"You sir, need to sit. It will be of great expense to you of course, if I am in need of a new floor once you have finished grinding a ditch in the middle," Clive drawled at Devon while sitting at his desk working through correspondence. Devon, however, paced with barely restrained frustration.
It wasn't so much what Clive said, but as usual, how he said it with an irritating air of humor. It wasn't as though any of the mail received by him this morning held a note canceling his evening engagements.
"What would you have me do?" Devon snapped.
"Well, I would suggest questioning Ella as to why she needs to cancel. Perhaps, she does have a valid reason. And, might I suggest using parchment and ink, for I am sure she can't hear you rant from this distance. If she could, I would hope she would have been here hours ago to save me the pleasure of listening to you."
"Tell me again why I haven't called you out yet?"
"Because, my besotted friend, I am the one voice of reason you actually listen to."
"Lord, help me," Devon quipped as he sprawled into the chair in front of the desk. He wanted nothing more than to march down the hill and demand she give him a valid reason for keeping him at bay.
The missive was short but polite. It said she had not remembered an errand she had to attend to and would not be back until late Tuesday. It wasn't bad enough he was going against everything— everything he knew about women by choosing to expose himself to Ella again, but now she was dismissing him. This should be a sign to run. Logic would dictate as such, but he couldn't. Now that he had discovered she was alive, he couldn't turn his back. He should. It couldn't end well for him, he knew from watching his father, but for some reason, he didn't care.
"You received this note, what two hours ago? Whatever she was going to do, I am sure she wouldn't have left before luncheon. I would suggest you send another missive asking, not demanding," Clive added with a knowing look, which grated on Devon's already threadbare nerves.
"What errand is going to take her away overnight?"
He doubted Ella would tell him the truth, considering she hadn't offered the information in her first note, but that would at least keep the conversation alive. He rose from the chair and made his way to the bell pull. Clive rose as well, giving Devon the use of his desk. He poured two generous drinks and settled in the chair with his footstool.
Devon got the missive composed, blotted the ink and Clive gave the note to the youngest, and most reliable of his servants to deliver, with an order for him to wait for a reply. With Clive's servants, the term 'reliable' was tenuous at best, but he took the drink offered to him and began a slow turn about the large room to wait.
An hour later, Devon had his answer, but the response was one that he did not relish. His pacing once again took on that of a caged animal. The once obscenely large great hall, come library, became stifling within its confines.
"Are you sure?"
"Aye Milord," the young boy stammered. "Miss Penny herself told me."
"She left at sunrise. Miss Penny also said she doesn't make the whole trip in one day. She will make it just outside the city tonight."
Devon's head swam. "Does the bloody woman know the potential dangers facing anyone on the road to Edinburgh? Has she lost all sense?" He glared at the messenger waiting for an answer.
"Miss Penny told me Mrs. R makes this trip four times a year during good weather," the young servant answered. "That way, she can fill her larder for the winter months."
What Devon wouldn't do to have his pretty wife's neck to wring right now. Instead, he had a very young, very nervous servant. Devon knew how intimidating he could be and even though he would like nothing more than to take his frustrations out, tearing the young servant limb from limb would not resolve anything. The one person, along with her pretty neck, responsible for his current state of hysterics was at this moment traveling north to purchase supplies for a bakery Devon planned would not be her responsibility in a very short time.
"Thank you, Brian, you may leave. If you stop by the kitchen, I am sure cook will give you something to eat before you go back to your duties." Clive filled the silence. Brian bowed and hurried away. "Now what?" He asked turning back toward Devon. "And before you answer, ask yourself what prize you are aiming for."
Devon all but growled his frustration. His instincts screamed for action. Riding one of Clive's prize stallions, he could catch up with her at the posting inn outside the city. But, then what? She would never agree to leave without her supplies and he couldn't very well carry her kicking and screaming out of the inn. He could go into the city and collect the supplies needed without her, but her appeasement again would not be gained.
Clive was correct, however. He had to remember his goal. He was seducing her, right? In order to do that, he needed her content and pliable. Ella with a bee in her bonnet would not be easy to seduce. In addition, he had to admit he was more than a little curious as to how she dealt with her new life. If he did follow her, but stayed to the shadows, he would be available in case of an emergency. He would also be able to get to know the inner workings of his wife's mind, a pastime he was quickly beginning to enjoy.
"Can you show me the route she would likely have taken and a quicker route so I might make up time?" Devon asked his friend. Clive stood in the center of the room, arms crossed, eying Devon. "Oh, blast it, man, I am only going to play look out. What did you think? I was going to run into her rooms and carry her squealing and thrashing out the door?"
After a moment's pause, Clive quipped, "No, but you considered it. Of that I am sure."
Noise met Devon as he entered the taproom of the posting inn. He hoped this was the inn in question. Making his way to the back of the large busy tavern, he got his answer. An older couple, the owners, he assumed, were standing at the bar quarreling. Devon took a seat near the stairs to the guest rooms within hearing distance.
"Will ye calm yerself? The lass is fine. She's just late in comin' is all. I won't send Timothy out. Tis not safe."
With an exasperated tsking sound, the woman replied, "That's whot I've been tryin' to tell ye. Tis not safe for a lady such as Mrs. R to be on the road after dark. Timothy knows his way."
"Listen woman," filling a tray with tankards of ale, the innkeeper spat back, "she pays weel, I'll give her that, but not weel enough for me to send a boy a huntin'. If she doesn't–"
Just then, a young gangly redheaded boy came from the way of the stairwell, very out of breath. "She's 'ere. Just arrived."
"Heavens be!" The older woman sighed, looking to the ceiling. "Timothy, go to the front guest room and start the fire. The poor thing must be exhausted."
Devon moved with haste, as to beat the young man up the stairs. Making his way to the guest rooms above stairs, he noted the quality of the wood and the cleanliness. This was where those with money would choose to stay. Not having time to wonder as to Ella's monetary needs, he filed the information away.
The front guest room, the largest and most extravagant room available, stood as the first door in the hallway. In the daylight, the large windows banking one wall would flood the room with light. The floor was polished to a shine with small rugs covering it to keep cold feet at bay. The bed was large, with what looked to be expensive linens. Again, the question of Ella being able to afford such luxury came to mind.
Footsteps coming down the hall brought him back to his purpose. He needed to hide. He took two steps toward the dressing screen. Ella would use the screen even though she was alone. The only other available hiding place was the wardrobe set against the wall just opposite the fire. With no time left to contemplate, Devon surged for the wardrobe, just getting the door closed, save for a crack, before the Young Timothy emerged into his line of sight.
As expected, the young man laid and lit the fire, tending it to a warm glow throughout the room. Not quite as expected, Devon heard more footsteps, and then watched Timothy rise from his endeavors with the fire.
"Put that down right here close to the fire. Ma wants her not to get a chill."
Devon decided he should have waited to hear the remainder of the conversation in the taproom between the innkeeper's wife and Timothy. Had he been prudent, he wouldn't be in the tenuous position of hiding in a wardrobe knowing he would have to stay and watch his wife take a bath, for the object two other men were setting close to the fire was a bathtub. This was very bad.
"Good, go down and tell Sarah she can start filling the buckets. I need to wait until the fire takes before I help."
The other two men grumbled about Timothy not helping, but didn't dare argue outright. They left moments later. Those leaving, however, did not help Devon one bit. If Timothy left as well, he might be able to get out and make his way down the back staircase he had seen on his way up.
But, no, as his luck so often ran, Devon was stuck. He had meant only to stay long enough to dissuade his concern. On the trip, once Devon caught up with his wife and her guardian, if one could call the lad that, Ella appeared fine. As the day wore on, she stopped more often and became much less animated-- unlike her usual self. The last glimpse he managed to steal before they were plunged into darkness, she looked dreadfully pale. Had he not heard the young man with her mention how close they were, he would have emerged from the shadows to end the trip. Just then, Devon got a sinking idea. What if he was the cause of her countenance? What if his very existence in her life was putting such a strain on her? The thought made him feel small, smaller than he had ever felt. As a child, he had felt as small when one of his father's lovers had claimed having a child underfoot drove her to her bedchamber with palpations and nerves. He had wanted to be invisible. He had wanted to be anywhere but home. That was how he felt now.
He had ridden hard through the brush and forest to beat her, and find a way to hide in her room just to make sure she was well. However, he did not want to sit and watch her bathe. Well, on more consideration, he couldn't think of anything else he would rather do, but being trapped in a wardrobe as a thief stealing her privacy was not the way he wanted to do it.
Instead, he would have preferred sitting at the tub's edge watching the water lap over her shimmering body. He could imagine her full breasts floating to the surface, exposing one rosy nipple to the cool air. This is the reason I can't sit here. I'll die of an apoplectic fit before she finishes. He thought as he attempted to shift, making room for his growing erection. Shifting was impossible in the small space without bringing notice to his hiding place.
The buckets of hot water came one after the other, until the tub was full. Just as Devon had given up hope, Timothy turned to leave with the last empty bucket swinging from his hand. Devon's view of the door was blocked so he waited, listening for the door to shut. Perhaps fate was smiling down on him, just this once.
"Ah, Timothy, are ye finished?"
"Aye, mum. Mrs. R, good evenin'," Timothy answered and greeted the illustrious guest.
Fate wasn't smiling, it was laughing– heartily.
"Good evening, Timothy. It is nice to see you again." His wife's rich voice filled the room.
"Ye may go. See that yer father doesn't need anythin' before ye go help in the stables."
A pause indicated to Devon the young man would have liked nothing more than to bypass one of the two chores, but decided not to argue. "Yes, Mum. Have a good evenin' Mrs. R."
"You as well, Timothy," Ella replied with a smile in her voice. Devon could still hear in her voice the fatigue pulling on her.
"Such a good boy, that one. All right, here ye be. I was dreadfully worried ye had come to a bad end this evening, gel." The older woman said as she came into sight. He still couldn't see Ella. "I know ye didn't request it, but I had the lads bring in the tub and fill it with good hot water. There's nothing like a good soak to cure travel weary bones."
"Oh, Mrs. Borrik, you shouldn't have gone to any trouble. But, I have to confess, it looks rather inviting. Thank you."
"Don't even think on it, gel, you just get yourself into that hot water and rest. I'll send one of the gels to tend you in the morning. The usual time?"
"Yes, that would be fine." Ella stepped into his view as she walked past the tub and placed a small traveling bag on the stool next to the dressing screen. "I would inquire as to the letting of this room for tomorrow as well. I know I only wrote ahead about tonight, but I do not wish to be in the dark on my return trip. I have to admit to you I have been awfully busy as of late, and I fear it is catching me. I do not believe I can make this trip again on the morrow."
"It is yours, gel. Now, hop into that bath, use some of those scented oils on the table, and just let your body rest." The woman took Ella's hand and gave it a motherly pat, then turned to go, closing the door behind her.
Ella picked up her bag, turned and made her way out of Devon's sight to the bed. Straining to listen, he heard the linen shift as she sat to take off her traveling boots. Devon heard each in turn hit the floor. His mouth went dry. He had assumed Ella would be too virtuous not to use a screen when one was in place, but then none of his mistresses ever had second thoughts about undressing out in the open. This was not his mistress; it was Ella. An Ella he didn't know existed, but one he would like to be introduced to.
With no warning, a very naked Ella walked into view. His gut clenched sending white-hot desire to his groin. She had a bottle of scented oil and poured it into the steaming water. The smell of lavender assailed his senses. His vision on the other hand was filled with Ella.
God, she was beautiful. Had he ever seen a more petite fragile looking woman? Bending to test the water, she gave him a perfect view of her arse and hips. His hands tingled in remembered caresses. He noticed the swell of her hips was more rounded. Not overly so by any means, but enough so he noticed. She turned to pluck a piece of linen from the nearby stool placing it closer. This view was just as delectable. Her stomach where once it had been flat, gave way to a softness accentuating her rounded hips. Again, he approved. She was too thin by far four years ago.
Now, after giving birth, her body had blossomed into a siren's. Her breasts, still pert but a bit larger and fuller rounded out the image of his perfect wife, the mother of his child. The thought of Ella giving him a child seized his lungs and tightened around his heart. His child. He was brought back the sound of water lapping the edge of the tub. At that moment, Devon could have expired from the lust boiling through his veins. The urge to touch her was so strong he caught himself just before he pushed the door open, almost giving away his hiding place. So drawn was he to her sensual form that his heart beat so loud in his ears he was sure she would hear.
Ella graceful as ever stepped into the tub and slid under the still steaming water. Damn her. To add to the effect she let out a hearty sigh of pleasure as she let her head fall back against the tub. Devon could almost taste the steam in the air. His chosen hideout closed in around him. He wanted to move. Muscles were beginning to react in grievance to his current position. At that moment, she slid her way down until her head was under water. Taking the opportunity, he stretched as best he could and shifted so his legs were more comfortable.
In agony, Devon watched his wife, unaware of her audience as she went about the business of removing the road grime which comes with travel. He was like a child watching someone eating a cake he could not indulge in. As Ella ran the soap over her long leg, he had to swallow a groan. For the one hundredth time in the last ten minutes, he waged a war within. What would she do if he were to show himself? Would she ask him to join her?
He would rip his clothes from his body, and hurt himself getting into the tub. Another groan rose to his throat, but again he forced it down.
What had happened? He was the one always in control. He never had times when he couldn't control himself, or his thoughts.
Ella was the problem.
For some reason, when she was involved, his steely control vacated his being. Left behind was a beast living off his senses. If he didn't gain control, he might ruin his chances right now. Not to mention prove Clive correct in his estimations. Devon closed his eyes, taking deep breaths until his feeling of control returned, if not in full force, at least in part. Opening his eyes, he spied Ella still lounging in the tub, now with her head against the high back, her hair falling off the edge in silken shimmering stands. Droplets of water rolled along the slippery tresses falling to the floor. Her eyes were closed. She looked almost content. He watched for what seemed like an eternity without as much as a movement. She was asleep.
Now he was stuck until she woke. What if she didn't wake until morning?
Devon had to do something. If she spent the night in a cold bath, since the water would have cooled by now, she might very well catch a chill, or at the very least be sore tomorrow. Then a worse thought sprang to mind. If she stayed asleep, she might slip under the water and drown. He had a vague memory of trying to wake when she first moved to the Tate. He could have shot a pistol in the room, and he was sure she would have slept through it. Very cautiously, he swung the door of the wardrobe open enough to step out. As he did, every muscle in his body protested. Wardrobes were not made to be hiding places for fully-grown men.
Ella never moved. She slept like the dead.
If he woke her, she would thrash him within an inch of his life. He already knew he couldn't leave her, so his only option, wasn't this wonderful, was to try to move her without waking her.
Sighing, Devon stepped over to the stool and stripped off his waistcoat, cravat, and shirt. He would no doubt be as wet as she was when he finished. Cool air abraded his already sensitive skin. First order of business was to stoke the fire back to a comforting blaze. Then standing over his sleeping wife, he knew this would no doubt be the hardest thing he had ever done. Was this how knights of old felt? Unlucky blighters! He was about to take his clean smelling, wet, not to mention naked wife out of the bath, dry her body with his own hands and not be able to do more than kiss her on the cheek and leave. What crime would a man have to do to endure such torture?
He watched her sleeping for a moment longer. Not two weeks ago, he thought her dead. The power of it hit him like an anvil to his chest. His throat caught and he felt the distinct sting of what would not become tears abrade his eyes. It was almost more than he could bear. He never let himself mourn her. Never.
He had convinced himself it was her choice to leave, as it is every woman's, and he would not mourn someone he had never loved. The ignorance of his words then, stung today. The emotion hammered to come forth. If he allowed it, he knew the sob that would be wrenched from his soul would wake her and scare him to his core. Devon swallowed his pent up emotions and ignored the one lone tear that meandered down his cheek while he bent to tend to his very much alive wife.
Hands shaking, Devon reached into the tub and under Ella's back and legs. Her soft body molded to his embrace. He closed his eyes praying for some of that control. In one smooth motion, he straightened with his still sleeping wife in his arms. The water sloshed and splashed covering him. She nuzzled closer, cradling her head in the crook of his neck. The water clinging to her was cool, but her body was warm and lush. The softness of her skin against his own, like satin against wool warmed him, and made him aware of just how delicate she was, regardless of what she would say to the contrary. He made his way with ease to the bench in front of the hearth close to the fire. He set to drying her, starting with her shoulders and arms, making his way down her body.
He understood her weariness. Only a person with true exhaustion would sleep through such an intimate encounter. It scared him a little to think she could sleep through this onslaught. Once done, he could only reach his shirt to cover her now dried body. He ran his hand down her dripping hair to take some of the water out of it. The tenderness of the moment rocked him. It was the most innocent touch he had given, but it was the one that rocked him. Never had he put himself in the position to care for another with so much thoroughness.
Devon sat holding Ella to him. He rubbed his hand along the soft skin of her arm. How had he survived four years without her in his life? Had he actually told everyone who would listen, he was better off? At this moment, he knew he would never be able to let her go. In this moment, he understood his father.
Shaken by what he could only call an addiction to this woman sleeping in his arms, he decided he needed a better plan. He couldn't depend on the hope of her falling in love with him because, it was too risky. He had to think of a way to convince her, without appearing the lovesick pup that, she would be better off in London with him.
A shiver slid through her translucent skin before she snuggled closer to his bare chest.
"Mmm, Devon," she mumbled in her sleep. To hear his name slip from her lips while she dreamed was almost his undoing. At the same time, the fear of her waking and finding him with her in his arms seized his lungs. He froze, not breathing until she settled back down and began to snore softly in his lap.
He reached into her bag and came up with her nightdress, deciding time was at a premium if he wanted to get her to bed without her knowing. Devon managed to slide it over her head and around her shoulders covering her perfect body. Once home in London, he would make sure he had every night rail she owned burned. He wanted her naked in his bed. No barriers.
His current plan was to get her settled in bed, fix the fire again, and slip out the way he came. Devon needed time away to think and contemplate his next step. Standing with her in his arms and noting that she weighed no more than a feather, he walked to the bed. Ella snuggled into the depths of the fresh linens and pillows. Leaving was imperative, but not just yet. He took the chair and sat, not ready to break the spell.
Lying in the darkness, covered by the voluminous blankets, his wife looked frail and innocent, not to mention delectable. Since their reunion, Devon had not had the opportunity just to watch Ella until tonight. In fact, he could only recall a few times he indulged in the sport of watching the whirlwind that was his wife. This— this was a novelty. She lay sideways facing him. Only moments ago, she had been sprawled on her back with one delicate arm raised over her head, resting on a pillow of pale hair. Now, both hands were tucked together under one rosy cheek. A perfect complexion, save the dark circles ringing large doe eyes. Even the long, thick lashes kissing her cheeks were not enough to hide the signs of fatigue. His hands lay palms down on his thighs. The need to touch the fine skin made them tingle. Fix the fire and leave, he reminded himself.
Devon leaned over the bed as he began to rise out of the chair. At the same moment, Ella moaned, reaching for the blankets that she pulled into a bundle near her body, cradling it in her arms. Sighing with contentment, she settled back in but Devon noticed, a wrinkle of worry furrowing her brow. Her thoughts, it would appear, were not as slumberous as he thought. Sighing, he was lost to more than just this one night. He settled back into the very straight, very uncomfortable chair to deal with his stiff joints, and his growing desire. He was beginning to understand how a man like his father would suffer all those years alone with just the slimmest hope his love would return. For this woman's love, Devon would spend an eternity in hell if she asked.
It was going to be a long night.
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