Estella repeated, pleadingly. Behind her, the Duke of Berta’s discussion of Diego’s disposition went on endlessly.
Estella closed her eyes again. She was wary of Diego, but that didn’t mean she wanted him to hear these words from her own father.
「Contract Marriage to a Dangerous Duke」was written in the first person, from the heroine’s point of view. The events that led up to Diego’s decision to murder his father were merely a set-up for his involvement with the heroine. She can still remember the monologue in which she emphasises over and over again what an uncaring and heartless man Diego is. What had happened to him to make him that way was, of course, not written in the book. Nor, for that matter, was there any indication that he would have such a sickeningly cold stare when he realised that his father had betrayed him to the very end.
“I understand why you wanted to send me away.”
Diego smirked and quietly removed his hand from Estella’s. Estella dropped her hands helplessly to her thighs.
She could see that the Duke of Berta’s death was imminent. She hadn’t learned this from reading the novel. Perhaps this was what lay between the lines, what made Diego so determined to kill his father.
It’s a rule of survival that if you don’t want to die, you have to kill first. And for Diego, home and family were just another word for betrayal.
Her entire plan, the values that made her who she was, felt tangled. Estella had always pitied only Cedric and Cecilia. Her sympathies had never reached the surviving male protagonist.
“Forget what you just heard.”
Diego said, glancing over at Estella. In truth, Diego didn’t look all that shocked.
In fact, he didn’t look shocked at all. She wanted to offer him some sort of comfort, but she couldn’t think of anything to say. She couldn’t imagine what it must be like for someone who was about to be killed by his own father.
“…My Lord, are you okay?”
“Is there any reason not to be fine?”
The voice, stripped of all emotion, sounded eerily familiar. This was not a normal reaction, Estella thought.
“You’d better not say a word about what you just heard, and don’t even think about extorting money from them for this, or you’ll be dead before you get out of the capital.”
Perhaps he felt the camaraderie of sharing a secret, but Diego had given her a fairly realistic warning. Estella replied weakly.
“I never intended to do that.”
“I’m glad you’re wise.”
Diego turned away from her without regret. They hadn’t really touched in the first place, just shared a secret story together.
But he took five steps, then stopped dead in his tracks. Without looking back at Estella, he spoke.
“You’d better start looking for a job at another manor, because you’re going to go crazy if you stay here.”
Only Estella recognised that those words, spoken in a whisper, were his last mercy.
* * *
“Did you drink too much last night?”
The words sounded eerily familiar, and Estella reflexively turned her head to see an eight-year-old boy in front of her, not a fellow teacher. Apparently, escaping reality hadn’t worked. Estella sank back down on the table, her eyes soulless.
“You don’t even know what alcohol is.”
“I smell it.”
Cedric grimaced and covered his nose. Estella lifted her sleeve and sniffed the air. It wasn’t hard to detect the smell of alcohol, considering she had drunk a lot.
She’d been awake all night last night. Diego’s icy expression had kept her awake, and the resignation in his anger had made her heart sink.
She had to admit it. She’d been complacent. Perhaps the situation had been so dreamlike that she had vaguely thought the terrible ending of the story would never come to pass, since her life with the children was as peaceful as it was hectic.
The Duke Berta was now standing one step behind death. He couldn’t stop Diego. Nor did he think there was anything to stop. Once the Duke had decided to dispose of Diego, whether it was the Duke or Diego who died, someone would see the end. If there was anyone who had to survive in that simple equation, it didn’t seem to be the one who had decided to abuse or even kill his own children.
‘I can’t put this off any longer, I have to find a way.’
She had a vague idea of running away, but in both this life and the past, it was an unbearable thing for an unmarried woman to take care of two children on her own. It was also unrealistic to be too optimistic about the situation. If she picked the wrong time, there was a risk of being mistaken for a kidnapper.
She doesn’t have any answers. On whether to save herself or to save her children.
Estella sighed deeply and finally raised her eyes to stare at Cedric. Cedric was humming, unable to imagine a future in which he would be murdered by his half-brother. Come to think of it, at dinner last night, Cedric had unexpectedly expressed his admiration for Diego.
“Young master, do you like him?”
Estella asked, turning to Cedric, his lips pouting at the out-of-the-blue question.
“What do you mean, all of a sudden?”
“You said at the dinner that you wanted to be like your brother.”
“I just lifted you up a little bit.”
“You seemed surprisingly sincere for such a thing.”
Cedric’s cheeks flushed bright red. A small smile curled his lips, and he shot back.
“What’s the point, brother doesn’t even like me.”
“That’s the thing, it’s not the way to go about it…”
Cedric’s expression darkened as Estella continued. Estella quickly stopped talking and asked another question.
“Master, why do you like Diego?”
“My brother is a good person. It’s just that he’s been scared lately because of our mother.”
Cedric answered with a mumble, avoiding eye contact. Estella looked at Cedric with a surprised expression. It was an unexpected compliment. It made sense though, since when Cedric had encountered Diego on the way to the training ground, he hadn’t even looked at him.
Even without that, Estella had never imagined that the phrase ‘good person’ could apply to Diego. She wondered if he’d been kind to the children before the Duchess had put him in his place, when he was still young, when he still had hope in his biological father…
Estella shook her head. Such thoughts were not helpful when she needed to focus on survival strategies. But despite her resolve, she couldn’t block out Diego’s voice in her head.
“You’d better start looking for a job at another mansion, because you’re going to go crazy if you stay here.”
Last night, Diego gave her a warning. Although his voice was rough, there was clearly consideration hidden within it. He didn’t want her to get dragged into dealing with the kids. At least, she saw the kindness hidden within him.
Is there any way to make him not want to kill the children? If he can develop an affection for the children, or at least have the conviction that they won’t do him any harm, then maybe…
Estella slid over to Cecilia’s side and sat down. In her gentlest possible voice, Estella asked.
“And you, my lady, do you like your first brother?”
Cecilia puffed out her cheeks and shook her head. She looked like she mean it. At her age, Cecilia’s reactions to likes and dislikes were pretty clear. The days of Diego being nice are not in her memory.
But Cecilia, office workers don’t just smile in front of their boss because they like their boss. Aren’t some sacrifices necessary for survival?
After all, they say that everything goes well when the household is peaceful. For the sake of Diego’s mental health, it would be better to minimize the number of sacrificial lambs appearing in his dreams. Estella decided to organise a dramatic reconciliation between the half-siblings.
‘Would he really kill such adorable children who’ll hug him like this?’
Unless he really was a bloodless, tearless psychopath, which she didn’t think he was.
* * *
She could have arranged an appointment through a private messenger, but the Duchess would have seen through it. The Duchess would be furious if she found out that the tutor was arranging a meeting between her children and Diego. It wasn’t hard for Estella to imagine herself being reprimanded and sent away.
In desperation, Estella knocked on his door herself from time to time, and she discovered that he was a very busy man, leaving the mansion early in the morning and returning late in the evening. It was a terribly awkward time to arrange a meeting with the children under the guise of an outdoor class. But if he was human, and if there were any changes in his schedule, Estella reasoned, he might have some time to spare.
The vague wait finally paid off a week later. The unexpected knock on the door was finally answered. It was a sunny weekend.
Estella’s hand stopped knocking on the door in obedience. A little panic and physiological fear tickled at the bottom of her chest.
Taking a deep breath, she cautiously opened the door and stepped inside. Then she froze in place, as her opponent’s broad back came into view, unobstructed, as if he had been changing clothes. Diego said quietly as he tucked his shirt over his arm.
“I’ll see you in all my clothes, so put the papers aside.”
He must have judged the newcomer to be about his size. Estella realised in hindsight that she hadn’t identified herself. She didn’t mention her name, so maybe that’s why she got the chance to meet him.
After half a beat, Estella opened her mouth to speak.
“I, My Lord. It’s Margaret. I came to see you for another reason…”
Before Estella could finish her sentence, Diego whirled around. As soon as he realised what was happening, he tugged at the open collar of his shirt and buttoned it up, soon hiding his fine muscles. Estella swallowed hard. It wasn’t like she was imagining anything sinister.
Estella blurted out her request.
“I have a favour to ask you.”