Ketteridge House, Leicestershire, England, December 24th, 1815
A few days passed in a flurry of activities, which left Rowena no time to reflect upon the hasty marriage she was about to commit to.
After the proposal he foisted so unexpectedly on her, Alex, who was becoming more skilled at horse riding once again, had departed to Leicester with Porter. He wanted to secure the license and speak with his solicitor post haste. Rowena and Meg had continued making the preparations, first to compose presents for the tenants, and secondly to arrange the wedding. They worked alongside the small army of servants to have Ketteridge House as welcoming as was possible in the short amount of time available.
On Christmas Eve of 1815, Alexander Raventhorpe, fifth earl of Ketteridge welcomed his neighbours and tenants for the first feast since his mother died thirty years ago.
The earl, extremely dashing in full evening attire, stood waiting in Ketteridge’s large hall, ready to welcome his guests as they arrived. He had insisted most thoroughly that Rowena should be at his side. She had shaken a lot of hands, and seen many new faces to whom she had to attach new names as well. She had also noticed the surprise on people’s faces when Alex introduced her, not as his housekeeper, but as his betrothed, Miss Rowena Drake. People’s gazes drifted invariably to Rowena’s swollen stomach. If out of deference to Alex’ status as the fifth earl of Ketteridge they struggled to keep their facial expressions bland, they could not chase the utter astonishment from their eyes. Yet everybody had cheered when Alex made the announcement of their wedding during his Christmas toast.
Rowena felt overcome with emotion, when people again came to congratulate them. She had been afraid of people’s reactions, as she was a stranger in these parts, and feared she would be judged for what she thought herself to be, a fallen woman. She had been completely wrong, she knew now. Nobody was judging her in the least. They smiled and nodded in agreement, when her betrothed caught her hand to kiss it. Yet Rowena feared they would only acknowledge her because they wanted to please Alex. He was considered their much-anticipated rescuer.
However, the dinner went smoothly, with Meg overseeing it all like a general his troops. People were sitting at tables in the large hall, neighbours with their families, tenants mixing with the staff and with Alex and Rowena themselves. Nobody was waiting on anybody, since the food had been set up on tables all around the hall, and Alex had invited everyone to just line up beside the tables and take whatever they liked. It worked splendidly, and people were enjoying themselves without forgetting how to behave, even though the wine and beer were flowing generously.
After the meal, the tables were removed and chairs were placed on the four sides of the floor, while a small orchestra from Leicester set themselves up on a dais at one side.
Alex asked Rowena for the opening dance, while she was helping Meg with the chairs. She turned to him, a delicious glow creeping up in her cheeks. God, he thought, she looked good enough to eat. Her evening gown was of scarlet silk, its cut simple but elegant, and designed to emphasize her pregnancy, not masking it, which would have been so out of character for Rowena.
His eyes roamed over her as he extended a hand to her, taking in her lovely shoulders left bare by the gown. The sweet curve of her breasts just showed over the modest, square neckline, and he found himself drinking in her image. No! No, he could not, he admonished himself! She could not yet know he was able to see her, albeit it still blurred but well enough to enjoy what he was seeing.
The musicians started a slow, demure waltz, and Alex took his betrothed into his arms. He held her in a firm hold and whirled her over the dance floor in a display of great elegance and skill, which had puzzled Rowena. She had no time to think of anything else, the next moment, because Alex drew her even deeper in his embrace, and the room blurred when she could feel his heart beating against hers. She closed her eyes in delight, breathing in the scent of him, relishing the feel of his hard, strong body moving against hers. Oh, sweet heaven.
Rowena realised that she never ever experienced such bliss before. Peter had been an impatient lover, and never allowed her time to adjust to his ardent, somewhat painful lovemaking. It had been only after a few couplings that Rowena had known the first sensations of fulfilment, yet still only shyly awakening to the unknown but heavenly feelings. She had known that they would have to grow further to full blossoming, when she and Peter married, after the threat of war was lifted. It had never happened, for Peter had been taken from her.
Yet now, with Alex, something completely new and wonderful was waiting for her. Anticipation made her legs a trifle weak, and she would have missed a step, had Alex not tightened his hold on her back. The movement brought her lower body closer to his own. Dear Lord, he was aroused – merciful heavens, did she dare think such things? Yet he felt hard and hot against her, causing a sweet ache to blossom between her thighs. She blinked up at him, confused but awaiting more.
His eyes, a deep purple in the light of a thousand candles, bore into hers, giving her the distinct notion that he was actually seeing her, which surely could not be true. She gave him a shy smile, to which he did not respond with one of his own. Thankful that he would never notice her need, now burning hot on her cheeks, Rowena just revelled in the sweet sensations that threatened to drown her. Alex … she longed for something she could not name, but it would be with him as her husband. If that, she was utterly and irrevocably certain.