The next morning, Vaughn was already settling his horse outside.
Estelle uttered a brusque: “Good morning”.
In return, he greeted her pleasantly enough, but Estelle felt he was looking up at her rather peculiarly, almost as if he expected her to say something… more.
“Did you sleep well?”
“Yes… thank you.”
Needless to say, Estelle had no recollection of the storm.
In fact, the last thing she remembered was a rather heated conversation about her marriage prospects (or lack thereof), after which she assumed they had each gone to sleep.
“No… bad dreams?”
“None at all…” she replied, turning suspicious. “Why do you ask?”
He went back to tending his horse nonchantantly.
“No reason. Just wanted to make sure that bump on the head wasn’t bothering you.”
As soon as they stepped through the manor’s conservatory, Vaughn’s mother all but flew out of it towards them, her ebony hair and bright blue skirts streaming out behind her.
“Let me handle this.”
The Viscount muttered up to her, barely perceptively, as his mother neared.
“Mon dieu, Vaughn! Where in heaven’s name have you been?!”
A mélange of concern, anger, relief and frustration crossed the impenetrable loveliness of Lady Afonsine’s features.
“You cannot just… disappear and assume nobody will worry!”
“Do not dare ‘Mother‘ and roll your eyes at me! You of all people should know why I fret; just imagine—!”
“Er… M-My Lady?” Estelle interjected as she noticed Vaughn’s expression darken.
Two ebony-topped heads turned in her direction. Estelle immediately noted the close family resemblance.
Moiraine looked up at her as if she hadn’t realised the governess had been there the entire time. Then her expression changed to one Estelle could not interpret as she looked from her, to her son.
“Ah.” She said, quietly. “I see.”
Estelle defended ardently.
“No, please, it’s not like that at all! You must understand; I fell of my horse yesterday afternoon…”
“And your son found me unconscious and took me to the little cottage on… on the, uh…”
She looked to Vaughn, whose expression was just as unfathomable as his mother’s.
“On the far side of the wood.” Vaughn assisted, smoothly.
“Yes! He took me there and cared for me throughout the night.”
Upon realising the insinuation, she tried again, cursing the blood that rushed to her cheeks.
“T-that is, he watched over me so as to ensure my injury did not worsen.”
“Is this true?”
All the anger in the Countesses’ tone had vanished, replaced with genuine concern.
The Viscount nodded.
With barely a second’s delay, the Countess immediately turned again to Estelle.
“Dear child! We must get you into bed at once!”
Estelle gestured defensively in the negative.
“Oh, I can assure you that’s not necessary—”
Moiraine made a very French noise of disbelief.
“The girl is mad. Alors, Vaughn, you must fetch the physician at once!”
Wordlessly, Vaughn seemed to comply. He bowed crisply, reaching for her hand, and pulled it down for a feather-light kiss.
Estelle had to catch her breath when his fingers flexed, blushing as her skin heated beneath his hands, his touch all but burning through her riding glove.
After an instant that somehow left her reeling, Vaughn let go of her and walked off without another word or glance in her direction.
“Come, Cherie,” Moiraine said. “Are you well enough to walk?”
Estelle nodded, even though her legs had, a moment earlier, seemed ready to collapse beneath her at what she’d seen in Vaughn’s eyes.
Moiraine began walking them slowly through the vast manor, telling Estelle of all the party’s anxiety at their absence. Marielle had apparently been distraught.
What the Countess did not voice, however, was the drop of cynicism that remained in her mind. She had, with decided interest, noted how the lips of her son had stayed but a moment too long upon the governess’s hand than was deemed proper.
She was not naïve, and knew her son was a damnably talented rake. What was surprising was the fact that he had seemed quite eager to hide and mask his interest in the woman.
She frowned, telling herself that it, whatever it was, would pass.
But she knew she had not imagined the tension that had gripped the pair, which still emanated from the grown woman, caught in a reverie, beside her.
Unfortunately, she knew the look that rested in the chaperone’s eye.
She knew what it meant. Or, rather, what it would mean soon enough:
“Please, your grace, this is all entirely unnecessary, I’m fine!”
It had taken Estelle an hour to finally convince the Countess that she did not need bed-rest. Unfortunately, by that time, a gaggle of maids had bathed, clothed her in an expensive silk nightgown, and all but forced her into bed.
Moiraine only smiled with motherly affection.
“My dear, you may indeed be ‘fine’, but as hostess of this party I took a solemn vow to care for my guests as if they were my own family.”
“And, I daresay that after spending an entire evening alone with my son, you are no doubt very tired.”
Estelle’s eyes widened, but as she opened her mouth to protest, Moiraine continued over her:
“Sleep for now, rest until the afternoon, and I can promise that you’ll enjoy the ball far more this evening.”
“Ball?” The governess echoed, her tone anxious.
“Why, yes! It is the same every year, my dear. On the last evening of the Afonsine house party, we have a grand ball. It’s the highlight of the season, if I do say so myself.”
“And, now that the storm has passed, by the end of the afternoon all the absent guests will have arrived, which will make for a grand crush!”
Estelle could only nod and force her lips into a spiritless smile. It sounded like her idea of torture.
“Oh, that reminds me, they’ll be starting to arrive any minute; you must excuse me dear.”
She patted Estelle’s arm gently, heading towards the door.
However, before she reached it, appeared to hesitate and turned back around.
“I intend to tell the other guests the story you gave me as to what happened last night, but whatever else may have happened between you and my son, I urge you to… contain.”
Estelle blinked in astonishment. W-what exactly is the Countess insinuating?!
“I-I can assure you that—!”
“As long as I have your word.”
After a rather surreal moment, Estelle nodded.
“Bon! Now, rest well. I’ll send a dress up to you later— oh! And some jewels! Do you have pierced ears? Oh, never mind, I’ll just pick out a mélange of my old favourites.”
Positively beaming, the countess swept out of the door, leaving Estelle alone and wondering what on earth had just happened…
….and what on earth she had just admitted to.
A/N: Uhhm… hello. I apologise for the ma-HU-sive gap between updates ~ there’s really no excuse, ‘cept that life has kept me really busy lately! But don’t worry Suitor readers, I HAVEN’T ABANDONED YOU!