The Reclusive Aristocrat – Part Twenty-Two

Chapter Ten (completed)

Alex inwardly purred with male satisfaction at the signs of arousal coming from Rowena. Signs and sounds she was not even aware of, like little, frenzied intakes of air, and quiet rustle of cloth when she shifted restlessly on her stool. As for feeling frenzied, he was in that same state, too. It had been ages since he had felt this way. He was like a man who had slept for years only to come alive with need at a woman’s touch, although his wife had not touched him at all yet. He suppressed a quiver of anticipation at the thought of her soft, silken hands on him, and concentrated on reigning in his ever growing desire. He needed to be careful with Rowena. She was with child and she was also emotionally vulnerable. So he began drying himself with slow, purposeful strokes, and rejoiced when he heard her little moan. When he was ready, he turned to her and smiling, dropped the towel.

“Come,” was all he said as he extended a hand to her, and inwardly cheered when she stepped nearer. He covered the hand that was still clutching the towel she had wrapped herself in. Gently he pried it from her fingers, eased it open, and pulled it from her. Then finally, he took her into the circle of his arms, sheer joy flooding through him when her warm, soft body met the hot steel of his. He took a few moments to savour the bliss of holding her tightly against him, then scooped her in to his arms.

“Oh,” he whispered, “oh, how I remember this so very well. This is how you felt in my arms the very first day I met you.”

He strode to her bed, noticed that someone had drawn back the covers, ready for him to gently lay her down. Her glorious hair, a waterfall of chocolate-coloured silk, formed a cloak whereupon she lay like a fairy-tale princess. Lord, he had to change the way he was staring at her! He was still supposed to be nearly blind, was he not? He quickly fixed his eyes on the pale blue satin that adorned the counterpane. At least, that was soothing enough to help him conquer the most rampant images of ravishing her beneath him.

With an inward groan, Alex forced himself to shut his eyes. Only tactile sense for him from now on, although his nostrils greedily took in her lovely scent, and it nearly broke his defences.

Rowena lay still and allowed herself to take in the fascinating man who was her husband. She was burning for him, so much was true, but she knew it had been his purpose to make her burn. She had only reacted to his very male seduction, and gladly so, because she was no green girl fresh from the schoolroom. She knew how a man seduced a woman, from the time Peter had loved her, although she could not just call Peter a seducer. She herself had willingly stepped into the dance, too.      There was, however, a distinct difference between Peter and her new husband. Alex Raventhorpe was much, much bolder, and he was arrogantly seducing her, leaving her no room to protest. He was all male power and authority, and he was in charge. Yet Rowena found that she would wholeheartedly give in to his courting. She had an inkling that Alex’ lovemaking would be all-consuming and utterly fulfilling. And so it was that she lay still and waited for him to make love to her.

Their bodies touched as Alex lowered himself beside his wife. The thick, soft mattress dipped, causing her to roll against him, and he took the advantage to slide his arm under her shoulders. Almost instantly, she pressed against him, her leg slipping over his thigh as she hooked her foot behind one of his. Lord almighty, that felt good. He revelled in her shy but courageous response, which promised so much more to come.

He pushed his erection between her legs, rejoicing in her whimper of delight. One of his hands locked on the small of her back, immobilizing her. Her lovely, pregnancy-swollen breasts pushed against his chest, their nipples hard and tantalizing. He cupped one breast and smothered her gasp with a kiss.

Rowena’s spirits soared when his demanding tongue invaded her mouth. Slowly, deeply, he plundered her mouth with while his hand tweaked, kneaded and stroked her breast. Her body responded with alacrity, as a delicious heat began spreading from her breast to her core. She lost herself in Alex’ kiss, opened up to him as her thoughts scattered. She found she had wrapped her arms around his shoulders in her eagerness to press closer. As she was lying on her side, her belly was not hindering their close embrace. Rowena found it extremely comfortable to be in that position.

“Pull up your knees for me, my beauty,” Alex’ silky voice purred into her ear. “I am going to position myself sideways between them. I do not wish to hurt you or your little one.”

Rowena obeyed, thrilled with the sensations the movement brought on. She could feel his erection push against her core, so she opened her legs widely, then hooked them around his waist. Oh, God! She wanted this so much!

She shuddered when she felt him enter her, a sudden surge of fear closing a tight fist around her heart. Her babe! This could not be good for her child! Instinctively, Rowena scooted away from Alex, pushing against his chest with a sob. To her surprise, he did not pull her back. Instead, his hands stroked her back, soothing, comforting, and without sexual demands. Just the curve of her lower back, where it had ached so frequently these past weeks, due to her advanced pregnancy.

For a long while, Rowena just gave herself over to the heavenly feeling of her husband’s strong hands, which were easing all her tensed muscles. After a few moments, she became aware of his warm, hard body, creating a heat where it touched hers. She began feeling a stir of desire coming to life again.

“Shall I leave you for tonight, Rowena? I was wrong to try and force you in your advanced state of pregnancy, and I must apologize for inconveniencing you.”

Panic engulfed Rowena when her husband released her and began removing himself.

“No, please, stay! I … I am afraid I am a big coward, my lord. I fear for the child and …”

Alex’ heart clenched with compassion when he realized what it was she was fearing. Poor Rowena – she was, after all, still so very young. He pulled her close, once again, repositioning her as she had been before. Then he put one hand against the small of her back, as he had done before, to anchor her.

“Close your eyes, my beauty, and banish all thoughts from your mind. Do not think, only feel.”

“What are you going to do, my lord? I …”

“Shhh, be still, sweet …”

He began stroking her soft, round shoulders and beautiful, long, slender neck, revelling in the feel of her perfect skin. He loved how her breasts lifted as he caressed their delicious form, which fitted so perfectly in his large hand. She pressed them into his palm, sighing with desire, and he loved that, too. Slowly, he let his hand roam over her entire body, mapping it out, circling her breasts with the back of his hand until it lifted one of them. His thumb tweaked, rubbed, tickled, and she responded eagerly. He let his hand wander to the curve of her rounded stomach, teasing her belly button, which was now a tiny peak instead of a dip. She gasped with delight and pressed herself closer.

“My lord …” Her voice was but an airless whisper, but it thrilled him to the core.

“Alex …” he purred into her ear, “my name is Alex.”

“Alex …” The soft sound of his name shot a spear of desire into his loins, and he reached for her folds, buried in the silken curls of her womanhood.

“Alex!” She almost cried out, and he emboldened his strokes, pushing one finger into her core. She writhed, rubbed herself against his hand, uttering soft little moans of delight. Good, that was how he wanted her.

 

Rowena was on fire. The flames shot up from her core and devoured her entire body, and she wanted only one thing; to get closer to her husband, ever closer. She could not draw breath, when one long finger breached her opening, and began slowly teasing her bud out of its hood. Oh … oh, my … Long forgotten sensations awakened, the heat stirring her body, the dampness blossoming in her core, the tingling, the tension growing in her womb and spreading, ever so sweetly …

Her mind blanked, and her body relaxed, tensed, and then relaxed again until a second finger joined the first. Sweet Virgin … but Peter had never, ever done that! He would rub her but never enter her with his fingers, although, at the time, she had craved for that kind of caress. Peter never took the time to prepare her, she now realized, not like Alex was doing now. Alex, who was now licking her nipple … who was simultaneously wooing her in the two most sensitive spots she had. Oh … oh!

Alex grinned when Rowena came. She bucked under his hand, a tiny, high little cry coming from her. He could feel her wetness blossom around his fingers, her inner walls clutching him tightly. God, he wanted her! His already fully aroused cock grew even larger, straining under the ache to claim her. It was time, she as ready for him.

Gently, he withdrew his fingers, and placed his cock at her entrance, then pushed slowly inside. She instantly accepted him, wrapping her legs about his waist with a sob. He gave a slow, gentle stroke, just to get the feeling of her, and she clenched around him, nearly driving him over the edge. Gritting his teeth, he began to set up a slow, languish rhythm, not too deep, not too fast. She responded by matching him avidly and without restraint or fear.

It had been his intension to make her climax a second time before he let himself go, but his treacherous body cut that short. To his utter surprise, he could not stop the glorious, bright release of his seed. Still reeling under the waves of bliss, that kept washing over him, he helplessly clutched her deeper into his embrace. Her feminine scent drugged him, and he revelled in it. When she violently peaked around him, bombarding him with enormous waves of delight, he felt something claw at his heart. It did not hurt, however. It felt right.

 

The Reclusive Aristocrat – Part Twenty-One

Chapter Ten (continued)

Rowena had the distinct impression that this wedding day of hers was as unreal as a fairy tale, and each moment, she expected to come awake and discover it had all been a dream. It had all been perfect, for sure. The ceremony of their wedding, the modest presents of the people when they had congratulated her, the small wedding breakfast with some of the people that had come on Christmas Eve, seven days ago. Her husband, the earl, tall and magnificent, who had spoken his vows in a voice that shook the eaves of the church. His touch, as he slid the ring onto her finger, his embrace, so fierce and strong.

He had, however, not spoken overly during the ride home and the breakfast. He had even left her alone to go and talk to John Wallis and to his solicitor, while she had stayed to entertain their guests. Rowena guessed that this might just be the waking moment; she standing amidst the guests, terribly missing her new husband. She had a sudden fear that the rest of her married life might have many moments of loneliness. After all, their marriage was one of convenience, was it not? Alex might be an earl, but he was damaged, and had not been bound to find a proper bride, blind as he was. And she was a fallen woman, who was desperate to have a home for her fatherless child. There was no love between them, and she feared there would never be.

But was it foolish of Rowena to hope for affection, for friendship, even?

Now the guests were leaving, and Alex was nowhere in sight. Rowena bade them all a friendly goodbye, on her own. It was not a pleasant task, but she was determined to make the best of it. When the last guest had departed, Rowena ordered a light supper to be prepared. She went upstairs to her new bedchamber, one that was connected to the master bed rooms by a dressing room. There she found Meg, who had laid out Rowena’s nightgown on the large bed.

A large fire was blazing in the hearth, drawing Rowena nearer. She stretched out her icy-cold hands towards the flames, glad for the warmth.

“Let go of your fear, Rowie. Your husband is a good man and he will care for you.”

“Oh, Meg! How is it that you always seem to know my thoughts?”

Meg came to her and drew her in her arms. “Because you are the daughter I never had, dearest. Now come, let me help you undress. Lord, but you are cold as ice! Hurry, in the tub with you.”

 

Mr Septimus Middlebridge gathered his documents and meticulously stored them in his portfolio.

“Thank you, my lord,” he said with his usual congeniality, “this concludes all necessary changes to your will, and also the new financial arrangements you provided for Her Ladyship and for Mr and Mrs Wallis. May I again congratulate you on your marriage, my lord?”

He extended his hand, first to Alex, who took it swiftly, and then turned to John Wallis. “A pleasure to make your acquaintance, I am sure, Mr Wallis. May we have many satisfactory meetings in the future.”

“Likewise, Mr Middlebridge,” John Wallis agreed.

Fidgeting with the last of his documents, Middlebridge retrieved a large manila envelope from his portfolio.

“My lord, if I may ask for your attention one last time?”

Alex, whose thoughts had been in the bedroom upstairs where his bride was waiting for him, turned an annoyed gaze to his solicitor. “Yes, Middlebridge, what is it?”

“I have received a summons from London, my lord. The Lord Chancellor requests your presence at the House in order to hand over your patent letters. As you might know, they are needed to establish you as the fifth earl of Ketteridge.”

Damn. The man was right. Alex had yet to be acknowledged as his brother’s successor. After his return from the battlefield, he had been too sick to even realise he was the new earl. Now, he mused, there was nothing to prevent him to go to London any more.

“You may answer the Lord Chancellor’s summons, Middlebridge, and inform him I shall be in Town in mid-January.”

The solicitor bowed one last time and took his leave. Alex waited for the click of the lock before addressing his steward. “I hope, Mr Wallis, that I will have your utmost loyalty from now on? The countess and I will have need of your services in the immediate future, here as well as in London.”

If John Wallis was shocked, it was by no means not noticeable, Alex mused. No intake of breath, no change of expression on his lined face.

“My lord,” the man stated in an even voice, “you had it from the beginning. My professional pride would never be overcome by personal motives. Still I am very happy that you made our dearest Rowie your wife. She is like a daughter to Mrs Wallis and me, and we would not want to see her unhappy. I wish you every happiness in your union with her ladyship, my lord.”

The steward bowed and left.

Alex allowed himself a last splash of Laphroig, reluctant to leave for bed, and equally averse to stay away from his wife. His wife … his countess … he felt strange, a bit unsure as to what to do, but he also experienced – and here he hesitated to form the words he was searching for – a burning elation, an eager anticipation. Had he not burned for her since the first seconds he met her? He wanted to lose himself in the arms of his new wife. Be disintegrated and be reborn again. It would be impossible tonight. He could not make love to Rowena before she had given birth, could he? What if he hurt her unborn child with his rampant lust? Because that was what he had felt from the first moment he put his hands on her – desire, pure and simple … and fierce possessiveness.

In puzzlement, Alex wondered about why she had the power to do just that; to make him desire her, when at first, he had not even been able to see her properly. He was a soldier, a man who, through his regiment’s journeys, had wandered the earth and encountered many women. Never had he experienced anything else than lust, and never in such an intense, almost compelling way. Never had he lusted so violently after a woman as he did after Rowena.

There. He had formed the thought that had been whirling inside his head since the first of December. It was utterly bewildering, fiercely foolish, even. A month ago, he had not even met her, and now she was bound to him for life. As he was to her. She would soon be at his side when they departed for London. How would she deal with the Ton? God, but he had never ever thought to have to deal with all that ever again!

He drained the last of his whisky and headed for his rooms – no, they were their rooms now. He had better get used to that notion.

In the master bedroom, Porter was fussing about, tidying where it was unnecessary. He heaved a sigh of relief when he saw his master. “Thought ye’d never come up, major. The day was long, ye know. A fella wants te get a rest. ‘Ere, shall I ‘elp ye wi’ undressin’?”

“No need, Porter. Go to bed, I won’t keep you from it any longer.” He turned to the dressing room door.

“Ye can’t go in there yet, major. Yer gonna ‘ave to wait until ‘Er Ladyship is done.”

“No,” Alex said, a sudden rush heating his blood, “I do not think so, Porter.”

 

 

In the dressing room, Meg helped Rowena into the bathtub, then began clearing up, humming cheerfully. Rowena relaxed a little when she lowered herself in the fragrant, pleasantly warm water Meg had prepared for her. She was tired after the long day fraught with emotions. Emotions that were now being rekindled …

Alex had been in a strange mood all day, she mused, and one that she had had trouble dealing with. Oh, he had been kind enough, and gallant, and so handsome, when he had guided her through their wedding ceremony. But that had been when they were in the throng of the community, where it mattered how they behaved as the lord and lady of the manor. People – Alex’ people to be precise – needed reassurance, Rowena knew. They had been neglected by their lord for too long a time. Their lord marrying had given them new hope of a brighter, more prosperous future.

Rowena realized Alex had put it into her care to give his people the much needed certainty that all would go better from now on. That was why he had left her alone to walk amongst their guests, and talk to them. All perfectly understandable, but Rowena could have wished for a bit of reassurance herself. A few words with her husband before …

Rowena swallowed and sat up in the bath. In a few moments, they would share intimacy. A bed, a room, and … their bodies. She turned to Meg in a panic. “Oh, Meg, I am wondering …”

She stopped on a gasp, unsure as how to put her anxiety into words.

“What is it, my pet?”

“Well … will it … could it …”

Meg was instantly beside her, and she began lathering soap onto a cloth. “Come, my dove, let me.”

Rowena let out a sigh of well-being when Meg’s administrations began working their soothing magic. They brought her back to the long-ago days of her childhood, when Meg had been her nanny. Meg, who had always been there for her, and who was now here with her again. Rowena sent up a silent prayer of thanks.

“Meg, will it hurt the baby if … if we …”

Meg smiled. “No, my dearest, it will not harm the little one, if his lordship goes about it gently, which I am sure he will. Nothing will occur before time, if that is what you are worrying over. It is not yet your due time, so do not concern yourself. Instead, go to your husband with all the attention he is worth of.”

“I … oh, Meg, it is all so unexpected! So … sudden! I really had no time to … accustom myself to these … requirements I knew for so little a time and …”

To Rowena’s surprise, Meg burst into a peel of laughter. “Oh, Rowie, do not be so missish now! You know what it is like to be touched by a man, do you not?”

“Yes, but …”

“I am certain that every man has his own approach, his own touch, but the basics do stay the same, do they not?”

Rowena was about to point out that her new husband surely was not ‘every man’, when the door opened. Her lord stepped in, clad in loose black silk trousers that clung to his hips like a second skin. They were riding low on his narrow waist, a waist Rowena could stare at to her heart’s content, because his broad, tightly muscled chest was bare.

She was unable to tear her gaze away from his beautiful form, so it took her several moments before she realized she was still in her bath. Naked, and unprotected from his gaze. Oh, of course, there she was mistaken – he could not see her, or at least, not clearly. That made her draw in that much needed gulp of air, finally.

 

Inwardly gritting his teeth, Alex fixed his eyes to the wall above the bath tub. Lord Almighty, but what a sight had just assaulted him! His new, young and perfectly rounded wife was still lounging in the water, her delectable curves glistening with it. By Jove, if she was that gorgeous when she was rounded with pregnancy, how would she look like when she was not! It did not bear thinking of.

At that moment, Mrs Wallis spoke. “Good night, my lady, my lord.” She then curtsied and hurriedly left. Alex began loosening the silk cord that fastened his trousers.

“Forgive me, my dear. I did not know you had not finished your ablutions yet.”

Whereupon he bent down and scooped up his wet bride to put her on her feet beside the bath. The little squeal she made sent a sparkle up his spine. Outwardly unperturbed, he reached for a towel and began wrapping her in it.

“There,” he said, “you can finish off drying yourself whilst I bathe.”

And the next second, he dropped his trousers.

Rowena stood there, mesmerized with what was before her. The large, muscular body of her husband, entirely naked, and in a state that was utterly frightening to her. He was … large. Extremely large. How would he … she hastily pushed that thought away because there was so much to admire.

Alex had stepped into the water and was now lathering his large chest with Rowena’s lily-of-the-valley soap. The ripples of muscle this movement brought on, were simply delightful. His taut, slightly tanned skin was perfect, even with the multiple tiny scars that covered his arms and shoulders.

She had trouble breathing as she felt her nipples tighten beneath the towel. Oh, this wonderful feeling she had known all those months ago, how she had missed this. Was it even possible for a pregnant woman so far gone as she was to even feel desire that much? Was it normal?

Alex soon proved to her that is was not merely normal but frightfully compelling, too. He rose, water sliding along that long, hard body, and Rowena’s entranced gaze travelled down with the glistening drops. Down, more and more, along that broad chest to that flat, narrow stomach and …

When her eyes caught sight of his fully aroused manhood, Rowena’s body tensed, grew cold, then erupted in flames. All saints in heaven … how was she to handle this? He was magnificent, he was a worrier! Her legs weakened, and she sank onto a low stool near the wall, wincing when a dull pain throbbed within her womanly folds. Although it felt so incredibly good …

The Reclusive Aristocrat – Part Twenty

Chapter Ten (continued)

The luncheon on Christmas Day had gone by in the same enjoyable and amiable atmosphere, with their own staff as guests now.

Afterwards, there had been a meeting with Mr Septimus Middlebridge, Alex’ solicitor. Rowena had been surprised by yet another cheerful acknowledgment of her marriage to Alex. Everybody seemed in complete agreement about the fifth earl of Ketteridge uniting himself to a woman of no means. A woman spoiled by another man’s touch, and carrying so blatant a proof of it.

“Miss Drake,” Mr Middlebridge had said in a suave voice, “you will be pleased to hear that His Lordship wishes you to participate in the whole extent of his possessions. He has placed a settlement on you that amounts to two thousand pounds a year, for as long as you are his wife. He has also made arrangements for the child you are carrying. His Lordship regrets that he cannot make the child his heir, as you well understand, but he will bestow an annual allowance of a thousand pounds on the babe, to assure its upkeep and education.”

Rowena had stared at Alex with utter disbelief, her head reeling under what she had just heard. She had refrained from commenting while in Mr Middlebridge’s presence and instead, had thanked Alex for his generosity. She had also wondered why he had not told her himself of all this. Was he already regretting it? Rowena had tried to speak to him when the solicitor had left, but Alex claimed he had work to do. He had retired to his library, leaving Rowena with the distinct impression that she was not welcome there now.

Had she imagined their shared feelings during the Christmas Eve dance? Had it only been her own longing for him? Tears blurred her vision as she retreated to her rooms, yet she firmly blinked them away. She had a lifetime to find out Alex’ secrets.

 

On the morning of December 31th, the sun was brittle but bright, its rays firing sparkles off the snow-covered fields and pastures. It was bitterly cold when people began to scuttle into St Crispin’s church in the village of Ketteridge to watch their lord marry. Near the altar, the villagers and tenants could see him standing beside his two best men, his friend, Dr Richard Orme and his batman, James Porter.

Alexander Richard Christopher Raventhorpe, fifth earl of Ketteridge cut a fine figure in his splendid regimentals, his stance proud and firm. He held his white-plumed helmet in one hand, and his white gloves in the other, and his gaze – his blind gaze – was upon the rear of the church where the double doors had been thrown open. A gust of cold, brisk winter air wafted inside and made the many candle flames waver. The congregation shivered, and the men turned up their coat collars, while the women drew their wrappings closer to their bodies. They all hoped that the bride would not let them wait overly long, so that they could return to their warm homes.

They did not have to wait for long, because precisely at the stroke of eleven, the earl’s carriage drew up before the church door.

Murmurs of appreciation began rustling down the knave of the church as people began to catch a glimpse of the bride. Alex reminded himself firmly not – in any case at all – to stare at his bride. Rowena was not yet supposed to know he was able to see. He did not want her to be cross at him for deceiving her. He wanted to wait until the time for confession was right, and that was not today, on their wedding day, when sincerity and straightforwardness were needed. He straightened to full attention, as befitted an officer of the Household Guards, and directed his gaze at the rear of the church.

A vision in white was striding down the aisle at John Wallis’ arm – no, not a vision, a fairy tale queen, dressed in a gown of pure white silk, the skirt wide to disguise her pregnancy. She wore a white mink pelisse that accentuated the creamy peach colour of her lovely face, and brought out the rich chocolate waterfall of her glorious hair. Lord, it was incredible, but her hair fell in long, silky waves to far beneath her waist. She had pinned up two solitary strands of it, and they framed her sweet face like a veil. She looked like a medieval queen marrying her king. Alex swallowed at the thought of his hands going through that richness, of his face buried into it, inhaling her sweet womanly scent. Christ, he became hard as …

Stop! You fool! Behave, you are in church.

He was suddenly back on Christmas Eve and his waltz with Rowena. She had been so beautiful, with desire darkening her eyes to near black. She had longed for him, then, he was certain of it. Hopefully, she would do the same tonight, in their marital bed.

 

As soon as she stepped into the church, Rowena’s eyes were riveted on the tall form of her husband-to-be. Holy Mother of God, but he was magnificent!

The regimentals aside, he was a sight to behold, in bearing and character. Tall, powerful, and so full of irrevocably masculine strength, with his broad shoulders and strong, hard thighs, and his handsome, beautiful face. His eyes, so light-grey with a bold, blue fire burning in their depths. His long, strong nose, with the tip slightly pointing downward. His large sensual mouth, with its attractive, supple lower lip.

Rowena’s heart jumped when he extended his hand, and hers was placed in it by John, to whom she smiled with fondness. Alex’ warmth shot up her arm to tingle down her spine. He did not wear his gloves, she noticed, and she felt his touch penetrate the fine kidskin of her glove. The attraction she had been feeling from the first moment she set eyes on him, was now tenfold, and she welcomed it, no, had a strong urge to give in to it. To let him take over her entire person. Today was their wedding day, and tonight, he would make her his wife. A shiver ran through her at the notion of what was to come.

His wife! She would be his wife. Tonight … Alex was going to make love to her. Suddenly, the noises in the church, the rustling of clothing, and the low humming of hushed conversation, it all blurred and mingled into a muffled din in Rowena’s ears, as if she were under water.

Suddenly, she was aware of one thing, and one thing only; she would have intercourse with Alex, and she would welcome it. She knew how it was, she had savoured a man’s touch on her body and experienced pleasure. Even though she had known Alex only for a bit less than a month, Rowena knew that she longed for his touch. Alex was a good man, that much she knew also. He had taken her in and was marrying her, even though she was carrying another man’s child.

Her thoughts were shattered by the vicar’s clear, intoning voice.

“Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today to join this man and this woman in holy matrimony.”

 

Alex felt Rowena’s hand tremble, and irritation instantly ran through him. Why did she appear to be afraid? Was she afraid of him? Had he not promised to protect her? Then why did her voice waver ever so slightly when she spoke her vows? Why were her words so quiet that even he had to strain his ears to hear them? Damnation, but he would have to teach her not to be afraid of him!

The reverend Mr Bonneville was now blessing the wedding band. It had been the previous countess’ ring, and the best Alex could conjure up in so short a time, but he felt sure his mother would not have objected to her daughter-in-law borrowing her wedding band. He took the ring and lifted Rowena’s hand when he realised that she was still wearing her kid gloves. Christ, but had nobody told her brides did not wear gloves? Remembering that he had to feel rather than see the glove, he began tugging it off with slow but deliberate gestures, first the thumb, then the other fingers.

“With this ring I thee wed, with my body I thee honor, and all my worldly goods I bestow on thee.”

He slipped the band onto the fourth finger of her left hand, then brought it to his lips, not to kiss her knuckles but her palm. He let his lips linger longer than was necessary, until she shivered with a slight intake of breath.

The reverend Bonneville intoned further. “In as much as you, my lord Ketteridge and you, my lady Rowena have thus consented in holy matrimony and have witnessed the same before God and this gathering, and by the authority vested in me by the Church of England, I now pronounce you husband and wife. What God hath joined together, let no man put asunder. My lord, you may kiss your bride.”

Alex lifted his hands to Rowena’s face and was surprised to find an impossibly thin veil block the way to her mouth. The damned thing was too insubstantial for him to be able to see it with his still imperfect eyesight, or for his large hands to lift it out of the way. His fingers were clumsily fumbling with the gossamer fabric, when his bride surprised him and did away with the veil. She then rose onto the tips of her toes and touched her lips with hers. He felt a surge of triumph, so powerful that he wrapped her in an embrace fit to crush her. Which it did, of course. She gave a little cry of pain when he crushed her pregnant body against his, the sound of it fortunately being overruled by the congregation’s applause. He forbore the kiss and put her from him, then placed her hand on his arm and marched her to the church’s exit.

Rowena, thoroughly surprised, and a little hurt by his curtness, forced a smile on her face. She would not fail him as his countess, if it killed her.

A substantial part of the crowd had already filed out through the side entrance, and so it was that a loud cheering rose when they exited the church. Mostly women and children, of course, which befitted a new countess. Alex watched his bride receive the many well-wishes of Ketteridge’s mothers in the form of small bouquets of herbs and a few snowdrops, too. It was the middle of winter, and there were no flowers as yet, beside the snowdrops.

Rowena, he saw, gathered all the gifts in her arms and took the time to speak with everyone that was present. He, on the other hand, looked a bit superfluous, amidst all that feminine company, but he did not mind. This was Rowena’s day, and she should be in the center of it all.

It was amazing. People flocked around her as if they wanted to be as near to her as they could. Alex’ mouth nearly fell open when he saw his two footmen hurry at her side to take the parcels and bouquets from her.

“Should you not be at her side, or is basking in your new wife’s popularity a bit painful for you?”

Alex grimaced at Richard Orme’s teasing tone. “Are you suggesting I am jealous of her being liked by my own people? Because I am not, Rich, and well you know it. Besides, it is a good thing that my countess be liked. She has a role of her own to fulfil.”

“Have you told her yet about your improving eyesight?”

“No.”

“Thought so. Why not?”

“I am still trying to get used to it myself. Moreover, I do not know if it is permanent. I do not want to raise false hopes.”

At his other side, Porter chimed in. “’Ave ye told ‘er about yer nightmares yet, major? She’s bound te wake up when ye scream yer ‘ead off in the night.”

Alex’ patience was wearing thin as he growled, “What are you two? My conscience? Do not concern yourselves over what I tell my wife or do not tell her. The two of you are fortunate to be my friends, or I would have called you out!”

He strode away to his carriage, irritated because Orme and Porter were right. He should have spoken with his wife about many things yet he had not. The worst of it was that such matters had a tendency to get stickier the longer one allowed them to fester.

The Reclusive Aristocrat – Part Nineteen

Chapter Ten

Ketteridge House, Leicestershire, England, December 24th, 1815

 

A few days passed in a flurry of activities, which left Rowena no time to reflect upon the hasty marriage she was about to commit to.

After the proposal he foisted so unexpectedly on her, Alex, who was becoming more skilled at horse riding once again, had departed to Leicester with Porter. He wanted to secure the license and speak with his solicitor post haste. Rowena and Meg had continued making the preparations, first to compose presents for the tenants, and secondly to arrange the wedding. They worked alongside the small army of servants to have Ketteridge House as welcoming as was possible in the short amount of time available.

 

On Christmas Eve of 1815, Alexander Raventhorpe, fifth earl of Ketteridge welcomed his neighbours and tenants for the first feast since his mother died thirty years ago.

The earl, extremely dashing in full evening attire, stood waiting in Ketteridge’s large hall, ready to welcome his guests as they arrived. He had insisted most thoroughly that Rowena should be at his side. She had shaken a lot of hands, and seen many new faces to whom she had to attach new names as well. She had also noticed the surprise on people’s faces when Alex introduced her, not as his housekeeper, but as his betrothed, Miss Rowena Drake. People’s gazes drifted invariably to Rowena’s swollen stomach. If out of deference to Alex’ status as the fifth earl of Ketteridge they struggled to keep their facial expressions bland, they could not chase the utter astonishment from their eyes. Yet everybody had cheered when Alex made the announcement of their wedding during his Christmas toast.

Rowena felt overcome with emotion, when people again came to congratulate them. She had been afraid of people’s reactions, as she was a stranger in these parts, and feared she would be judged for what she thought herself to be, a fallen woman. She had been completely wrong, she knew now. Nobody was judging her in the least. They smiled and nodded in agreement, when her betrothed caught her hand to kiss it. Yet Rowena feared they would only acknowledge her because they wanted to please Alex. He was considered their much-anticipated rescuer.

However, the dinner went smoothly, with Meg overseeing it all like a general his troops. People were sitting at tables in the large hall, neighbours with their families, tenants mixing with the staff and with Alex and Rowena themselves. Nobody was waiting on anybody, since the food had been set up on tables all around the hall, and Alex had invited everyone to just line up beside the tables and take whatever they liked. It worked splendidly, and people were enjoying themselves without forgetting how to behave, even though the wine and beer were flowing generously.

After the meal, the tables were removed and chairs were placed on the four sides of the floor, while a small orchestra from Leicester set themselves up on a dais at one side.

 

Alex asked Rowena for the opening dance, while she was helping Meg with the chairs. She turned to him, a delicious glow creeping up in her cheeks. God, he thought, she looked good enough to eat. Her evening gown was of scarlet silk, its cut simple but elegant, and designed to emphasize her pregnancy, not masking it, which would have been so out of character for Rowena.

His eyes roamed over her as he extended a hand to her, taking in her lovely shoulders left bare by the gown. The sweet curve of her breasts just showed over the modest, square neckline, and he found himself drinking in her image. No! No, he could not, he admonished himself! She could not yet know he was able to see her, albeit it still blurred but well enough to enjoy what he was seeing.

The musicians started a slow, demure waltz, and Alex took his betrothed into his arms. He held her in a firm hold and whirled her over the dance floor in a display of great elegance and skill, which had puzzled Rowena. She had no time to think of anything else, the next moment, because Alex drew her even deeper in his embrace, and the room blurred when she could feel his heart beating against hers. She closed her eyes in delight, breathing in the scent of him, relishing the feel of his hard, strong body moving against hers. Oh, sweet heaven.

Rowena realised that she never ever experienced such bliss before. Peter had been an impatient lover, and never allowed her time to adjust to his ardent, somewhat painful lovemaking. It had been only after a few couplings that Rowena had known the first sensations of fulfilment, yet still only shyly awakening to the unknown but heavenly feelings. She had known that they would have to grow further to full blossoming, when she and Peter married, after the threat of war was lifted. It had never happened, for Peter had been taken from her.

Yet now, with Alex, something completely new and wonderful was waiting for her. Anticipation made her legs a trifle weak, and she would have missed a step, had Alex not tightened his hold on her back. The movement brought her lower body closer to his own. Dear Lord, he was aroused – merciful heavens, did she dare think such things? Yet he felt hard and hot against her, causing a sweet ache to blossom between her thighs. She blinked up at him, confused but awaiting more.

His eyes, a deep purple in the light of a thousand candles, bore into hers, giving her the distinct notion that he was actually seeing her, which surely could not be true. She gave him a shy smile, to which he did not respond with one of his own. Thankful that he would never notice her need, now burning hot on her cheeks, Rowena just revelled in the sweet sensations that threatened to drown her. Alex … she longed for something she could not name, but it would be with him as her husband. If that, she was utterly and irrevocably certain.

The Reclusive Aristocrat – Part Eighteen

Chapter Nine (continued)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

The Reclusive Aristocrat – Part Seventeen

Chapter Nine

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

That realization struck him like a blow.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Marry me, Rowena Drake.”

The Reclusive Aristocrat – Part Sixteen

Chapter Eight (continued)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Why were you concerned, my dear?”

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

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

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