Ketteridge, Leicestershire, England, December 1, 1815
She was going to die of sheer exposure. She was exhausted. Her limbs were shaking with the effort of simply putting one foot before the other. Her heart was pounding with exertion and weariness, but Rowena Drake doggedly kept trampling through the deserted copse. She had planned to escape the sting of the heavy snowstorm by leaving the road to find shelter in the undergrowth. The springy trees gave little protection, as they were now bare. The early winter dusk was quickly settling, and Rowena was desperate to find somewhere to spend the night. Hopefully, somewhere warm and dry.
Two weeks before, winter had caught the English Midlands by surprise. After a fortnight of dry, frosty nights and open, sunny days, the temperature had suddenly dropped. The wind had turned north and gained strength. It had brought packs of heavy, black clouds, pregnant with snow, which now flogged the empty fields and pastures. The wind blew between the cottages of small villages with a banshee’s howl.
As she trampled on through the hellish weather, weariness and hunger were beginning to take their toll on Rowena, but her journey had not nearly come to an end. Some days ago, she had left her home, Daveston Hall in Cumberland. Rowena’s half-brother Roderick had become the next baronet after their father died, earlier that year. His estate was situated twelve miles west of Carlisle, and Rowena had covered them on foot, dragging her heavy portmanteau behind her. In Carlisle, she had spent the night in the cathedral, terrified that she should meet any of her acquaintances, if she put up at an inn. Her shame would be known all too soon.
The next couple of days, she had walked over the main road from Carlisle to Lancaster, sleeping in barns and even in the roadside undergrowth. She had not enough money to sleep at an inn every night. In Lancaster, she found a small inn and asked for a room. She needed to clean herself up and have a good meal for the first time in days. The landlady eyed her suspiciously. The woman clearly could not fathom why a lady would travel without a husband, a brother or a father. Rowena had none of these male protectors to help her.
She had been underway on the stage coach from Lancaster to London for several long, uncomfortable hours, but her meagre coins had not lasted very long. When the coach had deposited her on the side of the road just past Tamworth, she had again continued on foot. She was at a loss as to how she was to reach London without money or food, for that matter. Rowena could not even recall the last time she had a meal. It was seven or eight days, maybe, since she had left her childhood home. There had been no more money for food. How low she had fallen, and in so short a time.
Now Rowena kept putting one foot in front of the other, stubbornly ignoring her fatigue and her gnawing hunger. She had not the slightest inkling where she was, and there was no way of orientating oneself, as the snow was now a curtain shielding everything within a few feet from Rowena’s view. Where was the road? When had she lost sight of it? Her foot suddenly caught in a rabbit hole, and she landed on her knees, her outstretched hands keeping her from falling flat on her face.
For a few moments, the lure of giving up was almost overwhelming. She was already numb with exhaustion. She read somewhere once that death from hypothermia was merciful, even blissful. One would just slowly but inexorably fall asleep, never to wake again. Rowena could feel herself drifting away at that very moment … No! No, she must go onward!
Fighting against the wind’s slashing stings, Rowena struggled to her feet and trudged on. She must be soaked to the bone, she thought. Her woollen cloak was drenched, as were her gown, undergarments, stockings and half-boots. Her hands in their sodden leather gloves had long lost all feeling. Sometime ago, she had lost her bonnet, and her hair hung in sodden strands around her face. She had lost her portmanteau long ago.
Eventually, Rowena realised she was going to perish in this white hell. She staggered on, each step more faltering than the one before. No, she would not give up. If she was to die here and now, she was going to die on her feet. She was the Baronet of Daveston’s daughter and she would hold on to her gentle upbringing. It was the only relic she had left of her family.
Then, all of a sudden, there was a light ahead. She blinked against the millions of snowflakes blurring her vision, welcoming the warm yellow glow with immense relief. Rowena waved her arms, shouting against the raging wind. “Help me! Help me, for the love of God!”
“Major, there is someone there! Ahead of us …”, James Porter yelled.
The deep, powerful voice of his master, clearly audible against the howling wind, answered in return. “Who goes there?”
“Help me! Please, help me!”
A woman. Some blasted female had managed to go astray on a day like this, and in this hellish weather. “Stay where you are! We are almost with you!”
Major Alexander Raventhorpe, fifth earl of Ketteridge, bridged the gap between him and the woman in three long strides, ignoring the protest of his batman Porter. A second later, he caught her in his outstretched arms. There. He could not have ignored that blasted protecting streak in him, if it killed him. Too many years of playing the soldier had stamped it in. First defend, then protect. If necessary, attack. Yes, that as well.
She was very light, his mind registered. Slender and feather-light. And she seemed to have gone limp in his arms. Her hair, even wet and cold as it was, suddenly caught in the stubble on his chin.
“We must get her indoors!” Alex shouted at Porter. He swept the woman up and waited for his batman to guide him towards the house, which he knew was not far.
“Aye, major!” Porter yelled back and took a firm hold of his master’s arm. “This way!”
Alex Raventhorpe was as good as blind. His eyesight had been seriously damaged by an injury to the head on the battlefield at Waterloo, in June of that same year. He knew the difference between light and dark, could see movements, provided they were not too fast. Occasionally, he could make out forms when they had bright colours. Faces were a blur, but he could fairly judge people’s moods by the tone of their voices. His hearing had considerably improved, since that June day, when he had become an invalid.
They reached the house and entered through the scullery door at the back. Alex lost no time but hailed his cook, who most certainly had to be busy in her kitchen.
“Quickly, Mrs Hall! We need some help with this young woman. She was in the driveway. Can you install her in one of the downstairs bedrooms?”
He saw a flash of her white apron, when Mrs Hall came bustling toward him. “Oh, my goodness, my lord! We ain’t putin’ ‘er in a servant’s room, for sure! This ‘ere is a lady, judgin’ by the quality of ‘er cloak. Mr Porter, take over from ‘is Lordship and put ‘er in the blue room. The bed in there is made. Trixie ‘ll light the fire in no time.”
It was taken out of Alex’ hands in the blink of an eye. Soon he was alone in the kitchen, with the sounds of hasty footsteps disappearing through the servants’ corridor and up the stairs. A lady, then. That definitively needed some enlightenment.
Alex shed his wet coat and hung it on a peg in the scullery. He had not many servants left at Ketteridge House, his country estate. He was the earl of Ketteridge but he hung away his own coat. The estate was in dire financial straits, and Alex had only recently regained most of his former strength. He was struggling to manage his derelict estate with the money from his war time winnings, which fortunately were ample enough. Investing his money in successful businesses had been easy, yet trying to revive his estate and make it prosper again proved a lot harder. He was in dire need of a steward but he had little chance of hiring such a man when he was unable to go to London. There were many matters that Alex could leave to Porter, but searching for a steward was not one of them. With a mental shrug, Alex put his troubles aside and climbed the servants’ stairs, determined to deal with the new problem at hand; the young woman he found in his driveway.
On the first floor in Mrs Hall’s “blue bedroom”, he heard his erstwhile cook give orders to Trixie, concern ringing in her voice.
“Easy there, Trixie. Lord, she’s so cold, poor mite, and so thin! We must wash her after we’ve removed those wet things. ‘Ere now, pour those buckets into the tub. Mr Porter said he’ll bring some more soon. You take ‘er by her feet and I’ll take ‘er under the arms.”
Alex stepped inside, careful to stay by the door. He knew Mrs Hall must have put the folding screen in front of the hearth, and he was not as familiar with this room as he was with his own.
“Are you in need of help, Mrs Hall?” he asked, but the cook instantly replied in a panic-stricken voice, “No, no, my lord, stay where ye’ are! It ain’t proper fer ye to even be ‘ere!”
“Mrs Hall, it cannot be improper since I cannot see the lady. Can you manage lowering her into the tub?”
“Well … she’s thin but Trixie an’ me are ‘avin’ a bit of trouble liftin’ her in ‘er present condition, my lord.”
Alex stiffened. “And what condition might that be, Mrs Hall?”
“She’s expectin’, my lord. She’s at least five months gone but she looks healthy enough.”
Wonderful. A pregnant woman, probably a married lady, had landed on his doorstep in the middle of winter. That could only mean trouble and mayhem. Would he now have to deal with an irate husband, too? He inwardly cursed at the notion that his hard-won peace was certain to be shattered in the days to come. He had to get her away from Ketteridge House as soon as possible, damn it all!
In an impulse, he ignored the cook’s startled cry of warning and crossed over to the bed, a white rectangle with blurred contours. He put out his hands until they encountered the figure of the woman. Soft, round flesh, unexpectedly bare and vibrantly feminine. Damnation! Mrs Hall must have already removed her clothes. She was so cold … God! What if she would expire here, in his house?
“Sir, she’s …”
“Yes, I know, Mrs Hall. Let me get this over with, so that you can tend to her as quickly as possible.”
Alex slid his hands under the woman’s limp body, lifted it and settled it in his arms. She was light as a new born kitten, her body slender and delicate. Her dark head fell against his shoulder, causing her floral fragrance to assault his senses. His own body – damnation! – reacted in a most improper but violent way. By Jove, he had no need for this, right now! Knowing how long he had been without a woman’s touch, he should have listened to sane, solid reason, instead of indulging in foolish gallantry. Yet he could not ignore how lovely it felt just to hold a woman in his arms once again.
He let her down into the tub, relieved because at that same moment Porter entered with more hot water, which distracted the two women. Mrs Hall would soon take over, he knew, so he supported the woman, while she rested in the warm water, and made sure her head was above it.
For the space of a heartbeat, he regretted not being able to see her clearly. Her face was a pinkish spot, her body nearly invisible now that it was immersed in the water. But he could feel the silken caress of her dark hair flowing over his fingers, not to mention the velvety touch of her flesh, and the curve of her slender bottom. Gently he let her body drop to the bottom of the tub and then, unable to help himself, he touched her stomach. It was swollen to a gentle mound, and he spread his fingers over it. Suddenly, the babe moved against his hand. Oh God … oh dear God … His heart contracted with a longing ache he had not thought he would ever feel. He would never have this. He would never have a woman of his own, a woman who carried his child, and on whose stomach he could place his hand and make contact with his very own babe.
Dragged from his self-pity by the woman’s soft cry, he all but growled, “Mrs Hall! Quickly, she is coming round!”
The cook leapt from behind the screen and took hold of the woman’s body. Alex jumped up and fled the room.