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It was cold, it was damp and he felt bloody ridiculous!
Pulling his overcoat further round him to keep out the April chill the Butler stamped his feet, to keep out the cold and vent his growing frustration. To think of all the jobs for a respected member of the senior staff to be carrying out, laying a chocolate Easter egg trail in the middle of the bloody night was certainly not one of them!
It had all started when their esteemed Lord and Master had decided in his bountiful wisdom to invite his nephew and his army of brats to come back with him after his trip to the Cumberland house. Perhaps the old coot was finally feeling the bite of his own mortality and thought filling the house with children would have an energising effect or perhaps he was finally going as batty as his old mother? It was possible stranger things had happened; well it was Taplows after all. However those same brats were the reason he as butler was laying a trail of eggs around the grounds.
It had seemed like a harmless suggestion, get the little monsters out of the house and away from the breakables. Yet when asked to perform the simple task of casting a few dozen chocolate eggs the chef had promptly thrown a wobbly that would have made the most committed hysteric envious! It had taken hours of painful coaxing before Felix had agreed to co-operate and that was only if he was able to enlist a veritable army of kitchen staff to help and on the understanding that would be the end of Felix's involvement. Of course he could delegated the task of distributing the eggs to his footmen but sometimes having a memory as sharp as the butler's was a terrible burden. A certain Easter five years previous was burned into his consciousness, when left to their own devices his footman had played catch and lets find the most impossible, out of reach and inappropriate places possible to hide the eggs. As a result he had had aristocrats under foot in the servant's quarters for half the day and a sudden chocolate egg shortage that had sent the chef into an almost apoplectic fit!
Reaching into his basket his fingers grasped around searching for another egg, panicking for a moment as he came up blank. He couldn't have laid them all already? He had specifically asked the chef for twenty-four eggs and he couldn't have laid all those? Grasping the last egg he decided to head towards the Orangery. Reaching for the heavy keys that weighed down his coat he selected the old heavy iron key that opened the Orangery double doors, yet when he reached for the doorknob the door swung open at his touch. Looking around for any sign of intruder he placed the basket and keys down silently on the pathway before stepping inside, realising he was armed with only a chocolate egg he quickly looked around for something heavier picking up one of the long poles the gardener's used to open the high windows. Then spotting a shift in the shadows he jumped out of his hiding place catching them completely unawares their basket of no doubt pilfered flowers going flying as he pinned them against the wall his pole raised warningly.
Startled and now horrified as an all too familiar voice cried out, the butler reached out and tugged the concealing shawl back from his captive's face, it confirmed his worst nightmares as glaring back at him was a fuming Flora Ryan.
"Mrs Ry…I thought…Well the door was unlocked and it is late…"
"As you can see I am no intruder, so if you would be so kind as to release me Mr Jarvis?"
"Oh yes." The Butler mumbled stepping back letting go his iron grip on the lady in front of him, for a moment longer he muttered his sincerest apologies as the housekeeper wiped imaginary dirt from her shawl, until finally curiosity overcame his better judgement. "But what are you doing out here?"
Snorting in frank un-amusement the housekeeper net down groping in the darkness for her basket. "What does it look like I am doing." She huffed bringing up the basket, which was now distressingly empty.
"If I knew I wouldn't have asked!" The butler snapped back his normal acerbic bad temper returning as he quickly recovered from the shock.
"Laying your Easter egg trail of course!"
"Mine but…" The Butler paused now completely confused. "Mrs Ryan perhaps you would care to start from the beginning, why are you laying an Easter egg trail?"
"Well I certainly hadn't intended to, I had a lovely quiet evening planned reading my new novel, however I was called to the kitchen to assist with calming down Mr Kraus. He was in quite a tizzy over your stupid eggs, shouting that here he was putting in all that effort and you couldn't even bother to have someone lay the trail. So in order to calm him I offered to do it. I took one of the baskets and after sending him to bed immediately with a sedative started to lay a trail. The question I would like an answer to is, what you are doing here? Keeping an eye on the poor fool who is doing your handiwork perhaps?"
"Wait you took one of the baskets? There was more than one?" The butler asked his own mind whirling ahead of him, as he remembered the lone basket he had found waiting for him in the empty kitchen.
"There were two, Mr Kraus didn't want to eggs to get crushed so he put twelve in one and twelve in the other, I was just about to head back and pick up the other basket before you decided to Shanghais me. But you still haven't answer my question, what are you doing out here?"
Snorting in amusement the butler held up his last rather crumpled egg, that he had squashed out of shape in all the excitement.
"Oh my indeed Mrs Ryan…Well at least I know now were the rest of the eggs went to, I had feared they had suffered an attack from the footmen."
"Well that isn't the end of your problems Mr Jarvis for unless I am mistaken I still had five eggs to hide and thanks to your attempts at heroic action they are now rolling around somewhere on the floor."
Stifling an annoyed grimace the butler rolled his eyes before sinking to his knees and feeling around for the eggs, after a moment or so he glared up at an amused Flora Ryan who was avidly watching his lack of progress. "It would be quicker if you helped Mrs Ryan!"
Sighing dramatically the housekeeper gracefully lowered herself to the floor arranging her long dark skirts with care before searching under plant pots for the missing eggs. Slowly but surely each one was coming to light.
"I've got one…How many does that make now?"
"Four, just one more." The butler muttered back, hoping that with any luck they could quickly find the last and be off to bed, it certainly wasn't getting any warmer and his back was starting to ache from being bent double.
It was probably this single minded determination or perhaps the unusual pooling of blood in his head but for whatever reason neither the butler or the housekeeper heard the Orangery door being tugged closed nor the grunt as the old key turned in the lock. But they did hear the all too familiar whistle of the night watchman as he disappeared around the corner hurrying back inside to his tankard of ale.
"You don't think?" Flora gasped out, vocalising the kernel of fear that was growing in both of them.
"He wouldn't surely…" The Butler retorted getting to his feet and striding towards the doors, rattling the handles they simply refused to budge. "Damn blast stupid Oaf…Never normally does his bloody job."
"So we're trapped?"
Rolling his eyes at her more than irritating tendency to state the bloody obvious the butler turned back to the housekeeper and added sarcastically. "It would certainly seem that way Mrs Ryan."
"Unless…Ah of course I should have thought of it earlier…Give me your keys!"
"It won't do any good Mr Jarvis…" The Housekeeper began but an impatient Jarvis cut her off, crossing the room to fumble rather too familiarly with the large bundle of keys that were clipped to a silver chain around her waist. "Mr Jarvis!" She snapped slapping his hands away and taking a step back to free the keys herself, then with a fluid movement she half passed half threw them to the butler.
"See a keen mind can get you out of any predicament…You women panic far to easily if it was left to you why then we'd be stuck in here all nigh…" He paused suddenly, his fingers groping wildly, where was it?
"I will be intrigued to see how your keen mind manages to solve this problem…" The Housekeeper taunted, a smug smile playing over her lips. "For unless I am mistaken the locks on the Orangery were changed specifically so that it didn't need a complete keyhole, or have you forgotten the palaver the Earl made about the draft last autumn?"
Cursing under his breath the butler turned and fixed his most dashing yet obviously false smile on his face. "You are quite right Mrs Ryan I had forgotten." Every word was difficult to utter it felt like swallowing a rather sour slice of humble pie. "Well perhaps the windows?"
"Aren't they a little high?" The Housekeeper pointed out waving at the high narrow windows set just below the roofline before adding sarcastically. "Although it would certainly be an educational experience for my less developed mind to watch you accomplish such a feat!"
Gritting his teeth to keep back a rather cutting response the butler strode over to the Earls ornate cast-iron breakfast table and chairs, and ignoring the twinge in his back dragged the heavy furniture over to the nearest window before picking up the chair.
"Mr Jarvis surely you don't mean to?" The Housekeeper gasped in dismay when the butler ignored her warning and placed the chair onto the tabletop. "You'll break your neck! Walter please come down from there."
Flinching slightly at the unexpected use of his Christian name and very real sound of concern in her voice the butler turned and offered the housekeeper a reassuring smile. "Never fear Mrs Ryan I shall be perfectly safe, I used to climb much higher than this as a boy…"
"But you are hardly a boy now!"
"Why how kind of you to remind me!" Jarvis snapped back testily as he clambered onto the tabletop, for a moment he felt a flash of panic as it wobbled slightly under his weight but he simply refused to give up now, to be made a fool of again in so many minutes.
"I didn't mean…"Flora began her protest cut off when Mr Jarvis stepped on to the chair and she could no longer bear to watch. "Fine get yourself killed…Or worse fall through the glass."
"It is…quite…touching…your concern." The Butler grunted out as he grasped hold of the window ledge and pulled himself up. "See nothing to it?"
"Really!" Flora snapped back, her relief at his temporary safety being overridden by her fury at his foolishness. "I suppose now your only problem is how to get through and down the other side!"
"Ah…" Jarvis paused he could go through head first he might just fit but then he would make a spectacular dive fifteen feet onto the hard gravel path, turning round was out of the question. "I am sure I can…Well it's not that far…"
"Walter Corey get back down here this instant!" Flora suddenly hissed moving to stand beside the table. "Do not make me come up there and get you, a night in an Orangery is a small price to pay to avoid a broken arm or broken neck!"
Huffing in annoyance the butler slowly lowered himself back down to the chair but the moment he put his weight on it it began to wobble most worrying. Unable to keep his balance as the chair suddenly pitched off the table he found himself hanging by his fingertips from the window ledge.
"Walter!" The housekeeper called out scrabbling to retrieve the chair and place it back on the table but it was too heavy and she was too slow and a moment later the butler lost his tenuous grip on the frame falling like a sack of wet sand to the hard Orangery floor.
"Walter…Walter please talk to me." Flora demanded pushing her way past the heavy table to crouch by the silent butler's side. "Walter dammit don't you dare do this to me…Stupid headstrong man…I told you…Dammit sit up and argue with me!" She blurted out shaking his nearest arm roughly in an effort to wake him, tears of pure fear trickling down her cheeks. Leaning over his side she tried to catch any sign of life, was he even breathing?
Panicking she found strength she never knew she had and pushing the table away from the wall making enough space to turn the unconscious butler over. Leaning over she placed her cheek above his mouth, relieved when she felt his strong warm breath against her skin. Cupping his face gently she searched for any sign of damage, her tears now haphazardly falling on his face before she could wipe them away. "Walter please…" She muttered leaning down to rest her forehead on his shoulder her hands moving to grip the material of his jacket tightly as she screwed it up between her fingers.
"Walter please what?" A sudden gruff voice demanded as its owner struggled to sit up. "What are you doing Mrs Ry…" He stopped in shock as the housekeeper flung her arms around his neck sobbing uncontrollably against his shoulder. "Shush Flora…" He belatedly murmured moving to rub her back soothingly, taking that time to look around their surroundings, just what on earth where they doing in the Orangery of all places?
"You foolish, foolish man, I told you but you wouldn't listen you never listen!" The housekeeper snapped finally pushing away enough to glare at the butler's stunned expression. "Don't you ever do anything like that again or next time I swear I will kill you myself and save my poor heart the worry!"
"Message received and understood Mrs Ryan." The butler replied seriously hoping to ease the painfully tense atmosphere, he still wasn't aware what he had done to earn such censure but then he had never seen Flora Ryan like this before either. "God I ache everywhere."
"Well what do you expect when you go falling from windows!" Flora spat back un-amused by his attempts at joviality.
Glancing up at what seemed an immense height to the small Orangery windows the butler gulped, the dull throbbing of his battered body seemed to confirm her side of the story. "I think I can safely promise that." He muttered his hands moving to try and release the housekeeper's destructive grasp on his poor dinner jacket. Then as if she suddenly realised what she was doing Flora let him go like a hot potato pushing herself physically away from him until she connected heavily with the wall.
"Sorry I don't know what came over me…" She muttered suddenly unable to meet the butler's eye, mortified by her actions and the depth of feeling she had exposed so openly to his scrutiny.
Smothering his initial curiosity the butler allowed Flora time to compose herself sitting quietly glaring at his pocket watch, squinting at the watch face in the dull moonlight. It was getting late and despite the cold and the ache in his muscles he couldn't stop yawning. "It really is getting late…"
"Well I'll take this wall and you can take that one…" The butler insisted unable to resist organising everything as he shuffled to make himself comfortable for the night, wrapping his overcoat more firmly round himself he watched as the housekeeper settled down awkwardly. However more than ten minutes had passed and despite his best efforts to block her movements out the housekeeper's constant shifting was slowly starting to get on his nerves. Glaring up at her from under his overcoat Walter was just about to shoot off a rather cutting comment when he realised the cause of her discomfort, she was shivering almost constantly. Her layers of petticoats were obviously deceptively thin and her silk shawl offered very little against the early spring chill. There really was only one course of action open to any pragmatic gentleman. Pushing himself up from the floor he quickly unbuttoned his overcoat, shrugging it off as he crossed the room ignoring the startled gasp from the housekeeper as he dropped down next to her throwing his coat over them both.
"I am simply being practical Mrs Ryan I assure you I have nothing but the most gentlemanly intentions!"
"Well alright…I mean thank you Mr Jarvis this is most considerate…" The Housekeeper grudgingly admitted snuggling into the thick wool coat still warm from where it had been wrapped around his stocky frame.
"Goodnight Mrs Ryan."
"Goodnight Mr Jarvis."
Yet despite the relative silence that had now descended and the fact that the housekeeper quickly drifted off to sleep the butler found it illusive. Wiggling around to try and find a comfortable spot without waking the sleeping lady next to him he glanced across to make sure he hadn't woken her. She looked much younger in her sleep, when all the tensions of Taplows left her and her face relaxed yet there was still one knot of tension creasing her forehead. As he watched Flora jerked suddenly in her sleep, her beautiful face twitching as she grimaced muttering unintelligibly under her breath, caught in the throws of a nightmare.
"Shush Flora…" He muttered reaching up to try and lay a soothing hand on the housekeeper's shoulder, surprised when instead of shaking his touch off she actually turned into it, rolling over until she connected with his shoulder.
Freezing instantly Walter was stunned when the normally unapproachable housekeeper snuggled eagerly into his shoulder her nightmare vanishing as quickly as it had descended. Smiling as he imagined her indignant reaction when she woke and found herself practically entangled with him he tried to gently push her away but the lady now comfortably settled seemed determined to remain where she was. Resigned to his fate Walter couldn't help but relish the extra warmth she provided, after all in day of bizarre firsts what was one more?
So tucking the coat further round her he gently brushed the loose hair out of her face, surprised when she murmured his name in her sleep and turned into his hand. It seemed almost impossible that the woman in his arms was the same Flora Ryan he had argued with only that morning, he had seen more than one side of her character that evening and although her emotional outburst from earlier still puzzled him he thought it better to let it all go for the night. Resigned to sleep on the matter and deal with all in the morning after a nice hot cup of tea the butler closed his eyes and let the gentle ebb and flow of Flora's breath lull him off to sleep.
It took Flora Ryan a good few minutes to remember where she was upon waking; the bright glare of the early morning light flooded in through the tall orangery windows. Raising a hand to block out the bright light from her sleep filled eyes it took her a good few minutes to realise why her comfortable pillow shifted every so gently and then her face flushed with a mixture of embarrassment and something else. For a moment she considered pushing him away violently, wrapping up her conflicted emotions behind the iron mask of the icy distant housekeeper and yet he felt so warm and comfortable. She could just pretend that she was still asleep no one would ever know.
Resting her head back on the firm expanse of his chest Flora closed her eyes gently, for once allowing her foolish romantic daydreams to drift to the surface. They could be on a picnic somewhere, just laying in the sunshine Walter's arms around her, his breath against her hair and his unique smell tickling her nostrils, tobacco, silver polish and a hint of something else. Wrapped up in her own world Flora ran her fingers lightly across the silky surface of Walter's waistcoat, tracing the delicate green leaves that decorated the front of it before running her fingertips along each little link of his watch chain.
However unbeknownst to the oblivious housekeeper the butler had woken a few minutes after her but he had yet to make that knowledge known to her. Smiling in amusement as he watched her fingers trail across his chest and play with the chain that linked his pocket watch to his waistcoat making a complete inventory. She seemed to completely carefree that he couldn't help the feeling of protectiveness that welled up inside him and his arms tightened round her involuntarily causing her to glance up catching him watching her. For a moment embarrassment and panic showed on her face obviously worried about his reaction but Walter's amused smile seemed to settle her but it did nothing to ease the furious blush that stained her cheeks nor her initial response to pull away from him.
Now a gentleman would have let her go, after all it was hardly proper but somehow he didn't feel like much of a gentleman after a cold night on a hard Orangery floor so instead his grip tightened around her waist not letting her move one inch. Then as if it had a life of it's own his free hand moved up and tucked a stray piece of hair behind her ear lingering longer than was really necessary before brushing across her cheek ignoring her shocked gasp and wide eyes.
"Yes Flora?" The butler replied cheekily enjoying the flush that graced her cheeks. "You wanted to say something?"
Gaping like a stunned fish, the housekeeper floundered around for a moment until she fell back the age old polite conversation. "You slept well?"
"Not bad…I am glad you got some, I was worried you seemed to be having a nightmare of sorts."
"Nightmare?…Oh yes." Flora mumbled shuddering slightly as the hazy memory came back to her.
"Are you sure you are alright?"
Smiling softly the housekeeper shook her head. "It's nothing really just a recurring nightmare I've had since I was little, I get it once in a while I'm lost in a maze of corridors, opening doors that leads to new corridors and I'm trapped inside and I can't get out. Then the corridors start getting smaller and smaller." Flora broke off shuddering trying to exorcise her demons and avoid the butler's piercing gaze by snuggling closer to him, resting her head on his chest. For a moment both held themselves still unsure just what was happening but neither wanting things to change, Flora wasn't sure the butler had consciously realized it but his hand had drifted up from her waist and was now playing gently with her loose curls that had escaped from her bun. He was systematically pulling a curl out straight then wrapping it round the length of his finger before pulling it loose then repeating the action, it was both soothing and surprisingly intimate.
It was a charming idyll but it couldn't last, however neither had expected the interruption to be the loud grumbling of the butler's stomach. Bursting out laughing Flora rolled off on an indignant Walter, her whole frame shaking with amusement.
"Look Flora…Stop that cackling it is most unnerving…It is hardly surprising I am hungry I have spent all night in an Orangery trying to stay warm…"
"So Have I!" The housekeeper countered in between her giggles as his stomach now awakened continued to make its presence known with intermittent groans and gurgles. "Yet you don't hear me sounding like the entire percussion section of the London philharmonic orchestra!"
"Well of course not!" The butler snapped playfully a mischievous glint in his eye as his fingers quickly moved to tickle the housekeeper's tiny waist. "Yours is far too small it couldn't even compete with a triangle let alone the entire percussion section…"
"Walter stop…Can't breath…" Flora muttered in between giggles trying to push his hands away, when this failed she sought out his own weakness amused when on feeling her fingers run up under his waistcoat he immediately tried to suck in his stomach.
"We shouldn't, it is getting late." Walter insisted reaching up to retrieve her hands from his chest, unwilling to admit to himself or Flora just how her touch had startled him. They were acting like two children, which they certainly were not , and such tomfoolery could have more adult consequences that he was sure neither of them were prepared to deal with.
"It is not that late." Flora replied coyly, freeing one hand from his grasp and pulling his watch free from his pocket. "See it's not even seven." She added before slipping it back into his pocket her fingers lingering longer than was respectable.
"Flora…" Walter began warningly catching the housekeeper's gaze, his throat constricting at the open affectionate look, which she bestowed on him. "We should tal…"
"Er Mr Jarvis?"
Whirling round and jumping apart the pair turned to face a very red and pimple faced gardener who from his lanky appearance couldn't have been long out of short trousers.
"About bloody time!" The butler snapped deciding that attack was by far the best form of defense. "Do you know how long we have be stuck here….Bloody stupid incompetence of your department and just look at these flowers bone dry, when I tell his lordship he was right about you neglecting your duties, and that his plan to catch you lapsing worked perfectly…Its almost seven and you know these flowers are supposed to be tended to before dawn, well what excuse have you to offer?"
Horror dawned on the young lad's face as he backed out the door watering can in hand. "I'm sorry I know they should be watered earlier but I only overslept this once…Oh please Mr Jarvis Mr Simpson will have my head…"
Holding up his hands the butler smoothed down his lapels fixing the quivering boy with a penetrating gaze as if measuring him up. "Alright, we'll pretend this never happened, we didn't see you and you came at dawn and watered the plants and no one was here to contradict that…I am giving you one last chance, but if I hear one whisper of this then I will know my faith in you has been misplaced and we all know what will happen then…" Jarvis trailed off letting his threat do the talking for him.
"After you Mrs Ryan…" The butler added pompously holding the door open for the housekeeper who managed to stifle her laughter long enough and retain her dignity until they were out of sight and sound of the Orangery.
"That was cruel!"
Sniggering with laughter Walter offered her his arm as they made their way back to the servants quarters. "Perhaps a little…Oh I do love my job!"
"What terrifying pimple faced boys who don't know better?"
"If I hadn't done something who knows what a certain lad might have seen and relayed to other interested parties? A few moments later and I doubt even my blustering could have convinced him of anything!"
"I don't know what you mean Mr Jarvis!" Flora snapped whilst furiously trying to force her unruly hair back into some semblance of order.
"Oh come off it Flora…we both know what was about to happen, you were practically begging me to and well I admit I found the prospect somewhat tempting myself…"
"I…I…" Flora gasped. "I wasn't begging anything Mr Jarvis."
"Weren't you? You look at me like that with those big innocent eyes, you run your hands all over me and what was it you thought would happen?"
"Haven't we been here already Mrs Ryan?" The butler scoffed amused at her embarrassment watching as it simmered into fury. "Now that's better, that's my Flora…" He added before leaning forward and catching unawares with a brief kiss, his lips barely skimming hers before he pulled away a smug grin twisting his features.
"I am not your anything Mr Jarvis!" Flora spat out, wrenching her arm free from his grip and she turned and stormed back into the building.
"Not yet…Give me time Mrs Ryan." The butler called out after her watching as her figure practically radiated with fury before disappearing from his sight. This was going to be fun.
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