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When Sir Malcolm returned to London with an Apache man who claimed to be Ethan's Apache father, they hadn't had to ask Vanessa twice to come with them to find Ethan. If she had learned anything in her time alone at Grandage Place, it was that the place itself-and really, London in general-had nothing for her if the people she loved were not also there. And so she found herself on a boat to America with Sir Malcolm and Ethan’s Apache father, Kaetenay.

 

The trip to New York and the trip to New Mexico Territory were a blur for Vanessa, who found herself too anxious and desperate to see Ethan to truly appreciate the sights of the country she'd found herself in. The truth was she had tried to be angry with him, and for a while maybe it had worked to some degree. But overall, she couldn't bring herself to hate him. At the end of the day, all she wanted to know was that he was safe, and if what Kaetenay claimed was to be believed, he was in terrible danger. Ethan may have gone back on what he'd said, that his only purpose in life was to protect her, but Vanessa would do anything as well to keep him safe. No matter her complicated feelings about it, she still loved him. She wasn't sure that there was anything she couldn't forgive him for.

 

Kaetenay gradually gave them more information the closer to their destination they got; Ethan’s real name, for a start (though she doubted she would ever be able to refer to him with it after so long referring to him as Mr. Chandler), and a vague explanation for how he knew him-but also that Ethan would likely have been taken to his father. Kaetenay also told them that that was not the greatest threat to Ethan. The greatest threat would be a nightcomer who had somehow escaped that terrible night over half a year ago. Fear and anger warred within Vanessa at this revelation; it was Sir Malcolm who suggested she stay in a nearby town while they traveled to the Talbot ranch to retrieve Ethan. She refused; she would not sit around doing nothing while his soul was in danger from one of those wretched witches. Vanessa could tell Sir Malcolm did not agree with her decision, but neither did he attempt to force the matter. She was grateful for that.

 

In the end, it boiled down to this: none of them were entirely certain what they’d encounter once they reached the ranch, but that surely a battle of some kind would be coming.

 

-o-o-o-

 

The only way he knew to count the days was by the lunar cycles, by the transformations that occurred during full moons. To date there had been eight; it had been maybe seven months. Seven months in which he’d felt the absence of Vanessa like a phantom limb; seven months in which to berate himself for his decision to leave her. Of all the things Ethan had done in his life, his biggest regret was leaving her, the woman he loved. He thought he’d done her a kindness, but now he knew it was cruelty. If he could ever be a free man again, he’d run back to her to beg her forgiveness. Even if she could not love him again, just to see her again-to know that she was safe-would be enough.

 

Self loathing was the only thing that kept Ethan going; without it-without his great need to find a way out so he could set things right-he might’ve given up long ago. Here he was, a prisoner in his father’s home. His father was toying with him, he knew. Rather than confining him to a cell, he was confined to his childhood room, to the ghosts that caused more self loathing for pain he’d caused. If there was one lesson Ethan had truly learned over the course of his life, it was that the road to hell was surely paved with good intentions. If only he’d also learned to heed that lesson as well.

 

It had been maybe two weeks since the last full moon; he’d spent two full moons in this house, his father keeping him on edge, playing house like they were something they were not. The inspector and the marshal following him had been dispatched quickly; his father had taken sadistic glee in watching Ethan’s reaction as he’d killed them. He’d left them to the wolves; a fitting end, his father claimed. Now that his father had discovered Ethan’s secret-through torturing the inspector before his demise-his attitude had shifted and become more dangerous. Whatever he planned, he’d be far more calculating than he’d been with the two men after him, Ethan knew. During those full moons, his father had him chained in irons in a cell, not daring to risk giving Ethan the upper hand.

 

And so it went; as his father formulated his plans, Ethan formulated his own. His best chance would be the next full moon, he knew, but he knew also that he’d have to find a way to make sure he wasn’t chained before the transformation-a feat he feared was impossible.

 

It was as he lay in bed late one night, perhaps sometime in the middle of November, that Ethan heard the scratching on the window in his room. Almost at exactly the same time, there was the sound of knocking at the door downstairs. Frowning, he considered. Hearing his father’s booming voice from downstairs, he decided to concern himself with the window instead.

 

He regretted opening the window as soon as he’d done so. In the dark, he could just barely make out the features of the nightcomer-Hecate, he remembered-a manic look on her face.

 

“Hello, lupus dei ,” she practically cooed.

 

“How-”

 

“I’ve been waiting,” she smirked at him, “Would you let me in?”

 

Ethan swallowed, considering his options. Then, deciding he was desperate enough to hear her out at the very least, he slowly nodded and backed away, warning, “If you try anything…”

 

“Relax,” she laughed, mockingly, “I won’t hurt you. I wish to rule by your side, remember?”

 

In that moment, Ethan realized two things: that he did not trust this woman further than he could throw her, but also that he could use her to his advantage. He would not have to wait for the next full moon for blood to spill, if only he played his cards right; and then he could dispose of her, and make his way back to London-to Miss Ives-to see if there was still a place for him there.

 

Hecate must’ve realized it as well; her voice was a soothing, lulling murmur. Ethan wasn’t sure of the words she’d spoken, but he decided, eventually, that he wanted nothing more than to do anything the witch said. In fact, he could not remember ever not wanting to do so.

 

The last true thing Ethan remembered before falling under the nightcomer’s spell were clear yet haunted blue eyes, his name on her lips.

 

-o-o-o-

 

“So we’re just to knock on his door and pray he welcomes us in?” Vanessa asked incredulously, her brow furrowed in confusion and mild distaste for the plan Sir Malcolm and Kaetenay had just explained as they’d seen the Talbot ranch in sight.

 

“We don’t know what we’ll be walking into,” Sir Malcolm sighed, “Kaetenay knows the layout of the place pretty well, but we’ve no idea where they’re keeping him, or how much security his father will have. This is why we wished you to stay in town, Vanessa.”

 

She shook her head in resignation, “I have no regrets. He may have wronged me, but I cannot just abandon him now when he is the one in danger. At the very least, I owe him my life. I intend to repay the favor.”

 

Sir Malcolm nodded in somewhat reluctant understanding. His heart ached for her briefly, and not for the first time, he did not believe Ethan worthy of their attempt at rescue. How could he, when he’d fostered such hope in this woman-who, despite their differences and bad blood, he saw as a daughter of sorts-only to cruelly rip that hope from her, crush it like it was nothing? While the older man was not entirely certain of what exactly had transpired between them-nor did he particularly wish to know such a private matter-what he did know was that he had never seen Vanessa so despondent as when he’d returned from Africa. Insisting they’d stopped by London first to recruit her for this mission had been the right decision, surely; since that day, there was fire burning anew within her, a sense of purpose after so long without one. It was perhaps the only reason why Sir Malcolm continued this venture, even as he begun to understand more and more just what Ethan’s departure had done to Vanessa.

 

Sir Malcolm knocked, Kaetenay right behind him with a gun hidden behind the English gentleman’s back. Vanessa was at the far back, a gun in her hand at her own insistence. If this battle began straight away, at least they’d be able to go out fighting.

 

It seemed like forever they waited with bated breath before the door opened. When the older American man opened it, assessing his visitors, he smirked. That smirk grew when Sir Malcolm uttered a greeting, and he quickly deduced that these must be the associates of Ethan from London, come on some futile attempt to rescue him.

 

“May we come in?” Vanessa asked from the back, a sweetly nervous smile on her face. What Ethan’s father did not know was that she’d uncocked her gun and hidden it within the folds of her skirts, ready at a moment’s notice.

 

“Of course,” he chuckled darkly, “Though you must know how rude it is, barging in on a man at such a late hour.”

 

“We apologize,” Sir Malcolm replied, voice smooth and cold, giving nothing away.

 

The old man’s face hardened as Kaetenay entered, but he did nothing to stop him nor acknowledge him.

 

“What can I do for you?” the old man demanded, straight to the point.

 

“You see, we seem to have become lost, and are now nearly out of supplies. We’re in need of horses-and provisions, if you’d be so kind-so that we may stand a chance making it to the nearest town,” Vanessa tried.

 

The man scoffed in disbelief, “At this hour? Please, girl, I’m not naive. Your accents and your demeanor-as well as his presence-you’re here for my worthless son. For what purpose, I don’t know, but I can promise you he’s safe here. He’s where he belongs.”

 

Vanessa’s nostrils flared and she reigned in her temper, “I’d like to hear that from him, if you don’t mind.”

 

“I do,” the older man snorted derisively, “Now, I’m not one to turn a lady out at such a late hour, so you may stay, if you’d like. They can sleep in the barn with the horses if they’d like. But know this: you will have guards at your door and you will be expected to leave at sunrise, or I will be forced to take precautions to defend my home. You understand, of course, don’t you?”

 

“Of course,” she replied with a tight smile.

 

Sir Malcolm hated to become separated from Vanessa in the lion’s den, but he was sure it was the safest course of action. He was not particularly religious anymore, but still he sent a silent prayer to the universe for her safety, and that they would not find her gun so that she would have a modicum of protection.

 

In the barn, Kaetenay spread out his bundle, intending to communicate with Ethan. Sir Malcolm paced the small space, and hoped that they’d not been too late, their folly too great.

 

“Fuck,” the Apache man growled, and Sir Malcolm whipped around to face him immediately.

 

“What-?”

 

“I can’t reach him,” his expression was grim, “I do believe we’re too late, that the witch has gotten him under her spell.”

 

Sir Malcolm swore as well. Vanessa was alone in that ranch, with Ethan’s father and an escaped nightcomer. The lion’s den indeed.

 

-o-o-o-

 

“Not to worry, I will free you,” Hecate promised, after she’d demanded Ethan explain everything to her: about the layout of the house, his father, the daily routines of the place.

 

“Thank you,” Ethan replied, his voice a low murmur. Hecate sent him a knowing smirk; one of the lovely side effects of this particular spell was that it made the spellcaster more alluring.

 

She wondered how far she could take her enhanced appeal tonight; intercourse would strengthen her power over him. It was as Hecate tried to think of the best way to seduce Ethan that they heard tense voices in the hall; an argument of some kind. Perhaps this was an opportunity that could be seized; Hecate decided it was worth the risk, and that if her instincts were correct, then she could solidify her control over the lupus dei tomorrow, when they were both free of this primitive and miserable patch of land. She’d been watching for weeks, waiting for a chance to reveal her presence to him; maybe fortune had truly smiled on her by giving her a way for them to escape on the same night as well.

 

Hecate motioned Ethan to be quiet. He nodded his understanding as she quietly opened the door and slipped out into the hall, following her until he reached the door of his room before staying put there, out of sight from those in the hall.

 

Luck truly was on Hecate’s side, she realized, grinning gleefully as she took in the scene she’d stumbled upon. They’d yet to notice her, so caught up in their disagreement as they were. Miss Ives was arguing with two of the young vaqueros and a third one, much older, perhaps almost the same age as Ethan’s father. It appeared as if Miss Ives had been trying-and failed-to shake them off of her; no doubt Ethan’s father had placed them on her to ensure she went nowhere she was not supposed to.

 

Hecate didn’t take more time than needed to assess the situation. As long as they hadn’t noticed her she had the upper hand. That element of surprise would be crucial, and so she acted, shifting into her natural form.

 

She was able to dispose of one of the younger men swiftly. She took pleasure in the shock on Miss Ives’ face, though it quickly turned to rage. Hecate paid her no mind; she’d save the best for last. After all, Ethan’s melancholy former love was likely not to be a true threat if she was too fast for her to get her wits about her to cast a defensive spell against Hecate.

 

It happened so fast that it took Hecate time to catch up. She had killed the second younger man as the third fled, no doubt to get Ethan’s father. They’d just have to be even faster, then. Then suddenly there was pain; she looked down, to see a gaping hole in her abdomen. Sinking to her knees Hecate looked up slowly with horror as she realized her own folly. Miss Ives was holding a gun, still smoking. The look of rage had hardened into something far deadlier as she slowly stepped closer.

 

Miss Ives reached Hecate, whose body was rapidly going numb from the blood loss. She grabbed her face and forced her to meet her eyes. Her voice was cold as ice as she said, “It was a mere oversight that you did not die that night with your mother and the rest of your kind. I will rectify that mistake tonight.”

 

Hecate shivered with fear and let out a pained huff of laughter, “You think that killing me will set you free somehow? I can promise you, it won’t.”

 

“I am aware,” Miss Ives gave her a grim, dangerous smile, leaning in, “You and your kind will never be able to harm me or those I hold dear ever again if you are gone; you will not be able to demand my surrender to your master nor Ethan’s to your will. For now, that is enough.”

 

Miss Ives pulled back, cocked the gun again. All she felt was emptiness as she calmly pointed the gun between the nightcomer’s eyes; though the witch was incapacitated, she would not risk giving her a slow death lest she regain enough strength for one last spell.

 

Two things happened almost simultaneously: Vanessa pulled the trigger, and Ethan left his room, yelling at her to stop, nearly manic with desperation that she not kill the witch. He lunged for Vanessa, but it was too late; the bullet lodged in the last nightcomer’s skull, and Ethan must’ve realized the futility of his actions, stopping himself so he could kneel and take Hecate’s body into his lap. Vanessa felt sick at this act of devotion to the woman who had helped to make her life a living hell, and had to remind herself that he was most likely under some sort of enchantment; hopefully he’d snap out of it with the witch’s last breath.

 

Much to her great relief, he did. Vanessa watched as Ethan came back to himself. His first act once freed was to push away Hecate’s corpse with growing horror and disgust. His eyes darted up to hers, and there was matching relief in his. That relief quickly shifted to fear as he remembered what he’d done, what he’d heard. There was no doubt; his father would come for him. They’d either escape tonight, or die here. He would not let the latter happen to Vanessa.

 

“Did anyone else come with you?” he demanded.

 

“Sir Malcolm and Kaetenay are in the barn,” she responded quickly. Ethan let out a breath of relief and nodded, thinking.

 

“Alright,” he swallowed, “We need to get them, now . I have an idea of where my father will be if he thinks his home is under attack, but we’re not going there alone.”

 

Vanessa nodded, “Do you have a gun?”

 

Ethan shook his head, “I’m sure he’s got his armory heavily guarded.”

 

“Take mine,” she held it out to him, and as he gave her a look that told her he might protest she continued in a firm tone, “You were a professional sharpshooter. The gun is a better tool in your hand than mine.”

 

He nodded, reluctant to disarm her. Ethan stood, taking the gun. He looked into her eyes, swallowed as he searched them. She was calm, steady, giving nothing away. Ethan carefully reached out with his free hand to take one of her hands in his, lacing their fingers together. She let out a shaky breath, her eyes closing to hold back tears they had no time for. Ethan, understanding, squeezed her hand gently and let go.

 

“Follow me,” he told her, voice soft with emotion, “We’ll exit through the kitchen so you can at least get a knife.”

 

Vanessa nodded in agreement, and followed him through the house. It was eerily silent; they met no resistance, and Ethan’s face set grimly as his worst fears were confirmed. He made sure Vanessa grabbed one of the sharper knives in the kitchen in case his father had men stationed outside, but he did not. Their way to the barn was unimpeded.

 

When they entered, Sir Malcolm and Kaetenay jumped, and looked at them in relief.

 

“We heard shots,” Sir Malcolm told them, “We were just discussing how best to go in.”

 

“I have a plan,” Ethan assured them, “Do you have an extra gun?”

 

“Yes,” Sir Malcolm answered. Ethan gave Vanessa the gun back, and took the one the older man offered.

 

They reloaded weapons and put extra bullets in pockets as Ethan explained where his father was likely to be, and what kind of trap they were about to walk into. Before they went, he stopped them with a look, took a breath and said, “Thank you, for coming here for me. I just hope it won’t be in vain.”

 

“Me, too,” Kaetenay grumbled.

 

The tension slightly eased, they slowly and stealthily made their way back to the ranch.

 

-o-o-o-

 

As Ethan had predicted, his father was inside the chapel with his remaining four vaqueros. They’d quickly taken out two others stationed outside the chapel, and they all steeled themselves to walk into an ambush, making sure once more guns were fully loaded. Like they had on that night in Grandage Place over a year ago, Ethan and Vanessa shared a look and a subtle nod. No matter what had happened between them, the simple truth was this: they were with each other, always.

 

They managed to take out two of the vaqueros quickly before they had to disperse, ducking behind upheaved pews for cover. Ethan took out a third. Vanessa noticed the fourth coming up behind him, and did not hesitate; she dove from where she had been hidden and shot him in the back twice. It was then that she realized she had made a mistake; she was out of bullets-having missed a few shots-and Ethan’s father was advancing on her. She worked as fast as she could to free the knife she’d taken earlier from her garter where she’d hidden it, but it was too late. The older man was able to disarm her, grab her, and drag her roughly to stand in front of the altar. He held her roughly in his grasp, a gun to her temple as he turned to Ethan-who had stood as soon as he’d realized his father was gone from his place watching the bloodbath at the altar-with a sadistic grin on his face.

 

“Well, son,” Jared Talbot mused, “It seems we’ve reached an impasse. Or maybe not? Who is this woman to you, I wonder, that she’d come all this way to retrieve your sorry ass?”

 

Ethan growled, and his father laughed in response, his grip on Vanessa tightening. Vanessa met Ethan’s eyes, calmly telling him not to move just yet. Kaetenay and Sir Malcolm had stood now as well, also not moving as everyone assessed the situation. The truth was this: they were all too far from Vanessa to get to Ethan’s father before he could kill her, and his father knew it.

 

“It is no wonder he ran from you,” Vanessa’s voice was flat, a deadly calm spreading through her body in response to her situation, “If this is the type of man you are.”

 

“Shut up, bitch,” his father growled, his free hand moving from her arm to her hair, pulling painfully hard on it to force her to face him, “I was gonna just kill you, but since you’ve got such a mouth maybe I’ll teach my failure of a son how a real man takes a woman.”

 

“If you lay so much as a finger on her-” Ethan growled, echoing that night on the moors so many months ago, with another dangerous man threatening her because of him.

 

His father laughed heartily, a bitter and awful sound, “Choose wisely, son. I can lodge a bullet in her pretty skull faster than you can stop me from doing whatever the fuck I want to her.”

 

Once the older man was sure no one was making a move towards him he slowly lowered his gun from Vanessa’s temple. He took another moment to make sure no one had moved yet before he forcibly turned her to face him fully. He let go of her hair and arms to start to bend and make a move for her skirt. Vanessa took advantage of the opportunity, kneeing him hard in abdomen. As the man doubled over Ethan rushed over and lunged, tackling him to the ground. He punched his father in the face, over and over, until the man was gasping for breath-and laughing . Ethan pulled back in disgust, standing shakily and backing away. Vanessa reached out and placed a hand cautiously on his bicep in an attempt to soothe him.

 

“Running away again? Is that all you can ever do?” his father taunted, slowly staggering to his feet, “Have the decency to finish what you started, like a man, like how your brother would’ve if you hadn’t-”

 

A shot rang out, silencing the old man in his tirade. Ethan and Vanessa turned, startled, to see Sir Malcolm close by, his gun smoking in hand.

 

There was a long period of silence as they took in the grisly scene around them. Ethan didn’t know how to feel; the only thing keeping him tethered was Vanessa, whose hand on his arm rubbed calmingly. He turned to her then, moving out of her grasp in favor of taking her face in his hands, frantically looking her over to make sure she was okay.

 

“Are you alright?” he asked, voice rough with emotion.

 

Vanessa let out a shaky breath and responded, “I will be.”

 

Ethan nodded, and then let go of her face to pull her tightly to his chest. She relaxed almost instantly in his embrace. Then she started to cry. Vanessa wasn’t entirely sure what had been the true cause of it, but she couldn’t stop it. Ethan pressed his face to the top of her head and pulled her even tighter to him, swaying gently and murmuring over and over that she was safe, that he had her, that he wasn’t going anywhere, until finally the sobs subsided. He held her for a while after that as well, only letting go at a cough from Sir Malcolm that reminded him they weren’t alone. Reluctantly he parted from her, staying so close they were almost touching still because he didn't think he could bear being completely separate from her at that moment.

 

“Right,” Kaetenay spoke into the awkward silence that followed, “Let’s get the fuck out of here.”

 

They all nodded in agreement, and followed the Apache man out of the ranch’s chapel, and finally out of the ranch itself.

 

-o-o-o-

 

The sun was just rising when they finally left-as clean of blood as they could be-with horses and provisions that would make the return journey less grueling. Despite the tension so thick it could be cut with a dull knife between Kaetenay and Ethan, they worked well together to get them to the nearest town. Even still, the sun had long since set when they arrived, and they were all exhausted when they finally got to the one inn in the small town.

 

The place was crowded; unsurprising, as the inn was also advertised as being a tavern. The man working at the bar counter looked at their ragtag band-covered in dust and sweat from several hours in the desert-with mild distaste. The look on his face darkened at the sight of Kaetenay, his entire posture on edge. Sir Malcolm stepped forward, taking charge of the situation.

 

“We require rooms,” he stated calmly.

 

“For how long?” the man asked, still wary, but less so with his focus entirely on Sir Malcolm now.

 

“Just the night,” Sir Malcolm’s smile was polite but tight, forced.

 

The man nodded, “How many?”

 

“Four, if you have them available,” Sir Malcolm tried.

 

“We’ve got three,” his tone brooked no room for argument, barely contained hostility directed towards Kaetenay in a look and slight nod of acknowledgement, “We’ve got a stable out back for your horses if you’ve got; he can stay with them if he’d like.”

 

Sir Malcolm opened his mouth, perhaps to protest, and Ethan stepped forward, “That’ll be fine, thanks. I hope you don’t mind too much if we let him up to help us with our things.”

 

“Of course not,” the man said through gritted teeth.

 

Sir Malcolm stepped forward to pay, and they headed upstairs. Once upstairs Ethan checked to make sure they had some amount of privacy in the deserted corridor before turning and saying, “I don’t like the idea of us being separated.”

 

“Me either, but I am not sure we have a choice,” Sir Malcolm sighed, shaking his head a little in resignation.

 

“What is the likelihood of that man downstairs coming up to check that Kaetenay has left to go where he is supposed to?” Vanessa asked.

 

“Not likely,” Ethan admitted, “This place is also the only tavern in town, and by the looks of it, it’s understaffed. I doubt he’d take the time to check who’s in each room.”

 

Vanessa nodded, considering, and replied, “He can take mine. I can share with Mr. Chandler-if he is alright with that, of course.”

 

“Miss Ives-” Ethan started, swallowing.

 

She cut him off with only a look, a look that said so much. He couldn’t find it in himself to continue arguing, so he nodded slowly at her in return and turned to the other two men. A look of displeasure flickered briefly across Sir Malcolm’s face before he masked it over the indiscretion in Vanessa’s statement. Kaetenay’s face was impassive.

 

“Well,” Sir Malcolm sighed again, a small and tired smile on his face, “If that’s decided then, I say we turn in for the night.”

 

They all nodded their agreement, and wordlessly found their rooms.

 

-o-o-o-

 

“Are you truly okay with this?” she turned to him as he closed the door behind him, a nervous look on her face.

 

“Yes,” he watched her entire body slowly relax, a small, tentative smile appearing on her face that he couldn’t help but match with one of his own, and asked her, “Are you?”

 

“I would not have offered if I was not,” she replied simply, and that was that.

 

When she began to undress he turned his back to her until she told him it was okay for him to turn back to face her again. Then there came a long moment where he just soaked in the sight of her. Vanessa had somehow always looked smaller, more vulnerable, when she was in a nightgown, her armor gone. Ethan found himself marveling somewhat at the fact that she was showing him this vulnerability after everything he’d done; more than that, that she was willing to share a room with him. He knew that whatever she wanted to pretend, or make herself believe even, that he had hurt her by leaving. That would be something that would take time to fix, he was certain, but he was also certain that they would manage.

 

He became suddenly aware that he was not the only one staring when he looked back up into her face. There was a look there he’d seen only one time before; that night on the moors during the storm, the fire in the cottage slowly dying and rain pouring through the fresh hole in the roof. Her standing still, breathing heavy and the same intense look on her face that had called to him so viscerally he’d been helpless to do anything but cross the distance, lift her to his height, and kiss her as hard as he’d wanted to for so long he’d forgotten what it was like to not want her. But now is different; now it’s been over half a year, and Ethan had left her. Now he reigns himself in, forces himself not to do the same as that night. If Vanessa wants him now, truly wants him, she will have to be the one to close that gap.

 

She moved slowly, but purposefully, towards him. There was another moment where time seemed to stand still, waiting, as she finally came to stand before him. Everything sped up once more as she took his face in her small hands and leaned up, her lips hovering just over his for precious seconds before they met his. It took him a moment to respond, so in awe of her he was, but then he did, one hand tangling in her hair to cradle the back of her head, the other wrapping around her waist to pull her improbably closer. She let out a contented sigh at that. Emboldened by her reaction he deepened the kiss, tongue probing her mouth.

 

Eventually they were forced to part for air, gasping breaths taken so close still that they could feel the other’s inhales and exhales. Ethan leaned down enough to press his forehead to Vanessa’s as they took the moment to breathe. His entire body thrummed with arousal but there was a certain peace in the moment he was reluctant to risk shattering. It felt like coming home.

 

She pulled back from him a bit, looking intently at his chest, and then he felt her nimble fingers working at the buttons of his shirt. He did nothing to stop or encourage her, afraid of moving too quickly or doing the wrong thing, wanting her too badly to risk doing something that would make her stop. She pulled back even further as she pushed the now unbuttoned shirt off his shoulders, eyeing his bare chest hungrily. She reached out to ghost her fingertips across his skin in a way that made him shiver, and a faint smile glanced upon her face for a moment as she relished in his reaction to her proximity.

 

Vanessa retracted her fingers, stepping further back from him, and Ethan instantly mourned her touch. She locked eyes with him then for a long time, searching, it seems. Ethan forced himself to relax, to let her see how much she had affected him, but once more lets Vanessa decide their next move. He watched as she reached down to the hem of her nightgown, and he barely had time to prepare himself for what was surely coming next before she’s pulling it quickly up and off her, eye contact only broken as the garment passed over her head. Vanessa let it drop carelessly to the floor, and locked eyes with Ethan once again. It is then that he realized she had removed her knickers before putting on the nightgown, and that he is alone with a completely nude Vanessa Ives.

 

He let his eyes roam hungrily over her body, savoring the flush that had already begun to spread from her face to her breasts, the thatch of dark hair between her legs, the smattering of freckles across her skin. She was more beautiful than Ethan could have ever imagined, even in his wildest fantasies. Ethan found himself once more awestruck at her ability to forgive him enough to be this vulnerable, to want him despite everything. He was sure he does not deserve her in that moment.

 

When he met her eyes again after a long time of just looking and not moving towards her, he saw that nervousness had entered them again. A frown was beginning to set on her face; he realized that she thought she had misjudged the situation, and Ethan could see as Vanessa rapidly began closing off,  ready most likely to pull her nightgown on and crawl into bed to avoid him. He won’t- can’t , really-have that, and so he snaps out of his reverie and it was him who closed the distance once more. She relaxed slowly the closer he got, and he watched her face as he reached out to skim his fingers along the underside of her left breast. Her eyes fluttered close, her mouth parting a little as he swept his thumb gently across her nipple, and he delighted in the small noise she let out when he pinched it between thumb and forefinger. Her entire body quivered for a moment, just a little, just enough for him to become bold enough to let go of her breast in favor of grabbing her hips and pulling her close enough to lean down and kiss her, hard.

 

Vanessa yielded to him easily, melting into his kiss as his hands wandered over her body. She pulled back enough to bite his lower lip when he grabbed her bare ass, and her knees buckled when he moved that hand to skim his fingers along her inner thigh. Ethan delighted in the response, and used her momentary distraction to his advantage, shifting so he could lift her. Vanessa leaned down to kiss him again, more aggressively this time as she wrapped her legs around his waist, her arms around his neck. She dug her nails possessively into his shoulders, and as he walked them towards the small bed in the room she moved her hips, pushing her center into his torso. He momentarily faltered, and she let out of a little huff of laughter. It was he who bit her lip now as he moved them again, a low, alluring growl escaping her throat at the contact.

 

Ethan lowered Vanessa to the bed, and she tried to pull him down with her. He managed to shrug her off, and her momentary displeasure was rewarded as she watched him remove the rest of his clothing before joining her on the bed. The way she spread her legs to accommodate him between them was obscene in the best way, he decided, obliging her and covering her small body with his own. He took another long moment to just look at her, marveling.

 

Again she grew impatient with him, her brow furrowing as he laid on top of her with most of his weight resting on his arms, doing nothing more than just staring. It was incredibly endearing, he decided, and also more than a little arousing. In truth he was overwhelmed; by the fact that they were doing this, by the indecision over where to put his hands and mouth. And God, he wanted to take his time, to slowly map out her body with his fingers and his lips, to discover all the places that made her squirm and gasp with arousal. He wanted to worship Vanessa the way she deserved to be, to make love to her in ways she couldn’t begin to imagine. Ethan just wasn’t entirely sure where to start that process.

 

Ethan ,” she growled at him, patience having finally worn thin.

 

“Sorry,” he murmured in reply, not entirely sure why. He moved to make his decision on where to start, but she had clearly misinterpreted his apology, evading his touch by grabbing the hand that had begun to wander.

 

“If you don’t want to do this, we don’t have to,” she said, and her voice was rougher and lower than usual with arousal. He could hear the hurt and disappointment in her tone underlying the statement, and berated himself for making her think he didn’t want her.

 

“I want to,” he looked down at her, his tone certain.

 

She searched his face once more, and then her expression became positively wicked. She let go of him in favor of pulling him down, leaning up just enough to press her mouth to his ear. Her breath was hot and it sent shivers of arousal down his spine as Vanessa told him in a stern tone, “I’m not some delicate virginal flower, Ethan. You won’t break me. If you want me, then just take me already.”

 

She punctuated the end of the statement by taking his earlobe into her mouth just enough to give it a playful nip. Ethan felt a surge of arousal so strong it was blinding. He wasn’t gentle, nor was he deliberately rough either in the way he pushed her body back down against the mattress. Vanessa grinned up at him, predatory. This ignited him, inciting him to take himself in hand and place himself at her entrance. He groaned at how wet she was, clearly as desperate as he was. Without further ado he plunged himself into her, hard. She hissed at the pleasurable burn of him inside of her, stretching her. Ethan had enough sense left to give Vanessa a moment to adjust to the invasion.

 

They took this moment to look at the other, both thinking the same thing: that there was a sense of rightness-of completion -being joined in this intimate way. Vanessa let out a choked sound that was almost a sob; there was a relief in this somehow, a feeling of being lighter. Ethan swiped the few tears she let out involuntarily off of her cheeks, swallowing past the lump in his throat because he felt it, too. They belonged together; this clarity gave them freedom in that moment. When she collected herself, Ethan decided to move things along.

 

Vanessa whimpered as he only briefly brushed his mouth against hers, refusing to linger. He put his mouth by her ear now and felt her shiver in response before he had even spoken.

 

“You want me to take you? You want me to fuck you hard?”

 

She let out a moan, and Ethan growled, demanded, “Answer me, Vanessa, or I don’t continue.”

 

“Yes,” she managed to find words, “Ethan, please .”

 

He groaned at that, at the way she was practically begging him to take her roughly. Ethan would do so, but he had to be careful, lest the beast’s instincts fully take over him.

 

“Alright,” his voice was low, full of desire, “You’ve no idea what you’re in for little girl.”

 

He moved so she could see his face, the seriousness in it as he began to move. Ethan stayed on his forearms, body braced above hers. He pulled almost all the way out only to slam back in, his thrusts deep and rough. As soon as Vanessa began to undulate her hips to meet his, his pace became faster and harder, the only sounds in the room skin against skin and low grunts and growls. She wrapped her legs around his waist to pull him in deeper, nails digging into the skin of his back as the fire burning low in her belly began to build. The intensity of the way Ethan fucked her was something she’d never had, in the best possible way. When she leaned up to try to kiss him, he moved out of the way. She’d wanted him to be rough with her, and he was. Yet not once did she feel unsafe in his embrace; Ethan was focusing on her face intently, making sure she was okay with his frenzied pace.

 

He untangled from her enough to pin her wrists above her head with one hand. He slowed his movements but did not stop, and found enough of himself to ask, “Is this okay?”

 

Vanessa found herself unable to speak, enthralled with him. Still, she managed to nod, knowing instinctively that he would stop unless she answered him somehow. Satisfied, Ethan resumed his previous pace. His hold on her was firm, yet not so strong that she could not have broken free if it became too much. She had never felt so safe with another when intimate in this way, and she let that feeling carry her away.

 

Eventually, she shifted her hands free. Ethan stopped immediately, assuming that the restraint had become too much and needing to assess how Vanessa was doing. Before he got the chance, her arms twined themselves around his neck again and he found himself on his back, Vanessa hovering over him with that same feral look as before on her face. He did nothing more than reach up to tuck the hair that had fallen into her face behind her ears. Her smile briefly turned sweet at the gesture, and Ethan trailed a hand down her body.

 

Vanessa began to move as his hand brushed between her breasts and down her belly, grunting with arousal as she got even closer to the edge. When Ethan placed a hand between her legs near where they were joined, she keened, and he placed his other hand on her hip to steady her. They set a pace that was as hard and fast as before, the movement of Ethan’s hand rapidly pushing her to what promised to be an explosive climax.

 

She came quickly, shouting his name. Groaning at the feeling of her spasming around him Ethan moved his occupied hand to her other hip. He pulled her down on him roughly a few times and gasped out her name, spilling himself into her.

 

Vanessa collapsed on him, spent. Ethan moved a hand to run it through her hair, and she hummed contentedly against his neck. After a while she regained the strength to pull off him, but he didn’t let her go far. She happily buried her face into his chest, a leg thrown over his, his arms wrapped tight around her. Vanessa closed her eyes and basked in the feeling. She felt protected, happy in a way she hadn’t realized was possible. She felt tears begin to sting the corner of her eyes again, but held them back; she did not want to risk ruining the moment.

 

“It’s never,” she tried, and then stopped when she realized she did not have the words necessary to encompass how safe, how whole , he had made her feel.

 

“I know,” he replied, his voice and touch gentle as he resumed running his fingers through her hair.

 

As she began to drift off, she heard him promise, “I’ll never leave you again. Not ever.”

 

It is her time to reassure him, “I know.”

 

“I’ll make sure you do, for as long as you’ll have me,” he replied, softly. He was close to asleep as well, but he had to be sure she understood him before he let sleep claim him.

 

“Forever,” Vanessa meant it to sound more flippant than it did, and Ethan let it hang in the air for a long time, surprised.

 

“Forever,” he responded finally in pleasantly shocked agreement.

 

As they drifted off to sleep, he was entirely sure that he’d never been so happy and at peace in his entire life.