Chapter Nineteen (completed)
London, March 17th, 1816
Alex spent the morning in his club and had lunch with his financial agent and solicitor, Mr Middlebridge, who had come to London with his lady. They had some necessities to purchase which were not available in Leicester, or so it seemed. The club in Albemarle Street was the exact right place to discuss finances, so Alex had a satisfyingly productive morning. He was, however, eager to join his wife at the hotel. They had to prepare for the evening ball at Lady Devonshire’s lavish townhouse. Alex secretly hoped for a few hours of bed sport with his beautiful countess beforehand. The night before had been very passionate, and he longed for her again with a fierceness he could not fathom in the least.
What greeted him when he entered their suite, was not at all what he had envisaged. Emma Rose was crying her heart out, and her nanny was at the end of her tether at being unable to calm the infant down.
“Where is her ladyship, Bessie? Should she not be here to nurse the little one?”
“I don’t know, sir. She’s gone out with Trixie and still not back after three hours. I don’t know what to do about Emma, I can’t console her.”
“Give her to me, Bessie, and ask for some honeyed water. We will try to calm her down with that. It worked before.”
While the nanny ran to do his bidding, Alex took the little one and put her onto his shoulder.
“Shh, little darling, shh.” He began talking to her about how to care for a horse, about grooming and feeding, exercising and the like, all of which seemed to sooth her, amazingly so. Emma Rose gurgled and her sweet little mouth spread in a wide toothless grin when he tickled her. He managed to keep her quiet until Bessie arrived. They fed her the honey water until she closed her eyes. Alex let himself down onto the sofa and laid the baby on his stomach. Soon thereafter she was fast asleep, giving her doting guardian ample time to ponder about his wife’s lateness.
This was not like Rowena at all. She was a devoted, loving mother and she respected Emma’s feeding schedule to a tee. And so Alex worried, his protective streak aching with the uncertainty of it all. Yet there was nothing he could do for the moment, blast it.
Running along the hotel’s first floor corridor toward their suite, Rowena strained her ears for Emma’s crying. There was none, which puzzled her. Trixie was at her heels and panted. “Maybe Bessie took her or a stroll, milady, and that’s why everything is quiet.”
Rowena did not reply but opened the door to their rooms. They were not in the sitting room, so she headed for her bedroom. The sight greeting her was riveting.
Alex was fast asleep on the sofa, the baby on his stomach, also deeply immersed in her little angel’s sleep. Rowena felt a tug on her heartstrings like she had never had before in her life. She knew what had transpired in her absence, and it meant that her husband had simply done what he was extremely good at; protecting, shielding, helping. She loved him, she always would, no matter what Fate, fickle and unpredictable, would throw at them.
Emma Rose stirred, shuddered, and then her little rosy face contorted, which was the prelude to a mighty howl of hunger. Rowena sprang forward to catch her daughter moments before Alex, startled, sat up. Bestowing her most engaging smile upon him, Rowena went to sit in the rocking chair, and began feeding her baby. She directed her gaze to Alex, focussing all her love on him. He was surprised, she saw, and stood abruptly before leaving the room. She must have rattled him, then. Good.
After greeting Lord and Lady Devonshire in the receiving line, Alex and Rowena stepped into the ballroom. Into utter chaos and ear-splitting noise, brought about by at least two-hundred members of the Haut-Ton, the ladies dressed in their vivid silks, the gentlemen in their severe black-and whites. Rowena was separated from her husband almost immediately by several titled males, wanting to speak with him, so she repaired to a row of settees near the wall. A few mature matrons were surveying the crowd with eagle eyes, an activity they were forced to interrupt when Rowena greeted them with a slight bow of her head. They barely acknowledged her, she noticed, but nevertheless they did, which meant she was accepted amidst their circle, albeit reluctantly. However, they did not address her, which left Rowena to idly staring into the large room, where couples were dancing a country reel.
“Rowena, my dear, is that truly you?” A tall, portly lady in her early sixties was standing before her, and Rowena’s heart leapt with joy.
“Aunt Charlotte! I did not know you were in Town!”
“Oh, I am only here to help dear Melissa shop for baby things. She is due soon, on April 7th, so we are stocking up on everything London has to offer.”
Her aunt paused, taking Rowena’s hands in hers, not giving her time to react to the news unknown to her. “Rowena, come with me.”
She tugged at her niece’s hands toward the great hall and then up the stairs to the ladies’ withdrawing room, which was mercifully empty at this early time of the evening.
Rowena, who had been completely unaware of her cousin Melissa marrying and now become with child, embraced her aunt. “Oh, auntie, how wonderful for you and uncle to become grandparents! When did Melissa marry and to whom? Tell me all, please.”
“Rowie, I will tell you all later, but now you have to hear me out, please? Your uncle and I were sick with concern when you failed to answer our letters after your father’s death. Why was that? Why did you not write to us? We heard all sorts of rumours of you, which, frankly, did not bode well.”
“Letters, auntie? I never received any letters from anyone, not in months, I swear to you.”
“Rowie, I wrote you five letters, all with four weeks in between. We are aware of mail lost from time to time, but five?”
Rowena began to perceive a kernel of understanding. “Roderick …,” she breathed, “he must have kept them from me.”
“But why, Rowie? Why would your brother keep our letters from you?”
“Let me just think for a little while, auntie. Are you informed about what happened to me after father’s death?”
“Well, I assure you I was stunned beyond belief when I heard you were married to the earl of Ketteridge. You were betrothed to Peter Johnston, was all we knew. I also know that you have a baby daughter, about whom the wildest rumours are running riot.”
Rowena nodded, not very concerned about the wild gossips. “Suffice it to say that Roderick induced me to run away from Daveston Hall when he discovered I was pregnant with Johnston’s child. I had no money, since father did not leave me anything. I always thought I had money which had come from Mama’s family, but Roderick told me that was not so.”
Her aunt’s mouth fell open and her eyes grew round.
“But … but that is not true! There was a portion of our father’s money settled upon Clarissa and me, a considerable portion, let me assure you. Your father could not lay hands on it, so why did you not get it?”