Ketteridge House, Leicestershire, England, December 20th, 1815
Rowena saw nothing of the earl over the days that followed her disturbing interlude in his chambers. It had left her with a profound feeling of bewilderment, and also, one of profound misery. What had he meant with his flirting? And more importantly, why had he let go of her, so suddenly? Had she displeased him with her obvious dismissal? She had to dismiss his advances, had she not? He could not have meant them as being serious. He was an earl, a member of the nobility, and she a disgraced woman. She could only bring him further disgrace and contempt from his peers.
All of a sudden, Rowena felt the compelling need to know why he had done it; because she had also liked it when he flirted with her. She felt all sorts of conflicting sensations, she realised; bewilderment, and fear – so stupid because she had formed an image of the earl’s character over the few days they had known each other. It had been a favourable one. She had thought him a good, honourable and noble man, someone who would extend a protective hand over people who were in need of it. As he had done with her, when she had stranded here. However, somehow over the last days, that attitude had changed into something darker, something more threatening. She wanted to know why that had happened; because she was beginning to like it when he showed an interest in her. She wanted to know his reason for doing so, and she was determined to find out.
In the meantime, there were many tasks to hold her attention and her time. Meg – bless her – was a valuable help, otherwise Rowena could never have coped with the Christmas preparations.
Tables had to be set, and food prepared. Rowena had written invitations to the twenty people Alex had picked out for the Christmas Eve celebrations, and they had all replied they would come. So on the morning of December 20th, she rose early and went downstairs to begin her work, her first destination being the kitchen. At the large oak-wood table, his face hidden in his hands, sat his lordship the earl of Ketteridge.
Alex had not slept a wink for three nights in a row. Since Waterloo, that was nothing out of the ordinary, to be honest. He had suffered many disturbed nights since he had returned to Ketteridge House. Horrible nightmares that left him shaking and sweating. Terrible images of his men being ripped to shreds by French canon fire. Horses and people dying in agony. He always ended up howling and screaming. It was at such moments, that Porter would come in and wake him. Not that it did him any good.
Only now, he also had a splitting headache, after his sleepless night. Richard Orme did warn him that it could occur, saying it was his brain adapting to the new situation of his increasing eyesight. An unpleasant side effect, and damn troublesome, since it made concentrating deuced hard for Alex.
He was experiencing the most peculiar sensations, had the most disturbing thoughts besieging him. And all of them were about Rowena Drake. Rowie. He found himself struck with a paralyzing restraint when he so much as looked at her, let alone address her. He, a Waterloo hero, a peer of the realm, a sprig from an old and noble family. Privileges were his birth right. He could have anything he wanted or anyone, and the fact that he wanted something or someone was reason enough to grab and secure the coveted object. Ha, how he had to berate himself in all honesty, when push came to shove; had not Waterloo taught him that privileges were very futile indeed in a war?
Women, for instance, had always been for the taking. Every time he wanted a woman, all he had to do was beckon, and they would fall at his feet. True, since his injury at Waterloo, he had been at some disadvantage in that area, because he had not had the energy nor the taste for dalliance. He had only recently discovered that this particular part of his body was now fully recovered. With Rowena Drake coming into his life.
That realization struck him like a blow.
Ever since she had entered his home, he had been lusting after her. Even now, at this ungodly early hour, he was aroused, just by conjuring up her image. It was deuced uncomfortable, and he did not like it. She had bloody well accept his marriage proposal, when he voiced it.
Ah, but would she? He still was unsure of it, and that, too, was unusual for the conquering soldier that he was. Why? The little word popped up in his mind, dispelling his headache for a few moments.
Why was it so bloody important that Rowena not refuse him?
The answer was ready in his now clear mind; because he liked her so well that he wanted her at his side, for the rest of his life. Because she would fit in so excellently that he had trouble imagining the life he had before he met her.
“Oh! Forgive me, my lord. I did not know you were here.”
Alex whirled around … and saw Rowena standing in the doorway. Instantly, he directed his gaze at a spot on the wall, somewhere above her head. She was not yet to know that he was able to see her. No indeed. She would think him a fraud, think that he had misled her from the start. But oh, what an image had been branded on his mind! A slender, almost delicate figure, even now when she was swollen with child, attractive even in the serviceable dark blue serge dress she was wearing. An exquisite heart of a face, in which the large chocolate eyes shone with life.
“Not to apologize, Miss Drake. I was merely wool-gathering.”
He noticed her little frown, which indicated that she was worried. Damn! His theatrical skills were non-existent …
“Are you unwell, my lord? Should I call for Mr Porter? It is still very early; you should be asleep still.”
Alex slowly stood and walked towards her, drawn by her lily-of-the vale scent, as always. As always, her nearness stirred his senses, and his body reacted. He had to touch her, feel her, bask in the warmth of her silken skin, her rounded, welcoming curves, the sweetness of her breath on his cheek. Slowly, he enveloped her in the circle of his arms, ignoring her little gasp. Her rounded belly was a barrier but one he ignored; he buried his lips in her rich, brown hair, soft despite the tightly pulled bun straightening it into rigidness. Stroking her stiffened back, he let his lips wander to her temples, her brow, the delicate shell of her ear, all the while inhaling her scent as if it were the very air he needed. And it was, he knew.
Rowena stood ramrod straight, unable to move, and in utter shock. She felt Alex’ hands on her body, soothing, stroking, at first. With a sigh, she leaned into him, the sensations too good to be rejected. Her thoughts scattered when his hands began roving over her body, the feelings they provoked so glorious that she wanted to be nearer to him. She tilted her pelvis to get her swollen stomach out of the way. That was when the sensitive spot of her womanhood encountered the long, hard ridge, that was instantly pressing against her. And it felt so good, so right. All other things usually filling her mind vanished, evaporated. She wanted him. She had been starved of those feelings for an eternity, and she craved the yearnings she had known before. Sighing in abandonment, she lifted her hands to cradle Alex’ dark head between them. Her mouth searched for his, found it and opened to let her tongue skim the contours of that sensuous mouth.
Alex froze at the pleasure that skittered through him, when that soft, impertinent little tongue slid over his mouth, igniting every sense in his body. Oh, Lord … He gave in, instantly and without thinking. Like a man starved, he thrust his tongue into the sweet haven of her lush mouth and drank, tasted, revelled in her delicious honey. His heart surged when she answered his call by throwing her arms around his neck and pressing herself hard against him. She had wanted to kiss him. She had been the one initiating this divine experience. Now was the time to press his claim.
“Marry me, Rowena Drake.”