The Reclusive Aristocrat – Part Twenty-Nine

Chapter Thirteen

 

Ketteridge House, Leicestershire, England, January 2nd , 1816

 

A notion, so urgent that it almost hurt her brain, made Rowena struggle to overcome the lethargic sleep she had been in for so long. She needed to wake up, to rise, and do something so important that she lost all possible train of thoughts whirling in her sleep-drowsy mind.

With an effort, she opened her eyes, and was immediately struck by the intensity of sunlight invading her room. It positively hurt, she thought, panic engulfing her. She stirred and tried to sit up, a movement which caused a sharp pain in the nether regions of her body.

“Oh, Rowie, do lie still,” Meg’s calm voice came from nearby, and Rowena discovered her friend sitting beside her bed, cradling a small bundle.

“Is that … is that my baby? It is gone, is it not? It was too early …”

Meg smiled sweetly and encouragingly at her. “No, my pet, she lives. You have a beautiful little girl, although she is very small and fragile.”

Joy, pure and sharp, engulfed Rowena like a tidal wave. She reached out to Meg, begging in urgency. “Oh, Meg, let me hold her! Oh, I was so afraid believing I had lost her!” When Meg carefully placed the small bundle into her arms, Rowena gasped in delight when she saw the tiny infant’s dark mop of curls, and her rosy little face, her flower of a mouth, and her tiny, perfect fingers. At that same moment, the infant began wailing in protest in a healthy manner.

“She is indeed beautiful …,” Rowena whispered.

“Yes, and she is getting hungry. It has been a while since His Lordship fed her. I wonder where that wet nurse is, confound it.”

She must not have understood it rightly, Rowena thought. Meg could not have said that Alex … no surely not!

“His … His Lordship has done what?”

“Well, he must have seen and done a great many more things than just soldiering during his time on the Continent, that is for certain!” Meg commented, raising her voice to be heard over the racket the babe was making. “What about him supporting you the way he did during childbirth? I have never seen anyone doing that, not even the best midwife. And then, the way he handled the baby! He took the little one and held her close. To keep her warm, he said. Lectured us, Dr Orme and me, about the importance of keeping a newly born warm, especially those who are not full term. Then he ordered me to the kitchen for a bowl of boiled water with honey. He fed the liquid by dipping a handkerchief’s corner into the babe’s mouth, and blimey if she did not take it well enough! He then rocked her until she fell asleep before tucking her in her cradle.”

Rowena was still trying to get her head around this information when the door opened to admit the wet nurse. She was Tracy Cobbins, the wife of the local miller, and Rowena had met her during the New Year’s celebration at the village assembly rooms. Tracy had just given birth to her seventh child, a healthy little boy, presently tied around her ample bosom in a wrap.

“Good morning, me lady,” she curtsied, hefting the child around her waist to a more comfortable position.

“Good morning, Tracy. I am very pleased that you accepted to feed my daughter. She is very hungry, at the moment, as you can hear.”

Tracy took the baby from her mother’s arms, after having deposited her son in an extra cradle Meg had provided. She then settled in a chair beside the cradle and freed one of her very large breasts. With an expertise acquired after seven births, she presented the nipple to the little baby girl.

Rowena’s eyes stung with tears when she watched her daughter avidly taking the nipple and beginning to suckle hard.”

“Well!” Tracy marvelled. “She’s pretty strong for such a wee one! Easy, my pet, easy! There’s enough for the two of ye!”

Meg took over again. “Come, let me see to your needs now, Rowie. In the bath tub with you.”

 

Alex had not slept a wink. He had turned and tossed for a couple of hours debating whether it would be advisable to go to Rowena’s bed, not to make love to her, but to hold her, so she would be able to sleep soundly. Although not touching her would be a torment he was not sure he could withstand.

She had felt so right in his arms, only two nights before. Lord … had it been that recent? He had been so thoroughly sated by their lovemaking, that he was able to recall every second of it, which did nothing to dampen down his heated arousal, of course.

Yet now was not the time nor the occasion to force his lust on his wife, after the exertions of childbirth. He had asked Richard about the appropriate period of time for Rowena to recover, and the answer had been appallingly unsatisfactory, to say the least. Six weeks of abstention, that was what he faced. It was ironic that, after half a year of forced celibacy, he now felt bereft at the notion of six weeks without the benefits of Rowena’s exquisite body.

How the devil would he be able to endure it? How on earth would he live through the long weeks that now stretched before him? Not to be able to hold her, after their lovemaking? Not to feel this divine, soul-filling emotion of being physically sated. And that was not the whole of it, Alex mused. She not only sated his body, she also filled his entire being with a sense of peace, of wellness, of … dare he name it, belonging. Rowena, countess of Ketteridge, made him feel at home in his own home.

He must have fallen asleep sometime, and when he opened his eyes again, the morning was well advanced. Alex rose and called for Porter.

 

After a welcome and blissfully warm bath, Rowena let Meg help her into a fresh night gown. Meg then brushed her hair until the dark waves were a gleaming stream along Rowena’s back. When, finally, she leaned back against her pillows, after finishing a light but nourishing breakfast, Rowena felt exhausted. So when Dr Orme came to examine her, she lay passively, almost languorously reclined until he was done.

“Well, my lady, you are as healthy as can be expected after your ordeal. I advise you to stay in bed for the next couple of days, at least. Plenty of rest, and good food. I trust you are satisfied with Tracy Cobbins as a wet nurse?”

Rowena did not answer but turned her face to the door that connected her room with the small boudoir where Meg had placed the cradle and all necessities for the baby.

“Why cannot I feed her?” she asked, in a very small voice.

“My lady, that is not the way highborn ladies deal with their infants. Aside from that, you are still weak from the loss of blood. You are but a slight, delicate young woman, my lady. You need to rest, the better to care for your child in a few weeks.”

Alex stood listening to this from their common dressing room. He had been waiting for Richard and the ever present Meg to leave the room, so that he could enter and be alone with his wife. Hearing the seriousness in Richard’s voice, it filled him with a spear of sharp concern. Richard had voiced so much, and yet so little. Rowena had suffered greatly from the childbirth.

He stood rooted to the spot, unable to make a movement, while he heard his wife lecture her physician in a way only she would do.

“I am of the opinion that my daughter needs me greatly, Dr Orme. She is very small and weak. I want to feed her myself. If by chance my milk should not be plenty enough, then Mrs Cobbins can take over.”

Alex held his breath for fear they would hear him. Although he could very well understand why she would want to feed her child, he knew she might not have the strength to do it. He could, however, find no fault in her reasoning, that the little one needed her mother, most of all. What dilemmas, and how excruciating they were.

Almost before he could do otherwise, Alex stepped into his wife’s bedchamber. “I am of a mind to agree with my wife, Richard, although you and Mrs Wallis have a point in judging her too weak to nurse the child. I would suggest we do as she proposes; let Her Ladyship give it a try, and if there are problems, the child can be nursed by the wet nurse after all.”

His friend and Mrs Wallis were gaping at him as if he had gone insane, but his wife beamed at him. “Oh, Alex, it would like that very much! Meg, come, help me, and you too, Tracy!”

At Rowena’s command, both women jumped to do her bidding, and a few moments later, Alex stood gazing at Rowena trying to nurse her baby. He had not known that nursing was such a complicated business.

First, the baby howled at being removed from Tracy Cobbins’ breast, and then she fussed at being put to Rowena’s, squirming in her mother’s arms, and whining. Rowena looked at him in despair, and Alex suddenly remembered what he had seen that young Portuguese mother do, after she gave birth.

He knelt at Rowena’s side and began massaging her breast, very gently but firmly, until the nipple had grown warmer. Then he brought the tiny baby head to it.

“Speak to her, Rowie,” he said softly. “Let her hear your voice.”

After a few moments of incomprehension, Rowena began crooning at the baby, pleading her to take the nipple and trying to push it in her daughter’s mouth. To Alex’ relief, it worked. The baby took it and suckled. Rowena’s face relaxed as she looked down on her tiny baby daughter.

“Well, I never!” Mrs Wallis and Tracy both uttered.

“Alex,” Richard Orme said, “I have a mind to lock you in my surgery for a whole day, so that you can write down all that wisdom. I am stunned, you can have no inkling how much!”

“Come,” Alex said, “let us go from here. They need to rest, both of them.”

He turned and left. Richard Orme followed him, but not before he saw the puzzled gaze Rowena directed at her husband’s back.

The Reclusive Aristocrat – Part Twenty-Eight

Chapter Twelve (complete)

It had been early evening when Rowena had been brought back to the manor. Now it was early evening again, the day after. Rowena had given birth to a tiny baby daughter, and lost an enormous amount of blood in the process. She was sleeping now, while Alex stood watching her beside the bed. In his arms, he held the infant, reluctant to give her to Meg, who would put her into her cradle.

Alex found that he was fairly able to see the new-born babe, albeit it not as sharp as he would have wanted. She had a soft mop of curly black hair on top of her little head, and a rosebud of a mouth in the softest of little faces. She was smaller than the length of his joined hands, Alex mused, and no heavier than a good-sized loaf of bread, but she was absolutely perfect. Her chubby hands had all their fingers, and her tiny feet bore all their toes. Alex wanted to kiss every single one of them, yet for now, he was content holding her to his chest.

“My lord,” Meg pleaded, “let me put the little one in her cradle. She is very weak, and I fear she might …”

“No.” Alex was determined not to let his newly born daughter out of his sight. He wanted this tiny, fragile creature to live, so that he could be her father and raise her the way she deserved. He owed Rowena that much. His gaze went back to his wife. She was exhausted, and even in sleep, her pale face was drawn and thin.

“Richard, how is she?” Alex asked his friend.

“Her ladyship has been through something of an ordeal, Alex, as you very well know. She will need a long bed rest and good food and care. Do you want me to arrange a nurse?”

Alex’ eyes wandered to Meg, who bristled at the doctor’s suggestion. “No, Richard. I am fairly sure, Mrs Wallis will be competent enough in taking care of my wife. Now what about the little one?”

“Alex, she is very small. She might not survive through the next hours.”

“Yes, she will. Arrange for a wet nurse to be here as soon as possible. Mrs Wallis, go ask Mrs Hall for some boiled water with lots of honey in it.”

“Yes, my lord,” Meg replied, surprise in her eyes, but she ran to do his bidding. When she returned, Meg was even more baffled to see her master dip the corner of a fresh handkerchief in the sugared water, and put it between the infant’s lips.

“Come, my sweet,” he crooned. “Suckle, my darling, it is good for you. From now on, I am going to take good care of you.”

And the baby, as if she understood every word he said, pursed her soft, rosebud mouth and suckled.

Meg, as well as Richard, looked in complete astonishment, as Alex patiently and diligently fed the babe.

“Where have you learned that?” Richard Orme asked, baffled by the careful skill his friend was using.

“When you are a soldier fighting a war in a foreign country, you encounter more than swords and cannon balls. There are also the civilians who have to fight their own daily battles, often with less means than you have. I mastered quite a few skills.”

 

Once Meg had settled the baby in her cot, Alex, with one last gaze at his sleeping wife, went downstairs and gathered a few people in his library. Not only his steward, John Wallis, and his solicitor, Mr Middlebridge, but also Ketteridge’s vicar, Mr Brindley, and Squire Thaddeus Orme, Richard’s father were there. Richard himself stood watching from the side, as Alex invited them all to sit down around his large desk. Porter, silently brooding, positioned himself behind Alex’ chair like a watch dog.

“Gentlemen, I have an assignment of the uttermost importance for you all. I want the individual named Peter Johnston apprehended and brought before a court of law for deceiving my wife and causing her harm. We must work together in order to catch this man, since he is a serious liability to my countess.”

“My lord,” the Reverend Brindley asked, clearly puzzled, “who is this man? Why did he approach Her Ladyship?

Even with his limited eyesight, Alex saw the puzzlement reflected in the faces of all his listeners. “Gentlemen,” he said in a serious tone, “what I am about to convey to you, must stay between these walls. Knowledge of it could harm my wife’s reputation, and I will not tolerate that.”

They all murmured acceptance of this condition, so Alex continued. “Peter Johnston, Carlisle’s third son, is the father of her ladyship’s child. This child is now my responsibility, and I will undertake steps to have her adopted. Johnston was also reported as a casualty of the Waterloo Battle on June 18th of the previous year. So, either this man posing as him is a fraud, or Johnston is not dead. Suffice it to say that in both cases, there is a danger to my wife and child. I shall therefore need your assistance in order to protect them both.”

Squire Orme cleared his throat. He was a tall, broad-chested man in his late fifties, and possessed a keen intelligence, Alex knew. “It makes no sense, Alexander,” he said. “If this man is an imposter, then her ladyship would have immediately known so, and called for help. She did not, so I assume he was indeed Johnston. Why, I ask you, would a cavalry man reported dead, not make himself known to the military authorities? I imagine his family and his regiment would like to know he is alive.”

“I can think of a number of reasons for Johnston not wanting someone to know he is alive, Thaddeus. What if he were a deserter? He would face a court martial, should he be arrested.”

The squire nodded. “Yes, I agree. He would be in serious trouble.”

The Reverend Brindley, a timid man who was clearly awed by the honour Alex had bestowed on him by inviting him, ventured, “My lord, I am confused. Her Ladyship comes from country gentry, I understand. Why has her family – I believe she has a half-brother – not intervened on her behalf? How did they know about Johnston’s presumed demise?”

Alex sighed. “There are lots of mysteries here to be solved, Mr Brindley. My wife has been chased from her childhood home by the very person of this half-brother, when he learned of her pregnancy. I would like to know his reasons, for I cannot fathom why a brother would do such a despicable thing. But, first things first, let us search for this man Johnston. Maybe he can reveal more than we know now.”

“Very well,” the squire said, in a firm and determined tone of voice, “let us proceed. What does this man look like? We need a description, if we are to find him.”

Ah … there was the catch. Alex suddenly realized that he had not clearly seen Johnston in the dimly lit graveyard. Only Rowena could give them a picture of her former lover.

“I am afraid we will have to wait until her ladyship wakes, gentlemen. Even my trusted batman has not caught a glimpse of the fellow. I will inform you as soon as possible.”

The Reclusive Aristocrat – Part Twenty-Seven

Chapter Twelve (continued)

Rowena was paralyzed in horror. Being held in this painful vice, unable to move, short of breath, it all flowed back to her; the helplessness she had felt when Peter had known her intimately for the first time. He had been ruthless and brutal. The memory of it, the pain and the shame, of being denied fulfilment after Peter had climaxed. The bruises she would find, that covered the softest parts of her body afterwards. She had been too young to understand he was a cruel, sadistic bully, but now she knew better. She had known Alex’ gentle, unselfish touch.

Rage, white and hot, suddenly swamped away her fear. She had let this scoundrel son of an earl abuse her. Why had nobody made her understand what it was to lay with a man? Meg and John had already left her father’s estate by then, so Rowena could not ask her confidante. Rowena had known something was wrong from the beginning but she had been so deeply in love with Peter that she had been helpless to tear herself away from him. How dearly she had paid for her naivety!

She must do something, and she must do it now. She stopped clutching at Peter’s clasping arm, because it would not move anyway. Instead she rammed both her elbows in his lower stomach as hard as she could. He yelped and dropped the blade, and she was free. Then Peter kicked her feet from under her. Rowena fell hard onto the cobbled path, unable to stretch out her hands to cushion the blow. Her swollen belly took the full brunt, and the pain jolted through her. She knew no more, as darkness engulfed her.

Porter, having to cover a large distance, lunged for the blackguard too late. Johnston fled and jumped over the low stone wall, to disappear in the thick foliage of the adjacent woods. The batman hastily returned to Alex, who was kneeling beside the countess.

“Major, we should take ‘er ladyship ‘ome. I don’t like the way she looks, right now. Bastard threw her down ‘ard.”

Alex scooped Rowena up and cradled her against him. Her head lolled forward onto his chest, like a rag doll. Her skirts were soaking wet, he realized with a jolt. Christ!

 

Once they reached the house, matters turned to chaos. Mrs Hall and Trixie, who had hurried from the kitchens, panicked when they saw Rowena’s pale, very still face, her limp form clinging to her husband. Meg, realizing what was happening, ordered them to prepare lots of hot water and clean cloths. Dr Orme was summoned and could only confirm what Alex was fearing; Rowena had gone into labour, after her waters had broken due to the fall.

“My lord, it is far too soon. She is only eight months gone,” Meg said, wringing her hands.           Rowena cringed every time a contraction ran through her. “There is very little we can do, Mrs Wallis,” Dr Orme replied. “Let us get her ladyship into bed.”

Rowena leaned upon Alex and Dr Orme, when they half carried her upstairs. She was in a strange frame of mind; her thoughts seemed to have vanished into nothingness, except for the fear. Fear whenever her body was raked with pain. Her baby was coming, and it was too soon. The child could die. She could not think of anything else but the plain fact that she might lose her babe.

Meg and Trixie helped her out of her sodden clothes, washed her and dressed her in a fresh cotton nightgown. Mrs Hall and the other maids had already prepared the bed, following Dr Orme’s instructions; the mattress was protected with a cover made of tarpaulin, then decked with sheets.           Rowena was scooped up by Alex, who let her down onto the bed.

“Do not fear, my dear. You are in good hands.”

Rowena looked up at him, then winced as a new contraction made her go rigid.

“My lady, I need you to relax, instead of tensing up. It is bad for the child. Breathe deeply through your nose when the pain strikes. Then hold your breath for a couple of seconds before you release it very slowly. Can you do that?” pleaded Dr Orme.

Rowena nodded, trying hard to do as he said. It was, however, extremely difficult to breathe into the pain, but she managed better than she had hoped for. Next Dr Orme was checking Rowena’s stomach, which was decently covered by a sheet. “All is proceeding well, my lady. I foresee no difficulties for the child to be born.”

Rowena stared at him, as another searing wave of pain gripped her. How could the man say such a thing! She wanted to scream at him but she had no breath left. She was drowning in fierce, unbearable pain. Oh how, she hoped she would faint! Ah … so much pain …

 

Alex found himself in a turmoil he had not known before, not even in the heat of battle, not even at Waterloo. He was almost paralyzed with fear, he realized. Fear like he experienced on June 18, 1815, when he felt the French blade slice through his body. The mindless, inexorable fear that he was going to die. He felt it now and recognized it, and he was helpless just like he had been before.

Only now it was Rowena who was in danger of dying, and her little one with her.

No. The word was clear in Alex’ mind and heart. No, he was not going to stand by without trying to give support to his wife in her hour of need.

 

Rowena struggled to stay conscious but she knew she was failing. The pain was like a living creature, a beast that was suffocating her. She longed for oblivion, but her body denied her with yet another wave of searing pain.

“Come,” a deep baritone voice said, “let me support you. It will give you relief, if you sit up and raise your knees.” And then someone lifted her into an upright position and drew her knees up.    Rowena opened her eyes to find herself sitting … Dear Lord!

Alex had positioned himself behind her on the bed. She was sitting between his spread legs, and the warmth of his big, hard body was simply divine. He had indeed raised her knees and was now massaging her lower belly with warm, gentle hands.

“Th … thank you,” Rowena stammered, overwhelmed by the soothing movement of his hands. Then she noticed the shocked expressions on the faces of everyone in the room, including Dr Orme’s.

“Alex,” the doctor said softly, “you need not be here. I can manage with the women’s help.”

“No,” Rowena’s husband replied. “I have done this before, Richard.”

“You have? When?” was Rowena’s next question, just as she recalled his earlier story of the young Portuguese mother.

“I told you so before, Rowie. Do you not remember?”

“Forgive me,” she whispered, revelling in the comfort of his broad chest behind her. Her head was nestled against his shoulder, and when she turned her cheek into its hollow, she could feel the steady, strong beat of his heart. The others were still staring at them, but she did not care.

“I told you about Porter and me helping a young mother near Sobràl, did I not? When her pains had been at the worst, I discovered she breathed more easily when she was propped against a hard surface. Her back straight and her knees raised, just as you are now.”

Rowena smiled, but her smile turned into a grimace when a new contraction tortured her. Instantly, she felt Alex stiffen behind her, supporting her, lending her his endless strength, and it gave her glorious relief.

“Breathe deeply, Rowie,” he whispered in her ear. “Long, deep intakes of air. Keep the air for a while and then release it slowly through pursed lips, just as Richard instructed.”

What an amazing man she had married, Rowena mused, executing what he had said as exactly as she could. Again she found it eased her pain considerably.

The Reclusive Aristocrat – Part Twenty-Six

Chapter Twelve

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

 

Rowena entered the unexpectedly large graveyard that surrounded St Crispin’s Church. Sometime during the day, she had tamped down her anger about Alex’ highhandedness and told him she wanted to meet the mysterious letter writer. She wanted Alex to accompany her to Evensong and afterwards, let her go to the meeting alone.

“Wait for me outside the graveyard, please. I need to know what is transpiring here. Please try to understand my concern, Alex? If this is a hoax, then you can go to the magistrate, and if it is not …”

“You are not seriously thinking that Johnston might be still alive? It must be a hoax, and I am not inclined to let you go alone.”

“Please, Alex? He will not show up when he sees you with me. You could post young Gregson at the entrance to watch over me.”

He could, Alex thought, yet he would not. He most certainly should not; she might be in danger. He would watch over her himself, though he could not tell her that, since she still thought him blind. So he pretended to give in.

“Very well, my dear. We will do as you say. I implore you to be very careful. If it is a hoax, the ones involved might not wish you well.”

Rowena pressed her husband’s hand in gratitude, then stepped into the graveyard.

The graves were as well-tended as was possible, given the dampness of the soil. Yet many graves lay sunken under the thick blanket of snow, their lichen-covered headstones crooked. Some were broken, marking graves of long-dead people. Rowena shivered as the gloomy atmosphere added an eerie edge to the winter night. It was still bitterly cold, although the sky was overcast, so no moonlight helped her find her way through the deserted yard. The note had not specified where exactly she was to meet the mysterious person, so she halted in the middle where two paths crossed. A large funeral chapel stood there, belonging to a wealthy Leicester merchant family whose ancestry was from Ketteridge. Rowena went to stand near the chapel door, better to see when someone approached her.

“Rowena … Rowie …”

That voice … that clipped accent with just a hint of Cumberland tones … could it be? She swung round to the left and nearly fainted when she recognized the man who was standing there, leaning on a cane. His clothes were shabby and dirty, his fair hair too long, his eyes too large in his narrow face. Yet it was Peter, no doubt about it.

 

Alex peered through the darkness, anxious to lose sight of Rowena. Damnation, but he did not like this! He had been suspicious of Johnston as soon as Rowena told him about the man. He had thought him a cad, a blackguard, for seducing an inexperienced girl, only weeks before he joined his regiment. Alex knew all too well that Johnston must have been informed long before the exact date on which the army forces would gather and cross over to Flanders. Cavalry men often belonged to the landed gentry. They wanted to be informed early enough to be able to provide for the running of their estates in their absence.

That afternoon, he had taken the trouble of looking up Johnston. If he was the son of an earl, he had to be in Debrett’s. Johnston, Alex discovered, was indeed Carlisle’s third son. Yet no mention had been there about a demise, and the edition of Debrett’s was from July 1815. Up to date, thus.

 

“Peter … what … they told me you were dead … I thought you were dead …”

Her former lover shrugged, smiling broadly at her, showing teeth that had known better days. How was this possible? Peter used to be such a fastidious man, proud of his uniform, and his status as the son of a nobleman. Now he seemed destitute and unwell. Rowena’s heart melted.

“Oh my God, Peter! What happened to you? Why did they think you were dead? Roderick told me he had a telegram from the Regiment, announcing you had fallen at Waterloo.”

“Ah, well …” Peter said, scratching his head, and avoiding her eyes. “You see, Rowie, I was badly injured and I must have lain for dead for hours, if not days. I dragged myself from the battlefield, and I must have done that for a long time, because when I finally woke up, I was lying in a barn, five miles from the battle field. A farm lad found me, and he and his sister nursed me back to health. Unfortunately, I had no memory of what happened, and someone had stripped me of my uniform. So it took several months for my memory to come back, and then one day, I remembered you. I left and came back, Rowie. We can be together and start a family.”

He took a step forward, and Rowena realized he was going to embrace her. Suddenly, that did not seem to be an attractive notion. She braced herself when he put his arms around her, desperately trying not to shy away. He was dirty and he smelled anything but fresh, but that was not what repelled her. Repulsion … of Peter? How had she come to that? But she had. She closed her eyes, enduring his embrace as best as she could, before she gently extracted herself from his arms.

“Peter, matters have changed. I have married the Earl of Ketteridge.”

Peter’s gasp cut her off, as he pushed her from him. “Rowie, no! That cannot be so! Why, Rowie, why?”

Rowena pushed away from Peter and felt suddenly relieved to be free of his touch. She was baffled. Why would she be shy of Peter’s touch, when she had lain with him in the past?

“It saddens me that matters have gone the way they have. Yet they have, and we must resign ourselves to the fact that we both are in a new situation. We …”

In the blink of an eye, Peter again grabbed her upper arms and shook her. He actually shook her, and very hard! The cane he was holding was pressed painfully into the flesh of her arm. “No! I cannot let this happen! I need you, Rowena!”

His mouth bore down on hers, forcing open her lips, invading her mouth with his tongue.            Rowena struggled not to gag, fighting to pull free, but his vicelike grip was unbreakable. She panicked, tried to kick him, but he pushed her against the chapel’s wall. Pushed her so hard her head banged against the bricks. She longed to faint, to escape this horror.

 

Alex had watched the whole, disgusting scene from afar, gritting his teeth in loathing when he saw his wife step into the stranger’s embrace. She had done so willingly, he observed, rage burning holes in his chest. She must still love the cavalry man, damnation!

He was unable to hear what they were saying, the distance being too great. He rejoiced when Rowena pulled away, panicked when he saw Johnston grab her again. His feet were taking him to her before he realized. He seized Johnston’s arm and wrenched him backwards. The man suddenly swung a cane Alex had failed to notice, and it connected hard with his right temple.

Alex’s vision blurred, the world suddenly spinning. He gritted his teeth and rose from his knees to run after Johnston who was dragging a screaming Rowena towards the graveyard’s entrance. How had the fiend managed to cover all that distance? Alex fought back the bile mounting in his throat, feeling a warm trickle of blood running down his face. Blast! His head wound must have reopened.

He forced himself to run harder, saw the distance diminish. Then, to his infinite relief, he saw Porter entering through the graveyard’s gate.

“Porter! Stop him!”

The batman never hesitated but broke into a swift run towards Johnston and Rowena. But Johnston was now a cornered animal and he acted so by backing up to a large grave stone. A blade flashed, and Alex realized it must have been hidden in the cane. Johnston held its rim against Rowena’s throat, locking her in a dead grip.

Both Alex and Porter stopped, yards away from the couple. Alex felt sick with sudden panic burning his gut. If this madman … no! He could not give in to paralyzing panic! Not when Rowena needed him to be calm.

“What is it you want, Johnston? Money? I can give you as much as you need. Let her go and we can make an arrangement.”

“Back! Move back or I’ll slice her like a pig, I swear!” The man’s tones were all but clipped now.

The Reclusive Aristocrat – Part Twenty-Five

Chapter Eleven (completed)

The taprooms at The Fox and Hare were crowded with villagers and estate tenants, when the earl and his countess made their appearance. Shouts of joy and well-wishes sounded as Alex handed Rowena out. She seemed genuinely overwhelmed but pleasantly so, yet she brightly smiled and waved, while Alex led her into the inn. In the taproom, Rowena was startled anew by a loud cheering from the patrons, all raising their tankards. She stopped, eyes widened by all the grinning faces surrounding her. A strong hand steadied her, gripping her elbow.

“Now, gentlemen! Please make way for your countess, my lady Rowena,” Alex’ voice rumbled overhead. The crowd parted, some men even bowed. Alex led her to the stairs, and they proceeded to the assembly rooms above.

There the women and children were waiting, and they clapped when Rowena and Alex entered. Some even tried a curtsy. Rowena’s eyes grew moist, her heart bursting with joy. She belonged here, amongst this community, these women, who struggled to gain a decent way of living. She loved the children, from the smallest baby to the awkward youth of fourteen, who blushed when she handed him his present. One of the boys, a lean, tall child by the name of Evan, graced her hand with a wet kiss. A girl of ten, Mariah, forgot her manners and embraced Rowena’s waist. She did not mind, she loved the gesture of spontaneity.

Alex watched his new wife while she graciously handed out the parcels and baskets she had worked on with Meg and Mrs Hall over the last few days. She gave the image of a woman who was born to this, he mused. She was charming, motherly and elegant at the same time, patient and smiling, as if every single woman and child were her personal friends.

Alex was yet again puzzled by what he was seeing. How was it possible that a woman so – he struggled to find a suitable word – so disadvantaged in so many ways could reach the position she was now in? She had no money, and her family had cast her off because she was with child out of wedlock. She was pretty, that was true, but not beautiful enough to dazzle. She was quiet, almost shy, yet here she was, falling into the role of how he had imagined his countess should be. His countess – even though he had not thought he would ever be the earl, just a few months ago, before Reggie died.

With a shock, he realized that he, Alex, was indeed the Earl of Ketteridge, now, and that Rowena, disadvantaged and cast-off Rowena, was now his countess. And that she as filling the role exactly how he had wished she would. It was mind-boggling.

Even his people were taken by her. No, enchanted, beguiled, was more like it. All these women, mothers and wives themselves, lived in a quiet country village where morals were rigid and strict. Unmarried mothers were invariably frowned upon by the prim, stuffy matrons. There would be disapproving gossip in abundance about girls who got knocked up. And here they all were, gazing in rapt admiration at his new wife, pregnant as could be, and every single one of them knew it was not Alex’ child. Still, not a disapproving glance in sight.

“A penny for your thoughts.” Alex jerked his head to where Richard Orme was standing, next to him. “You would not want them,” he all but growled. “And besides, they are none of your business.”

“What ails you, Alex? Marriage not as convenient as you thought it would be? She seems to fit the role adequately and satisfactorily, if you ask me.”

“I am not asking you, damnation!”

Richard Orme stared at his friend in utter disbelief. It was not at all like Alex to be so rudely angry.

“Are you in pain? Your head troubling you still? How is your eyesight?”

The real, unmitigated concern in Richard’s voice dragged Alex back to civility.

“Forgive me, Rich. That was uncalled for. No, I am not in pain, and my eyesight remains unchanged. I was just wool-gathering.”

“No, you were not. Your face bore the deepest expression of puzzlement I ever saw. What bone are you chewing?”

Alex heaved a deep, bone-chilling sigh. “It is standing there, handing out presents to my tenants’ wives.”

“The lovely Rowena? Why? What is it that puzzles you?”

“Have you truly seen her? I thought her a poor little nobody who had been seduced and is now pregnant with a bastard child. I offered for her because … well, let us be honest, I had no hopes of offering for a proper little Ton miss. I was still nearly blind when I proposed, but now I can see what she truly looks like, and … I feel like I am teetering on the edge of a cliff.”

“You amaze me, Alex. Why do you not just count your incredible blessings and enjoy the view? That is what everyone else here is doing. Your tenants are worshipping the ground under her feet.”

“Yes, that is yet another matter. They seem to find it completely normal that she should be with child, and that is it not my child she is carrying. No censure, no rejection, only admiration. I find this extremely puzzling, Rich.”

Richard watched his friend as he stood gazing at his young wife in puzzlement. Alex had changed, he mused, and was still changing. Richard hoped it would be for the best, because his friend deserved some much needed happiness. It had been too long since Alex had been allowed some normalcy. Richard was unsure if Alex had ever known a true, plainly normal life, growing up with servants first, and then going to boarding school and university under the tutelage of an older brother. Alex had grown up without true parental love, and that was what he had forever searched for in Richard’s childhood home. Richard’s mother was a warm and welcoming woman, generous to a fault, even with maternal love. Alex should find such love – marital love – with Rowena, for it was high time he found happiness.

“Perhaps they consider her a woman perfect to be your countess, Alex. Perhaps they are looking further than what they are seeing, a woman who will, eventually produce your heir, and in doing so, secure their own future. They already know that she is fertile, and that is what they need; a woman capable of securing the next generation.”

 

Rowena reckoned she must have shaken a thousand hands, and kissed the same amount of infants, before the line of well-wishers finally thinned. The last one to greet her was a slim, frail girl with a mass of blond curls bound together with a dirty ribbon. Her face was pale and a bit wan, and her big blue eyes had a plea in them. Before Rowena had time to speak to her, the girl pressed something into her hand, then turned and quickly left. Puzzled, Rowena stared after her, then glanced at the tiny scrap of paper.

                ‘Please meet me in the graveyard, tomorrow after Evensong. Peter.’

Blinking to clear her vision, Rowena stared at the words. They made no sense. Peter was dead, it could not be him. Who then? And why would they want to meet her?

“Are you well, my dear?”

Alex’ deep voice rumbled in her ear, and Rowena instinctively crumpled the note into her gloved hand. She looked up at her husband, anxious to meet his gaze, yet he was gazing down at her with quiet concern, his blue-grey eyes unseeing. He could not have seen the scrap, she knew. She had to tell Alex, she had to. Slowly, she put the small ball of paper in his hand, telling him what it said.

Alex frowned. “Surely this must be a prank. Johnston is dead, is he not?”

“Yes, that was told to me by Roderick. Why would my brother lie about that?”

Alex could think of several reasons why her cold-hearted brother might wish to conceal the truth from her, but he kept them to himself. “You are not going to meet this fellow, and that is final, Rowena. It can only be a trick to rob you, or harm you. Let them rot in hell.”

“But Alex, I …”

“No!” He barked the word at her, face rigid with fury. “You are the Countess of Ketteridge. You do not answer summons from unknown, shady characters.”

She had wanted to explain why she was going, but he had cut her off so arrogantly that she felt her own fury rising. How dare he speak so to her? She had liked for him to go with her, to see what this was about, yet now she would do as she wished without telling him. Alex was her husband, for sure, but that did not mean he could bully her around.

 

Next Week – Please join me for a three-day posting

in the spirit of Christmas

on December 23, 24 and 25

A North and South Christmas

It is nearly Christmas in the year 1854 in Milton, an industrial town in the north of England.

People are awfully poor and they starve when out of work. Children work alongside their parents, performing all sorts of gruesome and downright dangerous tasks. They do not go to school and thus stay illiterate. Their parents earn but little money, often not enough to feed their family.

The spirit of Christmas is often far from their minds, as it is yet another day to be out of work. It became a bank holiday in 1834, an unpaid day for most of the workers, a day without income, and just another dismal day of suffering.

Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol  – which hasn’t been published yet in 1854 – lifts a tiny piece of the veil to grant us a glimpse of what transpired in those long-forgotten days.

This is how it could have been in my own rampant imagination for John Thornton and Margaret Hale, the couple we all love so much. First, though, where are we in the N&S story?

John and Margaret have married in September of that year after meeting each other on the train platform, halfway between Milton and London. They are still trying to build a life together which is somewhat hard, with John having to reconstruct his cotton mill, and Margaret struggling to accommodate to Hannah Thornton’s strict house rules. Margaret’s strong-willed mother-in-law resents John’s marriage to that ‘headstrong young miss with all her airs and graces’, and she will not relinquish the reigns to the Thornton household.

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 …