and she looks down where he’s holding her hand- and it doesn’t feel right.

 

She feels like she wants to burst. Needles of hot and ice cold stab at her ribs like ferocious ten thousand little knives. She wants to be sick or run away. This isn’t the pair of hands that should be holding hers.

 

Sergeant Hux is terribly nice. Courteous and well bred. And more wealthy than her. But- but he’s not...

 

Lord Ren’s face strikes at her mind with so much power. She almost loses her breath. And her footing. She regains her composure. Even though it feels like something just yanked up inside her chest and tore away her lungs from where they are joined to her throat.

 

She plasters on a false meek smile.

 

“I see...” She remarks. Anything more witty or feeling was beyond her. She felt like soon, she’d fade into the air, like smoke. Just drift away.

 

“I know it is the especial wish of your mother, aswell as mine, that we are to consider each other as potential spouses. And I would very much- I should very much like to spend more time with you, if you’ve no objection?” He asks. Still clasping her hand.

 

“You are kind sir...” She stutters breath around the words. “Your attentions would be most welcome.” She lies.

 

She feels rotten.

 

“I know we know a little of each other. I believe there is some fondness between us. That could grow into respect, and, and possibly- one day, maybe more than that.” He approaches cautiously.

 

She nods. “You speak very bluntly of such matters. Sergeant Hux.” She says. He speaks as if they are already truths, come into fruition.

 

“I merely speak what is present. Miss Ashton. My- words are not finely crafted or driven by passion. They do not fall prettily. I am no astounding orator. Nor poet. But I do so believe that we might have a chance of making each other passably happy.” He declares once again.

 

“You shall never want for anything should we marry. You’d be a Sergeants wife and all that is offered it it’s income. I would treat you dearly, and- admire you as any husband should whilst you see to raising our offspring. These are, after all, matters that fall rightly to women.” He adds.

 

“Yes, indeed.” She guards her tongue before it becomes uncivil.

 

“We are invited to the Elton’s musicale, two nights forth. Thursday next. Would you do me the honour of your hand in the invite?” He seeks.

 

“Well. I-“ she swallows the sticky grey lump in her throat. How she’d love to be selfish and refuse. Her eyes still rimmed and raw from crying over all this last night. Heart sore. A great crack splintering through the middle of it like ancient rusted clay pottery. Her heart so badly wants anything- something more. Someone else.

 

She can’t do it. Mother would have her crucified. She wants her sisters to have a better comfort in life than what she’s had to suffer with being the family puppet. She wants her father to have new clothes and not have to worry. She wants to see Westwell safe from the bailiffs. 

 

“I should be thrilled to attend.” She smiles. Her shattered heart crumbles that little bit more. Morphs into a wet mush of clay. Drowned by disappointment.

 

This wasn’t for her benefit- it’s for everyone else’s. And that was no reason to marry. She believes first and foremost in living for herself. Iris so badly wants to live for herself. To be her own person. She does not have that luxury and it’s suffocating.

 

She agreed because it was polite. Because he was a genial man and she didn’t wish him upset when he’s done nothing wrong, but let himself be manoeuvred into matrimony by his mother.

She agreed. For her sisters. For her father. Definitely not for her mother though. She doesn’t deserve even an ounce of her thoughts or considerations.

 

She agrees, even though all of Hampshire society knew that the musical performed by the Elton’s made all the local dogs howl. Even though several ‘accomplished’ young ladies of the ton, played their instruments so ill, everyone swore they could hear the thud of the long deceased composer banging their skull in lamentation and sheer agony on the lid of their coffin.

 

Even though she’ll be sat next to a man who has promised only to love her dearly. He is a nice man. That is simply it. She feels unworthy and ignorant. She doesn’t want the things she’s supposed too.

 

She’s overwhelmed. Her head is spinning, and her mouth as sticky dry as a chasm of sand. They’re not even courting properly, or engaged and she wants to pick up her skirts and flee across the horizon. She wants to run. To breathe. To be free from this nice courtesy that she doesn’t want.

 

She wants more out of her life than that of being a broodmare of a sergeants wife. The expectations don’t stop the day she says ‘I do.’ The fetid things will live on and on. Until she becomes the perfect bride. Then the most perfect housekeeper slash wife. Then a doting mother to a child she’s sure she doesn’t want. Fathered by a man who loves her with lukewarm and polite affection.

 

Can a soul really be satisfied by such a light caress of passion?

 

Hers is begging and screaming for more. She’s read in books about exotic cities and lands. Blue blue, so very blue seas and oceans, vaster than her comprehension. Wide wide skies filled with sunsets she could only dream of glimpsing at.

 

She’s read of snowy mountains and thick pine woodland. Air full of sap and snow. Of sunny cities entirely made out of blue bricks in Morocco. Or ones in Asia painted the entire street rosebud pink just for one visiting dignitary.

 

She’s heard teasing dribbles of exotic accents and tastes and cultures. She wants to see the bursting heated streets lined with saccharine Mango trees in India. Perfume of it in the air, of spices and sweetness. Wants to see the terracotta catholic loud renaissance of Florence. She wanted to see Castles and chateaus and forts and grand ballrooms. And American railways across the plains of the wild west and-

 

She’ll never have any of those things. Not a one. Her future was written and decided. And it is appearing bleak.

 

She thirsts and wants things she’ll never see. Such opulence in the world out there. And instead? She’ll be manacled to a husband and the children and the stove in this tiny savage spit of a village. Until old age and death comes to take her away. Return her to the heat and rot of earth and maggots to help fade her to nothing. Until all that remains of her, is dirty bones and her loved one’s scraps of memories.

 

Hux smiles. Brings her hand up to lay a gentle kiss upon her glove. “I anticipate it eagerly.” He says. She offers a wobbly smile that she tries to make stand strong.

 

She can feel eyes stabbing into her back - most likely from the direction of the parlour window. Mama and Mrs Hux stood at the parlours front facing windows. Appraising their fine match.

 

But there’s something else- something that raises the hairs on the back of her neck. Something altogether much more unwholesome. She feels a cold chill burst and slither up her spine. Horribly slow.

 

Hux has taken her palm to place it in his elbow once again. And they wander now around the rest of the pond. He remarks how beautiful the great spreading horse chestnut tree must be in spring. Iris smiles her agreement.

 

Peering around. Everywhere in her garden she looked, all was empty. She can’t see their gardener, Higgins, trimming verges or shrubbery. She looks between the copses of the vast spread of trees that shield her view, past the shrubs and the neat hedges. There was nothing. They were the only two people outside the house, out here.

 

So why does Iris feel as if they aren’t?

 

Her eyes catch on the bare mulberry tree, the sprawling trunk is bare and black. Like dead curled up spiders legs. Swaying in the breeze.

 

A black shape sits in that tree. A raven or a jackdaw bird possibly. Onyx black. Curling feet and a sharp inky beak. Fixated its beady glittering honey-black eyes on the both of them. Not moving an inch. Hunched and peering down over them.

 

Iris looks at it for a long moment. Watches the wind ruffling it’s feathers. It stays fixing its look on her. And it doesn’t move. Not scared. Not at all intimidated by her presence.

 

Hux jolts her out of her gawping at an unsuspecting bird. It gives a scratchy caw of a call, and spreads its flapping great wings. Soars up into the icy soft of the pearl sky and soars away over the house.

 

“Miss Ashton?” Hux asks again. A tad louder to capture her attention.

 

“Forgive me. Lost in my thoughts...” She laughs explains in mirth, turns back and smiles to him. He smiles awkwardly and ducks his head. Discusses the weather with her once again.

 

They head back into the house for more tea. Caroline gives Iris such a sickly smile when they come back into the room.

 

Hux announces to Mrs Ashton that he should like to pay call to Iris and escort her to the Musicale next week. Mrs Ashton accepts delightedly.

 

Mrs Hux adds onto that enjoyment. “Why, we should get a party together. Such a merry gathering! The Ashton’s and the Hux’s shall all attend. You know we have two carriages, Mrs Ashton. Hux may escort all your lovely daughters. And you and Mr Ashton May ride with me and Brendol.” She organised with a giddy grin. Tapping her companions knee.

 

Iris stands there next to Hux. Feeling very much as if her life is being lived for her. She has no choice in the matter. She is chattel.

 

Thankfully, after arranging the outing. Maratella and Hux take their leave. They are going on into Pembleton for a general perusal. And Hux needs more boot polish. And she is in desperate need of new ribbons for her hat. Iris shrewdly eyes the hefty bonnet on the woman’s head, groaning under the weight of lace and ribbons and muslin.

 

Hux kisses her hand again. Bows to her before he leaves. Iris swallows nervously. But doesn’t let her expression betray it. Flora and Posy giggle and whisper to each other. Flourishing into gossip as he leaves the room.

 

Iris stands looking at the door for a second after it’s shut. Mother sees them off to the front door.

 

Iris waits to hear the latch on the front door go. When she does she strides quickly for the parlour door, she yanks it open and tears across the foyer and upstairs. Her feet loudly slap each step as she holds her skirts bunched in her fingers.

 

When she gets to her room she throws the door open with such ferocity the door handle smacks loudly to the wall. She starts getting at the fastenings of her dress. Unloops them and manages to get down to her chemise and her stays. She throws the fine dress away to crumple to her bed. It balloons on the air and floats gently down. Mourning the loss of being worn.

 

She is at her wardrobe, ruffling through angrily. She’s so breathless. Her lungs are not getting air. Why can’t she breathe? Her mind is racing a million miles a minute. She’s sweaty and clammy and her temples are pounding straining pulsing. Every heartbeat hurts her head. Throat clawing shut.

 

She won’t cry. She wilfully clamps her teeth shut-she won’t.

 

She skips herself into her simple beige muslin dress. And shoved her arms through the old wool blue pelisse. Stabs her feet into her boots. Heads back downstairs with her scarf to hand. Every nerve balances on the precise of a knifes edge.

 

She gets to the front door when her mother appears, peering into the hallway from the parlour doorway. “Precisely where do you think you’re going?” She seeks. Frowning. Face pulled into a scowl.

 

“I’ve done my duty for today surely. Have I not? What more do you want from me. I’m done parading myself like a witless idiot. I need a walk and some air.” She offers curtly. Slipping out the front door.

 

Slamming it shut behind her before her mothers next shrill words pierce her ears. No doubt cursing her daughter for daring to have such an insulting commodity as a functioning brain.

 

She walks quick. Off up the front drive. Let’s the sting of cold rip at her eyes and her cheeks. Taking deep dragging breaths. It feels like she’d swallowed an entire ream of dressmakers pins. Stabbing and squeezing more pain into her.

 

She puffs and pants and finally feels like she’s gained some breathing space. Coming into the woods near Westwell and shuts her eyes and lets the sounds soothe her frayed self.

 

The wood pigeons. A cuckoo’s call. The hiss of leaves scratching against their branches in the wind. High above. The crunch of her boots on twigs and frosted leaves mushed underfoot.

 

The tactile scratch of her gloves hands scraping across the rough bark of trees around her. She leans back against one of them. Looks up at it’s dead brown leaves. Elm tree.

 

It’s nice to let something sturdy take her weight for once. She doesn’t often have that luxury.

 

She regains control of her senses. Of her ragged breath and thumping heart. The cold wind wraps around her snugly. Letting her envelope herself in this silence. Breath escapes silver and wispy from her lips.

 

A twig snaps far off in the tree’s-

 

Her eyes shoot open. Scanning all around. Sickly bile rising to the back of her throat. She steps away from the elm tree and lets her eyes flicker all around the woodland. Over the ash brown of the trees and the brush of golden leaves mingled with crystals of frost on the ground.

 

She turns her head around and then loses her breath. Except this time, it is not of her own making.

 

There is a dark shape looming out of the trees. A big shape. A monstrous shape. A big meaty tangle of black-grey smudged fur. Pointed ears, a long snout. Eyes standing stark. Eyes that are more golden than a tuscan sun.

 

A wolf.

 

She watches as this beast assesses her from afar. Gently picking its paws over the foliage and mess of brittle twigs and mud on the wood floor. It’s paws were as big as dinner plates. It’s not baring it’s teeth at her. She imagines those teeth are bigger and sharper than most silver daggers or pocket knives.

 

It’s ears are swivelled in her direction. Eyes fixed on her too.

 

She stays still. Frozen to the spot she’s rooted too. Trying not to tremble in fear as tears, hot and molten silver, fill stinging at her eyes. She shivers with the ache of staying so still. Not daring to move one muscle.

 

This is the beast that’s been attacking the soused farmhands. The one that’s been hunting for blood. She doesn’t quite appreciate how much of a true statement that is.

 

When it’s about a foot away from her- it suddenly stops. Raises its lowered head. She sees the long line of its shaggy neck. Fur shining the shade of matte coal. It regards her with casual concern. It’s not growling. Or stalking her every move.

 

She stops holding such tension in her body. She’s used to the wolf hounds they have on the farm. Shaggy slobbering lumbering dogs who go insane for the dried liver, and fresh bones cook saves for them when she had a haunch of pork.

 

She remembers how their dogs go apoplectic for them. Gnawing at the fresh gummy blood and meat on those bones. She swallows at the not so appropriate visual of bloodied bones, right at this second. When she could have her throat ripped open by this savage wolf.

 

She watches as it comes closer by two steps from those big lethal paws. Then it sits.

 

She swallows. The way she knows canines. Sitting is not a sign of a rabid beast baying for blood.

 

“You know, you shouldn’t be afraid.” Lord Ren’s voice ricochets through her head. Like a distant echo. Smoke on the air. Did she imagine it, or recall it?

 

What else was it he had said? She can vaguely recall. “Wolves are not just blood thirsty beasts. They are intelligent and sociable animals. They are more likely to be spooked by a human than want to kill them.”

 

So she does the only thing she can think of. Maybe it’s foolish. Maybe she’s putting herself in greater danger? But the wolf’s tranquility makes her brave.

 

She makes herself look less like a threat. Slowly sinks to a crouch, joining it. Her knees stab into the frosty ground as she sinks down. Coming eye to eye with the creature.

 

So close now she can see the various flecks of honey in its eyes. Can see every strand of fur where they stand rigid from its sleekly shaggy coat.

 

She rests fully on her bent knees. Damning her dress. Dancing the wet frost and mud bleeding into her dress. She tilts her slightly head at the wolf.

 

“Where did you come from then?” She asks it. Seeing the huge ears turn to her.

 

Where she’s crouched, it’s almost taller than her, sat down. On all fours it would have come up well past her hip she’d imagine. It was no stretch to perceive how this could be the creature that’s been attacking men around these parts of late. It is a brutely sized beast.

 

Meaty shoulders, a slim body, long strong legs and a powerful tail. Immense and strong.

 

“I know I should most likely be scared of a creature like you.... But you don’t seem very dangerous, to me... I’m sure if you were hungry enough to kill me you would’ve done so by now.” She counters to it.

 

It tilts his head and licks its chops. Flashes her the ivory sabres that it had for teeth. She looks down to it’s intimidating big paws. The claws almost bigger than her fingers. Another flurry of fear shivers through her.

 

“Are you the only one of your kind? You must be lonely. Are there any more of you hereabouts?...” She seeks. Wobbly voice straightening out when she unknots her tongue.

 

The wolf just sits. And watches her. Doesn’t move. Just looks.

 

Those gold eyes harrowing in their ferocity. She feels like they burn her. Yet. Why does she feel like she’s seen those buttery-honey eyes once or twice before-

 

She must be mad. They should call the doctor to come take her away to the nearest mental institution and pin her into a straight jacket. Here she is sat talking to a wolf.

 

“I know better than any what being lonely is like I suppose...” She adds softly.

 

Maybe she is insane. She has the oddest inclination- she reaches up. But not before stopping to take her gloves off. She leaves them crumpled in her lap. And extends her hand towards the beast.

 

She somehow already knows it won’t harm her.

 

It still sits there. Even as she gets her fingers to stroke the side of its neck. Fur so soft and thick under her palm. Silky smooth. She’d never felt a pelt this smooth.

 

It makes a deep appreciative growl in the back of its throat at being petted. A deep husking rumbling noise. A chuff of breath.

 

A sudden noise makes her shrink back. The wolf sharply turns its head. She looks too. A horse and rider galloping through the far lane, off in the woods

 

By the time she twists back, the wolf is gone. Sprinting off through the trees. Far to the horizon.

 

A black blur in the woods. And she is alone once more.

 

 

 

~

 

 

 

Chapter Text


Iris was treading the route of the exhausting, bone wearing labour, of atonement and penitence. 

For her effrontery of staying out to pay call to Lord Ren three days previous, it seems her mother was determined to have her redeem herself in her family’s good graces. This apparently meant breaking her back, performing chores and labours for the Pembleton residents who were most crucially in need of assistance.

 

Caroline promised Iris to Mrs Emery. The most miserable woman in all of the British isles. From the very last curling spray of waves on the outer Hebrides to the last crumbling rock of lands end. This woman was the most stern old biddy to ever exist. Possibly even worse than Aunt Lavinia. Aunt Lavinia did not have an austere infatuated obsession with ‘our good Christian lord.’

 

Mrs Emery was a widow of thirty years now. Miserable and strict. And she also happened to be the verger. She lived near the quaint vicarage cottage. And moseying around the church making sure everything was spick and span for Reverend Potter.

 

Only she’s been struck down by a sudden ailment of the chest that leaves her bed bound in the frosty cold. Unable to perform the donkey work so needed around the small chapel, in readiness for Sunday’s sermon. Sweeping and scrubbing the floors. Polishing the pews. Dusting off prayer books and sewing up the holes in prayer cushions.

 

This lot now fell on Iris’s already loaded shoulders.

 

She wondered why her lot in life could be any further reduced to much more misery.

 

And here she found herself, in a freezing bitter chapel, with the sun barely warmed up to gold outside, on the cold stone floor, on her aching hands and sore knees, scrubbing the tiles with a hand brush.

 

Her fingers were pink with cold. Her hips and back already piercing sharp, something fierce. Arms weary from labours already and she’s barely started. Scratching sizzling bristles of a hard wooden brush to hand, scouring away the mess of the tiles. A clean rag, throughly soaped, swipes over in her other hand to polish what she had cleaned.

 

She is already clammy in the cold. Hair folded off her face, some dark twirls stick to her pink sweaty forehead. Cheeks pink from exertion. The only noises are the echoing huffs of her own breathing ricocheting off the flying stone buttresses up into the pitched roof.

 

She manages the floor with some success. Dirtying her gown in the process and ruining her knees. The cream muslin dress she put on this morning is now dusty and unkempt. The white apron Mrs Emery lent her is vastly too big and there are two dirty patches at her knees where she’s been on the ground.

 

She’s aching with the cold before too long. Nose running and eyes streaming from the dust. But she manages to scrub the whole chapel floor in under three hours. She curses her life several times over as she works. Not at all caring that she’s in a house of religion.

 

She’s livid angry and tired and if God is listening to her projected unsavoury thoughts? She has a good sharp sense and mind to remind him that she’s suffering the pains of up-keeping this sanctified place of his worship. Dares him to strike thunder and lightning at the steeple for her blasphemy. Much good it would do for her.

 

After the scrubbing, she empties the dirty pail of water on the frosty grass outside, and gets to work with the beeswax polish and another rag on the pews.

 

Kneeling on a prayer cushion - to save her tender knees. Rubbing along the grain of the deep mahogany wood until the light glimmers off it. Shining proud. The air in the church is stale with age. But now she’s getting to work the air is spiced instead with beeswax polish, that same honey scent from the candles, all around stood in their votives. The warmed bitter of dust off grey flagstones.

 

Where she’s working dutifully, birdsong chips away at the stained glass windows. Light beams in. Murky and watery, like rolls of cotton from the windows. Stained cherry red, emerald, sapphire and gold. Like a long buried treasure chest spilling in. Colour dots the thick black surround of the panes. Dust mites of nothing twirl and flutter in the still air. She listens to wood pigeons outside call, slow and lazy, as she worked her fingers to the bone.

 

As ever- working for the benefit of everyone around her, but herself.

 

She knows her mother is displeased with her conduct of late. She despises that Iris spent such time alone, with a mysterious Lord who they aren’t very well acquainted with.

 

Iris does not even pretend to share her worries. She cannot regret any minute of time she spent with Lord Ren. He was charming. Deuced too handsome to look at. He was unlike any mannered man she’d come across before. So uncaring for the reaches of society - which most dull men craved for. It was all they lived for. Lord Ren is vastly different.

 

Maybe it’s his foreign nature? He’s used to different ways and customs. He seemed so against all forms of politesses. Yet he’s charming, and he appeared thoughtful and sincere. Didn’t condemn her for talking because she was a member of the fairer sex.

 

When she was with Lord Ren, he spoke to her as an equal. Not as Hux had done. Labelled her with the title of merely being a ‘Sergeants wife’ and a mother to their children.

 

Not Iris. Not Mrs Hux. Or Iris Hux. Just. Wife. A wife.

 

He’s shown her she was to be his wife and that really was all. A status of a name. It shouldn’t be confining her, in her entirety, restricting her whole identity into that meagre title. It’s nearly offensive to be thought of that way. It scares her that he considered all of who she is, to be termed in such a manner.

 

She wanted to marry a man who didn’t restrict her in any sense. She wants to read whatever books she liked. Take whatever walks she pleases. Snatch time for herself- lord knows she’s had little enough of such a luxury in her life.

 

She wants to keep to her room if she wishes. Sleep in past eight o’clock if she is tired. Dress the way she likes. Dress for her comforts and not for attracting the eyes of men to her comely form. If she wished too- she wants to shroud herself in the ugliest most unflattering dress she has, and take comfort in the fact no ones eyes would be praising nor censuring her. She’d huddle up into the ugly thing and have great joy of it.

 

The thought of being able to live for oneself and ones own pleasure is a heady daydream. She’s reminded of that sad frailty as she gets yet another splinter off the ages old wooden bench before her.

 

It daggers into her finger and when she reflexively pulls black, she sees another shard of wood dotted into her red raw palm. She slumped wretchedly down on the floor, tears pricking her eyes, kneeling on the sawdust prayer cushion as she tries to pick the worst of them out. Cursing her piteous life. Cursing her mother. Cursing her stupidity.

 

If she were a richer young woman, born to a more noble and moneyed family, no one would dare dream of treating her like this; doing chores and scrubbing floors. Chores reserved for the lowliest of skivvy maids. If she’d been born to more money, she’d have very little to vex or distress her. She’d get up of a day and her most taxing decision would be what fine richly trimmed silk gown she’d have to choose to put on.

 

Her life would be long tea party of fancy French confectionery, dressmakers fittings for yet another rich gown. Her days filled with taking calls from acquaintances, reading whatever books she liked and existing wherever she pleases. Then she’d have a sumptuous oiled bath every night, before bed. Go to her dreams smelling like a meadow of pretty wild flowers.

 

She wouldn’t have holes in her shoes. Or rub her hands to the bone scrubbing freezing cold floors. She wouldn’t be tired and angry and stressed every day. Comporting herself in painful ways for everyone but her own benefit. She wipes away tears. She feels like her back was breaking. But it was nothing compared to the pains of her heart-

 

She stops pitying herself and gets on with the task ahead. Up until well past noon. There were 42 pews to see too after all. Iris struggled doing it all on her own, she wonders how on this sainted earth the very elderly Mrs Emery manages each week. She’s atleast five and eighty in her frail age.

 

When she’s done, Iris stands at the front of the chapel. Sweat pouring off her forehead. Cheeks glow with her exercise. She wipes the back of her hand across her dripping brow. The back of her neck and her chest is sticky too. It’s become muggy in here with the candles lit and the sun warming the stone through the coloured glass.

 

She soldiers into her next task with wearied determination, and her bones grating with ache. Glad for the frost outside. She carries out stacks of of prayer books and sets them on a short wood stool as she beats the dust out the pages. Sneezing and coughing her way through it until her eyes sting. Dust and musty old leather and paper smearing all over her hands and her soggy apron. Still damp from her scrubbing earlier.

 

She makes light work of 250 prayer books. Not sure how much dust she’s inhaled along the way. But she strongly suspects enough to give her a hacking cough all night long. When she’s done there she deposits them back on the racks behind each pew.

 

That’s the chapel finally finished with. She closes the doors. Taking a moment to peer around. Satisfied with her hard work. She’d laboured like a Trojan. But her day was not over yet. She trudges the worn grass path through the graveyard. Through the stubby broken teeth of wonky old gravestones. Set slanted and leaning in the grubby green of the frosty earth.

 

She opens the creaky iron gate to the warped little cottage that abutted the vicarage. Mrs Emery’s cottage. The strict one with no decorations outside. No garden. No plants. Barely any life whatsoever. She was a austere woman who took little pleasure in a garden. Iris wondered what sort of person she could not take pleasure in a garden.

 

She knocks politely on the front door and lets herself into the cottage. Mrs Emery was exactly where Iris had left her after tending to her that morning. Sat up in her front parlour with a fire burning, a steaming cup of tea by her side and a blanket tucked over her knees.

 

She was a dainty little woman with a round face an a gold pair of round spectacles. Curved back and fingerless gloves on her nobbled old hands, cross little face sternly peering out at Iris.

 

“How are you faring, Mrs Emery?” Iris asks kindly. Bringing through her basket to the small round table in her front parlour. Light floods in through the Tudor crossed window. Offering her a decent place to fulfil her remaining task.

 

She was to sew up the patched holes in the worn kneelers - the prayer cushions used in the chapel. Mending years worth of use and wear. She sits down at the table and gets on with her task. Mrs Emery seemed happy - a most relative term for her temper - to sit reading through her bible. Stating with a little scrunched frown that it was ‘most instructive.’

 

She then asks if Iris reads the bible. She looked up from her mending, eyes straining, fingers sore and almost bleeding from the strain of stabbing the needle through the tough thread over and over and over-

 

Iris stutters. Pulling a long thread through. Half concentrated on her task. “Well- uh. I don’t study it closely as you do, Mrs Emery, but I- do so enjoy Reverend Potters sermons every Sunday.” She counters nicely.

 

Mrs Emery scowls. “It’s not the same as reading about the good word of our righteous lord from holy scripture.” She insists crossly. Tapping her bible furiously.

 

“I’ll read it the second I get home. Mrs Emery.” She lies through her teeth. Stabbing through another stitch. Smiling genially. Continuing on with her work.

 

She divides her time between making a hot posset for Mrs Emery, between smothering back yawns as her syes adjust to the fading light. Eyes straining under the timid glow of a single tapered candle on a brass stick before her. It glimmers honey-amber off the blue-black windows outside.

 

Mrs Emery’s snores catch Iris’s attention. So absorbed was she in her work. She looks up at the carriage clock on the bare mantel and gasps, horrified.

 

It was nearly ten o’clock at night.

 

She rubs her bleary eyes. Stands up. The brutally uncomfy chair she was sat on scrapes back and clatters against the parlour wall.

 

She unties her apron hurriedly. The noise of her standing brought Mrs Emery back to life, waking her rudely as she sat up with a particularly loud and ungainly snort.

 

“I’m so sorry Mrs Emery. I quite forgot the time.” She explains worriedly. Hurriedly going for her coat hung out on the only peg in the hallway in the frosty cold kitchen. A tiny spit of a pathetic fire roars in the parlour. Near where Mrs Emery is sat.

 

She pulls on her wool scarf. And eases into her ragged old blue coat. Buttons it up tight. Knots the scarf securely around her neck. Walks back into the parlour for her basket that held her trusty sewing kit. Iris piled what she had used there, into the cradle of the straw wicker. Not wanting to delay herself any further.

 

She looks out the tiny window. Blue night drawing in. Dark velvet onyx now. Wind rattled at the ledge, howled bitterly at the glass like a baying wolf. It was blowing a storm outside. Weather foully cold. Atleast it wasn’t raining- Iris would scurry back to Westwell before it did.

 

She swallows down her trepidation. Hooks her basket on her arm. “Best you be off home. Miss Ashton.” Mrs Emery agrees. Iris looks over to the woman. Says she’ll see her on Sunday for sermon.

 

Mrs Emery holds out her hand to her before she goes. Iris sees three small silver coins resting on the black wool of her palm. From the warped gnarl of her little stiff fingers. “The Lord rewards hard work, my dear.” She professes proudly with a wrinkled smile. Clunking the coins at her.

 

Iris bites back a retort about the Lords gratefulness. Three shillings was an almost insulting offering after her labours of the day.

 

“You are the very soul of christian generosity. Ma’am.” Iris smiles. Pocketing the measly sum. She wasn’t expecting a bank note. But she bristled at Mrs Emery thinking that was such a handsome sum. It wasn’t the old woman’s fault.

 

She bids the elderly verger goodnight. Heads for the cottage door and peels it open. The wind nearly buffets it out her grip. She winces stepping out into the cold. Huddling down into her coat as she walked along. Out the front gate. And through the eery surrounding of the graveyard. Everything was grey and dead and governed by dark.

 

She walks along the short snowy lane. Lined either side by tall hedges and modest houses. Little cottages with sloped thatched roofs that sag in the middle. Tiny cosy dwellings. Windows stark and gold against the night. Candles on the window ledges. Shining through net lace curtains. Or the cracks in velvet drapes. Families inside wrapped up, cosy and warm. Sat by the hearth. Safe from this winter. Warmer than she currently is, that’s for sure.

 

She trudges along quick. The fastest route home this time of night was cutting through the main street of Pembleton. The road lined with the milliners, the butchers, the drapers, and the haberdashers.

 

The main promenade of businesses. Unfortunately. There were also three taverns on this road. The Golden Harp, the White Horse, and the Three Boars. Iris, and many other gently bred young ladies, were warned to stay away from these places at night. These were only places suitable for barmaids or painted women.

 

Men were most rowdy when they fall on drink. And that is no place for the eyes of a young woman to be witnessing.

 

She walks far across the street from the first pub. Keeps her head ducked way down. Sees the row of coaches sat on the street. Black square shapes glimmering in the night. Horses shivering in the cold wind. A few gentleman of the area frequented the less rowdy of the working man’s pubs.

 

Men are in the street too. Gathered around, tankards in hands. Smoking pipes out in the street. Outside the pub doors. As Iris walks closer she could hear the clamour and the din. Shouting and gruff male voices and old folk songs being sung.

 

Her stomach drops to her feet when they start calling out to her. Shrinking up like a shrivelling leaf. They shout across the road to her. Stumbling each other, leering and jeering each other. Iris frowns but keeps walking quickly away.

 

She’s not that quick to escape their attention. Distracted, she bumps into more men coming out the pub on her side. Collides right into the back of a man. Ploughing into him. His coat was coarse brown wool and he smelt like ale. She staggered back. Mortified.

 

He turns and gives her a filthy leer. “Watch where you walk. Lass.” He drawls. Scanning her up and down.

 

“Excuse me.” She squeaks out rather pathetically. Bobbing a short curtsey and she sidesteps around him. But he goes with her. Following her movements. She walks again and his lanky chest is right in front of her.

 

She shrinks back yet again, afraid. She doesn’t look up. She knows that leering face and smile is being aimed down at her.

 

“What’s a pretty girl like you doing out at night? You’re not a working lass now are you? Cause I’d pay a handsome sum to get between those pretty legs.” He sneers.

 

She averts her gaze. Mortified. One of his intoxicated friends, seizes the moment to tug his arm aside.

 

“Leave her be. You’re scaring the poor lass. Sorry sweetheart. He never could resist a bonny face.” He tells. Gripping his mate so she could walk on past.

 

They cackle loudly at her as she goes. Watching her walk away. The sound claps her ears like horrible thunder She swallows down her nervousness. Feels the hair pinned at the back of her neck, needle straight. She plods quick over melting puddles and mud in her brisk steps.

 

Determined to get as far away from all these drunk men as she can manage. Pinpricks settles uneasy on her skin. Her fear. Her wariness of being out so late. All of it marginally eclipsed by the aches and strains of her body. She is cold, worn to the bone, and she just wants to get home and feel safe.

 

Little does she know. But she roused more than the displeasing attentions of the rambling drunks outside.

 

Inside the tavern, sat a certain man who made all those rowdy drunks look like simpering dandy’s.

 

He was hunting. Ever since word got around about the wolf, or the madman. It’s been harder and harder to hunt. Seeking out prey became more difficult. Men roamed in tight packs now. After the wild circulation of rumours.

 

He listens to them talk about it in the pub. Right in front of him as he sits at the small round table looking out the window onto the street. His back to the room. Ignoring the beer in front of him. Listening. Waiting. Watching.

 

His instincts are fired up and his temper is a foul one. He needs to feed and he’s been snappy all day. Ill tempered. Needing blood to soothe the interminable itch in his blood. He’s not a man tonight. He’s a hunter.

 

He listens to the idiots over his shoulder drink themselves stupid and gossip like hens. Hens who didn’t know there was a wolf sat here in the chicken coop.

 

“Here. You know that Davey Sampson. The Doctor up in the village said they could barely identify his body. Almost ripped in half he was.” Some grizzly old farmer leans in and says to his mate.

 

Someone younger pipes up. “I heard they was picking bits of him up for days. And they’ve called the local constable to come keep watch hereabouts.” He says to a chorus of gruff and grizzled ‘ayes’ and mumbles.

 

“What could do that to man?” Someone else asks.

 

“Nothing I wanna meet in the dark on me way home.” Says the old farmer again.

 

“Every man I know coming back from the pub, now makes sure he never wanders alone. Never cuts through the woods if he can help it. And always keeps himself armed with a flintlock pistol or a knife.” They all pitch in with agreements and theory’s.

 

Kylo’s smiling. He crooks a wicked grin. Pistols won’t touch him. Lead bullets or brass rifle cartridges won’t pierce his skin. He knows. Plenty of men have fired at him in self defence. He’s got thick skin - strong like white marble.

 

He’s smiled at the foolish men that shot at him in the past. Watching the bullets ricochet. Enjoyed drinking the horror from their faces as he advanced without a scratch and ripped them apart.

 

Knives won’t sink in his skin. They just don’t. He’s almost offended that they think such petty things will keep them safe from his mighty strength. He can snap swords in half and not bleed. He can crumple rifles to dust with his bare hands.

 

The din of the pub becomes rowdy again. Voices and drinking and singing. A melting pot of noise and smells. Ale dropped on the bar from clumsy hands. Stale of it with dried hops and barley warms the air. Musk of woodsmoke from the embers in the crooked fireplace.

 

The dirt and muck caked on the uneven flagstone floors. The voices are roaring and blaring and the laughter is loud. The smell of wet dog as a scruffy canine sat under its owners table. It was a shaggy brown mongrel with muddy eyes and was more like a smudgey mop of matted fur encasing some bones. Probably riddled with fleas. When Kylo stepped in, it had slunk to tremble between its masters knees. Whimpering. Gazing at him with mournful brown eyes. Shivering like a cowed thing.

 

He sits there. Alone at his table. Mood foul. Mouth dry. Watching the reflections of candles and men drinking in the narrow Tudor crossed windows. Glass smeared with dust. Frost crawling up on the other side.

 

He watched wind howl and batter the street. From the amber candlelight and dark gloom of this pub he lets the soothe of mankind blot his ears for a while. Waits to see if someone slips out back to relieve themselves up the back wall of the pub. Some brave drunkard tries to stumble home alone.

 

No such luck yet. But he’ll wait. His patience and need won’t halt for long- but he’ll wait. He’ll wait to hunt. Mouth undeniably parched - it feels as if his tongue is cracking like much too dry clay.

 

The first moment that the blood touched his lips tonight, he knows he’ll glut and glut on it until theres nothing left. Maybe one won’t be enough. He may have to kill two tonight. His hunger demands it. He’s always been greedy.

 

He’s not just angry about the lack of easy food.

 

He’s angry because of the pathetic boy that was hanging around Miss Ashton. Dressed up in his ridiculous toy soldier uniform. That got him gritting his teeth. Seeing the preening idiot kiss her hand and flatter her. Talk about their marriage and their offspring.

 

Kylo had to feel every second of her trepidation and her dread. She didn’t want to marry him. She wasn’t attracted to such a meagre offering of love and protection. That’s what made him so livid. Her reluctance. The life that’s being forced upon her.

 

The thought of his sweet little dove lying under that lanky pale man on their wedding night, in the marital bed as he blindly fumbles between her thighs with trying to beget her with his first heir-

 

Kylo almost crushes the table he’s at, into splinters. He swallows and lets his eyes dart around the room. He needs to feed. Of he’ll go fully feral and that was never safe. He could ravage this entire village and drink everyone he comes across. He’d leave none alive.

 

His mood is a sour one- and then, oh then... it gets irrevocably worse.

 

A great big gust of wind outside, it slithers in on the draft from the window, blows a far too familiar scent in his direction. Curls at his nose. Lavender. Clary sage. Peppermint.

 

No. No. It can’t be- not here. Not now. Not-

 

He looks up. His fingers clench the table so hard he feels it crack. There she is. Right outside the window, out in the street in the dark. He feels his jaw clench. Trembling in anger. His mouth waters.

 

He sees her stumble into the path of the drunkards.

 

A low growl shatters his throat like piercing broken glass as he sees one of them crowd her back on the street to scare her. Walking her back. His friend tugs him aside. Kylo’s knuckles snap where he curls them into fists. Veins straining out his skin. Filled with molten black poison. Temples pounding. They were lucky he didn’t march across the street and start snapping some necks.

 

He knows the vile thoughts shooting through that man’s head. He doesn’t have to imagine. He’s sat among drunk men for a thousand years. He knows the foul things that lurk when drink takes over the mind. Nastier impulses come to light.

 

He watches her sidestep the scum and scurry away.

 

Here he is, the ultimate predator, and his ultimate prey is just wandering innocently past.

 

He closes his eyes for a second. Tries to breathe. Deep. But all there is, is her, cloying up his nose. He’s ready to pounce. To feed. To do things he shouldn’t do to her.

 

Lust. Hunger. Both now pulsing in his bloodstream.

 

Her sweat. Her skin. Her hair. That wet sweet heaven between her legs. The clean salt and floral nectar of his Dove. He can smell her sweet cunt from here. Hear the pulse beating scared in her neck.

 

Ambrosia.

 

He bites back the inclination for his fangs to grow. He licks his parched tongue over his sticky dry front teeth. Begs them to keep at bay.

 

They might. But he can’t-

 

She walks out of sight of the window. He stands from the table and tears across to the door.

 

Chair nastily scrapes the tiles. Beer sloshes as he disturbs the table. Harshly shoving men out his way.

 

They shout and bristle at him but he couldn’t care less. They turn around to challenge him but his sheer size has their tongues and bravery shrivelling up in their mouths, before their words have the temerity to make it past their foolish teeth.

 

He storms out the pub doorway. Terrible and tall in his black greatcoat lapping at his boots. As if he’s sculpted out of the night air. Black waistcoat and undressed white shirt on his big chest. The collar folded up at his neck. Joining to the black upturned collar of his cape like coat.

 

He eyes her in the distance. Sees the sway of her skirts as she walks briskly. A glowing gorgeous spec in that dark night. He was downwind from her. Could smell her. Heady like too much rose perfume. It’s making him woozy.

 

She beckons to every sense he possesses - especially the raw animal ones.

 

He follows her. Deep into the heart of the dark wood.

 

Pursued her down the dark lane. The pallid icy road that glows in the night. Trees all around whipped and punished by the harsh wind, flurry’s of snow swirling. He hangs back. Watching. She hurriedly steps off the road and crunches her boots across the wild foliage. Walking fast.

 

She’d never move fast enough to be able to escape him.

 

She can hear them. Whoever they are. She can hear distant footfalls slithering off the trees. Cracking and snapping like dry kindling underfoot.

 

Her chest pumps in panic. Breathing panicked. She hides behind a tree as she stops in the middle of the woods. Snaps her head around. Scans the dark horizon. Tries to see the shape of a man following after her- one of those deuced drunks maybe. The ones who accosted her. He’d seemed nastily determined to scare her.

 

Her petrified heart thuds louder and louder in her chest. She wills her scared tears away. But they dribble down her cheeks. Drop on her coat and bead away on the wool. Adrenaline kicks through her blood. Nerves rag sharp. Almost hurting her.

 

The distant thick of gloom doesn’t reveal anything. She can barely see the slithers of trees by the foggy moon. It’s blurred out of the sky by clouds. Rudely shoved away. It can’t even light up her journey home. Can’t help her.

 

She’s drowning in helplessness. And the creature stalking her is aware and is drinking in every drop.

 

She can’t make out anything through the threes. They stand resolute and harmless. Like sturdy black pillars rising out the frosted foliage of the ground. All that’s visible to view is the ribboning black of tree trunks on the smog of the grey dark horizon. Her lungs chill and stab with each deep breath. Her stomach squirming.

 

She keeps moving. Fumbles in her footsteps. Wished she put her heavy sewing scissors in her basket so she could have something to defend herself with.

 

Kylo watches her move through the trees. She won’t escape him. She has no hope. He needs to feed and they’re perfectly blessedly alone out here in the snow. Just them two.

 

The Dove. And the Wolf.

 

His golden eyes watch her pick up her pace again. Clutching her basket tight to her body. Folding her coat tighter around herself. Hunching up into her body. Trying to make herself look smaller. As she so often does.

 

He’s getting closer and closer. Nearer in pursuit. He can hear the husky nature of her panic in her breath. Hear the fast slush of her blood pumping hot in her veins.

 

He’s so near now he can taste the salt on her skin. Feel her heat. See the wisps of her hair as the dull night shines off it. The creases in her clothes. And the musk of her sweat pouring off her panicked frail little body.

 

She looks so delicious when fleeing in fear.

 

Even nearer. He can hear the panic cloying up her throat. He wonders what her fear will taste like?

 

Now. He gets the chance to find out.

 

He’s on her. He hears her screams split her lips. His hand catches her skirts and he growls as he spins her around. She begs.

 

No! Please.” She whimpers as his body slams to hers. She sobs, croaking desperate.

 

His body dominates her. Crowding her back. Shoving her roughly into a tree. He’s intent to make her last.

 

Why is it they always beg? Always plead for a god that isn’t there at their shoulder. The devil like him is instead.

 

He scoops her up in his arms. Hands at her waist. Luckily she wore her hair tied back. He bows his feral mouth to her neck and pierces the skin with his razor sharp white teeth with one bite.

 

He moans as she floods thick onto his tongue. Nectar on his dry throat. He pants and huffs and growls like an animal. Arousal shooting straight to his cock, making him hard as he’s ever been. He pulls back and feels her pulse thunder against his tongue, against his smiling mouth and his pearl-crimson stained teeth.

 

He laughs at her whimpers. Kisses her gushing wound. Lapping her like she’s a luxury. Feeling it spill down her shoulder. Stain her coat. Warm scarlet wool where blue once was. Sully the snow at their feet. Droplets pattering to the floor. Little gleaming ruby drips.

 

She tastes like peaches, copper and sour-saccharine red berries. Divine.

 

The best blood he’s had in this cursed country. The best damn cunt too by the smell of her. He hasn’t fucked in years-

 

He shoves a muscled thigh between her legs. He ruts his hips into her. Pants when her hips rub her mons onto his clothed erection. Seeking friction on herself. He’s drunk with it. If it wasn’t snowing out here- he’d take her. Rip that dress up and spear his cock deep as he drank her down from her neck. Or her thigh-

 

Much too tempting a thought to have her deliciously innocent pink pussy right there in his face as he drinks from her femoral artery. He drags her dress up and reveals her wool stockings and garters. Smooths his hands up her cold thighs. Rakes his sharp claws up her legs to feel her shiver.

 

He ruts her into that tree. Pins her there with his massive body. Cups her round plump ass. Bashed her into it and now the snow flurries over them, disturbed from the branches above. Clings to his coat in almost the same way she is.

 

She drips ruby black from his hungry smug maw. Fangs drip garnet.

 

Her nails claw at his hair, rake at his coat shoulders. Her groans and gasps sound too erotic to be ones of pain as he drains her life away. It makes him even harder in his breeches.

 

She’s limp in his arms and even still he doesn’t stop. He sags to the floor with her frail body. Spreads her out into the snow, lays her into the thick cushion of it and settles his big hips between her plump thighs. Curls one shapely leg over his hip.

 

Not stopping the feast for even a second. Rutting and grinding her as he feeds. Feeling sparks of bliss zip at his veins as he humps into her. Clasping her close. He can feel the pleasure in her too. His thigh rubbing her weak tender wet sex. The wet staining through her skirts and chemise as he cups one of her hips.

 

The beast won. The beast always wins.

 

He laps and laps and feasts. Biting more and more to get more blood. Ravaging her pale delicious neck. He drinks until she stains the ground all around them. A pool of her drowning sinking into the snow. He is drinking of her til there’s nothing left. She barely twitches. She’s past the point of saving. Her head falls back.

 

Pulse slows slows and finally slows to a stop.

 

He doesn’t care. He’s tasting and tasting his little Dove until there’s nothing left. Not even life. Just death. And blood and snow.

 

Kylo.” Comes a voice he knows well. It’s not hers.

 

Draegan’s voice brings him hurtling back to reality. He blinks. 


Him feeding on her was a vision. One placed in his head like a planted seed. 

 

He’s actually stood. Stuck still in those trees he’s following her through. Listening to the voice of his last lover strike through his head like the peeling toll of a harsh bell. Bringing him back.

 

There’s no mistaking it. That voice hard like needles and smoother than silk and cream. The comfort of it warms him. Why was his maker reaching out to him after all this time? He hasn’t seen him or heard his voice in almost three centuries.

 

He swallows, breath puffs out his dry lips.

 

His gold eyes watch her walk further away through the trees. Escaping. Fever dream had enchanted him. He had been a hairs breath from reaching out and snatching her skirts, fisting them in his hands.

 

One terrifying second away from reaching out and ripping her throat open and killing her.

 

He could feel the rasp of her dress on his cold fingers. The scraping cloth of Muslin. He’d almost done it. He’d touched her dress. He nearly gave in-

 

He let her slip away instead. Even though he wants to chase, and stalk and fuck and drink. He wants to taste her. Everywhere. The most exquisite creature he’s ever beheld.

 

He catches himself on the trees. Between two of them. He can’t quite tell if he’s holding himself back or bracing himself up.

 

His palms graze the bark. Tactile rough of it stings his hands. Every fibre of him wants and hungers for her. He swallowed back his greed. He looked beyond the blood lust. He’d been shown what might have been-warned. Warned of what he might do.

 

Draegan speaks up to him again. Voice so tender and present.

 

“Know this- if you destroy her now, Kylo. If you give in- you will face all your remaining ages on this earth in solitude and misery.” He warns.

 

His tone and voice fades on the howling gales like white foggy smoke. Thats Draegan summed up beautifully.

 

Pale like snow. Like mysterious fog. Like spiders webs beaded in frost.

 

It’s as if he’s here. Towering amongst the trees. That singular form of his. Taller than Kylo. Leaner and slimmer. Deadlier. More deadly than anyone would presume.

 

Draegan has the powers of the ancients. The first demon ever created. The first creature ever to hunt for blood. Sired directly by the devil. He could snap his fingers and slaughter an and entire continent if he so wished.

 

Quite rightly he’s been known by many monikers in his time. The pale one. The angel of death. White demon. Pallid and sleek. Hair that spills straight like shimmering porcelain silk down his shoulders. His eyes glow like grey dull moons when he feeds.

 

His skin like pearl marble. Elegant piercing eyes as blue as kyanite stones. The beautiful cupid’s bow of his handsome upper lip. That angular face, with a chiseled jaw and fine sharp features, so calm and so handsome. Enchantingly handsome. Designed by the very devil himself.

 

Kylo lets an exhale cleanse his big chest. After their estrangement and after all this time. And Draegan reaches out for him now. Pulls him back. Why?

 

The answer is plain as day before Kylo’s eyes. Scurrying away from him through the trees.

 

He blinks after her. The blue blur in the distance scampering off into the woods. She’s still scared. Kylo reels himself in. Focuses on acting on the correct thing to do in this circumstance.

 

Iris is still hurrying along when she hears a definite heavy tread close in behind her. She thought they’d lost interest a minute ago. Just her breathing echoing out in the deadened silence. Crunch of snow under her boots. She ducks under low branches that tear at her clothes, she bats away trees that get in her path.

 

She loses her footing going down a frosty slope. Bumpy ground slippy. She yelps as she trips. But she doesn’t hit the floor-

 

He hears her cry. And it fires his blood. Feels the spiking fear and he knows there’s only one choice.

 

What halts her from falling, is a big hand cupping the back of her elbow.

 

It slithers across her arm, snaking there and hooking her around to hoist her up. She tries to go faster or twist out the way. But the hand is firmly handling her. He pulls her around.

 

She gasps when she sees his face. Big beautiful features full up of stoicism and anger as he looks down at her. He crowds her back into the nearest big tree, practically shoved and pushes her back to it. Nowhere to go. Caught. He doesn’t take his hand off her arm.

 

“What in the hell are you doing out here alone, Miss Ashton?” He demands loudly.

 

Where he’s cupped her arm to steady her, he doesn’t seem to realise that the front of their bodies are a hairs breadth from touching. He exhales from that big chest and his coat buttons brush her front. Her heart is pounding and it sounds like heaven- being this close.

 

“Lord Ren.” She gasps weakly. Stammering her answer through almost chattering teeth. She’s ultimately glad. Although frightened from the sudden shock of his materialising. She calms knowing he’s here. Maybe he scared off the men who were setting upon her?

 

He speaks as he brusquely shoves his coat off his shoulders. Eyes biting hard into her like rough cut black gems. His glare almost hurt.

 

“You’re going to freeze to death in that shoddy coat. There is a killer somewhere lurking hereabouts. Preying on people who walk alone at night. And why are you out at such a late hour?”

 

She opens her mouth to retort but gets cut off. He watches those pink little lips part and he grits his teeth at the erotic nature of it.

 

“You could have turned your ankle the way you fell just now. What would become of you then? Stranded here all night in the snow...” He speaks sharp and cross as he steps and hooks his coat around her shoulders. Yanks her close and angrily shoved her arms in the sleeves. Tugs the lapels and brings it secure around her.

 

Silly - but she feels like crying. “I was detained at the church. Carrying out errands for the verger. She was left bed bound and her chores fell to me.” Iris explains. Sniffles sadly.

 

“A-and my family cannot afford a nicer coat.” She mumbles. Voice cracking. Feeling the height of awkwardness and foolishness. His coat comes to her boots. Absolutely swathes her in a rich soft wool. Softest and nicest thing she’s ever had on her back. Lined with crimson silk. Smells like sandalwood and pepper cologne and new expensive wool.

 

“You cannot afford a new coat? When at The Phillips you were dripping in diamonds and silks...” He comments pithily.

 

She shifts. Peers up at him. “New wool coats don’t persuade men into matrimony. Lord Ren. Silk dresses and diamonds, do.” She answers.

 

She’s parroting those words. They didn’t sound like her own. He sighs. He’s made her feel ashamed. That was not his intention.

 

“Do you know what else persuades men into matrimony?” He asks her gently. She swallows. Shakes her head. Looking at her boots.

 

“Not having their intended freeze to death in the snow.” He japes. His wide gentle hand comes up and tips her chin up to make her look at him as he spoke. His skin was frozen. She wants to offer him back his coat. He must be shivering in such a thin shirt and waistcoat.

 

“You’re coming with me and I will brook no argument.” He insists. Steps back and offers her his hand.

 

She looks up, seeing his handsome expression softly gazing across. The wind ruffles his hair. Specs of snow land on his big shoulders. She doesn’t think she’s ever seen a man more deserving of the title of ‘beautiful’ before.

 

Iris timidly steps close and lifts her arm up for him to take it. He does so gently and clasps her close as if she’s precious to him.

 

He walks her through the forest, in silence, and back out toward the lane they trod in on. Back past the taverns past the rowdy drunks. Iris sees he is leading her to his coach.

 

She was admittedly shy of walking past all the inebriated men once more. Kylo feels how she huddled into his side a little more when they go past. She had his protection.

 

And his sharp looks cut any of the low born scum, who’d even so much as dare pronounce one syllable of a comment toward her. Even look at her and Kylo would make sure they never live to see another dawn.

 

She cannot help but smile when they come to his coach. Being pulled by a very familiar black beast of a horse. Erland shifts and stomps when she comes close. Neighs and snorts at her. She gladly rubs his head and fusses him. He’s grunting and nickering in happiness. Dewy eyed and in love with her.

 

Ears softly arched back as he nuzzles her shoulder. Shifting forwards like a silly huge dog wanting affection. Wanting more of her. More pats. Sniffing her hair with his hot breath. Snuffling for attention like he isn’t a big ridiculous muscled beast of a thing. She laughs at him, cheered by his equine affection.

 

Kylo rolls his eyes at the stupid animal. But he can’t help being amused by it too. The effect she has on all creatures is beguiling. He pats his horses corded neck and tells the driver to take them to Westwell. He tips his hat and nods a good evening to her.

 

Kylo helps her into the coach. She holds his coat up so she doesn’t trip over again. One of the drunkards across the road at the Three Boars takes the opportunity to call out to Kylo’s back. As he’s turned to see her safe into the coach.

 

“Caught a pretty prize have you, Mi’lord?” He mocks. The gin reeking inebriate slurs at him.

 

Kylo does nothing but turn his head back to glare at the idiot. Who crumpled back in fear and fell flat on his ass. As if pushed over. Kylo heard the snap of his wrist as he fell down with his weight collapsing on the frail bone. It satisfies him a little.

 

He gets himself into the coach and sits opposite Iris. Shuts the door and taps lightly on the roof. The carriage lurches away. Away from cold. Away from danger.

 

Iris snuggled a little into the bench. He’d cleverly lined the velvet seat with a wolf pelt he bought from Bavaria. Kept it for bitter nights like these. With howling winds and snow.

 

He notices how she keeps itching and rubbing at her hands. He braces far forwards on his seat, getting close again. Their knees knock into each other’s as the coach tumbled and bumped over the uneven road. His cold hands take her gloves at the wrists and he gently, carefully removes them.

 

The rush of them slipping off her hands is like an endless thrilling kiss. She loses her breath because of it.

 

He notices how her heart changes rhythm. The sound of her thumping heart bumps off the tiny enclosed coach walls.

 

He turns her palm over and frowns down at the state of it in the dark. She’s pocked with sore looking splinters and cuts. Skin cracked dry and looking chafed raw.

He sighs angrily. Wordlessly removes her other glove and finds the other hand much the same. Raw where she’s been gripping her basket and scouring her fingers to the bone.

 

He never wants any pain or harm to comes to these soft precious hands. He strokes his thumb over the back of her knuckles. Gently leans down and kisses each soft arch of her thumb where the skin is most enflamed. Her breath hitches. His lips tingle on her skin, her cuts feel soothed. Stings less at the touch of his mouth.

 

“Why are your hands in such a state?” He seeks. Knowing already he won’t like the answer she gives.

 

“I was- tasked with scrubbing the chapel floor. And polishing the pews and sewing prayer cushions...” She tells him in an exhausted list.

 

His frown deepens. “Tell me, why has a high born gentleman’s daughter been assigned the tasks of the lowest skivvy?” He asks.

 

“To atone for my spending a day out riding, alone, with you.” She offers in a tiny confession.

 

Storm clouds brew in his eyes. He hadn’t yet let go of her hands. He gestures to her shredded palms.

 

This is atonement?” He asks her incredulously. Her tears start again. But not because of him. But because she finally has someone she can cry too about how wretched she feels.

 

This is the girl who takes all the brunt and the stresses of her family burdens. And now her back is breaking. She’s crumbling away and Kylo can’t bear to see it

 

She wipes away her tears, quickly skidding her hands over her cheeks. Taking away the salt. He brings a clean handkerchief out his pocket. The same initials, stitched in red. Bleeding onto the cloth. The edge stitched prettily, dripping thread in herringbone stitch. Even the smallest things he owns are beautiful.

 

He shushes her. “It’s alright.” He soothes. Drawing the cloth over her tears. She looks at him thankfully. Her cheeks blooming up red where he rubbed them.

 

“I shouldn’t be discussing these things I suppose.” She says.

 

“You know I don’t conform to societal rules.” He tells. “I merely wish not to see you suffering in any manner.” He explains.

 

“Iris. You are a beast of many great burdens to your family. It pains me to see you put to such discomfort for no good reason at all.” He pledges lowly. Unimpressed. Growling nearly.

 

“I had hoped my mother would ease her severity’s on me with the promise of a suitor on the horizon.”

 

“Sergeant Hux...” He asks. Trying not to snap his teeth around the name.

 

“Yes- how did?” She crumpled her face into a frown.

 

“The maids talk. And my Butler, as astute as he likens himself to be, is a glutton for gossip.” He explains. That earns him a laugh from her.

 

“Maids know everything.” She agrees wisely. He smiles. Silence looms on them for a second.

 

“Erland missed you.” He points out with a grin.

 

“That spoiled brat of a horse gets treats galore, yet somehow he still remembers the passing instance of a beautiful young woman feeding him a carrot. Since then, he’s been utterly enchanted.” He promises.

 

She smiles again. “He’s a lovely horse. And his master is equally as so.” She compliments. “Plucking foolish young girls out the cold and safely rescuing them.”

 

He remarked in his head, how he was seconds away from not even rescuing her at all. Rather more unsavoury instincts nearly took her from him. Draegan senses it. Managed to beat the beast away at the last second. Any longer and it would’ve been too late.

 

Kylo could’ve had her up against that tree. Fucking her like an animal in heat as he fed. And Draegans influence then, shouting in his head, all that wouldn’t have been enough to tear him away.

 

“This young girl in particular is not foolish. And always will be infinitely worth saving.” He tells her seriously.

 

She looks down at the handkerchief he gifted her. Much like the other one she woke up with the other morning after her strangely comforting dreams of him. She’s no clue where it came from. Maybe she forgotten she borrowed it off him on their ride?

 

She looks at the two stitched letters, emblazoned in crimson like a dripping wound on pale white skin. KR.

 

“Kylo.” He explains. Seeing her looking. She peers up at him, smiling.

 

“My first name.” He adds.

 

She’s never heard a more musical name for a man. She’d heard plenty of Johns, and George’s and Williams. Kingly names after great men of the ages. She likes that his name didn’t stand in worship of anyone. It was entirely its own strong merit. And it was a handsome sounding name.

 

“It’s charming.” She tells him.

 

“I’m glad you think so.” He offers. Mostly people here find his first name an oddity. He’s grateful she feels differently about it.

 

The coach pulling up Westwell’s drive broke their little bubble of happiness. Iris looks with dread at the parlour windows. Knowing her mother would be fuming. One, at the lateness of the hour. Secondly, at her ‘poor choice’ of company.

 

She’s proven right when the coach lumbers to a stop. The front door flies open. Simpson is charged out the way by a furious Mrs Ashton. Ready to seethe and spit nails at her eldest. She rears out that house. A striking sharp vision in austere grey. Face like thunder and expression hard as steely granite.

 

Kylo opens the coach door for her. Poison is already dripping from the old vipers mouth. Forked tongue slithers out between her fangs.

 

“How dare you tarnish all of our reputations staying out like this Iris. Do you have any idea what people will say about this? I shudder to think.” She snaps as her daughter walks up the path to front door.

 

“Staying out at night like a harlot.” She turns her eyes to Kylo. “Keeping unsavoury company. Have you forgotten your match to Hux? You better hope you haven’t jeopardised that.”

 

Kylo’s teeth are grit. His earlier anger circles back and ploughs full force into his chest. He tears out the coach and storms up to the front door like a dark hell fury. Caroline almost shrinks back behind it. He doesn’t hold back.

 

“She wouldn’t be out this time of night if you hadn’t sent her to atone for a supposed societal slight that was not of her doing.” He begins.

 

Voice loud and furious. Like astonishing thunder. Iris is almost scared of his rage. But another little half of her is slightly enamoured of it.

 

“You know perfectly well there is a killer loose and stalking these parts. And yet you care so little for your own, you’d let her scamper around the countryside running favours and working her fingers to the bone like she’s no better to you than a servant. You are a disgrace. And should be wholly ashamed to call yourself a mother.” He growls.

 

“The very same killer had his eyes set on your daughter tonight. Had I not scared him off and escorted her home to your side, who knows, she may now be laying torn to pieces on the road, Mrs Ashton.” He remarks bitterly.

 

Iris swallows back her fear. Suddenly very grateful he’s there. Grateful he spared her that horrifying detail. Made sense why he was so enraged when he found her. She was in more danger than she had realised.

 

His booming shouts attracted much attention. Posy and Flora are leaning over the upstairs banister in their paper curls and frilly nightgowns. Mouths gaping like guppy fish. Eyes wide with Kylo’s blasting pieces out of their mother with his words that fell harsh like raining bullets. Metal and acid rain pours from his mouth. He lets his hated and anger flow free.

 

“You are so keen to better yourself by societal standards that you treat Iris like an ineffectual wager in a gamble and give not one shred of consequence to her well being or happiness. She has splinters and blisters on her hands from her labours. She’s working herself to the bone for this family and you cannot even afford her your time or respect.”

 

“You’re a piteous excuse for a human being and even less of one for a mother.” He reiterates. Mother managed to unknot her tongue to speak.

 

“If this were a different century. I would have you called out and shot for such words to me.” She seethes up to Kylo. Lips pulled back. Teeth bared. Voice: pure venom and vitriol. Like bile.

 

Kylo sneers. “I would remind you of who I am. Mrs Ashton.” He leers.

 

She was just a Mrs. He is a Lord. He carries influence and wealth. He could buy this whole sorry estate and turf them off it if he wanted too. He could never do that to Iris. But he would happily see her acerbic mother live in reduced circumstances. See her try and crow her misplaced dignity over him then.

 

“You’ve managed to claw your slithering up the ladder of polite society, Madam. But do not dare for one second think I don’t know that you and your ancestors come from trade out of Cheapside. I could send you crawling back to the filthy little rock of a hovel you dragged the family out from under.”

 

“Don’t dare forget who I am and you don’t even want to witness what I am capable of.” He promises.

 

“Nor should you forget your daughter has free will and a mind of her own. And is of age. She may associate with anyone she chooses. How long do you imagine she’ll be ruled under your thumb?” He remarks softer. But his words still fall hard like stinging icy hail.

 

Mother swallows back her rage. Now it’s replaced, quite rightly, by fear. The woman looked blanched and green.

 

Iris has never seen such a splendid sight at this. Kylo crosses to her and kisses her hand kindly. He looks up and nods a goodnight to Posy and Flora. And when he storms out the house and slams the door. Two paintings fall off the crumbling wallpapered wall. Dust spits onto the floor too.

 

Caroline turns to Iris. Tries to compose herself. “You will no longer go anywhere out of my sight. Nor unchaperoned.” She snarls before she strides into the front parlour and slams the door. It echoes violently through the house.

 

Posy and Flora erupt into hissing giggles and gossip upstairs. It’s floating down the stairs like smoke.

 

Iris sags against the wall by the stairs. Besides the fact she’s practically now under house arrest- despite herself, she can’t stop grinning.

 

 

 

~

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

No one in a possession of a sane mind attended the Elton musicale, without a stout idea of the horrors that lay ahead of them, all evening. Tonight. Iris was one such girl. She had not been forewarned.

 

She’d taken her seat. Folded the programme elegantly in her lap. Politely discussed the weather with Hux whilst she waited.

 

Then parted the red velvet curtains on the painted Greek scene of one wall, showing them the stage, lit with lanterns. And in turn revealed their maestro’s for the evening. Poised on their chairs. Gold music stands erect. Fingers ready to descend and begin their tune.

 

Iris had heard some rumours over the years. Whisperings here and there, snatched words, spoken quick, like perfume escaping onto the breeze, of the sheer torture that was the two hours of the four unwed Elton daughters, taking to their instruments apiece, to play for their gathered audience. She never gave much stock to rumours.

 

She wished she had.

 

No one had told her the, noises - for lack of a kinder remark - that erupted from that makeshift stage tonight, would be similar to that of a cluster of tone deaf stampeding sheep, let loose on a cello, two violins, and a pianoforte.

 

From the first moment the Elton girls bows or fingers touched their instruments, Iris had wished she had never been born- matter of fact, she wished her great grandfather had never set eyes on her great grandmother. That’s how vehemently she felt.

 

Furthermore, Iris wishes to go back in time and thoroughly beat to death with her fan, the person who decided that mankind should evolve to have ears. She’d make that poor soul regret it.

 

They hosted this Musicale every year. Apparently. Annually. And no one had yet declared to inform the ladies they were all terribly horrifically and pointedly unaccomplished at music.

 

No one had the temerity to suggest such a thing. So, they played on with such stalwart determination, it was almost admirable.

 

Almost being the optimum word.

 

Iris tries not to let her face crinkle into too many obvious winces as the pianists hands slip to yet another flat and wrong key. Or when the violin bow strangles out the whining sound of the wrong note.

 

When the eldest Elton started to open her mouth to sing along to the Handel piece they were slaughtering and stomping their way through, Iris distinctly thought she heard all the glass in the room whine as if ready to hum and shatter.

 

The chandelier above ready to hail like daggers of icy stinging rain. It was tumultuous to hazard that her voice may indeed shatter the champagne glasses on the end table to shards.

 

Matter of fact she’s sure the entire audience collectively winced at the intimation of singing that was screeching out Eunice Elton’s mouth like the worst sort of banshee. It was a slight comfort to her, that she wasn’t alone in this cruel regard.

 

She tried to think charitable thoughts. Really she did. She herself is not the most accomplished girl on the pianoforte. She can just about bluff her way through a Mozart piece well enough. And she’s not a terrible song bird. A couple of chorus’s of ‘Let No Man Steal Your Thyme’ was her one master stroke as far as music is concerned. She knew her limits.

 

The poor Elton girls had not yet been fed the bitter truth of how terrible they were.

 

Lady Elton declares she rarely heard any music, not finer playing, that awarded her such thrilling delight.

 

Iris felt Lady Elton’s use of the word ‘playing’ was indeed applied far too liberally. Butchery seemed more fitting. Her now bleeding ears were certainly inclined to agree.

 

So, as much as she loathes it’s, she sits there, frowning and wincing in the dim dark of the Eltons drawing room. Sat alongside Sergeant Hux.

 

Her silly sisters sit the other side of her, to her left. Posy then Flora. Mother next to them. And Brendol and Maratella sat directly next to their son, on his right. Father had declined to attend tonight. Iris has never been more jealous of him. If she had the sense, she would have cried off tonight with feigning a headache.

 

She won’t be having to feign one after this performance is done. That is the certainty of the matter.

 

Hux is sat next to her. He’s of course decked out in his crisp red uniform. Iris suspects he sleeps in the damn thing. Shines his medals and his boots every morning. Intended to impress and shout volumes of his valour, she’s sure.

 

She’s in one of her silk numbers tonight. Pearls and white ribbon wound into her hair to bring out the honey tones of it. Iris is fairly certain there aren’t any such tones. Just the dressmakers obnoxious way of selling her mother the most expensive Indian silk.

 

She’s wearing a marigold-mustard yellow silk dress with a long train. Icy Van Dyke lace that spikes at her scooping neckline. Another one that demurely brushed her shoulders and shows her fine ‘swan’ neck. Pearls glimmer in her ears and that same lace drapes her elbows. Trimmed like a sweet dusting of icing sugar on her arms. White satin gloves, embroidered stockings and golden silk slippers complete her look.

 

Mother had also insisted on a thin strip of beige silk ribbon tied around her neck. Adorned with a pale yellow stone set into a silver ornate broach. It hangs beautifully down to her collarbone in elaborate detail. Shifts on her chest when she breathes out. Glimmers in the light.

 

They all recoil again as Eunice lumbers over a very high note.

 

Posy snorts loudly and Iris swats at her with her folded up fan. They’ve been spluttering and giggling under their breath all night. Iris can see them trying to restrain their tears of mirth. Shining sticky wet off the stage lights in their eyes. Dribbling over their cheeks.

 

When their snorting doesn’t cease. Hux frowns a side-wards look across her at her sisters noise.

 

Iris flashes him a sweet smile. Kicks Posy in the shin for good measure.

 

They bite their lips to keep from any further outbursts. Waify little bodies straining to suppress their giggles. Backs bowing with wracking laughter.

 

Iris opens her fan and wafts it in her face. Hoping the shifting air will help. What it will help she’s no clue. Maybe distract Hux from hearing her sister’s laughs of amusement. Or maybe it will hopefully distract from the violin solo that’s setting many jaws in the room on gritted edge. Eyes will start to water soon-

 

Blessedly, the first half shudders to a clumsy stamping close. The pianist is a little too conflicted about deciding on the final note to end on. She picks atleast three. And then embellishes with a flurry of a crescendo. Only coming to a halt after the crowd almost claps several times. Gladly doing so in joy when silence reigns heavy once again.

 

She’s never heard such a relived round of applause in all her life. The air in the room suddenly lifted with all the exhales of solace. Indeed some loyal friends to the Elton’s wondered why they bothered coming each and every year to show support. Yet. Here they all are. More fool the lot of them.

 

Everyone mutters and retires to the adjacent ballroom to take refreshment and repose in light conversation. Footmen pass around champagne and dainty glass cups of negus punch and cordials.

 

Hux leads her into the room on his arm. Acting like the most attentive suitor ever to draw breath. He fetched her a glass of punch. He stood and introduced her his friends in the Militia. The men that made up the 37th, North Hampshire, regiment of foot. He told her that her dress was pretty when they gathered to head out to the musicale tonight. And then that was about as much attention as he paid her.

 

He talked over her to his friends most of the evening and barely turned his head to acknowledge her presence.

 

She stood there feeling very much like a lemon in her gold gown. Watching Mama and Mrs Hux boast and preen to their crowd of friends about the fine match. Posy and Flora had enchanted two soldiers into fetching them a glass of punch each. They grin and whisper wildly to each other about the men they’ve snared attention from.

 

Iris feels like she’s in Dante’s seventh circle of hell. Or, more precisely, one of his lesser known philosophical musings; The sixth outer hexagon of awkwardness.

 

Especially as she heard the gaggle of red uniformed men cackle gruffly behind her back when Armitage walked her away.

 

Their hushed words grit her teeth. She couldn’t hear them. But she wasn’t stupid. They were young men in their prime. Foxes in a hen coop. They took great pleasure in assessing her comely feminine qualities. The ampleness of her bosom or her rear. Said what a pretty wife she’d make. Laughed about Hux being so lucky as to get her on her back in the marital bed.

 

Hux makes no such apology or excuse for the whispers she hears coming from his men as they exit the soldiers company.

 

She grinds her teeth. Glides along on his arm like the titivating silk swathed swan she’s supposed to be emulating. Keeps her sensible strong tongue clamped back between her grit teeth. Her blood pulses at her temples. She wants to rage. But she has to put more energy into focusing on being pretty.

 

Her remark about being in the landscape of hell came far too early. For she still had another half of the musicale to sit through.

 

She retakes her seat, and a wave of nausea and distress passes over her once more. The velvet curtains part once again, and the second half of hell begins anew. Abounding with an unfortunate renewed vigour.

 

She suffers it right to the unfulfilling end. Every screeching wrong note and stumbled key. Her body lurches with satisfaction when that red velvet curtain gets pulled across far too slowly.

 

She claps loudly. Loud enough to wake the hounds of hell. Exhaling through her mouth gladly. The enormity of her relief made her feel sorry for the girls who stand and curtsey politely to their adoring audience.

 

Their mother is proud of them. Seated front row. Smiling dearly at her children. That stabs a dagger to slice into Iris’s heartstrings. They play so ill and yet their mother sits there with a face full of smiles and love like she couldn’t be prouder. Admiration. Adoration.

 

That must be so encouraging for them. She wonders how that feels.

 

Iris feels like she’s wedged between two dismal walls of ice. Caught between her frosty mother. And the disinterested suitor. She feels like a pawn. A chess piece being moved in a game that she was not playing by her own design. A grey lump of sadness sits heavy in her throat. She’s never felt more claustrophobic. Or trapped.

 

They retire from the room, and there is dancing and light refreshment to be had in the Elton’s dining room. Iris wants absolutely nothing to do with it. Any of it. She tries to be jovial and delightful. But suffering with and lugging around a sore heart gets exhausting. It hurts.

 

She turns to Hux when everyone is gathered. “If you’d excuse me. I think I must retire early. I have a headache.” She explains nicely. Gently laying her gloved hand on his arm.

 

He couldn’t look less moved if he tried. “I see. I shall escort you back.” He pledges offhandedly. “This party is growing dull anyway.” He offers boredly.

 

“I shouldn’t wish to deprive you.” She adds.

 

He glances a shrug. “Allow me.”

 

They tell mama of her sore head. She makes her pinched face of annoyance. One that lets Iris know she’s in for an aching earful of a chiding in the coach, and thus moves to see her daughter safely home.

 

Hux tells her he’s happy to escort her back. It is barely a ten minute coach journey. Maratella encourages it. Saying the Ashton ladies can come back with them later. They did have the two carriages after all, she is quick to boast.

 

Iris thanks their host, Hux fetches their cloaks from the coat room. He puts his own on and doesn’t help her. Instead he fussed with his gloves and makes sure his uniform sits straight. When they step out into the icy night air and it pulls up for them, He lets himself into the carriage first.

 

She’s left following in his wake. Understanding where abouts she falls in this courtship.

 

The carriage breaks away into the black night. She glances up the at the handsome house of the Elton’s as it disappears from view in a great flash of beige brick. Her eyes settle on the grand sculpted box maze at the front of their estate driveway. Her heart leaps crazily like a fool into her throat.

 

The dark shape of a hulking tall man clings to the edge of the maze. Shrouded in shadow. But she knew that face and that stance anywhere. Lord Ren. Stood in the dark. In his great black overcoat. Watching their carriage roll along the drive.

 

He crooks that seductive smirk at her as they lock eyes.

 

She shifts closer to look out the window. Infuriatingly enough, they pass by a tree that blocks her view and when she looks again- there’s nothing but shadows.

 

Her breath calms where it once caught in her chest. Her palm presses to the cold glass.

 

She swore she saw him. Plain as day. She saw the dew shining on his black knee boots.The wind shifting at his hair. Fussing at his collar. His eyes glittering in the dark. She must be going insane. Finding glimpses of him everywhere she goes.

 

Silence reigns. And she uses it to her advantage.

 

She uses it to try and get on an even footing of understanding about this match to Hux. Between the clop of the horses hooves and the rumble of the creaking carriage, she inserts her words.

 

She’s huddled into the unforgiving cracked and cold black leather bench. Quite freezing in fact. She remarks in her mind on the lack of a wolf pelt to keep her cosy. Rubbing her hands together to generate some warmth from her satin gloved palms.

 

If he were a finer man, he might have offered her his coat. Or helped her up onto the carriage. Or give a damn about the fact she has a headache. Iris isn’t entirely uncertain in all honesty, that he can’t be ruled out as the cause of her suffering affliction.

 

“Your mother tells me you are off overseas soon?”

 

“Canada.” He confirms. “My regiment are to set sail in the autumn.” He tells her. Carrying on the British influence thereabouts. He’d long since missed the conflict of the last year. The very minor theatre and the final scraps of the Napoleonic war.

 

She nods. “My family want me married and my wife safely installed with my heir before I go. Continue my line and keep the honour of my family intact.” He tells her honestly.

 

Her headache spears worse into her temples.

 

“I see-“ She says. Rather taken aback by his blunt acerbity.

 

“Miss Ashton. You can’t be so missish as not to know this match of ours is entirely designed and intended to end in marriage.” He states openly. Face looking surprisingly un-emotive.

 

“I am perfectly aware. Sergeant.” She offers back. A little sharply. She has a vast deal more than just cotton wool between her ears. Better let him see that commodity of hers now. See if it repulses him like it did everyone else. She prayed Hux wasn’t looking for a stupid wife.

 

“I think it could be a good match.” He supposes. Iris offers no answer to that.

 

“A match built on love and trust?” She asks with an expected note of hope.

 

He scoffs. That right there, the cut and thrust of her desired answer.

 

“Love and sentiment is a waste of time Miss Ashton. Better two people who have a duty to perform. I will hold up my end of that. And I’d like to appreciate you do the same, as my wife.” He informs.

 

Stuck to her duty and guard her tongue. She is to fall silent and stupid and merely arch her legs for her future husband to use her cruelly as a dumping ground for his seed and his heirs. How very romantic minded.

 

“At the very least. A marriage cannot function healthily without respect from either partner.” She informs him.

 

“Surely it is the height of folly to expect a great love and passion from such a decent pairing?” He asks.

 

“I believe that a little affection and fondness can go a long way. Indeed. It certainly makes life more bearable.” She tells firmly.

 

“Then that is a silly feminine expectation you behold. This is not a love match. Miss Ashton. It is to be a marriage of convenience and honour for our families. Your family is in most desperate need of our capital.” He almost mocks.

 

Iris’s mouth falls open in horror. Those were not the words of a gentleman or a simpering suitor.

 

“And I need an untarnished woman of healthy age and good breeding. I apologise reverently if that is an offensive complaint to you. But that is the crux of the matter in which we find ourselves placed.” He tells her stiffly.

 

“And I am done discussing this. It does you no good to fret over what’s to come.” He tells her. Effectively shutting her up.

 

Iris bristles. She doesn’t want to be shut up. Boxed into her silence like a neat little wife. Her skin prickles with the anger and need to retaliate. He wanted a quiet docile woman? He should’ve looked elsewhere.

 

“I do not believe it is silly or feminine to be held in respect by the man I shall wed myself too.” She makes plain.

 

“In fact I believe if such roles were reserved, you would demand that your wife respect you at every turn. At the very least. So must I be any different with what I want to achieve out of my marriage?” She asks.

 

Face firmly set with determination. Eyes flash wet and white silver in the dark at him. She lets that wilful stubborn tilt of her chin be known.

 

“You are a woman.” Hux tells her. As if that should be enough of an answer.

 

“Excellently noticed.” She growls back. “And that.” She says. “Was not an answer.” She narrows her eyes nastily.

 

He looks taken aback. As if a woman has never dared correct him before. She’s glad to think she might be the first.

 

“Are you always this adamant?” Hux asks with a sneer. It was jolly amusing. She had spirit, he’d give her that.

 

“And are you always so unfeeling, Sergeant?” She fires back. He makes no answer. She does so for him.

 

“So long as you continue to be loveless. I shall continue to be adamant.” She declares. “Taking a wife is not one of your military campaigns.” She snaps.

 

“Lord save me from stubborn girls...” He mutters under his breath. Running a hand through his hair in exasperation.

 

“This is getting us nowhere, Miss Ashton. Let me speak plainly. When we marry...” he starts.

 

If” Iris feels like spitting at him.

 

“We will do as we are duty bound. At the very least. I expect you not to fight me on such matters. It is my conjugal right after all. To be made welcome to my wife’s bed.” He insists. She rather wants to spit in his eye.

 

“Though you may wish to fight me on everything else. I’d remind you to put aside silly stubbornness and submit to being my wife. You will have money. Title. Influence. What more could you possibly hope to gain?” He asks. Keeping eye contact with her.

 

Love’ is the only word that flutters through her head.

 

But she can’t love him.

 

Not him. Not like that. Here he sits in his mighty uniform, talking down to her about demanding a very basic human principle of relationships. Was it really so much to ask for?

 

“Is my wanting to be respected by a suitor such a terrible thing?” She asks.

 

“I never said I don’t respect you. Miss Ashton.” He points out. “I am merely making you aware that our match will never concern love.” He warns.

 

She believes otherwise as to his respect of her. His manner this evening was so uninvolved and stiff. Regimented. She wouldn’t be surprised if he had no regard for her one iota. She’s just the next logical stepping stone in the firm line of his family duty. She’s a target. A mission.

 

“I thank you greatly for the edifying clarification.” She insists quietly.

 

Turning her attention to the window. She didn’t wish to be locking antlers with him for their whole marriage. She wasn’t the sort of girl to spit fury and snipe at someone. Let alone someone she’ll be intended too. She won’t exist as a determined harridan ready to snarl at her husband all the live long day. She hasn’t the energy.

 

She knows and had associated with, and knew people who had marriages of convenience, whereby if they saw one another in a day, they were lucky. She knows plenty of couples who let nothing but poison drip off their tongues aimed at each other. They exist in great cold grand houses in miserable stiff silence. That’s all that’s borne between them.

 

Wealthy people of the ton seemed to exist around each other like outlying planets in orbit. Only seeing one another in passing, far off in the distance. In-between them and their separate bedrooms, lives, and marriage, scurried maids, and valets and other members of staff. Of whom spent more time with their masters, than the person who they’d married.

 

To Iris, It seemed almost inhumane.

 

Next time, the only remark she would make upon the silence to improve it, would be an idle comment about the weather. She’s determined.

 

Maybe she did make a fuss if the situation. Maybe her temper got too passionate. But something about a loveless marriage fills her with horror. She rails so against it because she firmly feels there should be more to life than living an artless and stony-hearted one. There has to be more to it than that-

 

A sudden crack rips violent through the air. She braces her arms on the bench and the side of the window nearest her. The coach jerks and shudders. Catching them off guard.

 

Hux is almost thrown off his bench and colliding directly into her knees. She scoots backwards up the seat. His chest almost coming to hers. She gasps. Affronted. His medals and buttons stabbing her cold in the chest. Warm red wool of his coat rubbing her.

 

He collects himself as the coach judders to a shaky halt. The horses shriek and stomp in complaint. Hux angrily pounds on the roof. “What the hell is going on, Wilkins?” He snarls. Before getting to the door and throwing it open in a frothing rage.

 

They are stopped on the icy road. In the middle of a forest as black as night. The trees are gnarled and dead and devoid of leaves. Curled up to the open pearly moon like dead spiders legs. The forest seems so close out here. Eerily so. It’s blessedly quiet. As if every bird or animal has been chased away. Or been strangled to silence by something lurking under the trees nearby- something dark that prowls.

 

Iris stays pinned to the seat, watching Hux get out to angrily berate his coach driver. She listens to him chide and rip chunks out of the man.

 

She sighs and opens the carriage, getting out herself. The door creaks as she steps down, her blue velvet cloak unfurls around her sides. She picks her dainty slippered feet down the stand, and sets them gently into the frosty road. The cool sends a shiver up her legs. Right up her chemise and biting at her stockings.

 

She shuts the door after her, turning around, she catches sight of the severity of the problem. The back right carriage wheel was entirely missing. It had come loose. Spun clean off the carriage. She sees something sharp and shiny near her foot. She reached down and picks up the pin that secured the wheel to the carriage. Weights it in her palm. Grit and mud getting on her gloves. She straightens up.

 

Iris stepped back and looked down the road they’d driven down. An eerie fog swirls and circles the road up ahead. Lapping at her ankles like a curling white tongue.

 

A hand yanking to her elbow drags her back. Her skin pinched in pain.

 

A yelp leaves her mouth. A startled yelp that echoes out into the forest. Hux spins her into his arms.

 

“What do you think you’re playing at? Get back in the coach this instant.”

 

She recoils at being manhandled so viciously. Snatched her arm back out of his.

 

“I thought I might help. Anger won’t solve anything.” She comments wryly.

 

“I don’t require your help. Get back into the carriage.” He dismisses tersely.

 

Before he can turn fully away, she shoves the metal rod in his hand.

 

“You might need this. The wheel is probably undamaged. Just the pin holding it there was most likely rattled loose. You may find it back up the road a way.” She says snappily. She sees it all the time in their trap carts on the farm.

 

She turns away. Hoists up her skirts with a huff. Ready to step back up into the coach.

 

Hux looks fairly sheepish at the item she placed in his hand. Good.

 

She’s just got her foot on the stand, holds the handle strap to haul herself in. When something rustles in the bushes and undergrowth beside them. Something snapping twigs. Rustling the leaves on the hard unyielding ground.

 

A low sound rumbles out the trees. It’s the most bone chilling growl Iris has ever heard. She turns her head slowly around and there. In the woods. A glowing golden pair of eyes glimmer out the foggy dark.

 

“What the devil-“ Hux starts. The tone of his voice is shrill with panic.

 

The driver tries to call the horses as their ears twitch and they grow rightfully restless. They nicker in fear. Ears swivelling. Snorting and stamping to get away.

 

It’s the nearest thing to a devil Hux will ever see.

 

The growling dark shape looms out the trees. Padding closer. Iris looks the beast right in the eyes. Hux’s mouth gapes wide open as they watch the magnificently large wolf walk casually out of the treeline.

 

It’s slobbering maw is shining in the dull light. Ears pinned back. Growling. Stalking towards Armitage.

 

“Iris get back in the coach.” Hux hisses at her. The growling from the creature intensifies. Eyes set on the pumping peril of Hux’s jugular.

 

Hux’s hand is slipping under his cloak. Going for his belt. Where his pistol sat. Iris wasn’t looking at him. She was transfixed in those feral yellow-gold eyes.

 

She shakes her head. Too frightened. Yet, oddly she doesn’t want to run away. She just wants to look at this familiar enormous creature. Some small part of her feels like she has an affinity with it.

 

Hux grabs her wrist. “Get in the coach now you stupid girl. Or I will make you!” She snaps loudly. Shoving her back cruelly into the coach. Rudely walking into her. Uncaring if he causes her injury.

 

The beast snaps it’s teeth in a slobbering bark at Hux. He jumps. Unsheathing his flintlock pistol from underneath his cloak. Shoving the covering cape of it out his way. Cocking his pistol directly at the creature.

 

Iris dives for his arm. “No!” She puts herself between the wolf. Puts her back to it. Faces Hux. Hair torn out of her coiffure. Curls straying down her neck. Ragged. Wild. Her voice is desperate. Wide eyes shining and pleading with him.

 

“No please! Armitage don’t hurt it. Please!” She begs. He frowns down at her, disgusted.

 

“You want me to show mercy to this thing that’s slaughtered men?” He scoffs. “Get out of my way. They’ll give me a bloody medal for killing this beast.” He rudely and powerfully shoved her aside.

 

Sweeping her away with a solid knock of his sturdy coated arm. Of course. How dare she get in the way of his valiance. She staggers back. Whipping around in time to see the wolf crouch down low.

 

Hux sneers at the creature. Pointing the gun. “Look away Iris, you won’t want to see this...” He promises.

 

The wolf lunges. Hux fires a shot and Iris’s every nerve jolts, black and sickening in her body.

 

A yelping “No!” Sails out her mouth. She doesn’t move but her entire being shatters and cracks like glass.

 

She shrinks back to the coach, seeing Hux knocked flat on his back. The wolf close to him. Between his legs.

 

Growling. Unhurt. The pistol lays discharged many feet away.

 

The creature had snatched it out his hands. It raises its head and regards her, calm stance returning.

 

She looks into those eyes again. The ones that stand out of that cold night like warm yellow butter. She can’t decide how she feels about this animal. It seems aware of never hurting her. It looks right at her too. Seeing her. The only thing that’s ever seen her as a whole.

 

There’s a second or two before it turns away and sprints off into the trees. Moulds back into the night it came out of.

 

Iris watches the fog swirl around the shape where it had once been. The pad of its giant paws thumping away as it runs back in the forest.

 

The horses are still baying and wild. Wanting to leave. Hux angrily shoves himself to his feet. Brushing off his now sullied uniform.

 

“When we are wed. Don’t you ever dare disobey me like that again.” He snarls.

 

She’s beginning to think that wolf wasn’t the beast, after all. The cruelest beast with the nastiest temper of all? It stands right here before her.

 

She can’t help nor escape the premonition that this had all been a warning somehow. Not just of what’s to come, but a startling glimpse into how she’ll be treated as a wife. Willed into being obedient.

 

Eventually, Hux sees her home. The wheel is mended and the carriage works to everyone’s satisfaction once again. They drive the rest of the icy route in bitter silence. His ego doubtless wounded by tonight’s troubling events.

 

As they pull up to Westwell to let her out. He offers nothing but a snippy “Goodnight.” Shoved morosely in her direction. Barely even turned his head. She’s left looking at the pale sharp profile as he sits still. Mood sour. The coach door slams after her and tears away quickly.

 

She sighs after he leaves. Watching the moonlight bounce off the rocking black roof. Tears and grit teeth as she watches it move away into the night. Glad of it and hating so vehemently with every ounce of her soul that all of this is still happening. Match was doomed to go ahead.

 

“Good riddance...” She spits in the direction of the coach. Secretly to herself with a whisper. Her one self-indulgence of her true spirit.

 

She trudges up the petticoat tiled, gravel laid frosted path to the steps. And Julia is already there. Opening the door to let her in. Iris steps into the warm foyer and sheds her cloak and gloves. She apologised for the mud on her satin kid skin gloves.

 

The warm wood of Westwells foyer floor shines with the lemon-amber of the fire in the entryway hearth. Heating the air as soon as any visitors step in from the cold night out of doors. Iris is glad for it. But now she really just needs the ideal splendour of her quiet room and a cup of tea to take away the stresses of her day.

 

“I’ll bring it to your room directly.” Julia bobs a curtsey and slips away to the kitchens.

 

Iris trudges upstairs. Already kicking off her slippers and taking out her earrings as she goes. Old wobbly stairs creaking and cracking under her weight. She knows every sound those warped old stairs make, off by heart.

 

She pushes open the door to her bedroom. Slips inside. Julia or Meg have lit the candles by her bed, and banked the fire. It roars softly and her room is gently warm.

 

With a glum sigh she reaches the fastenings on her dress and begins to unlace them as best she can. Julia’s treads up the stairs interrupt her. She sets down a saucer of tea and helps Iris off with her gown and stays. Asking her about her evening.

 

She answers succinctly. Says she needs to sleep off a headache. Julia takes that as her answer and whisks her gown away to be washed and pressed. Iris thanks her. Looping her stays over the chair by her vanity dresser. She sits on the end of her bed. Stares ahead into flames.

 

Peeling off her wool stockings and garters to the soundtrack of the popping snapping fire. Logs smoulder to ash. She sits and watches them as she undoes her chemise and slips on her nightgown. The one that’s seen better days. There’s a hole in the hem. She does up the drawstring neck. It still slips off one shoulder. It’s far too stretched and almost worn thin. But she does so love it. It’s cosy.

 

She locks her door. Slips into bed. Covers crumpling and rustling around her. And she drinks her tea. The curtains are pulled almost closed and as always her window is open to let the heat out.

 

Iris shuffles down in her bed and rests her pounding head. She falls quickly to dreams. They swallow her up quick.

 

She didn’t know that her open window not only let the heat, out- but it also let big hulking vampires, in.

 

His thick fingers curl under the sash window and lift it up. It barely makes a squeak. He slips inside. Quick and silent. Sneaky as smoke.

 

He brings a great drift of the cold night air with him. But she doesn’t wake. She won’t ever when he comes. He’ll always safely ensure that.

 

He passes the end of the bed. Drifting air from his body disturbs the thick gold canopy curtains. He puts his hand on the mahogany poster.

 

“Hello my Dove.” He says softly to the bed before him. To his sleeping lover. Curled up safe. Face relaxed in peace. He likes seeing her so contented. When she wakes she has troubles and woes and stress heaped upon her.

 

Here, she is completely at peace. And that’s what he loves to see. It gives him calm too.

 

“I took the liberty of coming to check on you.” He tells her. Moving around the bed as he so often does. Coming to sit by her side.

 

“Especially after the way that imbecile treated you tonight. The way he made you feel.” He growls. “Handling you like that.” He stated sourly. Shaking his head.

 

He remembers her yelp when that bastard gripped her wrist. He heard it from a mile away. Felt it too. The painful grating of her bones. The white-hot sore pain of it. He was tempted to take the bastards leg off with one bite.

 

“Made you sound like his cheap broodmare. I’m almost remorseful I stopped where I did. Before I could have had the chance to rip his throat out.” He strokes at her cheek.

 

“How valiantly you tried to protect me tonight. Sweet dove.” He smiles and aches at the thought.

 

She shielded the creature that couldn’t be harmed, with her own tender body. No one had ever tried to shroud him from pain like that before. No one had cared.

 

No one had ever cared about the beast.

 

“So often I find I settle in my bed to rest at night, and your face is the one that comes to me, behind closed eyes.” He explains.

 

“I cannot rest until I know you are well. My temper and well being is tied to you, my dove. I wish you could know that. How soothing it is for me just to see you. How the mere sight of you eases my mind.” He explains.

 

“I wonder if you do the same?” He asks. Wonders if she sees him in her sleep. If the sight of him keeps her calm.

 

His hand strokes her face. Skimming her cheekbone.

 

She mumbles. Turns on her side. Curling into him. Gravitates to him like magnets. “Maybe you will after tonight.” He hopes deeply.

 

He knows he can tempt her with a dream or two. He knows he can draw out what she feels for him. A sacred little erotic secret of her lust. A vampire’s kiss was a magically dark gift. An opiate. A touch designed to enchant.

 

She mumbles again. Tilts her face into the cradle of his whole cold hand. Her warm soft cheek kisses into his palm.

 

He confesses something quietly then. “When I’m around you Iris, you make me feel less like the savage beast that I truly am.” He comments. He frowns. Perplexed.

 

“How do you do it? Smile at me the way you do? Make me feel, so, unendingly...” Here he chokes on the word “Alive.”

 

He looks at her resting face in the amber and black of firelight and dark. Sees the spill of shadows from her eyelashes casting spidery shade down her warm cheeks.

 

He can’t resist any longer. Maybe a better man would have tried. The animal in him knows no such honour.

 

“I said I dreamt of you, and now I’m going to show it to you.” He moves in closer.

 

“Here, have a taste, little dove.” His eyes flicker up her face, he leans down and tips her chin up to let her lips meet. He lets his breath flutter over her mouth.

 

She gasps when his hand touches her neck. Gently cupping her like she’s the most precious opus on earth. Like she’s made of fragile eggshell glass that will shatter under his brute hands. The hands that can crush rock, snap bone and break steel.

 

When her lips part, he so sweetly brings his lips to hers. Indulges her in the most languid kiss. He sighs. His face is drawn in pleasure that almost looks akin to agony in his expression. Shocks and sparks zip right through his body like fine sparkling champagne.

 

She’s everything-

 

She’s like rainfall on his dry parched lips. Bittersweet of hot summer rain. Amber honey. Sugared exotic Italian peaches that grow juicy and ripe under some tuscan country sun. Buttery yellow nectar from the cup of some elegant flower, with petals that drips thick thick pollen. All the things that are good and pure in his life, she tastes like every single one of them.

 

He takes the chance to slide his hungry tongue in her mouth. Brushing his against the silk of hers. Plunging into her hot mouth. He’s willing to bet no man has ever kissed her like this. He smiles thinking that he’s the first.

 

The instant his tongue brushed hers, she’s taken. Taken by a dream. A vision.

 

A vision of them together. One his enchanting senses can conjure up. He draws out her demure lust that she’s been taught to lock down deep and gives it an explosive and crudely beautiful awakening.

 

She’s writhing on the bed already, spine humming with wracking shivers. One touch was all it took.

 

He breaks away, watching her. His big chest is panting as he watches her fidget and toss her head on the bed. Skin shimmering amber in the sweat from the fire.

 

“Can you see us?” He asks in wonder. Cupping and stroking her head. His hot lips ghost breath over her cheek.

 

Iris has never had an erotic thought in her life. Much less an erotic dream. But the image in her head was the most arousing thing she had ever witnessed.

 

It was her bedroom. Only she wasn’t alone as she usually was. She’s on the bed and the poster drapes are drawn. Offering limited sliced views of the very occupied mattress. She was very much not alone.

 

She’s locked and joined with another. A big broad brute of a man is above her. She’s splayed out in the middle of her mattress, atop a rumpled rosebud eiderdown, the one she’s had since childhood. Only she is not indulging in childish activities...

 

Her and this man, They are very much naked.

 

She gasps when she sees its him. Lord Ren. Kylo.

 

She’s on her back. Her hips pried open, thighs bunched up to her body, legs curled up around this huge man’s back. Her unbound hair spills across the pillow. His dark head is bowed down, kissing at her breast, sucking her neck. Leaving shiny trails carved down her skin.

 

He has alabaster skin. Pale as pearl marble and just as strong. This gorgeous man. He’s so wide he blocks her from the firelights reach. Traps her under the enormous immensity of his body. Rubbing and rutting into her.

 

Head to toe of him is packed with tense powerful muscle, from his straining thighs to his corded huge back. She blushes catching sight of the thin covers slipping criminally low off his hips as he moves. Uncovering the firm globes of his masculine ass. His skin is alabaster-amber. They both are. Kissed sweaty by the light of the fire.

 

The air is thick. Like pea soup thick. Wet fog. Laden with rasping moans and gasps and the creaking crack of her old wood bed where it scrapes the floor.

 

The mattress shudders with the thrusts of his hips. She can hear the feathers in her covers rustling. She can hear wet liquid slaps coming from them, sloshing over the room. He drinks in the moans from her lips.

 

She looks to his back. His elegant perfect back. The one that looks sinful in his coats and his waistcoats. Here he is free of civility. This is carnal. Pure and simple carnality.

 

He’s marred with moles on his back. And scars. Three pink-silver slashes of long since healed scars. Put there by a feral beast. Ancient claw marks that rake down his shoulder. She’s seen those scars before. She admires the sight of him so openly.

 

There’s no other man built like that. No other man that’s captured her heart and her lust.

 

She’s making love to him. That’s what this is-

 

Sweating. Rhythmically thrusting and moving together. It’s hypnotic to watch. It’s like she’s stood in the room. A voyeur to this moment. Her moment. When at the same time, she is the body on the bed, under him, and she can feel everything happening to her.

 

She pants at the erotic sight. Kylo watches her twist in her sleep. Groaning under those covers. Fingers knotted into her sheets. Knuckles white.

 

He croons down at her. Whispering into her ear. He watches her chest as she pants. Sweat drips in rolls down the valley of her breasts. He wants to lick it up. “You see? We look so good entwined together don’t we?”

 

If she were awake, she’d be only too inclined to agree. She’d nod like she’s possessed. She’d scream. She’d yell her answer - if it was ladylike to do such a thing.

 

“We feel good too. So perfect. So right.” He tells. She feels the hard length of him inside her. Feels how he moves. How each thrust knocks pleasure into her. Rings through her body like the most delicious glorious echo. She makes a noise with each long, fulfilling, even thrust of his hips.

 

They writhe together on her bed. She’s watching from the side. Seeing all of it. Of this crude beautiful intimate act.

 

His huge palm slips up her thigh. The span of it measures all of her leg, he skims his palm up her thigh, gets her leg hooked over his gyrating hips. His movement looks beautiful. It is beautiful. The sloping curve of his back, the way he twists. Sweat pearls off every inch of him. As if he’s oiled all over with it. She’s never seen a more beautiful sight than this.

 

She didn’t know love making could look so, unbridled. So passionate.

 

Unmarried girls weren’t taught much about what happens on their wedding night. Of course Iris knew the basic anatomy of what went where. She learnt about the birds and the bees long ago, what with living on a farm the lesson was not a rare one to come by.

 

She was also taught, by her mother, to lie down, open her legs and submit to her husband, be welcoming. And don’t cry too loudly when it hurts-

 

This act doesn’t look at all like it hurts. It looks sinfully delicious.

 

This is everything she was taught never to want. This was ruination. And disgusting. Shameful and what they preached about in church as man’s carnal lust. An appetite no better than a beasts. Something girls should never part their thighs for. Something never to be sated by a civilised being.

 

Kylo’s chuckling into her ear. “If wanting you like this makes me an uncivilised beast little dove? Then I will be the most horrific beast you’ve ever seen.” He promises.

 

A roll of pleasure passes through her like tumbling thunder rolling on the horizon.

 

Matter of fact she can feel this, undertaking, doesn’t hurt. She can feel her arousal instead, the hunger of a vicious fire gnawing at her belly like a burrowing animal.

 

She can feel her blood singing with bliss. Desire so potent her toes curl up like dry golden leaves in autumn. Her spine is alive with thrashing keen feelings.

 

There’s a wet moistness growing between her thighs. Sticky. Kylo can scent it. He’s painfully aware of it. The divine taste of her cunt is something he cannot have - not yet.

 

Her face too, is pinched and creased up as if she’s vexed. Sweaty column of her neck tosses far back, a slow gasp leaves her mouth. Lord Ren unsticks a coil of her hair off her dewy brow, cups her face and bows his head to nose at her neck. Pushes his handsome nose under her jaw. Mumbles a benediction into her ear like a prayer. It’s almost like she can hear him...

 

“Look at all I can give you, Iris.” He says. It sinks into her head. Into this fantasy. “Feel what you do to me...”

 

She watches as he plucks her hand from clamping onto the pillow and puts it on his shoulder. “Touch me. Feel me as I take you like this.” He instructs. She claws his shoulder like that wolf did to him ten centuries ago.

 

Back in her bedroom. He smirks at watching the half moon sting of her nails raising welts in his shoulders. They’ll fade. But he likes experiencing the brief prickle of it.

 

He smiles so. Watching her in her bed. Under the covers. Gasping out. Hips shifting. He can smell the sweet wetness beading between her legs. Her arousal. How much he longs most passionately for that wet to slip like honey off his tongue- But not yet he can’t- it’s torture. Her gorgeous face is all drawn up in pleasure with this dream.

 

“You’re so beautiful.” He leans down and kisses her cheek. “Do you want to see even more? See us in our most bare state?” He asks.

 

He shows her. Her hips rear off the bed. She bucks and moans. She moans loud.

 

“Sssh. Shhh. My love. Sssh. Any louder and you’ll wake your sisters.” He counsels widely with a smirk.

 

“What a sight they would get- you rising off the mattress in bliss, like that, cunt dripping wet between your thighs, with my name on your lips...” He sighs at the thought.

 

His erection strains painful at his breeches. Pushing against his stays. Begging to opened. Desperate for stimulation.

 

In her head- He gives her a glimpse of just exactly how they will join together. She watches him widen her legs, spreading her wide, vulnerable. Iris can see the long fat length of him sinking into the wet pink heart of her.

 

His cock breaching her tight heat. The pulsing centre of her being between her legs. Where she’s pink and raw and open for him. She hears them stick and slick together. The liquid snap of their bodies meeting.

 

Let’s her feel how she’ll drench the bed for him.

 

He’s cupping her so reverently. Tenderly. Every thrust he makes with a languid roll of his big hips makes the spooled ribbon of her pleasure reel undone. He makes her gasp and beg and writhe. She has tears streaking on her cheeks, happy ones, because this is how good it feels. This is how it feels to be loved.

 

“Yes. Dove. This is it. This is what passion is. This is what I can give to you for the rest of our lives. So help me I will not and cannot let you wed a man who won’t love you like I do.” He speaks. Voice almost breaking. His breath kissing her cheek. She nearly writhes away in her dream but he pins her to the side of his hip. Pins her to the bed.

 

“He’ll never love you the way I can. He’ll never be a patient or kind lover. Or treat you like the most precious thing in this whole damn world to him- but I will. Heaven help me- I will.” He swears. His voice rising to a passion.

 

She looks on as Lord Ren bows his big body over hers on the bed. Fully clasps his chest to hers. She loops her hands around his neck. Feels his hair. His nose prods into her cheek. Faces slipping together to kiss.

 

He exhales in disbelief. “You want to kiss me....” He smiles.

 

“Dove I would kiss you until this world runs out of ages.” He pledges.

 

Iris watches them kiss and move and grind their bodies together. She can feel him lay sweet wet kisses onto her cheeks. Peppering her with them. From those big lips she’s so often wondered about. Longed for.

 

They are directly pressed together now. Kylo pulls back to stroke her hair out of her face. Thrusting deeper into her now.

 

She can feel his hot moans fog up the breath of her shoulder. Wet. Hot. Like calming summer rain. Only she’s burning up in her skin. He’s set a fire in her bones and it sweeps through her. Ravaging everything. Leaving her vulnerable and charred bare bones behind.

 

She’s crying with bliss before long. In both senses. He’s there to soothe her. Soft kisses to her ears. Hypnotised by the thrum of her blood. Sweet syrup of it gushing just under his lips. He won’t say he isn’t tempted- the rush of her blood on his tongue would catastrophically end him. But her orgasm isn’t far off. And that’s his ultimate nirvana.

 

“That’s it. That’s it- give in.” He encourages. Feeling the peak rise within her.

 

“Let me watch you come undone. My sweet girl. Sing for me...” He begs. Eyes just starting to fleck and flare honey gold. Because this is a long withheld hunger that’s finally being sated.

 

The dream rushes to its blissful crescendo. Iris watches them move together. Both legs wrapped around him. He’s drinking in her kisses. Cupping her neck. He loses himself in her. Their shuddering bodies pounding and slapping together. Shaking and burning and cumming so violently.

 

He buries his head in her shoulder, kissing, biting and not breaking the skin. Drunk off the pleasure sailing through him. He pulses and finishes his orgasm deep inside her, in her dream. Searing hot. Filling the tight channel of her womb. Her silk walls suck at him like drenched velvet.

 

“So wet. So sweet- So mine.” He smiles at her neck.

 

In her bedroom, Kylo watches her toes curl at her mattress. She absolutely shatters apart. Groaning his name out loud. Thighs trembling. Hands fisted in her pillows. Face dewy with sweat. Climax breaking apart every cell of her body and filling it with blissful fire.

 

Kylo!” She gasps. A name she doesn’t even fully know. He loves the taste of it off her tongue. He loves how desperately she whines for him.

 

He has to shut his eyes as the scent of her aroused sex floods his nose. Drenching her nightgown at her thighs. Sticky hot and honey.

 

How he’d adore nothing more than to duck under those covers and taste her. He won’t. He wants her awake and willing when he takes her. The memory of such he will sear down into his bones to gather it for eternity.

 

He swallows. Opens his eyes. Watching her chest sink and rise. He had no doubts about her lust, but he’s starving at finding the kernel of its beginning. Her lust for him is awake now. And he’ll be only too glad to oblige her in it.

 

He huffs. Almost in pain. “Soon. My Dove. Soon-“ He promises. And he is, every inch, a gentleman of his word. Leaving her side this night is the hardest thing he’s ever had to do.

 

Iris’s eyes snap open. She sits bolt upright in her bed. Panting for breath that doesn’t come. She blinks. Letting her eyes adjust around the darkness of her room.

 

The fire burns low. Barely spitting out embers. The glow of it barely reaches the end of her bed. It’s blaze long since worn away.

 

She feels desperately sticky and hot in her nightgown. A most odd sensation thrive between her legs, she’s sopping wet and dripping. Gown stuck to her skin. She feels breathless and exhausted. Not as if she’s just woken from rest.

 

She wets her lips and falls back onto the pillows. Glimmering with dewy sweat. Clenching her thighs together. Her heartbeat races down there. At her thighs.

 

She can’t think what’s come over her. Restless and itchy. Like her blood wants to forever fidget uneasy in her veins.

 

She looks at her bedroom ceiling. Shaken to the core by her erotic dream and pleasure. Glimpses of Lord Ren’s lips and his mouth on her and how he’d kissed upon her neck- how he’d....

 

She shudders pleasantly with recalling it. How carnally they were joined together. She puts a hand to her sticky chest. Feels her heart hammering. Cheeks afire. Blood pushing hot scarlet into her face.

 

His last growl, that ursine growl, of that deep opulent voice. Back velvet and smoke. She can taste a word on her lips. As if it’s been pressed or kissed there.

 

Soon.”

 

 

~

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Iris wondered if her mother would ever tire of dragging the whole bouquet of Ashton ladies to local balls.

 

She had wondered if her attachment to Hux would ease the strain on her somewhat - of course, it did not. It never would. No earthly thing would stop her mother from employing her influence to get her daughters out and seen in society.

 

Now she’s being paid court to by the most ill tempered and snippy Sergeant in all of the British isles, she has to be seen and heard and remarked upon at every gathering. A picture of health. The very picture of regency gentility and beauty.

 

In yet another new gown with her hair styled flawlessly. Mother had said she must appear to be the most attentive intended bride. She could not stay home and skip her duties. Mores the pity.

 

She has suffer it, apparently. In all it’s noxious glory.

 

They are bid to the Spencer’s this eve. Lady Spencer is known for her opulent balls. This one was no different.

 

She’s made it a purely memorable event. Nothing too gaudy. Though Iris is certain a great many number of ladies will go garishly overboard. Showcasing themselves as spectacles to be seen at one of the most anticipated social events of the year.

 

Lady Spencer has ordered the biggest string band London could boast of. She will offer a banquet of sugary treats so fine it would rival Versailles in its heyday. Enough roasted meats on decorative platters to feed entire armies. Sugared and dried fruits. Expensive Nuts. Such visions of culinary elegance. The champagne will flow. The brandy and the punch shall do so too.

 

Everything will be polished to the highest degree. The people; the staff; the house and all it’s rich contents.

 

Posy and Flora are terribly excited. For the Spencer’s have a hot house on their estate. They are certain the tables in the supper room will be brimming, crammed with peaches and oranges. A rare luxury.

 

Iris wouldn’t be surprised if they stuff something in their reticules to smuggle home.

 

She’s not going overboard in dress. Though mother insisted on putting enough jewels on her with which to sink a ship. If she unknowingly stepped into the path of candle light tonight, she predicts she’d blind the whole ballroom.

 

She had diamonds dripping from her ears. A pearl and chandelier concoction of silver dripping elegantly off her neck, down into her clavicle. Her dress tonight is a blush rosebud pink. Very faint in colour, with a severe neckline cutting away at the back. She chose a design without trims or lace or embroidery. She feels ostentatious enough. Mother huffed in annoyance. Iris didn’t care.

 

The only fuss Iris had agreed to bother with was the simple hair slide of ivory and paste white gems she slid into her hair. Crowning her puddle of tumbling muddy curls with something pretty. She’s happy to think she isn’t the most overstuffed girl in the ballroom.

 

Where they are stood on the fringes of the Spencer’s ballroom, she’s watched many other young ladies glide past. Gowns groaning with lace, diamonds shoved onto every limb and visible outcrop accessible. It’s as if every Mama here is seeking to make her daughters a sight for sore eyes.

 

Iris knows why that might be. There was such a crush of people in attendance. Some of the populars of London society. Had ventured this far southwest for this party. Eligible men in dire need of wives. Lords in need of Ladies and Earls in need of Countesses.

 

And every matron worth her salt in this room tonight, will have one of them besotted with one of her gels by the time the night is out. Lady Spencer, the very rich widow she was, and a Dowager, was making every London man see what the beauty of country manners had to offer.

 

“Quite garish if you ask me...” Caroline declares. Criticising the handsome ballroom and most of the people confined into it.

 

It was a great landscape of candlelight melting with gold. Even the servants liveries are beige trimmed with gold braiding. Her heavy crushed velvet drapes lining the windows are marigold yellow. It was quite plain Lady Spencer had read somewhere that gold was fashionable and showed off ones wealth rather well. Everything is now swimming in it.

 

Baroque candle stands are gold. The beige tiles of the floor cast a hazy gold in the light shade. Like the very ore itself shimmers up from between the porcelain cracks. Melting into the air. The air laden thick with it. And the elegant band playing nearby. It’s all elegance and charm. Like something out of a magical fantasy novel.

 

“I think Lady Spencer is merely showing off. It’s most vulgar.” She adds in distaste. Iris stands next to her. Rolling her eyes. Satin hands folded and guarded in front of her.

 

Mother had atleast won the battle of slipping a pearl bracelet onto her daughters satin wrist. Quite why, Iris can’t fathom.

 

It’s not as if a string of pearls will make Hux be any the more inclined to favour her. They were not exactly on favourable terms as per their last encounter with wolves and broken carriage wheels. No amount of pretty jewellery chucked at this situation will see it rectified.

 

He was supposed to be in attendance tonight. Luckily, god, if he did exist, or fate, had spared her thus far. He doesn’t seem to have turned up yet. Running fashionably late. Maybe to avoid her...

 

Iris is rather pleased with either of the two outcomes. Long may they stay that way.

 

“Lady Spencer is an unmarried woman of resources, Mama. Having married all her own children off. I think she is making a show of country society to induce others into much the same thinking.” Iris suggests.

 

Flora and Posy have long since snuck away to the supper room. Or are now clinging onto the coattails of some soldier. Crooning flirting words and simpering smiles at some poor doomed man. They’ll appear in half an hour. They usually do. Giddy and red cheeked off a glass of punch or champagne they weren’t allowed to have but somehow managed to sneak one anyway. Full and brimming with the latest shreds of gossip to tell her, and Mama.

 

Caroline’s eyes are peeled for Hux. Determined to thrust him and Iris together for as many dances as she and polite society could allow.

 

They move around the fringes of the ballroom and join a few familiar faces in the matrons corner.

 

A cluster of gold and beige french settees in the corner of the room. Taken up by plump Mamas in their muslin dresses. All with great sprouting coloured feathers sticking out their hair. As if they’ve recently had an unlucky collision with an unfortunate ostrich. Mrs Phillips and Puffin are here in attendance, aswell as Miss Smith.

 

Iris braces herself for the monotony of the conversation. Stood next to where her mother is sat conversing with her biddies. Most put out with the fact Hux wasn’t here yet to whisk her into a dance. Her usual frown of displeasure crowns her stony brow.

 

Iris doesn’t pay her much mind. She’s too busy admiring the general splendour. Their grousing and speculations flutter past her ears like flapping lost butterflies.

 

“There’s such a crush of people here tonight.” Miss Smith frets. Because, really, the woman was never not fretting about something. She’s fanning herself something furious. Wafting air into her face. It disturbs her hair and her eyelashes flutter.

 

Mrs Phillips is stroking Puffins ears. Tonight the ridiculous little dog is outfitted in a big blue teal bow. To match his Mistresses gown. She’s already feeding it little slithers of cooked meat she’s had a servant fetch especially from the supper room.

 

“I do so hate having to feel so rammed into a ballroom. But one must see the bigger picture, Miss Smith...” Mrs Phillips pats her friends knee.

 

“There is much pleasure to be had by the young, unwed folk. For they may mingle and dance and be merry as they choose. I think it gives our small society a superb airing. And it lets some london folk see us truly at our best!” She says. As if her very opinion is anointing and blessing the conversation.

 

“Do you not agree, Miss Ashton?” Mrs Phillips turns to her. Snowy curled ringlets of her hair jittering with the movement. “Oh, come now. Surely you must. What with your own beau in tow.” She chuckles. Referring to Hux.

 

Iris plasters on a fake smile. Bolsters her enthusiasm. “It is indeed most pleasing an opportunity.” She offers back.

 

“Where is your dashing titian-haired sergeant this evening, Miss Iris?” Miss. Smith giggles like an unmellowed green schoolgirl. All the matrons giggle with glee apart from Mama of course. She was not a one for levity.

 

“I believe he’s expected shortly.” Iris says sweetly with thinly veiled relief. It earns her a cross stern glare from her mothers. Eyes sticking her like pins.

 

“I do wager we will see some most exemplary dancing tonight.” Miss Smith declares. “We can not afford to give the London crowd a miss of how well we dance.” She adds.

 

“Will you dance, Miss Smith?” Iris seeks nicely. Hands folded behind her back as she asks the woman.

 

“I am never on anyone’s dance cards these days. And not for atleast thirty years. I find dancing most vexing. Far too laborious.” She worried.

 

She then looks almost upset by the notion. “As much as I’d wish too. I cannot. My head is most frail tonight. For there is a terrible ailment of the chest going around you know... I should not wish to catch it off anyone.” She panics. Fanning herself harder. Blinking too much and leaning away when a passerby walked too close.

 

Iris was sorry she asked. She rejoins her own silence. Sighing-

 

Her breath catches in her throat when she catches sight of the big body that’s just entered the room. Way way across the ballroom. Past the neat line of female and male dancers engaged in a lively scotch reel.

 

He was always a man so impossible to miss. Not because of his stature or the dark night-shadow void of his clothing - he seemed to favour the shadows. Just that every girl in attendance fluttered her lashes and swooned into giggles as he passed them by.

 

They fussed with their curls and made their appearance and dresses comely. In the hopes of snaring his attention.

 

As per usual. An impressive wool coat shrouds his shoulders. The rest of him is black. From the tips of his boots. All the way up the tight strain of his breeches sitting snug up his hips. Buttons gleaming. Shirt an immaculate white. Cravat like bloodied cloth tied around his neck. The diamond stud pin in its usual place. Only tonight it is a ruby.

 

Blood. Ash. And snow. That was his attire. And how appropriate that was.

 

He stands assessing the room. Whispers and gossip flourishes in the wake of his arrival. People remark once again on his rakish hair and the violently dark set of his eyes. The way he sneers. Or broods. And towers so big and strong. Virile and rich.

 

Iris doesn’t see the violence in those eyes as others do. She can only see their charm. Their allure. She doesn’t see the darkness that others so readily subscribe to.

 

He sets his eyes in her direction. Mother scoffs in annoyance. Iris pretends not to hear. Caroline puts her hand on her daughters wrist where she is stood.

 

“Pray, do not give him any incentive to come over here and approach you.” She hisses at her daughter. Iris looks down at her. An innocent frown on her features. She shrugs out of her mothers hold.

 

“He certainly keeps a dark steady eye on you. Miss Ashton.” Mrs Phillips says. Miss Smith concurs.

 

“I wonder if any of the London ladies would suit him? Perhaps tonight he may find his paramour.” Miss Smith decides.

 

Iris knew there were many gently bred and rich London girls invited her tonight. Coming to take their stock of Hampshire society. She knows their customs seem strange and foreign to those born and bred from the fashionable capitals of Bath or London. Country manners seem, uncivilised and laughable to those sorts of girls.

 

The girls who have new dresses and ribbons for each day of the week. The girls who love among very varied society and never seem bored or unaccomplished. Those who boast about turning in certain societal circles.

 

She spied a great horde of them snigger as she passed them by earlier. Censuring the cut of her dress. Thinking her simple and plain where they are the diamonds of the first water. She’s merely a brainless country bumpkin who knows nothing about anything, except turnip crops and how to milk the cows. They expect her marry a dirty toothless farmer and be settled for life.

 

Those girls preen and fuss at seeing a man like Lord Ren impose upon the room. They angle their bodies at him without shame. They flutter lashes and stretch their smiles. Make sure their cheeks are rosy and healthy. Glowing outwards for him. Like a field of wildflowers trying to catch the sun.

 

He doesn’t even so much as gaze in their direction.

 

One of them swoons when he walks on past. Barely even giving them a curt nod. Just a cold up and down assess of his eyes as he walks on past the foul gaggle of harpies.

 

Iris smirks only a little as one of the air headed dowry vessels, swoons and expects to be caught by her friend. Who promptly steps to the side and doesn’t catch the heap of her. She crumpled like a sack of flour to the floor. A chorus of gasps flutter around her. Someone - all too eagerly - goes to find a vinaigrette of smelling salts to shove under the poor girls nose to revive her.

 

Their eyes are all stabbing into Lord Ren’s wide back and coated shoulders as he strides proudly across to Iris. Hands clasped behind his back. Uncaring if people talk. He’s learned that people here do little else.

 

He’s smirking smugly already at the sour glare on her mothers face intended in his direction. He smiles wider at seeing it. He does not retreat from a challenge. It is simply not in his nature.

 

He’s faced down worst demons and beasts than Mrs Ashton. She was however, the most severe. And the most repulsive he’s encountered in a while. But her monstrosity pales in comparison to his. She cowers behind her station in life and dares to think herself above him. Therein lies her most detrimental mistake.

 

Iris is almost trembling watching him come closer. She’s trying to school her breathing into being calm. She can feel the goosebumps dot her skin.

 

She feels chilled and burning up all at once. She clenched her thighs together a little and wets her lips. Mortified to realise that between her thighs feels all hot and sticky again.

 

That same hungry throbbing sensation echoed out at the centre of said thighs. A ricocheting reminder of her hot lusting-dream the other night.

 

The one that left her gasping in pleasure and drenching her sheets. Gasping for air that wouldn’t come. Wet. Flushed. Crying out the name of a lover who wasn’t even there. Or so she thought.

 

“Iris my dear, you look flustered. Oh my goodness. Are you unwell, have you a fever, or a head complaint?” Miss Smith asks, flustered. Looking most mortified for her young friend.

 

“I am well.” Iris gasps in answer. Air and voice crackling out her throat. Dry and weak. Wrung out. What was happening to her?

 

Kylo knows.

 

Iris looks across to see Lord Ren smile. Eyes glittering. She’s not entirely sure she hasn’t been struck with a fever. Nothing of this acute kind she’s ever experienced before.

 

She has to hope with sheer alarm her nipples can’t be seen standing stiff under the thin sheen of her silk gown. Like cut diamonds. She feels like they’ll point on right through her stays and chemise. Curse her gown being so damnably fashionably thin.

 

She clings onto the back of settee next to her with one hand. Knuckles white under her satin gloves. He hears the thrum of her pulse shift its beat. Changing tempo. Sound of her pumping blood sickly hot in his ears. She feels woozy. Dizzy. Excited.

 

It’s terrifying - all of this in its potency.

 

When she looks up again, his eyes stroke along her skin. She almost sags to the floor. She has to rip her eyes away from his. A flashing image torments her brain. She fights off a whimper.

 

She can just see skin. Naked skin.

 

She can see a dark head bowing to kiss at a supple pale neck that she knows has to be her own. Skin shimmering with sweat from such activities she can only guess at. Her head is thrown far back in repose. Gasping out his name. His first name. That is no thought fit for a ballroom.

 

Her spine rockets with the realisation that she’s now envisioning them entwined together in the most carnal and inappropriate of ways. Her brain begs her that why, if such an act was so indecorous, then why, oh god why, is it the most pleasant sensation she’s ever felt?

 

He’s ravenous by the time he approaches her. Mouth wetting for that taste he can sense gathering honey and oozing hot between her legs. Slipping on down her innocent inner thighs.

 

He can taste her from all the way over here already.

 

He dreams of diving into all those secret ambrosial private places. Exploring the climes of her supple svelte body with his lips. That creamy skin. So divine under his hands. Settle his mouth between the twin peaks of her knees, lap at the sweet valley of wet that ran between them.

 

He stops when he comes to the gaggle of matrons sat before him. Bows his head. Smiles so charmingly at them all. Greets every one of them in turn. Slowly taking his time. Even Miss Smith. His well wishes drip like honey for her off his silver tongue.

 

Iris tries hard to conceal her smile from her mothers glare. She manages to reign her breathing enough by the time he comes to her. The scent of his cologne and mint soap washing over her. Rich and dark. Opulent. Like every aspect of him is.

 

He can walk right through a ball room and the supposed societal slight of shame of his doing so, sweeps off his shoulders like beading rain.

 

He’s rich. He’s powerful. He truly acts with all the confidence of those things behind him. She finds it intoxicating.

 

He reaches for Iris’s hand and kisses it. “You look exceedingly beautiful tonight Miss Ashton.” He flatters.

 

Her cheeks heat when she thinks upon the fact she must be the envy of several, if not all, of the London ladies in the room. And all the Hampshire ones. Iris even spotted a few young men’s eyes stick to Lord Rens back as he cut his dark carve through the room. Whether out of jealously or either out of the sheer encompassing attraction that so beguiled the ladies. Everyone admired him. Everyone is in awe.

 

Seeing her hand in his, sends a ricocheting wave of feeling to flutter through her. Like warm melting butter. She blinks and loses her breath a fraction when their palms touch. Erotic friction heats her skin. She shivers with it.

 

“You are very kind, your lordship.” Iris declares. That smile of hers always so gentle. Apples of her cheeks kissed so pink with the thrill of his nearness.

 

Only he knows how thrilled. He can smell her arousal. Plain as day.

 

He doesn’t pay any mind to the rotting sugared perfume of violets and roses that all those ineffectual London girls behind his shoulder are wearing. He doesn’t care for any of that. He abhors it. He can only focus on his sweet little dove and the scent of her lust.

 

How fully she is now feeling the seduction of one of the most powerful vampires in existence.

 

“Your suitor isn’t in attendance tonight?” He asks. Loves how that makes Mrs Ashton’s jaw twitch. Eyes turning foul like silver needles that dagger straight and sharp at him.

 

“He is expected presently at any moment.” Caroline pipes up angrily. Talking over Iris. Snapping her words carefully. Kylo can hear the cracking scrape of her grit teeth. Jaw clenched so tight he’s amazed her bones aren’t grated to dust yet.

 

“Indeed. Though terribly remiss of him to leave such a beautiful partner in want of a dance.” He decides. Iris peers up at him. Smile building. His smirk is tipped up at the corner.

 

“I wonder, would you dance with me, Miss Ashton?” He asks. Twisting the knife in the wound of her mothers festering disapproval.

 

Iris smiles. “I’d be delighted.” She answers. He begins to lead her away. Kylo fancies he can see steam pour out her mothers ears.

 

“I’m afraid she is promised to another for this dance.” Caroline all but shrieks at them. Now it was Kylo’s turn to twist back and grit his teeth at her. His eyes turn to hard unyielding obsidian stone. Roughly cut.

 

“I believe you are mistaken, Mama. My dance card is quite empty.” Iris looks coolly at her relative. Eyes calm and she has that resolute tilt of her chin that Caroline so often curses.

 

She may very well pay for the insolence of her words to her later. But right there, she doesn’t pay any consequence to her actions. Later doesn’t exist. There is only now. With him.

 

“I’ve every confidence Lord Ren will return me to your side once he’s finished with me. He is a gentleman after all.” Iris supposed.

 

She then turns her back on them all and let’s him lead her to the cleared space of the dance floor. Taking a deep breath as he then draws her arm closer.

 

Kylo smiles across at her. “I probably shouldn’t find your getting cross with your mother so alluring.” He whispers close to her ear. “But as it is now aiding in my benefit, I find I cannot summon the will to argue against it.” He smiles nicely.

 

Iris blushes. He’d called her alluring. The compliment warned her like much too heady champagne on an echoing empty stomach. Fizzed and boiled her blood.

 

“I cannot pretend I agree with her acerbity for even one second. How can I deny such a splendid invite to dance?” She asks.

 

And, oh, and... He isn’t wearing gloves.

 

The sinful contact of his hand brushing against the seam of her elbow where her gloves end makes her skin erupt again. Plus they are walking very closely pressed together. Her chest heaves again. She can’t help it. Cheeks glaring pink. Yet something else flashes in her minds eye.

 

Another stunning erotic glimpse. She sees those big hands cupping her body. Taking her waist as his big form moves above her. One big grip of his crushing a breast as his lips kiss around the other. Circling her nipple with wet sultry kisses. Revering her. Worshipping her naked body.

 

She stumbled a little next to him. Almost lightheaded. Of course his strong arm was there to aid in catching her. “Something amiss?” He enquires with a slithering savage smile that knows it handsomeness.

 

She swallows. “Thankyou. I am, fine. Just- lost my footing.” She lies. Willing the thought to die.

 

Her body took a little longer to subside from the eagerness of her indecent glimpses. It seemed to happen every time he touched her skin.

 

They position on the wide clear spread of the dance floor where other ladies and gentlemen are gathering. They stand in step as the next dance starts up.

 

Iris feels an almost rotten sadness spread through her like a cloud of poison where their hands part for just a second. It makes her heart thud absolutely like thunder in her chest. They take their places to dance to the very unfortunately named steps of Mr Beveridges maggot. A triple time movement where partners move and switch with each other accordingly.

 

She looks across at him. Standing there. Tall and smiling softly across at her. She’s never seen him dance before. Not at any gathering. She feels wholly flattered he’d selected this monumental occasion to share with her. She’s almost certain she could be the envy of the whole room.

 

Her eyes dart over his massive shoulder. The groups of gathered London girls are glaring daggers at her. Snide whispers dripping nastily from their mouths. Unable to understand why she’d been chosen to dance the second with him, and not them. She’s sure she doesn’t need to know the vile words being snarled behind her back in disdain. She’s sure she doesn’t even care.

 

Not with this man opposite her, smiling at her the way he does.

 

She curtseys and he bows. It’s how the dance opens. The fluttering notes of music swim around that great big gold room.

 

The music continues past its chirping opening notes, a slow violin and viola piece. They cross over and change places. When they turn to retake each other’s hands, she goes weak when they touch again, sparks shimmer along her skin from the contact.

 

She begins to wonder if she’s all entirely sane; feeling such overwhelming things merely by the caress of his hand.

 

They turn again. Cross over the partners next to them. For such a big man he handles the dance steps so very well. Iris can hardly take her eyes off him. She doesn’t pay any heed whether it’s remarked upon. She doesn’t give heed to whether or not their behaviour will be discussed and dissected tomorrow. She lives for this simple moment.

 

“For a man who does not favour it, you dance exceedingly well, Lord Ren.” She comments genially as they move down the line once more. Hands joined once again.

 

“I will be the worst sort of flatterer and say that my skill is entirely owed to my partner.” He smirks across at her.

 

They cross over once more. Weaving in and out between their partners. The herds of butterflies he awakens in her stomach were kicked sharply to life on hearing him refer to her in such a manner.

 

This was not an easy dance for a stranger to these shores to master; and he graces it with such affable ease. For her. Of course it’s all for her.

 

They stand opposite and watch their partners weave. “That is the most transparent flattery.” She smiles at him.

 

He’s not supposed to. But he steps closers. Very close. So close she can see the candlelight spark cornelian-red off his deep eyes. That same warming light dusting over the fine wool shoulder of his suit jacket. The diamond pin in his cravat winks like an amber eye. Sparkling finely.

 

“Transparent it may be. But insincere it most certainly is not.” He tells her softly. Gazing down at her.

 

She’s glancing up. Head tilted back up a little. He doesn’t fixate on how divine her décolletage and shoulder bones look in the cut of that dainty pink silk neckline. Sweetly simple. Phenomenally beautiful. He can’t help but want to let his eyes follow the silver necklace that runs down the divot her collarbone.

 

How terrible of him is it that he wants to see a trickle of blood drop down that neck of hers. He wants to damn convention and get her out that gown and see the supple body that drives him beyond the point of feral. He wants to just grab and touch her.

 

His want for her- it’s like he’s dying all over again. Driven mad by want of scooping her up in his arms and damn the consequences. It’s like he’s suffering the worst kind of fever or thirst.

 

She smiles at his comments of insincerity. “I believe you are incapable of being anything other than purely honest with me.”

 

That barbs a little at his calcified dead heart. He was being dishonest about his nature. But that was for her own good. Her safety and her well being. He swallows. His eyes grow soft.

 

“Then my honesty compels me to admit to something I suspect you happen to already know.” He states calmly. But there’s a tempest soaring through the both of them. It doesn’t need to be said. For they can feel it.

 

And naming such a beast only grants it more potent power-

 

The dance is concluding around them. They are not part of it anymore. They are stood in the middle of that ballroom. He reaches for her hand and holds it fondly. Before he brings it up and kisses it. Resumes his glancing lovingly at her.

 

“Lord Ren...” She gasps. He caresses her hands so fondly. She can’t withdraw her eyes from him.

 

“Kylo. You don’t need to use such formal terms.” He urges. Not for this. Not for what we feel.

 

She bites her lip. She looks slightly agonised. Grey eyes shimmer at him. Like rain falling on slate.

 

“Permit me to confess that I believe my, feelings, are- very much similar.” She declares ever so gently.

 

But they are in vain- she is to marry another man. This realisation makes her draw back. He soothes the spike of pain that spears her happiness.

 

He won’t let that happen. Not to her. Not to wed a man who will slowly leech the life and happiness and freedom out of her already wearied soul. He’s determined.

 

The crowd of dancers around them have dissipated. They drift away. And it’s just the big dark column of him. Left towering over her. Beautiful and elegant there in her rose pink dress. Diamonds sparkling off her. The way his eyes assess her. Most matrons in the room declare it simply indecent. It’s shocking.

 

Iris agrees. But shocking in a most pleasant sense.

 

“How lucky I am that your intended decided to leave you unattended for this evening.” He smiles. Raises her hopes again. His eyes gleamed proudly with the challenge. He told her that he was not backing down.

 

“You’re not the only one who is glad of it.” She promises. Uncaring for the gossip that’s flourishing around them. He takes her arm and leads her, not back to her mother, rather instead over to the refreshment table.

 

He turns his head as he suavely leads her away. Catches her mothers frosty displeasure. He smirks so openly at it when he catches her eyes.

 

Her glare intensifies. He can hear her teeth crack with annoyance from over here. It thrills the smug beast in him. Taking great joy in seducing her daughter away from her miserable domineering clutches.

 

They approach the punch table. As they do, arm in arm, a man very far gone on drink stumbled back into her. Narrowly avoided stepping on her toes. Luckily, Kylo drew her back before the stupid idiot caused her harm. She shrinks into his side and the inebriated maggot turns his head and seems to see them for the first time.

 

Iris’s nose wrinkles in disgust at the letch. He reeked of French brandy. The drink in his cup slopped over his hand where he stumbled and swayed. Dripping the liquor to his boots and all over the beige pointed tiles of the floor. A messy foul drunkard.

 

She also recognised him. Viscount Eversleigh. The most foul rake in all of Hampshire. He liked gambling on cards, boxing matches and appreciated unsavoury female company with which to waste away his dwindling fortune.

 

He’s fought duels for seducing some daughters of the gentry. He’s born love childs and had affairs with matrons and widows, and seduced more than his fair share of innocents into ruin.

 

The most dishonourable sort of man. He made Lord Byron’s actions look like the antics of a scampering rowdy schoolboy.

 

Iris can’t see why; he’s not particularly handsome. A rakish mane of swirling caramel blond curls. And eyes a piercing clear blue. There is little handsomeness in his face or his chiseled square jaw flecked with blonde stubble. He had long sideburns and a passably nice smile.

 

Iris only saw the foulness in his manner. His crooked teeth. The way his pale eyes stared at the pretty younger girls too much.

 

He crooks a brow across at Iris. So much of a dense headed snob that Kylo’s towering physique didn’t sway him far from being his usual repulsive self. Especially where a nubile young woman was concerned.

 

“Miss Ashton. You’re looking ravishing as usual.” He simpers. Eyes barely glancing at her face. Just admiring the way he can glimpse her thighs and her rear through the thin press of her skirts.

 

Iris’s mouth is a thin unamused line. “Viscount Eversleigh.” She greets stiffly.

 

He sips the remainder of his drink, messily drops it all down his chin and his cravat as he finally comes to turn his eyes up see Kylo by her side. Always loathe to tear his eyes away from a pretty girl with a comely bosom and a plump round arse.

 

Miss Ashton had both those things in abundance. Displayed prettily in silk. Eversleigh brazenly stares at both her virtues. Iris feels her disgust reigning louder over her temper at being so gawped at.

 

She felt precious and loved a second ago. Now she feels dirty and disgusted. She wants a fat bar of soap, a hard nail brush and stinging hot water. She wants to scour away the places his eyes have lingered until her skin is raw lobster-pink. She’d scrub until she takes the skin off.

 

“You must be the Bavarian Lord who all the maidens are quivering over...” He mocks. Kylo’s eyes narrow. He snidely takes in the terrifying Lords height.

 

“Not enough fine young sheaths in which to plunder your sword into back home, ey? your lordship?” He sneers. Mocking laughter at him. Snorting with it.

 

Iris could’ve sworn she heard a growl rumble out of Kylo’s chest. He swallows in seething anger and the sound stops.

 

“Where I come from, I’ve seen ignorant men so gone on drink and stupidity, that they get torn apart by wolves by daring to walk home alone. Pity there’s no such virtue here.” Kylo sneers foully. He didn’t stand for such dishonourable behaviour towards women.

 

Iris fights off a smile at his language. He didn’t veil his anger when it rose. No clever tricks with his words. His bluntness is refreshing.

 

Eversleigh laughs. It is a loud cruel sound. “So high and mighty and yet you’re stealing a girl out from under another man. I wouldn’t be so ready to get pious if I were you.” He suggests nastily.

 

His drunk eyes refocus on Iris.

 

“Mind you. If I had a fiancé with an arse as fat as hers I should never dare leave her alone for all and asundry to flirt with. Then again, Armitage Hux is a stupid thoughtless prick.” He declares. Slipping down another mouthful of punch. Scoffing at her.

 

Iris’s mouth fills with bitter rage. Sour. Acetous bile staining her teeth. Her pride pricked a little sore at the stinging barbs of his words. Rose thorns that tear at her dignity and set it bleeding.

 

Kylo’s reminding himself that most of these people had not experienced what it’s like to watch someone get disembowelled by his own bare hands.

 

Were this a previous age. Kylo would take great pleasure in shoving a broad sword right through his chest. Lick the blood off the metal when he’s done.

 

“I wonder if the mindless Sergeant knows he’s engaged to an uppity whore, from reduced circumstances, who throws herself at any man who do much walks past?” He ponders. Leering at Iris.

 

Kylo’s had enough of this idiot- he clenches his jaw tight and Eversleighs shiny soled boots happen to shift back and catch on the drink he’s spilled on the tiles, he goes skidding back, careering into a footman carrying a silver tray laden with full champagne glasses.

 

They both go tumbling to the floor in an almighty crash. Kylo’s watching. Hoping and praying that he breaks a limb.

 

Shards of glass and liquor spurts across the hazy gold floor. Piles of cut glass lay in jagged shards. The entire room gasps in mortification. Servants rush to pick up the pieces.

 

Iris tore her hand from his and promptly disappeared into the crowds. Her silk skirts sweep the floor and he feels her fallen mood crush his chest. Kylo aches after her. He feels her sadness bloom up as tears start to spurt down her cheeks.

 

Lady Spencer is suddenly upon the messy scene. The gawky old woman she is, in a saffron silk gown, who is now scurrying over to see what the matter is. Kylo turns to her and states.

 

“I think this inebriate guest needs to take his leave of your event, Lady Spencer.” Kylo persuades in his most charming manner.

 

She is more than happy to agree. She has another footman peel him off the floor and escort him sharply to the door, to boot him out of it. He shouted obscenities the whole way. Slurring and hissing.

 

“What kind of man makes such a spectacle, I ask you.” He complains to Lady Spencer. She harrumphed in agreement. She leans close to confide in Kylo.

 

“Between you and I, Lord Ren. I cannot stand the foul bastard. I only invite him out of politesse to his father.” She concludes.

 

“Indeed.” Kylo smiles. He likes her penchant for uncommon curses.

 

“I shall not adhere to that politeness again for the next occasion.” She promises with stout sense. He’s glad to hear of it.

 

He waits until the next dance starts up and the chaos of the incident is slowly tidied away. He’s sure no one, save for the simpering London ladies, will miss him, when he slips away.

 

He doesn’t have to search for her for long. He knows her well enough by now to know where she’d escape too. She flees to the one place where she finds solace and peace- and that is out of doors.

 

He finds her huddled next to a big tall pillar out the back of the house. Just outside a terrace door. Shivering in the cold. Overlooking the wide sparse of the garden. Her dress was much too thin.

 

She’s folded her arms over herself. Back to him. He watches her spine wrack with cold. Stood out here in the shivering gales.

 

Snow plastered thick to the landscape. And specks of it now flurry down from the swirling grey clouds of the night sky up above. She’s looking out into the horizon.

 

He sees the jewelled comb in her hair wink from the dying light of the house. It was dark in this quarter of the grand house. Stony and silent. Where the lively party blazed and danced and proudly echoed out loud from the other room. Two halves of very different life.

 

He opens the door and interrupts her silence. She turns around and he sees drying tears kiss her cheeks. He hates how often she’s crying of late. Permanently in distress and it stabs sadness deep in his gut like a red hot pierce of a knife to see it.

 

He watches her shoulders quake. He doesn’t waste time on civility; he stands close. Puts his cold hand on her arm.

 

“Is that truly what people think of me?” She gasps in fear. Innocent eyes so pale. Silver and sad. Quaking tears just alike the manner of the grey clouds above. Sky silently weeping snow as she stands down here and does the same with her tears.

 

He shakes his head softly as his thumb ghosts away the tear on her cheek. His skin takes away the stinging salt of her sobs.

 

She turns into his body. Her skirts trail into the snow. Rose bleeds to heavy dark pink but she doesn’t seem to know or care. He draws her close. So close.

 

He gets her where he’s wanted to now for weeks. In his hold. His palms cover her upper arms. Feels the trembles run through her skin. Skimming through her veins. Can feel the zip of it racing in her warm blood.

 

“His words are less than nothing. He is nothing.” Kylo’s promising her strongly.

 

“And you are worth so very much more than how his shallow cheap words made you feel.” He says angrily. Cupping the side of her neck. Cradling her sweet face to look up at him.

 

“To me, you are everything.” He declares.

 

“So do not even for one second, dare buy into his bullying fetid words that made you feel not worth a damn.” He adds.

 

Her red eyes and cheeks shimmer with tears. Skin rosy with cold. And she’s never been more beautiful to him. Looking up at him so earnestly. She sighs.

 

“That’s the nicest thing anyone’s ever said to me...” She disclosed to him. He tilts his head down at her.

 

“Don’t cry because of him. Or any of them. It pains me to see you so dejected. You deserve only loving and good words, Iris.” He explains. And she only gets the latter.

 

Shifting closer. One curled knuckle of his comes up and strokes away the tear as it rolled and beaded down her cheek.

 

“Don’t cry. Little dove.” He soothes. Cupping her face so tenderly.

 

His hands were always icy cold. But the warm softness of his words made sure she barely felt the permanent cool of his skin.

 

She lets herself be comforted by his touch. His care. His nearness that did so many spine-shivering, desirable things to her.

 

She doesn’t need words. Not for this roaring passion she feels. She merely looks up to meet his gaze. He fixes on her lips. He ignores the thrumming jugular at her throat.

 

“Kylo-“ Is the only word she manages to rasp gently out her mouth. Her lungs empty right out. Cheeks afire. She was glancing at his lips too. And it can only end in one thing...

 

Still cupping one side of her face he leans forwards and sweetly puts his lips to hers. Her heart nearly thumps right out her chest when he kisses her.

 

She sighs into his mouth. The hand at her waist pulls her closer. Her breasts lay flat to his chest and his waistcoat buttons dig coldly into her exposed chest. The wind rips at her arms, but she doesn’t feel any of those things.

 

She’s wrapped up in the most passionate and mind stealing kiss that’s ever come into creation.

 

He mumbles a soft groan of pleasure. Muffled to her lips. He brings her closer. Closer and closer. Until both his arms can wind around her and cup at her back. She trembles and staggers back. Still not breaking away. Hungry for more.

 

She feels lust and love sizzle at her skin. Sipping over every nerve as if every last one of them is touching a candles naked heat. She burns. She pines. She’ll surely perish from such a brilliant kiss.

 

One hand still on her spine, he catches them against the pillar. One big hand slams up to the stone. Keeping her pinned there.

 

The kiss intensifies. She moves her lips more against his. Tenderly raises a hand to touch the front of his coat. Fine velvet and wool under her palm.

 

She gasps for him when his leg slips inbetween hers and brushes her mons through her thin skirts. She quivers with the unexpected bursting pleasure of it.

 

Something deep inside her had come apart - fallen to bits like unravelling thread. Some private pocket of yearning he has tugged open. Maybe it was there all along? Maybe she only feels it now because this very man is here to let it free.

 

She’s sweet and tart and cool against his mouth. She tastes just as good as his fevered erotic dreams had dared to allude. She tastes like cold snow, and sharp champagne. He drinks in the warmth from her lips like he’s trying to leech it away.

 

They break away for the barest second and it’s agony. She unfurls so many things in him. She makes him weak and soft - and made other more noticeable parts of himself significantly harder.

 

She called on so many of his senses he cannot put order to them if he tried. His dove strangled every scrap of rationality he had left.

 

There was only her- her lips. Her thighs. Her mons against his leg. Her soft soft body under that insultingly thin encasing of peony silk. The rose scent of her hair. The lavender soap on her skin. It makes him dizzy, hungry, fevered and mad all in one.

 

He growls when they part. Rests his forehead against hers. Sighs almost irritated when he feels the trembling of her thighs, where her cleft grazes friction on his leg. It was a barely innocent touch. But just enough to get him snarling with need.

 

“Oh God-“ she sighs. Sense swimming back down into her head.

 

That kiss made her brain shoot upward to the snowy studded heavens. He smiles. Unable to resist. Presses another sweet kiss to her lips. The soft smack of it rings in the air. All sound blotted out and muffled by the snow.

 

They lazily kiss again for a few long languid minutes. Time moves thick and slow like syrup. The world doesn’t exist beyond them. Not society. Not her mother nor her worries and fears. None of it matters. He pulls back. Alluding to her gasp for god from earlier...

 

“Now, do forgive my blasphemy. But that’s much better than any god I know.” He insists sincerely and sinfully.

 

She blushes.

 

His hot breath is now huffing against her mouth. Eyes blown wide. Cheeks pink. She was much in the same flustered state. Dizzy from it. Whole body studded with desire.

 

“I should be getting back...” She sighs glumly. The thought of tearing away rips a bleeding hole in her heart. Her agony comes all over again.

 

He strokes her cheek with his thumb. “I will be thinking of this moment all night. Little dove.” He confesses. Capturing all of her and comforting her flushed state to memory. So he might recall it later- in a late lonely hour, when all is dark and dead silent.

 

“Me too.” She whispers. Her smile creases her pink cheeks.

 

“Go inside and get warmed. I will not have you freeze. I will wait and then I shall follow.” He tells. Smoothing a hand to the cold skin of her shoulder. His entire hand can cup all the round of her shoulder joint under one palm.

 

“I don’t feel in the least cold.” She smiles. Shivering. Goosebumps on her. And it’s not from the chill of their surroundings.

 

He can feel her lust. It’s in the hair standing frigid straight on her neck. Her nipples knotted up hard to stiff resentful resolute peaks. How divine would it feel to have those tender buds harden against his palms-

 

He kisses her once more. Snatching in a taste. Before stepping back. Cupping her face. “Go...” He smiles lovingly. He doesn’t even want to comprehend what would happen if they are discovered.

 

She squeezes his hand right before she slips away. Rips her body away and it hurts to do so. It absolutely kills her. But she manages to stand tall.

 

Their kiss tucked in her heart like the sensual little secret it absolutely is.

 

She scurries back to her mothers side. Claimed she retired as she had champagne splashed on her skirts. Mother tutts. For once not at her.

 

She returns to her post by her side in the matrons corner as the dutiful daughter. Hoping her lips aren’t too kiss bruised and cherry red.

 

Still no sign of her intended redhead her tonight. She watches the less fashionable fast of the Barley Mow. As men and ladies dance and leap around the floor. The folk song very fast in it’s pace.

 

Iris’s body chills and burns when he re-enters the room. She’s scorched to blisters and dunked in an ice bath all at once when he strides proudly back in.

 

He keeps his distance. The tall black handsome column of a man that she never loses sight of across the ballroom.

 

Whenever she dares a look at him, he smirks lightly in her direction. Eyes dark with lust. And a look crafted solely for her alone.

 

Everyone keeps asking her what she’s smiling about. She can give them no answer. And she doesn’t.

 

It was entirely her sinful little secret. Her discretional sin. And may lightning strike her dead for wishing it, but, she can’t wait to sin again.

 

She wasn’t the only one. Except Kylo is a man far more accustomed to things such as sins.

 

He repeats that kiss over and over in his head all night. Tries to recapture the memory of her taste, the feel of her lips, her body under his. So frail and yet she drew such strong passions out of him, it left his knees buckling.

 

For the entire remainder of the ball he gazes at her from across the room. Looking. And not touching and it’s driving him to the brink of madness.

 

She stands there all demure, under the watchful sharp eyes of her harpy of a mother. And he admires her freely as he talks to acquaintances. Or merely stands on his own. Watching The London set put their backs out, dancing like a preening bevy of swathed swans trying to attract his attention.

 

It doesn’t work. For Iris has every ounce of it. When she looks for him, he smiles. Wanting to cut right across that room and kiss her again in front of everyone. There is torture in being withheld from the things he desires. He’s learning that now, more than ever.

 

The ball eventually draws to a close. The crowds thin out of the golden room as the great and the good take to their carriages and return home.

 

He watches the Ashton entourage leave across the room. His eyes cling to her and she demurely turns over her shoulder. He can almost hear her calling a goodnight to him. How she wants nothing more than to walk over and say it in person. To have him kiss her hand again and smile at her from up close.

 

She follows after her silly sisters. Who skip and bounce out with enthusiasm telling her something. Some tidbit of gossip perhaps. He watches her until she is out of sight.

 

He takes his leave not long after. Summons his carriage and clambers in. He barely registers the drive home.

 

Before too long Hellford Park looms out of the snow. A blanketed grey beast. He alights the carriage, pats Erland on the neck and is given a huffing nicker of a goodnight snort in return.

 

He strides up the steps. By the time he’s on the porch, heavy specs of snow are dotted in his hair and speckled on his dark coat shoulders.

 

Jomar is there. Opening the door for his master before his hand even touches the handle. He was always attentive. Always at the door to greet him. It’s spooky how efficient he is.

 

“It’s as if you can sense my drawing near.” Kylo’s remarks to him snidely with mirth as he hands him over his leather gloves. Jomar takes them. Nonplussed by his masters wit.

 

“I like to think so after all my years of serving you. But truth be told, your treads and singularly heavy. You stomp about like a petulant child.” He comments dryly. Kylo unbuttons his coat and hands it across to him.

 

Jomar always did have a wicked sense of humour. It ran in the family, it seemed. As long as Kylo has been a member of the gentry and reigning on this earth in all his blood thirsting glory - for these last 500 years atleast - A Jomar man has always been his butler.

 

Generations of them, dating right back to the 13th century. Kylo has known his great grandfather, his grandfather and father alike. They all served him well. Through peacetime and through wars. There’s no other or greater butler, or greater friend, he’d rather have.

 

Jomar takes no lordly sardonic nonsense off Kylo, and has a knife-like wit that stayed sharpened. He knows what Kylo is. His whole family did. Kylo fiercely protects and cherished his own. Respect cut both ways.

 

“I see no blood on your coat or hands. I therefore conclude you had a terribly unpleasant evening.” Jomar comments as he moved across the echoing marble of the foyer to hang up his coat in the convenient nearly empty cloakroom close by.

 

“It was actually rather bearable...” Kylo smiles enigmatically to himself.

 

Jomar doesn’t reign in his shock. Matter of fact; he swears in his native punjabi tongue.

 

His dark eyebrows almost disappear under his indigo blue dastar as he turns back to Kylo. “If you’ll excuse me. I think I need to go and lie down from the shock.” He remarks dryly.

 

Kylo gives him one of his piercing dark looks.

 

“Why do I bother keeping you around again?” A rhetorical statement but Jomar answers it anyway.

 

His station comfortable enough to allow him to do so. He’s the only one who speaks frankly to Kylo. The only true semblance of a friend this lonely vampire could boast of.

 

“Because me and my ancestors have served your ghastly tempers since the dark ages.” He observes.

 

Kylo grumbles a grumpy growl across from him as he starts up the grand mahogany imperial stairs. Making for bed.

 

“And if it weren’t for me, you’d be a mad feral recluse with musty untidy clothes and unpolished boots and hair as long as weeping willow vines.” Jomar insists.

 

Kylo rolls his eyes. “I heard that.” Jomar comments.

 

His back to Kylo as he brushes snow off the overcoat. He always was good at making Kylo feel and sound like a stroppy infant.

 

He’s known him through terrible times and he’s put up with far worse from the man. Starvation. His feral temper. His mood swings and anger. The bloodlust that nearly drove him dangerously insane. He stayed faithfully by his side for all of it. Their bond always came out stronger. As bonds so tend to do when they are tested.

 

“And how fares the beautiful Miss Ashton?” He seeks. He idly calls over his shoulder at his master.

 

Kylo stops on the stairs and smiles. “She is well.” He’s delighted to tell.

 

Jomar turns and catches the flicker of his strong smile. “Is that a smile I’m seeing? You must excuse me if I immediately go and summon the nearest painter or sculptor. For I haven’t seen you smile since 1789.” Jomar ribs.

 

Kylo’s smiling more at him now. “Go to bed you old fool.” He leers.

 

Jomar smiles too. His goatee moustache tips upwards with the force of his smile. His bitter-cocoa eyes warmly glimmer. That smile and his teasing means he’s in a jovial mood. And Jomar knows the very pretty young woman who called here some days ago, might well be the key to all that joviality.

 

He is most singular. No other man would smile at him for his calling them a fool.

 

“What time will you assault my ears with your incredible noise in the morning?” Jomar seeks. Asking when Kylo will rouse himself and possibly might ring for breakfast. He doesn’t sleep much. Fitful if anything.

 

“Not too early.” He answers.

 

“Very good, your Lordship.” Jomar bows. “Off with you. You look as if you need your beauty sleep.” He insulted as he moves off. Hands folded behind his back to the servants quarters. The timpani clacks of his boots ring quieter and quieter off in the hall.

 

Kylo starts up the steps again. Thuds of his stomps echo through the foyer. “Oh yes. And hire me a new butler tomorrow, would you?” He jokingly calls after the man.

 

He can feel Jomar smile. And he hears his cutting response. “About time too. I can finally go and serve someone respectably decent.” Is his answer.

 

Kylo smiles as he slips up the dark staircase to his master suite bedchamber.

 

He opens the door to his room. Fire lit, red velvet quilts pulled back on the bed. Thick thick blood canopy’s drawn on the four posters. The cream of the sheets, like pale skin, barely peeping through. The fire blazes at the end of his bed and warms the room beautifully. Melting tones of amber and red. Like bittersweet snap of autumn.

 

He starts peeling off his clothes at the door. Shuts it with pressing his back to the wood. Hears the click of the latch. And when he knows he’s alone again, his lusts resume in their rampages and impulses to run wild.

 

He’s been half hard ever since that kiss.

 

Oh heavens above, that kiss.

 

Her sweet sugar lips and her skin and blood and her body driving him to insane distraction.

 

He rips off his cravat after the knot is loosened. The pin clatters to the floor. But right now he doesn’t care if he crushes it underfoot. He angrily shrugs off his velvet jacket, tears open his waistcoat and gladly lets the buttons fly and scatter. Pinging to the floor like pearled hailing rain.

 

He leaves his clothes strewn all over the floor. He doesn’t bother getting his boots off. It’ll take too long. He untucks his shirt and the neckline rests low between his pecs. Almost exposing his nipples. But he doesn’t care about that now. He doesn’t care about decency or politeness. He doesn’t have too here.

 

He can give in to his basest urges. He will. And he does.

 

He palms over his erection trapped stiff in his breeches. Throws his head back to the door and bites out a moan. Solid skull thunking against the door. He grits his teeth and rubs harder. Groans growing in volume as he strokes himself.

 

He quickly crosses the room and takes up a seat in the red armchair by the fire. One side warmed from the heat. As he goes he fiddled impatiently with his trouser falls. By the time he sits down - a mere two seconds later - his patience is lost. He tears open his breeches and hears the fabric ripping. Right down to his strong thighs.

 

He growls out loud when he fists a hand around himself. Syrupy slick of sticky precome coats his palm. He’s been leaking and dripping all over himself for hours. He remembers rubbing into her. Her sweet cunt and mons grinding against his thigh-

 

His free hand grips the arm of the chair so hard he hears the wood crackle. Breaking the frame underneath. Crumbling it to pieces. He wraps a hand around himself. Harder than steel. He strokes upwards and as his palm catches friction over the sensitive head still leaking cum, he writhes in his chair. Choking moans. Choking on her name. She’s crushing him.

 

He sighs, panting, bites his lip. Tips his head back. His hips pump and thrust into the warm heaven of his slicked up fist. He looks down and watches his flushed cockhead and rosy length catch on the stimulating ridges of his gripped fingers. Watching silvery wet string off himself too. And plenty there was of it.

 

He tips his head back into the chair. Hits the soft upholstery. Whining and whimpering for her. “Oh dove. Oh fuck-“ he curses.

 

Imagining she was here next to him. On her knees on the floor. Learning how he likes to be pleasured. He’d give this entire world to see her sat there. Gripping and pumping his cock with her innocent little hand.

 

Better still if she leaned forwards, gave him a tempting glance of those breasts he so badly wants to suckle at - and slipped his erection into her hot, waiting mouth. Bobbing her head on him. Tasting the salty hot weight of him on her tongue.

 

The thought of his cock being taken in those rose sweet lips he’d tasted, makes him yell out loud. Thank god there were no servants rooms up here. He’d wake the whole house if he wasn’t careful. The whole goddamned county.

 

Hand moving faster now with that image. Twisting harder. Right to the base. Feeling the wet cum slip between his thighs. Dropping over his sac, staining the chair seat below.

 

He braces his heels on the floor and really starts to fuck his hips upwards onto his grip. Free hand leaps for his right nipple and thumbs it slowly.

 

He’s shivering with pleasure before long. Big strong trunks of his thighs tremble with pleasure. He hasn’t had the drive to satisfy himself for months. Even longer since he laid with a partner. Years even since he’s had a body lain beneath him, writhing in pleasure.

 

Now his need rather runneth over- Thoughts of his dove fills his head. Her taste, her scent.

 

He’s getting close. Edging nearer and nearer. Noises getting louder and he bites his lip. But his fangs are sharp now and his own blood fills his mouth. Cherry copper bitter and iron sweet.

 

He grunts and fucks his fist and just absolutely drools blood and spit onto his own chest thinking of them joining together. Thinks how wet and warm she’d be.

 

He imagines her riding him in this chair he’s sat in right this very second. Her perfect breasts bouncing in his face. Nipples hard. Sweaty skin. Bouncing her gorgeous wet cunt up and down on his cock as he holds her hips and grinds up deep. Legs bent to stuff her in his lap and get his large cock buried to the hilt inside her.

 

He can see her on top of him. Naked. Breasts and her throat hammering blood in his face. He thinks of her orgasming loudly in his lap as he cums. Imagines the spend of himself spurting everywhere over his shirt, is her gushing all over his chest til he’s slippery with it.

 

He jerks and rubs until every last shred of pleasure and every last sticky drop of his seed is spent.

 

He sags back into the chair. Blood and drool dripping from his cut mouth. His chest heaves and when he opens his eyes, they are dazzling gold. Turned amber by the fire.

 

“Sweet dove. What you do to me...” He sighs.

 

One kiss and he’s sat there covered slick in blood and cum and spit. She’s making quite the feral creature of his lust. He drops his head back into the chair. Spent.

 

Maybe he’ll have a bath drawn in a little while. For now, he looks into the hearth and feels the pleasure seep lazy sleep down into his bones.

 

Across at Westwell. Iris is sat at her vanity in her nightgown. Brushing her hair for bed. When a sudden wooziness and haze of pleasure bursts between her legs. She feels sticky and sodden between her thighs and her spine wracks with desire.

 

She smiles. Blushing as she continues on brushing her tresses.

 

She still blames it all on that kiss.

 

 

 

 

~

 

Chapter Text

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Another week in the life of a soon-to-be-wedded young woman perched delicately upon the dizzying precipices of matrimonial bliss; for she had to suffer yet another outing with her intended huffy Sergeant.

 

They were bid to the local theatre three towns over, this eve, to take a the comedic operatic of a show. A paltry pastime perhaps, Hux was not keen, where Iris entered the evening determined to have some share of joy in it.

 

She’d often found a healthier outlook far more substantially bearable, than that of a venomous one. A better application of her energy as far as she’s concerned; her determination to enjoy such things outweighs the scope of misery she could place upon her evening.

 

She’d be sat down upon a comfy seat. In the dark. Not conversing. That sounds like some sheer brazen luck to her; she won’t have to interact with Hux or his overbearing unctuous mother. But then her mind callously interjects that she’d have to spend the rest of her life married to the man. So one night’s reprieve was almost sadly tragic. A happenstance to be mourned.

 

Pitied. If she had anyone who could so pity her in that manner.

 

They could certainly pity her now. Sat in a dark coach. Travelling and clunking along to the theatre house.

 

Hux sit’s opposite inspecting the quality of the shine of his boots. Besmirching his  valet’s hand no doubt.

 

She sits opposite. All wrapped up in her velvet cloak and another silk dress he didn’t compliment her on looking so becoming in.

 

A better man might’ve atleast called her pretty. Might’ve atleast made her feel just the tiniest bit flattered that he has her on his arm. No such luck with the loveless Armitage Hux.

 

Moody silence sits with them. Almost as if a completely intrusive third passenger. Heralding the frosty silence that’s colder than the light of the icy moon outside tonight. Catching on all the snow. Shining over brown-frosted hills and dead winter trees.

 

They come to the gaiety of the theatre. Even as the coach pulls up, Iris can see numerous men and women flocking there. Driven in by the chill and the desire for the show. The name of which is emblazoned above the door. And in peeling posters all along the torch lit front of the stony theatre building.

 

A creamy edifice of domineering cotswold stone. The sleeting snow, like mush and rain and ice, patters and melts into the roof and seeps soggy into the dirty pavements. Spitting gloopy down from the heavens.

 

The weather is a foul as Hux’s somber mood. He barely looks at her just as he barely offers her a hand down from his coach. She had wounded his ego most sorely the other night. With the carriage and the wolf debacle.

 

Iris has never known such frailty or scorned derision greater than that of a man’s bruised ego. Softer than eggshell.

 

She would be more incensed at his sullen mood. If she wasn’t already suffering in other ways. A persistent headache had taken up residence in her temples. It pinched and hurt and her tolerance for annoyance had furiously lessened.

 

They cross the steps up the foyer, and cut through the bustling crowds to come to the gathering of their family who await them. Their carriage preceded their own by mere minutes. Maratella rewards herself being so sly and forward thinking in sending Hux to fetch Iris in their second coach whilst the rest of her family rode on with her and Brendol.

 

She fancied she was giving the budding lovebirds a moment alone; probably imagines they’d steal a kiss or gabble excitedly about their wedding plans. Hopes for the loving future ahead. She wasn’t to know they were barely on speaking terms.

 

Hux catches her elbow before they reach their assorted relatives. Brings her to a stop.

 

“Might we endeavour to appear civil, tonight Iris?” Hux speaks lowly into her ear. Stooping over her. Looking as if they are exchanging some lovers secret from a trysting moment.

 

“I should like to set an example of gentility for yours and my families interests. For we both know what is at stake if we are, after all.... destined to be wed.” He tells with a note of dullness to his voice.

 

Be still my swooning heart, Iris remarks to herself dryly.

 

“There is no quarrel between us, Sergeant. And if there is, I assure you, it is certainly not being offered from my quarter.” Iris insists. A veiled comment meant to remind and remark how annoyingly taciturn he was behaving.

 

Without mistaking her utter joy at correcting a gentleman’s behaviour and the out-coming matter of it being inherently satisfying; she’s more vexed at how he can seem so displeased with her conduct.

 

He does have the gall to look the tiniest bit ashamed to that confession. He offers her a flicker of a curtly guilty smile. Nodding. “Very well.” He adds.

 

Iris looks down and gently takes his offered arm. He stands straight. Peacocking, puffing his chest out in his scarlet uniform. They stride across for their families with perfectly false smiles pasted on their faces. An air of geniality seeping out of every pore.

 

Posy and Flora are the first to not so subtly comment at their sister and the titian haired Sergeant being left alone together for an entire carriage ride. Again.

 

Her mother leans to Maratella and smiles something unto her friends ear. If her relatives get any the more transparent, Iris strongly suspects she’s going to scream and start tearing out her hair.

 

Iris nods a hello to the Huxs’. Brendol is in attendance tonight. A man of late age, little hair. Thinning russet red that hints at his sons colouring. He is portly and acts and speaks as if he disapproves greatly of everything in his path.

 

The man is merely eyeing her with the same bored indifference as his son. Mutters something to his wife about getting to their seats before too long. Looking as if he’d rather be anywhere else. Bedecked in his army uniform too. The heritage of proud soldiers, the noble and gallant Hux ancestors. Men with soldiery and lust for war and medals and honour in their blood, dating as far back as the Normandy landings, most likely.

 

She felt something then she never fathomed she’d feel for Armitage- she pitied him.

 

Growing up with a father who domineered and controlled his interests as much as her mother had controlled hers. She was raised and bred for marriage? Hux was raised and bred for the glory of war. No matter if he wanted it or not. Anything to continue the proud heritage. She suspects they are perhaps more alike in that regard than she first thought.

 

She however, cannot pretend it makes her love him any the more. Respect him slightly, possibly. But her heart and feelings are still sworn away to another man.

 

“I’m very much anticipating the performance. Maratella you are very generous to invite us all to take use of your box. Such a fine view.” Iris insists to Mrs Hux. She had even said that it would not be so prudent for Iris to start calling her ‘her second Mama’ if she so wished. For they are almost connected as family already.

 

“Indeed. Miss Ashton you are most welcome. My dear friend and I jointly share the box for the season. I think mayhap you know of her? Lady Spencer...” She preaches jovially. Loudly enough for everyone around them to hear. Whether by design or accident- Iris cannot say.

 

Iris nods. “Indeed ma’am. We were at her ball at Cavisham House, just last eve.”

 

Maratella’s face falls with comedic over-exaggeration. “Oh we did most want to attend. Alas so many parties and assemblies we are promised to at present!” She gushed.

 

“Armitage and I got caught up at the Countess of Whetherby’s assembly last evening. Hux took dances with many fine young ladies. But I dare say he missed you something most acutely awful my dear.” She winked at Iris. Reaching over and patting her hand in mock comfort.

 

Her levity didn’t lessen the barb of insult that struck through her heart. She’d waited on Hux being in attendance all evening, and he thought so little of her, he took dances with other women.

 

Now atleast she knew where she stood. No matter Maratella’s telling her otherwise. That pity she spoke of before, quickly dried up. The well of her good thoughts for Hux quickly dried up. As it usually does mere seconds after prevailing herself of his company.

 

She rather wants to drop the arm of his she’s now holding in fake mannerly affection. Only she doesn’t get the chance too. Maratella is already rabbiting on and boasting about something else.

 

“Alas, I had word from my poor friend Lady Spencer just this eve. She sent me a missive. I chanced on its arrival just as we made ready to leave. She so hates to decline an invite to the theatre. But she is struck down with pains of the chest. A nervous compliant I fear.” She admits sadly.

 

“She did say she sent a certain gentleman to take her place. I believe you are of his acquaintance, Mrs Ashton. He claims one with you...”

 

Mrs Ashton frowns most keenly. “Pray. Who might that be?” She comments.

 

“That would be me, I believe.” Interjects a new deep voice into their conversation.

 

Iris’ skin crawls. And not in any sort of horrible way. But the very best way. That smoke and whiskey-molasses voice that sets her bones quivering is like manna to her ears.

 

So sudden his appearance that all the blood in the upper half of her body rushes suddenly to her face. Heating her cheeks. And she’s never been more aware of her spine being a column of thrashing fizzing and excited nerves.

 

Their party turns around and sure enough, there is Lord Ren. Stepping out of the shadows of the nearest hallway. He looked oddly at home amongst the scarlet blood walls, the shadows, and the cloaking velvet curtains of the nearest entryway. Hands behind his back. His impassive figure cuts a handsome image.

 

Black coat and breeches and boots as always. An ivory silk waistcoat the colour of old bones sits on his top half. A searing white cravat knotted at his neck. Collar tipping under his chin. A monochrome monstrosity. So monstrous because he’s so beautiful Iris can liken no other sight in the world like him. He was truly a wondrous beast.

 

He appears so opportunely. As if summoned by the devil. Sculpted out of thin air. In a great rushing shift of air he brings with him the cologne that’s almost as tantalising as his very handsome looks. Sandalwood, rich dirty earth and something cold and opulent, fragranced, like frost crusted on mint leaf.

 

Iris takes great pleasure in knowing his mere presence grits her mothers teeth to dust. She’s biting back her tongue. So as not to be uncivil in front of Maratella. Showing up her host was the height of rudeness.

 

“Lord Ren.” Maratella gasps excitedly. Preening and fussing with her appearance. Kylo looks over at Iris warmly. Sets her soul on fire with those honeyed black eyes before he smoothly rolls his look across to Mrs Hux. His second host for the evening.

 

His vampiric charms and hypnotic influences seep out of his every pore. The aids to the ultimate predator. He can enchant anyone. Even the vapid likes of Mrs Hux.

 

She’s reacting to him - blushing and fluffing her hair curls. Even in her late age. Humans are always so susceptible to him. He never has a problem attracting interest. He’s tall, dark and far too beguiling. The weak mortals - of either gender - throw themselves at his feet and fawn into madness that he might dare look at them.

 

His eyes are however, set upon one prize. And at that very moment; Kylo’s ultimate prize has her hand hooked on another insipid man’s elbow. That won’t do.

 

He eyes the contact with fleeting derision as Mrs Hux flatters and compliments him every manner. As if her tongue simply drips honey and sugar.

 

“... Indeed. We are all so honoured you will be making up our merry party this eve. Lord Ren.” She wheedles.

 

Kylo tips his smirk across at Caroline Ashton. Who looks ready to spit venom at him past her forked tongue. She was reddening with rage. Clutching her hands together like she wanted to break bone.

 

“I am excessively happy to make up the party.” He smiles. Hoping it would be a dagger in Mrs Ashton’s scaled skin.

 

“Lady Spencer simply begged the acquaintance on me. I couldn’t possibly in all good grace refuse it.” He shows off.

 

He sees Caroline flinch and watches the veins strain at her temples. He will torture her for every second. Tenfold. For what she’s putting her daughter through. Making her suffer the attentions of a arduous prick, who thinks himself the finest soldier England has ever produced.

 

That makes Kylo scoff. He known soldiers like Hux: men who flock to the uniform, quick to put it on. Not so quick to honour its pride and meaning.

 

Men like him; fighting men like him are one’s born out of centuries and generations upon generations of soldiers forced unto the army life by their domineering and stuffy fathers. Kylo casts an eye over Mr. Hux who boredly inspects his pocket watch. Doesn’t so much as even turn his head toward Kylo.

 

He’s seen a hundred men like this. And they flee from battle. Unable to take the horror of being cannon fodder. They think themselves above it. Better. Superior. They don and peacock their red coats but when it comes down to committing the savagery of fighting in battle, they run.

 

Kylo’s slit the throats of a thousand deserters in his day. He’s sure when the next war comes - and it will - he will be called upon to do more of the same.

 

He’d take ten peasants with the will of iron and guts to defend their homeland with their bare bleeding hands, warring to the bone, over a thousand preening dandy officers like Hux. Ones who picked the lint and specs of dirt off their uniforms. Bragged about their commissions and then would doubtlessly abandon good men to die when battle finally came.

 

“How long have you known Lady Spencer sir?” Mrs Hux asks.

 

“Not at all until I met her at the ball last Eve. Mrs Hux. She was most grateful for my ousting an awful drunkard who was causing insult to her guests.” Kylo explains.

 

Mrs Hux looks amazed. Iris blushes. Posy and Flora look all flirty up at the tall Lord. Mrs Hux looks ready to swoon.

 

Armitage appears bored and annoyed. “How very gallant of you Lord Ren. Did he offer you insult perhaps, snub your grand title? Laugh at your boots?” Hux sniffs with derision.

 

Kylo locks eyes with the redheaded cur who dared to offer him, the landed peer, an insult. The ember warmth leeches from Kylos eyes and his smile drops. His stare hardened to black frost. His eyes glitter darkly in the lowlight. Like shiny, scuttling black beetles wings.

 

“Actually, Sergeant, he offered foul mouthed insult to your beautiful fiancée. You would know of this, had you not left her unattended all evening.”

 

Hux sneers and his lips twitch to snarl an ugly response. Kylo looks nonplussed. Though behind his back, his knuckles crack white where he curls his fist. And he feels the veins in his arms and his biceps strain, itch and tense not to retaliate.

 

Sensing the men bristling over Miss Ashton. Maratella suggests they all take to their seats for the performance begins soon. The Ashton’s walk off with Brendol and she takes the time to turn around and hiss at her son. Her sugared smile disappears and coldness takes its place.

 

“Armitage. Remember your manners. Don’t be so uncouth in front of Iris. And especially not to Lord Ren.” She shrilled at her son, before she takes her leave.

 

Hux cups over the back of Iris’ hand where it rests on his elbow. Kylo stays stood opposite. Glaring at the man. Seeing his hand on hers made his blood itch for terrible violent things. He aches to reach across and twist Hux’s stupid neck til it crunches into pieces.

 

What’s worse... is that Hux doesn’t love her.

 

He will never love her. He is using her for show and want of connection and that is all. Instead of appreciating the beauty on his arm... he’s using her to manipulate the emotions of another man he detests.

 

Kylo so very much wants to dismember the sad prick. The animal in him claws at its confinement’s. Slobbering maw baying at the gates of his temper. He swallows and keeps it tamed - for now.

 

“Hux. Please. I beg you. There is no cause for incivility here.” Iris insists.

 

Sensing the bristling and enflaming of masculine tempers flaring up around her. Kylo looks calm. Hux looks snotty and more and more like a spoilt brat not getting his own way. The poncy Sergeant barely turns his head to her when she speaks.

 

He’s fraying on the last ragged rope holding Kylo’s inner beast in check. In his time he was raised to hold women in high regard. They were warriors. Mothers. Strong farmers, and skilled craftspeople. People worthy of alignment with men. In this rabid society? They are merely goals and dowries to be won. It sickens him.

 

Hux looks like he wants to stomp his foot and stroppily exclaim that Lord Ren started it. He eyes as the crowds about them thin away. Off to their seats. He snatches his arm off her. Steps forward.

 

“Do not dare think to correct me, woman.” Hux says lowly at her. Before he turns his head to Kylo. Still addressing her. But his eyes stabbing into Kylo.

 

“Lord Ren should be apprised of speaking so discourteously towards me.” He warns. Thank goodness he wasn’t isn’t full ceremonial dress and had his sword strapped to his side. He might have run Kylo through.

 

Lord Ren raises one sardonic brow. Really, there was an advantage to his lofty peerage ranking as a Lord. It meant he was always in a position to arch a sardonic brow. His smirk tips up on one side too.

 

“You offer me threat? Sergeant?” Kylo asks. He’s twice the man’s width. And three heads taller.

 

There’s no question who the real power is. Kylo’s itching to show how much. Slam the pathetic boy up against the nearest wall. Feet off the ground. He could choke him there with one hand. It would be no more to him than swatting away a stray flea.

 

“I do, Sir. Maybe your foreign ways make you unaware of the standards here in our polite society. But understand me; it is in very poor taste to try a poach a man’s intended from him.” He snarls. Voice reedy thin.

 

“In my foreign experience...” Kylo digs at his poor choice of words. “I seldom recommend that senseless men such as yourself leave their beautiful ladies unattended. Who knows what may come to pass...” Kylo suggests.

 

He wouldn’t allude to their kiss last eve and bring her mortification and embarrassment. Hux recoils to spit some more venom but Kylo steps up.

 

“Perhaps if you bore an ounce of gallantry and backbone you’d be better placed to deserve a woman like Miss Ashton. A curious intelligent woman, whom you can overlook and subjugate at every turn. She deserves a far better spouse than some coward in a uniform.”

 

“I would call you outside if I believed you had any honour with which to meet me.” Hux seethes.

 

He was challenging Kylo to an illegal duel. Not over Iris’ honour. But rather his own. How typical. Lord Ren’s amused face quickly turns into the most terrifying expression she’s ever seen. Such fury steeling his handsome features.

 

“Don’t dare talk down to me, of honour.” Kylo cautions. Iris’ mouth gapes. Such wounded fury in his eyes.

 

“You believe that because you don a pretty red coat that you are the most valiant warrior to ever set foot on this earth? I’ve seen such carnage and bloody fighting that it would make you shudder in horror and scream out in your dreams. I’ve fought in more wars than you can ever name, boy.” He spits in gross insult.

 

“I gladly lack many things your fetid society seems to value. But don’t you dare accuse me, of lacking honour.” Kylo seethes.

 

“I will not waste my time listening to more of this effrontery.” Hux straightens his back. Pretends not to be undignified and stalks off towards the box after his family.

 

Iris sighs in his wake. It appears he’d forgotten to escort her. She wasn’t entirely sure that was a bad thing. She didn’t wish to spend time with such a spoilt brat of a man, who can’t look behind his own ignorant scope.

 

“I detest many things. But a man such as he who so readily and openly snipes to others and thinks himself loftily superior, is not something I can pretend to stomach.” Iris offers to Kylo. Chewing lightly on her lower lip in trepidation.

 

He walks quick across to her and gently plucks her hand up to kiss it. Putting it on his arm thereafter. If her own idiot of a fiancé won’t escort her, he sure as hell will. Damn the cur for making less of her.

 

“I’m so sorry for his conduct Lord Ren. And any insult you offered you. ” She offers. Even though he’s trembling with anger and rage, entwined with disgust for that man. He doesn’t let her see how close he came to loosing his temper. A hairs breadth.

 

He’s sure to look stern. But his eyes are warm. “Your apology is not needed. Iris. He formed and spat those words. You did not.” He tells her seriously. He lets the bitter bile of rage slip off his tongue. She calms him.

 

Her beauty soothes the beast.

 

She looks ashamed. Ashamed of being connected to such a low example of man. “A woman is supposed to support her intended in every manner...” She says with perturbation.

 

“Well. He makes that venture impossible.” Kylo admits lowly. She smiles a little. Agreeing. Though she dare not speak such terms aloud.

 

“If I might add, You look very handsome tonight. Miss Ashton.” He flatters. Where her cloak was taken some time ago by the porter, the exquisite nature of her dress came into view.

 

A soft teal blue silk. Simple cut. He’s seen it on her before. The one with the low back and the sweeping train. He admired it on her before, and he will do so again. She shouldn’t be made to feel plain or boring in her dresses when she really did look truly beautiful in each one.

 

Tonight there is a thin necklace with some pretty sparkles and paste gems of some blue stones set around her neck. He watches the broach of it raise and sink with her breathing. His eyes run unhindered along her collarbone. Watches the jitter of her pearl drop earrings.

 

They walk up the narrow little carpeted stairs, and come along the hallway. Selecting their door they join the others in Lady Spencer and Mrs Hux’ box. The theatre was not exactly a grand one. Though the building was magnificent in its Georgian architecture it was a small country place of not much elegance. Candles flickered low, and the gloomy edifice is only made bright by the stage lights blinking upwards towards the painted scenery and the backdrop of draped red curtains.

 

The rest is lost to darkness. Ladies and gentlemen mill about in their seats, shifting in the rows of seats below. The upper circle opposite is populated too. As busy as the rest of the place.

 

The show is shortly to begin. Kylo doesn’t have time to admire the look on Caroline’s face seeing him deliver Iris to her seat. Glaring at Hux sharply, who gave him his own acerbic look right back. They watch the big impressive Lord stride down the box toward his seat.

 

Hux leans into her. “I make no such apology for my exit. I cannot stand a man who thinks so meanly of brave soldiers, such as I.”

 

Iris sighs to herself. Of course he overlooked the fact that he was the one who started the tirade of insults in the first place. He turned Kylo’s chiding the Sergeant onto a martyrdom for all English soldiers.

 

“I understand.” She says dully. Her head is throbbing. Temples hurt.

 

If she says anything else she’d get too incensed with him. He didn’t even defend his poor actions. Kylo was directly correct about Hux; he really did have no backbone or honour where she was concerned.

 

The curtains pull apart. The play begins. Lord Ren settles in his seat. Down the far far end of the box by Maratella and Brendol. Iris finds it not at all ironic or unsurprising that there’s a box length of people between them. Doubtless that was her mothers doing.

 

Kylo knows it too - he catches her eye where their seats are set back. A wry grin tugs at his lips. Despite herself, Iris blushes at it. She looks down into her lap. Hux turns to the side and catches her blush. Sees how Lord Ren turns away. Smug and smiling. It piqued his interest.

 

Iris tries to concentrate. But it appears the niggling headache she began to suffer earlier was pounding incessantly at her temples. She’s reminded of it every time there’s sharp clapping or the pitching whine of a violin chorus. The room suddenly feels much too much. Too hot. Too stifling.

 

Her dress feels too sticky - clinging to her back and her chest. She forgot her fan and she wished she would have remembered it. So she wouldn’t now be gasping for air.

 

Another thundering round of applause sharply rippled through the theatre. She shuts her eyes and winces at it. How it stings so at her head.

 

Hux continues clapping beside her. Elbows jostling her. Kylo frowns at the idiot not even sensing she was unwell. He doesn’t applaud. He looks her way with a frown of interest. Brow creased with concern.

 

It wasn’t long til the intermission now. Barely a half of an hour. Kylo watches her face crumpled in pain. She stands and says something idle and quick to Hux. He nods and she slips away. Out the darkened door. Into the shadows of the dimmed theatre.

 

Kylo turns his head back. Tries valiantly to concentrate on the insipid comedy play. But he finds he can’t. Especially not as a moment opposite catches his eye. Draws his eyeline to the opposite box. Where a dark coated man with golden hair slips out the door. Smirking directly at Kylo. Piercing eyes stabbed into Kylo’s nonexistent soul. He knows that smirking face.

 

Viscount Eversleigh. The most foul letch on two legs. The drunkard he had thrown out of the Spencer’s ball last night.

 

He couldn’t leap up and go after Iris. It would look planned. He had to leave it as long as possible. He tried to think that the perfidious and indocile Eversleigh had gone to fetch a drink. Yet he seemed like the kind of man to order someone to do it for him.

 

Kylo’s worries and paranoia seeps heavy through his blood like rotten sticky tar. He hates this sickening feeling. He prayed that Eversleigh’s exit wasn’t fuelled by Iris’. He really did.

 

He has no such blind faith left in mortal men. He may be the darkest foulest creature, but it’s nothing to some men’s filthy aspirations. Some were truly vile. Especially those men gone on drink and snobbery who view the world as quite their own.

 

Kylo launches out his seat. Hot in pursuit. So quick in fact it rattled back on its far legs as he rose out the thing so quick. Storming for the door. He almost yanked it off - ripping it clean of its hinges, like matchwood. If Hux wouldn’t care for her, the task fell to him. To protect his little Dove.

 

Iris made her way down the stairs. Stopping before she got to the foyer. She needed air and in search of it, she rounded the stairs up to the boxes and found a narrow dingy hallway which snaked out onto a dark alley.

 

The door was left wide open and cold slushy grey of night and the scent of damp and dirt spilled inside. Seeping onto the cold wet stone doorstep. Darkened by the spitting slush of rain.

 

She takes deep lungfuls of the bitter air. It hurts her lungs but the cool feels so soothing on her skin. Her skull still echoes with the nasty pain of headache. But the air helps aids her.

 

She no longer feels so suffocated. Stifled by this evening and her dress. Forcing herself to be civil to a heartless man she doesn’t want. It takes it toll of her already sore shoulders from carrying the weights if other people’s expectations.

 

Oddly enough, when she’s talking to Lord Ren, her worries and all those bothersome fretting’s leave her mind. For a second, she feels like someone sees her for the sheer value of herself. See’s and cherished her as a whole. It’s an awfully heady feeling for the likes of her; who always felt sought after merely for marital status and connection. She who was always made to feel like an example of regency gentility for marriage. And never having any dreams or aspirations beyond.

 

She sighs. Crosses her arms over herself. Hears the silk rasp. Feeling how the cold nibbles savagely at her arms. Stings her chest and turns her necklace to savage ice resting around her throat. Before she starts to shiver, she shifts herself from the doorway and turns to go back inside; entering back into her paltry monotonous existence.

 

The one that made her chest seize up in panic, the same thing clawing through her blood. The one that made her want to run fleeing every chance she got.

 

Damn family reputation. Damn propriety and society. She could run for the coast with the meagre pin money she has saved. Hidden behind the loose skirting in her bedroom. Behind the door. She’s gotten used to stashing the odd sixpence in the velvet pouch therein. She has a neat little sum tidied away by now.

 

She could go for the coast. Where no one knows her. Down and across to Dorset and seek for work. Or maybe Plymouth? Perhaps give herself a new name. Invent a dead husband who died in the war, invent a past that wasn’t at all true. Wear a wedding band that represented nothing more than a falsehood.

 

She may yet find work in some great grand house for a noble family. She has a good brain and much knowledge, she could be a Governess well enough. Teach young girls or young masters in the nursery. She was so vastly tempted by the idea. Atleast that way she’d have a life she could control.

 

She’d almost run away so many times. She was merely ten and four the first time she tried.

 

Barely longer in the tooth than Flora was now. And she’d wanted to bundle her meagre possessions into a carpet bag, and go scrounge together a life earning a measly palm full of pennies in some dirty gin soaked tavern on the outskirts of London, where no one would know her. Anything was a desirable alternative to staying and having her head bitten off day in day out by her mother. Always ready to find fault with her eldest.

 

Caroline Ashton’s fears of propriety and want for connection completely ate her up. There was no affection in her of any sort.

 

There wasn’t anything else there in the woman behind that porcelain front. Iris remembers learning that the day her mother clipped her across her cheek in a harsh slap for not getting the practiced dance steps right. That was the first night she dreamed of running away.

 

She regrets the memories now. They are no more than barbed reminders of her failed hopes. She’s never been brave enough to run. Her penance for her spoilt dreams. She’s stayed. She’s the biggest coward she knows of. Never could quite summon the guts to do it.

 

She sighs deeply. Turning and heading for her seat; the intermission began soon. She wanted to avoid the crowds if at all possible. She makes it just to the corner of the dingy hallway.

 

And where she’s looking down at her feet, when she looks up she’s gasping and jolting backwards at the sudden apparition of the man before her. Blocking all discernible light from the hallway beyond.

 

Stood there with his foppish mane of honey curls. His sapphire coat and his biscuit coloured breeches. Viscount Eversleigh. He stands. Smirking. Twiddling the golden sovereign ring around around around on his little finger. Anticipating her.

 

So suddenly she shrunk back with a gasp. “Lord Eversleigh.” Iris timidly greets him. Her back hits the wall where she stumbled.

 

“Iris. Isn’t it?” He seeks. She doesn’t care for the fumes of whiskey on his breath and on his jacket. Or his attentions. His manners. His looks. She didn’t care for anything and everything about him. And if he had a dog too? Well. She didn’t care for that either.

 

“We are not intimately acquainted.” She dismisses. He would never have known her first name.

 

He chuckled and stalks slowly towards her still. Backing her into the wall. She had nowhere else to go. Her hands scrabble against the smooth cold plaster. She can hear her heart hammering in her ears. Aware her chest is heaving and he notices this too.

 

“We could be...” He smarms at her. Smile tugging up. There’s a glazed look of something she can’t quite read in his eyes. And it’s bright and awful.

 

“Tell me, my dear, how long have you been lifting your skirts for Lord Ren?” He coos. Flattening her to the wall. His coat brushing her chest. “How long has he been fucking you?”

 

She’s mortified. And scared. Her mouth gapes. Such insulting speech. “I beg your pardon...” She gasps.

 

“Don’t be all missish. My dear. I’ve seen the way he looks at you. The way he pays court to you. Holds your hand. Much more than that redheaded prick does.” He scoffs. The shock of his foul language lands on her skin like the lashes of a cracking whip. They leave her sore and reeling.

 

“Indeed you are mistaken, Sir. And you are drunk.” She holds firm but her voice wobbles. She recoils from his breath as he stood over her. Intimidating. Hands flat to the wall by her shoulders.

 

One either side. He’s enclosing her. Trapping her. She turns her head to the side. Repulsed. He watches her neck corded, straining with each breath.

 

She feels the heat of his breath roll down her skin. “Please move...” She ushers lowly.

 

“How often does he get you under him? Hmm? Every day? Every week. Do you scamper over to his estate under the guise of running errands. Get on your back for him. Knees spread to the sky.” He drawls. “Bet you look a pretty picture... lying out under him, ready to be rutted.”

 

Iris glares up at him. She grits her jaw. She’s dealt with the foul four legged creature of fangs and venom that is her mother. Like a Greek harpy. She tries not to let this entitled man scare her.

 

“Get off of me.” She bites in a lethal little whisper. Full of rage and grit teeth. She almost shakes with it. He was making her feel lesser than her worth. She won’t stand for that. Not under any condition.

 

He smiles more. His hand skims down for her hip. Brute fingers rasping the silk. He grips the side of her thigh. Hard. He licks his dry lips and she wants to empty her stomach contents onto his shiny brown boots. “A man like me could make good use of such a gorgeous plump arse such as yours, Iris.”

 

She’s had more than enough. She brings her hand up, striking quick, she slaps him hard across the cheek. He’s too drunk and stupid to respond quickly. He had none of his wits about him.

 

She wriggles out from under him. Gathers up her skirts as a bundle in her arms and dashes away. She hears the commotion of him. His boots clack the tiles. He shouts and barks after her slurring. He sounds like he was following. Pursuing her.

 

And then it stops. It all stops.

 

There’s a garbled yell. Muffled and the yelling. And then, silence. Nothing but the sleeting rain pattering down on the stone doorstep where she was just stood. The wind howling down through the open door. Bringing the bitter frosty cold with it. Howling desolate down the eerily silent hallway.

 

Turn back.” Comes that silvery honey voice in her head. The ancient one she can’t fathom to whom it belongs. It’s almost as if it’s always been there. Always croons sweet melodic things at her. The silvery voice that swims in her dreams.

 

Turn back around. You’re perfectly safe little spark. There’s something you need to see...”

 

Something terrible is ringing dark and violent down in her bones. It makes her slow to a stop.

 

She doesn’t know why. But something within her along with that voice, calls upon her body to stop. And she turns back.

 

He wasn’t there-

 

She thinks she’s descending into madness. That she dreamt him. Or made him up. But then again, the fumes on his breath were far too vile for her to have conjured them up. Foul breath and sloshes of Scottish malt whiskey. She saw a stain on his collar where it had dribbled onto his chin. Down onto his cravat. She couldn’t have made up such an unnecessary detail as that.

 

She treads cautiously back down the tiled corridor she just fled down. Eyes flitting all over. She must be taking leave of her senses. Venturing back into the place where the man she ran from is residing.

 

She comes to the corner. Puts her cold hand to the wall to steady herself. The rain is louder. The wind howls more vicious. The cold pricks her skin like a ream of dressmakers needles rasping her  into pain. The hair on the back of her nape stands to vulgar attention. Black nasty fear rotting in her veins like cloying syrup. Her heart feels too loud.

 

A whimper leaves her throat. Her chest pounds ragged with a shaky breath that leaves her in a tremble.

 

For there’s a handprint smear of blood and spraying droplets dribbling down the pale yellow wall just ahead.

 

Her gaze is drawn to the tiles of the floor, where little crimson drips shimmer in the half light, leading out the door. Into the raining and the dirt and the foul smog of the open brick alley way beyond.

 

Through the rain and the dark. She focuses on the big dark shape she can identify as a man. Hunched over. Her gaze is drawn downwards to the pair of wet brown boots. Dripping with something viscous and black.

 

Scarlet-black. Blood

 

Those lifeless legs and limp arms lay prostate against this humungous dark shape. Bowed over the soon to be corpse. Dark head bowed. Iris recognises the scent of the cologne fading in the air. Mint leaf. Sandalwood. And rich dark earth.

 

And she can hear slurping and groaning.

 

Her eyes cannot help but leak tears. Sheer fear bubbling up in her body.

 

She almost can’t comprehend what she’s seeing. Her eyes must be traitors. They’re lying to her. She can’t possibly be seeing this. This must be the death of her sanity. Throw it in a grave and cover it with soil. Mourn the loss of her saneness.

 

There’s a slick thud as the dark shape drops the figure in its arms. Bloodied pale hands, big wide hands, drop Eversleigh’s blue coat collar. The limp man looks comically small against this dark beasts proportions. He’s dropped to the mud and dirt of the alley floor. Strewn into the filth where he belongs. The dark shape puts one hand to the brick wall. Crimson cakes it’s round yet sharp fingernails. It’s human hands.

 

It turns its shaggy head back to her. It’s not a beast. It’s a man. With gold eyes ringed with garnet.

 

Lord Ren.

 

And there is blood smeared raw and dripping down his mouth. Over two sharp fangs protruding from his plump upper lip. Staining his teeth. Running in sticky red rivulets over his handsome chin and dribbling down his white silk waistcoat.



He looks right into her. Pierced into her eyes and stunned her brain, persuading her not to move so much as one muscle.

 

She can’t know how long they stand there gazing at each other. Kylo stalks in to her. Sleeting slushy rain dotting on his hair. On his shoulders. On his blood stained front. She shrinks to the wall. Tears silver in her shimmering eyes.

 

She wants to speak. She can only stare. He’s nearing the doorstep.

 

“Little dove...” He seeks. Panting. Her eyes catch on the way that even his usually white teeth are bleeding crimson. It sticks in the cracks between them.

 

“Wh-what...” She seeks. Shakes her head in disbelief.

 

“Iris. I will not hurt you. I offer you no threat. Believe me.” He pledges. Reaching out a steady bloodied hand to her. Raising them both. Showing her he means his word. He means no danger to her. Never to her.

 

There’s this voice in my head.” She begins in a sob. Shakily pointing at her throbbing temple.

 

“And it’s telling me to... trust you.” She cries. Conflicted by the blood lusting monster she sees in the man before her. Caught in those haunting eyes and the blood and the gore of this shocking moment.

 

Kylo is moved by the fact Iris can hear Draegan in her head. Ever the lenient one. He was reaching out.

 

“You trust that voice?”

 

She nods. “I must be mad.”

 

“You are not mad.” He soothes. “What I am is as real as you or I, standing here right now.”

 

As real as the bee stings of cold rain he can feel on his cheeks. The wet stickiness of his tamped down hair. The wind on his skin. And Eversleighs blood in his throat. Tasted like warm metal and whiskey spice.

 

Her eyes drift back to the slumped man in the dirt on the alley floor. “Is he?” She gasps. Seeking as to his state of life.

 

Kylo doesn’t tarry in his answer. But he keeps his words soft. “Yes.”

 

For the way he assaulted her, Kylo should’ve taken his head clean off. He’s done it before.

 

Hearing the vile thoughts in the drunkards perverted head about all he wanted to do to her when he got her alone, it well justified Kylo’s ridding the earth of the bastard letch by ripping his neck out. He turns back, nudged the tip of his boot into the man’s head. Turns the bastards throat away so she wouldn’t have to see the gore.

 

When he twists back, Her gaze sticks on the harsh glare of gold that was his eyes that were usually the deepest handsome shade of russet. Such savage eyes.

 

A terrible thought clicks in her head like snapping bone. “All those deaths of late... the wild animal attacks. It was- you?....”

 

“I’m afraid so.” He answers her curious questions.

 

She gasps anew. “It all makes sense now. And that Wolf...” She begins. “The one with the golden eyes.” The pieces start slotting together.



He nods. 

 

Her mind can’t make sense of this insensible thing.

She expects to wake up any minute and this be the dizzying reaches of some far off, fantastic fever dream. Scrabbling first her bedclothes as the dream fades from her imagination.

 

“D-Do you wish to kill me, Kylo?” She whimpers.

 

He looks agonised. “No. Iris.” He pleaded to her so honestly.

 

No.” He croons.

 

“In fact if anything happened to you, it would most likely kill me.” He assures her.

 

Her mouth gapes again. He watches those rosebud pink lips part. There is nothing but majesty and integrity on his face. In his features.

 

“I hardly know what to say...” She admits.

 

“I didn’t intend for you to find out the nature of what I am, in such a manner as this.” He confesses.

 

“You were going to confide in me?” She seeks.

 

“Yes I was. But when I saw this stupid drunk sneak after you. I had no choice. My hands were tied upon the matter. I could not have you hurt.”

 

“You did it to save me.” She comments.

 

“Of course I did, my dove.” He explains.

 

“I-“ She’s so moved she can hardly form words. Questions zip and crackle around her head like a crackling roaring fire. Like splintering logs fluttering with sparks.

 

She’s so dazed and enchanted. She almost doesn’t hear the applause come from inside that signifies the start of the intermission.

 

Kylo’s voice snaps her out of the stunned haze that swims in her mind like a pool of thick dark black treacle. She can’t free her arms or legs. The thick of it is swallowing her whole. His voice manages to finally disturb her out of it.

 

“Iris. You need to go. Now.” He tells. Eyes flicking upwards, hearing the clamour from within of footsteps and clattering doors. Crowds are descending. They can’t he found like this.

 

She barely summons the energy to move. “How will you-“ She looks back at the lifeless corpse of Lord Eversleigh.

 

“I’ll take care of it my Dove. But you must not spare a worry for me. You must go now.” He orders gently.

 

She slips around the corner and walks quickly away. Quitting the scene. Kylo watches until she moves out of sight. Her blue silk skirts trail away. He watches her as she moved back into polite society.

 

He looks down at the corpse and the blood seeping into the dirt. His pretty gentle Dove is back into the folds of politeness and civility.



How fitting;

 

The beast is out here. Confined out into the filthy muck and the snow and the blood, where he belongs. Outside, banished to the shadows.

 

 

 

~

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

She’d never been more grateful to slam a door behind her in all her life. The sigh that leaves her lips when she presses her back to the wood is the largest she’s ever taken, she’s certain of it.

 

She had to escape. It was a necessity of sorts- she couldn’t suffer another second of it.

 

Mother was livid about last night. Iris had been frozen out of her favour - more so than usual - with frosty silences and glowers and glares of displeasure.

 

When she returned from her shocking interlude out of doors with Lord Ren and the sadly ex-Viscount Eversleigh, Caroline tugged Iris aside and snapped her ear off about decorum and politesse. She returned to Hux’s side and said naught. She couldn’t.

 

Her mind was overrun by visions of crimson stained fangs, scarlet on ivory bone. And eye’s as gold as wheat sparkling in the sun.

 

She barely felt the rest of her night. Or saw or heard her relatives around her. She drew into herself.

 

Lord Ren did not return for the second half. Hux crowed loudly and smug about his absence. Mother sneered, she too seemed pleased. Iris saw none of that.

 

The night passes and the next day her head is still splitting at the seams. Pain thudding behind her temples and out her ears. Her throat is tickling raw. She suspects a cold coming on. Yet she goes about her chores and errands same as usual. There’s a permanent gnawing ache gathering between her shoulder blades. It burns every time she moves.

 

Mother seemed determined to remind her of her discourtesy last night. When her, Flora and Posy all sit down to take tea in the front parlour and do their embroidery, Caroline besieged Iris to write a missive to Hux apologising for her conduct of late. To explain herself and her actions. Sacrificing, displaying herself out on the worshipping altar of Hux’s forgiveness.

 

Iris couldn’t see the sense in it. She’s sat there squinting down in her lap, trying to focus on stitching more infernal thread through the embroidery hoop. Her mother is snapping and fussing and correcting her every cursed move. She’s insulting and sniping and Iris can’t take much more.

 

She was most insulted that Lord Ren had quit the theatre early especially when he was invited at a proxy invitation. She scoffs that that’s his foreign mannerisms that don’t excuse his rudeness. Probably took off with one of the ‘actresses.’ They were all painted women. He most likely found amusement between a tawdry, painted woman’s thighs.

 

Iris’s heart sinks at the untrue insinuation. She’s also suffering after a very much sleepless night after the discovery of Lord Rens... particular disposition.

 

She spent half the night awake; her mind whirring with thought. All those tales and fibs she’d been fed as child about monsters under the bed. And here she is many many years later, as a woman, finding out that all the creatures in clawing dark nightmares do exist.

The darkest shadows do after all bear beasts.

 

She can’t help wondering what other demons might roam hereabouts? Other horrid things too frightful to utter.

 

Mother doesn’t stop her poisonous crusade of nastiness on Kylo.

 

Before long, Iris’ eyes are watering with the sharp pains of her head. Her heart is beating so hard it hurts - thrumming proud with the constrained want to defend Lord Ren as she sits there ripping him to shreds and goading Hux’s perfect conduct upon her.

 

Iris throws her needlework aside and storms out. Insists she going for a lie down. She tears across the room and shuts the parlour door. Hot tears dribble out the corners of her eyes. Stings at her skin.

 

She stands there- and as she does, looking into the foyer, right at the coatrack. Her need to flee is looking better and better.

 

She dons her bonnet and shabby coat and before she can fully know what she’s doing, before she can even stop herself, she’s going. She needs actions and she needs fresh air. Much good a walk would do her. She slips down to the kitchens and is out the back door before even a kindly warning from their nice natured cook could halt her actions.

 

They heard Caroline’s vile shouts and screeches. Slamming of doors. And now they see her fleeing in tears. It wasn’t any grand difficulty to piece together all that had passed.

 

Iris wanted to slam doors. To hit things with her balled up fists. To kick and claw and scream about how much her suffocating life was mauling all capacity for happiness out her. She wants to rip things apart til her fingers bleed. Til her bones ache.

 

As it stands, her neck hurts with the strain of her clenched tight teeth, grit hard. Her back is shuddering with pinched complaint. She hardly comprehends how enraged she is; how fast her legs are stalking her away into the gardens. Up into the woods.

 

Her throat is raw and her head is pounding. She shouldn’t be out of doors in a thin dress and coat and in her sorry state. But staying in that wretched parlour was not an option.

 

She’s so préoccupée she doesn’t even turn her head to look at the wicked sky churning behind her storming path. The weather upon the horizon was turning most foul indeed.

 

The air above the wood is heavy and dark. Black as a fresh bruise. It fully pierced the sky’s colour. The wind whips viciously cold and that’s how she knows rain is lurking not far off. Everything is so still and the woods are damp with snow that the rain will pelt away. This was the deep breath before the plunge. The whole landscape is waiting. Perching on a razors edge.

 

Every tree is poised and even the birds have quieted. It’s as if every creature has fled from the threat of the violent storm. Iris is the only one oblivious.

 

She treads on onto the woods. Needing distance. Needing quiet. Needing to hear nothing and feel nothing but her feet shaking from her footsteps pounding the dirty damp earth. Sinking into the leaves and the mush and crunch of the foliage on the woodland floor.

 

She wants to move and flee and be somewhere else where she doesn’t feel so crushed.

 

Her lungs heave dry where she’s running and gasping for breath. Throat sore with the cold air. Chest ice cold from where she hasn’t buttoned up her coat. She feels everything burning at her skin. Making her clammy where the icy winds scrape over her as she soldiers on.

 

She lets the surroundings soothe her. Tries to let the calm of peaceful woodland soak into her mind. Let it pierce the tempest of her quaking soul. The meat and tissue of her flesh that feels like she’s being ripped apart piece by piece. She feels gouged and compressed by all the pressure she’s under. It’s too much. She thought she could bear it nobly but she’s not strong-her back is breaking.

 

She crumbles into the nearest tree. Let’s it take her weight and keep her standing.

 

She tears off her infernal bonnet and jams her brow against the wood. Taking deep lungfuls of air spiced with the fragrances of the wood. Wet bark, dewy sweet grass and the mucky mud of earthy leaves rotting under the grip of domineering snow.

 

She feels her breath ghost out her lips. Feels it chill and dry her parched mouth. She lets more tears fall. Just for a second. Before she has to button up her coat and return to her trap of a life. Shut the sweet song-dove back into their dismal stifling little birdcage.

 

That’s when she feels it- a raindrop.

 

It pats heavily down upon her head. Cold and harsh like a sudden strong bee sting, out of nowhere.

 

She presses a hand to the tree and looks to the heavens. Where all is smoke black and dismal grey. Clouds seethe and roil up above the treetops. Raindrops shimmer between the tall trees. Iris feels more patter down. Striking down her cheek. A stab of rolling ice. More follow it.

 

She looks across the woods as the patters turn to downpours. The clouds part like a cracked grey eggshell and the heavens pour and flood out.

 

Chilling heavy rain now hammers everywhere around her. In her hasty fit to get away from home, between the blurred nature of her tears and her looking down, she doesn’t entirely realise she has walked herself miles.

 

Miles upon miles- she’s almost in the next county even. She’s in the tall dark woods near large country estates. Unfortunately no house she’s near, is anyone of her acquaintance. She can’t beg at the door for shelter from the storm.

 

She shoves her bonnet back on. A valiant attempt to keep her head dry. Tied up the soggy blue ribbon under her chin. It now sits there limp. Flopping uselessly. Dripping water down onto her chest.

 

She buttons up her coat and thankfully finds her grey calfskin gloves in her pocket. She slips the things on her numb hands. The material clings and sticks dreadfully to her reddened palm. She’s trembling with cold before long.

 

She curses herself. Bitterly. “Stupid. Idiotic, foolish and thoughtless...” She yelps loudly when her shoe catches on a tree root and sends her sprawling to the wet earth. She lands hard on her elbow and bashed her shins on the knotted roots of the unyielding tree.

 

Dizzy with pain she hisses and heaves herself up. Mud oozes up between her clawed fingers. Her knees stab the earth as she scrambled up. Her coat now befouled with great splotches of claggy mud.

 

The wind whips up terribly. Thrashing the whole forest with rain. Thrashing her too. Her coat catches to her wet skirts. Hem damp with sticky mud and wet. A chill slides down her back. Treacherous weather sneaking under her collar and soaking down between her shoulder blades.

 

She seized the two sides of her coat tighter about herself and pressed on. Where she stomps and runs through puddles, wet mud and cold cold rain splashed up her legs. It already bled through her cracked boots and her stupidly thin stockings. Her feet are freezing and she has lost sensation in her hands already.

 

She hasn’t made it more than a matter of yards and she’s already soaked through to her skin-Hell. To her bones.

 

She’s trying not to quiver too much. Make her body concentrate on stepping her out the wide open woods that offer little cover. Maybe she can find a sturdy squat tree to shelter under somewhere?

 

She heads for the muddied little track of the lane she can see far up ahead. It cuts a carved path of worn dirt through the woods. She knows that lane is betwixt two estates.

 

She sadly had walked too far to remember which two. It could be Lord Havisham’s land. And he was famously an old curmudgeon who was damnably strict about who he let wander on the barest fringes and borders of his vast property.

 

A soaking wet idiot girl from the village was not a preferred sparkling vision of a desirable houseguest.

 

She shambles onto the road. Earth sinking soggy beneath her soles. Arms wrapped around herself. Grazes stinging her arms from her earlier fall. She huddled tighter to herself to stop the shaking. It didn’t help. Her whole body wracks viciously with it.

 

She feels shame creep up her spine. Slithering flushed and awful into her blood. She’d been a over-reactive fool. Running out blind into a storm of all things. She trudges along the sticky muddy road. Now the rain is pelting so hard, it’s sneaking through her straw bonnet. Even her brain feels like it’s shaking. Rattling inside her skull like some fevered thing desperate to be let loose.

 

She slips quickly along to the next field. The long grass tears at her skirts. Claws more dew drops at her wool coattails. Leaves and blades of grass grip at the wool. She kicks through the long thrashing grass and wildflowers.

 

Boots wrapped within the clinging long vines. She makes it to the slippery wood style, heaves her leg over the thing. She hears her white cotton dress snag and tear on the nails punctured into the wood. She rips her skirts away. She doesn’t have the capacity at present to be saddened over that instance.

 

She balances her numb hand on the wooden post as she swings her leg over. She’s trembling so much she nearly falls again. Somehow she manages to keep upright a little longer. Her knees now knock together and each shivering step weakens her legs. Her muscles are all sore and burning.

 

She treads carefully though these woods. As the gradient is steep. The forest spills down a tumbling hill. By the time she gets to the bottom of the muddy slope, her bones ring with the effort. She pauses to catch her breath against the nearest tree.

 

She trips over rocks in the path, sends her sprawling on her front again. She yelps and winces at the pain that bursts through her.

 

And this time she can barely stand. Instead easing herself onto her hands and knees. She groans. She wills her stupid body to work. She sobs tears of frustration and they don’t even feel warm on her face. She tries so hard to crawl. She would crawl home on bleeding hands and knees if she must-

 

She watches the grey haze of rain pass over the brown-green wood before her. It shatters hard off every leaf and douses every trunk of every tree. She hears the loud drum of it swim in her ears. She’s so cold now and senseless. Her coat feels heavy. Her arms are too tired to lift. As are her legs.

 

Heavy. Heavy. So heavy.

 

She sags into the soggy earth. On her side. Absolutely drenched in mud and hammered by rain. Her bonnet saves most her hair from the mud. But she feels long wet coils of it, where her coiffure is dishevelled, seep onto the earth. Burdensome and damp. Wringing wet and now stuck with leaves and muddy forest debris.

 

She must look frightful. Laying here in the dirt. And even her bones are shivering. Every cell of her vibrates with cold.

 

Iris wonders if she’ll die here- slipping into a nice, deep sleep. Quivering herself into an early grave.

 

Like drowning. Only softer. Less strenuous. She doesn’t have to kick and fight the waves or currents. She can look up at at the sky or the tips of the trees that rain blazed between. Raindrops sting and bash at her eyes. Rolling down her pale cheeks like the tears she can’t manage anymore. The sky cries for her.

 

She would’ve liked to have seen the night sky - all those stars and the full moon - one last time. But she is not so lucky as to be the one fated with control over her own death.

 

She watches the woods til her exhausted eyes swell shut. Lashes wet. Sticks to her face. Her body seized up. Even breathing seemed to ache too much. It’s too sharp. Too much effort.

 

Her lips were almost now as blue as her coat. And she doesn’t care anymore. About anything. About anyone. She can’t. She’s tired. She’s far too tired- this seems like a good peace. A good soft ending.

 

Death could either be so ineffectual or violently unfair for a woman. She’d either fade away as a decrepit old bat with barely a teaspoons measure of wit left in her head. Drift away in her sleep very hushed, and then she’s forgotten. Some other paranoid mad old crone who gets shut up forever in her wooden box in the ground.

 

Or in childbirth. Maybe that what would be the thing to take her. Aching and yelling and sweating, Swelled with fever. Drained from blood. Bleeding her life away whilst she’s split open and raw between her legs and some ugly squat pink infant wails for her from its crib.

 

This way seems far kinder- a mercy, really. They’ll put her in a stiff little box, cover it with unscented white flowers and bury her in the Pembleton chapel graveyard. Down in the soil with the other bones of the dead, and the moss and the worms. People would say it was a tragedy; but her loved ones may take comfort in the fact she died doing her duty by her husband.

 

Such a miserable thought. Rotting away to a skeleton in the hot box in the sweat of earthy soil. The sun bleaching down. The rain soaking in. The frost stiffening her. It seems like such a still eternity when her life has always been busy.

 

Better it’s her. Now mother can have the exuberant Posy to pin her hopes and demands on. The second eldest sister. The flirty one who tries harder. The weight will finally be lifted off her own shoulders.

 

It will settle in the ground with her and spill and seep, and bleed into the soil. Her worries will fade as surely as her head will decay away to dust.

 

A great snap cracks the wet air in half. Splinters it to shards.

 

Now it’s thundering- most excellent.

 

She doesn’t know why the clouds are bothering with an unnecessarily noisy fan fare. As it is, she can’t possibly get any wetter.

 

She can hear the great gallops of it striking the earth. Booming. Clapping quick through the air. Like the beating skin of a army drum being pounded. Actually. It wasn’t thunder. It was- closer to earth. Not quite as sky bound.

 

It starts off far away and it invariably grows steadily louder. She almost wishes to sit up and shush it to silence. But that would require movement and her body is too busy melting into the cold moist earth. Moulding in with the leaves and moss. Churning into the oozy mud and the carpet of frost that the rain is eating away.

 

The rhythmic thunder ceases to be quieted. For it can’t.

 

She grumbles a groan of a breath that crackles out of her sore throat, and she struggles but contrives to peel open her heavy eyes.

 

All she can see is that same hazy grey of the rain in the distance. The silver blur inbetween the trees.

 

Suddenly it is interrupted. There’s a dark shape bounding towards her. Her mind would make some inappropriate joke about the devil coming to take her soul if her brain hadn’t been rattled to absolute bits by her shivering.

 

She blinks, it takes every ounce of energy she has left. The shape is tall and getting taller. Bleeding upwards. The top is wider, where the bottom is thinner. Two long sculpted shapes, like black stalactites, and they move, leaning forwards, then two more behind those do the same.

 

The shape pounds the ground. Churning up dirt and muddy water. Her eyes focus enough to then recognise a very wide pair of horses hooves.

 

Slowing in rapid succession toward her. The hooves were as wide as her head. It was an enormous animal this black horse. It’s fetlocks were massively muscled. Formed big and sheared with long black feathering.

 

A Shire horse? Maybe even bigger than that still. She can hear the massive beast above her, snorting. She hasn’t yet sought out sight of of the rider.

 

She would raise her eyes if it didn’t ache so much. She feels the drips of rain patter over her dry lips. She opens her mouth to speak. In attempting movement, she closes her eyes and tries to twist around, splaying herself into more mud. She doesn’t want to even comprehend the mess of her coat or dress. The sad sorry miserable state of her.

 

She must look so pathetic - and that ragged on her dignity. What little of it there is existing.

 

They call out. It’s all a mumbled blur to her. A deeply dark tone that sounds muffled. As if coming from underwater.

 

She tries to apologise to this mystery rider she’s accosted. Wonders why they didn’t just stomp over her with their horses huge hooves and put her quickly out of her misery. Do her a favour.

 

The again, why on earth are they out riding in this stormy delude? Maybe they’re as nonsensical as her.

 

It never occurred to her that they were out here for her benefit.

 

“Iris...” comes the deep call through the rain. She intimately knows that rich voice.

 

She looks. It hurts, but she looks. A pair of black boots slam to the ground in her eye-line. Water and mud spraying everywhere under his fierce tread.

 

She twists up, wet hair sticks to her face. Her lips gape. Lord Ren? It can’t be. She can’t have walked that far?

 

She peeks up, eyes as wide as saucers.

 

Yes. Yes, apparently she had walked that far.

 

The adjoining land she’d forgotten. The one that Lord Havisham’s estate bordered on... it was Hellford Park. How in the living hell had he found her here?

 

He’s quite a sight to be devoured. This big wet vampire. Out in all this pouring rain.

 

He wears only a short and greatcoat. With dark breeches and mud splashed boots. His skin is as wet as hers, an icy rivulet runs off his chin. His white shirt is sticky and tamped to his big chest. If she could gasp at seeing it clinging like a second skin to his body, she would’ve. His wild dark hair is swirled and stuck to his head. That too drips on his coated shoulders.

 

She fancied if his coat gapes open any the wider, she’d be able to see the whole stretch of his naked chest. Again. The dark patches of his nipples and all those enticing peaks and dips in the muscle.

 

He moves so fast it makes her eyes hurt and head spin. His face is concerned. Bearing down a sad look at her.

 

Then he’s there. Above her. He’s kneeling in the dirt. Her numb body senses his hands scoop under her. She tries to speak but her tongue has nearly literally frozen - fallen right back down her throat.

 

Two big and ungloved hands slide under her. One under her shoulders, the other near the numb things she used to call legs.

 

She’s soaked to the bone and dirty with wet mud and she’s mortified with the way he clasps her so close to his skin. She’ll ruin his handsome coat. He’s just as icy cold as she is. Like old marble stone. She would speak, but her teeth are chattering out of her skull.

 

“Are you hurt?” He seeks. She shivers through a shake of her head.

 

He couldn’t stand to yank her up, and then have her shriek out in pain because of a broken bone he hadn’t foreseen.

 

He lifts her. In one mighty swoop, unsticks her from the earth and up away into his strong arms. Such musculature he has, it’s undeniably potent. Being held by him in this close a manner.

 

She tries to curl her tongue around some words. An apology. Or a question. He senses this. He’s softly speaking to her. Hugging her tight to his body in a close embrace.

 

“None of that now. Don’t try to speak. Don’t speak. Just keep your eyes open for me, little dove.” He instructs calmly to her. He walks them back to a horse she can only assume is Erland.

 

The great equine beast is already snorting and nickering. Lowering his legs so Kylo can hoist her on the saddle.

 

She barely grips onto the horse with her senseless fingers. He’s behind her in no time at all. Swings his body up and that compact wall of a body is behind her again. He seizes the reins and keeps her tucked close. Curled into his chest. Her head on his shoulder.

 

“I’ve got you.” He assures her. His breath hot on her temple. Such a scorching promise in comparison to the chilling rain. His words melt the cool on her skin.

 

One trunk of a big arm curling around her locks her to him. He coaxed Erland around, and dig his heel in the animals round bellied side. They race off through the stinging rain. The woods are a blurring black and grey mush to her. The stark of trees and rain battered undergrowth.

 

She feels Erland’s back arch as he rears up and clears a fence cleanly, taking it cleanly like it’s nothing. Kylo’s arm fixes around her. Crushing tight when they do. Ensuring she stays right there with him in the saddle seat. Braced right against his thighs behind, and the saddle horn in front. Her hip cradling the pommel.

 

She inches closer to him. Tucks her face into the crook of his neck. Uncaring for civility now. She clings onto him so tight her fingers leave creases in his clothes. Ten little crescent moons. She knots her knuckles to grip so tight in his sodden clothes that her wrists shake all the more.

 

They absolutely fly through the rain. She didn’t need to ride Erland to know he was a powerful horse bred for pulling. Clearly carrying two people posed no issues for him either.

 

He was as quick as ten horses. The Arabian in his blood made him a fast sort of beast. His legs and his hooves pounded the earth quicker than she could rationally comprehend.

 

She hears the tempo of Erland’s hooves shift when they come to a paved road. The clops echo louder. Ringing like tinnitus in her ears. Sharply striking her senses. Rattling in her head and bouncing from one ear and across to the other. Her head feels full of fluffy cotton. It’s ineffectual.

 

Kylo’s body lurched behind hers. Erland slows to a halt as bid by his master in his foreign Bavarian tongue. She sways forwards too. The weight of him disappears and she opens her sticky eyes, weakly clutching onto the leather strap of Erland’s tacking. Kylo is below her on the ground, sliding her off his stallions powerful back, into his arms once again.

 

She sees the steps afore them, leading up to the front of the house. The doors flung wide inwards. She hears him call sharp orders. She wonders if they are to her but then a most obedient stable hand appears as if out of nowhere, leads the horse away quick. Kylo’s carrying her again.

 

Storms her right up the steps in his hold. Muddy and soggy in his arms. Running quick with her. As fast as he can move.

 

She barely registers that they’re out of the rain and inside Hellford’s foyer. She recognised the pointed tiles of the floor. They blur her eyes at Kylo’s fast pace covering ground. His big thighs can stride quick and his booted feet rattle sharp clacks on the tiles.

 

He’s barking orders again. He used to command one of the largest companies of men in history. Orders are things he’s used to issuing. “Jomar. Stoke the fires in the guest bedchamber, now. Draw a warm bath. Not hot. Warm. If she heats up too quickly there’s every risk she’ll go into shock.” He demands.

 

There’s another hollow clack. She thinks it might be them ascending a staircase. The great dark mahogany one. He speaks again. “Have two maids sent up to the suite now. They’ll need to strip her and help rid her of her sodden clothes.”

 

His butler with the soothing honey and cinnamon for a voice answers him. “Of course, Your Lordship. I’ll send for Anna and Mrs Jones.” He assures him. Sending for the most competent maid and the brusque housekeeper. The one so stern she gave his strict regimental measures a run for its money.

 

Kylo whisks her away upstairs. She’s barely stopped shivering when he bursts them through a bedroom door that he roundly kicks open with the ball of his foot. Curses at the stubborn thing.

 

She’s sprawled back on a bed suddenly. Feather and down beneath her. Staring at a rosebud pink bed canopy. If she had the temerity to recognise where she was she’d have blushed into the next dimension.

 

She’s still shivering but she manages to curl up and sit, looking down to see his dripping dark head bowed as he teaches under her skirts, and takes one ankle to gently start on working off her muddy boots. Yanking it calmly off her foot with some urgency. Her hands fumble for her coat buttons. The heat of the house prickles at her skin. It burns.

 

She shudders a weak laugh. “Never-r thought I’d see a day w-when a peer of the r-realm would be ttaking off my boots.” She sniffs. Rainwater’s dripping down her nose. She looks down and sees the priceless silk eiderdown that she’s sat on. A lump lodged in her throat.

 

“I’ll soak the b-bedding...” She frets. Trying to work off her heavy slippery gloves. Not having much luck.

 

Kylo peers up at her. She sees the mud smeared over his hands. On his coat. The watermarks on the fine carpets. She feels wretched. Making work for others.

 

“Damn the bedding. Iris. It is replaceable. You are not. My first priority is getting you warmed again.” He insists.

 

Then, in a manner so intimate as nothing she’s ever felt in her life. He rises up and cups her cold face in one hand. His palm covers her jaw and most of her neck. She’s as icy as he is. He suddenly fathoms how dangerous that is.

 

“How-w did you f-find me?” She whispers quietly. Eyes boring into his own. They are that melting brown again. Gone was the gold and rampant red of last night.

 

She didn’t see the monster here today. She saw only a loving suitor.

 

“I told you.” He insists kindly. “I won’t have anything happen to you.” He ushers softly. Thumb stroking a sticky smear of mud and a wet coil of hair off her face.

 

“I felt you were in peril. That, I could not ignore. I could sense it was you from the second you stepped foot near my land.” He tells openly. He was after all, a territorial creature.

 

She’s not scared of him. She ought have her head examined-

 

She’s witnessed and heard what he can do to humans. She saw as much last night. She’s been stood on the fringes of conversations about the details of all the grizzly deaths of late. The ones where men were left parted from their arms and legs with their entrails piled and strung around them like garlands or bunting. It’s too frightening to even consider.

 

She saw none of that here, in him tonight. He rode out into a vicious storm to bring her home and get her warm; those didn’t seem like the actions of a soulless creature. Quite the contrary.

 

He can rip out throats or rip limbs off lesser mortal bodies and she isn’t scared. He’s a dangerous warrior from an age long past.

 

She’s never been more wildly in love.

 

She’s curious about the other facets this beautiful man may be hiding. She’s determined to seek out more curiosities about his character, if it’s the last thing she does.

 

“T-thank-“ She begins to stammer. He merely smiles and shakes his head. His hair drops more rain onto his shoulders. It bleeds out his shaggy mane. Stuck swirled to his neck and ears.

 

He touches her cheek again. “I would rip this very world in two with my bare hands to keep you safe.” He assures.

 

Their moment is rudely interrupted as a fleet of regimented maids burst into the room. Some carrying water jugs to tip into the bath. A stout woman and a waify blonde cross quickly to where Kylo is knelt. The stout woman puts her hand on his shoulder.

 

“Your valet is in your chambers, my Lord. We’ll see to Miss Ashton, here. Never fret. We’ll soon see her right.” She persuades kindly.

 

He nods a quick crooked smile of thanks. And stands up. The polite maid smiles nicely helps Iris with her gloves. Unbuttons the soggy calfskin things and pulls them off. Kylo’s chest crushes at seeing the red raw of her cold palms. Her tiny elegant fingers pricked stiff and numb with cold.

 

“I’ll leave you in Mrs Jones’ capable hands. Little dove.” He takes his hand off her neck and smiles, before he turns to them both and softly orders. “Act as quickly as you can.”

 

Another whisper comes so softly, Iris barely hears it for the heavy rain still knifing at the window. It’s Kylo’s fear. His voice trembles with the worry. “Please look after her.”

 

“Of course. Your Lordship.” Mrs Jones replies firmly with great feeling. He turns away, with great difficulty taking his eyes off her and the soggy black shape of him trudges out the room. Leaving rain droplets and mud in his wake. Leaving the ladies to tend to her. He’s a big shape blocking up the doorframe and then he’s gone.

 

Iris swallows, nervous, freezing with cold, trembling still, and unused to such attention from staff. They’re unbuttoning her coat. She aches from head to toe. And she’s damnably tired. She wants to sink into this luxury bed and sleep like Hypnos.

 

“Here we go, pet. Don’t worry now. You’re in safe hands.” Mrs Jones smiles. They are kind. Far too kind. She doesn’t deserve such attention for her stupidity. And yet they’re being so patient.

 

Passing Iris a towel so she may wipe the muck from her face. She does. And when they divest her of everything get her down to her dripping cotton shift, Anna takes her wet things and then kindly housekeeper helps her stagger across to the bath on her weak legs. Her dark hair bleeds mud and wet down her shoulders. She doesn’t even wish to see the state she left the eiderdown in.

 

“You lean on me, now pet. We’ll have you right as rain in no time.” Mrs Jones assures. Leading Iris to the magnificent anteroom.

 

Where a steaming copper tub awaits. The fire in there too was stoked. It blazes off the tub like spun flickers of amber. The air smells of roses. No doubt a clever maid has tipped some fanciful oil in the tub for her. She’s very grateful.

 

She’ll be even more so to scrub the mud off her skin and hair.

 

Iris fights back a smile. And remarks to herself how she’s never been told to lean on anyone ever before.

 

It feels awfully nice not to take all the burdens alone for once.

 

 

 

~

 

 

 

Kylo’s sitting alone downstairs. In the grand echoing hall of Hellford’s dining room. Washed, dried and redressed. Somewhat uncommonly, at that. One that made Wilton, his valet, arch a wry brow at him. Which Kylo heartily and completely ignored.

 

He’d coughed a dry polite interjection. His cheeks reddened in scandal. He did always appreciate things done properly. Civility paid its due attention. As it should be.

 

“You will be dining alone with Miss Ashton Sir. Might you atleast consider a waistcoat?” He flusters. For Wilton that was practically him imploring him, begging on his knees.

 

Kylo rolls his eyes. After such an impassioned Aria as that, how could he refuse? He let’s him slip the velvet black, satin backed waistcoat up his shoulders. He buttons it.

 

He distinctly heard the man behind him sigh with newfound relief as he brushed off the shoulders. Kylo escaped the dressing room before he insisted on slipping him into full ceremonial dress.

 

He was adequate as he was. A fresh pair of dark breeches and boots. And just an undershirt on his top half. No cravat.

 

And now here he awaits his diner companion. In this cavernous room. He could hardly send her back to Westwell in such a weakened state. He’d have her fed and warmed to the bone before he sends for the carriage. He took great delight in penning a note to Mr Ashton. Telling him his daughter fell ill in his woods. He wonders what her greek harpy of a mother will make of that.

 

He smiles to himself as he scans around the room, looking to the doors again. Night was falling outside now. Rain still beats heavy on the windowpanes. The scuttle of it fills this room. His dining room.

 

Finely bedecked in scarlet and gold. The walls are an ornamental barque red wallpaper. The narrow room bears the same pointed black and white tile as the foyer. There’s an ancient mahogany table that he’s sure measures a mile long. When chandeliers or glassware and cutlery are placed on the far end, they glitter like far off stars. The ceiling is governed by three gigantic chandeliers that drop down shimmering gold and crystals from the high gilded ceiling. It’s every inch a rich room.

 

It’s mostly dark. Candles on walls and side tables lit. Fire blazing. Kylo is settled down the far end from the grand double doors. By the roaring great fireside. Cast in amber all around him.

 

His sleeves are rolled, and he’s relaxing on an upholstered scarlet wingback chair. One of a matching pair, set by the fire. The one opposite him is currently empty. He hopes Miss Ashton will be the one to fill it shortly.

 

Mrs Jones had stopped in earlier, poked her head through the door. Said Iris was well. No sign of illness brewing. She’d been bathed and successfully warmed up gradually. Inside and out. She was served two pots of tea, which she drank. And she was most glad to wash all the muck away.

 

Kylo thanked her for her efficiency. She really was a matriarchal wonder. He couldn’t do without her running this house the way she does. She smiles and bids him a good evening. Slips back down to the kitchens in time for the servants supper.

 

When the door creaks open again, Kylo leaps to his feet. Head twisting back in the direction of the doors. Face hopeful. When he sees it’s only Jomar walking through with a carafe of wine, and two glasses. Heading toward him.

 

Today his ever persistent Butler wears his usual robes. A cloaking Sherwani coat. The usual Dastar turban. Today it is a golden yellow like warm gold butter. His coat is an ivory satin. Stitched with beige embroidery of leaves and vines. The same dark dhoti puffed trousers on his legs tucked into his fine long boots.

 

He settles back down again. Sinking into the chair. Boots scraping on the deer pelt rug stretched across the floor.

 

“You seem unhappy to see me. Perhaps you were anticipating someone else? I even come bearing an awfully good vintage. A full bodied 1785 Bordeaux.” He smiles. Calling out to his master.

 

Kylo grumbles. “As enticing as your company is. You know how I much prefer the wine.”

 

“My lord. I’ve seen you drink the foulest of ale that basically equates to stale barley hops and animal urine. You will tip anything alcoholic down your neck for pleasure. You remain a Viking in some ways.” He corrects with a smile.

 

“I haven’t drunk in a manner like that since 1632.” Kylo defends as Jomar places the fat bottomed wine carafe on the end table next to his lord. Stands the glasses down next to it. Unstoppering the decanter and pouring the velvety ruby-black wine into the class.

 

“And you would do the same if you to live around the bloody puritans.... most dull people ever to exist on the face of this earth. That sodding lot and their covenants and bloody purity without sin would drive a monk to tears of boredom.” He whinges.

 

“Yet. You bear the dissatisfaction so nobly.” Jomar jests. He never passed up a chance to sark at his grumpy Lordship. Handing Kylo the glass wine goblet. He takes it gently. Sips it. Doesn’t want to admit to his butler how right he is.

 

Jomar knows. He sees the annoyed little twitch tug at he corner of his masters mouth. He stoppers the wine again. Looking too wholly satisfied. He stands with his hands folded behind his back. As if waiting for more.

 

Kylo glares sharp at him over his glass as the red wine stains his lips. “Pray what is it now?” He asks and is met with a smug smirk.

 

“Don’t expect me to sit here and gossip with you like some giggling waify bluestocking.” Kylo grumps. Jomar smiles wider. Not the least put off by his grousing.

 

“Don’t you have duties to attend to?” Kylo adds. “Staff to order about... go and- polish the silver or wind the clocks or do something insipid, would you...” He urges.

 

“No duties at present are as urgent as this.” He grins. His Butler won’t budge. He was famously obstinate. That’s why he’s able to serve Kylo so well as he does. They are two peas in a pod.

 

If Jomar had been a lesser man maybe he would have put up with Kylo’s snipes and bore them all in silence. Kylo’s secretly glad he doesn’t. He likes a healthy challenge. Part of his Viking spirit he believes.

 

His Lordship sighs and rolls his eyes. Cursing heaven and hell and everything inbetween the two.

 

“Mrs Jones tells me our pretty houseguest is well recovered from her tumble in the rain.” His walnut brows arch softly up his forehead. Cocoa brown eyes glimmer with loving insinuation.

 

“You and your confounded relations have wanted to see me married, since before Queen Elizabeth I took to the throne.” He strops.

 

“She’s an excellent match for you. So I understand it.” He continues on as if Kylo has not spoken. He always did.

 

“I will dock your wages if much more of this insolence continues.” Kylo’s threatening. But he can’t help the smile that breaks his lips.

 

“I was just curious, is all. And If you do perchance happen to persuade that sweet darling girl to marry you, then please make it somewhat soon. You’ve been alone for eons too long. You really could benefit from loving someone again.” He turns to quit the room with a polite bow. The fire light shines off his marigold yellow silk dastar.

 

“And also please host your nuptials as soon as. Because then in that circumstance, Mrs Jones will owe me 20 shillings.” He remarks as he takes his leave. He listens to Jomar’s footsteps fade away. Clacking away into echos in the grand room.

 

Kylo wants to roll his eyes. He settles for drinking some more. “Begone. You wily cur.” He smiles, calling loudly after his retreat.

 

Jomar talks loudly as he gets to the doors. For Iris is just walking through them. He smiles at her widely. Hands folded demurely and stiffly behind his back. He hears Kylo clatter to stand to attention down the room. Hears the scrape of the chair legs whine on the polished floor.

 

“Miss Ashton. We are all relieved to see you so well recovered.” He insists. His smile creases his cheeks. He really does have the most sincere smile. And he always smells faintly of mango’s and coconut. Something in his cologne perhaps? Or an oil for his beard. A richly exotic delightful scent. Always draws stronger when he moved closer.

 

Iris blushes. Well embarrassed and appraised of how the whole house seemed to be aware of her foolish misfortune. Servants gossip. It’s as certain a fact as the sun rising in the east.

 

“Your staff are most attentive and kind. Mr. Jomar.” She tells him brightly. She looks pale to his eye. But he supposed she’s had quite an ordeal to undergo.

 

Her brow is a little dewy and her cheeks warm. Her eyes seem very bright with something. He puts that down to the warmth of her surroundings.

 

She’s dressed in the only spare ladies clothes they kept hereabouts. A new nightgown and shift. Mrs Jones bumbled her up in a long crushed red velvet gown, the colour of split veins, and gave her a golden tasselled shawl to link about her shoulders too. For extra measure.

 

“Might I bring you anything, Miss Ashton?” Jomar seeks.

 

“That will be all. Please serve dinner as soon as cook is ready.” Kylo calls from down the hall.

 

“Enjoy his royal grumpiness. Miss Ashton.” Jomar cheeks before he bows and steps past her. Shutting the door in his wake with a glass smile.

 

She looks down the room. Painfully aware that she’s been left all alone with Lord Ren. He stands. Awaiting her. A true gentleman through and through.

 

She walks to meet him. He examines her as she comes closer. He’s afraid his eyes don’t know which part to settle on first. Her hair is unbound. Glossy and fluffy. Recently soaked and dried by the fire. Still a touch damp he reckons. If he curled his fingers around those long strands, he’d still be able to feel a kiss of damp.

 

Her hair is thick. He never knew that before. It always being up in a coiffure was difficult to measure. And when she’s lying down it’s tucked behind her head. Here, as it seats down, he can see the volume and body on those walnut-chestnut golden brown curls. It stretched right down her back. Almost to her shoulder blades. She looks divinely pretty and wild. Untamed. Like that very first day he laid eyes on her.

 

He wants to feel that unbound silk on his palms as he cups her cheeks to kiss her-

 

He swallows. Now applauding her dress. A gown and those silly little slippered stockings on her feet. No stays or pinching necklines. She looks relaxed and it makes him feel so stirred up to see it.

 

“How are you feeling?” He steps closer when she finally nears the fire. That dining table was surely the very length of Britain itself.

 

He can’t sense anything the matter with her. She’s over warm but he blames that on his own overzealous orders to see her warmed through. She looks rosy cheeked and healthy enough. Her energy waning a little but he suspects she’s most likely hungry and tired.

 

“I am much better. And might I just say, thank you greatly for your assistance. I feel a complete fool.” She blushes redder. Looking ashamed.

 

“One can not predict the weather in this cursed ever mutable country.” He insists.

 

“And I rather thank your foolishness. Had it not been so- I might thereafter have been dining alone tonight.” He flatters.

 

“Please, come and sit. You need rest.” He insists gently.

 

Moving closer and pressing a hand lightly to the back of her waist. She moves towards the chair opposite to his. Listens to the storm rattle at the windows and howl at the roof. It seemed almost determined to get inside with them. Clawing at Hellford’s outer walls.

 

She relaxes into the seat. Her gown almost moulds into the same shade of the chair. She sits back and lets the fire warm her. Although she feels overheated.

 

She supposed it’s cause she was so chilled earlier. She can’t differentiate between the two extremes. Her whole body now feels heavy. Her chest feels too tight even though she isn’t wearing her stays. Just loose cotton. But her ribs feel bruised. Every breath feels too short somehow.

 

Kylo stays standing and pours her some wine. “I’ve sent a note to your father at Westwell explaining what events unfolded.” He tells her.

 

She thanks him again as he hands her the wine. “I’m surprised my mother wasn’t kicking down the doors to rescue me safely home.” Iris insists after sipping the drink.

 

Kylo’s smiling. Settling himself back in his chair. Wine to hand. Legs splayed out comfortably. One bent, one reclining out gently. “Mrs Ashton is my severest critic.” He remarks.

 

“Believe me. I pay her criticisms little mind.” Iris insists. He smiles wider. Good.

 

He watches her as she stumbles around asking a question. Not quite knowing where to begin...

 

“Forgive my impertinence around such a subject. But I see no other way to approach asking it..” She begins. Wetting her lips and meeting his dark eyes. Those rough cut gemstones encloses in shadows.


“About last nights, um- events...” She starts.

 

“Iris. I’m more sorry than I can say for what you witnessed last night. To see death so violently. I know it was shocking for you. I can see it stunned you. It stuns most people to discover what I truly am.” He offers plainly.

 

“And your staff... do they, well-know?” She asks in a hush. Whispering.

 

“The ones I know explicitly do. Jomar and Mrs Jones. The rest may circulate whatever rumours they wish. I haven’t confirmed nor denied it. It would scare a lot of people. If it’s not self absorbent, I believe a great amount of speculation flourishes in my wake.”

 

“I am more intimate with the staff and tenants at my castle. Back home. I defend my territory from the savage appetites of feral new sires and I loyally protect the people who live on my lands. I however saw no reason to shock whole legions of the local staff I hired when Hellford park was opened here.” He offers.

 

“New sires?” She asks. Kylo senses she’ll have more questions to ask before the night is out. If she didn’t she was a simpleton and he’d never accuse her of that.

 

“Vampires are creatures that are made or turned. Little Dove. Not born as mortals are.” He remarks.

 

“New Sires are as feral as a roaming pack of starving wolves. The hunger when it first comes... there’s no mania of man that can match to it. It’s like death visits you twice. But keeps you sensate for every agonising moment. It’s worse than fever or plague. You’d do anything to feed to chase the hunger away. It rots at your gut. Makes you do horrible things. Vilest of things.” He makes plain.

 

“You were turned?” She enquires. He hopes she won’t faint. But he sees she’s made of sterner - more curious mettle - He’s rather glad she’s sat down.

 

He nods calmly. “I was.”

 

“One thousand and twenty seven years ago.” Comes his casual offering.

 

Draegans face flutters on his mind for just a second. The pale pierce of his eyes. The silk of his silver hair. The sharp savagery of his silver tongued smile. He blinks his past away. Out of his head.

 

Her mouth hangs open. “My goodness.” She gasps. “You do look remarkably... uh- well. Considering your age.” She stumbles. He chuckles at her reaction. Trying to wrap her head around it all.

 

“In my many advancing years. I’ll snatch whatever flattery I can get.” He states warmly. Smirks darkly at her. Almost flirting. She smiles.

 

“I’ve heard of your kind in folklore. Passed on in tales from ancient civilisations all around the world. Campfire horror stories I’m sure- predictable drama in Gothic Penny novelettes.” She tells. “But I never suspected-“

 

“Monsters like me truly exist?” He jokes. Laughs a little. She smiles too.

 

“I don’t think you’re a monster.” She comments in a tiny voice. So honest. So sweet. It touches the vacant pit where his heart should be.

 

“Little Dove. Every culture and manner of people that there has ever been, has had creatures like me stalking and hunting in the dark of their shadows.” He promises.

 

“It’s been that way since the dawn of time.” He eluded.

 

“At the risk of another impertinence; had you a family?” She asks. The honesty as tragedy of his smile gives her the biggest answer.

 

“Centuries ago I used too. Naturally. There’s only me left. A mother and father, of course. Two little vexing brothers...” He tells. “I stopped mourning all their passings a long time hence.”

 

“I’m dreadfully sorry. I can only imagine how strange it must be, to be the only relation left.”

 

Kylo’s smile is pensive. “I still have a family of some kind surrounding me. I have an impertinent butler and a matron of a housekeeper who resolves to mother me as if I were a boy again. Some friends who are, shall we say.... cursed with the same predilection as myself. It is not such a lonesome existence.” He tells.

 

He did have a lover. Once upon a time. But even his short fuse of a temper eventually took care of that.

 

He walked away from the greatest love of his life. His seething anger over his turning ate him up. He felt controlled, abused. Suffocated by his control. Their bond was a trap to him. No longer was it the freedom he first thought. Draegan was eclipsing his life. He was fed up of being in his pocket, hailed as his favourite warrior. His fierce one. As he called him.

 

He was sick of his Norse endearments. Because Draegan was the kind of lover to endear him in his own native Norse tongue. Kylo quickly made up his mind to leave him. After decades of being together. He felt used. Felt like Draegan only turned him to use him as a puppet. His strength and power were commendable - and exploitable.

 

He took it out on everyone surrounding him, but himself. Turned the pain and rage outward. That night in the snow after battle when he was turned into a vampire, Kylo had been promised the world and he left Draegan to finally go and take what he felt he was owed.

 

He didn’t regret the parting then. He was glad of it. He severed his ties. Sheared his hair short, and cut off his viking courting braids. Turned his back on his lover and his maker. Took the world for his own as a lone wolf. He regretted it bitterly now. After all these years.

 

She nods in gentle understanding. If anyone can comprehend an existence devoid of people who love her, and show appreciation openly. It’s certainly her. Posy and Flora only show her affection of they’re after a pair of earrings. Or some bauble or trinket or her slippers for a ball. She doesn’t see her father enough to have a kind word. Though he oft has plenty for her. And her mother? Woe betide she ever hears an encouraging syllable cross her lips.

 

“Well. I for one feel most sorry for you Lord Ren.” She begins. He looks confused.

 

“You left your castle in Bavaria for an enticing and relaxing english country excursion, and all you seem to be doing is saving foolish damsels who find themselves in distress.” She offers. “Hardly a peaceful leisurely winter.” She adds over his chuckling.

 

“I’ve said it before, I will repeat myself gladly. I found a damsel who is infinitely worth saving.” He comments. She feels her blush creep down her neck. She smiles down into her lap. Holding her wine.

 

She peers into the flames next to them. Draws the shawl tighter around herself. Kylo stands and offers to refill her wine glass. She hands it across and their fingers brush. Static and molten heat fizzle through her blood. He’s still so cold. She’d always thought it a matter of poor circulation perhaps. Now she understands why that might be the state of his skin.

 

“You must have so many fantastic tales to tell. What with having such a long and varied life...” She looks up at him as he pours her more wine.

 

“A couple here and there up my sleeve...” He offers with mirth as he returns to his seat.

 

He could tell her about seeing the magic unfurling of the renaissance in Florence the 1500’s. The art the muses. He could regale to her the true bloody carnage of the crusades in the Middle East the so called ‘Holy Land.’ He could explain to her what Paris and Versailles was like in 1720. The frippery and the aristocracy. The crass callous nature of French royalty. Powered wigs black rotten teeth and beauty spots. He’d lived through all those cosmetic fashionable fads.

 

“Immortality is useful if one wishes to see the world. I believe there is no corner of it I haven’t glimpsed.” He tells.

 

“A soldier and a proverbial wanderer.” She adds in wonder. “You’ve seen the whole globe. I’ve only ever been shut into this tiny corner of it.” She tells.

 

“You regret that?” He asks.

 

“In some ways. I know not one person who has ever gone to their grave saying that they should have travelled less. I don’t want to be that person. Aching for experiences and a having a sore soul-full of remorse when my time finally does come.” She admits.

 

“Imminent marriage to the egregious Sergeant Hux suddenly seems abhorrent in more than a few ways?” He seeks.

 

“In every way.” Iris insists. Drinking her wine. But she couldn’t help it. It was what had to be done. No matter how much she wishes to undo it.

 

The dining room doors clatter open at the far end. A whole bevy of servants in Hellford’s crimson livery come in. Carrying trays and silver dishes laden with food. Iris can smell the delicious concoctions even from up where she is.

 

Mrs Jones directs her busy worker bees. They serve the elegant dinner right down the far end. Near the fire. At Kylo’s insistence. The table groans with food before long. A leg of roasted ham. A roasted saddle of beef. A mound of golden potatoes. A whole terrine of steaming white chicken soup, another of mutton stew. Creamed celery and fried cabbage and sprouts with chestnuts. Buttered asparagus and every fine dish she could ever think.

 

She sits opposite Kylo as the foot man carved them both chunks off the roasted meats. Along with half a roasted capon each. She likes the indulgence of it. And the meat is well cooked. The beef still drips ichor and the ham is sweetly succulent. Everything is immaculate. The footman pours them more wine and they helped themselves to the banquet of food.

 

Kylo doesn’t indulge much in the feast. She observed he mostly had the bleeding meats and the wine.

 

She feels over warm by the time they retire to the fireside once more. Many glasses of wine, aswell as indulging in soup and asparagus and roasted meats of all varieties, the dinner leaves her feeling stuffed full. Her stomach clogged with meat and sloshing with Bordeaux.

 

She declines another glass when they take to the seats once more. Dabs at her brow. Her headache is pumping furiously behind her temples again. Her throat is cracking dry. Nothing appears to ease it. She’d eaten the sugary sweet peaches and crisp snap apples off the fruit platter set on the table but now her mouth is dry as ash.

 

“The madness of the weather isn’t persisting, so I see.” She comments as the furious storm rattled the windows forcefully. She would be best to stay the night. As he predicted. He’s loathing the idea of sending her and his staff and driver out accompanying the coach in the severest weather like this.

 

Kylo peers across at her. Her breath seemed a little short. Her words seemed like enormous effort for her. And she’d seemed reserved at dinner. Eating slowly as if she had no appetite.

 

“I wager it will pass soon enough. Might see out the night.” He comments. Taking a sip of his own drink. Feeling the scarlet velvet of it sit on his tongue.

 

Her head is so full of agony. She can barely summon the energy to speak. She pushes herself up out the chair by the arms. Her bones suddenly grate with white-hot pain.

 

“Please forgive me- I.” She starts. Gasping for breath. She shuts her eyes and Kylo watches her try to compose herself.

 

“I think I may need to retire to-“ She doesn’t get the opportunity to finish her sentence. She swallows and then she just falls. Crumpled like a wilting flower.

 

Kylo is there to catch her. He stood the second she started waning. He falls onto his knees and captures her in his arms.

 

“Dove?” He seeks. Stroking hair out her face. Her neck is stretched back, face pale and dewy with sweat. Eyes ashen grey and bright. Hooded eyes bright with pyrexia. She’s weak. The rain caught her in worse ways than he outwardly supposed.

 

The chill must’ve settled on her lungs.

 

He cups his cool fingers to her brow. She’s hot. Terribly hot. A fever. This was grave. Grave indeed.

 

He turns and yells for Mrs Jones to send for the doctor. He turns back to Iris. Watches the beads of sweat wriggle down her forehead. Her dry lips crack open and she’s trying to apologise again.

 

He cups the back of her neck. Face tugged into worry. “I’ve still got you.” He promises.

 

His distress starting to build. Mounting onto his sadness. He never prayed. Gods hold no faith for him anymore. But he prayed in this moment for her.

 

He truly did. And he prayed so hard his hands shook.

 

 

~

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Kylo was losing his mind.

 

It’s been known to happen to vampires of certain ages. Possibly ones even older than him, if any such do exist. Alive so long they start to rot and fester in their own bodies.

 

Brains blown and shattered apart from all the violence of things they’d done. Drifting and flaking apart like much too dried clay. The horror of the acts some vampires committed to feed. Not everyone could face or stomach it for so long. Drove them cackling into the worst sort of madness.

 

He’s seen men fall apart too. Mortal men. He’s seen entire armies and countries of men perish. Losing their heads to the last breath, infected with illness, or pox or the plague.

 

Deformed and rotting away already, before death had even come to them. Life clung on to them like some leeching disease. Decaying their bodies before their spirit had left their flesh.

 

He’d seen scores of roguish men who’d dallied with pox ridden girls. Perishing with no control nor use of their bodies and no eyesight to help them. He’d seen many many men succumb to it for some cheap penny’s worth of indulgence with some infested whore up against a tavern or brothel wall. Those men end up as dribbling and demented fools. Turned into deformed madmen.

 

It was hell. It was as close to any hell as he’d seen. The Black Death. He can remember that aswell. That rot.

 

How it bittered the air of every rust red Italian street. He’d been in Italy, in when it first struck. The hacking wet of sloppy coughs until blood comes frothing up.

 

Bloated bodies of peasants - men, women, children and infants - swelled green with festering flesh, dumped in the river, clogging up the Arno. Crows pecking at the bobbing corpses, ripping off flesh and eyeballs like wet peeling paper.

 

So many bodies-

 

Worse than ever, Kylo remembers the stench of plague. Rotting meat writhing with maggots, but candied with something of the human flesh, somehow. He’ll remember it for eternity. That cursed stench of putrefaction cloying the rivers and streets. It would stay seared into him for all his time still to come.

 

He recalls how some walled themselves into their own homes. They stayed inside to fester. Or drink themselves to death. Or pray. The illness took all of them before too long - faith or no faith. He could hear the wails of the nearly dead bleed through the thick red walls.

 

Blackened fingers, the fever and the boils, the salty sweat of rot and the reeking decay of death in every house. Everything the sick body excreted, be it sweat, spittle or breath, exuded an overpowering stench that he will never forget. 


Whole towns emptied. Abandoned. Their population now lay rotting in the swallowing of the soil. 

 

The doctore de la peste roamed the streets with their unseeing round glassy-eyes. In their beaks packed with sweet dried roses, mint leaf and carnation petals. The sickle of it trailed behind them like smoke cutting through the gloom. The ripe perfumery of plague.

 

By the end. The river was overrun with corpses. Couldn’t see the water for the rotting swill of flesh and bones. Rats scampering over them feeding. Gnawing. Birds plucking out what they liked to feed on.

 

It’s enough of a sight to make a man want to put out his own eyes with a red hot poker after seeing such illness, pestilence and misery.

 

It’s happening to him right as of now; in fact. Losing his mind. He’s certain.

 

They could mark this, 1816, as the year that he relaxed his firm hold on his sanity. It only took a thousand and twenty seven years.

 

It only took the sight of his sweet dove, in his bed, writhing and sweating with fever. Delirious and dangerously ill.

 

She collapsed after dinner and he swept her upstairs right away. Mrs Jones sent a note for the local doctor. Sent their bravest rider out on Erland, into the storm by the safest road. Jomar fetches her a cold cloth from the anteroom. Kylo can’t leave her side. He won’t.

 

He sits on the bed and watches over her diligently. When Jomar returns with a bowl of icy cold water, stands it on the bedside and wrings out the cloth. Kylo takes it from his offered hand without even casting an eye in his direction. He takes the sopping linen and pastes it across her clammy brow.

 

She’s splayed back in his bed, weak and insensate. To hell with liberties. He took the gown and shawl off her himself, and bundled the white cotton and red velvet sheets over her. She sank back onto his pillows. Sprawled limp.

 

Her lovely pale face sheened in sweat. Whole body shivering and her breathing was shallow. Brow creased and wrinkled up in pain.

 

Kylo’s sitting near. Pulling sticky strands of hair off her cheeks. Hating the sight of her like this. He’s banked the fire and had extra blankets put on the bed. But he’s unsure. He’s never sat at a sick bed for a mortal before. Well- not like this. He’s attended a death bed. But here? He doesn’t know what to do. How to act.

 

Her eyes are open but she doesn’t see him. He’s certain she can’t see him or anyone else in the room. She’s dazed. Lost to sense.

 

And he’s frantic. He’s mopping her brow but he doesn’t know what good that might do. She keeps twisting her head away from him. Fingers twining into the sheets, fisting them in her hands. Gasping and shuddering breath. Her chest is moving up and down so fast it hurts him to see this.

 

Mrs Jones timidly knocks on his bedchamber door. Kylo’s voice is strained when he answers the knock. She comes in. Her face pinched and the very sight of it hurts Kylo’s nonexistent heart.

 

“The doctor can’t attend her, my Lord. He’s trapped a county over delivering a baby.” She says breathless and pink from running up the stairs. Her skirts still picked up in her hands.

 

That was Kylo’s last hope. He dismisses her with a curt nod. Not ill tempered at her news. Merely overshadowed by this whole room. All this grave pressing silence and illness.

 

The very air in here feels tense. Made dry and hot by the fire. Stale with human exertion. And Still. So still with anticipation and uncertainty.

 

Jomar returns with another icy bowl of water, a fresh cool cloth. Kylo reaches and swaps it for the clammy warm one. She groans and tries to twist away.

 

Kylo soothes her. “Dove. It’s alright it’s alright.” He hushes her as she fidgets and tosses around. Knees tugging under the blankets. Hands still fisting in the sheets. She’s whining. She’s pleading with him. The hysteria has gripped its nasty hold tight.

 

“No... no. Ugh. Please. No.” She gasps. Head looming far back. Neck stretched out. Dewy, and by the darkened light of his room, her long supple neck and throat is now shimmering amber. Kylo’s hand take the cloth away and she sighs a lungful of a groan in response.

 

“She’s not talking to you My Lord.” Jomar insists. “It is the fever.” He assures Kylo.

 

His butler is now washing his hands in the water jug across on the dresser. Scrubbing soap and his nails with a harsh scratching brush that sizzles at his skin. He dunks his hands under the cloudy milk of the water and washes away the soap suds.

 

“What do I do?” Kylo’s pleading to them both. To Jomar and Mrs Jones. He looks like a little dark haired boy. An infant. Helpless and terrified.

 

Sat there, teetering on the edge of his bed, starry silver tears in his eyes. It might be the only time they’ve seen him truly weak or scared. Wracked with agony with something even he can’t control.

 

Powerless to help the woman he loves.

 

Mrs Jones knows of that look. She sees the russet sparkle in his Lordships eyes. And it aches her. Sees the pain in his creased brow and displayed in the openness of his face. He is used to having power over so many things - this is not part of his influence. It does not share in being intimidated by him as most things and people usually do.

 

This vampires one weakness; terror for the frailty of mortality. That she could and might slip away to a place beyond his mighty reach.

 

Jomar crosses back to the bed, takes her wrist and feels for her pulse. His clever kind hands were cool on her feverish skin. Still she shivers in his grasp. He fixes his gaze downwards as he holds her frail arm. Returning it gently to her side when he’s done.

 

“Her heart rate is very fast.” He says with veiled emphasis. He then leans up and peers over her face, gently cupping it to see her eyes. “Her eyes are unfixed also.”

 

“I think it may be an affliction on her lungs. A chill caught from the rainstorm.” He suggests to Kylo.

 

“How do we treat her?” Kylo’s demanding with every note of his voice laced with hope.

 

Jomar shares an anxious look with Mrs Jones. “We don’t. Your lordship.” Jomar tells him gravely.

 

“We can only wait now for the fever to break. But we can do everything within our power to make her comfortable.” He insists to his Master and friend. Laying a kind hand on his shoulder.

 

Lord Ren looks up at him. Lost in his gaze. His silver bangle catches the light. A darting glimmer. Like a silver scaled fish swimming in dark inky waters. His butlers hope and goodness always shone great through the darkest of times.

 

Jomars bronzed eyes melt for him like crushing gold honey and warm cocoa. Tries to bolster him kindly for this devastating news.

 

“Is there truly nothing I can do?” Kylo chokes out. His voice hadn’t the bravery to rise beyond a whisper. He just had to watch her suffer like this? Twisting and delirious and unconscious with fever.

 

“I’m afraid so M’lord. In the meantime-“ Mrs Jones says. Crossing the wide dark room to the window. Batting away the crimson drapes. The battle axe she was is on the warpath. She’ll see this right. Kylo wouldn’t trust anyone else.

 

“We might try to keep her cool. Fever burns you up something wicked. So I won’t have her stifled. Loose blankets are best. And we are to mop her brow and her neck every hour. On the hour.” She commands. Jomar nods in agreement.

 

“I’ll see to some laudanum for her relief, from the medicine cupboard.” He insists. Bowing his head to Kylo before slipping away.

 

Off out the door. Picks up the lit candle holder in his hand from the side. The long ivory taper of it flickers a warm marmalade in the dark of his Lordships crimson room. Kylo watches the glow of it, and him, disappear down the dark hall. Swallowed up into the blackness of the house.

 

The treads of his boots crushed silent and dead on the rug in the corridor. The hazy fog of champagne yellow coated the walls of Hellford like thick gold dust. Shining off every polished wood door and dark floorboard. Grows fainter and fainter as he moves away.

 

Kylo turns back to his dove. Takes the cloth away. Re-wets it. Puts it back on her brow. He takes it away again once the cool is gone. Replaces the cloth with his own cold hand. All of his fingers dwarfing most of her head. He slips around and cups the nape of her neck and she rolls her solid head onto the arch of his arm.

 

She’s so warm it almost burns his hand. His chest aches to feel her that way.

 

She protests at the cold. “Leave me.” She sobs. “Leave me alone...” She cries. Eyes shut. Denying him the alluring cloudy grey gaze of those eyes he admires so much.

 

“I will do no such thing...” Kylo says lowly. Stroking wet tamped hair off her forehead. Looking at her flushed cheeks which burn hot. He presses the back of his hand to them. To soothe them. The crinkle in her brow lessens a little at his icy touch. The only time his coldness has ever come in handy.

 

Mrs Jones grabs the bowl of water from next to him but before she scurries downstairs to replace it she offers. “Your Lordship, I can send for a maid to sit with her. If you need some rest.”

 

“I will stay.” Kylo presses. “I won’t leave her side until this wretched thing breaks.” He insists with stony determination.

 

He looks back to Iris. Cupping her cheek in his hand. Watching her breathing pant rapid. She leans into his touch.

 

With no clear action before him, other than to comfort her. His mind, denied of a task, emptied of all things, now fear began to fill it.

 

Mrs Jones says nothing. But she gives him a trembling look of affection that attempts at bolstering him. She takes the bowl and she too pads softly out the room. The creaking whine of the door being softly shut was the final announcement to their being availed of company.

 

Kylo turns back to her. A terrible weight squeezing down on his chest. He’s sat at a fair number of deathbeds in his life. He’d watched some human friends fade away. But that was certain. War or disease took them from him.

 

This is not certain and it’s killing him all over again.

 

It’s that night on the battefield in the snow again and again again. Draegan finding him. Coming across Kylo as he lay dying. The burning dripping searing blood leaking down his side. His wound was by the abdomen. The worst way to die. It could take days. The white hot agony searing his bones in acid all over again. Scarlet snow. Scarlet wet snow everywhere.

 

He can remember cool slender fingers cupping his neck. The whisper across his cheek like a kiss of the icy north wind. “You know you will not survive this.” He explained. Unsticking Kylo’s leather gloved hand from the wound that ran along the entire side of his stomach. Silver eyes, like precious moonstones, looking at the blood laying black and thick on his palm.

 

To the very last. Kylo fought like a warrior. When he often had resolved, as a Viking soldier, of pondering his own death. He had envisioned a glorious end. Sword in hand cutting down his enemies until his very last breath.

 

He never imagined in his wildest dream that death would smile handsomely at him first. Never believed he’d be side by side with the devil - and that he would love him with the passion of a thousand burning suns.

 

Never thought he’d love again - until he laid eyes on this beautiful creature. He lusted for her first of all. That instant carnal attraction. But that had masked how she truly made Kylo’s soulless body ache to love her.

 

She brought him to his knees. And now he’s choking on his grief.

 

“Please don’t leave me, Little Dove.” He begs in a whisper as she writhes and sweats into his bedsheets. Gasping and dulled.

 

“Don’t go to the one place I can’t follow.” He begs. Laying his big hand over where hers was limp and stretched out atop the velvet covers. His hand dwarfed hers utterly. But his touch was so gentle. Unsure.

 

“I told you if anything happened to you. It would kill me.” He says. Looking at her earnest face. So dewy and flushed.

 

“I meant my words. Iris, If I have to spend an eternity without loving you then, I-“ His throat claws up. Suffocating his words. He shakes his head.

 

He brings her limp arm up. Back of her clammy hand pressed to his mouth. Nuzzles a kiss to her skin. Tastes the salt of her sweat. Tastes her agony. He’s certain it reflects his own.

 

“I won’t leave you.” He vows solemnly. A silky whisper that he speaks into her skin. He always takes his vows seriously.

 

Treads rattle louder in the hallway. Coming back to the room. Jomar enters again with the bottle of laudanum and a spoon to hand.

 

Kylo will be the one to feed it to her. He gently cups her face and slips the silver spoon to her lips. An oddly intimate act. He feeds the opiate into her mouth, she twists her head and some of it runs down her chin. Kylo wipes it away with the cloth. Taking up the task of the lowliest maid. Seeing so tenderly to her in her illness.

 

He’s calmed a little by the fact of the laudanum taking away any pain she might be feeling. Her breathing settles. As does his worry.

 

He retires to the chair by the fireside across the room. The same deep wine red velvet as covers his bed. He pulls it close to the end of his huge four postered bed. Drapes hanging heavy down all four mahogany posts. Protecting the pale infirm form of her within. He’ll watch over her from his bedside. Cradled in the comfort of the chair.

 

Some ineffectual matronly mama of the ton may argue that this was most improper. A single man watching over the bedside of an unmarried girl. Worst still- an unmarried girl on the brink of an engagement.

 

Kylo snorts to himself. Wondering if the deuced snotty boy of a Sergeant would even care that his intended was gravely ill. Probably only cared that she had fallen ill in Kylo’s manor.

 

It didn’t matter that she was unconscious and insensate. She was in the very room with a man who compromised her honour, and Hux’s. Making a fool of him. In in Lord Ren’s very own bed, no less.

 

Well. Not that either of them were in any fit state to be compromising the hell out of each other. But he doubts strict society will see it that way. This was enough impropriety just being within touching distance.

 

One thing that does prevail upon him a tiny shred of bright happiness in all this darkness. Is the fact that he knows how desperately fuming this whole situation would make Iris’s mother.

 

Him protecting her. Rescuing her. Keeping her safe. He’s sure the old harpy would be frothing at the mouth like a rabid dog knowing where her daughter was. She’d likely spout out nastiness, how it was all a concoction for the dashing dark Lord Ren to seduce and spoil her eldest daughter. To ruin their hope of an advantageous marriage.

 

Little did that termagant know, but it was far too late for that.

 

Iris was worked her sweet steady way under his skin from every outing they’ve shared. Every look across a crowded ballroom. Every touch of their hands, gloved or not. Their dance. Their kiss. It was the inferno that brought their affection and regard for each other to a fever pitch.

 

She trembles whenever he comes close. When their eyes meet he always feels the delighted shiver that runs the full length of her spine. The blush that prettily decorates her cheeks. Finer than any jewellery he could bestow on her gorgeous body.

 

Funny how such a thing as her blush made him think of so many things.

 

It made him want to whisk her away in the dead of night. Back to Bavaria. Install her there as the Lady of his castle. Sharing his land. Sharing his title. Lady Ren. He’d have her dresses tailored by the finest Dressmaker in Bavaria.

 

Dust off the family jewels and then bedeck her in them. Head to toe. Nothing less would do for her. She’s suffered such a life of penury and scraping together to make her as bait to men for marriage. He’d see to ending that sad facet of her life. He’d let her choose what she wears. Whether or not she had to pay calls or deliver baskets to the infirm.

 

He’d let her lounge in a boudoir parlour, reading books, and accomplish nothing in her day apart from having a sumptuous oiled bath if she so desires. He just wants to see her happy.

 

He’d open the whole castle for her to explore room after room. Every tapestry. Every oil painting and marble statue. Every suit of armour he’d fought in over the years. Stood proud and polished silver on display. All of it he’d let her have.

 

How he misses it... his home. Ranlor Castle.

 

He misses the way the castle feels to step into. The scent of it. The edifying old thick stone halls of musty brick and how the smell of green and pine like the forest surrounding it, seeps in every window. Hanging upon the very air.

 

He misses the warmth of the fur pelts on his bed on a stormy night. The sky flurrying with snow, wind howling at tiny lead crossed windows. He was so used to hearing the wolves cry out for the moon in the woods at night, as he fell asleep in his big soft bed. Missed the way flame and shadow danced up the thick exposed golden-bricked walls. It lulls him to sleep.

 

The locals rightly call Ranlor the ‘devils rock.’ A dark superstition has long lingered over the land ever since Kylo had been in residence there.

 

Named because of the way the - many - turrets either end of the castle rear out the landscape like two sharp pale fangs. Looking over all the local villages and tenants. The shadows of those turrets reach far and wide. Everything is eclipsed in it’s shade. Grisly things were said to happen too, in his woodlands. Strong men go missing and not even so much as their bare bones are ever recovered.

 

Local folk legend blindly believes when the moon is full, that devils roam the woods. Black wolves turn into foul hungry demons with claws, ready to hunt upon the flesh of men. When the moon is its full eye of pearl in the sky, people are warned to stay off the forest. And stick to their homes. Bolt the doors and draw the shutters. Cower in their beds and listen to the wolves howls rise faintly over the snowy horizon. Piercing through the snow.

 

Kylo’s work providing for his lands and Ranlor’s tenants so ably puts shame to most of the rumours.

 

He is a generous Lord and master of the lands. Nothing is beyond his notice. He holds a ball for the local villages every year, near Yuletide season. Amidst the bitter winter. The staff bring in great log garlands made from the holly in the forest to decorate the hall. They serve brandy and punch and Kylo mixes among everyone to see how their year has been as his tenants.

 

If families struggle, too many mouths to feed. He absolves their rent. Ensures they are kept stocked with food from the castles own kitchen to tide them over- He has no need for it after all. His servants eat handsomely too, Kylo makes sure of that.

 

If bouts of illness flourish among his tenants and among those less fortunate than him, he puts up the money for the doctors bills. He takes care of his own. Even if they are not his kin. They are under his protection on his territory.

 

He is remarked on being a very gallant and fair man. No one on his land would dare observe that he was frightening and cruel.

 

Only if he is gotten on the wrong side of that is. If poachers steal from his lands and steal the food supplies belonging to his people. Or if he sees any drunken men take advantage where they shouldn’t with a passing maiden, outside the taverns. If a violent and ill tempered brute of a man who drinks his families wage away, so much as dares to raise a hand to his suffering wife or children- then does Kylo reveals his nasty side.

 

He’s sure there are still gossips that believe the superstition of his home. In local taverns at night over pitchers of ale, some men lean in, to whisper and wonder and gossip if he is entirely as human as he seems.

 

He rarely eats. Never drinks to excess. Had never taken a wife and he doesn’t dally with whores. He stalks the forest alone most nights. They sometimes remarked that he was not human. There was little humanity about him. But they never suspected for a moment that the bloodthirsty demon unleashed by the full moon, was in fact him.

 

The reason some of the bones of missing men were never found? Because Kylo drains them of the blood and leaves the drained corpse for the hungry wolves to tear apart.

 

Kylo ruminates on memories of home as he watches the firelight kiss across her pale form on the bed. Her breathing still shallow.

 

“I’d so much like for you to see Ranlor. Little dove. You’d adore it.” He says. Speaking to her as if she were awake to hear him.

 

He tells her about the forest. About the bitter winter gales that blow through. And how it thaws so prettily in spring. Woods full of blue hyacinths and pink scented stocks. Sugary and sickly perfume of them in the warm pine of sun-baked air.

 

He tells her how she’d like the wildflowers and the baby roe deers and the lake when it’s warm enough to swim in. To dip into the fathomless sapphire ink of water. The graceful swans that dance across the blue waters surface.

 

He tells her she’d like the local life. Much like here, people were humble and simple. Salt of the earth. People who make no pretence to be more than they are. How refreshing he finds that compared to all the Janus faced civility. Velvet draped over daggers, and dripping censure that falls from lord’s and ladies mouths, in a savage English country ballroom.

 

He describes the villages nearby. On the road to Ranlor. The tall narrow houses built of walnut timber and smothered in white paint. Closely set together on cobbled grey streets. Some of the neighbouring villages were walled cities also. Keeps from medieval times. Set high up in the rocks.

 

Quaint little hamlets were dotted along the Bavarian alps near his castle. He tells her of the nearest one to Ranlor.

 

Brimming with taverns boasting the most excellent beer and joints of game, roasted on a spit, a flagon and a hunk of meat for no more than a half a gold florin. Cafes and shops there were, a florist also. He recalls the waxy punchy-coloured tulips and how they always always always caught his attention in the window. The striking eye-catching scarlet of them. He likes seeing it, as he often rides past on Erland. Or in his rattling big coach.

 

There were coffee houses, bakeries and patisseries selling Austrian cakes and puddings. Butchers or other general stores selling the local cuisine of smoked or cured meats and sausages and cheeses.

 

The spectacular wares always for show in the haberdashers window. Great voluminous hats with sprouting great feathers and dripping trimmings galore. Her silly sisters, he fancied, would adore to see such fine frippery. And most of all, there in that precious little village that somehow has found a warm place in his heartless chest, there are always vendors with their braziers, hawking roasted or candied nuts around the town square.

 

He tells her how touched he was in her gesture of giving him a paper bag of roasted chestnuts, the day after they first met.

 

He admits something to her then; of how he doesn’t often indulge in human food. But those he did eat. The buttery sweet burn of them reminded him of home. Lifting his nose to the bag to smell the smoky nutty scent sent him ricocheting right back to thoughts of that little Bavarian village. It touched him profoundly in more ways then he could say. She could barely spare the capital to buy them and she bestowed on him, such a gift.

 

She bought it with her last penny and that truly astounded him. He was a veritable stranger to her then. He is so much more than that now. She’s so much more to him. And him, to her.

 

Kylo will see out this lonely frightful night. He watches over her. Hopes the morning will bear better signs. Hopes that the tumultuous storm passes.

 

It dies well enough. By the pale pink of a wet lilac and gold dawn, shining over the windowpane and into his chamber. Shrouding his sickbed in rosy gold, she is unfortunately in much the same state. Unchanged. Not progressing nor worsened.

 

He sits and keeps a diligent eye on her. Had done all night. He requires little sleep. And so he talks to her. Mops her brow when she starts sweating again. Jomar and Mrs Jones flit in and out. Bringing provisions. And fresh cold water. More laudanum.


Mrs Jones brought him a plate of roasted meats and a glass of wine. It went untouched. She takes it away without saying a word. Gives the scraps to the hounds.

 

Jomar checks on her every few hours. With his slight grasp of medical knowledge. They try sending for the doctor again. But he is still unavailable. Fixing broken bones from men caught up in last nights storm. Kylo curses the inflexible man every name under the sun.

 

He doesn’t even retire from her side to take luncheon. Mrs jones had tried to tempt him with a grilled chop at breakfast. And still he refused. Tempted him with roast capons and a carafe of wine now, and still he declined. He’d gone longer without food before in his time. It wouldn’t hurt him. Three years he’d once gone without indulging.

 

“You need to keep your strength up. My Lord. You’re no good to her if you starve away to skin and bone.” She chides as she carries out another bowl of water. Refreshing it.

 

“Hardly likely.” Kylo’s insisting. Tugging at the rumpled linen of his shirt.

 

Sleeves rolled and cuffed. Waistcoat he shrugged off some time in the night. Just in black braces, dull boots and dark breeches now. He’s sure he’ll be a malodorous wretch in need of a shave and wash. But he won’t leave her in this crisis. He won’t so much as go to splash cold water on his face. He’s not leaving this room.

 

Hellhounds with glowing red eyes and slobbering gnashing teeth, couldn’t drag him away.

 

Mrs Jones makes a move to put a matronly hand on her hip and chastise him some more. But there comes a groan from the bed.

 

Kylo leaps from his chair and bolts across to her. “Dove?”

 

He seeks for her hand. He listens to her breathe.

 

It was now a shallow drag accompanied by a slight rattling wheeze when she breathed. The affliction had spread to her lungs. And he knows the opium will have suppressed her lungs as a result.

 

A trickle of blood leaves her mouth and smears on the pillow. A wheezing hacking cough comes from her. It’s such a weak sound it hurts to hear it. He mops it away with the damp cloth. Smears at her pale cheek in its wake.

 

“Oh no. God no. Iris...” He seeks louder. Trying to see if she responds. She’s limp as ever. Lost to him. Blood leaking from her lips.

 

“Fetch Jomar.” He orders urgently to his housekeeper. She runs for the door and brings back the Butler. He checks her over and his face is grave.

 

“Your lordship. Her temperature is rising and I believe it appears as if the infection is worsening.” He says softly.

 

Kylo’s face falls. His throat bobs with worry.

 

He knows she’s strong. She can temper the foul spitting words of her mother. She can temper this. She must. Or he doesn’t know what he’ll do.

 

“Will she die?” Kylo asks outright. Face like steel. Eyes wet.

 

“I’m not a doctor. My Lord. I cannot say. But she needs a miracle to fight this affliction that’s taken hold. It looks like consumption.” He tells honestly.

 

Kylo nods. “I’ll call you both if you are needed again.” He dismisses them.

 

They file out the room with sorrowful faces. Such a sweet girl. And their Master is clearly so cut up by seeing her in such a state.

 

Kylo wraps his fingers around her hand.

 

“Fight it little dove.” He urges her. She was shivering earlier. But now she’s stilled. Sweating and clammy. Burning up more than ever. She was getting worse.

 

Please. Please fight. You’re so strong Iris. My god, you don’t know how strong...” He begs as he cups her hand and one hand cradles the side of her face.

 

“The first time I saw you, I saw your strength. Your resilience. You held your head high even though you didn’t want too. I felt your pain. I felt your back breaking under all that strain.”

 

Her head stays limp on the pillow. Eyes blind to anything. Shut in unrest. He wishes more than anything that there was something he could do to aid her before this got even worse.

 

She looks pallid. Ashen. More so than before. Sweating buckets and more blood leaks out her mouth. He wipes it away with the fresh handkerchief Jones left by the bed. He looks down in his hand and sees the sticky red staining the white cloth.

 

Like a bloodied paw print in the snow. It doesn’t even call out to his hunger. He’s too beyond it. This is too perilous. Too serious to measure his animal instincts.

 

Blood.

 

The room grows cold. All warmth drops as if the sun had been snatched out the sky. Kylo feels the chill pinned along his skin as a ghost of a phantom breeze sweeps over him.

 

His cool blood turns to prickling ice. The candles on the bedside flicker, the fire wanes. He knows what comes next. He hasn’t felt this in centuries. He hears the voice, as crisp and as sharp as frost in his head. The voice like silver coins and honey dances into his ear. Notes as fine as a dark deep concerto.

 

Your blood, My fierce one. Or have you forgotten. All life is in the blood.” Comes Draegan’s soothing mellow voice.

 

The tone that was like feather down and silk to listen to the way he crooned. Every part of his manner was charming. The deep of his sharp eyes was piercing. Intoxicating.

 

Kylo’s not been alongside mortals as Draegan had. He was a healer. Though he was a demon, he always conceded that there was no death without life. All life as such, is therefore to be treated as precious. Humans fascinated him. And he moved freely and happily among them. Whereas Kylo scorned most all of them.

 

He strides from the bed to his unused escritoire across the room. Situated by the window for light. Not that he had any letters to write or close acquaintances to send them too. He considered leaving notes for Iris but there’s always a risk his letters would be discovered. He’s got a stack of them all written - tied up with a grey silk ribbon and hidden away.

 

He rifles through his drawers until he finds it. A knife. A silver dagger with a weighted carved handle. He rounds the bed again, crosses to her and sits near her hip. He holds out his left hand and rips the knife across his index fingertip.

 

Crimson beads up. He holds his hand aloft and watches it drip. Looks back to Iris and gently cups her face.

 

“I know this won’t be pleasant. But it will help.” He tells. He doesn’t even feel the sting of pain. It’s nothing to him. Nothing to the pain of seeing her suffer like this.

 

He gently holds her cheeks and rubs his bloodied fingers across her dry lips. Smearing crimson onto her tongue. She frowns and tries to move her head away, mumbling in distress. But Kylo doesn’t relent until he’s sure his ichor coats her tongue. Slips silken down her throat.

 

He takes his hand away and rubs the blood from her mouth that spilled down her chin. Leaving her as pale as she was before. The rose of her cheeks still glares awfully bright.

 

He bunches the cloth around his hand. He’ll heal up in no time. He wishes he could say the same for her. Only time will tell...

 

He holds her hand. Strokes over her dainty little clammy knuckles. “Twice now he’s saved you.” He remarks to her.

 

“If I didn’t know him any better....” He sighs, trails off in his words. The very breath gets punched from him. To what end could Draegan be saving her? Whatever for?

 

One idea occurs - it’s because he’s felt all that she means to him.

 

That tears agony at him like animals claws tearing down his chest. Shredding flesh. When he thought how he turned his back on him, and scorned his love. And here he was, centuries later, calling out to keep her safe. To protect her.

 

Kylo lets himself feel shamed.

 

Ashamed for the ways he bypassed his feelings for Draegan, and let anger fill him so completely up instead. Now he’s met Iris? He understands what he put Draegan through when he left. Because she might leave him now, and he thinks he might just wither away to ash, to nothing, for agony of loving her so much. Unable to help her through this pain.

 

Though now, perhaps he’s given her the catalyst to help her fight what ails her. He can only wait. And pray.

 

He paces the room. Paces and then sits. And then he’s treading worn holes in the floorboards again.

 

Before he knows it, night falls again. He watches out the window as the sun bleeds into blue.

 

Night washes a filmy indigo over the landscape. Trees turn to dark gnawed fingers of branches. The grass shimmers with evening dew and the pond out front in view of his window, turns to gloopy blue ink.

 

He stands with his back to her. Surveying the view out the window. Arms folded behind his back. He’s listening to the fire crack and the wind groaning outside on the cold glass, splashing hard against the house. And suddenly she speaks. Gasps out. Cries out.

 

“So cold.”

 

He whips around fast. She’s twisting from side to side and he sees the fire sheen off her brow. She repeated herself “It’s so cold...” He hastens to the bedside and takes her hand again. “Iris?” He asks.

 

She’s still dazed. Still delirious. Twisting her head on the bed.

 

“Snow. And blood. Why is there....so much blood...” She frowns. Her face all contorted. Her palms knot her fingers into her pillow. She’s writhing again.

 

Kylo looks down at her. Puzzled.

 

 

 

~

 

 

 

Her reality had became quickly spliced with odd fevered dreams.

 

Snippets of actuality broke through the haze. She felt herself fall after she stood up from the armchair after their intimate dinner. She dropped but her body didn’t hit the floor. She’s moving again. And those lovely strong arms of his, are around her.

 

She’s burning. Was she on fire? That’s what it feels like. She’s dripping sweat and trying to claw at her dry throat. Loosen her strangling clothes. Get some blessed sweet cool air on her skin.

 

A cold chest she’s cradled into again. Widest muscled chest she’s ever beheld. And she’s moving. Her eyes are shut, it’s all dark, yet she feels weightless. Being carried.

 

Then it all goes soft. She’s laying on velvet as gentle hands guide away clothes from her body. She’s aching so much her bones ring with it.

 

She tries moving but she feels cemented. Every word she tries to croak is difficult. Making speech is like trying to let thick hot syrup drip off her sticky tongue.

 

There’s this pain in her lungs. A thousand knives stabbing in when her chest expands. Kind hands touch her arm and her head. Their warmth scorches her already blazing skin. She tries to wriggle away. But she’s too weak. Her body won’t comply to the requests of her mind.

 

There’s feather and down at her back. It crinkles and crumples, and she’s relieved the bed is so cool. Something bittersweet is dropped down her throat. Trickling down her melting tongue. She barely feels the rest. She drifts in and out.

 

And the thing is, she’s not entirely sure she’s alone. She hears voices. A voice. Dark, deep, like a granite walled cave.

 

She can’t feel much. But she feels cold thick fingers wrap around hers. She knows who those might belong too.

 

The fire in her blood doesn’t stop. It doesn’t wane. She feels like she’s drowning and she’s not even in the rain anymore. Prickles and knives and all manner of horrible sharp things stab at her chest. Spears, lances, thorns and needles.

 

It feels like her lungs rattle with poison and shards of broken glass. She wants to cough but it’s too much for the infirm state she’s in.

 

In between her swimming head and trying to crack open her heavy eyes. Between bleeding crimson and a blazing twitching flame she can make out very little.

 

Time and sensation are lost to her. But she feels how someone diligently holds her, cups her face, cool on her cheek, feeds her spoonfuls of water so she doesn’t dehydrate. Dribbled water and laudanum - spiced with honey and saffron to cut the bitterness - down her neck with a cold silver spoon perched on her lips.

 

The dreams are the worst. She dreams about rain. About rivers and heavy crushing things, tar, black and rotten, squirming on her chest. Crushing her.

 

Of fangs ripping pale flesh off bleeding necks, how that haunts her. Wine red blood and she’s laying in a sticky hot pool of it. Unable to move.

 

Foul black demons with claws and leathery black wings and red eyes, drooling maws with gnashing teeth rip at her nubile skin. She screams but no sound comes. They throw her screaming into hell and brimstone, and the flames lick higher around her.

 

She’s dying. She must be dying. She can see it. Lying under a chiffon veil draping her body. Dried white flowers, rustling and dead sweet, are placed on her chest. Hands crossed over her chest. A figure in hooded cloaked black looms over her.

 

She squirms. She tries to bat them away. Tries to twist out their reach of these monsters. She calls and begs them, but to no avail. Cold splashed on her again. On her brow and on the back of her neck. She sighs and gladly welcomes it.

 

A low melodic buzz murmurs in her ears like a thousand bees zipping and bobbing about her head. She can’t understand what it is. But it’s somehow a nice sound to listen too.

 

It causes a gentle hum to seep into her aching bones and calms her heavy head. It’s like a balm. Salve on a wound. She doesn’t realise that it’s Kylo talking to her.

 

When the fire in the hearth across the room crackled and spit sparks up the chimney, it felt like splits opened in her skin, forming like cracks in stone, and insects crawled out. Black scurrying beetles, She started itching at her arms. Clawing. But nothing was there.

 

The cold soothe of her harbinger of peace is there to hold her hands and stop her nails raking her flesh away.

 

More voices move around her. Tumbling around the air in the room. Cracking and snapping like zapping silver lightning and thunder. The mumbling grows in volume. Slithering along her spine. One of her arms feels like it’s been left in ice water - it’s where he’s holding and kissing her. Begging her to fight it. Pleading with her.

 

She’s so tired. So wrung out. She just wants all this pain and fevered madness to stop. She’s soaked through to the sheets and her skeleton grates with ringing hot agony whenever she dares to move. She’d cry if her brain would grant her that meagre request.

 

Her lungs have worsened. She knows it. Filled and clogged with dry sand, and salt. Sluggish and wet like a briny beach. It rattles when she breathes, and something she can’t name dribbled out her mouth. Drooling onto the pillow. She doesn’t know that it’s blood.

 

She only knows that she’d quite like to fall away to her fever dreams and never come back.

 

Iris so wants the lingering darkness to take her.

 

However, one tiny shred of her feels cheated; she would’ve so liked to kiss Lord Ren again. One last time. The nicest thing that’s ever happened to her. She’d have liked to have tasted his kiss and drown in his loving attentions just one more time. Just one.

 

It didn’t seem like a lot to ask of fate. Seeing the crummy hand it had dealt her in her wretched little life, thus far.

 

Time passes. She’s not sure if it’s seconds, or minutes. For all she knows she may only have been lying insensate for an hour. Or it may have been days. Weeks. She can’t focus. She could have been lying stretched out there for Methuselah’s lifetime. She’s none the wiser.

 

Then something else happens, something unexpected. Something wet is pushed past her lips. Only it isn’t water. And it isn’t the bitter saffron alkaline of laudanum.

 

She doesn’t recognise this taste; it’s salty sweet. Hot metallic, and a blend of sour-saccharine burst. She doesn’t recognise it. It’s not unpleasant. But it’s not what she’d describe as palatable.

 

She tries to twist. But her head is thumping and those flames are curling at her toes again.

 

And then some distinctly odd things begin to happen. Even more odd than demon dreams or the bugs crawling out crevices in her skin.

 

Where she swallows, the substance dropped in her mouth starts rolling down her throat. Carving away the pain in its path.

 

Before long it reaches her swollen lungs. Slowly. One by one, each knife and needle, shard of glass, spear and lance is dragged out of her. Pulled away. Tugged out her pinching flesh. Relaxing her ribs.

 

Gradually, all her pain lessens. Stickiness in her lungs, grating of her shallow heavy bones. It all fades. Agony slowly dies like a starved candle flame.

 

The unknown liquid rolls through her like milk and crushed honeycomb. Ambrosia nectar. It tastes like gold. Like sunshine warming her bare skin after feeling nothing for months, but cutting winter frost.

 

Fever dreams start to come back in full force. And they feel more real than before.

 

She opens her eyes and there’s suddenly snow. It’s cold. It’s so very cold she’s shivering. Standing there, looking around a milky snow blotted forest.

 

The trees around her reach vast, thick and tall. Trunks wider than her body. She cranes her head and she can’t even judge the tops of them. It’s just foggy grey up above. Heavy snowfall closing in.

 

But all around her there are splotches of dark seeping in the snow. Dark jagged shapes lay misshapen in the thick thick icy drift.

 

She feels it all. The squishing shift of the powder beneath her feet. Cold little stings of flakes melt onto her cheeks and eyelashes. Turning to tears that rain dewdrops down her skin. Her breath spirits silver out her mouth.

 

There’s no stars up in heaven. No moon. Not tonight. Nothing to cast over this glum gloom and darkness.

 

Noises patter and clang in the distance. Metal scrapes and hollow clashes. She peers around her and that’s when she comes to realise what all those shapes are...

 

Bodies.

 

Laying dead and still in the snow. As far as her eye can see. Men lay broken and scattered across the forest floor. Clad in simple dark armour. All wearing the same crimson coat of arms: blood and death litters them. That is their uniform.

 

Crimson is still shimmering down the bark. Splashed there from the slash of swords across parts of anatomy she didn’t want to think about. She cannot imagine how her brain can conjure up such carnage. Such mayhem and suffering.

 

Seeing a thousand, or more, dead men, pulled and carved to pieces. Violently separated from limbs, or heads or legs. Bleeding into the snow. Slumped sat against trees or piled on each other. Some studded with arrows. Some not.

 

Splayed where they’ve fallen. Viscera exposed, stubby limbs chopped in half. Throat slit. Holes punched in their chests and bloodied organs tumbled out. Some men held it in their arms like dirty washing. It’s an awful thing to witness. Such savagery.

 

What kind of beast could cause this? Could leave men dying and dead in this horrific way?

 

She scans around. Unable to fathom it. These poor souls. Mouths gaping. Eyes wide and staring, unseeing, at the clouded heavens. Like sticky pearls shimmering in the dark. Death hadn’t been long in taking them. The blood leaving them is still warm. She can feel the blaze of it under her feet. Melting the snow.

 

She sees no movement in the trees. Save for the snow heading down from high above. Settling like natures own confetti on all these fallen soldiers. Weeping over them, yet nothing else can be done but show them to their graves.

 

Then she does make out something.

 

A tall, lean, and strong figure moves through the trees away from her. Strong trunks of long legs. Sinewed arms. Even in his dazzling armour. Slender. So slender and elegant for a man. Most men lumbered. This one practically glided.

 

Though he is scarcely standing out amongst them. Silver and white. Clad in brilliantly kept armour. The only thing that stands clear is the crimson splattered across this soldiers body. Gleaming down his silver armour. He comes to a standstill.

 

If he was the last man standing; she suddenly realises with horror exactly what that means in odes to all the death surrounding them.

 

She moves slowly towards this destination. Somehow desperate for a look. In the dim, she steps carefully and slow over the slaughter of mangled bodies and crimson hot snow. He has his back to her. Now she can’t see his face.

 

She crosses this battlefield. Comes closer and closer. As if stalking a cautious stag.

 

He was devastating in his height. Lean but not a man to be mistaken as being powerless. A long bloodied sword drips from his left hand. Even in this suffocating slim darkness, the curtain of white hair spilling long down his back is entirely obvious. Like a silk curtain. It’s braided too. Twisted into intricate plaits. Fixed with silver cuffs and wound with jewellery.

 

There are silver coiled serpent decorations wound around some of his braids. They gleam in the night like far off stars. He moves as devastating as a supernova.

 

If his hair moves like silk, so does he. Movements so supple yet languid. Certain. A great degree of confidence.

 

He turns his head. She hopes to catch a glance of his profile. Wanting to see if his face is as handsome as his hair, or his impressive built frame.

 

She’s curious. Somehow this is familiar for her; this white haired stranger.

 

He turned only a fraction. Not enough for to show her anything. Not his face. Not his eyes. Though it seemed he was looking in her direction. She’s been caught.

 

She freezes entirely and a smooth voice dances like honey wine and satin across the butchered dead and the snow.

 

Go back to him. Little spark. He’s waiting for you.... this isn’t how we meet.” He tells her.

 

She cannot contest. She can’t even fight. Or speak. White fog swallows her up. Clouds her eyes. The blood and the soldiers and the snow falls away. Like she’s being dropped out of a white haze and sent tumbling down to mushy blackness. Spat out of heaven.

 

She falls. Jolts. Her heart leaps in her chest as adrenaline spikes through her body. She gasps...

 

And then, miraculously, she finally wakes.

 

 

~

 

 

 

She stumbles back to life with a rattling gasp. Kylo didn’t even hear it. It was nearly ten at night. He’s sat by the fire in his bedchamber, watching the logs within crackle and sinking and burning to amber and ash. Unaware that she’d opened her eyes until;

 

“Kylo?” Comes a weak little voice from the bed. Her voice.

 

He stands and turns so fast his head swims. “Dove?”

 

He strides so quick for the bed it makes her dizzy. He frets about stupid things, like the fact he hasn’t washed and shaved. He’s been too occupied in his avowed duty of sitting and watching over her sickbed.

 

He kneels by her side. Happily cups the cheek closest to him. Her eyes are clear, hooded, but clear. No longer shimmering bright with fever. And her cheeks have calmed. Less glaring red heat, now just a kiss of pink.

 

He places his knuckles on her forehead and had never been more relieved to feel her cooled. She shuts her eyes and smiles. Appreciating his touch. Savouring it.

 

“My god. I thought I’d lose you.” He insists quietly when she opens her eyes again. He takes her dear sweet hand and kisses it.

 

She takes a lot of energy to swallow and unsticks her dry cracked lips to answer him. Smiling. “Might I trouble you for some water?” She croaks. Her voice a strained crackle bleeding out her throat.

 

He pours it himself. Hands it to her. Helps her sit up a little and tip the glass to her parched rosebud lips. She takes dainty gulps of it. Drains the glass and has enough. It’s not overly cool, but Iris swears it’s the best thing she’s ever drunk.

 

He mops her brow again when she’s finished. Wipes the wet coils of hair away off her brow. It feels awfully nice and even though it’s shockingly intimate. She relaxes back onto the damp pillows and lets him comfort her.

 

“How long was I?-” She seeks.

 

“Two days, little dove.” He tells her gently. Placing the linen cloth down where it belongs. She swallows again. Refinding her lost voice. “It’s almost eleven at night.” He answers.

 

“I’m afraid I’ve been a dreadful imposition on you.” She starts. Picking nervously at the covers.

 

Kylo’s smiling again. Yesterday everything had been so grim he thought he’d never crack a grin ever again.

 

“Think nothing of it. I’m merely happy to see you so well recovered.” He says as he squeezes her hand tighter.

 

She casts her eyes for a second over the way his chin is flecked in onyx stubble. The way shadows linger under his eyes like heavy saddle bags. His hair doesn’t look unkempt. But his shirt is rumpled and faded cologne lingers around him. He’s been worried about her, than his appearance.

 

“You need rest and sustenance. Fevers leave you weak. So I’m told.” He reaches for the head of the bed and pulls the bell cord. The hidden crimson panel of fabric that called down to the kitchens.

 

“I wouldn’t turn down a cup of tea.” She sighs weakly. Beaming gently. No self respecting English woman would dare seek after anything else so fortifying.

 

“I imagine my housekeeper will furnish you with a banquet.” He suggests.

 

“How do you feel?” He seeks. It hasn’t escaped her notice his hand still twines through her own. It feels awfully nice. Cold. But not repulsive. She felt his touch even in her fevered state. It’s calming.

 

“Like I’ve been kicked by a horse.” She sleepily admits.

 

“Jomar said the affliction was on your lungs from the sound of your breathing. Do you need anything for pain?” He asks.

 

“I Thank you. I am well. I cannot deny the fever was.., draining. But, it was the vivid nature of the dreams I couldn’t stand. It all felt so, real.” She confesses.

 

“Delirium can be an odd beast.” Kylo agrees. He’s suffered blood delirium before. And that was like his own skin trying to willingly crawl off his own bones. It was beyond dreadful.

 

“The most odd one was... wandering through a forest. After a battle, I think it was. Horrible. Such death and slaughter. And then I saw this man through the trees. A tall man in silver armour...”

 

Kylo’s eyes are glistening dark. She carries on.

 

“He spoke out to me. I could never forget his voice it was-“ She searches for a word. “Melodic. Nearly. Utterly enchanting. And he had this hair, very long hair. It looked like white silk.” She explains.

 

“What did he say to you?” Kylo’s asking. Knowing full well what she saw.

 

“Told me that someone was waiting- And it... wasn’t how I would meet him?....” she declares. Finding the whole thing bizarre. Then again; what sense could be made out of perplexing dreams?

 

She looks bewildered. But Kylo knows the truth in it. He knows the various demons and reasons behind her channeled thoughts. His blood had taken its toll too.

 

“Dreams are confusing at the best of times.” He states in comfort. She nods in agreement. But she looks like she barely has the strength to hold up her own head.

 

She clasps his hand back. Her fingers and little strength she possessed, held onto him. “I’m very glad you were here.”

 

“I’m always there for you. Iris. And I always shall be.” He promises.

 

“What I did, scampering out into the rain like that. It was so foolish of me. And I don’t like to think of myself as acting like a fool.” She starts.

 

“I thought I was going to die it hurt so much. But I didn’t want to. Because I didn’t want to leave this earth - without kissing you one more time.” She explains.

 

“I know I shouldn’t say it. I shouldn’t even think it.” She swallows weakly.

 

Twines her fingers through his. Clutches onto him all the more. Showing him the depth of her affection that she had always smothered deep down. She doesn’t want to suffocate it anymore.

 

Kylo sees the wet of tears in her eyes.

 

“I’m very glad of your improprietous wishes. They well reflect my own.” He admits. Kissing the back of her hand. He wouldn’t throw himself and his passions upon her whilst she’s recovering in a sick bed. He’s not that much of a letch.

 

The door creaks open across his chamber and Jomar is the one to answer his summons. Kylo twists around where he is knelt. And when his butler sees his smile, and the calm of his expression. He hears his sigh all the way across from the door.

 

“Might Miss Ashton have a tray of tea and some of that broth Mrs Jones had cook prepare?” Kylo asks.

 

Jomars smile lightened up the whole room. “I shall fill the kettle myself. Your Lordship.” He beams. It makes Iris smile wide too.

 

“Thankyou. Mr Jomar. You’re very kind.” She rasps across to him. He nods a grateful smile.

 

“Ever your attentive servant. Miss. You got his Lordship to crack a smile for the first time since the dark ages. I feel like we ought lay roses at your feet.” He insists.

 

“Just the tea. For now.” Kylo reiterates.

 

“And might I ask you keep an eye on Miss Ashton whilst I retire to my washroom for a moment?” He informs.

 

“Yes of course. Your Lordship.” Jomar steps into the room and aside so Kylo may pass.

 

He squeezes her hand in comfort before he slips away. Off to go shave and wash himself and redress in a clean pressed shirt. And new breeches and small clothes. He felt quite rumpled in his current dress.

 

The kind butler lingers by the bed. Handing her some more water even though she hadn’t requested it. She needed it. He could tell.

 

“You all like his Lordship a great deal...” She comments.

 

Jomar can’t deny it.

 

“We love him. Miss. Though he may be stubborn and pigheaded sometimes. And most think him to be arrogant or savage. We are, all of us, so very proud to serve his house and his title.” He insists with not so much as a hint of false note to his tone.

 

“He depends on you a great deal. It’s nice to see a man and his butler on such friendly terms.” She states.

 

“We do make fun of one another. But it is enjoyable in its own way. He teases me. I rib him. And demand a payrise if he steps too far over the line. I have to remind him of his place...” He jokes in detriment. It draws a laugh from her.

 

“If I may speak candidly. Miss Ashton. And do censure me if it is above my place to say so; but he admires you a vast vast deal. In a way I have seldom seen of him.” He openly admits.

 

Iris’ heart feels like it wants to burst. So crammed full of potent emotion. It made her chest glow warm.

 

“I could never censure anyone for such a admission. Mr Jomar.” She gives him a wobbly smile so full of love. Moved by his plea.

 

“And I feel you should also know he hasn’t left your side these past two days. Hasn’t left this room. He administered medicine. Water. All himself. He didn’t even take the time away to eat or bathe.”

 

Her eyes water. “So you see? He really is the most stubborn man. I doubt he’d have let that illness take you either.”

 

“Most stubborn.” She agrees. And she cries happily. Heart so bursting full at the seams, of love for him.

 

Seeing how much his staff admire him. How he’s surrounded and inundated by people he warmly regards. How respect from either party cuts both ways.

 

He’s the most honourable man she’s ever had the good fortune to meet. She can’t ever imagine how or why she had once considered Lord Ren a monster.

 

For her heart is quite sold to him.

 

 

~

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

All was eerily quiet when she was returned home. The front exterior of the house is so cold and still. As cloudy as the overcast sky behind it.

 

The rain had eaten away all the lingering frost and snow. Cold slush now took its place. When night falls again all the wet will sharpened back into frost. More snow will doubtless come in this stinging winter. She can sense the chowder thick clouds far off in the heavens shudder with the possibility of more.

 

Even the icy landscape was unaffected by wind or noise. Everything was silenced. Blotted out and muffled. The woods seemed eerily quiet.

 

Means she could hear where her heart was thudding all the more noisily where it cowered scared in her ribs.

 

She alighted from Lord Ren’s carriage, onto the gravel drive, sitting the door thereafter. Thanking Ramsey, the kind driver. When he cracked the whip to start the horses her whole being tensed. She flinched.

 

Her heart seized up with every crunching step on the gravel. She tried to clutch to her courage. Grit her teeth and prepare for the audible assaults soon to sting at her ears. As spewed words and vitriol will doubtless fall harsh from her mothers purse lipped mouth like stabbing hard hail.

 

Death by ten thousand blows of her sharp disapproving tongue.

 

Her whole body is roiling to head back into this house. She feels nauseas to consider stepping back into the foyer of her home. She knows there will only be nastiness and questions to welcome her into the enfold. Back into the waiting room of her life until marriage comes to claim her.

 

She’d far rather be back at one of the most handsome houses in the county. Sat fireside, in company with the most intriguing creature she’s ever met. Knowing Kylo as she does, he’d find that most diverting.

 

Iris hungers much more after the presence of a deadly hulking great vampire instead. Yet she cannot fathom or stand to embrace the company of her acerbic fork-tongued mother.

 

He’d laugh at that crippling irony, she’s sure. Kiss the back of her hand. His eyes would glitter like two discs of a far off starry night sky. Black and full of hidden knowledge and transient things.

 

The eyes that had completely seared her soul. Always had done. His smile had broken open her heart and scored his very name on her weak beating muscled thing. It flutters and lives for want of loving him - and yet she can’t. Everything in her situation and home life decrees otherwise.

 

She wants a man she cannot have. The pain of it presses upon her greatly.

 

She approaches the stubborn old warped wood of the front door. Steps up onto the wonky sunken stone porch. The faded white paint. Chipped and peeling in many places. Grains of the bare wood poke through.

 

She wonders what censure awaited on the other side of this old chunk of oak.

 

She raises a hand but her veins clog with cloying uncertainty. Halting. She gathers herself up before she knocks. Stood there shivering in her laundered coat and dress. Kylo had insisted on seeing to some new boots for her. Sadly, her old-beaten cracked leather things could not be salvaged. He sent out for new ones from Mr Grassby’s store. Finest in the county.

 

Now whenever she has warmed toes she’ll think of him. Fur lined dark leather boots with strong laces. She can’t thank him enough.

 

She tugs her old coat around herself. Not aware that Kylo would’ve had her an entire new coat and dress to go home in, if he wasn’t so sure of her protest. He let her be. But he so badly wants to see her spoiled. He so badly wants to be the man who does spoil her.

 

Her clean cotton skirts sway about her legs. How the redoubtable Mrs Jones had gotten the mud stains out of her clothing she’d not a clue - the woman used witchcraft as an aid she’s sure. In most things.

 

The broth she’d served Iris was of her own recipe, harping back to her days as a ladies maid. And, she proudly exclaimed, every ladies maid worth her very honour and credibility, knew how to make a restorative broth. Iris supped four bowls of it right down. It was utterly ambrosial.

 

Oddly, her spirits were lifted a little by thoughts of them. Of how they conveyed their kindness to her. She’s almost certain it stemmed from Kylo’s fondness for her too. And that is such a lovely thing to consider.

 

She thinks of Jomar. The slender tall poplar tree of a man. She thinks of his sour wit and his ready quips to his master. His cinnamon and warm honey and milk of a voice. The way each of his fine satin coats smell like cloves and sweet fruit and honey wine and life. The fine bright silk of his turban and his coat. The slash of silver on his right wrist. Always exotic and wryly comforting.

 

She thinks of Mrs Jones. The stout bodacious shaped woman. Accurate as a well turned clock. She had an efficient manner. Dark brittle russet hair shot through with bolts of fantastic silver. Always styled neat as a pin. She had a handsome mature face with ruddy cheeks and a pair of warm grey eyes that turned cold like harsh heavy gravestones if she was displeased with anyone. Hinting at her years of hierarchy in the household. Wrinkles by her eyes and mouth from her smiles. The best way to age, Iris thought.

 

She wore her strictly pressed uniform of soft black. With a set of keys latched to her waist. Orderly and strict in comparison to the colourful candour of Jomar. They worked well as a pair of contrasting servants. And she could see why Kylo loved them enormously. After three mere days at Hellford, she did too.

 

She recalls fondly waking up to the sight of Lord Ren in the armchair by the end of his bed. Leafing through the pages of a book as she slept. Keeping watch. The beast Keeping thorough guard of his Dove.

 

She watched him, through hooded bleary eyes. Sticky with sleep but she admires the way his big hands so carefully turned the delicate pages. The span of them dwarfing the little novel he so ably devoured.

 

She wondered how many books he had read in all his time on this earth.... she’d have to enquire one day. She wants to hear everything he’s seen. Every truth. Every historic story or tale he carries with him. She wants to devour this man’s rich juicy brimming life whereas hers seemed so flat and stuffy and grey.

 

She watches him in that tiny unaware moment. How he breathed. How quickly those savage eyes demolished the words of the page. How his lip quirked at the corner if he read something amusing or interesting. How his ink hair fell over his handsome brow. He didn’t sweep it back. He left it there.

 

After she’d slept off the symptoms. She wakes up drowsy, and he’s still there. At the end of the bed. Hasn’t moved. And then they just talk.

 

Interrupted by Jomar or Mrs Jones bringing them trays of excellent food or drink. Bowls of mutton stew dotted with onions, leeks and peas, or silky lobster bisque and warm buttery bread. A tea service with plates piled with fruitcakes or ginger baked biscuits.

 

She regained her appetites fairly quickly. Kylo comments on this. She fears it appears unfeminine. He ensures her he likes to see a woman with a healthy appetite. Most women of his acquaintance peck at their food like overstuffed starlings.

She praises his cook as she eats through bed tray after bed tray of good restorative food, and his eyes glow with mirth.

 

It’s humbling. Peaceful.

 

She forgets that she’s an unmarried woman and he’s a single man of large fortune. Sat up there in that crimson velvety bed. Sheets pulled to her lap. Wrapped up in a nightgown and dressing robe. She must look a fright with barely combed hair and an ashen complexion from her affliction. He sat in the armchair opposite, and didn’t even see all the things she was fretting about. He just saw her. His beauty. His dove.

 

They just... conversed. And to Iris? It is the best evening of her life to date. She’s never smiled so much. She made him smile too. He laughed at her comments. That one evening with Lord Ren made her feel more cherished and treasured than in all her outings with the spoiled titian haired Sergeant.

 

She lets that thought and those memories keep her buoyant as she reaches for the door handle. But as she does she shrinks back, yelping in shock as the door is torn open from the other side.

 

The beaming face of Meg, their maid, greets her. There in her beige gown and white starched apron and cap. Her grin splits her face and she yanks the eldest Miss Ashton inside. Yammering on and on about something Iris’s ears can’t keep up with.

 

She grabs the back of her collar and spins her around, shrugging her out the coat. Still gabbing on about all she’d missed in her absence. Flora and Posy bought more ribbons. And a Posy bought an ugly bonnet to pull apart and make it up prettier. They’d not had much bother with the rain. And then she starts on asking how Iris is as she takes her bonnet and gloves off her. Snatched them away to hang them up.

 

Before Iris can fathom how or why, Meg is herding her toward the front parlour. Arm slung in hers, she steps her quickly across to the door. Opens it for her and almost elbows her inside. She stumbles gracelessly into the parlour. Not shocked to see her mother. Swathed in her Apple green muslin day dress. White diamond shawl around her arms.

 

She is surprised, however. To see Hux sat on the settee opposite her mama. Fully kitted out. Not in his uniform for once. But in a blue coat and a striped gold waistcoat. Bottle green breeches on his skinny legs, tucked into shining brown boots ending at his knees.

 

When she comes through the door he rises suddenly to attention. Hands tucking behind his back as he bows to her. In this pallid light his hair shone a brilliant red. Contrasting to the pale parlour. His eyes were emeralds and  sapphires.

 

Iris can’t deny he’s a genial man. Red locks and dazzling piercing blue eyes. Curling ocean waves and blazing flames. And he is a beautiful man; were it a time before even meeting or knowing Lord Ren, she would of course comprehend the matter of his allurements.

 

But she’s been well and truly ensnared. Taken away heart and soul, by hair darker than a ravens plumage, and eyes so dark russet they nearly betrayed the starry sky.

 

She didn’t want blazing flames and ocean waves. She longed instead for onyx leather, silver steel and cloudy woodsmoke.

 

Mama seems pleased to see her. A sickly smile stains her lips. Iris’ heart consequently turns to stone. She expected a flurry of abuse and screeches. Instead she is offered this calm grin. It’s unsettling

 

She is dizzy with sickness that spreads through her. She sways on her feet. Steadies herself on the open door. Stomach squirming like maggots on rotten meat.

 

“Sergeant Hux...” She curtseys clumsily to him. Meg slams the door softly behind her. Iris blinks at the brute force of it. Jumping forwards a little. The sound of it rattled through the house and knocked through her brittle bones.

 

“Forgive me. I’d no idea you were in attendance.” Iris looks pointedly from him to Mama. Who grins wider at her eldest’s words.

 

“I hear you fell ill. Miss Ashton. I do hope you are well recovered.” Hux pipes up.

 

Standing with his hands folded behind him. Legs poker straight. Military stance infused into every grain of his etiquette. Even every ounce of his affection is quashed under it. Tamped down. His face betrays little emotion on seeing her. There is nothing but fond regard in his eyes.

 

“Thankyou. I am well. An affliction and a fever, caught from a rainstorm.” She explains. Knowing full well the huskiness of her faded voice supported her story.

 

“Lord Ren was so... kind. To offer you shelter at such a time.” Mama manages through a clenched jaw. Fussing with the corners of her shawl.

 

“He is very kind.” Iris defends. Mothers smile only grows all the more. Corners of her dagger grey eyes pinched with wrinkles.

 

“Let us not talk of that man now. We have far more important things to come to. The Sergeant wished for a moment alone with you.” Mama explains. Rising elegantly to her feet. Gliding in Iris’s direction toward the door.

 

Iris steps aside. But not before her mothers hand - talon - gripped her wrist and she leaned in under the guise of embracing her daughter. Something she has never done to any of her girls, or ever made any effort to do so.

 

“It’s so pleasing to have you home again. My dear.” She speaks as she leans in. Iris isn’t surprised that she then hisses under her breath.

 

“If you dare ruin this chance for us...” She snarls. Her breath lands hot on her cheek. The scent of violet perfume making Iris feel quite sick when mingled with the essence of abuse and the stinging grip on her arm.

 

Mother is all genial smiles again when she turns to quit the room. The door softly shutting in her wake is a delicate blotted sound.

 

But Iris is convinced there is some sort of tempest quaking her chest and heart. It pounds and rags the space between her lungs and shoots up her spine like a congreve rocket bursting and deafening in her blood.

 

She moves closer into the room. Hux stands stiffly but approaches her with timidly cautious steps. She stands with her hands folded in front of herself. He clears his throat to begin.

 

“I um. I spoke with your father this morning. All seems to be settled hereabouts. I won’t bother you with such details. It’s not for your knowledge...” He begins with a brief little smile. His manner decidedly offhanded.

 

Iris swallows. Suddenly her throat is clogged with cotton. Her mouth is as dry as a bucket of claggy sand. As if she’s swallowed great mouthfuls of it. She’s waiting for the fall of the axe.

 

She looks up into his face. He seems jittery. But then he’s reaching over and taking one of her hands to hold. His palms are smooth and uncalloused. She far prefers hands much bigger and with more life scarred on them than these lily white hands. He holds her fingers delicately.

 

And he sinks to take to one knee-

 

“I am not a man inundated with passion or words and thoughts of giddy romance. But I can promise you a steady home and a decent income.” He vows. Something tells Iris he would never break his word. She knew he was honest enough to see her comfortable in life.

 

But that’s the crux of the poison of doubt flushing in her belly - she doesn’t want to just be comfortable for the rest of her life.

 

“Iris Ashton. Would you do me the honour of granting me your hand in marriage?” He asks in that same loveless way. Producing a box from his great coat pocket.

 

A gold band with one near round diamond. Neat. Ordinary and unassuming.

 

She looks down at him. His eyes were clear and true. Expression so vulnerable and honest with her. Whatever else he was - rude, arrogant, pedantic and snotty - he was always atleast honest with her. Her temples strain as her brain flits and fogs with ten thousand flighty thoughts. They fidget and toss like a vicious tide breaking on rocks. Crashing and devastating.

 

She opens her mouth, and nothing but a choked sound comes out. She rifles every corner of her brain for thoughts or feelings. But she can find none. She can only find one conclusion- even though it shatters her heart into bleeding cold shards.

 

“Yes. I’d be delighted.” She rasps out. Hux didn’t notice how no light nor sparking joy shone off her grey eyes. Only the silver of tears.

 

Hand over her mouth because she cannot fully believe what she’s just done. Her eyes water and she suspects Hux now thinks her a very foolish fop of a chittish girl, indeed.

 

He takes that ordinary and characterless ring and slides it on her finger. It’s just pinching enough to fit. Her hand trembles and Hux takes it.

 

“There.” He smiles. Rising to his feet. Doesn’t make any move to embrace her. Or take her in his arms. It stings at her for some benign reason. Niggles at the back of her head. He was following the rules of propriety and suddenly she found an oddity in that.

 

“Our families will be thoroughly delighted. I feel.” He adds. She doesn’t tell him the sad irony of that admission. She swallows and looks down at the cold band of metal trapping her finger.

 

It felt like the parlour walls were closing in. Choking and clawing at her. Suffocating. Her blood felt ten degrees too hot. Roiling in her stupid foolish veins.

 

“I can safely vow I will always do the honourable thing by you.” He suddenly spouts out. “I ask you would do the same.”

 

“Sergeant-“ She begins. Pausing for breath.

 

“You may of course, call me Hux now. We are betrothed after all.” He points out. Smiling affably. Here began the journey of their affable little life.

 

She blinks. Stemming the sadness. “I could never presume to-“ Her words die slowly in her throat. Don’t even make it past her teeth.

 

“I may promise you I would never willingly dishonour or hurt anyone. Let alone my intended. I am many things. But spiteful is not among them.” She promises with a shaky smile. If he knew her better, he’d understand that.

 

He looks glad.

 

They are interrupted by the parlour door falling open and Mrs Ashton makes her entrance again. When she catches sight of their smiling faces and the ring glinting on Iris’s hand she swoops across, all charms and kisses, to wish them both joy.

 

She insists on a dinner party. Sends a Julia to tell cook to start preparing at once. And for Simpson to fetch the finest bottle of burgundy from the cellar. And sends out a rider from the farm with a missive for Hux’s parents to come and join them in a celebratory feast.

 

Posy and Flora come bouncing and screaming in to wish their congratulations and immediately ask about the wedding and their bridesmaid dresses. They twirl Iris in circles. Kiss her. Flutter with giggles and immature gleeful smiles. Mother, Hux, and her sisters all get lost in gabbling conversation. Asking questions about the estate, the land, his commission. They all get swept along and Iris is rather left out of it.

 

She barely feels when Hux scoops up and holds the hand closest to him. His grip firm yet gentle on hers.

 

She’s perfectly numb.

 

She sits on the settee next to a man she doesn’t and can never love, as her wedding is plotted around her. Carving around her like water. Her sisters excited whispers bubble and chirp around her ears like a flock of chaffinches.

 

She pasted on a smile. A false hollow one.

 

The hand he isn’t clutching sits dead and dull in her lap. She looks down at her palm where it rested in her skirts. Remarking to herself unfairly on the sudden ambush of his proposal.

 

She watches the ring glint off the amber fire, lit directly in the hearth to her left. She stares at her fingers for a moment. Transfixed. Occupied.

 

Seemed such an odd addition to her hand. An extension of her in diamonds and gold. And it didn’t feel right. It felt leaden. Devoid of love. Lacking- she’s been weighted and found wanting and that thought eats away at her.

 

She looks up into the doorway when her father comes in to wish her joy. Reticently stepping in the room. No one else pays him any sort of mind. They’re all conversing most animatedly. He catches his eldest daughters eye-

 

The most sad expression awaits her on his face. He looks haggard. As if this news has aged him in some newly impossible way.

 

Iris holds his look for a second. Gives him a wobbly smile. He looks mightily ashamed. And Iris realises it’s the first time she’s even seen her fathers eyes look so raw.

 

Red rimmed where he’s swiped away tears with the damp kerchief still in his right hand. He looks quickly from her over to Hux, and the message is more than clear.

 

She looks down into her lap. She has too. Her eyes sting with tears and her lip will tremble if she doesn’t. She can’t look at his sadness and not see her own pitiful state and woefulness reflected right back at her in his sea foam eyes.

 

Even he pulls on a mask. His smile grows when Hux stands to shake his hand. He looks as pleased as everybody else in the room. Wishes joy to the newlyweds. Kisses iris on the cheek and she feels the dampness on his skin where his sideburns scrape.

 

The dreary night wears on. Hux talks about something or other to Mama. Posy and Flora are haranguing the newly arrived Maratella with questions as to the estate. They’re all insensible and silly and they get on marvellously. And Iris listens to her sisters have the cheek to ask if they should get up a party to all of them go to Brighton in summer. As Iris is now newly engaged. She’s considered proper. She can chaperone them. Or they squeal she could have an engagement party with tea and fancy cream cakes to settle Iris at Hux’s ancestral seat.

 

Brendol is having a refill of wine poured by their maid. Not saying much of anything to anyone. Only some nonsense about how Iris had better bare his son a healthy string of grandsons. Who would all be soldiers like their father. Iris bites her tongue. Unhappy to think she’d go through the pain of having beloved and cherished children, only for him to sell them into battle as canon fodder.

 

“Excuse me. I must go change for dinner.” She smiles weakly. Hux nods. Lets her hand slither out of his. Barely looks at her as she moves off. Instead talks with her mother about a date to set the wedding. Sometime soon, he presses. As he is away in the autumn and he wants to be married, and Iris settled with child by then. Awfully grand that his goals didn’t seem to include her opinion at any turn.

 

Mama seems awfully excited. She doesn’t notice when Iris’s father catches her hand as she moves past his armchair. He holds it for a second and looks up at her. Doleful reproach in his eyes that spoke eloquently of his contrition.

 

He sighs slightly as his thumb rubs over the ring on her hand. He knows she won’t be happy. He knows how miserably she suffers all this matchmaking. He should have put a stop to it, but he was always overruled. He was a spectator watching it all unfold.

 

And now he has to sit here and watch the brightest spark that was his eldest, get shackled in matrimony to a man who will never grow to love her. It was clear that all Hux will ever love is his uniform and his Sergeancy. She deserves better. A better father, a better fiancé. He wishes he could give it to her.

 

He didn’t marry for love. He married for convenience. And his sweet girls are the only good things to come out of the loveless match to the snappish cruel woman that was his wife. Posy and Flora are perhaps silly and vapid. And Iris had more wit in her little toe, than his two younger girls had in their whole bodies altogether. But still he loves them dearly. All of them.

 

He’d die for his daughters merriment, and he could die of shame of this whole fetid situation, right here and now.

 

Now he was sat here, helpless, watching that same agony of a forced match, get thrusted upon his beautiful Iris. She will grow dull and be subjugated and oppressed by this man. She’s already losing that spark that used to live in her moonstone eyes. Drawing into herself and biting her tongue.

 

He wished, he wished beyond everything in his grasp, he wished so hard that his bones hurt. He prayed that he could open his mouth and say all this to her. But yet again. He must prevail upon his silence.

 

He squeezes her hand. Bolsters her with a little comfort. He swallows and gives her a smile. “Pray- t’is nothing. Forgive me. I forget what I...wanted to say.” He confesses gently to her.

 

When Iris slides noiselessly out the parlour door. Caroline’s eyes slice into her husband. He looks back at her with a dull look of anger on his weathered face. Forcing Iris to join with this snobbish boy and these outlandish and boastful people. He could very well hate her for it. Her unfeeling nature of it all. He’s never been more sure of his revulsion toward her.

 

Iris isn’t long changing and dinner is not far off either. She drifts back downstairs in a gown of emerald silk. Let’s Hux take her arm and lead her to the table, where they all sit down to a grand dinner. As grand as Westwell could boast of, anyhow.

 

One of Mrs Murphy’s best spreads; A boiled joint of ham, served with parsley sauce. A leg of mutton. Enough boiled or roasted potatoes to feed all of Hampshire. Jugged hare and creamed celery and Buttered carrots. And there’s plenty of juicy platters of rich darkly opulent fruits and syrup tarts for pudding. A slate of plums and grapes and pomegranates. Surrounding a cheese plate of Stilton, Brie, and cheddar.

 

Iris doesn’t manage more than a couple of mouthfuls. Even though the boiled ham with parsley sauce is her favourite dish. She doesn’t manage to swallow down more than a few meagre scraps of it. The wine and the conversation flows all around her. She cannot help but be introspective about this whole sordid thing.

 

Her throat is cloyed. Like scraping fire and glass shards when she tries to swallow anything. It does nothing to nourish the fathomless pit that’s formed in her stomach.

 

Everyone raises a crystal goblet of Bordeaux to the newlyweds health.

 

Maratella comments that Hux has caught himself a fine bride. Winking at Iris. Crowing of how beautiful her first grandchild will be of their combined colouring. And she apparently wants a bushel of them.

 

“It will be so cheering to have a house full of young infants again. Little ones to dote on. I do so adore them and I’m most looking forwards to it.” Maratella cooed. Aiming her words to Mrs Ashton. But letting her daughter-in-law hear them too.

 

Iris swallowed her wine with a thud. She can’t even appreciate the bouquet of it tonight. Her tongue is too sour. The wine tastes like bilious floral soap and compost.

 

She looks down in her lap, fiddles with her napkin. Forces herself to smile and choke down the sip of it even though Maratella and her insinuation and the suffocating image of a houseful of squalling titian haired infants makes her feel quite sick.

 

Hux makes no comment either. He merely carries on chewing his slices of roast mutton. Flora and Posy ask Iris a million questions each, in the span of ten minutes. She answers succinctly and completely ignores their requests for silken bridesmaids dresses and new slippers.

 

Iris’s eyes flicker over to her mother when Maratella enquires as to her recent fevered affliction at Hellford park. Mama does not hold back in her derisions regarding Lord Ren.

 

“I know not in what kind of uncultured society that man was raised. But he is so uncouth. And superior.” Mrs Ashton offers.

 

“I find his manners a little odd. Thank goodness the attachment is severed for good now.” Maratella says.

 

Mrs Ashton turns to get a helping of creamed celery. Iris gives her daggers across the table.

 

When their guests depart to leave, after supper and after a game of whist and snifters of port or sherry in the parlour. Iris stands there in the cold foyer as her intended pulls on his coat.

 

She nods her goodbyes to him and his family as Brendol barks at him from the coach to get a move on. Maratella waves a hand at her husbands fussing. Cooing that they should take all the time they liked to share a goodbye.

 

Hux bends and places a find kiss on her hand. “Goodnight. Future Mrs Armitage Hux.” He states with a pink blush constrasting to his shock of combed copper hair.

 

He smiles at her before he ducks out of the door and off into the night. She watches the bare moonlight shine off his hair and his lanky shoulders in his big greatcoat. Pearled light feathering off his red locks as the blue black night swallows him up.

 

She doesn’t stay to watch the carriage leave. She turns and morosely trudges up to her room. Asks Meg to bring her up a cup of tea as soon as cook could spare her. She can feel Mothers eyes pin into her back like two silver needles as she ascends the creaking dark sloped stairs.

 

“Iris...” She calls out. It takes every ounce of energy in her body not to turn around and snarl seven thousand cursing obscenities at her.

 

Ensnaring her with such a sudden proposal. Gloating smug glances at her all night. Iris couldn’t stand it.

 

“Yes mother?” She asks.

 

“We are all excessively happy about this news today. I hope you’ll do nothing senseless so as to jeopardise it. Hux is a steady good man. You should endeavour to deserve such a good example of a husband.” She reminds with pinched savagery in her tone.

 

Should I?’ Iris remarks to herself.

 

“If you ruin such a good match. You will regret it. And no such other man may ever make an offer to you if you do.” She makes clear.

 

Words lingering just shy of a threat. She was much too cunning to have to threaten her eldest daughter. She speaks as if her words already make sense to Iris. As if she already had her agreement.

 

Iris stands still. She stares up into the darkness of the house ahead. “Goodnight mama.” She says flatly. Hiking her body up the remaining stairs.

 

She passes Posy and Floras room on the creaking landing. The slice of gold candlelight under the door eats at her skirts as she passes. Hears them giggling and hushing whispers to each other as they make ready for bed. The silly chits probably stole too many glasses of wine at dinner. She remembers a time when she used to join them. Sit on the end of their beds in her nightgown with her hair all plaited for bed. They’d talk - as sisters do - of silly things and gossip.

 

Until mama made her focus on more important things. Less sisterly affection. More concentration and focus on comportment. She sadly strokes a hand across their bedroom door. Smiles at the embroidered flower stitchings of their names pinned to the white painted door along with dried flowers. Scattered across like a meadow breeze tossing petals on the wind.

 

She wishes they knew how dear they were to her. Of course she calls them bugs. Or annoying pests. But she never, not once, went one day without loving her sisters for who they are. They can be acerbic like mother when gossip comes about and tongues start to wag. But they are ultimately kind hearted, affectionate and silly. She hears them giggle about the hideous bonnet Maratella wore tonight. It makes her smile and lifts her spirits for a second.

 

She pats the door silently and fondly before she moves off straight down the candle lit hall to her own room. She opens the whining door and looks around her meagre, half dark little room. The wall-to-wall flowery papered little cell that it was. Her waiting room until marriage came to claim her.

 

And come it had. On mighty swift wings thanks to her mother. She shuts her door and presses her back to it. Thuds her head back onto the wood. Let’s her true feelings come bubbling up to the surface for the first time all night.

 

She’s broken-hearted. Her pathetic heart feels like one of those great ice drifts in the Antarctic, a plain of land with a huge tearing rift ripped right through the middle. Severing it to clunky misshapen pieces that will never mend.

 

She thinks of the monotony of the life that awaits her. The house full and long line of squawking babies she and Hux are supposed to sire. Staying chained to the stove and the nursery to look after said children whilst her husband ventures off to war and glory. Being no more to him than a bedding partner and general broodmare to keep up the family honour.

 

She thinks sadly on having to tell Lord Ren she’s engaged. How his eyes will glitter and cut her like jagged onyx gems. How his handsome face will fall into a stoic mask. Maybe he’ll wish never to see her again? Who knows how his reaction will be.

 

She wished to curl up under ten thick blankets, into a little ball, and fade away to dust. Like the dead grey ashes under the fire basket in her hearth.

 

She thinks she might cry herself away to sleep. She can’t escape the irony of that. Most girls perched on wedded bliss didn’t sob themselves to slumber. They fidgeted and giggled and practiced swirling their initials with their intendeds in neat hand. They were struck down lovesick. Admiring their ring. Imagined themselves walking down the aisle in their Sunday best and a veil, clutching at a wedding bouquet.

 

Iris had none of that. The thought of walking down the aisle to Hux and the boxed in little life thereafter, made her want to dry heave until she coughed out her lungs.

 

She prepares herself for bed. Unlaced her new boots - with a leaden heart at the memory of who provided them for her. She slipped off her dress and stockings and when Julia brings her tea she helps unlace her stays. Asks her about her engagement.

 

Iris gives short, staccato words for answers. Feigning it had been a long day. The maid slips away again and Iris locks the door in her wake. Only then does she reach for her hand and wrench off the gold ring. Puts it on her vanity and the gold winks cruelly at her in the firelight.

 

She huffs as she undressed and slipped her nightgown on. She let loose her wild hair and tames it into a plait. Ties the end with a snippet of blue muslin. The gown slips off one shoulder as she grabs her book and balances it on her thighs. Slipping into the cool crisp sheets of her bed. The lace trimmed on her sleeves casts floral shade down her arms.

 

The fire cracks and she parts her book with the pressed flower she was currently using as a bookmark. She tilts into the candles light and tries to let the novel soothe her dreadful mind. It’s of little use. The words swim like black wriggling worms. She quickly abandons the idea. Tucks the book away.

 

Falls down into her feathered pillow. Drinks her tea and glares pointedly at the glimmering ring on her dressing table. She’s so used to feeling suffocated. But this sensation of guilt, panic and refusal churns in her belly like the worst sort of shame. Seeps out her pores like claggy grey mud. And she is made miserable by it-

 

A brittle tap suddenly echoes in her room. She sits up. Covers rustling about her knees. She strains her ears to make it out. Through the roaring fire and the  gales brushing the stone of the house outside.

 

There it is. Another succession of taps. Hollow scrape. Clanking on the glass of her window. Tap-tap-tap-

 

She gets out of bed and pulls her heavy curtains across. The window was latched shut. And outside, being buffeted by the strong wind. Sits an obsidian black crow.

 

Feathers all ruffled in the wintry breeze. It’s little head twitches at her. Beady eyes shining off the glow of her room like amber marbles. And off the grey sheen of its broad beak. It sits there contented. Staring up at her.

 

She unlocks her window and pushes it up. The wood sticks and rubs from age. Cruel night air whips in. Flurrying at her thin dress. The cold snakes and twines around up her knees and legs. The crow makes a loud cawing sound. A rasping cry of a call.

 

It seems tame enough. She gently reaches a hand over and it sits there as she brushes at the downy feathers on its puffed out chest. Black silk to the touch.

 

“You’re rather congenial” She comments.

 

“Matter of fact you’re the first genial encounter I’ve had all day.” She remarks. Chiding herself for talking so animatedly to a bird - of all mad things.

 

It caws again and hops along her stone windowsill. She gasps, drawing back as it then suddenly ducks it head and swoops under the window frame. Breaching the gap and flying up over her shoulder, and into her bedroom.

 

She keeps from crying out in shock. Spins around to try and capture the crazed animal and return it to its rightful home outdoors. The curtains sway with her movement and she screams anew when suddenly a gigantic body is in front of her.

 

Before she can fully scream. Kylo’s warm eyes soothe her and one big cool hand clasps over her mouth to muffle the scream. It’s suddenly a warbled sound out from behind his massive palm that almost entirely spans her face.

 

He grins wickedly down at her. One thick finger pressed to his smiling lips telling her to hush. Night air and cold infused into his clothes, simply pours off him. Cologne and rich earth and frost.

 

She relaxes a little. Heart racing at the incident.

 

He’d crowded her back to the wall beside the window alcove. He reaches across and shuts it with his free arm. To help keep her warm. It doesn’t even stick at the sides when his strong arm yanks it down.

 

“Thank god for that. Dove. I thought you’d never let me in.” He explains smugly. She has so many questions about his varied animal forms. But she won’t ask them now. She’s just overwhelmed that he’s here.

 

He brushes off his lapels after taking his hand from her face. Pressing it to the wall beside her instead. She’s all too aware she’s clad only in a thin nightgown. And suddenly now there is a large Lord before her. Mere inches between them. Scant inches and she only has thin cotton swathing her body.

 

A million questions thunder and strike in her brain.


She settles on; “What are you doing here?” Whispers with a tender little smile starting to grow on her lips.

 

She’s aghast but ultimately pleased beyond measure to see him. She felt like she has strength again now he’s here.

 

His thumb strokes at her cheek. “Checking on the woman I love.. if I may.” He answers plainly.

 

Her heart melts into mush in her chest. Slips out and down between the cracks of her ribs like treacle. She aches for him.

 

He notices how her face pinched up. “Iris?” He asks.

 

“I am to be married.” She whispers. Thoroughly ashamed. Waiting to see his repulsed reaction. Biting her bottom lip nervously. Looking down to her feet.

 

He tips her chin up to look at him. Frowns at seeing the tears of shame in her eyes.

 

He smiles tenderly. “Dove. I know.” He explains. As he cups her cheek.

 

“I always knew this was going to happen. After all - courting can only end two ways. And your mother was most serious about securing a match.”

 

“I said yes. I hate myself for it. But I said I’d accept.” She cries. He soothes away her tears with his thumb.

 

Hushes her. Pulls her into his chest and holds her close.

 

His big hand strokes her hair and she lets herself sob into his wide firm chest. Fingers grazing his clothes. Her brow wedged into the crook of his cool neck. He tucks her into him. One hand cups her head and the other spans the back of her hips. She never had anyone to confide in. But she has him now. She’ll always have him.

 

She has little choice in the matter. Whether she wanted him or not. She’s got him.

 

“All will be well. I promise you.” He assures.

 

She sighs. It’s so pleasing to finally have someone on her side.

 

“I’ve had to sit there and listen to his mother spouting out about grandchildren and marital duty when I wanted to do was run from the room screaming.” She gasps. More tears soaking into his clothing. Eyes crinkled up shut in sadness.

 

She knows were he any other man, she’d have to school her words more carefully. But to him she can speak freely about anything. Her soul was stitched to his.

 

“Pay their vapid ignorance no mind.” He kisses a whisper into her hair. Groaning at the feel of the silk and scent of it against his lips. “You’re worth so much more to me, than all their expected limitations of you.” He speaks softly.

 

“I can’t do it.” She admits. She crumbles. Finally she can speak what she truly feels. Let out what was making guilt rot at her like acid all night through.

 

Because really those four innocent tiny-little words had been perched on the tip of her tongue all evening. She just hasn’t the bravery to let them loose.

 

“My little dove.” He sighs fondly as kisses her head. Pained for her from feeling her heartbreak. “You won’t have too.”

 

She feels him breathe where she’s cuddled into him. It’s a strange comfort. It’s the height of impropriety but she cannot care about it anymore.

 

She pulls back and looks up at him. Tears leak down her cheeks. He takes them away again. “Pray, whatever do you mean?” She seeks.

 

“Come here.” He says. Breaking away for a moment. He guides her to sit on her bed and crouches to level in front of her. Both hands taking hers. He kisses both sets of her knuckles before he begins. Looking up at her. His wrists rest on her knees.

 

“You think I would allow you to marry that spoilt snobbish boy?” He asks her with a careful grin. His eyes look darkly salacious.

 

“You think I could let another man take you, when you are mine, and mine alone?” He smiles wickedly. Seductive notes intoxicating in his deep voice.

 

She could kiss him to death right now if it wasn’t entirely inappropriate. She wants to hold him tight so much- she could burst. Wrap her arms around this kind man and never leave him. She can never be parted from him now.

 

She sighs happily through her tears. Reaching across and stroking her right hand through his thick shaggy hair. Black locks cool against her palm from his excursion out in the wild black night air. His eyes look like tempests. Black flecked with gold that rings his pupils.

 

Such sincerity shines out his face- it’s like a hopeful glimpse of the sun after a harsh winter. He’s saying such nice things and such nice warm words of love flow through her veins like ambrosia.

 

He takes her hand and kisses her palm. Sighing at the taste and scent of her skin. It had never failed to drive him wild with need.

 

“Run away with me. And marry me.” He offers. Eyes slicing hot into her own. Watching the flickering firelight kiss her skin.

 

Her mouth gapes. She draws in a breath but her head is spinning so madly she feels dizzy. He explains more to her of this sordid plan.

 

“Half my household is shut up. Most of my staff have packed and gone already. Left these shores bound for Bavaria. I set sail in seven days time.” He explains.

 

The thought of him leaving sends such a spear of white hot pain through her heart she doesn’t think she could ever survive it if he left. Madness when she’s had all these years of life without him.

 

She doesn’t feel the same anymore. She isn’t. She’s in love and it has changed her irrevocably. He’s burst into her life, in a big assuming dark shadowing presence and stolen her heart away. And given him hers in return.

 

She knows she can never be without him - it feels like it would kill her for them to be apart.

 

“We could elope. Make for Gretna green and be man and wife by the weeks end. We can set sail for the port of Hamburg as Lord and Lady. Until passage is booked, we could honeymoon in the highlands for a handful of days.” His eyes turn particularly lustful at that comment.

 

Smile is savage and sharp. So potent a smouldering look it makes her toes curl up in longing.

 

She could do it. She could run away with this man, sneaking off into the dead of night. To go to seize her greatest happiness. For once she could selfishly and recklessly take control of her own life.

 

Loving Kylo as she does, he makes her feel just brave and strong enough to do it-

 

She wets her lips. Giddy. This is her chance and dear god in heaven- she’s taking it.

 

“What would I have to do?” She asks him in a hushed whisper.

 

The smile that takes over his face is magnetic. She smiles and he rises up quick and fiercely kisses her.

 

Claims her with that passion he spoke so finely of. Cups her neck and delivers her a kiss that has her shaking. She tries to resist the heady temptation, but she cannot.

 

Her knees clamp either side of his thighs where his body is towering over hers. Nearly pressing her back to her pillows. His free hand cups her lower back and clasps her into his body. Her splayed legs, and between them, rubs high at his abdomen.

 

He growls deep and feral into the kiss. It tumbled through her wet hot mouth She pulls away. Wide eyed and innocent, wondering if she’d hurt him. She can only see his kiss bruised smile and his clouded eyes when she pulls back. Her hands press to the bed. Clutches into the sheets. Otherwise she worries she’d tangle and lose her hands in his hair.

 

He sighed in bliss. Ducking his head to kiss at her clothed shoulder. Nearly shuddering with need. Arching right over her. Big body completely dominating hers. He shuts his eyes and kisses the lace at her shoulder. Taste of her lips and scent of her blood and her arousal sitting on his tongue like sugar. He so wanted to taste more-

 

He restrains himself or he’d take her right here - drool onto that heavenly cunt between her legs and slide his cock into her perfect heat. Fuck her for the whole damned house to hear her screeching his name.

 

“Forgive me.” He rasps. Voice husking with desire.

 

Her cheeks flush. “Nothing about that warrants forgiveness.”

 

“You wouldn’t say that if you knew how I wanted to take you right here and now in your bed. Iris.” He husks. Kissing in the crook of her neck slowly and soft. Lips pressing and savouring her. Her every nerve hums with need.

 

He recovers his legendary discipline. Pulls back to sit at the edge of her mattress once more.

 

“All you’d need to do-“ He smiles. Hands settling on her knees. Holding her. Feeling the cotton and her kneecaps under his palms.

 

“Is dress warm, pack a manageable bag. You don’t need much. I’ll buy you everything and anything you need. Meet me in the woods just beyond the church. At midnight.” He smiles. He’d had this cunning plan circling in his head for weeks now. Now he is within grasping distance of having her as his wife. And he’s wild with love of her.

 

“Don’t tell anyone of this plan. Not even your sisters. Nobody. In case they try and halt the elopement...Not that anyone could stop me....” He smirks.

 

She smiles. “I won’t tell a soul. I’ve no one to tell.” She shrugs openly.

 

“Leave that foul mother of yours nothing but a note behind. That’s all she deserves for her wicked exploitation of you.” He growls.

 

She nods in agreement. Stroking over his big hands where they rest on her.

 

She doesn’t spare the energy to devote one scrap of a thought for her mother. He was right

 

She only wishes there was a route out of this that could mean she can say a proper goodbye to her father and her sisters. Not leave under a shroud of intrigue, gossip and scandal. Iris eloping with the dashing dark lord newly arrived to these shores would be rife in the gossip mills around here for weeks. It would quake the quiet county.

 

It seemed odd that it would be her. She’d be the source of ruinous ignominy. All her life she was the quiet and unassuming and plain eldest daughter. No one suspected anything of her except her obedience to blindly accept the loveless match her family provided for her. She wasn’t supposed to do anything out of the ordinary little route of her safe life.

 

A small scandalous corner of her heart was awfully happy to be proving all those busy bodies and old matronly gossips wrong.

 

“I’ll leave word for Hux too. He’s not a bad man. Just-“ she shakes her head. Watching their hands where they are joined. “He’s not the man I love or desire.” She explains.

 

Kylo’s eyes look warm. Like melting pools of honey and tar. They stick to her. The beauty of her blush. The prettiness of her countenance. Those ash grey eyes doused ochre in the dim firelight. A splash of honey amber whiskey poured over moonstone.

 

He reaches up and strokes his thumb across her cheek. “He overlooked you. Trust me. He will pay sorely for mistreating you. His honour will become quite besmirched when you elope. Stolen and tempted away by a foreign Lord with a title and an estate, to boot.” He smiles.

 

“Then see what he makes of his measly beloved little army commission. When he loses you.” He smirks.

 

“I can’t think he’ll care much about my leaving - only for the toll such infamy will have on bruising his ego.” She tells.

 

“Then he is the fool I always suspected him to be.” Kylo tells her seriously.

 

“Now. You just have to act like the most perfect doting bride-to-be for the next three days. Because come weeks end...” he trails off.

 

Pulling her in, sighing a soft sweet kiss onto her lips. She blushes when he kisses her. Whole body pimples in pleasure.

 

It’s molasses and dangerous and among all the darkly wicked things she’s never tasted. He tasted like freedom and life.

 

“... You will come back to Bavaria with me. And you will be my wife. Lady Ren of Ranlor Castle.” He smirks against her lips. Plucking passion into her.

 

He savours kissing her for a moment. Losing himself in the manna that was her lips. She’s ivory rose petals and sugar whipped with cream. Gorgeous and delicious and he can’t wait for more. Before he can kiss her lips pink and raw, he takes his leave.

 

“Get some sleep. Little Dove. I’ll send word when all is set.” He smirks before he’s out into that wild night again. Leaving her heart racing and her hope restored.

 

 

 

~

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The very next days seemed to crawl by. As if time itself was dragging through claggy thick treacle.

 

Nothing moved quickly and Iris knows it’s because she’s anticipating the weeks-end more than any other event she’s ever awaited on in her life.

 

More than Yuletide morning. More than her birthday. More than buying a new book or taking an early morning walk all to herself. More than a sunny frosted morning where everything seems to glimmer as if crafted from gold, or seeing wildflowers dot the woods with their colour in spring.

 

She’s waiting on that much anticipated midnight with baited breath. Every second closer to it is both torture and sweet blessed relief.

 

She fulfils her remaining days with a permanent smile tugging at the corner of her mouth.

 

Even her acetous mother remarks upon it. She tells her daughter the fine manner of her engagement must be bringing her joy. Iris bites her lip to keep from grinning.

 

She clutched her romantic secret all that tighter to her chest. Moulded it like warm clay to clasp around her glad heart.

 

Mother and Maratella insist on setting a date. And getting her whole ‘bouquet’ of daughters measured for their gowns.

 

Posy and Flora for they are of course to be bridesmaids, and Iris, of course, for her bridal gown. They get up a merry party to Pembleton one fine clear morning.

 

The snow and frost govern the landscape once more. Ebbing back in after the recent rain. The brown frost-hardened hills and trees and fields. Governed under the fierce cyclops of a mustard sun blazing in the effortless blue of the cobalt sky. It made Iris think of robins eggs, and the golden buttery buds of spring. When the bulbs and shoots blossom up through the earth with their sickly scent and colour.

 

It is a fine clear day and it indicates that the end of the long bitter winter approaches. The cold is as ferocious as ever so Maratella insists upon them not catching a chill in the vile icy winds. Shes most kind as to stop to collect the Misses Ashton’s in the Hux’s second largest coach. They are all bid to the dressmakers in the high street. Along the medieval shamble of barrel window and oak timber shops.

 

The news of her engagement spread far and wide. Before her boots have even touched the cobbles, stepping out the coach, their party is virtually mobbed by matrons and ladies of their acquaintance.

 

Iris had in mind a silly image of them prowling at the pavements like baying wolves, chasing after the muddy churn of the carriage wheels; anything for to first seize that newest scrap of gossip.

 

Posy and Flora ladle up all the attention. As does Mama. Proudly boasting - along with Maratella - of the suitability of such a fine match. Iris wants to roll her eyes as Flora greatly exaggerated the romantic manner of Hux’s proposition. She gabbled about a room full of red roses and how Iris wept tears of delight as he swept her into his arms.

 

The ravenous eyes turn toward her. “May we see the ring, Miss Ashton?” Comes out of numerous smiling mouths like a chorus of cawing seagulls. Iris feels like they’ll rip her glove off themselves if she doesn’t.

 

Unused to such attention, she blushes as she slips off her grey calfskin glove. Wrenching it off her hand. There is a troupe of awed gasps as they admire the diamond set in the gold band.

 

Iris feels as if she’s sticking her hand into a dangerous animals maw. Like some exhibit at a zoo. Feeding her hand to the rabid starving tiger’s. There’s so much gasping and in taking of breath it’s a wonder they don’t suck her up. And take half the street with them.

 

Luckily, Maratella fusses that they’ll be late if they don’t make haste. She then proudly utters that the ladies five, their happy little bridal party, are off to Madame Larousse’s dressmaking parlour for a wedding gown. And Mrs Ashton and Mrs Hux are to see to both having new hats to mark such a happy occasion.

 

The flock of ravenous ladies ceases. Satisfied with their mauling of Iris and her news and her engagement ring. The party is able to proceed along the pavement unhindered.

 

They slip into Madame Larousse’s. Greeted by the lanky, heavily perfumed proprietor herself. She was a tall, ungainly woman with poky shoulders and an always over-rouged complexion. And will always, without fail, exaggerate a mildly French accent to gild her words. For she believes that all the best dressmakers and seamstresses were French.

 

The tall stretch of Madame claps excitedly and demands to see Iris’ hand when she hears they are here to purchase ribbons and lace and all things fit for a bride. She is whisked away by a very efficient assistant. And stood on a pedestal for the next hour and half.

 

Iris spends that time with swatches pinned to her. Flapped around her ears. Tucked under her collar. There’s so many back and forth decisions from her mother, it makes her quite dizzy. A tape drawn tight around her so many times to squeeze the stuffing out her. Eventually, they stumble to a conclusion. It was to be a saffron orange.

 

Flora remarked it made her rather look like a carrot.

 

Around her they lounge on the chaises provided, clutched around the mirror and the box she’s on, and they drink sweet tea. Brown sugar sprinkled and stirred into the earl grey.

 

They all pose interjections and opinions and preferences on her. Iris just stands there like a tailors doll. Only half there.

 

She’s caught sight of a swatch of ruby-wine velvet near her thigh and is stroking it fondly. Remembering Lord Rens exquisite bed coverlet. How it felt under her fingers, it took her ricocheting back to that moment. And it calmed her.

 

That’s how she can stand all this grousing and prodding. It reminds her of her secret and she nearly faints off that box pedestal.

 

They settle on a pallid frothy blue silk instead. To better bring out the excellence of her mud and twigs hair. Mama chooses the best silk madame has in stock. Says she will have to fetch more in from her supplier especially. From London.

 

That causes much excitement for Flora and Posy. They’d never had a dress made from material fetched as far nor from a city as grand as London, before.

 

Posy had selected a teasing slip of pink silk. Flora, for her more fiery hair, chose a delicate pastel pea green. Iris thinks they’ll look like a platter of French fancy cakes.

 

Then a pang of something hits through her heart with all the intensity of an arrowhead studding there - she hopes Mama lets Posy and Flora keep their new gowns after she’s gone. She hopes very much. They are the stillest girls in existence but they do deserve nicer things than what they get.

 

By Madame’s husky drawl of a smoky voice is she brought back into the room, the awful pink pink pink room. Stuffed with velvet chaises and bolster cushions and trimmed fringed oil lamps. Great big fat rosebuds sprout up the wallpaper and flourish across the fabric of the pillows on the settee.

 

It’s as if the whole room is the summoning of the evil fairy in sleeping beauty. Who commanded swarms of brambles and thorns and swamping plants to take over. That was this room to the last pink thread - only it was instead summoned to contain every incarnation of pink roses as far as the eye could see.

 

Her ears burn hot and pink as Madame talks of London. Relating the gossip back to someone in the village. Matter of fact, a certain Lord-

 

“Apparantly, you know he sent that tall turbaned butler of his up to London just yesterday...” Madame hushes to them in her hazy terribly-affected French.

 

“Sent him to Mayfair.” She grins crookedly as she measures from Iris’s hip to her hem. Barking orders at Suzy, her ever suffering assistant.

 

Maratella seems most diverted. “Pray whatever for?” She leans forwards. Perching her half eaten violet macaroon on her saucer.

 

“He sent him to Bond Street. You know there is an establishment there that supplies jewels to the palace. Apparantly he came back having purchased something.” Madame says.

 

“Pray why would be send his butler all that way?” Flora asks.

 

“Why, Miss Smith told me so this morning; she suspects Lord Ren has left his heart behind in Bavaria. He is soon to quit Hellford. She heard Clarence Pennington’s butler say that his housekeeper, Mrs Jones states that half his house is shut. And the staff vacated.” Maratella excites them all. Flora and Posy are mortified at such news.

 

“The house is emptying. And Lord Ren shall soon be gone.” She adds.

 

Mrs Ashton smiles gladly. “He is journeying back home to his castle I wager...” She delights. The spitting smug nature of her tone was clear. Good riddance.

 

Who must he be besotted with I wonder?” Posy asks indelicately.

 

Iris tries not to be twice as smug. Thinking that she is that very woman.

 

He goes back to his castle and I will gladly go with him, she thinks.

 

The giddiness and joy roils in her stomach like golden champagne. Fizzes through her veins and she has to hide a smile. Biting her cheek hard.

 

“Well. if he is shortly to leave our shores. I’m willing to bet he’ll break a fair few maidens hearts in this county and the next over. Such a striking gentleman. The young ladies will certainly feel his loss most keenly.” Maratella comments in sadness for all the female admirers he’d amassed. They’d all be heart sore now he’s going away.

 

“You’re blushing Iris.” Flora sing-songs at her. Pointing it out. “Thoughts of your intended sweetheart?” She ribs her sister.

 

“You are a colossal pest. Flora.” Iris smiles at her. Matter of fact. Her little bug of a sister is quite right. She is thinking about the man she’ll marry.

 

Only another agonising hour whilst Mama and Maratella select their hats for the occasion. But Iris can atleast sit down and drink some much too sweet earl grey tea. Doesn’t have to stand on that wretched box for another hour.

 

Eventually their purchases were rung up and settled. Flora and Posy love Iris very much because she buys them two new ribbons each and some velvet buttons for their bonnets. They’re singing her praises as they quit the shop. Trilling like a pair of canaries about their gowns. Iris was glad to spend some of her pin money on them before she leaves for good.

 

She’s fully appraised of the weight of her actions. And the serious consequence of them. It would be ruinous for her mother and father. It would be a disaster for her sisters. But atleast she was of age and she could marry. Whatever else others might say of her - she fully believes Lord Ren’s intentions are honourable.

 

They can’t scandalise her for marrying Kylo. Just censure her for running away from Hux and jilting him. She’s certain he’ll recover amicably enough. He doesn’t love her. And his mother is suitably well connected. She could snap her fingers and summon another willing bride. She’s only sorry it can’t be her.

 

She’s despondent to remark upon the pain she’ll be causing hers and Hux’s family. But in time, they will recover. Posy would do well and Flora will follow in her footsteps. Mother will see to it they catch fine husbands when the time is right. Their mother is most skilled in that area.

 

The party journeys along Pembleton street. Maratella stops by the haberdashers to seek after some ribbons. Mama is in the milliners seeking after a new pair of occasion gloves. Posy and Flora amble slowly along the street with their sister. Watching the carriages and coaches trundle by. Various riders on horseback too.

 

A loud nickering snort behind her makes her turn. She can hardly hide the smile that quickly grows across her face when she catches sight of a lone rider on a huge stocky black stallion. Both man and his mount are furiously muscled beasts.

 

His Lordly attire is its usual. All black. Save for his white shirt and red cravat. The great overcoat frames his wide shoulders and his bulky chest. His boots gleam in the meagre sun. His grin tips up when he catches sight of her.

 

He looks terribly smug and Iris’s heart feels like it’s trying to ram out the cage of her ribs. This handsome lordly man who stole it away, sets it pounding freely and rampant in her chest.

 

She tries not to arouse the suspicion of her sisters. They were much too curious and meddling for their own good. She wants to protect her secret and she thinks she’s a proficient enough liar to accomplish it.

 

They burst into fits of giggles on seeing him. He rides Erland closer to where they are stood and dismounts. His strong boots thud into the frosty mud. His wool coat laps and swathes his body. He tethered himself to Erland. Massive gloved hand gripping the reins. The creature didn’t seem to have any care for wandering off. He just wished to see Iris - Kylo empathises with the horse. He rather feels the exact same.

 

Iris, Posy and Flora all curtsey to him. He bids them all a greeting. She bows her neck and when she looks up. His eyes fondly fix on her. Warm in the sun. The contrast of him is astonishing. Milky creamy complexion, bordered by the onyx shadow of his hair and eyes. Utter opposites in the juxtaposition.

 

“Miss Ashton. A pleasure to see you again. I trust you are still well recovered. You look very radiant this morning.” He comments. Walking Erland just that tiny step closer.

 

The obstinate animal his stallion is, reaches his nose out and snorts into her hand. Nudges her glove for pats and scritches of affection behind his ears. She doesn’t care that she’ll get horse hair on her. She strokes him.

 

“You are most kind. Your lordship. I am very well.” She smiles slightly. The pretty kiss of rose on her cheeks.

 

“I need not tell you Erland is pleased to make your acquaintance once more.” He remarks starkly. Hint of irony not lost on her. Erland almost nudges her to fall over with his big strong head. She laughs.

 

“Your ears must’ve been burning. Lord Ren. For we were just discussing you...” Posy flirts. Batting her lashes at the man.

 

Hands crossed in front of her. Like she was a genteel little doe. Iris glares narrowed silver dagger eyes at her sister to stop displaying herself so readily. As ever, the little vexation pays no attention. Not when there was a hot blooded male around.

 

Kylo tilts his head. Intrigued. “Is that so, Miss Posy?” He asks.

 

“We we’re discussing how heart sore all the young ladies hereabouts will be when you quit Hampshire...” Flora tells him.

 

Kylo takes her confession in his stride. “It’s true. And I am sorry more than I can exclaim to be leaving such carnage and desolation in my wake. But sadly I do return to Bavaria shortly.”

 

That handsome expression barely betrays a thing. The cold wind flounces and ruffles that wild hair. A tuft of it drifts in his face and tangled in his dark eyeline.

 

Iris decides in that moment he truly might be an angel sculpted by gods own hand; or a demon designed by the devil himself. She isn’t sure which of those creatures is all the more tempting.

 

One thing she’s certain of; He’d win that draw of most handsome, every time.

 

She quivers when those eyes gaze at her. Peels her right out her clothes and down to her goose pimpled skin. Then Posy has to go and open her foolhardy mouth some more...

 

“We were just helping Iris shop for her bridal gown.” She preens. “And our bridesmaids dresses.” She comments. Speaking as if she wants Kylo to snatch her up and steal her away to Bavaria. Stuff her in his pocket and run off with her.

 

“I had heard rumour of your engagement...” He lies. Iris is biting the inside of her lip and smiling genially to hide how wide her excitement wishes to make her smile grow.

 

“Show Lord Ren your engagement ring, Iris!” Flora bounces excitedly. Iris glares. Reminding her of the inappropriate nature of her words.

 

“Flora. Lord Ren is not interested in such matters. And I’m afraid we’ve already impressed upon too much of his time...” She insists.

 

Kylo holds out his hand to her. Steps closer so she has to crane her head back just to keep sight of his eyes. “I am certainly interested. And I might add, most eager to see the bauble that decorates such a fine, pretty hand.” He teases.

 

She decides he was designed by the devil. And lucifer gave him a silver tongue to boot-

 

Iris slips off her grey glove and gently lays her palm in his.

 

The way his fingers curl around hers is criminal. She tips her eyes up to his as he shifts closer and admires her ring. A soft smile tugs at his mouth. The gold winks at him in the sun. It’s a pretty delicate morsel. He can’t deny. But plain. Much too plain. Entirely humble as decoration went.

 

-it’s certainly nothing to the one he’d had Jomar go all the way to London to fetch for her from Bentley & Skinner on Bond Street.

 

“It is a fine ring. Miss Ashton. Sergeant Hux is the most fortunate man in England to have you as his intended bride. I’m quite envious of his fortuity.” He says. Bowing to lay a kiss on the back of her palm.

 

His eyes electrify her. He winks at her and she flushes with heat. Blood pressing up in her face.

 

“I’m sorry to hear of your leaving England. Lord Ren. Such a shame Hellford Park should be quitted before the summer.” She tells him.

 

Her palm leaving his. Sliding away from the touch of his hand would have made her wretched were it not for the heat in his bronzed eyes. Made a warmer melting shade by the shimmer of the buttery sun. And their shared secret lifts her heart.

 

“It is a great shame. But I’m eager to return to Ranlor. I’ve missed my homeland a great deal.”

 

“The rumour in circulation is that you have a certain lady in mind to return home too.” Posy dares most outlandishly. Iris chides her for her brash rudeness.

 

Posy!” Iris calls out.

 

Kylo seems amused by it. “That would he telling. Miss Posy. Not to mention betraying the confidence of the most honourable lady in question.” He smirks at her sister.

 

Who giggles and blushes like it’s no ones business. His vampiric charms seeping out of his every pore, truly intoxicating to them, Iris can see it’s influence.

 

“Is she a great beauty? I imagine she is most elegant indeed and very superior and titled in rank and manner. And of great fortune...” Posy digs for more details. Kylo will reveal none.

 

“Pray. Don’t be impertinent twice-over.” Iris corrects. Posy pulls a vexed face. Shoves her tongue out at her sister.

 

Kylo’s chuckling. They were entertaining little chits. Relentless. But he admires something about that sparky quality. Iris had the same sense about her - only more sensible and humble.

 

“She is the singularly, most beautiful creature I’ve ever beheld in all my years.” He promises. “And I cannot wait to have her hand in marriage. She will make me a very blessed and lucky man.” He declares.

 

“How romantic.” Posy declares in a sigh. Flora dreamily agrees. They’re both veritably Moony eyed. Gazing up at him in wonder as a consequence. A silly girls kryptonite. A handsome and dark romantic man. A Byronic figure to set all the foolish girls swooning at the knees.

 

Kylo’s eyes sweep across to Iris at a passing glance. He smiles. And it almost undoes her.

 

“We must be on our way. We’ve availed ourselves of too much of your time. Lord Ren.” Iris says in parting. Trying to herd her vapid sisters away before they flirt anymore.

 

“We must go. For we are bid to the Hux’s tonight for a celebratory engagement supper.” Posy curtsies boasting as she’s bobbing away.

 

“Give the Sergeant and his family my warmest regards.” Kylo insists. Knowing what a barb that would be to Hux’s temper.

 

Iris turns and meets his eyes. Giving him a polite bowed head in parting. When Posy and Flora are otherwise looking elsewhere. She turns back and gives him such a look of longing and delight it makes him grin at her as she walks off down the cobbled pavement.

 

“Very good to see you again. Your Lordship. Have a pleasant rest of your day.” She insists.

 

Cajoling her sisters along the path and away before they get any notions. Erland snorts at her as she moved away. She smiles and gladly rubs the flat bone of his nose before she goes. Lord Ren stays standing until she does move away.

 

Kylo pats his neck, and hauls himself up on his strong stallions back once again. Booted feet in the stirrups. He adjusts on the saddle. Scanning the tumbled windows of the high street proprietors.

 

In the milliners, he sees a face like sour lemons and thunder glaring out at him. Mrs Ashton’s stony face peering outwards through the glass. Having seen his exchange with all her daughters.

 

He coaxes Erland into a slow walk. A little nudge in his side. He gives the foul Caroline Ashton his most winning enigmatic smile. And nods civilly in greeting at her as he rides off.

 

He sees it makes her lips purse in irritation.

 

Iris can’t resist glancing back at him. She knows those eyes watch her all the way down the street. She can feel them. Two pinpricks of heat, like candles, burning into her shoulder-blades.

 

It makes her too giddy for words.

 

They soon catch up with the rest of their party and are whisked away in the Hux carriage. Soaring across the dirty English roads. Mud churning in their wake as cold air and sunshine bounces off the roof.

 

Mama asks them what Lord Ren. Iris told them he was just politely passing the time of day. She seems satisfied with the answer. Iris fights not to squirm into shivers of desire at the merest intimation and memory of him.

 

Posy and Flora sing-song his romantic praises all the way home. Mother soon shuts them up with a cross cold stare.

 

The afternoon seems to fly her by. No sooner than she’s home and she’s readying herself for the dinner they’ll take at the Hux’s residence. Cavenham House.

 

The not so modest estate in the border of the next county. A gorgeous house if she’s being perfectly honest. Terracotta red bricked exterior, of modern Georgian design. Huge arched white windows. Rococo interior. All gilded with cherubs frolicking on the murky painted ceilings and baroque trim on every door. Rolling scrolls. Frescoes and pastel colours. Gilding, moulding and trompe l’oeils giving the illusion of motion and drama. Raining down from every ceiling.

 

A handsomely kept garden was also what it was resolutely famous for. Though it would not be pictured to its best quality in this dead winter. Spring will liven it soon. The hardy bright bulbs will crop up through the frost. But for now it remains speckled in snow with only the evergreens surviving.

 

Iris can see it all as they pull up the long stretch of the torch lit drive. In the coach Maratella was kind enough to send to collect them all.

 

Once again she was wedged beside Posy and Flora, and their shrill gossiping. Mother and Father opposite. Noiseless and as disagreeing as ever. Silence blazed between them as somber as a churchyard. They were about as animated with each other as two gravestones.

 

Iris dressed in her navy silk gown with 3/4 sleeves and a sheer white chemisette swirled with stitched white flowers, decorating her shoulders and neck. Meg cleverly weaves that teal ribbon into her hair coiffure again. She finishes the look with pearl droplet earrings and white satin gloves up to her elbows.

 

They are welcomed inside by stony faced servants in the blue Cavenham livery. Taken into the drawing room to meet their hosts. Maratella had invited some local flavour along also. Everyone’s merry and mingling. Posy offers to play a Handel piece on the Pianoforte before dinner is announced. She does so rather well. Thunks the opening notes in shocking volume but she picks up from that point onwards.

 

Iris is admiring the scenery from the drawing room window. Even in the dark she can see how lovely the gardens are. It doesn’t dissolve the fact that this house would still be a prison to her. There weren’t bars on the window and she won’t exactly be stitching mailbags - but it will still be her cage.

 

A handsome cage, she won’t deny. But a cage nonetheless as she mothers the children and lives for planning fine parties to boast of her and her husbands excellence. And slowly becomes a woman of high rank and no substance.

 

Hux moves to stand by her side, hands folded behind his back. A tall lean column of red, black and white in his ceremonial dress. Medals shining. Hair groomed. Perfectly respectable. Infuriatingly loveless, as always.

 

“You shall like the gardens in summer. I should think.” He remarks.

 

“They are most handsome.” She comments. “A fine prospect indeed.” She agrees.

 

They perfectly form the vision of lovers conversing by candlelight. She can hear Mama and Mrs. Hux cooing proudly behind them. It’s infuriating. Iris can’t spend the rest of her life in a manner such as this; being prodded and manoeuvred and gossiped over like a chess piece on a board.

 

“I care little for being out of doors. Save for riding with my regiment.” He impresses.

 

Iris nods. “I am perhaps overfond of walking. I take an excursion each day if I can.” She tells him.

 

He sniffs. And coldly watches the view before them. “Well. You shall have to make allowances and sacrifices when we are wed. I can’t have you scampering around the countryside when you are with my heir.” He insists.

 

Iris’s mouth turns dry. She makes little response to his words. He turns away to speak to someone else but she catches his arm to stop him.

 

“Please I just want to say-“ she starts.

 

She looks up into his face. The bright copper of his hair and the steel of his eyes. The surety of his rigid auburn brow. She doesn’t dislike him. He’s not an unpleasant man. Just, misguided.

 

She says what she’s thinking now before she loses the chance. No doubt he’ll think very badly of her when all is done.

 

“I think well of you. You know. You are a gallant man. Not lacking in honour or credibility. I admire that about you. Hux.” She says. Even if I can’t marry you for it.

 

He nods. Accepting her words. Then their granite faced butler coughs dryly and announces dinner to the room.

 

Maratella lets the engaged couple be seated next to each other at dinner. Wanting to encourage the tepid affection brewing between them. Iris doesn’t know what the woman expects from them. They weren’t matched for love but it’s as if that’s what she’s hoping to see blossom.


Maratella is hoping for romance to pass betwixt them.

 

It could and never will be that. Iris thinks.

 

Iris remarks inwardly to herself as she sips down her soup a la reine. Served alongside several large golden Bouchée à la reine’s. 

 

The next course is of stewed beef and venison steaks, and a whole champagne poached salmon with slithers of white and black truffles decorating the cooked fish acting as scales.

 

More seafood came served in the form of fried then boiled sole, heaped in a terrine and a whole platter of pickled crab. A haricott of vegetables and mashed turnips. There was enough food spread on this very grand table, to keep them dining for a fortnight. Mrs Hux organised a feast intended to show off.

 

She gets everyone to toast to the newlyweds. The gentleman stand to raise their glasses and the ladies stay seated.

 

The pudding banquet is brought out and quite rightly enough, as she suspected, the whole table is flouncing in ruched fancy french sugar concoctions.

 

Silken French pies. Syllabubs of lemon and rose and brandy. Ice’s of all flavours. Custard tarts smothered with fat ripe fruit drowning steeped in syrup. Sugar plums and cinnamon and mace laced apple tartlets with baked custard. Iris indulged in some of the tarts and the fruits.

 

Posy and Flora fall upon creams and dainty fancies like hungry wolves. And eat until they are stuffed.

 

The ladies retire to the parlour for music and snifters of sweet ruby port wine. Iris indulges in a glass as her sisters and various other young accomplished ladies take to the pianoforte to sing and show off. Posy drags a reluctant Iris up to sing whilst she plays. She grumbles but bends to her sisters will.

 

She gives a shortly sweet chorus of ‘Let no man steal your thyme’ for it was the only song she could sing comfortably well.

 

She never much liked performing for amusement. Some girls were a glutton for it. Iris is no such a one. She stands with one hand on the pianoforte and the other folded behind her hip. She sings her choruses and smiles meekly at the small scattering of applause offered for her when she is done.

 

She heads back to her spot on the settee. Maratella is remarking to her mother how divine it will be to have a songbird in the house once again. Iris sits back in her seat and spends the rest of her evening in silence. Though she wants to say a great deal.

 

The evening slips past well enough. Night spills past her relatively quick. Another day gone. Another day closer to her happiness. She’s almost too giddy to contain it.

 

Then the time comes to bid goodnight to their hosts;

 

Iris watches as Hux fondly kisses her hand. Seeing her off out the rich gilded foyer out into the black black night. Sky so dark it’s a whole void studded with freckling stars. Cold shudders at the shivering trees.

 

She wants to say something impactful and veiled. To speak of her regard for him. She cannot think how best to do so. She swallows down her thick tongue. Remains a coward.

 

She can only hope in time, after the wake of her scandal settles. That Hux will find someone better suited than her. Maybe even find someone that he can love? She prays deeply for that little happy happenstance.

 

She is not so unfeeling as to wish a joyless life on the man who just wasn’t correct for her.

 

Her teeth grits with all the things unsaid. “I hope you’ll be happy.” She smiles lightly. He thinks her to be referring to the engagement that stands between them.

 

“I’m sure.” He comments. “Goodnight.” Is his curt response.

 

It doesn’t incense her. Tonight it vexed her. Caused a tiny crease between her brows. It seemed such fickle words to part on. But she leaves them be-

 

Let’s those words spirit up into the quiet undisturb of the night. The heavens can have those words. Iris wishes it could have been more. But how appropriate is it that even his parting words are found wanting.

 

She gets into the coach after curtseying a polite goodbye to Brendol and Maratella. She says something sweet to Iris about her singing. Iris cringes a smile. She won’t be thinking such good things about her shortly. She imagines she’ll curse her name for all of hell and heaven to hear. She’ll wake the sleeping dead cursing the day Iris was born.

 

Iris thanks her. For her hospitality. For her kindness. Under all her airs and graves, she’s a fairly nice woman and she should find a more amicable daughter-in-law to crow over.

 

She slots herself into the coach beside her sisters. Listens to the door slam shut. The rattle and crunch of it shifts on the gravel. Rumbled away up the long elegant curve of the drive.

 

Iris twists to look back. She isn’t sure why she wanted too. But they weren’t a dismal family. And she’s sorry for the pain and offence she’ll cause to them all.

 

She watches Hux’s stiffly-posed, regimented figure. Shadowed against the night. The scarlet of his blood coat. The ice white of his breeches stained blue, glowing in the night. The stars glimmer off his shining boots and off the pierce of his pale eyes. She wishes him well. She truly does.

 

They trundle on home. Full of food and as usual with Posy and Flora spouting gossip on and on endlessly. Mother chiming in. Father and Iris retain their silence. Eyes cross firing in a glance when they all agree on something cruel and senseless.

 

Westwell’s windows emerge gold out the dark. Surrounded by the bustling trees. All of the landscape is merely dark moulded shapes. Looming and shifting in the shadows. The moon casts washy film of silver to try and spill over the cover of smeared clouds.

 

They are just to the drive when a small dark shape flits overhead. Iris looks upwards, and sees the definable shape of a bird landing on her windowsill. She smiles giddily.

 

She exits the coach quick. Bidding them goodnight and rushing off up to her room. Her skirts picked up in her hands. Mama remarks how odd it is. Posy shrugs and supposes she’s got a secret missive to read from Hux.

 

Iris absolutely flies for her door. Twists the handle and launches herself in the room. Shutting the door firmly after herself. Pressing it with both hands flat to the wood.

 

The warmth of the fire hits her. She doesn’t even pay mind to the tiny crack of her open window. Or her swaying curtains that shift on the breeze.

 

She can only focus on the huge frame of a dashing vampire stood fireside. One elbow resting on the mantel as he gazes into the flames.

 

His big frame swallows up the whole room and strangled out all the air. The ochre of the blazing flames captured his skin. Turned that milky-cream of his complexion into pale fire.

 

She smiles and he does too. “Thank goodness it’s you. I was worried I’d scare seven shades out of your maid.” He drawls softly so his voice doesn’t carry. Smirk curling at the corners.

 

She crosses the distance. Her feet eat up the floorboards quick. She avails herself of an embrace. Throws herself into his arms.

 

The cloak of his fire warmed clothing envelopes her as his arms do. He smells like the damp snap of frosty woodland and the acid tang of woodsmoke. The night air of wild outdoors clings to every inch and fibre of his clothes. Swirls about him like a clouding tempest.

 

He chuckles as she gets herself in his hold. The deep bass of his voice rumbled through her skin and sinking to her bones. Her cheek mashed to his sternum. His arms close around her. Stroking her body through the rasping silk of her dress.

 

One big warmed hand clasps the back of her neck as the other holds the back of her waist. His nose nudges into the crush of her muddy hair. Her scent teases him just as much as his had, to her. Lavender and sage. The plain spice and calm floral scent.

 

“I could feel the happiness pouring off you as you alighted the stairs.” He smiles. She steps back and gazed up at him.

 

“How pretty you look tonight. Dove. You’re exquisite in silk.” He remarks when she steps away. Hand toying with the loose tawny curl at her ear. The sapphire dark of her dress suits her very well. Throws her complexion into brilliance. Does something to make the tones of her hair look rich.

 

She always looks ravishing to him.

 

She blushes. “I missed you all day. Isn’t that mad?” She asks.

 

“If missing is madness, then I’m out of my sane mind whenever you’re not in my sight.” He promises gently.

 

Big hands cupping her hot silken neck as he leans down to plant a firm, slanting kiss to her lips. His mouth is cold and he tastes of frosty air and wine.

 

Kissing him is like kissing someone who just stepped inside, taking shelter from a bitter cold wind.

 

She’s beginning to wonder if there is some clever addiction woven into his lips. One kiss never seems to be enough. She holds his wrists as he grabs her. Makes her feel small in his arms. She’s lost in his hold. It’s powerfully thrilling.

 

He breaks the kiss and his thumbs stroke at her cheeks. Her eyes glitter keenly at him. He spies the ring on her finger. The one that doesn’t belong there. It makes him smile.

 

“I’d like to surmise you snuck in here just to steal a kiss. But I suspect a different motive altogether?” She asks.

 

He broke into a grin that creases his eyes and bares his teeth in a smile. She was no thoughtless woman; his darling Iris.

 

She’s always thinking. Always fretting. Always mulling over things in her head.

 

That was one of the first things that that came to his notice about her. She tended to be introspective about all manner of things in comparison to her acetous mother who spewed vile words. And her daft sisters who spouted out their every dangerously silly thought.

 

He kisses her for that clever remark- slow and paced and soft. Languid like melting warm honey. Lips curling to hers.

 

“I do have some news. But kissing you will always my first priority.” He husks against her rosy lips. Her warm cheeks blaze from under his icy fingers.

 

“The date is set. We must leave tomorrow eve.” He tells her with a smirk.

 

Her stomach completely soars in giddiness. She doesn’t have to hide her grin here.

 

“It feels as if I’ve been waiting at eternity to hear those blessed words.” She cries in happiness.

 

“Slip away to me after everyone’s gone to bed.” He instructs. She agrees.

 

“Mother has been pleased with my conduct of late. She’ll have let her guard down over tonight. I’ll leave once everyone is abed. Even the maids.” She tells him.

 

Stroking her fingers down the finery of his waistcoat where they’re still stood close to each other. The material was so soft. The softest grain of velvet she’s ever felt.

 

“You don’t have to bring too much. I can buy you everything you may ever need.” He leers. Cupping her cheek. Feeling the smooth of her skin. Right up her jaw.

 

His eyes carve flinty paths down her neck as he strokes his fingers there. Her pulse quickens. He can feel and hear her blood slushing hot through her veins.

 

She shrugs. “I cherish very few possessions. Posy and Flora can have the rest.” She insists. Her hand coming up to stroke over his thick crook of elbow with the hand that’s touching her neck.

 

He drags the edge of the chemisette down and strokes along the flat of her collarbone. His eyes turn into a palette of bittersweet autumn. Orange and gold swirled with flecks of russet brown.