Chapter Eleven (continued)
Rowena woke late on New Year’s Day 1816. It took her a few moments to recall what day it actually was. She was feeling relaxed, sated, alive … and content. Too content to have her attention turning on the demands of the day to come. Not yet …
The door to her room opened, and Meg bustled in, carrying a tray. Rowena stifled a shriek and hastily covered her nakedness, which she had discovered only now. Meg, her eyes dancing with mirth, laughed.
“Oh, my pet, do not blush, not for me. I can see that your husband treated you the way you deserve to be treated, and that is only decent. I knew the earl would be what you needed to secure your future. It is a dead shame that you met him this late in life. He should have come before your cavalry man did.”
Rowena stilled, her movement of getting out of bed halting, when Meg’s last words reached her. With an astounding clarity, they rang in her head like bells on an Easter morning. What would have happened if she had met Alex first, instead of Peter?
Alex scanned the gathering at his breakfast table with content satisfaction. His servants – and by now, there were a good, healthy number of them – were chatting in hushed tones, every single one of them smiling and happy. Mrs Hall, his long-time cook, had her kitchen maids and tweenies around her. Alex only remembered Trixie’s name, but she was now a housemaid under Meg Wallis, the housekeeper. That lady, seated beside her husband John had also gathered her troops, now two other maids, besides Trixie. He really should ask his wife to tell him all their names, Alex berated himself.
Further down the long table, his outdoor servants were seated, all of them speaking quietly with each other. Silas Mercher, his head gardener now had three boys under him, and Thomas Anderson, his head groom had four stable boys to help him ready the stables for the new horses Alex intended to purchase. Next to the grooms were the three tall footmen, Gregson, David and Reese Mortimer, sons of one of his tenants. Hannibal Mortimer had a large brood of some fifteen children, and the wages his sons would bring in would be very welcome in supporting the family.
Alex’ gaze wandered to the one person who really mattered at his table. At his right side, he most keenly felt Rowena’s presence. He focussed on her, wanting to see her as clearly as possible. His eyesight was still slightly blurred, yet he clearly saw the burgundy-coloured morning gown she wore. It was neatly cut, a bit generously tailored around the waist to accommodate her pregnancy. A square neckline advantageously showed her ivory shoulders and the onset of her lush breasts. How he remembered the exquisite feeling of those orbs in his palms, the previous night. He studied her. She was quiet, and savouring her new role as the lady of his house to the full. It was true that she had occupied the position since she entered Ketteridge House, yet now, as his countess, she had acquired a dignity which clung to her like a gown. A dignity her brother had stripped from her when he chased her from her home.
Come to think of it, Alex was curious about that brother of hers. After all, the man had a right to know his sister had married. Maybe a trip to Cumberland would not come amiss, as soon as the weather improved. Alex wanted to learn why Roderick Drake had cast his sister out, and subsequently, cast retribution on him on Rowena’s behalf. No man had the right to push his sister into danger like that.
Rowena … her small hands were toying with a bun, and she was not eating any of the offerings he had personally loaded onto her plate.
“You seem unwell, my dear,” he whispered at her ear, the words low enough not to be understood by their neighbours. “Is the food not to your liking? I have not heard your knife cutting through Cook’s lovely buns. Shall I order a fresh plate for you?”
“No, thank you. I am not very hungry.” Rowena answered calmly, although she did not feel calm at all. Instead, her nerves were dragged into acute awareness at the soft caress of his breath on her sensitive flesh.
“Well, then how are you feeling? Are you suffering from last night’s exertions?”
He had kept his tone light and teasing, but she blushed a fiery red. He found it endearing, but hid his smile.
“I will not answer such a blunt question at the breakfast table,” she said, grabbing her cup to drink and hide her red cheeks.
“Nevertheless, I feel we should discuss it, my dear. I fear I was less than gentle with you, after you came to my bed, the second time. Why did you come?”
Rowena swallowed her tea, grateful that it did not choke her.
“You were crying out,” she hissed, irritated that he should continue their all too intimate conversation. “As if you were in pain. I was concerned. You calmed down when I joined you.”
“Did I truly? I am amazed.”
“Alex, please!” Rowena was desperate now. Meg was already looking at them in wonderment.
“Very well, my dear, I shall not embarrass you further.”
He was rewarded by her grateful smile, a smile that brightened her face like a ray of sunshine. He was again reminded of how fiercely he had resented his blindness in the first days of their meeting. How it had affected him that he had been incapable of seeing that smile. It was a comforting thought, Alex reflected, to know that her smile would now be with him for the rest of his life.
It was an estate tradition to hand out presents on New Year’s Day, but it had not been kept up during the last five years. Reggie, Alex’ brother had not had enough resources for that, as Alex had explained to Rowena during their carriage ride to Ketteridge’s only inn.
“I was away in the Peninsula and had no idea about the estate’s finances. Reggie was too proud to inform me, which was unwise, because I could have helped him from the start. I gathered a good little sum during my army days, which I was able to invest wisely and with good results. It would have been so much better for the estate, had I been there at the time. Alas, fate decreed otherwise.”
“When did your brother die, Alex?”
Rowena had wanted to ask him about his family from the first days they met, but there had never been a right moment to do so. Now, in their warm, snug carriage, riding through white, frozen countryside, there was. Yet she noticed how her husband stilled, and suddenly seemed to withdraw. She took his gloved hand in hers.
“You know all about my family, Alex. Do you not think it fair that I know about yours, too?”
He nodded, then sighed. “What I am about to tell you, Rowena, is not common knowledge. I hope you will be discreet and not tell anyone, not even Mrs Wallis. Do I have your word on that?”
“You have it, Alex,” she replied, quietly but firmly.
He cleared his throat. “He died early this year. Reginald was twenty years my senior. He was born late in my parents’ marriage, when they had given up all hope on any offspring. My mother had a horribly difficult childbirth, and she nearly died, so my father swore Reggie would be the only child he would father. Yet twenty years later, I came along, and killed my mother. Suffice it to say that I was not exactly welcomed by my father. Reggie was his heir, I was a spare, although my father only thought of me as a useless, cumbersome brat. A murderous brat, to boot. I was left to the care of Mrs Hall and her kitchen maids for years, until Reggie stood up to Father. My brother took me under his wing, and sent me to Eton and afterwards, to Cambridge. After my graduation, I enlisted in the army. My father approved, because I would be out of his way, and away from the estate. He had told me on my eighteenth birthday that I was not to receive any financial benefits from his will. I had to fend for myself, he said, and that is exactly what I have done since.”
Alex stopped, suddenly aware of one very disturbing fact; why was he spilling all this to Rowena? He had never, ever talked to someone about this, except for Porter, who was as close as family to him. Yet he had – no, still was entrusting his deepest thoughts about his family to a woman he knew for a month. Not a mere woman, but his wife. Alex felt something shift inside him, into something akin to peace, to comfort, and safety. He was right to talk to Rowena.
So he continued, tightening his hold on her hand.
“Reggie was the closest I ever had to a father, to any parent, for that matter.”
“You must have been lonely, as a child.” Rowena had to swallow against the deep compassion that ran through her at the image of a small Alex, alone and lonely, left to the care of servants.
“No, not really. Mrs Hall, at that time a mere scullery maid, Mrs Bammer, the housekeeper, and Mrs Swanson, the cook, and also every maid, high or low, were mothers to me. They spoiled me something fierce, and it was a good thing Reggie rescued me and showed me my true self, as the second son of an earl. He pulled me out of the oblivion. I knew I would always find a home at Ketteridge House with Reggie in it, and for many years after Father died in 1804, that was exactly so.”
Alex swallowed, grief washing over him. He struggled but continued his tale. “I always hoped he would marry and have a family. Father had been directing debutantes to him for years, but Reggie never showed any interest at all. Reggie just whiled away his days, here on the estate. He gradually used up the last of the estates finances, simply because he had no energy to manage them. He just seemed to waste away in complete depression, and I had no inkling how to help him. When he died of an apoplexy, on June 16th of this year, on the exact same day I was wounded on the battlefield, the estate was in shambles. I did not know about his death until I returned here. When finally, at the end of October, I could bring myself to clear out his desk with Porter’s help, I found out why he was so depressed. Reggie’s interest was in men instead of women.”
“Oh … poor man. How he must have suffered from the loneliness. While your father was alive, he would not have had the opportunity to find a mate.”
“Exactly. And afterwards, he had his hands full with sorting out his inheritance. I discovered he had a friend … a lover … when he was at Cambridge University. The affair lasted for fifteen long years. He had to break up the relationship when he came to live on the estate, after Father’s death. Here it would have been impossible to carry on.”
With a slow, but ever-growing awareness, Alex realized one most important fact, and spoke of it.
“How have you learned about … people like Reggie?”
Rowena felt her cheeks grow hot. It was one secret she had never shared with anyone.
“The curate at my parish church,” she murmured. “Mr Thompson was the kindest, most considerate man I ever met. He was also young, and very handsome. At fifteen, I developed an infatuation for him, and impetuous as I was then, I told him. He could not confess to his being different from other men, of course. Instead, he directed my interests to Latin and Greek, something I lacked sourly in my education. My Meg is but a simple woman, even though she taught me reading, writing and simple mathematics. By the time I was eighteen, my infatuation had waned. I still liked – and still do like Mr Thompson, but since he had never done anything to encourage me, I recovered from my girlish fantasies.”
“Let me guess,” Alex interposed. “That rattled you. You could not understand why a handsome young man would not be interested in you.”
She turned hurt eyes to him, and he instantly regretted his rather pettish remark. “I am only teasing you, Rowena.”
She sighed, cast down her eyes, a fact he resented. He wanted to see her face, scan her eyes. She was talking about a man she had loved, albeit with an adolescent’s infatuation. For some reason, he found he did not like the notion that Rowena might have loved before. He had the same nagging feeling about her former lover, Johnston.
“No, you have it right, Alex,” she continued. “I was rather miffed at the time. So badly that I talked about it to Peter, when we were seeing each other. He laughed at me, said he could not understand why I had not figured out the reason. Then he told me Mr Thompson had all the characteristics of a … a sodomite.”
She shuddered, and Alex put his arms around her, furious with the bloody, callous idiot, who so viciously crushed her first love’s character.
“I did not know the word, let alone what it pertained. Peter explained it to me, and I was so shocked I could not sleep for days, trying to imagine such a relationship. How two men would … would, could …”
“Shhh,” Alex soothed. “Do not dwell on things you cannot understand. It was foolish of me to begin about Reggie’s state of mind.”
“No, no,” she protested, rather vehemently. “Alex, I appreciate you telling me about your youth and childhood, and about the brother you so clearly loved. We should always talk to one another, as husband and wife. A marriage is about trust, and comfort, and feeling safe. Please do not ever stop talking to me, I beg you.”
He was nonplussed, to say the least. What ardency, what passion she displayed with her statement. Lecturing him about marriage, no less! He struggled to find an answer, failed, and kept silent. Instead, he drew her closer. It was a mistake. As soon as her delectable curves melted into his hard muscles, desire coiled and wreaked havoc.
Rowena felt the change in him the instant it blossomed. She was in his arms, her cheek against his blue superfine, through which – thick, woolly cloth it might be – she could feel the steady, strong beat of his heart. She sank deeper against him, passion rising, desire leaping. How she loved being held by him. Her hand wandered downwards, and encountered the hard ridge straining his buff breeches. She looked up, smiled.
“I see that you, my lord, are definitively interested in me, indeed.”
He grunted, then drew her up until she was sitting in his lap. Swiftly, he parted her legs and rearranged them, so that she was sitting astride on top of his thighs, all of it in the blink of an eye.
“You know I am, you little minx …”
Oh, how she loved that low, heavy rumble, laced with desire. She kissed him, greedily, hungrily. He reacted, spread her mouth open with his probing tongue, reconnoitring, feeling, and finally conquering her haven. When the kiss slowed, he hiked up her skirts, and began stroking her thighs, bare above her stockings. Then he suddenly felt the baby kicking against the back of his hand. Lord! Should he even do this, now? His bride instantly and effectively ripped away his doubts.
Rowena gasped as the heat rose to an unbearable level. She fumbled for the buttons of his breeches, brushing aside the sides of his coat. He – in turn- began opening her drawers, tearing at the tiny pearl buttons.
Alex burned, passion driving him to a point he had never passed. Never had he taken a woman in a carriage – at least not in broad daylight. Yet he could not stop himself; he had to have her, now, this instant. She had already freed him from his breeches and was frantically trying to guide him to her entrance. He lifted her and swiftly lowered her onto his erection. She moaned, and he quickly took her mouth, stifling the sound. Revelling in the feeling of her hot moistness around him, he thrust, and she responded by pressing herself down. It was wonderfully marvellous. They both reached heaven within seconds, and Rowena clung to him afterwards, breath shallow and fast. Alex rubbed his cheek against hers, inhaling her lovely scent. He should thank her for so much delight, he mused.
The carriage rumbled over the cobbles that carpeted the High Street. Alex came to his senses and set Rowena from his lap, fastening his breeches, while he enquired if she needed help rearranging her clothes. She shook her head, cheeks reddened. He quickly kissed her on the mouth, grinning rakishly. “Here you are, my lady. Your first act as Lady Ketteridge.”