The Reclusive Aristocrat – Part Thirty-six

Chapter Sixteen (continued)

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

Rowena fought not to stiffen rigidly at his ultimate invasion. She braced herself not to flinch, knowing how much pain it would inflict. Peter had always hurt her quite immensely when he possessed her.

The pain did not come. Alex was gentle to the extreme, claiming her slowly, without hurting her. She felt him inside her every inch of the way, but his slow invasion generated unknown yet pleasant tickling sensations that were swirling up and down her core. Her body throbbed with pleasure, heat spreading from head to toe. He did not stop kissing her, nor did he cease to caress her aching breasts. From her hardened nipple to her pulsing core, a wave began spiralling through her, and she arched up to him, eager to be closer. He released her breast and touched her where they were joined, stroking her swollen flesh with slow caresses, while he thrust deeply into her core.

Then, suddenly,  she seemed to fly off a cliff in sparks of white, hot pleasure, gasping, crying out, when a wave of warm bliss nearly drowned her.

 

Exhausted and spent, it was all Alex could do not to collapse on top of his wife. With an effort, he turned onto his side and drew Rowena into his arms, feeling her relax with a deep sigh. Seconds later, she was asleep, and he smiled against her mass of chocolate hair, inhaling her sweet scent of lavender and woman.

Good Lord, but he had never been so sated in all his life. In France, they called this feeling ‘la petite mort’ or ‘the little death’, and by Jove, they were right. Yet what a glorious death it was! Before succumbing to sleep himself, he vowed to make work of Peter Johnston once and for all; that infamous blackguard must be dealt with.

 

“Major, there’s the vicar wantin’ te see ye. Says he ‘as some urgent ma’er to discuss.”

Porter stood in the library door, his shoe brush still in his hand. He had probably been polishing his boots, Alex inwardly chuckled. After all these months, Porter still was more batman than butler.

“Please, let him in, Porter.”

The reverend Silas Bonneville was a short, rather rotund man with a rapidly receding hairline of white fluff and fading blue eyes. He had held the parsonage at St Crispin’s church for over forty years and was in his middle sixties. Since the villagers of Ketteridge were mostly farmers who attended his services faithfully each Sunday morning, his task was not very demanding. There were the marriages, christenings and funerals, of course, but other than happily toiling over his weekly sermon, Mr Bonneville had no difficulties enjoying his declining years in the small but cosy vicarage boarding the green. He was a kind, quiet man, with a big heart and a pleasant disposition.

“Good morning, my lord,” he said in his deep voice, one that did not match his short posture. One would have attributed it to a large, broad-shouldered man instead.

“Good morning, reverend. My butler tells me you have some urgent business, so what can I do for you?”

“Well, my lord, there has been some concern about Josiah Turnbull’s house on the far east side of the village. As you must surely know, after our esteemed blacksmith died, the house was left to stand empty, as his wife passed away years ago. You might recall that Josiah had two sons. John, the eldest, died several years ago from a bad fever, and it broke old Josiah’s heart, since he had been training the young man to be his successor as a blacksmith. Jeremy, the youngest, is a dear but weak-minded boy. In no way could he have stayed in his father’s house on his own, so the Carters from the nearby farm took him in.”

Alex listened to his vicar with mild interest, not grasping where all this might lead to. He kept his peace, however, knowing Mr Bonneville was not to be rushed at all. He always took his sweet time in explaining matters.

“Well, to keep it short, my lord, young Jeremy was out rambling, the weather being somewhat milder, these last few days. He came pelting back to the Carter farm in an uproar seldom seen before, yelling at the top of his head that there was a ghost in his father’s house. Now, this is unaccustomed behaviour for Jeremy, who is most of the time a quiet, happy child. A child of eight-and-twenty, yet a child nevertheless. Abe Carter and one of his farmhands went over to the Turnbull house, and what they found there was most distressing, indeed.”

Alex sighed at the vicar’s prevarication and indulgence to tell as compelling a story as he could possibly accomplish. He smiled encouragingly and gestured for the vicar to continue. What he learned next, was thoroughly distressing, and no doubt about it.

The Reclusive Aristocrat – Part Thirty-five

Chapter Sixteen

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

Alex was aware of a certain fear in Rowena, and also an anticipation, albeit a subdued one. She was also literally fixing her gaze on his face and not on the nether regions of his body. She must be truly shocked, he thought, and not in the least accustomed to the sight of a thoroughly aroused male. He found this extremely unlikely since she had become a mother and had therefore known sexual encounters.

He sat down on the edge of the bed and stroked her face with the back of his hand. “Do I frighten you, my dear? I promise to be gentle and give you all the time you need to receive my touch.”

She blushed a scarlet red, which he found very endearing. “Th … thank you, Alex …” she stammered, closing her eyes for a moment before raising the covers and thus inviting him to join her there. He slid in bed beside her, taking care not to crowd her, but gently easing himself close to her. He put one arm under his head and with his free hand stroked her cheek again, this time with soft fingers following the curve of her chin and cheek. She shuddered and pressed her face against his palm, causing a rush of arousal to race through him at the sweetness of her gesture.

With slow, careful caresses, first on her face and cheeks, then her neck, his hand followed by his lips, he soothed her, and at the same time aroused her. Her soft intakes of breath were proof to that.

When she began writhing restlessly against his body, Alex let his mouth trail downward to her breasts, licking, nibbling until he reached one hard nipple. He took it into his mouth and sucked.

She arched upward, clenching the sheets with both hands. He explored her curves with ardent strokes, her exquisite breasts, swollen from feeding little Emma, her stomach, still slightly rounded from childbirth.

“You are so beautiful, Rowie,” he whispered, feeling heat wash over his entire body at the soft moans she uttered. “Tell me, my sweet, do you like this?” He cupped one of her breasts and kneaded it gently, rolling the nipple between his fingers.

“Yes … oh, yes …” she croaked, arching closer to him.

“And this, my beauty?” He slid his hand between her thighs, revelling in the little jerk she made. She was so wet, so ready for him, but he wanted her even more aroused and entered her folds with first one, then two fingers. He worked her, stroking inside, teasing the little swollen bud, until she whimpered helplessly. Again he closed his lips around one swollen peak of her exquisite breast. Her entire body broke into a light dampness as he drove her higher and higher until she cried out in ecstasy as she climaxed. Shuddering violently, she sobbed while the waves of pleasure assaulted her, and Alex felt ridiculously proud at what he had wrought in his wife.

The aftermath was sweet as she nestled into his waiting arms, still sobbing, still too overwrought to speak. When she did spoke, it was but a whisper, and he had to strain himself to hear it. “I did not know … I could never imagine it could be like this … so … beautiful …”

Alex blinked in utter surprise. “Are you saying that you never experienced fulfilment before now, Rowie? Surely, …”

“There was never time … it always lasted too … short a time for me to …”

Blast the blackguard. Johnston had only sought his own gratification without having a single thought for her. That was why she was crying, of course. She now realized that she had been abused by her former lover, poor thing.

He should let her sleep, Alex mused. She had to be comforted so that she would able to sleep. Gathering her closely to him, he stroked her hair soothingly while murmuring softly to her. “Sleep, my sweet. You need your rest.”

To his amazement, she sat up. “Oh, no! Please, stay with me … I … I know it is not over yet … that there is more to come … that you … you …”

Puzzled, he heard himself ask, “That I … what, Rowie?”

She vehemently shook her head. “Just tell me what position you want me to take, and I will comply.”

It took him a few moments to grasp her meaning but then, all of a sudden, it became all crystal clear. Johnston must have wanted her in all the unusual positions that gave the male the best gratification, without any consideration for the female pleasure. He gently drew her back in his arms.

“Come here, my sweet. Just rest here against my heart.”

“But …”

“Shh, be still, my love.”

He could literally feel her hesitation and confusion, but kept her to him, softly stroking her hair, until she finally relaxed and sighed.

After a while, he asked. “Are you very tired, Rowie?”

“No,” she breathed, “no, Alex, not at all.”

“Good.”

He again began kissing her face and neck, the silken skin of her throat and shoulders, the onset of her breasts, and then at last, her peaked nipple. His need was still achingly present but he knew she had to be wooed all over again. He worked diligently until she was writhing and moaning, then assured himself she was lying on her back. Shoving at her nightgown until he could slid it over her head, he kept kissing her with every ounce of affection he could muster. It felt like sheer triumph when she widened her legs for him. He positioned himself between her thighs and slowly entered her.

The Reclusive Aristocrat – Part Thirty-four

Chapter Fifteen (completed)

Somehow, Rowena was not surprised by what she had just overheard, after she left the servants’ quarters and stepped into the hall. The library door, where the meeting was taking place, stood wide open, and Alex’ voice was quite masterful. Rowena knew exactly how dutiful her husband was, and how he would protect every person under his care. Yet Alex was in a dreadful dilemma; he had some matters to attend to elsewhere but was unable to leave his home for fear Peter would try to do harm.

Peter … how very mistaken she had been about him, Rowena mused. He had not loved her, or at least, he had fallen out of love for her, because he had tried to abduct her. By doing so, he had jeopardized her baby’s health. Thank God little Emma was unharmed but it could have been otherwise. That was something Rowena would never forgive Peter for, the fact he had been a threat to Emma Rose.

Alex was trying to remediate the damage done to her and Emma, Rowena realized. He wanted to be certain about the terms of her inheritance and about the reason for Peter’s strange behaviour, which was not that of a cavalry man in His Majesty’s army. For sure, the first issue was entirely in his rights as her husband. What little she possessed before her marriage was now Alex’ property.

Rowena drew back into the morning room to resume the mending she had been seeing to before Meg had asked for her attention in the kitchen. She had a plan, and she would bring it in play.

 

At the end of the long day, Alex had not found time to have dinner with his wife since he was swamped in estate matters like he had never been before. He had partaken of the food on the tray she had sent to him somewhere around ten o’clock. Now it was almost midnight, and he was utterly exhausted. Maybe he should call it a day and retire to his lonely bed. He knew he would not sleep a wink since he would be mulling over all the unresolved issues in his life, but still, he needed some semblance of rest, if he was to remain of sane mind.

He rose from his chair behind the desk, wincing at the pain in his muscles. Weary to the bone, he climbed the stairs, turned onto the landing and stopped; his wife, clad in a thin muslin nightgown with just a wrap to cover her shoulders, was waiting for him in a chair next to his bedroom door.

Rowena stood. “Husband, may we speak? I apologize for waylaying you this way, but there are unfinished matters between us, I believe.”

For some puzzling reason, her formal address did not sit well with Alex. He remembered vividly how he coaxed her to use his Christian name on their wedding night. After that, it was true, they seemed to have drifted apart somewhat; no doubt it was because of that blackguard Johnston and the hold he still had over Rowena.

Downstairs, the mumble of voices heralded the comings of John and Meg Wallis. It was already quite late, and the pair was preparing to retire for the night. Alex took Rowena’s arm, pulled a key from his trouser pocket and opened his bedroom door. He ushered her in and directed her to a chair near the fireplace. She sat and he let himself down in the opposite chair.

“What is troubling you, Rowena? Are you unwell? Is there something you lack?”

His wife was looking him very directly in the eye, which caused him some inexplicable unease. He steeled himself to maintain his calm. It was a mystery to him why she was acting this way.

Rowena cleared her throat. “I am well aware that I was not your first choice of a wife, my lord. I will endeavour to better myself into becoming an appropriate countess, and now that my daughter is born, I will have more opportunity to assist you as whenever you need me at your side. But … “

She sighed and her eyes were bright in her pale face. Alex felt even more unease now, eager to know where this was leading to.

“But … what, Rowie? It is not for you to procrastinate. You know you can speak to me about your troubles.”

“Oh? Do I know that, Alex? Then why did you not tell me your eyesight had improved? And moreover, why are you not informing me about the plans you made for travelling to London and Carlisle? And last …”

Her cheeks were in flames, he saw, and his heart made some kind of summersault.

“Yes?” He breathed the word as is he could not draw in enough air.

“You do not come to me anymore at night … I am fully recovered from my daughter’s birth, you know? I … I would not want to lose your affection, Alex, … that is … if I had it before? I know we shared the beginnings of friendship, and I would be very sad if …”

Alex rose abruptly and went to kneel before her, grasping both of her hands in his.

“Oh, Rowie, what foolishness is this? Yes, we are friends, of course we are! Do you want us to be more than friends? Lovers, perhaps?”

“Yes …” Her voice was a whisper, but an ardent one, and she gave him the merest of smiles.

His heart was surely trying to leap from his chest, Alex feared. He had missed their intimacy, of course. He had suffered from the agony of not seeking succour in her arms and, dare he think it, in her body. Without the slightest thought, he rose her from the seat and took her face into his hands. Oh, she had such lovely eyes, all dark brown, like liquid chocolate. And her rosy lips, slightly moisture by her little tongue darting over them … they caused arousal to rush through him like wildfire. Yet he must be gentle. Rowena could easily still be vulnerable after the ordeal of childbirth.

“Rowie, it was Richard Orme who warned me not to approach you before six weeks had passed. I … I did not dare asking you for intimacy up until now, because I thought you would still be averse to physical contact.”

She gave him a reproachful look. “I did fear physical contact immediately after the birth, Alex, but there are other ways open to a couple to have contact with each other. Little Emma is now eight weeks old, yet you are still avoiding me most ardently, moreover, on some days, you do not even speak to me, for goodness’ sake! If we are to be the earl and countess of Ketteridge, surely we have to work harder to present a respectable and amiable couple, at least to the eyes of the outside world.”

It was not that he did not want her, Alex mused, because he did. He was not so certain about Rowena’s motives for wanting to have intercourse with him. He knew she did not love him, although she had a certain affection for him, but that could be because he rescued her from ruin and penury. If she did not love him, then why did she want him to bed her? The obvious answer must be that she wanted to strengthen her position as his wife. Should she conceive and give birth to an heir, she would be as sacrosanct as could be. Yes, that must be it; Rowena wanted a son, at all costs. Well, he was not averse to comply with that. So Alex decided it was time to seduce his wife and bed her.

 

When Rowena saw her husband’s eyes darken with passion, she realized she had missed her chance in getting him to speak about their issues. Of course, she wanted him to make love to her, because she had missed it so ferociously in the past weeks. Watching Alex stride through the manor without having to be cautious for fear to bump into the furniture, was a thrilling sight. She was so happy he had regained his eyesight that she almost forgave him for not telling her. Almost, but not quite. That same omission was proof that he did not love her or trusted her.

Would he ever love her the way she loved him? Would he ever feel warm happiness whenever he saw her in the morning? Would he miss her the way she missed him whenever she watched him leave the house with John on his morning rounds? Would he ever feel sick with sorrow when he was alone in his cold bed at night, knowing she was only a few yards away from him?

She felt certain there would never be more between them than a tender understanding and affection, and sometimes passion. Like at this same moment, when he seemed to devour her with his eyes. Rowena responded by stepping closer to him and putting her arms around his broad chest. Oh, how good it felt to rest against his warmth and listen to the steady beat of his heart. She could not recall the exact moment when she had realized she loved him. Somehow it seemed that she had always loved him, from the moment when she opened her eyes after nearly freezing to death.

Then, suddenly, every thought vanished when Alex stroked her cheek with the back of his hand.

 

Her skin was even softer than he remembered, her face more beautiful than ever with the rosy flush colouring it, her eyes brighter than ever before, her lips more tantalizing than any other woman’s he had kissed before.

Alex could not recall any woman in his past whom he wanted more than he did Rowena at this moment. He longed to uncover her lovely body and revel in the sight of it, in the touch of it, the possessing of it. He began to loosen her hands from the death grip she had on her wrap when she suddenly shivered and went pale.

“Why do you not lie down in the bed, dear, while I undress? I shall also stoke the fire as it seems to be a bit chilly in here.”

He turned his back on her and heard her rush away towards the bed. He took his time in doing what he said he would but did not turn t her again before he was completely naked.

She had drawn the bedcovers up to her chin and was watching him with huge eyes, which made him wonder just how many times before she saw a naked man. Had that blackguard Johnston not bared himself to her during their encounters but taken her fully clothed, as if she were a milkmaid in a stable? Burning rage shot through him and he promised himself to find out everything there was about that particular subject. But not now …

The Reclusive Aristocrat – Part Thirty-three

Chapter Fifteen

 

Ketteridge House, Leicestershire, England, January and February, 1816

 

 

Life at Ketteridge House fell into a slow yet regular pattern. The weather continued to be abominable, with snowstorms during the day and freezing cold temperatures during the night. Food and wood had to be brought to the poorest tenants to prevent their families from starving or freezing to death. Rowena, who was slowly recovering from the childbirth, regretted that she could not accompany Meg and her footmen to these people.

She had, of course, problems of her own to tackle. Little Emma was prospering into a healthy and lively child with a temper of her own. She would have bouts of crying whenever she was put into her cradle after her feed, preferring to be in her mother’s arms the whole time. Of course, this was an entirely impossible matter, but the little girl was not inclined to give in easily.

It was at such times that Rowena discovered yet another character trait in her husband. Alex was becoming quite adept in comforting Emma. He would take her in his arms and stretch out on the nursery carpet, little Emma on his stomach. He would sing to her in a pleasant baritone voice and rock her gently until she fell asleep. Her nanny would then pick her up and settle her in her cradle. He would then scramble upward, his long legs untangling themselves from the carpet. She would then feel the strong attraction between them, as she had felt from the first moment they met. She would listen to the deafening pounding of her own heart while she looked up at him, and then experience the feeling of complete and utter loss, as he turned away from her with a bow to leave the nursery.

They were in a deadlock, and Rowena knew not how to overcome the gap that now gaped between them.

 

February came with milder weather melting the snow and turning the roads into muddy potholes and ruts. People began preparing their fields for sowing and planting, counting on their lord to provide them with the means to carry out their necessary work. The earl of Ketteridge did not let his tenants down, and the inhabitants of the village of Ketteridge finally saw the end of their misery.

Rowena had recovered completely from her childbirth ordeal and was participating fully in the organizing of what would surely be a crucial year in the history of the earldom. With Meg’s help, she had gotten her household under firm control. That left her more time for visiting the poorest of their tenants. She brought food baskets and offered positions at the manor for those who wanted.

Little Emma was thriving under the care of Patty Davis, sister to Tracy Cobbins, the wet nurse. Rowena was, to her own astonishment and great joy, still able to breastfeed her daughter, so the wet nurse was no longer needed. She had been amply rewarded for her willingness to be there for Emma, and Rowena would be forever thankful that Tracy had helped her through the first difficult days of nursing.

There was, however, one flaw to Rowena’s happiness, and that would be her relationship with her husband. It lacked almost everything. They did not see each other through the long winter nights, as Alex slept in his own room. Rowena had heard him cry out in agony during his frequent nightmares, but when she wanted to go and comfort him, she had discovered that both the dressing room door on his side and the corridor door were firmly locked. She confronted Porter over it, but the valet shrugged, saying it were his master’s orders. Porter himself was to wait until the bell summoned him before tending to his master. Rowena had been thoroughly mortified on being forced to give the dour valet a glimpse of her lacking relationship with her husband. She had no inkling as to how she would restore at least a small part of what they had before. It left her in deep sorrow, and she desperately racked her brain to find a solution, yet to no avail.

During the days, Alex was so busy with running his financially precarious estate in the company of John Wallis, that he often did not appear at lunchtime. Meg was frequently ordered to take a tray into the library for the two men. At dinner time, they met in the dining room, which was much larger and grander than the cosy morning room where Rowena had dined many times in the past. These were also Alex’ orders, or so Meg explained. Alex would occupy the head of the long table, that could easily sit thirty people. Rowena’s place would be on the other side, with the whole length between them, but she had firmly objected to that arrangement. On the first evening, she herself had  moved all the crockery and cutlery to Alex’ right.

If she had hoped it would induce him to strike up a conversation with her, she was left disappointed. They scarcely exchanged more than ten words during the short meals, and afterwards, Alex would withdraw to his library

It was all very depressing, Rowena thought. She found herself close to weeping in her lonely bed at night, and she hated it. Yet what could she do about it?

 

On a dreary, wet, late February afternoon, Alex sat brooding over what had just been revealed to him by both Porter and Middlebridge. As it happened, the two men had returned simultaneously from their respective journeys, and they had brought significant yet disturbing news.

Porter reported that Peter Johnston, third son of the earl of Carlisle, had been dishonourably discharged from the Horse Guards after his desertion during the battle of Waterloo. He had never returned to the ancestral home since June 18, 1815, had in fact never been seen again since that day by his grieving family.

Middlebridge had far worse news, however. Horace Bleak, solicitor to Roderick Drake, fourth baron Daveston and Rowena’s half-brother, had been very hard to be contacted. When he finally accepted to see Middlebridge after two weeks of repeated attempts, the solicitor had declared that he could not produce the late baron’s will, since it had not been his privilege to witness or formulate it. George Daveston, Rowena’s father, had made his will at home in the presence of two of his servants. The document had then been kept at the estate but, as Middlebridge pointed out, a copy must have been deposited at the London Probate Office. If Alex so wished, Middlebridge would go to London to get a copy.

“However, my lord,” Middlebridge continued, “if you were to go to Carlisle and speak to Bleak yourself, he might be more forthcoming when he is confronted with an authority higher than himself or the baron.”

Alex considered what he would do in view of the danger that still threatened. He could not leave his house unprotected by going to Carlisle on what seemed a wild goose chase.

“Mr Middlebridge,” he said, “you can accompany Porter to London and find out about the will. I cannot, in all conscience, leave my family alone at this moment. You will both conduct the inquiries that are necessary to comprehend all this, and you will report back to me as soon as possible.”

The Reclusive Aristocrat – Part Thirty-Two

Chapter Fourteen (completed)

Rowena tried her best to fall asleep but to no avail. She kept tossing and turning, listening for the slightest sound coming from the cradle where her baby daughter was sleeping. At some point, she lay just watching her child. Her baby was still without a name, Rowena realised with a shock.

She sat up and swung her legs over the mattress edge, wincing at the stab of pain in her abdomen. Gingerly, Rowena stood, supporting herself by holding on to her bedside table. Her legs seemed to hold her upright, thank God. Carefully, she dragged herself to the rocking chair next to the cradle, and eased herself down in it. Three lamps were burning in the room and one of them shed a dimmed light over her baby’s round little face, with its perfect nose and rosebud lips. One tiny hand had slipped the confines of the wrappings to curl around the edge. So perfect, so rosy white, with minuscule little nails topping the chubby fingers.

“My little one,” she murmured. “I do not know you, yet to know you, I must give you a name.” Tenderly, Rowena touched the little hand with one finger, and then startled when the miniature fingers grabbed the finger and squeezed it. The delicate eyelids opened to reveal dark blue eyes staring straight into hers. Rowena smiled. “Did I wake you, my darling? Forgive me, my little one.”

The baby gave a great yawn, then mewed. Rowena’s heart lurched and she lifted her little daughter from the cradle. The rosy lips contorted into a scream, so loud that Rowena hurried to free her left breast. Recalling what the nursemaid taught her about breastfeeding, she put her nipple into the baby’s mouth. The infant greedily closed her tiny lips around it and suckled vigorously.

The milk did not start flowing immediately, so Rowena massaged her breast, and all the while, the baby suckled. It was a relief to Rowena when the milk finally flowed, causing her child to mew again, this time in contentment.

As she contemplated her daughter’s beautiful little face, so full of concentration upon being fed, Rowena whispered, as in a dream. “Emma Rose … thus will you be named, my love.”

 

He was a despicable cad, a miserable rogue, Alex mused. How was it that the sight of his wife, suckling her infant daughter, had the power to arouse him to such an extent that it robbed him of breath? Her full breasts, creamy white and youthfully firm, their nipples peaked into a delectable reddish brown – oh, she was woman in the most explicit of ways.

He shied away from the dressing room door and quietly closed it lest she caught him spying on her. That would be most embarrassing, and he was embarrassing himself quite enough, at this moment. He hastily shed his dressing gown and curled onto his bed, drawing his legs up. One touch only brought him to completion, the force of it bringing him near to death. His breath came in short, harsh gulps and his heart felt like it would jump from his chest. Damnation, but he was as clumsy as a green schoolboy.

Later he was lying on his back in his rumpled bed, musing over his very uncharacteristic behaviour of late. He had always been a rational man, reflecting over his deeds before he performed them, weighing every step before he took it, yet lately he had acted impulsively, almost impetuously with a woman he had met only scarcely a month ago. He had married her, for heaven’s sake, bestowed a part of his worldly goods upon her, and even acknowledged her bastard child. His father would have horsewhipped them all from his land in the blink of an eye. His father would have disinherited him, but then his father had despised him from the moment he was born. That, he vowed, would not be so for little Emma. He, Alex Raventhorpe, fifth earl of Ketteridge, was her father and would protect her and her mother, as long as he lived.

He needed to find that ruffian, as soon as possible.

 

 

The Reclusive Aristocrat – Part Thirty-One

Chapter Fourteen 

 

Ketteridge House, Leicestershire, England, January 2nd , 1816

 

Rowena tried to struggle against the tender but unrelenting force her husband exerted while he mounted the large, circular staircase.

“My lord, please! I can walk by myself, you may put me down.” The note of urgency in her own voice rang in Rowena’s ears, and she realised she was afraid of what her husband might do next. He seemed to exude an anger she had not felt in him before, and she was worried. Correct, or so it seemed, for Alex ignored her. Unperturbed by her feeble struggles, he reached the top of the stairs, turned towards her bedchamber and, seconds later, dumped her unceremoniously on the bed.

“What were you thinking of, for God’s sake?” Alex growled. “You should be in bed, getting strong again, after your ordeal, and instead, you are up and about as if nothing untoward happened!”

Rowena was still recuperating from the onslaught he had wrought upon her senses. Senses that were rubbed raw from the long process of childbirth, with a torrent of emotions resulting from it. She was aware of the tears that threatened all too readily, since she had realised in early spring that she was with child. Her courage had been under siege ever since, subjecting her to sudden weeping spells and bouts of despair. She had been hoping that would stop as soon as her child would be born, but apparently she had been mistaken.

Now she had to face an irate, almost livid Alex and she could not bear it. He, of all those who surrounded her, should be the one to support her, to … She stopped her own thoughts as she saw something in her husband’s eyes that caused her heart to leap. She saw compassion, which was nothing more than concealed condescension, and she loathed that.

Sitting up against her mount of pillows, Rowena looked Alex over with a calm determination. He wore his normal, elegant clothes, fine buff breeches, white shirt, hunter-green waistcoat and cravat, and a coat in a darker green. His hair had been brushed and styled by Porter, though it was still a bit too long for propriety’s sake. His jaws were clean-shaven, and she could smell his sandalwood cologne, but his eyes … they were bleak, weary, and worried. He was worried over her, which meant he cared about her.

Yet he had omitted to tell her that his eyesight had increased, and that he could now see her, could now scowl at her, and could now try cowering her with his anger-burning gaze. Which was exactly what he was doing at this very moment. He clearly did not want her to become part of his life, and that made her feel hollow inside.

“I was thinking that my husband does not trust me,” she blurted out, and then was appalled by her own audacity, when Alex narrowed his eyes. Beautiful, grey-blue eyes that could see her now, she realised, and with that, anger rose in her throat like bile. Damn him, for not telling her!

 

So now she was challenging him, was she? The quiet little mouse was attempting to make him feel like he was the one at fault, and blast it, she was succeeding. He truly was feeling like the most contemptuous cad in the whole world, blast it all to hell!

“I was not aware, Madam, that you have yet earned my trust.” The cold callousness of his tone rattled him, yet he let the words tumble forth. “You brought a threat to my house through your connection with a dangerous criminal. I am now forced to see to it that this … scoundrel does not do any more harm than he already has.”

“But … but Peter is not a criminal! He has come to some dire circumstances and it is my duty as a Christian to help him. Have you not seen how low he has gone from the proud young soldier that he was? I …”

“Madam!” Alex felt like throttling her. He was so furious he had to press his nails into his palms not to grab her and shake some bloody sense in her. How could she speak of the blither in such a way? How could she even think of helping him?

She must have sensed his fury for she lowered her eyes, turned her head away from his gaze, and pressed her mouth into a thin, forbidden line.

“I must ask for you to indulge me, my lord, but I am feeling rather poorly, at the moment. I should wish for sleep.”

Alex felt immensely relieved to be dismissed since he knew he was at the end of his tether.

 

In the end, Alex gave in to Richard Orme’s plea not to go to Cumberland without a proper and thorough preparation. As a result, he gave Middlebridge an assignment to investigate the legacy of Rowena’s father, the baronet Daveston, and to the estate which belonged to her half-brother, Roderick. When Wallis asked him for directions, he ordered him to go about the estate business as usual and until further notice.

The three of them left, and only Porter remained, glaring at him as if he committed some hideous crime.

“I won’t need you, Porter. I will send for you if I do.”

“Sure ye will, major, bu’ I’ll need some directions from ye. Wha’ is it ye want me to do?”

Alex sighed in frustration. “I just told you I had no need for you.”

“So I’m not goin’ to Lon’un? Wa’ abou’ the summons from the ‘Ouse o’ Lords?”

Ah. Of course, there was that.

 

On June 17th on the plains of Waterloo, Alex received Middlebridge’s letter announcing Reggie’s death. However, he had been too preoccupied with preparing for the great battle that was to take place the day after to even acknowledge what it meant. Alex became the fifth earl of Ketteridge on the day his brother passed away.

After their father died, Alex had become the heir presumptive, a status which Reggie had immediately changed into heir apparent by a proper patent letter to the House of Lords. The only thing to be done was to write a request to the Lord Chancellor to be confirmed in his title by the House. And that had never happened, due to Alex being severely wounded during the battle.

Which is why the Lord Chancellor had sent him a summons to come and present himself to the House. Alex found himself in a serious dilemma; see to his wife’s predicaments or officially claim his title. If he went to London, he would be away for at least a fortnight, leaving Rowena open to an attack from Johnston. He also needed more information on the bastard. Why had he turned up so unexpectedly and after so long a time? Too many questions that screamed for an answer.

“Oh, on the contrary, my good Porter,” Alex said. “You are going to London with the assignment I gave you earlier. Find out everything there is to know about Peter Johnston.”

 

The Reclusive Aristocrat – Part Thirty

Chapter Thirteen (completed)

Alex looked at the four people sitting in front of his desk; his batman, his steward, his solicitor and his friend. What he realized at that moment was, that he was able to see them clearly as he had before his injury. So he told them.

“Major … ye’re kiddin’, aren’t ye?” exclaimed Porter.

“Almighty God!” gasped Wallis.

“Oh, my lord, that is wonderful, albeit a bit unbelievable!” beamed Middlebridge.

“Well, Alex, permit me to check on it before you start jumping from joy,” admonished Richard Orme.

They did not believe him. So he proved to them by walking towards his bookshelves.

“Name a book for me to find,” he said.

“Alex, no! There is no need to …”

He ignored the embarrassment that coloured Richard’s voice, and all but yanked three different volumes from the shelves. Why he felt so enraged, he could not fathom, but he did feel anger churning in his gut, while he opened each book and began to read the introduction words. After a few minutes, he became aware of the awkward silence that reigned in his library. When he raised his head, Alex saw powerless pity on Porter’s face, uncomfortable embarrassment on Wallis’, a mild, fatherly-like concern on Middlebridge’s and … a large grin on Richard’s. His friend came over to him and slapped him on the back.

“I knew you would conquer this blasted affliction, Alex! Congratulations, man, I am profoundly happy for you.”

Laughter bubbling up in him, Alex found himself in need of a stiff whisky to celebrate with his friends, for he had now four of them. The spirits were distributed by Porter, and the toasts duly made. Then it was time for Alex to come to business.

“Gentlemen, I need not persuade you of the seriousness of the threat laid upon Lady Ketteridge. Due to the attack, the night before last, she gave birth prematurely, thus endangering not only her own life, but also that of my infant daughter.”

He paused to look at each of his audience members. “Middlebridge, I hope you have done what I asked and readied the documents that will allow me to adopt the child?”

“I have, my lord. They are ready for you and Her Ladyship to be signed at your convenience.”

“Good. Porter, my good man, you must go to the War Department offices in London. Find out if Carlisle has a son who was in the cavalry, and if so, what happened to him at Waterloo. If the man did not survive the battle, then I want to know who is impersonating him. That will be a trifle more difficult, but we will get to that issue when the time is right.”

Porter inclined his head in agreement, his brown eyes sparkling with anticipation for the action to come. Alex now addressed John Wallis.

“Earlier, you expressed a disbelief about the Baronet Daveston disinheriting his daughter. How certain are you that he indeed did so?”

Astonishment, and also a bit of caution, marked John Wallis’ weathered face.

“My lord, I was the baron’s steward, not his solicitor. I knew there was a will, but I never read its contents. Yet my master was very fond of his daughter, that I know for certain. He once told me she would not have financial problems after his death, although he did not confide in me about the arrangements he made. So, yes, I was very surprised to hear that Rowie – forgive me, Her Ladyship – had been excluded from her father’s will.”

“Who was his solicitor?” Alex asked.

“A Mr Horace Bleak from Carlisle, sir.”

Alex now turned to Middlebridge. “What happens once a will is laid down, sir?”

Middlebridge rubbed his chin, concern making him frown. “Well, my lord, that depends on where it is done. As far as I know, the will must be laid down with the ecclesiastical court of the country where the person lives – or better, where his estate is situated. The solicitor is the best person to do that. Only three locations make an exception to this, London, Canterbury and York. They have specialized courts for that.”

“So we have to go to Carlisle and ask the solicitor for the will? I do not have a particular preference for that, Middlebridge. Is there no other option?”

“I am afraid not, sir. Are you suspecting the solicitor of foul play, my lord?”

“I am, and I think you are, too.”

Middlebridge nodded, and Alex continued in a firm voice, “The three of us are leaving for Carlisle, tomorrow morning, then.”

 

Although Rowena was so tired she could sleep for a whole week, she was utterly unable to succumb to her exhaustion. She was restless, and something nagged at her peace of mind. Alex was behaving strangely, she mused, wanting her to feed her child, and – Lord! – knowing all those facts about giving birth and caring for new born babes. She had never known any man to be interested in those matters, not even her sweet, mild-hearted father.

Her father … Rowena felt a sharp stab of sorrow she had not experienced in a long time at the thought of how she had been ruled out of her father’s will and testament. How stunned she had been to hear Mr Bleak recite all the conditions of the will in his stentorian solicitor’s voice. Roderick’s glowing expression of triumph when he realised all their father’s property and funds would be his and his alone. Her brother’s malicious glare at her, when she pleaded him not to leave her without at least some money from the considerable fortune he now solely possessed. His vicious cruelty and utter lack of compassion when he sent her away from her childhood home to fend for herself and her unborn child.

Rowena had still no understanding of what had driven her father to remove her name from the will. He had always reassured her that she would have a share large enough to set her up independently, if she wished to do so. She must have done something to displease him, even though she could not fathom what. She had nursed her father during his final illness with all the love and compassion she could give. She had kept his hand in hers when he died. Now she realised he must have changed his will long before he had been incapacitated by his lethal apoplexy.

After turning and tossing for yet a few minutes, Rowena gave up and rose. She donned her robe and headed for the stairs, suppressing the sudden weakness of her legs. From the top of the stairs, she heard the heated conversation coming from the library. Dr Orme’s voice was loud enough for her to hear.

“Alex, you cannot do this! Wait for just a few weeks, so that I can ascertain myself of the quality of your eyesight. I can see for myself that it has ameliorated immensely, but it still has not returned to normal, and you know it. For God’s sake, man, be sensible!”

“My lord, I beg you,” Mr Middlebridge pleaded. “I will do as you ask, but it is unnecessary for you to accompany me. I will take my three young assistants, who are burly enough to guard me from harm. Together we will be able to find out what has occurred in Cumberland.”

“Besides,” John Wallis chimed in. “Who will guard Lady Ketteridge from the man who threatened her, just a few nights ago?”

Alex’ frustrated voice cut them all short. “Very well, I will leave Porter here to guard the manor. The London business can wait, but I must do this, and do it forthright. I need to know whether my wife has been bamboozled out of her inheritance.”

Porter protested in a most vehement way. “No, major! I’ll stand by your side as I did forever before, bu’ ye’re the one who will watch over your lady. That’s the end of it!”

Alex raked through his hair in baffled consternation. What was going on here? Was he allowing every single one of them to meddle in his affairs? His father would have them horsewhipped, the lot of them.

Well, he thought wryly, maybe not Richard. Squire Orme would have protested most vehemently, and the previous earl, fearless and implacable he might have been, valued the squire’s friendship too much, since they had been close friends from childhood. As he, Alex, had been with Richard.

He was still debating over what he would do, when a soft, feminine voice sounded from the door, and a vision in a vibrant green silk dressing gown glided into the room.

“My lord,” Rowena said, her voice soothing, “might I have a word with you in private?”

Alex stared at her, in awe of her ramrod-straight posture. Her face, though, was very pale, her cheeks sunken, and her lovely eyes bleak with fatigue. She had given birth less than twenty-four hours ago, for God’s sake.

“Of course, my lady,” he said and strode towards her. Ignoring her gasp of surprise, Alex scooped her into his arms. He looked back at the men gathered by his desk.

“We will talk later, gentlemen.” Then he carried his wife up the stairs, swiftly and determinately, as if she weighed nothing.

Richard Orme grinned at his companions. “Well, I guess this means ‘back to work’, fellows!”