“That’s the last one.”
“The last one? But… how will we keep warm?”
“One activity comes to mind.”
Well, he’s certainly back to his old self.
“Well, I don’t see you putting forward any ideas. Frankly, I’m rather shell-shocked you haven’t start gibbering about my ‘crudeness’ yet.”
“Well there are bound to be more blankets somewhere. Or perhaps I should just throw you on the fire. That would save me a lot of trouble.”
“I’m sure it would save a dozen people a lot of trouble. But I’m very boney, you see, and rather a waste of kindling.”
She had never imagined being like this with him, laughing with him freely, as if they were… friends. She felt as if she must be dreaming.
“What is it?”
He continued looking at her. The moment stretched.
“Why haven’t you married?”
“I want to know why you’ve chosen not to marry.”
“Well, I… you can’t really, honestly think that this… spinsterish way of life is a choice?”
“I’ll have you know, my Lord, that some us have more pressing things to do than prowling ballrooms most nights looking for a spouse with a suitable dowry! Some of us have to work for a living, and don’t have the time to waste!”
“And, to be quite honest,” she continued, “after all the gossip I’ve heard about mistresses and abuse and the prison-like terms of engagement, I seriously doubt whether—”
“You’ll ever marry at all?”
Vaughn concluded after a moment.
“What you said,” Vaughnn interrupted, “Was that after considering all the gossip that, I must tell you, is only partly true, you had chosen not to marry.”
“I never said that I had chosen anything; I said that I doubted whether I would marry, thus implying—”
Vaughn finished for her easily.
She demanded, disregarding her previous argument and lack of clothing.
“What if I don’t want to be a man’s possession!?”
She grappled for the words in the empty air.
Is that such a terrible thing?”
“Surely if you married for love then all of those things would be possible.”
“It’s quite funny really, you know. The rich envy the poor because they can marry for love, but really…they must marry for love. There’s nothing else that binds them; no dowries, no titles… no demands save those of their employer…”
She trailed off.
She heard – or thought she heard – the Viscount mutter.
The speed at which Estelle felt the cold was startling. So startling that she quite forgot the thread of the conversation. She crossed her arms about herself in a sorry attempt to warm up.
Estelle sniffed at his superior tones.
“Well, forgive me for the inconvinience, but you musn’t forget that I’m hardly wearing—”
She failed to add, swallowing.
Estelle let loose a high-pitched squeak, lost her balance slightly, and promptly began to topple over.
Vaughn muttered, effortlessly stopping her from falling, bringing his arms around her to steady her against where she’d fallen; against his chest.
She was about to move briskly away when another bolt of lighting cracked the heavens outside. Estelle squeaked, inadvertently spreading her hands across the broad expanse of bare shoulders, clutching onto them for dear life.
In her petrified state, she realised that it was comfortingly… warm. Solid.
“Are you alright?”
A thunderous boom broke the rain’s tattoo on the window.
The governess cried, clinging onto the form in front of her instinctively. She didn’t even care that it went entirely against propriety, she was so frightened.
So lost in memories.
Came the low, apparently rather amused, rumble against her ear again.
“It’s alright, sweetheart, it’s passed now. It’s alright.”
“No, don’t— don’t leave me, please…!”
Vaughn stifled a curse as he swept her into his arms, doing his best to ignore the complete lack of clothing between them.
“My back can’t take much more of this, you know.”
Her face was an expressionless mask, the anxious crease between her brows relaxing with every moment. It appeared that the very consciousness had been drawn out of her by her own fearsome reaction to the storm.
“Don’t leave me…” She whispered, pleading.
“Come on, chick, it’s better this way, you’re—”
—echoes in his head, over and over—
Please just…please don’t leave me behind— please, awgod I’m sorry—!
“You never make things easy for me, do you?”
“Shh, it’s alright.”
He murmured, not really knowing what else to say in the current situation.
After a few more minutes of trying to settle her, he leant his head against the backrest of the chair, figuring there was little more he could do. Feeling the unmistakable claws of fatigue digging at his senses and dragging at his consciousness, he closed his eyes and felt himself falling.
“Please come back… Mama.”