A Sensual Moment
Margaret woke with a start, suddenly conscious of the fact that she didn’t have a holiday gift for John. She didn’t have anything for anyone. She was sure it wasn’t expected of her this year, but she must talk to John to ensure he wasn’t going to purchase a gift for her.
Finding him dressed for the day, already reading his paper, Margaret said, “John, I want to talk about gift exchanging. I know there is a Thornton Proclamation, in effect, but I would have liked to have gotten you a small gift, but I haven’t had time. Please tell me you are not going to purchase anything for me.”
“I cannot promise that because the first thing we will do this morning is to procure a pair of snow boots for you, unless you have some at your home.”
“Why, yes, John. I do. We’ll visit my home first and talk with Adrian. And I’ve realized another person we forgot to invite, Mr. Granger, Dixon’s gentleman. Maybe she should be given this evening to visit him. Could Branson take her over to see him tonight?”
“Yes, if she’d like that, it is fine with me for the carriage use. How many would that make below stairs if everyone attends? We may have to find a second goose today.
Margaret started prattling off the names, flipping her fingers in the counting. “Let’s see, two Cooks, two Housekeepers, two Drivers/Chore men, Mr. Granger, and Branson’s lady friend. That’s eight below stairs. That huge work table should sit everyone. Upstairs, we’ll have . . . let me think . . . six. Dear me, that is 14 people for dinner, and your cook was probably only expecting 3 or 4. I’ll go talk with her, now, and ask what she might need in the way of food.” Margaret disappeared down the stairs before John could tell her where he was about to go.
John waited, putting the day together in his mind. They would be at Margaret’s home, and the Professors; they needed to purchase the liquors, along with the tree and trimmings. He went to the back stairs and hollered to Margaret that he was going to get Branson started and talk to Nicholas about the invitation. “I shall return shortly.”
The day progressed easily even in the deep snow. Jane was the only one to decline her invitation, as she was expected at her family’s this year. Nicholas was excited to have Margaret and Peggy together. He knew they would fit well as good friends. The Professor tried to beg off, but when he realized that his own Cook would not be cooking for him that day, he acquiesced. A second goose was located, and a box of assorted liquors and a box of champagne was purchased; that left only the tree, cranberries, holly, and mistletoe. John told Branson to drive around until he found some street merchants selling the holiday greenery. He wasn’t about to go tree chopping. John reached for Margaret’s gloved hand. He massaged her fingers and then pulled her hand to his face and kissed the underside of her wrist, forgetting himself. Startled at what he was doing, he said, “I’m just getting a head start on the other gentlemen. We’ll have an early dinner when we get home. I’ll have Branson mount the tree and bring it inside with the other greenery and the liquor. I guess we can leave the goose in the stable overnight. While he’s doing that, we can walk to the mill and get the cotton snow.”
“John, I’m so excited. It all feels contented and homey. It feels so right. I’ve had a wonderful day today and am looking forward to decorating the tree with you tonight. Do you keep any old lamp parts around?”
Puzzled, John said, “I think there might be a box of assorted pieces in the back cellar. What are we looking for now?”
“It’s possible you have saved some of the crystal prisms that hang from chandeliers. They would catch the light from the fireplace and almost twinkle.”
“I do remember seeing some of those. I don’t know how many, but we’ll use all we find. They’ll need washing, I suspect.” John was carried away by the day, being able to share this holiday with his beloved. They would be married by this time next year, he hoped.
She said the words – “It all feels contented and homey. It feels so right.” That is the best gift I can receive.
John and Margaret arrived home and walked over to the mill, instead of taking dinner, while they were still dressed against the cold. As she walked into the mill office, Margaret couldn’t help but reminisce about her only other time there. Seeing the white cotton waste hang and drift through the air had been beautiful, almost as inspiring as her first impression of John, standing tall in his black coat as he oversaw the workers. He was truly a vision at first glimpse that day. However, the image faded quickly when she saw John administer his own form of discipline to a worker who lit a flame in a combustible area. That was the beginning of her misgivings towards him; a day she came to regret. It took time for her to be convinced that he had been right in his actions.
“Alright, we are here. Just stay by me. I am going to take you up on ‘the cat walk,’ so you can see the whole operation from a high, safe area. Everyone will look at you and me, but I know you are not shy.” John laughed. He paused, wondering if he should take her hand. Rolling the wide door open, he hadn’t made a decision.
“John, it’s positively beautiful,” she whispered. John handed her his handkerchief to cover her mouth and nose as they stepped through the door. “I’m sure you don’t see it that way anymore. If it wasn’t for the noise, I would think I was in a fairytale.”
John had to lean down to hear what she was saying. For no other reason than safety, he grabbed her by the hand and pulled her through the narrow aisle and up the six steps to the cat walk. He released her hand. Immediately, he turned his attention to Margaret, wanting the time to study her initial reactions. She was fascinated. He knew they would need another time when he could give her a good deal of information about everything. He leaned into her ear. “This has been my life and livelihood for many years. My wife will be part of this, too.” John could barely be heard over the noise.
Turning to him, Margaret smiled with her eyes, and still holding the cloth to her face, she said, “I think I shall love being part of this.”
He didn’t expect that. John felt his knees buckle beneath him as he had to catch his own weight on the hand railing. The room was as noisy as it always had been, but he was sure he heard what she had said. He couldn’t dare ask her to repeat it, but he smiled broadly, as her attention was elsewhere. “How can she say something like that and then go on as if nothing had been said?” John wondered. He started to doubt that he heard what he thought he did.
She would love being part of this. Could she really have said that?
They spent a few minutes as Margaret pointed and asked John questions, all the while the whole workforce was watching. John felt so proud inside, showing off his lady to them. He had never brought another female acquaintance into this first room, or any of the mill rooms. John left her on the cat walk, while he paced the main aisle to retrieve a hemp bag of the cotton waste. Margaret thought him almost majestic, as she watched the sight of her tall John striding down through the floating cotton. The workers nodded as he passed, offering their greetings. John was like a God to them. They all smiled when he neared. He stopped to talk with someone in charge and then proceeded down to the end of the room. To think that he provided all these people with safe work, enabling them to live, eat, and raise families, was a hard thing for Margaret to take in. Returning to the cat walk, John motioned her towards the steps and handed her down to the floor. Still clutching her hand and the bag, he led her out, leaving the noise behind them.
“They are in awe of you John, as am I.” Margaret said, returning his handkerchief.
“You? After my confession, followed by my proclamation, you can still say that?” John smiled.
With a serious face, Margaret continued, “Don’t laugh at me. I mean what I say. I looked over the . . . what . . . fifty people in there and thought about how you provide sustenance for these people and their families. How many people work for you?”
“Close to 800, I believe.”
“What? 800? Really, 800 people work for you? I am most astonished. How many other mill owners have that many people working for them?”
“No other; I am the only one. I am in the planning stages of buying a third mill, possibly, which would add another 350.”
Margaret was beyond stunned, never having had any idea of the amount of his responsibility. Suddenly, she felt so very small and inconsequential. For the first time, she had self-doubts, about whether or not she was good enough for him. She was perplexed as to how her attitude had radically shifted in an instant. She was once so sure of the reverse of that emotion.
“Let us go eat and decorate our tree,” John said, embarrassed that he was sensing some unmerited esteem emanating from her.
Our tree. Margaret liked the sound of that.
Dixon was in the kitchen helping Cook wash the dinner dishes, waiting for Branson to take her to see Mr. Granger when Branson came through the back door with a tall Christmas tree. “Oh goody,” she said, like a school girl. “Look, Cook, a tree to decorate. I guess Miss Margaret, and the Master are going to do that this evening. I think it’s wonderful that they are getting along well, so quickly.”
John was down the backstairs next, heading into a back room. Returning, he handed Dixon a box of prisms and asked her to wash them and bring them upstairs when she was done. Taking two steps at a time, he was back standing next to Margaret. The other furniture had been moved about the room, and they stood and gazed at the naked tree, sitting in a corner by the fireplace.
“Where do we start?” John asked as he looked over the shape of the tree. He turned it several times and stepped back, trying to get the straightest and fullest look possible.
“I guess we don’t have anything for the top, but that’s alright,” Margaret replied. “We will not put any candles on it, either, like some families do. With the cotton, it would not work, and I like the cotton better anyway. So, we start stringing the cranberries first. Next will be the cotton snow, followed by the prisms. Is there a sewing basket in the house?”
John thought he remembered one over in the buffet in the dining room. “Yes, it’s still here,” he said, walking over to retrieve it.
Handing it to Margaret, she removed what she needed and proceeded to show John how the strings were made, and then attached. During the cranberry garland construction hour, Branson had brought up the other greenery, and Dixon brought the prisms. The pair left, saying goodnight as they disappeared down the back steps to the kitchen.
With garland strewn in swags about the boughs, they pulled out the cotton snow next. Margaret taught John how to make nice little tufts on the branches to make it look like piled snow, then she tried to see how much fluff she could pile on his head before he felt it. John decorated the top branches, and Margaret decorated John until he discovered what she was up to. He grabbed her around her waist playfully, pinning her arms down, and then stepped back. They both encountered an uneasy moment as the merriment had stalled.
Margaret brought over the clean crystal prisms handing them to John. “Since you are the tall one, you hang them, and I’ll tell you where. We want it to have a balanced look.”
The prisms were spectacular, a menagerie of long, and short, pointed or tear dropped shapes of cut or faceted glass that refracted the firelight around the room. Looking like moving stars across the sky, Margaret watched the room evolve into the heavens as John placed them. After a half-hour of ‘little more to the left and right,’ the tree was done. They turned to each other and smiled, proud of their creation. John held her around her waist and pulled her back to get a full view of their handiwork. The white snow really enhanced the tree in its dark corner, while the constellation exhibition overhead on the dark ceiling walls danced and held them breathless.
John was on the verge of losing himself until he looked over at Margaret and saw her glassy eyes, too. Turning her to look at their tree, he stood behind her, wrapping his strong arms around her and resting his chin lightly upon her head. No words needed to be said as they both got caught up in this uninhibited moment of contentment. Their mirrored emotions took root, and Margaret turned in his arms to face him. John looked down into her fire-lit face as she lifted her hands against his shoulders, encouraging him forward.
“Unless you say no, I am going to kiss you, Margaret.”
John pulled back slightly to look into her eyes for his answer. He took her head in his hands and instinctively brushed his lips lightly over hers, letting her respond in her own measure. Margaret reacted softly in a return kiss, allowing his lips to find more firmness. The taste of his lips and breath stirred within her, and she was intoxicated by his tenderness and warm body, now moving against hers. She parted her lips to taste more of him, and that was all the encouragement that John needed. Holding her fast, he let his tongue glide across her lips, savoring her flavor. He deepened his kiss by slipping his tongue into her parted lips. It prowled hungrily, sweetly, wantonly, until he was certain that she felt he had a right to be there. Stealing her naiveté, he could feel when she was momentarily startled and then relented, accepting him, yielding her innocence.
Margaret shivered with delight, surprised at the sensation she felt as his tongue searched her mouth lightly, and then he began probing her depths. She moaned quietly. The sensual kisses continued with Margaret participating more until she slipped her tongue through his lips. He took her tongue and suckled it lightly, not wanting to let her have it back, which elicited a moan from each of them. Margaret knew that Booker’s bland kisses were like soft rain compared to John’s delicious storm. Booker kissed lightly with his lips; John kissed with his entire body. This was love.
John knew he was dangerously close to the most intimate of acts, and he eased back, exacting every bit of his control. Margaret was well aware of this new experience, feeling this . . . this . . . runaway passion, and welcomed the forbearance that he showed.
“Yes, Margaret,” John whispered.
“I have never been kissed like that. I feel dizzy from the sweet pleasure of it. I can even feel . . .” but she paused realizing where she was headed.
Where were these words coming from that suddenly wanted to spring from her mouth when she was with John?
“Margaret, I know how and where you can feel it, it’s the same for us, both. I’ve wanted that for us. You can’t know how I have been turned inside out, thinking of someone else giving you these pleasures. I am overcome, as a man, knowing I, most likely, will be the one to dispatch you to another place, another sphere of existence. I want to kiss you like that all over, every inch of you. I want to kiss you forever, but I think we should return to our tree, or I will carry this too far. I think I’m doing a fine job of backing away, don’t you?” John said laughing sarcastically.
John went to his chair by the fire to study their tree. Margaret walked over to him and sat on his lap, putting her arms around his neck and snuggling her head on his shoulder. Not looking at him, she said, “Thank you, John.”
As he held her and kissed her softly at the top of her forehead, he asked, “You’re thanking me again; what for? Margaret, you never need to thank me.”
“I am just having a weak moment. I am finding a new depth of my ability for love. It is for you John, and I was thinking how different it is from my past. I need your closeness. I have been so adrift. Regardless of your edict, I know that you are by my side; your sheltering arms are there to pull me in, should I need it; I will dare to be free of the ghosts that have haunted me these past years. I’ll no longer feel that I cannot come to you for fear of you expecting more from me, right now. I recognize your passion is being held at bay, because you are a gentleman and want me to be sure of myself. I thank you for that. I’m sure it’s costing you all your reserve, but still I thank you.”
John continued to hold her tightly, rubbing her back and kissing her temple. “Margaret, all will be right someday, and to me every minute with you is perfect, no matter the cost. Have you forgotten I am your guardian angel, that you once thought me? Please, just let me always comfort you at your difficult times . . . reach out to me. And I do know that you will be the woman, and have the life that you want someday, which will include loving me. I know this in my heart. You are my woman, Margaret. And I know this from a higher authority, too.” John smiled.
“Margaret shifted on his lap, looking more into his face. I think you have been in my heart a lot longer than I knew. Having been briefly married, that day on the veranda, when you stood to leave, I thought, ‘I could never be closer to him than I am right now’. I could not accept that. That frightened me, not knowing where that emotion was coming from, and what I would do with it when you left. I needed to spend it, or carry it forever. Already, I thought myself a failure in my marriage when I thought of you.”
John held her tightly and kissed her from her ear lobes, lightly down her neck to the top of her breasts. Margaret pulled him closer to her, enjoying this most intimate sensation. Margaret became quite aware of John’s own intimate sensation. Before she could rise from his lap, he lifted his head and covered her mouth again with his probing tongue, causing deep moans from both. He pulled his tongue from her mouth and let it slide down to the hollow of her neck, kissing and licking there. Margaret put her hands in his hair and pulled his head lower, allowing him to taste the swell of her breasts. She could feel the sweat in his damp hair, and knew his control was straining him. She knew John wanted to remain there, stroking the deep curves of her cleavage with his tongue, as she herself wanted . . . but she must find the strength to put a stop to it now. These sensations were all so new. She was lost in his love; she didn’t know what she should be doing. She pulled his hair back until he raised his face to her, and she kissed him lightly, signaling it was over. She rose to her feet, and swept her hand under his chin, forcing him to look higher, into her eyes. She bent and kissed his eyes closed and then walked to her room, shaking.
Margaret sat on the edge of her bed, feeling the heat settle in her tender areas. “Oh, dear God, how naive I really am. How can I be this age, previously married, educated, and not know that such deep sensations even existed, forgetting experienced?” She realized it for what it was. The passion of loving someone . . . no, not someone…
. . . the passion of loving John. When John said he loved her beyond all reason, she felt she could now understand what that meant. She readied for bed, thinking of all the years that John had carried this same love for her with no hope. Margaret cried herself to sleep, plagued by John’s misery, which both John and the Professor had told her not to dwell on.
John continued to sit in his chair looking down, replaying the moment. She had come to him. He raised his hands to see how badly he was shaking, never having felt like this before. His pulse was racing and his heart felt like a wild bird, trapped, banging itself on the sides of its cage, trying to escape. He had never needed control with other women. He knew loving every exquisite moment with Margaret was going to be an agonizing pleasure. These passionate encounters would eventually take a toll on him if he had many more like this one. However, he would take them all and damn the toll.
He banked the fire, turned out the lights, and sat in the dark for another hour. His body finally subsided, and he wondered how he would get through the next couple of days with Margaret being so close.
Chapter One (continued)
When the strong, warm hands were taken from her marble-cold flesh, Rowena moaned in protest. She wrenched her eyes open, only to see the back of a tall, dark-haired man disappearing from her sight. An elderly, motherly looking woman with a shock of white curls escaping from under her mop cap immediately replaced him.
“Oh, me dear little duck,” she crooned, “Wha’ were ye doin’ out on a hellish day like today? And you wi’ child and all! Come, me pet, let’s get you cleaned up and fed.”
With an effort, Rowena shifted in the bath. The warm caress of the rose-scented water was a heavenly soothing balm to her body. She was so incredibly cold. Her fingers and toes were numb but they were starting to tingle. It was a bit painful, but Rowena welcomed the feeling; it meant that she would soon be warm again.
“Where am I?” Her voice was hoarse, and her throat ached. Her head was throbbing, and her stomach, empty as it was, gave a loud rumble. In an impulse, she felt for her swollen belly; the child moved, and she was reassured.
“You’re at Ketteridge House, dearie. I’m Mrs Hall, the cook, and this is Trixie, the maid. The master and Mr Porter found you on the driveway, a little while back. What’s yer name? Where d’ye come from?”
Rowena did not truly want to reveal anything. There was no need to explain why she had been chased from her home by her half-brother, once he found out she was with child. The child she and Peter created just before he went to the continent to fight Napoleon. Peter … her betrothed, her love. The man to whom Rowena had given her heart and her body, and who had been killed at Waterloo on the eighteenth of June 1815. How she remembered every detail of Peter’s handsome face with his blue eyes smiling happily down on her, seconds before he rode off to London where his regiment waited to board ship. He had been a captain in the Yorkshire Regiment, a predictable career for a third son to the Earl of Carlisle.
Suddenly realising that Mrs Hall was waiting for an answer, Rowena began to rise from the bath. “I should not impose on your hospitality longer than strictly necessary,” she said. “Please give me my clothes, and I will be on my way as soon as possible.”
“Pish and nonsense!” Mrs Hall exclaimed, and Trixie chimed in, “Ma’am, it’s a pitch dark night outside! The snowstorm’s still raging, where’d ye go from ‘ere?”
“Yes,” Mrs Hall clucked, “come on, dearie, let’s get ye into bed. I’ll bring up yer supper soon.”
“Thank you, Mrs Hall,” Rowena replied. “Yet I will not retire for the night until I have thanked my host for his kind hospitality. If you could ask Trixie to restore my dress into some shred of decency, I would be very grateful.”
Trixie and Mrs Hall shared a look of surprise but they did not object. The little maid took Rowena’s sodden dress and left the room. Mrs Hall curtsied and did the same. Rowena was glad that she still seemed to have retained a bit of authority, even though she was no longer looking like a lady.
Alex was lounging in his favourite chair in front of the fire in his library, cradling a tumbler of whisky. It was one of his father’s last bottles, and he was very careful to make it last as long as possible, and not to indulge too often in the fine Lagavulin.
“How is our guest, Porter?”
The batman was about to leave but turned at the quiet sound of his master’s voice.
“Don’t know, major. Left ‘er te Mrs Hall an’ Trixie.”
“Yes, I know, but that was not what I meant. How is she? What does she look like?”
Porter scratched hid balding head, unsure how to respond. What did he know about women, anyway? “She’s pretty, I suppose. Got long dark hair, wavin’ like. Dark eyes, too. She’s short, and thin, way too thin, as if she hasn’t had enough to eat for some time.”
“How did she get here, do you think? And why, more importantly, is she travelling without her husband?”
“I don’ like it, major, I tell ye! She’s trouble. I can feel it in me bones.”
“Yes, well … we shall see on the morrow. Go and enjoy your supper, Porter.”
“Ta, major. Ring if ye’re wantin’ me te assist ye later.”
Never had Alexander Raventhorpe been meant to take up the reins of his father’s estate. He was a second son, a spare to his elder brother Reginald, who had been the fourth earl of Ketteridge for ten years after their father passed away in November 1804. Reggie had been groomed from an early age into becoming the heir his father longed for. He had succeeded only partially, since he had never married despite the old earl’s frequent attempts to shackle him to a demure little society miss.
Only recently, Alex had found out why Reggie had always fought off female company; his brother had told him in a letter just a few weeks before he died of an apoplexy. The letter had reached Alex on the eve of the battle, and he would always remember the sorrow it brought, because included in the dispatch had been his solicitor’s announcement of Reggie’s death. Reggie’s letter explained that he had always preferred the company of men over women, so it was up to Alex to provide an heir, or so his brother had written. Alex doubted that would ever happen now, damaged as he was.
Somehow, Alex mused, he had always suspected something with Reggie was different.
Since his brother had become the new earl, there had always been house parties at Ketteridge with lots of young, handsome society bucks, and very few women. Yet it was not until he was in the army that Alex had truly understood what was so different with his brother. Alex had encountered many of such men in the regiment. They had been careful not to show their preferences, because that would mean cashiering out, and a scandal attached to their names. Alex had never acted upon what he learned to notice, once in a while, when such men formed secret relationships, despite the danger of discovery and ruin. How could he when his own brother was one of them?
The door to the library clicked open, effectively dragging him out of his brooding. A soft but cultivated, female voice caressed his ears.
“Forgive me for disturbing you, sir, but I wanted to know whom I am indebted to. I hear that it is you I have to thank for rescuing me from the storm. I am most thoroughly obliged to you, sir.”
Rising from his chair, Alex slowly walked toward the sound and bowed. “You are welcome, madam. Please be so kind as to tell me who you are.”
He could instantly feel her hesitation in answering his very reasonable question. He decided to adopt a quiet manner and not press his unexpected guest into revealing her identity.
“If you are in some kind of predicament, madam, please know that you can stay at Ketteridge House as my guest, until you deem it safe to continue your journey. I am Alexander Raventhorpe, fifth earl of Ketteridge, at your service.”
Alex heard her sharp intake of breath, and her skirts rustled as she made her curtsy. “Forgive me, my lord. I was unaware of the nature of your station. My name is Rowena Drake, and I was on my way to London, to seek employment as a governess.”
“A governess? Are you a widow, madam? Perhaps you are in reduced circumstances, so that you need to earn your living? You must certainly know how difficult it will be to find employment in your present condition.”
Silence, again. Alex heard her shallow rapid breathing, indicating that she was nervous. He extended a hand, and softly said, “Come, madam. We need not stand here. We can talk before the fire. I trust Mrs Hall has given you supper?”
“Yes, my lord, and a very fine supper it was. Thank you again for your hospitality.”
She grasped his hand, and a sudden spark flitted up his arm. Neither of them were wearing gloves. Her warmth attacked Alex’ senses as her soft skin touched his own calloused soldier’s hand. A delicate flowery scent caressed his nostrils. Lily-of-the-valley; a particularly expensive brand, he knew. Simultaneously, her badly suppressed gasp indicated that she was affected in exactly the same way. Fighting the sensation, he led her to the fireplace and made her sit down in an armchair opposite the one he had occupied before.
“Now,” he said in a level voice, “I have the distinct impression that you are in need of help. You must admit that it is highly unusual for a woman in your condition to be travelling without her husband. I do not seek to pry into your personal life, madam, but as a former soldier, I feel responsible for any person on my estate, be they someone who lives here or be they a guest. I beg you to tell me what brought you here.”
Rowena was still reeling from the incredibly unfamiliar sensations she had experienced moments before. She had never, ever known that kind of – she struggled to find the exact words – bewitching attraction towards a man, not even towards Peter whom she had been very much in love with. She knew passion, of course. Her short lived romance with Peter had been wonderful and truly satisfactory. A quick, almost fleeting burst of pleasure which – at the time – had made her long for more. They had not been together many times; Peter had many obligations that required his attention. All in all, their encounters had been short but passionate. It had been just her bad luck to become pregnant after so short a time.
At present, here Rowena was, experiencing sparkling sensations when this complete stranger touched her. This tall, dark and extremely handsome earl, with his military bearing and blind eyes, almost certainly a wound sustained in battle.
She studied him with avid interest, as he let down his long body into a chair opposite hers, and adopted a pose of elegant nonchalance. He could not see her, which was an unexpected advantage. She reckoned that, given the way the top of her head had barely reached his collarbone, he must have the better of her in at least five inches. Broad shoulders topped a lean, yet muscled frame. That much she had learned when he had effortlessly lifted her in his arms.
His features were all male hardness, strength, and sculptured authority. A broad brow, eyes the colour of a winter sky, a long, patrician nose and thin, unyielding lips. Raven locks, a trifle too long yet wavy, brushed his coat collar becomingly. He was not just handsome, but also devastatingly beautiful.
Rowena knew she could not, would not give in to the attraction she had just experienced when she touched Alexander Raventhorpe. Not when she could not read those beautiful blind eyes of his. His blindness had been a surprise to Rowena, and one she realised must mean agony to a man so proud and strong.
This man was like no one Rowena had known before; a member of the peerage. Yet there was another side to him. A side that was unpredictable. She did not understand how she knew that, but there it was. She could not possibly reveal who she was; as an earl, Raventhorpe had the authority to send her back to Roderick, and that was the last thing Rowena wanted. So she wisely opted to distract Raventhorpe and changed the subject. “You are blind, my lord?”
The short question took Alex unawares. He blinked, swallowed, then grunted, “Yes.”
“What caused it?”
“An injury at Waterloo. And I am not entirely blind, merely visually impaired.”
“Enough to see me when I was … improperly dressed?”
“No, madam, not at all!” He flinched at his own, sudden curtness but he felt it extremely important that she should know he had been unable to see her distinctly. When he continued, he made his tone a bit more placating.
“I can see the difference between light and darkness, and I am able to see movement. I can see bright colours but I cannot make out forms. For instance, I cannot see the difference between your dark dress and the seat in which you are sitting. I know the seat is dark brown leather, so I am assuming that your dress is also dark brown.”
Alex drew in a much needed breath because he could still sense her mistrust of him.
“I know your hair must be dark, too, because of the difference between it and your pale skin. I cannot make out your features, nor your figure. If Porter had not accompanied me, I would not have seen you in that hellish snowstorm. The snowflakes completely blurred my vision.”
“But it was you who carried me inside, and it was equally you who lowered me into that bathtub. Why?”
Irritated beyond the usual, Alex raked a hand through his hair. “I told you, madam. I am a former soldier, and I was born a gentleman. Two reasons why it is my duty to protect those who are in danger. You were in danger of freezing to death, so I carried you to safety as quickly as possible.”
“Yet you – a gentleman – touched me where it is in no way permitted; you laid a hand on me. That, sir, is not the way of a gentleman at all!”
To her utter surprise, Rowena saw an expression cross his handsome face that made her heart clench. His unseeing blue-grey eyes suddenly grew moist. He blinked, and struggled to regain his composure. What was this? Had he been a father, once? Had he lost a child, maybe? Rowena was considering apologizing, but his face instantly was the usual imperturbable mask yet again.
“I apologize if I inadvertently caused you offence, madam,” Alex stated as calmly as he could, yet inwardly, he was seething. Rowena Drake proved a woman of low breeding to speak so bluntly to him, and it irked him that he had misread her. But so it was; she had offended him by pointing out that he had touched her in a way he should not have.
He turned his face away from her undoubtedly scrutinizing gaze. “I think it best if you retire, madam. A woman in your condition needs her rest.”
Rowena knew when she was being dismissed, but she would not go meekly.
“My lord, pregnancy is not an illness. You should not stress the word ‘condition’ so when you refer to it. Goodnight, my lord, and thank you yet again for your hospitality.”
Rowena made a point of striding away with her head held high, even though she knew the earl of Ketteridge was unable to see it.
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Graduated LAMDA 2016
As the evening grew late, they both said goodnight in the parlor and went their separate ways, with John striving to treat Margaret as a guest. Morning was much the same; a casual conversation about Margaret’s plans for the day and John being her ride and guide. A big part of her furniture was due today, and she had promised to visit the Professor’s staff with Dixon at her side. John was starting to realize how difficult it was going to be to step back from Margaret.
This was my idea, and I’d better find a way to do it.
Outside, the snow had stopped, but nearly a foot had fallen overnight. The mill workers were pushing snow off the docks, trying to get stranded carts and wagons loaded with cotton bales, and moved around the yard. While Dixon and Margaret were getting ready, John went off in search of Higgins to find out what was being done about other snow issues they had between the two mills.
Finding Higgins talking to the foreman about the snow, John asked about Mill 2. “I haven’t gotten out there, yet, Master. I’m not sure what we’re looking at in Mill 2. I’ve just now got most of the people here assigned to get the yard in passable order and get most of the looms up. I let the third shift go early so they could get home at least, shutting down the looms about midnight. It was the same thing at Mill 2.”
“I’ll take care of Mill 2, myself. You work here.” John turned and walked away trying to step into footprints already made through the snow. He went around to the back of the house and found Branson, harnessing the carriage. “Branson, can two horses pull the smaller carriage in this deep snow?”
“Yes, sir, two horses for the small and four for the traveling one. What do you want me to do?”
“Hitch two horses to the smaller buggy. You’ll be taking Miss Margaret and Dixon, first to the Professor’s house and then to her home for the rest of the day. I’d like you to stay with them and bring them home when they wish. Also, saddle Aristotle for me. I need to get out to Mill 2.”
“Yes, guv, right away.”
Within 20 minutes, the smaller buggy and the saddled Aristotle were waiting in front of the house. John was busy, walking the yard to see what Higgins had in progress. He found everything was running as it should be for the emergency they had on their hands. Margaret and Dixon had come out of the house and were waiting on the porch, Margaret wondering about the saddled horse. Did John ride? John was nowhere to be seen, but Branson was up on the steps, in no time, explaining his instructions for the day.
“Where’s Mr. Thornton?” Margaret asked of Branson.
“With this snow, Miss, he needs to check the operations of Mill 2. They shut down the machines last night so people could go home early, and this morning they are dealing with getting the yards cleared and passable. You have the smaller carriage today, because Mr. Thornton needed his horse to get over there. Who’s first down the steps?” Branson asked, as he extended an arm in the air to assist them.
John made it to Mill 2, but it took twice as long reining Aristotle in a more sure-footed path. The foreman there had started to organize their snow efforts, but John knew he’d never been trained for this. He instructed him through all the phases of snow clearing. Certain procedures were usually done before others. John took the opportunity to walk the entire mill and talk to the workers, thanking them for making it to work today. He encouraged the foreman to make sure each worker got cups of hot tea today, and instructed him to feel free to offer such things whenever he felt it would help.
Dixon and Margaret made it to the Professor’s home with little speed, themselves. Upon her arrival, Margaret set off for the kitchen. Dixon asked the Professor if he had any particular requests for his comfort, to which he replied he did not. She then headed for the staff to ensure they knew the basics and ask how they had been managing so far. Branson made himself useful and carried in some firewood, stacking all the grates and refilling the inside wood storage area.
Margaret asked the cook to prepare some tea and toast, while she sat and rested. She specifically did this to observe the cooks, speed, cleanliness, and thought process. All seemed well there. She talked with the Cook about portion control and the science of ordering meats and other foods. There should always be enough for unexpected guests, but only so much waste was allowed. The cook seemed to be way ahead of her and Margaret was grateful for that. Certifying that Dixon had done a good job in a cook selection, she went in search of the professor.
“I think you’re fortunate with your cook. She is clean, there is little waste, and she seems to be able to handle a lot going on at once. My question is, ‘how does her food taste’?”
“Quite adequate, I must say, Margaret. I did have some favorites from the college that, perhaps, someday we can get around to discussing, but mostly I am very satisfied.”
“Do you have a moment to give me some advice, Professor?”
“Always, Margaret; what is it?”
Margaret settled on the chair closest to the Professor and informed him of the serious conversation she had with John; which they had the previous evening. “Do you think he’s being fair?”
“Fair?” The Professor laughed. “What a word to be using when you are in love. I think you mean ‘is he asking too much of you’; does that sound about right?”
“I don’t think so. I think I mean . . . does he have the right to question my regard for him?” Margaret said.
“How do you feel about that?”
“I think he should . . . he should trust me to know my own heart.”
“And do you?”
Margaret thought there was some underlying point to the question that the Professor has proposed to her. Curious as to his tone on the question, she stood and paced over to the big display window. The Professor sat back in his big desk chair and lit his pipe, watching the wheels turn in Margaret’s head as she worked something through. “You’re thinking about Booker, aren’t you?” Margaret said. “Don’t you consider that far different, though?”
“In some ways, yes, it was different, but not at its most basic level.”
“I don’t understand.”
“Margaret, you found Booker when you were in a very depressed state. You had no one who loved you, or so you thought. You were lonely and unprotected, so to speak. You wanted a different environment than the London scene in which you were being encouraged to participate. He showed you love. You had very few, if any, close relationships with other men before him. I think unconsciously you married him to escape your lonely world. He should love you, but he was not necessarily someone you loved. Have you never thought of this before?” the Professor questioned.
“To be honest, when our marriage started to quickly unravel, that was one place that I thought I could find blame in myself.”
“Do you not see the same underlying naivety in this situation with John? He apparently does.”
“Well . . . I am not sure I totally see your meaning.” Margaret said, sitting back down.
“John is an extremely intelligent man. I give him a lot of credit for devising this -test- if you will. I know no man that would have the courage to do what he is doing.”
“What is he doing, Professor?”
“He is forcing you to find your greatest possible happiness at a tremendous personal sacrifice to himself. He knows he could lose you, but he loves you more than his own life and wants you to find the love and passion that he feels you deserve, even if it isn’t with him. John is surrendering his entire emotional being, prepared for complete and utter destruction of his life, should you turn from him, all for the sake of you choosing what your heart desires. He knows you have to experience more in life in order to compare him. As much as he loves you, he never wants to think you settled for him; that would be worse to his soul than if you walked away. It’s so self-sacrificing that books should be written about his courage. I can visualize the book cover. It shows a very dark, gothic gathering room from medieval times. The circular room and floor have carved and cast unknown glyphic figures all around. There is only a sliver of light passing through the thick walls from above. Hooded figures, like monks, are standing within a circle; John lies on the stone Sacrificial Altar in the center of the room. You are a dream over John’s head, slightly hidden by a fog of clouds and in the arms of another man. There is a hooded figure, with a partially visible face, standing over him, holding a dagger in his hands, ready to plunge it into John’s heart. What makes the cover interesting, is that the hooded figure standing over him … is himself. He sacrificed himself for you.”
By this time, Margaret was crying; tears and moans – all her emotions – were unleashed.
“If you mature enough, you must understand this with your head and not your heart, which is vastly difficult to do. John wants you to make decisions based on your own feelings, with no regard for what he feels. And you must do that. Above all, be honest with him; he is basing everything on honesty, if you two are to be together. I truly believe it will happen. What woman couldn’t love that man? He must be like candy to the ladies in the city, but you are the world he has chosen for his life, and he will wait forever, until you have decided. With what he has asked of you, I can see why Milton is where it is today: a man of such deep convictions is at the core of its growth.”
“Oh Professor, it’s all so overwhelming.”
“It is powerfully overwhelming for both of you. Only this once, try to see what he is going through. It’s going to be hell on earth for him to get through. When you were newly in love with Booker, not married, but might see him out with another woman, how would you have felt? Well . . . take that imaginary emotion and multiply it by a thousand. Only look into that once, and then dismiss it, as he would not have you turn to him in pity. That would be spitting in his face, and he seems like a man that has always protected his self-respect.”
“As usual, you have opened my eyes,” Margaret said, still crying. “I do think I am still naive, but not so much as I once was. Based on what you have said, I am quite prepared to take your advice. Before I make another mistake in selecting the person, I want to spend my life with, I need to have choices, even though my heart has already chosen. I hate the thought of going through this, but I will agree to what is being asked of me.”
“Will the two of you be allowed to see each other, like you would with another man? Frankly, Margaret, after John waiting for you this long, I don’t see him staying away from you for any length of time, as he thinks, he can. His passion will eventually dominate his keen mind. However, just the mere thought that he is willing to try this, for your sake, is beyond any emotion I’ve ever seen of one person for another – whether it works or not.”
“He says he wants to step back and let my feelings develop slowly and naturally for him, but I won’t allow him to step back as far as he thinks he should.”
Margaret walked around the Professor’s desk and hugged him around his neck. “Thank you,” she whispered. “I am quite fortunate having you to guide me through these difficult times in my life. I’m more grateful than I can say. I must get on with my work at the cottage. I will see you soon.”
Branson reined Margaret and Dixon safely to her home. He pulled around to the carriage house in the rear and was escorting Margaret in when she noticed a small sign, now covered with snow, over her back door. Puzzled, she said aloud, “I wonder what that sign says.”
“Oh, I know what it says, Miss. The Master had me nail it up. It says, ‘Margaret’s Enchanted Cottage’.
Margaret’s eyes misted over. She hurried into the house before they could freeze on her face. Stepping back, is he? I don’t think I can let that happen, she thought.
Adrian arrived at the carriage and assisted Dixon up the back steps. He was glad to get inside and get the fires started. The house felt like ice. Margaret talked with Adrian about his experience with horse and carts, and asked if she should purchase one. He was very well acquitted with all of that, he told Miss Margaret. Mr. Thornton had inquired into his experience before he was hired. She would have to speak with Mr. Thornton, though, on how one went about selecting and purchasing such a responsibility.
“I don’t know what you are used to where you live, but there is small living quarters over the carriage house. You would be welcome to live here on the property, if that would suit you. I know I would feel somewhat safer with a man on the premises, but, please, don’t let that influence you. You would have all kitchen privileges and the use of the downstairs lavatory. However, I would certainly understand if you wanted to stay with your friends.
“Miss, I would be glad to come to this property to live. I would enjoy living here, alone, and feel honored to protect you and the property. I can say that living among young children is something I would rather do without,” Adrian laughed.
Margaret smiled, saying, “Very good, then. Check the quarters for repairs, or other necessities it needs to be habitable, and let me know what you need. Once you are comfortable with it, you can move in.”
“Thank you, Miss.”
Margaret and Dixon still found plenty to occupy themselves. The day moved along happily until someone pounded the front door knocker. Dixon answered it and brought back the note, hand delivered by a young child, to Miss Margaret.
I am sorry to say that we will be unable to deliver the furnishings until after Christmas. With the weight of the wood pieces, we know our wagon cannot make it through this deep snow. It will take a couple of days for the snow to melt, and that brings us to Christmas Holiday. Please excuse us for being delayed. Jason Hughes, carpenter.
Margaret’s initial reaction was disappointment, but upon further reflection, she wasn’t all that anxious now to leave John’s home. Perhaps, this was a blessing after all, she thought.
By late afternoon, Adrian had the new gas heat flowing throughout the house. The gas heat would be used during the day with additional fires lit for overnight. With that worry settled, Branson returned Margaret and Dixon to the Thornton home, leaving Adrian bunked on the carpeted floor that evening, to ensure he had learned all he needed to know of the heating system.
When Margaret arrived at the Thornton home, the table was set for two. John was in his library studying invoices, it appeared. Margaret wondered if he ever relaxed. She doubted that he did. Relaxing allowed your mind to wander, and where would his wander? Judging by the letters in his drawer, it would have been his own heartbreak. She walked over to the door, peaked in, and said, “Good evening, John”
John stood. “I’m sorry; I didn’t hear you come in. I haven’t been home long myself. It’s been quite a day out there. I’m sorry I didn’t come with you today.”
As she stood looking at him, Margaret couldn’t get the book cover out of her mind. She realized she was staring at a man who was martyring himself for her love. Stepping into the room, she closed the door behind her and rested against it. John was saying something but stopped when he noticed she was far away, as she often was, he assumed, just lost in her thoughts and dreams.
When she closed the door, he became worried that some unpleasant conversation was about to be broached. She didn’t speak for several minutes. Had she come to some decision he wouldn’t want to hear? As he was about to come from around his desk, Margaret snapped back into reality.
“I’m sorry, John, just dreaming.”
Now, still wondering why she had closed the door, he began to approach her, but she walked towards him. She pushed his chest lightly, encouraging him to step back. Again, she pushed, causing him to fall into his desk chair. She looked down at him. John had never seen this face on her. “What is this?” he asked himself.
Margaret, still in her daydream, somewhat, put her hands to his face. This made John smile, but still he was confused. Putting her hands on his shoulders, Margaret turned slightly and lowered herself to his lap. John, inwardly glorified whatever this was, and put his arms around her waist, drawing her close to his chest. She rested her head on his shoulder, as she encircled his neck with her arms.
John rubbed his hand up and down her back, soothing her. “I love this moment, but Margaret, is anything wrong?”
“No, I just wanted to thank you,” Margaret said softly, picturing him on a sacrificial altar.
“Thank me all you want, if this is how you do it, but thank me for what?”
“For loving me, John,” was all Margaret could say.
John was quiet several moments, allowing those words to hang in the air. “Margaret, please don’t thank me for loving you. There is no effort here; I can’t even help myself. I’ve had several years of trying to stop loving you, but it only became stronger. At this moment, I do need restraint if we are to keep to the gentlemanly rules.”
Sighing, Margaret quietly got to her feet, slowly coming out of her visual mood of the sacrifice.
They walked out of his room and into the parlor. “Did your furniture arrive today?” he asked, while indicating the couch to sit on, as he went to the bar. “You look like you could use something to warm your toes.”
“Thank you. I think I will have a sherry for now and maybe a brandy after dinner.” Margaret said, as she sat on the couch with her feet tucked under her bottom for warmth. “I’ve had some good news and bad news today. The bad news is that my furniture did not arrive.”
She paused, waiting for John to ask the next question.
“Margaret, that is disappointing news for you, I’m sure. What happened to the delivery, and what is the good news?”
“It seems that because of the deep snow, the carpenter cannot deliver until after Christmas Day if the snow has gone away. So, I must beg a few more days of your hospitality.”
“Oh, I see. And that is the good news for you, is it?” John asked with a beaming smile on his face.
“Well, it is now, since I will not see you as often as I should like, after last night’s proclamation,” Margaret said with sarcastic amusement.
John became excited at the thought of being missed by Margaret. There might be a silver lining to all this.
“Yes, dear friend?” John said jokingly, pouring her drink.
“John Thornton, stop that right now! You are not backing up that much, even if I have to throw my arms around your leg and hold tight to keep you from stepping back too far.”
Sensing fun ahead, John said, “Yes, Margaret?”
“Tell me about your horses,” Margaret inquired, “I never knew you to ride a horse.”
Crossing the room and handing Margaret her sherry, John proceeded. “When I was a very young lad before father left us, I had a friend who had horses. He would often let me ride with him. I vowed ttwenty-some years go, that someday, I would have one. With the second Mmillcoming, the money was ggood,and I needed some regular transportation. I looked a long time to find two matched pair of horses, but they had to sit a man as well as pull a coach, in tandem. Then I found Branson and his knowledge was of great value to me. I’ve been fortunate in that investment. Someday I hope to teach you to ride, if you would like that.” John finally settled on the couch with Margaret, although not as close as he would have liked.
“I think I should like that very much,” Margaret said. “What are the names of your horses?
Smiling, John said, “I have Plato, Aristotle, Arkwright, and Cotton. Plato and Aristotle are a matched set, as are Arkwright and Cotton. Cotton is very gentle and will be your horse if you will have her.”
“John, those names sound so John Thornton of you.” Margaret laughed. “I have another question.”
“Hmm . . ?” John said, smiling at her as he sipped his scotch.
“Since I will be here for the holiday, can we have a Christmas tree to decorate?”
“Yes, if you wish. I’m afraid I don’t have anything to hang on it. I’m not sure this house has ever had a tree. Tomorrow we will get a tree, and find something to hang on it. Then, perhaps, you would like to accompany me on Christmas Eve to both mills and spread cheer at the canteens?”
“Oh yes, John, I would love to do that with you. I am interested to see how your mill works. As you might remember, my first and only visit inside was unpleasant for both of us.”
John, knowing this would be the best Christmas in his life, thought about making it even brighter for them. “Since you will not be in your cottage by Christmas Day, would you like to have the Professor, and Higgins, his fiancé and Mary over for Christmas dinner? We could make it a festive Christmas Dinner.”
“What a wonderful idea, John. Can we really do that? And I could bring Cook and Adrian to have dinner below stairs with your Cook, Jane, Dixon, and Branson?”
“Maybe we should also invite Branson’s lady friend, or he might not be here. I hate to think of Adrian left to all those women,” John laughed. “This is turning into an amazing Christmas for me, Margaret,” he said humbly, looking down into his glass.
Dixon came into the room, and announced dinner was served.
John seated Margaret at the table. Both were smiling because there was no loneliness tonight. Passed, were the two confrontational nights; the air had been cleared, and now it had a sense of holiday spirit. As they ate, it seemed both were holding back smiles; deep inside, each hiding from the other a very real warm feeling of contentment. Even with what lay ahead for both, the season was working its miracle, lighting a glow inside their hearts. John had only one concern, how to keep from getting too close to Margaret. The last two nights, going to bed without so much as embracing her, left him wanting the touch of her.
As they sat down to a brandy after dinner, John in his big chair stretched out by the fire and Margaret on the carpeted floor, near his boots, they talked about the day. John looked down at his feet, where Margaret sat, watching her stare into the flames. The reflected shadows of the fire light danced across her porcelain skin. He loudly sucked his breath in through his teeth at the stunning image it was invoking. Margaret looked up at John, bestowing a smile that would have stolen his heart, had it not already belonged to her.
I will make love to her some night, right here by firelight.
“John, do you know Mr. Cavanaugh?”
“Yes, he’s done some work for me and just recently, too. We pass through the hall of the courthouse, often. He’s a lawyer in Property, Deeds, and Titles. Why do you ask?”
“What do you think of him?
“I guess I’ve never thought about him that much. He’s a gentleman, polite, well spoken, a little quiet, I think. I repeat, why do you ask?”
Margaret told John about meeting him on the train with the Professor, twice, and that he had stopped in from his office next door to welcome her and wish her luck. “He said he knew you through his work. I think he likes me a little more than I am comfortable with.” Margaret said, looking away as though she had a guilty conscience.
“Margaret, that interest is something you need to experience like I’ve begun to tell you. You are going to find gentlemen flocking to your door. Many will vie for your affections, be certain of that. I will be in that line, waiting outside your door, too.” John noticed Margaret’s face took on a sullen expression as she turned it to the fire once more. Neither of them wanted to proceed any further with that conversation, suspecting it would dampen their glow.
“I asked Adrian if he wanted to move into the quarters over the carriage house, and he seemed delighted with the prospect. I think I’ll feel comforted with him there. He’s also going to stay in the house until I move in, to keep the gas lit.”
“Good. I am glad to hear it. I like Adrian, and I like the thought of him being there, too. We’ll need to stop by there tomorrow and ask him and your Cook for dinner. What do you think of some of the cotton fluff for decorating the tree, like it has snow?”
“John. I love that idea. I’ve also thought we could find some cranberries and string them for garland and maybe a little holly for garland across the mantle and a table centerpiece. And then there is the mistletoe, I must insist upon it.”
“I’m not sure the mistletoe is such a good idea right now. You’re going to kill me if you put that up somewhere,” John happily lied, hoping she would not heed him.
John knew all too well that he would kiss her tomorrow night or go mad.
Ketteridge, Leicestershire, England, December 1, 1815
She was going to die of sheer exposure. She was exhausted. Her limbs were shaking with the effort of simply putting one foot before the other. Her heart was pounding with exertion and weariness, but Rowena Drake doggedly kept trampling through the deserted copse. She had planned to escape the sting of the heavy snowstorm by leaving the road to find shelter in the undergrowth. The springy trees gave little protection, as they were now bare. The early winter dusk was quickly settling, and Rowena was desperate to find somewhere to spend the night. Hopefully, somewhere warm and dry.
Two weeks before, winter had caught the English Midlands by surprise. After a fortnight of dry, frosty nights and open, sunny days, the temperature had suddenly dropped. The wind had turned north and gained strength. It had brought packs of heavy, black clouds, pregnant with snow, which now flogged the empty fields and pastures. The wind blew between the cottages of small villages with a banshee’s howl.
As she trampled on through the hellish weather, weariness and hunger were beginning to take their toll on Rowena, but her journey had not nearly come to an end. Some days ago, she had left her home, Daveston Hall in Cumberland. Rowena’s half-brother Roderick had become the next baronet after their father died, earlier that year. His estate was situated twelve miles west of Carlisle, and Rowena had covered them on foot, dragging her heavy portmanteau behind her. In Carlisle, she had spent the night in the cathedral, terrified that she should meet any of her acquaintances, if she put up at an inn. Her shame would be known all too soon.
The next couple of days, she had walked over the main road from Carlisle to Lancaster, sleeping in barns and even in the roadside undergrowth. She had not enough money to sleep at an inn every night. In Lancaster, she found a small inn and asked for a room. She needed to clean herself up and have a good meal for the first time in days. The landlady eyed her suspiciously. The woman clearly could not fathom why a lady would travel without a husband, a brother or a father. Rowena had none of these male protectors to help her.
She had been underway on the stage coach from Lancaster to London for several long, uncomfortable hours, but her meagre coins had not lasted very long. When the coach had deposited her on the side of the road just past Tamworth, she had again continued on foot. She was at a loss as to how she was to reach London without money or food, for that matter. Rowena could not even recall the last time she had a meal. It was seven or eight days, maybe, since she had left her childhood home. There had been no more money for food. How low she had fallen, and in so short a time.
Now Rowena kept putting one foot in front of the other, stubbornly ignoring her fatigue and her gnawing hunger. She had not the slightest inkling where she was, and there was no way of orientating oneself, as the snow was now a curtain shielding everything within a few feet from Rowena’s view. Where was the road? When had she lost sight of it? Her foot suddenly caught in a rabbit hole, and she landed on her knees, her outstretched hands keeping her from falling flat on her face.
For a few moments, the lure of giving up was almost overwhelming. She was already numb with exhaustion. She read somewhere once that death from hypothermia was merciful, even blissful. One would just slowly but inexorably fall asleep, never to wake again. Rowena could feel herself drifting away at that very moment … No! No, she must go onward!
Fighting against the wind’s slashing stings, Rowena struggled to her feet and trudged on. She must be soaked to the bone, she thought. Her woollen cloak was drenched, as were her gown, undergarments, stockings and half-boots. Her hands in their sodden leather gloves had long lost all feeling. Sometime ago, she had lost her bonnet, and her hair hung in sodden strands around her face. She had lost her portmanteau long ago.
Eventually, Rowena realised she was going to perish in this white hell. She staggered on, each step more faltering than the one before. No, she would not give up. If she was to die here and now, she was going to die on her feet. She was the Baronet of Daveston’s daughter and she would hold on to her gentle upbringing. It was the only relic she had left of her family.
Then, all of a sudden, there was a light ahead. She blinked against the millions of snowflakes blurring her vision, welcoming the warm yellow glow with immense relief. Rowena waved her arms, shouting against the raging wind. “Help me! Help me, for the love of God!”
“Major, there is someone there! Ahead of us …”, James Porter yelled.
The deep, powerful voice of his master, clearly audible against the howling wind, answered in return. “Who goes there?”
“Help me! Please, help me!”
A woman. Some blasted female had managed to go astray on a day like this, and in this hellish weather. “Stay where you are! We are almost with you!”
Major Alexander Raventhorpe, fifth earl of Ketteridge, bridged the gap between him and the woman in three long strides, ignoring the protest of his batman Porter. A second later, he caught her in his outstretched arms. There. He could not have ignored that blasted protecting streak in him, if it killed him. Too many years of playing the soldier had stamped it in. First defend, then protect. If necessary, attack. Yes, that as well.
She was very light, his mind registered. Slender and feather-light. And she seemed to have gone limp in his arms. Her hair, even wet and cold as it was, suddenly caught in the stubble on his chin.
“We must get her indoors!” Alex shouted at Porter. He swept the woman up and waited for his batman to guide him towards the house, which he knew was not far.
“Aye, major!” Porter yelled back and took a firm hold of his master’s arm. “This way!”
Alex Raventhorpe was as good as blind. His eyesight had been seriously damaged by an injury to the head on the battlefield at Waterloo, in June of that same year. He knew the difference between light and dark, could see movements, provided they were not too fast. Occasionally, he could make out forms when they had bright colours. Faces were a blur, but he could fairly judge people’s moods by the tone of their voices. His hearing had considerably improved, since that June day, when he had become an invalid.
They reached the house and entered through the scullery door at the back. Alex lost no time but hailed his cook, who most certainly had to be busy in her kitchen.
“Quickly, Mrs Hall! We need some help with this young woman. She was in the driveway. Can you install her in one of the downstairs bedrooms?”
He saw a flash of her white apron, when Mrs Hall came bustling toward him. “Oh, my goodness, my lord! We ain’t putin’ ‘er in a servant’s room, for sure! This ‘ere is a lady, judgin’ by the quality of ‘er cloak. Mr Porter, take over from ‘is Lordship and put ‘er in the blue room. The bed in there is made. Trixie ‘ll light the fire in no time.”
It was taken out of Alex’ hands in the blink of an eye. Soon he was alone in the kitchen, with the sounds of hasty footsteps disappearing through the servants’ corridor and up the stairs. A lady, then. That definitively needed some enlightenment.
Alex shed his wet coat and hung it on a peg in the scullery. He had not many servants left at Ketteridge House, his country estate. He was the earl of Ketteridge but he hung away his own coat. The estate was in dire financial straits, and Alex had only recently regained most of his former strength. He was struggling to manage his derelict estate with the money from his war time winnings, which fortunately were ample enough. Investing his money in successful businesses had been easy, yet trying to revive his estate and make it prosper again proved a lot harder. He was in dire need of a steward but he had little chance of hiring such a man when he was unable to go to London. There were many matters that Alex could leave to Porter, but searching for a steward was not one of them. With a mental shrug, Alex put his troubles aside and climbed the servants’ stairs, determined to deal with the new problem at hand; the young woman he found in his driveway.
On the first floor in Mrs Hall’s “blue bedroom”, he heard his erstwhile cook give orders to Trixie, concern ringing in her voice.
“Easy there, Trixie. Lord, she’s so cold, poor mite, and so thin! We must wash her after we’ve removed those wet things. ‘Ere now, pour those buckets into the tub. Mr Porter said he’ll bring some more soon. You take ‘er by her feet and I’ll take ‘er under the arms.”
Alex stepped inside, careful to stay by the door. He knew Mrs Hall must have put the folding screen in front of the hearth, and he was not as familiar with this room as he was with his own.
“Are you in need of help, Mrs Hall?” he asked, but the cook instantly replied in a panic-stricken voice, “No, no, my lord, stay where ye’ are! It ain’t proper fer ye to even be ‘ere!”
“Mrs Hall, it cannot be improper since I cannot see the lady. Can you manage lowering her into the tub?”
“Well … she’s thin but Trixie an’ me are ‘avin’ a bit of trouble liftin’ her in ‘er present condition, my lord.”
Alex stiffened. “And what condition might that be, Mrs Hall?”
“She’s expectin’, my lord. She’s at least five months gone but she looks healthy enough.”
Wonderful. A pregnant woman, probably a married lady, had landed on his doorstep in the middle of winter. That could only mean trouble and mayhem. Would he now have to deal with an irate husband, too? He inwardly cursed at the notion that his hard-won peace was certain to be shattered in the days to come. He had to get her away from Ketteridge House as soon as possible, damn it all!
In an impulse, he ignored the cook’s startled cry of warning and crossed over to the bed, a white rectangle with blurred contours. He put out his hands until they encountered the figure of the woman. Soft, round flesh, unexpectedly bare and vibrantly feminine. Damnation! Mrs Hall must have already removed her clothes. She was so cold … God! What if she would expire here, in his house?
“Sir, she’s …”
“Yes, I know, Mrs Hall. Let me get this over with, so that you can tend to her as quickly as possible.”
Alex slid his hands under the woman’s limp body, lifted it and settled it in his arms. She was light as a new born kitten, her body slender and delicate. Her dark head fell against his shoulder, causing her floral fragrance to assault his senses. His own body – damnation! – reacted in a most improper but violent way. By Jove, he had no need for this, right now! Knowing how long he had been without a woman’s touch, he should have listened to sane, solid reason, instead of indulging in foolish gallantry. Yet he could not ignore how lovely it felt just to hold a woman in his arms once again.
He let her down into the tub, relieved because at that same moment Porter entered with more hot water, which distracted the two women. Mrs Hall would soon take over, he knew, so he supported the woman, while she rested in the warm water, and made sure her head was above it.
For the space of a heartbeat, he regretted not being able to see her clearly. Her face was a pinkish spot, her body nearly invisible now that it was immersed in the water. But he could feel the silken caress of her dark hair flowing over his fingers, not to mention the velvety touch of her flesh, and the curve of her slender bottom. Gently he let her body drop to the bottom of the tub and then, unable to help himself, he touched her stomach. It was swollen to a gentle mound, and he spread his fingers over it. Suddenly, the babe moved against his hand. Oh God … oh dear God … His heart contracted with a longing ache he had not thought he would ever feel. He would never have this. He would never have a woman of his own, a woman who carried his child, and on whose stomach he could place his hand and make contact with his very own babe.
Dragged from his self-pity by the woman’s soft cry, he all but growled, “Mrs Hall! Quickly, she is coming round!”
The cook leapt from behind the screen and took hold of the woman’s body. Alex jumped up and fled the room.