Synopsis: England. 1821. She's a painter who has lost her meaning in life. He's a former sea captain trying to redeem himself for past sins. The unexpected collisions of their lives leads the pair down a path they never dreamed of. KK

Author's Note: I'm happy to say that this fic is completely finished. It is 8 chapters long, and falls a tad short of 100 pages on my word processor. Updates will not occur every four to six months here (like they have with my other stories, unfortunately), and, in fact, after I revise them, I'll have a new chapter out every few days. So stick with me for these next coming weeks, and (hopefully) enjoy this little novella that I've written.

The only thing that bothers me with placing these characters in England is their names. I wish they didn't sound so out of place, but, alas…there's nothing I can really do about that. So bear with me on this. Thanks.

Disclaimer: I do not own Rurouni Kenshin.

A Soft Hope

1821.English countryside, in Kent.

Chapter 1

A Lingering Ache

Silence hung in the air like a thick shroud. The quiet atmosphere was considerably uncomfortable, but it allowed precious time for deep introspection. The world seemed to be in a constant, tormenting bustle these past months, passing by in a continuous swirl of pain and confusion. Life itself was viewed through a haze of deep, encompassing red.

Red for anger building like a heavy fist in the back of her mind.

Red for pain that curled unbearably around her heart.

And red for the grief that never left her.

…oh, God, the horrid grief…

Kaoru bit her lip painfully as she clasped her hands tightly together in her lap. In an attempt to push away the crushing wave of despondency threatening to envelop her, Kaoru closed her eyes momentarily, and tried to regain her composure. She gradually managed to situate her mind onto the irregular and noisy rocking of the carriage, which had become sorely tedious after the long day's traveling.

As the carriage moved down the rudimentary road, the tall, elegant wheels bumped uncomfortably on the uneven path. Kaoru's two fellow passengers were weary from the extended traveling, the roughness of the long journey apparent on their careworn features. The small young woman sitting beside Kaoru was leaning to the side, her limbs loose as she tried to drift off into an oblivious dream state like the woman who sat across from the two of them. The regal older woman remained in her stiff, upright position, leaning against the back of the plush seat, her eyes closed as she slept peacefully.

Plagued by unwelcome and aching thoughts, Kaoru's pesky demons had kept her awake and fully aware throughout the journey. Turning her wary gaze to the window on her right, she became lost in the vast, naked beauty of the surrounding landscape.

It was so, utterly green.

More vividly green than she had ever seen in her life.

Having been raised in the bustling, busy city of London, the bare, wistfulness of England's countryside seared a picture of glowing splendor in her mind that she did not think would ever be able to be topped by any other location. This land's distinctiveness was absolutely stunning and so different from what she was used to. Kaoru wished that the weather could have been clear and vacant of the cloudy pains nature threw down unmercifully that afternoon. It would have been all the more pleasurable to view these unfamiliar surroundings if the sunlight had been there to aid her.

Though it was slightly hushed within the rolling carriage, nature's cruel howling of discontent slipped through the small windows to fill the quietness. As Kaoru studied the weather, she noticed the thick, gray clouds hanging ominously in the shadowed sky, their heavy forms threatening to spill a torrential rain. A solid gust of wind whipped up the curtain near her, and then slapped it back down violently.

The thick folds of Kaoru's violet traveling skirts swished as she shifted slightly, hoping to relieve some of the uncomfortable pressure building in her limbs. A deep sigh caught in her throat, but Kaoru halfheartedly bit it back in an attempt to keep from rousing her companions.

Blinking, she swallowed instead. It was hard to escape the solemn feelings building within her when she was reminded of them so often. And, because of her forever-looming past that she could never escape, Kaoru couldn't help but regress.

She, Miss Kaoru Kamiya, had been an orphan for almost eleven months. She had thought as the time passed and the horrible incident was pushed farther away from the present, the blaring pain would gradually begin to subside. How horribly naïve of her.

It had not gotten better.

It had not gotten worse.

She had just grown terribly numb. The sudden death of both her parents in a tragic accident had blindsided her and left her desperately alone.

She was a 19-years-old; young in her experience of life and also unaccustomed to being in charge of the comfortable amount of money her parents had left behind. Her father had been the third son of the Baron of Alcester, and had served in the Royal Military for many years before settling down and marrying her mother. Considered gentry, she had lived a comfortable and happy existence with her small family. The fact that she was on her own now was something that she didn't know she'd ever embrace fully.

Her best friend had been with her through the past horrible months, and noticing the true unhappiness plaguing Kaoru, she had convince her own parents to take Kaoru under their wing.

And so here she sat in Baroness Makimachi's carriage across from the elder woman herself, adjacent to her best friend, Misao. She was traveling with them to their country estate in Kent. The land had been part of the baroness's family for generations, and had become the family's refuge for a short holiday from London every year. Misao and her mother had invited Kaoru to come along during their most recent trip, hoping the new environment would help her to retrieve some of her former self.

The idea behind the trip was comforting, and Kaoru could never have thought of refusing. Despite her providential upbringing, Kaoru had never visited the true countryside of England, staying instead within the confines of London's city limits. The bareness and the quietness was a new experience to her, and Kaoru knew that her hosts had high expectations for this country visit. They hoped to coax her from the shell of depression surrounding her. But, Kaoru was afraid her old persona was gone, replaced by someone else…a stranger that even she didn't know.

Turning her gaze from the darkened view, Kaoru leaned back. She pressed a hand against her forehead as a small headache grew slightly in intensity. Closing her eyes, she tried to relax and blot out the day with blackness.

A soft shaking woke her from her deep slumber. Blinking the blurry haze from her vision, Kaoru sat up slowly as she brushed a loose wisp of hair off of her pale cheek.

"We're at the Inn for the night," Misao told her softly, her voice smooth.

Kaoru nodded in response as she followed her friend out of the carriage. The duo emerged from the small, relatively warm compartment and into the dark, brisk coolness of the night. Kaoru shivered, her traveling suit offering little warmth. Her footsteps were hurried as she and Misao made their way to the front door of the small inn. Misao's footman opened the door, allowing them to hasten inside.

A wave of fresh warmth hit Kaoru's face and she immediately relaxed in the comfortable waiting room. They were ushered to a private sitting room off to the side and offered a steaming meal that Kaoru realized was sorely needed. The baroness was elated to be on solid, unmoving ground for once. Her tired face was transformed by the merry smile on her lips, which warmed Kaoru's heart and reminded her fleetingly of her own mother. Misao was her normal, animated self, and the sound of her laughter filled the room with a jovial aura.

As the three women sat at the table, Misao's mother spoke openly of her past, especially of her childhood in rural England. She told the girls of the menagerie of people who lived in and around the town they were traveling to. Kaoru listened with rapt attention, her lips half smiling at the antics the baroness described herself performing. She made herself sound almost like the terrible duo that Kaoru had heard herself and Misao called many times before…in the past.

After they had finished eating, the baroness retired, professing her mounting fatigue. Misao and Kaoru remained in the sitting room, the longevity of the day taking its toll on the two women as well.

Sighing deeply, Misao sat heavily on a small loveseat near the blazing fireplace. "Oh, I'm so glad we'll reach our destination tomorrow."

"Mmm," Kaoru hummed in agreement. "I admit it is rather fatiguing," she continued as she sat on a solo seat across from her friend. "It will be nice when I can take Alistair on a long ride. I'm sure he's itching for a good run."

Misao replied happily, her eyes lighting with humor, "Is that all you think of? Your beloved horse?"

"You know better than to ask such a silly question," Kaoru retorted with a smile. "Alistair is the love of my life."

"I was looking to see if any human counterpart had taken his place."


Misao leaned back, her skirts rustling. "You're missing out."

"When you find real love, come tell me what I'm missing and then maybe I'll reconsider."

"Good response," Misao told her with a smile, her eyes turning slightly wistful. "There are some interesting characters in the surrounding area near Stirling Hall. A handful of brooding men, some scoundrels lurking about, and a colorful assemblage of quite friendly villagers."

"It sounds interesting."

"Oh, Kaoru, you'll be more than interested."

Misao remained quiet for a moment, scanning her friend's face, taking note of the smile that didn't quite reach her eyes, and the pale cast covering her normally happily flushed face. It hurt to see her friend like this. It really did.

Standing, Misao walked over to her friend and laid a comforting hand on her shoulder.

"I'm going to turn in. If you need anything, just knock."

Kaoru nodded her silent thanks, watching as Misao quietly departed from the small sitting room, closing the door gently behind her. Kaoru sat alone for a few moments in silence, watching the flickering fingers of the hot fire. Thinking back at the last years with her parents, she remembered the happy laughter that followed them everywhere, the stubborn willfulness of her mother, and the loud, protective voice of her father. Though her beloved family was not able to be with her in person, they would always be there somehow, she knew. And they would want her happiness above all. Her mourning period had ended just the last week, her black clothes shed almost reluctantly. But with the absence of the black clothes, she also needed to purge her mind of the black thoughts that dominated her mind, consciously and unconsciously.

Sighing resolutely, Kaoru stood from the chair and moved to the door, her steps slow. She would make her parents proud. Oh, how she hoped they would be pleased as they looked down upon her.

The next day was as cool as the one before it, though there was only a slight sprinkling of thin clouds that were almost translucent against the bright blue of the late afternoon sky. The fresh air that poured through the carriage windows was wonderfully revitalizing as a simple breeze brushed Kaoru's cheeks. Misao remained upright in her seat, eager and animated as energy poured off her in rousing rays. The baroness had a book open in her lap, her eyes glued to the pages, though, how she could read as the carriage wobbled around on the road, Kaoru had no idea.

There was a shout from the driver as they pulled onto a long drive off the main road. A thin set of trees lined the drive, shading the path and cooling the surrounding air. Misao leaned forward and placed her fingers long the edge of the window, her eyes riveted to the passing scenery. As they traveled further, a large manor came into view behind the trees, its majestically beautiful structure riveting in appearance and stature.

"It is stunning," Kaoru uttered lowly.

"Isn't it, though?" Misao agreed, content enthusiasm audible in her tone.

Sighing, the baroness looked up from her book, her eyes creased with pleasure. Closing her book, she said, "Welcome to Stirling Hall, Kaoru."

Breathing in deeply, Kaoru leaned back, relaxing and enjoying the ride up to the main entrance. As they neared, a procession of servants filed out of the house single-file, lining up against the front and clasping their hands behind their back in a stance of acquiescence and pride. As the carriage rolled to a stop, Misao grabbed Kaoru's arm, a large smile on her face. The footman opened the door of the carriage and held out a hand to assist the women down from their lofty position. The baroness left first, followed by the exuberant Misao, and finally Kaoru who, though a little uncertain, straightened her back and followed her friend with a conscious pride rooted in her in her motions.

The introduction to the servants became a blur as she walked down the line with Misao quickly, her mind bombarded with too much information entirely too quickly. Smiling politely at them all, she followed Misao, quiet and gracious. At the end, Misao pulled her away with a departing nod of her head and quick farewell to her mother.

The duo went in the direction opposite the front doors and traveled along the side of the manor until they rounded the corner. Kaoru smiled to herself as her gaze softened, roving over the sweeping garden filled with peaking flowers that dominated the cooler weather of the season. She followed Misao down a path that went directly through the green jungle of attractive plants.

"I like to try and enter the house from the back sometimes. I love walking through the garden, especially during certain seasons. It always manages to calm me," Misao told her quietly.

Kaoru smiled fondly at her friend, following her through the encompassing buds, her skirts brushing the delicate blossoms.

"Come on. Let's get inside and change. The cook should have a meal prepared. I'm famished."

Together, the two entered through a side door, which lead past the conservatory and into a well-lit and elegantly decorated hallway.

"I'll lead you to your room. I told the servants to place your things in the Rose Room. It's right down the hall from mine and has a wonderful view of the side gardens and the stable. I figured you liked to be able to see where Alistair is stabled at anytime during the day."

Kaoru smiled. "Yes, that's very nice."

The Rose Room was aptly named. The walls were a delicate off-white, the bed coverlet and furniture a soft red, creating a picture that was smooth and comfortingly homey. Four vases were scattered throughout the room, filled with varying colors of roses, their wonderfully florid scent permeating throughout the pretty room.

"It's very nice, Misao. Thank you."

"Just get changed and we'll see you downstairs."

Dinner was a formal but comfortable affair. The conversation was loose and relaxed as Misao talked happily of her plans for the next month that they expected to be in the country. Though Misao planned to keep pleasantly busy, Kaoru had planned to keep a lower profile and enjoy her time in the foreign land.

The next day, the wind whipped around Kaoru's slight form as she leaned down low, burying her flushed face into the flowing mane of her midnight black stallion. Her legs clutched his girth as he galloped through the open land, his lungs heaving with deep, energy-conserving intakes of air. His long strides were powerful, wide, and exhilaratingly delightful to experience.

Clad in the riding pants she had owned and used in secret for years, Kaoru glued herself to Alistair's back, her body moving rhythmically with his great strides. Her eyes were vibrant with a deep and passionate pleasure that fulfilled her.

If seen by a peer, dressed as she was, her reputation would be bruised. But to feel the wind whistling through her loosely tied back raven hair, and to experience the wonderful speed, Kaoru rashly felt it was worth it, especially if it meant spending time with Alistair.

Sitting up slightly and pulling back on the reins gently, she slowed Alistair into a canter. He snorted and shook his head, his pace slowing even more to a gentle trot and then finally a striding walk. Reaching down, Kaoru swept her hand down his sleekly muscled neck, praising his amenable, yet untamed nature, her contentment with him apparent.

"Good boy," she told him softly causing his ears to shift to the side. "Good boy, Alistair." He lowered his head and snorted again while flicking his tail side to side. Slipping her booted feet from the silver stirrups, Kaoru dismounted with ease and grasped the reins to pull them up off of his neck and over his head so she could lead him to the small water hole. Letting him lower his head, she watched him as he took a refreshing drink.

Kaoru had awakened as the sun rose over the horizon, bathing the land with a soft light of blended colors. She had dressed in her old riding clothes – the ones she had worn at home around her family, and quietly left her room, hoping to escape without being noticed. The bewildered groom at the stable had agreed to be silent about her morning escapade, while helping her to saddle Alistair who had been waiting moodily in his stall, full of impatient, pent-up energy. The second she had mounted her horse, she hadridden off through the thin veil of fog blanketing the green scenery.

Sighing softly, Kaoru watched as Alistair lifted his head, water dripping from his mouth. She ran a hand down his soft nose, and then reached up to push his forelock away from his eyes.

"Ready to head back? It's getting late and we don't want people wondering where we are," she said to him affectionately. Nudging her gently, Alistair snorted. Kaoru smiled with amusement and, in return, lightly pushed him back before moving to his side. Placing her left leg into the stirrup, she mounted, urging Alistair into a comfortable trot and leading him to a well-worn path that led directly back to Stirling Hall. He accelerated, changing his gait into an even canter before turning a slight curve that was shaded by an up cropping of trees lined with thick bushes.

Kaoru caught sight of a flash of red and heard a startled shout as suddenly Alistair jolted to an abrupt jarring halt, rearing and voicing his immediate displeasure. Kaoru swung forward abruptly, and then almost immediately whipped backwards in move that caused her to lose her precarious balance as her feet fell free from the stirrups. She fell, landing with a bone-jarring jerk on the unforgiving ground. Her breath was knocked forcefully from her, and she lay there for a minute, stunned and breathless as black, shiny dots swam mockingly before her eyes. For the moment, Kaoru was too numb to feel any permanent injuries marring her body.

As Kaoru blinked blurrily, an unfamiliar face surrounded by a halo of red swam in her vision. Groaning, she managed to hear a jumbled garble of words escape from the stranger.

"Arph uo aphysz?"

Confused, she frowned and tried to sit up, placing the palm of her hand flat against her head with a grimace.

"Arph uo aphysz?"

Shaking her head at the unfamiliar muddle of words, Kaoru closed her eyes and tried to regain her lucidity and composure. A firm hand was placed against her back, helping her to sit up more steadily. Blinking at the unknown features looming in front of her, the face sharpened in focus and the voice cleared as her comprehension gradually returned.

"Miss?" he asked urgently, his violet eyes concerned. "Miss, are you all right?"

Kaoru lowered her hand from her forehead and felt her cheeks pale as she saw a stain of blood on her palm.

The man gently brushed her hair away from her forehead and shook his head. "I think I should take you into the village to see the doctor. That cut looks pretty nasty."

Staring blankly at his features for a moment, it was a few drawn out seconds before Kaoru abruptly wrenched back, finally connecting with reality as the shock of the fall wore off. "What were you doing the road? You could have been killed!" she snapped, her eyes flashing angrily.

Startled, the man blinked at her owlishly, his red eyebrows raised. "You were the one galloping down that path."

"I was cantering."

"Still…that was pretty fast."

Kaoru tried to push herself up from the ground, her feet slipping a little on the dirt. The man helped steady her with firm hands around her waist. She pushed against him weakly, her now loose hair falling into her eyes.

"Seriously, I think I should take you to the doctor in town," he insisted firmly, keeping a hold of her waist as she stood, albeit unsteadily.

Kaoru backed away from him, escaping his helpful grip and brushing her long hair from her face impatiently. She stepped back and bumped into Alistair who stood patiently behind her. Turning, Kaoru gripped his saddle and awkwardly mounted, her clumsy movements caused by poor balance. Once in the saddle, her right foot found the stirrup belatedly, and she grasped for the reins with unsteady fingers.

"I-I'm fine. Sorry for the trouble," she mumbled, turning Alistair and quickly moving away, her back straight and her cheeks flaming a bright red. Mortified at being in a situation liked this, Kaoru spurred Alistair on, and tried to put as much distance between herself and the unusual stranger.

Sighing resolutely, the man watched as the young woman disappeared behind the tree line. Running a hand through his mussed long hair, he turned to the articles he had dropped when she had almost bowled over him.

He hoped she got home in one piece.

When Kaoru arrived at the stable, her vision was swimming dimly and her head hurt like the dickens. The stable boy looked at her nervously when he saw her disheveled state. Thankfully, the heavy curtain of her hair covered the gash right below the hairline on her forehead. Usually she stayed and helped with unsaddling and washing down Alistair, but today she felt simply awful, so she uncharacteristically handed the reigns over the stable boy and headed up to the house.

It was still rather early so the hallways were pretty bare. The few servants that were present gave her no notice. Kaoru walked past her room and hurried to Misao's. Giving the door a cursory knock, Kaoru opened it and stepped inside, her gaze hitting the slight form sprawled lazily in the bed, arms flung up over her head while the sheets were twisted around her torso.

Kaoru walked over to the side of the bed to stand beside her snoring friend. She placed a hand on her back, shaking her slightly to rouse her. Misao groaned, and mumbled something unintelligible as she turned and buried her face into the comfort of her pillow.

"Misao, get up," Kaoru urged, shaking her again.

Misao raised her head slowly and speared her friend with a moody glare. "What is it?"

Kaoru pushed her hair back and gave Misao a good view of the cut. Narrowing her eyes, Misao sat up groggily.

"How'd tha happen?" she managed to slur sleepily.

"I went riding, and had a mishap with some red-haired man which caused me to fall off Alistair and," she motioned toward her forehead with a wince, "I cut my head."

Misao pushed away the bedcovers and stood, stepping close to get a better look at Kaoru's injury.

"That looks bad. Let me ring for Frances. He's pretty good at patching up cuts and scrapes."

Misao moved away, leaving Kaoru to sit down as another wave of dizziness assaulted her. Misao gave her a small glass of water as they waited for Frances.

"So did the man tell you his name?" Misao asked, eyeing her friend curiously.

"Hmm? What man?"

Raising an eyebrow, she smiled. "The man you almost killed this morning."

Kaoru frowned. "I did not almost kill him. He just got in the way and spooked Alistair. There was no real danger."

"…says the woman with the large gash on her forehead," she teased.

Kaoru ignored her pointedly, and turned her gaze to the shiny glass she held in her hand. "I didn't ask what his name was, and he didn't ask for mine."

"Well, that's a shame. You'll probably never see him again."

"Why would I want to see him again?"

At that moment, there was a knock on the door.

"Come in," Misao called out.

Frances entered, a small pack of medical materials with him. Within ten minutes, he had cleaned Kaoru's wound and put a small bandage over it. Kaoru thanked him and sighed as she watched the friendly man leave.

"I'm glad it wasn't too deep. Hopefully it will heal fairly fast." Misao looked across the room at the clock sitting on the mantle. "You better go get dressed. Breakfast is in a half hour, and mother really does expect us to be prompt despite the fact this is a holiday of sorts," she said, moving over to the large closet to get her own clothes together.

Kaoru sighed as her friend disappeared inside the dressing room. Getting up from her seat, she stepped over to the door. Thankfully, the dizziness that had been affecting her had started to dissipate. Her steps were steadier as she headed to her room to change out of her worn riding clothes and into a more appropriate gown.

"Oh, Kaoru!" the baroness exclaimed as she walked into the breakfast parlor, pressing a hand to her stomach. "Dear, what happened?"

Fork freezing on the way to her mouth, Kaoru gave her an uneasy smile. "I was riding Alistair, um, near the barn and I took a tumble." Reaching up to touch the white bandage covering her sore scrape, she tried to reassure the older woman. "It's rather trivial, my lady. Nothing to worry about."

Misao smiled at her mother. "She's just being her careless self. Remember that time when we were around 8 or so years old and Kaoru decided to climb that tree to peek at a robin? The branch broke, she fell, and received a large scrape on her arm."

"Yes, of course I remember. It happened while she was visiting us," the baroness replied.

"Well, it turned out just fine after some healing time. Nothing to worry about."

The baroness remained silent as she gave her daughter a disapproving look. Turning, she moved over to the small buffet laid out in front of them and picked up a presented plate.

At the table, Misao leaned over her plate, looking across the table to whisper conspiratorially with Kaoru. "It's probably good you didn't mention the reason you fell was because of a strange man. Who knows what her reaction would have been."

Amused, Kaoru raised an eyebrow. "That's why omitted it," she answered back in a hushed voice.

"Kaoru," the baroness started as she sat down beside her daughter. "It's probably best if you take Misao or a chaperon with you next time you go riding if you plan on leaving the property. You don't know whom you might encounter. Although there are many respectable people in this area, there are always n'er-do-wells lurking about. I would hate for anything dreadful to happen to you. You're such a wonderful friend of the family it would be devastating."

"Yes, my lady. I did not think ahead."

"That's quite alright." Studying the young woman, the baroness frowned slightly and paused for moment as if contemplating something, and then turned to her daughter, a happy smile on her face. "Take Kaoru into the village today. I'm sure she would love to meet some of the residents who live in this area and to tour more of the land that she will be living in for the nest several weeks. I want her to fall in love with this part of the country as much as our family has."

Kaoru smiled at that last statement, and then turned her gaze to Misao who began to nod her head as she went over her mother's suggestion in her mind. Kaoru could only imagine what Misao was slowly planning in those devious thoughts of hers.

The afternoon was just too beautiful to waste away inside the close confines of a carriage, so Kaoru and Misao strolled down the worn path leading through the center of a nearby village, toward the main supply shop. Kaoru looked up, squinting her eyes against the bright glare of the midday sun. She felt a sigh cloud her lungs. It was so fresh here, so full of light and sound and comfort that she was beginning to feel welcomer in this new environment with every passing minute.

The village was small with a sprinkling of small dwellings along the traveled road. There were a few people outside, their voices lighting the air with a chorus of amiable sound. A gentle dusting of wildflowers popped up in many spots alongside the houses, their bright colors of brilliance striking against the characteristic brown of the wood. Kaoru felt a small, sudden smile curve her lips. How utterly charming.

Peeking at her friend, Kaoru cocked her head to the side as she watched Misao walk, obviously distracted by her own reflective thoughts.

Deciding to pull Misao from her meditative shell, Kaoru asked abruptly, "So do you think he'll be here?"

Distracted, Misao glanced over at her friend. "Who?"

"You know. The man you've been mooning over your entire life," she responded with a perceptive smile, raising her eyebrows.

Misao sighed and dipped her gaze to the sidewalk. "He wasn't here the year before, so I think chances are slim." Humor lighted her eyes. "I'm quite afraid I terrified the poor man," she said slightly impishly, her cheek dimpling.

"Well, you did say you practically stalked him."

Misao wrinkled her nose in response. "That's too harsh of word. How about we just say I followed him a bit. But if you knew him," she started with a deep intake of breath, "you would definitely understand my admiration."

Smiling at her friend, Kaoru retorted, "I think it would be almost better if you didn't bump into him while we're here. I'd hate to be chasing you as you chase him. It is not what I had in mind for an ideal retreat."

Misao huffed silently, her mouth forming a straight line as she glared at Kaoru for a moment before turning her gaze back in front of her. Apparently, she couldn't come up with a retort to Kaoru's jab, so instead she remained unusually quiet, and Kaoru found that unnerved her more than their usual arguments.

To break the pressing quietness, Kaoru suddenly asked a question that more surprised herself than the girl walking beside her. "Is there a shop near here that sells paints? I-I'm very interesting in painting some landscapes."

Misao's first reaction was to halt in mid-step, her eyes widening and mouth falling open with poorly hidden shock. She turned slowly to the side to face Kaoru, and her rounded gaze connected with Kaoru's slightly uncertain and tentative expression. "You actually want to paint?" Misao blurted out.

"I wouldn't ask if I was kidding," Kaoru responded, slowly becoming amused as she watched the display of sudden astonishment on Misao's face.

"But, this is first you've even thought of painting since the accident. I just – I just thought you might have given it up do to lack of inspiration."

Kaoru nodded tersely as she stepped forward and grabbed her friend's arm to pull her gently along with her. "Well, I did stop because of lack of inspiration. But this place is just…magnificent. I have the strongest urge to put brush to canvas and render a likeness of the countryside."

Noticing the excited flush high on Kaoru's cheeks, Misao felt the need to grin complacently. The country was already starting to work its magic, and to think they had only been present for so short a time. A bubble of excitement burst in her chest as she suppressed a relieved sigh. Hurrying ahead, she moved to lead Kaoru across the street to a small, unnamed shop with polished windows.

Misao looked back at Kaoru. "I know just the place to get you set up. There's a man who lives not far from here that paints in his spare time, and because he's such a generous customer, this particular shop orders copious amounts of his favorite paints. They also have miscellaneous supplies that hopefully you'll find to your liking."

Kaoru followed Misao almost eagerly as she felt a familiar welling of anticipation pool in her heart. Other than spending time with her horse, Alistair, there was only one pastime that utterly completed her, made her breathless with exhilaration and caused her heart to accelerate with undue pleasure.

Her painting.

She had begun when she was a young child, dipping her little fingers into smooth wet paint and creating fun patterns on supplied paper, and on rare occasions much to her mother's dismay, the floor or walls. Because her family was at one of the lowest rungs on the peerage pyramid, Kaoru had had most of her time to herself, and didn't need to worry as much as other young women her age about keeping up constant appearances. Instead, she had started to immerse herself deeply in her flourishing love of painting. When she wasn't riding Alistair through Hyde Park or fulfilling her societal obligations, Kaoru was cornered in her upstairs room, the windows wide open to let the breeze rush inside with a paintbrush held loftily in her hand as she painted anything and everything that she fancied at the moment.

Her parents had teased her over the years that she would never be able to get all of the paint off of her fingers, and that she would forever smell of turpentine. Kaoru had found through trial and error that the perfume jasmine worked wonders in easily masking the strong scent that her painting unfortunately blessed her with. And while her parents teased her unmercifully, Misao was always complaining that she was a poor distant second to Kaoru's art. In an attempt to show her loyalty to her best friend, Kaoru kept herself away from her paints for an entire week at one time…it was week she would always remember as a great challenge of will.

Kaoru had been in the middle of a family portrait when her parents were suddenly killed. The inspiration that had come so naturally to her seemed to shrivel and melt into an unrecognizable muddle within her soul. Kaoru hadn't known if the desire to paint would ever return and allow her to continue with her art, or if she would remain bereft of her talents for the rest of her life. Throughout these past months, painting seemed like a distant and pointless hobby that served no purpose in her life anymore…one that would stay an odd memory in the back of mind, covered by the harshness of reality.

But, there was something about the ambience of the countryside, the singularity that filled the air and clouded her chest with pleasure that made Kaoru take a deep, introspective look at herself. The uncultivated brilliance of the expansive land was gradually beginning to fill her formerly hollow thoughts, and in turn, was revitalizing the inspiration that had been nonexistent for so long.

Kaoru sucked in a deep breath of the unhindered air and focused her traveling gaze on the path in front of her. As the duo neared the shop Misao had previously explained as the ticket to the continuation of her beloved hobby, Kaoru bit her lip and felt the uncontrollable urge to laugh out loud. It was wonderful to have a piece of her life back. Finally a part of her past was returning to her. Finally…she was taking a step forward.

Misao's grip on Kaoru's arm suddenly loosened as they encountered a pair of men walking directly toward them, distracted by their muted conversation. The tilt of Misao's mouth warned Kaoru that one of these men was someone she recognized. The women's steps slowed as they came within a few feet of the men, and it was with a slight cough from Kaoru that she was able to catch their attention. Kaoru was slightly startled by the weird choking sound coming silently from Misao, and she glanced questionably at her as her body perceptibly tensed.

One man was tall, dark-haired and stern in his appearance, his blue eyes cold and static as they observed the two women.

"Lord Shinomori," Misao uttered, her voice low as she straightened her posture. Kaoru's eyes immediately widened perceptivity as she studied the man whom Misao had told her about on so many occasions previously. He wasn't at all what she had expected. "It is…so nice to see you again."

He nodded politely. "Lady Makimachi." He inclined his head toward Kaoru, waiting for an introduction.

"This is my friend, Miss Kaoru Kamiya," Misao introduced.

"Miss Kamiya."

"Kaoru, this is Lord Shinomori, Viscount of Sheffield," Misao said, her composure quickly returning as the shock from the surprise encounter began to wear off.

Kaoru gave a slight dip of her head in appreciation. "Viscount."

The man standing next the viscount was much shorter, his hair a bright red and his eyes vaguely familiar. His voice was effortlessly rich and soothing and Kaoru felt a slight nagging in the back of her mind as she heard it.

"I don't believe I've met either of you," he started. "Lord Shinomori is a close friend of mine."

The viscount stepped in, introducing his companion. "This is Lord Himura, Earl of Glairmoor."

Misao and Kaoru mumbled polite greetings, but any thoughts of deepening the tentative conversation was cut short as the two men stepped past them, obviously taking their immediate leave.

"It was nice seeing you again, my lord," Misao said to the viscount, watching as the two men stepped away.

The stoic man inclined his head slightly in response.

As they walked around the women, a soft voice by Kaoru's ear surprised her, sending a fresh tingle of awareness down her spine. "It is good to see you are well, miss."

Raising her eyes to meet the perceptive gaze of the red-haired man, Kaoru felt heart leap in recognition as he smiled slightly, his lips curving knowingly as he watched her eyes widen and her cheeks flush.

It was him.

The man, as Misao had said, she almost killed with her recklessness.

She wasn't able to come up with a coherent response as her attention was suddenly snapped away when Misao began to pull her toward the entrance of their decided destination. Kaoru glanced behind her to catch the red-haired man's retreating form, and she felt a slight stab of disappointment as she stared at his back. Although, she honestly wasn't sure what exactly she was disappointed about. Mumbling silently to herself as Misao opened the door to the store and ushered her inside, Kaoru turned her gaze back to her friend.

Misao seemed preoccupied, though, as she led Kaoru to a clerk where she asked for directions to the painting supplies. The supplies the shop carried were varied, yet Kaoru found some paints that were pleasing to her. Opting to buy only the rudimentary colors and mix them to the correct shade, Kaoru decided to only purchase a few containers of paint.

"So that was the Lord Shinomori? Your Aoshi? The man you claim is terrified of you?" she asked Misao, looking up from the paints with an arched brow. "He didn't look too terrified to me."

"Yes, that is a nice shade of blue," Misao responded obviously off in her own little world, her eyes glued to the window where she studied something Kaoru wasn't able to see.

Raising her eyes heavenward in amused exasperation, Kaoru picked up the blue paint that Misao distractively thought was pretty and studied it. Smiling to herself, Kaoru let her thoughts return to contemplating her own, suddenly unfortunate fate.

If Kaoru had known that the man she had practically run over with her horse this morning was an earl, she might have handled the situation a bit more carefully and definitely with a bit more finesse. It was never a good idea to anger one's peer, especially if he held a higher position.

Trying to concentrate on the task at hand, Kaoru placed her hand on one of the easels for sale, before turning to Misao, unable to help the burst of curiosity unfurling in her mind as she cast her eyebrows downwards speculatively.

"Do you know anything of the earl with Lord Shinomori?" she asked Misao, catching her attention. In a wonderful stroke of luck, Kaoru's question seemed to have actually reached Misao's ears, and she watched as Misao turned away from her study of the front window.

"Well, I…let me think. What did he say his name was?"

"The Earl of Glairmoor."

Frowning, she reached down and picked up a large paintbrush, sweeping the sleek bristles against the palm of her hand. Kaoru reached over and plucked it from her hand before she could bend the delicate bristles. "Glairmoor…I seem to remember that name somehow. Let me think about it, Kaoru."

Kaoru nodded silently, turning her gaze back to the painting supplies. Picking out two canvases, she stepped back and sighed. "I think this is it."

"Quite a bit of stuff. I'll get Glenn to take it and put in the carriage so we don't have to carry it around."

As the clerk totaled the bill, Misao turned to Kaoru, giving her a curious stare. "Why are you interested in the earl? Did someone finally catch your fancy?"

Kaoru made a noncommittal sound in the back of her throat as she tried to remain neutral and refute the other woman's allegation. "No, I'm just curious."

"He's not the man from this morning is he? I mean he does have red hair like you described."

Waving Misao off, she replied, "Of course not."

Smiling intuitively, Misao watched the color climb up Kaoru's neck. "He is isn't he?"

Lowering her gaze and shooting Misao a glare, Kaoru retorted. "Don't say anything to anyone."

"Who would I tell? My mother would have heart attack, my father isn't with us at the moment, and if you already haven't noticed I'm not extremely chummy with anyone our age here. So, Kaoru," she said her eyes twinkling with mischief as she placed a hand on her friend's arm, "your secret is safe with me."

Kaoru took her purchased items and moved away from her friend. Over her shoulder, she relied, "You are entirely too dramatic."

"Which is why you love me."

"Ha!" she burst out as they departed, stepping once more outside. The sun was bright on Kaoru's eyes, and she had the sudden urge to look around for the anomalous earl who had bright red hair and kind violet eyes. But as the strange feeling in her chest grew, a nagging of commonsense interrupted her and Kaoru bit her lip. In all honesty, she would be much better off if she never saw him again.

Yes. Hopefully, she'd never set eyes on him again. She had had enough drama in her life these past few months to last a lifetime. Sucking in a deep breath, Kaoru turned to Misao and walked with her toward the carriage.