Indeed, the only thing riding had ever given her was a sore bottom.
Today, the guests were out riding around the vast Afonsine estate. Estelle’s particular entourage was a party of seven, with Marielle riding up front with Charles, Lady Afonsine and an unknown gentleman.
Estelle was especially thankful for his absence as the distance grew between her and the rest of the party, simply because, yet again, she felt she had nothing left to say to him.
She abhorred the fact that she couldn’t stop herself recalling it, remembering the way he’d held her in the music room the night before, re-living the sensuous threats he’d whispered into her reddening ears.
Vaughn was a practiced seducer, a Don Juan. Men like him did not fall. Indeed, rumours of his rakish career were rife within the ton.
Once she had even heard that one of his mistresses had threatened to commit suicide when he’d tired of her company….
Had he ever been refused?
The tension and passion that arose between them every time she denied him seemed to point towards the fact that, until now, he had never suffered the icy barb of rejection. Vaughn had clearly never expected her to turn round and protest.
The very mystery of their whole tempestuous relationship was so simple. Vaughn was not pursuing her because he was falling in love with her – he was pursuing her because nobody ever denied him anything.
The ridiculous man couldn’t stand the fact that she wasn’t falling in love with him!
Good god, why did the weather hate her all of a sudden? She sighed, urging her horse forward to catch up with the others.
“You seem to be taking in the landscape far more thoroughly than the rest of us, Miss Murphy.”
“I must admit that my head is still entirely elsewhere. In all honesty, the landscape is the last thing on my mind.”
Estelle blinked. “What on earth for?”
“For drawing your thoughts back to Vaughn again. I can safely say that he is not worth your time.”
“Oh, I’m not thinking about Vaughn.” She lied quickly. “It’s just I… I think I’m coming down with a cold.”
“Oh, no, please. I wouldn’t want to take you away from Marielle.”
“Please, I’ll be fine. I can assure you I’m quite capable of riding alone. I can find my own way back.”
She waited to be told of her incapability…
Estelle nodded. “Tell Marielle not to worry, will you? Although I doubt she’ll mind terribly if she has you all to herself.”
Estelle nodded again, waving as Charles kicked his horse into an impressive canter, hoping against hope that she would not bump into their ever absent host.
Nothing could compare with how it felt to race his stallion against the downpour, to drink in the rain, to revel in the sturdy, steady beat of hooves upon the earth. He raced through the forest, barely looking where he was going.
He grinned to himself, letting the water catch and saturate his hair until it fell flat against his face.
It took a moment for the world to stop spinning in front of his eyes, and when it did finally stop, the scene before him unfolded in torturous slow motion.
He cursed, as he saw her limp, unmoving body.
“Estelle…” His arms reached under her to instinctively support her. “Estelle!”
She made no response.
Vaughn began trudging through the downpour, swearing liberally and often. As the sky darkened he tried to move quickly, but didn’t want to worsen Estelle’s condition by mistake; for all he knew, her life could be hanging in the balance.
What in God’s name is she doing out here alone in the first place? Damned foolish woman.
The cottage had belonged to his brother, Falcon.
Her lips were blue.
In no time at all a healthy flame flickered to life, gnawing at the kindling.
When she made no movement, save the rise and fall of her chest, another soft curse passed his lips.
It was utterly bizarre to think that just that morning she had been shouting at him, apparently revolted by the mere sight of him. Afterall, he had only meant to apologise to her and ask her permission to court Marielle.
Yet she had denied him.
I. Hate. You.’
The woman would probably kill him if she woke up now, to an image of the man she most hated, divesting her of her clothing in a deserted shed.
“You’re more trouble than you’re worth.”
“What?! What is it?! Wh— Stop screaming, for God’s sake woman!”
Estelle did. She blinked again, several times, her eyes adjusting to the soft glow from the fire. She recognised that voice. Indeed, it was the same voice that had been invading her dreams only moments before.
“What on earth… Where the hell am I?! What happened? Is Marielle alright? Where is everyone? If you’ve—”
“Bloody hell, slow down will you?”
She broke off, paling rapidly, her eyes wide and unblinking as she stared down at her disclothed body in undisguised terror.
“Did we…?” She trailed off, aghast.
“Don’t look so terrified; please, it’s insulting. You fell off your horse, I simply found you and brought you here. The others have doubtless returned to the manor.”
Estelle clutched her head and found a bump somewhere round the back. She swallowed, looking up at her supposed saviour.
Estelle raised her eyebrows. “Lucifer?”
She frowned. “You named your horse after the Devil?!”
She flinched as the whole cottage seemed to shake, trying to calm the nerves which cinched tight at the thought of an ensuing storm.
His gaze then briefly flickered down to her bodice before returning. Estelle looked down again, horrifyingly aware of her state of undress.
“Was it… was it entirely necessary to undress me?”
“Entirely.” Vaughn muttered, unmoved, with no further justification.
“Well, surely my clothes are dry by now. How long have I been asleep for?”
“Approximately five hours. I would urge you to stop talking, but I know you’ll continue, so there’s really no point. What you must do, however, is lie down.”
“Well, I— it is appalling that you did not wake me sooner!”
“I wouldn’t dream of telling you what to do. Now shut up and go back to sleep.”
How curious, She thought, to be saved by the man I most despise…
She’d thought him heartless….
…and God only knew what he would ask for in return.
A/N: Regarding this chapter, I made it especially long to make up for lost time. I’m not happy with it at all, but I thought I should just, you know… GO FOR IT, as they say.