The governess vexes him.
He cannot fix upon the why, or the how; only that she is always to be found somewhere, usually nearby, and always with her looks and her words and her opinions. He had hoped, on a estate of such size as Grasslands Park, that he would have little cause to see the child or its keeper; but he finds that they are everywhere, and it leaves a taste he cannot fathom on the edge of his tongue.
So, he decides, it must be vexation.
He never wanted the title.
Ben would have settled for the money, like any young man; but the position—His Grace, the Duke of Alderaan, with all its inherent influence and prestige—that, he could not care for less. All Ben had ever wanted could be found in an American field, surrounded by his Loyalist brothers, fighting to keep the British dream alive. Lieutenant Kylo Ren, of the American Legion. He had been anonymous, and happy.
Now he stares up at the cracked façade of his inheritance; a manor of grey stone and dark towers, a gloaming mass beneath a sky too perfect to last.
Beside him, Hux takes the same long, hard look and says, “You can smell the rot.”
“Hush,” Ben says, with little feeling.
“It’s only the truth.” Hux scuffs his boot across the cracked flagstones. “You might as well have inherited a barn.”
“Regardless.” Ben observes the fractures in the lintel above the door. “Our work remains.”
Even at a glance he can see that the lime mortar between the stones is crumbling, that the lead in the casement windows has begun to creep, warping the glass. Yes, Ben would have settled for the money; but it seems he must accept everything that goes with it.
A voice lilts across the air, pitched high with childhood, and colour flashes in the corner of his eye. It is the other portion of his inheritance, crouched in the grass twenty yards or so beyond, leaning into the flowerbeds with a magnifying glass. Kaydel’s hair is falling loose from its puff and ringlets, and there are grass stains on her redingote, crushed beneath her knees. Beside her, the governess points at the petals under her charge's gaze. Her mouth, pink-hued with winter sun, moves with some kind of instruction. Her own skirts are bunched high enough that Ben can see a line of woollen stocking above her boot.
How Kaydel will learn to be a lady with such a teacher, Ben has no idea. He should terminate the governess from his employ forthwith.
And yet. Four months of this, of looking, and wondering (and noticing that she looks back, too) and he has not.
He swallows and turns away.
Now it is Hux in the corner of Ben's eye, and his face is perturbed, a little curious.
“People will talk,” Hux says, “if you keep looking at her like that.”
Ben observes the pear tree to the side of the door. At some point in history a seed must have fallen between the flagstones, and by a miracle it has grown strong and healthy; the roots push upwards now, fracturing the courtyard. An impulse takes him; he bends down, grabs the edge of the nearest broken stone, digging his fingers into the soil until he finds purchase; and he rips it away. Small roots come with it.
“Who are people—” and he stands, hands dirty, “—that I should care what they say?”
It should not be his answer; his answer should be you’re right or I know. Because Hux is right, and Ben does know.
Hux raises his eyebrows in that way of his, pursing his lips. It’s a familiar expression. Ben has seen it from his steward more than once; here and on the battlefield.
“Ren,” and the old moniker hits like a musket ball, making Ben flinch, “Whether you like it or not, I shall offer my counsel, which is that servants are people, however much one prefers to think otherwise, and they will notice and they will talk. And then how will your governess fare when she walks to the village to post a letter, or buy one of her books?”
The words soak the silence, and Ben lets them. Kaydel’s happy chatter is its own kind of birdsong, and though he doesn’t turn Ben can see it all again in his mind’s eye: the flowerbed; the magnifying glass; the chestnut shine of the governess’s hair.
He examines the shard of cracked flagstone in his hand, brushes the soil from it with a sweeping palm. Ben likes order and cleanliness and control, and gossip is the opposite; and all the attendant questioning of her virtue will harm the governess far more than it will him. So, yes, for so many reasons, his answer should be you’re right or I know.
“People will talk regardless.” He crushes the roots in his fingers. “Let them.”
They speak with the Master Gardener and the Groundskeeper, and send a message for the stonemason and the architect, and the day passes. The sky that was too perfect to last darkens with rain clouds, and Hux departs to his own house, a fine property on the grounds that has kept estate stewards for at least two hundred years.
“You will not dine here?” Ben asks.
Hux shakes his head. When he speaks, it is with restrained amusement. “There is trouble on your horizon, Ren. I’ve no obligation to be part of it.”
Ben takes dinner alone, in his study. He is fond of silence; but his blood is thrumming, a drumbeat in his veins he hasn't felt since the War, and he cannot subdue it—not with food, nor in the pages of The Gentleman’s Magazine, nor the few notes he taps out on the pianoforte. He will not attempt drink; he has seen too many men lost to it.
The books are beyond the firelight, against the far wall, in a cabinet which bears shelves on its top half. Ben brings the candle with him. The shadows stutter; the light licks and splutters as he raises the flame. So many of these are his uncle’s books, and their subjects reflect it: Idées républicaines; Common Sense; The Wealth of Nations; Kritik der reinen Vernunft.
Ben’s lip twists with annoyance. Luke can vanish from the Earth without trace or explanation, and yet still he inconveniences him; a title, an estate, a ward, a bookcase.
Ben swallows, moves the candlelight; it picks out Reflections on the Revolution in France. This is his own, and the leather binding is crisp and clean, the letters freshly stamped. All his old books are in Albany; or at least, he supposes they are, unless his parents have purged all trace of him from their house (his father would, perhaps, but his mother...no). Everything which Ben now really, truly owns for himself is new.
He returns to the light, hand empty, mind still full of what he cannot escape. The shine of her hair in the sun. Her mouth. The challenging look in her eyes.
He sighs, and rings the bell.
When they are shown through to the study—the governess, and Kaydel, and the old housekeeper, Maz, who'd known Ben as a boy when the Skywalkers and Solos were still in favour with the Crown—the governess has a tension to her which Ben is unused to. It throws him, but he covers it with the slouch of his spine against his high-backed armchair; with the imperious set to his mouth.
He beckons Kaydel to him. She is enough of a child, at seven, to care little for his scar and his demeanour, and she goes willingly, wide-eyed. They are such familiar eyes, he thinks. It stirs memory and grief, and something too close to affection.
“You.” His voice is gruff, even to his own ears. Kaydel does not seem to mind. “There is tea over there. Go and avail yourself, and do it quietly.”
Her face gleams with the simple pleasure of it. She skips off to the sideboard at the near wall. It is still a little high for her, and Maz goes to supervise. She frowns behind her spectacles, and her entire face wrinkles with it.
“You should not give her tea just before bed,” she says, even as she’s pouring it into a china cup, and it reminds Ben of his own childhood; the same voice saying the same words to his father. He ignores her, the way he always does (sees Maz sigh and mutter, the way she always does).
The governess follows; but she stops as still as death when Ben says, “Please.” He gestures to the chair across from him. “Sit.”
She hesitates—he sees her fingers flex against the command—but she does as he tells her to. Her dress is dark, the same colour as the shadows, and as she sinks into the chair she sinks into them, too. Only her face and her neck and the fold of her hands in her lap stand stark against the gloom.
“Is there some issue, sir?”
Her tone is direct, but Ben sees the minute shift of her tensing jaw.
Yes, he wants to say, eyeing the line of her throat. Yes, there is an issue.
The noise of the china and childish patter behind them knocks him into reality, and he clears his throat.
“Can a man not simply wish for an evening’s company?”
“But you are not a man, sir.” Her gaze flickers across the breadth of his shoulders, drops down his frame and back up again. “And we are not company.”
“I am not a man,” he repeats, flat.
Her tongue darts out to wet her lips. “I mean only that you are the man who houses us and pays our wages, and so we are company because of it, not despite.”
“And you hold that such company is not freely given?”
“You feel I have obliged you all to be here?”
“Kaydel is a child, and I will not speak for Mrs Kanata, but—masters are not generally in the habit of asking. When I was fetched I was not aware I had a choice in the matter.”
He considers it. The fire is snapping in the grate, throwing itself against the sooted stones. The light flickers across her taught shoulders, her straight back, her chin, which is held high. Ben recognises the look of a defiant soldier.
“Then I have a proposal, Miss Nima. I summoned you with a desire for—” you, “—conversation. I have seen the books you read.” She flushes. “I have known Hux too long to be surprised by him, and Mrs Kanata is far too ready to scold me like a boy. I am asking if you will consent to be my company for the evening. No professional obligations.”
Maz is listening; she snorts at her own name, and he is reminded again how she is the closest he will ever have to a grandmother.
The governess—Miss Nima—keeps her posture tight for a moment; and then she must make her choice, because she relaxes, just enough to loosen the grip of her fingers where they are wound together.
“Then I will consider myself unobliged.”
“You will stay.”
“I will stay.”
She holds his gaze.
Ben shifts in the chair. He’s aware that the light casts his face in shadow; but he feels better in the darkness. Less exposed; more exposing.
“I understand you’ve been teaching my ward a rather—niche syllabus.”
Miss Nima’s mouth flattens. “I don’t believe the proper education of girls to be niche.”
“No. I agree.”
It softens her. “I do not see why boys can learn mathematics and natural philosophy, and girls must stay inside with their needlework and their manners.”
Ben tries (through nature, if not by heart) to be a traditionalist; but he has also spent time in the company of women with educations, and those without, and the idea that Kaydel’s brightness might be pinned down so pettily sends him cold.
“I have seen you with Miss Wollstonecraft’s new book. Her ideas are—” radical, “—interesting.”
Miss Nima’s eyes narrow. Again he sees the soldier; this time she is taking aim. “You mean extreme.”
She hums. “Perhaps we should agree to disagree.”
“Perhaps. In part.”
“What you’ve heard of Miss Wollstonecraft does not outrage you entirely?”
“On the contrary.” He points to the books in the darkness. “I found her perspective refreshing and ardent. If not a little rushed.”
Miss Nima’s brow raises.
“You have read Miss Wollstonecraft?”
“I have.” He gestures again to the bookshelves. “You may see for yourself.”
Slowly, she rises from the chair. The firelight reflects against her hair, as the sun had done.
“Take the candle,” he says, holding it out.
Miss Nima accepts it, and there is the briefest brush of their fingers.
Ben watches her disappear into the shadows. Maz is watching too, one hand protective on Kaydel’s back, even if all the girl is doing is drinking sweetened tea. He wonders if it is because Maz cannot do the same for Miss Nima, who is a dark shape in the gloam, moving along the bookcase with the candle; a perfect echo of himself not an hour ago.
She tilts her head to read the titles; her hair falls away from her neck, exposing its curve as it meets her shoulder.
“You have quite the little library in here.”
Her tone is measured; edged in surprise.
“Mostly my uncle’s, I will confess—but I have made a study of them, for the most part.” It is always better to know your enemy.
“Did you learn anything new?”
“Nothing a war won’t teach you.”
She stills; glances over her shoulder before she turns back. Ben’s self-loathing rises; he can always be trusted to cut through a conversation with some displeasing comment.
“Ah.” She stops where he expected her to. “I see you have a volume by Mr Burke. Are you a devotee?”
A devotee. Ben does not like to give himself over too well to men of ideas (men like his uncle); after all, it had not been men of ideas who stood shoulder to shoulder with him at Richmond. But—
“Mr Burke takes a stance which broadly agrees with my own, if that’s what you mean.”
Miss Nima draws the book from the shelf and returns to the fireplace. Kaydel must be finished with her tea, for she flutters to her governess’s side like a baby bird. The look which Miss Nima gives her is soft.
She gathers the child into her lap and opens the book across their knees.
“Now, what is this?”
She runs her fingers across the title on the spine.
“Ref—Reflections on the Rev—on the Revolution in France,” Kaydel recites. Her comprehension is mostly smooth, her words confident. She smiles at Miss Nima; her childish teeth glint bluntly in the firelight.
“Excellent.” Miss Nima looks up at Ben. “Her reading is very fluent.”
“Mama taught me to read.” Kaydel’s voice muffles as she turns her face into Miss Nima’s shoulder.
“Well.” Miss Nima tugs one of Kaydel’s curls. When she speaks to the girl, she looks at Ben. “Your mama did an excellent job.”
She is not mine, Ben wants to say, fighting the look in Miss Nima’s eyes. Kaydel’s mother is a woman he has never met. He knows only her name—Mara Jade—and the date that she died, and the child she has left behind. Everything else is his supposition.
Such a story is not appropriate for young ears. He gestures to Maz, still watching in the shadows.
“Bed, I think.”
Kaydel starts to protest, but Miss Nima soothes her with a gentle scold—we will read again tomorrow—and so, reluctantly, the child climbs down from her lap.
Though Maz takes Kaydel’s hand, they do not immediately go. Ben raises an eyebrow, and Maz scoffs.
“Master Solo—” as though he were still a boy, “—you know very well why I am not going anywhere.”
Propriety hangs in the air between them all; unmarried men and women should not be left alone. He sees Miss Nima straightening her skirts, folding her hands back over her lap, the book beneath; a model of decorum.
He should say you’re right or I know, because Maz is right, and Ben does know.
“Miss Nima can trust to my honour for the quarter hour of your absence,” he says.
“Have you asked her?”
He hopes Miss Nima is used to Maz’s familiarity by now; her tone and way of being with him cannot be easy to step into. Yet, when he looks, she is pressing her pink mouth into a line, giving nothing away.
She looks down at the book under her palms, then briefly at Ben, and finally fixes Maz with a firm look.
“I am not afraid to be alone,” she says.
You will not be alone, Ben thinks before he can draw back from it.
Maz hesitates. Kaydel is looking between them all with open curiosity, unable to catch the nuance of the conversation.
“I am only doing this because I trust your mother, and I trust her to have raised a gentleman,” She says. “And because it is bedtime for little children.”
She tugs Kaydel away; makes a conspicuous show of leaving the study door ajar. Her exaltation that she will be back echoes in the halls.
Silence remains in its wake, save for the fire, and now the propriety hangs even heavier. Miss Nima grips the edges of the book. Ben tries not to watch the whitening flex of her knuckles.
“You seem like someone who does not always follow rules,” he says. “I gambled with that.”
Miss Nima appears thoughtful. “No, perhaps I am not. Though I thought you might be.”
The air is thickening still further, with that same feeling Ben had in the garden; the feeling he had the first time he ever saw her, letting Kaydel run through piles of fallen leaves. Most unladylike. Yet Kaydel had looked so much happier than the child he’d left months before.
Ben clears his throat. “I suspect Kaydel to be my cousin. She has my uncle’s colouring and my mother’s eyes.”
Miss Nima studies Ben’s face. Her gaze cuts straight to the core of him; hot and sharp.
“You do have similarities. There is something, in your countenance.” She gestures to her own, as though for example. “And I did suspect—”
She stops. There is a redness in her cheeks which tells him what she was thinking. I did suspect she was yours.
“When Kaydel’s mother died, the child was left as my uncle’s ward. He vanished, I inherited, and so she is mine in his stead. So, you see, it is the estate she is beholden to, more than—” More than me.
“And you? Are you beholden to the estate?”
It is an insolent question for a governess to ask a Duke.
“I—” He considers it. “I am the heir. I cannot be anything else.”
“I believe Mr Burke has strong views on inheritance.” Miss Nima smooths her palm across the book binding, thinks a moment. “You sound beholden.”
How can he explain the deep sense of duty buried in his guts? How can he explain the sentiment which tore him out of Albany, just because he believed in it, and threw him into a war which left all manner of scars?
“I am simply aware of my place in the world.”
“And you think you cannot change it?”
“On the contrary, it is already changed.”
Your uncle put a remainder on the title, Lor San Tekka’s voice repeats in his head. Whether you like it or not, it will be you and your heirs who inherit the Duchy of Alderaan.
“But not changed by you.”
“No, by the law.” He thinks of Kaydel, illegitimate and female. “The law says that I inherit.”
“But you wish it didn’t.”
“The rule of law underpins society. If I were to—”
“Yes, if you like, if I were to subvert it, to—” deny the truth that is your family, the old man’s voice says, “—to walk away; what, then? I should simply let the structures of this place crumble?”
“The household staff would have no jobs. Kaydel and Mrs Kanata would have no home. You—” would leave, he almost says, and that would not do at all.
“Have you not considered, sir, that your staff take these jobs because they have little other choice? Without people like y—ah, rather, without those who control the land and the money, and so control the common man, do you not consider that they might be—be liberated? To pursue other paths?”
Miss Nima is earnest, sitting forward in her chair. Her passion reflects in her face.
“Liberated,” he repeats, softly. “A deliberate allusion to Monsieur Robespierre? Or an unconscious one?”
Some of her openness recedes. When she speaks again she is looking at the fire.
“What will you think, sir, when I tell you the truth?”
She should, Ben thinks, be everything he most despises in people, in dissenters, radicals, revolutionaries; and yet what he is thinking about is how beautiful she is—no, beauty is the wrong word for her quick mind, for her acumen, for all the things she has packaged up in her unassuming social position. She is, somehow—extraordinary, he thinks.
“I told you. I have seen the books you read. I can make out what kind of person you are. If that troubled me I’d have removed you from Grasslands Park long ago.”
She hesitates, then:
“It’s true that I was—in Paris, before I came to England. I have friends amongst the girondins, two gentlemen of long acquaintance. Finn is a tutor but Poe is—was—in the Marinha Portuguesa. We saw the October march, the Fête de la Fédération. I feel… I felt that I was myself with the people there. We shared a certain outlook.”
“And yet now you are in England, in the service of a Duke.”
“I—” She sighs. “I only came back to look for my parents.”
Ben experiences a spike of guilt. “Ah.”
“My parents were English, but I was born in Iran—Persia, as you call it. I never knew why they travelled there, but—it’s where my name comes from. Nima. No man. It was the surname of all the children in my orphanage. I had hoped,” she says, knuckles tight again against the book-binding, “to find them again, but—it seems they have long been buried in a drunken grave in the English ground.”
Her gaze snaps back to him. “I am not.” Her passion cools a bit. “Only, that is to say, I have made my own way in life. I have received an education, I have been—free—to walk the path of my choosing. And, yes, it has made me strongly believe that such freedom should be the right of anyone.”
“Quoth Paine, whatever is my right as a man is also the right of another.”
“Yes.” She nods, earnestly. “Yes, exactly.”
The words linger; whatever is my right. Miss Nima’s eyes are bright in the light of the fire.
Extraordinary, Ben thinks again.
Silently, he appraises her; plays out Handel’s fourteenth concerto on the chair’s armrest, a tap-tap-tap of his fingers that thuds too loudly.
“Then it seems that we have both lived through a revolution.”
Those bright eyes dart to his scar, then to his mouth, then skitter across the shadows behind him. Finally Miss Nima meets his gaze directly, and she is firm, as though to deter herself from glancing an inch to the right.
“How did it happen?”
With cannonfire, and smoke, and the firing of a thousand muskets across a battlefield; with the blade of bayonet.
“In protection of those ideals you take against so strongly.”
Ben tries to invoke levity, but the words are too heavy; too true.
Miss Nima drums her fingers against the book still under her hands. Her shoulder twitches, as though she wants to reach out.
The still-open door creaks, and Maz says, “I see you’ve listened to at least one lesson your mother taught you.”
Miss Nima turns away as sharply as though she has been slapped. Ben feels his breath shorten with disproportionate rage, and the fingers which have been tapping out Handel’s concerto clench. No, he reminds himself. He cannot let that rage win. It has fuelled too many youthful dreams; he cannot let it fuel this.
“Yes; one, at least.”
Maz eyes them both critically, like they are housemaids who’ve gotten coal dust on the rug. Perhaps she can sense it; the lingering sound of their words, passing between each other like—
Like equals, Ben thinks. Whatever is my right.
“Well.” Maz gently lifts the book from Miss Nima’s hands; gestures for her to rise with it. “You have inconvenienced her enough for one night. Kaydel has lessons early tomorrow. Miss Nima will need the sleep.”
Maz’s tone is steel coated in the thinnest sheen of joviality. Ben wonders if he should be offended by her concern—he has been too consumed all his life to think of women much—but then he remembers the curve of Miss Nima’s shoulder, the way it meets her neck under those curls. Maz is entirely right to worry.
People will talk.
Maz curtsies a goodnight, waits for Miss Nima to do the same. For a moment she only looks at Ben; and then she curtsies, too, and follows Maz out of the light and into the shadow beyond.
The door creaks again; their footsteps recede in the hall. He can hear the brief hum of Maz’s voice in the night, and then a door closing somewhere far off.
He is left alone in the firelight; and still his blood thrums.
Ben retires to bed, but he cannot sleep. The room is too cold, or the quilts are too hot; he cannot decide. He keeps recalling the day—the garden, the firelight—and asking himself how he lived a whole life before he ever talked with Miss Nima. Now he cannot imagine a day without her in it.
“Keep a clear head,” Ben says to the empty room; but he suffixes it with a sigh. He sits up, pushing the quilts aside and rising from his bed.
He draws the curtains; the heavy velvet has blocked out the night, but now he sees the sky is clear again. The moon is bright and round and full.
I have been free to walk the path of my choosing, she said. Ben feels how much there is to envy in that.
He shrugs on his dressing robe over his nightclothes. If he cannot sleep, he will walk; he will read.
Grasslands Park is silent save for its creaks and groans. The only human noise is that of Ben’s tread across the floors. On the stairs he hesitates, looks to the path which would take him to the East Wing. He has seen Miss Nima disappear into that space so often, and wished he might go with her; just to talk.
But he takes the other path, and descends the stairs.
Yet he can see the study door is open even before he reaches it. At first he thinks the servants have been careless in their clean-up—he should talk to Maz, and Hux, and ask them to issue a gentle reminder, to be made harsher if it recurs—but then he sees the candlelight, flickering across the floor.
Ben clenches his fingers. His blood, still in its constant thrum, pulses harder.
This is my house, he thinks; feels possessive of it for the first time in his life.
It is almost ten years since Ben was Kylo Ren, but his Army training is embedded like thinking, like breathing. He moves silently, and quickly—
There is a missed beat to his heart’s rhythm when he advances, but not because of any intruder; it is the fall of hair against a white nightgown, the profile of a face in candlelight, which steals it from him.
He closes the door, and Miss Nima jumps. She almost drops the candle, and Ben finds himself reaching out on instinct, clasping his hand around hers to stop its fall. The light flickers and dances, and then goes out. There are still embers in the grate, giving some warmth; but now it is only the moon, straying in through a gap in the drapes, which lights the room.
Ben blinks against the dim light. Miss Nima’s fingers flex under his, and Ben lets go, steps away; is, as his eyes get used to the dark, sharply aware of her bare feet and unbound hair, of his own bare skin under his nightclothes.
“Forgive me, I thought—” he begins.
Miss Nima shakes her head, vehement.
“No, sir, you must forgive me. I had no right, this is your own private study and I—”
Even in the gloom, Ben sees the way that she worries at her lips with her teeth. It is distracting.
“The light—let me—”
He fetches the matches; returns with one to light the candle. He takes her hand again, gentler, and strikes the match; lights the wick. The flame takes and flourishes, until they are embraced by the small circle of its glow.
Ben does not let go. Neither does Miss Nima.
“Please let me say that I’m sorry.” Her voice is low in the liminal light. “I should not have crept down here under cover of night when all I wanted was to—” She raises her other hand. She is holding Luke’s Rights of Man. “I saw it earlier, and I just—I have been without my own copy, and I did not know if you would let me read it—”
“Let you?” Ben realises he has squeezed his hand too tightly when Miss Nima winces. “Let you?” he says again, softer. “You think I would censure you?”
Her gaze is sharp. "Other men might.”
“I am not other men.”
“No,” she says. Now she is watching his mouth as he speaks. “No, you are not.”
She is quick. Her mouth is delicate, when she leans up and captures him; he cannot do anything but allow the natural movement of his hand to her face, the brush of his thumb across her cheek. The space between them closes; he lets go of the candle and seizes her nightgown, and her waist beneath it, snatches her towards him. Some animalistic growl sounds in the back of his throat as they collide. Far away, beneath the wine-sweet burn of her mouth, Ben is horrified by himself; but Miss Nima only seems to press closer, and oh, she is soft, the softest thing he has ever felt, he thinks—
Their kiss breaks at the crack of the candle being dropped against the floor. Miss Nima’s eyes go wide and Ben has the sudden memory of a musket firing next to his head. The flame sputters and dies again, and they are left in the moon’s gloam. His fingers tighten in the bunched fabric of her nightgown, tighten around her flesh underneath. Miss Nima hisses, her face sharp with it.
Immediately Ben lets go, but her face seems sharp with that, too; she twitches again, the way she had earlier, as though she still wishes to chase his touch.
When Ben speaks, his voice rasps from him. “I should not forget my mother’s lessons so easily. I am not—this is not—” Right; proper; something I will ever let go of. He exhales, trying to keep control. “People will talk, Miss Nima.”
“Rey,” she prompts; and it’s not new to Ben, this information, for a reason no more romantic than that he sees it in his account books next to her wage; but this time, she gives it to him herself.
“Rey.” He turns the word over on his tongue. “Rey.”
Miss Nima—Rey—smiles. “I like it. I like hearing you say my name.”
Her words, her tone, are another struck match. They stoke the fire low in his belly.
“Well, then. People will talk, Rey.”
She moves into the space—their space—and the heat of her washes into him like the water on a South Georgia shore. She places her hand on the split-v collar of his nightshirt, and Ben’s lungs catch.
She fans her fingers out, pushes past the fabric to his skin. Her fingertips catch on the other scar at his shoulder; the gnarled mess of a musket wound, where the ball had been dug out on the battlefield with a knife.
“I know what I’m asking for, and what I am—what I am willing to give to you.” Her eyes flicker down the space between them and back up. “And I know that people will talk regardless. I will do as I always have and follow my…” She swallows. “Follow my heart.”
Perhaps it is the echo of his own thoughts, or the sudden, simple pleasure of her touch on a scar he has carried for a decade; but it is incendiary. Ben wants her.
He takes the book which is still in her hand; throws it, at a guess, onto the chair behind them. The dull thunk of its weight on the floor, and Rey’s eyes following it, tell Ben he missed.
It doesn’t matter. He’s never liked Thomas Paine.
Now it is Ben moving into their space; he crowds her, one step, then more, across the floor until her back hits the bookcase. She stares up at him; the colour of her eyes is flattened by the moonlight, turning the whole world grey; but still they are bright, as they were in the firelight. He wonders if she is afraid; but her hands run along his arms and up to his shoulders so naturally that he feels, for the briefest moment, like they have done this a hundred times before.
She pushes at his robe, forcing it from his shoulders and onto the floor. Ben takes it as permission to continue; grabs her by the waist, digging fingers into her flesh again, bending his head low to mouth at the curve of her shoulder, the one that’s been driving him so to madness. Rey tilts her head to let him; moans with it. Ben’s cock twitches against his thigh, hard.
“You feel so real,” he says into her skin, clutching her close, as close as he can, his cock pressing against her belly. His hands shift to dig into her back, as though he might crush them together into one person.
“I am—I am real.” She is breathless. “I am real and I give myself freely.”
I give myself freely. All Ben can do is press his face into her skin, breathe in the scent of her.
His fingers tighten. She whines with it, and he worries he is hurting her; but when he loosens his grip she shakes her head—he feels it, the sinews of her neck shifting with the movement—and this time she does chase his touch.
“Please don’t let me go,” she whispers.
Ben cannot put his reply into words; only into the ferocity of his mouth, into the grip of his fingers as he slides them down, down, to push her nightgown up her legs, to knead the exposed flesh of her thighs and then her backside so fiercely he wonders if it will leave bruises.
He lifts her; finds that she is heavier than he expected, her muscles toned and firm, as though she has worked and lived as the servants do; hard and without rest. She drapes her legs around him, squeezes. Ben bites his lip to stop himself from cursing. Her back collides with the bookcase in his stupor and it rattles; her head bounces from its contact with the shelf.
“Are you—” he begins, but she takes his face in her hands and kisses him quiet.
She fits against him without flaw, as though they are two pieces rendered asunder and rejoined. The centre of her is hot and wet, pressed flush with him through the linen of his nightshirt, a maddening kind of heat. He props her more securely against the bookcase, and they slide into place against one another; a pleasure that hisses from the both of them.
“You need to take this off,” he growls, pulling at her nightgown.
Rey nods, shifts so she can tug the material out from under her. The friction as she moves is delicious, almost painful.
Off it comes, Ben helping to tug all that voluminous material up her arms and over her head, until he can throw it somewhere behind them to join the book. She is fully exposed in the moonlight, pale against the shadows, save for the dark hair between her thighs.
Ben thinks of Fuseli’s paintings, all those women beset by figures of the night. A perfect allegory for his darkness and Rey’s light.
She frowns. It pouts her lips a little; almost sweet, almost undoing. “You’ve stopped.”
Ben runs a hand along from her backside, up over her thigh and the light curve of her hip; drags the backs of his fingers across the swell of her breast. She inhales sharply.
“No, I haven’t.”
He moves perhaps faster than she is expecting him too, as he leans down to catch her nipple between his lips, between the graze of his teeth, and she moans with it. He needs to use only the smallest bit of his strength to drag her hips close into his again. Her legs tighten at his waist. The heat of her, everywhere, is almost too much.
“I’m going to touch you,” he says, not quite a question.
She nods, digs her nails into his shoulders. “Then touch me.”
Ben groans. In the name of everything he has built, this girl will be the ruin of him.
In either punishment or pleasure, Ben slips his hand between them, slides his fingers along the wetness he finds, still soaking the front of his nightshirt. Holy—
“Yes,” she breathes; leans in, touches her forehead to his shoulder. “That—touch me like that.”
He presses harder; finds the spot where he can rub his thumb and make her whole body stutter, shuddering against his hand. Never has he been more thankful for the youthful dalliances of a bored soldier; things that had brought him shame, later, even if they’d been nice girls who he liked, and who liked him well enough in return. Now their lessons are suddenly proving worthy.
Rey loosens the grip of her knees. Ben mourns the loss of it until he realises that she is opening herself up to him. Well, then.
He keeps his thumb where it is, massaging circles that make her breath hitch with little moans; but he slides his fingers down, down, through all that wet heat, waiting for any minute reaction which might tell him to stop; but there is only the shallow heave of her shoulders as she breathes, quick and light. Her head lolls against his shoulder.
He must tense—as though it is an attack he is waiting for and not this wondrous act between them—because Rey murmurs into his skin.
“I asked you to touch me like this.” She punctuates her words with kisses along his shoulder, until she reaches the hollow of his throat. She whispers into the bare skin there. “So I suggest that you do it.”
Ben tries to be delicate, but his fingers are too large, too blunt for finesse. He pushes two into her, and Rey sighs, tilts her head back against the books, eyes fluttering closed. Ben has never seen something more beautiful.
“Sir—” she breathes.
He cuts her off with his mouth.
“You know my name is Ben,” he murmurs against her lips. “Call me Ben.” He curls his fingers inside her. His cock twitches in pleasure. “Go on. Say it.”
“Ben,” she repeats; interrupts herself with a gasp as he co-ordinates the pressure of his thumb and his fingers, which is half-intention and half-luck. Her knees dig into his sides as she squeezes her legs again, like she wants to keep him here forever. Ben would not mind.
“Let go,” is all he says, keeping her steady with his other hand, still gripping the curve where thigh meets backside. It feels round and soft and perfect. Why, he thinks, has it been hidden under those dresses all this time? He wants to see it in daylight.
The arch of Rey’s back draws Ben’s attention. The angle is a little awkward, but—he leans in, licks across her breast, grazing her nipple again with his tongue. He bites lightly; and she flutters and then tightens around his fingers. Were it not for that he might think, from the look on her face, that she is in pain.
He leans back and watches her through it. She bites her lip; presses her mouth together, he suspects, to keep her moan quiet. It is fractured, breathy. He can feel the echoes of her pleasure rippling against his fingers. In the silence of the study, her breathing is all he hears.
“Come back to me,” he says, slowly withdrawing his fingers with a noise that, somehow, makes him even harder. He fumbles with the hem of his nightshirt, finally draws it up so that he can touch himself. His fingers are wet, sliding easily, and he takes a deep, unsteady breath. “Come back to me.”
She opens her eyes. Now that her pleasure has rolled through her, Rey is languid, her grip on his shoulders loose. She drifts her hand up to his face. Her thumb brushes the scar bisecting it.
“Beautiful,” she whispers, almost to herself, and Ben realises he is lost; tumbling away to infinity with only this girl and their sins.
Her gaze darts downwards, to the shadows between them and the shift and slide of Ben’s hand. She is already flushed with pleasure, but it deepens, an exquisite blush that saturates her face and her throat and her breasts.
“See how you alter me? See how I am changed by you?” As the pleasure bleeds through him he is only half-aware of his own words; though he feels their meaning entirely, how they are so much more than corporeal sensation. Yes, Ben has known women, but—not like this; not as if it is Rey's spirit that addresses the same sense in him, and not just their flesh.
“Yes,” she says. “I see you, Ben. I see you.”
He takes her to bed.
I can walk there myself, she says, after Ben has wrapped her in his dressing robe, paying no mind to her discarded nightdress; but when she stands her legs wobble, coltish with all their newfound pleasures, and so now Ben is cradling her like a bride, carrying her up Grasslands Park’s grand staircase. Finally, in the shadows of moonlight, he can follow his feet to the East Wing.
She is already kissing him when he lays her down. Ben parts the robe with his hands to expose her to him again, tumbling with her to the bed, mind racing with what they have done; with what they are doing. A part of him is drifting, thinking on his every action this past evening, as though to ask whether it is he who has lead them here, and whether Rey is an innocent simply caught up in his wake.
But then she claws at his nightshirt, and Ben lets her tug it over his head, an echo of his same motion with hers. It goes where he knows not, and he does not care; only that the cold air which hits his back is nothing, not with Rey’s warmth to bury himself in.
Her curiosity is a glimmer in her eyes, and Ben sits back; lets Rey’s gaze rove, and her hands. She sits up; the robe, too large for her, slips from her shoulders, and it is impossible not to stare at the curve of her breasts, at the subtle strength of her form; at the hunger and intelligence in her face. He cannot comprehend that such a woman has taken him to her bed.
Perhaps it is mutual; Rey follows her hands with her gaze as she slides them down his neck and across his shoulders again, to touch the scars there; then the contours of his arms, marking the veins she finds, and finally down across his chest, brushing the small tangle of hair in the middle, before she touches, feather-light, at the taut skin of his stomach.
He twitches with it—so does his cock—and she laughs, delicate, as though she has discovered something truly delightful. It glows on her face before she bites her lip, almost shy.
“I want—” she begins; stops, starts again. “I want—I want all of you.”
All that I can give, Ben thinks.
Never mind that it is too late to retreat from this, considering that Rey is naked in front of him, and her pleasure has been slicked over his cock by his own hand, and they have yet to really even begin what it is they have set in motion; the part of his psyche which never said you’re right or I know is driving him, now. He wants her so badly it hurts.
“This cannot be walked back from, Rey.” His voice is low in the quiet. “If I—if we—”
She trails her hands back up, presses her palms to the scars on his shoulders. She is wearing a look of concentration, as though trying to get her words right.
“I am not some English rose fresh from the schoolroom. I have lived in the world, and I understand the ways of it, even if I have not yet exp—well,” and he can see the colour in her cheeks again, “not quite experienced it, yet.” She looks up at him. “I told you, Ben. I know what I am willing to give to you. Let yourself take it.”
She marks her point by reaching down between them, grasping his cock, and Ben’s hips twitch, thrust on instinct. Rey’s delight returns; she slides her hand experimentally up and down, smiling like a cat with cream.
“Rey—” he bites out. Her palm is a little roughened, just enough that he notices when it glides across his skin. She tries speculative touches and strokes to his cock that have Ben’s own fingers twitching, clutching at thin air. He gathers his words up with the last shred of his sound mind. “Are you—”
“Yes.” She leans into him. “I have made my choice.”
A growl builds in Ben’s throat. He takes her wrist and pulls her hand away—there is a momentary and delicious slide along his cock, and he reminds himself of what he’s doing this for—and then he pushes at her knees, letting them fall open. He moves her back down to the bed with a firm touch—becomes quite sure, as he does so, that he will never see anything as beautiful as the way she is spread out for him like this—and then he takes handfuls of her flesh, tugging her forward by her hips, pulling them flush together.
He settles himself over her. The heat between them is still there, a maddening, wondrous need, but he finds that it’s shot through with something deeper; with an instinctual need to protect Rey from the nerves she is trying to hide.
“Hold on to me,” he says.
She nods, wordless; winds her legs around him, and her arms, face pressed into his throat. Ben lines his cock up with the heat of her; pushes in.
Ben doesn't think he believes in God anymore, but in this moment it’s the word on his lips. Rey inhales sharply against his skin; then exhales as he pushes further, like he’s stealing the air from her lungs. Ben is shaking with control, trying to keep it slow; and then he settles and stills, feels little flutters and spasms around him as she gets used to it. His cock twitches in echo. His body is telling him to move.
Her eyes are closed; her nails are digging into his back. He feels her taking another slow, deep breath; then:
“Yes. I want—yes. Please, Ben.”
He thrusts, once—for a moment almost nervous, as though he is the one doing this for the first time—and then again, and again, harder and faster, and the friction and slide become easier, Rey’s breath shorter, her moans longer.
“You are mine,” he says into her hair, squeezing her flesh in his hands, mindless with how she feels around him. “You are mine and I am yours.”
“Mine and yours,” she murmurs; tilts her head back on the pillow. Ben sees her mouth parted with pleasure, eyes half-closed. She is flushed and messy. Extraordinary, he thinks with each thrust, with more of his body and mind and soul buried within her each time. Extraordinary, extraordinary, extraordinary.
She tightens around him on a last, deep stroke, and Ben only just has the presence of mind to withdraw, to spill himself across her belly with a moan. She looks slightly surprised, still half-wild with sex; looks down at where they have been joined with dazed amazement.
Ben takes in Rey’s flush, her wide eyes, her nakedness. Mine, he thinks, still unable to believe it.
Perhaps he speaks out loud, because Rey opens her mouth as though to respond, closes it again. Instead she leans in, presses lazy kisses to his throat, his jaw; his scars.
In the dawn light, as the night retreats, Rey begins to wake when he moves. It's a failed attempt to unravel himself, and Ben is not above admitting that he is half-hearted about it.
She catches at his wrist as he sits up, presses her lips to his knuckles. “Stay.”
He wants to shiver at the touch, wants to say yes with his entire being, but—
“The dawn has come.” He brushes her lips with the backs of his fingers. “And I must be alone, at least for now. Otherwise—”
He doesn’t say it, doesn’t need to; but Rey still frowns, just a little, just enough to puncture him like a bayonet, like a musket ball. Perhaps it fires her resolve; she grips his hand, her thumb pressed into the palm, and kisses the soft flesh there before she lets go.
Ben stays a second, then a second more. Rey is still watching him, the early light soft on her face. Her hair is mussed; there is a mark on her shoulder where Ben sunk his teeth into the skin there. He wants to soothe it, and yet some other, primaeval part longs for it to be preserved.
He will speak with Hux as quickly as time allows, he decides; will see about getting the banns read, about ordering his grandmother’s jewels from the bank, about going to London for Rey’s dress. He feels again that sentiment for which he will turn an entire world upside down. Then it has been war; now it is something else.
“You’re still here,” she says, pointed, raising her brows; but she has a smile in her voice.
Ben nods. “For as long as you will have me.”
Damn society; he will ask her.
He leaves her with goodnight, with the promise of tomorrow; yet closing the door behind him feels like leaving Eurydice in the Underworld. Ben knows he would risk the dead to bring this tomorrow closer.
He returns to his room to find it changed. Everything looks the same, but it cannot be; the world has shifted beneath their feet, spinning in a new direction. The bed covers are pushed back as he left them, the curtains still undrawn; but the man is not the same.
The moon sits in the windowpane, diminishing in the dawn. Ben feels his blood rush like the tide; and there is a new beat thrumming through him. Rey, it sings, in the voice of new beginnings. Rey.