The Reclusive Aristocrat – Part Sixty-Three

Chapter Twenty-Seven

Crestwell Abbey, Cumberland, April 17th, 1816

Alex watched Rowena lift the Holland cover from a small escritoire. It was of Louis XV style in delicate rosewood with mother-of-pearl inlay and had multiple small drawers in its upper part.

“Of course, you will find nothing in it, my lady,” Philby warned. “The master made certain that everything was removed before we were allowed to take it from the room.”

His wife was touching the inlays with a trembling hand, tears in her eyes, so Alex could not help himself. “We could take it with us if you are fond of it, Rowena.”

“How well I remember this,” she breathed. “My mother often used to take me on her lap when she was writing letters. She taught me every hidden little hole the desk possessed. I doubt Roderick knew them all, since he never came to her chambers. He was away for the best part of the year to London or elsewhere anyway. I do not think he would have known this hidden space.”

She drew the fingers of her right hand under the top of the inlaid desk until they met a hidden catch. The top went up, revealing a shallow section almost as broad as the top itself. In there was a slim bundle of papers wrapped together with a red ribbon and sealed with red wax. Rowena took it and showed it to Alex.

Last Will and Testament of George Philip Matthew Drake, Baronet Daveston

 

The rest of the day passed in a flurry of activities, the one even more surprising than the other. Alex took Rowena straight away to Carlisle and Mr Thaddeus Beaumont in Blackfriars Street, who was Lord Carlisle’s solicitor. He sent a note to the lord himself, asking him to join them at the office of Horace Bleak, Roderick’s solicitor. While they were heading toward their destination, Rowena sat listening to the conversation between her husband and the solicitor.

She was still dazed – and extremely happy – by what they read in her father’s will. Papa had not left her penniless after all but granted her the considerable sum of ten-thousand pounds in addition to Fairhaven, the small property near Thursby. Roderick had deliberately fooled her into thinking she would receive nothing but to succeed, it was clear that Bleak must have agreed to go along with the scheme. So now they were going to confront the man.

They arrived before Lord Carlisle did, but that did not dissuade Alex from barging in forcibly. He smothered Bleak’s protests by grabbing him by his lapels and literally lifting him from the floor.

“I will see the will of the late Baronet Daveston now, Mr Bleak, so ask your clerk to produce it right away.”

The scrawny, weasel-like man started to protest as soon as his feet touched the ground again.

“Sir, I am not at liberty to do that. You would need to acquire Lord Daveston’s permission.”

Mr Beaumont interfered. “Mr Bleak, are you aware that your client is at death’s door? He suffered major injuries in a fire at his house yesterday. Lord and Lady Ketteridge are entitled to request that you show them the will. If this does not convince you, I can tell you that Lord Carlisle is on his way here with a search warrant.”

Bleak’s narrow face blanched. “But … but … Lady Ketteridge was appraised of her father’s will last year after he died. She knows the contents well enough to understand that there were no provisions made for her by her father.”

His face contorting in a wicked grin, Alex pulled the papers from his pocket and trust them under the solicitor’s nose. “Kindly take a look at this, Mr Bleak. You will be unpleasantly surprised, I assure you.”

Bleak reluctantly took the documents, read the first page and blanched. “I do not understand,” he started wining. “This is unknown to me, I swear.”

Rowena stood in awe at her husband’s display of sheer authority. He did not yell or use unnecessary violence, apart from the initial lifting of the man, who clearly was intent on defying him. Alex only raised himself to his impressive, full height and coldly stated what he wanted.

“My good man,” he said in a deceptively neutral voice, “let me present the two options that lie before you. You can give me the will of your own accord or, while we wait for the constables to arrive, I start tearing apart your pathetic excuse for an office, until I find it. Now, what will it be? I warn you that my patience is running dangerously thin, so do not tarry overlong.”

Horace Bleak was not a brave man nor was he a simpleton. He uttered a deep sigh and went to a filing cabinet behind his desk. After a few moments, he retrieved a document similar to the one Alex put under his nose.

“This is what Lord Daveston gave me after his father died.”

Mr Beaumont took the paper and began reading. “It is the version we already know, my lord,” he said to Alex after a while and handed it to him. “Were you present when this was drawn?”

Bleak looked positively embarrassed now. “No, indeed, sir, I was not. Lord Daveston summoned me the day after his father’s demise and produced the document. All I had was the will the late Lord Daveston had me draw up years ago. I was not even aware that he had made a new will in the first place.”

The Reclusive Aristocrat – Part Sixty-Two

Chapter Twenty-Six (completed)

Richard Orme rose from the chair next to Roderick’s bed when they entered. “No change, I am afraid. His pulse is getting weaker and his breathing grows more ragged by the minute. I am so sorry, Rowena, but I will not be able to save him.”

“Has he regained consciousness during the past hours, Richard?” With an effort, Rowena endeavoured to keep her tears at bay.

“No, my dear, not even a flicker of awareness was seen. I did not expect him to, the pain must be excruciating. His body simply shuts down as to not have to endure it.”

“Rowie, come away,” Alex asked, to which she readily obliged. There was nothing for her to do here. Yet it astonished her that Alex led her back to their rooms.

“Please, take a seat, my dear. We have to talk.”

She grew concerned when he took both of her hands in his. “Carlisle is helping us with recuperating your inheritance, Rowie. He is the magistrate in this area and will help us search the rooms of the solicitor employed by Daveston. We will be looking for your father’s will which was never presented to the court in Carlisle. Yet we fear it might have been destroyed and replaced by a new one after your father’s death.”

“Oh, but Alex, that would be impossible! They would have to forge my father’s signature and two other signatures for the necessary witnesses.”

“There are ways and means to do just that, my dear. Have you ever seen your father’s will before he died?”

“Yes! Papa showed it to me when I turned eighteen. He told me I was to have a third of his money and a small property he owned near Thursby, a small town to the south-west of Carlisle. It belonged to my paternal grandmother and came with her dowry.”

“Do you have any inkling where he kept the will?”

“No, I am sorry, Alex. I would think he kept it in his library which was also his study, but I was appalled when I saw the state it was in. Many items were missing, rare books and works of art must have been sold by Roderick. Was he in dire financial circumstances?”

“I do not know, but it is an issue we should examine thoroughly.”

He was still holding her hands, she suddenly realized when his thumbs were gently rubbing them. If she even looked up, she would betray herself. She loved him so dearly, but she could not show him. The compassion he would surely give her would be too hard to bear. She gently retrieved her hands and forced herself back to the matter at hand.

“Maybe we should ask Philby if my father had other storage for his documents. He has been in the family service from before I was born.”

“Splendid!” Alex rose and extended his arm. “Why not go there now?”

 

They chose to ride to Daveston Hall, the weather being mild. An invigorating breeze stirred the chocolate curls escaping from under Rowena’s riding hat, and his wife was smiling, Alex saw. She seemed to enjoy their ride then? He knew he certainly did, so why had he not done that more frequently? Or maybe she did not object to his company as long as they were on horseback whatever the reason? He had not been very good company in the past. His blasted eye affliction and the nightmares that had haunted him did not favour pleasant companionship. His nightmares … he suddenly realized they had stayed away for weeks if not months. How had that come about? Ah, but he knew why. Sharing a bed with his beautiful, gentle wife and engaging in vigorous lovemaking, followed by a deep, restoring sleep was what had cured him. He so loved waking up next to Rowena, be it while she was still lost in sleep or when she was nursing Emma. He preferred the latter even more, the image of her as a mother, feeding the baby with her hair still in disarray and her exquisite breasts bared. Damn, he had to stop thinking of her like that now or he would face some serious discomfort getting aroused while in the saddle!

All this made it perfectly clear that he loved Rowena. He was hers, completely and forever, although he had no inkling when and how it came about. Love caught one unawares. That were the words his brother Reggie had used in his last letter, talking about the man he had loved without ever having been permitted to say them aloud.

Would he, Alex, be able to say them to Rowena one day? He could only hope and pray.

 

Rowena rode down the driveway of Daveston Hall beside Alex, vowing to herself that their being together had never been more pleasant than it was at this moment. Of course, she was sad because of Roderick’s imminent death, and because of her failure in trying to befriend him. She could not end his animosity towards her, this feeling of envy and loathing he must always have had. Yet she had a small consolation in the fact that she had tried, and that must be enough. From now on she would be able to concentrate on her life at Alex’ side. She would love him, make his life happy, and give him the home he had forever lacked. She so longed for a child sired by her husband, a sister or brother for Emma. All this to do with her inheritance was of no consequence when it came to her family’s happiness. She only wanted to be sure of one more matter; did her father truly tell her lies about what she would receive after his death or had it been Roderick’s doing all along? Should the former prevail, she would have to grieve over her father yet again, and it would be even more excruciating than ever. Then she would know that her father never truly loved her and she could not envisage this horrible possibility, never.

Dear old Philby listened to what they asked him with stoicism and a little incredibility.

“My lady, I am astonished that you have no notion about my late lord’s favourite storage place. Did he never tell you about it?”

“Not that I recall, Philby, so you will have to show me.”

“Very well, my lady, my lord. If you will follow me?”

Philby led them to the large attics where a considerable amount of furniture was stored. As they walked through the bulk of cupboards and closets, chairs and sofas, beds and chaise-longues, Rowena recognized some of it. She realized it was the furniture her mother had brought to Daveston Hall when she married her father. Philby saw her surprise.

“Yes, my lady, the master ordered all of this to be burned because he wanted all of it gone. It was your mother’s, as you can see. We, that is all the servants, conspired to have it stored here. We lied to the master and spun him the tale of it been given away. Now, if you please, this is what you are looking for. I am sure you recognize it?”

 

The Reclusive Aristocrat – Part Sixty-One

Chapter Twenty-Six

Crestwell Abbey, Cumberland, April 17th, 1816

Rowena looked at her baby girl while the infant was suckling in blissful contentment. Emma was such a beautiful child. Her dark wisps of hair showed the promise of curls and her eyes, still dark blue would be chocolate like her own. No sign of Peter anywhere, for which she was immensely grateful.

Next to her sat Lady Petronella, chuckling and smiling. “That little one grows prettier each day, Rowena. She is positively thriving and quite smart, have you noticed? She already smiles to all and sunder and knows all too well how to charm even the grumpiest of her fellow men.”

“Yes, that she does,” Rowena agreed. “She is my greatest joy and pride, my lady. I am so profoundly happy that you also derive pleasure at having her.”

“Oh, hush, child. Do call me Nelly, as Carlisle does in his most tender moments.” The countess’ light grey eyes were sparkling with merriment, causing Rowena to laugh. “Very well, Nelly. I wanted to express my gratitude for your hospitality and kindness to us all. It means the world to me that you are there for my Emma.”

The countess rose and patted Rowena’s hand. “I can only be very thankful that you did not suffer any harm yesterday, although it was a close call, from what Carlisle tells me. It was a bit foolish of you, my dear, to call on your half-brother without someone accompanying you.”

“Exactly what I wanted to convey to my wife, Lady Carlisle.”

Rowena looked up to see her husband standing in the doorway, an unusually tender smile on his austere face. She blushed and smiled back at him.

“Well, I know when I am de trop,” Lady Carlisle chuckled. “I will see you at lunch, children.”

“How are you feeling, Rowie?” Alex demanded, seating himself beside her, as soon as they were alone.

“Excellent, Alex, and you? Richard told me nothing about you last evening. I wanted to stay up until you came but I must have fallen asleep. I am sorry, Alex.” She gently pulled Emma from her breast, since the baby had stopped suckling. Alex instantly took over.

“Come here, princess, Papa’s shoulder is as good as Mama’s. Let us hear a big burp, little one.” Emma obliged forthwith and they both burst out in spontaneous laughter. Cradling the infant against his shoulder, Alex grew serious.

“Rowie, why on earth did you go to Daveston alone? I would have taken you any time, you must know that?”

His eyes were overflowing with – dare she name it – tenderness? That was an emotion she had never seen before. Alex never showed any emotion, his austere face was usually set in aloofness. Yet there was more. Rowena suddenly felt unsure and confused. She frantically groped for an answer under that disconcerting gaze. All saints in heaven, do not tell him that you wanted to protect him!

“He is my brother, Alex. We grew up at Daveston. He was already a man of twenty-two when I was born and never forgave my father for marrying again. I imagine I must have been a nuisance to him from the start, although I used to worship him, especially after my mother died. Father was sickly for a long time, so I turned to Roderick for support quite frequently. I has only recently occurred to me that he never gave me much of it over the years.”

Alex’ expression had grown grim now, so Rowena hastened on. “I wanted to renew our contact, Alex. I hoped that my marriage to you would convince him that I am respectable again. I also wanted to find out what had driven him to refuse me my inheritance, and now I know he has been envious of me for as long as I live. He said so much. He begrudged me everything, down to my very existence. It was very disconcerting.”

“He tried to strangle you, Rowie.” Alex’ voice was but a growl, which startled her.

“You know? How?”

“Richard told me. I would have seen it for myself or would you have found a way to conceal those horrible bruises for me?”

Rowena sighed. “No, of course not. I had not thought as far as that. That reminds me I have not yet been to see him since last night, which I am going to do right away.”

She rose quickly and left the room, relieved that Alex did not stop her. Instead, he came with her, gently took her arm, and spoke. “Rowie, you must prepare yourself. He is very ill and a horrible sight to behold. I resent very much that you will have to see him in his present state but understand why you would wish to. Pray, let us go together.”

He took her hand and placed it on his elbow,  a gesture which told Rowena her brother must indeed be seriously ill. Of course, this was not new to her. She had seen first-hand in which condition he was. Yet it was very sweet of Alex to try and comfort her this way.

The Reclusive Aristocrat – Part Sixty

Chapter Twenty-Five (completed)

Alex and Porter entered the grand hall at Crestwell Abbey with Carlisle who immediately signalled to his housekeeper. The tall, thin, middle-aged matron by the name of Petersen directed them to their rooms, where she had their baths ready. He had not felt that filthy since he returned from a battlefield during his army days, Alex mused. The complete exhaustion was equally comparable to that of a soldier coming back from a battle, the numbness rivalling with the depressive apathy that followed the initial euphoria of surviving. One did never recover to the full of having killed.

And yet, his mind was churning with thoughts of the disturbing events of the evening. He could not seem to put them to order. What had provoked the cataclysm that nearly ended in disaster? He could have lost his wife, for Christ’s sake! Why had she even gone to visit her brother, when Alex had assured her there was no need?

The shock of discovering she was not there, the fury at her for ignoring what he told her, and last, the overwhelmingly paralyzing fear when he found her so still and from this world, it all milled around in him with something akin to pain.

He barely responded to the footman coming to assist him in Porter’s stead but the soothing warmth of the bath slowly brought a bit of normalness. He dismissed the footman, wanting to be alone in order to come to his senses again. He must plan a strategy to finish this nasty business and he certainly needed to have a serious talk with his wife. If anything, he now knew he could not go on living without her, even if he dared not name the agonizing feelings he was experiencing.

When he finally emerged into the sitting room between his and Rowena’s, a familiar voice greeted him.

“Ah, there you are, Alex. We need to talk but first, let me examine you. Porter tells me you have sustained some burns.”

“How is Rowena? Is she unharmed? Damn it, Rich, do not keep me in the dark, I know you were here when she returned.”

Dr Orme rose from the chair where he had been waiting for his friend. “She is indeed unharmed, Alex, not even a minor burn, unlike that brother of hers, whom I consider beyond help. Aside from a slight cough due to smoke inhalation, she is fine. Rowena was exhausted so she is probably fast asleep now. Come, let me take a look at you. I saw the state your clothes were in, so I have a pretty good idea of what you went through.”

After Dr Orme determinately started retrieving equipment from his medical bag, Alex sat down in a sofa with a sigh. The examination went on in silence for a few minutes; before Dr Orme pronounced Alex healthy. He had a few slight burns on his hands from having to work on the burning furniture, but they would heal well enough.

“So tell me about that bastard Daveston. He is not going to make it, you say?”

“Not likely. He has got third-degree burns, too much skin area damaged and infection has already started in some wounds. I do not think he will survive the night.”

“I cannot grieve about that, Rich. What he did to Rowena is absolutely horrid. He as good as sent her to her death after letting his friend seduce her.”

“Alex, there is something else you should know about.”

Orme’s tone was grave. “Tell me.”

“I found signs of strangulation on Rowena’s neck and severe bruising on her torso, as if she has been thrown against a hard surface.”

“What? And you waited this long to tell me? I am finishing him off right now!”

Alex stormed out of the room, Orme hot on his heels, when they were both stopped in their tracks by Porter. “’Ere now, major, what’s the rush? Ye said ye were dead knackered.”

“Come now, Alex. You cannot harm the man more than he already suffered. I tell you he is not long for this world anymore. You can see for yourself if you do not believe me.”

His friend was right, Alex mused, as he looked down onto the prostrated form of Daveston. The man lay on his stomach, a sheet covering his horribly burnt back. They had removed his clothes and found multiple other burns on hands and arm, legs and feet. Thankfully he was unconscious and would probably never come round. Fever was settling in, which made him shiver.

“I try to get him to swallow something, but I failed. I managed to get some sedative solution into him by using a syringe, so I hope this will have some effect, albeit a small one.”

“I wanted to interrogate him, but that might never occur in the state he is in. I needed him to give us the location of his father’s will. Carlisle’s solicitor is certain there has been fraud.”

“When he dies, maybe the case will solve itself, Alex. Does he have a will of himself?”

“We have not the faintest clue. His own solicitor must be involved, he has to be.”

“Well, there is nothing we can do now. I suggest you go and get some sleep. You look like you could benefit from it.”

 

A wise advice, Alex mused, as he entered their rooms. Now that the shock of it all was ebbing away, he longed for his bed as a numbing weariness settled in. He contemplated retreating to his own separate bedchamber but succumbed to the unsettling need to be with his wife. Not to have carnal relations but to simply be in close company with her. He still could not be at ease about her after the ordeal she went through.

He entered the bedroom on tiptoes, certain she would be fast asleep, and he was right. The weak light of a dying fire forced Alex to wait for his eyes to adjust, but soon he stood looking down at Rowena, stunned by her graceful beauty. She was lying on her left side, one hand under her cheek. Her right arm lay crooked against her chest, which was awkward, to say the least. He had to fetch a candle from the sitting room and only then he noticed that her right shoulder was badly bruised, and fury rose again. That bastard had not only tried to strangle but also punched her?

He could barely move with livid anger paralyzing him but knew instantly that he had to sleep elsewhere. God forbid that he hurt her further with his large bulk of a body trashing around in a nightmare beside her, although to be honest, his nightmares had not come back recently. As quietly as possible, he retreated to his own bed yet sleep did not come easily.

His anger did not abate as quickly as he had surmised. That was odd, to say the least. As a soldier, he did not feel anger often, not in the hours immediately before, during or after the fighting. The anger came in the days after, when he made stock of his injuries and those of Titan. A battle horse always suffered some wounds, minor or worse, and his faithful stallion’s health was sacred to Alex. When he was not immersed in military duties, at his quarters or on leave, Alex never succumbed to anger. What was there to be angry about in society, where he was surrounded by vain, shallow people who did not even know that he was fighting to keep them and their riches safe? They would not understand because they chose to be utterly ignorant and uninterested. Yet since he met Rowena, he had been subjected to anger many times.

He could very well recall what fury he had felt, that first time he scooped her up during that awful snowstorm. What kind of family allowed a woman to be out on such a day? And when he found out that she had been seduced by her fiancé only to have him go galivanting to Flanders and play soldier, he had wanted to trash the blackguard. When she told him she had been running away from her half-brother who wanted to take away her baby and thus chased her from her home, his anger had been so wild and fiery, that he had literally seen red.

It perplexed Alex why this was so.

Then there was the fear he began experiencing where Rowena was concerned, and this from the moment she came into his life. Fear engendered protection. Rowena needed a lot of that, between Johnston and Daveston.

Rowena was his Achilles heel. Rowena was also his strength, his reason for living. She gave him purpose and joy for life. He could not continue without her, that had been abundantly clear when he thought her in mortal danger. How well he recalled his overwhelming fear at finding out she had gone to Daveston Hall. His brain had been numb, his heart pounding so hard he could barely breathe.

There was only one plausible conclusion, and he had known it all along. He loved Rowena.

 

The Reclusive Aristocrat – Part Fifty-Nine

Chapter Twenty-Five

He must be losing his bleeding bloody mind, there was no other plausible explanation for it. Rowena, I love you. He had not spoken it aloud, thank heaven for that small mercy, but to even think the blasted word? Love? Alex was certain that, apart from his poor, silly brother, he had never, ever loved anyone. Love was a useless, superfluous and completely nasty emotion that one should avoid at all costs. Love had the ability to overpower one, to wrestle the last bit of sanity from one’s mind and leave him an empty shell. Leave him stranded in a loneliness so miserable that one had no choice but to relinquish all of himself to madness.

And yet … a tiny kernel of doubt was nibbling at this solid declaration. He ruthlessly tamped it down while he was working hard in the bucket line, giving directions left and right to an ever-growing army of men. He did not know where they came from but apparently someone had summoned them from the neighbouring farms and village, because they must now count at least a hundred.

They were finally beginning to see the end of the fire. It seemed there would only be damage to the library as the flames had not gone beyond the double oak doors. Alex inwardly shuddered thinking of what would have happened should the fire have leapt into the hall. After yet another hour, they could cease their labours with only a few fresh guards to watch over the smoking remains of the library’s content. The walls and ceiling were relatively undamaged but the parquet floor was ruined, as was the furniture. The windows miraculously had not burst which had contributed to dominating the fire.

The exhausted firefighters were herded to the stables by Philby and his wife. The couple had organized the panicking maids into a disciplined corps to quench hunger, thirst and dirt. Alex refrained from going there himself, concern for Rowena forcing him to go search for her. The first one he saw was Carlisle. The earl also looked tired. He must have ridden all day to get here.

“Ah, Ketteridge, good work! The hall will be salvageable, I guess.”

“Yes, nothing but a bit of blunt is needed for repairs. If you will excuse me, Carlisle, I must go looking for my countess.”

“She has been brought to Crestwell Abbey, along with Daveston, who is in a sorry state. Your physician does not think he will survive until the morning.”

“Orme is here? How the devil did he know he was sourly needed here? Not that I am not immensely relieved, mind you.”

“His father was my long-time friend. We met at my club and as soon as I told him you were here to confront Daveston, not even wild horses would have been able to prevent him from coming along. You look like you could benefit from some attention yourself. Come with me, man.”

 

Rowena’s first thoughts after Dr Orme examined her were for Emma. She was relieved to hear that her shoulder was not broken nor dislocated, only badly bruised. Her next concern was for Roderick.

“Well, my lady, … “, Dr Orme began.

“Please, Richard, no more ‘ladying’ me. You are Alex’ best friend, and I would like you to be mine, too.”

“Thank you, Rowena, I would.” Then Richard Orme grew serious. “I will not beat around the bush, Rowena. Your brother is dying. He sustained third-degree burns on a large part of his body. According to recent studies in France, he has a mere 30 % chance of surviving with the percentage of area affected. I treated the wounds as best as I was able to, but infection due to loss of skin is the greatest danger. He has not yet regained consciousness nor will he likely in the next hours. The human body goes into a coma when the injuries are as atrocious as they are with your brother. I will, of course, see to keeping him in comfort.”

“I see there is not much I can do here, so I must see to my daughter, as she already missed a feed. Thank you, Richard,” Rowena said, shaking hands before leaving.

Emma, however, was surprisingly meek.

“I have been trying to give her some light gruel, my lady. She was fussing a lot, and I couldn’t soothe her. She took it all, and although she was struggling a bit with the spoon, she’ll get the hang of it quickly enough, our clever girl,” the nanny explained.

“Oh, splendid, Bessie, thank you!  I would prefer to bathe first, if you think you can keep her happy?”

“Yes, of course, my lady.”

Trixie was waiting for her mistress and had a bath ready. The warm, fragrant water was a balm to Rowena’s exhausted body. She stayed for a quarter of an hour , then changed into her nightgown and wrapper. Bessie was waiting for her in her bedchamber, cradling a slightly fussy Emma.

“Now let’s see if she’s still hungry for my milk,” Rowena said, taking the infant from her nanny.

Emma was, of course, avidly nursing from the start. She smiled at Rowena when she spoke to the infant, a new skill Emma had acquired over the last few days. Rowena was very tired but she was revived by the contact with her little girl. Afterwards, she was glad to give Emma back to Bessie and crawl between the sheets. She fell asleep the moment her head touched the pillow.

Not even Alex’ strange behaviour after he had saved her from the fire could keep her awake. Some days truly had enough misery to last a lifetime.

The Reclusive Aristocrat – Part Fifty-Eight

Chapter Twenty-Four (completed)

The two men doused themselves with a bucket of water, then tied a wet towel over their noses and mouths. Alex leapt up the steps, Porter following hot on his heels.

The hall was large enough not to be completely filled with smoke but from the library door a thick, dark- grey smoke literally spouted into the hall. Alex ran into the room and ducked low to avoid the intense heat that struck him. He looked around and what he saw was not exactly reassuring.

Some of the furniture was fiercely ablaze, as were the rugs and chairs. It was questionable for the room to be saved but that was not was foremost in Alex’ mind. Where was Rowena? He could not see a blasted thing through this thick fog-like smoke. He began groping about him on hands and knees and after what seemed an eternity, he finally found her.

She was unconscious, and Alex knew he was running out of time, so he rose and scooped her up. He turned to the door, relief washing over him as he saw Porter at the head of the bucket line. “Here, take her out, I am going for Daveston.”

Bless his batman, Alex thought, because Porter took over Rowena and got out. Only then could Alex sink to his knees again to search for Daveston.

After several minutes of groping around, Alex finally got hold of a large figure, unconscious and covered with the remnants of a woollen shawl he knew all too well. Rowena must have thrown it over her brother, which meant he must have been on fire. Alex tried to draw him in the direction of the door but got nowhere. A large object, probably the desk, lay on Daveston’s legs, and its top was also on fire. Damn, how was he supposed to remove that without getting burned himself?

The bucket line was now in full operation, to Alex’ immense relief. He grabbed a bucket from the nearest footman and tossed the water over the burning desk, then another, and yet another, until the flames were finally doused. The next bucket was for himself, because he felt nearly cooked inside his clothes. He knew he had to try and lift the heavy oak desk from Daveston’s legs but the large piece would not move higher than a few inches.

“Come on, major. Let’s give ye a ‘and!”

Porter, praise God and all his saints! Together they managed well enough to make the desk shift. It fell away in a bright shower of sparks which made the two men leap backward to avoid being set ablaze. Alex and Porter carried Daveston out and deposited him on the lawn, not far from where they had put Rowena.

Had his heart ever beaten this hard? Deuce take it but he could hardly breathe!

Ever so careful he took his dearest wife onto his lap, and he nearly choked with raw panic when her head fell back against his shoulder. Sweetheart, Rowena dearest, Rowie … please open your eyes? Oh my heart, my love … do not leave me, I beg of you …

Empty words were dashing aimlessly in his head, words he had never ever said in his entire life, so why was he now thinking them, damn it all to hell!

In burning despair, Alex gently patted her cheek, then kissed her parched lips. Parched? Oh, God, what did that signify? Was she dead? He shook her, at a complete loss of what to do to rouse her. Rowie, my love, come back to me, please … Rowie, I love you …

“Major, get a grip!” Porter, as ever in control, gently eased Rowena away and laid her down on the grass. A woman, which Alex now identified as Mrs Philby, began bathing Rowena’s face with a clean, wet cloth.

“She’s only unconscious, sir, and she might have inhaled some of the smoke. Look, she’s coming round already.”

Barely able to believe the woman, Alex took Rowena into his embrace. She blinked, then coughed and gasped. Mrs Philby trust a goblet into Alex’ hand. “Here, sir, she needs water.”

Carefully Alex put the goblet to Rowena’s mouth. “Drink Rowena.” Yes, please, my dearest, drink …

With infinite care, he tilted the goblet until a few drops trickled in her mouth. His heart pounded with anticipation when she swallowed and then drank under her own steam.

“Alex …” Her voice was raw and almost inaudible, but she opened her eyes.

Yes, my love, I am here. Oh, Rowie, my dearest, I was so terrified. I thought I lost you. Do not ever again do this to me! He was fiercely fighting now just to be able to say the words aloud but his voice might as well have died in his very throat.

Rowena could not make sense of what was happening nor had she any notion of where she was. She knew Alex was holding her, but why? Her head was swimming and her right shoulder hurt like fire.

“What has happened, Alex? Why is your face blackened?” She coughed, moaning from the pain this caused.

“Rowena Drake, you scared the hell out of me. What were you thinking going into your scoundrel of a half-brother’s den? I swear I will trash you if you ever do that to me again, do you hear?”

Her reaction was not what he had anticipated. She struggled to sit up and eyes wide, looked around in what looked like real panic. “Alex, where is Roderick? Oh, he must be burnt severely! I was there, I saw that his back was in flames and tried to douse them. But then I fainted and … oh, no! Is he dead? Is he still inside? Oh, where is Roderick?”

What the devil, blast it! He had only just now risked his own life trying to save her and all she could do was blabber about her scoundrel of a brother? A half-brother to be precise, who did not give a wit if she lived or died?

“Do not go on so, madam,” he hissed. “Daveston is out here. Porter and I got him out. He is already being cared for by his servants. Now if you will excuse me, I must see to the house before it burns to the ground.

Stunned, and a bit hurt by his rudeness, Rowena watched him stalk away. She could not at all comprehend why he was so infuriated with her only for caring if her brother lived or not.

Roderick! She got up slowly because every move speared pain through her shoulder. But then, every thought was blown away when she saw her brother stretched out on the grass, on his stomach and covered by blankets. The servants, mainly Philby and his wife, were looking down at him, clearly at a loss as to what to do.

Mrs Philby spotted her and cried out. “My lady, you shouldn’t get up. You’re injured.”

“How is he? Why are you not tending to him? He is severely burnt but surely he is not dead?”

Philby cleared his throat, while his wife bowed her head. “My lady, he is still alive, but we cannot tend to him, we do not know how to.” He carefully lifted the blanket from the body on the lawn, and Rowena blanched in horror.

Roderick’s back was a black mass of charred flesh, from which rose a vile, stomach-turning stench. Rowena turned away as her stomach did just that; she bend down, heaved and cast up her accounts.

 

The Reclusive Aristocrat – Part Fifty-Seven

Chapter Twenty-Four 

As they thundered along the hilly countryside road, Alex urged Porter on while kneeing Titan fiercely. He had to call upon every ounce of battle experience just to remain aloof enough to plan ahead. Panic was lurking in the dark corners of his heart, as if a dire foreboding was waiting to spring forth. Rowena was in danger, he could quite literally feel it. In no way would he allow that she be harmed, it was unthinkable.

“Major!”

Porter’s deep voice boomed him to a standstill. “What?” He scowled at his batman who was glaring at him from his uncovered eye.

“I won’t let ye wearin’ these poor ‘orses to death, major, let alone let ye break yer neck. Slow down and talk te me. What’s yer plan?”

Alex patted Titan’s neck in apology to his faithful mount. “You are right, Porter, I am sorry. It is just that … blast it, I do not know what to do! I can feel there is something very wrong with my wife and … damnation, I have never felt this powerless in my life!”

“Well, let’s go on then. We’ll see what’s te be done once we get there. But, for the love of God, keep yer ‘ead about it. Ye never panicked before, so now ain’t the time to start it!”

They continued in a sedate canter, yet Alex grew more restless by the second. What if his wife was in mortal danger already? What if … but no! He would not allow the rest of that wretched thought to cloud his mind. Rowena could not be taken from him. He would die if she would, because she meant more to him than his own life.

 

Half-strangled and gasping for breath, Rowena felt herself pivoting away from Roderick. She groped for a hold, any hold, to prevent her from hurting herself. Her right shoulder hit the little side table near Roderick’s chair, and the momentum of the impact made her roll towards the door. Stars obscured her already blurred vision, and fighting for breath against the violent pain in her shoulder, she tried to sit up.

A howl like that of a wounded beast reached her. Her half-brother was lying flat on his stomach, and his entire back was on fire. He was trashing and trying to crawl away, screeching now in excruciating pain. Rowena got to her knees and began crawling towards him. She yanked her woollen shawl from her shoulders, ignoring her own pain by doing so. Only then did she become aware of the smoke that threatened to choke them both and of something much more horrid; the stench of burning flesh. Roderick’s flesh …

In a last desperate attempt to help him, Rowena threw her shawl over Roderick’s back. Head whirling and lungs burning with the lack of air, she grasp his hand and began tugging him in the direction of the door. She had not counted on her own injury. Before blackness engulfed her, Alex’ name was on her lips, but no sound came from her parched throat.

 

The scene that greeted the riders was one straight from the sheer depths of hell. They saw the smoke rising over the tall oaks boarding the driveway and their worst fears came true when they beheld the flames bursting from the downstairs windows. Maids and footmen – far too few – were starting a bucket line under the instructions of an ancient individual in butler’s attire. An elderly woman in black bombazine – the housekeeper, no doubt – stood wringing her hands in helpless panic.

Alex leapt from Titan and addressed the butler.  “Did Lady Ketteridge come here today?”

The man blinked. “Yes, sir, and she is still in there, and the master, too. We cannot enter the library where they both are. The heat is overpowering and the smoke choking.”

“I am going inside. Give me a wet towel to cover my head. What’s your name?”

“Philby, sir.”

“Very well, Philby. Keep up the bucket line and send a young groom or footman to follow me as soon as you can.”

“Major, I’m comin’ wi’ ye and no protests!”

“Yes, follow me, Porter.”