Chapter Eight (continued)
Ketteridge House, Leicestershire, England, December 14th, 1815
Shortly after luncheon, Alex and Porter rode into the village of Ketteridge. Alex was to visit his friend Richard Orme in his surgery, so that the doctor could examine Alex’ eyes in a more adequate way.
The surgery was established in a large Georgian house opposite St Crispin’s Church. Richard had set up house there, instead of at his father’s manor, which was too far away from the village for his patients to seek him out.
“Come in, Alex,” Richard said, when the men entered his examining room. “Please, sit down. Porter, here is a chair for you.”
Richard sat down behind his desk, folded his hands on top of the large blotter, and looked at his friend. “Alex, you will remember that I spent some time in London, after I graduated. To be specific, I studied at a clinic situated at the Moorfields. Dr John Cunningham Saunders, the most skilled physician when it comes to diseases of the eye, was my tutor. He taught me some techniques to test the quality of a person’s eyesight. If you would permit me, I should like to use them now.”
“You have my permission, Rich, and my complete trust. Carry on.”
“Quite so. Well, if you could come and sit here on this chair? Do you need help? No, I can see that you do not. Alex, this chair faces a blank, white-washed wall, and it is placed at six yards. I will hold up some cardboard signs with letters written on them, and you must read them for me. The letters are of difference sizes, ranging from large to small.”
The next quarter of an hour, Richard presented Alex with the signs. Alex found himself perspiring with the effort of trying to read the letters. This was unexpected, especially when even the largest letters proved deuced difficult for him to read.
Richard started with letters that were middle-sized, and easy to read for persons with average eyesight. Alex could not read them. When Richard switched to larger letters, Alex’ reading improved largely.
“A good sign,” Richard said, but Alex was appalled. “Good? You must be joking! I cannot read letters the size of a man’s finger, Rich! How can that be good?”
“Ah, but you know they are the size of a man’s finger, do you not? That proves that you can see them well enough, even when you cannot make out their shape.”
“What are you saying, Rich? I do not understand.”
“You can see things from a six-yards distance. I call that promising, Alex.”
“I could already see objects back in August, Rich. How has my eyesight improved, if at all?”
“Close your eyes, and do not open them before I say so.”
Alex complied, unable to share his friend’s optimism.
“Open your eyes. What is in my hand, Alex?”
Sweat was now breaking out over Alex’ entire body, as he was striving as hard as he was able to, just to see what it was that was presented to him. The item was a blurry, grey spot against the white wall. Alex squeezed his eyes in a desperate attempt to focus. At first, it as to no avail, but gradually, he was able to see contours of …”
“A hat! It is a grey hat! How is that even possible? I could not see grey objects at all, only brightly coloured ones!”
“Do you believe me now that the progress you made is promising?”
“I am at a loss! What has happened, Rich? Why can I see now what I could not a few months back?”
“My guess is that when you fell and hit your head, the other day, the obstruction that blocked your eyesight within your brain, has begun to dissolve. It is my absolute conviction that your vision will improve further, over the next days or weeks. I cannot promise you that you will be able to see as clearly as before the battle, Alex, but you will be able to see sufficiently to have a normal life.”
“’Is Lordship asked me te fetch ‘is dinner, Miss Drake. Says ‘e’ll ‘ve it in ‘is rooms.”
Rowena, who was helping Mrs Hall preparing a tray for the dining room, looked up in surprise, to stare at the valet. “Is he unwell? What has happened?”
“No’ing,” Porter said, all but growling at what he thought to be a far too meddling remark. “’E’s jus’ tired, is all. We rode all the way te the village, and the road was slippery. We ‘ad te take extra care.”
Rowena did not believe a word the grumpy valet said, so she followed him when he carried the tray upstairs. It earned her a furious stare from Porter’s lined face, but he kept quiet. When they entered Alex’ rooms, Rowena’s heart was thumping with fear that he should be ailing. He was not. Instead, he lay sprawled upon a chaise-longue, cradling a tumbler of whisky in one hand, the other lying limp on the armrest.
“Forgive me, major,” Porter announced. “Couldn’t keep her away.”
“Miss Drake,” Alex said, his voice unusually listless, “what can I do for you?”
“I just came to inquire about you, my lord. Mr Porter said you were fatigued after your ride.”
He directed his blind gaze to where Rowena was standing. “Porter, leave us.”
It came out quietly, but irrefutably. The valet put down the tray and disappeared. Rowena felt suddenly concerned, as if some strangely tensed presence just entered the room. A threatening presence. To dispel the awkward moment, she began serving Alex’ dinner using the small table near the window, especially put there for that purpose. She let out a little cry when someone suddenly got hold of her arm.
Alex’ lethargy was the baffling result of that morning’s examination which had shaken him to the core. He struggled to find a way to deal with the possibility of his returning eyesight. Once again, his whole world was about to be turned upside down, and he hated it. It had cost him enough to adapt to blindness, and now he would have to adapt once again. To that end, he needed time to regroup his thoughts; so he had asked Porter and Orme to keep silent about the conclusions of the examination, a request to which they had both agreed, of course.
His lethargy vanished as he realised this was a perfect moment for courting. He quietly rose and approached her, but the second he touched Rowena, he knew he needed to steel himself against the onslaught of her womanly presence, with her sweet lily-of-the-valley scent overwhelming him. Inwardly gritting his teeth, he kept his voice soft and gentle.
“Why have you come, Rowena? Was it truly to see how I was doing?”
She struggled to free herself, but he did not let go of her. Instead, he took her hands in his and drew her closer to face him. With a shock, he realised that he could now clearly see her lovely, heart-shaped face, her pert little nose, and the curve of her lush, rosy mouth. And her eyes, large, chocolate-coloured orbs, framed by long black lashes, that blinked in fear now. God! When she battered her eyelids like that, he was lost!
“Well, Rowie? Do I get an answer or not?” He brought his mouth close to her ear, and had a perfect view when her tongue darted out to wet those lush lips. Devil be damned, she was going to kill him!
He fought to hold his lust in check. He did not wish to frighten her with his passion, not when he wanted to court her properly.
“My lord, I should go … I must see to dinner downstairs …”
“No, you do not. I asked you a question, Rowie. Answer me. Were you concerned about my health, then?”
“Yes …” A whisper, so soft it was barely audible.
“Why were you concerned, my dear?”
Rowena could not move. Alex’ large thumbs were stroking her palms, causing shivers to run down her spine. If she had had any doubts before whether he had – at some point when she had not noticed – begun flirting with her, then now she was certain that he had. Why? What was the purpose of this? Not that she resented his attention, because she did not. But she could not fathom the reason for his attention. She also could not think. Nor breathe. Not when Alex was so close she could scent him, all male and so, so strong.
Alex inwardly cursed. He was trapped, and he had himself to blame for it. She had him wrapped around her little finger, and she did not even know it. She was innocence, inexperienced in the way of men. Even with a babe inside her, Rowena had no inkling how to deal with wicked, lustful men. That meant she was also helpless against him. And that meant he must protect her. From himself. It was his soldier’s duty to protect her.
So he freed her hands and turned away. A second later, he heard her running, fleeing footsteps.