Chapter Eighteen ( continued)
The house was very grand, with lights blazing from all the windows. The Raventhorpes joined the long line of couples waiting to pay their compliments to their hosts. A good many of the people stared unabashedly at them, sizing them up with curiosity. Rowena fought to stay dignified under the ruthlessly rude looks. She did not know any single one of them, but she watched Alex nod and bow on occasion. She ached to ask him who those people were, but kept silent, and only bestowed a light smile when necessary. When they finally reached the top of the stairs to greet the hosts, Rowena felt relieved.
“Ah, Ketteridge!” Mr Scott clapped Alex on the back as if he were an old friend. “Good to see you back in Town, my friend. You have been a recluse for far too long. And this lovely creature must be your lady wife? Enchanted, milady.” He took Rowena’s hand and kissed the back of it, even before she was able to make her curtsy. While Rowena curtsied to Mrs Scott, who smiled amiably ay her, Mr Scott asked Alex to come to his study, once the introductions were over. And then they were entering the vast ball room, its interior blazing with the light of a thousand candles. The air was dense with the scent of a myriad of flower arrangements and stale with the tightly packed mass of bodies.
“Blast, what a crush,” Alex muttered. “Come, my dear, let me steer you to the refreshment room. As a soldier, this crowd raises my hackles in alarm. One never knows what lies in wait for one in such a human mass.”
They made it to a large side room where a table full of the most exquisite food was already being assaulted by a great number of guests. Alex managed to get them a glass of champagne with not too much trouble. With much jostling, they retreated to an alcove in the ball room and sat down on a settee to enjoy their drinks, while Alex kept an eye on the entrance until the guests stopped being announced. “I might go and see Scott now,” he said. “It would be best if you do not venture from here, Rowie. I will return here as quickly as possible. I want to be able to find you for a dance afterwards.” Rowena nodded and Alex went on his way. Soon he was swallowed by the throng, which made Rowena feel isolated and alone.
From her vantage point, she had a good view of the ball room dance floor which was still packed with people. Even though the musicians had gathered on the dais and were tuning their instruments, not a soul moved away. It was not until the introductory notes to a quadrille sounded, that the floor cleared as if by magic and a large number of square sets formed. Rowena enjoyed the dancing and the lively music, although she had no intention of dancing herself. She meant to stay aloof as she had no connections or friends in this London crowd.
“I am very pleased to see you back in London, Ketteridge, “Mr Scott said in an amiable tone. “The rumours about your injuries swiftly reached the War Office after Waterloo. I heard they were severe and I hope you are recovered?”
“I am, sir, for the most part. My vision might still lack perfection, but on the whole I cannot complain.”
“Although you and I are not well acquainted, I have heard from you a great deal and from a source you would not envisage at all. You have captured the eye of the Prince, Ketteridge. No one other than Wellington himself has sung your praises.”
Alex was astonished. “The Duke himself? How come? I did not distinguish myself more than my fellow cavalry officers at Waterloo.”
“You saved the life of a relative of his when you caught a bullet destined to strike him.”
It all came back to Alex, like a flood brimming over a riverbank.
As he had stormed downward on Titan, a reckless young officer had managed to wrestle the enemy’s standard from its bearer when the man was shot. Bullets had been flying by the dozens, and Alex had instantly acknowledged the danger to the young man. He had worked his way through the throng of fighters toward the fledgling, who did not seem to understand he was now a well-coveted target. As soon as he had thrown the man down and protected him with his own body, a French blade sliced him across the abdomen. Fortunately for Alex, Porter had only just pierced the man, robbing him of his full strength, which softened the blow he dealt his fallen officer. Yet Alex, buried under Titan’s large squirming body, received a blow from one of the flailing hoofs and lost consciousness. Afterwards, in the field infirmary where they had stitched him up, Alex learned that the young idiot he had endeavoured to safe was well and unharmed. He never knew who he was, though, yet now he did.
“I had no idea of the young man’s identity, Mr Scott, but I am glad it was someone dear to the High Commander.”
“Wellington wishes to thank you in person, Ketteridge. You and Lady Ketteridge are invited to the Horse Guards barracks, where you will be handed over your letters patent in the presence of some of your peers. The event takes place in two days at noon. Dress uniform is required, of course.”
Rowena was starting to wonder when Alex would return as she longed for refreshment in the stifling dampness she was drowned in. Why hostesses invited so many people to a ball was beyond her understanding. A ball had only one purpose in Rowena’s mind, and that was to provide the means and opportunity to dance, had it not? Apparently that was not how London hostesses viewed it. She closed her eyes and leaned back against the wall, prepared to suffer in silence until Alex showed up.
“Well, well, …” a familiar voice droned, startling Rowena with the near impossibility of it. She sprang up only to stare incredibly at the lean, tall figure of her half-brother. He was eyeing her with raw distaste and anger, causing her heart to plunge in her chest with a dull hurt.
“Roderick …,” she managed to croak. All the misery of her painful flight came rushing over her, the deep sorrow caused by his callous behaviour when he informed her of the impossible choice he had concocted for her; stay at the estate she had considered home until then on the condition that she give up her child or be banished from her home if she chose to keep it.
“I cannot fathom the fact that you would end up here in the London Ton, sister, unless it is to thoroughly embarrass and ruin me. I see that you must have delivered your bastard. I fervently hope that you drowned the brat as soon as it was put into this world. Otherwise, it might come back to blackmail me later when I need to be seen as integer as possible. I mean to stand up for parliament, I must show a competent and unblemished face to my peers. By Lucifer and all his devils, Rowena, you shameless doxy, how dare you show your trollop face in these hallowed halls?”
“I beg you to step away from my lady wife, sir. I do not care for your words nor for your tone of voice, as they were most offending to Lady Ketteridge.”
Rowena almost sagged with relief when her husband joined them. Alex, all haughty sternness, stepped before her and shielded from Roderick, showing her the rigidness of his broad back. She could see a muscle twitch in his strong jaw, his face livid with what she had come to know as stone-cold rage.
“Now, sir, you shall apologize for your rudeness instantly or find yourself facing a duel on the morrow.”
His words were frozen drops of fury, and they made Roderick flinch with unmistakeable fear.
“I … I beg pardon, my lord, … I … I had no notion, …”
“Apologize, sir, to my wife.” Rowena saw her brother wince as if in pain but she could not sympathize with him. Instead, she felt a rush of heat enveloping her heart at her husband’s defence of her honour. He must care for her, at least a little, if he was prepared to duel for her. Then, as she witnessed Roderick utter a stammering apology of which she did not registered a single word, a deep feeling of pure happiness filled her head to toe as she realized one very vital truth; she had come to love Alex.