As she walked to the breakfast room, Estelle was aware that she must look a fright. She hoped nobody she knew was in there, and that she could just eat and run out again as quickly as was humanly possible.
Fortunately, there was only one other person already sitting down.
But, rather unfortunately, it was Charles Landgraab.
She reddened, before walking rapidly to the side board, where all the breakfast dishes lay steaming hot.
She loaded her plate, even though she had lost her appetite completely.
Finding the resolve from some unknown place inside her, she turned and approached the table, seating herself as far away from Charles as she could without it looking deliberate.
She stole a glance at him. His nose seemed to be buried by in a novel of some sort. Well, at least he wouldn’t attempt con—
“I won’t tell anyone, you know. I’m not that petty.”
Estelle cleared her throat.
“Thank you, but… If you’re referring to… to what you saw last night then… well, I’d rather we all forgot about it entirely. It was a mistake. A huge mistake that will not ever be repeated!”
As Estelle began to dissect her plate, she realised she was anxious to know what Charles thought of her.
It would not do to have him lose all respect for her already, just because he had seen her in the arms of a fairly inebriated noted rogue who just happened to be his best friend. Gosh, it did sound bad when she said it to herself!
But, heavens, what a fool she had been! What an enormous, stupid fool of a woman she had been. Letting him kiss her like that!
And kissing him back! What had she done!?
He was the devil incarnate.
The way he had talked to her and held her and…
Charles’ voice suddenly pierced her thoughts.
“You appear to be trying to saw your way through the fine china, Miss Murphy. May I ask why?”
“Oh! My mind is elsewhere, it seems.” Estelle blushed, and began picking at her food nervously. “I… did not sleep well last night.”
“I’m not surprised after you were attacked in such a way.”
“He’s damaged, you know.”
The governess blinked.
“Mm? Who is?”
Charles sighed deeply and stood. For a long while he simply stared at one of the Afonsine’s imported birds.
“Vaughn. He’s damaged, perhaps beyond repair. I just… thought you should know.”
“I don’t see what it has to do with me.”
But Estelle was curious. She had been for a long time.
“I only meant…” Charles hesitated. “I just ask that you don’t judge him too harshly.”
Estelle frowned again.
“You used the word, ‘damaged’. What do you mean exactly?”
“As you probably know, Vaughn Slanzar de Afonsine is actually the second son of the Earl and Countess Afonsine. Falcon Lacour de Afonsine was the first born.”
“Falcon Afonsine was… well, everyone who ever met Falcon practically worshipped him, including Vaughn.
The two of them were always very close, even for brothers.”
“About nine years ago, the family went on their annual relocation to France, to visit the Countess’ relatives and such. Vaughn and Falcon went out riding. From what I’ve been told, all was well until they came to a river.”
“The river was quite expansive, but they eventually found a wooden bridge to cross over. A rickety old thing, you know the type….”
“Well, apparently Vaughn refused to cross it and tried to go round another way. Recent floods had made the river-flow vicious.
Falcon didn’t listen.”
“He went over it, stood too long on the thing, and it broke beneath the weight of his horse. He fell into the river and drowned.
Vaughn was 17 years old.”
“Naturally, he jumped into the rapids after Falcon, tried to save him. Smashed a few bones here and there…”
Estelle gasped in horror. “No...”
“But, of course, by the time he found the body, he hadn’t a hope. I’m not sure whether Falcon died in his arms or before then.”
“Since then, Vaughn’s never really tried to… be accepted by anyone. He’s cold. Cynical. He pushes everyone away. God forbid he ever truly cares for anyone, he’ll be scared to death they’ll be the next to leave him.
I… think he blames himself for what happened.”
The ticking of the grandfather clock nearby seemed to echo throughout the vast hall.
Estelle shook her head in disbelief. No wonder Vaughn had issues. He was probably still overcome with grief. Death was always such a terrible, damaging thing.
And after everything she had said to him about being selfish…
“Can’t… can’t you help him?”
Charles laughed harshly.
“It’s hard trying to tell another person not to commit suicide when they know that you’ve stared at a razor blade for forty minutes that same morning.”
Charles looked at her, and Estelle noticed that his quiet smile was filled with sadness, just (she realised, for the first time) like his eyes.
‘Clearly he still blames himself… why, it’s all in the eyes…’
Estelle suddenly remembered everything Liddy had said about his fiancée, how she had died so close to their wedding. It must have been terrible. Horrible.
Even if it was to forgo propriety, Estelle felt an oddly personal connection with the man already. It was quite disconcerting, how natural it felt to want to comfort him.
“Oh, my Lord…. I am so sorry.”
But Charles was seemingly unmoved, as if the words she’d offered had lost all meaning to him.
“Please, call me Charles. And do not, under any circumstances, tell him I told you about all this.”
Estelle cleared her throat of the emotion that remained there.
“Don’t worry; I don’t think I ever want to talk to him again. Why… why did you tell me about all this?”
“Because I think he’s falling in love with you, and you deserve to know why he’s finding it so unbearable.”
“You think he’s what?!”
Estelle choked, unable to process what her new friend just declared so brazenly.
“How do you… how could you even—”
“Trust me.” Charles said simply. And with that filmsy explanation, he turned back to the window as if he hadn’t just made her heart stop.
Estelle couldn’t see how Vaughn could possibly be falling in love with her. The very notion of it was ridiculous! They barely knew each other, barely could tolerate the other’s presence.
And if Vaughn was as ‘damaged’ as Charles seemed to think he was, how could he even know how to love another human being?
How could he even let himself?
Him admitting an attraction to her was one thing, but falling in love…?
That was something entirely different. Something impossible.
And besides… she could never love him back.
Such a thing, fate would never allow.