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.”