Chapter Five (completed)
Alex gestured to a chair opposite his across the large desk in his library. The chair scraped, when John Wallis seated himself.
“So, Mr Wallis, let us discuss the terms of your employment. I had thought …”
“Begging your pardon, my lord, but I am yet unsure if I want to work for you under the circumstances that present themselves here.”
He must have heard wrong, Alex thought. This elderly, former steward had reservations about working for him? “What circumstances, Mr Wallis? Pray explain.”
“My lord, I mean no disrespect but I am appalled that Miss Drake is living here without a decent female companion. I worked for her father for forty years, and he was the best employer I could have wished for. A good man, an excellent landowner and a doting father to the child from his second marriage. Sir George would be devastated to know that his daughter’s reputation is in tatters. Only you can remedy that, my lord.”
Surely, he was not cut out to be an earl, Alex thought. How was it that he did not burst out in fury and have this insolent man thrown out of his house? Instead, he found himself wondering and thinking over the man’s words, as if they had a hidden meaning, or second contents. And feeling not a bit uneasy about it. Yes, he would explain the situation to this man, who was to be a servant in his house.
“Miss Drake is and has never been my mistress, Mr Wallis, if that is where your thoughts are going. She told me her fiancé – the father of her child – was a cavalry officer who died at Waterloo. She also told me that her brother wanted to hide her, until the baby was born, and then give the child away. Miss Drake fled her home with the intention of seeking employment in London. Her funds ran out long before she reached the capital, and she was forced to continue on foot, without having the slightest notion of her whereabouts. My batman Porter and I found her on my driveway during a snow storm. She would have perished, had I not taken her in. All this happened a week ago, so I cannot fathom why Miss Drake’s reputation would suffer from it. I do not entertain socially, Mr Wallis, because I have been a recluse for months since I returned from the battle. Moreover, I am as good as blind; how can a wreck of a man harm a woman’s reputation?”
There was an awkward silence in which Alex – and not for the first time – cursed his damned affliction. What he would not give to just have a glimpse at Wallis’ face. The man should say something, and then Alex would be able to discern his mood and his thoughts.
“I apologize, my lord, for my rudeness, and I thank you for your patience in explaining the facts to me. Miss Drake is the closest my wife and I have to a daughter; we could not have children of our own. We have known Rowie since the day she was born, and Meg became her nanny, and later her confidante. We love her dearly, my lord, but we are at a loss as what is to become of her now.”
Alex could picture his father’s reaction to a speech like this one; the third earl of Ketteridge would have called for his burliest footman and have Wallis thrown onto the cobles. Even his mild brother Reggie would not have tolerated this lack of propriety. Yet all Alex felt was a deep gratitude towards the Wallisses who had cherished and guided Rowena Drake as if she were their own. It was not proper for him to listen to a commoner’s insolent speech, but Alex could not care less, at the moment. He was just interested in all things concerning Rowena, and the Wallisses were the source he needed to tap into, since they had known her all her life. Rowie … what a ridiculous name … and yet also an endearing, very appropriate name for her.
However, Rowena could not stay here without a female companion. In that, Wallis was right. It was a good thing that Meg Wallis was here; when her time came, Rowena would need help. Alex knew he was prepared to do everything that was necessary to help Rowena. And … he needed to keep her here, after the baby was born. That was paramount. Alex’ mind focussed on that thought and began working out plans to secure it.
John Wallis cleared his throat. “My wife will take Miss Drake with her to live with Meg’s sister in Leicester. That way, propriety will be satisfied, until we find a proper solution for her.”
“You will come with me, Rowie, and we will go and live with my sister Millicent in Leicester. Her Hannah is expecting her second child. She has an excellent midwife and a decent wet nurse at the ready, when your time comes. After that, we will have to make arrangements for you.”
Rowena let Meg’s words ripple over her like running water. Words that had no meaning except for one horrible notion; Meg wanted her to leave Ketteridge, and that was just too unbearable to grasp. Rowena could never leave Raventhorpe. Alex … no, she must not think of him that way, he was His Lordship, a man far above her station, far above the fallen woman she was. But not to see him each morning at breakfast, not to be near him when they visited tenants or talk about the improvements she planned for Ketteridge? She could never live without that. Raventhorpe – Alex – had become a vital part of her life over these few days. Rowena shook her head while she took Meg’s hands in hers.
“No, dearest Meg, I could never leave Ketteridge. I want to have my child here, under His Lordship’s roof and protection.”
Protection … how well Rowena recalled the warm joy that had flowed through her when Alex had spoken about his duty to protect her. She felt so safe at Ketteridge, safer than she had ever felt at Daveston Hall. Impulsively, she hugged Meg, feeling full of confidence and joy.
“Oh, Meg, I will be fine! Do not fret so. I am in good hands. His Lordship assured me of his support and protection. After the baby is born, I will have to reassess my situation, I grant you that; but for now I am safe, and that means all to me. Can you understand that?”
“But why, my pet, should you need to stay here to be safe? You have reached your majority now, since your twenty-first birthday was a few days ago. Therefore, you can come into your inheritance and make a life somewhere where they do not know you. I mean not now but after the child is born. In the meantime, …”
“Meg …” Rowena’s quiet address startled Meg, and she looked at her former ward with a sudden anxiety.
“Meg, there is nothing to inherit for me. Father bequeathed all to Roderick, leaving me to fend for myself. That is why I need to stay here as His Lordship’s housekeeper and make some money first.”
Meg’s mouth fell open. “But, Rowie, that cannot be true! Your father loved you so dearly! He cannot …”
“Yet he has,” Rowena cut her off, quite sharply. “As of yet, I am penniless and homeless. His Lordship kindly offered me employment, and I took it. That is the end of it.”
Rowena rose. “Now I must see to my duties but I will come up when I have finished.”
Meg stared after her dearest Rowie with utter disbelief and also, deep concern. Her dearest had fallen prey to the charms of the master of Ketteridge. Oh, it was a bad thing, indeed, because Meg was at an utter loss how to be of help.
The little word – spoken with quiet emphasis – was out of his mouth before Alex could stop it. Silence followed. John Wallis seemed to have stopped breathing.
“Miss Drake stays,” Alex continued. “She is needed at Ketteridge House. And now, Mr Wallis, we will proceed to more urgent matters. I want you to go over my ledgers and the post that came this morning. We will work in the mornings, and in the afternoons, you can accompany me when I do my rounds on the estate. You ride, I presume?”
“Y … Yes, my lord, I do. Please show me the books.”
Alex reached for the small bell on his desk and rang it. He had bells on every table he used in every room he usually was in during the day or night. Soon Porter entered and asked what was required.
“Show Mr Wallis where we keep the ledgers and documents. Stay with him and lend a hand where necessary. I will be upstairs.”
“Aye, major. Will ye manage to …”
“Yes, carry on.”
With long strides, showing more confidence than he was truly experiencing, Alex left the library and went upstairs. He needed a break and he would accomplish it in the only way he knew; through sheer physical exertion.
On the second floor, the bedchambers were in a dismal state of neglect. When Alex’ father had still been alive, house parties had filled the manor on many occasions. Then these rooms would have been occupied and splendidly furnished. Alex’ brother Reggie had frequently entertained many guests, many of them carefully selected friends, who must have been – Alex realised that only now – of the same sexual disposition. Reggie had never used the rooms on the second floor, and when he came into financial difficulties, he had sold every scrap of furniture he could. The second floor was now mainly used for storage.
As soon as Alex was again fit enough to leave his bed, he had chosen the largest room, and instructed Porter to install a gymnasium. That way, Alex could physically exert himself, and he would frequently do boxing, stretching, weightlifting and push-ups, until he was exhausted. He desperately needed to build-up his lost strength.
Rowena knew she was a coward to have fled Meg and her many questions. Yet she needed to do her work, as was her duty, and the surest way to quell all upsetting thoughts. When she reached the second floor landing, Rowena first turned left.
This floor was new to her, and she wanted to make a survey of the rooms. They seemed abandoned but not empty. The long corridor stretching out before her was littered with spare furniture from the lower floors, and every item was buried under layers of dust. Cobwebs hung from the ceiling, reaching out to touch the cupboards, chairs, desks, and the many adornments one finds on the surfaces of side tables and pedestals. There were boxes filled with china figurines, oil lamps, stuffed animals and framed paintings, and everything was dull with dust. All doors were closed, except the last one at the very end of the corridor, from which sounds reached Rowena’s ears. Sounds of sparring, if she was correct. She recognized them from those her brother Roderick made when exercising his duelling skills in the gymnasium he installed when he came into his title.
Quietly, Rowena continued her way down the long corridor, opening doors and inspecting the rooms behind them as she went. She made notes in her small household ledger of what needed to be done in each room. Later she would come up here with her cleaning staff and assign the multitude of tasks that were required to have this floor set to rights.
When she finally reached the last room, Rowena froze and realised she must have come upon something that she was not supposed to witness. The Earl of Ketteridge, clad solely in black breeches, was vigorously pounding his fists into a large sand-filled bag hanging from the ceiling.
With a jolt of panic tightening her insides, Rowena’s eyes quickly darted around the room. It did not contain any furniture safe a washstand and a plain wooden chair, but there were other items lying around on the bare wooden floor. In a corner, a heap of black balls was stacked neatly against the wall, and beside it, a large wooden crate showed ropes, sticks and other things unknown to Rowena. This was clearly a sort of gymnasium.
Rowena’s gaze came to rest upon the earl’s semi-naked form, and her throat constricted with sudden lack of air. No wonder, for he was utterly magnificent.
His torso was toned to perfection, his dark skin, the colour of polished bronze tightening over hard muscles. Flat nipples showed through a sprinkle of dark hair that circled them. The fine mat of hair tapered into a line pointing to the rim of his breeches. Breeches that moulded his powerful thighs and led one’s gaze to his well-shaped legs and strong bare feet.
Rowena blinked when she noticed the large scar that ran over the right side of his abdomen. It spread from beneath his armpit to his navel in a diagonal line. A thick, red, ragged line flanked on both sides by a row of red dots, where the surgeon had stitched him up. All saints in heaven, it was a miracle that he had survived a wound like that. Yet the scar did nothing to mar his perfect body; he was all strong, virile male.
Due to his semi-blindness, Raventhorpe was unaware of Rowena’s presence, and she was free to feast her eyes on him, as he was pounding at the sandbag with hard yet well-balanced blows, that made the muscles of his shoulders ripple and roll.
Rowena stood in the doorway, utterly still and mesmerized. Heat erupted all over her body, and the nipples of her breasts, already swollen by her pregnancy, achingly tightened with sudden desire. Almost instantly, she felt a painful ache throbbing low in her abdomen, while the skin of her inner thighs dampened. She could feel moisture pooling at her core, hot and wet like warm honey. How well she knew these sensations; they were lust and passion, and she had experienced them with Peter when they had lain together in her aunt’s house in York.
Shame lanced through her, together with raw sexual need. What business had she, a pregnant woman who had almost reached the end of her term, to feel desire for a man she was not married to? But there it was – she longed for Alexander Raventhorpe with a fierceness which left her burning with sudden urging need.
Realisation that she was shamelessly trespassing hit her, and she forced herself to turn away. Her little notebook fell to the bare wooden floor with a loud bang.