Edward walked through the orchard at Thornfield. The soft summer breeze stirred the leaves of the ancient trees, allowing sunlight to pierce the green canopy above his head. He settled himself upon the seat which girdled the ancient chestnut tree at the end of the laurel walk. 'Damned if I know what I can do.'
He folded his arms across his chest and withdrew into a world of his own. Until very recently, his world had comprised a life of hedonism, facile friendships, the occasional affaire, and the ever- present sense of a soul-gnawing loneliness. Until now; until Jane Eyre had crossed his path. 'Aye, she crossed my path all right. She ensured she bewitched my horse, felled him and me, and in doing so, bewitched and stole my heart.'
Edward smiled to himself. Not his usual sardonic, for-the-public-only smile. No, this expression held a mixture of rueful admiration and softness. Had he bestowed it upon any of his acquaintances they would have barely credited it. 'Jane Eyre, Jane Eyre, what the deuce have you done to me?' Edward knew very well the answer to that question. Without a doubt, and without any effort on Jane's part, he had given over his heart, his soul and his very life to her. And she was unaware of it. There was the rub. The self-contained little governess who flitted about Thornfield's shadowed gallery and rooms held the power of life or death over the soul of Edward Fairfax Rochester, her employer and one of the wealthiest men in the district.
There was nothing Edward could do to unlove her, any more than he could cease to breathe, to think, to dream. But he dared not declare himself to this young girl, almost half his age. For, unknown to her, he was shackled, the fetters being as strong as any forged by smiths and ironworkers. Stronger in fact. For these chains which bound him were placed about him by temporal and corporeal laws, unremitting and breakable only by death. He was a prisoner who dared not state his case, whose sentence was lifelong. The leaves rustled ever more forcefully as the breeze grew into a howling wind. Raindrops found their way through the canopy of leaves. Thunder crashed and echoed about the house and grounds. Still Edward remained sentinel near the chestnut tree.
He turned his head as a cloaked figure hurried down the laurel walk towards him. For a heartbeat, he thought it was Jane. A wash of disappointment flooded through him as he realised that Blanche Ingram, enveloped in a costly garment, accosted him.
'Rochester, what are you doing outside in this?' Her gaze was all questioning disapproval. Her pinched mouth relaxed into a semblance of a smile. 'Do you know, Edward, for all your eccentricities, you're devilishly attractive?' Blanche approached him, seduction in every movement.
'Good God, I cannot bear this!' Edward bit back the retort.
Edward stood and proffered his arm. 'Let us go back to the house, Miss Ingram. I cannot risk your catching cold.'
'And having you stay beneath my roof any longer than necessary,' was his unspoken addendum.
For once, Blanche did not reply. Clearly, she was puzzled at his behaviour. Edward slanted a glance at her profile, framed by her hood. She was beautiful, he had to admit; about as beautiful as a marble sculpture, and with as much heart and warmth. Nothing further was said until they reached the house. Before Edward could disengage his arm, Blanche detained him. 'We could deal well together, you and I.' Her gaze was direct and uncompromising. She continued:
'I am known to get what I want, Edward, and you are definitely the most desirable man of my acquaintance.' A slight flush passed over her face as she lowered her gaze.
Edward hid a smile. If the little minx was looking for evidence of reciprocal feelings, then she was to be sadly disappointed. He didn't like to be the quarry, nor did he have any inclination towards seduction of the so called 'Beauty of the County.' Not for the first time he berated himself for setting up this ridiculous houseparty.
A soft footstep sounded upon the stairs leading from the upper floors. Jane, her face pale, passed the couple. Polite as ever, she curtsied before moving to the door of the library. Suppressing an urge to pursue the woman he loved, Edward released Blanche's grasp upon his arm, bowed and made polite excuses before heading for his chamber. Once there, he locked his door.
Edward poured himself a generous measure of brandy from the decanter on the side table near the fireplace. As he felt the burn of the liquor hit his throat, so did his heart fill with shame. Jane's face and demeanour appeared to be composed, but he who loved her best knew that she was disturbed and unhappy by the tableau she had just witnessed.
'Dammit to hell!' He flung the glass into the fireplace.