The thought passed through her head as it had done many times before. It was the same as always, from the unpleasant snippets of gossip to the practiced chuckle of a bored wife; even the odd whisper of debauchery from a rake to an unsuspecting debutante.
The same people, party after party, dinner after dinner, who ignored her. Day after day.
So Estellise Murphy, in her brown muslin, high-necked gown, who had never danced with a man or known what it was to enjoy a party, told herself that one day, somebody would realise she was standing there. Somebody would look at her. Somebody would notice.
Estelle sighed as she spotted Marielle across the room, talking rather too genially with a blond-haired man. She supposed he must be an earl or duke’s heir, considering the young debutante had bothered to even consider him a suitable match.
Since the Lady Marielle Harrington’s debut, bunches of bright, expensive flowers were sent to the house daily, accompanied by ridiculous penned proclamations of love; often these were accompanied by other high-priced baubles.
However, Marielle claimed to care for none of these things, and would often complain of how she yearned for men to be “far more daring”. As Marielle’s governess and chaperone, Estelle certainly did not approve of whatever that meant.
Estelled concluded that it was the girl herself which drew men to her. That fiery red hair and porcelain skin must’ve been the icing on the flawless cake.
She briefly wondered if she would have been married by this point, had she attended the same soirées and dinners as Marielle did.
Into a different life.
Perhaps it was time to accept that she would probably sit with the spinsters forever…
Marielle’s soprano reached her ears before Estelle had even realised the girl was standing barely a metre away.
“M-My Lady! Why, I was merely—”
Estelle feigned a smile as she nodded, “I will… try, my Lady.”
Estelle watched her charge recede. Marielle would never understand that people of her status could not just ‘socialise’ with the rest of the ton as if it were proper. Chaperones such as herself were destined to stand in a corner with widows and spinsters, protecting their charges from golddiggers, witless dandies and notorious rakes.
Estelle shook away her feelings, pushing them behind the familiar façade of nonchalance once again, and focused on searching for Marielle.
Frowning, Estelle took a few steps toward the dance floor. Yet still, after peering subtly round passing, waltzing bodies, she could not locate her charge.
And anxious not to lose her job, amongst other things.
…and into the completely empty and silent sitting room.
The sound of the string quartet wafted through the open windows. It only served to aggravate her further.
“Damn. Damn, damn, damn!”
And then she froze. Because another heavy sigh, and not one of her own, had just reached her perking ears.
“I should hope you will be grateful I have chosen not to mention this to your mother—”
“I shouldn’t think my mother would be terribly interested, but I am grateful all the same.”
“F-Forgive me sir, I assumed you were… somebody else. I will… leave you now. My sincere apologies for interrupting—”
Estelle blinked in surprise, but kept her eyes politely on the wooden flooring.
“Why, that would be my charge, Sir. Now if you’ll excuse me—”
“Is there a reason your eyes are so earnestly searching the soil? Might your charge be located there, or is it my horrendous features that offend you so?”
“Oh no, my Lord.” She promptly looked up again, grateful when she saw he was no longer looking at her, but out towards the darkness of the vast gardens. “I simply… that is, I…”
“Tell me, who is this rebellious charge of yours?”
A flicker of amusement that passed over his features. “Well then what is your name?”
“Well, I… I don’t believe that is any of your business either.”
“Of course. It would be highly improper, my Lord.”
“I am no ‘chit‘, my Lord.”
“Well then, it seems I am entirely in the wrong this evening. Might I be right in thinking you have never seen a gentleman smoke before?”
Of course she had, the problem was simply that… it had never looked so, so sinful to her. The small stick seemed to fit so elegantly between his fingers, she rather thought it had been made especially for him; to tempt, to burn.
“I am indeed familiar with the act of smoking, my Lord, but simply not with… such a peculiar looking—”
He stubbed it out on the wall next to them.
“Terrible habit. I only indulge when absolutely necessary.”
“And pray tell, what made such a terrible habit such a necessity this evening, my Lord?”
Her lips parted at his gentle mockery. “I–“
“Oh, my Lord, we should not!”
Estelle whirled in the direction of the familiar soprano. Perfectly practiced, delightful giggles filtered to them from the terrace, as well as the low, satisfied murmur of a particularly fortunate gentleman.
“Oh! That girl—!”
“Sir! If you would kindly—”
“Hush!” The stranger ordered, craning his head in an attempt to see the couple on the terrace.
The roguish stranger silenced her as he pushed her softly against the windows, caging her with his large, lithe body. Estelle would have been frightened, had the man’s eyes been fixed on her and not on the grass outside, narrowed as if intent on catching every murmur of the conversation.
Words trailed off into private whispers. The stranger frowned.
“You do swear an awful lot for a woman, don’t you? The number of times you managed the word “damn” was frankly admirable, my genteel lady.”
“I beg your pardon?”
“I was not aware they were discussing anything. I assumed they were simply—”
He silenced her with a sharp glare as the voices became audible again.
“Are you trying to make me jealous, love? Because if so, you are succeeding.”
Marielle’s delighted squeal sounded out in the night, and Estelle assumed that the girl’s…friend had just caught her in his arms.
“I must stop this! Unhand me at once, sir!”
“Darling, if you don’t stop talking I’ll have to silence you myself.”
She stilled when he flashed that mischievous smile again.
“I shouldn’t think so.”
Her breath hitched when his lips moved gently to cover her own. She swallowed a mewl of protest as that wicked mouth passed over hers, slowly teasing her senses with its sinful knowledge. Hands trailed down, making her shiver as they made a tantalising journey to her waist.
She lost herself in those few moments, never wanting to resurface from the indulgent sensation of sharing something so intimate with a man. And a stranger at that.
The voice of Marielle’s partner pierced the mood like a knife.
“Precise instructions will have to wait until Lady Aston’s dinner tomorrow, I’m afraid.“
“What’s your name, chick?”
“The unbearable chaperone,” she snapped. Indignation blazed within her. That he had just— just man-handled her in such a manner—! “Now, if you’ll excuse me, sir.”
Praying to God she did not look as tumbled as she felt, she ran swiftly through the door. Bless her invisibility to the ton at times like these!
Marielle’s fiery coiffure was quite visible in the crowd, even without having to search for it, and Estelle approached her at a rapid pace, grabbing her hand without warning as she went past, heading towards the door.
“Estelle! What is the meaning of this?!”
“We are returning home immediately and you should not need an explanation as to why!”
“I don’t care, Marielle! Your behaviour tonight has been ludicrous, irresponsible—”
“What on earth are you talking about?! I’ve been exchanging pleasantries all night with potential suitors!”
“Indeed! With one in particular who—” Estelle stopped herself. It seemed she couldn’t explain what she’d heard without admitting to a little… tryst of her own. “You should know what I’m talking about, young Lady.”
The ‘you should know without me saying‘ tactic usually worked.
“Do not presume to label me so ‘young’, madam! I’ll have you know that many of the ton consider me to be mature beyond my years!”
Estelle gestured for her charge to exit first.
“Now let us speak no more of it!”
“Just because you are a spinster, does not mean that others must be doomed to the same fate!”
But after a moment, Estelle merely swallowed, took a breath and followed.
“The ‘Unbearable Chaperone’…” he cooed softly. “What am I going to do with you?”