Ketteridge House, Leicestershire, England, December11th, 1815
Alex swung round, took one large step towards the sound, and tripped over his pile of discarded clothes. A split second before he landed heavily on the solid, wooden floor, he regretted throwing them where they would fall. A second later, he hit his head on the wash stand. His poor vision blurred even further when a sharp pain shot through his skull. He had forgotten the golden rule of blindness never to be careless with objects lying about neglected.
“Oh, heavens, my lord!”
Hands turned him onto his back and positioned his throbbing head onto the warm, soft cushion of a woman’s lap. Hands that were soft and gentle. They created fire wherever they touched his sweaty, bare skin. A woman’s voice he knew all too well crooned and commiserated, while the hands smoothed his damp hair from his face.
“My lord! You are bleeding … I must get help … please, stay and lie still …”
Time to intervene. He reached out and grasped her arm. She could not, must not go away.
“No, I am fine, Miss Drake. Just give me a hand getting to my feet.”
For one frozen moment in time, she stilled, as if debating with herself over what to do next. Then she rose from her knees, and slid her shoulder under his arm, thus allowing him to get his bearings and stand upright. Alex knew that it was not the blow to his head that made his knees buckle, although that part of his anatomy hurt like the devil.
“My lord, you must let me tend to the gash on your head. It is bleeding rather severely.”
“Help me to that chair by the window, please. You will find everything you need in the closet under the wash stand.”
They hobbled to the chair, Alex’ head now pounding with a dull pain. Lord! He must have banged it much harder than he had thought at first. He could feel the trickle of blood warm on his cheek. Rowena kept a firm hold on his body, the top of her head level with his chin. He knew that because her soft hair was tickling it. The scent she used – lily-of-the-valley – teased his sensitive nostrils. He would – Alex knew – recognize that scent always and everywhere.
Rowena lowered Alex onto the chair and felt him shiver under her hands. The room was icy cold, but he was sweating. His skin felt cold and clammy, and Rowena worried. Should she call for help? Porter would not be far away, she knew. As if he guessed what she was about to do, Alex again grabbed her arm, startling her with the warmth of his hand.
“Miss Drake, please, let us get on with this. Are you perhaps not familiar with tending wounds?”
“Yes, yes I am, my lord. I will proceed, then.”
Rowena searched the room until she spotted a blanket. She draped it around his upper body, involuntary touching the scar on his side. He shivered again, and let out a soft groan.
“Is that a remnant from the Waterloo battle, too?” she asked, while she hastily turned to the wash stand and retrieved a basket with fresh cloths and rolls of bandages. She poured some water from the large pitcher into the basin.
“Yes, sword’s tip cut across me while I was down,” Alex replied. “I was lucky that Porter ran the bastard through just as he brought down his blade. It was the blow of a dying man and it did not cut deep enough to give me a lethal wound. Hurt like the devil, though. As you can see, it is still a bit tender to the touch. Kept me in a fever for weeks, it did. Porter used to bathe me in ice water, trice a day, just to lower it.”
“And … your head? Was it badly hurt?”
“It was. Concussion and skull fracture, and an open wound. It is a wonder that did not do me in entirely. But, as you can see, I recovered.”
Carefully, Rowena began to clean the gash on his temple. It was not deep, but it needed precise handling, lest it would leave a scar.”
“Not entirely,” she said, very softly.”
“No.” Then, as if he needed to explain himself, “I apologize for the horrible sight I am.”
Rowena swallowed down the large lump that clogged her throat. “It … it is not horrible …”
She stilled, her hands still cradling his head after her examination of his wound. He shifted, and the blanket slid from his shoulders, as one of his hands came up to rest on her hip. Warmth flooded her, moist once more forming on her inner thighs. Her nipples puckered painfully as they rubbed against her corset. Rowena gasped with unbearable need, when Alex’ hand moved to her abdomen. She had so missed this. The closeness to a man, the feeling of his hands on her. Her gaze drifted to his tensed face, his sensual mouth, and she knew she could look at him as much as she liked. He would not know she was doing it. In response to his caress, her fingers wandered to his thick, black hair. It was soft and warm on her skin.
A beast Alex thought long since dead reared its head. It had been ages since he savoured the feeling of a woman, all lush curves, warm and soft. He was hard – of course, he was. His blood pounded in his ears at the thought of lifting her skirts and sliding his fingers over the skin of her inner thighs. His heart missed several beats at the thought of kissing her, of digging his hands into her bodice to savour her breasts.
Yet he could not, could he?
This was Rowena, his unmarried, yet pregnant housekeeper, who still mourned her fallen cavalry man. He, Alex, had no right fondling her, lusting after her, longing to bed her. He could never bed her while she was heavy with child. Nor any time later, when …
Suddenly, as if in accusatory response to his unruly thoughts, the child moved quite violently against his hand. He jerked it away in horror. God … what a lascivious, unworthy lowlife he was!
“Leave me be, Miss Drake, and go about your work. Send Porter up. He will fix me, he has done so many times in the past.”
His tone must have been cold as the Arctic, he reckoned, for his housekeeper ran as hard as she could. Touching her had been utterly despicable of him, and he had no inkling as to how he could right this terrible wrong. What had possessed him? This was not his way. Ah, but he had lost his way a long time ago, had he not? He had lost himself on June 18th, and no matter what he did, he could not remedy Waterloo’s wrong.
“Major? Wha’ the devil ‘appened? Miss Drake comes runnin’ down those stairs like if she’s seen a bleedin’ ghost! Oh, an’ it’s you who’s bleedin’! Come ‘ere, now wha’ ‘ave ye done to yesself, eh?”
Porter began tending to Alex’ wound, muttering and fussing. “Did she did this te ye? I shouldn’ wonder, she’s such a feisty woman! Wha’ ‘ave ye done te ‘ave ‘er strike at ye, that’s wha’ I wanna know!”
Rowena was halfway down the stairs, when she recovered enough for her senses to slow down. She must not risk a fall by losing her footing . When she reached her bedchamber on the first floor, concern had replaced the panic. Because that was what she had felt, just then, when Alex touched her. Yet also … she struggled to find the right word, then settled for a mixture of joy and contentment. She had liked his touch, and very much so.
Alex … since when had her employer stopped being ‘His Lordship’ to become a real, very attractive male who reeled her senses enough to crave for more than just a slight touch to her abdomen? Rowena’s knees suddenly buckled under that realisation. She stumbled to the vast security of her bed, slid under the coverlet and folded her arms over her swollen belly. She turned onto her side and pulled up her legs as far as they would go. Trembling like a leaf in the wind, she hugged her abdomen, finding comfort in her baby’s jerky moves.
This is you, Rowena Drake. Pregnant and without a husband. You have no business in loving the way Alex touches you. You have no right longing for carnal relations with him. You have succumbed before and look where it led you. Feelings of lust have brought you this far, so learn your lesson and be sensible. Alexander Raventhorpe, fifth earl of Ketteridge is forbidden territory.
For some reason, that notion spilled tears from her eyes she had not known were there. Rowena found solace in those tears, rolling over her cheeks without the slightest effort. They just rolled, and kept rolling for several minutes.
Yet Alex had also been affected, had he not? Was it foolish of her to assume so? Or was what she had witnessed mere wishful thinking?
No, he had at least been attracted to her nearness, the proof of it blatantly clear for her to see. She could still recollect the shock she felt when she looked down his long, muscular torso to find the hard bulge in his black, clinging trousers. New heat washed through her, and she shamefully pushed it away. No, no – she had no claim on him, under no circumstances!
Rowena sat up, swung her legs from the bed and went to her washstand to cool her face with fresh water from the pitcher. She pulled the pins from her hair and brushed it vigorously for a while. She gathered it into a loose bun at the nape of her neck, dabbed a few droplets of her cologne behind her ears and looked at her pale reflection in the mirror. Then she straightened and strode out of her room.