The Reclusive Aristocrat – Part Forty-Seven

Chapter Twenty (continued)

London, March 17th, 1816

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

Dear Alex …

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Reclusive Aristocrat – Part Forty-Six

Chapter Twenty

London, March 17th, 1816

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

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

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

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

“So have I, dear aunt.”

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

“Now who did spill the beans?”

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

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

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

“Alex, thank God I found you!”

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

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

“Let us leave, then.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The Reclusive Aristocrat – Part Forty-Five

Chapter Nineteen (completed)

London, March 17th, 1816

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

The Reclusive Aristocrat – Part Forty-Four

Chapter Nineteen (continued)

London, Mivart’s Hotel, March 17th, 1816

There was, however, one small nagging thought in Rowena’s mind. She did not want Alex to confront Roderick. Her half-brother was not worth her tears nor her concern.

So it was that, the next morning, Rowena set out for Curzon Street in the company of her maid, Trixie. A precaution she felt she needed, as her half-brother had been quite vicious, almost violent to her the previous evening.

The door was opened by a man in neat black-and-white, as was the rigueur for butlers, but sporting a face and build more apt to a ruffian. He scowled at the women and reluctantly let them into a small parlour when Rowena told him who she was.

“Wait ‘ere, if ye please. I’ll go and see if the master is receiving.”

They were left to cool their heels for almost an hour, by which time Rowena was angry enough to present firm determination to her half-brother, when he finally deemed to receive them. She sailed into his library, Trixie at her heels. The maid sat down on a chair near the wall at Rowena’s instructions.

“We do not need the maid,” Roderick began, scowling at Trixie.

“Indeed, we do,” Rowena replied haughtily. “My abigail always stays with me when I visit somewhere in Town.” She regally inclined her head while curtsying as if he were a complete stranger.

“I wish to speak with you, sir, about a matter that concerns us both.” She took great care to emphasize upon her form of address as a token of her disdain for him.

“And what might that be, Rowena? As far as I know, we severed the bonds between us when you scurried from the estate like a thief in the night.”

“My reasons for doing so are my own, sir, and do not signify here. You are right in considering the bonds between us severed, since I am now the countess of Ketteridge. His lordship takes excellent care of me and my daughter, upon whom he has graciously bestowed his name.”

The baronet barked out a mocking laughter. “Then he must be a complete lackwit, for sure. But then, he is blind or so I heard, so he would not have seen the trap you laid for him, poor sod. Well done, sister, but what if he knew about your abominable behaviour in seducing poor Johnston? Does he know you threw yourself at my friend and worked diligently to get with child? What would his lordship do if he knew he married a trollop? What choice would he have other than to lock you up at his country estate and find pleasure somewhere else?”

Rowena found herself incapable of drawing breath at her half-brother’s ignominious and cruel words. She again realised how much he must despise and hate her, even if she had always been meek and gentle towards him. At some moment during their mutual past, she had even loved him, or at least, admired her older brother. Now, however, she did not remotely recognize this cold, cruel man who seemed to hate and despise her.

Drawing in a deep gush of air, she spoke in as calm a voice as she could muster. “I was a mere twenty when you presented Peter to me. Papa was barely cold in his grave, and I was still grieving for him. It was Peter who seduced me, Roderick. I was ignorant of life and men, as you well know. Then Peter went away to war and died, and I found out I was with child. You did not support me but cast me out. I fail to see where in all this I am at fault.”

“Lies, all lies, sister. I proposed you give away the child and continue to live at the hall, but you refused, remember? You cannot have thought I would have your bastard raised at my estate. I am to stand up for parliament and must keep away from scandal, so there is that. Now kindly take your leave and never darken my doorway again.”

“Have no fear, brother, you will never see me again nor I you. However, there is a matter I want to impart with you, one that concerns us both. It is about Peter.”

Daveston scoffed. “Peter, Peter, is that all you can think about, Rowena? Even after you married that hare-brained earl of yours? Peter is dead, Rowena, He died on June 18th of last year on the Waterloo battlefield. He cannot do anything anymore for you. You would do well to take that to heart.”

“No, brother, Peter did not die in Flanders. He came to Ketteridge and tried to harm me but my husband fought him off and he fled. He was a deserter, Roderick, and as such he is recorded in the official cavalry records. Peter was in a dismal state when we encountered him. My husband had the county search for him, but it was not until recently that we found him dead in an abandoned house in the village.”

 

Almost immediately, Rowena realised she had just made an enormous mistake. There was not much to show for it but her brother did not seem surprised. He must know about Peter’s return to England. Roderick’s face remained utterly impassive, yet his eyes, grey and usually expressionless, now glowed with pure hatred. His voice, however, was flat and low.

“Is that so? Well, well, who would have thought it from the brave soldier who went to war so eagerly. I fail, however, to see how that has to do something, if anything, with me.”

A weird sentiment, cold as ice, began creeping up Rowena’s spine, and it took her a while before she identify it; it was fear, primal and as inevitable as death, that threatened to paralyze her in the spot. She must not, at any cost, tell Roderick about the button they had found under Peter’s body. He could not know they linked him to Peter’s death, murder to be precise.

Quickly she went over what she had told him thus far, relieved to find nothing that could alert him about their suspicion that Roderick was Peter’s murderer.

She gave a brittle little laugh. “No, it has nothing whatsoever to do with you, brother. I just wanted you to know that Peter is truly dead. As he was your friend, I assumed that you might at least be interested in that little fact. I bid you farewell, Roderick. We will never see each other again.”

And with a final nod, she signalled Trixie and sailed out of the room.

 

The Reclusive Aristocrat – Part Forty-Three

Chapter Nineteen

London, Mivart’s Hotel, March 17th, 1816.

Rowena’s soft footfall made him look up. He swallowed at the lovely vision of his wife in her long, silk dressing gown of a rich burgundy colour. He knew that ensemble very well since he had helped her choose it at Améline’s.

“Shall I retire to my own chamber, Alex? You seem unwell,” Rowena offered shyly. Damnation, but he must have spooked her with the brooding gaze he knew all too well never left him entirely.

Alex jumped up and grasped her hands. “By Jove, no! Stay, I beg you.” Banishing all secondary musings, he led her to their bed and made her sit down. He drew his shirt over his head in one movement and tossed it aside, revelling smugly in the widening of his wife’s eyes. He came to stand before her and gently eased the dressing gown from her shoulders. Only a flimsy nightgown held up by narrow straps remained. The fabric did not hide anything, much less the shape of her luscious breasts with their hardened nipples.

She was breathing hard now, and Alex pushed her onto her back on the bed, and while her bare feet remained on the floor, he gently spread her thighs.

“Are you very tired, Rowie?” he breathed, looking into her wide, chocolate eyes. She shook her head, and he bent over her to chastely kiss her full, rosy mouth. She moaned and wrapped her arms around his shoulders.

He grabbed her wrists and pulled her arms up to place them above her head. Oh, she was exquisite when she looked at him in that startled, yet aroused way. “Leave them there, Rowie,” he purred, then used his thumbs to slowly shove her gown up to her waist. She shivered and arched her hips up to him.

“Shh … steady, my sweet.” Caressing the silken skin of her outer thighs, he soothed and at the same time, aroused her. A bewitching combination, he knew. He drew her nearer to his hard shaft and began rubbing it against her swollen, wet womanhood, wrenching small, keening cries from her. Ah, she was so ready for him, but he would not yet give her what she craved.

“Rub yourself against me, Rowie,” he coaxed. “Pleasure yourself, my beauty.” He knew all too well that she had never done that in her life. Although she had given birth, his wife was still so very innocent.

 

Rowena heard what Alex said but could not fathom it. How was she supposed to do as he asked? Nobody had ever told her that a woman could bestow pleasure upon herself. She could only do as he told her and put her feet firmly on the floor, so that her hips were off the bed. A hot flush of shame engulfed her but she could not stop herself. The thick, soft and warm member of her husband fitted so perfectly against the tender cleft of her womanhood that a sob of pure pleasure escaped her. She let her hips rise and descend against her husband’s manhood in a rhythm as old as time. She sobbed in relief as she felt his hands under her bottom to support the straining muscles of her thighs. The conflagration of her climax was so intense that she did not register when he entered her. Her gulf of pleasure did not stop for minutes, not even until a second wave overwhelmed her, fractions of seconds after her husband spilled inside her.

It was not before she was on the brink of oblivion that she realized Alex’ fingers had heightened her climax with fingers caressing and teasing the very spot from where bliss originated.

 

Trembling from exertion, Alex carefully withdrew from Rowena’s slick body. Sweet heavens, but this kind of gratification was going to be his undoing. Never, ever had it been so good.

He left the bed and drew the covers up over her. He should not let her sleep in his bed, he mused. Soon little Emma would need her, so he would carry her to her own room; for now, he needed to catch his breath, and also his composure.

What the devil was happening to him? He had always been able to master his basic instincts well enough. Even in his younger days, he had always succeeded in controlling them enough not to be swept away completely. Until now, blast and bugger.

He threw his shirt over his head, struggled a bit to stick his arms in the sleeves, so damp was he from their lovemaking. Then he went to stand before the window and peered out into the dark London night. Not even the street lanterns were able to pierce it enough to see by. He hated London, and always had. The foul fog that crept from the Thames, the filth everywhere, even in Mayfair’s distinguished streets, the bustle and rumble day and night, the throng of people filling the streets with their shouting, and finally, the Ton, with its hypocrisy and cruelty. Maybe he truly was a recluse, only capable of thriving in the country.

A small gasp from the bed made him turn that way. His wife was awake and quietly weeping. A fist clenched around his heart and sent him flying toward her. He spooned around her warm, naked body and took her in his arms.

“What ails you, Rowena? Have I harmed you in any way? Tell me.”

“Oh, Alex, I cannot stop thinking about Roderick. I always knew he resented me, from when I was a little girl, but now it seems that he also hates me.”

Alex recalled the baronet’s vicious words to Rowena with a surge of anger. “Does Daveston have a town house here?”

“Yes, in Curzon Street. Father inherited it from his uncle together with the title. My great-uncle never married, although he was my great-grandfather’s oldest son. So the title passed to my father, as my grand-father died young. Why do you ask, Alex?”

He gave her a hard, relentless smile, which chilled her to the bone.

“It is always wise to know the whereabouts of your enemy, Rowena. I will endeavour to uncover all his weaknesses, too. It will prepare me for the battle between us.”

“The … the battle?”

“Yes … oh, yes. Your half-brother dared to challenge me, Rowena, so I need to be vigilant. You, on the other hand, need not concern yourself. You are safe with me. I won’t let anything harm you. I protect what is mine.”

Rowena swallowed the tears clogging her throat when his words, uttered in a deep, ruthless baritone voice, penetrated her entire being. A feeling of immense safety filled her very heart and soul. She realised all too well that protection was not love, but it came very close. She might have to be content with that, yet it did not bother her. Her love for him was large enough for them both.

The Reclusive Aristocrat – Part Forty-Two

Chapter Eighteen (completed)

“Say it again. Humbly so.” Alex’ words were like the quick, lethal bite of a viper. Their utter coldness wrenched Rowena back to the present.

“I humbly ask for your forgiveness, Rowena.” Her half-brother was beet-red in the face, which always occurred when he did not have the upper hand. How many times had she seen that same expression on Roderick’s features when her father admonished him in soft tones.

“I did not give you permission to use my wife’s Christian name, sir, so you will repeat it once more.”

“But she is my sister!” Roderick exploded.

“Still you do not have the right to call her so,” Alex stated. “You lost that right when you chased her from her home, last winter, in harsh weather and dire circumstances.”

“I humbly ask for your forgiveness, Lady Ketteridge.” The words seemed to be wrung out of him, and Alex lifted one eyebrow, upon which Rowena gently touched his arm. He looked at her enquiringly but desisted when she very slightly shook her head.

“Well, my dear,” Alex said jovially, “I promised you a dance. Good evening, Daveston.”

He pulled her hand through his arm and set out for the dance floor. It was very crowded with barely room for moving, let alone dancing, and certainly not for waltzing, yet Alex managed to twirl Rowena around the floor’s perimeter in a steady rhythm. Rowena, still shaken by the encounter with her brother, moved stiffly at first.

“Rowie, look at me.” Velvety words which made her raise her head to meet her husband’s penetrating gaze. “Relax.”

And she did and instantly felt like she was floating. Her feet touched the floor only lightly yet she did not loose her balance in the strong grasp of her husband’s arms. Heavens, but he knew how to waltz.

Merciful heavens, but she loved Alex. When had that come about? And why? He was handsome and charming and strong and … he was everything she had always secretly longed for in the man who would be her husband. Everything she thought Peter had been.

Good gracious, but she had to desist! Now was not the time to reflect on her disturbing feelings. Rowena closed her eyes and let herself be swept away in Alex’ arms.

 

Struggling hard to overcome the fury that was still trying to overwhelm him, Alex concentrated on the slender body in his arms. One, two three, one, two three … watch out for the others, hold her tight … She was trembling, blast it all, she was still overcome by that blackguard’s rude behaviour. He had to comfort her, calm her, and he had not a moment to loose.

“My dear, why do you deny me your beautiful eyes? I cannot know if I am dancing correctly if I cannot revel in those chocolate eyes of yours.”

With a delicious little stab of male satisfaction, Alex watched Rowena’s eyes fly open. She suddenly stumbled, and it was all he could do to cover the faux pas.

“Oh, forgive me, Alex. I was not paying attention.” A rosy pink flush crept up her slender throat, instantly enflaming him. By Jove, what was he doing here? He should be making love to her in their bed at the hotel.

“Perhaps we should leave,” he croaked, astonished by the sound of his own voice. “We have finished what we came here for.”

“Yes, please …” Oh, what longing lay in those two words.

With a skill he did not know he possessed, Alex guided them off the floor, then led her to the entrance hall.

“Send for our carriage and fetch our coats.” Short, hard barks made the footman scurry away.

 

Dressed in nothing but his silk night shirt, Alex was pacing up and down his bedchamber at the hotel, unrest tugging at him. His wife, confound her, was making him wait. Emma’s wailing greeted them when they entered the sitting room, causing Rowena to rush to her daughter. The infant’s cries were so piercing that she did not even have the time to go to her own room. She began nursing the babe on the sitting room sofa.

It was more than Alex could bear to see those lush breasts revealed.

With a frustrated sigh, he sank into the straight-backed chair near the fireplace and fairly gasped for air while he was waiting, impatient and very aroused. How had it come to this humiliating situation where he could barely refrain from keeping his hands off her? She was just one woman he had bedded, an exquisitely beautiful woman, to be sure, but still only a woman. Only one woman. Rowena …

A realization dawned on him and made him sit down abruptly near the fire place. For the longest of times, Rowena had been the one and only woman he had taken to his bed, since he returned from Waterloo. He had, after all, been gravely injured in the battle. However, what struck him at that moment was the undeniable fact that Rowena, his wife, had become the only woman he ever wanted to bed, from that moment on. How odd …

He tried to remember some of his former bedpartners over the years, tried to recall the gratification they had given him. There had been Daisy, the scullery maid at Ketteridge House, who had deflowered him when he was sixteen. She was twice his age and had introduced him to a few naughty ways to pleasure a woman, which he had not come to appreciate to the full until he was much older. He wondered what had come of her. She was gone when he came back from Waterloo, and nobody seemed to know her whereabouts.

Then there had been Annie, his landlady’s daughter at Cambridge. She was almost forty and very plain, and did the housework chores for her aging, widowed mother. That was a lonely and unfulfilling task, as Alex understood it, for Annie had lured him into her bed one time. It had been a degrading experience which he had never repeated. Instead, he turned to the lightskirts of which there were plenty in a town full of young, healthy men. Yet the doxies were but a poor and shameful way of attaining succour to his manly needs, so he had left off after a while.

It was not until he was on campaign, first in the Peninsula and later in Brussels, that his appetite for women returned. Short, and disappointingly shallow pleasures, that left him longing for something vague and unattainable, a bright light that seemed to retreat ever farther from him over the years. Until Rowena came along and changed everything.

All of a sudden, he recalled their waltz and the strange glance she had given him. He had never seen that unusual light in her deep brown eyes before, and it had shaken him to the bone. How very odd …

 

 

 

The Reclusive Aristocrat – Part Forty-One

Chapter Eighteen ( continued)

The house was very grand, with lights blazing from all the windows. The Raventhorpes joined the long line of couples waiting to pay their compliments to their hosts. A good many of the people stared unabashedly at them, sizing them up with curiosity. Rowena fought to stay dignified under the ruthlessly rude looks. She did not know any single one of them, but she watched Alex nod and bow on occasion. She ached to ask him who those people were, but kept silent, and only bestowed a light smile when necessary. When they finally reached the top of the stairs to greet the hosts, Rowena felt relieved.

“Ah, Ketteridge!” Mr Scott clapped Alex on the back as if he were an old friend. “Good to see you back in Town, my friend. You have been a recluse for far too long. And this lovely creature must be your lady wife? Enchanted, milady.” He took Rowena’s hand and kissed the back of it, even before she was able to make her curtsy. While Rowena curtsied to Mrs Scott, who smiled amiably ay her, Mr Scott asked Alex to come to his study, once the introductions were over. And then they were entering the vast ball room, its interior blazing with the light of a thousand candles. The air was dense with the scent of a myriad of flower arrangements and stale with the tightly packed  mass of bodies.

“Blast, what a crush,” Alex muttered. “Come, my dear, let me steer you to the refreshment room. As a soldier, this crowd raises my hackles in alarm. One never knows what lies in wait for one in such a human mass.”

They made it to a large side room where a table full of the most exquisite food was already being assaulted by a great number of guests. Alex managed to get them a glass of champagne with not too much trouble. With much jostling, they retreated to an alcove in the ball room and sat down on a settee to enjoy their drinks, while Alex kept an eye on the entrance until the guests stopped being announced. “I might go and see Scott now,” he said. “It would be best if you do not venture from here, Rowie. I will return here as quickly as possible. I want to be able to find you for a dance afterwards.” Rowena nodded and Alex went on his way. Soon he was swallowed by the throng, which made Rowena feel isolated and alone.

From her vantage point, she had a good view of the ball room dance floor which was still packed with people. Even though the musicians had gathered on the dais and were tuning their instruments, not a soul moved away. It was not until the introductory notes to a quadrille sounded, that the floor cleared as if by magic and a large number of square sets formed. Rowena enjoyed the dancing and the lively music, although she had no intention of dancing herself. She meant to stay aloof as she had no connections or friends in this London crowd.

 

“I am very pleased to see you back in London, Ketteridge, “Mr Scott said in an amiable tone. “The rumours about your injuries swiftly reached the War Office after Waterloo. I heard they were severe and I hope you are recovered?”

“I am, sir, for the most part. My vision might still lack perfection, but on the whole I cannot complain.”

“Although you and I are not well acquainted, I have heard from you a great deal and from a source you would not envisage at all. You have captured the eye of the Prince, Ketteridge. No one other than Wellington himself has sung your praises.”

Alex was astonished. “The Duke himself? How come? I did not distinguish myself more than my fellow cavalry officers at Waterloo.”

“You saved the life of a relative of his when you caught a bullet destined to strike him.”

It all came back to Alex, like a flood brimming over a riverbank.

As he had stormed downward on Titan, a reckless young officer had managed to wrestle the enemy’s standard from its bearer when the man was shot. Bullets had been flying by the dozens, and Alex had instantly acknowledged the danger to the young man. He had worked his way through the throng of fighters toward the fledgling, who did not seem to understand he was now a well-coveted  target. As soon as he had thrown the man down and protected him with his own body, a French blade sliced him across the abdomen. Fortunately for Alex, Porter had only just pierced the man, robbing him of his full strength, which softened the blow he dealt his fallen officer. Yet Alex, buried under Titan’s large squirming body, received a blow from one of the flailing hoofs and lost consciousness. Afterwards, in the field infirmary where they had stitched him up, Alex learned that the young idiot he had endeavoured to safe was well and unharmed. He never knew who he was, though, yet now he did.

“I had no idea of the young man’s identity, Mr Scott, but I am glad it was someone dear to the High Commander.”

“Wellington wishes to thank you in person, Ketteridge. You and Lady Ketteridge are invited to the Horse Guards barracks, where you will be handed over your letters patent in the presence of some of your peers. The event takes place in two days at noon. Dress uniform is required, of course.”

 

Rowena was starting to wonder when Alex would return as she longed for refreshment in the stifling dampness she was drowned in. Why hostesses invited so many people to a ball was beyond her understanding. A ball had only one purpose in Rowena’s mind, and that was to provide the means and opportunity to dance, had it not? Apparently that was not how London hostesses viewed it. She closed her eyes and leaned back against the wall, prepared to suffer in silence until Alex showed up.

“Well, well, …” a familiar voice droned, startling Rowena with the near impossibility of it. She sprang up only to stare incredibly at the lean, tall figure of her half-brother. He was eyeing her with raw distaste and anger, causing her heart to plunge in her chest with a dull hurt.

“Roderick …,” she managed to croak. All the misery of her painful flight came rushing over her, the deep sorrow caused by his callous behaviour when he informed her of the impossible choice he had concocted for her; stay at the estate she had considered home until then on the condition that she give up her child or be banished from her home if she chose to keep it.

“I cannot fathom the fact that you would end up here in the London Ton, sister, unless it is to thoroughly embarrass and ruin me. I see that you must have delivered your bastard. I fervently hope that you drowned the brat as soon as it was put into this world. Otherwise, it might come back to blackmail me later when I need to be seen as integer as possible. I mean to stand up for parliament, I must show a competent and unblemished face to my peers. By Lucifer and all his devils, Rowena, you shameless doxy, how dare you show your trollop face in these hallowed halls?”

“I beg you to step away from my lady wife, sir. I do not care for your words nor for your tone of voice, as they were most offending to Lady Ketteridge.”

Rowena almost sagged with relief when her husband joined them. Alex, all haughty sternness, stepped before her and shielded from Roderick, showing her the rigidness of his broad back. She could see a muscle twitch in his strong jaw, his face livid with what she had come to know as stone-cold rage.

“Now, sir, you shall apologize for your rudeness instantly or find yourself facing a duel on the morrow.”

His words were frozen drops of fury, and they made Roderick flinch with unmistakeable fear.

“I … I beg pardon, my lord, … I … I had no notion, …”

“Apologize, sir, to my wife.” Rowena saw her brother wince as if in pain but she could not sympathize with him. Instead, she felt a rush of heat enveloping her heart at her husband’s defence of her honour. He must care for her, at least a little, if he was prepared to duel for her. Then, as she witnessed Roderick utter a stammering apology of which she did not registered a single word, a deep feeling of pure happiness filled her head to toe as she realized one very vital truth; she had come to love Alex.