Richard sighed at the breakfast table as he thought about all that he had said to Corinne. He sighed because it had all been true. She had pushed him too far and now he could never bear to show affection towards her again.
The matter was that Richard didn’t want to become to close to anyone. The thought of an intimate bond, of giving so much of himself to a person and receiving so much of him or her in return, quite frankly, terrified him. It didn’t change the feelings inside him towards that person but it prevented him from acting on them. And so being in love with Corinne had been the most difficult thing in his life. Wanting so much of her and not letting himself have it. Watching her want him back but never desiring to give of himself.
And letting Corinne know how exactly he felt about her had broken the rules. He had crossed the line and now he could never touch their situation again. He wouldn’t be able to look her in the eye again. In bringing her relief and overpowering joy he had put a dagger into his soul and scarred himself forever. After such a grand declaration there was little left to give. So he was exposed, vulnerable and his terror had intensified. And there was no way he could love in that state. It was like trying to think of beautiful weather while in utter agony. Impossible.
Richard downed his coffee, not blaming Corinne for not having joined him this morning. In fact, he was glad she had not appeared. It made his life a lot easier.
Richard was walking in the garden a little while after the morning meal, his thoughts blank, his senses dull, when Samantha hurried towards him with an expression of fear on her face.
“My lord,” she cried, stopping as she reached him, breathless from the physical exertion. “The lady Corinne has disappeared.”
Richard was brought violently back to reality.
“What do you mean?” he asked, frowning in concern.
“She was not in her bedchamber this morning. And I searched the entire manor but cannot find her. No member of staff saw her leave the place and even her mother did not know she had gone.”
Panic flashed through Richard. Had he driven Corinne so far away that she had fled during the night? And no matter how much it had hurt him to love her, he could not wish her ill.
“Have you spoken to the guards?” he asked, trying to keep a firm grip on rationality so he could discover the truth.
Samantha shook her head.
“It didn’t occur to me she might have gone while everyone else slept,” she mumbled, ashamed.
“Well, ask them if they have seen her. Hurry.”
When she rushed off towards the hut in which the guards could be found in the mornings and evenings, he walked into the manor and called together all the staff, as well as Keris Kingfisher for a meeting in the parlour.
When everyone was present, he announced the news.
“Corinne Kingfisher appears to be missing.”
He waited for the horrified gasps and speculative whispers to subside before he continued.
“If anyone has seen her since she returned to the manor last night, could they please let me know -” He hesitated as an idea entered his mind. “Even if she has sworn you to secrecy. It is of the utmost importance that her whereabouts are discovered in case she is any danger. I am certain that none of you would wish any harm to come to her.”
The fervent nods of everyone in the room reminded Richard of what a lovely character Corinne was. Once again, he thought to himself that it was truly unfair that such a wonderful woman should have had to fall for him.
“If you have no information whatsoever, you may leave. I will summon you if help is needed in finding her.”
The chef, Florence, Matilda and the stable lad exited reluctantly, looking disappointed that there was nothing they could do for the time being, leaving the gardener and Keris whom Richard had expected to stay because Corinne was her daughter.
“Take a seat,” he said, his throat feeling very dry.
Keris silently obeyed.
‘Oh, Corinne,’ Richard thought anxiously. ‘Where are you?’