- - -
"Tell me again why you need my help?" Flora Ryan whined quietly as the carriage heading into Tappleton bumped gently along the estate lane.
"The present is for my mother's birthday, and I would greatly appreciate a lady's eye…Please Mrs Ryan I will treat you to afternoon tea as a thank you!"
Realising there was no way to politely refuse; after all it would hardly take up her entire afternoon off and there might still be a chance to pop in and say hello to a certain Blacksmith who was being rather persistent in his courtship. So Flora Ryan shrugged and nodded her agreement, turning to gaze out of the carriage window and so missing the devilish gleam in the butler's eye when he stared at her…
- - -
"Honestly Mr Jarvis I cannot see what was wrong with the last brooch!" Flora Ryan huffed when the butler continued to ummm and ahhh before sending the assistant back to fetch him the next pin. Frustrated, hungry and more than a little annoyed as the butler continued to waste her precious afternoon off the housekeeper turned her wandering attention to the veritable treasure trove of jewellery the little shop contained her eye immediately alighting on a gorgeous pearl necklace which she touched reverently.
"It is beautiful…" The Butler's voice sounded suddenly disturbingly close to her ear and Flora shuddered before stepping away, uneasy at the effect his proximity still had on her. "Pearls for tears though…Could be happy or sad…"
"So they say." Flora muttered before she turned to examine rather more modest trinkets, a pretty blue brooch caught her eye, it was topaz in a simple gold setting but the startling colour reminded her of Walter's eyes a thought she quickly suppressed.
"Oh that is perfect…" Walter suddenly insisted his arm brushing around her as he picked up the jewel she had uncovered. "See I knew you would find the right one…"
"I didn't do anything." Flora insisted anxious for the whole business to be over and the cosy little interlude along with it. Buying gifts for his mother, his arm practically around her waist, his smiling face barely inches from hers. It just wasn't fair…He wouldn't even realise what he was doing to her. He never noticed her, and now someone else had, he had to come along and bring into stark relief just how much more handsome, more charming, generally how much more attractive he was than her current suitor. "Well now that you've…I really should be going."
"Now now Mrs Ryan, a bargain is a bargain after all and I now owe you tea."
"Oh really…" Flora began to protest but the sudden pressure of Walter's hand on her elbow stopped her.
"I insist. I will brook no refusal." He added quite seriously staring deeply into her eyes with an intensity that brought the housekeeper out in Goosebumps.
"Excellent then it is sorted." Jarvis insisted paying for the brooch before offering her his arm. "The tea room in the park I think."
- - -
Settled down under the veranda of the small tearoom Flora Ryan had to admit it had been lovely. The tea was just the perfect temperature the sandwiches perfect cucumber triangles and despite the heat the fresh cream cakes beckoned temptingly. However glancing at the clock she realised just how late things were getting, at this rate she had little enough time to do her own limited shopping before squeezing in a quick visit with Mr Sanders.
"Cake?" The butler suddenly asked, dragging her attention back from the ticking clock to dwell on him.
"I don't think I have the room honestly Mr Jarvis…" Flora replied. "Thank you for a lovely tea but I really must be on my way."
"Of course." Jarvis muttered somewhat sullenly before inspiration struck. "Let me just settle up here I'll walk you back!"
"Honestly Mr Jarvis I can manage I don't need an escort." Flora snapped, her limited control already under threat.
"Perhaps you don't need one but perhaps you would like some company…"
"I am walking back anyway." Walter added jumping up to attract the waitress and ordering a brandy snap to take away with him before paying the bill.
Unsettled by the butler's constant attentions Flora reluctantly took the arm he offered as it would have been churlish to have refused, however she tried desperately to ignore the warm tingle that shot up her arm as her fingers closed around the soft linen of his suit sleeve. She was seeing Mr Sanders, to have such thoughts about another man was sinful and best forgotten. So it was in relative silence that the pair made they way out of the park, Flora studiously avoiding the butler as he munched enthusiastically on his cream cake keeping her eyes lowered on the path and so completely missing Walter steering them away from the park gates and round towards the pond instead. It wasn't until she heard the tell tale quacks of the ducks that she looked up and whirled round to face the butler in surprise.
"I said I needed to be on my way…"
"This way does lead back to town." The butler replied winking mischievously. "It's just a more scenic route!"
"You…You impossible man…." Flora began to bark her normally serene face contorting in anger as she proposed to give him a piece of her mind however she then caught sight of something that caused her anger to dissolve and laughter to suddenly threaten. "You've got cream on your chin."
"What?" The Butler gasped reaching up to wipe at the humiliating substance but instead managed to smear it even further across his cheek. "Better?"
Giggling behind her hand the housekeeper shook her head causing the butler to flush even deeper and, after one more failed attempt to clean himself up, demand impetuously. "Stop laughing and help me woman."
Smiling Flora fumbled around for a handkerchief, when one failed to appear, she lent forward and wiped the remaining cream off with her thumb. However this time she barely had time to pull back when the butler's hand shot up and caught hers firmly by the wrist.
"Mr Jarvi…" Flora began worryingly but her protest died on her lips as the butler's fair head bent fluidly bringing her hand to his lips he proceeded to languorously lick the offending cream from the edge of her thumb. Biting her own lip Flora had to suppress the shudder of excitement that ran rampant through her frame, her mouth felt dry, her skin deliciously on fire as Walter laboriously cleaned her digit, exploring every crease with the tip of his tongue before sliding his lips down and engulfing it. It was only as she felt a near swoon coming on as the sensation of his suckling on her thumb triggered near apocalyptic reactions, that the reality of their situation came back to her and she literally dragged her hand away.
"Flora wait…" Walter growled hungrily, grabbing the fleeing housekeeper's elbow causing her literally to freeze.
"Unhand me sir!"
"Flora…" Walter began but when she continued to refuse to look at him and strained against his hand he reluctantly let her go. "Just let me explain…"
"Explain what sir…There is nothing that needs explanation because nothing is happening. Now if you excuse me I am late for an appointment. Good day Mr Jarvis." She replied coldly picking up her skirts and storming down the path pointedly ignoring the butler who remained hard at her heels.
"Dammit woman. Do you really think I am going to let you go off to him now!" Gritting his teeth the butler made a decision and as they passed by a convenient grove of trees he wrapped his arms around her waist and strong-armed into the grove out of sight. Pushing the struggling woman up against the nearest tree he pinned her still by her arms. "Now dammit you are going to LISTEN to ME!"
"Let go of me!"
"Not until you agree to listen!"
"No…I'll scream…If you dare touch me I'll scream."
"I am not going to ravage you Mrs Ryan… If I had such an intention I would surprise you in your boudoir and not risk exposing us both to ridicule and sunburn in a public park!"
"You think this is funny?"
"No I have never been more serious in all my life…" Walter replied in earnest, hesitating before ploughing on. "Flora… You must stop seeing Mr Sanders."
"Because…" Walter added now unsure just what to say and how to phrase it; everything had seemed much simpler when he had been alone in his room, rehearsing in front of the mirror. "He is not the right sort of man for you…Coarse, no refinement whatsoever, you have nothing in common, you'd be bored out of your wits within a month and he…well it is obvious his whole motivation is hardly from higher feelings."
However the housekeeper remained strangely silent throughout the butler's whole tirade, her mind had been processing that afternoon's events. "Did you plan all this…Today just to prevent me from meeting with him?"
"I…I had to, you wouldn't have been safe." Walter insisted trying to convince her. "What do you think would have happened today? Hmmm a gentleman does not invite a lady to his home. What do you think would have happened to you, alone and un-chaperoned, and at the mercy of such a man?"
Blushing at the obvious implication Flora continued to meet Walter's gaze, did he really think she was such a fool not to have realised that. Although perhaps it was preferable he thought her a fool rather than thinking the only other conclusion. However that was hardly likely, he would never have thought that a lady such as her would have such desires, that she would feel flattered by a man wanting her in that way, that after all this time she was fed up with all playing things safe and so yes she had accepted the blacksmith's invitation for tea and part of her had hoped he might try to take advantage.
"I am no ingénue Mr Jarvis."
Gasping in horror as her words hit him harder than a thousand blows the butler literally stepped back with the shock. "No…How…You and him…But that's not possible." He added screwing up his face in disgust at something he prized so highly being sullied by another. "I would have known."
"And how pray would you have known…Are we intimate confidents…Or are you now an expert on the female psyche and would have known immediately if I had been plucked so to speak?"
At such a course expression the butler visibly blanched. "You are lying…There would have been no opportunity I've seen to tha…" He paused mid-sentence glancing up at the now visibly furious Flora.
"You've seen to what?"
Puffing up his chest the butler retorted defensively. "For your own good I have ensured the two of you have never been left alone for longer than a few minutes."
"It was for your own protection, if I thought for one moment that man was truly serious in his intentions then he would offer marriage. He should be more than happy to wait until then! As he has not then I am completely justified in my precautions."
"You interfering bastard!"
"You'll be thanking me when you aren't lumbered with one of your own!" Walter snapped back, satisfied when Flora's red faced paled.
"So all of it…Even shopping for your mother's birthday was a rouse?"
Pulling awkwardly on his collar the butler replied curtly. "I did need to buy my mother a birthday present."
"When is it?"
"Then there is hardly time to ship it!" Flora replied sharply. "But perhaps you meant next month…pray what month is your mother's birthday?"
"It's December.." Walter cut in before adding. "But that is hardly the point I did need to get her something, there is nothing wrong with being prepared."
"Indeed." Flora retorted before pushing past him and resuming her walk towards the town.
"Where…You cannot mean to still go?" Walter asked outraged.
"Can you give me one good reason why I shouldn't?"
"I can give you hundreds if you require them!" Jarvis snapped back. "But if one is all you require, you shouldn't end up tied to a man you have nothing in common with and do not love for the rest of your life due to one moment of madness…"
"How do you know we have nothing in common?"
Scoffing at the absurdity of such a statement the butler added. "Come now Mrs Ryan I know you better than that rogue and you wouldn't consider jumping into bed with me on such a whim!"
Blushing furiously Flora shook her head to try and rid herself of those images of her and a certain Butler rolling around in-delecto. "I hardly see what one has to do with the other…" She managed to mutter hoarsely. "Besides I doubt you know me, as well as you suppose you do, Mr Jarvis."
"I bet that I know you better than you think I do…In fact I doubt there are many questions you could ask me regarding yourself that I could not hazard a guess at!" The butler pomposted. "I bet out of three questions I could get most if not all correct."
"And if you fail you agree to stay out of my love life…For good!"
Umming and ahhing over that condition the butler paused before replying. "Alright Mrs Ryan but if I win then you must agree to spend the entire day with me instead!"
"So you can keep an eye one me?" Flora retorted testily.
"Something like that." The Butler answered cryptically. "Well are we agreed?"
Smiling for the first time in hours the housekeeper nodded and immediately began wracking her brain for trivia about herself. "What are the names of my siblings back in Ireland?"
"Your brother is Ardal and you sister is called Lucy." The butler replied without hesitation causing the housekeeper to start in surprise. "Well I am correct am I not?"
"That was an easy one." Flora retorted sharply. "My favourite colour?"
"Blue…No…yes Blue." Walter replied confidently his smile slipping when Flora shook her head smugly. "It isn't?"
"No my favourite colour is red actually."
"You never wear it!" The Butler began defensively before being cut off by a snort from Flora.
"Well who has ever heard of a housekeeper dressed in scarlet?"
"It would suit you…I think on special occasions we could make an exception…Your third question?" He added quickly to hide his growing embarrassment.
Biting her lip Flora tried to think of something that would out fox him. Dismissing trivial questions until she hit on something that he would never guess in a month of Sundays.
"My greatest regret."
Pausing the butler stared long and hard at her as if trying to search out the answer on her face.
"Not being a mother."
Gasping Flora desperately tried to ignore his words, it hadn't been what she had been thinking of but the more she thought about it the more she was sure he was right, that was her real regret, something she had denied and pushed aside; tried to convince herself it was a choice she had wanted. "Fine…You win."
"I said you won…Isn't that enough?"
Realising the precarious ground on which they stood the butler wordlessly offered her his arm, relieved when she accepted it and didn't slap him around the face.
"There seems to be a band playing over at the bandstand perhaps we should…" He left the question hanging as Flora continued to look everywhere but at him. Conflicted the butler simply led her across the park, unsure what to do now that he had gotten what he wanted and Flora seemed so despondent; cursing inwardly that he had never thought this far ahead in his rehearsal.
Making their way across both pretended to be engrossed in the music and ignored the other, Flora through blind stubbornness, Walter through a precarious sense of self-preservation. However on noting the few other couples dancing the butler deliberately took his life in his hands when he asked her to dance with him.
Whether is was sheer astonishment at the request or that her resolve was slipping Flora found herself agreeing and a moment later she was forced into even closer proximity as the butler immediately acted on her invitation and slipped his hand round her waist. Keeping her eyes deliberately lowered so he wouldn't be able to see the astonishment and latent hunger in them, instead Flora focused on the detail of his waistcoat, the precise buttoning on his shirt and the crisp folds of his cravat. She tried to ignore the constant warmth of his hand as it rested in the small of her back, or the way her hand felt hot and clammy when held in his, or even the way his scent always subtle and fleeting before now assaulted her senses in a full on attack. He probably wasn't even aware she could hear his gentle humming along to the bands tune; the flicker of her eyes up to his face confirmed his soft faraway expression. However now she was looking up it was impossible to look away, they had never been this close before, if she but lent forward they would be touching and so she took this rare chance to study him up close.
The little wrinkles at his eyes and the corner of his mouth were new to her, as were the small freckles that were lightly dusted across his nose. His lips were tight with concentration, whether it was the steps or some inner thoughts she wasn't sure and when the sun glinted she could just make out the tell tale dusking of stubble along the edges of his jaw where his morning shave had missed the odd hair or two. He was very much an ordinary man upon close inspection but his eyes were still the bluest she had ever seen, if possible they were bluer the closer she got. Perfect crystal pools that once upon a time she would have been happy to drown in forever.
As if sensing her interrogation the Butler suddenly looked down catching her gaze. "Flora…" He growled softly, bringing their joined hands up to his lips where he placed a chaste kiss on her knuckles all the while keeping their gazes locked.
"" The housekeeper opened her mouth to speak, to protest, but it was if all words had suddenly left her and she was left opened mouthed like a mute unable to break free from the spell he had placed over her.
Tightening his grip on her waist Walter slowly pulled her closer, his eyes boring into hers as she now came within a hair's breath of him. "My Flora…" He muttered softly before spontaneously leaning down for a kiss, pulling the dazed housekeeper flush against him he captured her lips aggressively with his own, releasing her hand so his was free to snake up her back and into the loose bun at the back of her head holding her firm as he proceeded to kiss her senseless. "God's woman…" He muttered in between snatched kisses, revelling in the feel of her hands creeping up round his neck and the passion with which she responded.
Breaking apart to catch his breath Walter rested his forehead gently against hers staring into Flora's half closed and dilated eyes. "I want you…Dammit woman what you do to me…" He muttered ignoring the disgusted huffs of the other dancers, he was certain their actions had been completely inappropriate but he couldn't have pulled himself away from her had he so wanted, which he most certainly did not. "beautiful….Maddening….delightful…" He mumbled scattering kisses haphazardly over her upturned face. "My love." He added possessively, tightening his grip on her waist. "Say it only mine." He commanded watching her carefully as her eyes widened in realisation at what he was both saying and what remained implied but unasked.
"Only ever yours…There's never been anyone else" Flora replied softly, her heart bubbling with joy as he beamed down at her, before tracing his cheek with her finger. "Take me home…my love." She added watching as the butler's eyes widened in surprise.
"Are you sure?" He asked his voice wavering slightly in an endearing way she found emboldening.
"Take me." She added and this time there could be no misunderstanding, the throaty purr and provocative way she pressed herself against him left little room for confusion.
Whirling round the startled pair came face to face with a fuming blacksmith.
"Mr Sanders I…."
"Flora let me." Walter cut in stepping front of the housekeeper as if to shield her from the full wrath of the blacksmith. However he never got the chance to finish as the younger man lashed out catching him flush on the jaw, laying him flat.
"Walter!" Flora exclaimed suddenly throwing herself down beside the butler lifting his head on to her lap. "You…You brute." She spat at the blacksmith. "Walter's right you're an uncouth ruffian!"
"Oh the too big for her boots oh so prim Flora Ryan stooping so low to call me names! Well at least I don't go around acting like a whore in public…To think I came here looking for you, have wasted my time and affection on a…"
"That is quite enough young man…" Walter snapped angrily pushing aside Flora's soothing hands and getting to his feet. "The lady has made her choice and you are no doubt sore about it but that is no reason to shout the odds in public, unless you enjoy having your name bandied about by the gossips?"
"Some choice an old bast…" However Sanders' tirade was suddenly cut off by the butler's fist connecting with his nose.
"There's more from where that came from!" The Butler muttered warningly clenching his fist as he eyeballed the blacksmith.
Screwing up his face Sanders' reached up to wipe the blood from his face before spitting on the floor in disgust and storming away.
"Are you alright?" Walter muttered pulling her up.
"Shouldn't I be the one asking you that?" Flora replied softly reaching up and brushing her fingers across the nasty purpling mark on his jaw.
Catching her hand Walter placed a gentle kiss on it before leading them both away from the gossiping crowd. "That was awful." She muttered once they were clear and she could slip her hand into the butler's larger one, a familiar gesture he did nothing to discourage. "I'm sorry you were embarrassed." She added when the butler remained surprisingly taciturn and silently strolled further into the park. "Are you angry with me?" She added suddenly when his silence felt too crushing to bear. "Do you regret…"
"No." Walter replied succinctly before resuming his silent pondering.
"Then what is wrong?"
For a moment she was certain he had no intention of answering then suddenly he stopped in his tracks and asked. "Did you mean it?"
"What you said…You know just before we were so rudely interrupted?"
Blushing furiously Flora nodded.
"I need to hear you say it…I won't have it be a mistake."
"You know I meant it."
"Good." Walter added before suddenly changing direction and dragging her through the nearest gap in the privet bushes. "Because I don't think I can wait till we get home!"
- - -