The Reclusive Aristocrat – Part Fifty-One

Chapter Twenty-Two

Ketteridge, Leicestershire, April 5th, 1816

Barely three weeks later, Alex was convinced that the manner in which Rowena had directed the management of the estate had been the right one. The only one, in fact, since by now every farm was run smoothly and efficiently. His own approach had lacked the necessary inspiration to bring his tenants around, he knew that.

By now, hands, both male and female, were being exchanged between farms and directed to where they were needed. To Alex’ astonishment, some of his runaway hands had returned from the industrial cities and resumed their work in the fields. He could rest assured that his estate was on the way to recovery.

Furthermore, there was also one other fact standing out clearly and irrevocably; his countess was the pivot on which everything turned, be it on the estate, in the manor or in the village. His people, who had heartily welcomed her at their wedding as the new mistress of the house, now saw her as the linchpin in their daily lives. She was the person they sought out whenever difficulties arose. She provided them with the comfort they needed when fate presented them with setbacks. She was the one who showed Alex what he was missing, time and time again when they rode over the estate, which people needed his support and which problem he should tackle before any other one.

As spring blossomed in Leicestershire and painted vivid colours everywhere, Alex did quite a lot of riding with his countess by his side. He had purchased a spirited little mare for her, a bay of bright reddish brown she had immediately fallen in love with and given the name of Ruby. Alex’ own steed Titan had shown an instant attraction to the mare, guiding her on their rambles with a show of protection Alex had never seen before in his faithful mount. Titan was not easily swayed in seeking contact with other horses, having been trained as an army horse. So Alex could only rejoice that their mounts got on so well. It did indeed make for pleasant and invigorating rides.

Now that he found comfort of mind in the blossoming of his estate, Alex had now the leisure to turn to another matter that bothered him. What to do about his wife’s inheritance? He would be damned if he ever let that infamous cad of a half-brother of hers rob him of what legally and rightfully belonged to him. So he summoned his solicitor Septimus Middlebridge and his batman cum valet James Porter to his library and laid out everything he now knew about the matter. They had to concoct a scheme to rectify what was wrong, albeit the last thing he would do.

 

Rowena sat at her vanity brushing her hair , deep in thoughts. Usually this was a soothing moment for her after a busy day but tonight she was puzzled. Something about Alex’ behaviour was troubling her. He had begun showing some thawing from the icy manners he had deployed during their first months of marriage, yet to say that he was amiable towards her was exaggerated, to say the least. She had so hoped he would, though.

Alex was friendly, and at night passionate, but there was no tenderness during the day. No surreptitious touching, no secretive kissing, no smiling even. She missed his smile which he bestowed on her during her first days at Ketteridge House. At that time, he had been sweet and protective to the point that she must have fallen in love with him from the start. Oh, yes. She did love him, but only recently had she realized it had been from the very first moment she set eyes on him.

She recalled vividly how comforting and supporting he had been when Emma Rose was born. How she adored him when he adopted her child and gave Emma his name. How she loved being the subject of his unwavering protection during all the nastiness with her former lover.

Why had she ever believed Peter Johnston was sincere in his declarations of love? She had been twenty at the time, and she ought to have better understanding of men by then, yet she had not. What did that say for her, other than her suffering from extreme naïveté  and wilful denial?

Alex was the complete opposite, she knew that well by now. He was straightforward and considerate, honourable and noble to a fault. She still could not fathom why he had opted to marry her, of all women. She had seen the looks women at parties and balls in London gave him, furtively from behind their fans, as well as openly and brazenly staring when he entered. He did cut a fine, proud figure with his tall, strongly muscled frame and his beautifully chiselled face. Yet most of all, Rowena loved his blue-grey eyes, had loved them when they were still half-blind, but so vivid in colour and changing with his mood and feelings.

Rowena sighed and put down her brush. She was in her own room, since Alex had not shown any signs of wanting to make love to her. He was in his library, working on something new that he had not mentioned to her. She stood up and walked to the high window overlooking the garden behind the house. The view was magnificent, with the bright moonlight painting the sunken garden and the rose garden silver. It was like a garden from a fairy tale, a secret, wonderful place where dreams could come true. In an impulse, she donned her robe over her nightgown and left her room for a stroll in that magical world.

 

The Reclusive Aristocrat – Part Fifty

Chapter Twenty-One (completed)

Rowena’s concerns about the tenants and farmers were similar to those Alex had tried tackling that same morning, only she had to first and foremost deal with the women’s problems. Many women had been virtually widowed due to their husbands leaving for the large industrials cities in the hope of gaining more money to support their families. As a result, these women were left to fend for themselves on the farms deserted by their husbands, which was extremely difficult when one had to deal with the additional strain of raising a family consisting of small children. In short, these women were not coping at all.

Rents had not been paid for several years but this was something Alex was prepared to overlook provided the farms were tended appropriately and harvests brought in sizeable yields. And herein lay the rub; everything had been slowing down over the past years and so much so that practically every farm on the estate was in arrays. However, where Alex only saw the enormity of the problem with no clue as to solve it, Rowena had concocted a workable plan, which she meant to submit to her husband, once he saw with his own eyes in what quagmire the women were.

As they were cantering leisurely through the fields on their way to the Home Farm, Rowena attempted her first tackle.

“Alex, have you considered some form of cooperation between the farmers to overcome the lack of workers? I read about it in a book about French winemakers. They cannot afford the machinery, such as presses and bottling devices, each on their own estate, so they unite themselves to form a cooperation. That way they have sufficient funds to hire the necessary machinery and use it each of them in turn. I figured we could work out something similarly here. What is your opinion about this?”

When she saw the stony expression he had worn since he had decreed he would accompany her deepen, Rowena inwardly sighed. He did not approve and would veto her, she was sure. Then she watched his brows rise in astonishment.

“I never knew we had that kind of books in our library, so I will be sure to read that one in particular. I was not at home that much, you see. After I graduated from Cambridge, I immediately asked my father to buy me a commission. I have been in the army for the last ten years and did not sell up until July last year. I was incapacitated for months, and being almost blind, I was unable to read.”

“Alex, Alex, you do not need to justify yourself to me! I know about your predicament and I admire the way you tackled the estate’s difficulties with such great skill and dedication. You had enough on your plate as it was and no need to take in a fallen woman, let alone marry her, to add to your problems, but you did, for which I am infinitely grateful. So just tell me what you think of my proposition.”

He waited a bit before answering in a slightly regretful manner. “I am unsure if the workers – the males especially – would welcome such an action. They would see it as an insult to their pride as farmers.”

Rowena jumped into the breech his words had conjured. “This is exactly why I want to address the women, Alex. Women also have their pride, make no mistake, but they are prepared to set it aside for their families’ sake, if necessary. I am fairly certain I can make them see the benefits of working together for the good of the community as well as of their families. However, …”

She halted, making him draw rein as well beside her. “However, I will need your help. Your support in backing me up as lord of the manor will give me the authority I need to accomplish this. So, if you are in doubt about this, tell me now, because we have arrived at the Home Farm. Mrs Walton is the one who I have chosen to organize this. If you will not give me your benediction, I want to know it now.”

 

The very next day, Rowena’s plan was set into motion, after Alex gave his unconditional support.

A women’s meeting was organized at the assembly rooms in Ketteridge village after Mrs Walton spread the word. Bar the very old, every woman mastering a household and sometimes even a farm was present. Rowena explained her reasoning and asked for the assembly’s support in organizing the procedures.

Alongside Rowena and Mrs Amy Walton, wife to the tenant of the Home Farm, and consequently the one with the highest authority among the farmers’ wives, there were three other very important pillars of the community. Two of them were left to manage their farm on their own, their husbands and older sons having departed for Manchester and the cotton factories. Mrs Gladys Peters and Mrs Anna Claythorne were struggling to cope with the help of their younger sons, lads of barely ten years old. Just like the majority of the women present they were not managing at all. Mrs Peters was in charge of a large farm on the north of the estate, dealing mostly with corn crops, where Mrs Claythorne had to see to a farm with a large sheep herd. The other women present had similar farms but smaller in size, so the previous two were acting as spoke-persons for their fellow sisters.

 

Alex sat watching the whole at the rear of the hall, marvelling in his wife’s capacity as a moderator and organizer. Never had he suspected her strength and intelligence in a matter such as this and he felt ashamed that he had never even tried to look closer at Rowena. She was a beautiful young woman, and a graceful one, and for a long time, that had been all he had been interested in. Now, however, he was realizing that she was also a driving force that could help him restore his estate, and that was a complete surprise to him.

The way he had always regarded women – to his utter shame, as it turned out – had been  only as a means to satisfy his baser physical needs. All through his army career, he had never seen the slightest point in earnestly tying himself to any woman other than to bed her, enjoy and then dump her. In all his thirty-one years, he had never thought it necessary to settle into a steady, domesticated life, because he had thought his older brother Reggie would take care of the estate’s needs in that regard. He – Alex – had always considered himself free of the estate. He could happily go on soldiering through Europe, with the underlying thought of being killed someday, and therefore been entitled to amuse himself thoroughly and meaninglessly between battles. Waterloo had definitely put a stop to that.

“A penny for your thoughts, Alex.” Richard Orme’s quiet, slightly mocking voice tore him back to the present.

Alex scoffed. “I am not sure my thoughts are worth that much, Rich.”

“You looked dazed, as if you could scarcely believe your eyes. Surely by now, you are used to the riveting sight of your countess in full organizing mode? By the way, what exactly is she organizing?”

A sigh from deep within racking him, Alex explained, which drew a whistle from Richard.

“Well, well, I never knew she had it in her, my friend. I always saw her as the mousy, quiet type, undergoing more than undertaking, if you get my meaning.”

Alex bristled. “She is definitely not mousy, Rich. Use your eyes, for heaven’s sake. Even when I was virtually blind, I knew she was beautiful, and that was from the first second I met her.”

His friend burst into a loud laugh which made everyone in the room turn to them. Richard waved a hand in apology to Rowena and the room’s attention went back to her.

“What, by Jove, is there to laugh about, Rich?” Alex asked from between clenched teeth.

“Sorry, old boy, merely expressing my joy at finally seeing you arrived where you belong. You have a beautiful, intelligent and caring wife, Alex, and you deserved it after your many ordeals. Praise yourself extremely fortunate, my friend. I envy you.”

And with that, Richard Orme turned and left the room, thereby leaving Alex to frown in utter confusion and concern.

 

The Reclusive Aristocrat – Part Forty-Nine

Chapter Twenty-One

Ketteridge, Leicestershire, March 19th, 1816

Rowena woke to Emma’s crying and saw that morning had already broken, albeit barely. The next moment, Bessie brought the infant and waited for Rowena to sit up to lay Emma in her mother’s arms. While she was nursing the greedy baby, Rowena only now realised she had been alone in the bed, even though Alex had stayed after their lovemaking.

They had been together in London two nights ago, and only the one night on the road when she had to care for an unusually distressed Emma, they had been forced to forego intimacy. Yet the first night back at Ketteridge House, Rowena had boldly gone to her husband’s room longing for him so deeply that she was determined to do anything to get into his bed. Turned out that he, too, had been wanting her with a passion she could only revel in. But it was only passion, Rowena realised with painful clarity. Never had the word ‘love’ crossed his lips. Would Alex ever open up to her, she mused in mild despair? Would she ever mean more to him than a bed partner?

After she returned Emma to her nurse, Rowena gratefully sank into the bath Trixie had drawn for her. The journey from London seemed to have tired her more than she cared for. Nevertheless, she would ready herself with care and prepare for a serious conversation with her husband. She did not expect love from him but when respect came into view, that was another matter altogether.

 

Alex was slowly beginning to understand what it actually meant to run an estate, and a failing one to boot, when he rode out with his steward to inspect his farms. Literally everything had been lacking, as John Wallis explained, from ploughs and plough horses to manure and seed and to sufficient workers as well. Although Alex had given John free rein to order whatever was needed, as well as to hire extra hands, it was vital that he now see for himself how matters were progressing.

What he found out, reassured him only partially. Some tenant farmers, especially the older and more experienced ones, had done the ploughing and were preparing to start sowing. Others were still complaining about a lack of hands, claiming that the older farmers had taken the bulk of young lads available. Unfortunately, the supply of young people in this age of industrialisation was not very forthcoming.

Young folk drifted away to the factories in the rapidly expanding industrial cities, seeking employment in the cotton industry. Alex could not blame them, since payment was always better and steadier there than it would ever be in agriculture. He had interests in the cotton industry in Manchester, Liverpool and Leicester and knew several of his tenants’ sons who had migrated there for reasons of sheer survival. So now he was brooding over how he would supply extra hands so that sowing could be done on all his farms. For the moment, he had no inkling how he would carry that through.

He could, however, encourage and praise his tenants for their efforts, which he duly did. Nevertheless, he returned home with a mind full of problems to which he saw no immediate solution. As he gave his coat and hat to Porter, Rowena entered the hall from the servants’ quarters. Her face lit up when she spotted him, and he in return was stunned by his own reaction. A kind of warm softness encircled his heart, creating a pleasant sensation of safety and belonging he had never experienced before in this ancestral home of his. Not for the first time did Alex acknowledge that it was his wife’s presence that accomplished that.

“Good morning! I was wondering if we could have a quick word? I mean to ride out to the farms, as Meg has received requests for help from several of the women, but I can delay my departure. Shall we go to the library? I ordered tea which will surely be welcome after your morning ride.”

She sailed into the room, not waiting for his assent, and all he could do was to follow her. She looked particularly lovely, today, he mused, in her close-fitting riding habit in vivid green with a pristine white blouse. A froth of white lace accented the slender column of her graceful neck, leaving Alex with a burning desire to kiss and even lick it. The smile she had given him was still warming his heart. Yet in his head, her remark about riding out rang clearly and it concerned him.

“Do you need to ride, Rowena? Would it not be better to use the carriage?”

“I will ride because I sorely need the exercise after our days of inaction in London. I can take one of our grooms though I doubt there is a need to.”

“You are definitely not going on your own. It is not safe, so I will accompany you.”

Her look of utter astonishment amazed him to the point of shock. Surely she must have had an inkling of danger after their encounter with Carlisle and his lady. The earl had told them that it had been Daveston who encouraged Johnston to pay court to Rowena. Carlisle suggested that his son had been of weak character, always seeking for the easiest way to obtain money, even if that entailed marrying Daveston’s half-sister. The earl had been forced to cut Johnston’s funds after the many gambling debts he and Daveston had acquired over the space of only one year.

“Rowena, we now know that Daveston still poses a risk to your safety. He was deep in debts after he inherited the estate, so much so that he stole your own inheritance through fraud. He was – is – in dire circumstances, Rowena. He might be even desperate to gain more funds, even if he has to harm you in the process. So yes, I am going with you.”

She did not reply but the gaze she directed him was luminous, as if she knew something he did not. As if she was incredibly happy, all of a sudden. He wondered why but tucked away the uneasiness when she agreed to his company on their ride.

When they clattered out of the stable yard together, Alex suddenly realised that she had not spoken further over the matters that concerned her earlier. He asked himself why but found no immediate answer.

The Reclusive Aristocrat – Part Forty-Eight

Chapter Twenty (completed)

London, March 17th, 1816

Her beautiful chocolate eyes were boring into his with gentle compassion, yet he was not sure on whose behalf, his or Carlisle’s, damn it. Alex found himself wondering what the bloody devil was wrong with him at being so rattled by what she made him feel.

What exactly was it he was feeling? Multiple things, for sure, envy being one of them. He envied Carlisle because his wife felt compassion on the demise of that sorry excuse of a third son. She had loved the bastard, he knew that, but surely she must have come to her senses by now. On the other hand, losing a son, even a third one, must be incredibly hard. Alex had no inkling how he himself would feel, all the more that Carlisle must know of the blackguard’s many faults.

“Alex, please?”

He jerked back to the present and tried to focus on his pleading wife.

“We have to find out what he knows about Johnston,” he replied and pulled his hand from hers. “Does he know his son was a deserter, a seducer, and a general ne’er-do-good?”

She clucked and shook her head. “I have no inkling, Alex, but we cannot leave him unaware of the fact that he has a granddaughter.”

“What? No, Rowena!” Alex felt sheer panic at the thought of having to present his daughter to Carlisle. “Carlisle has three surviving sons and two married daughters. In all he has ten grandchildren, including an heir and a spare by his eldest son, the marquess of Windermere. I dread to think what might happen if he knows of Emma Rose’s existence.”

Rowena was perplexed. “And what would that be, Alex?”

“Carlisle is extremely possessive about family. He would demand you hand her over to him, so that she can be brought up amongst her cousins. He would claim that, because she is illegitimate, she would have better chances for her come-out with him, due to his elevated state as a member of His Majesty’s government.”

“Dearest Alex,” she said fondly and stroked his face with the back of her hand. “Have you forgotten that you adopted her? She carries your name, husband! If she needs protection from whoever tries to claim her, you of all people are best placed to protect her.”

Rowena’s heart swelled with love for her kind, gentle husband. “You protect and defend, Alex. You told me that long ago, and I know it to be so very true. I have every confidence in you, my brave husband.”

For the life of him, Alex was at a loss at what to make of her.

 

After they sent their luggage on its way home under the care of Porter and Trixie, Rowena and Alex called on Lord Carlisle on the appointed hour of noon. They had discussed their stance for hours the previous evening without having reached a common viewpoint but it was agreed that they would both play it by ear, Alex taking the lead in the conversation with Rowena stepping in when female support was necessary. Rowena had to take Bessie and Emma along, since the infant could not be without nursing for too long. They were shown into a parlour and told to wait for his lordship’s pleasure by an impressive, elderly butler.

Alex did not like it at all. He was not keen on telling Carlisle about the baby but after mulling over it for half the night, he reckoned it would perhaps be necessary. Illegitimate or not, having a grandfather and a father being earls of the realm, might prove to be fortuitous for little Emma in the long run. She was an aristocrat’s child, on both sides, and at one time she would have to marry, preferably into the aristocracy.

When the butler finally returned, looking very much down his nose at them, he ushered them into the drawing room. Lord Carlisle was standing before the hearth where a large fire merrily blazed, and next to him in a winged armchair sat a lady. His Lordship introduced her as Lady Petronella Johnston, the countess of Carlisle. She was pleasantly rotund and somewhat plain, but she held herself regally, and was elegantly clad in a simple day dress.

Rowena curtsied to Peter’s mother who invited her to sit down in the chair next to hers. Alex made his bow and was shown to a chair opposite the ladies. Carlisle stayed where he was, his face inscrutable.

“My dear lord and lady Ketteridge,” the countess said, her voice a warm contralto, “I understand that you have information about our son Peter? He has been a great source of concern to us both and to his siblings as well. His death was reported to us by the cavalry regiment he served in, just two days ago, which was a mystery to us. The commander of that same regiment had informed us that he was a deserter after Waterloo and that he was therefore thought to be having gone missing in Flanders. And now we hear that he died a violent death in the village of Ketteridge, Leicestershire, in a manner which is even too distressing to speak of. We are greatly confused, Lady Ketteridge, so if you can enlighten us, we would be ever so grateful.”

 

Rowena looked at her husband with a silent plea for help. He cleared his throat.

“Lady Carlisle, first allow me to express our deepest sympathy. It must have been thoroughly distressing to find out that your son shirked his duty to his country, although I would be the last to condemn him for his actions. Waterloo was terrible, in fact so vilely inhuman, that he was not the only one to have lost his head. We counted many young men, both in the cavalry and infantry, who could not countenance the cruel slaughter of their comrades. I myself occasionally still suffer from nightmares and I have only recently somewhat recovered from my injuries.”

The countess dashed away a solitary tear but smiled at Alex, while the earl coughed and looked away. “There might be, however, more to know about your son, your ladyship,” Alex continued. “He had an acquaintance with Sir Roderick Drake, baronet Daveston. Were you aware of that?”

“We knew of the friendship,” the earl spoke up. “They were at Oxford together and stayed friends. I suppose you are going to allude to the connection Peter had to Daveston’s sister, the current Lady Ketteridge?”

Alex nodded, but Carlisle was looking at Rowena now. “I believe he promised you marriage?”

“Yes, he did,” Rowena replied quietly.

“We were opposed to the alliance,” Carlisle stated gruffly. “Peter told us he broke off the engagement, when he came to say goodbye before he left for France. There is one thing we want to know once and for all, my lady; were you pregnant with Peter’s child? He swore to us that he had not … erm …”

“My lord!” Alex sprang to his feet in indignation. “I am asking you most urgently not to offend my lady wife by implying impropriety.  Yes, she was with child, and your son fathered Emma Rose, who now bears the name of Raventhorpe. Both she and her mother are under my protection, and I will not stand for offence.”

Carlisle straightened, his eyes blazing, and was on the cusp of violence. Alex readied himself for battle, although he was reluctant to fight an older man. Then, out of the blue, came Emma’s furious cry of protest; she was hungry and her mother had neglected her for too long.

All eyes turned to Bessie who had been cradling the baby, while she sat on a chair next to the door.

“Oh!” Lady Carlisle rose and hurried to the pair. “Is that my granddaughter? May I hold her for a while, please?”

Bessie, greatly in awe of a countess addressing her without any condescension, handed her the child. Lady Carlisle returned to her chair with Emma Rose who was now howling in earnest. “Shh, little one, shh, oh, you are so beautiful …”

“Annabelle, it is only a baby, for heaven’s sake,” the earl admonished gruffly but he sank to his knee beside his wife’s chair and peeked at the screaming infant with reluctant interest. “Hey, my gal, what ails you, eh?”

At the sound of the unfamiliar, deep voice, Emma stopped crying and looked her grandfather in the eye … and smiled. Carlisle gasped and his wife gloried. “Oh, she looks so like Peter when he was a babe! Is she not beautiful, Terrence?”

Alex and Rowena stared at each other and at the couple in sheer astonishment, not quite sure of how to proceed the interrupted conversation. Who would have thought it would end like this?

 

 

The Reclusive Aristocrat – Part Forty-Seven

Chapter Twenty (continued)

London, March 17th, 1816

He was right. Rowena agreed to depart for Leicestershire as soon as possible. While Trixie and Bessie started packing up their family’s belongings, Alex had one pressing matter to see to. Flanked by his loyal batman, he took his wife to the Wellington Barracks on Birdcage Walk, where he was about to receive his patent letters. He could hardly wait to finally come truly into his title after all this time.

Their carriage was allowed admittance and permission to halt in front of the large porticoed entrance. Alex followed Porter out and offered Rowena his hand to alight from the carriage. On his arm, she walked up the shallow stairs and into the grand hall, where they were welcomed by The Lord Chancellor. He preceded them to a large, richly furnished office, where a small gathering of gentlemen awaited them.

Even though she had been introduced to the Ton four seasons ago, Rowena had not met many of its male members, let alone their wives, since she had not been presented at Court. She did not know any of the impressive men to whom her husband introduced her. Of the five present, three of them were positively glowering at her, and she did not understand why. Anxiety clutched at her, but she lifted her chin.

There was, of course, Sir John Scott, the Lord High Chancellor, who smiled and kissed the back of her hand. “Dear Lady Ketteridge, it is a pleasure to meet you once again.”

He directed her to a tall, very erect, elderly gentleman of proud military bearing, to whom Alex, laying his hand on hers, led her with some ceremony.

“My dear, I am proud and honoured to introduce you to His Grace the Duke of Wellington, my supreme commander in His Majesty’s Cavalry. Sir, my wife, Lady Rowena Ketteridge.”

Rowena, her heart in her mouth, curtsied as deeply as she was able to. To her surprise, the famous duke raised her with a genuine smile on his austere features. His deep voice boomed over her in sonorous tones.

“Charmed, my dear, charmed. I am overjoyed that my excellent officer found happiness with the lady who captured his heart. Your husband, madam, is one of my best and bravest men. Treasure him, my dear.”

“I am deeply honoured to have been presented to you, Your Grace, and you are correct in your assessment of my dearest spouse. He is indeed my own and beloved treasure.”

“Well said, my dear. Come, I will introduce you to a few others.”

Wellington took her elbow and led her to the three aristocrats standing to the side of the room.

“Leicester, Nottingham and Carlisle, meet her ladyship the Countess of Ketteridge.”

 

Alex noticed the grim faces of his three peers with dismay and contempt. He recalled the conversation at the ball and now recognized the two men. Leicester and Nottingham were the ones he needed to put in their places. However, he had no need to do so immediately. The Duke of Wellington’s stern gaze brought them to heel, and they bowed and kissed Rowena’s hand in sufficient yet indifferent deference. Carlisle, on the other hand, was livid with fury.

Carlisle was in his fifties, of middle height and starting to be slightly portly. His white hair was still lush and curly, his nose was short and chubby, his mouth large, and his chin was starting to sag. His eyes were hazel under bushy white brows. Peter’s eyes had been darker, but even at his age of twenty-five, his eyebrows had already been abundant and bushy. The resemblance with his father had been remarkable.

Carlisle bowed curtly but did not look Rowena in the face, not until Wellington cleared his throat in obvious dismay. Alex felt his anger rise like bile, but then Rowena did something so stunningly unexpected that she literally took Carlisle – and himself – by surprise; she grasped the earl’s hand and spoke  to him.

What, for Heaven’s sake, was she doing? A man of Lord Carlisle’s rank was not to be accosted in such a way, and did his wife not know that? Unless … he was Johnston’s father and she … great Heavens, she was about to comfort him for the loss of his son. Alex again felt the green-eyed monster gnaw at his heart and hated himself for it.

 

Rowena felt tears welling in her eyes at seeing Peter’s father, who was clearly in mourning with a large black crepe band around his right arm. The poor man’s face was pale with sorrow.

“My Lord Carlisle, you might not be aware I was acquainted with your son Peter. My husband and I heard of his recent demise and want to offer our condolences.”

Alex knew he had to take control of the situation, so he quickly joined her and confirmed her words with gravity, for which Rowena was greatly thankful. She gave Alex her sweetest smile, suppressing the urgency to kiss him then and there.

Dear Alex …

Carlisle eyed her, first with suspicion, but then grudgingly asked. “Would you and the earl grant me a private conversation at Carlisle House on Park Lane tomorrow at noon, Lady Ketteridge? I am sure my wife would want to hear about her son.”

“We would be honoured, my lord,” Rowena replied, a warm smile lighting her face. Then the Lord Chancellor recaptured their attention with the order of the day, namely Alex’ receiving his letters of patent. The ceremony took little time.

Afterwards, when they returned to the hotel, Rowena was debating by herself on what she would tell Peter’s father, when Alex spoke to her in such a cold voice that she looked at him in surprise.

“What the deuce were you about in addressing Carlisle in that way?”

“Surely I need not explain to you why, Alex? He has just lost his son and needs comfort. Did you not see his pale face and obvious grief?”

“Grief? Fury is what I saw, Rowena. The man could have throttled you for what he deems was insolence. Men like Carlisle are powerful and do not care for mere females to speak to them without their husbands’ permission. I know you do not have a great understanding of Ton manners but surely you must know that, to say the least.”

Alex was distressed, she realized, and she took his hand to gently stroke it. “You have it right, Alex. I do not know a lot of the Ton, but I can see when someone needs comforting. The earl of Carlisle is very much in deep sorrow, and we must agree on what exactly we will tell him. Should we talk about Emma Rose, for instance? Should he know how his son died and what connection we suspect there is with Roderick? He will surely been informed about the desertion but I am unsure if he knows it was Peter was engaged, and if so, to me. So I am in need of your sound ability to judge the situation, Alex. Will you help me?”

The Reclusive Aristocrat – Part Forty-Six

Chapter Twenty

London, March 17th, 1816

Rowena could not entirely grasp the enormity of what had just been revealed to her; it appeared she was entitled to an inheritance, which her half-brother had denied her. As she sat with her aunt in the quiet retiring room, her head was spinning with the inevitable conclusion she had to draw; her half-brother must have committed fraud regarding their father’s will.

“Rowie, what are your thoughts? What will you do next?”

Rowena straightened her shoulders. “I am going to find my husband and inform him about our findings, aunt. We – you and I, uncle Matthew and Melissa – must keep in touch from now on. I hope you will all come to stay at Ketteridge House in the near future, and if you wish it I shall send you a formal invitation.”

“I would like that extremely well, Rowie, and I am certain the others will do, too.  We all missed you, you know.”

“So have I, dear aunt.”

They embraced and parted, and Rowena went in search for Alex.

 

Alex was lounging against the billiard room wall, a glass of fine brandy in his hand. This room was very large, with four enormous tables set like the sides of a square in the centre of the thick Aubusson carpet. Four games were quietly proceeding, not entertaining enough to hold his full attention, so Alex was listening to the voices coming from the corridor door at his left side. Two male voices, unknown to him, were chuckling in mock pity. What he heard made him rigid with indignation.

“Poor Ketteridge. Do you not agree that fickle Fate has dealt him a rather unfortunate hand?”

“Exactly my own thoughts. First that horrible injury, then the blindness, and now the marriage to a woman hardly better than soiled goods.”

“By Jove, where did you get that information? I thought she was one of the Drakes of Daveston.”

“She is Daveston’s half-sister, from the second marriage of the old baronet. Rumour is that she got knocked up by some military man who died at Waterloo. As I said, soiled goods. Imagine what that is going to do to Daveston’s aspirations to a seat in Parliament.”

“Now who did spill the beans?”

“Daveston himself, at the High Chancellor’s ball, when he confronted his half-sister, and at least half a dozen matrons listening. Ketteridge nearly came to blows over it, since, he too heard it. Daveston is such a stupid sod, he will never make it to Parliament, mark my words.”

The two chuckled and moved on, leaving Alex seething. They were gossiping about him and his wife, as viciously as only Ton members could do so. He had stood there, violently suppressing his fury and the almost overwhelming need to force the blighters to apologize, come what may. Yet what would it matter? As an experienced soldier, he knew the wisdom of preparing and plotting. He also knew again why he had become a recluse after Waterloo, the machinations of the Ton not worthy of his attention.

However, with little Emma’s arrival, he might want to review his opinion, were she to make a advantageous marriage one day in the far future, perish the blasted thought.

“Alex, thank God I found you!”

Rowena’s voice held a note of panic, effectively jolting him out of his gloom. “Rowena, what is it?”

“I must speak with you,” she all but whispered, “but not here.”

“Let us leave, then.”

It took them over half an hour before they finally climbed into their carriage, the throng of vehicles clogging the street too large for traffic fluency.

“Well?” Alex could not suppress his impatience. “What has happened?”

“It seems that my wretched half-brother is even more a villain than we have credited him to be. I met my aunt Charlotte at the ball, and she told me a few things which will interest you.”

When she was finished, Alex was more determined than ever to go and pay a visit to Roderick Drake, baronet Daveston.

However, when Alex called on the baronet in Curzon Street the next morning, the butler with the roguish demeanour informed him that his master was not at home.

“Not at home or not receiving?” Alex gave his voice enough of a threat to try and persuade the man. Closing the distance between them, he towered menacingly over the servant, who scowled but also flinched.

“The master ‘as gone back te Daveston  ‘All, m’lord. I can’ ‘elp ye there! Just doin’ me job, sir.”

Alex chose to believe the man and left, determined to return to his own estate and regroup from there. Rowena would be happy and relieved to leave London.

 

The Reclusive Aristocrat – Part Forty-Five

Chapter Nineteen (completed)

London, March 17th, 1816

Alex spent the morning in his club and had lunch with his financial agent and solicitor, Mr Middlebridge, who had come to London with his lady. They had some necessities to purchase which were not available in Leicester, or so it seemed. The club in Albemarle Street was the exact right place to discuss finances, so Alex had a satisfyingly productive morning. He was, however, eager to join his wife at the hotel. They had to prepare for the evening ball at Lady Devonshire’s lavish townhouse. Alex secretly hoped for a few hours of bed sport with his beautiful countess beforehand. The night before had been very passionate, and he longed for her again with a fierceness he could not fathom in the least.

What greeted him when he entered their suite, was not at all what he had envisaged. Emma Rose was crying her heart out, and her nanny was at the end of her tether at being unable to calm the infant down.

“Where is her ladyship, Bessie? Should she not be here to nurse the little one?”

“I don’t know, sir. She’s gone out with Trixie and still not back after three hours. I don’t know what to do about Emma, I can’t console her.”

“Give her to me, Bessie, and ask for some honeyed water. We will try to calm her down with that. It worked before.”

While the nanny ran to do his bidding, Alex took the little one and put her onto his shoulder.

“Shh, little darling, shh.” He began talking to her about how to care for a horse, about grooming and feeding, exercising and the like, all of which seemed to sooth her, amazingly so. Emma Rose gurgled and her sweet little mouth spread in a wide toothless grin when he tickled her. He managed to keep her quiet until Bessie arrived. They fed her the honey water until she closed her eyes. Alex let himself down onto the sofa and laid the baby on his stomach. Soon thereafter she was fast asleep, giving her doting guardian ample time to ponder about his wife’s lateness.

This was not like Rowena at all. She was a devoted, loving mother and she respected Emma’s feeding schedule to a tee. And so Alex worried, his protective streak aching with the uncertainty of it all. Yet there was nothing he could do for the moment, blast it.

 

Running along the hotel’s first floor corridor toward their suite, Rowena strained her ears for Emma’s crying. There was none, which puzzled her. Trixie was at her heels and panted. “Maybe Bessie took her or a stroll, milady, and that’s why everything is quiet.”

Rowena did not reply but opened the door to their rooms. They were not in the sitting room, so she headed for her bedroom. The sight greeting her was riveting.

Alex was fast asleep on the sofa, the baby on his stomach, also deeply immersed in her little angel’s sleep. Rowena felt a tug on her heartstrings like she had never had before in her life. She knew what had transpired in her absence, and it meant that her husband had simply done what he was extremely good at; protecting, shielding, helping. She loved him, she always would, no matter what Fate, fickle and unpredictable, would throw at them.

Emma Rose stirred, shuddered, and then her little rosy face contorted, which was the prelude to a mighty howl of hunger. Rowena sprang forward to catch her daughter moments before Alex, startled, sat up. Bestowing her most engaging smile upon him, Rowena went to sit in the rocking chair, and began feeding her baby. She directed her gaze to Alex, focussing all her love on him. He was surprised, she saw, and stood abruptly before leaving the room. She must have rattled him, then. Good.

 

After greeting Lord and Lady Devonshire in the receiving line, Alex and Rowena stepped into the ballroom. Into utter chaos and ear-splitting noise, brought about by at least two-hundred members of the Haut-Ton, the ladies dressed in their vivid silks, the gentlemen in their severe black-and whites. Rowena was separated from her husband almost immediately by several titled males, wanting to speak with him, so she repaired to a row of settees near the wall. A few mature matrons were surveying the crowd with eagle eyes, an activity they were forced to interrupt when Rowena greeted them with a slight bow of her head. They barely acknowledged her, she noticed, but nevertheless they did, which meant she was accepted amidst their circle, albeit reluctantly. However, they did not address her, which left Rowena to idly staring into the large room, where couples were dancing a country reel.

“Rowena, my dear, is that truly you?” A tall, portly lady in her early sixties was standing before her, and Rowena’s heart leapt with joy.

“Aunt Charlotte! I did not know you were in Town!”

“Oh, I am only here to help dear Melissa shop for baby things. She is due soon, on April 7th, so we are stocking up on everything London has to offer.”

Her aunt paused, taking Rowena’s hands in hers, not giving her time to react to the news unknown to her. “Rowena, come with me.”

She tugged at her niece’s hands toward the great hall and then up the stairs to the ladies’ withdrawing room, which was mercifully empty at this early time of the evening.

Rowena, who had been completely unaware of her cousin Melissa marrying and now become with child, embraced her aunt. “Oh, auntie, how wonderful for you and uncle to become grandparents! When did Melissa marry and to whom? Tell me all, please.”

“Rowie, I will tell you all later, but now you have to hear me out, please? Your uncle and I were sick with concern when you failed to answer our letters after your father’s death. Why was that? Why did you not write to us? We heard all sorts of rumours of you, which, frankly, did not bode well.”

“Letters, auntie? I never received any letters from anyone, not in months, I swear to you.”

“Rowie, I wrote you five letters, all with four weeks in between. We are aware of mail lost from time to time, but five?”

Rowena began to perceive a kernel of understanding. “Roderick …,” she breathed, “he must have kept them from me.”

“But why, Rowie? Why would your brother keep our letters from you?”

“Let me just think for a little while, auntie. Are you informed about what happened to me after father’s death?”

“Well, I assure you I was stunned beyond belief when I heard you were married to the earl of Ketteridge. You were betrothed to Peter Johnston, was all we knew. I also know that you have a baby daughter, about whom the wildest rumours are running riot.”

Rowena nodded, not very concerned about the wild gossips. “Suffice it to say that Roderick induced me to run away from Daveston Hall when he discovered I was pregnant with Johnston’s child. I had no money, since father did not leave me anything. I always thought I had money which had come from Mama’s family, but Roderick told me that was not so.”

Her aunt’s mouth fell open and her eyes grew round.

“But … but that is not true! There was a portion of our father’s money settled upon Clarissa and me, a considerable portion, let me assure you. Your father could not lay hands on it, so why did you not get it?”