The Reclusive Aristocrat – Part Ten

Chapter Six

 

Ketteridge House, Leicestershire, England, December11th, 1815

 

Alex swung round, took one large step towards the sound, and tripped over his pile of discarded clothes. A split second before he landed heavily on the solid, wooden floor, he regretted throwing them where they would fall. A second later, he hit his head on the wash stand. His poor vision blurred even further when a sharp pain shot through his skull. He had forgotten the golden rule of blindness never to be careless with objects lying about neglected.

“Oh, heavens, my lord!”

Hands turned him onto his back and positioned his throbbing head onto the warm, soft cushion of a woman’s lap. Hands that were soft and gentle. They created fire wherever they touched his sweaty, bare skin. A woman’s voice he knew all too well crooned and commiserated, while the hands smoothed his damp hair from his face.

“My lord! You are bleeding … I must get help … please, stay and lie still …”

Time to intervene. He reached out and grasped her arm. She could not, must not go away.

“No, I am fine, Miss Drake. Just give me a hand getting to my feet.”

For one frozen moment in time, she stilled, as if debating with herself over what to do next. Then she rose from her knees, and slid her shoulder under his arm, thus allowing him to get his bearings and stand upright. Alex knew that it was not the blow to his head that made his knees buckle, although that part of his anatomy hurt like the devil.

“My lord, you must let me tend to the gash on your head. It is bleeding rather severely.”

“Help me to that chair by the window, please. You will find everything you need in the closet under the wash stand.”

They hobbled to the chair, Alex’ head now pounding with a dull pain. Lord! He must have banged it much harder than he had thought at first. He could feel the trickle of blood warm on his cheek. Rowena kept a firm hold on his body, the top of her head level with his chin. He knew that because her soft hair was tickling it. The scent she used – lily-of-the-valley – teased his sensitive nostrils. He would – Alex knew – recognize that scent always and everywhere.

Rowena lowered Alex onto the chair and felt him shiver under her hands. The room was icy cold, but he was sweating. His skin felt cold and clammy, and Rowena worried. Should she call for help? Porter would not be far away, she knew. As if he guessed what she was about to do, Alex again grabbed her arm, startling her with the warmth of his hand.

“Miss Drake, please, let us get on with this. Are you perhaps not familiar with tending wounds?”

“Yes, yes I am, my lord. I will proceed, then.”

Rowena searched the room until she spotted a blanket. She draped it around his upper body, involuntary touching the scar on his side. He shivered again, and let out a soft groan.

“Is that a remnant from the Waterloo battle, too?” she asked, while she hastily turned to the wash stand and retrieved a basket with fresh cloths and rolls of bandages. She poured some water from the large pitcher into the basin.

“Yes, sword’s tip cut across me while I was down,” Alex replied. “I was lucky that Porter ran the bastard through just as he brought down his blade. It was the blow of a dying man and it did not cut deep enough to give me a lethal wound. Hurt like the devil, though. As you can see, it is still a bit tender to the touch. Kept me in a fever for weeks, it did. Porter used to bathe me in ice water, trice a day, just to lower it.”

“And … your head? Was it badly hurt?”

“It was. Concussion and skull fracture, and an open wound. It is a wonder that did not do me in entirely. But, as you can see, I recovered.”

Carefully, Rowena began to clean the gash on his temple. It was not deep, but it needed precise handling, lest it would leave a scar.”

“Not entirely,” she said, very softly.”

“No.” Then, as if he needed to explain himself, “I apologize for the horrible sight I am.”

Rowena swallowed down the large lump that clogged her throat. “It … it is not horrible …”

She stilled, her hands still cradling his head after her examination of his wound. He shifted, and the blanket slid from his shoulders, as one of his hands came up to rest on her hip. Warmth flooded her, moist once more forming on her inner thighs. Her nipples puckered painfully as they rubbed against her corset. Rowena gasped with unbearable need, when Alex’ hand moved to her abdomen. She had so missed this. The closeness to a man, the feeling of his hands on her. Her gaze drifted to his tensed face, his sensual mouth, and she knew she could look at him as much as she liked. He would not know she was doing it. In response to his caress, her fingers wandered to his thick, black hair. It was soft and warm on her skin.

A beast Alex thought long since dead reared its head. It had been ages since he savoured the feeling of a woman, all lush curves, warm and soft. He was hard – of course, he was. His blood pounded in his ears at the thought of lifting her skirts and sliding his fingers over the skin of her inner thighs. His heart missed several beats at the thought of kissing her, of digging his hands into her bodice to savour her breasts.

Yet he could not, could he?

This was Rowena, his unmarried, yet pregnant housekeeper, who still mourned her fallen cavalry man. He, Alex, had no right fondling her, lusting after her, longing to bed her. He could never bed her while she was heavy with child. Nor any time later, when …

Suddenly, as if in accusatory response to his unruly thoughts, the child moved quite violently against his hand. He jerked it away in horror. God … what a lascivious, unworthy lowlife he was!

“Leave me be, Miss Drake, and go about your work. Send Porter up. He will fix me, he has done so many times in the past.”

His tone must have been cold as the Arctic, he reckoned, for his housekeeper ran as hard as she could. Touching her had been utterly despicable of him, and he had no inkling as to how he could right this terrible wrong. What had possessed him? This was not his way. Ah, but he had lost his way a long time ago, had he not? He had lost himself on June 18th, and no matter what he did, he could not remedy Waterloo’s wrong.

“Major? Wha’ the devil ‘appened?  Miss Drake comes runnin’ down those stairs like if she’s seen a bleedin’ ghost! Oh, an’ it’s you who’s bleedin’! Come ‘ere, now wha’ ‘ave ye done to yesself, eh?”

Porter began tending to Alex’ wound, muttering and fussing. “Did she did this te ye? I shouldn’ wonder, she’s such a feisty woman! Wha’ ‘ave ye done te ‘ave ‘er strike at ye, that’s wha’ I wanna know!”

 

Rowena was halfway down the stairs, when she recovered enough for her senses to slow down. She must not risk a fall by losing her footing . When she reached her bedchamber on the first floor, concern had replaced the panic. Because that was what she had felt, just then, when Alex touched her. Yet also … she struggled to find the right word, then settled for a mixture of joy and contentment. She had liked his touch, and very much so.

Alex … since when had her employer stopped being ‘His Lordship’ to become a real, very attractive male who reeled her senses enough to crave for more than just a slight touch to her abdomen? Rowena’s knees suddenly buckled under that realisation. She stumbled to the vast security of her bed, slid under the coverlet and folded her arms over her swollen belly. She turned onto her side and pulled up her legs as far as they would go. Trembling like a leaf in the wind, she hugged her abdomen, finding comfort in her baby’s jerky moves.

This is you, Rowena Drake. Pregnant and without a husband. You have no business in loving the way Alex touches you. You have no right longing for carnal relations with him. You have succumbed before and look where it led you. Feelings of lust have brought you this far, so learn your lesson and be sensible. Alexander Raventhorpe, fifth earl of Ketteridge is forbidden territory.

For some reason, that notion spilled tears from her eyes she had not known were there. Rowena found solace in those tears, rolling over her cheeks without the slightest effort. They just rolled, and kept rolling for several minutes.

Yet Alex had also been affected, had he not? Was it foolish of her to assume so? Or was what she had witnessed mere wishful thinking?

No, he had at least been attracted to her nearness, the proof of it blatantly clear for her to see. She could still recollect the shock she felt when she looked down his long, muscular torso to find the hard bulge in his black, clinging trousers. New heat washed through her, and she shamefully pushed it away. No, no – she had no claim on him, under no circumstances!

Rowena sat up, swung her legs from the bed and went to her washstand to cool her face with fresh water from the pitcher. She pulled the pins from her hair and brushed it vigorously for a while. She gathered it into a loose bun at the nape of her neck, dabbed a few droplets of her cologne behind her ears and looked at her pale reflection in the mirror. Then she straightened and strode out of her room.

 

The Reclusive Aristocrat – Part Nine

Chapter Five (completed)

Alex gestured to a chair opposite his across the large desk in his library. The chair scraped, when John Wallis seated himself.

“So, Mr Wallis, let us discuss the terms of your employment. I had thought …”

“Begging your pardon, my lord, but I am yet unsure if I want to work for you under the circumstances that present themselves here.”

He must have heard wrong, Alex thought. This elderly, former steward had reservations about working for him? “What circumstances, Mr Wallis? Pray explain.”

“My lord, I mean no disrespect but I am appalled that Miss Drake is living here without a decent female companion. I worked for her father for forty years, and he was the best employer I could have wished for. A good man, an excellent landowner and a doting father to the child from his second marriage. Sir George would be devastated to know that his daughter’s reputation is in tatters. Only you can remedy that, my lord.”

Surely, he was not cut out to be an earl, Alex thought. How was it that he did not burst out in fury and have this insolent man thrown out of his house? Instead, he found himself wondering and thinking over the man’s words, as if they had a hidden meaning, or second contents. And feeling not a bit uneasy about it. Yes, he would explain the situation to this man, who was to be a servant in his house.

“Miss Drake is and has never been my mistress, Mr Wallis, if that is where your thoughts are going. She told me her fiancé – the father of her child – was a cavalry officer who died at Waterloo. She also told me that her brother wanted to hide her, until the baby was born, and then give the child away. Miss Drake fled her home with the intention of seeking employment in London. Her funds ran out long before she reached the capital, and she was forced to continue on foot, without having the slightest notion of her whereabouts. My batman Porter and I found her on my driveway during a snow storm. She would have perished, had I not taken her in. All this happened a week ago, so I cannot fathom why Miss Drake’s reputation would suffer from it. I do not entertain socially, Mr Wallis, because I have been a recluse for months since I returned from the battle. Moreover, I am as good as blind; how can a wreck of a man harm a woman’s reputation?”

There was an awkward silence in which Alex – and not for the first time – cursed his damned affliction. What he would not give to just have a glimpse at Wallis’ face. The man should say something, and then Alex would be able to discern his mood and his thoughts.

“I apologize, my lord, for my rudeness, and I thank you for your patience in explaining the facts to me. Miss Drake is the closest my wife and I have to a daughter; we could not have children of our own. We have known Rowie since the day she was born, and Meg became her nanny, and later her confidante. We love her dearly, my lord, but we are at a loss as what is to become of her now.”

Alex could picture his father’s reaction to a speech like this one; the third earl of Ketteridge would have called for his burliest footman and have Wallis thrown onto the cobles. Even his mild brother Reggie would not have tolerated this lack of propriety. Yet all Alex felt was a deep gratitude towards the Wallisses who had cherished and guided Rowena Drake as if she were their own. It was not proper for him to listen to a commoner’s insolent speech, but Alex could not care less, at the moment. He was just interested in all things concerning Rowena, and the Wallisses were the source he needed to tap into, since they had known her all her life. Rowie … what a ridiculous name … and yet also an endearing, very appropriate name for her.

However, Rowena could not stay here without a female companion. In that, Wallis was right. It was a good thing that Meg Wallis was here; when her time came, Rowena would need help. Alex knew he was prepared to do everything that was necessary to help Rowena. And … he needed to keep her here, after the baby was born. That was paramount. Alex’ mind focussed on that thought and began working out plans to secure it.

John Wallis cleared his throat. “My wife will take Miss Drake with her to live with Meg’s sister in Leicester. That way, propriety will be satisfied, until we find a proper solution for her.”

 

“You will come with me, Rowie, and we will go and live with my sister Millicent in Leicester. Her Hannah is expecting her second child. She has an excellent midwife and a decent wet nurse at the ready, when your time comes. After that, we will have to make arrangements for you.”

Rowena let Meg’s words ripple over her like running water. Words that had no meaning except for one horrible notion; Meg wanted her to leave Ketteridge, and that was just too unbearable to grasp. Rowena could never leave Raventhorpe. Alex … no, she must not think of him that way, he was His Lordship, a man far above her station, far above the fallen woman she was. But not to see him each morning at breakfast, not to be near him when they visited tenants or talk about the improvements she planned for Ketteridge? She could never live without that. Raventhorpe – Alex – had become a vital part of her life over these few days. Rowena shook her head while she took Meg’s hands in hers.

“No, dearest Meg, I could never leave Ketteridge. I want to have my child here, under His Lordship’s roof and protection.”

Protection … how well Rowena recalled the warm joy that had flowed through her when Alex had spoken about his duty to protect her. She felt so safe at Ketteridge, safer than she had ever felt at Daveston Hall. Impulsively, she hugged Meg, feeling full of confidence and joy.

“Oh, Meg, I will be fine! Do not fret so. I am in good hands. His Lordship assured me of his support and protection. After the baby is born, I will have to reassess my situation, I grant you that; but for now I am safe, and that means all to me. Can you understand that?”

“But why, my pet, should you need to stay here to be safe? You have reached your majority now, since your twenty-first birthday was a few days ago. Therefore, you can come into your inheritance and make a life somewhere where they do not know you. I mean not now but after the child is born. In the meantime, …”

“Meg …” Rowena’s quiet address startled Meg, and she looked at her former ward with a sudden anxiety.

“Meg, there is nothing to inherit for me. Father bequeathed all to Roderick, leaving me to fend for myself. That is why I need to stay here as His Lordship’s housekeeper and make some money first.”

Meg’s mouth fell open. “But, Rowie, that cannot be true! Your father loved you so dearly! He cannot …”

“Yet he has,” Rowena cut her off, quite sharply. “As of yet, I am penniless and homeless. His Lordship kindly offered me employment, and I took it. That is the end of it.”

Rowena rose. “Now I must see to my duties but I will come up when I have finished.”

Meg stared after her dearest Rowie with utter disbelief and also, deep concern. Her dearest had fallen prey to the charms of the master of Ketteridge. Oh, it was a bad thing, indeed, because Meg was at an utter loss how to be of help.

 

“No.”

The little word – spoken with quiet emphasis – was out of his mouth before Alex could stop it. Silence followed. John Wallis seemed to have stopped breathing.

“Miss Drake stays,” Alex continued. “She is needed at Ketteridge House. And now, Mr Wallis, we will proceed to more urgent matters. I want you to go over my ledgers and the post that came this morning. We will work in the mornings, and in the afternoons, you can accompany me when I do my rounds on the estate. You ride, I presume?”

“Y … Yes, my lord, I do. Please show me the books.”

Alex reached for the small bell on his desk and rang it. He had bells on every table he used in every room he usually was in during the day or night. Soon Porter entered and asked what was required.

“Show Mr Wallis where we keep the ledgers and documents. Stay with him and lend a hand where necessary. I will be upstairs.”

“Aye, major. Will ye manage to …”

“Yes, carry on.”

With long strides, showing more confidence than he was truly experiencing, Alex left the library and went upstairs. He needed a break and he would accomplish it in the only way he knew; through sheer physical exertion.

 

On the second floor, the bedchambers were in a dismal state of neglect. When Alex’ father had still been alive, house parties had filled the manor on many occasions. Then these rooms would have been occupied and splendidly furnished. Alex’ brother Reggie had frequently entertained many guests, many of them carefully selected friends, who must have been – Alex realised that only now – of the same sexual disposition. Reggie had never used the rooms on the second floor, and when he came into financial difficulties, he had sold every scrap of furniture he could. The second floor was now mainly used for storage.

As soon as Alex was again fit enough to leave his bed, he had chosen the largest room, and instructed Porter to install a gymnasium. That way, Alex could physically exert himself, and he would frequently do boxing, stretching, weightlifting and push-ups, until he was exhausted. He desperately needed to build-up his lost strength.

 

Rowena knew she was a coward to have fled Meg and her many questions. Yet she needed to do her work, as was her duty, and the surest way to quell all upsetting thoughts. When she reached the second floor landing, Rowena first turned left.

This floor was new to her, and she wanted to make a survey of the rooms. They seemed abandoned but not empty. The long corridor stretching out before her was littered with spare furniture from the lower floors, and every item was buried under layers of dust. Cobwebs hung from the ceiling, reaching out to touch the cupboards, chairs, desks, and the many adornments one finds on the surfaces of side tables and pedestals. There were boxes filled with china figurines, oil lamps, stuffed animals and framed paintings, and everything was dull with dust. All doors were closed, except the last one at the very end of the corridor, from which sounds reached Rowena’s ears. Sounds of sparring, if she was correct. She recognized them from those her brother Roderick made when exercising his duelling skills in the gymnasium he installed when he came into his title.

Quietly, Rowena continued her way down the long corridor, opening doors and inspecting the rooms behind them as she went. She made notes in her small household ledger of what needed to be done in each room. Later she would come up here with her cleaning staff and assign the multitude of tasks that were required to have this floor set to rights.

When she finally reached the last room, Rowena froze and realised she must have come upon something that she was not supposed to witness. The Earl of Ketteridge, clad solely in black breeches, was vigorously pounding his fists into a large sand-filled bag hanging from the ceiling.

With a jolt of panic tightening her insides, Rowena’s eyes quickly darted around the room. It did not contain any furniture safe a washstand and a plain wooden chair, but there were other items lying around on the bare wooden floor. In a corner, a heap of black balls was stacked neatly against the wall, and beside it, a large wooden crate showed ropes, sticks and other things unknown to Rowena. This was clearly a sort of gymnasium.

Rowena’s gaze came to rest upon the earl’s semi-naked form, and her throat constricted with sudden lack of air. No wonder, for he was utterly magnificent.

His torso was toned to perfection, his dark skin, the colour of polished bronze tightening over hard muscles. Flat nipples showed through a sprinkle of dark hair that circled them. The fine mat of hair tapered into a line pointing to the rim of his breeches. Breeches that moulded his powerful thighs and led one’s gaze to his well-shaped legs and strong bare feet.

Rowena blinked when she noticed the large scar that ran over the right side of his abdomen. It spread from beneath his armpit to his navel in a diagonal line. A thick, red, ragged line flanked on both sides by a row of red dots, where the surgeon had stitched him up. All saints in heaven, it was a miracle that he had survived a wound like that. Yet the scar did nothing to mar his perfect body; he was all strong, virile male.

Due to his semi-blindness, Raventhorpe was unaware of Rowena’s presence, and she was free to feast her eyes on him, as he was pounding at the sandbag with hard yet well-balanced blows, that made the muscles of his shoulders ripple and roll.

Rowena stood in the doorway, utterly still and mesmerized. Heat erupted all over her body, and the nipples of her breasts, already swollen by her pregnancy, achingly tightened with sudden desire. Almost instantly, she felt a painful ache throbbing low in her abdomen, while the skin of her inner thighs dampened. She could feel moisture pooling at her core, hot and wet like warm honey. How well she knew these sensations; they were lust and passion, and she had experienced them with Peter when they had lain together in her aunt’s house in York.

Shame lanced through her, together with raw sexual need. What business had she, a pregnant woman who had almost reached the end of her term, to feel desire for a man she was not married to? But there it was – she longed for Alexander Raventhorpe with a fierceness which left her burning with sudden urging need.

Realisation that she was shamelessly trespassing hit her, and she forced herself to turn away. Her little notebook fell to the bare wooden floor with a loud bang.

 

The Reclusive Aristocrat – Part Eight

Chapter Five (continued)

Rowena did as the earl asked and laid her hand on his offered arm. She was anxious to see how this was going to develop. She was, after all, the one who had stirred it all up. What if something happened, and the earl got injured? Rowena suddenly realised she would never forgive herself.

They came out into the crisp coldness of the paddock. Rowena shivered when the sudden sharp wind whipped over her.

“What is it?” Raventhorpe snapped. “Are you unwell?”

“No, nothing of that, my lord, but … are you certain you should do this? I do not want you to be injured, should something go wrong.”

His mouth, beautiful and sensual, twitched in one of his rare smiles. Rowena’s heart suddenly skipped several beats.

“I find this most amusing, Miss Drake. First you push me to go riding, and when I do, you suddenly feel guilty that I should be hurt. In my experience, women love it when a man do as they ask. It gives them a feeling of power.”

He freed his arm from her too-tight grasp and slowly began walking toward Porter and the horse, all of a sudden very sure of his direction. “Do not concern yourself over me, Miss Drake. Titan and I are old friends.”

It was of no avail. Rowena’s heartbeat would not slow, and she closed her arms over her stomach, where the baby was equally restless. With ever-growing anxiety, she watched the earl climb into the saddle, which he did with effortless grace. Lord, he was a beautiful sight to behold! Tall and ramrod straight, but with a natural ease, the earl moved in the saddle to find his seat. Titan stood very still but his ears were pricked.

At first, Porter held Titan’s reins, then gave them to Alex. The horse’s mighty head reared up in anticipation, but the beast waited patiently until Alex loosened the reins enough for the stallion to allow him a slow walk around the fenced area. A feeling of boundless exhilaration swept over him; he was back in the saddle again! He could feel Titan’s muscles strain under the effort of keeping a slow pace.

The surroundings were a blur, as usual. There was a change of colour from the sky’s grey to the buff of the stable building, when Titan passed by it, but that was all he could see. Alex knew he was doing a dangerous thing yet he could not have stopped himself. The joy of being on horseback after all these months was sublime. He felt alive again, vibrant and masterful.

With careful gestures, Alex steered Titan into a new route, different from the wide circles he had been doing before. Linear now, with sudden angles induced by the pressure of a knee or a slight pull at the reins. The stallion responded flawlessly to Alex’ commands. Yet when Alex deliberately directed him to the fence, Titan stopped short just before bumping into it. The horse whinnied softly. “Good boy,” Alex praised, pleased that the stallion had known exactly what his master had intended.

Enthralled by Raventhorpe’s exquisite horsemanship, Rowena took a while before she became aware of Mr Porter’s mutterings beside her.

“Wha’ the ‘ell is ‘e doin’? Wants te get ‘imself killed, does ‘e?”

To Rowena’s astonishment, the batman seemed overly nervous, stepping as he was from one foot to the other. His hands were balled at his side, and it was costing him a great effort to stay where he was.

“Mr Porter, why are you so anxious? It seems to me that His Lordship is doing well under these circumstances.”

“Aye, and now ‘e’ll want te go riding over the entire estate! ‘Ow’s that going te be, eh? ‘E can’t see a bloody thing, and ‘e’ll bump into every obstacle in ‘is way!”

“No, he will not. Mr Porter, you must accompany him. You must keep your horse close to Titan, and steer the stallion into the right direction. No cantering or galloping, of course. Just a steady, slow walking.”

She could feel the batman bristle in protest, yet he did not speak at first. They both watched in silence how Raventhorpe made Titan wound and turn in quick, unexpected moves. The stallion executed them flawlessly, and the earl seemed completely at ease with every movement, never faltering in the saddle. At long last, Mr Porter spoke.

“This means a lot to ‘im, but ye knew tha’ already, didn’t ye?”

“Yes, and it was not hard to know it. It was abundantly clear that His Lordship was suffering from being denied riding.”

Up until now, James Porter had not paid much notice to his master’s new housekeeper. She was – and he knew that very well – not your average housekeeper. Mrs Drake was a lady, despite the fact that she was not a Mrs and that she was carrying an illegitimate child. She was already leaving her mark upon the major’s life, he had noticed. The running of the household was much smoother than before, even if Mrs Drake had only been at Ketteridge House for a few days.

Yet there was more.

Porter and the major had been together for the good part of ten years, from the day when Raventhorpe had joined the army. As the dashing, young cavalry officer without much responsibilities or cares, Raventhorpe had been attracting female attention wherever he showed up. Women – be they genteelly bred or common – flocked around him and stumbled over themselves to be in his good graces – and as a consequence, to end up in his bed. Raventhorpe never refused any of them but lived his life to the full, without spending another thought on the women as soon as he got bored with them. Moreover, even after Raventhorpe lost his eyesight, that female attention had never stopped. On the rare occasions that the major ventured into society, he would invariably find himself instantly in the centre of a pack of giggling women vying for his favours.

Not that the major paid any heed to women, nowadays. Raventhorpe had not solely lost his eyesight at Waterloo. His spirits had been forever low, as well as his interest in female company.

Until now, Porter observed with interest. His master was very interested in Miss Rowena Drake, and – Porter registered with some degree of annoyance – that feeling was mutual. The lady who arrived at Ketteridge House only four days before, was falling under the major’s spell. Porter did not give a fig for Miss Drake’s feelings, but he was indeed concerned for the first time about his master’s.

The woman was unsuitable to be more than a housekeeper, genteel upbringing or not. She was to have a child out of wedlock, for Christ’s sake!

“Miss Drake, …” Porter began, but was suddenly interrupted by the rattling of carriage wheels from the driveway.

Rowena, too, had heard and she turned to see who had come. From the paddock she could perfectly see the manor’s front and its circular driveway. The two people that descended from their hired carriage had Rowena gather up her skirts and run towards them with a cry of joy.

 

“Meg! Oh, Meg, you have come! Why have you not sent word? I could have sent His Lordship’s carriage to fetch you. Oh, John! It is so good to see you both!”

Rowena threw herself into the arms of Margaret Wallis, her former companion and nanny. Mrs Wallis was a short, buxom woman in her late fifties, with grey-sprinkled dark hair and hazel eyes.

“Oh, Rowie,” she exclaimed, taking Rowena’s hands in hers, “what has happened, my sweet? How did you end up here and … Good Lord! You …” Meg fell silent with shock as she noticed Rowena’s condition.

“I will tell all, Meg, but first I shall get you and John settled.” Rowena turned to John Wallis, a tall, broad-shouldered man with fading ginger hair and green eyes. “John, it is so wonderful to have you here. Lord Raventhorpe is in sore need of a good steward.”

Wallis took her in a bear hug, then looked her over. “My dearest girl, you have lost weight, and your eyes seem sad. How is it that you are here instead of in your brother’s keeping? Especially in your present condition.”

The sound of someone clearing their throat drew all attention to the newcomers, Raventhorpe and Porter, the latter guiding his master. Rowena hastened to make the introductions.

“My lord, this is Mr John Wallis and his wife Margaret. John, meet Lord Alexander Raventhorpe, fifth earl of Ketteridge.”

John Wallis, impressed by the tall, regal aristocrat, bowed deeply for the earl, and Meg did an appropriate curtsy.

“My lord,” John said in a deferential tone, “I am at your service, if you will have me as your steward. I hope Miss Drake has told you about my life-long career in the same position with her father, the late Baronet George Henry Daveston? My wife was Miss Drake’s nanny and later, her companion, until the current baronet let us go.”

Alex could not see Wallis, of course, but he liked the strong note in the man’s deep voice. No hesitations here, no wavering. He extended his right hand and waited for the man to grasp it in a firm hold, well aware of the slight intake of breath when Wallis realized that his new employer was blind.                He should have become used to this, Alex mused. People were always shocked when they were confronted with the affliction he suffered from. Yet it still rattled him that they showed their shock.

“Welcome to Ketteridge, Mr Wallis. Indeed, you will be of great service to me, as you can see that I am visually impaired. Souvenir of the Waterloo campaign, I am afraid.”

He turned to where he knew Mrs Wallis must be and again offered his hand. Mrs Wallis’ grasp was less strong, as if she felt timid. Alex raised it to his lips and brushed it.

“My dear Mrs Wallis, I hope you will again be a friend and companion to Miss Drake, who acts as my housekeeper. I have offered her shelter until her child is born, an event that is not far in the future. Miss Drake could certainly benefit from womanly guidance. I fear she has been stuck with our small staff for companionship, lately.”

“There is nothing that would please me more, my lord,” Meg answered, “than to support my little Rowie when her time comes. Thank you for welcoming us into your home.”

Again, no hesitation there either, Alex noted. The Wallisses seemed to have a solid confidence about them.

 

Much later, Rowena and Meg were having tea in the parlour, that was part of the small suite on the first floor, where the largest bedrooms and small suites were located. Raventhorpe had destined it for the Wallisses, so that Rowena had it ready, when they arrived.

“Now, tell me everything, my poppet,” Meg asked. “It seems that you have got yourself in dire straits, and you have not explained much in your letter to us.”

Rowena sighed. “Oh, Meg … my story is the oldest one in the world; I fell in love with a wonderful young man, we were intimate, and now I am with child. He cannot be my husband because he died at Waterloo.”

“Dearest, my dearest … how awful. But your brother, could he not take some measures to protect you?”

“He wanted my child … Peter’s child … to be taken away and placed into the hands of strangers, Meg. I could never allow that, so I went away. I wanted to go to London and find a position, but a severe winter storm brought me here. His Lordship has kindly offered me the position of housekeeper. I took it.”

Meg blew out a deep gasp. “I cannot fathom why Roderick would be so vicious to you. You and he were not exactly close but still, you are his half-sister. He should have protected you against that young man. Who was he, by the way?”

“His name was Peter Johnston and he was in the Yorkshire Cavalry Regiment. He was the son of a Cumbrian nobleman.”

“Which one? There is not much of a nobility in Cumberland, my pet. Have you not looked them up?”

Rowena bowed her head when sudden tears welled. “I … I was so depressed after he died, Meg. I lived in misery for weeks, and then I discovered my pregnancy. Roderick’s plans for me did not induce me to inquire about Peter, and then I ran away, and now …”

She stopped, realising that, since she had set foot in Ketteridge House, she no longer felt the need to inquire about Peter. It was as if she was slowly, gently letting go of him … But she could not! Peter was the father of her unborn child! She must keep his memory alive for her baby’s sake, at least.

“And now you are here, working as a housekeeper for this earl,” Meg’s voice dragged her back. “A bachelor, Rowie, and no mother or sister in sight. This is highly improper as you have no chaperone. Your reputation will be utterly ruined, when this is known.”

“Meg, I am already thoroughly ruined! I am pregnant and without a husband!”

“Still, Rowie, it can become worse, and you know it. People will think that the child is His Lordship’s, and that you are both living in sin under his roof.”

Rowena stared at Meg in horror, a cold sliver running up her spine. “His … his Lordship’s? But … that cannot be … Why would someone think that?”

“Because people always think the worst, my pet,” Meg answered quietly.

 

The Reclusive Aristocrat – Part Seven

Chapter Five

Ketteridge House, Leicestershire, England, December11 th, 1815

 “Do you ride, Miss Drake?” Alex asked, a few days later.

They were sitting next to each other in his carriage, a hot brick at their feet and a woollen blanket covering their legs. It had been Rowena’s idea to go visiting the more remote tenants on the estate. Now they were heading back to Ketteridge House. Rowena wondered how she came to be so comfortable with the earl, after what he had done. After what he had made her feel …

He had not repeated his actions, though. Oh, they had continued their meals together, after that first time, but the earl had kept his distance. Nevertheless, Rowena enjoyed that time with him, when she could converse with him and study him at her leisure. She was beginning to like the earl a great deal. Hopefully, that would not get in her way as his servant. He had, however, asked her a question.

“Yes, my lord, of course. I have been riding since I was six. I often accompanied my father on his rides. Daveston Hall is not a large estate, but nevertheless, one needs a horse to reach its farthest boundaries. I suppose Ketteridge is the same?”

“It is.” Alex could hear the coldness in his own voice but was powerless to change it. When on that fatal day in June he was robbed of his eyesight, he had also stopped being a horseman, and that notion nearly killed him, when he finally woke up on his sickbed.

Alex had loved riding since he was able to walk. His father, the late Benedict Augustus George Raventhorpe had been a skilled and avid horseman, who taught Alex to ride from the early age of four. Over the years, Alex had also become a skilful rider. Some of his fellow officers had even called him perfection on horseback. He was not boastful at all, but he knew they were right. Before he suffered his head injury, Alex had been as one with Titan, his massive black stallion, each of them aware of each other like twins joined at the hip. Losing that contact had brought on an additional and equally fierce injury, and this one had been emotional.

A small hand covered his. They were both wearing gloves, but her touch startled him nonetheless. He could feel her delicate fingers curling around his, causing a heat to spread up his arm, and straight into his chest, where his heart suddenly clenched. Alex looked down, trying to focus on her face, but only its contours were visible to him. As her warmth started seeping through the leather, he realised with a painful shock that he yet again desperately craved to know what she looked like. What colour were her eyes? What was the shape of her face, the feeling of her hair, unbound and spilling over his hands in the dark of night? Would his hands be able to feel the texture of her skin, and know her body as if he were able to see her? Her lovely, velvety skin …

With a jolt of conscience, he wrenched his thoughts into normalcy again. He was a fool. What business had he to have such unruly thoughts about a woman he had known for only a few days? Yet he felt old, long forgotten stirrings torturing him, feelings he thought had died long ago. That was what abstention did to a man. Even the slightest touch could provoke one’s most intimate reactions, when one was starved of female company for months.

“My lord, forgive me. I spoke in haste, without thinking. I cannot fathom what it must be when …”

With an effort, Alex withdrew his hand. Her compassion adding to the sexual stirrings she provoked, was more than he could bear at this very moment.

“You need not apologize, Miss Drake. It is not your fault that I am visually impaired. I have learnt to deal with it, and accepted it. I must make the best of it, for my estate’s sake, at least.”

He knew he was pushing her away when she was only trying to comfort him, yet he could not help himself. She was only temporarily helping him with estate matters, was she not? Soon, after her baby was born, she would leave, and never come back again. Why that thought was unbearably painful, Alex had not the slightest inkling. He was a fool.

“My lord,” she said softly, “you were entitled to an apology because I have been speaking rashly. I seem to do that frequently, or so my brother says. He calls me an empty-headed piece of muslin.”

The way she said that sounded so incredulous, and indicated that she was not sharing her brother’s conviction. Alex felt his mouth rising at the corners, in spite of his dark mood.

“Which, of course,” he said lightly, “you are not. Instead, you are a fountain of wisdom. After all, you just accompanied the master on his rounds.”

“You are teasing me, my lord, which, of course, is very bad of you and totally un-gentlemanly. My brother Roderick always resented me, because our father showed a preference to me. As my father often said to me, when I was little, Roderick was the heir, and therefore had enough security and privileges as it was. I fear Papa bestowed his affection on me with nothing left for Roderick.”

Yet, Alex mused, her father’s affection had not reached beyond the baronet’s will. She must have been affected by that cruel decision, yet she found the courage to try and turn her life around through setback and rejection. Rowena Drake, young though she was, showed stomach and spine.

“Do you still own a riding horse, my lord? Peter – my betrothed – always said that a cavalry man can never separate from his horse, especially when they have been in battle together. I could never believe that; after all, a horse is but …”

“It is true!”  Alex hated the sound of his own voice for its harshness but he needed Rowena to see that she was wrong. “Titan and I were never separated. He carried me into battle countless times, and at Waterloo, he never left my side, even in the fiercest bouts of canon fire. Even when Porter had to drag me from the battlefield, Titan faithfully followed us. He survived days without fodder, when we had to make it back to England through the ruined French countryside. Still he followed us and allowed Porter to harness him to a rough, wooden cart. Titan had never been harnessed before yet he took to it with stoicism and strength, even in his weakened condition. He and Porter saved my life.”

Rowena listened in enthralled silence to this declaration of love from a cavalry man to his horse. She was shocked to realize how the earl must suffer unbearably under the fact that he could no longer ride. She could, however, not offer the slightest of comforts, so instead, she laid her hand on his again, squeezing it gently. “So you have kept Titan in your stables, all this time? He must not have known what happened, when you stopped riding him.”

“I have never even been to the stables for all this time …” The earl’s voice broke as he said this, making Rowena’s heart burn with pity. A disastrous misery for both man and horse, then. She made her decision, right then and there, knowing full well that it would drag her into the earl’s private life. It was dangerous, and it could mean further disaster. Yet she brushed aside all warnings.

“Then it is time you two should get re-acquainted with each other. We have reached home. Let us go to the stables, my lord.”

 

Alex descended from the carriage as if in a daze. He declined Porter’s outstretched hand but allowed Rowena to put her hand on his sleeve to lead him to his long-neglected stables. It occurred to him that this was most unusual, yet he could not have stopped her for all the world.

Quite unexpectedly, he seemed to experience an unconquerable urge to seek out Titan for the first time in six long months. He had never found it in his heart to sell his long-time steed, even when he was forced to send almost all the rest to the block. Next to Titan, he had only kept the two carriage horses and one gelding, who was too old to be sold. So, when he heard Titan’s alert snort the minute he stepped into the stables, Alex’ heart leapt in anticipation.

Rowena’s warmth burned through the sleeve of his greatcoat like glowing coals. Yet her small fingers seemed to belong there, as Alex found he needed her support to find out exactly where Titan was. The stables were unfamiliar to him, because it had been such a long time since he had been here. His steps faltered a little, but Rowena guided him to Titan’s box.

“Hello, old boy,” he murmured, reaching out. He was unable to see the stallion but he sensed a warm, familiar vibration that thrilled him excessively. Titan instantly shoved his soft nose into Alex’ hand, and he, in return, pressed his face against Titan’s cheek. They stood there for minutes before Porter, worried about his master, came looking for Alex.

Rowena, tears blurring her vision, stopped the batman with a simple look.

“All is well, Mr Porter,” she whispered.

She and Porter stood watching Alex and Titan as they were re-discovering one another, like long lost friends. Then the earl rather abruptly turned to them. “Porter, have him saddled. I want to give it a try.”

“But, major, …” Porter exclaimed in alarm, but the earl cut him off sharply. “Do it, man!”

Then, to Rowena, “Miss Drake, lead me to the paddock. It is behind the stables.”

The Reclusive Aristocrat – Part Six

Chapter Four (continued)

Alex could not have explained why he wanted to do this, not if his life depended on it. He just knew he had to do it, as if it was something so important that indeed his life would change if he refrained from it. He found himself besieged by the urging, vital need to learn what Rowena’s face looked like. To know what others saw when they looked at her. He needed to explore her features and store what he learned in his mind, so that he would be able to draw forth her image whenever he wanted to.

Registering the shock that rippled through her delicate frame, when he stated his demand, he half expected her to bolt and run, yet she did no such thing. Instead, she stilled, waited, as if mesmerized. Alex lifted both hands and lightly fastened them on her upper arms, then gently turned her to face him.

Rowena’s burgundy-coloured, silken gown had a deep, square neckline, and a high waistline with a cone-shaped skirt worn over three petticoats. The skirt’s cut fell over her swollen stomach in graceful flows. The sleeves were short and puffed, and covered only a small portion of Rowena’s slim shoulders.

That was why Rowena closed her eyes in shock, when Raventhorpe’s long fingers took a gentle hold of her arms. They travelled upwards to encounter the puffed sleeves, went by them and settled on Rowena’s bare shoulders. Her breath hitched at the feeling of Raventhorpe’s large, slightly calloused hands on her flesh. Almost instantly, a liquid pool of warmth formed deep in her stomach, followed by a throbbing sensation at her womanly core. Desire … arousal …

Oh, how familiar it was, that heavenly feeling created by a man’s touch. This man, Rowena realised, knew all about what it took to make his touch unforgettable. She should be stepping back in horror, she should push him away, and run. Yet the only thing she yearned for was that he should continue his slow reconnoitring of her body. That he would not stop. She wrenched her eyes open and gasped when his fingers brushed the swell of her breasts. Instinctively, she pushed herself closer.

Alex desperately tried to focus on the vague image before him. He cursed his blasted affliction that denied him a sharper image. All he could see was the deep red colour of Rowena’s gown, and the creamy hue of skin above it. He was able to distinguish the transition between her dark hair and her pale face, but there was no clear image of it. So he was forced to use his tactile sense in order to adjust his lack of focus, and fill in the heart-shaped features cradled within his palms.

And walked into a quagmire … of overwhelming emotions.

She was exquisite. Her skin was fine velvet, her flesh warm and firm. He let his hands slide over the curve of her breasts, and gloried when they fit snugly into his palm. Her nipples puckered beneath the soft silk. He drew in a breath, and tried to tamp down his growing arousal.

Raventhorpe’s handsome face was set in taut lines, Rowena saw. The wide plane of his brow was furrowed in concentration, his lean cheeks slightly suffused with colour. His blue-grey eyes were open, yet without any noticeable expression, due to his affliction. But they glowed as if a light had been lit inside. It was utterly mesmerizing. Rowena’s gazed fell on his long, thin mouth, and her heart was instantly in her throat. His shapely lips were trembling as if he were on the verge of crying out with pain.

A second later, all thoughts fled from her head, as his fingers touched the sensitive skin beneath the rim of her neckline. She could not withhold the muffled little whimper that escaped her lips, and saw him tense even more when he registered it.

“Shhh … you must not be afraid. I will not hurt you …”

No, he would not, Rowena acknowledged. At least, not deliberately so. She knew for absolute certainty that she would irrevocably be hurt, at some point. And in the very near future, no doubt.

Yet she could not withdraw from the incredible feelings Raventhorpe’s touch created in her. Feelings she had only experienced with Peter, eight months ago.  She forced herself to analyse them; there was desire, of course, but also an expansion of her senses to something deeper, something infinitely more precious. Something that would leave her utterly vulnerable, yet also completely invincible. Ah! Dangerous thoughts, Rowena. Resolutely, she shut all those things out and simply enjoyed Raventhorpe’s administrations.

Alex forced himself to guide his hands away from the temptation of her neckline. He had to keep control, or she would be shocked beyond repair, he knew. He could not bear the notion that Rowena would not consider him a gentleman. With infinite delicacy, he touched her face, and began investigating its heart-shaped form.

Wide-set eyes. A small, straight nose and fine cheekbones. A mouth that was a trifle too large. Pliable lips. The overall impression Alex got was one of delicate beauty. Rowena’s features were utterly feminine and beautiful.

And now he should lower his hands. And found he could not. He should say something, thank her and let go of her. Go on as before. He felt like being frozen, paralyzed, unable to withdraw. He desperately wanted to explore more of her.

A brisk tap, and Porter entered carrying a tray with their food. They jumped apart like two frightened children. In one smooth motion, Alex grasped Rowena’s hand and led her to the small table where their diner was to be served. Rowena quickly sat down again, her face in flames. Alex regained his own seat, feeling his way along the table’s edge. Porter began serving them, his face without any expression as to what he might have witnessed. They ate in silence. They were both too embarrassed to speak.

When the valet had cleared away their plates and gone out again, Alex cleared his throat.

“Do not mind Porter, Miss Drake. He is as imperturbable as a statue. I realise I have behaved a trifle too intimately, for which I sincerely apologize. It was not my intention to cause you embarrassment. I am most grateful that you allowed me to ‘see with my fingers’, as it were; I now have a clear image of you.”

Rowena had to make a considerable effort just to regain her composure. Yet she knew she must, if she was to continue being Raventhorpe’s employee. She forced her voice into normality.

“I must confess to being a trifle shaken, my lord. No one has ever …. well, for lack of a better wording, got to know me through their tactile sense. I cannot even begin to imagine what it must be like to lose one’s eyesight. You just said you were able to ‘see me with your fingers’. I find this extremely interesting, so would you please indulge me and tell me what I look like?”

Alex’s muscles locked as they did in battle, right before the attack, when all action and motion seemed to be suspended in time. He recognized the sensation all too well; it was the anticipation one experienced when on the verge of making love to a woman. And yes, he whole-heartedly admitted to wanting Rowena Drake in his bed, to have her beneath him and unleash the passion slumbering within her. She was not entirely indifferent to his touch; he had registered that clearly when he made his fingers map her beautiful face. Yet having her as a bed mate was not his primary goal.

Alex was lonely. Since he came back from Waterloo, he had understood that going to London and the Ton in order to find a suitable bride could never apply to him. What young woman would want to share her life with an invalid like himself? What father would want his offspring tied to a man who lacked the most important of senses?

Yet he must wed. He was obligated to set up his nursery, in order to secure the earldom’s succession. And first and foremost, he needed a wife that would stand beside him, come what may. Rowena Drake might just be that woman. Alex instinctively recognized her speech and stance as being those of a gentlewoman. He had felt it when he searched her face, just moments before, that elegance of composure in her posture. It stood to reason, as she was, after all, a baronet’s daughter.

“Merciful heavens,” Rowena’s quiet voice broke through his musings, making him startle into attention. “I must be a freight, indeed.”

“No!” Alex could not stop himself from shouting, nor could he keep his next words to himself if it cost him his life. “You are the most beautiful woman I have encountered in my whole life, Rowena Drake.”

 

Hell. Why had he allowed himself to say such a thing? The absolute silence meeting him from across the table was deafening in its intensity. Alex wanted to make amends but found no words. He had meant it, though. She was beautiful, his Miss Drake. His? He must have gone stark raven mad. A strangled sound reached his ears, and he was instantly on his feet. She was weeping! He crossed the distance between them in the space of a heartbeat.

“Forgive me, Miss Drake. That was uncalled for. I …”

“No, my lord, it is you who must forgive me. I do not know what has come over me. I seem to … to …I am sorry …”

Damn his affliction! What Alex would not have given, only to observe the expression on her face, right now! He reached for her hand but instead encountered her face, her cheek. It was damp with tears.

“Has no one ever told you that you are exquisite, Miss Drake? Are the men in your part of England even blinder than I am, then?”

He cupped her cheek, and she leaned into his palm, a most disconcerting yet pleasant feeling.

“Only Peter, the father of my child called me beautiful, my lord. He loved me, so it was only natural that he would do so.”

“Ah,” Alex said softly, “Peter, the cavalry man, was it? Clever of him. Tell me, Mrs Drake, to what regiment did he belong?”

“The Yorkshires,” Rowena replied, her voice dreamily. “He was so handsome and so …”

A sob cut through her speech, driving Alex to caress her cheek with his thumb. “So … what, Mrs Drake?” He could think of a score of things, including irresponsible, and egotistic, for instance.

“So full of hope …”

Rowena drew in a deep breath and stepped back from the earl’s hand. “I must retire, my lord. Tomorrow will bring a load of tasks that need my attention. I thank you for a most lovely evening. Goodnight, my lord.”

A second later, Alex heard the door click shut.

 

The Reclusive Aristocrat – Part Five

 

Chapter Four

Ketteridge House, Leicestershire, England, December 8th, 1815

Rowena descended the long, spiralling staircase and looked down on the tall, regal figure of the earl waiting for her. Dressed in black evening attire, he presented a sight that made her mouth dry. Even though she realized he could not see her, Rowena was nevertheless glad that she had donned the only evening dress she had brought with her. The style was not in the latest fashion, but the burgundy-coloured silk suited her dark colouring to perfection. Trixie had adjusted the waistline so that it fitted Rowena’s condition, which fortunately was not too marked yet. The little maid had also styled Rowena’s hair into a loose chignon at the nape of her neck, allowing stray curls to grace her brow and shoulders.

“Such a pity the master can’t see ye, miss! Ye look a right picture, ye do!”

The master was presently extending his gloved hand to her, and Rowena took it, the strength of him flowing into her, comforting her. As he led her into the small parlour where they had recently taken their meals, Rowena felt every inch the gentlewoman she had been, just a few months ago. She savoured the feeling, grateful to her host for bestowing it upon her by his behaviour.

Alex cursed his affliction, and not for the first time, since Rowena Drake had entered his lonely existence. He could make out the rich colour of her gown, but had no way guessing what her figure looked like in it. He so desperately wanted to know her features, admire her form, her stance and her manners. Avid curiosity plagued him, helpless rage gnawed at him, all because of his stupid inability to see. Never before had he regretted his fate as he did now.

That small fact puzzled him. He could not fathom why it mattered to him what Rowena Drake looked like. She had not been here until a few days, for pittance sake! Yet it did matter. It mattered a great deal, because, for some inexplicable, crazy reason, he was attracted to her. Another conundrum, that. How could he possibly be attracted to a woman he could not even see?

As he led her to the settee and the low table, where Porter had laid out drinks, Alex realized Porter had been wrong; she was not short. She did not nearly come close to his six three , of course, but her head would come to rest against his shoulder very nicely, should he ever take her in his arms. All of a sudden, he had to tamp down the strongest urge to do just that. Blast, what was wrong with him?

He quickly deflected his own confused thoughts by addressing his guest.

“Would you do the honours, Miss Drake? I fancy whisky neat, if you please?”

Rowena complied and served him, pouring herself a small measure of Amontillado. A very decent one, she mused, after sipping it. And wondered how the earl could afford such extravagances.

“My lord, I want you to know I have written to the Wallisses. I expect their answer in a few days. Would you like me to complete your current staff with more servants? Thus far, I have only seen to employing female staff, necessary to the maintenance of the house. You are, if I may say so, in need of a butler, a head gardener, and at least five sturdy footmen.”

He smiled, widely. She wanted to talk housekeeping matters? That was fine by him.

“Miss Drake, if you would make up a list of what and who you are thinking of, I would be obliged. The only person I do not need, is a valet. Porter will do very well in that function.”

 

They enjoyed their meal in silence, for a while. Just being in each other’s company suited them both to perfection, as Mrs Hall seemed to have outdone herself, that night. A succulent sirloin of beef, accompanied by dumplings and an assortment of winter vegetables like turnips and onions, and all had been prepared to perfection. Raventhorpe had Porter serve an excellent claret and afterwards a sublime port, which Rowena sipped delicately. She had never before been allowed to even taste port wine. She had just registered the strong, highly-spirited flavour of the wine, when Raventhorpe addressed her once more.

“Mrs Hall tells me that your child is due at the beginning of February. Have you consulted a physician regarding the confinement? I gather this is your first pregnancy?”

Rowena swallowed and stiffened. Good heavens! She had had to tell the dear old busybody about her due date, had she not? Foolish!

“Yes, my lord, it is my first child. I have not yet made any preparations. I … I have not had the chance to do so.”

“But you are going to, are you not? Pregnancy is a condition that needs some elemental preparations, such as finding a midwife, or a wet nurse. I am sure Dr Orme can be of help. Shall I send him a message?”

Rowena could not answer; her throat was clogged with unshed tears. How thoughtful of him!

How did he – a gentleman and a soldier – know of such female domestic concerns? She stayed silent for far too long, but she had no inkling as to what she should say.

“Miss Drake? Do I get no answer?”

“My lord … I do not know what to say … what to do when a man like you talks of such situations. It … it confuses me greatly. Men in general are not familiar with female problems, to my knowledge.”

“My dear Miss Drake, I have been a soldier. I have been campaigning all over the Continent for ten years. One day in 1810, we were summoned from Spain where we had been quartered, to go to Portugal to reinforce our infantry near Sobràl. Porter and I were riding ahead of the troops when we saw a little girl – she could have been no more than six – calling out to us. She was such a tiny thing but she shouted that we should help her mother who was very ill. We followed her to a dismal little hovel and found the mother on the verge of having a baby. There were three other children in the house and I swear the mother could not have been older than twenty. So Porter and I did the best we could to help the mother. We had a difficult time of it but we managed to bring the child into this world. It was another little girl, and she was utterly beautiful. We went on our way after we called in the help of an old woman who lived nearby, and asked her to look after the family. We left all our provisions there, and all our money. It was a humbling experience, Miss Drake, just to see the courage of that little young mother.”

“You delivered a baby? How did you know what to do?”

“Porter knew. He was married at one time, before he joined the army. His wife and son died of pneumonia which was even more sad since he had helped when his own baby was born.”

“Oh, how horrible!” was all Rowena could utter.

“I think,” Raventhorpe continued in a tone he deliberately kept light, “that he must have adopted me as soon as he set eyes on me, when I stepped up in front of my cavalry squadron. That was fourteen years ago, and Porter had been a batman to one of the elderly officers for ten years. That officer retired from the army, so Porter needed another young buck to mother over. We got on extremely well from the first day. We were never separated, since.”

He drew in a breath and sighed. “Regardless, Miss Drake, I doubt that you would find comfort in Porter’s assistance when your time comes. We should find you a midwife.” He waited for just a heartbeat, the continued, “I take it there is no one you want to inform about the babe?”

Rowena shuddered with surprise. He had again breeched her defences, damn him!

“No, as I told you, my betrothed died at Waterloo. He was a cavalry officer, just like you. When he took his leave of me in May, I did not know I was with child. He never knew that he was to be a father.”

For some totally hare-brained reason, Alex suddenly felt a stab of jealousy for that soldier who had possessed and known this courageous young woman. And also, fury, because of the man’s egotism, to have sexual intercourse with his betrothed and know that he would be away to war.

“I met him when I was visiting my aunt in York,” Rowena continued, unaware of the earl’s anger. “We pledged that we would marry after the war, so when he …”

A sob reached his ears and Alex rose. In three steps, he was beside her, feeling for her hand to lay his own over hers.

“Hush, Miss Drake, no need to upset yourself so. That cannot be good for the babe. You loved your betrothed, and he loved you. That memory of him will always be with you, and be reflected in your child.”

She abruptly stood. “I am so sorry, my lord … I did not want to …” Another sob, and he had to close his arms around her. With an odd little cry, she buried her head against his chest and shuddered while she quietly wept. He stroked her hair, neck, shoulders, caressed her back, her arms without releasing her. Merciful heavens … how perfectly right she felt within the circle of his arms.

He heard himself whispering meaningless little words, desperate to calm her, to free her from her terrible grief. He inwardly cursed the bastard who had done this to her.

“Has your betrothed – by any chance – left you with some means to provide for yourself? I know it is highly unlikely but I could have my man of business inquire whether you have a claim to it. Was he a man of means? If he was a cavalry officer, he must have come from a wealthy family.”

She shuddered against him, as if in fear. It cut through his heart.

“If you would tell me his name, I could find out,” Alex ventured.

An incredibly strong urge to blurt it all out threatened to overwhelm Rowena. She had been so lonely since Peter disappeared from her life. Roderick – heartless, selfish rogue that he was – had not even given her time to grieve over Peter’s death. Her brother was making his way into the world of politics and he wanted no connections with a wayward and ruined sister, who could easily keep him from becoming prime minister one day. So conceited was his self-image that he felt entitled to sent Rowena into exile. To make certain she would never return, Roderick also cut off her allowance. Rowena would be forced, he told her, to make a living on her own.

All this weighed heavily on Rowena’s normally high spirits, and she had had no one to turn to in her distress. And now, here was this gentle earl, a damaged soul like herself, who was offering her the much needed comfort. But she could not, would not take advantage of his kind offer. He was an earl, for heaven’s sake. An aristocrat who must not have anything to do with a ruined woman like her. She could only bring him shame, and that would be a dismal way to reward his kindness in offering her hospitality. She gently freed herself from his hold.

“My apologies, my lord. I fear I was very ungracious. If you will excuse me, I must retire now. Good night.”

She meant to turn and leave, but his strong, unyielding hand closed around her elbow.

“Without your dinner? I cannot allow that, Miss Drake.” He drew her closer, lifted her hand to his lips and kissed the back of her fingers. Rowena shivered, but the earl did not seem to notice her stirrings.

“How I wish I could see your face,” he said quietly. “All I have to assess your temper, is your voice, and it is not very helpful, right now. You are quickly learning to keep your emotions out of your voice, my dear. So there is only one option.”

He said no more but cupped her chin in his free hand. Rowena dragged in a much needed breath.

“What is that, my lord?” She could not help herself yet she had to know.

“I must feel … touch … assess your features’ expressions through my fingers.”

The Reclusive Aristocrat – Part Four

Chapter Three

Ketteridge House, Leicestershire, England, December 4th, 1815

It had become urgently clear to Alex that he needed to find out all there was about Rowena Drake. She would, however, not be forthcoming; on the contrary, she was extremely reticent, as if there were a deep and dark secret in her past. She was also avoiding him, and taking extreme care not to be alone with him.

“Porter, be so good as to search a tome for me from those shelves over there.”

Alex and his batman were in the library, working on the ledgers. Or better, trying to find their way through the heavy volumes. Alex, unable to see, had to guide a Porter who lacked the educational skills to understand what he was supposed to find or read.

“Where, major?” the servant grumbled. “There must be thousands of the blasted books in here.”

Alex walked to the case nearest to the gigantic fireplace. It amazed him how easily he found his way in this room, even though he had not been here often when he still had his ability to see; it had been his father’s realm and later his brother’s. Yet now, it seemed to have become his.

“If I remember correctly, the book I want must be in this book case here. There should be an inventory on the first open shelf, placed on the extreme left. Do you see it?”

“Yes, I have it. What now?” Porter puffed.

It was a tedious task to make Porter act as his secretary, Alex thought. It was, however, the only way he had to learn the content of documents. He was just extremely thankful that his former batman had learnt to read and write as a child.

“The volume I need is Debrett’s Peerage and Baronetage. It is a rather thick book with a red leather cover. The inventory will have the location of it in this particular book case.”

Still grumbling, Porter climbed the steps in his slow, hobbling way. He still suffered from that bullet wound in his thigh, Alex knew. Soon the batman came back down with the requested book and laid it on the desk to open it.

“Christ, major! I’m too old for this, I can’t read those tiny le’ers!”

“Use the magnifying glass, if you please.”

“Very well, what’m I lookin’ fer?”

Alex took a deep breath. The die was cast, he mused.

“Families named Drake in Cumberland. Find every fact you can.”

Porter’s next comment made him grin. “Yes, major, but couldn’t ye just ask her? There’s a whole bloody page of ‘em!”

“I could but I have not. Now continue, if you please?”

Mumbling to himself, Porter began reading, while Alex bit back a smile. He knew he should scold his old batman for being disrespectful, yet he was unable to reprimand the man who saved his life on the battlefield. Cumberland … yes, Rowena Drake had nearly given it away herself, had she not? Her accent was very faint but distinct.

“You do know that she’s been employing girls from the village and the neighbouring farms, I hope?” Porter continued in a casual way.

That surprised Alex. “No, I was unaware of it, although it makes sense. If Mrs Drake is supposed to clean up this old pile of a house, she will need proper help. I wonder how she is paying them.”

“Out of her own pocket, I suppose. She hasn’t asked Mrs Hall for coin, as far as I know.”

To his own surprise, Alex again felt a grin tugging at his mouth. So Rowena Drake was taking her task seriously, then. Good. He made a mental note to provide Rowena with the necessary funds for her girls.

 

Casting a last appraising glance at the four girls working in the first room she had selected to be thoroughly cleaned, Rowena turned and hurried down the stairs to have breakfast with her employer.

She wondered if there would be something in store for her on this day, December 4th. Silly thought, she scolded herself. Why would anybody at Ketteridge House even know that this was her birthday altogether? She had better banish these silly, childish thoughts once and for good. Today she turned twenty-one, and if her father had not chosen to leave everything to Roderick, her half-brother, she would not have been in such dire financial predicaments at the moment.

It had been a tremendous shock when Rowena, still crushed by grief of her father’s demise, had been coldly informed by Roderick’s unfeeling solicitor that she had no right to any of Daveston Hall’s funds. How well she remembered that scene in her father’s vast library with Roderick standing at the window with his back to her, and deliberately not looking at her. She would never forget the hurt she felt then, the apprehension at the realisation that she was on her own from then on, and that she was at Roderick’s mercy.

“Ah, there you are, Mrs Drake.”

Rowena abruptly stopped when the earl’s voice sounded at the foot of the stairs. He must have heard her, she reflected. She tucked a loose lock of hair back into place and proceeded her way down in a slower pace. Ridiculous, once again; the earl would not even notice her appearance.

“Good morning, my lord.”

Her employer’s eyes turned her way, but they did not focus on her. It was strange, but only now Rowena realised the extent of the earl’s handicap. Those beautiful blue-grey eyes of him would never actually see her. He must feel miserable at some moments, she mused. She could not even begin to imagine what it must be like for him.

“How did you know it was I approaching?” she asked.

He smiled, chuckling low. Rowena felt it deep in her belly, and shivered.

“My sight light be failing, but my hearing is not. I am already familiar with your step, Mrs Drake.”

She watched him return to the morning room from whence he had come. It was fascinating as well as pitiful to witness him trying to assess the distance he had to bridge. At some point, he was forced to stretch out a hand in order to prevent himself from bumping into the wall, and then use his fingers to guide him to the door. Slowly, Rowena followed Raventhorpe through the door, admiring the certainty with which he found his way to the small table at the window. How did he manage that? Once inside a room, he always seemed to go straight to where he wanted to go to.

“Mrs Drake,” the earl said, his voice rather stern, “I want to establish some very fundamental rules for you in managing this household. I absolutely forbid you to pay staff from your own resources. If you have need of money, you shall come to me and ask for it. Is that clear?”

“Yes, my lord,” Rowena replied, stunned by his stern tone. “Forgive me, I meant no offence.”

“None taken, ma’am. Next, I wish to make something clear. I insist on you disclosing who you are. It is absolutely necessary that I know, Mrs Drake.”

Flames shot up to Rowena’s face, while her heart started thumping alarmingly fast. She was grateful that Raventhorpe could not see the fear rising in her chest like bile.

“My lord …”

“Is your name actually Drake? I have considerable doubts about that, my dear.”

Rowena swallowed at the large lump that seemed to block her breathing.

“My lord, I … I implore you; please trust me. I am no criminal, if that is what you are concerned about. I am just a … a disgraced woman, seeking to set her life back on the right track. If I could just stay here and …”

“You can stay as long as you like, Mrs Drake, have no fear. Yet I must know who you are, for the simple reason that I must protect you as long as you stay under my roof. I am a soldier, Mrs Drake. We reconnoitre, assess, and protect. In order to be able to protect those who depend on us, we must know all the facts. So, for the last time, Mrs Drake, who are you?”

At that moment, the sun broke through the clouds and streamed into the room in full force. Its rays touched the earl’s eyes, just as he directed his blind gaze at Rowena. In the beat of an eyelash, they changed from the rather dull blue-grey to the sudden, vivid, almost hot sapphire blue of a summer storm lightening. It had the most astonishing effect on Rowena. Her heartbeat fluttered, and then pounded in her ears like shots from a canon. She grew warm, and her stomach clenched, leaving her quite shaken.

The panic she had been feeling suddenly grew tenfold. Rowena stood so quickly that her chair overturned and crashed with a noise like thunder. She stumbled to the door, eyes blinded with panic. She knew not how but she reached the stairs and began ascending them, clutching the banister with both hands. There was no longer reason dictating her, only a deep-rooted fear that she might succumb to the sudden, primal attraction he overwhelmed her with. Knowing that, acknowledging that, was too much.

The baby suddenly kicked hard, and her stomach lurched. Nausea swept over Rowena, forcing her to her knees. She retched but nothing came. Her lungs seemed clogged, all of a sudden, and she choked, gasping for air. Her vision blurred, grew darker …

Then she was picked up by a pair of strong, muscular arms; her head came to rest against a hard, but comfortingly warm shoulder. With infinite relief, Rowena inhaled the earl’s clean, overwhelmingly male scent, for it was he who had come to her rescue. All fear suddenly evaporated, to be replaced by a blessed peace. This man was innately honour-bound to protect, not to ravish or destroy, at least not without a reason. As he swiftly carried her back to the morning room and laid her down onto a chaise-longue, all in one smooth motion, Rowena felt once again safe, reassured, and calm.

The earl crossed his arms and straightened to his full 6,3’.

“Mrs Drake, I strongly advise you to behave sensibly. You are carrying a child, and you might have fallen down the stairs and injured yourself and the babe. Now …”

“How do you manage that?”

It was out of Rowena’s mouth before she realised that it is rudely inappropriate to cut one’s employer. He looked puzzled yet not in ire. His eyes were a soft grey-blue, now.

“How do I manage what, Mrs Drake?”

“Finding your way so rapidly into a room, never getting lost once you pass the doorsill?”

“Well, I know this house like the back of my hand. It is after all my ancestral estate; I grew up here. As for a room, once I have memorized where all the furniture is located, I will stay clear of it. Of course, everything must be left in the same spot. Porter looks to that and helps me make the necessary reconnoitring rounds, the first time I come into an unfamiliar room.”

He paused, directing his gaze to where Rowena sat. “What happened, Mrs Drake? Why did you dash out of this room as if the devil himself was at your heels?”

“I … I cannot truly say … It was as if I was suddenly in a room without air …”

The earl dropped to one knee, bringing his face level with hers, and although Rowena knew that he was unable to distinguish her expression, it nevertheless gave her the illusion that he was looking straight into her eyes. She felt strangely mesmerized, but also safe, and protected. When he laid the back of his hand against her cheek, she pressed against it, revelling in the immense comfort the simple gesture gave her. It felt entirely natural.

“You panicked, that is what happened,” the earl said gently. “I have seen it many times on the battlefield. Men freezing with horror, shutting out their surroundings, lowering their guns, dropping to their knees while clutching their heads or covering their ears. Overwhelming fear can bring it about, or even intolerably great despair. You were so afraid to tell me about yourself, that your body reacted in the only way possible; it bolted to escape danger. There is no need for that, my dear. You are in no danger when staying at Ketteridge House because you are under my personal protection.”

Alex could feel the struggle in Rowena Drake by the way she breathed; rapidly and shallowly. The woman must be in real danger, he mused. Some irate husband who abused her, and from whom she fled out of self-preservation? If what Porter had read was true, then she could not be the Rowena Drake of Daveston Hall near Carlisle in Cumberland, because no mention had been made of a marriage.

“Are you – by any chance – related to the Drakes of Cumberland?”

He had made his question as casual as he could but was rewarded by her sharp intake of breath. Oh, she had done her best to be as quiet as possible, but Alex’ hearing was sharp and he had caught the faint hissing sound.

“How …”

“I checked it. Are you from Cumberland, Mrs Drake?”

“Yes …” A note of the panic again, and she suddenly rose, nearly tumbling him over. He caught his balance and rose as well, and took hold of her arm.

“Then you are the Honourable Miss Rowena Drake of Daveston Hall, daughter of the Baronet George Henry Drake and Clarissa Maud née Stowe.”

She was trembling, and he wanted to comfort her. He wanted her to trust him. He had no inkling why this as so important, all of a sudden, but it was important, even vital. She was born in 1794, on the fourth of December, which meant that – dear Lord! – today she was twenty-one. So young still …

“I have it right, have I not? You are Rowena Drake from Daveston Hall?”

“Yes,” she breathed, then sighed. “How did you discover that? We live very remotely and have no acquaintances to speak of. I never had a London season, and the only towns we visited were Carlisle and York, where my father’s only sister lives.”

“Come,” Alex said in a sudden, light tone. “We can converse at the breakfast table. I am in need of sustenance after all this.” It made Rowena smile, her heart suddenly much lighter.

Alex guided her to her seat, then sat down and rang a small table bell for Porter. The servant came in with their plates soon after, served them and left. They ate in silence for a while, but Alex, not wanting to let the moment go to waste, resumed their conversation.

“I must congratulate you on your birthday, Miss Drake. I had Porter look you up in Debrett’s, so I am abreast of all there is to know about your family. You almost gave yourself away when you stopped yourself from naming Carlisle, and you also speak with a slight Cumberland accent. I am afraid I have to repeat my earlier question; what has happened that you are here at Ketteridge House, far away from the place that you call home?”

Rowena sighed, and then resolutely made her decision to trust the earl with her history. She believed him when he spoke of protecting her and everybody twho lived on his estate.

“My father died rather suddenly last year, from an apoplexy,” she began. “I met my fiancé the month after he died. We had an affair and he promised me marriage. Then came the war and my betrothed left to do his duty. He died at Waterloo. Soon after he left, I found out I was with child. I had little choice than to leave my childhood home after I became pregnant.”

“I do not understand,” Alex interrupted her. “You have a brother. Did he not take measures so that you would be protected?”

Again that word, Rowena realised. Protection. It seemed a paramount notion to the earl.

“My brother said he would give me a small, remote cottage on the estate, where I would stay until after the baby’s birth. He would then take away the child and give it to some people he knew would raise it when he paid them for the upkeep. I was appalled! How could he ask something like that of me? I told him in no uncertain terms that being separated from my baby was out of the question. He threatened to take me to some relatives in Scotland, by force if necessary, so I took all the money I was able to save over the years and fled. I quickly learnt that my meagre savings were too inadequate to bring me to London, where I hoped to find a position.”

“Why were you so short of funds? Surely, as the daughter of a baronet, you would have been provided for in your father’s will?”

“I was not included in my father’s will,” Rowena replied bitterly. “Roderick’s solicitor stated that my father was a firm believer in male primogeniture, in order to keep his estate free of debts. Roderick was my father’s first and only son, and it was left to him to support me. I was only the daughter my father had by his second wife, so I was supposed to marry and leave the estate. There was not even a dowry for me to give to my future husband.”

Good Lord, Alex thought. How could a father do this to his daughter? And the brother? Why would he not take care of his sister? Roderick Drake must be a truly despicable person, and what about that cad of a fiancée who seduced her when she was barely twenty?

“I thank you for trusting me, Mrs Drake, although … you are not a Mrs Drake, are you? I must call you Miss Drake from now on. However, I can no longer employ you as my housekeeper now, can I? You have been raised as a lady, and to do menial labour would be highly inappropriate for a baronet’s daughter.”

“Oh no, my lord, please! I beg you, do not send me away!”

Alex, suddenly startled by her plea, felt also unexpectedly moved by the urge Rowena laid in her words. It seemed that she would very much like to stay at Ketteridge House. Almost as much as he himself would like her to stay.

“You misunderstand, my dear. I merely meant that I will hire enough staff for you to oversee. That way you will be up to the additional task of assisting me with my ledgers. Poor Porter is doing what he can but in essence, he is a soldier, not a secretary.”

Rowena could not believe her ears. Relief, massive and grateful, swept over her, when the earl continued in a businesslike manner.

“You will be required to read my correspondence, and write down my replies. When I need to see my solicitor, you will make records of our conversations and decisions. I hope he holds on to his promise of searching for an adequate steward. The estate is in shams, and I need a competent man.”

Rowena swallowed down the excitement that clogged her throat. “I promise to do my utmost best to be of service, my lord. I cannot find the words to tell you how grateful I am for the honour you bestow on me, and please, be assured of my discretion and devotion.”

A chuckle interrupted her and she was astonished to see a mocking smile on the earl’s face.

“My dear Miss Drake, you certainly have a way with high-handed words, have you not? You make my offer sound like charity, and it is not meant so at all. It is good and solid management to take an educated, clever young woman into my staff, one who can help me with tasks I cannot perform myself because of my affliction. So please, no gratitude. It is in my soldier’s nature to make the best of an opportunity when it presents itself.”

There was a sudden, laden silence in which Rowena struggled to find her composure. She was scolding herself once more for her rash impulsivity, something she should have learnt to master by now. Why did she always have to rush headlong into things?

“My lord,” she began, after a long, deep intake of breath, just to calm herself. “I know someone who could help you out until you find an appropriate steward. John Wallis was my father’s steward until he retired, a few years ago. His wife Meg was my nanny, and became my confidante after my mother died when I was five. They moved to Leicester when they left Daveston Hall. Meg has a sister living there. I could write them and ask if they would consent coming to live at Ketteridge House for the time being.”

Alex was completely unprepared for the warm wave of joy that swept through him, at the realisation that Rowena was wholeheartedly joining him in the task of running Ketteridge. He felt positively light-headed with relief.

“Thank you, Miss Drake, and yes, do write to your acquaintances. They will be most welcome.”

They fell silent, each savouring their breakfast. The quietness brought a comfort of its own, and Rowena could not recall the last time she had felt this … well, this simple, undemanding, and soothing happiness. She knew it was too early to feel this way, given the mere seven days she had been here, but there it was, she did feel truly safe at Ketteridge House. At home.

“I would be honoured if you would have dinner with me tonight, Miss Drake.”

Stunned, bewildered even, Rowena stared at her employer, then belatedly recalled that he was unable to see her.

“My lord, such an act would be entirely …”

“Inappropriate? Yes, it would, but only if I cared for such trivial matters such as the rigid rules of Society. We are not in the London drawing rooms, my dear. I can never venture into the Ton again, and believe me, I have no wish to do so. I knew it all before and did not particularly liked it. Now that I am no longer whole, I find I even care less for it. Ketteridge House is my domain, and mine alone. You are my guest, the first I have in a long time, so please, let me enjoy your company to the full.”

Rowena swallowed at the unexpected knot of sadness threatening to choke her. She liked this man more and more each moment she was in his company. Discretely, she cleared her throat.

“Then it shall be my honour to dine with you, my lord.”