Fourteen – Regaining Dignity
Poor Dr Forrester almost fled from the baron’s bedchamber, his face flushed like that of a little boy who just got caught with his hand in a biscuit tin. Beth shook her head in mild disapproval.
“You should not have done that, my lord. The good doctor has worked himself into exhaustion to save you.”
“I know, my love, and I will express my gratitude to him in due time. But now, I have other plans.”
He grinned mischievously at her and held out a hand.
“Come here …”, he breathed and Beth obeyed, suddenly feeling as if her heart would jump from her chest. She sat down on the bed, taking Stephen’s offered hand. A second later, she was drawn on top of him, his arms imprisoning her tightly.
“Stephen …”, she gasped, yet at the same time revelling in the feeling of his hard body under hers. Even through the duvet’s soft layers, she instantly noticed what he had in mind.
“Stephen … no.” Bursting with tenderness, she stroked his all too pale face with both her hands. Under her fingers, she felt his cheekbones, all too protruding beneath the stubble of beard. He must have lost a considerable amount of weight, she realized.
“No?”, her husband teased, raising an eyebrow in mock disapproval. “I am profoundly shocked, my lady wife, that you should turn down my advances after such a short time. How am I to survive some fifty years of marriage without the enjoyment of your delectable body?”
Beth giggled involuntarily and was rewarded by a deep, longing kiss, the likes of which she had never been offered before. It was as if Stephen wanted to make her understand how deeply he loved her. The kiss was ardent yet also marvellously sweet. She felt quite breathless when he released her.
“Stephen, you should rest. Your body has been through the most exhausting of fevers, my love. You need to regain your strength.”
“Is that so, my delicious wife? Pray, tell me how you are going to divert my attention from what I want to do to you, right now? I should warn you I am not easily diverted from such an activity.”
Suddenly slipping out of Stephen’s arms, Beth rose from the bed and tugged the bell cord.
“You will be attended by your faithful Hawkins, sweetheart. You valet has been hovering around your sickbed for days, eagerly awaiting the moment when he could see to your bodily needs. Let us not hold him back any longer.”
With regret, but also with acknowledgment of Beth’s good sense, Stephen gave in and nodded. He certainly was in sore need of a bath!
Later, when Beth stepped out of her own bath tub, she allowed Trixie to dress her in a pretty day gown and to put up her hair in a bun at the nape of her neck. She then looked in on her husband who had been given a light meal. Henrietta sat next to her son’s bed and hastily put a finger to her mouth when she heard the door open.
“He is asleep,” she whispered. “My poor Stephen was so thoroughly exhausted, Beth.”
Beth nodded in agreement and tiptoed out of the room. She would give her mother-in-law a much-needed time alone with her son. As it turned out, she herself had to perform an urgent task.
Oliver and Lily had been left in the care of Ruby and her husband Ben, as long as Stephen was too ill for Beth to leave his side. That way, the children could continue their schooling under Mr Sage’s tutelage. Stephen and Beth had planned on hiring a proper tutor for Oliver and a teacher for Lily as well, because the children still had a lot to master. Their education, as heirs to Stephen, was of the uttermost importance. Beth had taken measures for the children to be informed of their father’s illness daily but she knew they would worry nevertheless so she had the carriage readied and let herself be driven to the village.
The twins threw themselves around her in enthusiastic greetings and soon, the lot of them were gathered around the Mertons’ fireplace with tea and biscuits. Beth brought them the good news of the baron’s recovery.
“I have come to take you home, my dears. Your Papa and I have missed you terribly, this past week.”
“So Papa is better, then?” Lily asked.
“Why has he not come with you?” Oliver inquired, much more critical than his sister. Beth threw him a slightly puzzled glance, concerned over the harsh tone of the boy’s voice.
“Your Papa has not fully recovered yet, Oliver. He has suffered a severe fever and …”
“Pish! He does not care for us like you do, Beth. I might be a mere child but I can feel his indifference. Granny was right all along when she said he was but a haughty member of the nobility.”
This little speech was delivered so glibly that Beth felt a cold finger touch her heart. Where had this resentment come from? And why did Lily not share her brother’s anger? The girl sat staring at him in bewilderment and shock.
Although Beth was shocked herself, she attempted keeping a cool head on her shoulders in dealing with her former charges. The children had – in all honesty – only been brought to the Abbey when Stephen realised he had no legal heir after Florence’s death. The twins’ mother had been of low birth, and Stephen and his mother had not complied easily to the thought of having to bestow status upon the commonly brought-up offspring of a village girl. Even at this very moment, Beth was not fully certain of her husband’s real affection for his bastard children. Children, Beth knew, developed a sixth sense for such lack of affection and acted on it with anger. It was nothing but emotional self-preservation, and Beth could very well understand it herself as she had done just the same after her father’s banishment. She too had hated Stephen and his family for ten long years.
Her next and urgent task would have to be to reconcile Oliver with his father but for now, she could only try keeping Oliver’s anger under control. She put her arms around the boy, startled to see how he had grown in the last few weeks. He was no longer a child, she realised, but was rapidly becoming a proper young man. No doubt, Oliver would grow as tall and handsome as his father.
“Oliver, you must behave like you always have since first we met; you have always been an intelligent and good-hearted boy. Now you are becoming a young adult, and I fervently hope you will only grow in intelligence and goodness of heart. Do not forget your grandmother’s wish for you and Lily, my darling. She wanted you to become good people, to find happiness and fulfilment in life. Do not ever forget I will always be there to help you. Your mother Molly was my childhood friend and I will always cherish her memory.”
Although the boy returned her embrace with emphasis, Beth was able to feel a slight hesitation at first, as if Oliver needed to assess the sincerity of her words for just a tiny amount of time. It worried her greatly.