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Chapter 2

The storm was over. Ella took a deep breath, breathing in the clean, crisp morning air, still heavy with the smell of rain. Last night's storm had been the worst since moving to Scotland four years ago, and that was saying something. To her surprise, the morning rose brisk, but not cold. She had the back door open wide due to the large brick ovens of the bakery stifling the room with heat. Ella shivered though for the hundredth time, wishing the air was the cause. She sighed again.

"Blasted storm," cursing, knowing that the storm was not the cause of her unease.

"What's that, missus?" Penny, the apprentice, asked with a grunt while kneading a batch of yeast dough. "Ye like me to close the door? Ye seem ta be chilled."

"Thank you, Penny, but I am fine." She wasn't, but how to explain escaped her. The storm itself had frightened her like no storm since becoming an adult. Her fear doubled due to the fact she had no one to comfort her. She was the one doing the comforting. Shaking her head at what she termed pure stupidity, Ella turned from the bright spring morning back to the dim workroom. Bread needed to be made. There was no time for woolgathering. No time to consider the last storm that scared her so much was a lifetime ago, when she was the one being consoled by her husband.

"Are ye sure you're well? Ye have been sullen all morn?" Penny's lilting voice soothed Ella's nerves, but only just.

"The storm had me up most of the night, until I decided to give in and start the ovens early. I'm tired, that is all." Ella punched a batch of yeast dough back at the large worktable with more force than necessary. The storm hadn't been what drove her from bed. She would have been able to drown it out with a well-placed pillow or two. No, what drove her from bed had followed her to the workroom.

Last night's storm punctuated the fact she was alone — and had wanted it that way, until now. Ella had made the choices that brought her here and was fine with that, even proud. If not for the recent blackmailing threats targeting her business and her family, she would still be content with her choices. She flopped the dough over and gave it another punch. Her recent concerns and the ferocity of last night's storm must have brought on her dreams.

Every attempt she made during the raging storm to calm her soul and sleep, he would be there. With every clap of thunder, she would get a glimpse of sun-kissed flesh. A brush of skin across her nipple. Soft lips on her neck. She had tried to bury her memories deep, her feelings too. If she allowed it, she could remember how it felt to have a champion, someone who cared.

 "Oh, damn it all," muttered Ella as she quelled a shiver for the hundredth time. She needed to remind herself, she could count on the caring, which is why she left. She would not allow her own emotion to be engaged if she wasn't certain of his. Now, she wasn't sure which path was quicker to a broken heart.

"Missus," gasped a startled Penny now, standing at the oven turning the many loaves of bread. "Did ye drop it?" Her back was turned. Good thing. Perhaps Penny didn't see the blush rise to Ella's hairline from the sensual memories and remembered sensations flashing through her mind of another time.

"Sorry, I just... ah, banged my finger. I am fine." The answer seemed to be a sensible one. Now, what was a sensible answer to her recent case of nostalgia? Why after four years was she dreaming of her husband? It was not as if she had had extensive experience. If she were dreaming of a naked man, he would be the only one she had ever seen. There were many plausible reasons she decided. The recent rash of burglaries for a start. Or the newest Lord in a string trying to and gain her favor. Perhaps, just when the wind started to bite, she was reminded of when she first arrived here and what drove her from London.

The two women worked in companionable silence the remainder of the morning. Ella was thankful. She always felt that a problem had to be dealt with in a practical manner, which meant thinking. After another hour, Penny broke the silence.

"Where is the wee bairn this morn? 'Tis not like her to lie abed?" The whole bakery smelled of sweet yeast. Ella was just finishing with scrubbing the workbench.

"The storm kept her awake as well. You seemed to be the only one sleeping fast last night," Ella pointed out with a smile. "I left the curtain pulled this morning so she might sleep in a bit." As if conjured by their topic, both looked up as Maddie clumsily made her way down the stairs still dressed in her nightdress, dragging a rag doll behind her. Every curl on top of her head seemed to dance with each step. Ella smiled, ruefully knowing that she did not get those curls from her. She had never, even as a child been able to hold a faint wave in her yellow hair. Having a daughter with raven hair as curly as hers was straight naturally caused some looks when they went about the countryside.

"Ah, here is the little lag-about now. Morning, lemon drop, hungry?" Ella grabbed a grumbling Maddie, sweeping her into her arms and nuzzling her neck until Maddie couldn't help but squeal with delight. Her still warm body from sleep felt solid and all that was good in Ella's life. The one thing she never thought she would have and the one thing she would die for was her daughter. She squeezed the child a little harder for good measure.

"Mama, stop. Stop Mama! Not awake," Maddie gurgled through the laughter. Ella allowed her to wiggle out of the hug and scramble into a chair at the end of the workbench. Penny placed a bowl of porridge and a piece of fresh hot bread drizzled with honey in front of her. Meanwhile, Ella ladled a cup of milk.

She managed to get Maddie dressed with only a minimum of difficulty. Her curls were another story, but once done, Maddie settled herself in the front of the bakery at a small table with her doll and some other trinkets. Such a good child, Ella thought as she turned to head back into the kitchen to make some gingerbread. The bread was almost sold out. The remainder of the morning had gone smoothly. No wayward thoughts at all, Ella realized, until now. Another shiver slid down her body. "Stupid woman!" She chastised because even if she wanted to go back, she would be going back on an agreement. One that was made before her feelings were in jeopardy of being engaged. Just then, the bell on the shop door tinkled.

Ella grabbed a tray full of hot scones to offer her new customers. Business was always better when people knew what they were buying. Tray in hand, she put on her brightest smile and made her way into the brightness of the bakery front to greet her customers.

♥♥♥

 

The morning had started out just passably well, Devon thought, as they hitched their horses and made their way around the ruts and puddles to the bakery. The sun shone bright and most of the soreness from the night before had gone with the storm. He had hoped to talk Clive out of this foolhardy attempt to prove himself. He had not wanted to embarrass his best friend. Since this was the hand he was dealt, best to get it over with. He needed to tramp into this bakery and prove once and for all to Breakerton that his wife was dead and that he had no child. The truth of it lay heavily on his chest. He attempted to shake the feeling.

"Now, we are only going to look and see if we can get a glimpse of them, correct old man?" Breakerton asked with a cautious tone.

"Why don't you just relax? I promise I will not embarrass you. I will look, deny your outlandish claim and then be off to pay a visit to your sister and discuss your dementia. With any luck, I will be back in London in four days' time." Devon did not intend to stay any longer than necessary. He needed to get back home and get on with his life. A life without a wife, or child. One where he woke alone every morning and retired alone every night. It is a good life, Devon chastised himself. Just the life a man should want. No woman to muddy the waters.

There was plenty of activity in the village now that the rain had stopped. A group of women gathered down the street admiring the wares in a shop window. The inn also was full of activity, as many of the guests who would have been stranded by the storm made their way to their curricles and carriages lined in front for the trip home. If the road from the castle was any indication, Devon doubted they would get far. The village itself, however, was quite nice. It had an easy disheveled feel to it. He was reminded of the tiny rotting cottage with the bright colored flowers covering the rot, where Ella lived when they met. This town would have suited her. Both the village and his dead wife had an air of unrefined beauty.

Breakerton stopped in the street and jabbed Devon on the shoulder. "Look, there in the window is the child. I told you, didn't I?"

Devon turned to see the child. "My God," he whispered and stood frozen, the air being pulled from his lungs. At a small table in the front window of the town bakery sat a child, a girl with raven hair. Her tresses were barely reined in by a bright red ribbon. As she danced a tattered doll around, Devon was afforded a clear view of her face, which was as light as brushed porcelain, with bright pink cheeks. The child was in good health and well cared for. However, her eyes were what mesmerized him. They were as large as saucers and doe shaped at the corners. The color seemed a striking contrast to the whole. Bright azure blue. Once he remembered wanting to drown in those eyes. The world started to shift, and he felt light-headed. My God, I am going to faint, thought Devon as he felt a hand grasp his upper arm to steady him.

"I say, old man, are you quite all right?" Breakerton held fast.

Pulling away, Devon couldn't answer his friend. Speech was beyond him. He had a daughter. There was no denying. She looked the perfect mix of the two, with Devon's midnight black, curly locks, and her mother's porcelain skin and huge blue eyes. If that were his daughter, then just beyond the door, he would find... Ella.

His wife.

What would he do when he saw her? He had thought about it many times, but he never gave much credence to the possibility. The village that just a moment ago was quaint began to close in and feel tight. The unrefined beauty was now tarnished and dark.

His legs felt like anvils. His head swam. She's alive! The cry swelled in his chest begging for release. For the briefest of moments, he felt complete. I didn't fail her. She made it unharmed. Having so much to share with her about life at the Tate, Devon took a step forward, then stopped.

"Devon?" He heard his friend quiz, but he could not answer. Never had his body rebelled so to one thing. His chest swelled with complete joy, or was it pain? The heartbeat was loud enough for all those in the village to hear. What would he say to her? What if she didn't want to see him? What if she did?

Like the calm, which came following the night's storm, another question came to Devon. What if, after seeing her, he realized he was never that enthralled after all? Until Breakerton dragged him here, he had believed he was better off without her. What if he were?

Making up his mind, Devon straightened his jacket and hat, and marched with determined steps toward the door of what was in truth, his wife's lair.

"I say, Devon, didn't we agree just to look right now?" Breakerton asked while attempting to keep up. "You don't want to say something without first thinking it through, do you?"

"Clive, I am disappointed. Are you not the one with the attitude of jumping into the game without first knowing the rules or the stakes?" Devon asked with affability.

"Well, yes, but that was for me, not a man like you. And, if you were to partake in that philosophy, let me suggest you start small, like at the whist tables at Whites." However, for Devon, his argument albeit sound, was impossible to accept. Once through the door, he could have used a few moments to compose himself, or time to observe Ella without her being aware. The bell of the front door jingled their arrival and within seconds, there she stood. The store and everything in it fell away in a swirl of memories, or were they dreams? Like the woman standing before him.

He stood silent, not wanting to frighten her. Just as always happened in his dream, she would vanish once he reached for her, and with her, what would he lose this time? She stood frozen as well, but composed herself with haste and made to arrange pastries on a tray, which Devon hadn't noticed until now. With her busying herself, he forced his attention to the shop. Clean. Well appointed. Very much like the bakeries that one would find in London. The smells filling the space brought him back to the kitchen in the Tate. Warm and inviting, tempting the customer to stay and linger. He found himself drawn again to the woman he never thought he would see again. Then, his mind raced back to the beautiful child sitting only yards away.

As he spoke, his voice did not sound his own. It came out gruff and ragged as a man after a long ride in the desert. "What is her name?"

He half-expected Ella to play dumb. She paused in her organizing long enough to flinch as if caught in a lie, then stood tall and looked him in the eye. What he saw made his heart tear open in his chest. Fear. He had seen that look once before, but not as easy to read. She was scared of him. Why?

Replaying in his foggy mind all that had transpired between them until now, he watched as she took the time to cross the room and all but usher the child into the safety of the back room. Once she returned, she answered his question in a tone so quiet he had to bend to hear her.

"Maddie is what I call her and she is none of your worry, my Lord."

"I am not my Lord, I am your husband," Devon stated with a bit more force than was necessary. Was he actually hurt because she wouldn't call him as such? Devon tried to shake his head clear, but it was useless. The closeness of her all but forced any sane thoughts from his mind.

"Hush! Would you like the whole of the village to hear you?" Yes, in fact, I would scream it from the rooftops, was on the tip of his tongue, but Devon wisely held it back.

Ella swept around the counter, closing the distance. She was close enough if Devon wanted to, which he did, he could have reached out and brushed the flour from her cheek. He noted, even in a rage, her features remained very young and vital with only a hint of the four years that had passed. As if to whisper maturity, the corners of her eyes donned fine wisps that would one day be deeper lines from many moments filled with laughter. Until now, none of those moments was with him. Her caustic tone brought him back to her tirade.

"If you'll remember, my Lord," she spat, "we had an agreement. I fulfilled my half and left as was agreed upon. Were you not satisfied with the terms? I followed them to the letter."

Unable to follow the thread of her words, he was still determined to learn as much about his newfound daughter as he could. They could have this argument another time. He wanted to know about –Maddie.

"How old?"

"I beg your pardon?" Ella asked, obviously exasperated at being ignored.

"The child, how old is she?" Devon asked, intent on an answer.

"That's none of your concern," Ella spat back and turned to busy herself with her back to Devon in obvious dismissal. This did not sit well with Devon. He had a child, and by God, he was not going to walk away from that. He knew the receiving end of such a decision was not pleasant. What did Ella think of him if she thought he could be dissuaded?

"It's my concern if she's mine!" Devon, now piqued, just managed to keep a rein on his emotions. He knew she couldn't be older than three, but he needed to hear it. He needed Ella to admit it.

"Quiet! What makes you think that?" Ella shot back, with more confidence in her voice than what was showing in her eyes, still filled with fear and something else. Was it sadness? His heart tugged at the thought.

"You mean you cuckolded me while you were still under my roof?" The question was preposterous. He might not know his wife as some men did, but he knew her sense of honor would not allow such a thing. He knew it was a challenge he just threw down like a gauntlet, but at the same time, the thought of another man touching Ella seized his muscles and raised his ire.

She eyed him for several moments, looking over at Breakerton who was now inspecting a pastry so closely one would think he was counting the seeds in the strawberry filling. She turned back to Devon, giving a heavy sigh. Her eyes were no longer filled with so much fear. However, for the first time, he realized they were filled with an overwhelming sadness and tiredness. Perhaps, she was the one traveling through the parched desert and not him.

"Why are you here?" she asked with no small amount of resignation in her tone. Inside his glove, his hand itched to cradle her face, pull her to him and just hold her. He knew he could take the weight of her burden and shoulder it. He could take her home and they would... They would what? Fall in love?

The bitterness of it all hit him like a blow in the stomach. Before he realized it, he was four again grasping at the hem of his mother's dress wanting something, anything from her. He loved her, after all. A cold wall formed around him. It was something he had not needed for four years. He would not be that pathetic little boy. His whole life had been a testament to the art of indifference. At that moment, he had the consciousness of mind to remember two things. First, she was a woman and women always knew how to play a situation, and secondly, this was Ella. She knew the game and she was making up rules as she went along. She held a full hand and was very good at bluffing. Raising his chin a notch, he made a mental note to be more diligent in his dealings with women, as to remember their true nature. That was to control and drain only what they wanted from any situation and leave.

"I am here because someone brought it to my attention that my Viscountess and daughter were living like lowly bakers. I am not sure at which point your glorious plan went awry, but it will not do if those in London were to become aware." His words came slow and metered with just enough steely edge. It didn't feel as satisfying as he had hoped.

If she could make rules, he could as well. He, unlike her, had the law on his side. Even in Scotland, she would have to follow suit. He was the head of this family; that being the most loosely held adaptation of the word, Devon thought with bitterness.

"You know, I never put any stock in what London thought. They will think as they like. What I do in the wilds of Scotland is of no interest to them. They never noticed me when I walked among them." She stepped back as if he might reach out and grab her. The fear he had seen earlier was back ten-fold. Damn, he felt as if all he knew was twisting and weaving in an ugly knot.

"I am well aware none took notice before. However, you are now the wife of a Viscount and that makes them interested, particularly when you are believed to be dead." Devon hissed in her face. "The only solution is for you to close your shop and get the child's things together. I don't know what I shall do with you, but I will think of something." Devon wasn't sure when he made that decision, but the surprise on Ella's face mirrored his own. Once he got her away from this place, he could work on unraveling his feelings, but right now, he needed to get her alone to either throttle her or tumble her, and he wasn't sure which seemed more tempting at the moment.

"No." That got his attention. Devon straightened the seam in his gloves with care as not to reach out and throw her over his shoulder. A knot began to grow in the pit of his stomach. A warning flashed in his mind not to corner her. This was Ella, wisdom lost out. He was beyond calculating his next move. Caught in the moment and the need to take Ella and possess her, he spoke before he could stop.

"I-I am sorry, I don't believe I heard my wife correctly. Did you just say no?"

"That's right. You might not be aware, but I own this bakery. I am not just a serving girl. If I leave, I will no doubt lose quite a bit in profit while I am playing your little game."

Just then, the bell on the door tinkled and in came a girl no older than ten and six. She was pretty, and oblivious in her innocence of the drama playing out.

"Good day to ye, Mrs. R. Is Maddie ready?" It was on the tip of his tongue to remind the child she was speaking to a Viscountess, but remembered in time that she was nothing more than 'Mrs. R.' here. A pang of something roiled inside him.

"Ah — ah, yes, Rosie, I believe you will find her in the back licking gingerbread batter." Ella stepped out of the way for the younger girl to make her way into the back room, and Devon suspected to put the counter between them. Only moments later, Rosie and Maddie came out, passing by the veritable sea of adults in the storefront. Maddie stretched her arms up for her mother's hug. Ella bent down to the child's height to give her a kiss.

"You behave, understand?" Ella advised. "Not like last time when you wandered off. You scared the Widow Toms to death! Understand? Stay right with Rosie. Hold her hand."

"OK, Mommy. Hug!" Maddie squeezed Ella around the neck, planted a gingerbread kiss on her cheek and trotted off. A well of wanting wound around Devon's heart and lungs, seizing his breath. Would he ever have his daughter beg hugs from him? Would he know how to return them as easily as Ella did now? Then Devon's conscious hit on the one thing it could understand. This was not his world. He did not belong in any part of it. Right now, the idea of ever being part of it was almost an impossibility. The one point that rankled the most, however, was the realization he could not enter her world as readily as she had entered his. Nothing had prepared him for this. Swallowing what he couldn't admit was disappointment, he needed to get the situation back on familiar territory.

"Where is that child taking her? What are her qualifications? My daughter should not be wandering off in a peasant village. She should be in a school room learning things an heiress needs to know." He slammed his white linen clad fist into his palm for emphasis.

"She is my daughter, and I will not have a veritable baby shoved into an attic nursery to be ignored by those who should love her, and never experience life." Ella stepped toward him as a female lioness would to protect her cubs. "You need not worry about my daughter. She will never be a burden you must carry," she said with final certainty.

"I think it is time you left, my Lord. We are about ready to close and I have much work to do. Lord Breakerton, please take some pastries with my compliments. They will just go bad if you don't." Ella turned and bent to retrieve a box to fill. That was when Devon realized Breakerton had come up beside him, waiting to what? Protect Ella from her own husband? A sick feeling began to grow deep within as he realized his fault. Was he the monster he felt like or was he justified?

"Thank you, my Lady, they look delicious." Breakerton bowed like a gentleman as she handed him a box filled with baked goods.

 

 With sadness in her eyes, she looked at Lord Breakerton and in a quiet voice said, "Please don't call me that again. I am simply Mrs. R., my Lord." She turned back to Devon still standing tall and proud. "I will expect you gone when I return." She gave him her back and retreated into the kitchen.

Outside the bakery, the sun now beat down drying the ruts. Life went on as usual for those in the village. Devon felt cold despite the sun's heat.

"Well, old chap, that went well," Clive quipped. "Come, let us go back to our den and lick your wounds, or at the very least have some brandy."

"I am not finished with this discussion yet," Devon demanded and moved to go back inside.

"Oh, my boy, I am afraid you are for now." Clive put a staying hand on Devon's chest. The pressure made Devon look down to register his friend's presence. "You know as well as I, or you would if you were thinking with any logic, that little crumpet that is your wife will only fight harder when pressed. Best to let her sit with this and allow you time to calm down."

Devon wanted nothing more than to go back into the bakery and demand Ella go with him at once. But for what purpose? He didn't know how to take care of a family or if that was what he wanted. Four years ago, it was the last thing he cared about, but now, it would be best to let her be for now. If nothing, else, Devon had to rethink what he wanted out of life, and if it was something that he could even hope for. He allowed Clive to lead him from the bakery, but not before Devon made him promise to have the building watched for fear of Ella taking his daughter and running just like his mother. Well, not quite. Devon's mother did not want any attachments when she left, so he was at least warmed by the idea that Ella could never leave her own child behind.

 

♥♥♥

Continuing past the large workbench and the massive brick oven, Ella all but ran above-stairs. Once in her small living quarters, she went to the only window that looked out on the street. She stood, unable to catch her breath. A voice in her muddled mind warned he could just follow her up. Then what? She would have no means of retreat. She knew, however, he would not follow. Sure enough, within moments, both men emerged on the street below. Without consent, her heart flew to her throat and what little breath she had left, caught.

The two men crossed the street and mounted their horses. Ella remained at the window until they rode out of sight, heading south of town. She hoped they were heading back to London, but from what little she knew of her husband, he was not a man to be brushed aside. Satisfied the two would not return for the moment, Ella allowed her nerves to uncoil a fraction. She needed to think and fast. With Maddie visiting, she had some valuable time alone. Not wanting to let the chance go, she grabbed a worn cape, put Penny in charge of the shop and headed out across the long rolling field heading north.

With well-remembered steps, Ella's feet carried her along as she tried to put today's events into perspective. When Devon first appeared in the bakery, Ella's pulse quickened. Her first thought was that he had come to take her home, but that was quelled once she looked into his eyes. Hard, accusing pools. Knowing his propensity to erect a wall to hide his true self, she would not have let his eyes alone tell her he wanted to remain distant. The other more painful facets of their encounter caused Ella to wrap her cloak around her, hug herself against the pain, and fight back the tears stinging for release. She used to believe her father was the only man who could make her feel less than she was, but in truth, she now knew that to be a lie. If a man could still make her feel such pain and loss, what would he do to the heart of a little girl? No matter what her body wanted, her first responsibility was to protect her daughter from the hurt she knew from a father who didn't want her. In the back of her mind, something whispered. If he didn't want her, why did he make it known he knew of her? Ella pushed it back. In her experience, it was best not to hope for things that never came. Not to mention how much of it was intuition and how much just blind, sad hope? Maddie wasn't worth the risk.

 The hem of her skirt dampened from the grass, but she needed the air and openness. When she had seen him in her bakery, he all but filled the space. What his large body and deep accusing eyes did not fill was filled with a humming that vibrated her very skin. A part of her had wanted to run into his arms and bury her face into his waistcoat to hide from the world. The relief hit like a wave on the beach, only to do what waves do and disappear back into the vastness. Once the initial joy faded, her fear rushed in filling her heart with heavy regret. It was apparent why he had come. He was trying to put to rest any possible scandal. That would be fine if it were just her, but Ella needed think about her daughter. Their daughter.

Why he was so interested in her, she could only fear the worst. Had she given birth to an heir that would have been different. A son would be of prime interest. A daughter, however, was considered a burden, a worthless waste of porridge to be exact. Once her mother was dead, Ella's father had wasted no time in reminding her of the fact almost daily. Anger, old and well fed from that time, reared its head. The chill of the wet field was replaced with a warmth fueled by her anger. Her breathing picked up as she remembered her life with such a man. She embraced the feel of it. Men of power or the illusion of power like her father, would never abide weakness. Therefore, she spent her life proving a female could be as strong as any man. In the end, what did it matter? Standing in the field, still damp from rain, Ella stood tall. Raising her face toward the sky, breathing deeply the smell of damp earth mixed with wildflowers. Her anger subsided, but not her resolve.

Despite her alarm and possible fear that her husband had just blown in with the recent storm, there were more pressing matters to attend to. For instance, the latest letter from the blackmailers that appeared two days ago, not to mention the robberies of late on the road to Edinburgh. She had to decide what to do. If she didn't pay the amount stated in the note, she knew something would happen. Yet, if she did pay, again she would be losing money, money she could not afford to lose. If only she could be certain she was not the only one receiving the notes. She had only one secret that she knew of, and that one had just left her bakery.

The other shopkeepers were all male, save one. Mrs. Farlane, the owner of the modiste and milliner would not even discuss the possibility. If Ella could not get the other shopkeepers to rally with her, or worse, if they were not being blackmailed as well, she was on her own, which was more dangerous, because that meant it was personal.

She still had a few days before payment was due. She needed to find out as much as she could about new people to town, or even those who were more unseemly than she might have guessed. In order to do that, she would need to go where all the gossip was passed about, the Buckshead Inn. It was time to talk with Mr. Bryant about needing some extra money. She hated to have people in town thinking she needed wages, but it would give her a chance to listen to talk as the ale flowed. Truth be told, in her practical way, she might find out information to aid her in ferreting out this wastrel and gain more funds to pay the blackguard's money to ensure her safety. She would continue to turn over her husband's sudden appearance in her mind, but his Lordship would just have to wait.

As Ella made her way back to the bakery, she couldn't help but smile at the thought of his reaction if he knew she was putting him on the back burner. She always tried to enjoy the little pleasures in life.

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