Chapter Seven (continued)
Rowena ran blindly, tears streaming from her eyes. She ran until she found a bed, and collapsed on it. In her womb, the baby was kicking wildly, causing her stomach to burn.
He had kissed her! Another man – no, Alex – had kissed her, and it had felt so good, so right. Rowena gasped while violent sobs wrecked her chest. Peter … oh, why had he left her to deal with it all alone? Peter, she called his name between her sobs, hoping it would dispel her sadness. It did not, it made it only worse. A deep, yet soft voice gently pulled at her misery.
“You can talk about Peter to me, Rowie. I am a good listener.”
It was the sweetest voice she had ever heard, and it took her some seconds before she knew it was the earl who had come and found her. Rowena began scrambling up, but he stopped her. Not by touching her, though.
“Lay down, Miss Drake. I shall sit here in this chair and you shall tell me about your Peter.”
Yes, Rowena thought, that was what she truly craved. She so desperately longed for peace, for stability, also. Sudden warmth touched her when someone covered her with a blanket. It must have been … him. It was most welcome; she had not known that she had been shivering, until that moment. It must have been … Alex.
She wanted to see him, to see the expression on his face yet she dared not sit up, lest his eyes would tell a very different story. Taking a deep breath, she began narrating.
“We loved each other so much, Peter and I. He was a decent, caring man. He promised to marry me as soon as he would have done his military duty.”
The words got stuck in her throat, overwhelmed as she was with her memories.
“Who presented him to you? Was it during your season?”
Rowena nodded. “I had my only London season when I was nineteen, in April 1814. My father could not afford another one. My aunt Mrs Latterley sponsored me; Aunt Charlotte is my mother’s sister. We attended a ball at Carlisle House, the Earl of Carlisle’s mansion on Upper Brook Street. My uncle is a wealthy wine merchant in Carlisle with substantial connections in the City.”
“Ah, I see. Your uncle and Carlisle are business partners?”
“Yes, that was why we were invited to such a grand ball. There was a great attendance from the military, including many officers of the Yorkshire Regiment. Peter was one of them, a captain. We were attracted to each other from the moment we met.”
“How long did you stay in London?”
The question surprised Rowena. What was he doing, ferreting out her life like that? But she strove to answer his questions as honestly as she could, because it seemed the right thing to do.
“We stayed until June, of course, until the end of the Season. When I returned to Daveston Hall, I was so very depressed, because I did not think I would ever see Peter again. I was wrong. He came to Carlisle to escort the earl’s company home. We met on several official outings after Christmas. Peter proposed to me in April of this year, when we were attending a musicale together. From then on, we attempted to see each other as much as was possible, which was not easy because I had to invent reasons to visit my aunt. I still feel ashamed of my behaviour. My aunt, who is the sweetest of women, had no notion of what I was doing. I kept dragging her to soirées and musicales, so that Peter and I could meet. We pledged our love to each other and … and … I gave myself to him.”
“Where was this?”
Abruptly, Rowena sat up when she noticed the controlled but simmering anger in Alex’ voice. She blushed furiously but forced herself to continue. “At a soirée my aunt gave for the Carlisle Chamber of Commerce.”
There was an angry grunt from Alex, and Rowena saw a muscle clench in his angular jaw. She wondered why he looked so out of sorts, and so furious.
“I am upsetting you with my tale, my lord. Forgive me.”
“No, you are not. Continue, please. How many encounters were there?”
Rowena’s cheeks were once again on fire. She sighed.
“My lord, I must … I mean … Oh, God! How embarrassing this all is!”
“Rowena … “Alex’ voice was gently persuasive. “I have no intention of embarrassing you. I told you before that I am a soldier, and thus very protective of all who live under my roof. I want to know your story, so please indulge me. Did you meet weekly, or more often?”
“Our encounters were not very regular. We … we loved each other four times …”
“And then he went to war. When did you learn that he had died?”
“In early September.”
“That late? The casualty lists were released at the beginning of July. I was home in August because it took Porter that long to have me transported, but I should have been home much sooner, had I been whole. I was too ill to travel before long.”
Rowena had no reply to that. She felt oddly relieved, as if a great burden had been taken away from her. But Alex was not yet satisfied.
“When did the messenger come? Do you remember the exact day?”
“The cavalry always sends a messenger to deliver the news of the demise of one of their own,” he said quietly, sensing her confusion.
“I do not know,” Rowena answered, and Alex could hear the confusion in her voice now. “I had been in the rose garden all morning, when a footman summoned me to the library. Roderick told me right away that Peter had died.”
Which had probably been a mercy, Alex thought. It was always better to hear of a beloved’s death by someone of your own family, and without too much preliminary speech. “What happened then? Did you know you were increasing at that time?”
“Yes, of course. I knew that for certain in July, but I was not concerned, since Peter and I were betrothed. When the news of his death came, I informed Roderick. That was when things became less pleasant.”
“When exactly did you leave Daveston?”
“On the twenty-eight of November. Roderick told me the day before that I would have to move to a remote little cottage on our estate, because it became too apparent that I was with child. I could not do it, my lord. I was appalled, numb with shock because of what Roderick had decided for my child. The rest you already know. If you had not found me …”
“But I have, Rowena, and that means that it is my duty to protect you and the child as best as I can. As there has been gossip going about already, I shall have to take more thorough measures.”
Touched by Alex’ concern, Rowena rose from the bed. Looking about her for the first time, she gasped in surprise when she saw where she was.
“Come,” the earl said and extended his hand, “let us go back to the morning room. Mr and Mrs Wallis will not know what the uproar was all about.”
Rowena swung her legs over the bed’s edge and took the hand Alex offered. Instantly his other arm sneaked around her waist, and he drew her up against his large, tall frame. A good thing he did because she was swaying on her feet. “Steady,” he said, his voice deep and warm.
“Thank you, my lord,” she choked, and let him lead her to the door of the room she now recognized as the one she had been brought to, on that first, eventful night at Ketteridge, the ‘Blue Bedroom’. She had fled to the room where their first physical contact had been. To her sanctuary.
Alex retired to his library as soon as Rowena joined Mrs Wallis in the morning room. Her husband John would already be waiting for him, he knew. They had work to do, and Alex intended to visit tenants with John by his side to make records of their needs. The both of them set off in the carriage soon thereafter.
His vision was again blurred, Alex noted. Of course, his fields were hidden under a thick blanket of snow, and the sky was a leaden grey, so there was no colour to point out landmarks to him. As a result, he was left with his disturbing thoughts about his housekeeper.
Last night, he had allowed the notion of Rowena becoming his wife into his mind. While it had been a sane, rational notion to unite himself to her, being as unmarriageable as she was, he could not deny that it could also be viewed as a mindless folly. Richard Orme’s reaction was certainly testimony to that.
The Earl of Ketteridge did not take as his wife a woman pregnant with another man’s child, regardless of the fact that she was to be presented to Society as a widow. It would be a scandal, Alex acknowledged, when he should make her his countess.
And yet, he would exactly do that, and he would ignore – no, stare down – every disapproving look or comment with all the arrogance he knew he could muster when necessary. His years as a soldier and an officer had taught him how to overrule and bully others, until they followed his instructions without failing. He could coerce Society into accepting his choice of bride, he was certain of it.
But could he also persuade Rowena to become his bride? That was another matter altogether. One that could never be accomplished without him courting her properly.
Courting … he had never done any courting in his life.