Actions

Work Header

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 father hopes to change that this calendar year. He wants his eldest daughter promised to someone upstanding and rich.

 

Her mother will settle with wedding her to any man who looks pleasing in a cravat and still has all his own teeth.

 

She treks on through the snow. Hoping. Dreaming so many things.

 

Wishing her basket was lighter. Wishing her parents had sired a son. So that this evening she wouldn’t have to be bound into a pinching dress, and paraded around the Hearst’s ballroom as if she’s some prized slaughter pig at a county fair.

 

Wishing that she could instead stay home in her untrimmed, plain nightgown. No laced stays crushing her ribs. With a hot brick at her feet. A dog-eared Swift novel in her hands. Cracked open to the good passages. She’d read by tapered candlelight and be perfectly contented, poised to encounter spinsterhood.

 

Instead, a painful evening of savage society awaited her.

 

Poison filled smiles from nasty debutantes or their matronly mama’s. Sniping at her dress or her hair or her pale skin, or her lack of fortune. Crushed mangled toes from dancing with some portly red-faced Lord-whoever-from-wherever. One who stank of port, had bad breath, and tried to pinch her bottom with fat lecherous sausage fingers, when he thought no one was looking their way.

 

She has no aspirations for marriage or love. She’s not a fool. She doesn’t have her head swimming with fancies from novels. No rapturous desires of tall, sable-haired men, with chiseled marble bodies seducing her astray. No cloaked villain sweeping her away in the dead of night to send her to ruin, to then have her dashing savour ride in on horseback to rescue her.

 

If she’s one thing at all - it is sensible. She doesn’t like to reflect on the proposition of marrying some stranger simply to arrange the business of money and bearing him heirs. She’s not a broodmare-

 

She’s a woman. She has a thumping proud heart and a strong-working brain and she hopes there’s more measure to her life, than submitting her body and weak will over to be governed and quieted by a future, faceless husband.

 

She’s sure many girls of three and twenty have felt this way. She’s sure many generations upon generations of them will continue to do so, until women cease to be sold like chattel - or like cattle at market.

 

Sold solely to men for the priceless untarnished commodity that lay between their thighs. And based and viewed purely on that frail scrap of fleshed dignity, alone.

 

She wraps her coat tighter around herself. Distinctly feeling a sense of dread starting to slither sickly cool up her spine from the prospect of the evening ahead.

 

Mother will wrangle her into her finest restrictively crushing silk gown. Have the maid tug and pull her hair and wrench it into a pleasing style. Jabbing hair pins in her head. Mother will see to it that she splash plenty of Yardley’s water of jasmine blossom, orange and lavender on the pulses at her wrists, and at her neck.

 

Then, she’ll be practically shoved into the chest of every single eligible gentleman in the room tonight in the hope they deign her to be pleasing. She’ll be pushed and prodded and manoeuvred and pumelled-

 

And she’s exhausted. She only hopes she finds the strength to endure such torture-

 

She kicks through the frosted ground. Pebbles scatter and skit in her wake. She nudges the sparkling white stones with the toe of her cracked brown boots. Her feet were slowly growing numb. Toes stinging with cold. She should have worn some thicker stockings. Then again, money was not exactly a moderate opulence at home. They had to husband their resources as a family very carefully- which meant Iris couldn’t have some new leather half-boots for romping about the wilds of the countryside.

 

But she could have as many new hair combs, fans, or gloves and embellished stockings as she wanted. Anything that might help snare a man into visions of matrimony. Not wasted on such a thing as a new wool coat to help keep her warm in winter; or boots that didn’t let the muddy puddles seep in.

 

For appearances sake, the Ashtons wealth went solely into ballgowns, perfume and finery for their girls. Some household money of course went into sensibilities like candles, meat, flour and soap. Iris was taught that she should be hugely grateful for everything that was lavished upon her.

 

Flora so often griped at her that she was so lucky to have such amounts spent on her. She got new gowns of printed cottons and muslin and silks and whatever she wanted. Where her and Posy had to make do with alterations and hand-me-downs to their dresses and bonnets.

 

Flora was so blinded by jealousy and immaturity that she didn’t quite look - really look at her sister - and realise that Iris didn’t really want any of those things-

 

She ruminated on all tonight might bring her. She wondered what kind of state her silly sisters would both be in when she gets home. Already donning their paper curls, lacing each other into their stays and chemises already. Arguing over who wore the best pair of silk slippers they had between them.

 

Mother will be in one of her bitter moods. Trying to determinedly order all her girls ready for tonight.

 

Moods sour with each other already and they’d be seething and spitting nasty fury at Iris. She had new things especially for this ball tonight. New pair of satin gloves and a printed silk dress. They did not. They never did.

 

Iris would lend Flora her old reticule - the one Mother had bought for her from Bond street. And she’d give Posy her pearl hair comb to slide into her auburn coiffure. A little balm to both of them to gently encourage some sisterly affection. She didn’t want to be at war with them all night.

 

She’s halfway down the narrow pale road, kicking snowy stones, when an almighty sound kicks up over the horizon, barrelling in her direction. She turns her head back and hears the distant rhythmic rumbling of hooves hitting track and the clack and creak of enormous coach wheels.

 

Hardly surprising when this is the biggest road leading back to Pembleton, her little village.

 

She sees through the fog of snow, a huge black shape dominates the road. Moving fast. She lifts her skirts and steps onto the crunching grass so that the raring coach might pass her safely by. At the tremendous speed it’s going she reckons she didn’t have long before it caught up to where she’s walking.

 

She hears it gaining, closer and closer. Wood and hooves and snorting horses eating up the distance of the road. She dares a glance at the impossibly loud and fast carriage.

 

It’s a beastly thing. All looming black wood. A black liveried driver in grey wool coat. Two footmen clad the same, on the back stand. Black sturdy luggage safely stowed on the roof. Two hulking beasts of shimmering onyx shire horses are stamping and galloping and heaving the great thing along with no difficulty. Silvery wisps of air pour from their nostrils and the dripping whites of their eyes look nearly devilish past their full cupped blinders. The tack of black leather lost on their gleaming coal coats.

 

The noise is deafening now. It’s almost passing her. Kicking snow and frosty gritted mud out from under the churn of the hungry wheels.

 

She’s curious as to who could possibly be residing in such an opulent coach. No one from these parts, she’s certain of it. The richest Lord from here was two villages over on a vast estate. Lord Hexham. Who was one and eighty and had a hunched back. And he was a doddery old recluse. He hardly went raring around town in such an imposing manner.

 

When it draws level with her she dares a vertiginous glance up at the small arch of the door. A crest is splashed there in gold and scarlet. Like a splash of blood on a gold sword scabbard. Or a healing wound.

 

It’s no shock that the crest there is unfamiliar to her. It’s entwined with wolves and scarlet banners, and a shield crossed with swords. Some monstrous carnivorous coat of arms perhaps? Maybe this person’s ancestor’s had won victory in some ancient bloody battle dating back to the Normandy landings.

 

She looks up from the door and to her very great shock, she glimpses a man’s face.

 

It was a dark carriage, drawn to privacy with scarlet velvet curtains covering at the windows. But the one this side closest to her is peeled back.

 

Her heart thumps loud in her neck and her chest claws with slight panic and embarrassment having caught this gentleman’s eyes.

 

Such savage, unyielding eyes.

 

Bitterly black. Slicing outwards from an alabaster pale face. She barely made out features of a full proud face. A blunt roman nose, full pouting lips, and raven sable hair. Length; rakish.

 

It makes her inhale a sharp breath. Quickly averting her gaze. Embarrassed. Lowering her eyes.

 

Gawping openly at the upper echelons was never a good idea. They probably held her in the same standing as that of the mud on the bottom of their very polished boots.

 

He was probably some uppity Duke or Earl who didn’t wish to be gazing at the common stock. She looks to her feet. Feels the wind whip at the tendrils of her hair. Unfolds them from her scarf and whips them back over her face. Baring her neck. Snow lands on her skin. Flecks of it melt ripping like bee stings onto her hot throat.

 

Pale, corded, thrumming throat. Bared to the wind and the snow and the cold-

 

He can hear her pulse and it’s like a sweet sirens call.

 

She feels the strangest sensation then; no one was looking at her. But it feels like they did. It feels as if eyes are pinning her down. Raking over her skin and assessing her.

 

When she looks back up, dazed, the rattling loud coach is past her now. Off into the distance, into the snow.

 

Foggy white and smeared and blurring into the horizon. Roaring away up the track road. Away from her sight. She blinks after it’s wake. Snow tangling into her lashes. She’s shivering now if she wasn’t before, and she can’t fathom why.

 

She switches the basket into her other arm. Let’s it take the painful strain of the still heavy thing. Items within clunk and thump around. She steps off the crusted grass and back onto the stony pave of the hard road.

 

She continues on; winding homeward. She thinks about her silk gown, and new pearl earrings. And then of darker things; like devilish horses, and eyes. Eyes darker than inky shadows and deeper rich, like charcoal.

 

As the coach thunders off into the snow. Rutting and cracking over every bump on the road, Kylo shifted back on the scarlet bench seat. He lifts the curtain on the back window with a suave flick of his fingers, and set his black gaze once more back down the track road.

 

Looks back upon the lone girl in the blue coat who was walking there.


The scent of her still cloyed up in his throat - Oh, and in all the best ways.

 

He scented her from a mile down the road. Lavender, clary sage and sharp heat of bursting peppermint on salty skin.


The musk of her made him pant and his chest ragged. His arousal and bloodlust stirred in his chest. The drooling gnashing hell hounds of his appetite waking up and baying to be fed. 

He watches her hair sway over her neck. A big gust of frosty wind blew her flavour right into his path.

 

His eyes rolled back in his head as he savoured her. 

 

It made his mouth water. He’d all but outright moaned. It’s been a few moons since he last fed. His nails dig into the upholstered scarlet bench. Muscles strained. Veins corded tight in his body. Pulled taut.

 

His butler, Jomar. Speaks up from where he is sat opposite.

 

Blue silk Dastar covering his silver hair. His goatee beard was arrowhead shaped and always neatly trimmed. It stood out all the more from his bronze skin. His Punjabi cadence Kylo always thought was like cinnamon dashed in milk. He had a comforting warm voice.

 

“I wonder, shall you like the society hereabouts, your lordship?” He seeks curiously. Melting walnut eyes finding Kylo’s over his gold half moon spectacles, and looking past the small red leather backed Voltaire, open in his hands.

 

Lord Ren smirks. His eyes glimmer. Cool and hungry. Silver black like daggers.

 

“Absolutely.” He wets his lips. “The local cuisine looks delicious.”

 

 

 

~

 

 

 

 



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 or 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 Duchamp, 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 frays 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 his 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 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 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 rarely 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 like 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 are fairly dark. Lit 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 or port 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.

 

That’s Lord Ren. The handsomely rich one all the way from Bavaria.” Flora hisses to them all. “I’ve never seen a man 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 1,027 years.

 

 

 

~

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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 country 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. 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 oarticukar 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 Smiths 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 Smith’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.

 

 

 

~