Chapter Twenty (completed)
London, March 17th, 1816
Her beautiful chocolate eyes were boring into his with gentle compassion, yet he was not sure on whose behalf, his or Carlisle’s, damn it. Alex found himself wondering what the bloody devil was wrong with him at being so rattled by what she made him feel.
What exactly was it he was feeling? Multiple things, for sure, envy being one of them. He envied Carlisle because his wife felt compassion on the demise of that sorry excuse of a third son. She had loved the bastard, he knew that, but surely she must have come to her senses by now. On the other hand, losing a son, even a third one, must be incredibly hard. Alex had no inkling how he himself would feel, all the more that Carlisle must know of the blackguard’s many faults.
He jerked back to the present and tried to focus on his pleading wife.
“We have to find out what he knows about Johnston,” he replied and pulled his hand from hers. “Does he know his son was a deserter, a seducer, and a general ne’er-do-good?”
She clucked and shook her head. “I have no inkling, Alex, but we cannot leave him unaware of the fact that he has a granddaughter.”
“What? No, Rowena!” Alex felt sheer panic at the thought of having to present his daughter to Carlisle. “Carlisle has three surviving sons and two married daughters. In all he has ten grandchildren, including an heir and a spare by his eldest son, the marquess of Windermere. I dread to think what might happen if he knows of Emma Rose’s existence.”
Rowena was perplexed. “And what would that be, Alex?”
“Carlisle is extremely possessive about family. He would demand you hand her over to him, so that she can be brought up amongst her cousins. He would claim that, because she is illegitimate, she would have better chances for her come-out with him, due to his elevated state as a member of His Majesty’s government.”
“Dearest Alex,” she said fondly and stroked his face with the back of her hand. “Have you forgotten that you adopted her? She carries your name, husband! If she needs protection from whoever tries to claim her, you of all people are best placed to protect her.”
Rowena’s heart swelled with love for her kind, gentle husband. “You protect and defend, Alex. You told me that long ago, and I know it to be so very true. I have every confidence in you, my brave husband.”
For the life of him, Alex was at a loss at what to make of her.
After they sent their luggage on its way home under the care of Porter and Trixie, Rowena and Alex called on Lord Carlisle on the appointed hour of noon. They had discussed their stance for hours the previous evening without having reached a common viewpoint but it was agreed that they would both play it by ear, Alex taking the lead in the conversation with Rowena stepping in when female support was necessary. Rowena had to take Bessie and Emma along, since the infant could not be without nursing for too long. They were shown into a parlour and told to wait for his lordship’s pleasure by an impressive, elderly butler.
Alex did not like it at all. He was not keen on telling Carlisle about the baby but after mulling over it for half the night, he reckoned it would perhaps be necessary. Illegitimate or not, having a grandfather and a father being earls of the realm, might prove to be fortuitous for little Emma in the long run. She was an aristocrat’s child, on both sides, and at one time she would have to marry, preferably into the aristocracy.
When the butler finally returned, looking very much down his nose at them, he ushered them into the drawing room. Lord Carlisle was standing before the hearth where a large fire merrily blazed, and next to him in a winged armchair sat a lady. His Lordship introduced her as Lady Petronella Johnston, the countess of Carlisle. She was pleasantly rotund and somewhat plain, but she held herself regally, and was elegantly clad in a simple day dress.
Rowena curtsied to Peter’s mother who invited her to sit down in the chair next to hers. Alex made his bow and was shown to a chair opposite the ladies. Carlisle stayed where he was, his face inscrutable.
“My dear lord and lady Ketteridge,” the countess said, her voice a warm contralto, “I understand that you have information about our son Peter? He has been a great source of concern to us both and to his siblings as well. His death was reported to us by the cavalry regiment he served in, just two days ago, which was a mystery to us. The commander of that same regiment had informed us that he was a deserter after Waterloo and that he was therefore thought to be having gone missing in Flanders. And now we hear that he died a violent death in the village of Ketteridge, Leicestershire, in a manner which is even too distressing to speak of. We are greatly confused, Lady Ketteridge, so if you can enlighten us, we would be ever so grateful.”
Rowena looked at her husband with a silent plea for help. He cleared his throat.
“Lady Carlisle, first allow me to express our deepest sympathy. It must have been thoroughly distressing to find out that your son shirked his duty to his country, although I would be the last to condemn him for his actions. Waterloo was terrible, in fact so vilely inhuman, that he was not the only one to have lost his head. We counted many young men, both in the cavalry and infantry, who could not countenance the cruel slaughter of their comrades. I myself occasionally still suffer from nightmares and I have only recently somewhat recovered from my injuries.”
The countess dashed away a solitary tear but smiled at Alex, while the earl coughed and looked away. “There might be, however, more to know about your son, your ladyship,” Alex continued. “He had an acquaintance with Sir Roderick Drake, baronet Daveston. Were you aware of that?”
“We knew of the friendship,” the earl spoke up. “They were at Oxford together and stayed friends. I suppose you are going to allude to the connection Peter had to Daveston’s sister, the current Lady Ketteridge?”
Alex nodded, but Carlisle was looking at Rowena now. “I believe he promised you marriage?”
“Yes, he did,” Rowena replied quietly.
“We were opposed to the alliance,” Carlisle stated gruffly. “Peter told us he broke off the engagement, when he came to say goodbye before he left for France. There is one thing we want to know once and for all, my lady; were you pregnant with Peter’s child? He swore to us that he had not … erm …”
“My lord!” Alex sprang to his feet in indignation. “I am asking you most urgently not to offend my lady wife by implying impropriety. Yes, she was with child, and your son fathered Emma Rose, who now bears the name of Raventhorpe. Both she and her mother are under my protection, and I will not stand for offence.”
Carlisle straightened, his eyes blazing, and was on the cusp of violence. Alex readied himself for battle, although he was reluctant to fight an older man. Then, out of the blue, came Emma’s furious cry of protest; she was hungry and her mother had neglected her for too long.
All eyes turned to Bessie who had been cradling the baby, while she sat on a chair next to the door.
“Oh!” Lady Carlisle rose and hurried to the pair. “Is that my granddaughter? May I hold her for a while, please?”
Bessie, greatly in awe of a countess addressing her without any condescension, handed her the child. Lady Carlisle returned to her chair with Emma Rose who was now howling in earnest. “Shh, little one, shh, oh, you are so beautiful …”
“Annabelle, it is only a baby, for heaven’s sake,” the earl admonished gruffly but he sank to his knee beside his wife’s chair and peeked at the screaming infant with reluctant interest. “Hey, my gal, what ails you, eh?”
At the sound of the unfamiliar, deep voice, Emma stopped crying and looked her grandfather in the eye … and smiled. Carlisle gasped and his wife gloried. “Oh, she looks so like Peter when he was a babe! Is she not beautiful, Terrence?”
Alex and Rowena stared at each other and at the couple in sheer astonishment, not quite sure of how to proceed the interrupted conversation. Who would have thought it would end like this?