It had been two months since Prince Bernard’s visit. The Monday after that weekend, Corinne had been delighted to see Eric in the manor again, delivering roasted chestnuts to Richard. She had still felt resent towards Richard: indeed she had felt it until he had asked her what she wanted to do for her birthday.
She couldn’t continue to be angry at him when he showed consideration for her wishes like this.
So she had sighed internally and told him her idea of inviting all the little girls of Periville to the manor for a tea party. He had smiled and told her that this was a beautiful suggestion.
The very next day the invitations had been sent out. Richard had smiled at Corinne with warmth that was more intense than the affection of a friend as he handed the slips of parchment to the maids.
And today it was her birthday and she had just woken up to find Richard sitting on an armchair he had pulled up to her bedside.
“R-Richard,” she murmured sleepily as she sat up. “What are you doing here?”
Richard smiled though the look in his eyes was a little sad.
“Happy birthday, Corinne,” he whispered, moving quietly onto her bed, pulling her towards him and brushing his lips against hers.
At first Corinne was too stunned to respond but when it seemed like the kiss was really happening, she relaxed and started to feel it. The warmth of the feeling behind it, the gentle, soothing rhythm... RICHARD WAS KISSING HER!
Corinne flung her arms around him and kissed back wildly, desperate for the moment not to end, needing to show him that she loved him in return and that all her negative feelings towards him meant nothing; she wanted - so much - to be caught in his embrace forever; she recognised her heart as a part of her that had captured every pleasurable moment of the past seven years and remained the essence of that fifteen year old girl who had come to work at Dachshund Manor to find herself enamoured of her master; she felt her spirit an unstable, fluttery creature like a baby bird on its first flight, her mind a torrent of emotion, of wind and rain and fire, and her soulpulsating gently because the deepest part of her would only not be affected if she wasn’t truly and utterly in love with Richard.
Richard gently pulled back, looking so much like he didn’t want to, and so Corinne didn’t understand.
“Why stop?” she breathed, though there was little breath in her.
Richard swallowed hard.
“I’ve not kissed you before,” he replied, his tone ragged from the strength of the kiss, his words not really making sense in this state of trying to cope with a completely novel, astounding experience.
“Is that supposed to be a reason for us to stop?”
“The first kiss is meant to be gentle. Slow,” he explained.
“I’m not a child,” Corinne told him. “I’m a grown woman. I know when I’m serious about something.”
She tried to lean in towards him but he gently pushed her away.
“It’s still going too fast.” He looked around the room, shaking his head. His voice was returning to normal now. “I oughtn’t to have kissed you in your chamber.”
“It doesn’t matter where the kiss takes place,” Corinne replied, confused.
“It does if you end up conceiving a child,” Richard murmured.
Corinne glanced away, blushing a little in shame.
“Oh yes,” she murmured. “I had quite forgotten that it tainted a lord’s reputation if he and his lover had not married before conceiving a child together.”
Richard reached out and lightly caressed her cheek.
“Do not worry yourself over it, my lady.”
Corinne smiled, reminding herself of the kiss itself before consequences had been considered.
Richard sighed. “Was I right to kiss you, Corinne?” he asked, quite unexpectedly.
Corinne nodded, wanting to give him full confidence in his actions. She would restrain herself the next time they kissed - that was certain.
“Most definitely,” she assured him.
It was therefore to her astonishment that Richard rose to his feet all at once looking sad and vulnerable like a lost child.
“I cannot court you, Corinne,” he told her, the look on his face pained.
The glass sphere located somewhere in Corinne’s mind which contained her most magical dreams, which up until this moment had been twirling around and around delightedly like waltzing dancers, shattered into a thousand pieces.
“What?” she whispered, unable to comprehend the statement she thought she had just heard but wished fervently that she had misheard.
“We may love each other... but not show it. I needed to assure you of the fact that I cared - you were so angry at upset with me before. I even desired to reward your previous tolerance of the detached manner in which I behaved - and I hope to encourage you in that tolerance; but we cannot be husband and wife, Corinne. I do not wish it.”
“You have never once told me why,” Corinne cried. “Do I not deserve to know? Or is being left in the dark my punishment for the times when I did not tolerate your usual mood? Tell me, Richard!”
“I cannot tell you that which I have been hiding for almost twenty years. It is too hard.”
“Twenty years?! Why, then, were you never this way when I was a maid here?”
“I didn’t see you all the time: our conversations were bearable.” Richard looked away, his expression one of discomfort. “But when I started to be surrounded by the thought of your love and by the relationship you wanted for us, it began to bring me pain.”
Richard cast his eyes to the ground, his face full of shame. “I am sorry. I do not mean to hurt you.”
There had appeared within Corinne a cold region where her happy spirit had frozen, its wings torn and stained with blood.
“But you do hurt me,” she stated simply. “You’ve hurt me since I moved here and you’re hurting me now.” She paused before saying in a calm, detached voice, “I’d like you to leave, Lord Richard. And I don’t wish to find myself alone with you until the morrow. Goodbye.”
Richard bowed his head obediently, though he looked even sadder than he had before.
“Goodbye, Corinne,” he murmured, almost mournfully, as he exited her chamber.