The Reclusive Aristocrat – Part Four

Chapter Three

Ketteridge House, Leicestershire, England, December 4th, 1815

It had become urgently clear to Alex that he needed to find out all there was about Rowena Drake. She would, however, not be forthcoming; on the contrary, she was extremely reticent, as if there were a deep and dark secret in her past. She was also avoiding him, and taking extreme care not to be alone with him.

“Porter, be so good as to search a tome for me from those shelves over there.”

Alex and his batman were in the library, working on the ledgers. Or better, trying to find their way through the heavy volumes. Alex, unable to see, had to guide a Porter who lacked the educational skills to understand what he was supposed to find or read.

“Where, major?” the servant grumbled. “There must be thousands of the blasted books in here.”

Alex walked to the case nearest to the gigantic fireplace. It amazed him how easily he found his way in this room, even though he had not been here often when he still had his ability to see; it had been his father’s realm and later his brother’s. Yet now, it seemed to have become his.

“If I remember correctly, the book I want must be in this book case here. There should be an inventory on the first open shelf, placed on the extreme left. Do you see it?”

“Yes, I have it. What now?” Porter puffed.

It was a tedious task to make Porter act as his secretary, Alex thought. It was, however, the only way he had to learn the content of documents. He was just extremely thankful that his former batman had learnt to read and write as a child.

“The volume I need is Debrett’s Peerage and Baronetage. It is a rather thick book with a red leather cover. The inventory will have the location of it in this particular book case.”

Still grumbling, Porter climbed the steps in his slow, hobbling way. He still suffered from that bullet wound in his thigh, Alex knew. Soon the batman came back down with the requested book and laid it on the desk to open it.

“Christ, major! I’m too old for this, I can’t read those tiny le’ers!”

“Use the magnifying glass, if you please.”

“Very well, what’m I lookin’ fer?”

Alex took a deep breath. The die was cast, he mused.

“Families named Drake in Cumberland. Find every fact you can.”

Porter’s next comment made him grin. “Yes, major, but couldn’t ye just ask her? There’s a whole bloody page of ‘em!”

“I could but I have not. Now continue, if you please?”

Mumbling to himself, Porter began reading, while Alex bit back a smile. He knew he should scold his old batman for being disrespectful, yet he was unable to reprimand the man who saved his life on the battlefield. Cumberland … yes, Rowena Drake had nearly given it away herself, had she not? Her accent was very faint but distinct.

“You do know that she’s been employing girls from the village and the neighbouring farms, I hope?” Porter continued in a casual way.

That surprised Alex. “No, I was unaware of it, although it makes sense. If Mrs Drake is supposed to clean up this old pile of a house, she will need proper help. I wonder how she is paying them.”

“Out of her own pocket, I suppose. She hasn’t asked Mrs Hall for coin, as far as I know.”

To his own surprise, Alex again felt a grin tugging at his mouth. So Rowena Drake was taking her task seriously, then. Good. He made a mental note to provide Rowena with the necessary funds for her girls.

 

Casting a last appraising glance at the four girls working in the first room she had selected to be thoroughly cleaned, Rowena turned and hurried down the stairs to have breakfast with her employer.

She wondered if there would be something in store for her on this day, December 4th. Silly thought, she scolded herself. Why would anybody at Ketteridge House even know that this was her birthday altogether? She had better banish these silly, childish thoughts once and for good. Today she turned twenty-one, and if her father had not chosen to leave everything to Roderick, her half-brother, she would not have been in such dire financial predicaments at the moment.

It had been a tremendous shock when Rowena, still crushed by grief of her father’s demise, had been coldly informed by Roderick’s unfeeling solicitor that she had no right to any of Daveston Hall’s funds. How well she remembered that scene in her father’s vast library with Roderick standing at the window with his back to her, and deliberately not looking at her. She would never forget the hurt she felt then, the apprehension at the realisation that she was on her own from then on, and that she was at Roderick’s mercy.

“Ah, there you are, Mrs Drake.”

Rowena abruptly stopped when the earl’s voice sounded at the foot of the stairs. He must have heard her, she reflected. She tucked a loose lock of hair back into place and proceeded her way down in a slower pace. Ridiculous, once again; the earl would not even notice her appearance.

“Good morning, my lord.”

Her employer’s eyes turned her way, but they did not focus on her. It was strange, but only now Rowena realised the extent of the earl’s handicap. Those beautiful blue-grey eyes of him would never actually see her. He must feel miserable at some moments, she mused. She could not even begin to imagine what it must be like for him.

“How did you know it was I approaching?” she asked.

He smiled, chuckling low. Rowena felt it deep in her belly, and shivered.

“My sight light be failing, but my hearing is not. I am already familiar with your step, Mrs Drake.”

She watched him return to the morning room from whence he had come. It was fascinating as well as pitiful to witness him trying to assess the distance he had to bridge. At some point, he was forced to stretch out a hand in order to prevent himself from bumping into the wall, and then use his fingers to guide him to the door. Slowly, Rowena followed Raventhorpe through the door, admiring the certainty with which he found his way to the small table at the window. How did he manage that? Once inside a room, he always seemed to go straight to where he wanted to go to.

“Mrs Drake,” the earl said, his voice rather stern, “I want to establish some very fundamental rules for you in managing this household. I absolutely forbid you to pay staff from your own resources. If you have need of money, you shall come to me and ask for it. Is that clear?”

“Yes, my lord,” Rowena replied, stunned by his stern tone. “Forgive me, I meant no offence.”

“None taken, ma’am. Next, I wish to make something clear. I insist on you disclosing who you are. It is absolutely necessary that I know, Mrs Drake.”

Flames shot up to Rowena’s face, while her heart started thumping alarmingly fast. She was grateful that Raventhorpe could not see the fear rising in her chest like bile.

“My lord …”

“Is your name actually Drake? I have considerable doubts about that, my dear.”

Rowena swallowed at the large lump that seemed to block her breathing.

“My lord, I … I implore you; please trust me. I am no criminal, if that is what you are concerned about. I am just a … a disgraced woman, seeking to set her life back on the right track. If I could just stay here and …”

“You can stay as long as you like, Mrs Drake, have no fear. Yet I must know who you are, for the simple reason that I must protect you as long as you stay under my roof. I am a soldier, Mrs Drake. We reconnoitre, assess, and protect. In order to be able to protect those who depend on us, we must know all the facts. So, for the last time, Mrs Drake, who are you?”

At that moment, the sun broke through the clouds and streamed into the room in full force. Its rays touched the earl’s eyes, just as he directed his blind gaze at Rowena. In the beat of an eyelash, they changed from the rather dull blue-grey to the sudden, vivid, almost hot sapphire blue of a summer storm lightening. It had the most astonishing effect on Rowena. Her heartbeat fluttered, and then pounded in her ears like shots from a canon. She grew warm, and her stomach clenched, leaving her quite shaken.

The panic she had been feeling suddenly grew tenfold. Rowena stood so quickly that her chair overturned and crashed with a noise like thunder. She stumbled to the door, eyes blinded with panic. She knew not how but she reached the stairs and began ascending them, clutching the banister with both hands. There was no longer reason dictating her, only a deep-rooted fear that she might succumb to the sudden, primal attraction he overwhelmed her with. Knowing that, acknowledging that, was too much.

The baby suddenly kicked hard, and her stomach lurched. Nausea swept over Rowena, forcing her to her knees. She retched but nothing came. Her lungs seemed clogged, all of a sudden, and she choked, gasping for air. Her vision blurred, grew darker …

Then she was picked up by a pair of strong, muscular arms; her head came to rest against a hard, but comfortingly warm shoulder. With infinite relief, Rowena inhaled the earl’s clean, overwhelmingly male scent, for it was he who had come to her rescue. All fear suddenly evaporated, to be replaced by a blessed peace. This man was innately honour-bound to protect, not to ravish or destroy, at least not without a reason. As he swiftly carried her back to the morning room and laid her down onto a chaise-longue, all in one smooth motion, Rowena felt once again safe, reassured, and calm.

The earl crossed his arms and straightened to his full 6,3’.

“Mrs Drake, I strongly advise you to behave sensibly. You are carrying a child, and you might have fallen down the stairs and injured yourself and the babe. Now …”

“How do you manage that?”

It was out of Rowena’s mouth before she realised that it is rudely inappropriate to cut one’s employer. He looked puzzled yet not in ire. His eyes were a soft grey-blue, now.

“How do I manage what, Mrs Drake?”

“Finding your way so rapidly into a room, never getting lost once you pass the doorsill?”

“Well, I know this house like the back of my hand. It is after all my ancestral estate; I grew up here. As for a room, once I have memorized where all the furniture is located, I will stay clear of it. Of course, everything must be left in the same spot. Porter looks to that and helps me make the necessary reconnoitring rounds, the first time I come into an unfamiliar room.”

He paused, directing his gaze to where Rowena sat. “What happened, Mrs Drake? Why did you dash out of this room as if the devil himself was at your heels?”

“I … I cannot truly say … It was as if I was suddenly in a room without air …”

The earl dropped to one knee, bringing his face level with hers, and although Rowena knew that he was unable to distinguish her expression, it nevertheless gave her the illusion that he was looking straight into her eyes. She felt strangely mesmerized, but also safe, and protected. When he laid the back of his hand against her cheek, she pressed against it, revelling in the immense comfort the simple gesture gave her. It felt entirely natural.

“You panicked, that is what happened,” the earl said gently. “I have seen it many times on the battlefield. Men freezing with horror, shutting out their surroundings, lowering their guns, dropping to their knees while clutching their heads or covering their ears. Overwhelming fear can bring it about, or even intolerably great despair. You were so afraid to tell me about yourself, that your body reacted in the only way possible; it bolted to escape danger. There is no need for that, my dear. You are in no danger when staying at Ketteridge House because you are under my personal protection.”

Alex could feel the struggle in Rowena Drake by the way she breathed; rapidly and shallowly. The woman must be in real danger, he mused. Some irate husband who abused her, and from whom she fled out of self-preservation? If what Porter had read was true, then she could not be the Rowena Drake of Daveston Hall near Carlisle in Cumberland, because no mention had been made of a marriage.

“Are you – by any chance – related to the Drakes of Cumberland?”

He had made his question as casual as he could but was rewarded by her sharp intake of breath. Oh, she had done her best to be as quiet as possible, but Alex’ hearing was sharp and he had caught the faint hissing sound.

“How …”

“I checked it. Are you from Cumberland, Mrs Drake?”

“Yes …” A note of the panic again, and she suddenly rose, nearly tumbling him over. He caught his balance and rose as well, and took hold of her arm.

“Then you are the Honourable Miss Rowena Drake of Daveston Hall, daughter of the Baronet George Henry Drake and Clarissa Maud née Stowe.”

She was trembling, and he wanted to comfort her. He wanted her to trust him. He had no inkling why this as so important, all of a sudden, but it was important, even vital. She was born in 1794, on the fourth of December, which meant that – dear Lord! – today she was twenty-one. So young still …

“I have it right, have I not? You are Rowena Drake from Daveston Hall?”

“Yes,” she breathed, then sighed. “How did you discover that? We live very remotely and have no acquaintances to speak of. I never had a London season, and the only towns we visited were Carlisle and York, where my father’s only sister lives.”

“Come,” Alex said in a sudden, light tone. “We can converse at the breakfast table. I am in need of sustenance after all this.” It made Rowena smile, her heart suddenly much lighter.

Alex guided her to her seat, then sat down and rang a small table bell for Porter. The servant came in with their plates soon after, served them and left. They ate in silence for a while, but Alex, not wanting to let the moment go to waste, resumed their conversation.

“I must congratulate you on your birthday, Miss Drake. I had Porter look you up in Debrett’s, so I am abreast of all there is to know about your family. You almost gave yourself away when you stopped yourself from naming Carlisle, and you also speak with a slight Cumberland accent. I am afraid I have to repeat my earlier question; what has happened that you are here at Ketteridge House, far away from the place that you call home?”

Rowena sighed, and then resolutely made her decision to trust the earl with her history. She believed him when he spoke of protecting her and everybody twho lived on his estate.

“My father died rather suddenly last year, from an apoplexy,” she began. “I met my fiancé the month after he died. We had an affair and he promised me marriage. Then came the war and my betrothed left to do his duty. He died at Waterloo. Soon after he left, I found out I was with child. I had little choice than to leave my childhood home after I became pregnant.”

“I do not understand,” Alex interrupted her. “You have a brother. Did he not take measures so that you would be protected?”

Again that word, Rowena realised. Protection. It seemed a paramount notion to the earl.

“My brother said he would give me a small, remote cottage on the estate, where I would stay until after the baby’s birth. He would then take away the child and give it to some people he knew would raise it when he paid them for the upkeep. I was appalled! How could he ask something like that of me? I told him in no uncertain terms that being separated from my baby was out of the question. He threatened to take me to some relatives in Scotland, by force if necessary, so I took all the money I was able to save over the years and fled. I quickly learnt that my meagre savings were too inadequate to bring me to London, where I hoped to find a position.”

“Why were you so short of funds? Surely, as the daughter of a baronet, you would have been provided for in your father’s will?”

“I was not included in my father’s will,” Rowena replied bitterly. “Roderick’s solicitor stated that my father was a firm believer in male primogeniture, in order to keep his estate free of debts. Roderick was my father’s first and only son, and it was left to him to support me. I was only the daughter my father had by his second wife, so I was supposed to marry and leave the estate. There was not even a dowry for me to give to my future husband.”

Good Lord, Alex thought. How could a father do this to his daughter? And the brother? Why would he not take care of his sister? Roderick Drake must be a truly despicable person, and what about that cad of a fiancée who seduced her when she was barely twenty?

“I thank you for trusting me, Mrs Drake, although … you are not a Mrs Drake, are you? I must call you Miss Drake from now on. However, I can no longer employ you as my housekeeper now, can I? You have been raised as a lady, and to do menial labour would be highly inappropriate for a baronet’s daughter.”

“Oh no, my lord, please! I beg you, do not send me away!”

Alex, suddenly startled by her plea, felt also unexpectedly moved by the urge Rowena laid in her words. It seemed that she would very much like to stay at Ketteridge House. Almost as much as he himself would like her to stay.

“You misunderstand, my dear. I merely meant that I will hire enough staff for you to oversee. That way you will be up to the additional task of assisting me with my ledgers. Poor Porter is doing what he can but in essence, he is a soldier, not a secretary.”

Rowena could not believe her ears. Relief, massive and grateful, swept over her, when the earl continued in a businesslike manner.

“You will be required to read my correspondence, and write down my replies. When I need to see my solicitor, you will make records of our conversations and decisions. I hope he holds on to his promise of searching for an adequate steward. The estate is in shams, and I need a competent man.”

Rowena swallowed down the excitement that clogged her throat. “I promise to do my utmost best to be of service, my lord. I cannot find the words to tell you how grateful I am for the honour you bestow on me, and please, be assured of my discretion and devotion.”

A chuckle interrupted her and she was astonished to see a mocking smile on the earl’s face.

“My dear Miss Drake, you certainly have a way with high-handed words, have you not? You make my offer sound like charity, and it is not meant so at all. It is good and solid management to take an educated, clever young woman into my staff, one who can help me with tasks I cannot perform myself because of my affliction. So please, no gratitude. It is in my soldier’s nature to make the best of an opportunity when it presents itself.”

There was a sudden, laden silence in which Rowena struggled to find her composure. She was scolding herself once more for her rash impulsivity, something she should have learnt to master by now. Why did she always have to rush headlong into things?

“My lord,” she began, after a long, deep intake of breath, just to calm herself. “I know someone who could help you out until you find an appropriate steward. John Wallis was my father’s steward until he retired, a few years ago. His wife Meg was my nanny, and became my confidante after my mother died when I was five. They moved to Leicester when they left Daveston Hall. Meg has a sister living there. I could write them and ask if they would consent coming to live at Ketteridge House for the time being.”

Alex was completely unprepared for the warm wave of joy that swept through him, at the realisation that Rowena was wholeheartedly joining him in the task of running Ketteridge. He felt positively light-headed with relief.

“Thank you, Miss Drake, and yes, do write to your acquaintances. They will be most welcome.”

They fell silent, each savouring their breakfast. The quietness brought a comfort of its own, and Rowena could not recall the last time she had felt this … well, this simple, undemanding, and soothing happiness. She knew it was too early to feel this way, given the mere seven days she had been here, but there it was, she did feel truly safe at Ketteridge House. At home.

“I would be honoured if you would have dinner with me tonight, Miss Drake.”

Stunned, bewildered even, Rowena stared at her employer, then belatedly recalled that he was unable to see her.

“My lord, such an act would be entirely …”

“Inappropriate? Yes, it would, but only if I cared for such trivial matters such as the rigid rules of Society. We are not in the London drawing rooms, my dear. I can never venture into the Ton again, and believe me, I have no wish to do so. I knew it all before and did not particularly liked it. Now that I am no longer whole, I find I even care less for it. Ketteridge House is my domain, and mine alone. You are my guest, the first I have in a long time, so please, let me enjoy your company to the full.”

Rowena swallowed at the unexpected knot of sadness threatening to choke her. She liked this man more and more each moment she was in his company. Discretely, she cleared her throat.

“Then it shall be my honour to dine with you, my lord.”