He must be losing his bleeding bloody mind, there was no other plausible explanation for it. Rowena, I love you. He had not spoken it aloud, thank heaven for that small mercy, but to even think the blasted word? Love? Alex was certain that, apart from his poor, silly brother, he had never, ever loved anyone. Love was a useless, superfluous and completely nasty emotion that one should avoid at all costs. Love had the ability to overpower one, to wrestle the last bit of sanity from one’s mind and leave him an empty shell. Leave him stranded in a loneliness so miserable that one had no choice but to relinquish all of himself to madness.
And yet … a tiny kernel of doubt was nibbling at this solid declaration. He ruthlessly tamped it down while he was working hard in the bucket line, giving directions left and right to an ever-growing army of men. He did not know where they came from but apparently someone had summoned them from the neighbouring farms and village, because they must now count at least a hundred.
They were finally beginning to see the end of the fire. It seemed there would only be damage to the library as the flames had not gone beyond the double oak doors. Alex inwardly shuddered thinking of what would have happened should the fire have leapt into the hall. After yet another hour, they could cease their labours with only a few fresh guards to watch over the smoking remains of the library’s content. The walls and ceiling were relatively undamaged but the parquet floor was ruined, as was the furniture. The windows miraculously had not burst which had contributed to dominating the fire.
The exhausted firefighters were herded to the stables by Philby and his wife. The couple had organized the panicking maids into a disciplined corps to quench hunger, thirst and dirt. Alex refrained from going there himself, concern for Rowena forcing him to go search for her. The first one he saw was Carlisle. The earl also looked tired. He must have ridden all day to get here.
“Ah, Ketteridge, good work! The hall will be salvageable, I guess.”
“Yes, nothing but a bit of blunt is needed for repairs. If you will excuse me, Carlisle, I must go looking for my countess.”
“She has been brought to Crestwell Abbey, along with Daveston, who is in a sorry state. Your physician does not think he will survive until the morning.”
“Orme is here? How the devil did he know he was sourly needed here? Not that I am not immensely relieved, mind you.”
“His father was my long-time friend. We met at my club and as soon as I told him you were here to confront Daveston, not even wild horses would have been able to prevent him from coming along. You look like you could benefit from some attention yourself. Come with me, man.”
Rowena’s first thoughts after Dr Orme examined her were for Emma. She was relieved to hear that her shoulder was not broken nor dislocated, only badly bruised. Her next concern was for Roderick.
“Well, my lady, … “, Dr Orme began.
“Please, Richard, no more ‘ladying’ me. You are Alex’ best friend, and I would like you to be mine, too.”
“Thank you, Rowena, I would.” Then Richard Orme grew serious. “I will not beat around the bush, Rowena. Your brother is dying. He sustained third-degree burns on a large part of his body. According to recent studies in France, he has a mere 30 % chance of surviving with the percentage of area affected. I treated the wounds as best as I was able to, but infection due to loss of skin is the greatest danger. He has not yet regained consciousness nor will he likely in the next hours. The human body goes into a coma when the injuries are as atrocious as they are with your brother. I will, of course, see to keeping him in comfort.”
“I see there is not much I can do here, so I must see to my daughter, as she already missed a feed. Thank you, Richard,” Rowena said, shaking hands before leaving.
Emma, however, was surprisingly meek.
“I have been trying to give her some light gruel, my lady. She was fussing a lot, and I couldn’t soothe her. She took it all, and although she was struggling a bit with the spoon, she’ll get the hang of it quickly enough, our clever girl,” the nanny explained.
“Oh, splendid, Bessie, thank you! I would prefer to bathe first, if you think you can keep her happy?”
“Yes, of course, my lady.”
Trixie was waiting for her mistress and had a bath ready. The warm, fragrant water was a balm to Rowena’s exhausted body. She stayed for a quarter of an hour , then changed into her nightgown and wrapper. Bessie was waiting for her in her bedchamber, cradling a slightly fussy Emma.
“Now let’s see if she’s still hungry for my milk,” Rowena said, taking the infant from her nanny.
Emma was, of course, avidly nursing from the start. She smiled at Rowena when she spoke to the infant, a new skill Emma had acquired over the last few days. Rowena was very tired but she was revived by the contact with her little girl. Afterwards, she was glad to give Emma back to Bessie and crawl between the sheets. She fell asleep the moment her head touched the pillow.
Not even Alex’ strange behaviour after he had saved her from the fire could keep her awake. Some days truly had enough misery to last a lifetime.