Chapter Thirteen (completed)
Alex looked at the four people sitting in front of his desk; his batman, his steward, his solicitor and his friend. What he realized at that moment was, that he was able to see them clearly as he had before his injury. So he told them.
“Major … ye’re kiddin’, aren’t ye?” exclaimed Porter.
“Almighty God!” gasped Wallis.
“Oh, my lord, that is wonderful, albeit a bit unbelievable!” beamed Middlebridge.
“Well, Alex, permit me to check on it before you start jumping from joy,” admonished Richard Orme.
They did not believe him. So he proved to them by walking towards his bookshelves.
“Name a book for me to find,” he said.
“Alex, no! There is no need to …”
He ignored the embarrassment that coloured Richard’s voice, and all but yanked three different volumes from the shelves. Why he felt so enraged, he could not fathom, but he did feel anger churning in his gut, while he opened each book and began to read the introduction words. After a few minutes, he became aware of the awkward silence that reigned in his library. When he raised his head, Alex saw powerless pity on Porter’s face, uncomfortable embarrassment on Wallis’, a mild, fatherly-like concern on Middlebridge’s and … a large grin on Richard’s. His friend came over to him and slapped him on the back.
“I knew you would conquer this blasted affliction, Alex! Congratulations, man, I am profoundly happy for you.”
Laughter bubbling up in him, Alex found himself in need of a stiff whisky to celebrate with his friends, for he had now four of them. The spirits were distributed by Porter, and the toasts duly made. Then it was time for Alex to come to business.
“Gentlemen, I need not persuade you of the seriousness of the threat laid upon Lady Ketteridge. Due to the attack, the night before last, she gave birth prematurely, thus endangering not only her own life, but also that of my infant daughter.”
He paused to look at each of his audience members. “Middlebridge, I hope you have done what I asked and readied the documents that will allow me to adopt the child?”
“I have, my lord. They are ready for you and Her Ladyship to be signed at your convenience.”
“Good. Porter, my good man, you must go to the War Department offices in London. Find out if Carlisle has a son who was in the cavalry, and if so, what happened to him at Waterloo. If the man did not survive the battle, then I want to know who is impersonating him. That will be a trifle more difficult, but we will get to that issue when the time is right.”
Porter inclined his head in agreement, his brown eyes sparkling with anticipation for the action to come. Alex now addressed John Wallis.
“Earlier, you expressed a disbelief about the Baronet Daveston disinheriting his daughter. How certain are you that he indeed did so?”
Astonishment, and also a bit of caution, marked John Wallis’ weathered face.
“My lord, I was the baron’s steward, not his solicitor. I knew there was a will, but I never read its contents. Yet my master was very fond of his daughter, that I know for certain. He once told me she would not have financial problems after his death, although he did not confide in me about the arrangements he made. So, yes, I was very surprised to hear that Rowie – forgive me, Her Ladyship – had been excluded from her father’s will.”
“Who was his solicitor?” Alex asked.
“A Mr Horace Bleak from Carlisle, sir.”
Alex now turned to Middlebridge. “What happens once a will is laid down, sir?”
Middlebridge rubbed his chin, concern making him frown. “Well, my lord, that depends on where it is done. As far as I know, the will must be laid down with the ecclesiastical court of the country where the person lives – or better, where his estate is situated. The solicitor is the best person to do that. Only three locations make an exception to this, London, Canterbury and York. They have specialized courts for that.”
“So we have to go to Carlisle and ask the solicitor for the will? I do not have a particular preference for that, Middlebridge. Is there no other option?”
“I am afraid not, sir. Are you suspecting the solicitor of foul play, my lord?”
“I am, and I think you are, too.”
Middlebridge nodded, and Alex continued in a firm voice, “The three of us are leaving for Carlisle, tomorrow morning, then.”
Although Rowena was so tired she could sleep for a whole week, she was utterly unable to succumb to her exhaustion. She was restless, and something nagged at her peace of mind. Alex was behaving strangely, she mused, wanting her to feed her child, and – Lord! – knowing all those facts about giving birth and caring for new born babes. She had never known any man to be interested in those matters, not even her sweet, mild-hearted father.
Her father … Rowena felt a sharp stab of sorrow she had not experienced in a long time at the thought of how she had been ruled out of her father’s will and testament. How stunned she had been to hear Mr Bleak recite all the conditions of the will in his stentorian solicitor’s voice. Roderick’s glowing expression of triumph when he realised all their father’s property and funds would be his and his alone. Her brother’s malicious glare at her, when she pleaded him not to leave her without at least some money from the considerable fortune he now solely possessed. His vicious cruelty and utter lack of compassion when he sent her away from her childhood home to fend for herself and her unborn child.
Rowena had still no understanding of what had driven her father to remove her name from the will. He had always reassured her that she would have a share large enough to set her up independently, if she wished to do so. She must have done something to displease him, even though she could not fathom what. She had nursed her father during his final illness with all the love and compassion she could give. She had kept his hand in hers when he died. Now she realised he must have changed his will long before he had been incapacitated by his lethal apoplexy.
After turning and tossing for yet a few minutes, Rowena gave up and rose. She donned her robe and headed for the stairs, suppressing the sudden weakness of her legs. From the top of the stairs, she heard the heated conversation coming from the library. Dr Orme’s voice was loud enough for her to hear.
“Alex, you cannot do this! Wait for just a few weeks, so that I can ascertain myself of the quality of your eyesight. I can see for myself that it has ameliorated immensely, but it still has not returned to normal, and you know it. For God’s sake, man, be sensible!”
“My lord, I beg you,” Mr Middlebridge pleaded. “I will do as you ask, but it is unnecessary for you to accompany me. I will take my three young assistants, who are burly enough to guard me from harm. Together we will be able to find out what has occurred in Cumberland.”
“Besides,” John Wallis chimed in. “Who will guard Lady Ketteridge from the man who threatened her, just a few nights ago?”
Alex’ frustrated voice cut them all short. “Very well, I will leave Porter here to guard the manor. The London business can wait, but I must do this, and do it forthright. I need to know whether my wife has been bamboozled out of her inheritance.”
Porter protested in a most vehement way. “No, major! I’ll stand by your side as I did forever before, bu’ ye’re the one who will watch over your lady. That’s the end of it!”
Alex raked through his hair in baffled consternation. What was going on here? Was he allowing every single one of them to meddle in his affairs? His father would have them horsewhipped, the lot of them.
Well, he thought wryly, maybe not Richard. Squire Orme would have protested most vehemently, and the previous earl, fearless and implacable he might have been, valued the squire’s friendship too much, since they had been close friends from childhood. As he, Alex, had been with Richard.
He was still debating over what he would do, when a soft, feminine voice sounded from the door, and a vision in a vibrant green silk dressing gown glided into the room.
“My lord,” Rowena said, her voice soothing, “might I have a word with you in private?”
Alex stared at her, in awe of her ramrod-straight posture. Her face, though, was very pale, her cheeks sunken, and her lovely eyes bleak with fatigue. She had given birth less than twenty-four hours ago, for God’s sake.
“Of course, my lady,” he said and strode towards her. Ignoring her gasp of surprise, Alex scooped her into his arms. He looked back at the men gathered by his desk.
“We will talk later, gentlemen.” Then he carried his wife up the stairs, swiftly and determinately, as if she weighed nothing.
Richard Orme grinned at his companions. “Well, I guess this means ‘back to work’, fellows!”