Chapter Twenty (continued)
London, March 17th, 1816
He was right. Rowena agreed to depart for Leicestershire as soon as possible. While Trixie and Bessie started packing up their family’s belongings, Alex had one pressing matter to see to. Flanked by his loyal batman, he took his wife to the Wellington Barracks on Birdcage Walk, where he was about to receive his patent letters. He could hardly wait to finally come truly into his title after all this time.
Their carriage was allowed admittance and permission to halt in front of the large porticoed entrance. Alex followed Porter out and offered Rowena his hand to alight from the carriage. On his arm, she walked up the shallow stairs and into the grand hall, where they were welcomed by The Lord Chancellor. He preceded them to a large, richly furnished office, where a small gathering of gentlemen awaited them.
Even though she had been introduced to the Ton four seasons ago, Rowena had not met many of its male members, let alone their wives, since she had not been presented at Court. She did not know any of the impressive men to whom her husband introduced her. Of the five present, three of them were positively glowering at her, and she did not understand why. Anxiety clutched at her, but she lifted her chin.
There was, of course, Sir John Scott, the Lord High Chancellor, who smiled and kissed the back of her hand. “Dear Lady Ketteridge, it is a pleasure to meet you once again.”
He directed her to a tall, very erect, elderly gentleman of proud military bearing, to whom Alex, laying his hand on hers, led her with some ceremony.
“My dear, I am proud and honoured to introduce you to His Grace the Duke of Wellington, my supreme commander in His Majesty’s Cavalry. Sir, my wife, Lady Rowena Ketteridge.”
Rowena, her heart in her mouth, curtsied as deeply as she was able to. To her surprise, the famous duke raised her with a genuine smile on his austere features. His deep voice boomed over her in sonorous tones.
“Charmed, my dear, charmed. I am overjoyed that my excellent officer found happiness with the lady who captured his heart. Your husband, madam, is one of my best and bravest men. Treasure him, my dear.”
“I am deeply honoured to have been presented to you, Your Grace, and you are correct in your assessment of my dearest spouse. He is indeed my own and beloved treasure.”
“Well said, my dear. Come, I will introduce you to a few others.”
Wellington took her elbow and led her to the three aristocrats standing to the side of the room.
“Leicester, Nottingham and Carlisle, meet her ladyship the Countess of Ketteridge.”
Alex noticed the grim faces of his three peers with dismay and contempt. He recalled the conversation at the ball and now recognized the two men. Leicester and Nottingham were the ones he needed to put in their places. However, he had no need to do so immediately. The Duke of Wellington’s stern gaze brought them to heel, and they bowed and kissed Rowena’s hand in sufficient yet indifferent deference. Carlisle, on the other hand, was livid with fury.
Carlisle was in his fifties, of middle height and starting to be slightly portly. His white hair was still lush and curly, his nose was short and chubby, his mouth large, and his chin was starting to sag. His eyes were hazel under bushy white brows. Peter’s eyes had been darker, but even at his age of twenty-five, his eyebrows had already been abundant and bushy. The resemblance with his father had been remarkable.
Carlisle bowed curtly but did not look Rowena in the face, not until Wellington cleared his throat in obvious dismay. Alex felt his anger rise like bile, but then Rowena did something so stunningly unexpected that she literally took Carlisle – and himself – by surprise; she grasped the earl’s hand and spoke to him.
What, for Heaven’s sake, was she doing? A man of Lord Carlisle’s rank was not to be accosted in such a way, and did his wife not know that? Unless … he was Johnston’s father and she … great Heavens, she was about to comfort him for the loss of his son. Alex again felt the green-eyed monster gnaw at his heart and hated himself for it.
Rowena felt tears welling in her eyes at seeing Peter’s father, who was clearly in mourning with a large black crepe band around his right arm. The poor man’s face was pale with sorrow.
“My Lord Carlisle, you might not be aware I was acquainted with your son Peter. My husband and I heard of his recent demise and want to offer our condolences.”
Alex knew he had to take control of the situation, so he quickly joined her and confirmed her words with gravity, for which Rowena was greatly thankful. She gave Alex her sweetest smile, suppressing the urgency to kiss him then and there.
Dear Alex …
Carlisle eyed her, first with suspicion, but then grudgingly asked. “Would you and the earl grant me a private conversation at Carlisle House on Park Lane tomorrow at noon, Lady Ketteridge? I am sure my wife would want to hear about her son.”
“We would be honoured, my lord,” Rowena replied, a warm smile lighting her face. Then the Lord Chancellor recaptured their attention with the order of the day, namely Alex’ receiving his letters of patent. The ceremony took little time.
Afterwards, when they returned to the hotel, Rowena was debating by herself on what she would tell Peter’s father, when Alex spoke to her in such a cold voice that she looked at him in surprise.
“What the deuce were you about in addressing Carlisle in that way?”
“Surely I need not explain to you why, Alex? He has just lost his son and needs comfort. Did you not see his pale face and obvious grief?”
“Grief? Fury is what I saw, Rowena. The man could have throttled you for what he deems was insolence. Men like Carlisle are powerful and do not care for mere females to speak to them without their husbands’ permission. I know you do not have a great understanding of Ton manners but surely you must know that, to say the least.”
Alex was distressed, she realized, and she took his hand to gently stroke it. “You have it right, Alex. I do not know a lot of the Ton, but I can see when someone needs comforting. The earl of Carlisle is very much in deep sorrow, and we must agree on what exactly we will tell him. Should we talk about Emma Rose, for instance? Should he know how his son died and what connection we suspect there is with Roderick? He will surely been informed about the desertion but I am unsure if he knows it was Peter was engaged, and if so, to me. So I am in need of your sound ability to judge the situation, Alex. Will you help me?”