“So… you really don’t remember anything?”
“Must you keep asking me that? I feel mortified enough as it is!”
“I… really am sorry, you know.”
She imagined many women had seen him like this. Had felt this way.
“… what are you apologising for?”
Still, her voice came out a little more… unsteady than she would have liked.
That expression… it reminded her of when they first met. She did not like it.
“I… didn’t suppose you would care to know.” Estelle answered cautiously.
“And why did you suppose that?”
“Because this is the first time we have held a conversation for weeks. I didn’t think it was appropriate.”
The Viscount chimed in, tone light with amusement.
“My old nemesis.”
“Well, if you’re curious with regards to your little bump, Charles has informed me that you received some news from a solicitor that shocked you somewhat. Apparently you fell and hit your head on an antique mahogany table.”
The whole thing was rather infuriating.
She closed her eyes, squinted into the darkness behind her eyelids, reaching out for any clues that placed her here in the guest bedroom of Charles Landgraab’s home. Anything at all that might have happened with a solicitor…
…but what on earth did a solicitor want with her?
Caught up in her thoughts as she was, she barely noticed the Viscount approach the bed. It was only when she caught the scent of fresh cut grass, summer wind and that elemental male musk that she realised he had sat down beside her.
… couldn’t she?
She turned toward him. In an instant, something ignited between them. His lips parted, as if to say something, do something, Estelle heard his intake of breath, saw his eyes dart down to her mouth and back again.
Close as they suddenly were, she could feel the heat of his body…
His kisses, so soft and tender and yet demanding, devastating….
She had to ask.
He said nothing, waiting for her to continue.
She swallowed. Breathed.
“It was you…. wasn’t it?”
“I… thank you.”
Then he abruptly left the room.
He was a conceited beast of a man, one who invaded her life, her dreams and plans unapologetically. He infuriated her. He complicated everything and thought nothing of it!
He was the same man who had told her she was beautiful and had spoken poetry so softly that it had moved her in ways she did not even want to admit.
Who was he?
“I was just asking your Lordship which waistcoast he would like to wear today…?”
He shook his head distractedly. “You choose.”
The valet confidently marched over to the dresser and began to root through a selection of fine waistcoats in silence. For the past four years he had dressed Vaughn most mornings, ran his errands in the afternoons and was indeed the very same man who carried him safely to bed on his most inebriated of evenings.
The Viscount physically jolted out of his thoughts, blinking wildly as if he’d just been shaken out of unconsciousness. He turned to see Charles lingering in the doorway.
Charles stepped further into the room. “There’s nothing on your mind then?”
Vaughn flashed a tight smile. “Nothing at all.”
“Nothing at all?” Charles repeated. “Not even thoughts of a certain woman sleeping soundly in the guest room at the end of the corridor?”
Vaughn caught Charles’ expression in the mirrored glass and found it odd, but he chose to ignore it. He was, after all, already choosing to ignore several things which were obstinately weighing on his mind…
Namely, the moment he had shared with Estelle the day before, and the truth he withheld from her. After swearing to himself that he would apologise to her, treat her as nothing but a companion… he had felt a surge of lust for her so acute he could barely stand it.
No… it was not simply lust, need, desire; there was no word that could encompass how he had felt just then. As he had stared into her eyes, the feeling that came over him was so peculiar that he saw no other option but to flee.
What had she been doing, these past few months, to become a guest at Charles’ manor?
What it meant. What they meant. What everything meant.
“About Miss Murphy,” Charles announced. “Your behaviour has been reprehensible. I cannot think what to say about how you deceive that poor woman, and lead her on, so I will simply say that, under my roof you shall behave honourably in every way.”
“There’s been a mistake here,” Vaughn tried to sound competent and calm. “Miss Murphy and I need to straighten things out. By talking together, privately. I assure you, for your peace of mind, that is not at all what you seem to think it is.”
“This is far more than a misunderstanding. Bear in mind who you are. If you were a stable-hand you would be free to court who you wish, but you are not, Vaughn. You are heir to a Dukedom and, as such, must observe certain customs, and practice certain… discretions.”
“Who are you to stand on moral high ground and point me out as an imperfect creature? What you condemn you did yourself.”
Grey eyes lifted and met Vaughn’s squarely and held. For a moment, Vaughn saw past Charles’ quietness and distractibility, into a soul more capable of pain and vaster regret than he had ever suspected.
“How do you think I could ever forget that?”
“You and I have grown up amongst society’s gossip and intrigues, Vaughn. Estelle has not. Will you let it be said she is your concubine? Or worse, your whore? She will find herself an outcast among politely nodding people.”
With each statement, Vaughn felt the shock go deeper.
“I’m not intentionally being cruel to you, Vaughn, but it far better to be cruel to you now than to let that poor woman suffer a lifetime of casual cruelty. I know you meant no harm, but we must now see that no harm will come of it. You’ve have behaved as a thoughtless boy.”
“There are those within the ton who you are not on amicable terms with – I suspect you know who they are. If you expose her this way, Miss Murphy will become their victim for their aims of hurting you.”
Vaughn was rendered silent by the raw truth behind those words.
His mind drifted to Irving Linwood, with his slimy smiles and sly witticisms. Vaughn thought about how he could turn and speak softly to his hangers-on at a dinner and all would smirk to one another, adding soft, but acid-tongued comment’s to the lordling’s criticism.
Charles continued gravely: “Think carefully on how much you are willing to offer, Vaughn. Some women are willing to take what a man can offer and content themselves with it. For others, it is not enough – and it will never be enough. Miss Murphy is, or was, a woman of prospects – she is well-educated. I expect that, with help, she will be able to re-establish herself.”
I will not let it happen, Vaughn. Not again.”
Vaughn doesn’t understand this constant breaking and reforming between the two of them, but he doesn’t ask either.
He lets it lie there, unspoken between them. Just as he knows Charles will.
Both are aware that this situation building between them is nothing less than a lit fuse. Vaughn wasn’t even sure know who held the wrong end, anymore.
His valet glanced between the two Lords uneasily.
A/N: Super late, super delayed but there you have it: chapter 32! Tardiness aside, I’ve clocked up 2300+ words here. That’s a lot of words.