The Reclusive Aristocrat – Part Twenty-Six

Chapter Twelve

Ketteridge House, Leicestershire, England, New Year’s Day, 1816

 

Rowena entered the unexpectedly large graveyard that surrounded St Crispin’s Church. Sometime during the day, she had tamped down her anger about Alex’ highhandedness and told him she wanted to meet the mysterious letter writer. She wanted Alex to accompany her to Evensong and afterwards, let her go to the meeting alone.

“Wait for me outside the graveyard, please. I need to know what is transpiring here. Please try to understand my concern, Alex? If this is a hoax, then you can go to the magistrate, and if it is not …”

“You are not seriously thinking that Johnston might be still alive? It must be a hoax, and I am not inclined to let you go alone.”

“Please, Alex? He will not show up when he sees you with me. You could post young Gregson at the entrance to watch over me.”

He could, Alex thought, yet he would not. He most certainly should not; she might be in danger. He would watch over her himself, though he could not tell her that, since she still thought him blind. So he pretended to give in.

“Very well, my dear. We will do as you say. I implore you to be very careful. If it is a hoax, the ones involved might not wish you well.”

Rowena pressed her husband’s hand in gratitude, then stepped into the graveyard.

The graves were as well-tended as was possible, given the dampness of the soil. Yet many graves lay sunken under the thick blanket of snow, their lichen-covered headstones crooked. Some were broken, marking graves of long-dead people. Rowena shivered as the gloomy atmosphere added an eerie edge to the winter night. It was still bitterly cold, although the sky was overcast, so no moonlight helped her find her way through the deserted yard. The note had not specified where exactly she was to meet the mysterious person, so she halted in the middle where two paths crossed. A large funeral chapel stood there, belonging to a wealthy Leicester merchant family whose ancestry was from Ketteridge. Rowena went to stand near the chapel door, better to see when someone approached her.

“Rowena … Rowie …”

That voice … that clipped accent with just a hint of Cumberland tones … could it be? She swung round to the left and nearly fainted when she recognized the man who was standing there, leaning on a cane. His clothes were shabby and dirty, his fair hair too long, his eyes too large in his narrow face. Yet it was Peter, no doubt about it.

 

Alex peered through the darkness, anxious to lose sight of Rowena. Damnation, but he did not like this! He had been suspicious of Johnston as soon as Rowena told him about the man. He had thought him a cad, a blackguard, for seducing an inexperienced girl, only weeks before he joined his regiment. Alex knew all too well that Johnston must have been informed long before the exact date on which the army forces would gather and cross over to Flanders. Cavalry men often belonged to the landed gentry. They wanted to be informed early enough to be able to provide for the running of their estates in their absence.

That afternoon, he had taken the trouble of looking up Johnston. If he was the son of an earl, he had to be in Debrett’s. Johnston, Alex discovered, was indeed Carlisle’s third son. Yet no mention had been there about a demise, and the edition of Debrett’s was from July 1815. Up to date, thus.

 

“Peter … what … they told me you were dead … I thought you were dead …”

Her former lover shrugged, smiling broadly at her, showing teeth that had known better days. How was this possible? Peter used to be such a fastidious man, proud of his uniform, and his status as the son of a nobleman. Now he seemed destitute and unwell. Rowena’s heart melted.

“Oh my God, Peter! What happened to you? Why did they think you were dead? Roderick told me he had a telegram from the Regiment, announcing you had fallen at Waterloo.”

“Ah, well …” Peter said, scratching his head, and avoiding her eyes. “You see, Rowie, I was badly injured and I must have lain for dead for hours, if not days. I dragged myself from the battlefield, and I must have done that for a long time, because when I finally woke up, I was lying in a barn, five miles from the battle field. A farm lad found me, and he and his sister nursed me back to health. Unfortunately, I had no memory of what happened, and someone had stripped me of my uniform. So it took several months for my memory to come back, and then one day, I remembered you. I left and came back, Rowie. We can be together and start a family.”

He took a step forward, and Rowena realized he was going to embrace her. Suddenly, that did not seem to be an attractive notion. She braced herself when he put his arms around her, desperately trying not to shy away. He was dirty and he smelled anything but fresh, but that was not what repelled her. Repulsion … of Peter? How had she come to that? But she had. She closed her eyes, enduring his embrace as best as she could, before she gently extracted herself from his arms.

“Peter, matters have changed. I have married the Earl of Ketteridge.”

Peter’s gasp cut her off, as he pushed her from him. “Rowie, no! That cannot be so! Why, Rowie, why?”

Rowena pushed away from Peter and felt suddenly relieved to be free of his touch. She was baffled. Why would she be shy of Peter’s touch, when she had lain with him in the past?

“It saddens me that matters have gone the way they have. Yet they have, and we must resign ourselves to the fact that we both are in a new situation. We …”

In the blink of an eye, Peter again grabbed her upper arms and shook her. He actually shook her, and very hard! The cane he was holding was pressed painfully into the flesh of her arm. “No! I cannot let this happen! I need you, Rowena!”

His mouth bore down on hers, forcing open her lips, invading her mouth with his tongue.            Rowena struggled not to gag, fighting to pull free, but his vicelike grip was unbreakable. She panicked, tried to kick him, but he pushed her against the chapel’s wall. Pushed her so hard her head banged against the bricks. She longed to faint, to escape this horror.

 

Alex had watched the whole, disgusting scene from afar, gritting his teeth in loathing when he saw his wife step into the stranger’s embrace. She had done so willingly, he observed, rage burning holes in his chest. She must still love the cavalry man, damnation!

He was unable to hear what they were saying, the distance being too great. He rejoiced when Rowena pulled away, panicked when he saw Johnston grab her again. His feet were taking him to her before he realized. He seized Johnston’s arm and wrenched him backwards. The man suddenly swung a cane Alex had failed to notice, and it connected hard with his right temple.

Alex’s vision blurred, the world suddenly spinning. He gritted his teeth and rose from his knees to run after Johnston who was dragging a screaming Rowena towards the graveyard’s entrance. How had the fiend managed to cover all that distance? Alex fought back the bile mounting in his throat, feeling a warm trickle of blood running down his face. Blast! His head wound must have reopened.

He forced himself to run harder, saw the distance diminish. Then, to his infinite relief, he saw Porter entering through the graveyard’s gate.

“Porter! Stop him!”

The batman never hesitated but broke into a swift run towards Johnston and Rowena. But Johnston was now a cornered animal and he acted so by backing up to a large grave stone. A blade flashed, and Alex realized it must have been hidden in the cane. Johnston held its rim against Rowena’s throat, locking her in a dead grip.

Both Alex and Porter stopped, yards away from the couple. Alex felt sick with sudden panic burning his gut. If this madman … no! He could not give in to paralyzing panic! Not when Rowena needed him to be calm.

“What is it you want, Johnston? Money? I can give you as much as you need. Let her go and we can make an arrangement.”

“Back! Move back or I’ll slice her like a pig, I swear!” The man’s tones were all but clipped now.

The Reclusive Aristocrat – Part Twenty-Five

Chapter Eleven (completed)

The taprooms at The Fox and Hare were crowded with villagers and estate tenants, when the earl and his countess made their appearance. Shouts of joy and well-wishes sounded as Alex handed Rowena out. She seemed genuinely overwhelmed but pleasantly so, yet she brightly smiled and waved, while Alex led her into the inn. In the taproom, Rowena was startled anew by a loud cheering from the patrons, all raising their tankards. She stopped, eyes widened by all the grinning faces surrounding her. A strong hand steadied her, gripping her elbow.

“Now, gentlemen! Please make way for your countess, my lady Rowena,” Alex’ voice rumbled overhead. The crowd parted, some men even bowed. Alex led her to the stairs, and they proceeded to the assembly rooms above.

There the women and children were waiting, and they clapped when Rowena and Alex entered. Some even tried a curtsy. Rowena’s eyes grew moist, her heart bursting with joy. She belonged here, amongst this community, these women, who struggled to gain a decent way of living. She loved the children, from the smallest baby to the awkward youth of fourteen, who blushed when she handed him his present. One of the boys, a lean, tall child by the name of Evan, graced her hand with a wet kiss. A girl of ten, Mariah, forgot her manners and embraced Rowena’s waist. She did not mind, she loved the gesture of spontaneity.

Alex watched his new wife while she graciously handed out the parcels and baskets she had worked on with Meg and Mrs Hall over the last few days. She gave the image of a woman who was born to this, he mused. She was charming, motherly and elegant at the same time, patient and smiling, as if every single woman and child were her personal friends.

Alex was yet again puzzled by what he was seeing. How was it possible that a woman so – he struggled to find a suitable word – so disadvantaged in so many ways could reach the position she was now in? She had no money, and her family had cast her off because she was with child out of wedlock. She was pretty, that was true, but not beautiful enough to dazzle. She was quiet, almost shy, yet here she was, falling into the role of how he had imagined his countess should be. His countess – even though he had not thought he would ever be the earl, just a few months ago, before Reggie died.

With a shock, he realized that he, Alex, was indeed the Earl of Ketteridge, now, and that Rowena, disadvantaged and cast-off Rowena, was now his countess. And that she as filling the role exactly how he had wished she would. It was mind-boggling.

Even his people were taken by her. No, enchanted, beguiled, was more like it. All these women, mothers and wives themselves, lived in a quiet country village where morals were rigid and strict. Unmarried mothers were invariably frowned upon by the prim, stuffy matrons. There would be disapproving gossip in abundance about girls who got knocked up. And here they all were, gazing in rapt admiration at his new wife, pregnant as could be, and every single one of them knew it was not Alex’ child. Still, not a disapproving glance in sight.

“A penny for your thoughts.” Alex jerked his head to where Richard Orme was standing, next to him. “You would not want them,” he all but growled. “And besides, they are none of your business.”

“What ails you, Alex? Marriage not as convenient as you thought it would be? She seems to fit the role adequately and satisfactorily, if you ask me.”

“I am not asking you, damnation!”

Richard Orme stared at his friend in utter disbelief. It was not at all like Alex to be so rudely angry.

“Are you in pain? Your head troubling you still? How is your eyesight?”

The real, unmitigated concern in Richard’s voice dragged Alex back to civility.

“Forgive me, Rich. That was uncalled for. No, I am not in pain, and my eyesight remains unchanged. I was just wool-gathering.”

“No, you were not. Your face bore the deepest expression of puzzlement I ever saw. What bone are you chewing?”

Alex heaved a deep, bone-chilling sigh. “It is standing there, handing out presents to my tenants’ wives.”

“The lovely Rowena? Why? What is it that puzzles you?”

“Have you truly seen her? I thought her a poor little nobody who had been seduced and is now pregnant with a bastard child. I offered for her because … well, let us be honest, I had no hopes of offering for a proper little Ton miss. I was still nearly blind when I proposed, but now I can see what she truly looks like, and … I feel like I am teetering on the edge of a cliff.”

“You amaze me, Alex. Why do you not just count your incredible blessings and enjoy the view? That is what everyone else here is doing. Your tenants are worshipping the ground under her feet.”

“Yes, that is yet another matter. They seem to find it completely normal that she should be with child, and that is it not my child she is carrying. No censure, no rejection, only admiration. I find this extremely puzzling, Rich.”

Richard watched his friend as he stood gazing at his young wife in puzzlement. Alex had changed, he mused, and was still changing. Richard hoped it would be for the best, because his friend deserved some much needed happiness. It had been too long since Alex had been allowed some normalcy. Richard was unsure if Alex had ever known a true, plainly normal life, growing up with servants first, and then going to boarding school and university under the tutelage of an older brother. Alex had grown up without true parental love, and that was what he had forever searched for in Richard’s childhood home. Richard’s mother was a warm and welcoming woman, generous to a fault, even with maternal love. Alex should find such love – marital love – with Rowena, for it was high time he found happiness.

“Perhaps they consider her a woman perfect to be your countess, Alex. Perhaps they are looking further than what they are seeing, a woman who will, eventually produce your heir, and in doing so, secure their own future. They already know that she is fertile, and that is what they need; a woman capable of securing the next generation.”

 

Rowena reckoned she must have shaken a thousand hands, and kissed the same amount of infants, before the line of well-wishers finally thinned. The last one to greet her was a slim, frail girl with a mass of blond curls bound together with a dirty ribbon. Her face was pale and a bit wan, and her big blue eyes had a plea in them. Before Rowena had time to speak to her, the girl pressed something into her hand, then turned and quickly left. Puzzled, Rowena stared after her, then glanced at the tiny scrap of paper.

                ‘Please meet me in the graveyard, tomorrow after Evensong. Peter.’

Blinking to clear her vision, Rowena stared at the words. They made no sense. Peter was dead, it could not be him. Who then? And why would they want to meet her?

“Are you well, my dear?”

Alex’ deep voice rumbled in her ear, and Rowena instinctively crumpled the note into her gloved hand. She looked up at her husband, anxious to meet his gaze, yet he was gazing down at her with quiet concern, his blue-grey eyes unseeing. He could not have seen the scrap, she knew. She had to tell Alex, she had to. Slowly, she put the small ball of paper in his hand, telling him what it said.

Alex frowned. “Surely this must be a prank. Johnston is dead, is he not?”

“Yes, that was told to me by Roderick. Why would my brother lie about that?”

Alex could think of several reasons why her cold-hearted brother might wish to conceal the truth from her, but he kept them to himself. “You are not going to meet this fellow, and that is final, Rowena. It can only be a trick to rob you, or harm you. Let them rot in hell.”

“But Alex, I …”

“No!” He barked the word at her, face rigid with fury. “You are the Countess of Ketteridge. You do not answer summons from unknown, shady characters.”

She had wanted to explain why she was going, but he had cut her off so arrogantly that she felt her own fury rising. How dare he speak so to her? She had liked for him to go with her, to see what this was about, yet now she would do as she wished without telling him. Alex was her husband, for sure, but that did not mean he could bully her around.

 

Next Week – Please join me for a three-day posting

in the spirit of Christmas

on December 23, 24 and 25

A North and South Christmas

It is nearly Christmas in the year 1854 in Milton, an industrial town in the north of England.

People are awfully poor and they starve when out of work. Children work alongside their parents, performing all sorts of gruesome and downright dangerous tasks. They do not go to school and thus stay illiterate. Their parents earn but little money, often not enough to feed their family.

The spirit of Christmas is often far from their minds, as it is yet another day to be out of work. It became a bank holiday in 1834, an unpaid day for most of the workers, a day without income, and just another dismal day of suffering.

Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol  – which hasn’t been published yet in 1854 – lifts a tiny piece of the veil to grant us a glimpse of what transpired in those long-forgotten days.

This is how it could have been in my own rampant imagination for John Thornton and Margaret Hale, the couple we all love so much. First, though, where are we in the N&S story?

John and Margaret have married in September of that year after meeting each other on the train platform, halfway between Milton and London. They are still trying to build a life together which is somewhat hard, with John having to reconstruct his cotton mill, and Margaret struggling to accommodate to Hannah Thornton’s strict house rules. Margaret’s strong-willed mother-in-law resents John’s marriage to that ‘headstrong young miss with all her airs and graces’, and she will not relinquish the reigns to the Thornton household.

The Reclusive Aristocrat – Part Twenty-Four

Chapter Eleven (continued)

Rowena woke late on New Year’s Day 1816. It took her a few moments to recall what day it actually was. She was feeling relaxed, sated, alive … and content. Too content to have her attention turning on the demands of the day to come. Not yet …

The door to her room opened, and Meg bustled in, carrying a tray. Rowena stifled a shriek and hastily covered her nakedness, which she had discovered only now. Meg, her eyes dancing with mirth, laughed.

“Oh, my pet, do not blush, not for me. I can see that your husband treated you the way you deserve to be treated, and that is only decent. I knew the earl would be what you needed to secure your future. It is a dead shame that you met him this late in life. He should have come before your cavalry man did.”

Rowena stilled, her movement of getting out of bed halting, when Meg’s last words reached her. With an astounding clarity, they rang in her head like bells on an Easter morning. What would have happened if she had met Alex first, instead of Peter?

 

Alex scanned the gathering at his breakfast table with content satisfaction. His servants – and by now, there were a good, healthy number of them – were chatting in hushed tones, every single one of them smiling and happy. Mrs Hall, his long-time cook, had her kitchen maids and tweenies around her. Alex only remembered Trixie’s name, but she was now a housemaid under Meg Wallis, the housekeeper. That lady, seated beside her husband John had also gathered her troops, now two other maids, besides Trixie. He really should ask his wife to tell him all their names, Alex berated himself.

Further down the long table, his outdoor servants were seated, all of them speaking quietly with each other. Silas Mercher, his head gardener now had three boys under him, and Thomas Anderson, his head groom had four stable boys to help him ready the stables for the new horses Alex intended to purchase. Next to the grooms were the three tall footmen, Gregson, David and Reese Mortimer, sons of one of his tenants. Hannibal Mortimer had a large brood of some fifteen children, and the wages his sons would bring in would be very welcome in supporting the family.

Alex’ gaze wandered to the one person who really mattered at his table. At his right side, he most keenly felt Rowena’s presence. He focussed on her, wanting to see her as clearly as possible. His eyesight was still slightly blurred, yet he clearly saw the burgundy-coloured morning gown she wore. It was neatly cut, a bit generously tailored around the waist to accommodate her pregnancy. A square neckline advantageously showed her ivory shoulders and the onset of her lush breasts. How he remembered the exquisite feeling of those orbs in his palms, the previous night. He studied her. She was quiet, and savouring her new role as the lady of his house to the full. It was true that she had occupied the position since she entered Ketteridge House, yet now, as his countess, she had acquired a dignity which clung to her like a gown. A dignity her brother had stripped from her when he chased her from her home.

Come to think of it, Alex was curious about that brother of hers. After all, the man had a right to know his sister had married. Maybe a trip to Cumberland would not come amiss, as soon as the weather improved. Alex wanted to learn why Roderick Drake had cast his sister out, and subsequently, cast retribution on him on Rowena’s behalf. No man had the right to push his sister into danger like that.

Rowena … her small hands were toying with a bun, and she was not eating any of the offerings he had personally loaded onto her plate.

“You seem unwell, my dear,” he whispered at her ear, the words low enough not to be understood by their neighbours. “Is the food not to your liking? I have not heard your knife cutting through Cook’s lovely buns. Shall I order a fresh plate for you?”

“No, thank you. I am not very hungry.” Rowena answered calmly, although she did not feel calm at all. Instead, her nerves were dragged into acute awareness at the soft caress of his breath on her sensitive flesh.

“Well, then how are you feeling? Are you suffering from last night’s exertions?”

He had kept his tone light and teasing, but she blushed a fiery red. He found it endearing, but hid his smile.

“I will not answer such a blunt question at the breakfast table,” she said, grabbing her cup to drink and hide her red cheeks.

“Nevertheless, I feel we should discuss it, my dear. I fear I was less than gentle with you, after you came to my bed, the second time. Why did you come?”

Rowena swallowed her tea, grateful that it did not choke her.

“You were crying out,” she hissed, irritated that he should continue their all too intimate conversation. “As if you were in pain. I was concerned. You calmed down when I joined you.”

“Did I truly? I am amazed.”

“Alex, please!” Rowena was desperate now. Meg was already looking at them in wonderment.

“Very well, my dear, I shall not embarrass you further.”

He was rewarded by her grateful smile, a smile that brightened her face like a ray of sunshine. He was again reminded of how fiercely he had resented his blindness in the first days of their meeting. How it had affected him that he had been incapable of seeing that smile. It was a comforting thought, Alex reflected, to know that her smile would now be with him for the rest of his life.

 

It was an estate tradition to hand out presents on New Year’s Day, but it had not been kept up during the last five years. Reggie, Alex’ brother had not had enough resources for that, as Alex had explained to Rowena during their carriage ride to Ketteridge’s only inn.

“I was away in the Peninsula and had no idea about the estate’s finances. Reggie was too proud to inform me, which was unwise, because I could have helped him from the start. I gathered a good little sum during my army days, which I was able to invest wisely and with good results. It would have been so much better for the estate, had I been there at the time. Alas, fate decreed otherwise.”

“When did your brother die, Alex?”

Rowena had wanted to ask him about his family from the first days they met, but there had never been a right moment to do so. Now, in their warm, snug carriage, riding through white, frozen countryside, there was. Yet she noticed how her husband stilled, and suddenly seemed to withdraw.     She took his gloved hand in hers.

“You know all about my family, Alex. Do you not think it fair that I know about yours, too?”

He nodded, then sighed. “What I am about to tell you, Rowena, is not common knowledge. I hope you will be discreet and not tell anyone, not even Mrs Wallis. Do I have your word on that?”

“You have it, Alex,” she replied, quietly but firmly.

He cleared his throat. “He died early this year. Reginald was twenty years my senior. He was born late in my parents’ marriage, when they had given up all hope on any offspring. My mother had a horribly difficult childbirth, and she nearly died, so my father swore Reggie would be the only child he would father. Yet twenty years later, I came along, and killed my mother. Suffice it to say that I was not exactly welcomed by my father. Reggie was his heir, I was a spare, although my father only thought of me as a useless, cumbersome brat. A murderous brat, to boot. I was left to the care of Mrs Hall and her kitchen maids for years, until Reggie stood up to Father. My brother took me under his wing, and sent me to Eton and afterwards, to Cambridge. After my graduation, I enlisted in the army. My father approved, because I would be out of his way, and away from the estate. He had told me on my eighteenth birthday that I was not to receive any financial benefits from his will. I had to fend for myself, he said, and that is exactly what I have done since.”

Alex stopped, suddenly aware of one very disturbing fact; why was he spilling all this to Rowena? He had never, ever talked to someone about this, except for Porter, who was as close as family to him. Yet he had – no, still was entrusting his deepest thoughts about his family to a woman he knew for a month. Not a mere woman, but his wife. Alex felt something shift inside him, into something akin to peace, to comfort, and safety. He was right to talk to Rowena.

So he continued, tightening his hold on her hand.

“Reggie was the closest I ever had to a father, to any parent, for that matter.”

“You must have been lonely, as a child.” Rowena had to swallow against the deep compassion that ran through her at the image of a small Alex, alone and lonely, left to the care of servants.

“No, not really. Mrs Hall, at that time a mere scullery maid, Mrs Bammer, the housekeeper, and Mrs Swanson, the cook, and also every maid, high or low, were mothers to me. They spoiled me something fierce, and it was a good thing Reggie rescued me and showed me my true self, as the second son of an earl. He pulled me out of the oblivion. I knew I would always find a home at Ketteridge House with Reggie in it, and for many years after Father died in 1804, that was exactly so.”

Alex swallowed, grief washing over him. He struggled but continued his tale. “I always hoped he would marry and have a family. Father had been directing debutantes to him for years, but Reggie never showed any interest at all. Reggie just whiled away his days, here on the estate. He gradually used up the last of the estates finances, simply because he had no energy to manage them. He just seemed to waste away in complete depression, and I had no inkling how to help him. When he died of an apoplexy, on June 16th of this year, on the exact same day I was wounded on the battlefield, the estate was in shambles. I did not know about his death until I returned here. When finally, at the end of October, I could bring myself to clear out his desk with Porter’s help, I found out why he was so depressed. Reggie’s interest was in men instead of women.”

“Oh … poor man. How he must have suffered from the loneliness. While your father was alive, he would not have had the opportunity to find a mate.”

“Exactly. And afterwards, he had his hands full with sorting out his inheritance. I discovered he had a friend … a lover … when he was at Cambridge University. The affair lasted for fifteen long years. He had to break up the relationship when he came to live on the estate, after Father’s death. Here it would have been impossible to carry on.”

With a slow, but ever-growing awareness, Alex realized one most important fact, and spoke of it.

“How have you learned about … people like Reggie?”

Rowena felt her cheeks grow hot. It was one secret she had never shared with anyone.

“The curate at my parish church,” she murmured. “Mr Thompson was the kindest, most considerate man I ever met. He was also young, and very handsome. At fifteen, I developed an infatuation for him, and impetuous as I was then, I told him. He could not confess to his being different from other men, of course. Instead, he directed my interests to Latin and Greek, something I lacked sourly in my education. My Meg is but a simple woman, even though she taught me reading, writing and simple mathematics. By the time I was eighteen, my infatuation had waned. I still liked – and still do like Mr Thompson, but since he had never done anything to encourage me, I recovered from my girlish fantasies.”

“Let me guess,” Alex interposed. “That rattled you. You could not understand why a handsome young man would not be interested in you.”

She turned hurt eyes to him, and he instantly regretted his rather pettish remark. “I am only teasing you, Rowena.”

She sighed, cast down her eyes, a fact he resented. He wanted to see her face, scan her eyes. She was talking about a man she had loved, albeit with an adolescent’s infatuation. For some reason, he found he did not like the notion that Rowena might have loved before. He had the same nagging feeling about her former lover, Johnston.

“No, you have it right, Alex,” she continued. “I was rather miffed at the time. So badly that I talked about it to Peter, when we were seeing each other. He laughed at me, said he could not understand why I had not figured out the reason. Then he told me Mr Thompson had all the characteristics of a … a sodomite.”

She shuddered, and Alex put his arms around her, furious with the bloody, callous idiot, who so viciously crushed her first love’s character.

“I did not know the word, let alone what it pertained. Peter explained it to me, and I was so shocked I could not sleep for days, trying to imagine such a relationship. How two men would … would, could …”

“Shhh,” Alex soothed. “Do not dwell on things you cannot understand. It was foolish of me to begin about Reggie’s state of mind.”

“No, no,” she protested, rather vehemently. “Alex, I appreciate you telling me about your youth and childhood, and about the brother you so clearly loved. We should always talk to one another, as husband and wife. A marriage is about trust, and comfort, and feeling safe. Please do not ever stop talking to me, I beg you.”

He was nonplussed, to say the least. What ardency, what passion she displayed with her statement. Lecturing him about marriage, no less! He struggled to find an answer, failed, and kept silent. Instead, he drew her closer. It was a mistake. As soon as her delectable curves melted into his hard muscles, desire coiled and wreaked havoc.

Rowena felt the change in him the instant it blossomed. She was in his arms, her cheek against his blue superfine, through which – thick, woolly cloth it might be – she could feel the steady, strong beat of his heart. She sank deeper against him, passion rising, desire leaping. How she loved being held by him. Her hand wandered downwards, and encountered the hard ridge straining his buff breeches. She looked up, smiled.

“I see that you, my lord, are definitively interested in me, indeed.”

He grunted, then drew her up until she was sitting in his lap. Swiftly, he parted her legs and rearranged them, so that she was sitting astride on top of his thighs, all of it in the blink of an eye.

“You know I am, you little minx …”

Oh, how she loved that low, heavy rumble, laced with desire. She kissed him, greedily, hungrily. He reacted, spread her mouth open with his probing tongue, reconnoitring, feeling, and finally conquering her haven. When the kiss slowed, he hiked up her skirts, and began stroking her thighs, bare above her stockings. Then he suddenly felt the baby kicking against the back of his hand. Lord! Should he even do this, now? His bride instantly and effectively ripped away his doubts.

Rowena gasped as the heat rose to an unbearable level. She fumbled for the buttons of his breeches, brushing aside the sides of his coat. He – in turn- began opening her drawers, tearing at the tiny pearl buttons.

Alex burned, passion driving him to a point he had never passed. Never had he taken a woman in a carriage – at least not in broad daylight. Yet he could not stop himself; he had to have her, now, this instant. She had already freed him from his breeches and was frantically trying to guide him to her entrance. He lifted her and swiftly lowered her onto his erection. She moaned, and he quickly took her mouth, stifling the sound. Revelling in the feeling of her hot moistness around him, he thrust, and she responded by pressing herself down. It was wonderfully marvellous. They both reached heaven within seconds, and Rowena clung to him afterwards, breath shallow and fast.          Alex rubbed his cheek against hers, inhaling her lovely scent. He should thank her for so much delight, he mused.

The carriage rumbled over the cobbles that carpeted the High Street. Alex came to his senses and set Rowena from his lap, fastening his breeches, while he enquired if she needed help rearranging her clothes. She shook her head, cheeks reddened. He quickly kissed her on the mouth, grinning rakishly. “Here you are, my lady. Your first act as Lady Ketteridge.”

The Reclusive Aristocrat – Part Twenty-Three

Chapter Eleven

Ketteridge House, Leicestershire, England, New Year’s Day, 1816

 

A roar, fierce like that of a wounded beast, brutally dragged Rowena out of her deep, blissful sleep. She sat up, noticed her nakedness with a start, and shot out of bed to grab her wrapper. The horrible sound came from beyond the dressing room door which connected her bed chamber to her husband’s. Where was Alex? Why was he not with her? She hurried into Alex’ room. In the large, broad bed, a figure was trashing wildly, uttering cries of agony. It was Alex, she realized with sudden panic.

She hurried toward him and climbed onto the mattress. He was lying on his side now, shuddering under the nightmare’s violence. Rowena spooned herself against him, her back to his front, and took his hands to place them around her body. Pressing herself closely to him, she shushed him with sweet, nonsensical words, while she caressed his hands and arms. It took her a few minutes to calm him, yet he continued trembling. Rowena pulled the covers over them both, hoping that the warmth would calm him further.

It did. Alex relaxed in her arms, and soon his regular breathing indicated that he had fallen asleep. Rowena enjoyed his warm breath tickling the sensitive skin of her neck. His warm, hard body closing around her made her recall all the lovely, wicked things he had done just a few hours ago. In her belly, soft stirrings came to life again as she thought about their complete union. She was truly Alex’ wife now, and his considerate and gentle handlings reassured Rowena that he could become a sweet companion. She hoped so. She begged the Lord above that it would be so. She was beginning to be very fond of Alex.

Rowena sighed. She was still so very tired, languidly so. Would it be acceptable for her to fall asleep here, in Alex’ bed? She could not leave it, since he would then wake, or maybe have nightmares again. She had no inkling what time it was, but it must still be the dead of night, because everything in the house was till quiet. Lulled by her husband’s warmth, she closed her eyes and snuggled deeper into his arms.

 

He was having a dream. For once, it was not one of the violent nightmares which had plagued him for months now, since Waterloo. No, this was the best dream ever.

He was cocooned in a bed, on a soft mattress, and in his arms, there was a woman. He revelled in the soft, round curves that sent the best of fragrances up his nose. The scent of lily-of-the-valley – and warm woman. Heaven …

Alex found himself stroking the dream-woman to provoke a reaction, and it worked. She turned in his arms with a soft moan and spread her legs in eager invitation. He slipped easily between them guiding his engorged cock into her depts. Lord above, this was the best dream he had had in years!

Her sheath fitted him like a glove, and squeezed at his cock with every thrust he made. The tension inexorably built, and he welcomed it. His hands found her breasts, his touch making the nipples peak and harden. It urged him on even more. He pounded into her, hard and demanding. His blood beat a hard drum, making him deaf for any other sound. He came, suddenly and violently, while shards of light scorched his brain. Lord, what bliss! He felt even sweaty, much as it would have been, should he have been awake. Then the dream softly slid into sleep, a sleep as empty as death.

Next to her husband Rowena lay dazed and sated, with him still inside her. Oh, she knew what had transpired, but she could not understand the rest of it. The fact that Alex did not seem to have awakened, that he had all but ravished her, brought her to a glorious completion, and then, instantly had gone back to sleep. She was confused, felt lost, but had no strength left to resist sleep when it claimed her.

 

As was his habit, gained over a decade of military discipline, Alex woke when the first greyish light of dawn  lit the wintry sky.

He instantly stilled, bewildered when he realized he was holding someone. His wife … naked, delectable and warm, snuggled into his arms when he finally stirred. To his stunning realization, he was still inside her, limp now but deliciously snug. Her sheath had kept him close by fitting his erection as it had dwindled after his release. Amazing …

A storm of thoughts assaulted him. She must have crept into his bed sometime during the night, and he had not been aware of it. That had never, ever occurred in his lifetime. He must have made love to her without even feeling it, and – another first – he had returned to sleep with his cock still engaged. It was mind-blowing.

Porter soon entered to perform his duties, and the look of utter disbelief on his man’s face was priceless. Alex grinned at him, then laid a finger on his lips.

“Come back in a few hours,” he whispered. “After all, this is my wedding night.”

Porter did not seem to like it. “Well, a bloody Happy New Year to you too, major,” he hissed before striding out. Alex suppressed a chuckle, then returned his attention to the matter at hand.

Why the devil was she in his bed, and more importantly, did he want her there in the foreseeable future? How would she react when he would have one of his nightmares? Because, he knew they would come; they always came. Hugging his sleeping wife closer, Alex reflected on his demons.

The nightmares had begun after he regained consciousness, and that had been weeks after he got injured. During the first fever-free days, he had not even dared falling asleep, if he could have prevented it, but of course, that had not happened. The nightmares were viciously horrible, making him re-live the terrors and cruelties of the battle.

He was again thundering down the Waterloo hill on Titan, together with the rest of his regiment. Their commanding officer, Lord Somerset had received the suggestion from Lord Uxbridge, supreme cavalry commander, that he could lead the attack following his own instincts. Somerset let his men gallop straight into the French infantry, without checking their numbers first. Despite the enormous strength in numbers of the French, the cavalry managed to annihilate the largest part. If they had only been permitted to finish the job instead of charging ahead, they might have created a breech in the French forces, big enough for Wellington to take up position with his infantry. Now, instead, they faced the relatively unscathed French artillery. The Household Brigade was massacred on that 18th of June, 1815.

Alex’ own ordeal had been merciful compared to that of his fellow officers, even though he had been severely wounded . A French grapeshot cannonball drilled a massive hole in the first ranks of men who managed the breakthrough. Thirty yards away from the impact zone, Titan went down under the force of the blow. Simultaneously, Alex was hit in the head  by a piece of grapeshot. The horse’s massive body covered him yet did not cause any ribs to break. While Alex was still reeling under the impact, ears deafened and vision blurred, a French sword came down on him, slicing across his torso. His ribs caught the blow but fortunately, the wound was not too deep. Even so, it was a miracle that no organs had been damaged. What happened next was a large black hole. He had awakened much, much later on the ship to England, to find himself weakened by weeks of unconsciousness and fever.

A whispered moan from Rowena drew Alex back to the present. She was shifting in his arms, her breasts rubbing against his chest. The instant, predictable reaction of his body was to have her again, even though she was still asleep, her breathing going to regular again. No, he would not wake her. She would not have recovered from last night, he knew. Moreover, she was in the last trimester of her pregnancy, and he was not sure if they should have carnal relations at all. What went through his mind, though, was the sweet, innocent way she had reacted to his seduction, the previous night in her room. She must have known how to respond to a man’s touch, her present condition testimony to that, yet she had given him total control over the reins. She had followed, and with a lack of experience that matched a virgin’s. That could only mean her lover had been a selfish brute, only interested in dousing his own fire, without consideration for Rowena’s own needs.

But Alex already knew that, too. The bastard had gotten her with child, knowing full well he would have to go to battle and leave her. Alex would not mind giving Peter Johnston a thorough beating, if the man should still be alive.

There was, he reckoned, another little something he needed to tackle. Had they not made love in her bed, last night? So why had she come to his, sometime during the night? It puzzled him, even though he was happy that she had done so. Until … he realized he must have had one of his nightmares.

Lord … that was … awkward. If indeed he had cried out, and she had come to him, then … no, he needed to know more. But did he? What if she simply had come because she had been cold? Yes, that must be it. It was the dead of winter, after all. She would be terribly embarrassed when she woke up in his bed, he mused. He had to get her back into hers.

Alex rose, and as carefully as he could, scooped Rowena up. She nestled against him with a sigh, and something inside him shifted. He ignored it and carried her to her bed. Laying her down with infinite care, he was glad that he had not wakened her. He neatly tucked the blankets around her, then paused, while he looked at her sleeping form. On an impulse, he bent over her and kissed her brow. She sighed in her sleep, and smiled. His heart made a weird kind of rotation, which caused his chest to constrict. No, he forbade himself to reflect on it, and strode out of Rowena’s room. When he returned to his bed to enjoy a few extra hours of sleep, he noticed the tell-tale stains of lovemaking. Bloody, damned bloody hell …

The Reclusive Aristocrat – Part Twenty-Two

Chapter Ten (completed)

Alex inwardly purred with male satisfaction at the signs of arousal coming from Rowena. Signs and sounds she was not even aware of, like little, frenzied intakes of air, and quiet rustle of cloth when she shifted restlessly on her stool. As for feeling frenzied, he was in that same state, too. It had been ages since he had felt this way. He was like a man who had slept for years only to come alive with need at a woman’s touch, although his wife had not touched him at all yet. He suppressed a quiver of anticipation at the thought of her soft, silken hands on him, and concentrated on reigning in his ever growing desire. He needed to be careful with Rowena. She was with child and she was also emotionally vulnerable. So he began drying himself with slow, purposeful strokes, and rejoiced when he heard her little moan. When he was ready, he turned to her and smiling, dropped the towel.

“Come,” was all he said as he extended a hand to her, and inwardly cheered when she stepped nearer. He covered the hand that was still clutching the towel she had wrapped herself in. Gently he pried it from her fingers, eased it open, and pulled it from her. Then finally, he took her into the circle of his arms, sheer joy flooding through him when her warm, soft body met the hot steel of his. He took a few moments to savour the bliss of holding her tightly against him, then scooped her in to his arms.

“Oh,” he whispered, “oh, how I remember this so very well. This is how you felt in my arms the very first day I met you.”

He strode to her bed, noticed that someone had drawn back the covers, ready for him to gently lay her down. Her glorious hair, a waterfall of chocolate-coloured silk, formed a cloak whereupon she lay like a fairy-tale princess. Lord, he had to change the way he was staring at her! He was still supposed to be nearly blind, was he not? He quickly fixed his eyes on the pale blue satin that adorned the counterpane. At least, that was soothing enough to help him conquer the most rampant images of ravishing her beneath him.

With an inward groan, Alex forced himself to shut his eyes. Only tactile sense for him from now on, although his nostrils greedily took in her lovely scent, and it nearly broke his defences.

Rowena lay still and allowed herself to take in the fascinating man who was her husband. She was burning for him, so much was true, but she knew it had been his purpose to make her burn. She had only reacted to his very male seduction, and gladly so, because she was no green girl fresh from the schoolroom. She knew how a man seduced a woman, from the time Peter had loved her, although she could not just call Peter a seducer. She herself had willingly stepped into the dance, too.      There was, however, a distinct difference between Peter and her new husband. Alex Raventhorpe was much, much bolder, and he was arrogantly seducing her, leaving her no room to protest. He was all male power and authority, and he was in charge. Yet Rowena found that she would wholeheartedly give in to his courting. She had an inkling that Alex’ lovemaking would be all-consuming and utterly fulfilling. And so it was that she lay still and waited for him to make love to her.

Their bodies touched as Alex lowered himself beside his wife. The thick, soft mattress dipped, causing her to roll against him, and he took the advantage to slide his arm under her shoulders. Almost instantly, she pressed against him, her leg slipping over his thigh as she hooked her foot behind one of his. Lord almighty, that felt good. He revelled in her shy but courageous response, which promised so much more to come.

He pushed his erection between her legs, rejoicing in her whimper of delight. One of his hands locked on the small of her back, immobilizing her. Her lovely, pregnancy-swollen breasts pushed against his chest, their nipples hard and tantalizing. He cupped one breast and smothered her gasp with a kiss.

Rowena’s spirits soared when his demanding tongue invaded her mouth. Slowly, deeply, he plundered her mouth with while his hand tweaked, kneaded and stroked her breast. Her body responded with alacrity, as a delicious heat began spreading from her breast to her core. She lost herself in Alex’ kiss, opened up to him as her thoughts scattered. She found she had wrapped her arms around his shoulders in her eagerness to press closer. As she was lying on her side, her belly was not hindering their close embrace. Rowena found it extremely comfortable to be in that position.

“Pull up your knees for me, my beauty,” Alex’ silky voice purred into her ear. “I am going to position myself sideways between them. I do not wish to hurt you or your little one.”

Rowena obeyed, thrilled with the sensations the movement brought on. She could feel his erection push against her core, so she opened her legs widely, then hooked them around his waist. Oh, God! She wanted this so much!

She shuddered when she felt him enter her, a sudden surge of fear closing a tight fist around her heart. Her babe! This could not be good for her child! Instinctively, Rowena scooted away from Alex, pushing against his chest with a sob. To her surprise, he did not pull her back. Instead, his hands stroked her back, soothing, comforting, and without sexual demands. Just the curve of her lower back, where it had ached so frequently these past weeks, due to her advanced pregnancy.

For a long while, Rowena just gave herself over to the heavenly feeling of her husband’s strong hands, which were easing all her tensed muscles. After a few moments, she became aware of his warm, hard body, creating a heat where it touched hers. She began feeling a stir of desire coming to life again.

“Shall I leave you for tonight, Rowena? I was wrong to try and force you in your advanced state of pregnancy, and I must apologize for inconveniencing you.”

Panic engulfed Rowena when her husband released her and began removing himself.

“No, please, stay! I … I am afraid I am a big coward, my lord. I fear for the child and …”

Alex’ heart clenched with compassion when he realized what it was she was fearing. Poor Rowena – she was, after all, still so very young. He pulled her close, once again, repositioning her as she had been before. Then he put one hand against the small of her back, as he had done before, to anchor her.

“Close your eyes, my beauty, and banish all thoughts from your mind. Do not think, only feel.”

“What are you going to do, my lord? I …”

“Shhh, be still, sweet …”

He began stroking her soft, round shoulders and beautiful, long, slender neck, revelling in the feel of her perfect skin. He loved how her breasts lifted as he caressed their delicious form, which fitted so perfectly in his large hand. She pressed them into his palm, sighing with desire, and he loved that, too. Slowly, he let his hand roam over her entire body, mapping it out, circling her breasts with the back of his hand until it lifted one of them. His thumb tweaked, rubbed, tickled, and she responded eagerly. He let his hand wander to the curve of her rounded stomach, teasing her belly button, which was now a tiny peak instead of a dip. She gasped with delight and pressed herself closer.

“My lord …” Her voice was but an airless whisper, but it thrilled him to the core.

“Alex …” he purred into her ear, “my name is Alex.”

“Alex …” The soft sound of his name shot a spear of desire into his loins, and he reached for her folds, buried in the silken curls of her womanhood.

“Alex!” She almost cried out, and he emboldened his strokes, pushing one finger into her core. She writhed, rubbed herself against his hand, uttering soft little moans of delight. Good, that was how he wanted her.

 

Rowena was on fire. The flames shot up from her core and devoured her entire body, and she wanted only one thing; to get closer to her husband, ever closer. She could not draw breath, when one long finger breached her opening, and began slowly teasing her bud out of its hood. Oh … oh, my … Long forgotten sensations awakened, the heat stirring her body, the dampness blossoming in her core, the tingling, the tension growing in her womb and spreading, ever so sweetly …

Her mind blanked, and her body relaxed, tensed, and then relaxed again until a second finger joined the first. Sweet Virgin … but Peter had never, ever done that! He would rub her but never enter her with his fingers, although, at the time, she had craved for that kind of caress. Peter never took the time to prepare her, she now realized, not like Alex was doing now. Alex, who was now licking her nipple … who was simultaneously wooing her in the two most sensitive spots she had. Oh … oh!

Alex grinned when Rowena came. She bucked under his hand, a tiny, high little cry coming from her. He could feel her wetness blossom around his fingers, her inner walls clutching him tightly. God, he wanted her! His already fully aroused cock grew even larger, straining under the ache to claim her. It was time, she as ready for him.

Gently, he withdrew his fingers, and placed his cock at her entrance, then pushed slowly inside. She instantly accepted him, wrapping her legs about his waist with a sob. He gave a slow, gentle stroke, just to get the feeling of her, and she clenched around him, nearly driving him over the edge. Gritting his teeth, he began to set up a slow, languish rhythm, not too deep, not too fast. She responded by matching him avidly and without restraint or fear.

It had been his intension to make her climax a second time before he let himself go, but his treacherous body cut that short. To his utter surprise, he could not stop the glorious, bright release of his seed. Still reeling under the waves of bliss, that kept washing over him, he helplessly clutched her deeper into his embrace. Her feminine scent drugged him, and he revelled in it. When she violently peaked around him, bombarding him with enormous waves of delight, he felt something claw at his heart. It did not hurt, however. It felt right.

 

The Reclusive Aristocrat – Part Twenty-One

Chapter Ten (continued)

Rowena had the distinct impression that this wedding day of hers was as unreal as a fairy tale, and each moment, she expected to come awake and discover it had all been a dream. It had all been perfect, for sure. The ceremony of their wedding, the modest presents of the people when they had congratulated her, the small wedding breakfast with some of the people that had come on Christmas Eve, seven days ago. Her husband, the earl, tall and magnificent, who had spoken his vows in a voice that shook the eaves of the church. His touch, as he slid the ring onto her finger, his embrace, so fierce and strong.

He had, however, not spoken overly during the ride home and the breakfast. He had even left her alone to go and talk to John Wallis and to his solicitor, while she had stayed to entertain their guests. Rowena guessed that this might just be the waking moment; she standing amidst the guests, terribly missing her new husband. She had a sudden fear that the rest of her married life might have many moments of loneliness. After all, their marriage was one of convenience, was it not? Alex might be an earl, but he was damaged, and had not been bound to find a proper bride, blind as he was. And she was a fallen woman, who was desperate to have a home for her fatherless child. There was no love between them, and she feared there would never be.

But was it foolish of Rowena to hope for affection, for friendship, even?

Now the guests were leaving, and Alex was nowhere in sight. Rowena bade them all a friendly goodbye, on her own. It was not a pleasant task, but she was determined to make the best of it. When the last guest had departed, Rowena ordered a light supper to be prepared. She went upstairs to her new bedchamber, one that was connected to the master bed rooms by a dressing room. There she found Meg, who had laid out Rowena’s nightgown on the large bed.

A large fire was blazing in the hearth, drawing Rowena nearer. She stretched out her icy-cold hands towards the flames, glad for the warmth.

“Let go of your fear, Rowie. Your husband is a good man and he will care for you.”

“Oh, Meg! How is it that you always seem to know my thoughts?”

Meg came to her and drew her in her arms. “Because you are the daughter I never had, dearest. Now come, let me help you undress. Lord, but you are cold as ice! Hurry, in the tub with you.”

 

Mr Septimus Middlebridge gathered his documents and meticulously stored them in his portfolio.

“Thank you, my lord,” he said with his usual congeniality, “this concludes all necessary changes to your will, and also the new financial arrangements you provided for Her Ladyship and for Mr and Mrs Wallis. May I again congratulate you on your marriage, my lord?”

He extended his hand, first to Alex, who took it swiftly, and then turned to John Wallis. “A pleasure to make your acquaintance, I am sure, Mr Wallis. May we have many satisfactory meetings in the future.”

“Likewise, Mr Middlebridge,” John Wallis agreed.

Fidgeting with the last of his documents, Middlebridge retrieved a large manila envelope from his portfolio.

“My lord, if I may ask for your attention one last time?”

Alex, whose thoughts had been in the bedroom upstairs where his bride was waiting for him, turned an annoyed gaze to his solicitor. “Yes, Middlebridge, what is it?”

“I have received a summons from London, my lord. The Lord Chancellor requests your presence at the House in order to hand over your patent letters. As you might know, they are needed to establish you as the fifth earl of Ketteridge.”

Damn. The man was right. Alex had yet to be acknowledged as his brother’s successor. After his return from the battlefield, he had been too sick to even realise he was the new earl. Now, he mused, there was nothing to prevent him to go to London any more.

“You may answer the Lord Chancellor’s summons, Middlebridge, and inform him I shall be in Town in mid-January.”

The solicitor bowed one last time and took his leave. Alex waited for the click of the lock before addressing his steward. “I hope, Mr Wallis, that I will have your utmost loyalty from now on? The countess and I will have need of your services in the immediate future, here as well as in London.”

If John Wallis was shocked, it was by no means not noticeable, Alex mused. No intake of breath, no change of expression on his lined face.

“My lord,” the man stated in an even voice, “you had it from the beginning. My professional pride would never be overcome by personal motives. Still I am very happy that you made our dearest Rowie your wife. She is like a daughter to Mrs Wallis and me, and we would not want to see her unhappy. I wish you every happiness in your union with her ladyship, my lord.”

The steward bowed and left.

Alex allowed himself a last splash of Laphroig, reluctant to leave for bed, and equally averse to stay away from his wife. His wife … his countess … he felt strange, a bit unsure as to what to do, but he also experienced – and here he hesitated to form the words he was searching for – a burning elation, an eager anticipation. Had he not burned for her since the first seconds he met her? He wanted to lose himself in the arms of his new wife. Be disintegrated and be reborn again. It would be impossible tonight. He could not make love to Rowena before she had given birth, could he? What if he hurt her unborn child with his rampant lust? Because that was what he had felt from the first moment he put his hands on her – desire, pure and simple … and fierce possessiveness.

In puzzlement, Alex wondered about why she had the power to do just that; to make him desire her, when at first, he had not even been able to see her properly. He was a soldier, a man who, through his regiment’s journeys, had wandered the earth and encountered many women. Never had he experienced anything else than lust, and never in such an intense, almost compelling way. Never had he lusted so violently after a woman as he did after Rowena.

There. He had formed the thought that had been whirling inside his head since the first of December. It was utterly bewildering, fiercely foolish, even. A month ago, he had not even met her, and now she was bound to him for life. As he was to her. She would soon be at his side when they departed for London. How would she deal with the Ton? God, but he had never ever thought to have to deal with all that ever again!

He drained the last of his whisky and headed for his rooms – no, they were their rooms now. He had better get used to that notion.

In the master bedroom, Porter was fussing about, tidying where it was unnecessary. He heaved a sigh of relief when he saw his master. “Thought ye’d never come up, major. The day was long, ye know. A fella wants te get a rest. ‘Ere, shall I ‘elp ye wi’ undressin’?”

“No need, Porter. Go to bed, I won’t keep you from it any longer.” He turned to the dressing room door.

“Ye can’t go in there yet, major. Yer gonna ‘ave to wait until ‘Er Ladyship is done.”

“No,” Alex said, a sudden rush heating his blood, “I do not think so, Porter.”

 

 

In the dressing room, Meg helped Rowena into the bathtub, then began clearing up, humming cheerfully. Rowena relaxed a little when she lowered herself in the fragrant, pleasantly warm water Meg had prepared for her. She was tired after the long day fraught with emotions. Emotions that were now being rekindled …

Alex had been in a strange mood all day, she mused, and one that she had had trouble dealing with. Oh, he had been kind enough, and gallant, and so handsome, when he had guided her through their wedding ceremony. But that had been when they were in the throng of the community, where it mattered how they behaved as the lord and lady of the manor. People – Alex’ people to be precise – needed reassurance, Rowena knew. They had been neglected by their lord for too long a time. Their lord marrying had given them new hope of a brighter, more prosperous future.

Rowena realized Alex had put it into her care to give his people the much needed certainty that all would go better from now on. That was why he had left her alone to walk amongst their guests, and talk to them. All perfectly understandable, but Rowena could have wished for a bit of reassurance herself. A few words with her husband before …

Rowena swallowed and sat up in the bath. In a few moments, they would share intimacy. A bed, a room, and … their bodies. She turned to Meg in a panic. “Oh, Meg, I am wondering …”

She stopped on a gasp, unsure as how to put her anxiety into words.

“What is it, my pet?”

“Well … will it … could it …”

Meg was instantly beside her, and she began lathering soap onto a cloth. “Come, my dove, let me.”

Rowena let out a sigh of well-being when Meg’s administrations began working their soothing magic. They brought her back to the long-ago days of her childhood, when Meg had been her nanny. Meg, who had always been there for her, and who was now here with her again. Rowena sent up a silent prayer of thanks.

“Meg, will it hurt the baby if … if we …”

Meg smiled. “No, my dearest, it will not harm the little one, if his lordship goes about it gently, which I am sure he will. Nothing will occur before time, if that is what you are worrying over. It is not yet your due time, so do not concern yourself. Instead, go to your husband with all the attention he is worth of.”

“I … oh, Meg, it is all so unexpected! So … sudden! I really had no time to … accustom myself to these … requirements I knew for so little a time and …”

To Rowena’s surprise, Meg burst into a peel of laughter. “Oh, Rowie, do not be so missish now! You know what it is like to be touched by a man, do you not?”

“Yes, but …”

“I am certain that every man has his own approach, his own touch, but the basics do stay the same, do they not?”

Rowena was about to point out that her new husband surely was not ‘every man’, when the door opened. Her lord stepped in, clad in loose black silk trousers that clung to his hips like a second skin. They were riding low on his narrow waist, a waist Rowena could stare at to her heart’s content, because his broad, tightly muscled chest was bare.

She was unable to tear her gaze away from his beautiful form, so it took her several moments before she realized she was still in her bath. Naked, and unprotected from his gaze. Oh, of course, there she was mistaken – he could not see her, or at least, not clearly. That made her draw in that much needed gulp of air, finally.

 

Inwardly gritting his teeth, Alex fixed his eyes to the wall above the bath tub. Lord Almighty, but what a sight had just assaulted him! His new, young and perfectly rounded wife was still lounging in the water, her delectable curves glistening with it. By Jove, if she was that gorgeous when she was rounded with pregnancy, how would she look like when she was not! It did not bear thinking of.

At that moment, Mrs Wallis spoke. “Good night, my lady, my lord.” She then curtsied and hurriedly left. Alex began loosening the silk cord that fastened his trousers.

“Forgive me, my dear. I did not know you had not finished your ablutions yet.”

Whereupon he bent down and scooped up his wet bride to put her on her feet beside the bath. The little squeal she made sent a sparkle up his spine. Outwardly unperturbed, he reached for a towel and began wrapping her in it.

“There,” he said, “you can finish off drying yourself whilst I bathe.”

And the next second, he dropped his trousers.

Rowena stood there, mesmerized with what was before her. The large, muscular body of her husband, entirely naked, and in a state that was utterly frightening to her. He was … large. Extremely large. How would he … she hastily pushed that thought away because there was so much to admire.

Alex had stepped into the water and was now lathering his large chest with Rowena’s lily-of-the-valley soap. The ripples of muscle this movement brought on, were simply delightful. His taut, slightly tanned skin was perfect, even with the multiple tiny scars that covered his arms and shoulders.

She had trouble breathing as she felt her nipples tighten beneath the towel. Oh, this wonderful feeling she had known all those months ago, how she had missed this. Was it even possible for a pregnant woman so far gone as she was to even feel desire that much? Was it normal?

Alex soon proved to her that is was not merely normal but frightfully compelling, too. He rose, water sliding along that long, hard body, and Rowena’s entranced gaze travelled down with the glistening drops. Down, more and more, along that broad chest to that flat, narrow stomach and …

When her eyes caught sight of his fully aroused manhood, Rowena’s body tensed, grew cold, then erupted in flames. All saints in heaven … how was she to handle this? He was magnificent, he was a worrier! Her legs weakened, and she sank onto a low stool near the wall, wincing when a dull pain throbbed within her womanly folds. Although it felt so incredibly good …

The Reclusive Aristocrat – Part Twenty

Chapter Ten (continued)

The luncheon on Christmas Day had gone by in the same enjoyable and amiable atmosphere, with their own staff as guests now.

Afterwards, there had been a meeting with Mr Septimus Middlebridge, Alex’ solicitor. Rowena had been surprised by yet another cheerful acknowledgment of her marriage to Alex. Everybody seemed in complete agreement about the fifth earl of Ketteridge uniting himself to a woman of no means. A woman spoiled by another man’s touch, and carrying so blatant a proof of it.

“Miss Drake,” Mr Middlebridge had said in a suave voice, “you will be pleased to hear that His Lordship wishes you to participate in the whole extent of his possessions. He has placed a settlement on you that amounts to two thousand pounds a year, for as long as you are his wife. He has also made arrangements for the child you are carrying. His Lordship regrets that he cannot make the child his heir, as you well understand, but he will bestow an annual allowance of a thousand pounds on the babe, to assure its upkeep and education.”

Rowena had stared at Alex with utter disbelief, her head reeling under what she had just heard. She had refrained from commenting while in Mr Middlebridge’s presence and instead, had thanked Alex for his generosity. She had also wondered why he had not told her himself of all this. Was he already regretting it? Rowena had tried to speak to him when the solicitor had left, but Alex claimed he had work to do. He had retired to his library, leaving Rowena with the distinct impression that she was not welcome there now.

Had she imagined their shared feelings during the Christmas Eve dance? Had it only been her own longing for him? Tears blurred her vision as she retreated to her rooms, yet she firmly blinked them away. She had a lifetime to find out Alex’ secrets.

 

On the morning of December 31th, the sun was brittle but bright, its rays firing sparkles off the snow-covered fields and pastures. It was bitterly cold when people began to scuttle into St Crispin’s church in the village of Ketteridge to watch their lord marry. Near the altar, the villagers and tenants could see him standing beside his two best men, his friend, Dr Richard Orme and his batman, James Porter.

Alexander Richard Christopher Raventhorpe, fifth earl of Ketteridge cut a fine figure in his splendid regimentals, his stance proud and firm. He held his white-plumed helmet in one hand, and his white gloves in the other, and his gaze – his blind gaze – was upon the rear of the church where the double doors had been thrown open. A gust of cold, brisk winter air wafted inside and made the many candle flames waver. The congregation shivered, and the men turned up their coat collars, while the women drew their wrappings closer to their bodies. They all hoped that the bride would not let them wait overly long, so that they could return to their warm homes.

They did not have to wait for long, because precisely at the stroke of eleven, the earl’s carriage drew up before the church door.

Murmurs of appreciation began rustling down the knave of the church as people began to catch a glimpse of the bride. Alex reminded himself firmly not – in any case at all – to stare at his bride. Rowena was not yet supposed to know he was able to see. He did not want her to be cross at him for deceiving her. He wanted to wait until the time for confession was right, and that was not today, on their wedding day, when sincerity and straightforwardness were needed. He straightened to full attention, as befitted an officer of the Household Guards, and directed his gaze at the rear of the church.

A vision in white was striding down the aisle at John Wallis’ arm – no, not a vision, a fairy tale queen, dressed in a gown of pure white silk, the skirt wide to disguise her pregnancy. She wore a white mink pelisse that accentuated the creamy peach colour of her lovely face, and brought out the rich chocolate waterfall of her glorious hair. Lord, it was incredible, but her hair fell in long, silky waves to far beneath her waist. She had pinned up two solitary strands of it, and they framed her sweet face like a veil. She looked like a medieval queen marrying her king. Alex swallowed at the thought of his hands going through that richness, of his face buried into it, inhaling her sweet womanly scent. Christ, he became hard as …

Stop! You fool! Behave, you are in church.

He was suddenly back on Christmas Eve and his waltz with Rowena. She had been so beautiful, with desire darkening her eyes to near black. She had longed for him, then, he was certain of it. Hopefully, she would do the same tonight, in their marital bed.

 

As soon as she stepped into the church, Rowena’s eyes were riveted on the tall form of her husband-to-be. Holy Mother of God, but he was magnificent!

The regimentals aside, he was a sight to behold, in bearing and character. Tall, powerful, and so full of irrevocably masculine strength, with his broad shoulders and strong, hard thighs, and his handsome, beautiful face. His eyes, so light-grey with a bold, blue fire burning in their depths. His long, strong nose, with the tip slightly pointing downward. His large sensual mouth, with its attractive, supple lower lip.

Rowena’s heart jumped when he extended his hand, and hers was placed in it by John, to whom she smiled with fondness. Alex’ warmth shot up her arm to tingle down her spine. He did not wear his gloves, she noticed, and she felt his touch penetrate the fine kidskin of her glove. The attraction she had been feeling from the first moment she set eyes on him, was now tenfold, and she welcomed it, no, had a strong urge to give in to it. To let him take over her entire person. Today was their wedding day, and tonight, he would make her his wife. A shiver ran through her at the notion of what was to come.

His wife! She would be his wife. Tonight … Alex was going to make love to her. Suddenly, the noises in the church, the rustling of clothing, and the low humming of hushed conversation, it all blurred and mingled into a muffled din in Rowena’s ears, as if she were under water.

Suddenly, she was aware of one thing, and one thing only; she would have intercourse with Alex, and she would welcome it. She knew how it was, she had savoured a man’s touch on her body and experienced pleasure. Even though she had known Alex only for a bit less than a month, Rowena knew that she longed for his touch. Alex was a good man, that much she knew also. He had taken her in and was marrying her, even though she was carrying another man’s child.

Her thoughts were shattered by the vicar’s clear, intoning voice.

“Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today to join this man and this woman in holy matrimony.”

 

Alex felt Rowena’s hand tremble, and irritation instantly ran through him. Why did she appear to be afraid? Was she afraid of him? Had he not promised to protect her? Then why did her voice waver ever so slightly when she spoke her vows? Why were her words so quiet that even he had to strain his ears to hear them? Damnation, but he would have to teach her not to be afraid of him!

The reverend Mr Bonneville was now blessing the wedding band. It had been the previous countess’ ring, and the best Alex could conjure up in so short a time, but he felt sure his mother would not have objected to her daughter-in-law borrowing her wedding band. He took the ring and lifted Rowena’s hand when he realised that she was still wearing her kid gloves. Christ, but had nobody told her brides did not wear gloves? Remembering that he had to feel rather than see the glove, he began tugging it off with slow but deliberate gestures, first the thumb, then the other fingers.

“With this ring I thee wed, with my body I thee honor, and all my worldly goods I bestow on thee.”

He slipped the band onto the fourth finger of her left hand, then brought it to his lips, not to kiss her knuckles but her palm. He let his lips linger longer than was necessary, until she shivered with a slight intake of breath.

The reverend Bonneville intoned further. “In as much as you, my lord Ketteridge and you, my lady Rowena have thus consented in holy matrimony and have witnessed the same before God and this gathering, and by the authority vested in me by the Church of England, I now pronounce you husband and wife. What God hath joined together, let no man put asunder. My lord, you may kiss your bride.”

Alex lifted his hands to Rowena’s face and was surprised to find an impossibly thin veil block the way to her mouth. The damned thing was too insubstantial for him to be able to see it with his still imperfect eyesight, or for his large hands to lift it out of the way. His fingers were clumsily fumbling with the gossamer fabric, when his bride surprised him and did away with the veil. She then rose onto the tips of her toes and touched her lips with hers. He felt a surge of triumph, so powerful that he wrapped her in an embrace fit to crush her. Which it did, of course. She gave a little cry of pain when he crushed her pregnant body against his, the sound of it fortunately being overruled by the congregation’s applause. He forbore the kiss and put her from him, then placed her hand on his arm and marched her to the church’s exit.

Rowena, thoroughly surprised, and a little hurt by his curtness, forced a smile on her face. She would not fail him as his countess, if it killed her.

A substantial part of the crowd had already filed out through the side entrance, and so it was that a loud cheering rose when they exited the church. Mostly women and children, of course, which befitted a new countess. Alex watched his bride receive the many well-wishes of Ketteridge’s mothers in the form of small bouquets of herbs and a few snowdrops, too. It was the middle of winter, and there were no flowers as yet, beside the snowdrops.

Rowena, he saw, gathered all the gifts in her arms and took the time to speak with everyone that was present. He, on the other hand, looked a bit superfluous, amidst all that feminine company, but he did not mind. This was Rowena’s day, and she should be in the center of it all.

It was amazing. People flocked around her as if they wanted to be as near to her as they could. Alex’ mouth nearly fell open when he saw his two footmen hurry at her side to take the parcels and bouquets from her.

“Should you not be at her side, or is basking in your new wife’s popularity a bit painful for you?”

Alex grimaced at Richard Orme’s teasing tone. “Are you suggesting I am jealous of her being liked by my own people? Because I am not, Rich, and well you know it. Besides, it is a good thing that my countess be liked. She has a role of her own to fulfil.”

“Have you told her yet about your improving eyesight?”

“No.”

“Thought so. Why not?”

“I am still trying to get used to it myself. Moreover, I do not know if it is permanent. I do not want to raise false hopes.”

At his other side, Porter chimed in. “’Ave ye told ‘er about yer nightmares yet, major? She’s bound te wake up when ye scream yer ‘ead off in the night.”

Alex’ patience was wearing thin as he growled, “What are you two? My conscience? Do not concern yourselves over what I tell my wife or do not tell her. The two of you are fortunate to be my friends, or I would have called you out!”

He strode away to his carriage, irritated because Orme and Porter were right. He should have spoken with his wife about many things yet he had not. The worst of it was that such matters had a tendency to get stickier the longer one allowed them to fester.