The Reclusive Aristocrat – Part Fourteen

Chapter Seven (continued)

Rowena ran blindly, tears streaming from her eyes. She ran until she found a bed, and collapsed on it. In her womb, the baby was kicking wildly, causing her stomach to burn.

He had kissed her! Another man – no, Alex – had kissed her, and it had felt so good, so right. Rowena gasped while violent sobs wrecked her chest. Peter … oh, why had he left her to deal with it all alone? Peter, she called his name between her sobs, hoping it would dispel her sadness. It did not, it made it only worse. A deep, yet soft voice gently pulled at her misery.

“You can talk about Peter to me, Rowie. I am a good listener.”

It was the sweetest voice she had ever heard, and it took her some seconds before she knew it was the earl who had come and found her. Rowena began scrambling up, but he stopped her. Not by touching her, though.

“Lay down, Miss Drake. I shall sit here in this chair and you shall tell me about your Peter.”

Yes, Rowena thought, that was what she truly craved. She so desperately longed for peace, for stability, also. Sudden warmth touched her when someone covered her with a blanket. It must have been … him. It was most welcome; she had not known that she had been shivering, until that moment. It must have been … Alex.

She wanted to see him, to see the expression on his face yet she dared not sit up, lest his eyes would tell a very different story. Taking a deep breath, she began narrating.

“We loved each other so much, Peter and I. He was a decent, caring man. He promised to marry me as soon as he would have done his military duty.”

The words got stuck in her throat, overwhelmed as she was with her memories.

“Who presented him to you? Was it during your season?”

Rowena nodded. “I had my only London season when I was nineteen, in April 1814. My father could not afford another one. My aunt Mrs Latterley sponsored me; Aunt Charlotte is my mother’s sister. We attended a ball at Carlisle House, the Earl of Carlisle’s mansion on Upper Brook Street. My uncle is a wealthy wine merchant in Carlisle with substantial connections in the City.”

“Ah, I see. Your uncle and Carlisle are business partners?”

“Yes, that was why we were invited to such a grand ball. There was a great attendance from the military, including many officers of the Yorkshire Regiment. Peter was one of them, a captain. We were attracted to each other from the moment we met.”

“How long did you stay in London?”

The question surprised Rowena. What was he doing, ferreting out her life like that? But she strove to answer his questions as honestly as she could, because it seemed the right thing to do.

“We stayed until June, of course, until the end of the Season. When I returned to Daveston Hall, I was so very depressed, because I did not think I would ever see Peter again. I was wrong. He came to Carlisle to escort the earl’s company home. We met on several official outings after Christmas. Peter proposed to me in April of this year, when we were attending a musicale together. From then on, we attempted to see each other as much as was possible, which was not easy because I had to invent reasons to visit my aunt. I still feel ashamed of my behaviour. My aunt, who is the sweetest of women, had no notion of what I was doing. I kept dragging her to soirées and musicales, so that Peter and I could meet. We pledged our love to each other and … and … I gave myself to him.”

“Where was this?”

Abruptly, Rowena sat up when she noticed the controlled but simmering anger in Alex’ voice. She blushed furiously but forced herself to continue. “At a soirée my aunt gave for the Carlisle Chamber of Commerce.”

There was an angry grunt from Alex, and Rowena saw a muscle clench in his angular jaw. She wondered why he looked so out of sorts, and so furious.

“I am upsetting you with my tale, my lord. Forgive me.”

“No, you are not. Continue, please. How many encounters were there?”

Rowena’s cheeks were once again on fire. She sighed.

“My lord, I must … I mean … Oh, God! How embarrassing this all is!”

“Rowena … “Alex’ voice was gently persuasive. “I have no intention of embarrassing you. I told you before that I am a soldier, and thus very protective of all who live under my roof. I want to know your story, so please indulge me. Did you meet weekly, or more often?”

“Our encounters were not very regular. We … we loved each other four times …”

“And then he went to war. When did you learn that he had died?”

“In early September.”

“That late? The casualty lists were released at the beginning of July. I was home in August because it took Porter that long to have me transported, but I should have been home much sooner, had I been whole. I was too ill to travel before long.”

Rowena had no reply to that. She felt oddly relieved, as if a great burden had been taken away from her. But Alex was not yet satisfied.

“When did the messenger come? Do you remember the exact day?”

“The messenger?”

“The cavalry always sends a messenger to deliver the news of the demise of one of their own,” he said quietly, sensing her confusion.

“I do not know,” Rowena answered, and Alex could hear the confusion in her voice now. “I had been in the rose garden all morning, when a footman summoned me to the library. Roderick told me right away that Peter had died.”

Which had probably been a mercy, Alex thought. It was always better to hear of a beloved’s death by someone of your own family, and without too much preliminary speech. “What happened then? Did you know you were increasing at that time?”

“Yes, of course. I knew that for certain in July, but I was not concerned, since Peter and I were betrothed. When the news of his death came, I informed Roderick. That was when things became less pleasant.”

“When exactly did you leave Daveston?”

“On the twenty-eight of November. Roderick told me the day before that I would have to move to a remote little cottage on our estate, because it became too apparent that I was with child. I could not do it, my lord. I was appalled, numb with shock because of what Roderick had decided for my child. The rest you already know. If you had not found me …”

“But I have, Rowena, and that means that it is my duty to protect you and the child as best as I can. As there has been gossip going about already, I shall have to take more thorough measures.”

Touched by Alex’ concern, Rowena rose from the bed. Looking about her for the first time, she gasped in surprise when she saw where she was.

“Come,” the earl said and extended his hand, “let us go back to the morning room. Mr and Mrs Wallis will not know what the uproar was all about.”

Rowena swung her legs over the bed’s edge and took the hand Alex offered. Instantly his other arm sneaked around her waist, and he drew her up against his large, tall frame. A good thing he did because she was swaying on her feet. “Steady,” he said, his voice deep and warm.

“Thank you, my lord,” she choked, and let him lead her to the door of the room she now recognized as the one she had been brought to, on that first, eventful night at Ketteridge, the ‘Blue Bedroom’. She had fled to the room where their first physical contact had been. To her sanctuary.

 

Alex retired to his library as soon as Rowena joined Mrs Wallis in the morning room. Her husband John would already be waiting for him, he knew. They had work to do, and Alex intended to visit tenants with John by his side to make records of their needs. The both of them set off in the carriage soon thereafter.

His vision was again blurred, Alex noted. Of course, his fields were hidden under a thick blanket of snow, and the sky was a leaden grey, so there was no colour to point out landmarks to him. As a result, he was left with his disturbing thoughts about his housekeeper.

Last night, he had allowed the notion of Rowena becoming his wife into his mind. While it had been a sane, rational notion to unite himself to her, being as unmarriageable as she was, he could not deny that it could also be viewed as a mindless folly. Richard Orme’s reaction was certainly testimony to that.

The Earl of Ketteridge did not take as his wife a woman pregnant with another man’s child, regardless of the fact that she was to be presented to Society as a widow. It would be a scandal, Alex acknowledged, when he should make her his countess.

And yet, he would exactly do that, and he would ignore – no, stare down – every disapproving look or comment with all the arrogance he knew he could muster when necessary. His years as a soldier and an officer had taught him how to overrule and bully others, until they followed his instructions without failing. He could coerce Society into accepting his choice of bride, he was certain of it.

But could he also persuade Rowena to become his bride? That was another matter altogether. One that could never be accomplished without him courting her properly.

Courting … he had never done any courting in his life.

 

 

 

 

Cloepatra

Amazon will be the latest to try and put legendary Egyptian queen CLEOPATRA on the small screens as they have put into development a series with Black Sails team.  Written by Robert Levine, it is described as a revisionist take on one of history’s most misunderstood women, The Godfather in Ancient Egypt. After nearly losing her life in a bloody coup, Cleopatra must use her natural wit and political genius to take back her throne and restore honour to her family and kingdom.
Let’s  hope this one makes it.

John Thornton, Look Back at Me – pt 26

Branson carried returned a slightly embarrassed, but totally euphoric, Margaret back to her cottage later that morning.  She hardly knew herself after last night.  She felt consummated with John, who had lovingly and tenderly delivered her to womanly rapture.  Again she had witnessed him in a different light.  Another awe inspiring moment revealed the passionate, sensual man that lay hidden, and he had waited only for her.  Margaret felt she had witnessed the two extremes of male love, and she was certain that John, like in most things concerning him, was the exception to the normal.  The evening before had affected Margaret like none other.  The sensual pleasure was almost more than she was capable of holding.  The depth of love that she felt for John last night was too engulfing, even more so than the physical pleasure

She felt flustered over her reckless abandon and having given herself up to him so eagerly.  She knew she had cut every proprietary string that had bound her all her life, and this was as big a revelation to her as the pleasure of it.  She was finding a new Margaret that, until this past week, had lain fallow.  In the light of day, it was too much reality to look into his face and realize that he knew every intimate part of her, having listened to her moans and her pleadings and felt her spasms.  She would not want to see him too soon, again, as her sensibilities and new awakenings were raw.

She decided to write John a note, explaining as best she could, about her feelings.

 

 

My dearest love,

I find this note very difficult to write, but I must express my feelings to you, for I am not strong enough to look into your face and say these things.  Last night . . . your tenderness and love for me was what allowed me to completely trust you and deliver my entire being into your hands.  You not only brought me the greatest pleasure I have ever known, but exposed me to a part of myself which took me far from the rigid proprietary that has bound me all my life.  I’m having severe awakenings, and it’s all so hard to grasp at one time.  Looking back over our entire time together, I now realize the exact moment when I took you into my heart.  I am sure you are probably thinking that you know when that moment was, but I think you would be wrong.  Someday, I will tell you about it; I think you will be surprised.

You were my champion last night, in all aspects, and will forever be.  I am still floating above the clouds today, and have to find my way to earth; please give me time.  I feel overwhelmed and a bit disconcerted over my own blatant sexuality.  I know you brought that out in me, but the realization of it has stunned me.  I am rather embarrassed to see you for a while.  Please understand.

                                                                              Soon, my love…

                                                                                          Margaret

 

Margaret closed the note, sealed it, and asked Adrian to run it up to John’s home, taking the buggy she had acquired several weeks previous.

It was no less than 30 minutes after Adrian returned, when a carriage pulled up in the back of her home.  John exited the carriage and walked briskly to the back door, opened it without knocking, and saw Margaret there.  He picked her up, grabbed her shawl, and carried her outside and into his carriage.  He was having none of this, “I am rather embarrassed to see you, for a while.

Branson ruffled the reins and set the horses toward a path outside of town.  His instructions were to go nowhere, specifically, but out of town where it was peaceful.  He didn’t need to stop anywhere, just keep driving.

Dixon saw part of what took place, so she knew Margaret would be out.

John immediately took Margaret into his arms and kissed her very long and hard.  If he held her as tight as he wanted to, she would suffocate.  Margaret returned the welcome embrace.

Finally retreating, John held her face between his hands as Margaret tried to look away.  She was shy at this moment.  “There will be no hiding from me ever again.  If you feel embarrassed, then I want to share that with you.”  He pulled her to him for another long kiss.  Finally allowing her to breathe, he said, “Margaret, you are experiencing love, love for me, and I can almost die from my own emotional ecstasy.  Do you think I have lived all these years in hope of you, and would not want to desperately see that in you?  You gave yourself to me, and wanted me, as I did you.  That wasn’t sex; it was touching each other’s souls, deep down, where only we can share.  Don’t hide or shy away from the experience of our own private moments.  There’s no embarrassment to each other.  It’s love Margaret, real love, far beyond the words that could express it.”

John pulled her in for another long kiss, parting her lips with his tongue.  She anxiously awaited this.  John could feel her shyness starting to melt away.  He pulled his arms from around her and held her shoulders, while he kissed below her ears down to her breast.  Her arms being free, she took her hand and massaged his arousal, without being prompted.  He lightly slipped her dress down her shoulders and kissed the swell of her breasts.  He licked his way back to her neck and up to her chin, finally finding her mouth.  He kissed her closed eyes and feathered her face with more kisses.

“I love you touching me,” John moaned.  “Don’t ever stop.”

They rode in silence for a while, John holding her tightly around her shoulders as she sat back against his chest.  “Someday soon, all of our nights will be as we have now shared.”

John signaled to Branson that it was time for home; otherwise, he was likely to take her in the coach.  Those fun games would come later.  These new tender moments needed nurturing.

“So . . . you are going to make me guess the moment you decided to love me?  I must know when that moment was, so I can chastise myself for not doing whatever it was I should have done, years ago.”

Margaret smiled at John.  “I wouldn’t say it was the moment I fell in love with you, but the moment that tore at me like I’d never felt before.  I was awestruck at my own feelings, never having recognized those feelings ever in my life.  It was later when I realized that was the moment I knew you had found a place in my heart.  I shall not tell you now.”

“You know that will be on my mind until the day you tell me?”

“That’s my plan,” Margaret said, laughing.

“Margaret, I love you so much that you have been in my head for over four years.  I’ve dreamed every possible way of loving you and you loving me.  I do not think I can separate fact from fantasy anymore.  Could I ask at least one question?”

“You can ask, but I’m not promising to answer.”

“Fair enough.  When you had this epiphany, was I there with you?”

“You were there.”

John paused.

“I sense that we were not together, by the sly way you answered that.  All right, I’ll just have to give that a lot of thought, or wait for the day when you decide to tell me.  I’m quite interested to know.”

 

A week later, John was invited to Margaret’s home for dinner.  She was excited about the dinner because she had prepared the meal herself.  John arrived promptly, with a bouquet of flowers this time, having berated himself for not doing that in the past.  He kissed her without a care if Dixon was near.  Margaret did not shy away from that fact, either.

“Thank you, John,” she said, as she searched for a glass vase she wasn’t sure she owned.  She went into the kitchen and returned with the flowers in a large canning jar, setting them center table.

John had wrapped his arms around Margaret and was asking her to play the piano for him, when suddenly he stiffened.

“What is it John?”

“Can you hear the bell ringing?”

“Yes, what does it mean?”

“There’s a fire at a mill somewhere.  I must go.  I’ll see you as soon as I can.”  With that, John fled out the back door to his carriage.  He whistled for Branson and they pulled away as fast as Branson could take his seat.

“Oh no!”  Margaret cast her memory back to a conversation she had had with John: He clearly painted a picture of 300 corpses, lying on a hillside, the result of a mill fire.  Those kinds of fires consumed everything in their path, almost instantaneously, he had told her.

Margaret worried for John and anyone who would be in harm’s way.  She paced the floor wondering what she should do.  She couldn’t stand waiting to hear from him, knowing he’d do all he could to help.  She decided she had to go, even if it meant the possible horror of staring into the dead eyes of victims.  She ran to the back door and called to Adrian for the buggy.

Margaret sat in the front seat holding onto Adrian as he whipped the horse up as fast as they could manage.  Horror arose in the night as the sky lit up; the flames were licking the twilight.  Margaret sighed in temporary relief that it did not appear to be one of John’s mills, but she knew that wouldn’t keep John safe.

As they got close, there were many carriages and horses tethered, not allowing them close proximity to the fire.  It seemed everyone in the city had turned out to watch or help.  Adrian took Margaret by the hand and pulled her through the crowd as fast as Margaret’s feet could run.  The mill did not belong to anyone she knew, but she frantically started looking for John.  The flames were leaping into the air.  Margaret saw the incredible speed with which it was moving and suddenly understood John’s rage on that day they had met.  He had desperately tried to prevent this type of monumental catastrophe.  It was a horrifically devastating sight.  The top floor appeared to be almost fully engulfed, and it was just beginning to spread to the downstairs.  The northern far end was starting to collapse in on itself.  Where is John?  She could see a mass of people huddled over on the south end of the building where the flames were rapidly approaching.  She spotted Nicholas and pulled Adrian that way.

“Nicholas, are there many people in there?”

“There a three people, plus John, in those flames on the second floor.  John is trying to rescue them at this end; no one else would go.  John ran up to the second floor stairs like a fool, before the flames took it.  He’s been handing them out the window and holding them while he drops them down into the crowd.”

“John?”

“Yes, I’m afraid so.”

“Oh God, not John.”

Margaret saw John come to the end window, black faced and gasping for air.  “How many?” he shouted down.

“One more,” someone shouted, and John disappeared back into the room where ashes were drifting out and flames were licking at the window, half a room away from where he was.  The window exploded out.

“Oh God.  Oh God, please let John be alright,” Margaret pleaded.  She had a premonition of him not making it out.  Her black cloud was returning.  She began to cry and shake uncontrollably.

Nicholas pulled her to him, trying to hold her as she watched the dreadful scene unfold.  “You know John; he’ll be alright.  Do you think he’d take any chances, now that he has finally found you again?” he asked, trying to reassure her.

“Nicholas, I can’t live without him.”

“Looks like you won’t have to.  He’s got the last victim and he’s about to lower her down.”

Margaret’s heart stopped as she watched an exhausted John sweating black rivulets and gasping for fresh air, as black smoke rolled out of the window where he stood.  He lowered the woman as far as he could.  “Such strength,” Margaret thought, as he released the woman to the waiting crowd of arms.  Whatever she suffered from the fall was nothing compared to the possibility of losing her life.  Margaret watched as she fell into the crowd.

“No!”  Nicholas hollered suddenly, and then took off.

Margaret looked back at John, wondering why Nicholas was hollering.  John was overcome by the smoke and exhaustion, he was staggering, unconsciously.  Margaret screamed.  Like a rag doll, John crumpled to the sill and fell through the window to the ground below; he never felt the impact.  In horror Margaret watched him fall, then went screaming and crying in the direction she believed he must lay.  She had to push her way through the horde of people watching the fire.  She could hear Nicholas calling loudly for Dr. Donaldson.

“Oh, please dear God, save my John.  Please God, don’t take John, too.”  Margaret was praying out loud as she pushed and shoved her way to the man who had become the rest of her life.

As she approached, she could see him sprawled on the ground at a torturous angle; his eyes were closed and blood dripped from his mouth and one ear.  Dr. Donaldson was hovering over him, while Nicholas yelled for everyone to move back so he could have air.

“Hello Mrs. Reed,” Dr. Donaldson said, calmly. “Well, he’s certainly got a concussion, but he’s alive,” He quickly removed John’s cravat to bind his ribs.  “He’s had all the air knocked out of him, too, which isn’t a bad thing really, considering that it’s all smoke.  Higgins, get some men and let’s move him away before this side comes down on us.  Mrs. Reed, I do know he has a broken arm and maybe a couple ribs, plus a pretty nasty bump on his head; he must have bit the inside of his mouth; that blood doesn’t look like internal bleeding.  I can tell more once we get him to my surgery.  Our main concern will be to watch for the severity of the concussion and internal bleeding, but I don’t see any discoloration on his side to the ground, so that is a good sign.  I hope they can get that flat carriage here before he wakes up and feels the pain.”

Instead of Nicholas bringing men to help move him, he guided the flat cotton wagon back, stopping near John.  Several men helped Nicholas lift him gently onto the wagon and Nicholas helped Margaret up to sit beside him, Dr. Donaldson with them.  Margaret called to Adrian, instructing him to come to the surgery.

Margaret, not caring who was around, began wiping his face with her petticoat hem.  He was soaking wet with sweat and black with soot, but he was alive.  She didn’t think he could look any more agonizingly beautiful, lying there injured with his closed eyes, blood running from an ear and mouth, black faced, bloodied knuckles and dirty clothes.  “So this is what a hero looks like,” she thought.

 

Six hours later, John opened his eyes to a white, unfamiliar room, wondering where, and what, had happened to bring him there.  He became aware of a whimpering sound and slowly turned his head, feeling immediate pain.  Margaret was there, holding his hand, her head bent down in prayer.

“Margaret?”  John said in a very raspy, almost inaudible, voice.”

Margaret looked up at him.  Her face was full of tears, her eyes red and puffy and errant locks of hair cascading down her sooty face.  She hadn’t left John’s side for a moment, even to clean herself.  “Oh John, you’re going to be all right.  I thought I had lost you.  I saw you fall.”

“Shhh shhh . . .” John, seeing the tortured look on her face, tried to console her.

“I will never get that out of my mind, ever.  I thought I was going to die, myself, until I could get to you.”

“Margaret,” John whispered, “it’s over now.”

“You were so brave saving those three people, but it almost cost you your life, and mine, too.  If you hadn’t fallen through the window and had fallen to the floor, you would have burned to death.  There would be no rescue for you, John.  You were only out of that window by minutes before the room flashed into flames.”

“Did everyone else get out?”

“Yes.  You saved the only people that were trapped up there.”

“So, what did it cost me . . . and you?”  John asked, still trying to swallow the rasp out of his voice.

Margaret handed him some water.  “You have a concussion, three broken ribs and a broken left arm, plus lots of abrasions and bruises.  Dr. Donaldson said you will be here another day so he can observe the severity of your concussion and ensure you don’t have internal bleeding.”

She paused for a brief moment, then in a quiet, solemn voice, whispered, “John?”

“Yes, Margaret?”

“I love you.  Love doesn’t even seem to be a strong enough word for how I feel, deep within my heart.  I’ve wanted to say it so many times, even way back, long ago, but you wouldn’t let me.  I just can’t hold it back any longer.”

John pulled her up with his right hand and drew her sooty face towards his mouth, giving her the deepest kiss that he was able.  “These are the words I’ve waited to hear you say.  Margaret, you know I love you, too, with all my heart and soul.  But please tell me that I don’t have to go out of a second story window again, for you to tell me you love me the next time.”

“John Thornton!  Don’t jest.  I was hurt more serious than you were, watching it from below.

John tried to laugh but began coughing, as Margaret said, “I had planned to say those words to you tonight, in more expressive tones than in the heat of passion, but you went running off putting yourself in danger for strangers.  You have to know that I loved you long before we were intimate, don’t you?

“Yes, my heart felt that you loved me, but my mind wanted you to be sure for yourself.  I knew I took with me a piece of your heart on that day we met in London.  Margaret, are you sure?  Do you feel ready to commit to a real courtship?  That means not seeing other men, and saying those three words once in a while.”  He tried to smile, regardless, but he was beaming.

“John, I am at the other side, of my quest to find the confidence in myself and my love for only you, as you challenged me to do.  I know what will bring me a life of happiness, and it is you.  You’ve steadfastly helped me through my doubts, and I feel good about bringing a whole person to you now.”

“Margaret, you were always a whole person, and I’ve known that since the day I met you.  We’ve had a rough road, but we’ve both made it to the other side – you finding yourself confidence and I painstakingly hoping you would choose me, to spend the rest of our lives together.”

“John, I love you so much.”

“Can I ask you a question, since I’m lying here all broken, and have nothing to do but think?”

“It makes me nervous when you ask if you can ask me,” Margaret smiled.

“Well, I guess you know how I’ve felt.  You do that to me all the time.”  John coughed.

“All right, ask then, and get rid of that smarmy look on your face.”  Margaret grinned.

“God, I love to see you smile.  Ever since you left that statement dangling in the air about, ‘I was there’, when you realized you had some feelings for me – well, thinking I have been with you since you’ve moved back to Milton, and with you in London on the veranda, that seems to leave the funeral.  I highly doubt it would have been then, because I was with you.”  John paused, watching her expression.

Giving nothing away, Margaret asked, “Is there a question in there somewhere?”  She was practically gloating.

Rasping his words, John said, “Unless I have misunderstood you and there was no cryptic meaning in your statement, then that leads only to a time before you left Milton.”  John stared at Margaret’s straight face, trying to decipher any hint.  “This seems extremely curious to me since you said that, and I am becoming quite obsessed with it now.”

“I still don’t hear a question in there.”  Margaret was teetering on outright laughter.

“All right, here it comes.  You have just heard me explain my thinking on this.  My question is: Am I headed in the right direction?”

Margaret shrugged her shoulders and sighed.  “Your logic seems to have a lot of merit, the way you seem to see it, being a man, that is.  Tell me, when will men ever learn that they will never figure out a woman?”

“Pardon me?”  John said, raising his eyebrows.  “Who are you?  Where is Margaret Reed, my woman?  I seem to remember, not so long ago, being rather proficient at showing her how well I knew her.  And I don’t remember having to figure out anything, either.  She’ll tell you how much I knew of her.  Please go find her.”  John had to cough out the words he was trying to emphasize and laugh at the same time.

Margaret immediately blushed from head to toe, and she could feel the heat rising in her embarrassment.  She put her hands over her face and bent over to hide in her lap.  She was praying no one heard that.  John was inwardly trying not to laugh at Margaret’s red ears which were giving away everything.  Margaret jumped up from her chair and turned away from John.  She was flustered and she was amused at the same time.

John had to add, “Remember, we share everything, Margaret, even embarrassment.  Come here and kiss me, unless you want me coming off this bed.”

Barely recovering from her red face, she walked back to John’s side and happily gave him a kiss.  John asked, “So . . . is that the only answer that I’m going to get?”

“Mr. Thornton!  You seem to have one unbroken arm.  Would you care for a matched set?”  With that, Margaret burst out laughing and John tried to do the same.

“But since you are laid up with time to think, I will give you the real answer to your question.  Yes.”

“Yes?”

“Yes.”

“Yes, to all of it?”

“I think that constitutes a second question, does it not?”  Margaret laughed.

“Whoever you really are, you are driving me mad.  But since Margaret isn’t here, would you mind kissing me, again?”

 

 

The Reclusive Aristocrat – Part Thirteen

Chapter Seven

Ketteridge House, Leicestershire, England, December12th, 1815

 

The next morning, the earl seemed much more rested. Last night’s large bandage on his brow had been replaced by a smaller one that sneaked through his lush black locks. He wore buff breeches, a moss-green waistcoat over a crisp white shirt, and a dark green coat, instead of his usual drab brown attire. He looked positively dashing, Rowena marvelled.

Her slippers created but a soft sound on the parquet floor, but the earl’s head came up as soon as Rowena entered the morning room. His blue-grey gaze was instantly upon her. She shivered, once again astonished that he seemed to actually see her despite his blindness. It was but an illusion, but a powerful one, and every time it happened, Rowena was warmed by the beautiful smile he invariably bestowed on her. And most of the time, he would indeed smile.

“Ah, Miss Drake, come and join me. The Wallisses promised to join us, since I wanted to discuss some estate matters with Mr Wallis during breakfast. However, before they join us, tell me how you are feeling today.”

“Fully restored, my lord. I apologize for my inability to …”

“No need to apologize, Miss Drake. I am glad that you and the child are in good health.”

It was her voice, Alex suddenly realized. Every time, he heard that lovely, young, musical voice, his heart skipped several beats. Ridiculous, damn it.

Rowena barely had time to seat herself before Porter and the Wallisses entered. The valet placed a large tray on the table and left. As soon as Meg sank down on the chair next to Rowena, she whispered in her ear, “His Lordship said he had things to discuss with us. What is it about, do you know?”

Rowena shook her head in puzzlement, determined to stop Meg’s questions.

Alex cleared his throat, and bowed before he let himself down on his chair at the head of the table. “I can answer that question, Mrs Wallis, but Miss Drake cannot because she has not been told what it is about.”

Meg was startled, embarrassed because the earl had heard her speaking to Rowena.

“I am sorry, my lord, I did not wish to raise your resentment.”

“You have not, Mrs Wallis, rest assured. Now, let us partake of our breakfast.”

They all started reaching for a piece of toast or a helping of eggs, when they noticed the earl did not. He sat quietly waiting for Porter to come back and serve him. Soon after, the valet entered with a steaming hot pot of tea. While the earl was being served, John sent his wife a disapproving look. Meg blushed, and Rowena squeezed her hand beneath the table’s edge. Sweet Meg … she would always take Rowena’s side, no matter what.

They all ate in silence, and the only one who seemed relaxed, was the earl.

Alex forced himself to eat, but in reality he was inwardly shaking with what he was envisaging. During the night, restlessness and concern had prevented him from sleeping. The one, important question on his mind had been how to ensure that Rowena would not leave Ketteridge after the birth of her child. Alex could not possibly bear the thought of her disappearing from his life, and it puzzled him to the extreme as to why this as so.

He did not love Rowena. Love did not grow in a mere week. Alex was not even certain that he could ever love another being. He had very much loved his brother Reggie, and Reggie had died anyway. He had never known his mother who had died giving birth to him. His father had been a cold, selfish man who never had time for the ‘spare’. Reggie was the one his father had cherished beyond all reason.  Alex’ brother had been groomed to the earldom. Yet Reggie had been the one who gave little Alex a bit of love and attention, whenever he came home between terms at Eton and Cambridge. Reggie had betrayed him by dying so soon, and by leaving a mess for Alex to clean up.

So, no, he could not easily come to love Rowena, because love implied trust, and Alex took a long time in trusting someone. He was however fiercely attracted to Rowena Drake. She stirred his senses and brought to life his long-suppressed carnal desires. He admired her, because she had definite strength of character. She had taken her fate into her own hands when it turned against her. That, he knew, was a very important matter, one of many it took to make a good countess, so he had decided that Rowena Drake would be the next Countess of Ketteridge. That, he realised, meant that he would have to court her. What better way to court her than by appealing to her heart in the best way there was; to provide a home for her and her bastard child. He was prepared to give his name to the child. He or she could never be his heir, of course, but he could provide an education for the child.  Every child needed an education.

Alex was determined to court Rowena in the most appropriate way possible, even though she was already living under his roof. Therefore, he had to protect her from the gossip that had started to go about.

Alex again cleared his throat – he seemed to be doing that a lot, lately –  and turned his face to where he knew Rowena was sitting. He could swear he could actually see her clearly, but he might be deluding himself.

“A conversation I had with my good friend Dr Orme last night, made me acutely aware of the dire situation I put Miss Drake in. Although she has been here, at Ketteridge House, for only the briefest of times, it seems that the gossip mongers have already been busy. I cannot tolerate that, so I have decided to squelch the rumours instantly and for good.”

When he paused to have his words sinking in, Alex heard Rowena’s slight but unmistakeable intake of breath.

“Miss Drake,” Alex went on in a matter-of-fact voice, “before I continue, I need you to answer a question, as honestly as you can. Do you wish to stay here, at Ketteridge House?”

“Yes, …” Her answer was a shuddering whisper, which gave Alex a jolt of joy.

“Good, that is settled then,” he said, smiling. “Mr Wallis will be employed as my steward. You, Mrs Wallis, shall be Miss Drake’s companion. We shall spread the rumour that she is your widowed niece, come to live with you, when Mr Wallis accepted his position as my steward. I do hope that you will give a hand in setting this household straight, Mrs Wallis. I want you two to assemble a full staff. You are allowed to hire as many hands as you need. Now, if you will excuse me, I have other business to see to.” He rose, leaving the three of them speechless with wonder.

 

Ignoring the concerned glances Meg and John gave each other, Rowena gathered her skirts and ran after the earl. He had already disappeared into his library, and not for the first time did Rowena marvel in the swift way in which he reached his chosen destinations within the house.

“My lord, I would wish a word, if you please?”

He had not expected her because he turned so quickly that he half lost his balance and had to steady himself by grabbing the edge of his desk.

“Damn …” Alex smothered the curse he was uttering and forced himself to stay in control of the anger that boiled in him. Anger because another human being saw his weakness. It took him a while to realise that Rowena had not noticed that.

She continued, breathlessly and urgently, “My lord, I cannot accept the arrangements you made. They would cast aspersions on Meg and John who are as dear to me as if they were my own parents. Moreover, Meg’s sister Mary lives in Leicester and she is married and has several children. Their families are both well known, and it could easily happen that someone from town would talk to their Ketteridge relatives. People would know Meg has no niece who is widowed and pregnant. John’s people are also living in Leicester, so I could not possibly be a relative of his, either. It is best if I would continue to be Mrs Drake, the widow of a cavalry man.”

One question was burning on his lips, so Alex asked it. “Who was that cavalry man, Miss Drake? Tell me his name.”

Rowena’s throat constricted. She had had difficulties talking about Peter, since the minute Roderick told her that he had died. Memories of that horrible morning in the library at her father’s house assaulted her.

It had been a morning with a brilliantly exuberant sun beaming from a sky of the purest azure. She had been back from the rose garden, her basket full of blooms hanging on her arm. Roderick had called her into the room and bluntly told her that Peter had been killed at Waterloo. There had been no body, because it had been destroyed by canon fire, and the few remains had been buried in a mass grave near Brussels. Now was the time, Roderick had said, that she should go to their aunt’s house in York and start going to parties again. Her marriage prospects had now vanished, and she had to start over from scratch.

“Miss Drake?”

The earl stood very close to her, his hand on her arm. “Are you unwell? You seemed to struggle for breath.”

Rowena swallowed, realizing that she must have made a noise. “I am well, thank you. It was just …”

“You are panicking again. I can feel it. Is it still so painful to talk about him?”

“Yes …” she breathed. Alex felt a shudder run through her. He acted on instinct, protection foremost on his mind. He sought her hand and lifted it to his lips, and deeply inhaled her lovely scent.

“Oh …”

That little word, barely audible, set his blood on fire with a force he had never thought possible. Anger bloomed, because she was still mourning the man who had left her in such dire circumstances. He wanted the memory of that selfish bastard wiped into oblivion. She could not, would not be allowed to think of the blackguard ever again.

“His name …” he ordered, steel in his voice. He had not released her hand and allowed his breath to caress it, while his thumb stroked her palm in a languid, soothing way.

“Peter Johnston of the Yorkshire Regiment.”

Victory, he thought, and let his other hand travel to her face. Smoothly, he cupped her chin and brushed her lips with his in a caress so tender, that it suddenly made her quiver beneath his touch. He released her, also suddenly, but gently.

She ran, a soft footfall on the carpet. “Bloody hell…,” Alex whispered. Bewilderment clawed at him over the raw, violent arousal invading his body. How could this be? His only purpose had been to comfort her with a modest and gentle kiss, but the contact between their lips had been like a spark of lightning. And what had he been thinking, actually kissing his housekeeper? Hell, but he was in a sore state! He stayed for a moment, gathering his thoughts and suppressing his need. Then he strode after Rowena, confident that he would find her.