Eric was jolted out of his pleasant daydream by a knock on the front door. He instantly rose to his feet, ignoring the dizziness he suffered for standing with such speed, and walked out of his bedroom and through the living room to answer it.
He was greeted by the sight of a nervous-looking Corinne.
Her nervousness did not make the choice which she had made clear and Eric silently asked the magical spirits to grant him his wish for it to be him.
“Come in,” he said, opening the door wider. To his dismay, she was followed by Lord Dachshund.
Eric closed the door and turned to face Corinne.
“Eric,” she whispered, “I’m so sorry for leaving and only informing you by a note.”
“It does not matter now,” he told her calmly. “All I care about is your safety.”
“I know,” she replied. “You are such a caring, decent, lovely man.”
Her unnecessary compliments told Eric that she was trying to soften the blow. He walked over to a rug and sat down heavily.
Corinne dropped to her knees.
“Eric, you have cared for me in the most touching, beautiful way. Your love always shone out like a beacon, and I was honoured to be the woman in your heart.”
Eric’s gaze dropped to the floor. He found himself incapable of speech: his heart had begun to throb miserably and he was nigh suppressing tears.
“I never dreamed I would end up hurting you,” Corinne told him. “I truly believed that I loved you in return.”
Eric was shocked by the implication of her last statement and seemed to find his voice again.
“What do you mean when you say you ‘believed’ you loved me in return?”
Corinne’s expression became one of guilt and she fixedly regarded the floor. Lord Richard moved to put a hand on one of her shoulder blades and it rested there as she replied.
“I do not think I truly did.”
“How can you say that?!” he exclaimed. “How can you say that you did not love me? You never complained when I kissed you or when I was romantic or when we shared beautiful moments together? How can you deny the feelings between us?”
Corinne looked extremely uncomfortable.
“I think I love you as a sibling, Eric. I ... I was relieved when you rescued me from Dachshund Manor and I ... I was truly moved by your kindness and love for me. But if I am frank I was perhaps a little too desperate to find new love after the insupportable nature of Richard’s manner.”
Eric glanced at Richard and saw him wince in memory.
“And you are certain that he has changed now?”
Corinne nodded. “Yes, all has been explained.”
Eric gazed into her eyes, unutterably saddened by her not thinking that she was in love with him.
“Oh, my lady... You truly believe you do not wish to spend your life with me?”
Corinne nodded, her expression completely sorrowful.
Eric sighed heavily.
“Then I suppose I have to accept it.”
“Oh, Eric!” Corinne exclaimed, throwing her arms around him. He held her tightly, knowing that this could be the last time he was ever allowed to embrace her. He hoped that Richard would not be possessive but could understand why he would want to reserve the feel of Corinne’s arms around one for himself.
“I will love you for all time, Corinne,” Eric confessed to her. “I will never cease to desire your safety, your happiness, your wellbeing. And if you ever need me, for anything, I will gladly come and perform that task to the best of my ability.”
Corinne began to cry.
“Oh, my lady. Please do not blame yourself. You could not help it. You have always acted as you thought best. This does not change my opinion.”
“It should,” she wept. “You should hate me for being a wicked woman.”
“No, my lady, no. You will never be a wicked woman. And I will never hate you.”
He kissed the crown of her head, his arms tightening a little, though not painfully, around her.
“You are too kind, Eric,” she told him. “Far too kind.”
“And you are kind for praising me so. Please do not be sad, Corinne.”
Corinne leant backwards slightly and Eric let go. She delicately wiped the tears from her eyes before looking into his.
“I shall never forget my time with you,” she said. “Never. You are an amazing man.”
Eric placed a hand over one of hers.
“My lady, you flatter me. Will you promise to feel no guilt for this?”
Corinne cast her eyes downwards but after a moment her gaze returned to his face. Eric told himself to remember every second of this, to remember every detail of Corinne’s face: her expression, her touch, the rise and fall of her heartbeat; while waiting for the promise which Corinne needed to give so that she would not be unhappy in the life that she had chosen.
“I promise,” she said sincerely, and he patted her hand, nodding in approval.
“Oh, Eric,” she murmured. “You have taken my choice incredibly well.”
“It would not be fair if I didn’t,” he told her. “And I could never force you to stay with me against your will. That would cause me greater misery.”
“Far too kind,” she repeated.
Slowly she rose to her feet. Eric stood too, knowing that Corinne was about to leave.
“I have brought a cart to load my possessions into,” she told him.
“I shall help you when you have put everything in your trunk,” he said.
“I can help with that,” Richard offered. He had been silent for all this time and for this Eric was thankful. The expression on his face: the calmness untouched by any negative feeling caused Eric to be less worried by Corinne’s desire to share her life with him - he seemed genuinely to be a different man to the one Corinne had described during their first conversation.
“My thanks, my lord,” he told him sincerely, “but this is a task which I would like to perform for Corinne, to show that there are no hard feelings.”
Richard nodded understandingly.
Corinne smiled. She went into his bedroom and Eric was left alone with Lord Richard.
“Make sure that you do not mistreat her,” Eric told him.
“I will,” Richard promised, seemingly not angered by the implication that he might.
“Love her with all your heart.”
“I give you my word, Eric - I shall.”
The men lapsed into an uncomfortable silence while Corinne continued to pack, neither really knowing what to say to one another. Soon, however, Corinne had joined them again and she held the trunk with two hands because of its immense weight; Eric took it from her and carried it out of the cottage to put it into the cart. He took Whisper to the stables before returning to Lord Dachshund’s stallion where the lord and Corinne were waiting so that the lady could say farewell to him.
“Be happy,” she murmured as she embraced him for a final time.
“I will,” Eric replied, “... as long as you are.”
“I will be,” she promised. As she drew away she kissed him on the cheek. “I thank you for everything you have done for me, Eric,” she told him. “I wish you the best of futures.”
“Thank you, my lady. I wish the same for you.”
Corinne smiled at Eric and he returned it with all the sincerity he possessed before the lovely, set-to-marry-Lord-Richard Corinne mounted the black stallion and she rode with her new lover away to Dachshund Manor.