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Tugging at his cravat Walter Corey glanced at his appearance in the mirror, and at first he hardly recognised himself. Pale and nervous and probably feeling as sick as a dog. At least it was an accurate picture he did indeed feel rather worse for wear, the dull throb of his hangover was a constant reminder of the night before and the somewhat rambunctious buck's night he had attended yet the constant churning of his stomach was more likely due to very real nerves that fluttered. He was doing the right thing wasn't he? True it was no true love affair but marrying her was a sensible course of action for a man in his stage of life wasn't it? After all how often did an heiress land in one's lap so to speak?
Not that she was an heiress in the traditional sense, her father owned the local brewery a business ready for expansion and yet the man had no son's only a daughter, a pleasant enough woman pushing the wrong side of thirty who he had had the privilege of literally bumping into one day whilst in town. Perhaps it was his dashing good looks or his gentlemanly manners that attracted her to him when she had discarded many other more ardent suitors, but whatever the reason once Miss Applegate had made up her mind there was no dissuading her. It had been a whirlwind few months, and before he knew it here he was engaged and about to be married, escaping the life in service that had begun to drag so. A part of him did feel a twinge or two of guilt as despite her obvious infatuation with him Walter couldn't honestly say he felt more than a friendly affection for his bride to be. Perhaps it would come with time?
Besides everyone else seemed to think it was an excellent match, his friends had gushed long over the lady's numerous virtues, her quiet grace and amenable countenance, her almost passive character was quite refreshing after the years of dealing with headstrong women, or one in particular, and of course there was always the added virtue of her bank balance. It was a most sensible and amiable match. So why then was part of screaming out at him to stop that he was about to make the biggest of his life? Perhaps it has been triggered by certain other people's less than enthusiastic response to the news.
He had been most surprised by Mr Kraus's response when he had approached his closest friend over being his best man. The Chef had squirmed around for minutes before muttering the most pathetic of excuses. Annoyed and confused Walter had confronted him about this and he had been astounded when Felix had snorted he wanted no part in this charade; a marriage should be from mutual regard not about securing one's retirement prospects. Shrugging Felix's somewhat naïve comments aside as the delusions of a hopeless romantic he had carried on regardless but what if the Chef had a point, he was for all intents and purposes marrying into the unknown. What if he ended up with a real virago, what if her countenance of serenity and submissiveness was just a smokescreen and he would end up tied till death us do part to a living-breathing dragon?
And then of course there was Flora Ryan….
The most irritating, obnoxious, frustrating woman in the entire world! She had barely spoken to him since the announcement, which normally would be a cause for celebration but every time she did he caught hints and glances of her distinct disapproval. She had held a low opinion of him for years but it almost felt now as if by his actions he had somehow managed to confirm them. A greedy immoral man who would do anything to feather his own nest, first by skimming off wages and now by marrying for money. It seemed ridiculous, ludicrous even that although he mostly couldn't stand the sight of the woman he seemingly couldn't bear the idea of her being alive in the world and thinking badly of him.
Shaking his head as he tried to dispel his black mood the butler resolved that what he really needed was a stiff drink and so he turned and began to head down to the bar. Pulling open the door he froze in surprise, as did the visitor who paced nervously on his threshold.
"Mr Corey Mrs Ryan, remember I resigned." The former butler snapped anxious that now he had regained his old name it should be used by one and all. "And I suppose since I am no longer under Taplows traditions it is now Miss Ryan…Perhaps you could explain why an unmarried virtuous lady such as yourself is hanging around outside gentleman's bedrooms in the local tavern no less?"
"I needed to see you…Felix wouldn't come so one of us had to…"
"What come talk some sense into me I take it? Please don't waste your breath Mrs Ryan I am already well aware of both your feelings on the subject and I do not care to lectured by you on my wedding days of all days…So if you would just go."
"Arrogant heartless man." Flora snapped back catching the butler by surprise, as he had never heard her talk so before and he stepped back with shock as she stalked into the room slamming the door shut behind her. "You presume to know everything yet have you even bothered to actually ask my opinion on the matter?"
"I didn't need to ask Mrs...Miss Ryan you disapproval was evident in every word and disdainful glance. Personally I am confused as to why you should care what I do, I am no longer butler after all, I can longer offend you simply by existing so unless in your supreme arrogance you think…"
"Yes yours Miss purer than pure, whiter than white, the perfect model of virtue and chastity all rolled up into one neat little package, well forgive me but I no longer have to even try to live up to your expectations. I have spent the last ten years trying and I am exhausted from the sheer effort, so why don't you leave and crow your victory over me from a suitable distance."
That seemed to knock the wind completely from her sails and for a moment Walter was worried she might keel over from the shock; even he was more than a little stunned he had never spoken to anyone like that before let alone a woman. Sinking into a fireside chair the housekeeper avoided his eye and focused on the poorly tended fire.
"So that's the reason…You left because of me, I forced you into this."
"I wouldn't say forced Flora." Walter replied softly immediately regretting his choice of words. "I am hardly a human sacrifice in all of this! Besides just think of what I am gaining a pleasant wife, a home and comfortable business and perhaps one day even a son of my own."
"Children." Flora muttered softly, almost wistfully. "I would never have thought you'd…"
"Why I am not that different from other men Flora, we are mostly simply folk, content with less than you might believe."
"So you really want this?" She added sadly.
"Would I be doing it if I didn't?"
"No…I don't think you are a man who could be pushed into anything against his will, it's just…" She paused as if wondering whether to continue.
"Felix said you didn't love her."
The anger was instant and all consuming, if anyone had asked him a minute before Walter would have sworn with confidence he could never have been angrier with her than he was when she first turned up, yet her last comment had him barely resisting the urge to wring her bloody neck.
"I'm sorry…I just…"
"Get OUT!" Walter demanded reaching our and grabbing her roughly by the arms and manhandling her over to the door.
"Why are you so angry? If it wasn't true than you would have laughed it off!" Flora retorted fighting with all her strength, grabbing the doorframe so he couldn't lock her out.
"That is none of your business."
"Just tell me you don't love her, that's its only the money, I can bare it I think if that's all it is…"
"You…" Walter murmured letting her go quickly and putting a few feet between them. "Wha…"
"Forget it." Flora gasped pulling the cloak tightly around herself as she turned to flee.
"No I will not just forget it." Walter snapped tersely striding over and grasping her arm firmly so she could not escape but much gentler than his previous iron grip on her. "Why would it be worse if I loved her? Would you be happier if I was trapped in a loveless marriage and miserable would that be poetic justice for you?"
"No. Let me go."
"Not a chance…I do not understand you Flora, you clearly think my marrying for money is beneath me and yet you cannot bare the idea of me marrying for something more…Damn it woman stop talking in riddles and tell me what is going on!"
"I don't want you marrying her at all, I don't care what your reason is, I never did that was Felix; I don't want you marrying anyone."
"And why is that?" Walter demanded grabbing her chin and forcing her to meet his gaze.
"Because I love you Walter." She croaked out tears brimming in her eyes as she fought to look away unable to bare the look of shock and revulsion in his gaze. "I always have and even though you don't care for me, damn it I know its selfish but I don't want to loose you, the hope that maybe one day you'd…look at me and see someone you wanted too."
Letting her go the butler left her leaning against the doorjamb as he paced to the windowsill. It was unbelievable Flora Ryan in love with him? Any moment now he expected to wake up this had to be the most bizarre dream he had ever had. Reaching down he pinched his hand experimentally before turning back and approaching the housekeeper, finding her exposed lower arm he pinched the soft skin there watching as she yelped and drew back from him in shock cradling her abused limb.
"What did you do that for?" She demanded his unjustified actions jarring her out of her melancholy.
"Just checking, so neither of us are dreaming, that is a start."
"You pinched me to see if you were part of my dream?"
"Yes I know it sounds ridiculous but no more than anything else I have heard this morning."
"Save the insults Flora, we both know now you don't really mean them." Walter replied smugly watching as she flinched at the continued use of her given name and the familiar tone with which he scolded her. "Now perhaps it would be best if we went over this again, how about I summarise, you arrived here on my wedding day to tell me not to marry my fiancé who you believe I do not love and am only marrying for her money, and the reason that I should do so is because you are actually in love with me and have been for countless years." Nodding slowly the housekeeper waited for him continue. "Yet if your current assessment of my character is correct and I would so heartlessly marry a woman for her inheritance then I am hardly the sort of man who would give all that up for what a pretty face and belated admission of affection. So my question is what else were you planning on offering me Miss Ryan?"
"What?" Flora asked genuinely confused and for a moment Walter felt a tinge of regret, this couldn't have been easy for her swallowing her pride to come here and admit this secret that she had carried for so long and yet part of him felt justified. All those years of feeling second best and this almost reluctant confession that he wouldn't have even got if he hadn't have dragged it out of her.
"What else are you planning on offering me? It is quite a simple question…Miss Applegate has a sizeable inheritance, I will be a man of independent wealth and position can you offer me that?"
"No you know damn well I can't."
"In addition she has at least learned when not to provoke me, a skill which even in all our years together you have not deigned worthwhile enough to learn."
"What are you getting at Mr Corey, you know I have nothing that compares with her wealth, I only have myself and if that isn't good enough for you."
"Why that is the very question!" Walter cut back his gaze narrowing as he closed the distance between them. "Are you good enough, worth throwing all that away for? I'll be honest with you Flora I am unsure myself on the matter."
"What do you want from me…Do you want me to beg?"
"Would you?" Walter quipped enjoying the flush of embarrassment to her cheeks. "I think perhaps you would, after all what is a little more embarrassment in a day full of humiliation? But no my delightful little hothead the prospect of you grovelling at my feet whilst gratifying for my ego would hardly solve the dilemma…What I need is proof."
"A taster shall we say, have you show me why you would make a better wife than the lovely Miss Applegate and I am not talking about who can bake the best apple pie here my dear."
"Haven't we been here once already this morning!" Walter snapped already bored. "It is hardly an unreasonable request, you yourself said all you have to offer was you person I'd be a fool if I didn't at least sample the goods before buying."
"I am not a basket of apples Mr Jarvis." The Housekeeper snapped back increasingly aware of his proximity. "What you are suggesting would mean easting the entire bushel to tell if the fruit is good, not just taking a single bite!"
"I don't know…I could start with a single bite and take it from there." Walter muttered pressing her back against the closed door waiting for her to push him away like she always did. "This is your last chance Flora, go run back to your parlour and the safety of your position, I am not butler anymore there will be no repercussions for me if I seduce you. I won't even promise to choose you afterwards."
Determined to call her bluff Walter leant forward running his fingers across her jaw before catching her lips roughly with his own. Pressing his body firmly against hers he felt the tremble that shook her small frame waiting for her inevitable cry of outrage. What he wasn't expecting was the press of her small palm against the back of his neck and her fingers to weave their way into his hair, nor for her to respond to his kisses her initial hesitancy quickly evaporating as she matched his intensity but softened the encounter. Irritated by her refusal to stop him Walter let his hands run over her figure fingers moving roughly for the closures of her dress certain that this violation would bring her to her senses.
Yet she pressed herself into his caresses and he found he couldn't force himself to be rough with her, instead his fingers gently explored newly exposed curves and skin eliciting whimpers of encouragement from the housekeeper. It seemed ridiculous but part of him didn't want this to stop, simply wanted to lay her down on his bed and forget completely about any other prior engagements, fiancé and impending wedding included.
"I'm sorry I can't…" He managed to gasp pushing himself suddenly off of her. "This is wrong…Very wrong I didn't think…"
"Walter?" Flora murmured through kiss-swollen lips, confusion clear on her face. "This is what you wanted, you said…"
"I was just trying to bring you to your senses…I didn't actually think you meant it, I mean why should I you've never shown any interest in me before."
"So this was all to prove a point!" Flora gasped aghast at his actions. "You let me believe…let me offer myself to you and you thought I wasn't serious."
"I am sorry Flora, I wanted to test you I never thought you'd go through with it but then you responded to me and I couldn't continue to deceive you. At least I stopped a lesser man wouldn't, at least there is no permanent harm done."
"No harm." Flora repeated her frame trembling as she sank to the floor not even moving to re-button her dress. "You break my heart but there is no harm done."
"No don't you dare, there are worse things than taking a woman's virtue Walter much worse, you let me believe, you let me hope that you might care for me too and why to score points and you want credit because you didn't go all the way with your little charade!" She hissed getting back to her feet and advancing on him, tears now streaming unfettered down her cheeks. Clenching her fists she battered him futilely, striking out to try and make him feel a fraction of the pain she felt.
"I hate you…I Hate you!" Flora sobbed pouring all her rage into her fists.
Catching her flailing fists Walter pulled her close so she couldn't harm either herself or him. Muttering into her hair. "I know, I know you do, I hate me too but I gave my word Flora and I cannot break it now it wouldn't be right."
Sobbing until she had drenched his sleeve Flora slowly pulled her way out of his arms and reluctantly he let her go. Picking up her cloak she headed towards the door, pausing on the threshold. "I hope you get everything you want Walter, I hope you can find happiness with her."
"And I you…Get out of Taplows Flora find another life for yourself, you deserve that, someone who can appreciate you and give you children of your own."
Nodding slightly as she pulled the hood up so it concealed her tear stained face. "I hope you get the son you want, even if I cannot be the one to give him to you, I would never begrudge you that joy." Flora added looking up from under the heavy fabric of her hood to catch his eye before turning and disappearing out of sight.
Glancing back in the mirror Walter caught sight of his new reflection; he still looked pale, nervous and sick as a dog but now for rather different reasons but one certainly hasn't changed he now needed that drink more than ever.
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