The air was oppressive, hot. The darkness clung to the bones and weakened the will.
A faded shadow of his former self, it was difficult to fathom that he had once been a respected and dashing nobleman.
Falcon’s death had affected all of them, and yet it was the Earl who had fallen to the deepest, darkest depths of grief. Days of suffering became weeks, weeks trailed into months and those months dragged on into years of melancholy.
Now, they could only wait.
He remembered, in the weeks after Falcon’s death, he would look at his father and desperately yearn for the man to utter something fatherly and soft, the kind of thing that would make everything less terrible.
But the Earl couldn’t even look at him.
Falcon had been his favourite. He had been everything good about their family, with none of the bad. The Earl had prepared Falcon, groomed him to take over the responsibilities that came with such a prestigious title. If he had still been alive everything would have been different.
For his part, Vaughn had always been too wild and wayward for a favourite; too fickle to carry the family burden.
Now his father was left with no choice.
Even in the years since they had never discussed what had happened. The Earl had blamed him – most likely still did – Vaughn knew that. It had made the knot in his chest tighter still, and their relationship an unresolved hurt he could not deal with.
“I am running out of patience, Vaughn.” The Earl’s voice was like sandpaper to the ears, rasping terribly. “It’s time for you to marry. You must find a wife.”
“You say it like it is a chore, Father.”
The Earl rasped, more forcefully.
“It’s a chore sifting through countless, mindless women until you find one who makes you so furious with yourself, you don’t know whether to strangle her or kiss her.”
Vaughn muttered in an attempt to make light of the situation.
The Viscount flinched at the authority that remained in the barked syllable of his name.
“This is your duty. You must secure an heir.”
You cannot run this time.”
Then he would pick up the pieces and return to reality, take up the untimely responsibility that had fallen upon his shoulders. He had to; for his father, but more importantly for his brother, who would have done the same.
Duty had finally come along to enslave him, and smother the final dregs of his spirit.
Falcon’s soft panting breaths, his laughter, as they antagonised their tutor that one time.
He remembered a time when Falcon was everything.
Vaughn barely glanced up at the sound of Charles’ drawl.
Peering at said tome, Charles read the title aloud.
“An encyclopaedia of phobias…?”
“Don’t tell me, you think there’s a goblin under your bed again.”
“Your brother was so furious when you stuck a candle beneath your mattress and almost set it on fire.”
“… that he was.”
“Oh? And what is this friend so frightened of?”
Smoothly, he shifted position in the chair.
“Almost as interesting as the story I just heard from your mother. Enlighten me.”
Vaughn said, simply.
“Are you telling me, that you spent nigh on sixteen hours in the company of the same attractive woman who you practically mauled not two nights ago in the music room… and ‘there’s really nothing to tell’?”
The Viscount sighed. “My father has… decreed that I must marry before he dies. Something about begetting an heir…”
“Do you remember how originally I wanted to convince my parents that I was courting Marielle Harrington?”
“The little redhead… yes, I do remember.”
“What about the governess?”
“What about her?”
Vaughn replied dismissively.
“Well, if you’re deadly serious about marrying Miss Harrington, I would cut all ties with the obstinate chaperone. You could vye for the spinster’s blessing. Convince her of your… inherent good qualities.”
“Then convince her you’ve reformed.” Charles replied easily. “Beguile her with your generosity, your compassion. And, for God’s sake, apologise for your appalling behaviour thus far.”
But convincing the governess he had inwardly changed over the last twenty four hours..? That might prove… challenging.
However, he had to do it. He needed her blessing and eventually her permission to court Marielle, otherwise his father would never approve. He would have to demonstrate his ‘new-found morals’ with finesse and charm.
The ball was the perfect opportunity to start.