Stupid woman! Of all the men she could have gone off with…!
He squinted, seeing nothing but darkness.
Then he heard something. It was the smallest of noises, high-pitched and strained, one that most people would dismiss or remember as if having imagined it.
And he knew it was her, crying out for help.
There was another whimper of distress.
White hot rage burst alight inside him. There was no doubt in his mind as to who they were.
He hoped to god he wasn’t too late.
Linwood’s irritated voice sounded as he spotted him. Estelle cried out behind him, scrambling to cover herself. The sound made Vaughn’s blood boil.
“What the bloody hell are—”
He grabbed Linwood’s neck and squeezed.
“If you so much as lay another finger on Miss Murphy again, Linwood, I swear on my brother’s dead body I will hunt you down and kill you.”
“Do you understand?”
He asked calmly, brutal steel beneath his words.
“You’re scum, Irving. Now pack your things and get the hell out of my house.”
With that, he turned and left him. Estelle was still backed up against the wall, now shivering violently. The sight of the confident, opinionated governess brought to such shattering depths broke his heart.
“It’s alright, sweetheart, it’s over now.”
From behind them, Irving sneered.
“So she’s your whore, is she? I had thought a Viscount would have better taste.”
He groaned unattractively before tumbling into unconsciousness.
“Estelle…?” She didn’t even blink at the use of her name. A very bad sign. “Come on, I’ll take you inside.”
“Not back there.” She breathed. “Not back in there… please. I can’t… I can’t–”
“I know, it’s alright sweet, we’re going to my study. I’ll take you the back way.”
And that, apparently, was enough for her. She nodded meekly, silently. He led her around the side of the house to his own private music room.
She wasn’t crying, which surprised him, but she was weak. He knew her energy, her very spirit, had been stolen away. He held her to his side, literally holding her up so she wouldn’t collapse, shaking, upon the dewy grass.
Now the fire in his own blood, the adrenaline, was draining, and now that he could hear his thoughts over the beating of his heart, Vaughn realised his own mind was a mess.
What had just happened? His reaction had been… primitive. Animalistic. The rage he had felt at the thought of her being defiled, being touched by somebody else… it had blinded him. A primal, possessive fury had taken over his body, his very being.
Vaughn expelled a frustrated sigh. He couldn’t explain it, couldn’t understand it.
The governess said in a monotone.
“All I’m wondering is how efficiently I can murder that good for nothing c—”
“Charles told me he’d seen you leaving with him.”
“Why did you bother to come after me?”
“Why?! Because I knew he would try to take advantage! Or would you rather I had simply let you be, is that it?”
“N-no… I just don’t understand—”
Vaughn barked, harshly disbelieving.
“Do you know what he was going to do to you? How easily he could have… I mean… what were you thinking?!”
“No, I… I didn’t mean… I just… I didn’t think anybody would notice or care or…”
“What did he do? For God’s sake, I’ll kill him. I’ll kill the bastard; what did he—”
“No, please don’t, I…It’s not what he did, it’s… he said… He said that… that…”
“He said I should be… flattered that he wanted to… to…
“And it made me realise that… that perhaps I should be flattered. Perhaps that’s the best offer I’ll ever get. I’m a bastard. No titles to inherit, no lawful family… I’m nothing. And if I’m nothing, then… maybe that’s all I’m good for—”
“Any man would be lucky to have you.”
Vaguely, he felt her arms clutch the fabric at his chest.
Without warning, she spoke.
“I… Estelle, no, you’re not…”
But then he remembered that he couldn’t do this. She was in shock, out of her mind with fear and humiliation. She didn’t want this, not really.
“I can’t.” Drawing in a ragged breath, he looked to the floor beside them, “You don’t know what you’re doing, I can’t—”
… and yet still his mind was screaming ‘no – this isn’t right!‘ He shouldn’t… do this. And if he didn’t stop now, he wouldn’t be able to stop at all.
“But you have.” She leant in again, and he couldn’t stop her. “You saved me. Again.”
He let loose a frayed breath, his eyelids falling closed from the feelings she was suddenly, effortlessly evoking within him. He hadn’t a clue as to what had come over her… but the way she was making his heart beat a relentless staccato within his chest was… overwhelming.
“Don’t you want to kiss me?”
“Then for God’s sake… do it.”
And never had surrender been so sweet.