Ketteridge House, Leicestershire, England, December 14th, 1815
He had not succeeded in much courting, Alex mused, as he let his blurred gaze move around the breakfast table. Not for the first time did he realise that he could see the people at his table quite more clearly than ever before. John Wallis’ hair was a fading red and still quite abundant. His face looked strong and angular though not very much lined, but as Alex could not discern the colour of John’s eyes, he knew his vision was not sharp enough to make out the finer details. Mrs Wallis – or Meg, as he was beginning to think of her – had a pleasant, round face with a pert, upturned nose, and thick, fair locks that were just beginning to turn silver.
Alex fixed his gaze on Rowena, who sat on his right – and suppressed a gasp when he quite clearly saw her heart-shaped face, her dark eyes, her small, straight nose and her lush, rosy lips. And her wealth of dark brown hair, swept from her face in a heavy knot at the nape of her long, slender neck.
Was the longed-for miracle finally happening? Was he regaining his eyesight? If that were so, then why could he not make out the expression in Rowena’s eyes? Her eyes were dark and beautiful, but to him they were also veiled and watchful. Not that she was looking at him, though. No, she was definitely avoiding his gaze, even though she did not know yet that he could see her.
The Wallisses, now firmly settled at the manor, enjoyed a hearty breakfast, to be sure. Fortunately for Alex, John and Meg were always chatting amiably during those meals, John about some estate matter he had come about, and Meg about some household requirements. Alex only needed to respond to their inquiries without much thinking required. The fourth table companion, however, was another matter altogether.
Alex found himself at his wits’ end about how to draw out Rowena. She was quiet, unusually so. Oh, she would amiably reply when he said something, but afterwards, she would withdraw into silence, as if it were a refuge. He needed a better strategy, so much was certain, and he had possible two lines before him.
“Miss Drake, Mrs Wallis,” Alex ventured, directing his broadest smile towards the youngest of the two, “it has been quite a while since I celebrated a real English Christmas, what with the military campaign I was in. Christmas was not first on our mind, as you can easily comprehend. So this year, I am looking forward to having a good, old-fashioned English Christmas, taking up once more the tradition of receiving the tenants and handing out presents.”
Alex paused – for effect – and was rewarded by the very audible intake of breath Rowena took. He imagined her eyes suddenly sparkling with delight. They would be dark, he fantasized, deep dark brown, and luminous, and beautiful. Drat his cursed affliction! What he would not give just to have a better glimpse of Rowena’s eyes. Of Rowena herself. His vision seemed to blur once again.
“Of course, dear ladies, it will be a lot of work for the two of you, but I am absolutely certain that you will be able to deal with that. Ask Mrs Hall how it was done. She has been here a long time.”
“Yes, of course, my lord,” Mrs Wallis replied in her demure voice. “We shall start making arrangements immediately.”
Alex inwardly smiled. One part of the courting strategy set in motion. The scene of the next would be prepared today.
Relieved to have something to distract her, Rowena climbed the stairs to the attic. Mrs Hall, grunting at the effort, preceded her.
“Now, Mrs Drake, I ‘ave no idea of wha’ we might find there. I never ‘ad anythin’ te do wi’ Christmas arrangements before. Tha’ was Lady Ketteridge’s prerogative.”
“Lady Ketteridge? Was that Lord Reginald’s wife?”
“Oh, no, miss! Lord Reginald wasn’t married. I’m talkin’ about the old lord’s wife, Lady Davina. I still think back wi’ fondness on those Christmasses. She was the kindest of ladies, ye know. She always ‘ad presents for the lo’ of us, and in those days, we were many. There was a full staff, three maids next to Her Ladyship’s personal maid, and five footmen, and Lord Benedict’s man, of course. I was one of two scullery maids under the cook, Mrs Swanson, and Mrs Bammer, the housekeeper also employed three tweenies. Then there was a full outdoor staff, too; five gardeners and six grooms. Lady Davina was the best hostess at Christmas balls, and she ruled over her house like a regular queen, but always kind, she was. Lord Benedict was devastated when she died, ‘avin’ Master Alexander.”
“Lord Raventhorpe’s mother died in childbirth? Oh, how terrible!”
“Yes, and the poor mite was ignored by ‘is father. Lord Benedict did not even ‘ire a nanny for ‘im. For weeks, the poor li’le soul was left to the mercy of Mrs Bammer. Luckily for ‘im, her sister jus’ ‘ad a babe of ‘er own, and she nursed the li’le one. Mrs Bammer put one of the maids in charge of Master Alexander, until Lord Reginald ‘ired a proper nanny.”
“His brother? Why?”
“’Cause ‘is father couldn’t stand the sight of ‘is youngest son, that’s why! As if the poor li’le fellow ‘ad anythin’ te do wi’ ‘is mum’s demise! Men!”
That was exactly what Rowena was thinking. She was appalled. If not for the housekeeper, Alex would have starved? Preposterous, and cruel.
The next days were frantically busy for Rowena. She, Meg and Mrs Hall strove to organize all the activities the earl had proposed. The house had to be cleaned from top to bottom, and afterwards the Christmas decorations had to be put in place. Since Rowena, with Meg’s help, had hired five footmen and five maids, the work was soon in progress. Standing with her hands supporting her aching lower back, she was supervising the work, when the earl came in, with Porter in his wake.
There was an atmosphere of cheerful anticipation, Alex found, and it was emphasized by the happy chattering of servants carrying out tasks that they truly enjoyed, in this case the festive decoration of the house. In the centre of it, he sensed Rowena’s presence. As his gaze began roving Ketteridge House’s large hall, blurred as it may be, it nevertheless showed Alex where his housekeeper was standing next to the large hearth. He quickly went to stand by her side.
“How are things progressing, Miss Drake?”
“Very well, my lord. We are waiting for Mr Mercher to bring in the tree with the help of his new workers.”
“Mercher?” Alex said in surprise. “Is he still on my pay role? I thought him long gone.”
“My lord, you should go over your staff with John. You have four of your old staff still present. Your head gardener is still Mr Silas Mercher, and he has hired three young lads from the village. He tells me that he will have to give them a thorough instruction before they can be of use. Your old stable master, Mr Thomas Anderson is still looking after your horses. Mrs Hall now has two scullery maids to help her, besides Trixie who never left your service, plus the five upstairs maids Meg has hired, and who will be greatly needed for the preparation of the Christmas Eve party.”
With a smile, His Lordship placed a hand on his chest and bowed to her. “Thank you for your wisdom, dear Miss Drake. I will do as you ask and meet with my staff. There is no better way to do that than at the Christmas Day luncheon, and of course, you shall be at my side to do the honours of introducing everybody to me.”
Rowena felt him stepping closer to her, so close that she could feel his body heat scorching her. He bowed his head and, his breath stroking the delicate flesh of her ear, whispered, “I very much enjoy having you at my side, Miss Drake …”
His words were smooth, and warm, and disturbing. Dear Lord … was he … flirting with her? He could not be. He was an earl, a peer of the realm, and a war hero. And yet, he most thoroughly enjoyed it.
“Thank you, my lord,” Rowena said in a choked voice. Her heart pounding, she sucked in a much needed breath. “Now if you will excuse me, I have much to attend to.” And she fled. Yet again.
Alex frowned in dismay, but at himself, not at Rowena. He had thoroughly messed up, scaring her like that. He seemed to have lost all his seductive skills since that blasted battle! He was supposed to be courting her, not tempting her with his pitiful blatancy!
Courting her meant that he must entice her to trust him. It was as simple as that. Trust would mean that she would welcome him, first as her protector, and secondly as her husband. To that end, he needed to shed his aristocratic airs. Yes, that was right, Alex mused. Rowena must see him as a man, and not as an earl. He recalled how she used his first name when she thought him gravely injured. The barriers had fallen, then. Maybe he should endeavour to make them do so once more.