The Reclusive Aristocrat – Part Eighteen

Chapter Nine (continued)

She heard the words as they penetrated the haze of desire. They did not make any sense, surely. It must be her ever-returning search for safety and love that made her fantasize about Alex, wishing he had said the words aloud. She would not let go of him just yet, the warmth of him soothing her nerves, and making her feel so calm. Then he went and broke the enchantment by taking her by the shoulders to put her before him.

“Rowena, did you even hear what I said?” Now he was looking straight into her eyes, his own blue-grey orbs serious.

She could but nod, her gaze trapped by the fire in his eyes. How was it possible for him to create such a pretence of looking at her, when he was as good as blind? Oh, and she had nodded, so he would not have seen it.

“Yes,” she croaked, “I heard but … I cannot understand. Marry you? It is not possible, my lord, you must be toying with me.” With an effort, she managed to free herself from the earl’s grasp and turned to leave the kitchen.

He stopped her. “Listen, Rowena, and listen well. I wish to marry you and bestow my name upon your unborn child. That is the best way to protect your babe. To protect you, my dear, because you definitely need protection.”

Rowena fought to restore her composure, still reeling under the heady sensations his touch had bestowed on her. She had no inkling as to why the earl would want to have her as his wife. All his talk about protection rang very false in her ears, and besides, she did not need help from him beyond having a roof above her head and earning a bit of money.

“My lord, it grieves me that you are not honest with me,” she said in a somewhat shaky voice, while she searched his face for a readable expression. God knew how difficult that always was. He was a master in masking his thoughts.

“Do you doubt my words, Rowena? Do you think me a liar?”

“No, not that …” Rowena felt heat suffuse her cheeks as she closed her eyes. She could not look at him now.

“What, then?” he asked softly, almost tenderly, while his hand caressed her cheek in a languorous motion. “Tell me, Rowena.”

“I cannot accept your hand, my lord. I will bring shame upon you. I am a fallen woman, pregnant with another man’s child.”

Something shifted inside Alex’ chest, and a large, solid lump formed in his throat. Only for one second before it was replaced by sheer, ragingly hot fury.

What he would not give to have his hands on the scoundrel that brought this upon Rowena! How he would love to trash that blackguard within an inch of his miserable life. By getting her with child, Peter Johnston had not only ruined her body, but also bruised her spirits.

He closed his eyes to allow his emotions to settle, then started to think rationally again.

“Rowena, I know all that already. I obviously do not care about your predicament, or otherwise I would not have proposed.”

He cupped her face in his hands, eager to win her over. “I am not without flaws myself, my dear. We will make a splendid match together. I cannot win the hand of an innocent aristocrat’s daughter, fresh from the schoolroom, and force her to marry an invalid. I need to marry in order to have an heir to the earldom. You cannot find a husband with a bastard child in tow. When we marry, your child will have a name and funds to guide it into future. You will have a title and a fortune to use as you please. You will be my countess. Together we will bring Ketteridge back to fruition and prosperity.”

Rowena heard all this, let the words wash over her while she fought for composure and guidance. It all sounded so logical, so sensible, and it surely was the ideal solution to her problems. As the Countess of Ketteridge, she would have a position and a name. She would have a home for her child. He or she would be growing up with a name and funds to give him or her a future.

However, something was lacking in all his fervent words. There were no words of affection coming from him. Rowena could understand that he did not love her after only the mere three weeks that they had known each other. Holy Virgin, was it only twenty-four days? No, too short a time to let love blossom between them, but surely, he could have spoken more affectionately? He could have said something that would warm her heart and give her the so much needed confidence in their mutual future?

“How … how will we know … if we shall do well together, my lord?” Rowena said in a small voice, feeling herself tremble with uncertainty and fear.

The earl chuckled and brought her face closer to his. His voice was like warm, sweet honey when he spoke.

“Oh, I think we shall get along splendidly, my dear.”

He kissed her, and it was a short, sweet touching of lips that nevertheless shattered all Rowena’s defences. His lips were firm and warm, making her long for something she had missed for such a long, lonely time.

 

Just as Rowena began melting into the kiss, she was startled out of her blissful daze abruptly as Alex released her, took her by the hand, and began dragging her upstairs to the breakfast room. Meg and John, who had only just come down, rose hastily when they entered, and paid they respects.

“Ah, Mr and Mrs Wallis, just the people I wanted to speak with. Miss Drake and I have an announcement to make, and a joyful one, for that matter, since it will resolve all problems regarding impropriety. I will bestow my name and title on her, and once she is my countess, no one will dare cast aspersions about impropriety upon her.”

Rowena watched the expressions on her dear friends’ faces turn from concern into utter joy. Meg threw her arms around Rowena and hugged her tightly. “Oh, my sweet Rowie, what splendid news! You will be forever safe under His Lordship’s protection. I am very happy for you, my love!”

In a haze of incomprehension, Rowena saw John shake the earl’s hand with relief and joy blossoming on his ruddy face. Why were her beloved friends so relieved? Had they been so concerned about her that they considered marriage the only way to save her?

Alex’ voice, ringing with cheerfulness, broke through her thoughts. “Now, let us adjoin to my library for there are many urgent preparations to set in motion. I want our wedding to take place on New Year’s Eve. I will need a few days to procure a marriage license in Leicester. My solicitor must have the time to compose a marriage settlement.”

As he took her hand to lead her away, Rowena realised she had not been given the chance to refuse Alex’ offer. He had just taken her consent for granted.

 

 

 

 

 

The Reclusive Aristocrat – Part Seventeen

Chapter Nine

Ketteridge House, Leicestershire, England, December 20th, 1815

 

Rowena saw nothing of the earl over the days that followed her disturbing interlude in his chambers. It had left her with a profound feeling of bewilderment, and also, one of profound misery. What had he meant with his flirting? And more importantly, why had he let go of her, so suddenly? Had she displeased him with her obvious dismissal? She had to dismiss his advances, had she not? He could not have meant them as being serious. He was an earl, a member of the nobility, and she a disgraced woman. She could only bring him further disgrace and contempt from his peers.

All of a sudden, Rowena felt the compelling need to know why he had done it; because she had also liked it when he flirted with her. She felt all sorts of conflicting sensations, she realised; bewilderment, and fear – so stupid because she had formed an image of the earl’s character over the few days they had known each other. It had been a favourable one. She had thought him a good, honourable and noble man, someone who would extend a protective hand over people who were in need of it. As he had done with her, when she had stranded here. However, somehow over the last days, that attitude had changed into something darker, something more threatening. She wanted to know why that had happened; because she was beginning to like it when he showed an interest in her. She wanted to know his reason for doing so, and she was determined to find out.

In the meantime, there were many tasks to hold her attention and her time. Meg – bless her – was a valuable help, otherwise Rowena could never have coped with the Christmas preparations.

Tables had to be set, and food prepared. Rowena had written invitations to the twenty people Alex had picked out for the Christmas Eve celebrations, and they had all replied they would come. So on the morning of December 20th, she rose early and went downstairs to begin her work, her first destination being the kitchen. At the large oak-wood table, his face hidden in his hands, sat his lordship the earl of Ketteridge.

 

Alex had not slept a wink for three nights in a row. Since Waterloo, that was nothing out of the ordinary, to be honest. He had suffered many disturbed nights since he had returned to Ketteridge House. Horrible nightmares that left him shaking and sweating. Terrible images of his men being ripped to shreds by French canon fire. Horses and people dying in agony. He always ended up howling and screaming. It was at such moments, that Porter would come in and wake him. Not that it did him any good.

Only now, he also had a splitting headache, after his sleepless night. Richard Orme did warn him that it could occur, saying it was his brain adapting to the new situation of his increasing eyesight. An unpleasant side effect, and damn troublesome, since it made concentrating deuced hard for Alex.

He was experiencing the most peculiar sensations, had the most disturbing thoughts besieging him. And all of them were about Rowena Drake. Rowie. He found himself struck with a paralyzing restraint when he so much as looked at her, let alone address her. He, a Waterloo hero, a peer of the realm, a sprig from an old and noble family. Privileges were his birth right. He could have anything he wanted or anyone, and the fact that he wanted something or someone was reason enough to grab and secure the coveted object. Ha, how he had to berate himself in all honesty, when push came to shove; had not Waterloo taught him that privileges were very futile indeed in a war?

Women, for instance, had always been for the taking. Every time he wanted a woman, all he had to do was beckon, and they would fall at his feet. True, since his injury at Waterloo, he had been at some disadvantage in that area, because he had not had the energy nor the taste for dalliance. He had only recently discovered that this particular part of his body was now fully recovered. With Rowena Drake coming into his life.

That realization struck him like a blow.

Ever since she had entered his home, he had been lusting after her. Even now, at this ungodly early hour, he was aroused, just by conjuring up her image. It was deuced uncomfortable, and he did not like it. She had bloody well accept his marriage proposal, when he voiced it.

Ah, but would she? He still was unsure of it, and that, too, was unusual for the conquering soldier that he was. Why? The little word popped up in his mind, dispelling his headache for a few moments.

Why was it so bloody important that Rowena not refuse him?

The answer was ready in his now clear mind; because he liked her so well that he wanted her at his side, for the rest of his life. Because she would fit in so excellently that he had trouble imagining the life he had before he met her.

“Oh! Forgive me, my lord. I did not know you were here.”

Alex whirled around … and saw Rowena standing in the doorway. Instantly, he directed his gaze at a spot on the wall, somewhere above her head. She was not yet to know that he was able to see her. No indeed. She would think him a fraud, think that he had misled her from the start. But oh, what an image had been branded on his mind! A slender, almost delicate figure, even now when she was swollen with child, attractive even in the serviceable dark blue serge dress she was wearing. An exquisite heart of a face, in which the large chocolate eyes shone with life.

“Not to apologize, Miss Drake. I was merely wool-gathering.”

He noticed her little frown, which indicated that she was worried. Damn! His theatrical skills were non-existent …

“Are you unwell, my lord? Should I call for Mr Porter? It is still very early; you should be asleep still.”

Alex slowly stood and walked towards her, drawn by her lily-of-the vale scent, as always. As always, her nearness stirred his senses, and his body reacted. He had to touch her, feel her, bask in the warmth of her silken skin, her rounded, welcoming curves, the sweetness of her breath on his cheek. Slowly, he enveloped her in the circle of his arms, ignoring her little gasp. Her rounded belly was a barrier but one he ignored; he buried his lips in her rich, brown hair, soft despite the tightly pulled bun straightening it into rigidness. Stroking her stiffened back, he let his lips wander to her temples, her brow, the delicate shell of her ear, all the while inhaling her scent as if it were the very air he needed. And it was, he knew.

Rowena stood ramrod straight, unable to move, and in utter shock. She felt Alex’ hands on her body, soothing, stroking, at first. With a sigh, she leaned into him, the sensations too good to be rejected. Her thoughts scattered when his hands began roving over her body, the feelings they provoked so glorious that she wanted to be nearer to him. She tilted her pelvis to get her swollen stomach out of the way. That was when the sensitive spot of her womanhood encountered the long, hard ridge, that was instantly pressing against her. And it felt so good, so right. All other things usually filling her mind vanished, evaporated. She wanted him. She had been starved of those feelings for an eternity, and she craved the yearnings she had known before. Sighing in abandonment, she lifted her hands to cradle Alex’ dark head between them. Her mouth searched for his, found it and opened to let her tongue skim the contours of that sensuous mouth.

Alex froze at the pleasure that skittered through him, when that soft, impertinent little tongue slid over his mouth, igniting every sense in his body. Oh, Lord … He gave in, instantly and without thinking. Like a man starved, he thrust his tongue into the sweet haven of her lush mouth and drank, tasted, revelled in her delicious honey. His heart surged when she answered his call by throwing her arms around his neck and pressing herself hard against him. She had wanted to kiss him. She had been the one initiating this divine experience. Now was the time to press his claim.

“Marry me, Rowena Drake.”

The Reclusive Aristocrat – Part Sixteen

Chapter Eight (continued)

Ketteridge House, Leicestershire, England, December 14th, 1815

Shortly after luncheon, Alex and Porter rode into the village of Ketteridge. Alex was to visit his friend Richard Orme in his surgery, so that the doctor could examine Alex’ eyes in a more adequate way.

The surgery was established in a large Georgian house opposite St Crispin’s Church. Richard had set up house there, instead of at his father’s manor, which was too far away from the village for his patients to seek him out.

“Come in, Alex,” Richard said, when the men entered his examining room. “Please, sit down. Porter, here is a chair for you.”

Richard sat down behind his desk, folded his hands on top of the large blotter, and looked at his friend. “Alex, you will remember that I spent some time in London, after I graduated. To be specific, I studied at a clinic situated at the Moorfields. Dr John Cunningham Saunders, the most skilled physician when it comes to diseases of the eye, was my tutor. He taught me some techniques to test the quality of a person’s eyesight. If you would permit me, I should like to use them now.”

“You have my permission, Rich, and my complete trust. Carry on.”

“Quite so. Well, if you could come and sit here on this chair? Do you need help? No, I can see that you do not. Alex, this chair faces a blank, white-washed wall, and it is placed at six yards. I will hold up some cardboard signs with letters written on them, and you must read them for me. The letters are of difference sizes, ranging from large to small.”

The next quarter of an hour, Richard presented Alex with the signs. Alex found himself perspiring with the effort of trying to read the letters. This was unexpected, especially when even the largest letters proved deuced difficult for him to read.

Richard started with letters that were middle-sized, and easy to read for persons with average eyesight. Alex could not read them. When Richard switched to larger letters, Alex’ reading improved largely.

“A good sign,” Richard said, but Alex was appalled. “Good? You must be joking! I cannot read letters the size of a man’s finger, Rich! How can that be good?”

“Ah, but you know they are the size of a man’s finger, do you not? That proves that you can see them well enough, even when you cannot make out their shape.”

“What are you saying, Rich? I do not understand.”

“You can see things from a six-yards distance. I call that promising, Alex.”

“I could already see objects back in August, Rich. How has my eyesight improved, if at all?”

“Close your eyes, and do not open them before I say so.”

Alex complied, unable to share his friend’s optimism.

“Open your eyes. What is in my hand, Alex?”

Sweat was now breaking out over Alex’ entire body, as he was striving as hard as he was able to, just to see what it was that was presented to him. The item was a blurry, grey spot against the white wall. Alex squeezed his eyes in a desperate attempt to focus. At first, it as to no avail, but gradually, he was able to see contours of …”

“A hat! It is a grey hat! How is that even possible? I could not see grey objects at all, only brightly coloured ones!”

“Do you believe me now that the progress you made is promising?”

“I am at a loss! What has happened, Rich? Why can I see now what I could not a few months back?”

“My guess is that when you fell and hit your head, the other day, the obstruction that blocked your eyesight within your brain, has begun to dissolve. It is my absolute conviction that your vision will improve further, over the next days or weeks. I cannot promise you that you will be able to see as clearly as before the battle, Alex, but you will be able to see sufficiently to have a normal life.”

 

“’Is Lordship asked me te fetch ‘is dinner, Miss Drake. Says ‘e’ll ‘ve it in ‘is rooms.”

Rowena, who was helping Mrs Hall preparing a tray for the dining room, looked up in surprise, to stare at the valet. “Is he unwell? What has happened?”

“No’ing,” Porter said, all but growling at what he thought to be a far too meddling remark. “’E’s jus’ tired, is all. We rode all the way te the village, and the road was slippery. We ‘ad te take extra care.”

Rowena did not believe a word the grumpy valet said, so she followed him when he carried the tray upstairs. It earned her a furious stare from Porter’s lined face, but he kept quiet. When they entered Alex’ rooms, Rowena’s heart was thumping with fear that he should be ailing. He was not. Instead, he lay sprawled upon a chaise-longue, cradling a tumbler of whisky in one hand, the other lying limp on the armrest.

“Forgive me, major,” Porter announced. “Couldn’t keep her away.”

“Miss Drake,” Alex said, his voice unusually listless, “what can I do for you?”

“I just came to inquire about you, my lord. Mr Porter said you were fatigued after your ride.”

He directed his blind gaze to where Rowena was standing. “Porter, leave us.”

It came out quietly, but irrefutably. The valet put down the tray and disappeared. Rowena felt suddenly concerned, as if some strangely tensed presence just entered the room. A threatening presence. To dispel the awkward moment, she began serving Alex’ dinner using the small table near the window, especially put there for that purpose. She let out a little cry when someone suddenly got hold of her arm.

Alex’ lethargy was the baffling result of that morning’s examination which had shaken him to the core. He struggled to find a way to deal with the possibility of his returning eyesight. Once again, his whole world was about to be turned upside down, and he hated it. It had cost him enough to adapt to blindness, and now he would have to adapt once again. To that end, he needed time to regroup his thoughts; so he had asked Porter and Orme to keep silent about the conclusions of the examination, a request to which they had both agreed, of course.

His lethargy vanished as he realised this was a perfect moment for courting. He quietly rose and approached her, but the second he touched Rowena, he knew he needed to steel himself against the onslaught of her womanly presence, with her sweet lily-of-the-valley scent overwhelming him. Inwardly gritting his teeth, he kept his voice soft and gentle.

“Why have you come, Rowena? Was it truly to see how I was doing?”

She struggled to free herself, but he did not let go of her. Instead, he took her hands in his and drew her closer to face him. With a shock, he realised that he could now clearly see her lovely, heart-shaped face, her pert little nose, and the curve of her lush, rosy mouth. And her eyes, large, chocolate-coloured orbs, framed by long black lashes, that blinked in fear now. God! When she battered her eyelids like that, he was lost!

“Well, Rowie? Do I get an answer or not?” He brought his mouth close to her ear, and had a perfect view when her tongue darted out to wet those lush lips. Devil be damned, she was going to kill him!

He fought to hold his lust in check. He did not wish to frighten her with his passion, not when he wanted to court her properly.

“My lord, I should go … I must see to dinner downstairs …”

“No, you do not. I asked you a question, Rowie. Answer me. Were you concerned about my health, then?”

“Yes …” A whisper, so soft it was barely audible.

“Why were you concerned, my dear?”

Rowena could not move. Alex’ large thumbs were stroking her palms, causing shivers to run down her spine. If she had had any doubts before whether he had – at some point when she had not noticed – begun flirting with her, then now she was certain that he had. Why? What was the purpose of this? Not that she resented his attention, because she did not. But she could not fathom the reason for his attention. She also could not think. Nor breathe. Not when Alex was so close she could scent him, all male and so, so strong.

Alex inwardly cursed. He was trapped, and he had himself to blame for it. She had him wrapped around her little finger, and she did not even know it. She was innocence, inexperienced in the way of men. Even with a babe inside her, Rowena had no inkling how to deal with wicked, lustful men. That meant she was also helpless against him. And that meant he must protect her. From himself. It was his soldier’s duty to protect her.

So he freed her hands and turned away. A second later, he heard her running, fleeing footsteps.

The Reclusive Aristocrat – Part Fifteen

Chapter Eight

Ketteridge House, Leicestershire, England, December 14th, 1815

 

He had not succeeded in much courting, Alex mused, as he let his blurred gaze move around the breakfast table. Not for the first time did he realise that he could see the people at his table quite more clearly than ever before. John Wallis’ hair was a fading red and still quite abundant. His face looked strong and angular though not very much lined, but as Alex could not discern the colour of John’s eyes, he knew his vision was not sharp enough to make out the finer details. Mrs Wallis – or Meg, as he was beginning to think of her – had a pleasant, round face with a pert, upturned nose, and thick, fair locks that were just beginning to turn silver.

Alex fixed his gaze on Rowena, who sat on his right – and suppressed a gasp when he quite clearly saw her heart-shaped face, her dark eyes, her small, straight nose and her lush, rosy lips. And her wealth of dark brown hair, swept from her face in a heavy knot at the nape of her long, slender neck.

Was the longed-for miracle finally happening? Was he regaining his eyesight? If that were so, then why could he not make out the expression in Rowena’s eyes? Her eyes were dark and beautiful, but to him they were also veiled and watchful. Not that she was looking at him, though. No, she was definitely avoiding his gaze, even though she did not know yet that he could see her.

The Wallisses, now firmly settled at the manor, enjoyed a hearty breakfast, to be sure. Fortunately for Alex, John and Meg were always chatting amiably during those meals, John about some estate matter he had come about, and Meg about some household requirements. Alex only needed to respond to their inquiries without much thinking required. The fourth table companion, however, was another matter altogether.

Alex found himself at his wits’ end about how to draw out Rowena. She was quiet, unusually so. Oh, she would amiably reply when he said something, but afterwards, she would withdraw into silence, as if it were a refuge. He needed a better strategy, so much was certain, and he had possible two lines before him.

“Miss Drake, Mrs Wallis,” Alex ventured, directing his broadest smile towards the youngest of the two, “it has been quite a while since I celebrated a real English Christmas, what with the military campaign I was in. Christmas was not first on our mind, as you can easily comprehend. So this year, I am looking forward to having a good, old-fashioned English Christmas, taking up once more the tradition of receiving the tenants and handing out presents.”

Alex paused – for effect – and was rewarded by the very audible intake of breath Rowena took. He imagined her eyes suddenly sparkling with delight. They would be dark, he fantasized, deep dark brown, and luminous, and beautiful. Drat his cursed affliction! What he would not give just to have a better glimpse of Rowena’s eyes. Of Rowena herself. His vision seemed to blur once again.

“Of course, dear ladies, it will be a lot of work for the two of you, but I am absolutely certain that you will be able to deal with that. Ask Mrs Hall how it was done. She has been here a long time.”

“Yes, of course, my lord,” Mrs Wallis replied in her demure voice. “We shall start making arrangements immediately.”

Alex inwardly smiled. One part of the courting strategy set in motion. The scene of the next would be prepared today.

 

Relieved to have something to distract her, Rowena climbed the stairs to the attic. Mrs Hall, grunting at the effort, preceded her.

“Now, Mrs Drake, I ‘ave no idea of wha’ we might find there. I never ‘ad anythin’ te do wi’ Christmas arrangements before. Tha’ was Lady Ketteridge’s prerogative.”

“Lady Ketteridge? Was that Lord Reginald’s wife?”

“Oh, no, miss! Lord Reginald wasn’t married. I’m talkin’ about the old lord’s wife, Lady Davina. I still think back wi’ fondness on those Christmasses. She was the kindest of ladies, ye know. She always ‘ad presents for the lo’ of us, and in those days, we were many. There was a full staff, three maids next to Her Ladyship’s personal maid, and five footmen, and Lord Benedict’s man, of course. I was one of two scullery maids under the cook, Mrs Swanson, and Mrs Bammer, the housekeeper also employed three tweenies. Then there was a full outdoor staff, too; five gardeners and six grooms. Lady Davina was the best hostess at Christmas balls, and she ruled over her house like a regular queen, but always kind, she was. Lord Benedict was devastated when she died, ‘avin’ Master Alexander.”

“Lord Raventhorpe’s mother died in childbirth? Oh, how terrible!”

“Yes, and the poor mite was ignored by ‘is father. Lord Benedict did not even ‘ire a nanny for ‘im. For weeks, the poor li’le soul was left to the mercy of Mrs Bammer. Luckily for ‘im, her sister jus’ ‘ad a babe of ‘er own, and she nursed the li’le one. Mrs Bammer put one of the maids in charge of Master Alexander, until Lord Reginald ‘ired a proper nanny.”

“His brother? Why?”

“’Cause ‘is father couldn’t stand the sight of ‘is youngest son, that’s why! As if the poor li’le fellow ‘ad anythin’ te do wi’ ‘is mum’s demise! Men!”

That was exactly what Rowena was thinking. She was appalled. If not for the housekeeper, Alex would have starved? Preposterous, and cruel.

 

The next days were frantically busy for Rowena. She, Meg and Mrs Hall strove to organize all the activities the earl had proposed. The house had to be cleaned from top to bottom, and afterwards the Christmas decorations had to be put in place. Since Rowena, with Meg’s help, had hired five footmen and five maids, the work was soon in progress. Standing with her hands supporting her aching lower back, she was supervising the work, when the earl came in, with Porter in his wake.

There was an atmosphere of cheerful anticipation, Alex found, and it was emphasized by the happy chattering of servants carrying out tasks that they truly enjoyed, in this case the festive decoration of the house. In the centre of it, he sensed Rowena’s presence. As his gaze began roving Ketteridge House’s large hall, blurred as it may be, it nevertheless showed Alex where his housekeeper was standing next to the large hearth. He quickly went to stand by her side.

“How are things progressing, Miss Drake?”

“Very well, my lord. We are waiting for Mr Mercher to bring in the tree with the help of his new workers.”

“Mercher?” Alex said in surprise. “Is he still on my pay role? I thought him long gone.”

“My lord, you should go over your staff with John. You have four of your old staff still present. Your head gardener is still Mr Silas Mercher, and he has hired three young lads from the village. He tells me that he will have to give them a thorough instruction before they can be of use. Your old stable master, Mr Thomas Anderson is still looking after your horses. Mrs Hall now has two scullery maids to help her, besides Trixie who never left your service, plus the five upstairs maids Meg has hired, and who will be greatly needed for the preparation of the Christmas Eve party.”

With a smile, His Lordship placed a hand on his chest and bowed to her. “Thank you for your wisdom, dear Miss Drake. I will do as you ask and meet with my staff. There is no better way to do that than at the Christmas Day luncheon, and of course, you shall be at my side to do the honours of introducing everybody to me.”

Rowena felt him stepping closer to her, so close that she could feel his body heat scorching her. He bowed his head and, his breath stroking the delicate flesh of her ear, whispered, “I very much enjoy having you at my side, Miss Drake …”

His words were smooth, and warm, and disturbing. Dear Lord … was he … flirting with her? He could not be. He was an earl, a peer of the realm, and a war hero. And yet, he most thoroughly enjoyed it.

“Thank you, my lord,” Rowena said in a choked voice. Her heart pounding, she sucked in a much needed breath. “Now if you will excuse me, I have much to attend to.” And she fled. Yet again.

Alex frowned in dismay, but at himself, not at Rowena. He had thoroughly messed up, scaring her like that. He seemed to have lost all his seductive skills since that blasted battle! He was supposed to be courting her, not tempting her with his pitiful blatancy!

Courting her meant that he must entice her to trust him. It was as simple as that. Trust would mean that she would welcome him, first as her protector, and secondly as her husband. To that end, he needed to shed his aristocratic airs. Yes, that was right, Alex mused. Rowena must see him as a man, and not as an earl. He recalled how she used his first name when she thought him gravely injured. The barriers had fallen, then. Maybe he should endeavour to make them do so once more.

 

The Reclusive Aristocrat – Part Fourteen

Chapter Seven (continued)

Rowena ran blindly, tears streaming from her eyes. She ran until she found a bed, and collapsed on it. In her womb, the baby was kicking wildly, causing her stomach to burn.

He had kissed her! Another man – no, Alex – had kissed her, and it had felt so good, so right. Rowena gasped while violent sobs wrecked her chest. Peter … oh, why had he left her to deal with it all alone? Peter, she called his name between her sobs, hoping it would dispel her sadness. It did not, it made it only worse. A deep, yet soft voice gently pulled at her misery.

“You can talk about Peter to me, Rowie. I am a good listener.”

It was the sweetest voice she had ever heard, and it took her some seconds before she knew it was the earl who had come and found her. Rowena began scrambling up, but he stopped her. Not by touching her, though.

“Lay down, Miss Drake. I shall sit here in this chair and you shall tell me about your Peter.”

Yes, Rowena thought, that was what she truly craved. She so desperately longed for peace, for stability, also. Sudden warmth touched her when someone covered her with a blanket. It must have been … him. It was most welcome; she had not known that she had been shivering, until that moment. It must have been … Alex.

She wanted to see him, to see the expression on his face yet she dared not sit up, lest his eyes would tell a very different story. Taking a deep breath, she began narrating.

“We loved each other so much, Peter and I. He was a decent, caring man. He promised to marry me as soon as he would have done his military duty.”

The words got stuck in her throat, overwhelmed as she was with her memories.

“Who presented him to you? Was it during your season?”

Rowena nodded. “I had my only London season when I was nineteen, in April 1814. My father could not afford another one. My aunt Mrs Latterley sponsored me; Aunt Charlotte is my mother’s sister. We attended a ball at Carlisle House, the Earl of Carlisle’s mansion on Upper Brook Street. My uncle is a wealthy wine merchant in Carlisle with substantial connections in the City.”

“Ah, I see. Your uncle and Carlisle are business partners?”

“Yes, that was why we were invited to such a grand ball. There was a great attendance from the military, including many officers of the Yorkshire Regiment. Peter was one of them, a captain. We were attracted to each other from the moment we met.”

“How long did you stay in London?”

The question surprised Rowena. What was he doing, ferreting out her life like that? But she strove to answer his questions as honestly as she could, because it seemed the right thing to do.

“We stayed until June, of course, until the end of the Season. When I returned to Daveston Hall, I was so very depressed, because I did not think I would ever see Peter again. I was wrong. He came to Carlisle to escort the earl’s company home. We met on several official outings after Christmas. Peter proposed to me in April of this year, when we were attending a musicale together. From then on, we attempted to see each other as much as was possible, which was not easy because I had to invent reasons to visit my aunt. I still feel ashamed of my behaviour. My aunt, who is the sweetest of women, had no notion of what I was doing. I kept dragging her to soirées and musicales, so that Peter and I could meet. We pledged our love to each other and … and … I gave myself to him.”

“Where was this?”

Abruptly, Rowena sat up when she noticed the controlled but simmering anger in Alex’ voice. She blushed furiously but forced herself to continue. “At a soirée my aunt gave for the Carlisle Chamber of Commerce.”

There was an angry grunt from Alex, and Rowena saw a muscle clench in his angular jaw. She wondered why he looked so out of sorts, and so furious.

“I am upsetting you with my tale, my lord. Forgive me.”

“No, you are not. Continue, please. How many encounters were there?”

Rowena’s cheeks were once again on fire. She sighed.

“My lord, I must … I mean … Oh, God! How embarrassing this all is!”

“Rowena … “Alex’ voice was gently persuasive. “I have no intention of embarrassing you. I told you before that I am a soldier, and thus very protective of all who live under my roof. I want to know your story, so please indulge me. Did you meet weekly, or more often?”

“Our encounters were not very regular. We … we loved each other four times …”

“And then he went to war. When did you learn that he had died?”

“In early September.”

“That late? The casualty lists were released at the beginning of July. I was home in August because it took Porter that long to have me transported, but I should have been home much sooner, had I been whole. I was too ill to travel before long.”

Rowena had no reply to that. She felt oddly relieved, as if a great burden had been taken away from her. But Alex was not yet satisfied.

“When did the messenger come? Do you remember the exact day?”

“The messenger?”

“The cavalry always sends a messenger to deliver the news of the demise of one of their own,” he said quietly, sensing her confusion.

“I do not know,” Rowena answered, and Alex could hear the confusion in her voice now. “I had been in the rose garden all morning, when a footman summoned me to the library. Roderick told me right away that Peter had died.”

Which had probably been a mercy, Alex thought. It was always better to hear of a beloved’s death by someone of your own family, and without too much preliminary speech. “What happened then? Did you know you were increasing at that time?”

“Yes, of course. I knew that for certain in July, but I was not concerned, since Peter and I were betrothed. When the news of his death came, I informed Roderick. That was when things became less pleasant.”

“When exactly did you leave Daveston?”

“On the twenty-eight of November. Roderick told me the day before that I would have to move to a remote little cottage on our estate, because it became too apparent that I was with child. I could not do it, my lord. I was appalled, numb with shock because of what Roderick had decided for my child. The rest you already know. If you had not found me …”

“But I have, Rowena, and that means that it is my duty to protect you and the child as best as I can. As there has been gossip going about already, I shall have to take more thorough measures.”

Touched by Alex’ concern, Rowena rose from the bed. Looking about her for the first time, she gasped in surprise when she saw where she was.

“Come,” the earl said and extended his hand, “let us go back to the morning room. Mr and Mrs Wallis will not know what the uproar was all about.”

Rowena swung her legs over the bed’s edge and took the hand Alex offered. Instantly his other arm sneaked around her waist, and he drew her up against his large, tall frame. A good thing he did because she was swaying on her feet. “Steady,” he said, his voice deep and warm.

“Thank you, my lord,” she choked, and let him lead her to the door of the room she now recognized as the one she had been brought to, on that first, eventful night at Ketteridge, the ‘Blue Bedroom’. She had fled to the room where their first physical contact had been. To her sanctuary.

 

Alex retired to his library as soon as Rowena joined Mrs Wallis in the morning room. Her husband John would already be waiting for him, he knew. They had work to do, and Alex intended to visit tenants with John by his side to make records of their needs. The both of them set off in the carriage soon thereafter.

His vision was again blurred, Alex noted. Of course, his fields were hidden under a thick blanket of snow, and the sky was a leaden grey, so there was no colour to point out landmarks to him. As a result, he was left with his disturbing thoughts about his housekeeper.

Last night, he had allowed the notion of Rowena becoming his wife into his mind. While it had been a sane, rational notion to unite himself to her, being as unmarriageable as she was, he could not deny that it could also be viewed as a mindless folly. Richard Orme’s reaction was certainly testimony to that.

The Earl of Ketteridge did not take as his wife a woman pregnant with another man’s child, regardless of the fact that she was to be presented to Society as a widow. It would be a scandal, Alex acknowledged, when he should make her his countess.

And yet, he would exactly do that, and he would ignore – no, stare down – every disapproving look or comment with all the arrogance he knew he could muster when necessary. His years as a soldier and an officer had taught him how to overrule and bully others, until they followed his instructions without failing. He could coerce Society into accepting his choice of bride, he was certain of it.

But could he also persuade Rowena to become his bride? That was another matter altogether. One that could never be accomplished without him courting her properly.

Courting … he had never done any courting in his life.

 

 

 

 

The Reclusive Aristocrat – Part Thirteen

Chapter Seven

Ketteridge House, Leicestershire, England, December12th, 1815

 

The next morning, the earl seemed much more rested. Last night’s large bandage on his brow had been replaced by a smaller one that sneaked through his lush black locks. He wore buff breeches, a moss-green waistcoat over a crisp white shirt, and a dark green coat, instead of his usual drab brown attire. He looked positively dashing, Rowena marvelled.

Her slippers created but a soft sound on the parquet floor, but the earl’s head came up as soon as Rowena entered the morning room. His blue-grey gaze was instantly upon her. She shivered, once again astonished that he seemed to actually see her despite his blindness. It was but an illusion, but a powerful one, and every time it happened, Rowena was warmed by the beautiful smile he invariably bestowed on her. And most of the time, he would indeed smile.

“Ah, Miss Drake, come and join me. The Wallisses promised to join us, since I wanted to discuss some estate matters with Mr Wallis during breakfast. However, before they join us, tell me how you are feeling today.”

“Fully restored, my lord. I apologize for my inability to …”

“No need to apologize, Miss Drake. I am glad that you and the child are in good health.”

It was her voice, Alex suddenly realized. Every time, he heard that lovely, young, musical voice, his heart skipped several beats. Ridiculous, damn it.

Rowena barely had time to seat herself before Porter and the Wallisses entered. The valet placed a large tray on the table and left. As soon as Meg sank down on the chair next to Rowena, she whispered in her ear, “His Lordship said he had things to discuss with us. What is it about, do you know?”

Rowena shook her head in puzzlement, determined to stop Meg’s questions.

Alex cleared his throat, and bowed before he let himself down on his chair at the head of the table. “I can answer that question, Mrs Wallis, but Miss Drake cannot because she has not been told what it is about.”

Meg was startled, embarrassed because the earl had heard her speaking to Rowena.

“I am sorry, my lord, I did not wish to raise your resentment.”

“You have not, Mrs Wallis, rest assured. Now, let us partake of our breakfast.”

They all started reaching for a piece of toast or a helping of eggs, when they noticed the earl did not. He sat quietly waiting for Porter to come back and serve him. Soon after, the valet entered with a steaming hot pot of tea. While the earl was being served, John sent his wife a disapproving look. Meg blushed, and Rowena squeezed her hand beneath the table’s edge. Sweet Meg … she would always take Rowena’s side, no matter what.

They all ate in silence, and the only one who seemed relaxed, was the earl.

Alex forced himself to eat, but in reality he was inwardly shaking with what he was envisaging. During the night, restlessness and concern had prevented him from sleeping. The one, important question on his mind had been how to ensure that Rowena would not leave Ketteridge after the birth of her child. Alex could not possibly bear the thought of her disappearing from his life, and it puzzled him to the extreme as to why this as so.

He did not love Rowena. Love did not grow in a mere week. Alex was not even certain that he could ever love another being. He had very much loved his brother Reggie, and Reggie had died anyway. He had never known his mother who had died giving birth to him. His father had been a cold, selfish man who never had time for the ‘spare’. Reggie was the one his father had cherished beyond all reason.  Alex’ brother had been groomed to the earldom. Yet Reggie had been the one who gave little Alex a bit of love and attention, whenever he came home between terms at Eton and Cambridge. Reggie had betrayed him by dying so soon, and by leaving a mess for Alex to clean up.

So, no, he could not easily come to love Rowena, because love implied trust, and Alex took a long time in trusting someone. He was however fiercely attracted to Rowena Drake. She stirred his senses and brought to life his long-suppressed carnal desires. He admired her, because she had definite strength of character. She had taken her fate into her own hands when it turned against her. That, he knew, was a very important matter, one of many it took to make a good countess, so he had decided that Rowena Drake would be the next Countess of Ketteridge. That, he realised, meant that he would have to court her. What better way to court her than by appealing to her heart in the best way there was; to provide a home for her and her bastard child. He was prepared to give his name to the child. He or she could never be his heir, of course, but he could provide an education for the child.  Every child needed an education.

Alex was determined to court Rowena in the most appropriate way possible, even though she was already living under his roof. Therefore, he had to protect her from the gossip that had started to go about.

Alex again cleared his throat – he seemed to be doing that a lot, lately –  and turned his face to where he knew Rowena was sitting. He could swear he could actually see her clearly, but he might be deluding himself.

“A conversation I had with my good friend Dr Orme last night, made me acutely aware of the dire situation I put Miss Drake in. Although she has been here, at Ketteridge House, for only the briefest of times, it seems that the gossip mongers have already been busy. I cannot tolerate that, so I have decided to squelch the rumours instantly and for good.”

When he paused to have his words sinking in, Alex heard Rowena’s slight but unmistakeable intake of breath.

“Miss Drake,” Alex went on in a matter-of-fact voice, “before I continue, I need you to answer a question, as honestly as you can. Do you wish to stay here, at Ketteridge House?”

“Yes, …” Her answer was a shuddering whisper, which gave Alex a jolt of joy.

“Good, that is settled then,” he said, smiling. “Mr Wallis will be employed as my steward. You, Mrs Wallis, shall be Miss Drake’s companion. We shall spread the rumour that she is your widowed niece, come to live with you, when Mr Wallis accepted his position as my steward. I do hope that you will give a hand in setting this household straight, Mrs Wallis. I want you two to assemble a full staff. You are allowed to hire as many hands as you need. Now, if you will excuse me, I have other business to see to.” He rose, leaving the three of them speechless with wonder.

 

Ignoring the concerned glances Meg and John gave each other, Rowena gathered her skirts and ran after the earl. He had already disappeared into his library, and not for the first time did Rowena marvel in the swift way in which he reached his chosen destinations within the house.

“My lord, I would wish a word, if you please?”

He had not expected her because he turned so quickly that he half lost his balance and had to steady himself by grabbing the edge of his desk.

“Damn …” Alex smothered the curse he was uttering and forced himself to stay in control of the anger that boiled in him. Anger because another human being saw his weakness. It took him a while to realise that Rowena had not noticed that.

She continued, breathlessly and urgently, “My lord, I cannot accept the arrangements you made. They would cast aspersions on Meg and John who are as dear to me as if they were my own parents. Moreover, Meg’s sister Mary lives in Leicester and she is married and has several children. Their families are both well known, and it could easily happen that someone from town would talk to their Ketteridge relatives. People would know Meg has no niece who is widowed and pregnant. John’s people are also living in Leicester, so I could not possibly be a relative of his, either. It is best if I would continue to be Mrs Drake, the widow of a cavalry man.”

One question was burning on his lips, so Alex asked it. “Who was that cavalry man, Miss Drake? Tell me his name.”

Rowena’s throat constricted. She had had difficulties talking about Peter, since the minute Roderick told her that he had died. Memories of that horrible morning in the library at her father’s house assaulted her.

It had been a morning with a brilliantly exuberant sun beaming from a sky of the purest azure. She had been back from the rose garden, her basket full of blooms hanging on her arm. Roderick had called her into the room and bluntly told her that Peter had been killed at Waterloo. There had been no body, because it had been destroyed by canon fire, and the few remains had been buried in a mass grave near Brussels. Now was the time, Roderick had said, that she should go to their aunt’s house in York and start going to parties again. Her marriage prospects had now vanished, and she had to start over from scratch.

“Miss Drake?”

The earl stood very close to her, his hand on her arm. “Are you unwell? You seemed to struggle for breath.”

Rowena swallowed, realizing that she must have made a noise. “I am well, thank you. It was just …”

“You are panicking again. I can feel it. Is it still so painful to talk about him?”

“Yes …” she breathed. Alex felt a shudder run through her. He acted on instinct, protection foremost on his mind. He sought her hand and lifted it to his lips, and deeply inhaled her lovely scent.

“Oh …”

That little word, barely audible, set his blood on fire with a force he had never thought possible. Anger bloomed, because she was still mourning the man who had left her in such dire circumstances. He wanted the memory of that selfish bastard wiped into oblivion. She could not, would not be allowed to think of the blackguard ever again.

“His name …” he ordered, steel in his voice. He had not released her hand and allowed his breath to caress it, while his thumb stroked her palm in a languid, soothing way.

“Peter Johnston of the Yorkshire Regiment.”

Victory, he thought, and let his other hand travel to her face. Smoothly, he cupped her chin and brushed her lips with his in a caress so tender, that it suddenly made her quiver beneath his touch. He released her, also suddenly, but gently.

She ran, a soft footfall on the carpet. “Bloody hell…,” Alex whispered. Bewilderment clawed at him over the raw, violent arousal invading his body. How could this be? His only purpose had been to comfort her with a modest and gentle kiss, but the contact between their lips had been like a spark of lightning. And what had he been thinking, actually kissing his housekeeper? Hell, but he was in a sore state! He stayed for a moment, gathering his thoughts and suppressing his need. Then he strode after Rowena, confident that he would find her.

 

The Reclusive Aristocrat – Part Twelve

Chapter Six (completed)

Dr Orme was a surprise to Rowena. In his thirties, tall and wiry thin, he had a long, narrow face in which pale grey eyes sparkled under a lion mane of blond curls. Thin to the point of emaciation, he nevertheless was strong enough to lift Alex, while Porter and Rowena changed the sheets. When Alex was back in his bed, she addressed the doctor.

“Sir, can I be of assistance? I am Miss Drake, Ketteridge’s housekeeper.”

The doctor’s pale eyes scanned her shrewdly before he asked. “Are you newly appointed here? I did not know that His Lordship had a housekeeper before.”

Rowena blushed but answered as dignified as she could. “His Lordship kindly took me in. As you can see, I am in difficult circumstances.”

Dr Orme looked as if he wanted to ask more, but at that moment, Alex groaned, and they all turned to the bed. He was awake and brought his hands to his head. “Blast. What the devil has happened?”

“Ye ‘it yer ‘ead again, major. Don’t ye remember? Now ye’ve got a fever, and Dr Orme is ‘ere te examine ye.”

“Orme? Why they brought you here I shall never know. I have a headache is all. Give me something to relieve it.”

“Let me examine you first. You seem thoroughly unwell.”

Dr Orme turned to the rest of the people in the room. “And I would like to remove everyone from this room except Mr Porter. Miss Drake, I will come and talk with you later.”

They all obeyed, although the earl’s eyes tried to capture Rowena’s. She had to drag herself from the room.

 

“Well,” Dr Orme said evenly, “I see you have landed yourself in a predicament once again. Confound it, Alex! You have barely recovered from your injuries, and now Porter tells me that you mounted a horse today. Do you have a death wish? If you have, then tell me, so I can direct my talents as a physician elsewhere.”

Richard Orme was the only son of a country squire whose small estate bordered Ketteridge. He and Alex grew up as best friends. They went to Eton and Cambridge together, and Richard established himself as a physician, while Alex chose the usual career for a second son and went into the army. Alex’ long absences on military matters had never marred their friendship. It had been Richard’s skills and devotion that had cured the many wounds Alex sustained at Waterloo.

“I decided to start living again, Rich. I have been listless long enough. It was Miss Drake who encouraged me to reacquaint myself with Titan, whom I missed terribly all these long months of inactivity. Rich, for the first time in months I actually enjoyed myself immensely. I felt alive again. Would you begrudge me that?”

Miss Drake, eh? What are you up to, my friend? She is unmarried and living under your roof. Moreover, sheThe Alex I know would tread far more carefully than that, and not lightly take in stray kittens.”

“You can spare me the reproachful looks, Orme. Yes, I took her in, and why not? I can bloody well do as I please in my own home.”

Richard wisely refrained from commenting too much on the subject, but his glance spoke volumes. However, he had one remark. “People are already talking, Alex. All this could prove difficult for Miss Drake. She seems very young and in her condition, she might be shunned by all and sunder.”

Alex froze in sudden dismay. He had not fully realized that particular consequence of his actions. To his credit, he had not known Rowena’s status at the time, neither. “People are talking? What people, by Jove? She has only been here for a scant eight days!”

“Alex, you live in the country, and you have a prime position as the Earl of Ketteridge. People look up to you. They seek your guidance and support. You do not seem to realize how they have feared for their future, during these last years. Your brother – God rest his soul – has let matters slip greatly, and the estate is in tatters. They look at you to set matters to right.”

“Which is exactly what I am striving to achieve, Rich! I had no idea what it took to run an estate and I am only now coming to grips with the many tasks that have to be accomplished. One of them is the running of my household, and since Fate has landed Miss Drake on my doorstep, I offered her the position as my housekeeper. The more I come to know her, the more I am convinced she will prove a rare gem and a cornerstone in Ketteridge’s recovery. I took her to see the Weldons and the Proctors, my most remote tenants. You should have heard her, as she enquired about their needs, and she even gave some very sound advice to make the most of the meagre yields they had this year. They were completely taken in by her, Rich. I could hear the admiration in their voices. She introduced me to a competent steward, Mr Wallis. His wife was Miss Drake’s nanny and confidante when she was growing up. Surely, her presence here now should be all that is necessary to soothe propriety.”

Dr Orme contemplated his friend in silence, awed by the fire in Alex’ voice while he talked about the new housekeeper. He had already been struck with pleasant surprise by the change in Alex’ mood, since the last time he visited his friend. If that change was to be credited by the presence of a young woman in Alex’ house, then maybe it was not a bad thing altogether.

Yet, Richard mused, Rowena Drake was an unmarried woman, and with child, to boot. He knew all too well what society would have to say about that.

“What do you know of her?” he asked, while he undid Porter’s bandages in order to examine Alex’ head wound.

“She is one of the Cumberland Drakes, a family belonging to the country gentry. Her father was a mere baronet, but according to Debrett’s, the estate he left his son Roderick is a substantial and thriving one. Rowena Drake fled her home after her brother threatened to take away her child. She is penniless because her father left her nothing. In a typical country manner, he only acknowledged his son as an heir.”

“Who is the child’s father?”

“I have no idea. She keeps quiet about him, and I only know that he died at Waterloo. He was probably a son of another Cumberland squire or so.”

“Poor thing,” Richard said, compassion in his voice. “She must have been very young when she became pregnant.”

“She turned twenty-one only last week. If her blasted fiancé had not died, I would have gone looking for him and give him a piece of my mind. And of my fists, as well. What kind of behaviour is it to seduce a young girl and then leave her to go and die in a battle? And that brother of hers, he is also a veritable cur, throwing her out of her home without a farthing to her name.”

“Still, Alex, she cannot stay here, and well you know it.”

Yes, Alex thought, fury heating his mind. They would think he was the child’s father, and that he gave shelter to his mistress. Rowena’s reputation would be truly in tatters, and he would have contributed to that.

Richard was right, Alex mused, not for the first time pondering over the current, scandalous situation he was in. He was the fifth earl of Ketteridge, and he belonged to the peers of the realm. While his brother had been destined to run the estate, he had given the best of himself in defending that same realm with his life. Now that his brother was dead, it was up to him to restore the estate in its former glory, and secure it for future generations of Raventhorpes. A multitude of duties lay before him, and one of them was to acquire a spouse who could provide him with an heir.

The image of a spouse had never even formed in Alex’ mind, because he had always been the second son, the spare. He had never imagined himself as leg-shackled to a blushing young debutante, whom he would have to deflower in order to get her with child. In truth, he was horrified by the whole business of teaching the ways of the marriage bed to an innocent. Virgins were so delicate, so ignorant, and therefore unpredictable in their ways. If he could just find a woman with some ready-made knowledge of the relations between man and a woman, he would court her in order to convince her to become his wife.

These were the thoughts that haunted him since he had risen from his sickbed, early September. Alex knew all too well how difficult it would prove to find such a woman. She would have to overlook the consequences his reduced vision would bring on. She would have to cope with a nearly blind husband.

Up until a few days ago, these upsetting thoughts seemed to have lost some of their power. Alex had begun directing his mind into a new path; here, under his roof, was a woman, who met some of his requirements. Some, but not all, unfortunately.

While Richard Orme was tending to his injury, Alex brooded, disturbing yet enticing ideas forming in his head.

“Alex, you have a serious head wound. Dare I ask how you came by it?”

“I tripped and banged my head on a washstand. It hurts like the blazes.”

“Well, Porter made a good job bandaging it. I will leave it and check on you tomorrow. Any side effects?”

“Actually, yes … but you will think I am imagining it, for sure.”

“Actually what? Any nausea? Vomiting?”

“All of that, too, but I also have a feeling that my vision has altered somewhat. I can see things more clearly.”

“Really? Let me check that out for you.”

Dr Orme took the candle from the nightstand and lifted it to peer into Alex’ eyes. The pupils immediately widened, and that was astonishing, because that had not happened before.

“What exactly are you experiencing, Alex?”

“Just that I seem to see things more clearly. My vision is still not as sharp as before but it has improved.”

“I do not have the right instruments here, but if you would care to come to my house later, I could properly check your eyesight.”

“I will do that, Richard.”

“In the meantime, do not overdo it, Alex. Take some proper rest.”

 

Outside the door to Alex’ bedchamber, Rowena paced to and fro, wringing her hands. She was so restless that she did not notice Porter’s approach until he was upon her.

“Miss Drake, ye should go. Ye’re not needed here. The good doctor will see to the major.”

Rowena was fed up with the valet’s meddling. Just a few moments ago, they had seemed to go on well together, and now he was back to trouble her? She turned to him with blazing eyes.

“Mr Porter, I have a right to know! I am His Lordship’s housekeeper. I want to know how he is faring so that I can take the necessary measures to ensure his welfare. Leave me be, and go about your own business.”

“The major is my business, Miss Drake. And about ‘is welfare, well I’m not so sure ye’re the person te take care of tha’! We did well before ye came, we’ll continue te do well withou’ ye. Listen te yer ol’ nanny an’ go wi’ ‘er te Leicester.”

Rowena’s fury abruptly boiled over, causing her to point an accusing finger at the valet. “Do not try to give me orders, man. You are a servant, exactly like I am. We are equals, and I do not take orders from equals. I shall do as I please and …”

The sharp stab in her lower back made Rowena double over, her legs giving way under her. Porter jumped forward and managed to catch her before she would hit the hard wooden floorboards. In a panic, he called out for the doctor who promptly came bursting out of the earl’s bedchamber.

“Porter, quickly! Carry her to her room!” Dr Orme ordered.

Rowena moaned in acute pain, as Porter gathered her in his arms to carry her away.

Alex was left alone with the disturbing sounds from the corridor assaulting his mind with terror. What was happening? Was it Rowena? He rose in haste and went in pursuit of Porter and the doctor, infinitely glad that they left him with his cotton trousers. Fumbling to find support on the walls, he stumbled down the corridor toward Rowena’s room.

Mrs Wallis and Mrs Hall were already there, no doubt to assist Richard Orme. In a frantic haze, Alex looked for Porter, desperate to locate his batman. Damn his blasted affliction! His blurred vision was far too inadequate to see where Porter was, but his mind made out the large, darkly clad figure of the man standing before the windows.

“What is going on?” Alex grabbed Porter’s arm in a panic.

“She’s havin’ some kind o’ fit, I think. Or maybe she’s miscarryin’.”

The distress was so clearly discernible in Porter’s deep voice that Alex had to ask. “Tell me everything that has happened. Were you with her when it started?”

“Yeah, I was. I berated her, well, I yelled at her, and she gave me tit-for-tat. Then she collapsed. So sudden, poor thing. I’m so sorry, major, I never wanted te …”

“M’lord!” That was his cook. And she was giving him the full broadside. “Please, go away! It ain’t proper fer ye te be ‘ere!”

 

Later, Alex sat in his library, cradling a tumbler of whisky, and brooding over what was happening upstairs. The notion that Rowena might be losing her child shocked him to a point he never would have considered possible. She might even lose her life, and that was even harder to bear. How was it possible that he had begun caring for her in the meagre eight days that he had known her?

But he had, and that was the trouble. It was also incredible, and damned worrisome. He felt positively crushed by the notion that he had formed an attachment to a woman whose face he had not even seen yet. Twice he had carried her in his arms, and then she had felt soft, and feminine, and absolutely lovely. Especially when she had been naked. On that particular occasion, she had violently stirred his senses.

And that, he mused, was the crux of it. He was sexually attracted to Rowena because he craved a woman’s touch. He had been without a woman for months, and here in his own house was a young woman with an exquisite body. No wonder he was aroused when she touched him.

Rowena. Soft, well-shaped, young and exquisitely feminine Rowena, with the merry laughter. Earnest, conscientious, hard-working Rowena. Quick-witted, intelligent Rowena. Compassionate, sweet … Lord, what was he doing? He was losing his bloody mind, confound it!

The sound of the hall door opening made Alex stand in eager anticipation. Thanks to the burgundy-coloured coat he knew it was Richard Orme. Alex was able to discern his friend’s tall form in the light coming from the hall.

“How is she?” he barked at Richard.

“Wow, down boy, down!” Richard joked. “She and the baby are fine. It was a false alarm. Sometimes, in the last trimester, these fake contractions can be rather painful.”

“Contractions? But …”

“Alex, calm down. Miss Drake is not yet in labour. It is only her body preparing to give birth. The harmless contractions are necessary to widen the pelvis enough to make the babe pass. However, in my opinion as a physician, I am inclined to think that she is farther along than she claims. I would think her in the eight month of pregnancy.”

“You do? Could she be mistaken that much? What did she say when you told her?”

“I have not told her. She was exhausted and drifting into sleep when I left her.”

“Yes, that is probably for the best. Lord, what a day this has been!”

Upon watching his friend sink down onto his chair with a mighty sigh of relief, Richard frowned but refrained from commenting on it. Alex had had his own share of trouble today, and enough was enough. Instead, he walked to the side table that contained the spirits.

“Do you want a drink? I know I can surely use one.”

“Yes, please. Here is my glass. I had the Laphroig.”

The two men drank in silence, until Alex, his voice earnest, asked, “Tell me, do you honestly think I contributed in Miss Drake’s troubles when I took her in?”

“Yes, I think you did. You should know more of her circumstances and in particular what the situation with her brother is. Do you not think it odd that the man just let her go without a word of protest? For a gentleman, that is surely improper behaviour. As Miss Drake’s nearest male relative, he should have protected her.”

“That is what I am doing at the moment, Rich, I am protecting her by sheltering her under my roof. I shall engage in fisticuffs with every bastard that attempts to say otherwise.”

“For heaven’s sake, Alex, you are no longer in the army! You cannot solve every problem with a brawl. Having her here without a female companion is equal to ruining her. You should let her go away with Mrs Wallis. The good woman accosted me about it, just mere minutes ago.”

“No. She stays.”

Richard scoffed, then joked, “Why not do the decent thing in that case, and marry her? By Jove, Alex, grow up!”

When his friend directed his slate-grey, blind gaze to him, Richard’s jaw dropped when he grasped what was in those eyes. How was that even possible in the gaze of a blind man? “Blast it, Alex! You must be utterly mad. She is completely unsuitable.”

Alex’ mouth curled in wry sarcasm. “Is she? She is already compromised, pregnant no less, whereas I am only half a man. We could have been made for each other, since the both of us have no prospects at all to seal a proper relationship. Tell me, is she beautiful? I wish to God I could see her, if only just once.”

“She is tolerably beautiful,” Richard grumbled. “At least, she is not too ghastly to look at.”

“Describe her,” Alex demanded. “What does her hair look like? Her eyes, her figure? Her face, describe it.”

“Her hair is dark brown …”

“The colour of rich, dark chocolate?”

“Yes, but …”

“And her eyes, do they look like deep pools of liquid chocolate?”

“Alex, what the devil … Yes, they are a deep brown. She has a small nose, and a mouth too thin-lipped for my taste. She is of middle height, and slender, with small hands and feet.”

“So she is beautiful, gorgeous, more like it. I knew it. How I would like to see her with my own eyes.”

Oh, how he remembered the feel of that lithe, soft body with its delightful, utterly feminine shapes. He longed, no, craved to see it. He would gladly give his right arm just to be able to have a glimpse of her.

“All right, she would do you proud walking on your arm, but surely that is not enough to make her a good countess? Alex, she is carrying another man’s child! You cannot acknowledge her child as your own, and he or she could never inherit from you! Do not tell me you would go so far as to claim it yours!”

To Richard’s bewilderment, Alex sadly shook his head in genuine regret. “No, I could never claim it as mine, but I could adopt it. I could bestow my name and protection upon it. She and I could have an heir later, and then the two children could grow up together. Lord above, would it be possible?”

The longing in Alex’ voice was so tangible that Richard only now grasped how lonely his friend had been in these past few months. He seriously feared that Alex – in his blatant distress – could no longer make sensible decisions about his future. Richard worried, and even more so because he could not stop this.

 

“Well, my dear Rowie, you should be fine after a good night’s rest. These contractions often occur when a woman is nearing the end of her term. Yet it is also a warning, Rowie. You should take better care of yourself, and not overdo it. You work too hard, child. I am certain His Lordship does not wish for you to harm yourself and …”

“You are quite right, Mrs Wallis. I do not want Miss Drake harmed.”

Rowena jumped at the earl’s deep voice, only to discover him standing in her bedroom’s doorway. Instinctively, she snatched her bedcovers up to her chin, forgetting that he could not see. But she could, and she did not like it one bit. He looked awful, his face ashen under the stark white bandage on his head.

“My lord! Forgive me for being blunt, but you should also not be walking around after your fall.”

A spontaneous, wide smile blossomed on his countenance, warming Rowena’s heart.

“I am well, Miss Drake. A little bump on the head is not uncommon for me. But how are you? Dr Orme tells me that there is no cause for alarm. Is he right?”

“I feel fine, my lord, and should be up and about in the morning. Thank you for your concern.”

“Well, I shall leave you to rest, then, but I look forward to seeing you at breakfast.”

“Good night, my lord. Until tomorrow morning.”

The earl once again gave her his quiet, yet beautiful smile. “Good night, Miss Drake.”

A long, long time after, Rowena still lay awake, heart thumping with concern over the disturbing feelings that warred through her.