The Reclusive Aristocrat – Part Twenty-Four

Chapter Eleven (continued)

Rowena woke late on New Year’s Day 1816. It took her a few moments to recall what day it actually was. She was feeling relaxed, sated, alive … and content. Too content to have her attention turning on the demands of the day to come. Not yet …

The door to her room opened, and Meg bustled in, carrying a tray. Rowena stifled a shriek and hastily covered her nakedness, which she had discovered only now. Meg, her eyes dancing with mirth, laughed.

“Oh, my pet, do not blush, not for me. I can see that your husband treated you the way you deserve to be treated, and that is only decent. I knew the earl would be what you needed to secure your future. It is a dead shame that you met him this late in life. He should have come before your cavalry man did.”

Rowena stilled, her movement of getting out of bed halting, when Meg’s last words reached her. With an astounding clarity, they rang in her head like bells on an Easter morning. What would have happened if she had met Alex first, instead of Peter?

 

Alex scanned the gathering at his breakfast table with content satisfaction. His servants – and by now, there were a good, healthy number of them – were chatting in hushed tones, every single one of them smiling and happy. Mrs Hall, his long-time cook, had her kitchen maids and tweenies around her. Alex only remembered Trixie’s name, but she was now a housemaid under Meg Wallis, the housekeeper. That lady, seated beside her husband John had also gathered her troops, now two other maids, besides Trixie. He really should ask his wife to tell him all their names, Alex berated himself.

Further down the long table, his outdoor servants were seated, all of them speaking quietly with each other. Silas Mercher, his head gardener now had three boys under him, and Thomas Anderson, his head groom had four stable boys to help him ready the stables for the new horses Alex intended to purchase. Next to the grooms were the three tall footmen, Gregson, David and Reese Mortimer, sons of one of his tenants. Hannibal Mortimer had a large brood of some fifteen children, and the wages his sons would bring in would be very welcome in supporting the family.

Alex’ gaze wandered to the one person who really mattered at his table. At his right side, he most keenly felt Rowena’s presence. He focussed on her, wanting to see her as clearly as possible. His eyesight was still slightly blurred, yet he clearly saw the burgundy-coloured morning gown she wore. It was neatly cut, a bit generously tailored around the waist to accommodate her pregnancy. A square neckline advantageously showed her ivory shoulders and the onset of her lush breasts. How he remembered the exquisite feeling of those orbs in his palms, the previous night. He studied her. She was quiet, and savouring her new role as the lady of his house to the full. It was true that she had occupied the position since she entered Ketteridge House, yet now, as his countess, she had acquired a dignity which clung to her like a gown. A dignity her brother had stripped from her when he chased her from her home.

Come to think of it, Alex was curious about that brother of hers. After all, the man had a right to know his sister had married. Maybe a trip to Cumberland would not come amiss, as soon as the weather improved. Alex wanted to learn why Roderick Drake had cast his sister out, and subsequently, cast retribution on him on Rowena’s behalf. No man had the right to push his sister into danger like that.

Rowena … her small hands were toying with a bun, and she was not eating any of the offerings he had personally loaded onto her plate.

“You seem unwell, my dear,” he whispered at her ear, the words low enough not to be understood by their neighbours. “Is the food not to your liking? I have not heard your knife cutting through Cook’s lovely buns. Shall I order a fresh plate for you?”

“No, thank you. I am not very hungry.” Rowena answered calmly, although she did not feel calm at all. Instead, her nerves were dragged into acute awareness at the soft caress of his breath on her sensitive flesh.

“Well, then how are you feeling? Are you suffering from last night’s exertions?”

He had kept his tone light and teasing, but she blushed a fiery red. He found it endearing, but hid his smile.

“I will not answer such a blunt question at the breakfast table,” she said, grabbing her cup to drink and hide her red cheeks.

“Nevertheless, I feel we should discuss it, my dear. I fear I was less than gentle with you, after you came to my bed, the second time. Why did you come?”

Rowena swallowed her tea, grateful that it did not choke her.

“You were crying out,” she hissed, irritated that he should continue their all too intimate conversation. “As if you were in pain. I was concerned. You calmed down when I joined you.”

“Did I truly? I am amazed.”

“Alex, please!” Rowena was desperate now. Meg was already looking at them in wonderment.

“Very well, my dear, I shall not embarrass you further.”

He was rewarded by her grateful smile, a smile that brightened her face like a ray of sunshine. He was again reminded of how fiercely he had resented his blindness in the first days of their meeting. How it had affected him that he had been incapable of seeing that smile. It was a comforting thought, Alex reflected, to know that her smile would now be with him for the rest of his life.

 

It was an estate tradition to hand out presents on New Year’s Day, but it had not been kept up during the last five years. Reggie, Alex’ brother had not had enough resources for that, as Alex had explained to Rowena during their carriage ride to Ketteridge’s only inn.

“I was away in the Peninsula and had no idea about the estate’s finances. Reggie was too proud to inform me, which was unwise, because I could have helped him from the start. I gathered a good little sum during my army days, which I was able to invest wisely and with good results. It would have been so much better for the estate, had I been there at the time. Alas, fate decreed otherwise.”

“When did your brother die, Alex?”

Rowena had wanted to ask him about his family from the first days they met, but there had never been a right moment to do so. Now, in their warm, snug carriage, riding through white, frozen countryside, there was. Yet she noticed how her husband stilled, and suddenly seemed to withdraw.     She took his gloved hand in hers.

“You know all about my family, Alex. Do you not think it fair that I know about yours, too?”

He nodded, then sighed. “What I am about to tell you, Rowena, is not common knowledge. I hope you will be discreet and not tell anyone, not even Mrs Wallis. Do I have your word on that?”

“You have it, Alex,” she replied, quietly but firmly.

He cleared his throat. “He died early this year. Reginald was twenty years my senior. He was born late in my parents’ marriage, when they had given up all hope on any offspring. My mother had a horribly difficult childbirth, and she nearly died, so my father swore Reggie would be the only child he would father. Yet twenty years later, I came along, and killed my mother. Suffice it to say that I was not exactly welcomed by my father. Reggie was his heir, I was a spare, although my father only thought of me as a useless, cumbersome brat. A murderous brat, to boot. I was left to the care of Mrs Hall and her kitchen maids for years, until Reggie stood up to Father. My brother took me under his wing, and sent me to Eton and afterwards, to Cambridge. After my graduation, I enlisted in the army. My father approved, because I would be out of his way, and away from the estate. He had told me on my eighteenth birthday that I was not to receive any financial benefits from his will. I had to fend for myself, he said, and that is exactly what I have done since.”

Alex stopped, suddenly aware of one very disturbing fact; why was he spilling all this to Rowena? He had never, ever talked to someone about this, except for Porter, who was as close as family to him. Yet he had – no, still was entrusting his deepest thoughts about his family to a woman he knew for a month. Not a mere woman, but his wife. Alex felt something shift inside him, into something akin to peace, to comfort, and safety. He was right to talk to Rowena.

So he continued, tightening his hold on her hand.

“Reggie was the closest I ever had to a father, to any parent, for that matter.”

“You must have been lonely, as a child.” Rowena had to swallow against the deep compassion that ran through her at the image of a small Alex, alone and lonely, left to the care of servants.

“No, not really. Mrs Hall, at that time a mere scullery maid, Mrs Bammer, the housekeeper, and Mrs Swanson, the cook, and also every maid, high or low, were mothers to me. They spoiled me something fierce, and it was a good thing Reggie rescued me and showed me my true self, as the second son of an earl. He pulled me out of the oblivion. I knew I would always find a home at Ketteridge House with Reggie in it, and for many years after Father died in 1804, that was exactly so.”

Alex swallowed, grief washing over him. He struggled but continued his tale. “I always hoped he would marry and have a family. Father had been directing debutantes to him for years, but Reggie never showed any interest at all. Reggie just whiled away his days, here on the estate. He gradually used up the last of the estates finances, simply because he had no energy to manage them. He just seemed to waste away in complete depression, and I had no inkling how to help him. When he died of an apoplexy, on June 16th of this year, on the exact same day I was wounded on the battlefield, the estate was in shambles. I did not know about his death until I returned here. When finally, at the end of October, I could bring myself to clear out his desk with Porter’s help, I found out why he was so depressed. Reggie’s interest was in men instead of women.”

“Oh … poor man. How he must have suffered from the loneliness. While your father was alive, he would not have had the opportunity to find a mate.”

“Exactly. And afterwards, he had his hands full with sorting out his inheritance. I discovered he had a friend … a lover … when he was at Cambridge University. The affair lasted for fifteen long years. He had to break up the relationship when he came to live on the estate, after Father’s death. Here it would have been impossible to carry on.”

With a slow, but ever-growing awareness, Alex realized one most important fact, and spoke of it.

“How have you learned about … people like Reggie?”

Rowena felt her cheeks grow hot. It was one secret she had never shared with anyone.

“The curate at my parish church,” she murmured. “Mr Thompson was the kindest, most considerate man I ever met. He was also young, and very handsome. At fifteen, I developed an infatuation for him, and impetuous as I was then, I told him. He could not confess to his being different from other men, of course. Instead, he directed my interests to Latin and Greek, something I lacked sourly in my education. My Meg is but a simple woman, even though she taught me reading, writing and simple mathematics. By the time I was eighteen, my infatuation had waned. I still liked – and still do like Mr Thompson, but since he had never done anything to encourage me, I recovered from my girlish fantasies.”

“Let me guess,” Alex interposed. “That rattled you. You could not understand why a handsome young man would not be interested in you.”

She turned hurt eyes to him, and he instantly regretted his rather pettish remark. “I am only teasing you, Rowena.”

She sighed, cast down her eyes, a fact he resented. He wanted to see her face, scan her eyes. She was talking about a man she had loved, albeit with an adolescent’s infatuation. For some reason, he found he did not like the notion that Rowena might have loved before. He had the same nagging feeling about her former lover, Johnston.

“No, you have it right, Alex,” she continued. “I was rather miffed at the time. So badly that I talked about it to Peter, when we were seeing each other. He laughed at me, said he could not understand why I had not figured out the reason. Then he told me Mr Thompson had all the characteristics of a … a sodomite.”

She shuddered, and Alex put his arms around her, furious with the bloody, callous idiot, who so viciously crushed her first love’s character.

“I did not know the word, let alone what it pertained. Peter explained it to me, and I was so shocked I could not sleep for days, trying to imagine such a relationship. How two men would … would, could …”

“Shhh,” Alex soothed. “Do not dwell on things you cannot understand. It was foolish of me to begin about Reggie’s state of mind.”

“No, no,” she protested, rather vehemently. “Alex, I appreciate you telling me about your youth and childhood, and about the brother you so clearly loved. We should always talk to one another, as husband and wife. A marriage is about trust, and comfort, and feeling safe. Please do not ever stop talking to me, I beg you.”

He was nonplussed, to say the least. What ardency, what passion she displayed with her statement. Lecturing him about marriage, no less! He struggled to find an answer, failed, and kept silent. Instead, he drew her closer. It was a mistake. As soon as her delectable curves melted into his hard muscles, desire coiled and wreaked havoc.

Rowena felt the change in him the instant it blossomed. She was in his arms, her cheek against his blue superfine, through which – thick, woolly cloth it might be – she could feel the steady, strong beat of his heart. She sank deeper against him, passion rising, desire leaping. How she loved being held by him. Her hand wandered downwards, and encountered the hard ridge straining his buff breeches. She looked up, smiled.

“I see that you, my lord, are definitively interested in me, indeed.”

He grunted, then drew her up until she was sitting in his lap. Swiftly, he parted her legs and rearranged them, so that she was sitting astride on top of his thighs, all of it in the blink of an eye.

“You know I am, you little minx …”

Oh, how she loved that low, heavy rumble, laced with desire. She kissed him, greedily, hungrily. He reacted, spread her mouth open with his probing tongue, reconnoitring, feeling, and finally conquering her haven. When the kiss slowed, he hiked up her skirts, and began stroking her thighs, bare above her stockings. Then he suddenly felt the baby kicking against the back of his hand. Lord! Should he even do this, now? His bride instantly and effectively ripped away his doubts.

Rowena gasped as the heat rose to an unbearable level. She fumbled for the buttons of his breeches, brushing aside the sides of his coat. He – in turn- began opening her drawers, tearing at the tiny pearl buttons.

Alex burned, passion driving him to a point he had never passed. Never had he taken a woman in a carriage – at least not in broad daylight. Yet he could not stop himself; he had to have her, now, this instant. She had already freed him from his breeches and was frantically trying to guide him to her entrance. He lifted her and swiftly lowered her onto his erection. She moaned, and he quickly took her mouth, stifling the sound. Revelling in the feeling of her hot moistness around him, he thrust, and she responded by pressing herself down. It was wonderfully marvellous. They both reached heaven within seconds, and Rowena clung to him afterwards, breath shallow and fast.          Alex rubbed his cheek against hers, inhaling her lovely scent. He should thank her for so much delight, he mused.

The carriage rumbled over the cobbles that carpeted the High Street. Alex came to his senses and set Rowena from his lap, fastening his breeches, while he enquired if she needed help rearranging her clothes. She shook her head, cheeks reddened. He quickly kissed her on the mouth, grinning rakishly. “Here you are, my lady. Your first act as Lady Ketteridge.”

The Reclusive Aristocrat – Part Twenty-Three

Chapter Eleven

Ketteridge House, Leicestershire, England, New Year’s Day, 1816

 

A roar, fierce like that of a wounded beast, brutally dragged Rowena out of her deep, blissful sleep. She sat up, noticed her nakedness with a start, and shot out of bed to grab her wrapper. The horrible sound came from beyond the dressing room door which connected her bed chamber to her husband’s. Where was Alex? Why was he not with her? She hurried into Alex’ room. In the large, broad bed, a figure was trashing wildly, uttering cries of agony. It was Alex, she realized with sudden panic.

She hurried toward him and climbed onto the mattress. He was lying on his side now, shuddering under the nightmare’s violence. Rowena spooned herself against him, her back to his front, and took his hands to place them around her body. Pressing herself closely to him, she shushed him with sweet, nonsensical words, while she caressed his hands and arms. It took her a few minutes to calm him, yet he continued trembling. Rowena pulled the covers over them both, hoping that the warmth would calm him further.

It did. Alex relaxed in her arms, and soon his regular breathing indicated that he had fallen asleep. Rowena enjoyed his warm breath tickling the sensitive skin of her neck. His warm, hard body closing around her made her recall all the lovely, wicked things he had done just a few hours ago. In her belly, soft stirrings came to life again as she thought about their complete union. She was truly Alex’ wife now, and his considerate and gentle handlings reassured Rowena that he could become a sweet companion. She hoped so. She begged the Lord above that it would be so. She was beginning to be very fond of Alex.

Rowena sighed. She was still so very tired, languidly so. Would it be acceptable for her to fall asleep here, in Alex’ bed? She could not leave it, since he would then wake, or maybe have nightmares again. She had no inkling what time it was, but it must still be the dead of night, because everything in the house was till quiet. Lulled by her husband’s warmth, she closed her eyes and snuggled deeper into his arms.

 

He was having a dream. For once, it was not one of the violent nightmares which had plagued him for months now, since Waterloo. No, this was the best dream ever.

He was cocooned in a bed, on a soft mattress, and in his arms, there was a woman. He revelled in the soft, round curves that sent the best of fragrances up his nose. The scent of lily-of-the-valley – and warm woman. Heaven …

Alex found himself stroking the dream-woman to provoke a reaction, and it worked. She turned in his arms with a soft moan and spread her legs in eager invitation. He slipped easily between them guiding his engorged cock into her depts. Lord above, this was the best dream he had had in years!

Her sheath fitted him like a glove, and squeezed at his cock with every thrust he made. The tension inexorably built, and he welcomed it. His hands found her breasts, his touch making the nipples peak and harden. It urged him on even more. He pounded into her, hard and demanding. His blood beat a hard drum, making him deaf for any other sound. He came, suddenly and violently, while shards of light scorched his brain. Lord, what bliss! He felt even sweaty, much as it would have been, should he have been awake. Then the dream softly slid into sleep, a sleep as empty as death.

Next to her husband Rowena lay dazed and sated, with him still inside her. Oh, she knew what had transpired, but she could not understand the rest of it. The fact that Alex did not seem to have awakened, that he had all but ravished her, brought her to a glorious completion, and then, instantly had gone back to sleep. She was confused, felt lost, but had no strength left to resist sleep when it claimed her.

 

As was his habit, gained over a decade of military discipline, Alex woke when the first greyish light of dawn  lit the wintry sky.

He instantly stilled, bewildered when he realized he was holding someone. His wife … naked, delectable and warm, snuggled into his arms when he finally stirred. To his stunning realization, he was still inside her, limp now but deliciously snug. Her sheath had kept him close by fitting his erection as it had dwindled after his release. Amazing …

A storm of thoughts assaulted him. She must have crept into his bed sometime during the night, and he had not been aware of it. That had never, ever occurred in his lifetime. He must have made love to her without even feeling it, and – another first – he had returned to sleep with his cock still engaged. It was mind-blowing.

Porter soon entered to perform his duties, and the look of utter disbelief on his man’s face was priceless. Alex grinned at him, then laid a finger on his lips.

“Come back in a few hours,” he whispered. “After all, this is my wedding night.”

Porter did not seem to like it. “Well, a bloody Happy New Year to you too, major,” he hissed before striding out. Alex suppressed a chuckle, then returned his attention to the matter at hand.

Why the devil was she in his bed, and more importantly, did he want her there in the foreseeable future? How would she react when he would have one of his nightmares? Because, he knew they would come; they always came. Hugging his sleeping wife closer, Alex reflected on his demons.

The nightmares had begun after he regained consciousness, and that had been weeks after he got injured. During the first fever-free days, he had not even dared falling asleep, if he could have prevented it, but of course, that had not happened. The nightmares were viciously horrible, making him re-live the terrors and cruelties of the battle.

He was again thundering down the Waterloo hill on Titan, together with the rest of his regiment. Their commanding officer, Lord Somerset had received the suggestion from Lord Uxbridge, supreme cavalry commander, that he could lead the attack following his own instincts. Somerset let his men gallop straight into the French infantry, without checking their numbers first. Despite the enormous strength in numbers of the French, the cavalry managed to annihilate the largest part. If they had only been permitted to finish the job instead of charging ahead, they might have created a breech in the French forces, big enough for Wellington to take up position with his infantry. Now, instead, they faced the relatively unscathed French artillery. The Household Brigade was massacred on that 18th of June, 1815.

Alex’ own ordeal had been merciful compared to that of his fellow officers, even though he had been severely wounded . A French grapeshot cannonball drilled a massive hole in the first ranks of men who managed the breakthrough. Thirty yards away from the impact zone, Titan went down under the force of the blow. Simultaneously, Alex was hit in the head  by a piece of grapeshot. The horse’s massive body covered him yet did not cause any ribs to break. While Alex was still reeling under the impact, ears deafened and vision blurred, a French sword came down on him, slicing across his torso. His ribs caught the blow but fortunately, the wound was not too deep. Even so, it was a miracle that no organs had been damaged. What happened next was a large black hole. He had awakened much, much later on the ship to England, to find himself weakened by weeks of unconsciousness and fever.

A whispered moan from Rowena drew Alex back to the present. She was shifting in his arms, her breasts rubbing against his chest. The instant, predictable reaction of his body was to have her again, even though she was still asleep, her breathing going to regular again. No, he would not wake her. She would not have recovered from last night, he knew. Moreover, she was in the last trimester of her pregnancy, and he was not sure if they should have carnal relations at all. What went through his mind, though, was the sweet, innocent way she had reacted to his seduction, the previous night in her room. She must have known how to respond to a man’s touch, her present condition testimony to that, yet she had given him total control over the reins. She had followed, and with a lack of experience that matched a virgin’s. That could only mean her lover had been a selfish brute, only interested in dousing his own fire, without consideration for Rowena’s own needs.

But Alex already knew that, too. The bastard had gotten her with child, knowing full well he would have to go to battle and leave her. Alex would not mind giving Peter Johnston a thorough beating, if the man should still be alive.

There was, he reckoned, another little something he needed to tackle. Had they not made love in her bed, last night? So why had she come to his, sometime during the night? It puzzled him, even though he was happy that she had done so. Until … he realized he must have had one of his nightmares.

Lord … that was … awkward. If indeed he had cried out, and she had come to him, then … no, he needed to know more. But did he? What if she simply had come because she had been cold? Yes, that must be it. It was the dead of winter, after all. She would be terribly embarrassed when she woke up in his bed, he mused. He had to get her back into hers.

Alex rose, and as carefully as he could, scooped Rowena up. She nestled against him with a sigh, and something inside him shifted. He ignored it and carried her to her bed. Laying her down with infinite care, he was glad that he had not wakened her. He neatly tucked the blankets around her, then paused, while he looked at her sleeping form. On an impulse, he bent over her and kissed her brow. She sighed in her sleep, and smiled. His heart made a weird kind of rotation, which caused his chest to constrict. No, he forbade himself to reflect on it, and strode out of Rowena’s room. When he returned to his bed to enjoy a few extra hours of sleep, he noticed the tell-tale stains of lovemaking. Bloody, damned bloody hell …

The Reclusive Aristocrat – Part Twenty-Two

Chapter Ten (completed)

Alex inwardly purred with male satisfaction at the signs of arousal coming from Rowena. Signs and sounds she was not even aware of, like little, frenzied intakes of air, and quiet rustle of cloth when she shifted restlessly on her stool. As for feeling frenzied, he was in that same state, too. It had been ages since he had felt this way. He was like a man who had slept for years only to come alive with need at a woman’s touch, although his wife had not touched him at all yet. He suppressed a quiver of anticipation at the thought of her soft, silken hands on him, and concentrated on reigning in his ever growing desire. He needed to be careful with Rowena. She was with child and she was also emotionally vulnerable. So he began drying himself with slow, purposeful strokes, and rejoiced when he heard her little moan. When he was ready, he turned to her and smiling, dropped the towel.

“Come,” was all he said as he extended a hand to her, and inwardly cheered when she stepped nearer. He covered the hand that was still clutching the towel she had wrapped herself in. Gently he pried it from her fingers, eased it open, and pulled it from her. Then finally, he took her into the circle of his arms, sheer joy flooding through him when her warm, soft body met the hot steel of his. He took a few moments to savour the bliss of holding her tightly against him, then scooped her in to his arms.

“Oh,” he whispered, “oh, how I remember this so very well. This is how you felt in my arms the very first day I met you.”

He strode to her bed, noticed that someone had drawn back the covers, ready for him to gently lay her down. Her glorious hair, a waterfall of chocolate-coloured silk, formed a cloak whereupon she lay like a fairy-tale princess. Lord, he had to change the way he was staring at her! He was still supposed to be nearly blind, was he not? He quickly fixed his eyes on the pale blue satin that adorned the counterpane. At least, that was soothing enough to help him conquer the most rampant images of ravishing her beneath him.

With an inward groan, Alex forced himself to shut his eyes. Only tactile sense for him from now on, although his nostrils greedily took in her lovely scent, and it nearly broke his defences.

Rowena lay still and allowed herself to take in the fascinating man who was her husband. She was burning for him, so much was true, but she knew it had been his purpose to make her burn. She had only reacted to his very male seduction, and gladly so, because she was no green girl fresh from the schoolroom. She knew how a man seduced a woman, from the time Peter had loved her, although she could not just call Peter a seducer. She herself had willingly stepped into the dance, too.      There was, however, a distinct difference between Peter and her new husband. Alex Raventhorpe was much, much bolder, and he was arrogantly seducing her, leaving her no room to protest. He was all male power and authority, and he was in charge. Yet Rowena found that she would wholeheartedly give in to his courting. She had an inkling that Alex’ lovemaking would be all-consuming and utterly fulfilling. And so it was that she lay still and waited for him to make love to her.

Their bodies touched as Alex lowered himself beside his wife. The thick, soft mattress dipped, causing her to roll against him, and he took the advantage to slide his arm under her shoulders. Almost instantly, she pressed against him, her leg slipping over his thigh as she hooked her foot behind one of his. Lord almighty, that felt good. He revelled in her shy but courageous response, which promised so much more to come.

He pushed his erection between her legs, rejoicing in her whimper of delight. One of his hands locked on the small of her back, immobilizing her. Her lovely, pregnancy-swollen breasts pushed against his chest, their nipples hard and tantalizing. He cupped one breast and smothered her gasp with a kiss.

Rowena’s spirits soared when his demanding tongue invaded her mouth. Slowly, deeply, he plundered her mouth with while his hand tweaked, kneaded and stroked her breast. Her body responded with alacrity, as a delicious heat began spreading from her breast to her core. She lost herself in Alex’ kiss, opened up to him as her thoughts scattered. She found she had wrapped her arms around his shoulders in her eagerness to press closer. As she was lying on her side, her belly was not hindering their close embrace. Rowena found it extremely comfortable to be in that position.

“Pull up your knees for me, my beauty,” Alex’ silky voice purred into her ear. “I am going to position myself sideways between them. I do not wish to hurt you or your little one.”

Rowena obeyed, thrilled with the sensations the movement brought on. She could feel his erection push against her core, so she opened her legs widely, then hooked them around his waist. Oh, God! She wanted this so much!

She shuddered when she felt him enter her, a sudden surge of fear closing a tight fist around her heart. Her babe! This could not be good for her child! Instinctively, Rowena scooted away from Alex, pushing against his chest with a sob. To her surprise, he did not pull her back. Instead, his hands stroked her back, soothing, comforting, and without sexual demands. Just the curve of her lower back, where it had ached so frequently these past weeks, due to her advanced pregnancy.

For a long while, Rowena just gave herself over to the heavenly feeling of her husband’s strong hands, which were easing all her tensed muscles. After a few moments, she became aware of his warm, hard body, creating a heat where it touched hers. She began feeling a stir of desire coming to life again.

“Shall I leave you for tonight, Rowena? I was wrong to try and force you in your advanced state of pregnancy, and I must apologize for inconveniencing you.”

Panic engulfed Rowena when her husband released her and began removing himself.

“No, please, stay! I … I am afraid I am a big coward, my lord. I fear for the child and …”

Alex’ heart clenched with compassion when he realized what it was she was fearing. Poor Rowena – she was, after all, still so very young. He pulled her close, once again, repositioning her as she had been before. Then he put one hand against the small of her back, as he had done before, to anchor her.

“Close your eyes, my beauty, and banish all thoughts from your mind. Do not think, only feel.”

“What are you going to do, my lord? I …”

“Shhh, be still, sweet …”

He began stroking her soft, round shoulders and beautiful, long, slender neck, revelling in the feel of her perfect skin. He loved how her breasts lifted as he caressed their delicious form, which fitted so perfectly in his large hand. She pressed them into his palm, sighing with desire, and he loved that, too. Slowly, he let his hand roam over her entire body, mapping it out, circling her breasts with the back of his hand until it lifted one of them. His thumb tweaked, rubbed, tickled, and she responded eagerly. He let his hand wander to the curve of her rounded stomach, teasing her belly button, which was now a tiny peak instead of a dip. She gasped with delight and pressed herself closer.

“My lord …” Her voice was but an airless whisper, but it thrilled him to the core.

“Alex …” he purred into her ear, “my name is Alex.”

“Alex …” The soft sound of his name shot a spear of desire into his loins, and he reached for her folds, buried in the silken curls of her womanhood.

“Alex!” She almost cried out, and he emboldened his strokes, pushing one finger into her core. She writhed, rubbed herself against his hand, uttering soft little moans of delight. Good, that was how he wanted her.

 

Rowena was on fire. The flames shot up from her core and devoured her entire body, and she wanted only one thing; to get closer to her husband, ever closer. She could not draw breath, when one long finger breached her opening, and began slowly teasing her bud out of its hood. Oh … oh, my … Long forgotten sensations awakened, the heat stirring her body, the dampness blossoming in her core, the tingling, the tension growing in her womb and spreading, ever so sweetly …

Her mind blanked, and her body relaxed, tensed, and then relaxed again until a second finger joined the first. Sweet Virgin … but Peter had never, ever done that! He would rub her but never enter her with his fingers, although, at the time, she had craved for that kind of caress. Peter never took the time to prepare her, she now realized, not like Alex was doing now. Alex, who was now licking her nipple … who was simultaneously wooing her in the two most sensitive spots she had. Oh … oh!

Alex grinned when Rowena came. She bucked under his hand, a tiny, high little cry coming from her. He could feel her wetness blossom around his fingers, her inner walls clutching him tightly. God, he wanted her! His already fully aroused cock grew even larger, straining under the ache to claim her. It was time, she as ready for him.

Gently, he withdrew his fingers, and placed his cock at her entrance, then pushed slowly inside. She instantly accepted him, wrapping her legs about his waist with a sob. He gave a slow, gentle stroke, just to get the feeling of her, and she clenched around him, nearly driving him over the edge. Gritting his teeth, he began to set up a slow, languish rhythm, not too deep, not too fast. She responded by matching him avidly and without restraint or fear.

It had been his intension to make her climax a second time before he let himself go, but his treacherous body cut that short. To his utter surprise, he could not stop the glorious, bright release of his seed. Still reeling under the waves of bliss, that kept washing over him, he helplessly clutched her deeper into his embrace. Her feminine scent drugged him, and he revelled in it. When she violently peaked around him, bombarding him with enormous waves of delight, he felt something claw at his heart. It did not hurt, however. It felt right.

 

The Reclusive Aristocrat – Part Twenty-One

Chapter Ten (continued)

Rowena had the distinct impression that this wedding day of hers was as unreal as a fairy tale, and each moment, she expected to come awake and discover it had all been a dream. It had all been perfect, for sure. The ceremony of their wedding, the modest presents of the people when they had congratulated her, the small wedding breakfast with some of the people that had come on Christmas Eve, seven days ago. Her husband, the earl, tall and magnificent, who had spoken his vows in a voice that shook the eaves of the church. His touch, as he slid the ring onto her finger, his embrace, so fierce and strong.

He had, however, not spoken overly during the ride home and the breakfast. He had even left her alone to go and talk to John Wallis and to his solicitor, while she had stayed to entertain their guests. Rowena guessed that this might just be the waking moment; she standing amidst the guests, terribly missing her new husband. She had a sudden fear that the rest of her married life might have many moments of loneliness. After all, their marriage was one of convenience, was it not? Alex might be an earl, but he was damaged, and had not been bound to find a proper bride, blind as he was. And she was a fallen woman, who was desperate to have a home for her fatherless child. There was no love between them, and she feared there would never be.

But was it foolish of Rowena to hope for affection, for friendship, even?

Now the guests were leaving, and Alex was nowhere in sight. Rowena bade them all a friendly goodbye, on her own. It was not a pleasant task, but she was determined to make the best of it. When the last guest had departed, Rowena ordered a light supper to be prepared. She went upstairs to her new bedchamber, one that was connected to the master bed rooms by a dressing room. There she found Meg, who had laid out Rowena’s nightgown on the large bed.

A large fire was blazing in the hearth, drawing Rowena nearer. She stretched out her icy-cold hands towards the flames, glad for the warmth.

“Let go of your fear, Rowie. Your husband is a good man and he will care for you.”

“Oh, Meg! How is it that you always seem to know my thoughts?”

Meg came to her and drew her in her arms. “Because you are the daughter I never had, dearest. Now come, let me help you undress. Lord, but you are cold as ice! Hurry, in the tub with you.”

 

Mr Septimus Middlebridge gathered his documents and meticulously stored them in his portfolio.

“Thank you, my lord,” he said with his usual congeniality, “this concludes all necessary changes to your will, and also the new financial arrangements you provided for Her Ladyship and for Mr and Mrs Wallis. May I again congratulate you on your marriage, my lord?”

He extended his hand, first to Alex, who took it swiftly, and then turned to John Wallis. “A pleasure to make your acquaintance, I am sure, Mr Wallis. May we have many satisfactory meetings in the future.”

“Likewise, Mr Middlebridge,” John Wallis agreed.

Fidgeting with the last of his documents, Middlebridge retrieved a large manila envelope from his portfolio.

“My lord, if I may ask for your attention one last time?”

Alex, whose thoughts had been in the bedroom upstairs where his bride was waiting for him, turned an annoyed gaze to his solicitor. “Yes, Middlebridge, what is it?”

“I have received a summons from London, my lord. The Lord Chancellor requests your presence at the House in order to hand over your patent letters. As you might know, they are needed to establish you as the fifth earl of Ketteridge.”

Damn. The man was right. Alex had yet to be acknowledged as his brother’s successor. After his return from the battlefield, he had been too sick to even realise he was the new earl. Now, he mused, there was nothing to prevent him to go to London any more.

“You may answer the Lord Chancellor’s summons, Middlebridge, and inform him I shall be in Town in mid-January.”

The solicitor bowed one last time and took his leave. Alex waited for the click of the lock before addressing his steward. “I hope, Mr Wallis, that I will have your utmost loyalty from now on? The countess and I will have need of your services in the immediate future, here as well as in London.”

If John Wallis was shocked, it was by no means not noticeable, Alex mused. No intake of breath, no change of expression on his lined face.

“My lord,” the man stated in an even voice, “you had it from the beginning. My professional pride would never be overcome by personal motives. Still I am very happy that you made our dearest Rowie your wife. She is like a daughter to Mrs Wallis and me, and we would not want to see her unhappy. I wish you every happiness in your union with her ladyship, my lord.”

The steward bowed and left.

Alex allowed himself a last splash of Laphroig, reluctant to leave for bed, and equally averse to stay away from his wife. His wife … his countess … he felt strange, a bit unsure as to what to do, but he also experienced – and here he hesitated to form the words he was searching for – a burning elation, an eager anticipation. Had he not burned for her since the first seconds he met her? He wanted to lose himself in the arms of his new wife. Be disintegrated and be reborn again. It would be impossible tonight. He could not make love to Rowena before she had given birth, could he? What if he hurt her unborn child with his rampant lust? Because that was what he had felt from the first moment he put his hands on her – desire, pure and simple … and fierce possessiveness.

In puzzlement, Alex wondered about why she had the power to do just that; to make him desire her, when at first, he had not even been able to see her properly. He was a soldier, a man who, through his regiment’s journeys, had wandered the earth and encountered many women. Never had he experienced anything else than lust, and never in such an intense, almost compelling way. Never had he lusted so violently after a woman as he did after Rowena.

There. He had formed the thought that had been whirling inside his head since the first of December. It was utterly bewildering, fiercely foolish, even. A month ago, he had not even met her, and now she was bound to him for life. As he was to her. She would soon be at his side when they departed for London. How would she deal with the Ton? God, but he had never ever thought to have to deal with all that ever again!

He drained the last of his whisky and headed for his rooms – no, they were their rooms now. He had better get used to that notion.

In the master bedroom, Porter was fussing about, tidying where it was unnecessary. He heaved a sigh of relief when he saw his master. “Thought ye’d never come up, major. The day was long, ye know. A fella wants te get a rest. ‘Ere, shall I ‘elp ye wi’ undressin’?”

“No need, Porter. Go to bed, I won’t keep you from it any longer.” He turned to the dressing room door.

“Ye can’t go in there yet, major. Yer gonna ‘ave to wait until ‘Er Ladyship is done.”

“No,” Alex said, a sudden rush heating his blood, “I do not think so, Porter.”

 

 

In the dressing room, Meg helped Rowena into the bathtub, then began clearing up, humming cheerfully. Rowena relaxed a little when she lowered herself in the fragrant, pleasantly warm water Meg had prepared for her. She was tired after the long day fraught with emotions. Emotions that were now being rekindled …

Alex had been in a strange mood all day, she mused, and one that she had had trouble dealing with. Oh, he had been kind enough, and gallant, and so handsome, when he had guided her through their wedding ceremony. But that had been when they were in the throng of the community, where it mattered how they behaved as the lord and lady of the manor. People – Alex’ people to be precise – needed reassurance, Rowena knew. They had been neglected by their lord for too long a time. Their lord marrying had given them new hope of a brighter, more prosperous future.

Rowena realized Alex had put it into her care to give his people the much needed certainty that all would go better from now on. That was why he had left her alone to walk amongst their guests, and talk to them. All perfectly understandable, but Rowena could have wished for a bit of reassurance herself. A few words with her husband before …

Rowena swallowed and sat up in the bath. In a few moments, they would share intimacy. A bed, a room, and … their bodies. She turned to Meg in a panic. “Oh, Meg, I am wondering …”

She stopped on a gasp, unsure as how to put her anxiety into words.

“What is it, my pet?”

“Well … will it … could it …”

Meg was instantly beside her, and she began lathering soap onto a cloth. “Come, my dove, let me.”

Rowena let out a sigh of well-being when Meg’s administrations began working their soothing magic. They brought her back to the long-ago days of her childhood, when Meg had been her nanny. Meg, who had always been there for her, and who was now here with her again. Rowena sent up a silent prayer of thanks.

“Meg, will it hurt the baby if … if we …”

Meg smiled. “No, my dearest, it will not harm the little one, if his lordship goes about it gently, which I am sure he will. Nothing will occur before time, if that is what you are worrying over. It is not yet your due time, so do not concern yourself. Instead, go to your husband with all the attention he is worth of.”

“I … oh, Meg, it is all so unexpected! So … sudden! I really had no time to … accustom myself to these … requirements I knew for so little a time and …”

To Rowena’s surprise, Meg burst into a peel of laughter. “Oh, Rowie, do not be so missish now! You know what it is like to be touched by a man, do you not?”

“Yes, but …”

“I am certain that every man has his own approach, his own touch, but the basics do stay the same, do they not?”

Rowena was about to point out that her new husband surely was not ‘every man’, when the door opened. Her lord stepped in, clad in loose black silk trousers that clung to his hips like a second skin. They were riding low on his narrow waist, a waist Rowena could stare at to her heart’s content, because his broad, tightly muscled chest was bare.

She was unable to tear her gaze away from his beautiful form, so it took her several moments before she realized she was still in her bath. Naked, and unprotected from his gaze. Oh, of course, there she was mistaken – he could not see her, or at least, not clearly. That made her draw in that much needed gulp of air, finally.

 

Inwardly gritting his teeth, Alex fixed his eyes to the wall above the bath tub. Lord Almighty, but what a sight had just assaulted him! His new, young and perfectly rounded wife was still lounging in the water, her delectable curves glistening with it. By Jove, if she was that gorgeous when she was rounded with pregnancy, how would she look like when she was not! It did not bear thinking of.

At that moment, Mrs Wallis spoke. “Good night, my lady, my lord.” She then curtsied and hurriedly left. Alex began loosening the silk cord that fastened his trousers.

“Forgive me, my dear. I did not know you had not finished your ablutions yet.”

Whereupon he bent down and scooped up his wet bride to put her on her feet beside the bath. The little squeal she made sent a sparkle up his spine. Outwardly unperturbed, he reached for a towel and began wrapping her in it.

“There,” he said, “you can finish off drying yourself whilst I bathe.”

And the next second, he dropped his trousers.

Rowena stood there, mesmerized with what was before her. The large, muscular body of her husband, entirely naked, and in a state that was utterly frightening to her. He was … large. Extremely large. How would he … she hastily pushed that thought away because there was so much to admire.

Alex had stepped into the water and was now lathering his large chest with Rowena’s lily-of-the-valley soap. The ripples of muscle this movement brought on, were simply delightful. His taut, slightly tanned skin was perfect, even with the multiple tiny scars that covered his arms and shoulders.

She had trouble breathing as she felt her nipples tighten beneath the towel. Oh, this wonderful feeling she had known all those months ago, how she had missed this. Was it even possible for a pregnant woman so far gone as she was to even feel desire that much? Was it normal?

Alex soon proved to her that is was not merely normal but frightfully compelling, too. He rose, water sliding along that long, hard body, and Rowena’s entranced gaze travelled down with the glistening drops. Down, more and more, along that broad chest to that flat, narrow stomach and …

When her eyes caught sight of his fully aroused manhood, Rowena’s body tensed, grew cold, then erupted in flames. All saints in heaven … how was she to handle this? He was magnificent, he was a worrier! Her legs weakened, and she sank onto a low stool near the wall, wincing when a dull pain throbbed within her womanly folds. Although it felt so incredibly good …

The Reclusive Aristocrat – Part Twenty

Chapter Ten (continued)

The luncheon on Christmas Day had gone by in the same enjoyable and amiable atmosphere, with their own staff as guests now.

Afterwards, there had been a meeting with Mr Septimus Middlebridge, Alex’ solicitor. Rowena had been surprised by yet another cheerful acknowledgment of her marriage to Alex. Everybody seemed in complete agreement about the fifth earl of Ketteridge uniting himself to a woman of no means. A woman spoiled by another man’s touch, and carrying so blatant a proof of it.

“Miss Drake,” Mr Middlebridge had said in a suave voice, “you will be pleased to hear that His Lordship wishes you to participate in the whole extent of his possessions. He has placed a settlement on you that amounts to two thousand pounds a year, for as long as you are his wife. He has also made arrangements for the child you are carrying. His Lordship regrets that he cannot make the child his heir, as you well understand, but he will bestow an annual allowance of a thousand pounds on the babe, to assure its upkeep and education.”

Rowena had stared at Alex with utter disbelief, her head reeling under what she had just heard. She had refrained from commenting while in Mr Middlebridge’s presence and instead, had thanked Alex for his generosity. She had also wondered why he had not told her himself of all this. Was he already regretting it? Rowena had tried to speak to him when the solicitor had left, but Alex claimed he had work to do. He had retired to his library, leaving Rowena with the distinct impression that she was not welcome there now.

Had she imagined their shared feelings during the Christmas Eve dance? Had it only been her own longing for him? Tears blurred her vision as she retreated to her rooms, yet she firmly blinked them away. She had a lifetime to find out Alex’ secrets.

 

On the morning of December 31th, the sun was brittle but bright, its rays firing sparkles off the snow-covered fields and pastures. It was bitterly cold when people began to scuttle into St Crispin’s church in the village of Ketteridge to watch their lord marry. Near the altar, the villagers and tenants could see him standing beside his two best men, his friend, Dr Richard Orme and his batman, James Porter.

Alexander Richard Christopher Raventhorpe, fifth earl of Ketteridge cut a fine figure in his splendid regimentals, his stance proud and firm. He held his white-plumed helmet in one hand, and his white gloves in the other, and his gaze – his blind gaze – was upon the rear of the church where the double doors had been thrown open. A gust of cold, brisk winter air wafted inside and made the many candle flames waver. The congregation shivered, and the men turned up their coat collars, while the women drew their wrappings closer to their bodies. They all hoped that the bride would not let them wait overly long, so that they could return to their warm homes.

They did not have to wait for long, because precisely at the stroke of eleven, the earl’s carriage drew up before the church door.

Murmurs of appreciation began rustling down the knave of the church as people began to catch a glimpse of the bride. Alex reminded himself firmly not – in any case at all – to stare at his bride. Rowena was not yet supposed to know he was able to see. He did not want her to be cross at him for deceiving her. He wanted to wait until the time for confession was right, and that was not today, on their wedding day, when sincerity and straightforwardness were needed. He straightened to full attention, as befitted an officer of the Household Guards, and directed his gaze at the rear of the church.

A vision in white was striding down the aisle at John Wallis’ arm – no, not a vision, a fairy tale queen, dressed in a gown of pure white silk, the skirt wide to disguise her pregnancy. She wore a white mink pelisse that accentuated the creamy peach colour of her lovely face, and brought out the rich chocolate waterfall of her glorious hair. Lord, it was incredible, but her hair fell in long, silky waves to far beneath her waist. She had pinned up two solitary strands of it, and they framed her sweet face like a veil. She looked like a medieval queen marrying her king. Alex swallowed at the thought of his hands going through that richness, of his face buried into it, inhaling her sweet womanly scent. Christ, he became hard as …

Stop! You fool! Behave, you are in church.

He was suddenly back on Christmas Eve and his waltz with Rowena. She had been so beautiful, with desire darkening her eyes to near black. She had longed for him, then, he was certain of it. Hopefully, she would do the same tonight, in their marital bed.

 

As soon as she stepped into the church, Rowena’s eyes were riveted on the tall form of her husband-to-be. Holy Mother of God, but he was magnificent!

The regimentals aside, he was a sight to behold, in bearing and character. Tall, powerful, and so full of irrevocably masculine strength, with his broad shoulders and strong, hard thighs, and his handsome, beautiful face. His eyes, so light-grey with a bold, blue fire burning in their depths. His long, strong nose, with the tip slightly pointing downward. His large sensual mouth, with its attractive, supple lower lip.

Rowena’s heart jumped when he extended his hand, and hers was placed in it by John, to whom she smiled with fondness. Alex’ warmth shot up her arm to tingle down her spine. He did not wear his gloves, she noticed, and she felt his touch penetrate the fine kidskin of her glove. The attraction she had been feeling from the first moment she set eyes on him, was now tenfold, and she welcomed it, no, had a strong urge to give in to it. To let him take over her entire person. Today was their wedding day, and tonight, he would make her his wife. A shiver ran through her at the notion of what was to come.

His wife! She would be his wife. Tonight … Alex was going to make love to her. Suddenly, the noises in the church, the rustling of clothing, and the low humming of hushed conversation, it all blurred and mingled into a muffled din in Rowena’s ears, as if she were under water.

Suddenly, she was aware of one thing, and one thing only; she would have intercourse with Alex, and she would welcome it. She knew how it was, she had savoured a man’s touch on her body and experienced pleasure. Even though she had known Alex only for a bit less than a month, Rowena knew that she longed for his touch. Alex was a good man, that much she knew also. He had taken her in and was marrying her, even though she was carrying another man’s child.

Her thoughts were shattered by the vicar’s clear, intoning voice.

“Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today to join this man and this woman in holy matrimony.”

 

Alex felt Rowena’s hand tremble, and irritation instantly ran through him. Why did she appear to be afraid? Was she afraid of him? Had he not promised to protect her? Then why did her voice waver ever so slightly when she spoke her vows? Why were her words so quiet that even he had to strain his ears to hear them? Damnation, but he would have to teach her not to be afraid of him!

The reverend Mr Bonneville was now blessing the wedding band. It had been the previous countess’ ring, and the best Alex could conjure up in so short a time, but he felt sure his mother would not have objected to her daughter-in-law borrowing her wedding band. He took the ring and lifted Rowena’s hand when he realised that she was still wearing her kid gloves. Christ, but had nobody told her brides did not wear gloves? Remembering that he had to feel rather than see the glove, he began tugging it off with slow but deliberate gestures, first the thumb, then the other fingers.

“With this ring I thee wed, with my body I thee honor, and all my worldly goods I bestow on thee.”

He slipped the band onto the fourth finger of her left hand, then brought it to his lips, not to kiss her knuckles but her palm. He let his lips linger longer than was necessary, until she shivered with a slight intake of breath.

The reverend Bonneville intoned further. “In as much as you, my lord Ketteridge and you, my lady Rowena have thus consented in holy matrimony and have witnessed the same before God and this gathering, and by the authority vested in me by the Church of England, I now pronounce you husband and wife. What God hath joined together, let no man put asunder. My lord, you may kiss your bride.”

Alex lifted his hands to Rowena’s face and was surprised to find an impossibly thin veil block the way to her mouth. The damned thing was too insubstantial for him to be able to see it with his still imperfect eyesight, or for his large hands to lift it out of the way. His fingers were clumsily fumbling with the gossamer fabric, when his bride surprised him and did away with the veil. She then rose onto the tips of her toes and touched her lips with hers. He felt a surge of triumph, so powerful that he wrapped her in an embrace fit to crush her. Which it did, of course. She gave a little cry of pain when he crushed her pregnant body against his, the sound of it fortunately being overruled by the congregation’s applause. He forbore the kiss and put her from him, then placed her hand on his arm and marched her to the church’s exit.

Rowena, thoroughly surprised, and a little hurt by his curtness, forced a smile on her face. She would not fail him as his countess, if it killed her.

A substantial part of the crowd had already filed out through the side entrance, and so it was that a loud cheering rose when they exited the church. Mostly women and children, of course, which befitted a new countess. Alex watched his bride receive the many well-wishes of Ketteridge’s mothers in the form of small bouquets of herbs and a few snowdrops, too. It was the middle of winter, and there were no flowers as yet, beside the snowdrops.

Rowena, he saw, gathered all the gifts in her arms and took the time to speak with everyone that was present. He, on the other hand, looked a bit superfluous, amidst all that feminine company, but he did not mind. This was Rowena’s day, and she should be in the center of it all.

It was amazing. People flocked around her as if they wanted to be as near to her as they could. Alex’ mouth nearly fell open when he saw his two footmen hurry at her side to take the parcels and bouquets from her.

“Should you not be at her side, or is basking in your new wife’s popularity a bit painful for you?”

Alex grimaced at Richard Orme’s teasing tone. “Are you suggesting I am jealous of her being liked by my own people? Because I am not, Rich, and well you know it. Besides, it is a good thing that my countess be liked. She has a role of her own to fulfil.”

“Have you told her yet about your improving eyesight?”

“No.”

“Thought so. Why not?”

“I am still trying to get used to it myself. Moreover, I do not know if it is permanent. I do not want to raise false hopes.”

At his other side, Porter chimed in. “’Ave ye told ‘er about yer nightmares yet, major? She’s bound te wake up when ye scream yer ‘ead off in the night.”

Alex’ patience was wearing thin as he growled, “What are you two? My conscience? Do not concern yourselves over what I tell my wife or do not tell her. The two of you are fortunate to be my friends, or I would have called you out!”

He strode away to his carriage, irritated because Orme and Porter were right. He should have spoken with his wife about many things yet he had not. The worst of it was that such matters had a tendency to get stickier the longer one allowed them to fester.

The Reclusive Aristocrat – Part Nineteen

Chapter Ten

Ketteridge House, Leicestershire, England, December 24th, 1815

 

A few days passed in a flurry of activities, which left Rowena no time to reflect upon the hasty marriage she was about to commit to.

After the proposal he foisted so unexpectedly on her, Alex, who was becoming more skilled at horse riding once again, had departed to Leicester with Porter. He wanted to secure the license and speak with his solicitor post haste. Rowena and Meg had continued making the preparations, first to compose presents for the tenants, and secondly to arrange the wedding. They worked alongside the small army of servants to have Ketteridge House as welcoming as was possible in the short amount of time available.

 

On Christmas Eve of 1815, Alexander Raventhorpe, fifth earl of Ketteridge welcomed his neighbours and tenants for the first feast since his mother died thirty years ago.

The earl, extremely dashing in full evening attire, stood waiting in Ketteridge’s large hall, ready to welcome his guests as they arrived. He had insisted most thoroughly that Rowena should be at his side. She had shaken a lot of hands, and seen many new faces to whom she had to attach new names as well. She had also noticed the surprise on people’s faces when Alex introduced her, not as his housekeeper, but as his betrothed, Miss Rowena Drake. People’s gazes drifted invariably to Rowena’s swollen stomach. If out of deference to Alex’ status as the fifth earl of Ketteridge they struggled to keep their facial expressions bland, they could not chase the utter astonishment from their eyes. Yet everybody had cheered when Alex made the announcement of their wedding during his Christmas toast.

Rowena felt overcome with emotion, when people again came to congratulate them. She had been afraid of people’s reactions, as she was a stranger in these parts, and feared she would be judged for what she thought herself to be, a fallen woman. She had been completely wrong, she knew now. Nobody was judging her in the least. They smiled and nodded in agreement, when her betrothed caught her hand to kiss it. Yet Rowena feared they would only acknowledge her because they wanted to please Alex. He was considered their much-anticipated rescuer.

However, the dinner went smoothly, with Meg overseeing it all like a general his troops. People were sitting at tables in the large hall, neighbours with their families, tenants mixing with the staff and with Alex and Rowena themselves. Nobody was waiting on anybody, since the food had been set up on tables all around the hall, and Alex had invited everyone to just line up beside the tables and take whatever they liked. It worked splendidly, and people were enjoying themselves without forgetting how to behave, even though the wine and beer were flowing generously.

After the meal, the tables were removed and chairs were placed on the four sides of the floor, while a small orchestra from Leicester set themselves up on a dais at one side.

 

Alex asked Rowena for the opening dance, while she was helping Meg with the chairs. She turned to him, a delicious glow creeping up in her cheeks. God, he thought, she looked good enough to eat. Her evening gown was of scarlet silk, its cut simple but elegant, and designed to emphasize her pregnancy, not masking it, which would have been so out of character for Rowena.

His eyes roamed over her as he extended a hand to her, taking in her lovely shoulders left bare by the gown. The sweet curve of her breasts just showed over the modest, square neckline, and he found himself drinking in her image. No! No, he could not, he admonished himself! She could not yet know he was able to see her, albeit it still blurred but well enough to enjoy what he was seeing.

The musicians started a slow, demure waltz, and Alex took his betrothed into his arms. He held her in a firm hold and whirled her over the dance floor in a display of great elegance and skill, which had puzzled Rowena. She had no time to think of anything else, the next moment, because Alex drew her even deeper in his embrace, and the room blurred when she could feel his heart beating against hers. She closed her eyes in delight, breathing in the scent of him, relishing the feel of his hard, strong body moving against hers. Oh, sweet heaven.

Rowena realised that she never ever experienced such bliss before. Peter had been an impatient lover, and never allowed her time to adjust to his ardent, somewhat painful lovemaking. It had been only after a few couplings that Rowena had known the first sensations of fulfilment, yet still only shyly awakening to the unknown but heavenly feelings. She had known that they would have to grow further to full blossoming, when she and Peter married, after the threat of war was lifted. It had never happened, for Peter had been taken from her.

Yet now, with Alex, something completely new and wonderful was waiting for her. Anticipation made her legs a trifle weak, and she would have missed a step, had Alex not tightened his hold on her back. The movement brought her lower body closer to his own. Dear Lord, he was aroused – merciful heavens, did she dare think such things? Yet he felt hard and hot against her, causing a sweet ache to blossom between her thighs. She blinked up at him, confused but awaiting more.

His eyes, a deep purple in the light of a thousand candles, bore into hers, giving her the distinct notion that he was actually seeing her, which surely could not be true. She gave him a shy smile, to which he did not respond with one of his own. Thankful that he would never notice her need, now burning hot on her cheeks, Rowena just revelled in the sweet sensations that threatened to drown her. Alex … she longed for something she could not name, but it would be with him as her husband. If that, she was utterly and irrevocably certain.

The Reclusive Aristocrat – Part Eighteen

Chapter Nine (continued)

She heard the words as they penetrated the haze of desire. They did not make any sense, surely. It must be her ever-returning search for safety and love that made her fantasize about Alex, wishing he had said the words aloud. She would not let go of him just yet, the warmth of him soothing her nerves, and making her feel so calm. Then he went and broke the enchantment by taking her by the shoulders to put her before him.

“Rowena, did you even hear what I said?” Now he was looking straight into her eyes, his own blue-grey orbs serious.

She could but nod, her gaze trapped by the fire in his eyes. How was it possible for him to create such a pretence of looking at her, when he was as good as blind? Oh, and she had nodded, so he would not have seen it.

“Yes,” she croaked, “I heard but … I cannot understand. Marry you? It is not possible, my lord, you must be toying with me.” With an effort, she managed to free herself from the earl’s grasp and turned to leave the kitchen.

He stopped her. “Listen, Rowena, and listen well. I wish to marry you and bestow my name upon your unborn child. That is the best way to protect your babe. To protect you, my dear, because you definitely need protection.”

Rowena fought to restore her composure, still reeling under the heady sensations his touch had bestowed on her. She had no inkling as to why the earl would want to have her as his wife. All his talk about protection rang very false in her ears, and besides, she did not need help from him beyond having a roof above her head and earning a bit of money.

“My lord, it grieves me that you are not honest with me,” she said in a somewhat shaky voice, while she searched his face for a readable expression. God knew how difficult that always was. He was a master in masking his thoughts.

“Do you doubt my words, Rowena? Do you think me a liar?”

“No, not that …” Rowena felt heat suffuse her cheeks as she closed her eyes. She could not look at him now.

“What, then?” he asked softly, almost tenderly, while his hand caressed her cheek in a languorous motion. “Tell me, Rowena.”

“I cannot accept your hand, my lord. I will bring shame upon you. I am a fallen woman, pregnant with another man’s child.”

Something shifted inside Alex’ chest, and a large, solid lump formed in his throat. Only for one second before it was replaced by sheer, ragingly hot fury.

What he would not give to have his hands on the scoundrel that brought this upon Rowena! How he would love to trash that blackguard within an inch of his miserable life. By getting her with child, Peter Johnston had not only ruined her body, but also bruised her spirits.

He closed his eyes to allow his emotions to settle, then started to think rationally again.

“Rowena, I know all that already. I obviously do not care about your predicament, or otherwise I would not have proposed.”

He cupped her face in his hands, eager to win her over. “I am not without flaws myself, my dear. We will make a splendid match together. I cannot win the hand of an innocent aristocrat’s daughter, fresh from the schoolroom, and force her to marry an invalid. I need to marry in order to have an heir to the earldom. You cannot find a husband with a bastard child in tow. When we marry, your child will have a name and funds to guide it into future. You will have a title and a fortune to use as you please. You will be my countess. Together we will bring Ketteridge back to fruition and prosperity.”

Rowena heard all this, let the words wash over her while she fought for composure and guidance. It all sounded so logical, so sensible, and it surely was the ideal solution to her problems. As the Countess of Ketteridge, she would have a position and a name. She would have a home for her child. He or she would be growing up with a name and funds to give him or her a future.

However, something was lacking in all his fervent words. There were no words of affection coming from him. Rowena could understand that he did not love her after only the mere three weeks that they had known each other. Holy Virgin, was it only twenty-four days? No, too short a time to let love blossom between them, but surely, he could have spoken more affectionately? He could have said something that would warm her heart and give her the so much needed confidence in their mutual future?

“How … how will we know … if we shall do well together, my lord?” Rowena said in a small voice, feeling herself tremble with uncertainty and fear.

The earl chuckled and brought her face closer to his. His voice was like warm, sweet honey when he spoke.

“Oh, I think we shall get along splendidly, my dear.”

He kissed her, and it was a short, sweet touching of lips that nevertheless shattered all Rowena’s defences. His lips were firm and warm, making her long for something she had missed for such a long, lonely time.

 

Just as Rowena began melting into the kiss, she was startled out of her blissful daze abruptly as Alex released her, took her by the hand, and began dragging her upstairs to the breakfast room. Meg and John, who had only just come down, rose hastily when they entered, and paid they respects.

“Ah, Mr and Mrs Wallis, just the people I wanted to speak with. Miss Drake and I have an announcement to make, and a joyful one, for that matter, since it will resolve all problems regarding impropriety. I will bestow my name and title on her, and once she is my countess, no one will dare cast aspersions about impropriety upon her.”

Rowena watched the expressions on her dear friends’ faces turn from concern into utter joy. Meg threw her arms around Rowena and hugged her tightly. “Oh, my sweet Rowie, what splendid news! You will be forever safe under His Lordship’s protection. I am very happy for you, my love!”

In a haze of incomprehension, Rowena saw John shake the earl’s hand with relief and joy blossoming on his ruddy face. Why were her beloved friends so relieved? Had they been so concerned about her that they considered marriage the only way to save her?

Alex’ voice, ringing with cheerfulness, broke through her thoughts. “Now, let us adjoin to my library for there are many urgent preparations to set in motion. I want our wedding to take place on New Year’s Eve. I will need a few days to procure a marriage license in Leicester. My solicitor must have the time to compose a marriage settlement.”

As he took her hand to lead her away, Rowena realised she had not been given the chance to refuse Alex’ offer. He had just taken her consent for granted.