The Reclusive Aristocrat – Part Thirty-nine

Chapter Seventeen (completed)

Ketteridge House, Leicestershire, England, end of February, 1816

As soon as Alex reached home, he went upstairs to his bedroom. Although it was only just past luncheon time, exhaustion hit him like a tidal wave. It was as if Johnston’s death weighed upon him even heavier than the knowledge of his being alive and a part of Rowena’s life had done. Over and over again, the image of her grieving beside the blackguard’s body kept intruding into his brain and heart. Devil take it, but how could she grieve so over a man who had shamelessly seduced her and afterwards left her thinking he had been killed at Waterloo?

Alex seated himself near the fireplace,  revelling in the sudden warmth, and only now realizing how cold he was. He needed to think, to scrutinize all the information he had on this matter. That had been how he survived many a dire situation during his army days.

One matter was as clear as daylight; Johnston had not returned home directly after the battle. He had turned up here in Ketteridge around the end of December, but where had he been in the six months preceding that moment? According to what the scoundrel told Rowena, he had suffered from amnesia and had only recently remembered who he was. Possible, but Alex knew all too well that amnesia was the common excuse for deserters to justify their transgression.

Then there was the dead man’s connexion to Rowena’s half-brother, Roderick Drake, proven by the button found in the cottage. Was Drake the murderer or was there someone else involved? Surely, Drake would not venture all the way down from Cumberland to do away with Johnston? Or would he? Alex was suddenly aware of how little he knew about Rowena’s family.

The dressing room door opened admitting his wife. Alex stared at her in astonishment; had he not locked all the doors as he usually did? He abhorred the notion that anyone, especially Rowena, would strode into his sanctuary.

“Forgive me, Alex, but I need to talk to you. Do not look so utterly stunned. I had a copy made of all the keys in the house, and at present, Meg and I have them all. If you are in need of privacy, please inform me, but otherwise, I want to be able to enter every room in this house. It is my prerogative as the mistress.”

 

Not only was he stunned, Rowena noticed, but he also seemed relieved, as if he had been waiting for her to do exactly what she had done at this moment. She had boldly invaded his very own sanctuary, the room in which he strove to be alone, to be without her. Rowena was bored of not being a part of Alex’ life and she had taken her courage in her own two hands and breeched the doors. Porter, of all people, had helped her by handing over the keys when she asked for them. That was perhaps the greatest surprise of all, that she had been able to ensure the sour valet’s help. Yet breeching the barring doors was only the first part of Rowena’s plan.

“I have a confession to make,” she said, inwardly smiling at his obvious confusion. She forged on, before her courage let her down. “I was present at The Fox and Hare, this morning, despite your urgency that I stay home.”

Anger flashed in his blue, oh so blue eyes. “And did you intend to stand up as a witness in person, or did you have some sense left at that point?”

“I would never do anything to harm you, Alex, which I would have done been if I had come forward. We agreed that I would not stand up, so I did not. I was, however, very eager to see you as the earl of Ketteridge in public for the first time.”

“Oh? And now you have, and all that time you risked being seen, which would have damaged my budding reputation as a magistrate. It is badly done, Rowena, and I sincerely hope that you will take more heed of my words in the future.”

Rowena smiled. “I will always take heed of everything you do or say, Alex. We are husband and wife, the earl and countess of Ketteridge, which, if I understand correctly, we are not yet officially. That is what I came to talk about, Alex. We need to go to London and get your patent letters from the Lord Chancellor. We must show the world that there is a new earl of Ketteridge.”

 

She was so stunningly beautiful. So regal and fiery at the same time, and so utterly adorable that it made his heart beat in his chest like a bird trying to escape its cage. What a change this woman had wrought in his former, miserable life. She was right, of course. They needed to go to London, but Alex dreaded that in the extreme. The thought of exposing her to the London Ton, that enormous mass of flippant, rattle-brained, spend-drift  aristocrats, scared the wits out of him. The so-called beau monde did not care a hoot as to what happened to the rest of the world, as long as they had their share of brainless amusements at the expense of others less fortunate. They were a cruel and vicious lot, he knew, and they would tear her to pieces at the first misstep she made.

“Rowie … Oh, Rowie, what a child you are,” he croaked, desperately swallowing down his distress. “You truly have no idea of what you are talking about, do you? Yes, you are right in my having to retrieve my letters from the House of Lords, and I was planning on doing just that. However, you cannot accompany me there without having been presented at Court, Rowena, and that is nigh-on an impossible thing to happen. You have no experience in society, my dear. You would have to master all the requirements for proper behaviour under the tutelage of a sponsor. You do not have such a sponsor, wife, and I could provide one if I tried. So, no, my dear, if I am to go to London, it must be without you. I deeply regret it, but it cannot be helped.”

She laughed, she laughed, for heaven’s sake! “Alex, you forget that, though short it was, I grant you, I had my London season two years ago under my aunt Charlotte’s sponsorship. I did the round of the routs we were invited to, thanks to my uncle’s business connections. It was a meagre lot, since the highest sticklers of aristocracy will shun a man in trade, but nevertheless, I learned how to behave in society well enough. The Ton does not agree with me, to be honest. There is such an immense hypocrisy about it all, so much deceit and conceit about it. For your sake – our sake – I will bear it, Alex. I can be your countess, that I know as much.”

Her sweet smile was so trusting, her stance so confident, and her eyes were sparkling with oh, so much innocent enthusiasm. He had to raise one final issue, he knew.

“How are we going to fare with Emma Rose, Rowena? Surely, she is still too small for such a journey. You are still nursing her, remember?”

“Yes, and I am determined to nurse her as long as I am able to. Oh, Alex, it is such a great joy to hold her and have her snuggling against my breast!”

Alex violently swallowed at the sudden lump in his throat.  He could not point a finger to what exactly it was that made him feel so vulnerable and out of sorts. He only knew that it was not his usual state of mind and that the phenomenon had started when little Emma was born, which was utterly ridiculous, since she was not his child. Rowena, however, continued speaking in rapt enthusiasm.

“It will be perfectly all right to take her with us to London, Alex. We can travel in short stages and alight at inns at regular times so that I can feed her. We will take Nanny Bessy to see to her needs when I am busy elsewhere.”

He had forgotten about the nanny, Bessy Cooper, sister to the wet nurse Tracy Cobbins. She was only seventeen but competent enough to look after Emma. Her own mother had nine children and Bessy was the second after Tracy. She had looked after her younger siblings since she was five years old.

“I was wondering, Alex, how well are you acquainted with the Ton?”

“Not very well, I fear. After my time in Cambridge, I bought my commission and was instantly shipped off to Spain. I actually never participated in the Ton’s revelries. I visited London a few times while I was at university but hardly went to balls. White’s was where I stayed and where I had some friends but it has been a long time since I was in the capital. I became a recluse after my army days, remember?”

“Yes, I know … but, Alex, that was because you were so gravely injured at Waterloo. What would you have done if you had returned home undamaged?”

“Hard to say. You must realize, Rowena, that an experience like that of Waterloo is something that can thoroughly change a man. I was changed in ways I am even now just beginning to uncover.”

Her lovely deep brown eyes shone with compassion, which made Alex feel uncomfortable. He did not want her pitying him over his army career which had been his own free choice.

“Well,” she collected herself, “then going to London will do us all a lot of good!”

 

 

 

The Reclusive Aristocrat – Part Thirty-eight

Chapter Seventeen

Ketteridge House, Leicestershire, England, end of February, 1816

Alex felt like something hard and unforgiving was striking him full in the chest when he witnessed his wife sinking to her knees with a soft moan beside the body on the floor. At the same time, his protective trait hit him like lightning. There were too many witnesses in the room.

“Reverend Bonneville, I am very much obliged to you for bringing her ladyship here. In my haste, I confess I did not think of notifying her of what we found here. You may return home, now. I will take care of my wife,” Alex said, using his military voice. Not many of his men dared to disobey that tone.

The good reverend blinked in confusion but went on his way with a polite bow. Alex refocussed on his wife, deliberately ignoring Richard Orme’s raised eyebrows. He would deal with his friend later. Rowena, he saw, reached for Johnston’s bluish face, then seemed to recoil from the hideously distorted mouth with its protruding tongue. If he ever had doubts about the corpse’s identity, Alex was now absolutely sure who it was, for Rowena looked up at him with teary eyes.

“Oh, Alex, it is Peter! What happened? Oh, it is too distressing!” She grabbed one of the rigid hands and pressed it to her chest, and Alex winced at the sharp stab of jealousy deep in his chest. Bloody blasted hell, but she still loved the bastard. Well, he would not stand for it.

“Come away, madam,” he ordered coldly, taking her arm. “Dr Orme has not yet finished examining the body.” Vaguely aware of Richard’s astonished gaze, he tried to raise her from her knees, but she resisted.

“We must prepare him for burying, Alex. Will you allow to have him taken to Ketteridge House?”

Another stab, blast her. “I am afraid not, madam. This man has been murdered. There is to be an inquest at the village pub tomorrow. I will preside it since I am the magistrate here. It is best for you to return to the manor for now. You have done your part in identifying the victim, so I thank you. You are no longer needed here.” This time, he drew her to her feet and began tugging her from the room, painfully aware of the stunned stares Dr Orme sent him.

To his profound annoyance, she yet again bent over the corpse and picked something from the earthen floor.

“Alex …”

She seemed to choke from lack of air, and Alex felt his gut clench in fear. “What? What is it?”

She held up her hand and revealed a small, silver button shaped like a prancing horse. A tiny ruby served as the animal’s eye. The craftmanship was exquisite.

Rowena looked up at him and barely audibly whispered. “This comes from a waistcoat I once gave my brother.”

 

The next morning, people flocked into the tap room of The Fox and Hare to attend the inquest concerning the dead man found in the smithy. Excitement vibrated through the throng, the room being packed to the rafters. Outside in the courtyard, people were straining their necks to glimpse some small part of what was transpiring inside. Nobody wanted to miss a second of the event, since inquiries were an exhilarating performance for those not involved in the case. So it was that heads reared and necks stretched in anticipation to watch the new earl of Ketteridge enter the room. Men grunted in approval and women sighed in adoration as Alex, dressed in formal black and fine frock coat, took his place on the dais behind a massive oak table.

Today was Alex’ first appearance as magistrate for this part of Leicestershire, yet he would have to relinquish his authority to another. He had not yet been handed his patent letters, confirming him as the earl of Ketteridge. Furthermore, he was very much a concerned party in this case. He was prejudiced as well, since the dead man caused harm to his lady wife, a fact he could not easily overlook. Every action on his part would be seen as revenge of some kind. So for the sake of true justice, Alex called upon a coroner from Leicester, a Dr Nicholas Pearson, who gladly accepted the task.

The man in question now entered the room and was welcomed by Alex, who vacated his seat to the coroner, to take one at the side of the dais.

“Dr Nicholas Pearson from Leicester will preside this inquest in his capacity as coroner in that city. Please, proceed, doctor.”

The coroner was a man in his early forties, with an air of quiet authority. He immediately turned to the order of the day by calling his first witness, the farmer Abe Carter.

“As I understand, Mr Carter, you are the man who found the victim. Tell us how this occurred.”

In his own, simple words, Abe Carter related the story as he knew it; Jeremy Turnbull screaming about a ghost in his father’s abandoned house and Abe and his farmhand gone to investigate. They found the body hanging from one of the rafters. Abe then sent Jeremy to Dr Orme and the reverend Bonneville. Dr Orme was the first to turn up and it was he who cut down the body, assisted by Abe.

Dr Richard Orme was then called to confirm Carter’s statement and recount his investigation of the body. He declared that he had never set eyes on the deceased and that the man had clearly been murdered by being hoisted up while his hands were bound. The time of death was set two days previous, on February 26, 1816.

Next came the vicar’s statement that he had gone to Ketteridge House to inform his lordship, upon which the earl had departed to see for himself. The vicar had taken Lady Ketteridge with him because she asked to accompany him.

The following part of the inquest would have to be Alex’ own statement, which would inevitably result in his having to confess he knew the dead man. However, revealing Rowena’s involvement was absolutely out of the question, but it had caused a large argument between Alex and his wife, the night before. Alex strongly objected Rowena being exposed as the dead man’s former lover, as it would damage his own name and that of his family. It had taken him much pleading before his stubborn wife conceded in staying far away from the events to come, but in the end, she reluctantly agreed.

“My lord Ketteridge,” the coroner began, ”I gather that you can enlighten us as to the identity of the victim?”

“I can,” Alex replied. “This man is without a doubt the honourable Peter Johnston, third son of the earl of Carlisle. We shall have to notify the commanding officer of the Household Cavalry Regiment at the Horse Guards Barracks in London. I assume they will take up the dismal task of informing his family.”

Dr Pearson nodded thoughtfully and frowned, as though he hesitated before he asked his next question. “May I inquire as to how you are so certain about this man’s identity, my lord?”

Alex had prepared himself for this development. “Peter Johnston was an acquaintance of my wife’s, Dr Pearson. She recognized him as one of her brother’s friends and had met him while she was still at her home in Cumberland at Daveston Hall near Carlisle.”

“Thank you, my lord, you may step down.”

The coroner cleared his throat. “We hereby declare the murder of the honourable Peter Johnston by persons unknown on February 26, 1816. A further investigation will be performed by the Leicester Constabulary. This inquest is concluded.”

 

The Reclusive Aristocrat – Part Thirty-seven

Chapter Sixteen (completed)

Ketteridge House, Leicestershire, England, end of February, 1816

“Porter! Come with me!” Alex shouted at the batman cleaning boots in the small room next to the kitchen and startling him in the process. “We have urgent business in the village.”

They bundled themselves into their greatcoats, hats and scarves and headed for the stables.

“Major, the vicar! Shouldn’t we wait for ‘im?”

“He drove here himself.”

They tore from the estate at a thundering pace. Alex still marvelled at the wonder of regaining his eyesight almost completely, which allowed him to ride a horse again. His beloved stallion, Titan, had adapted splendidly to his riding and corrected his master’s errors to a fault. They reached the Turnbull house in less than a quarter of an hour. Alex jumped from Titan and tossed Porter the reins.

“Major, for heaven’s sake, wait fer me! Ye don’ know what’s inside!”

Alex did not listen. He drew his sword and his pistol, nevertheless. He kicked the door and it swung open with a crash.

“Good Lord, Alex! You scared the bloody daylights out of me! What is happening?”

Dr Orme was kneeling beside the body of a man. A rope – no, a noose – showed around his neck and his face was the awful sight of a hanged man; tongue sticking out of his contorted mouth, eyes bulging in a greyish countenance. Nevertheless, Alex knew fairly certainly that this was Peter Johnston, and it appeared that he took his own life by hanging himself. The dead man’s face was very similar to that of the man who attacked Rowena on the evening Emma Rose was born.

Fairly certain he might be, Alex mused, but not completely so. That night his vision had not yet returned fully, and moreover, it had been dark and foggy in the graveyard.

“Bloody bleedin’ ‘ell …” Porter’s soft but heartfelt curse roused Alex from his momentary stupor. Bloody hell, indeed. Alex, in his capacity as Earl of Ketteridge was the magistrate for this part of Leicestershire and would maybe have to order an inquest.

“Richard, would you do a full autopsy? Even though it is crystal clear that he did himself in, I still want a complete report on this.”

“Ah, well, Alex, that is where you err. He did not commit suicide. I discovered this when I cut him down. Look here, if you please?”

Dr Orme raised one of the corpse’s arms and showed Alex the almost invisible bruises which were typical when the hands were bound.

“The murderer must have used something soft but strong like silk or brocade to bind his hands and incapacitate him so that he could be hanged without too much resistance. Afterwards the bindings were removed yet we have not found them here. This was a carefully planned murder, Alex. It is only because the man must have put up a severe struggle that I am able to see the marks on his wrists.”

Richard was right, of course. It was murder, and Alex was bound by honour and duty to find out what happened and who the culprit was. However, he could not in all honesty declare that he was certain about the corpse’s identity.

“Porter, what do you think? Is this Johnston?”

“I dun’ know, major. It were awfully dark in that cemetery. I didn’ see ‘is face at all, remember? I just tried te tackle ‘im but he was too bloody quick fer me. Bloody limp isn ge’ing any be’er with time!”

Alex cursed under his breath. There was someone who could identify Peter Johnston, but Alex knew he could never ever asked Rowena to do that.

 

Rowena had just returned from the nursery where she had fed Emma Rose, when her husband’s strong voice sounded from the hall below. She had heard the front door knocker earlier, so there must have been a visitor. Therefore she was puzzled as to why Alex and Porter needed to depart so urgently when someone had called on them. She rushed downstairs and managed to waylay Meg before she disappeared into the servants’ quarters.

“What was that all about, Meg? Where are they going?”

“I have no idea, Rowie. I saw the vicar leave, just now. It seems odd that the reverend should depart without greeting you.”

Rowena snatched her thick woollen cloak and sturdiest bonnet from the stand and hurried through the back door to the stables. There was no time to fetch her half boots, so her slippers would have to be ruined, but she did not care.  She was till struggling into her cloak when she watched Alex and Porter racing down the drive towards the village. Reverend Bonneville followed them at a more leisure pace, allowing Rowena to attract his attention by waving vigorously at him.

The vicar halted his gig and lifted his hat. “My lady, whatever is the matter? Can I be of service?”

“Yes, Mr Bonneville, you can take me with you. I need to follow his lordship to wherever he is heading.”

“My lady, I do not think …”

“You could tell me why his lordship is rushing down the road at breakneck speed without waiting for you to accompany him. Clearly you have told him something that requires this urgency, so you can enlighten me as well now.”

Mr Bonneville looked so forlorn that Rowena took pity on him. “Very well, sir. Please tell me where they are heading to.”

“My lady, forgive me. A body was found in old Turnbull’s house, and since his lordship is the magistrate, he had to be informed. The man – God rest his soul – took his own life.”

“But … why the haste? Is it anyone known in the village?”

“No, my lady, this man is a stranger we have never seen before. I cannot fathom why his lordship departed so hastily, my lady, unless it is because this is the first time he is being called upon as magistrate and he desired to appear diligent?”

Yes, Rowena mused, that would be so adequately typical for Alex. “Thank you, reverend. I wonder if you could take me there? I do so want to watch my husband execute his duty.”

And also, she had a fair inkling who this man was, and if she was right, she needed to know.

 

“Wait, Rich,” Alex asked, when Dr Orme gestured to the two farmhands to help him take the corpse away. “Did you cut him down?”

“Yes, with the help of these lads here. He is still a large man, even though he must have had little to eat in his last weeks. It is a wonder he survived this long during the harsh winter we have had.”

“I suppose he was staying in this empty house?”

“Yes, as you can see, there are some leftover possessions of his. He had a makeshift fishing pole and some snares but it must have been difficult to catch something in this weather.”

Alex nodded and dismissed Carter and his farmhand, since they had better thigs to do than to loiter here.

After the man left the room, Alex began investigating the surroundings, a large part of which had been the kitchen when the house had still been occupied. A ramshackle table and a few broken chairs, a cupboard, a simple straw mattress and a pile of rags in the corner, that was all. No indications as to who the man had been. There was not even a bag or box to stuff his clothing, which he must have had if he indeed was an army deserter. The murderer must have taken it with him.

Devil take it, but he wished he would have been able to see Johnston’s face more sharply on that gruesome night. He simply had to be certain it was Rowena’s former lover. He knew she had been opening up to him earlier when she was still convinced of the man been killed at Waterloo. Suddenly, Alex felt that it was paramount to him for Rowena to open up to him. He could not fathom why this fact was almost of vital importance to him, but there it was; he wanted, craved, could not function without Rowena’s affection. It was frightening him to no end. Deuce take it.

The rumbling of wheels outside drew Alex from his musings.

“That must be the reverend,” he said. “I asked him to come back here after he warned us at the manor.”  Rising from his knees, Richard conceded, “This poor bloke is all his, since there is nothing I can do for him anymore.”

However, it was not only the Reverend Bonneville who entered the scene of catastrophy.

 

The Reclusive Aristocrat – Part Thirty-six

Chapter Sixteen (continued)

Ketteridge House, Leicestershire, England, end of February, 1816

Rowena fought not to stiffen rigidly at his ultimate invasion. She braced herself not to flinch, knowing how much pain it would inflict. Peter had always hurt her quite immensely when he possessed her.

The pain did not come. Alex was gentle to the extreme, claiming her slowly, without hurting her. She felt him inside her every inch of the way, but his slow invasion generated unknown yet pleasant tickling sensations that were swirling up and down her core. Her body throbbed with pleasure, heat spreading from head to toe. He did not stop kissing her, nor did he cease to caress her aching breasts. From her hardened nipple to her pulsing core, a wave began spiralling through her, and she arched up to him, eager to be closer. He released her breast and touched her where they were joined, stroking her swollen flesh with slow caresses, while he thrust deeply into her core.

Then, suddenly,  she seemed to fly off a cliff in sparks of white, hot pleasure, gasping, crying out, when a wave of warm bliss nearly drowned her.

 

Exhausted and spent, it was all Alex could do not to collapse on top of his wife. With an effort, he turned onto his side and drew Rowena into his arms, feeling her relax with a deep sigh. Seconds later, she was asleep, and he smiled against her mass of chocolate hair, inhaling her sweet scent of lavender and woman.

Good Lord, but he had never been so sated in all his life. In France, they called this feeling ‘la petite mort’ or ‘the little death’, and by Jove, they were right. Yet what a glorious death it was! Before succumbing to sleep himself, he vowed to make work of Peter Johnston once and for all; that infamous blackguard must be dealt with.

 

“Major, there’s the vicar wantin’ te see ye. Says he ‘as some urgent ma’er to discuss.”

Porter stood in the library door, his shoe brush still in his hand. He had probably been polishing his boots, Alex inwardly chuckled. After all these months, Porter still was more batman than butler.

“Please, let him in, Porter.”

The reverend Silas Bonneville was a short, rather rotund man with a rapidly receding hairline of white fluff and fading blue eyes. He had held the parsonage at St Crispin’s church for over forty years and was in his middle sixties. Since the villagers of Ketteridge were mostly farmers who attended his services faithfully each Sunday morning, his task was not very demanding. There were the marriages, christenings and funerals, of course, but other than happily toiling over his weekly sermon, Mr Bonneville had no difficulties enjoying his declining years in the small but cosy vicarage boarding the green. He was a kind, quiet man, with a big heart and a pleasant disposition.

“Good morning, my lord,” he said in his deep voice, one that did not match his short posture. One would have attributed it to a large, broad-shouldered man instead.

“Good morning, reverend. My butler tells me you have some urgent business, so what can I do for you?”

“Well, my lord, there has been some concern about Josiah Turnbull’s house on the far east side of the village. As you must surely know, after our esteemed blacksmith died, the house was left to stand empty, as his wife passed away years ago. You might recall that Josiah had two sons. John, the eldest, died several years ago from a bad fever, and it broke old Josiah’s heart, since he had been training the young man to be his successor as a blacksmith. Jeremy, the youngest, is a dear but weak-minded boy. In no way could he have stayed in his father’s house on his own, so the Carters from the nearby farm took him in.”

Alex listened to his vicar with mild interest, not grasping where all this might lead to. He kept his peace, however, knowing Mr Bonneville was not to be rushed at all. He always took his sweet time in explaining matters.

“Well, to keep it short, my lord, young Jeremy was out rambling, the weather being somewhat milder, these last few days. He came pelting back to the Carter farm in an uproar seldom seen before, yelling at the top of his head that there was a ghost in his father’s house. Now, this is unaccustomed behaviour for Jeremy, who is most of the time a quiet, happy child. A child of eight-and-twenty, yet a child nevertheless. Abe Carter and one of his farmhands went over to the Turnbull house, and what they found there was most distressing, indeed.”

Alex sighed at the vicar’s prevarication and indulgence to tell as compelling a story as he could possibly accomplish. He smiled encouragingly and gestured for the vicar to continue. What he learned next, was thoroughly distressing, and no doubt about it.

The Reclusive Aristocrat – Part Thirty-five

Chapter Sixteen

Ketteridge House, Leicestershire, England, end of February, 1816

Alex was aware of a certain fear in Rowena, and also an anticipation, albeit a subdued one. She was also literally fixing her gaze on his face and not on the nether regions of his body. She must be truly shocked, he thought, and not in the least accustomed to the sight of a thoroughly aroused male. He found this extremely unlikely since she had become a mother and had therefore known sexual encounters.

He sat down on the edge of the bed and stroked her face with the back of his hand. “Do I frighten you, my dear? I promise to be gentle and give you all the time you need to receive my touch.”

She blushed a scarlet red, which he found very endearing. “Th … thank you, Alex …” she stammered, closing her eyes for a moment before raising the covers and thus inviting him to join her there. He slid in bed beside her, taking care not to crowd her, but gently easing himself close to her. He put one arm under his head and with his free hand stroked her cheek again, this time with soft fingers following the curve of her chin and cheek. She shuddered and pressed her face against his palm, causing a rush of arousal to race through him at the sweetness of her gesture.

With slow, careful caresses, first on her face and cheeks, then her neck, his hand followed by his lips, he soothed her, and at the same time aroused her. Her soft intakes of breath were proof to that.

When she began writhing restlessly against his body, Alex let his mouth trail downward to her breasts, licking, nibbling until he reached one hard nipple. He took it into his mouth and sucked.

She arched upward, clenching the sheets with both hands. He explored her curves with ardent strokes, her exquisite breasts, swollen from feeding little Emma, her stomach, still slightly rounded from childbirth.

“You are so beautiful, Rowie,” he whispered, feeling heat wash over his entire body at the soft moans she uttered. “Tell me, my sweet, do you like this?” He cupped one of her breasts and kneaded it gently, rolling the nipple between his fingers.

“Yes … oh, yes …” she croaked, arching closer to him.

“And this, my beauty?” He slid his hand between her thighs, revelling in the little jerk she made. She was so wet, so ready for him, but he wanted her even more aroused and entered her folds with first one, then two fingers. He worked her, stroking inside, teasing the little swollen bud, until she whimpered helplessly. Again he closed his lips around one swollen peak of her exquisite breast. Her entire body broke into a light dampness as he drove her higher and higher until she cried out in ecstasy as she climaxed. Shuddering violently, she sobbed while the waves of pleasure assaulted her, and Alex felt ridiculously proud at what he had wrought in his wife.

The aftermath was sweet as she nestled into his waiting arms, still sobbing, still too overwrought to speak. When she did spoke, it was but a whisper, and he had to strain himself to hear it. “I did not know … I could never imagine it could be like this … so … beautiful …”

Alex blinked in utter surprise. “Are you saying that you never experienced fulfilment before now, Rowie? Surely, …”

“There was never time … it always lasted too … short a time for me to …”

Blast the blackguard. Johnston had only sought his own gratification without having a single thought for her. That was why she was crying, of course. She now realized that she had been abused by her former lover, poor thing.

He should let her sleep, Alex mused. She had to be comforted so that she would able to sleep. Gathering her closely to him, he stroked her hair soothingly while murmuring softly to her. “Sleep, my sweet. You need your rest.”

To his amazement, she sat up. “Oh, no! Please, stay with me … I … I know it is not over yet … that there is more to come … that you … you …”

Puzzled, he heard himself ask, “That I … what, Rowie?”

She vehemently shook her head. “Just tell me what position you want me to take, and I will comply.”

It took him a few moments to grasp her meaning but then, all of a sudden, it became all crystal clear. Johnston must have wanted her in all the unusual positions that gave the male the best gratification, without any consideration for the female pleasure. He gently drew her back in his arms.

“Come here, my sweet. Just rest here against my heart.”

“But …”

“Shh, be still, my love.”

He could literally feel her hesitation and confusion, but kept her to him, softly stroking her hair, until she finally relaxed and sighed.

After a while, he asked. “Are you very tired, Rowie?”

“No,” she breathed, “no, Alex, not at all.”

“Good.”

He again began kissing her face and neck, the silken skin of her throat and shoulders, the onset of her breasts, and then at last, her peaked nipple. His need was still achingly present but he knew she had to be wooed all over again. He worked diligently until she was writhing and moaning, then assured himself she was lying on her back. Shoving at her nightgown until he could slid it over her head, he kept kissing her with every ounce of affection he could muster. It felt like sheer triumph when she widened her legs for him. He positioned himself between her thighs and slowly entered her.

The Reclusive Aristocrat – Part Thirty-four

Chapter Fifteen (completed)

Somehow, Rowena was not surprised by what she had just overheard, after she left the servants’ quarters and stepped into the hall. The library door, where the meeting was taking place, stood wide open, and Alex’ voice was quite masterful. Rowena knew exactly how dutiful her husband was, and how he would protect every person under his care. Yet Alex was in a dreadful dilemma; he had some matters to attend to elsewhere but was unable to leave his home for fear Peter would try to do harm.

Peter … how very mistaken she had been about him, Rowena mused. He had not loved her, or at least, he had fallen out of love for her, because he had tried to abduct her. By doing so, he had jeopardized her baby’s health. Thank God little Emma was unharmed but it could have been otherwise. That was something Rowena would never forgive Peter for, the fact he had been a threat to Emma Rose.

Alex was trying to remediate the damage done to her and Emma, Rowena realized. He wanted to be certain about the terms of her inheritance and about the reason for Peter’s strange behaviour, which was not that of a cavalry man in His Majesty’s army. For sure, the first issue was entirely in his rights as her husband. What little she possessed before her marriage was now Alex’ property.

Rowena drew back into the morning room to resume the mending she had been seeing to before Meg had asked for her attention in the kitchen. She had a plan, and she would bring it in play.

 

At the end of the long day, Alex had not found time to have dinner with his wife since he was swamped in estate matters like he had never been before. He had partaken of the food on the tray she had sent to him somewhere around ten o’clock. Now it was almost midnight, and he was utterly exhausted. Maybe he should call it a day and retire to his lonely bed. He knew he would not sleep a wink since he would be mulling over all the unresolved issues in his life, but still, he needed some semblance of rest, if he was to remain of sane mind.

He rose from his chair behind the desk, wincing at the pain in his muscles. Weary to the bone, he climbed the stairs, turned onto the landing and stopped; his wife, clad in a thin muslin nightgown with just a wrap to cover her shoulders, was waiting for him in a chair next to his bedroom door.

Rowena stood. “Husband, may we speak? I apologize for waylaying you this way, but there are unfinished matters between us, I believe.”

For some puzzling reason, her formal address did not sit well with Alex. He remembered vividly how he coaxed her to use his Christian name on their wedding night. After that, it was true, they seemed to have drifted apart somewhat; no doubt it was because of that blackguard Johnston and the hold he still had over Rowena.

Downstairs, the mumble of voices heralded the comings of John and Meg Wallis. It was already quite late, and the pair was preparing to retire for the night. Alex took Rowena’s arm, pulled a key from his trouser pocket and opened his bedroom door. He ushered her in and directed her to a chair near the fireplace. She sat and he let himself down in the opposite chair.

“What is troubling you, Rowena? Are you unwell? Is there something you lack?”

His wife was looking him very directly in the eye, which caused him some inexplicable unease. He steeled himself to maintain his calm. It was a mystery to him why she was acting this way.

Rowena cleared her throat. “I am well aware that I was not your first choice of a wife, my lord. I will endeavour to better myself into becoming an appropriate countess, and now that my daughter is born, I will have more opportunity to assist you as whenever you need me at your side. But … “

She sighed and her eyes were bright in her pale face. Alex felt even more unease now, eager to know where this was leading to.

“But … what, Rowie? It is not for you to procrastinate. You know you can speak to me about your troubles.”

“Oh? Do I know that, Alex? Then why did you not tell me your eyesight had improved? And moreover, why are you not informing me about the plans you made for travelling to London and Carlisle? And last …”

Her cheeks were in flames, he saw, and his heart made some kind of summersault.

“Yes?” He breathed the word as is he could not draw in enough air.

“You do not come to me anymore at night … I am fully recovered from my daughter’s birth, you know? I … I would not want to lose your affection, Alex, … that is … if I had it before? I know we shared the beginnings of friendship, and I would be very sad if …”

Alex rose abruptly and went to kneel before her, grasping both of her hands in his.

“Oh, Rowie, what foolishness is this? Yes, we are friends, of course we are! Do you want us to be more than friends? Lovers, perhaps?”

“Yes …” Her voice was a whisper, but an ardent one, and she gave him the merest of smiles.

His heart was surely trying to leap from his chest, Alex feared. He had missed their intimacy, of course. He had suffered from the agony of not seeking succour in her arms and, dare he think it, in her body. Without the slightest thought, he rose her from the seat and took her face into his hands. Oh, she had such lovely eyes, all dark brown, like liquid chocolate. And her rosy lips, slightly moisture by her little tongue darting over them … they caused arousal to rush through him like wildfire. Yet he must be gentle. Rowena could easily still be vulnerable after the ordeal of childbirth.

“Rowie, it was Richard Orme who warned me not to approach you before six weeks had passed. I … I did not dare asking you for intimacy up until now, because I thought you would still be averse to physical contact.”

She gave him a reproachful look. “I did fear physical contact immediately after the birth, Alex, but there are other ways open to a couple to have contact with each other. Little Emma is now eight weeks old, yet you are still avoiding me most ardently, moreover, on some days, you do not even speak to me, for goodness’ sake! If we are to be the earl and countess of Ketteridge, surely we have to work harder to present a respectable and amiable couple, at least to the eyes of the outside world.”

It was not that he did not want her, Alex mused, because he did. He was not so certain about Rowena’s motives for wanting to have intercourse with him. He knew she did not love him, although she had a certain affection for him, but that could be because he rescued her from ruin and penury. If she did not love him, then why did she want him to bed her? The obvious answer must be that she wanted to strengthen her position as his wife. Should she conceive and give birth to an heir, she would be as sacrosanct as could be. Yes, that must be it; Rowena wanted a son, at all costs. Well, he was not averse to comply with that. So Alex decided it was time to seduce his wife and bed her.

 

When Rowena saw her husband’s eyes darken with passion, she realized she had missed her chance in getting him to speak about their issues. Of course, she wanted him to make love to her, because she had missed it so ferociously in the past weeks. Watching Alex stride through the manor without having to be cautious for fear to bump into the furniture, was a thrilling sight. She was so happy he had regained his eyesight that she almost forgave him for not telling her. Almost, but not quite. That same omission was proof that he did not love her or trusted her.

Would he ever love her the way she loved him? Would he ever feel warm happiness whenever he saw her in the morning? Would he miss her the way she missed him whenever she watched him leave the house with John on his morning rounds? Would he ever feel sick with sorrow when he was alone in his cold bed at night, knowing she was only a few yards away from him?

She felt certain there would never be more between them than a tender understanding and affection, and sometimes passion. Like at this same moment, when he seemed to devour her with his eyes. Rowena responded by stepping closer to him and putting her arms around his broad chest. Oh, how good it felt to rest against his warmth and listen to the steady beat of his heart. She could not recall the exact moment when she had realized she loved him. Somehow it seemed that she had always loved him, from the moment when she opened her eyes after nearly freezing to death.

Then, suddenly, every thought vanished when Alex stroked her cheek with the back of his hand.

 

Her skin was even softer than he remembered, her face more beautiful than ever with the rosy flush colouring it, her eyes brighter than ever before, her lips more tantalizing than any other woman’s he had kissed before.

Alex could not recall any woman in his past whom he wanted more than he did Rowena at this moment. He longed to uncover her lovely body and revel in the sight of it, in the touch of it, the possessing of it. He began to loosen her hands from the death grip she had on her wrap when she suddenly shivered and went pale.

“Why do you not lie down in the bed, dear, while I undress? I shall also stoke the fire as it seems to be a bit chilly in here.”

He turned his back on her and heard her rush away towards the bed. He took his time in doing what he said he would but did not turn t her again before he was completely naked.

She had drawn the bedcovers up to her chin and was watching him with huge eyes, which made him wonder just how many times before she saw a naked man. Had that blackguard Johnston not bared himself to her during their encounters but taken her fully clothed, as if she were a milkmaid in a stable? Burning rage shot through him and he promised himself to find out everything there was about that particular subject. But not now …

The Reclusive Aristocrat – Part Thirty-three

Chapter Fifteen

 

Ketteridge House, Leicestershire, England, January and February, 1816

 

 

Life at Ketteridge House fell into a slow yet regular pattern. The weather continued to be abominable, with snowstorms during the day and freezing cold temperatures during the night. Food and wood had to be brought to the poorest tenants to prevent their families from starving or freezing to death. Rowena, who was slowly recovering from the childbirth, regretted that she could not accompany Meg and her footmen to these people.

She had, of course, problems of her own to tackle. Little Emma was prospering into a healthy and lively child with a temper of her own. She would have bouts of crying whenever she was put into her cradle after her feed, preferring to be in her mother’s arms the whole time. Of course, this was an entirely impossible matter, but the little girl was not inclined to give in easily.

It was at such times that Rowena discovered yet another character trait in her husband. Alex was becoming quite adept in comforting Emma. He would take her in his arms and stretch out on the nursery carpet, little Emma on his stomach. He would sing to her in a pleasant baritone voice and rock her gently until she fell asleep. Her nanny would then pick her up and settle her in her cradle. He would then scramble upward, his long legs untangling themselves from the carpet. She would then feel the strong attraction between them, as she had felt from the first moment they met. She would listen to the deafening pounding of her own heart while she looked up at him, and then experience the feeling of complete and utter loss, as he turned away from her with a bow to leave the nursery.

They were in a deadlock, and Rowena knew not how to overcome the gap that now gaped between them.

 

February came with milder weather melting the snow and turning the roads into muddy potholes and ruts. People began preparing their fields for sowing and planting, counting on their lord to provide them with the means to carry out their necessary work. The earl of Ketteridge did not let his tenants down, and the inhabitants of the village of Ketteridge finally saw the end of their misery.

Rowena had recovered completely from her childbirth ordeal and was participating fully in the organizing of what would surely be a crucial year in the history of the earldom. With Meg’s help, she had gotten her household under firm control. That left her more time for visiting the poorest of their tenants. She brought food baskets and offered positions at the manor for those who wanted.

Little Emma was thriving under the care of Patty Davis, sister to Tracy Cobbins, the wet nurse. Rowena was, to her own astonishment and great joy, still able to breastfeed her daughter, so the wet nurse was no longer needed. She had been amply rewarded for her willingness to be there for Emma, and Rowena would be forever thankful that Tracy had helped her through the first difficult days of nursing.

There was, however, one flaw to Rowena’s happiness, and that would be her relationship with her husband. It lacked almost everything. They did not see each other through the long winter nights, as Alex slept in his own room. Rowena had heard him cry out in agony during his frequent nightmares, but when she wanted to go and comfort him, she had discovered that both the dressing room door on his side and the corridor door were firmly locked. She confronted Porter over it, but the valet shrugged, saying it were his master’s orders. Porter himself was to wait until the bell summoned him before tending to his master. Rowena had been thoroughly mortified on being forced to give the dour valet a glimpse of her lacking relationship with her husband. She had no inkling as to how she would restore at least a small part of what they had before. It left her in deep sorrow, and she desperately racked her brain to find a solution, yet to no avail.

During the days, Alex was so busy with running his financially precarious estate in the company of John Wallis, that he often did not appear at lunchtime. Meg was frequently ordered to take a tray into the library for the two men. At dinner time, they met in the dining room, which was much larger and grander than the cosy morning room where Rowena had dined many times in the past. These were also Alex’ orders, or so Meg explained. Alex would occupy the head of the long table, that could easily sit thirty people. Rowena’s place would be on the other side, with the whole length between them, but she had firmly objected to that arrangement. On the first evening, she herself had  moved all the crockery and cutlery to Alex’ right.

If she had hoped it would induce him to strike up a conversation with her, she was left disappointed. They scarcely exchanged more than ten words during the short meals, and afterwards, Alex would withdraw to his library

It was all very depressing, Rowena thought. She found herself close to weeping in her lonely bed at night, and she hated it. Yet what could she do about it?

 

On a dreary, wet, late February afternoon, Alex sat brooding over what had just been revealed to him by both Porter and Middlebridge. As it happened, the two men had returned simultaneously from their respective journeys, and they had brought significant yet disturbing news.

Porter reported that Peter Johnston, third son of the earl of Carlisle, had been dishonourably discharged from the Horse Guards after his desertion during the battle of Waterloo. He had never returned to the ancestral home since June 18, 1815, had in fact never been seen again since that day by his grieving family.

Middlebridge had far worse news, however. Horace Bleak, solicitor to Roderick Drake, fourth baron Daveston and Rowena’s half-brother, had been very hard to be contacted. When he finally accepted to see Middlebridge after two weeks of repeated attempts, the solicitor had declared that he could not produce the late baron’s will, since it had not been his privilege to witness or formulate it. George Daveston, Rowena’s father, had made his will at home in the presence of two of his servants. The document had then been kept at the estate but, as Middlebridge pointed out, a copy must have been deposited at the London Probate Office. If Alex so wished, Middlebridge would go to London to get a copy.

“However, my lord,” Middlebridge continued, “if you were to go to Carlisle and speak to Bleak yourself, he might be more forthcoming when he is confronted with an authority higher than himself or the baron.”

Alex considered what he would do in view of the danger that still threatened. He could not leave his house unprotected by going to Carlisle on what seemed a wild goose chase.

“Mr Middlebridge,” he said, “you can accompany Porter to London and find out about the will. I cannot, in all conscience, leave my family alone at this moment. You will both conduct the inquiries that are necessary to comprehend all this, and you will report back to me as soon as possible.”