Estelle didn’t give herself time to even think. She didn’t want to think. It bothered her to think and it bothered her that she didn’t want to think. She shoved all thoughts aside except one and continued walking. I have to leave.
In the middle of her worry a door opened quietly. Estelle knew she hadn’t made any noise but as Charles entered the room his head turned toward her. She could see the curve of a cheek in the wan light and tousled hair. His eyes, attuned to the darkness, suggested he had been awake for some time.
“You should be sleeping, Miss Murphy.”
The Count strode through the shadows toward her. Suddenly he stopped short; over here, Estelle realised, there was enough light to make out distinctive features.
He frowned briefly. “… are you alright?”
Estelle let her eyes rise to Charles and nodded, speaking hoarsely. “I’m fine.”
“You don’t look fine. You look sick.”
“It’s nothing. It’s just… It’s just a fever. That’s it. It’ll go away soon.”
Charles moved forward with outstretched fingers. “A fever? Are you sure you shouldn’t—“
Estelle jerked her face away from Charles’ hand. Something rolled over in her stomach and she couldn’t help thinking: What would he think if he knew what I have done?
“Don’t touch me, please don’t— I’m fine. Really…”
Charles regarded her silently. A part of Estelle wished Charles would ask again, just so she could finally say what was wrong, maybe even talk about it. Paradoxically she was relieved when he didn’t.
“I don’t often take the time to chastise others,” he began eventually, “But there are two things that I would like to say.”
“The first is that you were half-dead when you came here and you have clearly not recovered as of yet. I know that I cannot force you to stay but you are clearly are unwell; surely you comprehend that it is as inappropriate as it is cruel to worry others by needlessly putting yourself in danger.”
“I suspect that you’ve regained your memory of recent events,” The Count concluded and Estelle flushed, her shame ignited. “Why else the midnight flight? Do you remember what we discussed the night you arrived here?”
“Um, just bits and pieces,” She admitted, carefully.
“But you do remember.”
“And Vaughn still doesn’t know.” Charles appeared deeply dismayed by the news; a thousand ‘whys’ resounded in the pitch of his voice.
“Do you really think that’s fair?”
“I know, Estelle. About the child.”
It struck her like a physical blow. Estelle knew she should show some outward reaction, but she couldn’t. She just stood there, helpless, wishing she had something to chase away the dull fear that was rising in her throat.
He knows. About me. About Vaughn. About… everything. One breath and then another turned into a frustrated sob and she couldn’t stop shaking, couldn’t stop thinking—
Charles waited, watching her carefully. “It’s not too late, you know. You can still talk to Vaughn about this…”
“No,” Estelle choked out, “I can’t— I just can’t—”
Because to speak to Vaughn would mean that she would have to get near Vaughn again, and that was dangerous – the previous night – no, their entire acquaintance – attested to that.
He’d raise a rakish brow and mutter something appropriately devastating that would niggle in her head until she was left with the half-attempted thought on how it could still work between them. Vaughn lied and manipulated her. And now she was doing the same: lying so he wouldn’t do something disastrous.
“Maybe that’s for the best,” Charles conceded sadly. “Strictly between you and I Earl Afonsine is a domineering man, and is forever threatening Vaughn with disinheritance if he does anything even remotely against his wishes.
It would take a lot for him to sever those familial ties.”
“Estelle, I know this must be difficult to hear but you will have to make some important decisions and soon. Arrangements can be made; these situations are not complicated, simply tedious. In fact, within the ton they are far more commonplace than you think.
Of course, I cannot force you to stay here, but I believe it would be in your best interest to do so.”
“I have not been idle these past weeks. I have been tallying a number of contacts – influential people who can be persuaded to see the injustice of your situation – and some who may be willing to support your entrance in society. I have two options, which, if you accept either, would be more than enough to ensure your safety. But I’m afraid you might not like what I have in mind.”
The Count swallowed, gauging, before continuing:
“We’ll need the backing of a particularly influential family to support you. Only they can make arrangements for a birth in complete secrecy and find you employment thereafter.”
“In these circumstances, Countess Afonsine would be your greatest ally.”
As it sank in with icy teeth, Estelle heard herself gasp: “What?”
“The Afonsine’s hold considerable sway within the ton. I caution you, many will not take action without strong inducement.”
“The Countess is very family-orientated and will easily persuade the Earl to adopt his grandchild. Much like Vaughn, his mother can be very persuasive.”
Mother. The word touched something in Estelle so cold that it froze on the point of impact.
Charles’ approach the to next topic was considerably more reticent.
“Then there’s the other option, which relates to the clause in Lord Venture’s will… the one that requires you to marry.”
Estelle immediately spun round, scandalised. “What are you saying, Charles? No respectable gentleman would ever agree to such a thing. No promise of wealth will convince a man to take on a-a—”
She simply couldn’t bring herself to say the word. Bastard.
“You do yourself an injustice,” Charles countered. “You are not low-born by any means. Your father was a respectable gentleman from an established family, which is always looked on favourably. Fiscal considerations influence on marriages more than you would believe. I doubt there’s a man in the ton who would not benefit from such an arrangement.”
Estelle could hardly speak, she couldn’t words with emotion choking through her. “Just… just what are you proposing?”
“Think about it: through marriage you would have your rightful inheritance, a powerful name and the independence that comes with it. You could keep your child, if you so wished – a child which would one day inherit the Venture Estates and a life of privilege.”
A life of privilege. Not like me. Not alone and afraid, not growing up alone because it’ll have me—
With the shock of recent events, Estelle had forgotten just how much Charles had done for her. Now he was offering her a way out – a new life. A life with him. Even knowing her shame. She wanted choices, she needed them. Now, if she wanted to, she could have them and the control over her own life she had always craved.
Unbidden, his words reached her through the darkness, feral and frightening.
You are dirt.
You belong in the gutter.
You should feel honoured that I want to fuck you.
Next, her own father’s words.
You are nobody.
Nothing. A motherless gypsy foundling.
What Charles was offering her… it was far more than she deserved.
“Estelle…” His eyes were immeasurably sad.
“Estelle, you’re crying.”
And she couldn’t stop it when everything came crashing down on her – frustrated tears blurred her vision and she couldn’t stop them. Everything felt so out of control; she felt hot, cold and nauseated all at the same time. A helpless, pointless hurt bruised up inside of her.
“I don’t know what to do—”
Even as the words left her mouth, Estelle was horrified. She wished for nothing more than to stop the display of weakness, but her hands shook too much to cover her traitorous mouth. I’m worthless.
“I don’t know w-what I should do, Charles.”
I can’t go anywhere like this— not if I faint every second. I can’t stand this. What am I supposed to do? She hated the fact that there was nothing –absolutely nothing – she could do.
And Vaughn will be here… everyday, he’ll be—
I’m stuck here, Estelle thought bleakly, And I’m not good enough, even if… I’m not good enough.
The hours stretched on, ticking away into silence.
A/N: The first update in foreverrrrr. Better late than never though, amirite?