Chapter 2

Poppycock!”

A shrill, practically operatic voice sang out through the corridors of Crescent Hall.

“Liddy, you must swear to me you will not tell a soul! And it is not poppycock, I can assure you!”

Liddy, or the Widow Cook as she was known to the ton, raised one greying, amused eyebrow.

“My dear girl, I doubt there is a soul here who knows who you are—”

“That may be true, but there are those who may know who he is.” Estelle interrupted her trusted, if untactful, confidant.

Liddy guffawed. “Dear child, did you not literally just reveal to me that you yourself had not an inkling? Even when he kissed y—”

Liddy—!

“Oh poppycock!” The widow repeated defiantly. “Am I allowed no fun in my old age?!”

“Certainly not!” Estelle giggled. “It is not becoming for a widow to actually be seen merry.”

Liddy chuckled along heartilly.

“Indeed!”

They made their way back to the dayroom, tracking their charges amongst the array of sausage curls and puff sleeves. Estelle noticed Marielle at once. She saw the debutante smile sweetly at her partner as they twirled between the other couples.

However, Estelle also took note of how Marielle’s eyes appeared to be darting around the room, as if to subtly search faces and scan corners.

It had taken the previous fortnight for the debutante to repent and apologise for what she’d done right under Estelle’s nose at the last party:

I am so very sorry, Estelle. I am so naïve…I…Believe me when I say that I will never go near that wretched man again!”

“My dear, you look positively mystified,” Liddy interjected. “Do tell.”

Estelle turned to her, fake smile already in position. “Oh, it is nothing, Liddy. Just the heat getting to me.”

As the waltz came to an end, Estelle wondered whether the two weeks of ‘house arrest’ had actually done Marielle any good. However, judging by the shifty behaviour she had just witnessed, she was no longer so sure of any such redemption taking place.

“My dear, where has your charge got to? I cannot see that ghastly hair of hers anywhere.”

Liddy’s voice broke through Estelle’s thoughts. Swallowing, Estelle prepared for the inevitable clench in her gut.

Because she had literally just been thinking exactly the same thing.

Forty minutes she had been searching with stomach-wrenching anxiety. Estelle had examined practically every room in the vast townhouse (twice).

Honestly, she was beginning to tire of the game Marielle was playing; associating with some brainless heir whose bed she was so ardent to warm.

Estelle stalked down the hallway to the final room she had yet to search. Its door appeared to be that of a study.

She chuckled impishly. This time she would catch Marielle; hopefully with the man she intended to box round the ears.

She pushed open the door without knocking.

“Aha— oh damn…”

It seemed that, yet again, she had found herself in a completely empty space, devoid of Marielle, an unintelligent heir to a fortune, or any other vaguely human being.

A fire blazed in the hearth behind a large, intimidating desk covered in letters and papers. It was both a study and a library apparently, since its walls consisted of rows of various tomes; practically falling apart through overuse.

Estelle assumed that whoever used this room must be learned, or at least well read.

Estelle tried to remember the name of the party’s hostess, in hopes she would recall the mention of an academic. Lady Afance, was it? Alfonse? It was something foreign-sounding.

Afonsine!

That was the name of the hostess.

She recalled Marielle being especially eager to attend this particular soirée. The debutante had wittered on about someone who she was desperate to meet. She had said something…

…. something about a Viscount?

Oh good Lord. Marielle expected to ensnare the Viscount Afonsine?! Eldest living son to the Earl of Barnacle Bay. He was one of the more well-known rogues in this part of the country, or indeed any part.

By God, that girl was naïve to think she even had a chance!

Estelle stared at the books scattered about. Whoever the room belonged to must read on a regular basis. But who, in fact, did it belong to?

The Earl?

Possibly. Although it was well-known fact that he seldom came to Moonlight Falls due to poor health. Indeed, he had certainly not been present that afternoon.

As her eyes took in the titles on every shelf, Estelle became more anxious just to open one and soak in words.

Her gaze was drawn to a particularly well-thumbed tome, out of line with the rest, obviously due to a recent re-reading.

And she didn’t know what possessed her to reach out for it, to remove it from its resting place and feast her eyes on its bound cover…but somehow she just…let herself.

Taking a deep breath, she banished all thoughts of the troublesome debutante as she turned to the front page.

“Gaea. A novel of the stars.”

She smiled, intrigued to discover who had written such mysterious words.

And yet, when she looked for the author, the only script she found consisted of two, small letters at the base of the page.

F.A.

How mysterious indeed! Frowning, her fingers lifted in preparation to turn the page…

But that was when she heard someone start to open the door.

Cursing mentally, she rested the book on the edge of the shelf and leapt into the centre of the room. Nevertheless, she was prepared for another scolding from a displeased footman.

What she was certainly not prepared for however, was the man who actually entered.

“Ah, the unbearable chaperone. May I ask why you’re in here?”

Estelle swallowed as she took in the rogue in his dark, superbly fitted evening clothes.

“I-I might ask you precisely the same question.”

How long had it been since she’d seen him? A fortnight?

“Unfortunately I cannot tell you my reasons, chick. But I am still rather interested in yours.”

“I am not a ‘chick’, Sir, and I would rather you not pry into my business when you seem so secretive of your own.”

Taking a few steps forward, the amused half-stranger closed the door behind him, much to Estelle’s dismay.

“Not a chit, not a chick… Tell me, sweetheart, how is it you wish to be addressed by a man?”

Estelle blinked at his astonishingly good memory, as well as his audacity.

“W-Well, certainly I do not approve of ‘sweetheart’!”

The man’s smirk only widened. “Truly?”

“Truly, Sir. Now if you’ll excuse me—”

“Always in such a rush, aren’t you darling?”

The governess scowled. “I am not your ‘darling’.”

“Of course not, sweeting.” His smile wavered somewhat. “Now tell me what business you have entering a man’s private study.”

“Tell me yours and perhaps I will!”

The rogue stalked to the other side of the desk like a panther, tuned remarkably to the atmosphere of the room.

“I asked you first,” he insisted. “Who told you where to find it, first of all.”

“Nobody told me anything! This was merely the last room I had yet to search—”

“Search for what?”

Estelle’s scowl darkened. “Who are you? Asking me all these questions when you have absolutely no right! Especially when it is clear that we are both trespassing! You sir, are—”

He pulled her to him, ceasing her aggressive movements.

“Tell me what you were searching for.”

Estelle swallowed, only just realising how very warm the air in the room was. Or perhaps it was just the memory of those lips on hers….?

“I-I will report you to the Viscount…” She threatened.

The stranger gave a low, amused chuckle.

“I’m afraid that may prove rather pointless, chick. Because—”

The door opened without warning.

A butler entered, dipped his head to him, and completely ignored the reddening governess as she stared determinedly at the floor.

“Lord Vaughn, your Mother has requested your presence in the dance hall for the next waltz.”

‘Vaughn’ sighed in what appeared to be mild annoyance.

“Did she give any particular reason, Jones?”

“Indeed, my Lord, she said you’d ask for one.”

“She said—” He removed a small piece of paper from his pocket:

“‘Do stop being such a bore, Vaughn. There is many a girl here who would love a dance with the Viscount – do humour me and associate with at least one. It’s not as if you must marry every single one, chérie.'”

Vaughn sighed again. “Tell her I will be there shortly.”

Jones nodded. “Very good, my Lord.”

And with that, he left them, closing the door.

At once, Estelle realised she knew this ‘Vaughn’. Not from any parties they had both attended. As far as she knew ‘Lord Vaughn’ didn’t often attended the social functions of the ton.

But that didn’t stop the entire county from knowing who he was.

It was only a few seconds after this realisation that Estelle let the full extent of the situation sink in, and her stomach dropped immediately.

Because the rouge who stood before her – the man she’d apprehended, insulted and engaged in some rather… intimate behaviour with, she realised, was Vaughn Slanzar de Afonsine.

Viscount of Moonlight Falls and heir to the most powerful house known to the ton.

 


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