The Reclusive Aristocrat – Part Forty-Three

Chapter Nineteen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“The … the battle?”

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

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

The Reclusive Aristocrat – Part Forty-Two

Chapter Eighteen (completed)

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

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

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

“But she is my sister!” Roderick exploded.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

The Reclusive Aristocrat – Part Forty-One

Chapter Eighteen ( continued)

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Reclusive Aristocrat – Part Forty

Chapter Eighteen

London, March 10th, 1816

In the company of her maid, Rowena left Madame Améline’s shop on Bond Street after a full afternoon of choosing and fitting for a new wardrobe. She was exhausted but content, because the effort had been worth it.

“Oh, milady, you’re going to be so beautiful in those fabulous gowns! And the pelisses and coats, the hats and gloves, and …”

“Yes, Trixie, I know, and I am counting on you to take care of it all when it is delivered. Come, we must return to the hotel. It is nearly Emma’s feeding time.”

They waited for their footman to hand them into the carriage, and  Rowena sighed with relief when she lowered herself down onto the lush cushions. Her feet were very sore, and she was dying for a cup of tea.

She must have spent a fortune, she mused. Would Alex mind about her spending? It was he who insisted on arranging an account at Madame’s shop, because his wife needed to be fitted out properly for London. No expenses must be spared, he said, but Rowena worried all the same.

The trip to Town had gone smoothly, and little Emma Rose had been no trouble at all. She slept through the journey whenever the carriage rumbled along. Alex had insisted on putting her in a large wicker basket which he personally secured firmly onto the leather squabs in the carriage. He also instructed Nanny Bessy to sit beside it and watch over Emma at all costs. Rowena could not help smiling at her husband’s excessive protective sense.

Alex had secured a suite at Mivart’s hotel in Mayfair, a modest but excellent establishment that had opened some four years before. The Raventhorpe family  did no longer possess a town house, since Reginald, the fourth earl, sold it to pay off his many debts. Alex could not help himself though and on one of their outings, he had showed Rowena the beautiful mansion on Park Lane that had once been Raventhorpe House. It now belonged to a rich cotton manufacturer from Manchester.

London Society, however, was rapidly changing, as common people began acquiring wealth from the growing industries in the north of England. They might still be given the cut direct by the aristocracy to whom they were often money lenders, but they were enhancing their positions through clever investments and hard work. Hotels such as Mivart’s cleverly responded to the needs of rich business men who did not want to waste money on expensive town houses. All the comforts of home could be found in such establishment for a reasonable price, which suited everyone all the same.

When Rowena entered their suite, she could hear Emma’s loud protest at being left hungry for too long. She hastened to the bedroom where she found Bessy walking up and down the room shushing the two-month-old infant in her arms.

“Hush, hush, my darling! Mummy is here now, come, my precious.” Rowena took Emma from her nanny and sat down in the rocking chair near the windows. It was a very nice gesture from the hotel management, she found, to have provided such a useful item of furniture. Soon Emma was suckling happily, and Rowena could finally relax.

She had not realized just how exhausted she was, until her head started nodding forward. The voice of her husband asking Tracy where Rowena was brought her back to the present. Alex entered, concern clouding his handsome features. He was holding a stack of letters and sat down in an armchair near the fire place, groaning with frustration.

“What is it, Alex?”

“Invitations to several routs, and I will be damned if I know how they found out we were even in Town!”

 

They could, of course, not escape the Ton, so Alex and Rowena picked their acceptances very carefully.

The first event they attended was a ball held by Mrs John Scott, whose husband was a distinguished member of parliament and a successful lawyer. Their sumptuous mansion on Park Lane was frequently the scene of important cultural events.

For the occasion, Rowena had donned one of her new gowns, an elegant Empire style dress in fine buttercup yellow silk. Alex was resplendent in his black-and-white evening attire.

“May I complement you on your appearance, my dear?” Alex said, as soon as they were seated in their carriage. “You look exquisite in that gown.”

“You look very beautiful yourself, my lord,” Rowena parried, winking at him, which brought a blush to his impeccably shaven cheeks. “However, Alex, you must tell me who are our aristocratic hosts for tonight. I would not want to make mistakes on our first London soirée.”

“Well … Mr and Mrs Scott are no aristocrats but commoners,” Alex replied, smiling at Rowena’s widening eyes. “He is a successful lawyer and member of parliament, thanks to the family’s wealth obtained from being respectable and hard-working Newcastle merchants. The Right Honourable John Scott also had ascended the Woolsack in 1801, and it is whispered that he has the ear of the prince regent. Nobody will be surprised when he is endowed with a title soon.”

“Why on earth would one ascend a woolsack?” Rowena asked in bewilderment.

Alex laughed. “It is an expression used for someone who fills the position of Lord High Chancellor, presiding the House of Lords, among other matters.”

“Mr Scott is the High Chancellor? I thought only titled gentlemen were allowed to hold that particular position.”

“Ah, but Mr Scott is very close to being a titled gentleman, my dear. There are whispers that Prinny will grant him an earldom in the near future. Mrs Scott, who also comes from a wealthy bankers’ family, will then become a countess. Very neatly done for a couple that eloped to Scotland against their families’ wishes.”

“They eloped? Oh, how romantic!”

Alex chuckled and planted a quick kiss on her mouth. “What a child you are, Rowie, but I am beginning to appreciate that in you. You do not judge people by their wealth or position, but by their humanity and the way they behave towards others. Do not ever change, my dear, please?”

Before Rowena could even think of responding to his unexpected endearment, the carriage stopped and a footman opened the door. They had arrived.

The Reclusive Aristocrat – Part Thirty-nine

Chapter Seventeen (completed)

Ketteridge House, Leicestershire, England, end of February, 1816

As soon as Alex reached home, he went upstairs to his bedroom. Although it was only just past luncheon time, exhaustion hit him like a tidal wave. It was as if Johnston’s death weighed upon him even heavier than the knowledge of his being alive and a part of Rowena’s life had done. Over and over again, the image of her grieving beside the blackguard’s body kept intruding into his brain and heart. Devil take it, but how could she grieve so over a man who had shamelessly seduced her and afterwards left her thinking he had been killed at Waterloo?

Alex seated himself near the fireplace,  revelling in the sudden warmth, and only now realizing how cold he was. He needed to think, to scrutinize all the information he had on this matter. That had been how he survived many a dire situation during his army days.

One matter was as clear as daylight; Johnston had not returned home directly after the battle. He had turned up here in Ketteridge around the end of December, but where had he been in the six months preceding that moment? According to what the scoundrel told Rowena, he had suffered from amnesia and had only recently remembered who he was. Possible, but Alex knew all too well that amnesia was the common excuse for deserters to justify their transgression.

Then there was the dead man’s connexion to Rowena’s half-brother, Roderick Drake, proven by the button found in the cottage. Was Drake the murderer or was there someone else involved? Surely, Drake would not venture all the way down from Cumberland to do away with Johnston? Or would he? Alex was suddenly aware of how little he knew about Rowena’s family.

The dressing room door opened admitting his wife. Alex stared at her in astonishment; had he not locked all the doors as he usually did? He abhorred the notion that anyone, especially Rowena, would strode into his sanctuary.

“Forgive me, Alex, but I need to talk to you. Do not look so utterly stunned. I had a copy made of all the keys in the house, and at present, Meg and I have them all. If you are in need of privacy, please inform me, but otherwise, I want to be able to enter every room in this house. It is my prerogative as the mistress.”

 

Not only was he stunned, Rowena noticed, but he also seemed relieved, as if he had been waiting for her to do exactly what she had done at this moment. She had boldly invaded his very own sanctuary, the room in which he strove to be alone, to be without her. Rowena was bored of not being a part of Alex’ life and she had taken her courage in her own two hands and breeched the doors. Porter, of all people, had helped her by handing over the keys when she asked for them. That was perhaps the greatest surprise of all, that she had been able to ensure the sour valet’s help. Yet breeching the barring doors was only the first part of Rowena’s plan.

“I have a confession to make,” she said, inwardly smiling at his obvious confusion. She forged on, before her courage let her down. “I was present at The Fox and Hare, this morning, despite your urgency that I stay home.”

Anger flashed in his blue, oh so blue eyes. “And did you intend to stand up as a witness in person, or did you have some sense left at that point?”

“I would never do anything to harm you, Alex, which I would have done been if I had come forward. We agreed that I would not stand up, so I did not. I was, however, very eager to see you as the earl of Ketteridge in public for the first time.”

“Oh? And now you have, and all that time you risked being seen, which would have damaged my budding reputation as a magistrate. It is badly done, Rowena, and I sincerely hope that you will take more heed of my words in the future.”

Rowena smiled. “I will always take heed of everything you do or say, Alex. We are husband and wife, the earl and countess of Ketteridge, which, if I understand correctly, we are not yet officially. That is what I came to talk about, Alex. We need to go to London and get your patent letters from the Lord Chancellor. We must show the world that there is a new earl of Ketteridge.”

 

She was so stunningly beautiful. So regal and fiery at the same time, and so utterly adorable that it made his heart beat in his chest like a bird trying to escape its cage. What a change this woman had wrought in his former, miserable life. She was right, of course. They needed to go to London, but Alex dreaded that in the extreme. The thought of exposing her to the London Ton, that enormous mass of flippant, rattle-brained, spend-drift  aristocrats, scared the wits out of him. The so-called beau monde did not care a hoot as to what happened to the rest of the world, as long as they had their share of brainless amusements at the expense of others less fortunate. They were a cruel and vicious lot, he knew, and they would tear her to pieces at the first misstep she made.

“Rowie … Oh, Rowie, what a child you are,” he croaked, desperately swallowing down his distress. “You truly have no idea of what you are talking about, do you? Yes, you are right in my having to retrieve my letters from the House of Lords, and I was planning on doing just that. However, you cannot accompany me there without having been presented at Court, Rowena, and that is nigh-on an impossible thing to happen. You have no experience in society, my dear. You would have to master all the requirements for proper behaviour under the tutelage of a sponsor. You do not have such a sponsor, wife, and I could provide one if I tried. So, no, my dear, if I am to go to London, it must be without you. I deeply regret it, but it cannot be helped.”

She laughed, she laughed, for heaven’s sake! “Alex, you forget that, though short it was, I grant you, I had my London season two years ago under my aunt Charlotte’s sponsorship. I did the round of the routs we were invited to, thanks to my uncle’s business connections. It was a meagre lot, since the highest sticklers of aristocracy will shun a man in trade, but nevertheless, I learned how to behave in society well enough. The Ton does not agree with me, to be honest. There is such an immense hypocrisy about it all, so much deceit and conceit about it. For your sake – our sake – I will bear it, Alex. I can be your countess, that I know as much.”

Her sweet smile was so trusting, her stance so confident, and her eyes were sparkling with oh, so much innocent enthusiasm. He had to raise one final issue, he knew.

“How are we going to fare with Emma Rose, Rowena? Surely, she is still too small for such a journey. You are still nursing her, remember?”

“Yes, and I am determined to nurse her as long as I am able to. Oh, Alex, it is such a great joy to hold her and have her snuggling against my breast!”

Alex violently swallowed at the sudden lump in his throat.  He could not point a finger to what exactly it was that made him feel so vulnerable and out of sorts. He only knew that it was not his usual state of mind and that the phenomenon had started when little Emma was born, which was utterly ridiculous, since she was not his child. Rowena, however, continued speaking in rapt enthusiasm.

“It will be perfectly all right to take her with us to London, Alex. We can travel in short stages and alight at inns at regular times so that I can feed her. We will take Nanny Bessy to see to her needs when I am busy elsewhere.”

He had forgotten about the nanny, Bessy Cooper, sister to the wet nurse Tracy Cobbins. She was only seventeen but competent enough to look after Emma. Her own mother had nine children and Bessy was the second after Tracy. She had looked after her younger siblings since she was five years old.

“I was wondering, Alex, how well are you acquainted with the Ton?”

“Not very well, I fear. After my time in Cambridge, I bought my commission and was instantly shipped off to Spain. I actually never participated in the Ton’s revelries. I visited London a few times while I was at university but hardly went to balls. White’s was where I stayed and where I had some friends but it has been a long time since I was in the capital. I became a recluse after my army days, remember?”

“Yes, I know … but, Alex, that was because you were so gravely injured at Waterloo. What would you have done if you had returned home undamaged?”

“Hard to say. You must realize, Rowena, that an experience like that of Waterloo is something that can thoroughly change a man. I was changed in ways I am even now just beginning to uncover.”

Her lovely deep brown eyes shone with compassion, which made Alex feel uncomfortable. He did not want her pitying him over his army career which had been his own free choice.

“Well,” she collected herself, “then going to London will do us all a lot of good!”

 

 

 

The Reclusive Aristocrat – Part Thirty-eight

Chapter Seventeen

Ketteridge House, Leicestershire, England, end of February, 1816

Alex felt like something hard and unforgiving was striking him full in the chest when he witnessed his wife sinking to her knees with a soft moan beside the body on the floor. At the same time, his protective trait hit him like lightning. There were too many witnesses in the room.

“Reverend Bonneville, I am very much obliged to you for bringing her ladyship here. In my haste, I confess I did not think of notifying her of what we found here. You may return home, now. I will take care of my wife,” Alex said, using his military voice. Not many of his men dared to disobey that tone.

The good reverend blinked in confusion but went on his way with a polite bow. Alex refocussed on his wife, deliberately ignoring Richard Orme’s raised eyebrows. He would deal with his friend later. Rowena, he saw, reached for Johnston’s bluish face, then seemed to recoil from the hideously distorted mouth with its protruding tongue. If he ever had doubts about the corpse’s identity, Alex was now absolutely sure who it was, for Rowena looked up at him with teary eyes.

“Oh, Alex, it is Peter! What happened? Oh, it is too distressing!” She grabbed one of the rigid hands and pressed it to her chest, and Alex winced at the sharp stab of jealousy deep in his chest. Bloody blasted hell, but she still loved the bastard. Well, he would not stand for it.

“Come away, madam,” he ordered coldly, taking her arm. “Dr Orme has not yet finished examining the body.” Vaguely aware of Richard’s astonished gaze, he tried to raise her from her knees, but she resisted.

“We must prepare him for burying, Alex. Will you allow to have him taken to Ketteridge House?”

Another stab, blast her. “I am afraid not, madam. This man has been murdered. There is to be an inquest at the village pub tomorrow. I will preside it since I am the magistrate here. It is best for you to return to the manor for now. You have done your part in identifying the victim, so I thank you. You are no longer needed here.” This time, he drew her to her feet and began tugging her from the room, painfully aware of the stunned stares Dr Orme sent him.

To his profound annoyance, she yet again bent over the corpse and picked something from the earthen floor.

“Alex …”

She seemed to choke from lack of air, and Alex felt his gut clench in fear. “What? What is it?”

She held up her hand and revealed a small, silver button shaped like a prancing horse. A tiny ruby served as the animal’s eye. The craftmanship was exquisite.

Rowena looked up at him and barely audibly whispered. “This comes from a waistcoat I once gave my brother.”

 

The next morning, people flocked into the tap room of The Fox and Hare to attend the inquest concerning the dead man found in the smithy. Excitement vibrated through the throng, the room being packed to the rafters. Outside in the courtyard, people were straining their necks to glimpse some small part of what was transpiring inside. Nobody wanted to miss a second of the event, since inquiries were an exhilarating performance for those not involved in the case. So it was that heads reared and necks stretched in anticipation to watch the new earl of Ketteridge enter the room. Men grunted in approval and women sighed in adoration as Alex, dressed in formal black and fine frock coat, took his place on the dais behind a massive oak table.

Today was Alex’ first appearance as magistrate for this part of Leicestershire, yet he would have to relinquish his authority to another. He had not yet been handed his patent letters, confirming him as the earl of Ketteridge. Furthermore, he was very much a concerned party in this case. He was prejudiced as well, since the dead man caused harm to his lady wife, a fact he could not easily overlook. Every action on his part would be seen as revenge of some kind. So for the sake of true justice, Alex called upon a coroner from Leicester, a Dr Nicholas Pearson, who gladly accepted the task.

The man in question now entered the room and was welcomed by Alex, who vacated his seat to the coroner, to take one at the side of the dais.

“Dr Nicholas Pearson from Leicester will preside this inquest in his capacity as coroner in that city. Please, proceed, doctor.”

The coroner was a man in his early forties, with an air of quiet authority. He immediately turned to the order of the day by calling his first witness, the farmer Abe Carter.

“As I understand, Mr Carter, you are the man who found the victim. Tell us how this occurred.”

In his own, simple words, Abe Carter related the story as he knew it; Jeremy Turnbull screaming about a ghost in his father’s abandoned house and Abe and his farmhand gone to investigate. They found the body hanging from one of the rafters. Abe then sent Jeremy to Dr Orme and the reverend Bonneville. Dr Orme was the first to turn up and it was he who cut down the body, assisted by Abe.

Dr Richard Orme was then called to confirm Carter’s statement and recount his investigation of the body. He declared that he had never set eyes on the deceased and that the man had clearly been murdered by being hoisted up while his hands were bound. The time of death was set two days previous, on February 26, 1816.

Next came the vicar’s statement that he had gone to Ketteridge House to inform his lordship, upon which the earl had departed to see for himself. The vicar had taken Lady Ketteridge with him because she asked to accompany him.

The following part of the inquest would have to be Alex’ own statement, which would inevitably result in his having to confess he knew the dead man. However, revealing Rowena’s involvement was absolutely out of the question, but it had caused a large argument between Alex and his wife, the night before. Alex strongly objected Rowena being exposed as the dead man’s former lover, as it would damage his own name and that of his family. It had taken him much pleading before his stubborn wife conceded in staying far away from the events to come, but in the end, she reluctantly agreed.

“My lord Ketteridge,” the coroner began, ”I gather that you can enlighten us as to the identity of the victim?”

“I can,” Alex replied. “This man is without a doubt the honourable Peter Johnston, third son of the earl of Carlisle. We shall have to notify the commanding officer of the Household Cavalry Regiment at the Horse Guards Barracks in London. I assume they will take up the dismal task of informing his family.”

Dr Pearson nodded thoughtfully and frowned, as though he hesitated before he asked his next question. “May I inquire as to how you are so certain about this man’s identity, my lord?”

Alex had prepared himself for this development. “Peter Johnston was an acquaintance of my wife’s, Dr Pearson. She recognized him as one of her brother’s friends and had met him while she was still at her home in Cumberland at Daveston Hall near Carlisle.”

“Thank you, my lord, you may step down.”

The coroner cleared his throat. “We hereby declare the murder of the honourable Peter Johnston by persons unknown on February 26, 1816. A further investigation will be performed by the Leicester Constabulary. This inquest is concluded.”

 

The Reclusive Aristocrat – Part Thirty-seven

Chapter Sixteen (completed)

Ketteridge House, Leicestershire, England, end of February, 1816

“Porter! Come with me!” Alex shouted at the batman cleaning boots in the small room next to the kitchen and startling him in the process. “We have urgent business in the village.”

They bundled themselves into their greatcoats, hats and scarves and headed for the stables.

“Major, the vicar! Shouldn’t we wait for ‘im?”

“He drove here himself.”

They tore from the estate at a thundering pace. Alex still marvelled at the wonder of regaining his eyesight almost completely, which allowed him to ride a horse again. His beloved stallion, Titan, had adapted splendidly to his riding and corrected his master’s errors to a fault. They reached the Turnbull house in less than a quarter of an hour. Alex jumped from Titan and tossed Porter the reins.

“Major, for heaven’s sake, wait fer me! Ye don’ know what’s inside!”

Alex did not listen. He drew his sword and his pistol, nevertheless. He kicked the door and it swung open with a crash.

“Good Lord, Alex! You scared the bloody daylights out of me! What is happening?”

Dr Orme was kneeling beside the body of a man. A rope – no, a noose – showed around his neck and his face was the awful sight of a hanged man; tongue sticking out of his contorted mouth, eyes bulging in a greyish countenance. Nevertheless, Alex knew fairly certainly that this was Peter Johnston, and it appeared that he took his own life by hanging himself. The dead man’s face was very similar to that of the man who attacked Rowena on the evening Emma Rose was born.

Fairly certain he might be, Alex mused, but not completely so. That night his vision had not yet returned fully, and moreover, it had been dark and foggy in the graveyard.

“Bloody bleedin’ ‘ell …” Porter’s soft but heartfelt curse roused Alex from his momentary stupor. Bloody hell, indeed. Alex, in his capacity as Earl of Ketteridge was the magistrate for this part of Leicestershire and would maybe have to order an inquest.

“Richard, would you do a full autopsy? Even though it is crystal clear that he did himself in, I still want a complete report on this.”

“Ah, well, Alex, that is where you err. He did not commit suicide. I discovered this when I cut him down. Look here, if you please?”

Dr Orme raised one of the corpse’s arms and showed Alex the almost invisible bruises which were typical when the hands were bound.

“The murderer must have used something soft but strong like silk or brocade to bind his hands and incapacitate him so that he could be hanged without too much resistance. Afterwards the bindings were removed yet we have not found them here. This was a carefully planned murder, Alex. It is only because the man must have put up a severe struggle that I am able to see the marks on his wrists.”

Richard was right, of course. It was murder, and Alex was bound by honour and duty to find out what happened and who the culprit was. However, he could not in all honesty declare that he was certain about the corpse’s identity.

“Porter, what do you think? Is this Johnston?”

“I dun’ know, major. It were awfully dark in that cemetery. I didn’ see ‘is face at all, remember? I just tried te tackle ‘im but he was too bloody quick fer me. Bloody limp isn ge’ing any be’er with time!”

Alex cursed under his breath. There was someone who could identify Peter Johnston, but Alex knew he could never ever asked Rowena to do that.

 

Rowena had just returned from the nursery where she had fed Emma Rose, when her husband’s strong voice sounded from the hall below. She had heard the front door knocker earlier, so there must have been a visitor. Therefore she was puzzled as to why Alex and Porter needed to depart so urgently when someone had called on them. She rushed downstairs and managed to waylay Meg before she disappeared into the servants’ quarters.

“What was that all about, Meg? Where are they going?”

“I have no idea, Rowie. I saw the vicar leave, just now. It seems odd that the reverend should depart without greeting you.”

Rowena snatched her thick woollen cloak and sturdiest bonnet from the stand and hurried through the back door to the stables. There was no time to fetch her half boots, so her slippers would have to be ruined, but she did not care.  She was till struggling into her cloak when she watched Alex and Porter racing down the drive towards the village. Reverend Bonneville followed them at a more leisure pace, allowing Rowena to attract his attention by waving vigorously at him.

The vicar halted his gig and lifted his hat. “My lady, whatever is the matter? Can I be of service?”

“Yes, Mr Bonneville, you can take me with you. I need to follow his lordship to wherever he is heading.”

“My lady, I do not think …”

“You could tell me why his lordship is rushing down the road at breakneck speed without waiting for you to accompany him. Clearly you have told him something that requires this urgency, so you can enlighten me as well now.”

Mr Bonneville looked so forlorn that Rowena took pity on him. “Very well, sir. Please tell me where they are heading to.”

“My lady, forgive me. A body was found in old Turnbull’s house, and since his lordship is the magistrate, he had to be informed. The man – God rest his soul – took his own life.”

“But … why the haste? Is it anyone known in the village?”

“No, my lady, this man is a stranger we have never seen before. I cannot fathom why his lordship departed so hastily, my lady, unless it is because this is the first time he is being called upon as magistrate and he desired to appear diligent?”

Yes, Rowena mused, that would be so adequately typical for Alex. “Thank you, reverend. I wonder if you could take me there? I do so want to watch my husband execute his duty.”

And also, she had a fair inkling who this man was, and if she was right, she needed to know.

 

“Wait, Rich,” Alex asked, when Dr Orme gestured to the two farmhands to help him take the corpse away. “Did you cut him down?”

“Yes, with the help of these lads here. He is still a large man, even though he must have had little to eat in his last weeks. It is a wonder he survived this long during the harsh winter we have had.”

“I suppose he was staying in this empty house?”

“Yes, as you can see, there are some leftover possessions of his. He had a makeshift fishing pole and some snares but it must have been difficult to catch something in this weather.”

Alex nodded and dismissed Carter and his farmhand, since they had better thigs to do than to loiter here.

After the man left the room, Alex began investigating the surroundings, a large part of which had been the kitchen when the house had still been occupied. A ramshackle table and a few broken chairs, a cupboard, a simple straw mattress and a pile of rags in the corner, that was all. No indications as to who the man had been. There was not even a bag or box to stuff his clothing, which he must have had if he indeed was an army deserter. The murderer must have taken it with him.

Devil take it, but he wished he would have been able to see Johnston’s face more sharply on that gruesome night. He simply had to be certain it was Rowena’s former lover. He knew she had been opening up to him earlier when she was still convinced of the man been killed at Waterloo. Suddenly, Alex felt that it was paramount to him for Rowena to open up to him. He could not fathom why this fact was almost of vital importance to him, but there it was; he wanted, craved, could not function without Rowena’s affection. It was frightening him to no end. Deuce take it.

The rumbling of wheels outside drew Alex from his musings.

“That must be the reverend,” he said. “I asked him to come back here after he warned us at the manor.”  Rising from his knees, Richard conceded, “This poor bloke is all his, since there is nothing I can do for him anymore.”

However, it was not only the Reverend Bonneville who entered the scene of catastrophy.