Ketteridge House, Leicestershire, England, December11 th, 1815
“Do you ride, Miss Drake?” Alex asked, a few days later.
They were sitting next to each other in his carriage, a hot brick at their feet and a woollen blanket covering their legs. It had been Rowena’s idea to go visiting the more remote tenants on the estate. Now they were heading back to Ketteridge House. Rowena wondered how she came to be so comfortable with the earl, after what he had done. After what he had made her feel …
He had not repeated his actions, though. Oh, they had continued their meals together, after that first time, but the earl had kept his distance. Nevertheless, Rowena enjoyed that time with him, when she could converse with him and study him at her leisure. She was beginning to like the earl a great deal. Hopefully, that would not get in her way as his servant. He had, however, asked her a question.
“Yes, my lord, of course. I have been riding since I was six. I often accompanied my father on his rides. Daveston Hall is not a large estate, but nevertheless, one needs a horse to reach its farthest boundaries. I suppose Ketteridge is the same?”
“It is.” Alex could hear the coldness in his own voice but was powerless to change it. When on that fatal day in June he was robbed of his eyesight, he had also stopped being a horseman, and that notion nearly killed him, when he finally woke up on his sickbed.
Alex had loved riding since he was able to walk. His father, the late Benedict Augustus George Raventhorpe had been a skilled and avid horseman, who taught Alex to ride from the early age of four. Over the years, Alex had also become a skilful rider. Some of his fellow officers had even called him perfection on horseback. He was not boastful at all, but he knew they were right. Before he suffered his head injury, Alex had been as one with Titan, his massive black stallion, each of them aware of each other like twins joined at the hip. Losing that contact had brought on an additional and equally fierce injury, and this one had been emotional.
A small hand covered his. They were both wearing gloves, but her touch startled him nonetheless. He could feel her delicate fingers curling around his, causing a heat to spread up his arm, and straight into his chest, where his heart suddenly clenched. Alex looked down, trying to focus on her face, but only its contours were visible to him. As her warmth started seeping through the leather, he realised with a painful shock that he yet again desperately craved to know what she looked like. What colour were her eyes? What was the shape of her face, the feeling of her hair, unbound and spilling over his hands in the dark of night? Would his hands be able to feel the texture of her skin, and know her body as if he were able to see her? Her lovely, velvety skin …
With a jolt of conscience, he wrenched his thoughts into normalcy again. He was a fool. What business had he to have such unruly thoughts about a woman he had known for only a few days? Yet he felt old, long forgotten stirrings torturing him, feelings he thought had died long ago. That was what abstention did to a man. Even the slightest touch could provoke one’s most intimate reactions, when one was starved of female company for months.
“My lord, forgive me. I spoke in haste, without thinking. I cannot fathom what it must be when …”
With an effort, Alex withdrew his hand. Her compassion adding to the sexual stirrings she provoked, was more than he could bear at this very moment.
“You need not apologize, Miss Drake. It is not your fault that I am visually impaired. I have learnt to deal with it, and accepted it. I must make the best of it, for my estate’s sake, at least.”
He knew he was pushing her away when she was only trying to comfort him, yet he could not help himself. She was only temporarily helping him with estate matters, was she not? Soon, after her baby was born, she would leave, and never come back again. Why that thought was unbearably painful, Alex had not the slightest inkling. He was a fool.
“My lord,” she said softly, “you were entitled to an apology because I have been speaking rashly. I seem to do that frequently, or so my brother says. He calls me an empty-headed piece of muslin.”
The way she said that sounded so incredulous, and indicated that she was not sharing her brother’s conviction. Alex felt his mouth rising at the corners, in spite of his dark mood.
“Which, of course,” he said lightly, “you are not. Instead, you are a fountain of wisdom. After all, you just accompanied the master on his rounds.”
“You are teasing me, my lord, which, of course, is very bad of you and totally un-gentlemanly. My brother Roderick always resented me, because our father showed a preference to me. As my father often said to me, when I was little, Roderick was the heir, and therefore had enough security and privileges as it was. I fear Papa bestowed his affection on me with nothing left for Roderick.”
Yet, Alex mused, her father’s affection had not reached beyond the baronet’s will. She must have been affected by that cruel decision, yet she found the courage to try and turn her life around through setback and rejection. Rowena Drake, young though she was, showed stomach and spine.
“Do you still own a riding horse, my lord? Peter – my betrothed – always said that a cavalry man can never separate from his horse, especially when they have been in battle together. I could never believe that; after all, a horse is but …”
“It is true!” Alex hated the sound of his own voice for its harshness but he needed Rowena to see that she was wrong. “Titan and I were never separated. He carried me into battle countless times, and at Waterloo, he never left my side, even in the fiercest bouts of canon fire. Even when Porter had to drag me from the battlefield, Titan faithfully followed us. He survived days without fodder, when we had to make it back to England through the ruined French countryside. Still he followed us and allowed Porter to harness him to a rough, wooden cart. Titan had never been harnessed before yet he took to it with stoicism and strength, even in his weakened condition. He and Porter saved my life.”
Rowena listened in enthralled silence to this declaration of love from a cavalry man to his horse. She was shocked to realize how the earl must suffer unbearably under the fact that he could no longer ride. She could, however, not offer the slightest of comforts, so instead, she laid her hand on his again, squeezing it gently. “So you have kept Titan in your stables, all this time? He must not have known what happened, when you stopped riding him.”
“I have never even been to the stables for all this time …” The earl’s voice broke as he said this, making Rowena’s heart burn with pity. A disastrous misery for both man and horse, then. She made her decision, right then and there, knowing full well that it would drag her into the earl’s private life. It was dangerous, and it could mean further disaster. Yet she brushed aside all warnings.
“Then it is time you two should get re-acquainted with each other. We have reached home. Let us go to the stables, my lord.”
Alex descended from the carriage as if in a daze. He declined Porter’s outstretched hand but allowed Rowena to put her hand on his sleeve to lead him to his long-neglected stables. It occurred to him that this was most unusual, yet he could not have stopped her for all the world.
Quite unexpectedly, he seemed to experience an unconquerable urge to seek out Titan for the first time in six long months. He had never found it in his heart to sell his long-time steed, even when he was forced to send almost all the rest to the block. Next to Titan, he had only kept the two carriage horses and one gelding, who was too old to be sold. So, when he heard Titan’s alert snort the minute he stepped into the stables, Alex’ heart leapt in anticipation.
Rowena’s warmth burned through the sleeve of his greatcoat like glowing coals. Yet her small fingers seemed to belong there, as Alex found he needed her support to find out exactly where Titan was. The stables were unfamiliar to him, because it had been such a long time since he had been here. His steps faltered a little, but Rowena guided him to Titan’s box.
“Hello, old boy,” he murmured, reaching out. He was unable to see the stallion but he sensed a warm, familiar vibration that thrilled him excessively. Titan instantly shoved his soft nose into Alex’ hand, and he, in return, pressed his face against Titan’s cheek. They stood there for minutes before Porter, worried about his master, came looking for Alex.
Rowena, tears blurring her vision, stopped the batman with a simple look.
“All is well, Mr Porter,” she whispered.
She and Porter stood watching Alex and Titan as they were re-discovering one another, like long lost friends. Then the earl rather abruptly turned to them. “Porter, have him saddled. I want to give it a try.”
“But, major, …” Porter exclaimed in alarm, but the earl cut him off sharply. “Do it, man!”
Then, to Rowena, “Miss Drake, lead me to the paddock. It is behind the stables.”