The Reclusive Aristocrat – Part Four

Chapter Three

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Use the magnifying glass, if you please.”

“Very well, what’m I lookin’ fer?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

“Ah, there you are, Mrs Drake.”

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

“Good morning, my lord.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“My lord …”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“How do you manage that?”

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

“How do I manage what, Mrs Drake?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“How …”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Reclusive Aristocrat – Part Three

Chapter Two

Ketteridge House, Leicestershire, England, December 2, 1815

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes …”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

The Reclusive Aristocrat -Part Two

Chapter One (continued)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

“How is our guest, Porter?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What caused it?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Reclusive Aristocrat – Part One

Chapter One

 

Ketteridge, Leicestershire, England, December 1, 1815

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

“Help me! Please, help me!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Sir, she’s …”

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

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

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

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

“Ah …”

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

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