Having shaken the initial shock, Devon wasted no time in calling for his staff, still holed-up a village away. He dispatched a missive to his steward concerning several business dealings, one to parliament sending his regrets about missing session, and another more personal one, which he put the most importance on.
The rich brandy tasted almost sweet, as the sounds of his people settling in permeated the thick doors of Clive's library. However, Clive did not appear to be enjoying the deep flavor. Devon enjoyed the look of suspicion on his face.
"May I inquire, as to your current brooding? I thought I was the one to brood while you, the one to celebrate."
"Yes, well, I am just confused is all," Clive stated.
"And your confusion is caused by what?" Devon asked, trying to stay with the thread of the conversation. His mind kept wandering to Ella.
"Were you not in the same establishment I was?" Clive responded with annoyance. "Was I the only one to notice you were discharged? She wouldn't even credit you with the child. Doesn't that rankle a bit?"
Devon thought about their meeting. True, it had not gone the way he would have liked. What he would have liked was for Ella to see him enter the shop and run into his arms, but this was Ella. She wouldn't be glad to see him. He knew from the beginning her goal had been to be a free and independent woman. He symbolized all she fought to be free of.
Until the very moment he saw her and his daughter, he never wanted a family of his own. He knew he didn't deserve the chance, not after being the loudest proponent against the indifference of women. Devon was grasping for a prize he might never win, but in a moment of calm realization, he knew he had to take the chance. Nothing would give them the sort of life Clive grew up in, but he would give Ella a safe place and Maddie...well, he would give Maddie what she needed. What that would be was irrelevant at this time.
He couldn't place it, but he felt a measure of relief almost radiating from Ella when they spoke. Her words spoke of betrayal and un-kept promises. Her eyes showed the fear of seeing him in her domain. She was making a life for herself and his daughter, but something caused her relief at the sight of him. It was so potent to him he could have almost claimed it had a scent. It was a heady feeling to have such a reaction from Ella, even if she meant to hide it. The why of it was more troublesome.
Was she in some kind of trouble? Ella would never admit so, but something was afoot. For the brief time spent in the shop, it seemed well... A sharp whistle brought him back to Clive.
"I am sorry to interrupt your woolgathering. However, I was beginning to feel neglected."
"Sorry, I was just considering our little reunion. I don't believe it went as poorly as all that." Devon, allowing Clive the chance to shake the almost comical gape of his jaw, rose to refill his glass and stretch his impatient muscles. He craved action. For the first time in years, he felt a purpose and wanted to act, but couldn't, not yet.
"I was right. You obviously were not in the same shop as I, because I saw a woman all but run my best friend out of town with a hot iron in her hand. She even attempted to convince you that her daughter wasn't yours. Not exactly my notion of a loving reunion." Clive snorted and downed his drink, extending the empty glass to Devon, which he refilled.
"On the contrary, what you saw was a woman trying to protect what she sees as her independent state. What you didn't seem to notice was an underlying air of relief about her."
"I think you should sit down and give over that glass. Spirits don't always sit well with everyone. It seems to be making you have visions." Clive gestured to the full glass in Devon's hand. Devon answered with a mock toast and a long draw off the amber liquid.
The afternoon sun had waned and the crisp evening air seemed to swell and glide into the room carrying the cool smells of late spring. A fire gave the room a warm welcoming glow. Devon had no doubts about what he was about, and once he explained his plan, Clive would see it had merit.
"Regardless of whether you believe me or not, I know what I saw or felt. She was on some level relieved to see me." Devon made his way back to the chair, stretching his long legs and resting one booted foot on his ankle.
"I knew it! Only a man in love could fabricate such a romantic tale," toyed Clive.
"Ha, you of all people know me better than that. I will never fall in love. It is a useless emotion, at least for a man. There is nothing wrong with a woman being in love with her husband however. In fact, in this case, I think it will be the only thing to bind said wife to her husband." His feelings toward Ella would work themselves out once he had things well in hand. He would not let a woman tear his heart to shreds as his mother did to his father. Until Ella was bound to him by her own love, would he take the time to consider his own attachment to her.
As light dawned in Clive's eyes, Devon could see him weighing their options. "You plan on seducing her and making her fall in love with you. A bit underhanded, even for a cynic like you, but how do you plan on succeeding without falling into your own trap?"
The humor and excitement lightening Devon's mood slipped for a moment as he leveled a deadly serious expression on his friend. "I can, without a doubt, guarantee I will be in no such danger as falling into my own trap. For if I did, wouldn't I be the biggest of fools?"
"Well, I can see your point. After all, who would want to fall in love with a beautiful, smart, strong, articulate woman who has proven she can give you heirs and will hold to a bargain struck? It is preposterous really."
Devon hid the urge to remind Clive that of all people, Devon was unable to love and gain love in return. He was hoping if he had no expectations of being loved other than to bind Ella to him, he might...
He dared not think what he might want. Best to keep it simple. He wanted Ella. Simply Ella.
Three nights passed without a word from Devon. Ella's nerves began to fray. Every time the bell rang heralding a customer, she all but dropped whatever it was she had. Part of her feared it was another blackmail letter, and part feared it was Devon again. More unsettling was the part, still small but gaining strength, of her disappointment each time it was not Devon. She was almost ready to commit herself into Bedlam. She would be surprised if she had the concentration to work on her books at the moment.
She had no time for such foolhardy ideas as passion. And, what did she know of passion? One night in the bed of her husband would not constitute any sort of expertise in the realm of the bedroom. She knew what was expected of a wife of the Ton. As a Viscountess, she would be expected to comport herself in a certain way. Her life was just the way she wanted it.
Well, not exactly. If it were exactly as she wanted, she would not be in the middle of The Buckshead Tavern pouring ale, and listening to a group of men talk about everything from their crops and livestock, to their wives and others' wives. Men, no matter their station, seemed to speak the same language.
Mr. Bryant had been more than happy to give her work. A very nice, almost fatherly man, he happened to be in need of more help since his daughter had taken ill, so the arrangement worked well. Ella even heard Mr. Bryant telling one of the men that she was helping out until his daughter was back on her feet, which meant Ella no longer needed to come up with a reason for being there.
That was the good news. The bad news was that she had yet to hear anything she thought would aid her. At the very least, she was hoping in conversation to find out if The Buckshead was being blackmailed as well, but either Mr. Bryant was being very close-lipped, or he had not received any threats.
Tonight, the patrons were many of the same as the previous night. Men coming in to drink ale and visit. There were, however, a few men from farther afield on this night. The roads were repaired and the busy route had picked back up.
Scottish men, Ella decided, were much larger than English men were, for she had yet to be able to see anything but barrel chests and large elbows. Her petite stature made traversing the tight taproom difficult empty handed, but with tankards and pitchers full of ale, she smelled more like the tankards she carried than a gently bred woman.
"Here, lass, ye take much longer and weel be dyin' o' thirst!" A large man hollered from the corner near the fire, which on this night was unlit to Ella's relief. Several of the men with him chuckled and nodded in agreement. They were not men she recognized, but their demeanor had been nothing, if not jovial all night.
"Sorry, sir, it's difficult finding one's way through so many. I did bring two pitchers in case I am unable to get back as you might like," she said as she set out the pitchers with a kind smile, hoping the bribe of an extra pitcher would hold them off.
"Hey, Ian, I think she likes ye'," a young redhead joked while elbowing the larger man to whom Ella was speaking.
"I thinks ye might have the right of it," the larger man barked. Without any warning, his large meaty arm snaked around her waist and dragged her down upon his lap.
Quelling the fear rising in her, Ella surveyed the area. She had no way of getting the attention of Mr. Bryant on the other side of the room; that was certain. Even if she were able, this man could be outside with her before Mr. Bryant could come to the rescue. None of the other men seemed to notice. She decided talking was her only choice.
"Well, sir, that is very flattering, but I must get back to my duties. There are many men here tonight and I believe they are all just as thirsty..." She patted his arm and made to rise. It didn't work.
"Well, mayhap just as thirsty, but I doubt any are as hungry." She turned to see his eyes sparkle. She didn't think it was with humor. The other men with him roared with laughter at his comment. Not sure what he meant, she was certain she would not like it.
"Now, sir, I am trying to be civil. However, I must insist you release me this instant." She started wriggling and prying at his hand trying to loosen his grip. The man's response was to chuckle and nuzzle her neck, at which, she yelped with surprise.
"Sit still, lass, ye are makin' me spill me ale."
"If you will just let me go–"
"I don't think so, I think I like ye where ye are."
Ella opened her mouth with a smart retort, but it was not her voice that was heard over the crowd.
"I believe the lady has asked to be released," a deep voice came from behind her captor.
No, no, no, no. She would have taken ten smelly, grabby, men to the one man with that voice.
"Ye be on your way, Brit. I don't think tis any of your concern." The man didn't even turn to see the hard plains of Devon's face. Ella turned away from the scene and squeezed her eyes shut as tightly as possible. This couldn't end any other way but badly for her, no matter how it ended.
"I will ask one more time for you to unhand the wench. I am sure you are a reasonable man and will understand that there is but one serving woman, and many men who are waiting for their drink. I am not one to get in the way of two lovers, but could you possibly do your fondling after we have been served."
The man holding Ella threw back his head and laughed, at the same time releasing her, but not without slapping her on the backside hard enough to knock her into several men on the other side of the fireplace. Gaining her composure, she smoothed her dress and wended her way through the crowd to the bar with as much haste as the crowd allowed. Wench? Wench? Lovers? The irony of it might have struck her as funny had she not been the one the men were discussing. She had just allowed Devon to call her a wench and she could do nothing about it.
The deep breathing she did only helped her gain her composure a smidge, but she was able to grab two more pitchers of ale and again attempt to squeeze her way through the crowd. This time, she was attempting to avoid Devon. He had better luck finding the only serving 'wench' in the crowd, however, than she did avoiding one of many men in the group. About halfway through the room, she was stopped short by a broad, well-tailored chest.
"Good eve, Ella." She could all but feel her name vibrate from his body.
"I am terribly busy, as I am sure you can see, my Lord. I am sure if you ask Mr. Bryant, he can arrange a private parlor for you." She stepped to the side knowing she would not be allowed to pass.
"I think we need to talk." His voice was calm. Too calm. She looked up into his face. His eyes were not as hard as she expected, which caused her pause. "I realize this is not the place for such a conversation. However, we will talk soon."
"Fine, but please, don't ruin this." With pleading eyes, she willed him to play along. He studied her face until she thought he might pick her up and carry her out over his shoulder.
"My friend and I are in need of a private room and do not care to wait for the owner to pry himself free," he said in true aristocratic form for all to hear.
She bobbed a curtsy. "Yes, my Lord, if you will just make your way toward the stairs, I will be along in a moment." Without hesitation, she took the opportunity of his glancing toward the stairway to skirt around him and disappearing in the crowd. All of a sudden, she didn't mind being so small.
From the other side of the room, she could see Devon standing on the rise of the stairs searching the crowd, with Breakerton at his side. As if he could feel her gaze on him, he turned his head in her direction and their eyes locked. Again, what she saw was not what she expected. What she expected was censure and anger, not the humor and twinkle she was met with.
He even dropped his head as a gesture of defeat. Her toes tingled and heat rose up her body causing her to slosh more ale down her arm as she turned from his stare.
He would leave her alone for now, but she knew her time was short and she almost wished she were back on the other man's lap. It felt to be the safer place at the moment.
The remainder of the evening went without incident until very late. Many of the men had given into the need to find their own homes, because of wont to settle in or for lack of remaining funds. The ones still milling about were younger and most without families that Ella knew of. She was tired and bone weary, thinking ahead to her own duties in the bakery on the morrow, only hours away. Mr. Bryant broke down and lit the fire, sending wood smoke into the mix of ale, cigars, and the smells of hardworking farm men. The smell was sure to remain in one's nostrils for at least a fortnight. She busied herself with wiping down the empty tables. She wasn't even sure if Devon and Clive were still above-stairs. She hoped not.
At a table in the back of the taproom, one of the few round ones, most were long benches with nothing more than shorter benches for sitting on, two men sat with their heads bent together in conversation. Earlier, she noticed them watching her, but as the events of the evening turned, she realized many of the men watched her. She went to the bar for another pitcher of ale and headed toward the group.
"I thought you gentlemen would like one last pitcher before we close." She set the pitcher on the table, looking to make sure Mr. Bryant was close by, which he was. He had paid very close attention to her the second half of the evening. She figured Devon had spoken to him at some point.
"Ah, thank ye, lass," the oldest looking of the two acknowledged her.
"Just traveling through?" she asked moving to wipe down the table next to theirs.
"Naw, we live in the next village over, Cornick," the man answered. The younger man seemed to find that amusing as he tipped his tankard to his lips.
"Isn't that almost a day's ride? Whatever would you be doing here this late?" Ella questioned. It was a reasonable question considering the late hour and these men were not guests of The Buckshead; that much she knew.
"Well, lass, we's just here checkin' on–" the younger man started to explain, but stopped when the older man gave him a forbidding glance.
In the silence, the older man explained, "We are looking into a business venture we are undertaking. This seems a very busy village, and we were checking out our prospects, as they were." His words rang true, but something in his voice and eyes spoke a different story.
"Sorry, lads, but we are closing for the night. Thanks for the business." Mr. Bryant walked up behind Ella and put a hand on her shoulder. "Why don't you dump the water and settle your things whilst I finish with these young ones."
Ella saw the warning in Mr. Bryant's eyes. She also noted the fact he did not mention she would be going back to her own home alone.
"Thank you. I cannot wait to find my pillow. That is for sure," she answered grabbing her cloak and heading out the back door. She knew those men were up to something. The hairs on the back of her neck prickled in awareness. They spoke of the town where they were from as if she should know it. She had made it to the edge of the road when a deep voice came out of the shadows.
"It is not safe for serving wenches to be walking alone so late." With no little emphasis on the word wench, his voice was stern, but not threatening. Ella jumped at the breach in the silence, but calmed. That is until a large hand reached out and wove around her elbow. The contact in the darkness of the night was electric. Her arm filled with warmth, sending the heat along to her shoulder and lower to her chest and stomach.
In an attempt to gain her composure, she allowed him to guide her onto the street heading toward her bakery. After a few minutes of silence, she broke in with, "Which part of this little scene are you enjoying more?"
"What scene would you be referring?" Devon asked with practiced innocence, she was sure.
"I am referring to the one where you see me having to make a wage at the local tavern to be able to carry on without your assistance, or where you must come to my rescue in the taproom and save me from some drunken farmer. Perhaps the scene where you can go around calling me wench and I cannot but smile meekly and allow it," she retorted, allowing her exasperation to show, but fighting to hold back a smile.
"Well, I cannot say the first makes me particularly happy, but being your rescuer and having leave to call you wench are both quite tolerable experiences, I have to say."
"I will have you know, the reason I was at the Tavern was not for the reason you think," she said, defending herself. She had worked damn hard to gain a life and good living for her and her daughter, and didn't want him thinking she hadn't. Why it rankled her so, Ella would think on later.
"Oh, what then were you doing at the tavern serving ale to the local men?" he asked with a bit more annoyance and less humor.
"Mr. Bryant's daughter has fallen ill and he needed the help. His daughter helped in my shop last year when Penny fell ill. I am just returning the favor."
"Oh, I see." The remainder of the walk they completed in silence. At the back door leading to her kitchen, Ella turned, looking into the dark shadow that was Devon.
"Thank you for rescuing me from that man, and for walking me home. I am safe now, so you may leave."
"I may leave here tonight or here forever?" he asked. She wished she could see his face. His voice sounded civil enough, but she knew his eyes would tell. Not knowing why, she didn't want to give him his leave just yet. She thought he was giving her that opportunity, but couldn't be sure.
"I am not sure what it is you want, but I assure you, I am doing fine and you need not feel any misplaced responsibility to me." Ella knew what a feeling of unwanted responsibility could do to the way a person felt about another and she didn't want Devon, of all people, to see her that way. So much so, her throat tightened at the thought of him seeing her as a burden. Her eyes burned and her heart felt heavy. Could there ever be a time when she wasn't a burden? She doubted it. Her sadness at the thought made her grateful for the shadows hiding the single tear she was unable to hold back.
"I will be truthful with you. I am not yet sure what I plan to do with the information of you being alive and of my daughter, but I will not leave until I have made my decision." Again, his voice was calm, but this time, it carried a deadly serious edge that vibrated along her spine, prickling every nerve.
Her voice all but squeaked in a raspy tone as she asked, "What decision is that?"
"You will know when the time comes, but until that time, you may plan on seeing me often."
The world shifted under her feet. If she had only run for her door and shut him out as soon as she saw the bakery, she would be inside and he would be out. It wouldn't change anything, but she wouldn't be wiser to it. "No, you cannot be lingering about. The others will know something is not right. I will be found out a fraud. You must leave!" A knot formed deep in her stomach just thinking about spending time with Devon again. She left last time for fear of being seduced by her own fanciful dreams. The knot grew bigger as her panic rose. She opened her mouth to argue more, but was thwarted.
Devon made shushing sounds and placed a feather light finger on her lips to quiet her. The contact had the desired effect. She was sure. She froze, immobile. He moved his finger from her lips up her cheek and back down tracing the line of her jaw. His wayward finger stilled under her chin where he tipped her face up. He couldn't know how the touch of one of his fingers could befuddle her senses, or could he?
"I promise I will not be overly attentive to you, unless you give me leave. I will be staying close by doing some seasonal sport. I will, however, require some of your time to get to know my daughter and the kind of life you are offering her here in a bakery. I think every other evening will do for a start."
"Wait," the spell, which seemed to encase her with his quiet, deep voice, broke at his dictate. How was she to deal with the blackmail letters and threat, run her bakery, and give Devon every other evening? She would get no sleep whatsoever. She had to do something. "There is no way I can commit to every other evening. I am going to be helping Mr. Bryant for at least a sennight every other evening, and on those evenings I am not, I have to spend time with Maddie and sleep. You do not understand how early one who runs a bakery must rise each morning."
Devon studied her until she all but squirmed. She didn't think he could see her features. She couldn't see his. She, however, had all but memorized his face from her dreams. What was he considering?
"Very well, we will start with a meeting two nights from now. It will be Saturday night. I trust your shop is not open Sundays, is it?"
Her exhaustion pulled on her and dragged her down. She tried to think what Sunday was holding for her, but couldn't. "I– I don't think I have anything, other than the Sunday service." Something was needling in her mind, but wouldn't shake clear. "Fine, Sunday evening then after eight o'clock. I will meet you here at the back door. Now, I must go. I only have time to bathe and change, before I must start the fires for the day's baking."
Again, he studied her, still holding her chin. Quietly and gently, Devon released her and stepped back from the door. "Until Sunday then," and he turned and headed out into the darkness of the field.
Senses reeling, she made her way to her living quarters. A low fire still burned. The upstairs room was warm and cozy, and Ella made a point of closing the heavy door at the top of the stairs to keep out the early morning chill. First, she checked that Maddie was well. As expected, she was curled up in the middle of the bed they shared, deep in the blankets with her doll. Penny lay asleep on her pallet near the fire. Neither stirred as Ella washed as much of her body as possible to clean it of the smells of the tavern. The blasted cat Maddie had befriended was downstairs making havoc by the sounds. If he could be caught, he would find himself outside for the day if there were a mess. She changed and made her way downstairs to coax the large ovens into service.
As soon as she reached the middle stair, she smelled the familiar scent of wood smoke. Once down the stairs, she saw for sure both large fires blazed and crackled ready for use. On the large workbench lay a bunch of spring wildflowers.
Devon. Perhaps the cat was not to blame this time. Ella sensed she was in more danger than she first thought. Her heart beat harder in agreement and she could still feel the sensation of his finger on her lips. She pulled the flowers to her nose with a shaking hand and decided she might not be as prepared for this as she hoped.
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