Chapter Seventeen

No more than ten minutes later, Nora was seated in a carriage, headed for home. Though her departure from the estate was a bittersweet one, she knew it was for the best, for although she did not know entirely where she belonged, she knew it wasn't there.

The truth is, she told herself as the carriage rumbled along the countryside, I don't know if I would have been able to part with him so easily if I had really loved him.

Now left to her thoughts, Nora began to think about her family, the family she hadn't seen in what seemed like forever. Mother should be showing now, she thought, thinking of her future little brother or sister. She stared out the window into the night sky. If she was escaping a life of wealth and prestige, what else was left but to go home and make a life for herself there? Something as simple as getting married and raising a family finally piqued Nora's interest. No longer did she have such an overwhelming need to help and protect her family; when she was at the Estate, she found they got along just fine without her.

But without my family, where do I go from here? she asked herself.

Make your own family, was the obvious answer.

That only brought thoughts of Christopher once again drifting into her already-clouded mind. Thoughts of his perfect physique, his chiseled features. Thoughts of the way he smiled and laughed; the way his brows knitted together when he was angry or sad; how the very sight of him could make her heart practically leap in anticipation for their next encounter, whether it be good or bad. Thoughts of the way he held her…

"Get a hold of yourself, girl," Nora whispered, knowing Chris had probably chased after the next-available girl as soon as he got home. She hadn't been anything special to him. Had she?

She sat up straight, realizing they were almost back at her village. Home, she recognized immediately. Oh, I never knew I could be so happy to see you…

Nora stepped out of the carriage as soon as it had stopped, and thanked the driver profusely. As soon as he stopped blushing and drove off, back in the direction of the Lennex Estate, Nora set off toward…

Home? Is that really where I want to be? Nora knew her family would be disappointed in her for ruining such a wonderful chance at a better life, and she was not in the mood to give them the long explanation that was due. No, where she really wanted to go; that was off limits; probably already occupied by the man that ruled over her heart, and his latest conquest.

Nora's tears began to flow freely again, and she did not care enough to wipe them away. She found herself wandering unconsciously to the lake; that same lake that Christopher had threw her in the day the Duke had come to see her.

"I hate you, you stupid Duke," her anguished whispers echoed with the soft chirp of crickets. "If it wasn't for you, none of this would have happened." She sat down at the bank of the water, her red gown just touching the lake's edge. She hadn't taken it off at the mansion; she had wanted to leave as quickly as possible, without drawing the slightest bit of extra attention.

Nora couldn't help herself; she began to tear at the delicate fabric of the dress, bits and pieces of red taffeta and silk flying every which way. "I hate" – rip – "these stupid clothes" – rip – "and I hate" – rip – "this stupid hairdo!" She muttered angrily, pulling out the pins in her hair; letting a few of them drop into the water. Finally stopping to contemplate her actions, Nora noticed the condition of her gown. Bits of fabric littered the ground about her, and her hair was a tangled disarray.

"I guess you're not planning on returning that dress."

Nora froze; her hands each clutching a small piece of crimson fabric from the gown.

"What, no hello? Seriously, Nora, after spending so long at the Duke's estate, one would think you'd have learned some manners!"

Determined to answer the feminine voice behind her, despite her apparent absence of speech, Nora stood up quickly and turned to face her best friend. As soon as she saw the bright, cheerful face, framed by soft blond curls, she giggled. "Oh, Charlotte, I must look dreadful."

Charlotte smiled and came to hug her companion. After the friendly embrace, she stood back to once again observe her. "Yes, you do look pretty awful. A shame too; that gown must have looked positively breathtaking when it was fully intact. Such a pity you couldn't wait a few more minutes to have an emotional breakdown; then I would have been able to see it!"

Nora flung her arms around her comrade for a second time, laughing and crying at the same time. "Charlotte, how I've missed you!"

"Not as much as I've missed you." Charlotte confided. "So, how was it? I want to know everything." She winced. "Well, unless it's too painful to talk about. Obviously, you didn't just leave the Duke to come home for a visit, mm?"

"He's in love with someone else," Nora stated simply.

Charlotte mimicked her friend's apathetic tone and replied with an indifferent, "Oh. Oh well. There's always the Duke of Bradbury!"

Nora couldn't help but break down into fits of hysterical giggles. "Charlotte, the man is near eighty!"

"Don't forget the fact that he's half blind! A man would have to be, to take you as a wife while you're wearing that ripped old thing!"

The two young women shared a good laugh, oblivious to the third party that came to stand near them. They hadn't noticed him until he spoke. "I'd marry her in a heartbeat.

Nora and Charlotte abruptly stopped laughing and stared at the man next to them. Charlotte soberly nodded at the expression he gave her and muttered a quiet, "See you later, Nora." With that, she ran off toward her house.

The sun had completely set by now, and Nora could barely make out Christopher's hard, masculine form in the darkness. But it was him, all right. He was looking a bit more tired than usual; his eyes didn't possess their normal sparkle.

"Chris." She didn't know what else to say. She had come home, because she was letting Nick and Grace work out their differences. The last thing she wanted to do was make Christopher seem second rate; by throwing herself at him only when the Duke was "through" with her.

"Nora," he answered, coming to stand right in front of her. Their bodies didn't touch the slightest bit; but one small movement on Nora's part, and they would have. He was testing her; seeing just how much she wanted him; how much control she had left.

She stared straight ahead at Chris' chest, which was clad in a flimsy beige material. In an effort to calm her racing heartbeat, she pretended to study the fabric. That only succeeded in the scent that belonged solely to Christopher wafting up to her, and the longing she felt in the pit of her stomach erupted into a demanding need that was not to be quenched by just staring at the man in front of her.

Before they knew what was happening, they were in each other's arms, Christopher holding her tighter than he would have held a lifeline; Nora crying softly in his embrace.

As soon as she had calmed enough to be able be fully comprehended, she spoke. "I'm not running back to you," she stated lamely.

Chris smiled down at her. "If anyone asks, it was I who ran to you."

"And I don't want a gazillion children. Three or four will do just fine, thank you."

"I'll keep that in mind, but I hope the topic is still open for negotiation."

"You'll have to find a way to get along with my father. In case you haven't noticed, he doesn't like you very much."

He laughed and gently kissed her eyelids, successfully drying the last of her tears. "Perhaps we can work out some kind of agreement."

"And, Chris?"

"Yes?"

Nora took his face in her hands and brought his lips down to hers for their first kiss as future husband and wife. "I love you."

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

A/N: It's all over! The whole darn thing. Well, this was such a pleasure to write, and I hope it was just as nice for you all to read. What had started as just a piece to release (heh, I just rhymed) my boredom, has turned into a full-length, finished novel. Finished. Oh, I am so proud. I hope no one's angry at me for eliminating the Duke. I liked Chris better. ^_^ But this doesn't mean we're going to leave the Duke! Oh, no! There will be (get ready for this one, folks)… A SEQUEL!!! That's right! So stop your whining. Sheesh. You don't know hard it was for me to keep the ending to myself, as well as the fact that there will be a sequel in the works. However, I have absolutely no idea as to how to start the darn thing, so you all must be patient. Yes, it's a virtue. Though, not one of Benjamin Franklin's… (Thanks to my 11th grade AP English teacher, Mr. DeFazio!! You rock! Ben Franklin does, too!) This was ONLY for fun; I will probably never submit it to a class as long as I live. I hope you all enjoyed reading it. It's been great.