“There?” Marielle repeated, perplexed. “You mean… you mean at his house?”
Estelle nodded, dreading the outing.
Depending on the weather, Marielle and the Viscount would go for long strolls. They would discuss dim, menial things like the weather and glove shopping, or sometimes even talk about the Viscount’s château in France.
Throughout these tedious excursions and discussions, Estelle would simply have to watch.
She told herself, over and over.
It must pass.
Any exchanges she herself conducted with Vaughn (always in Marielle’s presence of course) were short and polite. Their conversations were no longer filled with rage or malicious intent, or any kind of real emotion. They were proper conversations. Perfectly nice.
The sound had made her ache.
But these were exceptions in conversations carried out with businesslike efficiency. And that was the way it had to be.
“Oh! Oh my! What if he intends to speak to me alone, Estelle? What if… What if he intends to propose?”
Estelle snapped, brusquely.
“Ladies do not show such volatile emotions in the morning.”
“Now go and ready yourself,” Estelle commanded. “We’re leaving in half an hour.”
“I wouldn’t expect you to understand!”
Vaughn Slanzar de Afonsine did not stop pacing. Instead, he chose to completely ignore his friend’s plea (a practice not out of the ordinary for the Viscount) and walked a little faster.
Vaughn barked, taking a puff off the cigarette dangling from his fingers.
“I just hate waiting for women to arrive fashionably sodding late.”
Charles smiled slightly.
“And Miggins will kill you if she finds out you’ve been smoking in here.”
Mrs Miggins was the Afonsine’s strong-willed housekeeper, brought with them from Barnacle Bay. The murderous look in her eye upon finding dirt anywhere inside the house (sometimes outside, too) was enough to scare any man halfway to Sunset Valley.
His future wife, the demure Marielle Harrington, would undoubtedly assume these things upon their engagement, though from what he saw on a daily basis, married men of the upper classes rarely stayed faithful to their wives, and they certainly didn’t stop drinking, smoking or gambling over inheritances, horses and whores.
He supposed nothing much would be different about married-life, apart from the dull conversation and the fact he would have to bed and eventually father a child with the aforementioned Miss Harrington, (who was practically a child herself).
And he already had the perfect mistress in mind…
Charles’ voice permeated his rapidly meandering thoughts.
“Why, my friend, I’m just being thoughtful, as per usual.”
Charles raised a brow.
“For the girl, of course. I’m not nervous. I don’t need moral support. You’re only here to amuse the governess while I’m talking to Marielle.”
The Viscount sighed in aggravation, then stubbed his cigarette out on the side of a Ming vase. He knew Charles was probably flinching at his blatant disregard for the priceless relic, but he did not care in the slightest.
Damn Charles. And while he was at it, damn Mrs Miggins, too.
“Some things never change, do they, Vaughn?” Charles said. “You may have the ton bowing to your boots now, but I remember a conversation that started similarly some years ago, and it ended with my father switching my bottom for letting you talk me into stealing a jar of apple brandy.”
“I’d forgotten about that. We had just turned thirteen. The footman found us asleep behind your father’s stable. My head hurt so much after drinking all that brandy I didn’t even feel his switch!”
Charles smiled thinly, looking away.
“I’m sorry I left you alone, Vaughn.”
It sounded as if he were justifying himself and that only made the feeling all the more terrible.
Things about you, mostly.”
Vaughn snorted derisively.
“After you left, I was sent to live with all kinds of relatives. I think my father was trying to give me a reason to move forward, to… forget you. It was strange, but I realised that I’d never been without you before in my entire life.”
No matter how hard they tried… I couldn’t be a part of it. Something was always… missing.”
Vaughn ground out.
“Just stop it, will you?”
“I finally understood it: you were the first person I trusted, the first person I really cared about, you were the closest thing to a brother I’d ever had… So I understand it now, I really understand you.”
All I ever wanted was for you to acknowledge me, to see me as part of your life, as… worthy. And how ridiculous is that?”
“After you left, I couldn’t trust anyone in that same way, I couldn’t care about anyone as much… because I thought that if you –- my best friend, my brother, could abandon me, then there was no one worth putting my trust in anymore.”
“After Lily died, I realised nothing lasts in this world. It feels great to have friends and family you can rely on. I think that’s why it’s so dangerous, especially if you become used to it. Someday you’re bound to lose everything.”
It’s so miserable. It’s so hard to recover from something like that. I never, ever wanted to deal with that again. I couldn’t. Even if it meant being alone…”
The Viscount flinched and looked away.
Charles’ voice held a sudden gravity.
“I just want you to be sure.”
Vaughn knew exactly what they meant. Charles was asking him whether he was making the right decision. Whether resigning himself to a life with Marielle Harrington was what he really wanted.
He knew there wasn’t.
What does it matter?
“Enter.” Vaughn called, sounding considerably more confident than he felt.
“Announcing the arrival of Lady Harrington and a Miss Murphy. Shall I bring them in, my Lord?”
Her governess followed close behind.
He had perfected the art of looking at her without anybody else noticing.
Their gazes met for barely a second before they she looked away. But a second was all he had needed. The spark, the shiver, the joy that ran through him would last all day.
Charles addressed the women, inducing Vaughn to stop staring at the governess and echo his greeting.
Estelle merely glanced around the room, her eyes widened when they fell upon Charles, before quickly darting back to the wall.
The governess said properly. She curtsed, before standing back against the wall.
She probably would have encouraged Marielle to do the same…
“Oh, my Lord! I could hardly wait to leave the house when I’d heard you’d requested my presence this morning!”
“It is always a pleasure to see you, Marielle.”
Whether she would still blush in his presence.
He wondered, whilst looking at the veritable child in front of him, whether this time next year they would have a screaming child of their own in the nursery upstairs, and whether either of them would want anything to do with it.
“Are you quite alright, my Lord?”
Vaughn blinked, fixing his charming smile back in place.
It was going to be a long day.