As they thundered along the hilly countryside road, Alex urged Porter on while kneeing Titan fiercely. He had to call upon every ounce of battle experience just to remain aloof enough to plan ahead. Panic was lurking in the dark corners of his heart, as if a dire foreboding was waiting to spring forth. Rowena was in danger, he could quite literally feel it. In no way would he allow that she be harmed, it was unthinkable.
Porter’s deep voice boomed him to a standstill. “What?” He scowled at his batman who was glaring at him from his uncovered eye.
“I won’t let ye wearin’ these poor ‘orses to death, major, let alone let ye break yer neck. Slow down and talk te me. What’s yer plan?”
Alex patted Titan’s neck in apology to his faithful mount. “You are right, Porter, I am sorry. It is just that … blast it, I do not know what to do! I can feel there is something very wrong with my wife and … damnation, I have never felt this powerless in my life!”
“Well, let’s go on then. We’ll see what’s te be done once we get there. But, for the love of God, keep yer ‘ead about it. Ye never panicked before, so now ain’t the time to start it!”
They continued in a sedate canter, yet Alex grew more restless by the second. What if his wife was in mortal danger already? What if … but no! He would not allow the rest of that wretched thought to cloud his mind. Rowena could not be taken from him. He would die if she would, because she meant more to him than his own life.
Half-strangled and gasping for breath, Rowena felt herself pivoting away from Roderick. She groped for a hold, any hold, to prevent her from hurting herself. Her right shoulder hit the little side table near Roderick’s chair, and the momentum of the impact made her roll towards the door. Stars obscured her already blurred vision, and fighting for breath against the violent pain in her shoulder, she tried to sit up.
A howl like that of a wounded beast reached her. Her half-brother was lying flat on his stomach, and his entire back was on fire. He was trashing and trying to crawl away, screeching now in excruciating pain. Rowena got to her knees and began crawling towards him. She yanked her woollen shawl from her shoulders, ignoring her own pain by doing so. Only then did she become aware of the smoke that threatened to choke them both and of something much more horrid; the stench of burning flesh. Roderick’s flesh …
In a last desperate attempt to help him, Rowena threw her shawl over Roderick’s back. Head whirling and lungs burning with the lack of air, she grasp his hand and began tugging him in the direction of the door. She had not counted on her own injury. Before blackness engulfed her, Alex’ name was on her lips, but no sound came from her parched throat.
The scene that greeted the riders was one straight from the sheer depths of hell. They saw the smoke rising over the tall oaks boarding the driveway and their worst fears came true when they beheld the flames bursting from the downstairs windows. Maids and footmen – far too few – were starting a bucket line under the instructions of an ancient individual in butler’s attire. An elderly woman in black bombazine – the housekeeper, no doubt – stood wringing her hands in helpless panic.
Alex leapt from Titan and addressed the butler. “Did Lady Ketteridge come here today?”
The man blinked. “Yes, sir, and she is still in there, and the master, too. We cannot enter the library where they both are. The heat is overpowering and the smoke choking.”
“I am going inside. Give me a wet towel to cover my head. What’s your name?”
“Very well, Philby. Keep up the bucket line and send a young groom or footman to follow me as soon as you can.”
“Major, I’m comin’ wi’ ye and no protests!”
“Yes, follow me, Porter.”