The Reclusive Aristocrat – Part Fifty-Four

Chapter Twenty-Three

Ketteridge, Leicestershire, April 12th, 1816

It was quite the company leaving Ketteridge House a few days later. There was the travelling coach driven by the coachman-cum-stablemaster, Thomas Anderson, with Rowena, Emma, and Alex. Gregson Mortimer, first footman, was in attendance. A large cart driven by Frank Whitman, Anderson’s head stable boy, carried their luggage, while Porter and David Howe, second stable boy, drove the second coach with the nanny, Bessie Cooper, and lady’s maid Trixie. Reese Mortimer, second footman, stood guard here.

The journey promised to be long with some two-hundred-and twenty miles to cover. They would travel in short stages, because of Emma, and only stay in the best inns on the way. Anderson knew them all throughout the whole of England, so Alex could rest assured. All in all, it would probably take them four days and three nights. Alex got a letter from Carlisle in response to his own, that they would be very welcome at Crestwell Abbey, his Cumberland estate. He did, however, send one of the footmen ahead to secure rooms at each inn he considered well-suited for his large company.

 

The little caravan reached Crestwell Abbey on April 16th, only to find that Lord Carlisle was still in London. He had sent word to his butler and housekeeper, however, that they could expect company. Alex was thus relieved to find the house ready for him and his group, so as soon as Rowena was kept busy settling in, he rode to Carlisle to meet with the earl’s solicitor, Mr Thaddeus Beaumont in Blackfriars Street. He was a large man in his late fifties with short greying black hair and dark, almost black eyes. He welcomed Alex, saying his lordship had already appraised him of the earl of Ketteridge’s coming.

“I have already done some investigation on Horace Bleak, my lord. The man is reputed to conduct underhand business, but so far no one has been able to prove anything untoward. What I can prove is this; Lady Ketteridge was indeed mentioned in the will of her mother, the late Clarissa Maud Daveston née Stowe, for the sum of some eight thousand pounds, to be handed over on her daughter’s twenty-first birthday. I understand that her ladyship never received her inheritance?”

“That is correct. Her father died months before her birthday, so it was left to her half-brother to make sure she got her inheritance. I am still unsure to what really occurred after my late father-in-law’s demise but I am beginning to have an inkling, which I would like to investigate thoroughly before I make accusations.”

“A wise decision, my lord. If I might make some suggestions?”

“By all means, Mr Beaumont.”

 

It took Rowena a while to comprehend that Alex had gone. Settling in with a three-month-old required some organizing, and little Emma needed much more attention than usual before she fell asleep in the nursery assigned to her and her nanny. So when Rowena finally entered the mutual sitting room in their vast and luxurious quarters, she asked her maid if Alex had gone downstairs. Trixie shook her head.

“No, my lady, I believe his lordship has gone riding. I saw him and Mr Porter heading for the stables a good hour ago.”

Rowena quickly turned away to hide her immense disappointment. Alex had not heeded her wish to confide in her about his actions. How foolish of her to believe she had convinced him of her true interest in his life. Fighting back her silly tears, she tried to think where he could have gone. Alex had no acquaintances that she know of in this part of the country. Lord and Lady Carlisle were on their way home from London, and Alex would need the earl’s authority to take steps against her half-brother. Unless, of course …

Cold fear enveloped Rowena as she realized Alex could have gone to Daveston Hall without Carlisle’s backup. Roderick was mean-spirited and did not shrink from using violence, while Alex, on the other hand, considered every nobleman to be subjected to honour first and foremost. Roderick had no honour. He was evil personified. There was only one thing she could do, Rowena realized, and of course, she would rise to the challenge.

The Reclusive Aristocrat – Part Fifty-Three

Chapter Twenty-Two (completed)

Ketteridge, Leicestershire, April 5th, 1816

There surely was no greater feel than Rowena’s skin, Alex thought. Smooth and soft, silken and fragrant with her own sweet scent. He gently kneaded her breasts while he slid his

erection between the half-moons of her bottom. She moaned his name and opened her thighs just a little, allowing the head of his cock to stroke her pleasure centre. Jesus, he almost spilled then and there! Gritting his teeth, he kissed the long column of her slender neck, licked and nipped the gentle curve of her shoulder. She responded by rocking against him and rotating her hips to caress his aching erection between her soft, hot thighs. He used one hand to stroke a breast while he lowered the other to rub her pleasure bud. She came with a keening cry while her inner muscles closed about his fingers like a vice. He swiftly turned her and hooked her thighs, lifting her, so that he could impale her on his rock-hard cock. Her body, still slick outside as well as inside, easily and lightly moved over him, stroking and milking him until he spilled deep inside her with a loud, roaring groan.

 

They stood locked against each other for long minutes, until Alex felt Rowena shiver in his arms. He stepped out of the water, put her down, and grabbed her discarded robe from the grass where she had left it. Without a word, he kissed her brow, then draped the robe over her. Swiftly he collected all their clothes and trust them into her hands. Then, without any visible effort, he scooped her into his arms and carried her inside. They encountered no one on their ascent to Rowena’s bedroom, where he laid her between the covers. She was still shivering, so he climbed in beside her and gathered her close. Sleep claimed them within seconds.

 

Alex cracked open a reluctant eye only to squeeze it shut instantly thereafter. The sun was blazing brightly yet aggressively upon him. Blast, what time was it? He cautiously opened his eyes again. He was in Rowena’s bed, memories of the previous night causing him to get aroused all over again. They had loved each other two more times after their episode in the garden, and his ardent wife had given him all the passion she had. Passion only an innocent recently awakened could have had. He had been the one to awaken her, he now realized with a burst of pure male pride.

A baby’s gurgle draw his gaze to the sofa where Rowena sat. She was lifting Emma to her shoulder with both breasts on display. Holy heavens, but they were splendid breasts. Lust swirled through him causing his cock to twitch and ache, but that was not all. Another less easily identifiable emotion struck him like a blow; tenderness. Tenderness, him? He had never been tender to … to anyone! He should get up and go about his day, since he had lots of matters to attend to, yet he stayed where he was, gazing at the pair of them in blessed contentment.

Little Emma Rose was now three months old and a beauty like her mother. Her eyes were the same dark brown and her fluffy hair was the same dark. She was an active child, always happy to discover new things, curious to a point, even if all she could still do was lying in her cradle. When they put her on a blanket in the morning room while they breakfasted, she was already trying to roll over onto her stomach. She could not, yet, but it was not for the lack of trying.

Yes, Alex mused, he was content, yet he would have to leave them very soon.

“I am preparing to leave for Carlisle, Rowena. I would like to sort out what has happened to your inheritance and make sure there is no longer cause for trouble where your brother is concerned.”

 

Rowena looked up and smiled at him, though inwardly she was shocked at the thought of him leaving.

“Do you still consider him a liability, then Alex? I was under the impression you scared him off sufficiently when we were in London.”

“Rowena, the man has committed fraud to deny you your rightful inheritance. He murdered Johnston, or have you forgotten that?”

“No, I have not, though we might find that difficult to prove before the courts. And just so you know, Alex, I am not letting you leave on your own. Who is accompanying you, pray tell?”

“Porter, of course, and Middlebridge.”

“Well? So are Emma and I. Lord Carlisle offered us hospitality on his estate, remember? We will go there and make use of his solicitor to seek out information about Roderick’s schemes.”

Alex found he was not averse to that proposal, even though he vowed to himself not to let Rowena stray from Carlisle’s estate. He would do the investigation all alone, since he was not prepared to bring danger to his wife and child.

 

The Reclusive Aristocrat – Part Fifty-Two

 

Chapter Twenty-Two (continued)

Ketteridge, Leicestershire, April 5th, 1816

Alex looked up from his writing when the clock in the hall struck eleven. Goodness, had he worked that long? Yet why had he the feeling of having accomplished anything at all? He stretched his stiff body and limbs and stood up. One of the French windows had been opened to the back terrace because of the unusually mild weather they were experiencing this early in April, and a waft of fragrant, fresh air washed over him. He was drawn to the window, as if it were a portal to a secret kingdom and eagerly stepped out onto the terrace.

A soft breeze caressed his overheated cheeks and ruffled his already untidy hair. It was a mild spring evening with a full moon illuminating the gardens, the scent of freshly cut hedges inviting him to stroll. His gardeners had been busy, he saw. The lawn had been mowed and clipped, the kitchen gardens were ready for planting and the roses were pruned and ready for summer to come. He could hear the tinkle of water coming from the sunken garden, luring him to go and see.

What he saw was the ethereal figure of a slender beauty sliding toward the fountain in the centre of the large, octagonal basin and dipping a hand into the water. Before his mesmerized eyes, she stepped into the basin and bent down to scoop up handfuls of water. She was swathed in a transparent gown through which the moonlight outlined her exquisite curves. Alex feasted on the soft peaks of her breasts, hard and aroused, and darker under the thin fabric, the silvery skin of her slender arms and throat rising from it, the long line of her legs culminating in the round halves of her bottom. Rowena!

Alex found himself lost in the image of his beautiful wife, his body reacting vehemently when she slid her wet hands over her arms, then knelt in the water to wash herself in it. When she rose, her gown was clinging to her figure. He swallowed in agony when she impatiently stripped off the wet garment and tossed it onto the heap next to the basin. Her gown, he guessed, not that his brain was functioning as it should. She began bathing herself languidly in what he knew must be the pleasantly tepid water. The sun had shone fiercely all day.

God, he wanted her …

 

Oh, this was so very pleasant! Rowena had no inkling why she was standing there, naked and wet in the fountain’s basin. She only knew that she had to give in to the unsurmountable urge of succumbing to the magic of the spring night. When she had been a little girl, her mother had taught her how to celebrate such rare nights of mild weather. She and Rowena had bathed in the pond at Daveston Hall whenever the first mild night occurred. It was a breech of her normal schedule of being put to bed at seven and it had only been on these special evenings that she was allowed to stay up later. So Rowena guessed she was only celebrating spring and the memory of her dearest mama whom she had loved above all others.

The water was cool, even though the sun had warmed it throughout the day, but she did not mind. She scooped it up and spread it over her body in delight. Her hands caressed and soothed, and aroused at the same time. How extraordinary. She closed her eyes and let the soft breeze waft over her cooling skin. Soon she would have to go inside again and to bed. Just a little bit longer …

 

Warm, strong hands came from behind her and cupped her breasts. She gasped when she recognized her husband’s caresses and arched her back to give him better access. Alex … as naked as she was … oh, bliss!

 

The Reclusive Aristocrat – Part Fifty-One

Chapter Twenty-Two

Ketteridge, Leicestershire, April 5th, 1816

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The Reclusive Aristocrat – Part Fifty

Chapter Twenty-One (completed)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The Reclusive Aristocrat – Part Forty-Nine

Chapter Twenty-One

Ketteridge, Leicestershire, March 19th, 1816

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Reclusive Aristocrat – Part Forty-Eight

Chapter Twenty (completed)

London, March 17th, 1816

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

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

“Alex, please?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes, he did,” Rowena replied quietly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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