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Fingering the crisp envelope Walter raised his hand to knock, if had his choice he would simply have shoved the damn thing into the hand of the first maid and returned to his bed where the lovely Flora lay waiting for him, but he had promised to see it safely into Captain Edward's hand and so he would carry out his promise.
"Come to pass on your sincerest commiserations from one poor jilted bastard to another?"
Whirling round Walter caught sight of the very man he was looking for, Edward was still dressed in his full military regalia although his collar was undone and he struck Walter as being somewhat disheveled, obviously having a woman leave you waiting at the alter knocked the stuffing out of a man. The Captain was standing leaning against a tree in the little kitchen garden smoking a cigar as he kept an eye on the lane up to the Forester House, clearly he was waiting for Flora to return, wanting to be the first to question on her. He wasn't to know the lady had absolutely no intention of returning to that house anytime that afternoon.
"No I came to deliver a letter." Walter began hesitantly aware that Edward's blasé attitude could quickly become violent once he was aware of the truth.
"What farming not paying its way?" Edward joked bitterly eyeing the other man with barely covert suspicion.
"No from Flora." Walter replied waiting for the sudden eruption of rage, surprised when instead the Captain's face merely hardened and he took another long draw on his cigar.
"I see, well then you'd better come inside." Edward retorted suddenly throwing his cigar into the bushes and storming back into the house clearly expecting Walter to follow like an obedient puppy.
Trailing after him into the house Walter tried to ignore the sudden excited titter of the housemaids as they passed, clearly the subject of Flora's disappearance had fueled household gossiping to unexpected heights and the maids were quite giddy at the prospect of a new and titillating development. Clearly Edward was not as insensible to this as he seemed as no sooner had both men entered the study then he shut the door firmly behind them.
"Well then hand it over." Edward practically barked as he strode over to the sideboard and poured himself a large brandy from an already used glass, clearly this was not his first of the afternoon and Walter doubted somehow it would be his last. "Let's hear the work of fiction."
"Fiction?" Walter inquired surprised when Edward turned and sneered at him, this unprecedented bitterness seemed out of place on the usual jovial Captain.
Snorting at the outraged look on Walter's face Edward lowered himself into the desk chair toying with his brandy before answering. "Of course Corey you don't think I am going to believe a word of what she has written, we all know that you are behind this sudden change of heart. Do you really think I am insensible to your snooping around my fiancé like some low dog sniffing out a juicy bone? Your interest was quite clear from the day we met however I foolishly thought since she had chosen me, agreed to become my wife, that you would show some common decency and leave her be; clearly I was wrong."
"I dare Corey!" Edward replied his eyes narrowing as they bore into Walter's. "You are a lowborn scoundrel sir and will get what's coming to you eventually."
"All men get what they deserve." Walter retorted, and his agreement threw Edward, as did the look of righteous fury. "You never deserved her, I did. I fell for her and she fell for me, then you came along with your poor wounded soldier act, currying favor with her son and pressurizing her into a courtship before she even knew you…"
"How dare you, I did nothing of the sort! I admired her the moment I met her and was quite honest with the lady about it and I have never used William, my affection for both mother and son are entirely genuine. You however seem quite happy to go from one pretty face to the next, first Cecilia now Flora, tell me Corey have you ever been able to commit entirely to one woman in your entire life. How long will it be until the next one comes along?"
"There won't ever be a next one, Flora will marry me and that is an end to it!"
"I doubt her family will approve of that!" Edward retorted.
"Hang the lot of you then!" Walter snapped back. "I care not for your approval and neither does she, whose good opinion should we crave? Yours? Or perhaps that conniving witch of a mother-in-law?"
"Mind your tongue Corey that lady of far better quality than you have the right to judge!"
"Of course she is, no low born personage such as myself would ever rise to the great heady heights of blackmail to achieve my ends. To threaten a mother with the disinheritance of her son, to promise them a kick into the gutter if she doesn't comply with her every wish and desire; even her insistence on marrying the rich nephew so as to bring the rest of the family fortune into the fold." Walter added watching as the blood slowly drained from Edward's flushed face.
Taking a hasty swig of brandy Edward unsteadily got to his feet and refilled his glass, either not noticing or not caring when the fine liquor sloshed out of the glass and on to the antique sideboard. "You're a liar Corey, a low down piece of scum and were it not for the gossips I would take you outside and thrash the living daylights out of you right here and now."
"So sure of that aren't you?" Walter retorted eyeing the shaking man with a mixture of both perverse amusement and concern. "Well if you are then you won't have any problems reading this letter." He added slamming the delicate envelope down on the desk. "They are Flora's words, whether you would take my word on it or not, she too is a lady of quality and she would never accuse anyone unjustly or without proof. Perhaps if you won't believe me when I tell you how that old bitch has been playing you both then you'll believe Flora."
Turning round suddenly Edward stumbled forward and for a moment Walter wasn't sure if he was going to take a hasty swing at him or follow his advice. Fortunately Edward's shaking fingers closed round the letter and breaking the seal he quickly scanned Flora's words. Since meeting Captain Edward Forester Walter had never been fond of the man, his reactions had ranged from Jealously to pure rage then back to bitter loathing and resentment, but now he was surprised to discover compassion. With every line he read Edward's face had crumpled further, the righteous rage that had clearly been supporting him since the humiliation of that afternoon slowly seeping out of him until he had to lean against the desk for support.
"Oh god." Edward muttered softly before turning away from Walter his shoulders shaking slightly as if he were trying to fend off tears. "I just thought she was nervous, I offered to postpone the wedding but then she said she didn't think we should wait. I should have known something was wrong, there was such a disparity with how she looked and what she said but I just wanted to marry her so badly I guess I didn't want to look further…Even when we kissed it felt like she was holding back, I thought it was just propriety that she needed the wedding before she felt able to truly relax with me."
Biting his lip Walter managed to stifle his rage, they had kissed, his Flora had kissed…However he was able to regain control of himself in time, it was in the past it didn't matter Flora had chosen him, she had proven that last night and again that very morning, and then again that afternoon, he remembered with a wry smile and she certainly hadn't needed the reassurance of a wedding to relax with him.
"Do you love her Corey, really love her?"
Edward's question had caught him by surprise glancing up he caught the older man staring at him in expectation. "More than my life, I wouldn't be able to live without her, these past few weeks have been a living hell and I will not go through it again. I will dedicate my every breath to making her happy if that is what it takes to keep her love."
"And the boy?" Edward asked clearly only slightly appeased by Walter's grand statement. "Can you care and provide for him as of he were one of your own children? Accept him as your firstborn?"
"I can and I will." Walter replied solemnly, unable to stop drawing a parallel between this interrogation and a very similar one he had been forced to undergo when he had proposed to Cecilia.
"Very well then." Edward muttered setting down his glass and Walter realized that was as close he was going to get to the Captain's approval.
"You really are a disappointment Edward." Evelyn's voice suddenly cut through the tense silence. Whirling round both men were surprised to see the old woman standing by the open veranda doors, unsure just how long she had been standing eavesdropping on their conversation. "Even as a child you were somewhat wet and pathetic, took too much after that weak willed mother of yours, it took your father years to try and knock that out of you and now it seems he failed after all."
Biting his lip so that he didn't resort to hot-tempered accusations Edward muttered reasonably. "It is Flora's decision Evelyn, I cannot force her to marry me."
"You really are fool Edward of course you could have if you wanted it badly enough, even now there would still be a way but you're too weak to take. A real man, a man like your father wouldn't have hesitated, he would have dealt with Mr Corey here, gone over to his farm and dragged the little slut back by her hair if necessary. Showing her the man you are, a man who would not be messed about by some vapid woman, would have brought her back in line; she would agree to marry you after you'd knocked some sense into her, shown the jumped up slut her proper place."
Staring at her in horror as the implications of her suggestion set in Edward stared at his aunt as if he hadn't really seen her properly before. "I would never stoop so low and neither would my late father how dare you impugn his good name…"
Snorting in amusement Evelyn rolled her eyes at the clearly demented boy. "Your father was a man capable of many things as I found out the night before my wedding to his brother, I must admit James never did stand much of a chance after that he just didn't quite compare…"
That revelation certainly knocked both men for six.
"You and he….No I won't believe it." Edward blustered whilst Walter looked on in silent amazement.
"Come now Edward you remarked upon it yourself, growing up you and Stephan were like peas in a pod, and as for William he could easily pass for you own son when in reality he is your nephew not your cousin." Evelyn added clearly enjoying the look of horror on Edward's face.
"Your mother was a burden to him, he always used to say if only he had met me first…Of course he doted on Stephan, the son he had always wanted you were such a disappointment so timid, always with your head in a book. Then of course James went and got himself killed and it was too risky for us to be together often, I had to content myself with one child, when I would have borne him a dozen. People always wondered why I never remarried a young thing naught more than one and twenty but in truth my real husband was alive and well. Does that shock you Edward all those trips he made to check on us, bringing you along to play with your little cousin, they were all to see me, to be with me. We'd lie in bed waiting for the day your damn mother would finally give in to one of her perpetual illnesses and die so we could be together. I suppose that was her revenge on us both, simply refusing to die…" Evelyn trailed off turning from the quivering wreck that was Edward to face the composed Walter who had stood silent in the corner throughout the entire exchange.
"Why so silent Mr Corey don't you have anything to add?"
Keeping silent Walter stared at the rotten old woman in disgust.
"Don't you dare look down on me, with a mother like yours you're no better than anyone else. At least I kept it in the family, my little secret, yours went and whored herself around town dropping an illegitimate brat…"
That was too much for Walter; Evelyn knew just the right buttons to press to provoke a reaction. "She was raped not that you cared, her own sister and you wouldn't believe her. What were you warped in your own bitterness, unable to marry the man you wanted so you took it out on her? You should have believed her, should have supported her but instead you sent her away to that hellhole, took her child from her then brought her back here as if nothing had happened. You made her go to parties and balls and sit and be polite to the very man who had done it, goading her about it behind the scenes, making her feel worthless. If my father hadn't…"
"What rescued her? Whisked her off her feet and saved her from whatever fate I had crafted for her is that what she told you?" Evelyn snapped back.
"He loved her." Walter replied.
"Jumped up little farm hand, no better than a peasant I told her but she didn't listen, running off and marrying him behind my back…"
"She was your little sister not your slave!" Walter snapped unable to control his temper that was spiraling out of control. "You should have protected her but you were too wrapped up in your own selfish misery. You resented her because she was young and beautiful and free to marry any man she wanted and you couldn't, you reveled in her pain!"
"So what if I did the little slut deserved it, always leading men on the little flirt got what was coming to her."
"She was sixteen years old, she didn't deserve to be assaulted by a man of thirty years, someone you brought into the house and left there probably while you were off cavorting with Edward's father. The only whore in this family is you!"
Stepping back as if Walter had reached out and slapped her Evelyn paused before biting back. "And my daughter-in-law it would seem."
"Now Evelyn!" Edward suddenly cut in although he had stood silent during her earlier tirade he would not stand by and here an innocent woman slandered.
"Come now Edward surely even you are not that dense, I have it from the maid her bed wasn't even slept in, then this afternoon along comes Mr Walter Corey to bring us tidings of the missing bride, somehow I don't think she simply popped round this morning did she Walter? No he had her on her back all night long. Just how long have you two been carrying on behind our backs ehh Corey? There isn't a little peasant bun in the oven perhaps, is that what made her change her mind?" Evelyn added maliciously smirking as Edward blanched and pushed past her vanishing into the garden for some much needed fresh air.
"Madam I must ask you to desist, that is my fiancé you are bad mouthing and I will not tolerate it…"
"Yes you will Corey, you'll take it and a lot more. Well you can keep the slut I will not have her back in this house, I never want to see her again and if you know what is good for you, you will keep her away. I am prepared to let what I know about your mother go with me to my grave on a few conditions." Evelyn retorted smugly watching as her offer hung temptingly in front of Walter like a baited hook.
"The boy in his father's will was placed into joint custody between his mother and myself. Whilst in India I had precious little influence over his upbringing a situation I will never allow again. As I have no intention of letting him be raised by either that slut of a mother or you, he is to remain at Forester house with me as my legal ward. All I require from you is your talents in persuading his mother from a pointless and messy battle over the child, one she cannot possibly win the law is quite clearly on my side in this matter. It would also save you both the embarrassment of my destroying her character, a joyful task I will regretfully put aside if you cooperate."
Astounded Walter took a step back. "You expect me to help you take Flora's son from her?"
Nodding Evelyn smiled evilly. "Of course you will, Flora can have more children, I cannot, that child is all the connection I have to my son and his father and I will never give him up. If you do not agree I will dedicate my days to destroying not only your beloved but also your mother's name until neither can set foot out their door without being spat on, and you would still loose the boy. My way everyone is happy."
"Except for William and his mother but then I don't suppose their feelings count?" Walter spat back.
"William is my concern, that slut is yours, besides I am sure you can think of ways to distract her keep her content enough to stay away, give her enough brats to run around after and she'll soon be too busy to bother with my grandson." Evelyn argued smirking at the soundness of her plan. "Personally I don't see what other choice you have, you cooperate or I ruin you all both socially and financially, well you know how fickle people can be one whiff of scandal and a gentleman's whole character is called into question."
"It will be a cold day in hell before I give into threats from you!" Walter hissed through clenched teeth, keeping a tight rein on his temper lest he be tempted to foolish action. "Good Day Madam I don't believe there is anything else to discuss." And with that he turned and followed Edward into the garden.
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