Ketteridge House, Leicestershire, England, December12th, 1815
The next morning, the earl seemed much more rested. Last night’s large bandage on his brow had been replaced by a smaller one that sneaked through his lush black locks. He wore buff breeches, a moss-green waistcoat over a crisp white shirt, and a dark green coat, instead of his usual drab brown attire. He looked positively dashing, Rowena marvelled.
Her slippers created but a soft sound on the parquet floor, but the earl’s head came up as soon as Rowena entered the morning room. His blue-grey gaze was instantly upon her. She shivered, once again astonished that he seemed to actually see her despite his blindness. It was but an illusion, but a powerful one, and every time it happened, Rowena was warmed by the beautiful smile he invariably bestowed on her. And most of the time, he would indeed smile.
“Ah, Miss Drake, come and join me. The Wallisses promised to join us, since I wanted to discuss some estate matters with Mr Wallis during breakfast. However, before they join us, tell me how you are feeling today.”
“Fully restored, my lord. I apologize for my inability to …”
“No need to apologize, Miss Drake. I am glad that you and the child are in good health.”
It was her voice, Alex suddenly realized. Every time, he heard that lovely, young, musical voice, his heart skipped several beats. Ridiculous, damn it.
Rowena barely had time to seat herself before Porter and the Wallisses entered. The valet placed a large tray on the table and left. As soon as Meg sank down on the chair next to Rowena, she whispered in her ear, “His Lordship said he had things to discuss with us. What is it about, do you know?”
Rowena shook her head in puzzlement, determined to stop Meg’s questions.
Alex cleared his throat, and bowed before he let himself down on his chair at the head of the table. “I can answer that question, Mrs Wallis, but Miss Drake cannot because she has not been told what it is about.”
Meg was startled, embarrassed because the earl had heard her speaking to Rowena.
“I am sorry, my lord, I did not wish to raise your resentment.”
“You have not, Mrs Wallis, rest assured. Now, let us partake of our breakfast.”
They all started reaching for a piece of toast or a helping of eggs, when they noticed the earl did not. He sat quietly waiting for Porter to come back and serve him. Soon after, the valet entered with a steaming hot pot of tea. While the earl was being served, John sent his wife a disapproving look. Meg blushed, and Rowena squeezed her hand beneath the table’s edge. Sweet Meg … she would always take Rowena’s side, no matter what.
They all ate in silence, and the only one who seemed relaxed, was the earl.
Alex forced himself to eat, but in reality he was inwardly shaking with what he was envisaging. During the night, restlessness and concern had prevented him from sleeping. The one, important question on his mind had been how to ensure that Rowena would not leave Ketteridge after the birth of her child. Alex could not possibly bear the thought of her disappearing from his life, and it puzzled him to the extreme as to why this as so.
He did not love Rowena. Love did not grow in a mere week. Alex was not even certain that he could ever love another being. He had very much loved his brother Reggie, and Reggie had died anyway. He had never known his mother who had died giving birth to him. His father had been a cold, selfish man who never had time for the ‘spare’. Reggie was the one his father had cherished beyond all reason. Alex’ brother had been groomed to the earldom. Yet Reggie had been the one who gave little Alex a bit of love and attention, whenever he came home between terms at Eton and Cambridge. Reggie had betrayed him by dying so soon, and by leaving a mess for Alex to clean up.
So, no, he could not easily come to love Rowena, because love implied trust, and Alex took a long time in trusting someone. He was however fiercely attracted to Rowena Drake. She stirred his senses and brought to life his long-suppressed carnal desires. He admired her, because she had definite strength of character. She had taken her fate into her own hands when it turned against her. That, he knew, was a very important matter, one of many it took to make a good countess, so he had decided that Rowena Drake would be the next Countess of Ketteridge. That, he realised, meant that he would have to court her. What better way to court her than by appealing to her heart in the best way there was; to provide a home for her and her bastard child. He was prepared to give his name to the child. He or she could never be his heir, of course, but he could provide an education for the child. Every child needed an education.
Alex was determined to court Rowena in the most appropriate way possible, even though she was already living under his roof. Therefore, he had to protect her from the gossip that had started to go about.
Alex again cleared his throat – he seemed to be doing that a lot, lately – and turned his face to where he knew Rowena was sitting. He could swear he could actually see her clearly, but he might be deluding himself.
“A conversation I had with my good friend Dr Orme last night, made me acutely aware of the dire situation I put Miss Drake in. Although she has been here, at Ketteridge House, for only the briefest of times, it seems that the gossip mongers have already been busy. I cannot tolerate that, so I have decided to squelch the rumours instantly and for good.”
When he paused to have his words sinking in, Alex heard Rowena’s slight but unmistakeable intake of breath.
“Miss Drake,” Alex went on in a matter-of-fact voice, “before I continue, I need you to answer a question, as honestly as you can. Do you wish to stay here, at Ketteridge House?”
“Yes, …” Her answer was a shuddering whisper, which gave Alex a jolt of joy.
“Good, that is settled then,” he said, smiling. “Mr Wallis will be employed as my steward. You, Mrs Wallis, shall be Miss Drake’s companion. We shall spread the rumour that she is your widowed niece, come to live with you, when Mr Wallis accepted his position as my steward. I do hope that you will give a hand in setting this household straight, Mrs Wallis. I want you two to assemble a full staff. You are allowed to hire as many hands as you need. Now, if you will excuse me, I have other business to see to.” He rose, leaving the three of them speechless with wonder.
Ignoring the concerned glances Meg and John gave each other, Rowena gathered her skirts and ran after the earl. He had already disappeared into his library, and not for the first time did Rowena marvel in the swift way in which he reached his chosen destinations within the house.
“My lord, I would wish a word, if you please?”
He had not expected her because he turned so quickly that he half lost his balance and had to steady himself by grabbing the edge of his desk.
“Damn …” Alex smothered the curse he was uttering and forced himself to stay in control of the anger that boiled in him. Anger because another human being saw his weakness. It took him a while to realise that Rowena had not noticed that.
She continued, breathlessly and urgently, “My lord, I cannot accept the arrangements you made. They would cast aspersions on Meg and John who are as dear to me as if they were my own parents. Moreover, Meg’s sister Mary lives in Leicester and she is married and has several children. Their families are both well known, and it could easily happen that someone from town would talk to their Ketteridge relatives. People would know Meg has no niece who is widowed and pregnant. John’s people are also living in Leicester, so I could not possibly be a relative of his, either. It is best if I would continue to be Mrs Drake, the widow of a cavalry man.”
One question was burning on his lips, so Alex asked it. “Who was that cavalry man, Miss Drake? Tell me his name.”
Rowena’s throat constricted. She had had difficulties talking about Peter, since the minute Roderick told her that he had died. Memories of that horrible morning in the library at her father’s house assaulted her.
It had been a morning with a brilliantly exuberant sun beaming from a sky of the purest azure. She had been back from the rose garden, her basket full of blooms hanging on her arm. Roderick had called her into the room and bluntly told her that Peter had been killed at Waterloo. There had been no body, because it had been destroyed by canon fire, and the few remains had been buried in a mass grave near Brussels. Now was the time, Roderick had said, that she should go to their aunt’s house in York and start going to parties again. Her marriage prospects had now vanished, and she had to start over from scratch.
The earl stood very close to her, his hand on her arm. “Are you unwell? You seemed to struggle for breath.”
Rowena swallowed, realizing that she must have made a noise. “I am well, thank you. It was just …”
“You are panicking again. I can feel it. Is it still so painful to talk about him?”
“Yes …” she breathed. Alex felt a shudder run through her. He acted on instinct, protection foremost on his mind. He sought her hand and lifted it to his lips, and deeply inhaled her lovely scent.
That little word, barely audible, set his blood on fire with a force he had never thought possible. Anger bloomed, because she was still mourning the man who had left her in such dire circumstances. He wanted the memory of that selfish bastard wiped into oblivion. She could not, would not be allowed to think of the blackguard ever again.
“His name …” he ordered, steel in his voice. He had not released her hand and allowed his breath to caress it, while his thumb stroked her palm in a languid, soothing way.
“Peter Johnston of the Yorkshire Regiment.”
Victory, he thought, and let his other hand travel to her face. Smoothly, he cupped her chin and brushed her lips with his in a caress so tender, that it suddenly made her quiver beneath his touch. He released her, also suddenly, but gently.
She ran, a soft footfall on the carpet. “Bloody hell…,” Alex whispered. Bewilderment clawed at him over the raw, violent arousal invading his body. How could this be? His only purpose had been to comfort her with a modest and gentle kiss, but the contact between their lips had been like a spark of lightning. And what had he been thinking, actually kissing his housekeeper? Hell, but he was in a sore state! He stayed for a moment, gathering his thoughts and suppressing his need. Then he strode after Rowena, confident that he would find her.