John Thornton, Look Back at Me – pt 18

Chapter 18

     The Gift

 

Hearing Dixon coming through the door downstairs, John and Margaret grabbed their clothes and scattered to their own rooms, laughing hilariously, like school children putting a frog in the teacher’s desk.  John quickly dressed and returned to the parlor, just as Dixon came up from the kitchen.

“Hello Dixon, I didn’t think you would be back this early.  Did you have a nice time?”

“Yes, I did.  Master, I don’t know if you noticed, but it’s snowing again, not nearly as hard as before, but I thought I’d better get back in case it got bad.  I just came up to tell you I was home and about the snow.  Goodnight Master.”

“Thank you, Dixon, and goodnight.”  John went to the window; the snow didn’t seem like it would amount to much.  He waited for Margaret to return, but she didn’t.  It was after 10:00, so he decided to turn in.  Still crowing to himself over the game, he turned the lights off and went to his bedroom, delighting in his new treasure.  He wondered if life could possibly get any better than this, but he knew it could.  Before retiring, John returned to the Christmas tree and hung his mother’s ruby pendant, her gift to Margaret, at the top of the tree.  It wouldn’t be easily seen, but he would wait for her to notice it.

 

The morning broke with a beautiful pristine vista, as far as one could see.  No one was coming to the mill; there were no sounds, nothing to disturb the light dusting of the snow that had fallen last night, painting the entire landscape in white, with tiny sparkling diamonds, whenever the sun caught it.  John woke at his usual early time, but the house was already alive with many voices coming from downstairs.  He went down the backstairs into the bustling kitchen and was taken aback by five people trying to get around each other, as they headed in different directions.  With a rather loud voice, he said, “Happy Christmas to all.”  Everyone echoed back the same and went about their work.  Dixon asked if Miss Margaret was awake; John answered, he didn’t think so.

“Would you care for a cup of tea while you wait on Miss Margaret?”  Dixon asked the Master.

“Yes, bring a pot upstairs, if you don’t mind.”

John had just finished adding a dab of rum into the teapot, when Margaret emerged in an exquisite emerald-green  frock, very dressy and festive.

He inhaled deeply and went to her.  Pulling her into his arms, he started to waltz her around the room.  “You are dazzling, this morning, Miss Margaret.  Happy Christmas, my love,” John whispered to her.

“And a Happy Christmas to you, Mr. John.  I see that you waltz, sir.  Is there no end to your talents?  I cannot find the whole of you.”

“Do you mean like last night?  You were very close to finding the whole of me,” John whispered boldly, with a big grin, still waltzing her around the room.

 

What has come over me?  Why did I say that?  Where is this coming from?  Where are my manners?

 

Margaret blushed over that comment, sensing it had an air of inevitability.

As he continued to waltz her in a circle, he pressed his lips to hers, giving her a firm but light kiss.  Opening her eyes as they parted, Margaret noticed that the mistletoe had been hung from the chandelier.  “I see you put up the mistletoe.”

“Me?  I saw it and thought you did it.  That’s where we were when I just kissed you.  Let me fix you my spiced hot tea and give you a warning  . . . do not go downstairs,” John said, as he walked over to the teapot on the dining table.

“I think I can hear why.”  As Margaret strolled over to the fireplace, she was remembering last night.  She found a small length of yarn that had not burned, and placed it in her book that still sat on the table.  What a precious keepsake, she thought.  On some distant anniversary, she would present it to John and remind him how he cheated.

The heightened excitement seemed to make the day go by quickly.  John had set the bar with everything except champagne, which would come later.  He talked Adrian into tending the liquors.  Margaret checked the table and the upper floor for tidiness, as if she was lady of the house.  This did not escape John’s elated, rapt attention.

The smell from the meal cooking drifted upstairs.  The bar was ready and the table properly prepared to Margaret’s liking.  There was only an hour left to go before Branson picked  up his lady friend, the Professor and Mr. Granger.  John was browsing through a book, but kept one eye on Margaret as she walked back into the room checking that everything was in its place.  She was standing looking at the tree from a distance.  She moved closer as John continued watching her.  As her eyes drifted away, she thought she glimpsed something glittering near the top of the tree.  She stopped and tried to see it again, but she couldn’t find it.  She walked back and forth, looking up, trying to catch the light on it at just the right angle.

John thought what a wonderful portrait that would make.  This was an extraordinary Christmas.

Margaret stopped and stared.  It looked like a chain of some kind.  John had intentionally tucked the pendant behind a bough, so it couldn’t be seen.  He watched as she tried to reach for it, but she was too small.  He didn’t think she realized he was in the room, because she hadn’t asked for his help.

“Darn him,” John heard her mutter, “we agreed to no gifts.  That looks like a very beautiful gold chain to me.  Where is he?  Wait until I get my hands on him!”  She turned and found him standing directly behind her as she walked straight into  his chest.  “Oh, there you are, sorry.”  John looked down at her, giving nothing away.  “I thought we agreed not to buy anything for each other this year.”

“I’m here so you can get your hands on me.  What are you talking about Margaret?”  John said smiling, still wondering about the piffle that was springing from his mouth.

“This!” she said, as she jumped, pointing to the gold chain.  “I guess that got there like the mistletoe.”

John started laughing.  “I did NOT hang the mistletoe on the chandelier, and I did NOT buy you that, whatever it is.”  He now wondered who DID hang the mistletoe.

“Well, what is it, then?  Where did it come from?  John Thornton, I do not believe you.”

John reached up on his own toes to lift the necklace very slowly off the top branch, finally exposing the large heart pendant, swinging from the heavy gold chain.

As he lowered the gem to Margaret, she gasped when he put it in her hands.  “John, this is absolutely stunning.  It’s the prettiest thing I’ve ever seen . . . a beautiful ruby heart.”  She smiled up at him and pulled his lapels down for a kiss, a deep kiss.

John wrapped his arms all the way around her, crushing her to him and kissed her fiercely, slowly thrusting his tongue around and in and out.  It was a very carnal kiss; he was making love to her with his mouth and tongue.  Margaret’s knees weakened, and once again, she fainted.  John carried her to her room and laid her on her bed.  He sat beside her, and hollered for Dixon.

Dixon arrived promptly and before she could become hysterical, John said, “She’s fainted.  Please get me a cool wet cloth.”  Dixon rushed out of the room returning in less than a minute.

Handing the cloth to the Master, she asked what happened.  “She was given a nice gift and it overwhelmed her.  I gave her the heart pendant that my mother wanted her to have.  She’s coming around; would you mind leaving us?”  Dixon backed out of the room as she saw Margaret’s eyes begin to flutter open.

Margaret slowly sat up trying to focus her vision.  John moved enough so she could swing her legs over the side of the bed.  She kept staring at the gem in her hand, realizing that it was an antique, or a family heirloom.  “John, tell me about it.”

John told Margaret the story and ended with telling her how his mother had wanted her to have the necklace.  On her death bed, she had accepted Margaret as John’s love, and wanted to apologize for how she had treated her.  John put his arm around her waist while she cried heavily into his shoulder.  She couldn’t stop the flood of tears.  She had always known that she was not well received by John’s mother, and for that, she also carried guilt.  John took the pendant from her and placed it around her neck, noticing how beautifully the red heart hung against her ivory skin and emerald neckline.  Once fastened, she grabbed the large gem immediately and held the heart tightly in her fist.  It was as if she was “willing” the stone to mend the distance between herself and his mother, for John’s sake.

The first guests were arriving, and John handed her his handkerchief as he rose to greet them in the hall, just outside Margaret’s bedroom door.  It was Higgins and his family.

Upon seeing Margaret come out from her bedroom with red eyes and a runny nose, a sense of sadness wilted the moment.  Margaret quickly said they were –tears of joy- and showed them the necklace.  Higgins looked over at John.  “That was an heirloom gift, specifically to Margaret from my Mother, before she died.  That’s why all the tears.  I’m lucky you came in when you did, or I might not have escaped the same fate, myself.”  Higgins clapped John on the shoulder, saying nothing but giving him a smile.

Margaret gave Nicholas a hug and turned to Peggy.  Nicholas introduced Peggy to Margaret, and the ladies held hands, as they bid each other hello and made the appropriate greetings.  Margaret turned to greet Mary next.  She looked so pretty without her work clothes and severe hair style.  Margaret could see a beautiful young woman emerging.

Adrian arrived to take the drink orders.  Everyone found a place to sit, and they all became caught up in the spirit of the holiday.

With Margaret’s guidance, the conversation flowing cheerfully for a half an hour; soon the Professor arrived and was escorted upstairs by Branson.  Margaret introduced him to everyone.  Both Nicholas and Peggy were interested to hear of his work.  John was content to sit back and let the others talk while he studied his ‘once shy’ Margaret, blossoming into the happy woman she was becoming.  She had a beautiful profile, which he rarely seemed to see.  How could such a small demur woman, with ivory skin, blue eyes, light brown hair, and an independent temperament sweep him off his feet so completely?  He was always off balance around her, never feeling his feet touch the ground.

God . . . how deeply, I love her.

 

Dinner was then served, with Nicholas and John seated at the ends of the table.  There was lively conversation throughout the meal; the food was excellent and plentiful, and everyone was partaking of the holiday spirit.  The goose was cooked to perfection, along with all the trimmings that accompanied a traditional holiday dinner.  The Professor regaled them with Christmas celebrations in other lands, while Margaret spoke of their cotton waste snow trimmings and the magnificent pianoforte that awaited her.

Later, Margaret thought she heard something from far off.  Not quite knowing what it could be, she said, “Quiet everyone,” as she stood and tried to listen.  With the silence in the room, it quickly became clear that they were being serenaded with Christmas carols, from below stairs.  All seven folks from the kitchen came up the stairs singing and stood behind everyone at the table.  They sang, “The First Noel,” and the tabled clapped with pleasure.  As they sang a second carol, each of the seven filled their hands and trays with dishes from the upstairs table, and had it cleaned off in one quick swoop.

John stood and thanked all of them.  “Before you leave, and I know your arms are full, but I wanted to thank all of you for the lovely dinner today.  I know everyone worked very hard, even our two guests downstairs, who seemed to have been enlisted.  Branson and Dixon, please introduce your guests.”

Branson and Dixon did as they were told, to the embarrassment of their guests.  Margaret introduced Adrian and the two cooks.  The merry singers returned to the kitchen, laden with dishes and trays.

With the dishes cleared, John asked everyone to remain at the table a little longer.  Margaret and Peggy were enjoying talking to each other.  They were going to be close friends; Margaret could feel it.  She was a gentleman’s daughter, but did not regard herself that way, just as Margaret herself felt.  She was warm, intelligent and no airs.  She was perfect for Nicholas.

John excused himself for a minute, while Adrian brought out champagne glasses and poured a glass for everyone.  He returned to the table, as five faces looked at him in bewilderment.  It appeared, they were waiting for something else to happen.

The Professor, looking at John, anticipated a toast of some sort.  “If I could be so bold as to say something right here?” he asked.

John motioned for him to continue, and took his seat.

“Nicholas, I wanted to tell you that you were given a very nice compliment.  I haven’t told John this;  I wanted to tell you both.  Mr. Bryan McNeil stopped by the office yesterday.  I had to decline a dinner invitation with him for this evening because I wanted to be here.  I told him that I would be at Mr. Thornton’s home, with his overseer and betrothed, but I didn’t mention you by name.  He asked me if your name was Higgins, and I said yes.  He said he did not know you, but in his past 10 weeks here in Milton, he had made inquiries and had heard a lot about Marlborough Mills.  It seems that whenever Marlborough Mills was mentioned, your name would come up as a highly regarded overseer.  Mr. McNeil heard  about your ingenuity in helping the people of Marlborough Mills, and the owners, come together.  He’s also quite interested in hearing why John hired you after you almost forced the loss of his business.”  Ending there, the Professor smiled and sat back down.  There was a smattering of applause.

As everyone politely laughed, Higgins felt quite embarrassed.  Mary and Peggy looked at him proudly, while John and Margaret looked at each other as if to say, “I’ve never seen him embarrassed before.”

Higgins finally spoke, “Professor Pritchard. I don’t know what to say.”

Standing with a champagne glass raised in his hand, John said, “Well . . . I do.”

John paused to let the words settle in and to raise the anticipation of what he was about to say.  Clearing his throat, John began.

“Nicholas,  as you know, you have not only become my best friend over these last few years, but a very good part of Marlborough Mill’s more recent success is driven directly by you.  I don’t think I have ever thanked you enough for all you have done for the mills and for me.  The Mills owe you a great debt, and so do I.  I want to settle that debt, right now.  I hope you are comfortable in gentleman’s clothes, because for your wedding present, I am giving you and Peggy a 15 percent partnership in all of Marlborough Mills.  Nicholas, you are now an owner in the business and no longer an overseer.  I have paperwork for you to sign,” John said, as he pulled a folded deed out of his coat pocket.

“Of course, this means that you have to come up with your share when we purchase Slickson Mills.”  John smiled.

Silence hung in the air with disbelief.  There was a pause, as everyone came to grips with what he had just announced.

“Nicholas, you are going to have to find a Higgins for us.  Welcome to the land of property and the rank of a gentleman.  Thank you for everything.  A toast: To Nicholas Higgins, now a partner in Marlborough Mills.  Oh, here are your two tickets to the Chamber’s Ball coming in early spring.”

Everyone stood, except Higgins, and raised their glasses.  He was so overcome with emotion. His eyes misted.  Slowly, he got to his feet and lifted his head toward John.  His eyes were glassy, now.  He lifted his champagne glass, and everyone clinked their crystal together over the center of the table.  Margaret, Mary, and Peggy had huge smiles on their faces. John had a broad smile on his face, and Nicholas was speechless.

John added, “No one deserves it more than you, my friend.”

John caught Margaret looking at him with the most endearing look on her face.

Nicholas cleared his throat, barely able to stutter out the words, “Master; I don’t know how to thank you for this.  I am speechless; I mean, I really am speechless.  Thank you, thank you very much from myself, Peggy and the rest of the family.  How does one thank someone for giving them such a magnanimous gift as a partnership?”

“Nicholas, it is I who needed to say to thank you.  Not you.  Things are going to change very rapidly for you.  I have already set the paperwork in motion as you see here, so you better buy yourself a whole new gentlemen’s working wardrobe.  And henceforth, you call me John, no matter who is around.  No more Boss or Master.  That title now belongs to you, too.”

Peggy leaned over and embraced Nicholas and turning to John, said, “Thank you from me, as well.”  Mary kissed him on the cheek.

Margaret came to John’s end of the table.  She looked up into his happy face as he looked down into hers.  She was in awe of this man once again, the one who said he loved her.  She looked into his face for a long time before finally saying, “John, that was the nicest, sincerest  gesture I have ever seen.  I am so proud of you for what you just did.  As I’ve said in the past, there is no end of you.  You gave Nicholas the respect he deserved at a great personal cost to yourself.  That was a beautiful show of passion for your conviction and belief in him.  You are passionate in more ways than one,” she said with a smile.

 

Margaret, you hardly know the beginning of my passion.

 

Little did anyone know that John was getting the better reward hearing her words of praise for him.  He had wanted her love, but gaining her respect and having heard her say those words were another miracle in his life.  He smiled down into her face, wanting to thank her lips for what they had just spoken.

Margaret, sensing the same feelings, quickly went to the other end of the table to hug Nicholas and Peggy.  John followed her.  John put his hand out to Nicholas who grabbed it with both hands, firmly.  The men hugged each other like old friends, while the women did the same.  The Professor walked to the end of the table, too, and offered his congratulations, saying, “You will have a large part in my book as well, but that was planned for you even before this great night.”

The evening eventually ended with Nicholas, once again, thanking John for everything.  Margaret said goodbye to both.   The Professor accepted a ride home with Nicholas, thus freeing Branson for the evening with his lady.

A sense of merriment mixed with pine scent, and holiday cheer filled the spirited evening.  Now, being totally alone until dawn, John and Margaret settled into the comfort of enjoying each other’s company.

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The Reclusive Aristocrat – Part Four

Chapter Three

Ketteridge House, Leicestershire, England, December 4th, 1815

It had become urgently clear to Alex that he needed to find out all there was about Rowena Drake. She would, however, not be forthcoming; on the contrary, she was extremely reticent, as if there were a deep and dark secret in her past. She was also avoiding him, and taking extreme care not to be alone with him.

“Porter, be so good as to search a tome for me from those shelves over there.”

Alex and his batman were in the library, working on the ledgers. Or better, trying to find their way through the heavy volumes. Alex, unable to see, had to guide a Porter who lacked the educational skills to understand what he was supposed to find or read.

“Where, major?” the servant grumbled. “There must be thousands of the blasted books in here.”

Alex walked to the case nearest to the gigantic fireplace. It amazed him how easily he found his way in this room, even though he had not been here often when he still had his ability to see; it had been his father’s realm and later his brother’s. Yet now, it seemed to have become his.

“If I remember correctly, the book I want must be in this book case here. There should be an inventory on the first open shelf, placed on the extreme left. Do you see it?”

“Yes, I have it. What now?” Porter puffed.

It was a tedious task to make Porter act as his secretary, Alex thought. It was, however, the only way he had to learn the content of documents. He was just extremely thankful that his former batman had learnt to read and write as a child.

“The volume I need is Debrett’s Peerage and Baronetage. It is a rather thick book with a red leather cover. The inventory will have the location of it in this particular book case.”

Still grumbling, Porter climbed the steps in his slow, hobbling way. He still suffered from that bullet wound in his thigh, Alex knew. Soon the batman came back down with the requested book and laid it on the desk to open it.

“Christ, major! I’m too old for this, I can’t read those tiny le’ers!”

“Use the magnifying glass, if you please.”

“Very well, what’m I lookin’ fer?”

Alex took a deep breath. The die was cast, he mused.

“Families named Drake in Cumberland. Find every fact you can.”

Porter’s next comment made him grin. “Yes, major, but couldn’t ye just ask her? There’s a whole bloody page of ‘em!”

“I could but I have not. Now continue, if you please?”

Mumbling to himself, Porter began reading, while Alex bit back a smile. He knew he should scold his old batman for being disrespectful, yet he was unable to reprimand the man who saved his life on the battlefield. Cumberland … yes, Rowena Drake had nearly given it away herself, had she not? Her accent was very faint but distinct.

“You do know that she’s been employing girls from the village and the neighbouring farms, I hope?” Porter continued in a casual way.

That surprised Alex. “No, I was unaware of it, although it makes sense. If Mrs Drake is supposed to clean up this old pile of a house, she will need proper help. I wonder how she is paying them.”

“Out of her own pocket, I suppose. She hasn’t asked Mrs Hall for coin, as far as I know.”

To his own surprise, Alex again felt a grin tugging at his mouth. So Rowena Drake was taking her task seriously, then. Good. He made a mental note to provide Rowena with the necessary funds for her girls.

 

Casting a last appraising glance at the four girls working in the first room she had selected to be thoroughly cleaned, Rowena turned and hurried down the stairs to have breakfast with her employer.

She wondered if there would be something in store for her on this day, December 4th. Silly thought, she scolded herself. Why would anybody at Ketteridge House even know that this was her birthday altogether? She had better banish these silly, childish thoughts once and for good. Today she turned twenty-one, and if her father had not chosen to leave everything to Roderick, her half-brother, she would not have been in such dire financial predicaments at the moment.

It had been a tremendous shock when Rowena, still crushed by grief of her father’s demise, had been coldly informed by Roderick’s unfeeling solicitor that she had no right to any of Daveston Hall’s funds. How well she remembered that scene in her father’s vast library with Roderick standing at the window with his back to her, and deliberately not looking at her. She would never forget the hurt she felt then, the apprehension at the realisation that she was on her own from then on, and that she was at Roderick’s mercy.

“Ah, there you are, Mrs Drake.”

Rowena abruptly stopped when the earl’s voice sounded at the foot of the stairs. He must have heard her, she reflected. She tucked a loose lock of hair back into place and proceeded her way down in a slower pace. Ridiculous, once again; the earl would not even notice her appearance.

“Good morning, my lord.”

Her employer’s eyes turned her way, but they did not focus on her. It was strange, but only now Rowena realised the extent of the earl’s handicap. Those beautiful blue-grey eyes of him would never actually see her. He must feel miserable at some moments, she mused. She could not even begin to imagine what it must be like for him.

“How did you know it was I approaching?” she asked.

He smiled, chuckling low. Rowena felt it deep in her belly, and shivered.

“My sight light be failing, but my hearing is not. I am already familiar with your step, Mrs Drake.”

She watched him return to the morning room from whence he had come. It was fascinating as well as pitiful to witness him trying to assess the distance he had to bridge. At some point, he was forced to stretch out a hand in order to prevent himself from bumping into the wall, and then use his fingers to guide him to the door. Slowly, Rowena followed Raventhorpe through the door, admiring the certainty with which he found his way to the small table at the window. How did he manage that? Once inside a room, he always seemed to go straight to where he wanted to go to.

“Mrs Drake,” the earl said, his voice rather stern, “I want to establish some very fundamental rules for you in managing this household. I absolutely forbid you to pay staff from your own resources. If you have need of money, you shall come to me and ask for it. Is that clear?”

“Yes, my lord,” Rowena replied, stunned by his stern tone. “Forgive me, I meant no offence.”

“None taken, ma’am. Next, I wish to make something clear. I insist on you disclosing who you are. It is absolutely necessary that I know, Mrs Drake.”

Flames shot up to Rowena’s face, while her heart started thumping alarmingly fast. She was grateful that Raventhorpe could not see the fear rising in her chest like bile.

“My lord …”

“Is your name actually Drake? I have considerable doubts about that, my dear.”

Rowena swallowed at the large lump that seemed to block her breathing.

“My lord, I … I implore you; please trust me. I am no criminal, if that is what you are concerned about. I am just a … a disgraced woman, seeking to set her life back on the right track. If I could just stay here and …”

“You can stay as long as you like, Mrs Drake, have no fear. Yet I must know who you are, for the simple reason that I must protect you as long as you stay under my roof. I am a soldier, Mrs Drake. We reconnoitre, assess, and protect. In order to be able to protect those who depend on us, we must know all the facts. So, for the last time, Mrs Drake, who are you?”

At that moment, the sun broke through the clouds and streamed into the room in full force. Its rays touched the earl’s eyes, just as he directed his blind gaze at Rowena. In the beat of an eyelash, they changed from the rather dull blue-grey to the sudden, vivid, almost hot sapphire blue of a summer storm lightening. It had the most astonishing effect on Rowena. Her heartbeat fluttered, and then pounded in her ears like shots from a canon. She grew warm, and her stomach clenched, leaving her quite shaken.

The panic she had been feeling suddenly grew tenfold. Rowena stood so quickly that her chair overturned and crashed with a noise like thunder. She stumbled to the door, eyes blinded with panic. She knew not how but she reached the stairs and began ascending them, clutching the banister with both hands. There was no longer reason dictating her, only a deep-rooted fear that she might succumb to the sudden, primal attraction he overwhelmed her with. Knowing that, acknowledging that, was too much.

The baby suddenly kicked hard, and her stomach lurched. Nausea swept over Rowena, forcing her to her knees. She retched but nothing came. Her lungs seemed clogged, all of a sudden, and she choked, gasping for air. Her vision blurred, grew darker …

Then she was picked up by a pair of strong, muscular arms; her head came to rest against a hard, but comfortingly warm shoulder. With infinite relief, Rowena inhaled the earl’s clean, overwhelmingly male scent, for it was he who had come to her rescue. All fear suddenly evaporated, to be replaced by a blessed peace. This man was innately honour-bound to protect, not to ravish or destroy, at least not without a reason. As he swiftly carried her back to the morning room and laid her down onto a chaise-longue, all in one smooth motion, Rowena felt once again safe, reassured, and calm.

The earl crossed his arms and straightened to his full 6,3’.

“Mrs Drake, I strongly advise you to behave sensibly. You are carrying a child, and you might have fallen down the stairs and injured yourself and the babe. Now …”

“How do you manage that?”

It was out of Rowena’s mouth before she realised that it is rudely inappropriate to cut one’s employer. He looked puzzled yet not in ire. His eyes were a soft grey-blue, now.

“How do I manage what, Mrs Drake?”

“Finding your way so rapidly into a room, never getting lost once you pass the doorsill?”

“Well, I know this house like the back of my hand. It is after all my ancestral estate; I grew up here. As for a room, once I have memorized where all the furniture is located, I will stay clear of it. Of course, everything must be left in the same spot. Porter looks to that and helps me make the necessary reconnoitring rounds, the first time I come into an unfamiliar room.”

He paused, directing his gaze to where Rowena sat. “What happened, Mrs Drake? Why did you dash out of this room as if the devil himself was at your heels?”

“I … I cannot truly say … It was as if I was suddenly in a room without air …”

The earl dropped to one knee, bringing his face level with hers, and although Rowena knew that he was unable to distinguish her expression, it nevertheless gave her the illusion that he was looking straight into her eyes. She felt strangely mesmerized, but also safe, and protected. When he laid the back of his hand against her cheek, she pressed against it, revelling in the immense comfort the simple gesture gave her. It felt entirely natural.

“You panicked, that is what happened,” the earl said gently. “I have seen it many times on the battlefield. Men freezing with horror, shutting out their surroundings, lowering their guns, dropping to their knees while clutching their heads or covering their ears. Overwhelming fear can bring it about, or even intolerably great despair. You were so afraid to tell me about yourself, that your body reacted in the only way possible; it bolted to escape danger. There is no need for that, my dear. You are in no danger when staying at Ketteridge House because you are under my personal protection.”

Alex could feel the struggle in Rowena Drake by the way she breathed; rapidly and shallowly. The woman must be in real danger, he mused. Some irate husband who abused her, and from whom she fled out of self-preservation? If what Porter had read was true, then she could not be the Rowena Drake of Daveston Hall near Carlisle in Cumberland, because no mention had been made of a marriage.

“Are you – by any chance – related to the Drakes of Cumberland?”

He had made his question as casual as he could but was rewarded by her sharp intake of breath. Oh, she had done her best to be as quiet as possible, but Alex’ hearing was sharp and he had caught the faint hissing sound.

“How …”

“I checked it. Are you from Cumberland, Mrs Drake?”

“Yes …” A note of the panic again, and she suddenly rose, nearly tumbling him over. He caught his balance and rose as well, and took hold of her arm.

“Then you are the Honourable Miss Rowena Drake of Daveston Hall, daughter of the Baronet George Henry Drake and Clarissa Maud née Stowe.”

She was trembling, and he wanted to comfort her. He wanted her to trust him. He had no inkling why this as so important, all of a sudden, but it was important, even vital. She was born in 1794, on the fourth of December, which meant that – dear Lord! – today she was twenty-one. So young still …

“I have it right, have I not? You are Rowena Drake from Daveston Hall?”

“Yes,” she breathed, then sighed. “How did you discover that? We live very remotely and have no acquaintances to speak of. I never had a London season, and the only towns we visited were Carlisle and York, where my father’s only sister lives.”

“Come,” Alex said in a sudden, light tone. “We can converse at the breakfast table. I am in need of sustenance after all this.” It made Rowena smile, her heart suddenly much lighter.

Alex guided her to her seat, then sat down and rang a small table bell for Porter. The servant came in with their plates soon after, served them and left. They ate in silence for a while, but Alex, not wanting to let the moment go to waste, resumed their conversation.

“I must congratulate you on your birthday, Miss Drake. I had Porter look you up in Debrett’s, so I am abreast of all there is to know about your family. You almost gave yourself away when you stopped yourself from naming Carlisle, and you also speak with a slight Cumberland accent. I am afraid I have to repeat my earlier question; what has happened that you are here at Ketteridge House, far away from the place that you call home?”

Rowena sighed, and then resolutely made her decision to trust the earl with her history. She believed him when he spoke of protecting her and everybody twho lived on his estate.

“My father died rather suddenly last year, from an apoplexy,” she began. “I met my fiancé the month after he died. We had an affair and he promised me marriage. Then came the war and my betrothed left to do his duty. He died at Waterloo. Soon after he left, I found out I was with child. I had little choice than to leave my childhood home after I became pregnant.”

“I do not understand,” Alex interrupted her. “You have a brother. Did he not take measures so that you would be protected?”

Again that word, Rowena realised. Protection. It seemed a paramount notion to the earl.

“My brother said he would give me a small, remote cottage on the estate, where I would stay until after the baby’s birth. He would then take away the child and give it to some people he knew would raise it when he paid them for the upkeep. I was appalled! How could he ask something like that of me? I told him in no uncertain terms that being separated from my baby was out of the question. He threatened to take me to some relatives in Scotland, by force if necessary, so I took all the money I was able to save over the years and fled. I quickly learnt that my meagre savings were too inadequate to bring me to London, where I hoped to find a position.”

“Why were you so short of funds? Surely, as the daughter of a baronet, you would have been provided for in your father’s will?”

“I was not included in my father’s will,” Rowena replied bitterly. “Roderick’s solicitor stated that my father was a firm believer in male primogeniture, in order to keep his estate free of debts. Roderick was my father’s first and only son, and it was left to him to support me. I was only the daughter my father had by his second wife, so I was supposed to marry and leave the estate. There was not even a dowry for me to give to my future husband.”

Good Lord, Alex thought. How could a father do this to his daughter? And the brother? Why would he not take care of his sister? Roderick Drake must be a truly despicable person, and what about that cad of a fiancée who seduced her when she was barely twenty?

“I thank you for trusting me, Mrs Drake, although … you are not a Mrs Drake, are you? I must call you Miss Drake from now on. However, I can no longer employ you as my housekeeper now, can I? You have been raised as a lady, and to do menial labour would be highly inappropriate for a baronet’s daughter.”

“Oh no, my lord, please! I beg you, do not send me away!”

Alex, suddenly startled by her plea, felt also unexpectedly moved by the urge Rowena laid in her words. It seemed that she would very much like to stay at Ketteridge House. Almost as much as he himself would like her to stay.

“You misunderstand, my dear. I merely meant that I will hire enough staff for you to oversee. That way you will be up to the additional task of assisting me with my ledgers. Poor Porter is doing what he can but in essence, he is a soldier, not a secretary.”

Rowena could not believe her ears. Relief, massive and grateful, swept over her, when the earl continued in a businesslike manner.

“You will be required to read my correspondence, and write down my replies. When I need to see my solicitor, you will make records of our conversations and decisions. I hope he holds on to his promise of searching for an adequate steward. The estate is in shams, and I need a competent man.”

Rowena swallowed down the excitement that clogged her throat. “I promise to do my utmost best to be of service, my lord. I cannot find the words to tell you how grateful I am for the honour you bestow on me, and please, be assured of my discretion and devotion.”

A chuckle interrupted her and she was astonished to see a mocking smile on the earl’s face.

“My dear Miss Drake, you certainly have a way with high-handed words, have you not? You make my offer sound like charity, and it is not meant so at all. It is good and solid management to take an educated, clever young woman into my staff, one who can help me with tasks I cannot perform myself because of my affliction. So please, no gratitude. It is in my soldier’s nature to make the best of an opportunity when it presents itself.”

There was a sudden, laden silence in which Rowena struggled to find her composure. She was scolding herself once more for her rash impulsivity, something she should have learnt to master by now. Why did she always have to rush headlong into things?

“My lord,” she began, after a long, deep intake of breath, just to calm herself. “I know someone who could help you out until you find an appropriate steward. John Wallis was my father’s steward until he retired, a few years ago. His wife Meg was my nanny, and became my confidante after my mother died when I was five. They moved to Leicester when they left Daveston Hall. Meg has a sister living there. I could write them and ask if they would consent coming to live at Ketteridge House for the time being.”

Alex was completely unprepared for the warm wave of joy that swept through him, at the realisation that Rowena was wholeheartedly joining him in the task of running Ketteridge. He felt positively light-headed with relief.

“Thank you, Miss Drake, and yes, do write to your acquaintances. They will be most welcome.”

They fell silent, each savouring their breakfast. The quietness brought a comfort of its own, and Rowena could not recall the last time she had felt this … well, this simple, undemanding, and soothing happiness. She knew it was too early to feel this way, given the mere seven days she had been here, but there it was, she did feel truly safe at Ketteridge House. At home.

“I would be honoured if you would have dinner with me tonight, Miss Drake.”

Stunned, bewildered even, Rowena stared at her employer, then belatedly recalled that he was unable to see her.

“My lord, such an act would be entirely …”

“Inappropriate? Yes, it would, but only if I cared for such trivial matters such as the rigid rules of Society. We are not in the London drawing rooms, my dear. I can never venture into the Ton again, and believe me, I have no wish to do so. I knew it all before and did not particularly liked it. Now that I am no longer whole, I find I even care less for it. Ketteridge House is my domain, and mine alone. You are my guest, the first I have in a long time, so please, let me enjoy your company to the full.”

Rowena swallowed at the unexpected knot of sadness threatening to choke her. She liked this man more and more each moment she was in his company. Discretely, she cleared her throat.

“Then it shall be my honour to dine with you, my lord.”

John Thornton, Look Back at Me – pt 17

     Christmas Eve Day and  Night

 

The first rays of the sun were glistening off of the re-frozen snow crust.  Christmas Eve day dawned brightly with no apologies or explanations or new edicts expected.  Coming out of her room, Margaret inhaled a wonderful pine scent, and found John standing in front of the tree.  He was looking at the cranberry strands, which now stood out as red swags, in the sunlit room.  She watched him as he leaned against the back of a chair, long legs crossed at the ankles, arms folded, looking at the tree without knowledge of her presence.  Margaret knew she was seeing him in an unguarded moment.

 

“Good morning John,” she said, startling him slightly, “do you see something wrong with our tree?”

“Good morning.  I was looking at the cranberries, which make the tree look nice with the light of day, and wondering what to put at the top.”  John was   partially lying; he already knew what he was going to put there.  “Are you excited about today, visiting the mills and talking among the workers?”

“I doubt I’ll be talking all that much.  I’ll be a strange face to them, but I shall enjoy it, all the same.  Good morning Dixon.”

“Good morning Miss.  I see you, and the Master did a right nice job on that tree.  I love coming upstairs to the smell of pine.  It makes it cheery.”

“How is it below stairs?

“It’s already busy.  The Master’s Cook is discussing food preparation and timing with our Cook.  Cooking for six above and seven below stairs is a challenge they are both eager to do.  There’s a lot of laughing; they must have the cooking sherry hidden somewhere down there because they sure have the holiday spirit, as I think we all do,” Dixon laughed.  “And they’re dragging poor Branson in on the serving tomorrow.  He’s just hauled in the huge goose, and they are uncertain how to fit two large birds in the oven.”

Margaret replied, “That sounds wonderful.  Be sure that Adrian is worked into your plans, as well.”

John escorted Margaret to the breakfast table and seated her, saying, “Yes.  Branson needs to pick him up early.”

As they sat down to eat, Margaret suddenly remembered Nicholas’s children.  “What about Nicholas’ children tomorrow?”

“I’ve discussed that with him.  They will have their Christmas dinner tonight and arrive a little later tomorrow, allowing time for gifts to be opened.  I am pleased that Higgins’ ability to give to them has grown through his hard work for me.  I truly am appreciative of that day you sent him back to me.  As for today’s plans, normally there are three shifts working round the clock, except for Sunday.  Tomorrow they will all be off, and today’s work is a bit different, with each shift working for four hours instead of eight, with the last one ending at 2:00 p.m.  Hopefully, today you, and I can catch two shifts as they change, because the night shift left two hours ago.  Do you need anything from your home today that can’t wait a couple more days?”

“Yes, John.  I need some fresh clothes.  Can I take a bath here?”

“Can you?!”  John said, raising his eyebrows in mock excitement.  “I’m sorry,” he said, laughing, “I’m afraid a little mischievous spirit imp has invaded my senses today.”

Margaret burst out laughing, unable to hide her own joy of this holiday.  Yesterday and last night, she turned  a definite corner in her life.  She was positive that she wanted to spend the rest of her life with John.  She was getting to know a John that probably no one had ever seen, and more likely, not John, himself.  Had he ever been a happy person?  Thinking about what she knew about his past, she didn’t believe he ever was.  He’d had a young life full of terrible hardships, then there was the toil and strife of managing the mills and her absence from his life, some of which she read about in those dark letters in his desk.  No, he had never known happiness, and now he was happy . . . more than happy… and she was, too.  She knew he was caring, intelligent, honest, and loving, but Margaret was reveling in the humor she found he possessed.  What new delights still awaited her, she wondered?  He was amazing her at every turn.  She realized she’d never really known this John Thornton, and she loved every moment of him.  How could she possibly go on with his proclamation?  But she promised she’d try.

“Margaret?”  John said, laying his hand on her arm.  “You’re off in that strange land where you go so often.  I’ve noticed this several times.  Where is this place within your mind?”

Embarrassed about drifting off, she said, “Oh, I have several lands.  Mostly, I put to shore on my Hopes and Dreams Island, my favorite place.  There are other islands, too.  There is Rocky Island, which is my least favorite; I was stranded there for a long time.”

“And just now, which island was that?”

“I was on my Reality Island.  That is a newly charted island for me.  I am spending a lot of time there, lately.  However, last night,” Margaret began with a smile, “I glimpsed an entirely new land beyond the horizon; I think I am going to name it Passion Island.”

John looked at Margaret, loving her little islands.  “Margaret, I am your safe harbor; when you are in a storm, sail to me.  You can always find me on Passion Island, waiting for you.”

“John, don’t start with those loving words,” Margaret said.  “You’ll have me crying before the day begins.”  And she smiled.

“Aye, me matey, Captain Thornton, at your service.”  John saluted her.

Laughing again, they both discovered another moment, birthed from humor, as each recognized it as a new experience in their lives.  Every laugh seemed to tie the bindings tighter.

“Captain, is it?  We’ll see about that!”  The laughter continued, as John dwelled in the sparkle of her eyes.

“John, did we forget to invite Fanny and her husband?  It would be so awful to overlook them.”

“As much as I love our intended guest list, I did talk with Watson, and they are headed away for the Holiday; so, relieve your mind there.”

 

Branson brought around the smaller two-horse carriage, and the day began at Margaret’s.  Adrian was outside chopping wood, but he had a banked fire inside, keeping away the coldness.  Branson came down from his box, and after opening his master’s door, he went around the other side of the carriage house to talk with Adrian.  John handed Margaret out and up the slick back steps and followed behind.  He stopped in the dining room, watching her pass through the parlor.

“Oh look, a piece of furniture must have arrived after all.  I wonder which one it is,” Margaret said, walking over and pulling the cover off it.  “Dear me, I wish I’d been here when this beautiful piece came; it’s been delivered to the wrong house.”

John walked up to Margaret and wrapped his arms around her from behind.  Leaning down, he rested his cheek next to hers and said, “Happy Christmas, my love.”

Margaret stood there paralyzed.  She couldn’t speak.  John could feel her beginning to slide through his arms, once again, but then she found her legs.  “I’m sorry, John.  My knees became weak.”  Finally, after many long moments of silence, in a soft low voice, she asked, “This is for me?”  John could feel her start to shake with quiet sobs.  Sobs, he knew, of delight.

“Yes, Margaret.  That is for you, my love.”

Margaret slowly lifted the cover to reveal the black-and-white  ivory keys of her new piano.

“Someday you shall have a grand piano, if you wish it, but I knew your cottage would be too small for that now,” John said, holding her quiet shivering body in his arms.  He turned her to face him.

Margaret’s face was a mask of pure disbelief.  She looked into John’s face with tears beaded on her lashes, unable to speak, and mouthed the words, “Thank you, John.”  She reached up, put her arms around his neck, and laid her head against his chest, still dazed.

He held her momentarily, and then pulled her back to kiss her, but found she had sailed to one of her islands.  She was totally unfocused.  She wasn’t pulling out of her state of disbelief.  John closed the lid on the piano and pulled the cover back over it.  “We can talk about this later,” he said.  “Get your clothes.  I’ll wait outside, or I’m afraid we’ll be here all day.”  He walked her over to the steps that led upstairs then left the house and went out to his horses to pat down.  He was happy with Margaret’s response to his gift.  He wanted to give her everything.  He wanted to spoil her.  Someday . . . perhaps…

Margaret was back within ten minutes, still dazed, and John went over to fetch her.

Before he could get to her, she started down the steps.  As she turned around to point up to her “Margaret’s Enchanted Cottage” sign, she slipped from the step, pitching forward.  John caught her and lifted her off the step, setting her down on the ground.  He released her slightly, so she could free her arms, but he wouldn’t let go of his hold, since she appeared to be allowing him that closeness.

John thought how small she was next to him; he could crush her so easily, if he hugged her too tightly.  He desperately wanted to always protect her fragileness.

Silence reigned between them.  Margaret slipped her hands from his chest, up to each side of his face, and held his head in her hands, beckoning.

John whispered, “If you don’t say no right now, I am going to kiss you again, my love.

“I would like that.”  Margaret said softly.

John let her go long enough to throw his top hat to the ground and took her fiercely into his arms, properly, almost bending her backward.  He looked at her throat, her lips and then into her eyes, slowly moving to cover her mouth with his.  He was tender and slow, licking her lips and gently parting them.  The stroking seduction of his tongue took away her senses and blocked any slight resistance she might be thinking was improper.  She wrapped her arms around his neck and pulled him closer, trying to reach his mouth more fully.  Margaret made a low, utterly female sound and relaxed into him.  She was  innocently tentative on their first kiss, but not so now.  She met him hotly with hunger that fed his own.  John’s uninhibited feral groan undid her.  Her head fell backwards as his mouth claimed her throat.  Reacting passionately, he moved one of his arms lower, just near her buttocks, and drew her more tautly to him.  He wanted her so badly.  He was burning up.  The caged animal wanted to assert its prowess over its mate.  Margaret could feel John’s longing, liking it more than she should, as it was ardently presenting itself.  He wanted her to know his desire for her as a woman and he pressed her closer to him feeling her heaving bosom upon his chest.  Margaret, starting to understand passion, pressed herself to John’s erection.

“Margaret, please let me love you,” John whispered, as he started to kiss down her neck; behind them, one of the horses suddenly whinnied, startling Margaret.  She backed away out of propriety, mortified that she had been swept away, forgetting that John’s driver was back there.  As she timidly peered around John, she could see that Branson and Adrian had politely turned away.

“Oh dear, I am so embarrassed, ” Margaret said, suddenly turning crimson.

“Not I,” said John.  I am not ashamed of the love I feel for my woman.  I’ve waited too long to show the world my love for you.”  He stooped to retrieve his hat and cleared his throat, which seemed to signal Branson to open the door.  Highly embarrassed and red faced, Margaret was handed into the coach, John following with her bag.

“Thank you, thrice, John.  Once for saving me from a very uncomfortable accident on the steps, and thank you for my adorable little sign,” as she pointed to it, “which I know is your doing.  I love it.  And how can I thank you for my exquisite pianoforte.  I have so longed for one.  I think you are getting far ahead of our gentlemen’s agreement.  And I think you did tell me that you were not buying anything for Christmas?”

“Margaret, first of all, if you remember our conversation about gift giving for the holiday, I never agreed to any such thing; we only talked about your boots.  Secondly, that was ordered several days after your return to London because I knew you had left one in Helstone and wanted you to have one, no matter where our relationship went.  And finally, there was nothing in our agreement about a gift for my love only that you needed choices, and that hasn’t changed.  But most of all, I cannot help myself.”  John kissed her lightly and then shouted to Branson, “Mill 2.”

Arriving after 10:00 o’clock, they had missed the second shift change for both Mills.  John knew that Higgins was spreading his own form of cheer through all the shifts today.

Margaret remarked on the vast difference in layout between the two mills and their sizes.  John explained that Mill 2 had 450 workers, whereas Mill 1 had 350.  The changed layout had come from 10 years of learning what would expedite movement around the yard.  It was built like a fortress, with 20 loading docks, 10 to each side facing each other, uniting all the buildings into a U shape with the canteen at the far end, between the two sides.  The office was located at the entrance.

“The canteen,” John shouted to Branson who was threading his way between the loading wagons on each side of him.  “One side is for importing and the other side is for exporting,” John told her.  “This design is more efficient than Mill 1.”

They enjoyed two hours there, with Margaret following John around, saying little, – mostly nodding hello when introduced.  The workers came to get their free dinner that John had provided for everyone, as a token of holiday cheer.  Oranges would be passed out when the shift ended; John had ordered almost a boat full of imported oranges to be given to his people.  They were a real treat anytime of the year.  Margaret was delighted to see Mary, but they would talk tomorrow as she was busy serving.  Higgins was there, traveling a different route around the canteen, shaking hands, thanking and talking.  Margaret was so happy to see that Nicholas was appreciated and finally finding his merited status as a hard worker and overseer.  Nevertheless, once again, she felt overtaken upon viewing John’s responsibilities: the mass of faces, the wagons with all the horses, and the size of these huge buildings and the sound of machinery running somewhere in the distance.  As she observed the way they all respected him and looked up to him, she didn’t feel herself fairing very equal as his partner in life.

How is it? He’s picked me, of so little significance, to love?

The same scene repeated itself in Mill 1.  Most of these workers had been with John the longest; some, Margaret thought, might even remember her.  She felt more comfortable there as she walked among the tables, even without John, wishing the workers a Happy Holiday, and thanking them for all they do for Marlborough Mills.  John stood off in the kitchen area, fascinated, watching Margaret conduct herself down the rows of workers, alone, shaking hands, and talking with them.  With him not at her side, he wondered how she was explaining who she was.  This was a beautiful sight to behold, and caught him off guard with the emotions it brought forth in him.  This was another exquisite remembrance for their treasure chest of love.  Every moment he watched her, he felt her beauty, her scent, and the touch of her.  Second, only to Margaret, were his mills and his people.  John knew within his heart that she would fit in perfectly, better than his own mother.  He knew his people would absolutely love her.

When they arrived back home in the late afternoon, Margaret asked that a bath be prepared for her before Jane left.  Dixon found her and had her own request, “Miss Margaret, we are as ready as we can be downstairs.  As you can see, the upstairs has been prepared, and most of the table is set, except for your dinner places.  Could I be allowed the evening off?”

“Yes, of course, Dixon.  I won’t ask, but I hope it has something to do with Mr. Granger.”

“Yes, Miss Margaret.  He bought a small tree, and we will decorate it tonight.  And if I could have tomorrow evening off after the dinner has been cleaned away; we will be exchanging gifts then.”

“Yes, yes, of course, please take both nights off.”  Margaret said, happy for Dixon.

“Thank you Miss Margaret, and one last thing; since you will be going home the day after Christmas, is it alright if I just return home instead of coming back here?”

“Yes, I guess.  Yes, but only because Adrian’s there.  You still have a key for now.  He will be there, probably sleeping on the carpeted floor in the parlor.”

Margaret went for her bath.  John left the house and went to his office to look over the Slickson mill offer again.  He felt that it was better to be away from where Margaret was right now.  The yard was empty, but he saw that Higgins was still here somewhere.  Higgins had long ago moved out of the Princeton District and found a small cottage just a little way out of town.  He had a horse and small buggy for getting to work, and it was still on the property.

“Higgins,” John said, as Nicholas stepped into the office, “I think I am going to go talk directly to Slickson next week and stop relying on rumors.  Our only questions seem to lie in the condition of the mill itself and its machinery, does it not?”

“That’s about it, Master.  Their productivity level is only slightly below our own, but the people that he has, look good.”

“Good . . . then why don’t you get yourself on home?  Our security men are all working and rotating this holiday, are they not?”  John inquired.

“Yes, that’s where I’ve just been, checking at both mills, that all the machinery has been shut down properly, and security is in place.  They know to contact you first and me second, should an emergency arise.”

“Well then, it sounds that all is fine.  Take yourself away from here and come back for dinner tomorrow about 1:00 or so in the afternoon”

“See you tomorrow, have a good eve tonight,” Higgins said, waving his cap as he left.

 

After dinner, John realized that they were left alone, as Dixon would be gone for several hours.  He was not sure he had the strength to get through the next few hours alone with Margaret without stepping past his own line, especially with the way she looked tonight.  She was wearing a yellow frock, and her scent was eminently alluring.  He thought she must have brought her own bath soap.

John went to the bar and got a brandy for both, he and Margaret, while she had gone to her room for something.  He stoked the fire, added a log, lowered the gas lights, and folded himself down onto the carpet in front of the fireplace.

As Margaret came from her room, carrying a book for the evening, she said, “Ah . . . What’s this?  No lights, only firelight?  Mr. Thornton Proclamation, you are not arranging a romantic evening, are you?  Excuse me while I send someone for the Proclamation Police.  Someone needs to come and enforce procedure here.”

John was quietly shaking with laughter and could only manage to beckon her over to him with his hand.  Margaret looked around the room and remembered the sewing basket was in the buffet.  Finding what she wanted, she returned to John and sat down on the carpet, placing a piece of yarn between them, effectively giving them sides on which to stay.

“There!  You have your side and I have mine.  Unless you want pistols at dawn, the gentlemen’s agreement stated that I could only make moderate advances to you until I have seen other men.  Are they not, in fact, your very words, sir?

John loved this game, but he had sure outsmarted himself this time.  This could have been a perfect evening, almost too perfect, and here he was with a dividing line between them.

“I am a gentleman; that was a gentleman’s agreement, and I will keep my word.”  John picked up his brandy glass.  “You see this brandy glass, Margaret?”  She nodded.  “One of my favorite pastimes is to sit in my chair, holding a glass such as this, and swirl the contents.  The best part about it all is watching it coat the inside of the glass while watching it through to the fire.”  John demonstrated for her.  As he was taking his first swallow of it, he saw Margaret start to lean for her glass that sat on the floor in front of him.  He slowly, and deliberately, pushed it out of her reach with his booted foot.  “I’m sorry, did you want something?”

“Yes, I would like my brandy, please” Margaret said.

“And how to you propose to get it, my love?”  John smirked, looking at the dividing line.

Undaunted, Margaret did not answer John or pursue her brandy.  She started this little game tonight and had to see it through.

John couldn’t help but love the look on her face as she contemplated some reciprocal act.  She had such a fierce look on her face, like a mad little kitten.

Margaret decided to raise the stakes.  She thought she had figured something out.  So, hiking the hem of her dress to the knee, she reached down to remove her shoes.

John was roused seeing her legs.  He knew a real game was afoot, now.  John pulled off his boots, hoping this game was headed where he thought it might.

Margaret didn’t know how long she could keep doing this with a straight face.  She sat for a minute as if in thought.  She swiveled so her back was to John and hiked up her dress much farther to catch the top of one stocking.

John quickly lay down on the carpet, so his body extended back, and he caught Margaret with her dress to the top of her thighs.

Margaret, said, “No fair!”

John took off one sock, laughing.

Margaret took off the other stocking, ensuring he didn’t sneak a peek.

John removed his other sock.  He was beaming the whole time.

Margaret, still with her back facing John, removed a garter that held a stocking.

John started to sweat.  Was it the fire in the fireplace, or the fire in his body?  He removed his cravat and his shirt fell open.

Margaret tried to twist around to see his open shirt.  What she wouldn’t give to be lying next to that bare chest.  She would work the game until his shirt was off and then stop.  She removed her last garter and returned to sitting next to him.

Just before he removed his waistcoat, John took stock for a minute and counted items left for each of them.  He was anxious to go straight to his trousers and undergarment to see what she would do, but this was too much fun, so he removed his pocket watch.

Margaret inhaled deeply, she hadn’t expected that.  She thought she had things counted correctly.  Think . . . think . . . she removed her earrings.

John went for his waistcoat.

After each piece of clothing was removed, they would stare into each other’s eyes, smiling, having survived another round, daring each other to go on.  Still no words were  spoken.  John knew he would have no embarrassment, so he wasn’t nervous, but he’d like to win the game, rather than lose it.

Margaret was getting nervous about how this was going to end.  John had three more items to go, if it should ever go that far, which she was sure it would not.  She had her dress, full slip, half slip, corset, and undergarment.  She didn’t like this, but she could not blink now.  Her dress was the next likely item, but she stood and slid down her half slip, pooling it at her feet, and then kicking it away.

John knew he was going to lose, which he didn’t really want to do, because it was so heart rendering having Margaret figure this all out, probably feeling frightened about now; he decided to call her bluff.

He stood up beside her and instead of pulling off his shirt, for which Margaret had patiently been waiting; John proceeded to reach for the buttons on his trousers.

Margaret’s eyes got as big as saucers as she shouted, “You Win!  Stop!  You CHEATED!!”

“How do you arrive at that conclusion?” he asked, choking back the laughter and the joy at her surprise.  Oh well, he thought, these were days they could never recapture and were worth every second to have as memories, just like the first night she had arrived, their first kiss, and the tree decorating.  These were all firsts to cherish their whole life.

Still laughing, John leaned down and picked up the yarn, tossed it into the fireplace and reached for Margaret.

Just then, they heard the downstairs door open.  Dixon was home early.

 

 

 

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The Reclusive Aristocrat – Part Three

Chapter Two

Ketteridge House, Leicestershire, England, December 2, 1815

The next day, the weather was still extremely harsh. The snow had stopped, but the temperature had dropped considerably. The fields now lay buried under a blanket of solid ice.

Alex readied himself for a meeting with his Leicester solicitor. Septimus Middlebridge was in his mid-sixties, and had been his father’s man for as long as Alex remembered. A tall, wiry man with a large beacon of a nose in a long, thin face, and piercing blue eyes, Middlebridge still wore a wig in the style of thirty years before, powdered and with a tail, and corkscrew curls framing his face, which made him look like a French courtier. Mr Middlebridge was extremely frugal and would not waste money on a new wig when the old one was still up to snuff, Alex knew. It was an excellent characteristic for a business man.

“Good morning, my lord,” Mr Middlebridge greeted Alex in his quiet, somewhat breathless voice, as if he considered an excess of breath necessary to lend his voice the necessary strength an equal waste. Alex could not clearly see Middlebridge. He saw the man’s outlines in the black frock he always wore, and the white contours of his head, where the wig covered it. Alex had, however, no clear vision of the man’s face, besides what he remembered from the time previous to his injuries.

“Good morning, Middlebridge. Please, sit down. I will have Porter bring us some tea.”

After the tea had been brought, Porter seated himself next to his master. Alex heard Middlebridge lay out his documents in a meticulous way. The solicitor then made his skeleton-like hands crack like dry sticks, before clearing his throat.

“My lord,” he croaked, “although your personal finances are quite ample and very strongly invested in sound businesses, I am sure I do not have to tell you that your estate is in a dire situation. You are in need of a good steward and a sturdy plan to right all the wrongs that exist here.”

“I agree, Middlebridge. No need to elaborate on what I already know. I intend to take matters in hand, from now on. My injuries are sufficiently healed that I can get to work.”

“Are you saying, my lord, that your eyesight has improved? That would be very good news.”

“No, Middlebridge, it has not. My batman Porter here acts as my assistant in reading and writing. What is the most urging matter that has to be dealt with, in your opinion?”

“Well, my lord, I am no steward, but I am aware that an estate needs tenants, who tend to its fields and woodland. Your tenants have begun leaving for better places, such as city factories, where they can at least make a little money, to feed their families. The few that have stayed have elderly relatives and small children. I need not tell you, sir, that they are in dire circumstances, and little else than starving.”

“Yes, I know that. At my request, the village vicar has been delivering food baskets to alleviate the most urgent needs. I know people have been leaving for Leicester and its factories, yet what good will that do them? Working in cotton mills or gun factories for a pittance, and living in dilapidated hovels for which they pay exorbitant prices?”

“Nevertheless, my lord, you need to keep the ones that are still here. You must provide them with food and fuel for the winter, because this year’s crops were disastrously lacking, as you are aware of. Next spring, with the help of a good steward, you should be able to have them work the land and plant new crops. There is no lack of funds, my lord. The interests on your investments provide a most satisfying income, but with the continuingly escalating situation on the Continent, we English have to establish a stable situation at home.”

Alex nodded, well aware of the Vienna Congress aftermath, which had created new hearths of turmoil on a continent that had barely recovered from the Napoleonic Wars.

“Well,” he sighed, “let us go over the state of my investments then, Middlebridge. Explain to me exactly where I stand on spending my money.”

 

Rowena opened her eyes and found herself refreshed and strong. She washed and dressed, then went downstairs to the kitchen. Mrs Hall was already busy at her stove.

“Oh, dearie! Are ye up already? How are ye feeling?”

“Better, Mrs Hall, thank you. Can I give you some assistance with your chores?”

“Oh, no, ma’am! I can tell that ye’re not a commoner. It wouldn’t do fer ye te be doing manual labour.”

Rowena smiled. “No, you are quite right, Mrs Hall. I was raised as a lady, but I am no longer one now. And my name is Rowena. Rowena Drake.”

“What has happened te ye, me dearie? Ye can tell ol’ Thea about it. I’ll never tell a soul, upon me word!”

Rowena sighed. She really wanted to confide in someone, but she was afraid they would look upon her with disdain. She shook her head. “Please, Mrs Hall, I cannot divulge. His Lordship also asked me, but I refused to tell even him.”

Mrs Hall’s eyes  grew round as she gasped, “The master asked ye? Well, bless me soul! He’s been ever so reluctant te talk te people since he’s back from the war and now he’s interested in you! Mr Porter will be happy te hear of it. That man so worries about ‘im, he does.”

Trixie, who had finished washing the dishes, came to sit at the table. Her ears had pricked the whole time. “Oh yes, ma’am! ‘Is Lordship has had such a terrible time, wounded as ‘e were when he came back from fighting that dreadful Bonie!”

“Yes,” Mrs Hall acquiesced, “he came back blind and covered with fearful wounds. He was unconscious when Mr Porter drove that cart into the stables. Mr Porter has lost an eye in the battle of Waterloo, and he had been wounded, too. Yet he didn’t give up. When the master lay wounded and bleedin’ on the battlefield, Mr Porter carried ‘im on ‘is back to a nunnery nearby. The nuns tended them and then Mr Porter brought the master ‘ome. He carted ‘Is Lordship from the Ketteridge village coach inn. Poor master’s wounds are healed now, since Dr Orme took ‘im under ‘is care. The good doctor couldn’t cure the blindness, though.”

“Yes,” Trixie chimed in, “and ‘Is Lordship being the spare had to become the next earl after Sir Reginald died. There’s been no money ever since the old earl passed away, and now, Master Alexander ‘as to put in ‘is own money just to keep us fed.”

Rowena listened to all this in mounting surprise. So the earl was struggling to keep his estate running. And he had had a brother, whom he had lost, and whose place he had been forced to take. And he was as good as blind. And she, Rowena was imposing on his already dire financial circumstances.

“Well,” she declared, “I had better earn my keep, then. I cannot travel in this weather, for sure. Tell me what task you want to give me, Mrs Hall.”

At that moment, Mr Porter entered from the scullery, carrying a pair of polished riding boots. He bowed his head to Rowena.

“I see you’re well recovered, ma’am. The major ‘ll be pleased to hear of it.”

The man did his best to overcome his accent, but cockney vowels were not that easily suppressed. Nevertheless, Rowena recognized the salt of the earth when she encountered it.

“Mr Porter, I am obliged to you for rescuing me from that dreadful storm, last night. You saved my life, sir.”

“No trouble at all, ma’am. If ye’ll excuse me, I must go an’ tend to the major.”

Rowena glanced at the big kitchen clock on the wall, which indicated a quarter past ten. Early for an aristocrat.

“Is your master always up that early, then?”

“Yes, ma’am, ‘e suffers from insomnia, so ‘e wants te make good use of the day an’ start working early. I just showed Mr Middlebridge out. That’s ‘is solicitor.” He touched his brow and left.

Rowena stood pondering a while over what he told her. She liked the batman whom she guessed must be in his early forties. He was as tall as his master, but much broader in the chest and shoulders. His sparse grey hair must have been dark when he was younger. He wore a patch over his right eye, but the left one was a rich, warm brown. He had a slight limp, probably caused by a battle injury.

“Come, dearie, have a nice cuppa tea. Ye’er way too thin and ye’re expectin’, so ye must seek te keep yer strength. How far gone are ye? I’m guessin’ five months, am I right?”

Rowena blushed, then shook her head. “Actually, I am due at the beginning of February.”

“Ye never! That’s barely in two months’ time!” Mrs Hall exclaimed. Trixie, too, clucked incredulously. “Ye look far less, ma’am!”

“I was always thin, so I guess it is normal for me not to show it.”

The door opened again to Mr Porter. “The major will ‘ave ‘is breakfast now, Mrs Hall. And ‘e wants ye te join ‘im in the morning room, Mrs Drake, ma’am.”

 

The earl rose when Rowena entered. He was dressed in a plain, brown woollen coat, a moss-green, unadorned waistcoat over a white shirt, and dark brown breeches under black top boots. His black cravat was tied in a simple knot.

Even in these plain, dark clothes, Raventhorpe was an impressive sight, Rowena acknowledged with a shock. His tall, muscular frame oozed power and authority. His stance radiated confidence, and the fact that he was blind did not seem to mar the elegance of his movements.

All Rowena had noticed the previous night, was confirmed under the weak sunlight of the winter day. Raventhorpe wore his black hair a trifle too long, but the cut emphasized his strong, lean face and angular clean-shaven jaw. Loose curls framed his face and fell becomingly over his wide brow. They were tamed a bit by the ribbon that tied them in a short tail. Raventhorpe’s nose, long and thin, had a tip that bent downward for just a tad. It softened his whole face which would have been too forbidding, should his nose have been straight.

Rowena’s gaze went to the earl’s eyes; clear blue-grey but unseeing, they were directed at her, and slightly squinting as if he wanted to sharpen his vision, just by sheer willpower. His large, thin-lipped mouth was set in a rigid line, as if he were bracing himself against some kind of danger.

The stiff, military bearing emphasized Alexander Raventhorpe’s breeding to the extreme.           Rowena instantly sensed his reined-in strength, his rigid control over what must be a strong temper. A dangerous man, she reckoned, if one made an enemy of him. Even the plainness of his attire could not lessen his handsomeness, nor did his non-committal smile disguise his watchfulness. He looked like a predator, a lion waiting to pounce on its prey.

Rowena curtsied, even though she knew the earl was unable to notice. “Good morning, my lord.”

Raventhorpe bowed. “Be so good as to share my breakfast, Mrs Drake. I hope I find you well-rested after your ordeal?”

“Yes, sir, I slept extremely well. I hope to be on my way as soon as the weather permits. I will not impose on you any longer than necessary.”

He said nothing in return, but Rowena saw his jaw clench and wondered. She sat down when Porter drew back her chair. Raventhorpe waited until she was duly seated before letting himself sink onto his chair. Porter served them breakfast, then left them alone.

Raventhorpe began buttering his toast, then said in a calm voice, “Correct me if I am mistaken, Mrs Drake, but I do not think that you can be on your way. You have nowhere to go. You are pregnant, penniless, and you have no skills that would permit you to earn your living. I am absolutely certain that you were gently bred, so how were you planning to fend for yourself?”

Rowena’s temper flared at his bluntness. “You are indeed mistaken! I speak four languages, I play the piano and I sing. My household skills are well enough since I took care of my brother’s …”

She abruptly stopped, realising that she was too outspoken in the presence of gentry. She was also giving too much away.

Raventhorpe’s expression of calm interest had not changed. He was looking in her direction so attentively that Rowena had the impression that he was actually seeing her. His blue-grey eyes were alight with a sparkle that made them a periwinkle blue. It was a most disconcerting sensation, and Rowena shivered. Her host smiled, and it made his stern face look charming and boyish, all of a sudden. Rowena’s heart skipped several beats as she caught a glimpse of the young man he must have been before he went to war. Utterly beguiling.

“My dear Mrs Drake,” he said evenly, “I am offering you a position as my housekeeper. Mrs Hall is always complaining that she is getting on in years and that she has to do everything on her own; a statement which is true, sadly. I can give you but a small salary of two-hundred guineas a year, but you can make use of all the comfort my estate has to offer. You can have your child here, and raise him or her to your heart’s content. Is that agreeable to you?”

Rowena was utterly speechless. Her eyes filled with sudden tears of relief, or gratitude, she did not know which. Raventhorpe’s offer was a gift from heaven; it was all she needed on this very moment. Acting as Ketteridge’s housekeeper would allow her to have her baby and raise it. Peter’s baby. Oh Lord! She could find other employment, should the need arise, and leave her child here under Mrs Hall’s care. The elderly woman would be all too eager to help her out, Rowena knew. She would be totally independent of Roderick, her ill-natured half-brother. She would be safe at Ketteridge House.

Outwardly imperturbable, Alex was nevertheless waiting with baited breath for Mrs Drake’s – Rowena’s – answer. It irked him that he was so anxious that she could very well refuse and leave Ketteridge after all. He did not want her gone, yet he could not understand that very disturbing emotion. She had entered his life only the day before, for goodness’ sake! He did not yet know a single thing about her. She could be married and be running away from her husband. Or she could be with child unwed, and a sinner. And for that matter, who was she? A lady, or a defiled governess, carrying a lord’s child? Or a clergyman’s daughter fallen into sin? So many questions, yet he could not bear to have her go. Not without learning the answers to his many questions.

“My lord,” she said, her voice wavering just a little, “I accept your offer with the uttermost gratitude. I will work hard, and I need no salary. If I could just stay at Ketteridge to have my child, that would be enough. Thank you, my lord.”

Suppressing a sigh of relief, Alex bowed his head. “That is settled, then, Mrs Drake. I will not hear of you working without remuneration. Two-hundred guineas a year, and that is final. Now let us enjoy our breakfast. I bet you have a tendre for Mrs Hall’s rolls.”

“I confess I had a taste of them already in the kitchen, just a few minutes ago, my lord, and you are right; they are delicious.”

“Mrs Hall is a true gem, Mrs Drake. I hope you and she will get along, because she is the expert on all things at Ketteridge House. She came here as a tweeny in my mother’s days and has stayed throughout the years. However, she informs me that there is a Herculean task to perform in putting the house to rights. The cobwebs have taken over, it seems.”

Rowena laughed and took a piece of toast from the rack. “Yes, that was what I saw of it, too.”

“You have a lovely home, my lord,” she continued, growing serious again. “Even in winter, it seems a beautiful place. I will enjoy taking care of it. Mrs Hall told me that you have only recently inherited the estate and the title. It must be greatly different from your military days, I wager.”

Her tinkling laughter still in his ears, Alex replied readily, finding himself greatly uplifted by Mrs Drake’s company. It was the first time since he came back from the war that he felt so light and joyous. With a jolt of surprise, he acknowledged Rowena Drake was responsible for that.

“Oh, it is very different, Mrs Drake. Being a soldier, and in particular a cavalry man, gives structure to one’s life. The military routine is what lends peace to one’s mind. It is a way of thinking, a way of living. What I found here, was merely boredom, and an acute neglect from lack of funds. Nothing that cannot be put to rights with money. No challenge.”

“Surely, soldiers do not find peace on the battlefield, my lord! From what we heard, even through the shield of censorship, Waterloo must have been a nightmare!”

There was an almost inaudible touch of distress in her voice, which Alex would not have been able to discern without the heightened awareness his blindness lent him. She had a connection with the battle, he was sure of it.

“Forgive me for reminding you of a most disturbing experience, ma’am,” he said, putting as much comfort in his tone of voice as he dared. “I forgot that wars do not solely kill on the battlefields. Have you lost someone dear to you on June 18th of this year?”

“Yes …”

It was like a whisper, a whiff of pure sorrow. Alex cursed himself for prying.

“I am sorry,” he said, trying to offer comfort with his voice. He felt the sadness welling up inside him like a source full of evil and despair. He again recalled his own misery when his regiment was being destroyed by the relentless French artillery. All because of the stupid pride of British commanders like Uxbridge, for whom a battlefield was first and foremost a way to display the cavalry’s splendour and horsemanship.

Alex let the silence be for a while, searching for the next topic of conversation. There was not much he could do to comfort her but there was something he must learn, now, at this moment.

“Mrs Drake, have you consulted a physician about your pregnancy? I gather that you are almost at the end of your term, according to Mrs Hall.”

Rowena was astonished at the earl’s unexpected words. He – a man! – was asking her these things?

“No, I have not, my lord. I consulted a midwife in Car … erm … in my home town. She only confirmed the due date, beginning of February.

“There is a perfectly good doctor in Ketteridge. His name is Dr Orme, and he and I are long-time friends. On the other hand, if you would feel safer with a more accomplished physician, I could take you to my own doctor, Dr Richardson in Harley Street, London.”

“Oh, no, no, my lord, Dr Orme will suit admirably, I am sure!”

“Good, I shall summon him here tomorrow. Mrs Drake, there is something I need you to tell me. Since you are staying under my roof, I think I have a right to know if I need to be on guard for a husband to turn up at Ketteridge house.”

Rowena’s hands flew to her suddenly hot face. Oh, Lord! The earl had asked her a question that was going to be on everyone’s mind when they saw a young, pregnant woman travelling on her own. And the earl was perfectly reasonable, he had a right to know.

“I am unwed, my lord. I lay with my betrothed, and we would have married if he had not been called to join his regiment. He was killed at Waterloo. I had only just found out that I was with child, when the messenger came with the tidings of his death.”

She had spoken so quietly that Alex had to strain his ears, yet he did not miss the deep sadness that laced her voice. To his own stunned surprise, he felt a sudden burning anger against the man who had done this to her. It was absurd. It had nothing to do with him and it certainly was not his business. Yet he could not help thinking what an irresponsible, selfish man her betrothed must have been, to lay with her and then leave her to go to war, before they had exchanged wedding vows. The next and very logical question formed in his mind.

“What about your family? Surely, they could have helped you?”

Rowena abruptly stood, appalled by what she had so impulsively revealed. No, she could not talk about Roderick and how he had chased her from her childhood home! It was suddenly extremely important to her that the earl should not think of her as a disgraced woman without any support from family or friends. She had said enough already; he must not learn who she was. She could not disgrace her father’s name any further.

“I … I have no family. Now forgive me, my lord; I must return to my duties.”

Alex had risen at the same moment Rowena had, to prevent her from running away. He was too late, of course, and his affliction was to blame for that. His blindness effectively kept him from swift reaction. His new housekeeper was gone, fleeing from further prying into her private life.

 

From that day on, Rowena firmly settled into a quiet daily routine. She put together a schedule to cover all the tasks that were required to keep the large mansion in good order.

In the mornings, she would work alongside Mrs Hall and Trixie, to see to the laundry, the ironing and the cooking. In the afternoons, the three of them would tackle the cleaning. Many rooms were not tied up for a long time since they had not been used. Rowena wanted to bring everything back to normal.

To that end, she walked to the village, bundled up warmly against the bitter cold. Enquiring at the inn, she introduced herself as Ketteridge’s housekeeper and asked Joseph Carter, the innkeeper, for female help. He brought her a few local girls, the daughters of local Ketteridge tenants, who were eager to come and work for her. The earl had provided her with an advance on her salary, which she now used to pay the girls. She did not tell the earl that she paid them out of her own salary. He had enough to worry about already.

As for her future dealings with her employer, she was determined to shield herself from his all too inquisitive nature. One day, she would leave Ketteridge House and make a new start for her and her child. For the moment, she could stay here until the end of winter, and make a little money.

John Thornton, Look Back at Me – pt 16

Chapter 16

     A Sensual Moment

 

Margaret woke with a start, suddenly conscious of the fact that she didn’t have a holiday gift for John.  She didn’t have anything for anyone.  She was sure it wasn’t expected of her this year, but she must talk to John to ensure he wasn’t going to purchase a gift for her.

Finding him dressed for the day, already reading his paper, Margaret said, “John, I want to talk about gift exchanging.  I know there is a Thornton Proclamation, in effect, but I would have liked to have gotten you a small gift, but I haven’t had time.  Please tell me you are not going to purchase anything for me.”

“I cannot promise that because the first thing we will do this morning is to procure a pair of snow boots for you, unless you have some at your home.”

“Why, yes, John.  I do.  We’ll visit my home first and talk with Adrian.  And I’ve realized another person we forgot to invite, Mr. Granger, Dixon’s gentleman.  Maybe she should be given this evening to visit him.  Could Branson take her over to see him tonight?”

“Yes, if she’d like that, it is fine with me for the carriage use.  How many would that make below stairs if everyone attends?  We may have to find a second goose today.

Margaret started prattling off the names, flipping her fingers in the counting.  “Let’s see, two Cooks, two Housekeepers, two Drivers/Chore men, Mr. Granger, and Branson’s lady friend.  That’s eight below stairs.  That huge work table should sit everyone.  Upstairs, we’ll have . . . let me think . . . six.  Dear me, that is 14 people for dinner, and your cook was probably only expecting 3 or 4.  I’ll go talk with her, now, and ask what she might need in the way of food.”  Margaret disappeared down the stairs before John could tell her where he was about to go.

John waited, putting the day together in his mind.  They would be at Margaret’s home, and the Professors; they needed to purchase the liquors, along with the tree and trimmings.  He went to the back stairs and hollered to Margaret that he was going to get Branson started and talk to Nicholas about the invitation.  “I shall return shortly.”

The day progressed easily even in the deep snow.  Jane was the only one to decline her invitation, as she was expected at her family’s this year.  Nicholas was excited to have Margaret and Peggy together.  He knew they would fit well as good friends.  The Professor tried to beg off, but when he realized that his own Cook would not be cooking for him that day, he acquiesced.  A second goose was located, and a box of assorted liquors and a box of champagne was purchased; that left only the tree, cranberries, holly, and mistletoe.  John told Branson to drive around until he found some street merchants selling the holiday greenery.  He wasn’t about to go tree chopping.  John reached for Margaret’s gloved hand.  He massaged her fingers and then pulled her hand to his face and kissed the underside of her wrist, forgetting himself.  Startled at what he was doing, he said, “I’m just getting a head start on the other gentlemen.  We’ll have an early dinner when we get home.  I’ll have Branson mount the tree and bring it inside with the other greenery and the liquor.  I guess we can leave the goose in the stable overnight.  While he’s doing that, we can walk to the mill and get the cotton snow.”

“John, I’m so excited.  It all feels contented and homey.  It feels so right.  I’ve had a wonderful day today and am looking forward to decorating the tree with you tonight.  Do you keep any old lamp parts around?”

Puzzled, John said, “I think there might be a box of assorted pieces in the back cellar.  What are we looking for now?”

“It’s possible you have saved some of the crystal prisms that hang from chandeliers.  They would catch the light from the fireplace and almost twinkle.”

“I do remember seeing some of those.  I don’t know how many, but we’ll use all we find.  They’ll need washing, I suspect.”  John was carried away by the day, being able to share this holiday with his beloved.  They would be married by this time next year, he hoped.

 

She said the words – “It all feels contented and homey.  It feels so right.”  That is the best gift I can receive.  

 

John and Margaret arrived home and walked over to the mill, instead of taking dinner, while they were still dressed against the cold.  As she walked into the mill office, Margaret couldn’t help but reminisce about her only other time there.  Seeing the white cotton waste hang and drift through the air had been beautiful, almost as inspiring as her first impression of John, standing tall in his black coat as he oversaw the workers.  He was truly a vision at first glimpse that day.  However, the image faded  quickly when she saw John administer his own form of discipline to a worker who lit  a flame in a combustible area.  That was the beginning of her misgivings towards him; a day she came to regret.  It took time for her to be convinced that he had been right in his actions.

“Alright, we are here.  Just stay by me.  I am going to take you up on ‘the cat walk,’ so you can see the whole operation from a high, safe area.  Everyone will look at you and me, but I know you are not shy.”  John laughed.  He paused, wondering if he should take her hand.  Rolling the wide door open, he hadn’t made a decision.

“John, it’s positively beautiful,” she whispered.  John handed her his handkerchief to cover her mouth and nose as they stepped through the door.  “I’m sure you don’t see it that way anymore.  If it wasn’t for the noise, I would think I was in a fairytale.”

John had to lean down to hear what she was saying.  For no other reason than safety, he grabbed her by the hand and pulled her through the narrow aisle and up the six steps to the cat walk.  He released her hand.  Immediately, he turned his attention to Margaret, wanting the time to study her initial reactions.  She was fascinated.  He knew they would need another time when he could give her a good deal of information about everything.  He leaned into  her ear.  “This has been my life and livelihood for many years.  My wife will be part of this, too.”  John could barely be heard over the noise.

Turning to him, Margaret smiled with her eyes, and still holding the cloth to her face, she said, “I think I shall love being part of this.”

He didn’t expect that.  John felt his knees buckle beneath him as he had to catch his own weight on the hand railing.  The room was as noisy as it always had been, but he was sure he heard what she had said.  He couldn’t dare ask her to repeat it, but he smiled broadly, as her attention was elsewhere.  “How can she say something like that and then go on as if nothing had been said?”  John wondered.  He started to doubt that he heard what he thought he did.

 

She would love being part of this.  Could she really have said that?

 

They spent a few minutes as Margaret pointed and asked John questions, all the while the whole workforce was watching.  John felt so proud inside, showing off his lady to them.  He had never brought another female acquaintance into this first room, or any of the mill rooms.  John left her on the cat walk, while he paced the main aisle to retrieve a hemp bag of the cotton waste.  Margaret thought him almost majestic, as she watched the sight of her tall John striding down through the floating cotton.  The workers nodded as he passed, offering their greetings.  John was like a God to them.  They all smiled when he neared.  He stopped to talk with someone in charge and then proceeded down to the end of the room.  To think that he provided all these people with safe work, enabling them to live, eat, and raise families, was a hard thing for Margaret to take in.  Returning to the cat walk, John motioned her towards the steps and handed her down to the floor.  Still clutching her hand and the bag, he led her out, leaving the noise behind them.

“They are in awe of you John, as am I.”  Margaret said, returning his handkerchief.

“You?  After my confession, followed by my proclamation, you can still say that?”  John smiled.

With a serious face, Margaret continued, “Don’t laugh at me.  I mean what I say.  I looked over the . . . what . . . fifty people in there and thought about how you provide sustenance for these people and their families.  How many people work for you?”

“Close to 800, I believe.”

“What?  800?  Really, 800 people work for you?  I am most astonished.  How many other mill owners have that many people working for them?”

“No other; I am the only one.  I am in the planning stages of buying a third mill, possibly, which would add another 350.”

Margaret was beyond stunned, never having had any idea of the amount of his responsibility.  Suddenly,  she felt so very small and inconsequential.  For the first time, she had self-doubts,  about whether or not she was good enough for him.  She was perplexed as to how her attitude had radically shifted in an instant.  She was once so sure of the reverse of that emotion.

“Let us go eat and decorate our tree,”  John said, embarrassed that he was sensing some unmerited esteem emanating from her.

Our tree.  Margaret liked the sound of that.

 

Dixon was in the kitchen helping Cook wash the dinner dishes, waiting for Branson to take her to see Mr. Granger when Branson came through the back door with a tall Christmas tree.  “Oh goody,” she said, like a school girl.  “Look, Cook, a tree to decorate.  I guess Miss Margaret, and the Master are going to do that this evening.  I think it’s wonderful that they are getting along well, so quickly.”

John was down the backstairs next, heading into a back room.  Returning, he handed Dixon a box of prisms and asked her to wash them and bring them upstairs when she was done.  Taking two steps at a time, he was back standing next to Margaret.  The other furniture had been moved about the room, and they stood and gazed at the naked tree, sitting in a corner by the fireplace.

“Where do we start?”  John asked as he looked over the shape of the tree.  He turned it several times and stepped back, trying to get the straightest and fullest look possible.

“I guess we don’t have anything for the top, but that’s alright,” Margaret replied.  “We will not put any candles on it, either, like some families do.  With the cotton, it would not work, and I like the cotton better anyway.  So, we start stringing the cranberries first.  Next will be the cotton snow, followed by the prisms.  Is there a sewing basket in the house?”

John thought he remembered one over in the buffet in the dining room.  “Yes, it’s still here,” he said, walking over to retrieve it.

Handing it to Margaret, she removed what she needed and proceeded to show John how the strings were made, and then attached.  During the cranberry garland construction hour, Branson had brought up the other greenery, and Dixon brought the prisms.  The pair left, saying goodnight as they disappeared down the back steps to the kitchen.

With garland strewn in swags about the boughs, they pulled out the cotton snow next.  Margaret taught John how to make nice little tufts on the branches to make it look like piled snow, then she tried to see how much fluff she could pile on his head before he felt it.  John decorated the top branches, and Margaret decorated John until he discovered what she was up to.  He grabbed her around her waist playfully, pinning her arms down, and then stepped back.  They both encountered an uneasy moment as the merriment had stalled.

Margaret brought over the clean crystal prisms handing them to John.  “Since you are the tall one, you hang them, and I’ll tell you where.  We want it to have a balanced look.”

The prisms were spectacular, a menagerie of long, and short, pointed or tear dropped shapes of cut or faceted glass that refracted the firelight around the room.  Looking like moving stars across the sky, Margaret watched the room evolve into the heavens as John placed them.  After a half-hour of ‘little more to the left and right,’ the tree was done.  They turned to each other and smiled, proud of their creation.  John held her around her waist and pulled her back to get a full view of their handiwork.  The white snow really enhanced the tree in its dark corner, while the constellation exhibition overhead on the dark ceiling walls danced and held them breathless.

John was on the verge of losing himself until he looked over at Margaret and saw her glassy eyes, too.  Turning her to look at their tree, he stood behind her, wrapping his strong arms around her and resting his chin lightly upon her head.  No words needed to be said as they both got caught up in this uninhibited moment of contentment.  Their mirrored emotions took root, and Margaret turned in his arms to face him.  John looked down into her fire-lit face as she lifted her hands against his shoulders, encouraging him forward.

“Unless you say no, I am going to kiss you, Margaret.”

John pulled back slightly to look into her eyes for his answer.  He took her head in his hands and instinctively brushed his lips lightly over hers, letting her respond in her own measure.  Margaret reacted softly in a return kiss, allowing his lips to find more firmness.  The taste of his lips and breath stirred within her, and she was intoxicated by his tenderness and warm body, now moving against hers.  She parted her lips to taste more of him, and that was all the encouragement that John needed.  Holding her fast, he let his tongue glide across her lips, savoring her flavor.  He deepened his kiss by slipping his tongue into her parted lips.  It prowled hungrily, sweetly, wantonly, until he was certain that she felt he had a right to be there.  Stealing her naiveté, he could feel when she was momentarily startled and then relented, accepting him, yielding her innocence.

Margaret shivered with delight, surprised at the sensation she felt as his tongue searched her mouth lightly, and then he began probing her depths.  She moaned quietly.  The sensual kisses continued with Margaret participating more until she slipped her tongue through his lips.  He took her tongue and suckled it lightly, not wanting to let her have it back, which elicited a moan from each of them.  Margaret knew that Booker’s bland kisses were like soft rain compared to John’s delicious storm.  Booker kissed lightly with his lips; John kissed with his entire body.  This was love.

John knew he was dangerously close to the most intimate of acts, and he eased back, exacting every bit of his control.  Margaret was well aware of this new experience, feeling this . . . this . . . runaway passion, and welcomed the forbearance that he showed.

“John?”

“Yes, Margaret,” John whispered.

“I have never been kissed like that.  I feel dizzy from the sweet pleasure of it.  I can even feel . . .” but she paused realizing where she was headed.

 

Where were these words coming from that suddenly wanted to spring from her mouth when she was with John?

 

“Margaret, I know how and where you can feel it, it’s the same for us, both.  I’ve wanted that for us.  You can’t know how I have been turned inside out, thinking of someone else giving you these pleasures.  I am overcome, as a man, knowing I, most likely, will be the one to dispatch you to another place, another sphere of existence.  I want to kiss you like that all over, every inch of you.  I want to kiss you forever, but I think we should return to our tree, or I will carry this too far.  I think I’m doing a fine job of backing away, don’t you?”  John said laughing sarcastically.

John went to his chair by the fire to study their tree.  Margaret walked over to him and sat on his lap, putting her arms around his neck and snuggling her head on his shoulder.  Not looking at him, she said, “Thank you, John.”

As he held her and kissed her softly at the top of her forehead, he asked, “You’re thanking me again; what for?  Margaret, you never need to thank me.”

“I am just having a weak moment.  I am finding a new depth of my ability for love.  It is for you John, and I was thinking how different it is from my past.  I need your closeness.  I have been so adrift.  Regardless of your edict, I know that you are by my side; your sheltering arms are there to pull me in, should I need it; I will dare to be free of the ghosts that have haunted me these past years.  I’ll no longer feel that I cannot come to you for fear of you expecting more from me, right now.  I recognize your passion is being held at bay, because you are a gentleman and want me to be sure of myself.  I thank you for that.  I’m sure it’s costing you all your reserve, but still I thank you.”

John continued to hold her tightly, rubbing her back and kissing her temple.  “Margaret, all will be right someday, and to me every minute with you is perfect, no matter the cost.  Have you forgotten I am your guardian angel, that you once thought me?  Please, just let me always comfort you at your difficult times . . . reach out to me.  And I do know that you will be the woman, and have the life that you want someday, which will include loving me.  I know this in my heart.  You are my woman, Margaret.  And I know this from a higher authority, too.”  John smiled.

“Margaret shifted on his lap, looking more into his face.  I think you have been in my heart a lot longer than I knew.  Having been briefly married, that day on the veranda, when you stood to leave, I thought, ‘I could never be closer to him than I am right now’.  I could not accept that.  That frightened me, not knowing where that emotion was coming from, and what I would do with it when you left.  I needed to spend it, or carry it forever.  Already, I thought myself a failure in my marriage when I thought of you.”

John held her tightly and kissed her from her ear lobes, lightly down her neck to the top of her breasts.  Margaret pulled him closer to her, enjoying this most intimate sensation.  Margaret became quite aware of John’s own intimate sensation.  Before she could rise from his lap, he lifted his head and covered her mouth again with his probing tongue, causing deep moans from both.   He pulled his tongue from her mouth and let it slide down to the hollow of her neck, kissing and licking there.  Margaret put her hands in his hair and pulled his head lower, allowing him to taste the swell of her breasts.  She could feel the sweat in his damp hair, and knew his control was straining him.  She knew John wanted to remain there, stroking the deep curves of her cleavage with his tongue, as she herself wanted . . . but she must find the strength to put a stop to it now.  These sensations were all so new.  She was lost in his love; she didn’t know what she should be doing.  She pulled his hair back until he raised his face to her, and she kissed him lightly, signaling it was over.  She rose to her feet, and swept her hand under his chin, forcing him to look higher, into her eyes.  She bent and kissed his eyes closed and then walked to her room, shaking.

Margaret sat on the edge of her bed, feeling the heat settle in her tender areas.  “Oh, dear God, how naive I really am.  How can I be this age, previously married, educated, and not know that such deep sensations even existed, forgetting experienced?”  She realized it for what it was.  The passion of loving someone . . .  no, not someone…

. . . the passion of loving John.  When John said he loved her beyond all reason, she felt she could now understand what that meant.  She readied for bed, thinking of all the years that John had carried this same love for her with no hope.  Margaret cried herself to sleep, plagued by John’s misery, which both John and the Professor had told her not to dwell on.

John continued to sit in his chair looking down, replaying the moment.  She had come to him.  He raised his hands to see how badly he was shaking, never having felt like this before.  His pulse was racing and his heart felt like a wild bird, trapped, banging itself on the sides of its cage, trying to escape.  He had never needed control with other women.  He knew loving every exquisite moment with Margaret was going to be an agonizing pleasure.  These passionate encounters would eventually take a toll on him if he had many more like this one.  However, he would take them all and damn the toll.

He banked the fire, turned out the lights, and sat in the dark for another hour.  His body finally subsided, and he wondered how he would get through the next couple of days with Margaret being so close.

The Reclusive Aristocrat -Part Two

Chapter One (continued)

When the strong, warm hands were taken from her marble-cold flesh, Rowena moaned in protest. She wrenched her eyes open, only to see the back of a tall, dark-haired man disappearing from her sight. An elderly, motherly looking woman with a shock of white curls escaping from under her mop cap immediately replaced him.

“Oh, me dear little duck,” she crooned, “Wha’ were ye doin’ out on a hellish day like today? And you wi’ child and all! Come, me pet, let’s get you cleaned up and fed.”

With an effort, Rowena shifted in the bath. The warm caress of the rose-scented water was a heavenly soothing balm to her body. She was so incredibly cold. Her fingers and toes were numb but they were starting to tingle. It was a bit painful, but Rowena welcomed the feeling; it meant that she would soon be warm again.

“Where am I?” Her voice was hoarse, and her throat ached. Her head was throbbing, and her stomach, empty as it was, gave a loud rumble. In an impulse, she felt for her swollen belly; the child moved, and she was reassured.

“You’re at Ketteridge House, dearie. I’m Mrs Hall, the cook, and this is Trixie, the maid. The master and Mr Porter found you on the driveway, a little while back. What’s yer name? Where d’ye come from?”

Rowena did not truly want to reveal anything. There was no need to explain why she had been chased from her home by her half-brother, once he found out she was with child. The child she and Peter created just before he went to the continent to fight Napoleon. Peter … her betrothed, her love. The man to whom Rowena had given her heart and her body, and who had been killed at Waterloo on the eighteenth of June 1815. How she remembered every detail of Peter’s handsome face with his blue eyes smiling happily down on her, seconds before he rode off to London where his regiment waited to board ship. He had been a captain in the Yorkshire Regiment, a predictable career for a third son to the Earl of Carlisle.

Suddenly realising that Mrs Hall was waiting for an answer, Rowena began to rise from the bath. “I should not impose on your hospitality longer than strictly necessary,” she said. “Please give me my clothes, and I will be on my way as soon as possible.”

“Pish and nonsense!” Mrs Hall exclaimed, and Trixie chimed in, “Ma’am, it’s a pitch dark night outside! The snowstorm’s still raging, where’d ye go from ‘ere?”

“Yes,” Mrs Hall clucked, “come on, dearie, let’s get ye into bed. I’ll bring up yer supper soon.”

“Thank you, Mrs Hall,” Rowena replied. “Yet I will not retire for the night until I have thanked my host for his kind hospitality. If you could ask Trixie to restore my dress into some shred of decency, I would be very grateful.”

Trixie and Mrs Hall shared a look of surprise but they did not object. The little maid took Rowena’s sodden dress and left the room. Mrs Hall curtsied and did the same. Rowena was glad that she still seemed to have retained a bit of authority, even though she was no longer looking like a lady.

 

Alex was lounging in his favourite chair in front of the fire in his library, cradling a tumbler of whisky. It was one of his father’s last bottles, and he was very careful to make it last as long as possible, and not to indulge too often in the fine Lagavulin.

“How is our guest, Porter?”

The batman was about to leave but turned at the quiet sound of his master’s voice.

“Don’t know, major. Left ‘er te Mrs Hall an’ Trixie.”

“Yes, I know, but that was not what I meant. How is she? What does she look like?”

Porter scratched hid balding head, unsure how to respond. What did he know about women, anyway? “She’s pretty, I suppose. Got long dark hair, wavin’ like. Dark eyes, too. She’s short, and thin, way too thin, as if she hasn’t had enough to eat for some time.”

“How did she get here, do you think? And why, more importantly, is she travelling without her husband?”

“I don’ like it, major, I tell ye! She’s trouble. I can feel it in me bones.”

“Yes, well … we shall see on the morrow. Go and enjoy your supper, Porter.”

“Ta, major. Ring if ye’re wantin’ me te assist ye later.”

 

Never had Alexander Raventhorpe been meant to take up the reins of his father’s estate. He was a second son, a spare to his elder brother Reginald, who had been the fourth earl of Ketteridge for ten years after their father passed away in November 1804. Reggie had been groomed from an early age into becoming the heir his father longed for. He had succeeded only partially, since he had never married despite the old earl’s frequent attempts to shackle him to a demure little society miss.

Only recently, Alex had found out why Reggie had always fought off female company; his brother had told him in a letter just a few weeks before he died of an apoplexy. The letter had reached Alex on the eve of the battle, and he would always remember the sorrow it brought, because included in the dispatch had been his solicitor’s announcement of Reggie’s death. Reggie’s letter explained that he had always preferred the company of men over women, so it was up to Alex to provide an heir, or so his brother had written. Alex doubted that would ever happen now, damaged as he was.

Somehow, Alex mused, he had always suspected something with Reggie was different.

Since his brother had become the new earl, there had always been house parties at Ketteridge with lots of young, handsome society bucks, and very few women. Yet it was not until he was in the army that Alex had truly understood what was so different with his brother. Alex had encountered many of such men in the regiment. They had been careful not to show their preferences, because that would mean cashiering out, and a scandal attached to their names. Alex had never acted upon what he learned to notice, once in a while, when such men formed secret relationships, despite the danger of discovery and ruin. How could he when his own brother was one of them?

The door to the library clicked open, effectively dragging him out of his brooding. A soft but cultivated, female voice caressed his ears.

“Forgive me for disturbing you, sir, but I wanted to know whom I am indebted to. I hear that it is you I have to thank for rescuing me from the storm. I am most thoroughly obliged to you, sir.”

Rising from his chair, Alex slowly walked toward the sound and bowed. “You are welcome, madam. Please be so kind as to tell me who you are.”

He could instantly feel her hesitation in answering his very reasonable question. He decided to adopt a quiet manner and not press his unexpected guest into revealing her identity.

“If you are in some kind of predicament, madam, please know that you can stay at Ketteridge House as my guest, until you deem it safe to continue your journey. I am Alexander Raventhorpe, fifth earl of Ketteridge, at your service.”

Alex heard her sharp intake of breath, and her skirts rustled as she made her curtsy. “Forgive me, my lord. I was unaware of the nature of your station. My name is Rowena Drake, and I was on my way to London, to seek employment as a governess.”

“A governess? Are you a widow, madam? Perhaps you are in reduced circumstances, so that you need to earn your living? You must certainly know how difficult it will be to find employment in your present condition.”

Silence, again. Alex heard her shallow rapid breathing, indicating that she was nervous. He extended a hand, and softly said, “Come, madam. We need not stand here. We can talk before the fire. I trust Mrs Hall has given you supper?”

“Yes, my lord, and a very fine supper it was. Thank you again for your hospitality.”

She grasped his hand, and a sudden spark flitted up his arm. Neither of them were wearing gloves. Her warmth attacked Alex’ senses as her soft skin touched his own calloused soldier’s hand. A delicate flowery scent caressed his nostrils. Lily-of-the-valley; a particularly expensive brand, he knew. Simultaneously, her badly suppressed gasp indicated that she was affected in exactly the same way. Fighting the sensation, he led her to the fireplace and made her sit down in an armchair opposite the one he had occupied before.

“Now,” he said in a level voice, “I have the distinct impression that you are in need of help. You must admit that it is highly unusual for a woman in your condition to be travelling without her husband. I do not seek to pry into your personal life, madam, but as a former soldier, I feel responsible for any person on my estate, be they someone who lives here or be they a guest. I beg you to tell me what brought you here.”

Rowena was still reeling from the incredibly unfamiliar sensations she had experienced moments before. She had never, ever known that kind of – she struggled to find the exact words – bewitching attraction towards a man, not even towards Peter whom she had been very much in love with. She knew passion, of course. Her short lived romance with Peter had been wonderful and truly satisfactory. A quick, almost fleeting burst of pleasure which – at the time – had made her long for more. They had not been together many times; Peter had many obligations that required his attention. All in all, their encounters had been short but passionate. It had been just her bad luck to become pregnant after so short a time.

At present, here Rowena was, experiencing sparkling sensations when this complete stranger touched her. This tall, dark and extremely handsome earl, with his military bearing and blind eyes, almost certainly a wound sustained in battle.

She studied him with avid interest, as he let down his long body into a chair opposite hers, and adopted a pose of elegant nonchalance. He could not see her, which was an unexpected advantage. She reckoned that, given the way the top of her head had barely reached his collarbone, he must have the better of her in at least five inches. Broad shoulders topped a lean, yet muscled frame. That much she had learned when he had effortlessly lifted her in his arms.

His features were all male hardness, strength, and sculptured authority. A broad brow, eyes the colour of a winter sky, a long, patrician nose and thin, unyielding lips. Raven locks, a trifle too long yet wavy, brushed his coat collar becomingly. He was not just handsome, but also devastatingly beautiful.

Rowena knew she could not, would not give in to the attraction she had just experienced when she touched Alexander Raventhorpe. Not when she could not read those beautiful blind eyes of his. His blindness had been a surprise to Rowena, and one she realised must mean agony to a man so proud and strong.

This man was like no one Rowena had known before; a member of the peerage. Yet there was another side to him. A side that was unpredictable.  She did not understand how she knew that, but there it was. She could not possibly reveal who she was; as an earl, Raventhorpe had the authority to send her back to Roderick, and that was the last thing Rowena wanted.  So she wisely opted to distract Raventhorpe and changed the subject. “You are blind, my lord?”

The short question took Alex unawares. He blinked, swallowed, then grunted, “Yes.”

“What caused it?”

“An injury at Waterloo. And I am not entirely blind, merely visually impaired.”

“Enough to see me when I was … improperly dressed?”

“No, madam, not at all!” He flinched at his own, sudden curtness but he felt it extremely important that she should know he had been unable to see her distinctly. When he continued, he made his tone a bit more placating.

“I can see the difference between light and darkness, and I am able to see movement. I can see bright colours but I cannot make out forms. For instance, I cannot see the difference between your dark dress and the seat in which you are sitting. I know the seat is dark brown leather, so I am assuming that your dress is also dark brown.”

Alex drew in a much needed breath because he could still sense her mistrust of him.

“I know your hair must be dark, too, because of the difference between it and your pale skin. I cannot make out your features, nor your figure. If Porter had not accompanied me, I would not have seen you in that hellish snowstorm. The snowflakes completely blurred my vision.”

“But it was you who carried me inside, and it was equally you who lowered me into that bathtub. Why?”

Irritated beyond the usual, Alex raked a hand through his hair. “I told you, madam. I am a former soldier, and I was born a gentleman. Two reasons why it is my duty to protect those who are in danger. You were in danger of freezing to death, so I carried you to safety as quickly as possible.”

“Yet you – a gentleman – touched me where it is in no way permitted; you laid a hand on me. That, sir, is not the way of a gentleman at all!”

To her utter surprise, Rowena saw an expression cross his handsome face that made her heart clench. His unseeing blue-grey eyes suddenly grew moist. He blinked, and struggled to regain his composure. What was this? Had he been a father, once? Had he lost a child, maybe? Rowena was considering apologizing, but his face instantly was the usual imperturbable mask yet again.

“I apologize if I inadvertently caused you offence, madam,” Alex stated as calmly as he could, yet inwardly, he was seething. Rowena Drake proved a woman of low breeding to speak so bluntly to him, and it irked him that he had misread her. But so it was; she had offended him by pointing out that he had touched her in a way he should not have.

He turned his face away from her undoubtedly scrutinizing gaze. “I think it best if you retire, madam. A woman in your condition needs her rest.”

Rowena knew when she was being dismissed, but she would not go meekly.

“My lord, pregnancy is not an illness. You should not stress the word ‘condition’ so when you refer to it. Goodnight, my lord, and thank you yet again for your hospitality.”

Rowena made a point of striding away with her head held high, even though she knew the earl of Ketteridge was unable to see it.

John Thornton, Look Back at Me – pt 15

Chapter 15

     Sacrificial Altar

 

As the evening grew late, they both said goodnight in the parlor and went their separate ways, with John striving to treat Margaret as a guest.  Morning was much the same; a casual conversation about Margaret’s plans for the day and John being her ride and guide.  A big part of her furniture was due today, and she had promised to visit the Professor’s staff with Dixon at her side.  John was starting to realize how difficult it was going to be to step back from Margaret.

 

This was my idea, and I’d better find a way to do it.

 

Outside, the snow had stopped, but nearly a foot had fallen overnight.  The mill workers were pushing snow off the docks, trying to get stranded carts and wagons loaded with cotton bales, and moved around the yard.  While Dixon and Margaret were getting ready, John went off in search of Higgins to find out what was being done about other snow issues they had between the two mills.

Finding Higgins talking to the foreman about the snow, John asked about Mill 2.  “I haven’t gotten out there, yet, Master.  I’m not sure what we’re looking at in Mill 2.  I’ve just now got most of the people here assigned to get the yard in passable order and get most of the looms up.  I let the third shift go early so they could get home at least, shutting down the looms about midnight.  It was the same thing at Mill 2.”

“I’ll take care of Mill 2, myself.  You work here.”  John turned and walked away trying to step into footprints already made through the snow.  He went around to the back of the house and found Branson, harnessing the carriage.  “Branson, can two horses pull the smaller carriage in this deep snow?”

“Yes, sir, two horses for the small and four for the traveling one.  What do you want me to do?”

“Hitch two horses to the smaller buggy.  You’ll be taking Miss Margaret and Dixon, first to the Professor’s house and then to her home for the rest of the day.  I’d like you to stay with them and bring them home when they wish.  Also, saddle Aristotle for me.  I need to get out to Mill 2.”

“Yes, guv, right away.”

Within 20 minutes, the smaller buggy and the saddled Aristotle were waiting in front of the house.  John was busy, walking the yard to see what Higgins had in progress.  He found everything was running as it should be for the emergency they had on their hands.  Margaret and Dixon had come out of the house and were waiting on the porch, Margaret wondering about the saddled horse.  Did John ride?  John was nowhere to be seen, but Branson was up on the steps, in no time, explaining his instructions for the day.

“Where’s Mr. Thornton?”  Margaret asked of Branson.

“With this snow, Miss, he needs to check the operations of Mill 2.  They shut down the machines last night so people could go home early, and this morning they are dealing with getting the yards cleared and passable.  You have the smaller carriage today, because Mr. Thornton needed his horse to get over there.  Who’s first down the steps?”  Branson asked, as he extended an arm in the air to assist them.

John made it to Mill 2, but it took twice as long reining Aristotle in a more sure-footed path.  The foreman there had started to organize their snow efforts, but John knew he’d never been trained for this.  He instructed him through all the phases of snow clearing.  Certain procedures were usually done before others.  John took the opportunity to walk the entire mill and talk to the workers, thanking them for making it to work today.  He encouraged the foreman to make sure each worker got cups of hot tea today, and instructed him to feel free to offer such things whenever he felt it would help.

Dixon and Margaret made it to the Professor’s home with little speed, themselves.  Upon her arrival, Margaret set off for the kitchen.  Dixon asked the Professor if he had any particular requests for his comfort, to which he replied he did not.  She then headed for the staff to ensure they knew the basics and ask how they had been managing so far.  Branson made himself useful and carried in some firewood, stacking all the grates and refilling the inside wood storage area.

Margaret asked the cook to prepare some tea and toast, while she sat and rested.  She specifically did this to observe the cooks, speed, cleanliness, and thought process.  All seemed well there.  She talked with the Cook about portion control and the science of ordering meats and other foods.  There should always be enough for unexpected guests, but only so much waste was allowed.  The cook seemed to be way ahead of her and Margaret was grateful for that.  Certifying that Dixon had done a good job in a cook selection, she went in search of the professor.

“I think you’re fortunate with your cook.  She is clean, there is little waste, and she seems to be able to handle a lot going on at once.  My question is, ‘how does her food taste’?”

“Quite adequate, I must say, Margaret.  I did have some favorites from the college that, perhaps, someday we can get around to discussing, but mostly I am very satisfied.”

“Do you have a moment to give me some advice, Professor?”

“Always, Margaret; what is it?”

Margaret settled on the chair closest to the Professor and informed him of the serious conversation she had with John; which they had the previous evening.  “Do you think he’s being fair?”

“Fair?”  The Professor laughed.  “What a word to be using when you are in love.  I think you mean ‘is he asking too much of you’; does that sound about right?”

“I don’t think so.  I think I mean . . . does he have the right to question my regard for him?”  Margaret said.

“How do you feel about that?”

“I think he should . . . he should trust me to know my own heart.”

“And do you?”

Margaret thought there was some underlying point to the question that the Professor has proposed to her.  Curious as to his tone on the question, she stood and paced over to the big display window.  The Professor sat back in his big desk chair and lit his pipe, watching the wheels turn in Margaret’s head as she worked something through.  “You’re thinking about Booker, aren’t you?”  Margaret said.  “Don’t you consider that far different, though?”

“In some ways, yes, it was different, but not at its most basic level.”

“I don’t understand.”

“Margaret, you found Booker when you were in a very depressed state.  You had no one who loved you, or so you thought.  You were lonely and unprotected, so to speak.  You wanted a different environment than the London scene in which you were being encouraged to participate.  He showed you love.  You had very few, if any, close relationships with other men before him.  I think unconsciously you married him to escape your lonely world.  He should love you, but he was not necessarily someone you loved.  Have you never thought of this before?” the Professor questioned.

“To be honest, when our marriage started to quickly unravel, that was one place that I thought I could find blame in myself.”

“Do you not see the same underlying naivety in this situation with John?  He apparently does.”

“Well . . .  I am not sure I totally see your meaning.”  Margaret said, sitting back down.

“John is an extremely intelligent man.  I give him a lot of credit for devising this -test- if you will.  I know no man that would have the courage to do what he is doing.”

“What is he doing, Professor?”

“He is forcing you to find your greatest possible happiness at a tremendous personal sacrifice to himself.  He knows he could lose you, but he loves you more than his own life and wants you to find the love and passion that he feels you deserve, even if it isn’t with him.  John is surrendering his entire emotional being, prepared for complete and utter destruction of his life, should you turn from him, all for the sake of you choosing what your heart desires.  He knows you have to experience more in life in order to compare him.  As much as he loves you, he never wants to think you settled for him; that would be worse to his soul than if you walked away.  It’s so self-sacrificing  that books should be written about his courage.  I can visualize the book cover.  It shows a very dark, gothic gathering room from medieval times.  The circular room and floor have carved and cast unknown glyphic figures all around.  There is only a sliver of light passing through the thick walls from above.  Hooded figures, like monks, are standing within a circle; John lies on the stone Sacrificial Altar in the center of the room.  You are a dream over John’s head, slightly hidden by a fog of clouds and in the arms of another man.  There is a hooded figure, with a partially visible face, standing over him, holding a dagger in his hands, ready to plunge it into John’s heart.  What makes the cover interesting, is that the hooded figure standing over him … is himself.  He sacrificed himself for you.”

By this time, Margaret was crying; tears and moans – all her emotions – were unleashed.

“If you mature  enough, you must understand this with your head and not your heart, which is vastly difficult to do.  John wants you to make decisions based on your own feelings, with no regard for what he feels.  And you must do that.  Above all, be honest with him; he is basing everything on honesty, if you two are to be together.  I truly believe it will happen.  What woman couldn’t love that man?  He must be like candy to the ladies in the city, but you are the world he has chosen for his life, and he will wait forever, until you have decided.  With what he has asked of you, I can see why Milton is where it is today: a man of such deep convictions is at the core of its growth.”

“Oh Professor, it’s all so overwhelming.”

“It is powerfully overwhelming for both of you.  Only this once, try to see what he is going through.  It’s going to be hell on earth for him to get through.  When you were newly in love with Booker, not married, but might see him out with another woman, how would you have felt?  Well . . . take that imaginary emotion and multiply it by a thousand.  Only look into that once, and then dismiss it, as he would not have you turn to him in pity.  That would be spitting in his face, and he seems like a man that has always protected his self-respect.”

“As usual, you have opened my eyes,” Margaret said, still crying.  “I do think I am still naive, but not so much as I once was.  Based on what you have said, I am quite prepared to take your advice.  Before I make another mistake in selecting the person, I want to spend my life with, I need to have choices, even though my heart has already chosen.  I hate the thought of going through this, but I will agree to what is being asked of me.”

“Will the two of you be allowed to see each other, like you would with another man?  Frankly, Margaret, after John waiting for you this long, I don’t see him staying away from you for any length of time, as he thinks, he can.  His passion will eventually dominate his keen mind.  However, just the mere thought that he is willing to try this, for your sake, is beyond any emotion I’ve ever seen of one person for another – whether it works or not.”

“He says he wants to step back and let my feelings develop slowly and naturally for him, but I won’t allow him to step back as far as he thinks he should.”

Margaret walked around the Professor’s desk and hugged him around his neck.  “Thank you,” she whispered.  “I am quite fortunate having you to guide me through these difficult times in my life.  I’m more grateful than I can say.  I must get on with my work at the cottage.  I will see you soon.”

Branson reined Margaret and Dixon safely to her home.  He pulled around to the carriage house in the rear and was escorting Margaret in when she noticed a small sign, now covered with snow, over her back door.  Puzzled, she said aloud, “I wonder what that sign says.”

“Oh, I know what it says, Miss.  The Master had me nail it up.  It says, ‘Margaret’s Enchanted Cottage’.

Margaret’s eyes misted over.  She hurried into the house before they could freeze on her face.  Stepping back, is he?  I don’t think I can let that happen, she thought.

Adrian arrived at the carriage and assisted Dixon up the back steps.  He was glad to get inside and get the fires started.  The house felt like ice.  Margaret talked with Adrian about his experience with horse and carts, and asked if she should purchase one.  He was very well acquitted with all of that, he told Miss Margaret.  Mr. Thornton had inquired into his experience before he was hired.  She would have to speak with Mr. Thornton, though, on how one went about selecting and purchasing such a responsibility.

“I don’t know what you are used to where you live, but there is small living quarters over the carriage house.  You would be welcome to live here on the property, if that would suit you.  I know I would feel somewhat safer with a man on the premises, but, please, don’t let that influence you.  You would have all kitchen privileges and the use of the downstairs lavatory.  However, I would certainly understand if you wanted to stay with your friends.

“Miss, I would be glad to come to this property to live.  I would enjoy living here, alone, and feel honored to protect you and the property.  I can say that living among young children is something I would rather do without,” Adrian laughed.

Margaret smiled, saying, “Very good, then.  Check the quarters for repairs, or other necessities it needs to be habitable, and let me know what you need.  Once you are comfortable with it, you can move in.”

“Thank you, Miss.”

 

Margaret and Dixon still found plenty to occupy themselves.  The day moved along happily until someone pounded the front door knocker.  Dixon answered it and brought back the note, hand delivered by a young child, to Miss Margaret.

 

Mr. Thornton,

I am sorry to say that we will be unable to deliver the furnishings until after Christmas.  With the weight of the wood pieces, we know our wagon cannot make it through this deep snow.  It will take a couple of days for the snow to melt, and that brings us to Christmas Holiday.  Please excuse us for being delayed.  Jason Hughes, carpenter.

 

Margaret’s initial reaction was disappointment, but upon further reflection, she wasn’t all that anxious now to leave John’s home.  Perhaps, this was a blessing after all, she thought.

By late afternoon, Adrian had the new gas heat flowing throughout the house.  The gas heat would be used during the day with additional fires lit for overnight.  With that worry settled, Branson returned Margaret and Dixon to the Thornton home, leaving Adrian bunked on the carpeted floor that evening, to ensure he had learned all he needed to know of the heating system.

When Margaret arrived at the Thornton home, the table was set for two.  John was in his library studying invoices, it appeared.  Margaret wondered if he ever relaxed.  She doubted that he did.  Relaxing allowed your mind to wander, and where would his wander?  Judging by the letters in his drawer, it would have been his own heartbreak.  She walked over to the door, peaked in, and said, “Good evening, John”

John stood.  “I’m sorry; I didn’t hear you come in.  I haven’t been home long myself.  It’s been quite a day out there.  I’m sorry I didn’t come with you today.”

As she stood looking at him, Margaret couldn’t get the book cover out of her mind.  She realized she was staring at a man who was martyring himself for her love.  Stepping into the room, she closed the door behind her and rested against it.  John was saying something but stopped when he noticed she was far away, as she often was, he assumed, just lost in her thoughts and dreams.

When she closed the door, he became worried that some unpleasant conversation was about to be broached.  She didn’t speak for several minutes.  Had she come to some decision he wouldn’t want to hear?  As he was about to come from around his desk, Margaret snapped back into reality.

“I’m sorry, John, just dreaming.”

Now, still wondering why she had closed the door, he began to approach her, but she walked towards him.  She pushed his chest lightly, encouraging him to step back.  Again, she pushed, causing him to fall into his desk chair.  She looked down at him.  John had never seen this face on her.  “What is this?” he asked himself.

Margaret, still in her daydream, somewhat, put her hands to his face.  This made John smile, but still he was confused.  Putting her hands on his shoulders, Margaret turned slightly and lowered herself to his lap.  John, inwardly glorified whatever this was, and put his arms around her waist, drawing her close to his chest.  She rested her head on his shoulder, as she encircled his neck with her arms.

John rubbed his hand up and down her back, soothing her.  “I love this moment, but Margaret, is anything wrong?”

“No, I just wanted to thank you,” Margaret said softly, picturing him on a sacrificial altar.

“Thank me all you want, if this is how you do it, but thank me for what?”

“For loving me, John,” was all Margaret could say.

John was quiet several moments, allowing those words to hang in the air.  “Margaret, please don’t thank me for loving you.  There is no effort here; I can’t even help myself.  I’ve had several years of trying to stop loving you, but it only became stronger.  At this moment, I do need restraint if we are to keep to the gentlemanly rules.”

Sighing, Margaret quietly got to her feet, slowly coming out of her visual mood of the sacrifice.

They walked out of his room and into the parlor.  “Did your furniture arrive today?” he asked, while indicating the couch to sit on, as he went to the bar.  “You look like you could use something to warm your toes.”

“Thank you.  I think I will have a sherry for now and maybe a brandy after dinner.”  Margaret said, as she sat on the couch with her feet tucked under her bottom for warmth.  “I’ve had some good news and bad news today.  The bad news is that my furniture did not arrive.”

She paused, waiting for John to ask the next question.

“Margaret, that is disappointing news for you, I’m sure.  What happened to the delivery, and what is the good news?”

“It seems that because of the deep snow, the carpenter cannot deliver until after Christmas Day if the snow has gone away.  So, I must beg a few more days of your hospitality.”

“Oh, I see.  And that is the good news for you, is it?”  John asked with a beaming smile on his face.

“Well, it is now, since I will not see you as often as I should like, after last night’s proclamation,” Margaret said with sarcastic amusement.

John became excited at the thought of being missed by Margaret.  There might be a silver lining to all this.

“John?”

“Yes, dear friend?”  John said jokingly, pouring her drink.

“John Thornton, stop that right now!  You are not backing up that much, even if I have to throw my arms around your leg and hold tight to keep you from stepping back too far.”

Sensing fun ahead, John said, “Yes, Margaret?”

“Tell me about your horses,” Margaret inquired, “I never knew you to ride a horse.”

Crossing the room and handing Margaret her sherry, John proceeded.  “When I was a very young lad before father left us, I had a friend who had horses.  He would often let me ride with him.  I vowed ttwenty-some years go, that someday, I would have one.  With the second Mmillcoming, the money was ggood,and I needed some regular transportation.  I looked a long time to find two matched pair of horses, but they had to sit a man as well as pull a coach, in tandem.  Then I found Branson and his knowledge was of great value to me.  I’ve been fortunate in that investment.  Someday I hope to teach you to ride, if you would like that.”  John finally settled on the couch with Margaret, although not as close as he would have liked.

“I think I should like that very much,” Margaret said.  “What are the names of your horses?

Smiling, John said, “I have Plato, Aristotle, Arkwright, and Cotton.  Plato and Aristotle are a matched set, as are Arkwright and Cotton.  Cotton is very gentle and will be your horse if you will have her.”

“John, those names sound so John Thornton of you.”  Margaret laughed.  “I have another question.”

“Hmm . . ?”  John said, smiling at her as he sipped his scotch.

“Since I will be here for the holiday, can we have a Christmas tree to decorate?”

“Yes, if you wish.  I’m afraid I don’t have anything to hang on it.  I’m not sure this house has ever had a tree.  Tomorrow we will get a tree, and find something to hang on it.  Then, perhaps, you would like to accompany me on Christmas Eve to both mills and spread cheer at the canteens?”

“Oh yes, John, I would love to do that with you.  I am interested to see how your mill works.  As you might remember, my first and only visit inside was unpleasant for both of us.”

John, knowing this would be the best Christmas in his life, thought about making it even brighter for them.  “Since you will not be in your cottage by Christmas Day, would you like to have the Professor, and Higgins, his fiancé and Mary over for Christmas dinner?  We could make it a festive Christmas Dinner.”

“What a wonderful idea, John.  Can we really do that?  And I could bring Cook and Adrian to have dinner below stairs with your Cook, Jane, Dixon, and Branson?”

“Maybe we should also invite Branson’s lady friend, or he might not be here.  I hate to think of Adrian left to all those women,” John laughed.  “This is turning into an amazing Christmas for me, Margaret,” he said humbly, looking down into his glass.

Dixon came into the room, and announced dinner was served.

John seated Margaret at the table.  Both were smiling because there was no loneliness tonight.  Passed, were the two confrontational nights; the air had been cleared, and now it had a sense of holiday spirit.  As they ate, it seemed both were holding back smiles; deep inside, each hiding from the other a very real warm feeling of contentment.  Even with what lay ahead for both,  the season was working its miracle, lighting a glow inside their hearts.  John had only one concern, how to keep from getting too close to Margaret.  The last two nights, going to bed without so much as embracing her, left him wanting the touch of her.

 

As they sat down to a brandy after dinner, John in his big chair stretched out by the fire and Margaret on the carpeted floor, near his boots, they talked about the day.  John looked down at his feet, where Margaret sat, watching her stare into the flames.  The reflected shadows of the fire light danced across her porcelain skin.  He loudly sucked his breath in through his teeth at the stunning image it was invoking.  Margaret looked up at John, bestowing a smile that would have stolen his heart, had it not already belonged to her.

 

I will make love to her some night, right here by firelight.

 

“John, do you know Mr. Cavanaugh?”

“Yes, he’s done some work for me and just recently, too.  We pass through the hall of the courthouse, often.  He’s a lawyer in Property, Deeds, and Titles.  Why do you ask?”

“What do you think of him?

“I guess I’ve never thought about him that much.  He’s a gentleman, polite, well spoken, a little quiet, I think.  I repeat, why do you ask?”

Margaret told John about meeting him on the train with the Professor, twice, and that he had stopped in from his office next door to welcome her and wish her luck.  “He said he knew you through his work.  I think he likes me a little more than I am comfortable with.”  Margaret said, looking away as though she had a guilty conscience.

“Margaret, that interest is something you need to experience like I’ve begun to tell you.  You are going to find gentlemen flocking to your door.  Many will vie for your affections, be certain of that.  I will be in that line, waiting outside your door, too.”  John noticed Margaret’s face took on a sullen expression as she turned it to the fire once more.  Neither of them wanted to proceed any further with that conversation, suspecting it would dampen their glow.

“I asked Adrian if he wanted to move into the quarters over the carriage house, and he seemed delighted with the prospect.  I think I’ll feel comforted with him there.  He’s also going to stay in the house until I move in, to keep the gas lit.”

“Good.  I am glad to hear it.  I like Adrian, and I like the thought of him being there, too.  We’ll need to stop by there tomorrow and ask him and your Cook for dinner.  What do you think of some of the cotton fluff for decorating the tree, like it has snow?”

“John.  I love that idea.  I’ve also thought we could find some cranberries and string them for garland and maybe a little holly for garland across the mantle and a table centerpiece.  And then there is the mistletoe, I must insist upon it.”

“I’m not sure the mistletoe is such a good idea right now.  You’re going to kill me if you put that up somewhere,” John happily lied, hoping she would not heed him.

John knew all too well that he would kiss her tomorrow night or go mad.

The Reclusive Aristocrat – Part One

Chapter One

 

Ketteridge, Leicestershire, England, December 1, 1815

 

She was going to die of sheer exposure. She was exhausted. Her limbs were shaking with the effort of simply putting one foot before the other. Her heart was pounding with exertion and weariness, but Rowena Drake doggedly kept trampling through the deserted copse. She had planned to escape the sting of the heavy snowstorm by leaving the road to find shelter in the undergrowth. The springy trees gave little protection, as they were now bare. The early winter dusk was quickly settling, and Rowena was desperate to find somewhere to spend the night. Hopefully, somewhere warm and dry.

Two weeks before, winter had caught the English Midlands by surprise. After a fortnight of dry, frosty nights and open, sunny days, the temperature had suddenly dropped. The wind had turned north and gained strength. It had brought packs of heavy, black clouds, pregnant with snow, which now flogged the empty fields and pastures. The wind blew between the cottages of small villages with a banshee’s howl.

As she trampled on through the hellish weather, weariness and hunger were beginning to take their toll on Rowena, but her journey had not nearly come to an end. Some days ago, she had left her home, Daveston Hall in Cumberland.  Rowena’s half-brother Roderick had become the next baronet after their father died, earlier that year. His estate was situated twelve miles west of Carlisle, and Rowena had covered them on foot, dragging her heavy portmanteau behind her. In Carlisle, she had spent the night in the cathedral, terrified that she should meet any of her acquaintances, if she put up at an inn. Her shame would be known all too soon.

The next couple of days, she had walked over the main road from Carlisle to Lancaster, sleeping in barns and even in the roadside undergrowth. She had not enough money to sleep at an inn every night. In Lancaster, she found a small inn and asked for a room. She needed to clean herself up and have a good meal for the first time in days. The landlady eyed her suspiciously. The woman clearly could not fathom why a lady would travel without a husband, a brother or a father. Rowena had none of these male protectors to help her.

She had been underway on the stage coach from Lancaster to London for several long, uncomfortable hours, but her meagre coins had not lasted very long. When the coach had deposited her on the side of the road just past Tamworth, she had again continued on foot. She was at a loss as to how she was to reach London without money or food, for that matter. Rowena could not even recall the last time she had a meal. It was seven or eight days, maybe, since she had left her childhood home. There had been no more money for food. How low she had fallen, and in so short a time.

Now Rowena kept putting one foot in front of the other, stubbornly ignoring her fatigue and her gnawing hunger. She had not the slightest inkling where she was, and there was no way of orientating oneself, as the snow was now a curtain shielding everything within a few feet from Rowena’s view. Where was the road? When had she lost sight of it? Her foot suddenly caught in a rabbit hole, and she landed on her knees, her outstretched hands keeping her from falling flat on her face.

For a few moments, the lure of giving up was almost overwhelming. She was already numb with exhaustion. She read somewhere once that death from hypothermia was merciful, even blissful. One would just slowly but inexorably fall asleep, never to wake again. Rowena could feel herself drifting away at that very moment … No! No, she must go onward!

Fighting against the wind’s slashing stings, Rowena struggled to her feet and trudged on. She must be soaked to the bone, she thought. Her woollen cloak was drenched, as were her gown, undergarments, stockings and half-boots. Her hands in their sodden leather gloves had long lost all feeling. Sometime ago, she had lost her bonnet, and her hair hung in sodden strands around her face. She had lost her portmanteau long ago.

Eventually, Rowena realised she was going to perish in this white hell. She staggered on, each step more faltering than the one before. No, she would not give up. If she was to die here and now, she was going to die on her feet. She was the Baronet of Daveston’s daughter and she would hold on to her gentle upbringing. It was the only relic she had left of her family.

Then, all of a sudden, there was a light ahead. She blinked against the millions of snowflakes blurring her vision, welcoming the warm yellow glow with immense relief. Rowena waved her arms, shouting against the raging wind. “Help me! Help me, for the love of God!”

 

“Major, there is someone there! Ahead of us …”, James Porter yelled.

The deep, powerful voice of his master, clearly audible against the howling wind, answered in return. “Who goes there?”

“Help me! Please, help me!”

A woman. Some blasted female had managed to go astray on a day like this, and in this hellish weather. “Stay where you are! We are almost with you!”

Major Alexander Raventhorpe, fifth earl of Ketteridge, bridged the gap between him and the woman in three long strides, ignoring the protest of his batman Porter. A second later, he caught her in his outstretched arms. There. He could not have ignored that blasted protecting streak in him, if it killed him. Too many years of playing the soldier had stamped it in. First defend, then protect. If necessary, attack. Yes, that as well.

She was very light, his mind registered. Slender and feather-light. And she seemed to have gone limp in his arms. Her hair, even wet and cold as it was, suddenly caught in the stubble on his chin.

“We must get her indoors!” Alex shouted at Porter. He swept the woman up and waited for his batman to guide him towards the house, which he knew was not far.

“Aye, major!” Porter yelled back and took a firm hold of his master’s arm. “This way!”

Alex Raventhorpe was as good as blind. His eyesight had been seriously damaged by an injury to the head on the battlefield at Waterloo, in June of that same year. He knew the difference between light and dark, could see movements, provided they were not too fast. Occasionally, he could make out forms when they had bright colours. Faces were a blur, but he could fairly judge people’s moods by the tone of their voices. His hearing had considerably improved, since that June day, when he had become an invalid.

They reached the house and entered through the scullery door at the back. Alex lost no time but hailed his cook, who most certainly had to be busy in her kitchen.

“Quickly, Mrs Hall! We need some help with this young woman. She was in the driveway. Can you install her in one of the downstairs bedrooms?”

He saw a flash of her white apron, when Mrs Hall came bustling toward him. “Oh, my goodness, my lord! We ain’t putin’ ‘er in a servant’s room, for sure! This ‘ere is a lady, judgin’ by the quality of ‘er cloak. Mr Porter, take over from ‘is Lordship and put ‘er in the blue room. The bed in there is made. Trixie ‘ll light the fire in no time.”

It was taken out of Alex’ hands in the blink of an eye. Soon he was alone in the kitchen, with the sounds of hasty footsteps disappearing through the servants’ corridor and up the stairs. A lady, then. That definitively needed some enlightenment.

Alex shed his wet coat and hung it on a peg in the scullery. He had not many servants left at Ketteridge House, his country estate. He was the earl of Ketteridge but he hung away his own coat. The estate was in dire financial straits, and Alex had only recently regained most of his former strength. He was struggling to manage his derelict estate with the money from his war time winnings, which fortunately were ample enough. Investing his money in successful businesses had been easy, yet trying to revive his estate and make it prosper again proved a lot harder. He was in dire need of a steward but he had little chance of hiring such a man when he was unable to go to London. There were many matters that Alex could leave to Porter, but searching for a steward was not one of them. With a mental shrug, Alex put his troubles aside and climbed the servants’ stairs, determined to deal with the new problem at hand; the young woman he found in his driveway.

 

On the first floor in Mrs Hall’s “blue bedroom”, he heard his erstwhile cook give orders to Trixie, concern ringing in her voice.

“Easy there, Trixie. Lord, she’s so cold, poor mite, and so thin! We must wash her after we’ve removed those wet things. ‘Ere now, pour those buckets into the tub. Mr Porter said he’ll bring some more soon. You take ‘er by her feet and I’ll take ‘er under the arms.”

Alex stepped inside, careful to stay by the door. He knew Mrs Hall must have put the folding screen in front of the hearth, and he was not as familiar with this room as he was with his own.

“Are you in need of help, Mrs Hall?” he asked, but the cook instantly replied in a panic-stricken voice, “No, no, my lord, stay where ye’ are! It ain’t proper fer ye to even be ‘ere!”

“Mrs Hall, it cannot be improper since I cannot see the lady. Can you manage lowering her into the tub?”

“Well … she’s thin but Trixie an’ me are ‘avin’ a bit of trouble liftin’ her in ‘er present condition, my lord.”

Alex stiffened. “And what condition might that be, Mrs Hall?”

“She’s expectin’, my lord. She’s at least five months gone but she looks healthy enough.”

Wonderful. A pregnant woman, probably a married lady, had landed on his doorstep in the middle of winter. That could only mean trouble and mayhem. Would he now have to deal with an irate husband, too? He inwardly cursed at the notion that his hard-won peace was certain to be shattered in the days to come. He had to get her away from Ketteridge House as soon as possible, damn it all!

In an impulse, he ignored the cook’s startled cry of warning and crossed over to the bed, a white rectangle with blurred contours. He put out his hands until they encountered the figure of the woman. Soft, round flesh, unexpectedly bare and vibrantly feminine. Damnation! Mrs Hall must have already removed her clothes. She was so cold … God! What if she would expire here, in his house?

“Sir, she’s …”

“Yes, I know, Mrs Hall. Let me get this over with, so that you can tend to her as quickly as possible.”

Alex slid his hands under the woman’s limp body, lifted it and settled it in his arms. She was light as a new born kitten, her body slender and delicate. Her dark head fell against his shoulder, causing her floral fragrance to assault his senses. His own body – damnation! – reacted in a most improper but violent way. By Jove, he had no need for this, right now! Knowing how long he had been without a woman’s touch, he should have listened to sane, solid reason, instead of indulging in foolish gallantry. Yet he could not ignore how lovely it felt just to hold a woman in his arms once again.

He let her down into the tub, relieved because at that same moment Porter entered with more hot water, which distracted the two women. Mrs Hall would soon take over, he knew, so he supported the woman, while she rested in the warm water, and made sure her head was above it.

For the space of a heartbeat, he regretted not being able to see her clearly. Her face was a pinkish spot, her body nearly invisible now that it was immersed in the water. But he could feel the silken caress of her dark hair flowing over his fingers, not to mention the velvety touch of her flesh, and the curve of her slender bottom. Gently he let her body drop to the bottom of the tub and then, unable to help himself, he touched her stomach. It was swollen to a gentle mound, and he spread his fingers over it. Suddenly, the babe moved against his hand. Oh God … oh dear God … His heart contracted with a longing ache he had not thought he would ever feel. He would never have this. He would never have a woman of his own, a woman who carried his child, and on whose stomach he could place his hand and make contact with his very own babe.

“Ah …”

Dragged from his self-pity by the woman’s soft cry, he all but growled, “Mrs Hall! Quickly, she is coming round!”

The cook leapt from behind the screen and took hold of the woman’s body. Alex jumped up and fled the room.

John Thornton, Look Back at Me – pt 14

Chapter 14

     A Gentleman’s  Agreement

 

Margaret strolled over and closed the door to his library, forbidding even the warmth in the room, while she read the letters.  “Why am I doing this?” she wondered.  “This would not have happened with the old Margaret,” she told herself.

Sitting down, she pulled out the little pile of letters from the drawer, all addressed to her.  She noticed a mixture of dates and wondered why John had never sent them.  Two were before their London meeting on the veranda, and the rest were after that day.  None of them were finished.  Why had they lain in wait to be completed?

The ink on two of the earlier ones seemed to have been smeared, and she assumed this was the reason he had never sent them.  However, as she began reading, she realized they had been wet with his tears, and he had poured out his devastated life, and his need of her, with his pen and paper.  Her eyes filled in spite of herself, adding additional tear stains to the inked words.

 

Dearest Margaret

.  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  . that snowy day.  .  .  .  .  . .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  . if you looked back.  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  . .  .  . took my heart .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  . alone with only memories .  .  .  .  .  . .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  love you more than .  .  .  .  .  . breath of my life . . . . . . . . . . . . . . able to go on . . .

 

John’s heart and soul were  wrung from his body onto those pages.  Margaret lost herself in his words of love and emotional disaster.  She wept, adding more of her own tears, to the words describing the desecration that she had caused in John’s life.

The next two letters were equally forlorn, but showed a ray of hope.  She remembered that day on the veranda when she discovered that there was more between them than she had realized before, but he, apparently, had known it for a very long time.  He had written that he understood nothing could be done, and she could not speak to anything, but he left that day, happy that she had come into his arms.  He felt he could cope with a life based only on that one memory.  Still, these letters spoke so much of his heart and his hopes, they would never have been sent.  Continuing to weep, she sought out the last two.

The final letters, written after Booker’s passing, showed a tempered joy, no tears, and much hope in the future with her.  There were many references to his intimate and sensual desires, some of which she had heard of last night.  She almost had to put them down, but she continued reading as she fidgeted in the chair.  Margaret doubted these were ever meant to be sent, as he was speaking most passionately from his heart and body.  She came across a strange reference to a sign from his mother.  “Whatever could that mean, with his mother now being gone?”

Still thinking about John’s strife, Margaret stowed the letters back where they came from and pulled out a sheaf of paper.  Suddenly, he came through the door.

They looked at each other, startled, and Margaret wondered if the guilt was prevalent on her face.

“Good evening, John.  I wasn’t looking for you this early.  I wanted to post a note to Edith; Dixon thought you had paper in your desk.  I hope it was alright to take a piece.”

“Yes, yes, of course.  Take all you like.  I’m sorry to disturb you.  I thought you had retired, so I was coming to look for some correspondence that is stored in my filing cabinets.  It’s of no importance; I shall leave you to your letter.  Would you like the fire lit?”

“No, thank you.  I shall be brief in my writing.”

John walked back to the parlor.  He had sensed a stiffness in Margaret, and wondered why the closed door.  That room was freezing with no fire lit.  Feeling a bit uneasy, he picked up the partially read paper from this morning.  Opening the pages, his mind elsewhere . . .

 

The letters!  She must have found the letters.

 

John did not immediately know what to do about it.  He never wanted her to know how bad his life had been without her.  She might think him weak, but it was in every one of those letters.  Why hadn’t he destroyed them since learning of her return to Milton?  As he heard her footsteps coming into the room, John began to pay more attention to his paper.  Eventually, he looked over at Margaret’s quiet form, sitting across the room from him.  She was perched on the couch, looking a bit awkward, as though she wanted to speak, but didn’t know how to begin.

“You look like you have something to say.  Is anything bothering you, Margaret?”  Now, he thought, was as good a time as any to discuss last night.

“Yes, there is John, but first I must summon my courage.”

“Summon courage?”  John thought.  He was certain she was going to bring up the letters.  Aside from the matter of harboring her brother when he was in the country and under an arrest warrant, which he, himself, never understood at the time, she was almost totally defenseless in the use of deception.  However, how was he to explain them, he wondered.

They sat in silence for a few more minutes, clearing throats and shifting in their seats, when John, not being able to wait any longer, said, “Margaret, if it’s about the letters in my desk, you need no courage to summon.  They should have been destroyed a month ago when I knew you were returning.  I am quite ashamed and embarrassed for you to know the state of mind that I have been in since you left Milton.  They do not matter.  That is all water under the bridge.  They are just ramblings of a man who loved and lost.  And the later letters are the delusions of a man in love still, never for your eyes or anyone’s but my own.  They were like a catharsis for me; instead of reliving all those moments of hopes and dreams, putting them to paper helped me not to dwell on my situation every minute.”  He could not bring himself to look directly at her.

“John, how can I apologize for looking at your private writings?  I, too, am ashamed about what I did and I knew I had to speak to you right away, but I wanted to form my response with some thought.  It was accidentally done.  I was looking for paper, but when I opened the drawer, I saw papers addressed ‘Dearest Margaret’,’ and I wondered why you had never sent them.  I can understand the why in each one of them, now.  I will not speak to the contents, but I want to talk with you about me . . . and you.

Silence was suspended in the room; the wait for Margaret to begin was almost intolerable for John.  He had much to say tonight, himself.

“Foremost, let me say that I am sorrier than you will ever know, for the misery I have caused in your life.  It’s been devastating to read.  I have never known of such love from one person to another as you expressed in those letters and last night.  I didn’t see, or know, of that depth with my parents, or in my own marriage, but I am slowly coming to know of it on my own.  You and I have fought our own demons and were lost, but now, we may be found.  My demons were self-imposed, and yours were also imposed by me – unforeseen circumstances and deception by my family – all of your private hell is on my shoulders.

“No, Margaret . . .” John tried to interrupt, but Margaret continued.

“Please, John . . .”  John sat back, but found himself gripping the claw carved hand rest on his chair, with white knuckles.

 

She cannot take all this blame.  It is behind us, now.

 

“John, please forgive my intrusive question and abrupt conduct of last night.  I am sure I surprised myself more than I did you.  It was unforgivably rude of me.  I laid awake most of the night thinking about our conversation, but came to some realizations while eating alone at your table this evening.  Firstly, I asked the question and you gave me your honest answer.  I’ve wondered why I asked it. It seemed to come out on its own.  I think it was in my thoughts because I hope to be part of your life someday, and I guess I wanted to know where the memories might be buried.  As for your answer, because of your deep love for me, you felt compelled to explain yourself, and I think it was a conscious decision you made that ran very deep.  It was a tremendous sacrifice you made and a risk you took for both of us, in admitting those intimate events, you knew would hurt me.  However, you trusted me to see my way through all that hurt, coming out on the other side knowing you have experienced all in life, and still you chose me, unknowing of the woman I may be.

 

She -did- understand.

 

“You did this because you wanted me to know all of you and have faith in your love for me.  I am prostrate at your feet for the great trust you have placed in me to find my way through that, and for the confidence, you knew I needed to recover.”

John was soon going to need to be strapped down in order to keep from coming out of his chair.

“That was not my only revelation that came out of last night, “Margaret continued.  “When you talked about your passionate promises . . .”

Bolting out of his chair, John took to the center of the room, “Margaret, I must insist that you stop there.”

“But . . .”

“No . . . please no buts.  I, too, have had a lot of thoughts, and it relates in a way to that which you are about to speak.”

“If you feel you must speak now John, then, by all means, go ahead.”

“Please try to listen with your head and not your heart.”

The moment was suspended as John paced the floor, running his fingers through his hair, endeavoring to form the hardest words of his life.

“Margaret, I have been very selfish.  You know I love you, but that should only be my concern right now.  Somehow, I’ve adopted the attitude that you are mine, or soon will be, and I have been very possessive in my thoughts, and maybe some of my actions.  You have never discouraged my advances, but that isn’t good enough.  You have lived in innocence all of your life.  You do not know the world outside your husband and me.  I cannot be totally comfortable with your lack of discouragement to me, because you have had nothing to base my affections on, except for your marriage, which you know was never a real marriage of love.  You are allowing me close, perhaps because of your touching naivety, or some obligation you may feel because of how I feel about you, or any number of other reasons.  It may be love, but we don’t know for sure, do we?”

“I think my heart does.  John, I don’t think I understand where you are going with this.”

“I am going to step back and try not to insist myself upon you so quickly.  As difficult as this is to say, I would like you to accept invitations from other gentlemen.  I would want you to compare all of your suitors, so I know when you turn to me, that you do it with a confident heart.  Just think about it, please.  When I thought about those words I spoke last evening, as much as I wanted you to know my heart, I realized I was laying an encumbrance upon you.  I don’t want you to turn to me unless you have chosen me for the one you want to spend your life with, and how can you choose without choices?  You must experience more of life.  For my sake, use your mind and see all the way through this, to the other side, for both of us,” John said, in a very agonizing but serious voice.

“John, I want to scream and yell and beat my fists against your chest, but if that’s what it takes for you to be sure of my decision, then I will do it.  I can understand you seeing it that way with my naivety, but I already know the result.  I know where I’ll be when I reach the other side.  As much as I do not want to be put through this charade, I will accept other invitations, including yours – I will not let you step back that far.  How will you handle my advancements to you?  Am I allowed that?”

“Only in moderation, until you have spent time with other men.”  John replied, almost smiling now.

“Can the Professor count as one?”  Margaret asked with that pouty face.

John, now laughing said, “No.  Spending time with your father figure does not count toward experiences of the heart.”

“You know John, I started out thinking of him as a father figure, but he is closer than that.  Strange, but he’s more like a close brother or sister to me, one who I can really open up to and talk about things that one would never speak to a parent, yet he has the intelligence and life experience to guide me, better than a parent, really.”

“Margaret, I am glad you have such a confidant in your life.  I’ve never had that, even with my Mother, and I envy you.  Perhaps, someday your husband will take on that responsibility.

“Can I ask a final question?”

“Margaret, always know that you can.  What is it?”

“In those letters in your drawer, there was a reference about your mother working on your behalf.  What did that mean?”

“Margaret, that is for another time to explain, but I promise I will some day.”

“So when does this game begin?”

“There is nothing like the present, I suppose, or whenever you feel you are passed your bereavement time, which I think should be about now.”  John said.

Margaret, breaking the tension that had saturated the air, presented her hand for a handshake.  “We have a gentleman’s agreement, then?” she asked.

John, smiling, took her hand and shook it, “I dare to say it’s better than pistols at dawn.”

They both laughed.  Every laugh between them was drawing them closer.

 

Reserve and Reticence – Part Twenty

Twenty – A New Step Toward the Future

 

By the time the necessary explanations had been given, the long summer day was nearly over and Beth and Stephen had returned to The Queen’s Head with Oliver. The boy had consented to accompany them home but only because Mr Charles Thornton had convinced him of the necessity of a proper education.

“You need to learn all about accounting and economics, young fellow!” Mr Thornton had lectured. “You must know how the machines operate, what techniques are used to make cotton, how to manage a factory like Marlborough Mills, if you ever want to become someone of importance in the business. I intend to send my own son to a decent school when he is of age. He will be in need of it and so are you.”

It seemed to have had a result because Oliver was in good spirits and did not balk when Stephen mentioned Eton and Cambridge again. Stephen finally gained some territory in learning to deal with his soon.

Now Beth was in their private room at the back of the inn, a large and agreeable space, set under the roof. It was painted in fading green and pink colours and furnished with dark, solid oak items, which gave it a feeling of homeliness and comfort. Trixie was just done helping Beth into her night gown and now she was brushing out her mistress’ shiny brown tresses. Beth closed her eyes, soothed by the movements of the brush.

The lovely feeling stopped abruptly when the door opened. Trixie gave a startled cry, dropped the hairbrush and fled from the room as she did every night when her master came to join his lady.

“I do not understand why that girl is so frightened by the mere sight of me that she runs like a doe before a wolf,” Stephen chuckled as he stepped closer to his wife.

“Well,” Beth answered, “I myself have a faint idea of how she feels, my love. In your night clothes, your manly chest bared and with that predator’s look in your eyes, you are an impressive figure to behold.”

Stephen, however, had stopped listening. As always, he was overwhelmed with desire, seeing his beautiful wife in her snowy white night gown of silk, trimmed with Brussels lace. Her fine figure, with its delicate curves, was moulded to perfection by the thin, shiny fabric and the chocolate coloured waterfall of her exquisite hair – also as always – aroused him to near breaking point.

“Come here,” he breathed hoarsely and extended his hand. Beth obeyed, her dark eyes dancing with answering longing. When she stood before him, her heart was pounding hard and her body was becoming hot with arousal.

“Undress me, my love,” Stephen begged, closing his eyes and sucking in a deep gush of air, when her fingers began caressing his face and neck in a searing touch.

Beth lay her hands on his shoulders and brushed away the light silken robe to reveal the broad, tight-muscled plains of his tanned chest. Her fingertips followed the spread of fine dark hair that covered it, stroking his taut muscles, kissing the hardened nipples, nibbling at them until Stephen groaned with rising desire. He forced himself to stand still and enjoy her caresses, knowing how she delighted in the feel of his body under her hands. Now she let those hands roam feather-light over the flat, hard surface of his stomach, causing heat to flare wherever she touched. He felt her fingers on the rim of his loose trousers and shivered hard in rapt anticipation, when they eased down the garment. The moment she freed him, he could not bear it any longer and snatched her up. In two long steps, he reached the bed and threw himself onto it, placing her on top of him in one smooth movement as he landed on the mattress on his back. Kicking away his trousers, he shoved her nightgown high over her head, gasping at the sight of her exquisite naked body. Oh, God! She was so beautiful, his Beth!

With meticulous precision, he lowered her onto his rigid shaft, nearly losing it when he felt her folds tighten over his flesh. She moaned in rapture and began moving her hips in an answering rhythm to his own thrusts. His hands flew to her breasts and stroked the soft mounds, kneading the hardened tips with each caress, until she whimpered in mounting desire.

“Stephen … please, do not stop … please, Stephen …”

His own hard intakes of breath echoed hers as their passion rose with every movement and stroke. God! This was torture! Heat rose in shuddering waves with every thrust and exquisite pain kept searing through his brick-hard manhood in pounding gulfs, until it burst into millions of shards as he spilled himself greedily in her hot, silk folds. At the same moment, Beth came in a shuddering cry of delight, and her flesh squeezed tightly around him, sending waves of wonderful heat through his whole body. He held her in a hard grip, preventing her from collapsing onto him for just a few, marvellous seconds, because he revelled in the feeling of her taut, highly-strung form on top of him.

When he felt her muscles relax in the climax’ aftermath, he settled her close to his heart and drew the bedclothes over them both. All was well, all was perfect.

 

~~~~

 

Later, Stephen adjusted their bodies in a more comfortable position, their heads close to one another on the pillow. Beth’s slender limbs wrapped around his under the warm covers. In the light of a candle on the nightstand, he lay admiring her beautiful face, relaxed in deep sleep, her soft mouth curved in a smile. The dark lace of her eyelashes, spread on the fine velvet of her cheeks, caused his heart to skip a beat in shuddering love and affection.

How was it that this wonderful woman had come to love him? Him, a harsh, bitter man, with forbidding manners and no compassionate feelings toward his fellow men. What had she seen in him? It must have been something good for she had opened his heart to so many new things, such as love and compassion. She had changed him into a man capable of true human feelings, one who was deeply interested in the lives of those counting on him to guide and shape their daily existence. She had taught him to love, to care, to fear for those who loved him.

This past day, when he had witnessed Mr Thornton and his little family, Stephen suddenly realized what he wanted from life. Mr Thornton’s deep affection for his son had awakened a similar longing in his own bosom, a fierce longing for a child of his own. Beth’s child … his and Beth’s.

He had come closer to Oliver, today. He had suddenly understood how the boy longed to be independent and strong. Oliver did not think of himself as a son of Stephen because he grew up away from his father. Oliver would never be as close to him as little John was to Mr Thornton.

So, in the rosy light of dawn trickling through the window panes, Stephen sent a fervent pray to the Unknown Force that ruled the universe.

“Please, Lord, I beg you: give me a son of my own, and I solemnly promise to cherish him with all my heart. I thank Thee, oh Lord, for the precious, sweet woman You gave me. I will treasure her with my love and protect her with my life. That I do solemnly swear.”

 

The End

My most sincere thanks are for Joyce Mould, who provided the beautiful drawing adorning these posts. Thanks, dear Joyce.

This entry concludes Reserve and Reticence, my first attempt to a full-fledged Regency romance novel.

Next week, I will start with a fresh one. Please, join me for,

The Reclusive Aristocrat

Rowena Drake is unmarried and pregnant. Her lover, a cavalry officer, has been killed at Waterloo, so a marriage is no longer possible. Her brother, a rich baronet, has cast her out, after Rowena refused to give up her child. Now she is alone and without money, and desperate to reach London to find employment.

Alexander Raventhorpe, fifth earl of Ketteridge, Leicestershire, has been badly wounded at Waterloo, leaving him blind and scarred, with nightmares plaguing him. He has become a recluse at his almost ruined estate, with no inkling as to how he should remedy it.

Fate brings these two people together. Will Love bind or separate them?