Marielle Harrington berated her governess from within the temporary boudoir.
It was bizarre, surreal and… slightly ridiculous that the Countess had even offered. Governesses did not share clothing with Countesses. One did not need to be a genius to know such a thing.
“Green is most definitely not your colour.”
Self-consciously she began to think that perhaps she had been wrong. Marielle had always had a keen eye for style. No doubt, the heiress knew a fashion faux pas when she saw one.
She leaned against the cabinet, trying to look as conspicuous as possible.
She began to spot faces she recognised in the crowd. Her eyes were immediately drawn to Millerna Landgraab, a woman she knew to be shallow and calculating, but stunningly beautiful and elegant, as if to balance out such hideous attributes.
Count Landgraab was standing not ten feet away and seemed to be…
…he seemed to be staring straight at her.
The governess fought the urge to scream in surprise. She turned to see Count Landgraab there, his mouth curving boyishly at her reaction.
“You are quite the most beautiful woman in the room.”
Estelle blushed furiously as he placed his cool lips upon the silk.
He released her hand and straightened to look at her. His smile was quite disarming.
“Call me Charles.”
“Friends: let not the damp weather dampen our spirits this fine evening. Let us eat!”
“I… Shouldn’t you be finding a lady to escort?”
“I think I’ve already found one.”
She could not possibly be seen to be so familiar with Charles Landgraab; the gossip would be inescapable. What is more, she could hardly associate with the closest friend of the man she despised….
No, she would not do such a thing to Marielle! For her governess to be escorted by a Lord of such high standing in place of her… why, she would be the laughing stock of the ton for weeks!
“…I, I appear to have lost my appetite.”
She moved away from him hastily, not waiting for a response. Without looking back, she walked briskly down one of the hallways that led away from the foyer, looking for a room to sit in quietly as she waited for Marielle.
A piano… the perfect way to pass the time. Desperately, she hoped it was empty.
No movement or sound.
Didn’t she think him a cad? Incapable of love? A mindless, selfish coward?
The plain fact was: he had nothing to say to her. He wanted nothing to do with the stubborn chit, even if it meant his plan to avoid matrimony was foiled beyond repair.
She was far too obstinate and opinionated for a toy. It did not matter that he had enjoyed their innocent tryst more than he was willing to admit. It did not matter that part of him still wanted to seduce her, just to feel her fall apart in his arms, to watch her surrender – submit to him.
At the light, hesitant voice, Vaughn froze. He remained still, silent. Straight away, he knew who it was.
His failed conquest.
Several, lonely notes were drawn into the air as the governess tested the weight of the keys beneath her fingers.
What was stopping him?
He honestly didn’t know.
He had been so filled with despair as his past had been dragged unceremoniously before him by her angry words; all he had been capable of doing at the time was telling her to leave in one, swift syllable.
The opening of Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata reached his ears, soft and slow. He listened as the notes rose and fell with crescendos and sombre diminuendos of poignant eloquence. She slowed a bit too often for his liking, and when it came to the first loud set of bars, she played them far too timidly.
He grew frustated with her playing (afterall, one cannot afford to be cautious when it comes to Beethoven). Without thinking, he expelled a heavy breath.
“Good evening, my Lady. Have we met?”
“W-what are you doing here?”
“I live here.”
“Yes, I am aware of that. I meant to enquire as to why you were not dining with your guests.”
Vaughn blinked past the fuzziness in his brain when he realised she was not wearing the rags he had seen her drenched in earlier. No indeed, she looked… lovely. The dresses’ colour seemed to make her sharp eyes bright, even in the darkness of the room.
Either that or he had drunk far more than he’d formerly thought…
“Why don’t you leave then?”
He had expected her to be more timid with him…. He had expected himself to be far more angry and cutting with her after her previous behaviour. Perhaps it was that ridicule came to him more naturally than resentment…
Vaughn lost footing suddenly and stumbled before her.
“I am not surprised in the slightest!”
Her hostility fuelled his need to hurt her in some cruel verbal form, but he found his mind too clogged, too heavy to form the acerbic, spiteful words on which he had existed for almost half a decade.
“Oh yes,” he said harshly, drunk. “You know me so well. I had momentarily forgotten.”
“I don’t understand what you—”
“Oh, but you do understand,” he said darkly.
“G-get off me—!”
“Oh, but I can’t. I’m selfish like that, selfish and arrogant and, what was the other one? Oh yes, untrustworthy.”
“Don’t ‘Sir’ me – Christ! Would you not say that we’ve known each other enough over the past months to for-go titles?! Just admit that you hate me!”
When her cheeks coloured slightly at his question, he was suddenly overcome by the urge to kiss her again. He did not know why, but he needed her to respond to him, to do something, scream at him, hit him, kiss him back.
The long-awaited sound of his name on her lips seemed to cause something inside of him to break.
He drew closer to her.
He kissed her. He kissed her because he was tired of trying not to, because he was angry and confused. He told himself he did not want her, but in truth he had wanted her since the moment he’d first touched her, all those weeks ago in some dandy’s townhouse.
He kissed her again, and this time it was punishing, hard and unrelenting, an attack on her senses. She arched into him as he brought her closer still. A part of him wished she would push him away. But she did not.
This is wrong. This is wrong.
And yet her body felt so perfect against his that he could not deny himself.
Her voice was breathless. “Y-you don’t want this.”
In truth, he didn’t know what he wanted. He had ceased to know all those years ago… but what he wanted and what his body was demanding were two very different things…
God be damned if I am to be denied both!
He said her name between kisses, relishing the way she sought his lips after every intake of breath. His—
A few yards away, the door opened.
“I was just coming to check on Miss Murphy.”
“Yes, well, your sobriety fills me with conviction.” Charles drawled, dryly.
“N-no, thank you, I… think I will go to bed.”
She rushed so briskly from the room that it was a wonder she didn’t put the fire out.
“You really are the worst kind of man, aren’t you?”
“Do you have any idea how spineless you are?! After you told me you had finished toying with her, that she was nothing to you, you go and ruin her just because you are bitter at being beaten!”
“This doesn’t concern you!” Vaughn snarled. “And when did you get so protective of her?! Or of any woman for that matter?!”
“She’s done nothing to deserve this, Vaughn. Nothing.”
“Oh, fancy her, do you?”
“I say we should get to the heart of this now, don’t you?” He leaned forward. “I say, we put our cards on the table, so to speak.”
“Vaughn, stop it, you’re embarrassing yourself.”
“Oh no, no. If you want her, you’re more than welcome to her, Charles. But,” he added with gleeful malice, “I believe you’ll have a hard time trying to explain to your father why a mere chaperone is fit for the role of a Duchess.”
“Go to bed, Vaughn.”
“Go to hell!”
Were they truly friends, or simply men who found comfort in the other’s hopelessness?
They were vacant.