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.