Chapter Four (continued)
Alex could not have explained why he wanted to do this, not if his life depended on it. He just knew he had to do it, as if it was something so important that indeed his life would change if he refrained from it. He found himself besieged by the urging, vital need to learn what Rowena’s face looked like. To know what others saw when they looked at her. He needed to explore her features and store what he learned in his mind, so that he would be able to draw forth her image whenever he wanted to.
Registering the shock that rippled through her delicate frame, when he stated his demand, he half expected her to bolt and run, yet she did no such thing. Instead, she stilled, waited, as if mesmerized. Alex lifted both hands and lightly fastened them on her upper arms, then gently turned her to face him.
Rowena’s burgundy-coloured, silken gown had a deep, square neckline, and a high waistline with a cone-shaped skirt worn over three petticoats. The skirt’s cut fell over her swollen stomach in graceful flows. The sleeves were short and puffed, and covered only a small portion of Rowena’s slim shoulders.
That was why Rowena closed her eyes in shock, when Raventhorpe’s long fingers took a gentle hold of her arms. They travelled upwards to encounter the puffed sleeves, went by them and settled on Rowena’s bare shoulders. Her breath hitched at the feeling of Raventhorpe’s large, slightly calloused hands on her flesh. Almost instantly, a liquid pool of warmth formed deep in her stomach, followed by a throbbing sensation at her womanly core. Desire … arousal …
Oh, how familiar it was, that heavenly feeling created by a man’s touch. This man, Rowena realised, knew all about what it took to make his touch unforgettable. She should be stepping back in horror, she should push him away, and run. Yet the only thing she yearned for was that he should continue his slow reconnoitring of her body. That he would not stop. She wrenched her eyes open and gasped when his fingers brushed the swell of her breasts. Instinctively, she pushed herself closer.
Alex desperately tried to focus on the vague image before him. He cursed his blasted affliction that denied him a sharper image. All he could see was the deep red colour of Rowena’s gown, and the creamy hue of skin above it. He was able to distinguish the transition between her dark hair and her pale face, but there was no clear image of it. So he was forced to use his tactile sense in order to adjust his lack of focus, and fill in the heart-shaped features cradled within his palms.
And walked into a quagmire … of overwhelming emotions.
She was exquisite. Her skin was fine velvet, her flesh warm and firm. He let his hands slide over the curve of her breasts, and gloried when they fit snugly into his palm. Her nipples puckered beneath the soft silk. He drew in a breath, and tried to tamp down his growing arousal.
Raventhorpe’s handsome face was set in taut lines, Rowena saw. The wide plane of his brow was furrowed in concentration, his lean cheeks slightly suffused with colour. His blue-grey eyes were open, yet without any noticeable expression, due to his affliction. But they glowed as if a light had been lit inside. It was utterly mesmerizing. Rowena’s gazed fell on his long, thin mouth, and her heart was instantly in her throat. His shapely lips were trembling as if he were on the verge of crying out with pain.
A second later, all thoughts fled from her head, as his fingers touched the sensitive skin beneath the rim of her neckline. She could not withhold the muffled little whimper that escaped her lips, and saw him tense even more when he registered it.
“Shhh … you must not be afraid. I will not hurt you …”
No, he would not, Rowena acknowledged. At least, not deliberately so. She knew for absolute certainty that she would irrevocably be hurt, at some point. And in the very near future, no doubt.
Yet she could not withdraw from the incredible feelings Raventhorpe’s touch created in her. Feelings she had only experienced with Peter, eight months ago. She forced herself to analyse them; there was desire, of course, but also an expansion of her senses to something deeper, something infinitely more precious. Something that would leave her utterly vulnerable, yet also completely invincible. Ah! Dangerous thoughts, Rowena. Resolutely, she shut all those things out and simply enjoyed Raventhorpe’s administrations.
Alex forced himself to guide his hands away from the temptation of her neckline. He had to keep control, or she would be shocked beyond repair, he knew. He could not bear the notion that Rowena would not consider him a gentleman. With infinite delicacy, he touched her face, and began investigating its heart-shaped form.
Wide-set eyes. A small, straight nose and fine cheekbones. A mouth that was a trifle too large. Pliable lips. The overall impression Alex got was one of delicate beauty. Rowena’s features were utterly feminine and beautiful.
And now he should lower his hands. And found he could not. He should say something, thank her and let go of her. Go on as before. He felt like being frozen, paralyzed, unable to withdraw. He desperately wanted to explore more of her.
A brisk tap, and Porter entered carrying a tray with their food. They jumped apart like two frightened children. In one smooth motion, Alex grasped Rowena’s hand and led her to the small table where their diner was to be served. Rowena quickly sat down again, her face in flames. Alex regained his own seat, feeling his way along the table’s edge. Porter began serving them, his face without any expression as to what he might have witnessed. They ate in silence. They were both too embarrassed to speak.
When the valet had cleared away their plates and gone out again, Alex cleared his throat.
“Do not mind Porter, Miss Drake. He is as imperturbable as a statue. I realise I have behaved a trifle too intimately, for which I sincerely apologize. It was not my intention to cause you embarrassment. I am most grateful that you allowed me to ‘see with my fingers’, as it were; I now have a clear image of you.”
Rowena had to make a considerable effort just to regain her composure. Yet she knew she must, if she was to continue being Raventhorpe’s employee. She forced her voice into normality.
“I must confess to being a trifle shaken, my lord. No one has ever …. well, for lack of a better wording, got to know me through their tactile sense. I cannot even begin to imagine what it must be like to lose one’s eyesight. You just said you were able to ‘see me with your fingers’. I find this extremely interesting, so would you please indulge me and tell me what I look like?”
Alex’s muscles locked as they did in battle, right before the attack, when all action and motion seemed to be suspended in time. He recognized the sensation all too well; it was the anticipation one experienced when on the verge of making love to a woman. And yes, he whole-heartedly admitted to wanting Rowena Drake in his bed, to have her beneath him and unleash the passion slumbering within her. She was not entirely indifferent to his touch; he had registered that clearly when he made his fingers map her beautiful face. Yet having her as a bed mate was not his primary goal.
Alex was lonely. Since he came back from Waterloo, he had understood that going to London and the Ton in order to find a suitable bride could never apply to him. What young woman would want to share her life with an invalid like himself? What father would want his offspring tied to a man who lacked the most important of senses?
Yet he must wed. He was obligated to set up his nursery, in order to secure the earldom’s succession. And first and foremost, he needed a wife that would stand beside him, come what may. Rowena Drake might just be that woman. Alex instinctively recognized her speech and stance as being those of a gentlewoman. He had felt it when he searched her face, just moments before, that elegance of composure in her posture. It stood to reason, as she was, after all, a baronet’s daughter.
“Merciful heavens,” Rowena’s quiet voice broke through his musings, making him startle into attention. “I must be a freight, indeed.”
“No!” Alex could not stop himself from shouting, nor could he keep his next words to himself if it cost him his life. “You are the most beautiful woman I have encountered in my whole life, Rowena Drake.”
Hell. Why had he allowed himself to say such a thing? The absolute silence meeting him from across the table was deafening in its intensity. Alex wanted to make amends but found no words. He had meant it, though. She was beautiful, his Miss Drake. His? He must have gone stark raven mad. A strangled sound reached his ears, and he was instantly on his feet. She was weeping! He crossed the distance between them in the space of a heartbeat.
“Forgive me, Miss Drake. That was uncalled for. I …”
“No, my lord, it is you who must forgive me. I do not know what has come over me. I seem to … to …I am sorry …”
Damn his affliction! What Alex would not have given, only to observe the expression on her face, right now! He reached for her hand but instead encountered her face, her cheek. It was damp with tears.
“Has no one ever told you that you are exquisite, Miss Drake? Are the men in your part of England even blinder than I am, then?”
He cupped her cheek, and she leaned into his palm, a most disconcerting yet pleasant feeling.
“Only Peter, the father of my child called me beautiful, my lord. He loved me, so it was only natural that he would do so.”
“Ah,” Alex said softly, “Peter, the cavalry man, was it? Clever of him. Tell me, Mrs Drake, to what regiment did he belong?”
“The Yorkshires,” Rowena replied, her voice dreamily. “He was so handsome and so …”
A sob cut through her speech, driving Alex to caress her cheek with his thumb. “So … what, Mrs Drake?” He could think of a score of things, including irresponsible, and egotistic, for instance.
“So full of hope …”
Rowena drew in a deep breath and stepped back from the earl’s hand. “I must retire, my lord. Tomorrow will bring a load of tasks that need my attention. I thank you for a most lovely evening. Goodnight, my lord.”
A second later, Alex heard the door click shut.