- - -
Sometimes it took a close shave to remind man of his own mortality. It was a cliché but that didn't make any the less true, at least it had been the case for Walter Corey, butler extraordinaire at Taplows. One moment he had been sitting quite comfortably in his carriage heading for Bristol the next the whole world was upside down and a wheel shaft had impaled the space where only a moment before his own noble head had been. Needless to say the experience had shaken the normal taciturn butler to the core and he found himself looking back over his life with something approaching regret. He had accomplished much professionally and yet he had no family left to speak of. He was alone, a lonely man in a lonely profession with no close friends. Yet things were going to change.
He had been given another chance at life, one he was not going to waste, he was still a relatively young man, fit and vigorous he could have years left in him and he was determined not to waste them. He had a chance to go after all the things he hadn't found yet, a wife perhaps a family of his own. But how to find such a life stuck on the treadmill that was Taplows?
It had seemed a ridiculous idea at first, he had only been whiling away time in the housekeeper's office waiting for her to return from god knows where and had been amusing himself by flipping through one of the many magazines Flora Ryan subscribed to. He had almost been bored to tears having glanced through Mrs Beachams guide to the best mid summer tureen when the back page caught his eye. It had seemed ridiculous, surely it had been a joke, but in amongst the adverts for vacant positions there was a small discrete column, which seemed to be notices of a very different nature.
'Lady of mature age seeks gentleman escort, must be interested in Opera & Racing. Please contact PO BOX….'
Scanning through the few other adverts the butler's surprise had only increased some were for companionship, others for pen pals, and some even hinted at a more romantic intention and there were even one or two written by gentlemen looking for ladies. Normally he would have scoffed at the very idea but the constant ticking of the clock was an ever-present reminder that he was not getting any younger. So picking up a piece of stray paper he quickly noted down the address before the housekeeper returned, after all just because he was thinking about it it didn't mean he was going to actually write one himself.
That was of course a few weeks ago….
His classified had been printed; he had been sent a complimentary copy along with a brief note of thanks from the editor wishing him well.
He hadn't anticipated the number of letters, he thought perhaps he might get own or two if he were lucky, but when he had walked into Tappleton on his day off to collect them he had been surprised and delighted when the Postmaster had handed him twenty odd letters bound in string. It would take most of the afternoon to read them but perhaps if he were very lucky there would be someone's words that would call out to him.
- - -
What on earth had she been thinking?
True she always read them but normally for a good giggle, they always seemed so ridiculous, mature lady meant old bag, dapper gentleman implied aging cad. It had always served as a reminder that out there someone was more miserable and desperate than her, that was until this week.
'Self-Educated Middle-aged Professional man seeks intelligent and witty correspondence with a lady of taste and refinement. For discussion of literature, politics, and the abject loneliness of our modern society…'
She hadn't meant to write it but something about the gentleman's tone found in her a kindred spirit, he was write she too felt lonely and isolated from those around her and she found herself writing things about herself she hadn't even thought of for so long.
Of course just because she had written a reply it didn't mean she had to send it and yet, why not? Likely as not whoever he was he would dismiss it immediately and that would be the end of the matter, or perhaps if he did write back he would reveal himself such a bounder she would laugh it off. So she slipped it into the morning mail and tried to think no more of it and yet as the days wore on she could not help but wonder had he received it yet?
Shaking her head to dispel such nonsensical thoughts the housekeeper pulled herself together, she had too much to do, especially with Mr Jarvis taking his day off, it meant she had to keep a stern eye on that rogue Andrew Adams and those thieving footmen. Romance would have to learn its place just like everything else.
- - -
Walter Corey was beginning to loose hope, he had trawled through more than a dozen letters and none of them were suitable, some he managed to dismiss purely on age, if he wanted a family then any woman over forty would not do, nor would any under thirty he had never been a man for flighty girls. Of course in truth he hadn't had a single letter that seemed to be written by anyone in their twenties but well it did his ego good to insist he wouldn't have been interested in them anyway. Of the ones that would be the right age well all he could say was that a lot of silly vapid woman must read that magazine, they seemed more interested in what sort of parties and entertainments he frequented than on serious discussion.
It was with a heavy heart that he turned to the last few. Picking up the nearest crisp white envelope he admired the neat even hand before breaking the seal, at least this one seemed literate which was more than be said for some of the other so called intelligent ladies who had replied. What struck him immediately was that this one seemed to start with an apology. The writer expressed her sincerest regret but she had never replied to an advert before and was unsure just what was the appropriate form for a reply.
Chuckling to himself as he read on, following the easy flowing prose as the writer continued to talk him through her internal debate and musings, it almost seemed as if someone was in the room with him. Then something touched him, it seemed at least one other person in the world felt lonely in this fast paced world of there's, out of touch as things changed so wildly around them and they felt powerless to stop them. As the letter continued Walter began desperately searching for some more personal details, he wanted so desperately to reply to this letter and yet what if she were too old, could he consider giving up on the chance of children for the right woman. What if she was already spoken for and did indeed only look for companionship?
Coming reluctantly to the last paragraph he sighed in relief when the author finally and somewhat reluctantly disclosed some more personal details, shyly admitting her age as early thirties, single not a widow, dark of hair and fair of complexion. He had barely finished the last sentence noting with some amusement the witty pseudonym 'A.Spinster' before he was pulling out a sheet of paper to reply on; not even bothering to glance at the rest so certain was he that perhaps with A or Anne as he was going to jestingly call her in his reply, he might have found a new direction for his future.
- - -
Everyday Flora found herself waiting for the post, perhaps today there would be a reply. Then of course she shook her head and dismissed such foolish notions, mooning over something that was never going to happen like some love struck scullery maid. Yet despite the far-fetched likelihood of her even having a reply she had asked the local post office to redirect any post from her PO Box to Taplows, discreetly wrapped in another sheet of paper addressed to her proper. Her request had caused more than a few raised eyebrows but considering the amount of post Taplows and in particular her good self actually generated the postmaster was willing to indulge her little idiosyncrasy.
So having convinced herself no reply was coming Flora was notably surprised and excited when she was handed her mail one morning and she immediately noticed the thicker than usual letter. She had barely been able to contain her enthusiasm and had forced herself to maintain her usual sombre façade during the remainder of the senior staff meeting when in fact all she wanted to do was to escape to the privacy of her office and read the reply. However her lack of argument or raising further issues clearly surprised the Mr Jarvis, who asked her several times if she was sure she had nothing to add, so stunned was he that she agreed without argument to his practically doubling her housemaid's work with barely a bat of an eyelid.
The first out of the dull meeting Flora practically sprinted to her office, settling down with the letter in her hand she suddenly felt nervous. What if were a polite letter of rejection or perhaps she would be disappointed? For a moment she left the letter unopened on the tabletop before suddenly ripping open the seal with a sense of doom. Yet instead of the short missive she had been expecting there lay several pages of neat script.
May I call you Anne? It seems so much more pleasant than A.Spinster, although I must compliment you on your self-depreciating wit. I have to admit my own relief on receiving your letter; I had almost become convinced that there was not another such person in the world as myself. I know it will sound strange to you, this being my first letter but after reading little more than your first paragraph I had the strangest sensation of already knowing you.
Perhaps it is one of those strange happenstance when complete strangers meet and become fast friends and afterwards can never remember a time when they were not as close as they now are. However I saw as I was reading I could almost hear your voice in my head, perhaps it is the skilful way you write, perhaps it was merely my overactive imagination but I would prefer to hope not….'
Pleasantly surprised Flora let the letter drop against the table, he was write, it was the same for her, it was almost as though someone were reading aloud. There was just something so very familiar with the way he wrote, the pace of his word and inflections. Shaking it off as ridiculous Flora returned to the letter unable to beleive a man of such clear education and sense could ever be lonely.
'Since you were so delightfully candid about yourself I cannot help but return the compliment. However there cannot be a more difficult thing than trying to describe yourself to a complete stranger, I must admit I have approached the task from how I would have thought my aquaintances would describe me given the chance.
A workaholic, perhaps a little harsh but I certainly give that impression, I think I have worked so hard simply because I have little else to fill my time, I allowed my friends and loved ones to slip away and before I knew it they were gone. Deeply private and perhaps a little defensive of my privacy from my colleagues, it wasn't that I conciously chose to keep them out it's just I have always believed it necessary to keep some distance to ensure the personal did not become public. On the few occassions people did become too close it invariably ended in disaster, and the last time in particular it ruined both my personal and professional relationship.
I am sorry I have digressed my dear, forgive me for my impertinance but it seemed such a natural sentiment. As I write this to you it is almost confessional I find myself thinking and re-evaluating my past actions. I am afraid I am not looking back my behaviour with either pride or satisfaction. I would not blame you if on such a revelation of my character you chose never to write to me again. However I can safely promise my attitude has changed I am not that man anymore. I want more for my life.'
Sighing deeply Flora couldn't contain the grin such a declaration elicited, finishing the letter she smiled at his descriptions, fair and stocky and in his forties and clearly with an urge to settle down. That made her pause for a moment, was that really what she wanted? If she replied surely it would be the beginning of something more serious and she had made her choice years ago. She had chosen her career, and she was happy for the most part and then of course there was Walter...
That was like a douse of cold water, she couldn't pretend her feelings for their illusive butler had changed much in the past few months but perhaps her expectations had changed, she had realised that he would never return her affection and ever growing month he became more and more distant. She had no one at Taplows with whom she could confide, there was no affection for her here and yet it was her home, it was all she had ever known...
So caught in her musings she didn't hear her office door open and it wasn't until the butler was standing across the table and coughed pointedly that she was jarred from her daydream.
"The Earl Mrs Ryan." The butler replied tapping his pocketwatch. "The meeting you missed, I trust it was for some pressing household business and not some idle female daydreaming?"
Biting down on her lip Flora stared at the butler for a long moment, keeping a lid on her bubbling temper. "Of course."
Harumphing the butler turned on his heel and left and as he vanished Flora made her decision, reaching for a sheet of paper she immediately began her response, butler and Earl be damned!
- - -
The next weeks passed quickly for both of the correspondents, and most of the junior staff noted with some amusement the vastly improved mood of both Butler and housekeeper. Normally such a fortuitous coincident would have lead to some very titillating gossip with the dirty minded footmen being the main proponents yet try as they might no one could make such an accusation stick. Perhaps this was due in part to the fact the pair never seemed to spend any time in each other's company, of course this could have been interpreted that they were making a point of avoiding each other so not to arose suspicion. However if such a plan was in place and the pair were secretly a couple, that could not explain the somewhat unpleasant tenseness that appeared whenever the pair were forced into contact. In fact it seemed the only thing capable of souring either's mood was contact of any sort with the other.
For the housekeeper this could be attributed to a desire to break free from the past and embrace the future whereas meetings with the butler tended only reminded her of the things she could never have. The butler however was dogged by a more unpleasant sensation, every time he saw Flora Ryan the cloying awareness of guilt was never far behind, he could barely meet her eye having realised just how shoddily he had treated her. Not knowing what could be done to remedy the situation he had settled for the easier solution of trying to forget it, letting that particular sleeping dog lie.
However unaware of the real identities of their pen pal the written romance was developing in leaps and bounds. Barely a day or so passed when a letter was not being sent and received and caught up in the newness of things neither thought to question the speedy service. Not that there hadn't been a few close calls, it was only the housekeeper's quick reshuffling of papers that had prevented the butler from inadvertently stumbling across one of his own letters which the housekeeper had been surreptitiously reading when she was supposed to have been paying attention in a staff meeting. Likewise it had only been a sudden crisis in the still room that had caused the housekeeper to turn back from the kitchens where only behind the door the butler was grudgingly admitted to Felix about his new found lady love the mysterious Anne. So things continued in blessed mutual ignorance until one peculiar afternoon.
It had been a non-eventful lunch; the most interesting topic of conversation had been Lady Mary's increasing forgetfulness and even that had been exhausted after a few minutes discussion. Therefore it was not surprising when most of the senior staff excused themselves quickly off to see about their duties before they fell asleep from pure boredom. However the butler and Chef seemed less inclined to be on their way, Mr Kraus was absorbed in trying to dissect the butler's recent pre-occupation and the butler was having none of it his head literally buried in the pile of paperwork he now seemed to carry with him permanently. Tutting under her breath as the two men carried on oblivious to her clearing away the lunch items Flora almost dropped her handful of plates when the butler finally spoke.
"Have you ever considered leaving service?"
Startled the housekeeper whirled round only to find the pensive looking Mr Jarvis was not addressing her at all but a rather intrigued Mr Kraus who seemed delighted to have finally gained the butler's attention.
"From time to time Walter, the lack of appreciation of my talents often grates and I consider leaving for pastures new, but no not seriously, why are you thinking of leaving us?"
Biting her lip the housekeeper felt her heart literally in her mouth, the very prospect of it, Walter leaving it was unthinkable; he was as much apart of Taplows as the beams and flagstones. Her hands shaking she set down the fragile porcelain and fiddled instead with the napkins unwilling to be seen to be eavesdropping and yet she simply had to know his answer.
"I am considering my possibilities recently Felix…I think it might be time for a change of direction, I have dedicated years to my career and virtually ignored the other areas of my life and now I am not sure if that was the best use of my time?"
"And just how much is a certain person responsible for this change of heart?" The Chef asked winking knowingly smiling when the butler's slight flush merely confirmed his suspicions.
Shocked and horrified at such a revelation Flora dropped the napkins and dove to pick them up, the sudden clatter of chairs and cutlery reminding both gentlemen they were far from alone. Embarrassed the butler quickly made his excuse fleeing from the room as if the devil himself was at his heel, he didn't even pause to nod in the housekeeper's direction or bid her good afternoon. Mr Kraus however had not forgotten his manners and seeing the housekeeper scrabbling on the floor bent down to assist her, however perhaps due to his pre-occupation with studying her reaction he managed to be more of a hindrance than anything else.
"It seems we may be soon looking for a new butler Mrs Ryan."
"So it does." Flora replied still able to believe what she had heard.
"Personally I think it is a bit sudden, I mean he has barely known her five minutes." Felix added clearly waiting for some reaction, disappointed when the housekeeper simply refused to oblige him. "Then of course she may agree to live at Taplows, then she may refuse altogether, the female sex can be somewhat unpredictable…What would you say if your gentleman friend asked you to move away from Taplows?"
"My gentlemen friend?" Flora blustered unsure just what the chef was implying.
"Forgive me I just thought…Well consider it a hypothetical question then."
"For the right person, I don't know it would depend on the circumstances." Flora retorted cagily suddenly uncertain how she would react if her gentleman pen pal one did make such a request.
"Exactly so I suppose we must hope that Mr Jarvis's Anne or Anna or whatever her name is, is as sensible as you are then with any luck will not have to endure the odious Mr Adams lording it over us all!"
"Pardon did you say Anne?" Flora gasped, it was a ridiculous notion, it couldn't be true after all it was a common name, there had to be hundreds of Anne's thousands even.
"I think so Walter is being somewhat cagey about the whole business, but he seems keen enough writes her sheets and sheets."
"How did they meet?"
Smiling as he finally seemed to have caught her attention, Mr Kraus leaned in conspiratorially. "You know he hasn't actually said but I think she must be some old flame, someone he bumped into again possibly in Bristol when he was there the other month, it seems to fit. He hasn't been himself for a little while now and she simply must be the reason."
Nodding the housekeeper felt the small flicker of hope splutter and die, the chef had to be right, this was Mr Jarvis he was hardly the sort of man to write into one of those vapid female publications, nor to anywhere else. He wouldn't have trouble meeting suitable companions, it had barely taken him fifteen minutes to set her under his spell the first time they had met, so why should other women be any different? Accepting the dirty napkins from the Chef Flora barely registered when he bade her Good Day, instead she turned and walked over to her desk pulling out a sheet of paper she started a letter to her gentleman, it was symbolic in a way a door had closed behind her but he had opened a window.
- - -
Damn and blast the woman how on earth could she be so unreasonable? Surely it wasn't much to ask, what difference could it possibly make to her what day she had off this month? Huffing as he stormed away from the housekeeper's office Mr Jarvis practically kicked open his own door before throwing himself down at his desk. Well he had no choice he would have to write back to Anne and cancel their meeting or perhaps postpone it. Yet as he lifted his pen he could barely bring himself to write the words, surely there had to be some other way.
Of course there was one but he had been reluctant to pursue it. The very idea of leaving Taplows without either butler or housekeeper was unthinkable, who knows what mischief Mr Adams and those damn footmen would get up to in both their absence? Yet if it was the only way, what real harm could they do in a day? Shaking his head at the visions of pilfered silver and broken crockery the butler shuddered at the prospect. Yet when else would he have the opportunity to meet up with Anne if not now?
Suddenly emboldened by the thought of his lady love Walter got to his feet determined to seek out his lordship's valet and persuade the man by fair means or foul to swap their days off.
- - -
Glancing at his pocket watch Walter Corey paced in annoyance back and forth in the courtyard, damn the woman first she tries to thwart him by refusing to swap days, now she wastes his valuable time by keeping him and the coachman waiting. Well if she hadn't turned up in two minutes hang it he would order the driver to leave without her. The nerve of the woman was unbelievable. He had been foolish in mentioning his intention to visit Bath to Felix.
As it was their closest city, and scarcely more than ten miles of good road away, he regularly took advantage if his lordship's stables and visited it on his day off. It was far more civilised than Tappleton and with those new fangled trains could be accessed easily from the neighbouring cities of Oxford and Bristol. It wasn't as if he would visit the tailors in Tappleton he had a certain reputation to uphold and so over the past few years he had built up quite a knowledge and fondness for the little city.
So when Anne had suggested they meet in person he had immediately recommended it and the lovely Anne had agreed without hesitation. However of course the blasted chef had never been known for keeping his mouth shut and soon the news of the butler's jaunt must have filtered round the senior staff as he had been inundated with requests to drop this off here and pick a little something up there. If these irritating errands were not bad enough he had suddenly found himself confronted with a nervous Flora Ryan who asked if she might accompany him. At first he had been inclined to refuse but being unable to think of a suitable reason he had reluctantly agreed, although had he known Flora Ryan would put the entire trip in jeopardy by her timekeeping he might have tried to think a bit harder.
Finally just as he was about to heave himself into the carriage and leave her behind the side door opened and out darted the housekeeper, her usually pale face flushed pink with exertion.
"I am Sorry Mr Jarvis…."
Tapping his watch pointedly the butler barely grunted in response, reluctantly offering her his arm to step up into the carriage. It wasn't until he had sat down and the carriage was on it's way that he finally noticed her attire. The rich blue fitted coat emphasised her slender frame, the little oriental collar making her elegant neck seem even more swan like than usual and he tried not to think about the little gold brocade buttons and details that fastened across the fullest part of her figure and emphasised them nicely. If the housekeeper noticed this intense scrutiny she chose to ignore it, instead staring out of the window, her white-gloved hands twisting nervously in her lap.
Shaking his head Walter forced such admiring sentiments from his mind, he was to meet with Anne it was her who should be occupying his thoughts but part of him couldn't help but worry. It was true they connected in a way he had never expected, he felt he could tell her anything and not be censured and that was a rare intimacy he treasured. But what if when they met he did not feel the accompanying attraction? Anne had always been reticent about her physical appearance, what if it was not just modesty, could he continue to feel as warmly toward her if she resembled a younger Mrs Diggins? He doubted somewhat she would have the physical attributes of the lady sitting across from him, it simply wouldn't be possible for a woman kind, intelligent and beautiful not to have been already been snapped up. After all despite Flora Ryan's unpleasant and frosty character even she must have been proposed once upon a time, although the butler did pity the poor fool brave enough.
"Are you travelling on business Mr Jarvis?"
The sudden question jarred the butler from his internal musings, scowling slightly he retorted somewhat hastily, unable to hide his irritation at her presence and the seeming fascination all the senior staff had with his private life. "I have some errands to run Mrs Ryan, all personal matters, and I am meeting an old friend for dinner so I will not have time to accompany you…"
"I would never have dreamt of imposing on you Mr Jarvis!" The housekeeper retorted matching his barely civil tone with an iciness of her own. "I am sure I will be able to find my own way around a strange and unfamiliar city all by myself, I would not dream of even asking you for a brief tour." She added bitterly unable to believe she had once held the man in front of her as the greatest gentleman of her acquaintance.
Glaring back at her for a moment before looking away and becoming fascinated with their surroundings the butler mentally counted off the miles, fortunately with the passing countryside at his own thoughts they arrived in Bath before boredom forced them back into conversation. Leaning out of the carriage Walter admired the neat line of townhouses, scanning the bustling crowds as they crossed the river and turned towards the Abbey.
"It's beautiful…" Flora Ryan muttered mainly to herself but the butler caught the look of childish delight that for a moment completely transformed her face, she was breathtaking but then she caught his gaze and immediately the stony housekeeper was back. Slowly the carriage came to a halt alongside the Guildhall and suddenly in a hurry to be anywhere else but near the enigma that was Flora Ryan, the butler hastily alighted from the carriage. Pausing for a moment to assist the housekeeper out he barely waited a second longer before tipping his hat and storming off in the opposite direction.
He was halfway along Queen's street before he realised he hadn't informed the housekeeper where and what time she should be back for the return trip. Cursing his own short-sightedness the butler turned on his heel and stormed back through the crowd but despite glancing up every side street and in every shop window the lady had vanished. For a moment he felt a flicker of worry, what if she got lost, what if she didn't come back in time…
Shrugging his shoulders as he realised it was too late to do anything about it now, the butler glanced at his pocket watch, he had just enough time to do a little shopping before visiting the The Bath Pump Rooms for Dinner. He had a table reserved for Twelve and if he hurried he would have just enough time to pick up a small posy, he just hoped Anne liked Violets.
- - -
Shifting nervously in the delicate mahogany chair Flora Ryan played with the napkin in her lap, she was a few minutes early but there was only so long she could walk around the unfamiliar city. Her stomach was in knots and was convinced she felt too nervous to actually eat anything. She had followed her gentleman's advice to the letter, having alighted in Bath she had immediately inquired the way to the Bath Pump Rooms surprised when she was directed passed the Abbey and there was the very place she was looking for. Realising she had a good hour or so to pass she slipped into the Abbey and spent what would have been a most enjoyable time admiring the gothic interior, had it not been for the constant fluttering of butterflies in her stomach.
The very presence of the butler on her trip only increased her nerves, what if he saw them together, what would he say, how would he react? Shaking her head as she studied the menu waiting for her company Flora hastily put aside the image of both men fighting over her. That was ridiculous Walter's recent actions and own romance only confirmed his indifference towards, and besides he was more likely to pat the chap on the back and discreetly ask just when he was going to take her away. Sighing as she fiddled with the cutlery Flora tried to force all thoughts of Mr Jarvis from her mind, it was scandalous really here she was waiting to meet the first decent and honest man who had shown an interest in her in years and all she could do was think about the long coach ride over.
It seemed remarkable that she could ever have entertained the notion Mr Jarvis was her secret correspondent. That she had actually spent a sleepless night hoping against hope after she heard he was to accompany her to Bath the very same day, the coincidence seemed too preposterous to be true. Yet her last letter had shattered that, her gentleman had revealed that in his youth he been a soldier in the infantry, but had had been injured in the leg whereupon he had left the army before his three years were up. In all there years of service Mr Jarvis had never mentioned having been in the army, in fact he seemed to have a particular distaste for the fools who volunteered and he certainly didn't limp or appear to have any injury. Even the fact that he had accompanied her to Bath couldn't sway her from her new convictions, the man she been conversing with was kind, thoughtful and gentle whereas the butler's behaviour had shown him to be little more than a brute. It was merely a coincidence it had to be.
- - -
Shuffling from foot to foot Walter Corey fingered the small posy of violets nervously, all of a sudden it seemed rather pathetic, perhaps he should have let the florist talk him into those roses after all? Shaking his head he forced the doubts out of his mind he had selected the right flowers, they were exactly the sort of flowers that were appropriate, he was not the sort of man to make grand empty gestures and surely his Anne would realise that; so yes the violets would be perfect. Nodding politely at the Maitre De, Walter gave the secret name under which the table had been booked, a private joke between him and Anne, which would leave everyone else none the wiser. Glancing down at the large gilt book which listed all of the reservations the Maitre De waved over a hovering waiter, informing Walter in a rather bored fashion that his companion had already arrived and was seated waiting for him.
Forcing a smile on to his face Walter had to swallow quickly to try and quash his nerves, anxiously following the waiter who danced effortlessly between the scattered tables. Pulling on his cuffs and self-consciously swiping at his hair Walter began swiftly scanning the already seated diner's there were a few ladies seated alone but just as he thought the waiter was leading him towards them and he had fixed his most dashing smile, the damned fellow changed direction and led him round yet more tables. Sighing as he gave up even trying to guess what table he was being led to Walter reached into his inside jacket pocket and withdrew the slightly crumpled magazine; it had been Anne's suggestion an immediate way of recognising the other, and Walter had to admit it was a somewhat romantic touch.
Suddenly the waiter he had been trailing so closely stopped dead and Walter damn near crashed into a seated patron in an effort to avoid a collision.
"I'm sorry Madam I…." Walter began glancing down at the poor woman he had practically barged into, then the words froze in his mouth, it had to be her of all the people to bump into it had to be the one person who wouldn't let him forget it. "Forgive me Mrs Ryan do have a nice luncheon."
Glancing up at the waiter Walter shooed him forward but the damn man simply stared at him in confusion before moving to pull out the chair opposite the housekeeper.
"Look here my good man there must be some mistake…I am meeting someone else for lunch a lady, you must have the wrong table!" Walter began his reasonable tone slowly evaporating as he dumb fool simply stared back at him, resisting the urge to slap the stupid fool around the head with the magazine or to shove the posy in a place most uncomfortable Walter began again. "Yes I know Mrs Ryan is a lady…I meant another lady, there has clearly been some mistake on your part!"
"No I think it's ours Walter."
Turning to glare down at the blasted housekeeper who clearly was as confused as the demented waiter Walter found his anger quickly turning to shock and then acute disbelief. There sitting on the table next to her was a copy of…
Trembling slightly the butler grasped the chair he was offered by the relieved waiter and literally fell into it. "You!"
"I am afraid it would seem so." Flora Ryan replied in barely a whisper, glancing quickly over her shoulder to see if the other gawping patrons had returned to their meals yet or were still staring after Walter's less than subtle outburst.
"But YOU!" The butler reiterated still clearly unable to process the information.
Biting down on her lip at the barely contained disgust in his tone Flora nodded once her fingers tightening on the magazine that still lay innocently on the crisp linen tablecloth.
"It's impossible!" The butler added shaking his head, glaring across the table at his date, who seemed unable to stare at anything but the silverware. "Ridiculous all this time it's been you?"
Suddenly unable to weather his insults with good grace Flora found herself snapping. "Why? Hmmm Why is it so Incredible Mr Jarvis?"
"Well it's you…"
"Yes I believe you already covered that! I asked why!"
"You're my housekeeper." Butler replied as if that was all the answer that was needed.
Trembling slightly as she struggled to rein in her temper, Flora tightened the grip on the magazine until her knuckles turned white from the exertion. "I am not your housekeeper Mr Jarvis, I am the Earl's housekeeper and as for it being ridiculous how do you think it feels for me?"
Shrugging slightly as if the very thought of her feelings hadn't crossed his Neanderthal brain the butler's face suddenly changed, going from dazed to sharp in a matter of seconds. "This was all a set up wasn't it? You and Felix were in on it together?"
"I don't know…" Flora began outraged by the very suggestion but the Butler cut her off.
"I wondered why he was so interested in my private life all of a sudden, all those questions, what was it a way of getting your revenge for last year was that it? I never thought you of all people would stoop so low Mrs Ryan!"
Pushing herself up suddenly from her chair Flora lost what little control she still had over her temper. Flinging the tightly gripped magazine at the butler she was too angry to even appreciate it knocking over his full water glass, fighting back the tears that were threatening, she managed to gasp out. "You are a brute sir." Then turning and with as much dignity as she could muster she half walked half ran from the restaurant, ignoring the startled gasps of those around her or the assorted waiters who had to jump out of her way, she vanished into the city not caring where she was heading as long as it was away from a certain Walter Corey.
- - -
Bugger, bugger bugger!
Shivering against the cold and unseasonable weather the butler pulled his coat tighter round his frame, glaring down the passing alley he thought for a moment he caught a glimpse of blue, a moment later it was gone but he had better check to make sure. This was all he had done for the last hour or so and he was no closer to finding Flora Ryan than he had been the first few minutes. If only he had gone after her straight away, there would at least have been people to ask but no he in his stupidity and pride had not followed the fleeing woman instead he had gone round the corner to the Saracen's Head. Standing or more to the point leaning against the bar he had ordered a jug of ale, the landlord taking one look at his sour and depressed face had fetched him a jug of their strongest along with a pewter tankard.
It hadn't taken the butler long to finish the first jug and as he was somehow still standing or well leaning upright by the end of it the innkeeper had drawn him another, although from the amused glances he and a few regulars exchanged they clearly weren't expecting him to ask for a third. It was then in the time honoured tradition of a slightly inebriated man with much on his mind that the butler began confiding in the best counsellor a man could have, the landlord.
"It was a joke you see…I thought well god knows what I thought…I never thought she'd be there laughing at me…"
"She actually laughed at you?" The next man along gasped in surprise as all the regulars had gathered to hear the new arrivals tale of woe.
"Well no I don't…No she didn't actually laugh."
"So are you sure it was a joke? Couldn't it just have been a mistake?"
"A mistake? With her never, little miss perfect never makes mistakes." Walter replied bitterly staring down at the bottom of his tankard, which was regrettably empty.
"Like that is she?" The Landlord tutted, picking up the jug and refilling Walter's tankard for him. "Sour faced old prude with her bible shoved so far up her backside she farts psalms and lessons!"
Snorting in amusement one of the other regulars, who clearly suffered from the same problem joined in. "Yeah face like an old patched boot with a temperament to match!"
"Well no she's not bad looking." Walter muttered more to himself. "She has quite a pleasant face when she's not scowling that is…"
"Oh pretty face but the figure of a small hillock." One other piped in.
"No she's more…." The butler paused setting down his tankard for a moment and demonstrating the housekeeper's hourglass figures with his hands. "Although perhaps a little more up there." He added returning to the more tantalising portion of the housekeeper's figure. "Never can really tell damn corsets."
Raising his eyebrow the innkeeper set down the tankard he was drying leaning across the bar to fix Walter with a knowing gaze. "Correct me if I'm wrong, there was this woman you were writing to and agreed to meet, turn up only find bless me its someone you already know, somehow who isn't a bad looker and has a figure like that and you let her go storming off into Bath on her own?"
"Well yes…" Walter blustered picking up his tankard and taking another swig.
"Into a city she doesn't know probably all upset and you're sitting here when out there somewhere is a bit of crumpet with your name on it?"
Setting down his tankard Walter tried to think of an answer, it couldn't be that simple, could it?
Nodding the landlord picked his rag back up and moved on to the next glass not at all surprised when his guest suddenly slammed down enough money for a round of drinks and dashed for the doors.
That had been a few hours ago and he caught not one glimpse of the housekeeper, although judging from the weather he had probably caught a cold. Glancing at the hour he cursed under his breath, the damn carriage would be here already and he still hadn't found her. Deciding the best idea was to let the driver know what was going on at least that way he would not disappear off and leave them in Bath overnight, Walter turned and strode back towards the Abbey. A few minutes later and he was dodging horse hooves and carriage wheels until finally he caught sight of the right one. Reaching up he patted the driver's arm to catch his attention.
"Oh they're you are sir we were beginning to worry…"
Ignoring the driver's peculiar tendency to talk in the plural the butler began to explain he had lost the housekeeper.
"But she's here sir…In the carriage I mean turned up a good half an hour ago."
Gritting his teeth the butler wasn't sure whether he wanted to punch the smile off the smug idiot's face or hug him from sheer relief. Turning he prised the door open and literally jumped inside out of the rain.
"Oh for goodness sake you're soaked!" The housekeeper practically shrieked when the butler dared open the door and land heavily on the seat opposite, droplets of rainwater now pooling around his feet and on the leather covered bench.
"It's raining!" Walter retorted sarcastically, reluctantly pulling off his hat and coat and folding them on the seat beside him so he now sat in only slightly sodden misery instead. For a moment the pair sat in an uneasy silence until the shivering Butler sneezed rather violently his entire frame shaking as not one but three successive sneezes caught him by surprise. Trying not to look as concerned as she felt Flora finally relented passing him the travelling blanket the driver had lent her to keep out the chill. Thanking her softly the butler rubbed the rough blanket over his damp jacket slowly feeling warmth seeping back into his body, yet despite this act of kindness Flora still kept her own council, staring out of the window as if it were the most fascinating landscape instead of the murky wet streets.
Unable to bare it a moment longer the butler threw down the blanket, blurting out. "For gods sake woman, you cannot simply ignore me forever, we are going to have to talk about this at some point!"
Shrugging away his comments the housekeeper didn't even deign to glance at him muttering, "There's nothing to talk about."
Unable to believe his ears the Butler realized perhaps a different approach was required Flora was clearly still furious over the way he had treated her in the restaurant and deep down he couldn't blame her. "Forgive me Flora I feel I may have reacted a little foolishly in the restaurant..."
That clearly was not the right response as Flora's face darkened retorting sharply. "Foolish? Foolish you humiliated us both I have never been so mortified."
"Yes well it wasn't the way I would have wanted to deal with things but I was suffering from shock."
Snorting in derision Flora shook her head. "It simply proved I was right all along about you, I once said you weren't a gentleman and today you proved that... I just thought the man who was writing to me was different, I thought..." She began before suddenly catching herself and falling silent ignoring the butler's questioning gaze.
"What did you think about your mystery pen pal?"
Blushing the Housekeeper turned away refusing to answer, she had given him enough chances, no this time it has to be him to make the first move and take the risk at being laughed at. Sighing the butler waited hoping that she would answer and give him some clue. "I deserved that I suppose, I doubt it would help to tell you I thought Anne was the most amusing and warm person I had ever not actually met; I was very much looking forward to meeting her."
"Well I am sorry to have ruined that for you Mr Jarvis!"
"Dammit I am trying to compliment you woman can't even you stop arguing long enough to let me?" The butler snapped regretting his tone when it once more drove the housekeeper to silence. "Well perhaps you'd care to tell me where the hell you went I looked everywhere?"
"Hardly everywhere Mr Jarvis if you had done then you would have found me. Besides I hardly think I was to be found in whatever ale houses you clearly chose to visit!" Flora retorted sharply wrinkling her nose at the now rather pungent aroma of ale and stale smoke that clung to the butler's damp suit. "I can see your concern for my well-being was truly heartfelt!"
"Oh here we go." Walter spat now convinced his few hours of panicked concern could be blamed solely on the drink and not from any higher motives and yet... "Our holier than thou Housekeeper preaching once again!" He added spitefully finally admitting he was actually enjoying their little spat, perhaps he had always enjoyed them, after all he had never done anything to avoid them; there just didn't seem to be anything more satisfying than getting under this woman's skin and getting her all riled up.
"Beast, Brute, unfeeling monster, please Mrs Ryan do take your pick?" Walter retorted sarcastically watching as two high spots of colour gathered in the housekeeper's cheeks, noting with surprise just how her rage enhanced her beauty; it seemed ridiculous but the more she snapped and goaded him the more attractive she became, if it continued much longer he was in imminent danger of becoming aroused.
"I…I loath you! I can't think why I ever…" But then she suddenly stopped and turning away from his gaze she stared resolutely out the window.
"Why you ever…what?" Walter snapped clearly intrigued what was so shocking that even after that little repartee the housekeeper could bring herself to say it. Yet the lady remained resolute and continued to ignore him as if he wasn't there much to his annoyance.
"Come on Flora you can't keep this up all the way home?" Yet the continued stony silence from the housekeeper seemed to contradict that, she seemed quite determined to do exactly that. "Don't you even want to talk about today...about the last few weeks?"
Sighing as the lady ignored his question the butler decided on reckless action. Standing up he quickly crossed the carriage and planted himself on the seat beside her deliberately shaking the remaining water from his hair and clothing onto her dry and pristine outfit, eliciting a squawk of protest as the lady practically crawled into the corner of the carriage gathering her rain splattered skirts towards her.
"Bloody idiot!" Flora spat angrily shrinking back up against the side of the carriage and staring at the butler as if he had suddenly lost command of his mental facilities.
"Why Mrs Ryan do my ears deceive me or did you just curse like a common scullery maid? I don't think you will find the answer in the gloom Mrs Ryan." He added when the housekeeper resumed her usual stance.
"You've given me all the answers I need for today thank you Mr Jarvis."
"Well I still want some...answers that is." The butler retorted quickly covering up his faux pas.
"You can want all you like Mr Jarvis I want doesn't get!"
For a moment the butler had to fight down the urge to laugh, he hadn't heard that phrase in years not since his old crabby grandmother had passed away, to hear her favorite phrase pass the housekeepers lips was far too amusing. "Well then Mrs Ryan, should I ask more nicely would you prefer it if I got down on my knees and begged?"
Frustrated by the butler's cavalier attitude the housekeeper snapped back testily. "It just might!"
Smiling at the picture that created Walter smiled leaning and replying. "If it would help I would do, but I would probably fall out the carriage trying so if you would settle for when we got back to Taplows?"
Shaking her head as she tried to keep her frosty exterior in place the housekeeper retorted sharply. "Believe me I have no desire to ever see you down on your knees Mr Jarvis!"
Snorting in amusement the butler couldn't help but admire her stubbornness. "I think that would be a little presumptuous Mrs Ryan we have technically only had one date and that didn't exactly go off as planned, proposing marriage might be a little preemptive..."
"Ohhh you." The housekeeper spat back, biting down on her lip trying to fight back the irrational tears. "Must be the last thing you would ever want to do..."
Sighing deeply the butler wondered if there was anything he could say that wouldn't make her angry, muttering softly he decided to take one last risk. "No, its not the last thing I would want to do but perhaps it would be getting a little a head of ourselves don't you think?"
"Don't toy with me Mr Jarvis?" Flora replied her voice tellingly throaty as she tried to hold her emotions in check.
"I am not." Walter replied sincerely reaching out and touching her sleeve, waiting until she turned back to look at him a guarded yet hopeful expression on her face. "I mean it Flora...Although toying with you in some other way sounds like a rather pleasant way to spend my time."
Flushing furiously at his words she returned to staring out of the window however this time the butler was proving far more difficult to ignore, especially as he had taken advantage of her shifting away to move even closer and the constant contact of their shoulders brushing against each other as the carriage rattled on was proving most distracting. Eventually this casual violation of her space proved more than she was prepared to accept even at the expense of their uneasy truce. "Do you mind?" She hissed surprised when instead of moving the butler replied simply.
"No Actually I don't!"
"Well I do!"
"Obviously but that wasn't the question you asked." Walter replied smugly enjoying the novelty of being so close to a flustered Flora Ryan, it was like standing on a precipice of a Volcano you just weren't sure when she would go off. "You see I don't mind this in the slightest nor do I mind this… or even this…." He added cryptically as one of his arms moved to wrap around the housekeeper's shoulders and the other snuck out and secured her round the waist.
"Do you have a death wish Mr Jarvis?" The housekeeper muttered between clenched teeth not even trying to remove the butler's hands but fixing him with a gaze that would have withered in the most amorous of suitors.
"No but I do have an almost overwhelming need to kiss you Mrs Ryan!"
"What…" The housekeeper gasped clearly stunned by the abrupt change of direction and the sudden closeness of the butler his bright blue eyes now less than a foot from her own face.
"Do you want me to kiss you Flora?" Walter asked softly leaning in even closer till his mouth was mere inches from her own.
"I…I…" Flora managed to gasp unable to think let alone speak. She had never spent long dwelling on the butler's lips before but now she found her eyes hypnotically drawn to them. Then suddenly they were pressed against hers, gently teasing. Closing her eyes Flora relaxed into his embrace tilting her head slightly so Walter could kiss her properly, slowly sliding her own hands up along his arms to wrap around his shoulders, her fingers moving to thread into his hair she relished the sudden heat as he reciprocated by pulling her firmly against him. Suddenly breathless and somewhat overwhelmed by things Flora slowly broke the kiss surprised when Walter let her resting his forehead against hers as they both struggled to regain their breath.
"Well if that's what happens when you aren't sure Flora I cannot wait for when you are…" Walter mumbled kissing her forehead softly.
Opening her eyes Flora gazed up in surprise meeting the Butler's flushed but happy gaze, suddenly impetuous she tightened her grip on his shoulders and leaning up she placed a quick kiss on his lips relishing the stunned look on his face. Emboldened she then shifted in her seat surprised when Walter's arms moved to support her pulling her up into the position of dominance. Then resting heavily on his shoulder and with one hand firmly threaded into his hair Flora lent down and kissed him, at first tentatively then with increasing passion.
Finally the need to breath drove them apart once more, encircling the housekeeper's waist the butler half lifted half cajoled her onto his lap, content to simply hold her tightly in his embrace noting with satisfaction the smooth way her head fitted in the nook between his neck and shoulder. Nuzzling into her hair Walter teased the tiny ringlets between his fingers, before stroking the long smooth expanse of her neck.
"I must confess I think things will be far more agreeable at Taplows from now on…"
Murmuring her agreement against his skin Flora rubbed her nose gently along his jaw surprised by the slight stubble that tickled her.
"I think perhaps a daily get together under the guise of a household meeting…" The butler suggested surprised when the normally proper housekeeper immediately nodded her agreement. "It would be certainly be easier than arranging trips to Bath any time I wanted to see you."
"Walter you will still write to me won't you?" Flora asked suddenly, the urgency of her tone underlying the importance of her question. "We needn't post them of course but you still will won't you?"
Glancing down at her earnest expression Walter replied dramatically. "If it would make you happy I would send them by liveried messenger all around the world and back again."
Raising an eyebrow at the ludicrousness of his statement the housekeeper had to stifle a smile. "A delivery between our offices would be more than adequate…Although if I had my choice of messenger then I would be happy to reward him with more than gold."
Feigning a solemn expression the butler asked in all seriousness. "And prey what would such payment be?"
Catching his chin the housekeeper leant up and kissed him briefly. "A kiss."
"Hmmmm sounds plausible…But does this apply to simple notes as well as full letters or what about poems and such is there a different rate of exchange…"
"A kiss for every page then." Flora suggested playfully.
"So the author should make a note of the number of pages on the envelope say, but what if he miscounts will you deduct kisses from any future delivery? And in fairness I don't think the same rate should be attached to poetry."
Giggling at the very idea of Walter composing her a poem Flora nodded in agreement. "No deductions…Very well a poem will have a different rate of exchange."
"Which is?" The butler asked now genuinely intrigued.
Smiling smugly the housekeeper added secretly. "Write me one and you'll find out."
Nodding eagerly the butler began to pat down his jacket pocket jostling the woman in his arms until she demanded he explain his bizarre behaviour. "I'm sure I've got a scrap of paper on me somewhere…" He joked until Flora slapped his shoulder.
"Wait till we get home I will be far too exhausted for anything else…"
"Anything else…" The butler asked raising an eyebrow questioningly a wry smile tugging at his lips as Flora blushed furiously.
"Walter." She admonished clearly shocked by the direction of his thoughts. "And I thought you knew me by now?"
"Not as well as I would like."
"Clearly!" Flora retorted but her shock was feigned as was her disapproval and so smiling the pair settled back into a contented silence, the slow tapp tapp of the rain on the roof of the carriage and the warm lull of the other's proximity had an almost calming effect so much so that Flora had to stifle a yawn. So much had happened in a few short hours it was hardly surprising she was both physically and emotionally exhausted, if anyone had told her that morning she would be almost rocked to sleep in Walter Corey's embrace she would dismissed it was madness yet know she couldn't think of anywhere she would rather be. "It is going to be strange don't you think...Us working together now? Although if I know you, you'll still scold me if I am late for morning prayers or am too soft on my girls..."
Nodding the butler's grip on her tightened for a moment, everything would change and would keep changing but would Flora be happy with it, would she even want the same things as him? "Perhaps you do not know me as well as you think Flora?" Walter began suddenly serious, things were moving far faster than he had originally planned but there were things she needed to know now before events overcame them. He hadn't panned discussing this so soon but not to now seemed suddenly dishonest, he needed to know what she wanted, what she expected and to tell her the plans he had begun to make for his new life.
"How so?" The housekeeper asked and for the first time that evening she actually felt a tremor of fear, now she had something to loose.
Taking a deep breath Walter answered slowly and calmly. "I want to leave Taplows Flora, leave England start a new life somewhere…I want a family Flora."
"Children?…Our children?" The housekeeper gasped, the very idea that he would want that had never occurred to her and yet now she thought of it there had been hints in his letters, a hankering for a family life away from the loneliness of service. She didn't even consider the first bombshell he had dropped, leaving England seemed a rather small change by comparison.
Snorting in wry amusement the butler nodded. "That would be the norm if you were my wife I doubt people would approve of us taking anyone else's."
Ignoring his poor attempt at levity Flora sat up meeting his gaze with a serious one of her own. "Do you mean it, really mean it this isn't just some fancy Walter?"
"No I've been thinking this over for some time now, I want a new life, one where I am my own master. A home and family of my own. Would you… Do you want children?" Walter asked first not answering her question until she had one of his own.
"I don't know I haven't thought about it in a long time, I thought I was getting too old the chances of my marrying well they were none existent. If I couldn't give you one? If it came down to a choice me or a child...Who would you choose?" Flora asked her throat suddenly dry, unable to believe that having come so far she could still loose him after all.
"I don't know." Walter answered honestly. "Would you be willing to try at all? If it were possible would you want that, our life wouldn't be easy at least in the beginning it would be a big upheaval and a coping with an infant as well…"
"It's a lot you are asking me to risk Walter. I have spent years working for this position, I have security and..."
"I would never suggest this Flora if I wasn't certain I could make it work." The butler cut in suddenly. "I know this is sudden and a lot for you take in and you can take all the time you need to decide what you want, I will respect whatever decision you come to." He added softly reaching out and cupping her cheek. "But I think we would be happy, there is nothing I would rather do than create a family with you, and I would give my all to make sure you were happy."
"Yes." Flora blurted out suddenly turning her face into his palm, kissing it softly.
"Pardon?" The butler gasped shocked by the suddenness and conviction of her answer.
"I said yes Walter I want to have a child with you…more than anything."
"Flora please…think about it take some time." Walter replied regretting his hastiness, perhaps he had placed too much pressure on her too soon, he didn't want her agreeing just out of fear.
"I said yes and I meant it Walter Corey I am not going to change my mind, you should know me by now once I have set my mind to something I will not be swayed."
"Yes but…" Walter began to retort silences when the housekeeper leant forward and kissed him softly. "You're sure?"
Nodding Flora tightened her grip on his shoulders pulling them into a tighter embrace. Leaning down they kissed reverently for a few moments before the housekeeper broke the kiss, nuzzling back into the butler's shoulder. Relaxing against the seat enjoying the easy intimacy Walter savoured the peace and security Flora's presence leant, it lulled him into a blissful daze and so he almost missed the whispered. "So just when exactly should we start trying?"
Raising an eyebrow the butler glanced down expecting to find Flora teasing surprised when instead he encountered a warm but serious expression. "When exactly did you have in mind Mrs Ryan?"
Meeting his loaded gaze with an equally amorous one of her own Flora tightened her grip on the butler's hair pulling him down for another kiss, murmuring against his lips. "There really is no time like the present Mr Jarvis…."
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