The Reclusive Aristocrat – Part Twelve

Chapter Six (completed)

Dr Orme was a surprise to Rowena. In his thirties, tall and wiry thin, he had a long, narrow face in which pale grey eyes sparkled under a lion mane of blond curls. Thin to the point of emaciation, he nevertheless was strong enough to lift Alex, while Porter and Rowena changed the sheets. When Alex was back in his bed, she addressed the doctor.

“Sir, can I be of assistance? I am Miss Drake, Ketteridge’s housekeeper.”

The doctor’s pale eyes scanned her shrewdly before he asked. “Are you newly appointed here? I did not know that His Lordship had a housekeeper before.”

Rowena blushed but answered as dignified as she could. “His Lordship kindly took me in. As you can see, I am in difficult circumstances.”

Dr Orme looked as if he wanted to ask more, but at that moment, Alex groaned, and they all turned to the bed. He was awake and brought his hands to his head. “Blast. What the devil has happened?”

“Ye ‘it yer ‘ead again, major. Don’t ye remember? Now ye’ve got a fever, and Dr Orme is ‘ere te examine ye.”

“Orme? Why they brought you here I shall never know. I have a headache is all. Give me something to relieve it.”

“Let me examine you first. You seem thoroughly unwell.”

Dr Orme turned to the rest of the people in the room. “And I would like to remove everyone from this room except Mr Porter. Miss Drake, I will come and talk with you later.”

They all obeyed, although the earl’s eyes tried to capture Rowena’s. She had to drag herself from the room.

 

“Well,” Dr Orme said evenly, “I see you have landed yourself in a predicament once again. Confound it, Alex! You have barely recovered from your injuries, and now Porter tells me that you mounted a horse today. Do you have a death wish? If you have, then tell me, so I can direct my talents as a physician elsewhere.”

Richard Orme was the only son of a country squire whose small estate bordered Ketteridge. He and Alex grew up as best friends. They went to Eton and Cambridge together, and Richard established himself as a physician, while Alex chose the usual career for a second son and went into the army. Alex’ long absences on military matters had never marred their friendship. It had been Richard’s skills and devotion that had cured the many wounds Alex sustained at Waterloo.

“I decided to start living again, Rich. I have been listless long enough. It was Miss Drake who encouraged me to reacquaint myself with Titan, whom I missed terribly all these long months of inactivity. Rich, for the first time in months I actually enjoyed myself immensely. I felt alive again. Would you begrudge me that?”

Miss Drake, eh? What are you up to, my friend? She is unmarried and living under your roof. Moreover, sheThe Alex I know would tread far more carefully than that, and not lightly take in stray kittens.”

“You can spare me the reproachful looks, Orme. Yes, I took her in, and why not? I can bloody well do as I please in my own home.”

Richard wisely refrained from commenting too much on the subject, but his glance spoke volumes. However, he had one remark. “People are already talking, Alex. All this could prove difficult for Miss Drake. She seems very young and in her condition, she might be shunned by all and sunder.”

Alex froze in sudden dismay. He had not fully realized that particular consequence of his actions. To his credit, he had not known Rowena’s status at the time, neither. “People are talking? What people, by Jove? She has only been here for a scant eight days!”

“Alex, you live in the country, and you have a prime position as the Earl of Ketteridge. People look up to you. They seek your guidance and support. You do not seem to realize how they have feared for their future, during these last years. Your brother – God rest his soul – has let matters slip greatly, and the estate is in tatters. They look at you to set matters to right.”

“Which is exactly what I am striving to achieve, Rich! I had no idea what it took to run an estate and I am only now coming to grips with the many tasks that have to be accomplished. One of them is the running of my household, and since Fate has landed Miss Drake on my doorstep, I offered her the position as my housekeeper. The more I come to know her, the more I am convinced she will prove a rare gem and a cornerstone in Ketteridge’s recovery. I took her to see the Weldons and the Proctors, my most remote tenants. You should have heard her, as she enquired about their needs, and she even gave some very sound advice to make the most of the meagre yields they had this year. They were completely taken in by her, Rich. I could hear the admiration in their voices. She introduced me to a competent steward, Mr Wallis. His wife was Miss Drake’s nanny and confidante when she was growing up. Surely, her presence here now should be all that is necessary to soothe propriety.”

Dr Orme contemplated his friend in silence, awed by the fire in Alex’ voice while he talked about the new housekeeper. He had already been struck with pleasant surprise by the change in Alex’ mood, since the last time he visited his friend. If that change was to be credited by the presence of a young woman in Alex’ house, then maybe it was not a bad thing altogether.

Yet, Richard mused, Rowena Drake was an unmarried woman, and with child, to boot. He knew all too well what society would have to say about that.

“What do you know of her?” he asked, while he undid Porter’s bandages in order to examine Alex’ head wound.

“She is one of the Cumberland Drakes, a family belonging to the country gentry. Her father was a mere baronet, but according to Debrett’s, the estate he left his son Roderick is a substantial and thriving one. Rowena Drake fled her home after her brother threatened to take away her child. She is penniless because her father left her nothing. In a typical country manner, he only acknowledged his son as an heir.”

“Who is the child’s father?”

“I have no idea. She keeps quiet about him, and I only know that he died at Waterloo. He was probably a son of another Cumberland squire or so.”

“Poor thing,” Richard said, compassion in his voice. “She must have been very young when she became pregnant.”

“She turned twenty-one only last week. If her blasted fiancé had not died, I would have gone looking for him and give him a piece of my mind. And of my fists, as well. What kind of behaviour is it to seduce a young girl and then leave her to go and die in a battle? And that brother of hers, he is also a veritable cur, throwing her out of her home without a farthing to her name.”

“Still, Alex, she cannot stay here, and well you know it.”

Yes, Alex thought, fury heating his mind. They would think he was the child’s father, and that he gave shelter to his mistress. Rowena’s reputation would be truly in tatters, and he would have contributed to that.

Richard was right, Alex mused, not for the first time pondering over the current, scandalous situation he was in. He was the fifth earl of Ketteridge, and he belonged to the peers of the realm. While his brother had been destined to run the estate, he had given the best of himself in defending that same realm with his life. Now that his brother was dead, it was up to him to restore the estate in its former glory, and secure it for future generations of Raventhorpes. A multitude of duties lay before him, and one of them was to acquire a spouse who could provide him with an heir.

The image of a spouse had never even formed in Alex’ mind, because he had always been the second son, the spare. He had never imagined himself as leg-shackled to a blushing young debutante, whom he would have to deflower in order to get her with child. In truth, he was horrified by the whole business of teaching the ways of the marriage bed to an innocent. Virgins were so delicate, so ignorant, and therefore unpredictable in their ways. If he could just find a woman with some ready-made knowledge of the relations between man and a woman, he would court her in order to convince her to become his wife.

These were the thoughts that haunted him since he had risen from his sickbed, early September. Alex knew all too well how difficult it would prove to find such a woman. She would have to overlook the consequences his reduced vision would bring on. She would have to cope with a nearly blind husband.

Up until a few days ago, these upsetting thoughts seemed to have lost some of their power. Alex had begun directing his mind into a new path; here, under his roof, was a woman, who met some of his requirements. Some, but not all, unfortunately.

While Richard Orme was tending to his injury, Alex brooded, disturbing yet enticing ideas forming in his head.

“Alex, you have a serious head wound. Dare I ask how you came by it?”

“I tripped and banged my head on a washstand. It hurts like the blazes.”

“Well, Porter made a good job bandaging it. I will leave it and check on you tomorrow. Any side effects?”

“Actually, yes … but you will think I am imagining it, for sure.”

“Actually what? Any nausea? Vomiting?”

“All of that, too, but I also have a feeling that my vision has altered somewhat. I can see things more clearly.”

“Really? Let me check that out for you.”

Dr Orme took the candle from the nightstand and lifted it to peer into Alex’ eyes. The pupils immediately widened, and that was astonishing, because that had not happened before.

“What exactly are you experiencing, Alex?”

“Just that I seem to see things more clearly. My vision is still not as sharp as before but it has improved.”

“I do not have the right instruments here, but if you would care to come to my house later, I could properly check your eyesight.”

“I will do that, Richard.”

“In the meantime, do not overdo it, Alex. Take some proper rest.”

 

Outside the door to Alex’ bedchamber, Rowena paced to and fro, wringing her hands. She was so restless that she did not notice Porter’s approach until he was upon her.

“Miss Drake, ye should go. Ye’re not needed here. The good doctor will see to the major.”

Rowena was fed up with the valet’s meddling. Just a few moments ago, they had seemed to go on well together, and now he was back to trouble her? She turned to him with blazing eyes.

“Mr Porter, I have a right to know! I am His Lordship’s housekeeper. I want to know how he is faring so that I can take the necessary measures to ensure his welfare. Leave me be, and go about your own business.”

“The major is my business, Miss Drake. And about ‘is welfare, well I’m not so sure ye’re the person te take care of tha’! We did well before ye came, we’ll continue te do well withou’ ye. Listen te yer ol’ nanny an’ go wi’ ‘er te Leicester.”

Rowena’s fury abruptly boiled over, causing her to point an accusing finger at the valet. “Do not try to give me orders, man. You are a servant, exactly like I am. We are equals, and I do not take orders from equals. I shall do as I please and …”

The sharp stab in her lower back made Rowena double over, her legs giving way under her. Porter jumped forward and managed to catch her before she would hit the hard wooden floorboards. In a panic, he called out for the doctor who promptly came bursting out of the earl’s bedchamber.

“Porter, quickly! Carry her to her room!” Dr Orme ordered.

Rowena moaned in acute pain, as Porter gathered her in his arms to carry her away.

Alex was left alone with the disturbing sounds from the corridor assaulting his mind with terror. What was happening? Was it Rowena? He rose in haste and went in pursuit of Porter and the doctor, infinitely glad that they left him with his cotton trousers. Fumbling to find support on the walls, he stumbled down the corridor toward Rowena’s room.

Mrs Wallis and Mrs Hall were already there, no doubt to assist Richard Orme. In a frantic haze, Alex looked for Porter, desperate to locate his batman. Damn his blasted affliction! His blurred vision was far too inadequate to see where Porter was, but his mind made out the large, darkly clad figure of the man standing before the windows.

“What is going on?” Alex grabbed Porter’s arm in a panic.

“She’s havin’ some kind o’ fit, I think. Or maybe she’s miscarryin’.”

The distress was so clearly discernible in Porter’s deep voice that Alex had to ask. “Tell me everything that has happened. Were you with her when it started?”

“Yeah, I was. I berated her, well, I yelled at her, and she gave me tit-for-tat. Then she collapsed. So sudden, poor thing. I’m so sorry, major, I never wanted te …”

“M’lord!” That was his cook. And she was giving him the full broadside. “Please, go away! It ain’t proper fer ye te be ‘ere!”

 

Later, Alex sat in his library, cradling a tumbler of whisky, and brooding over what was happening upstairs. The notion that Rowena might be losing her child shocked him to a point he never would have considered possible. She might even lose her life, and that was even harder to bear. How was it possible that he had begun caring for her in the meagre eight days that he had known her?

But he had, and that was the trouble. It was also incredible, and damned worrisome. He felt positively crushed by the notion that he had formed an attachment to a woman whose face he had not even seen yet. Twice he had carried her in his arms, and then she had felt soft, and feminine, and absolutely lovely. Especially when she had been naked. On that particular occasion, she had violently stirred his senses.

And that, he mused, was the crux of it. He was sexually attracted to Rowena because he craved a woman’s touch. He had been without a woman for months, and here in his own house was a young woman with an exquisite body. No wonder he was aroused when she touched him.

Rowena. Soft, well-shaped, young and exquisitely feminine Rowena, with the merry laughter. Earnest, conscientious, hard-working Rowena. Quick-witted, intelligent Rowena. Compassionate, sweet … Lord, what was he doing? He was losing his bloody mind, confound it!

The sound of the hall door opening made Alex stand in eager anticipation. Thanks to the burgundy-coloured coat he knew it was Richard Orme. Alex was able to discern his friend’s tall form in the light coming from the hall.

“How is she?” he barked at Richard.

“Wow, down boy, down!” Richard joked. “She and the baby are fine. It was a false alarm. Sometimes, in the last trimester, these fake contractions can be rather painful.”

“Contractions? But …”

“Alex, calm down. Miss Drake is not yet in labour. It is only her body preparing to give birth. The harmless contractions are necessary to widen the pelvis enough to make the babe pass. However, in my opinion as a physician, I am inclined to think that she is farther along than she claims. I would think her in the eight month of pregnancy.”

“You do? Could she be mistaken that much? What did she say when you told her?”

“I have not told her. She was exhausted and drifting into sleep when I left her.”

“Yes, that is probably for the best. Lord, what a day this has been!”

Upon watching his friend sink down onto his chair with a mighty sigh of relief, Richard frowned but refrained from commenting on it. Alex had had his own share of trouble today, and enough was enough. Instead, he walked to the side table that contained the spirits.

“Do you want a drink? I know I can surely use one.”

“Yes, please. Here is my glass. I had the Laphroig.”

The two men drank in silence, until Alex, his voice earnest, asked, “Tell me, do you honestly think I contributed in Miss Drake’s troubles when I took her in?”

“Yes, I think you did. You should know more of her circumstances and in particular what the situation with her brother is. Do you not think it odd that the man just let her go without a word of protest? For a gentleman, that is surely improper behaviour. As Miss Drake’s nearest male relative, he should have protected her.”

“That is what I am doing at the moment, Rich, I am protecting her by sheltering her under my roof. I shall engage in fisticuffs with every bastard that attempts to say otherwise.”

“For heaven’s sake, Alex, you are no longer in the army! You cannot solve every problem with a brawl. Having her here without a female companion is equal to ruining her. You should let her go away with Mrs Wallis. The good woman accosted me about it, just mere minutes ago.”

“No. She stays.”

Richard scoffed, then joked, “Why not do the decent thing in that case, and marry her? By Jove, Alex, grow up!”

When his friend directed his slate-grey, blind gaze to him, Richard’s jaw dropped when he grasped what was in those eyes. How was that even possible in the gaze of a blind man? “Blast it, Alex! You must be utterly mad. She is completely unsuitable.”

Alex’ mouth curled in wry sarcasm. “Is she? She is already compromised, pregnant no less, whereas I am only half a man. We could have been made for each other, since the both of us have no prospects at all to seal a proper relationship. Tell me, is she beautiful? I wish to God I could see her, if only just once.”

“She is tolerably beautiful,” Richard grumbled. “At least, she is not too ghastly to look at.”

“Describe her,” Alex demanded. “What does her hair look like? Her eyes, her figure? Her face, describe it.”

“Her hair is dark brown …”

“The colour of rich, dark chocolate?”

“Yes, but …”

“And her eyes, do they look like deep pools of liquid chocolate?”

“Alex, what the devil … Yes, they are a deep brown. She has a small nose, and a mouth too thin-lipped for my taste. She is of middle height, and slender, with small hands and feet.”

“So she is beautiful, gorgeous, more like it. I knew it. How I would like to see her with my own eyes.”

Oh, how he remembered the feel of that lithe, soft body with its delightful, utterly feminine shapes. He longed, no, craved to see it. He would gladly give his right arm just to be able to have a glimpse of her.

“All right, she would do you proud walking on your arm, but surely that is not enough to make her a good countess? Alex, she is carrying another man’s child! You cannot acknowledge her child as your own, and he or she could never inherit from you! Do not tell me you would go so far as to claim it yours!”

To Richard’s bewilderment, Alex sadly shook his head in genuine regret. “No, I could never claim it as mine, but I could adopt it. I could bestow my name and protection upon it. She and I could have an heir later, and then the two children could grow up together. Lord above, would it be possible?”

The longing in Alex’ voice was so tangible that Richard only now grasped how lonely his friend had been in these past few months. He seriously feared that Alex – in his blatant distress – could no longer make sensible decisions about his future. Richard worried, and even more so because he could not stop this.

 

“Well, my dear Rowie, you should be fine after a good night’s rest. These contractions often occur when a woman is nearing the end of her term. Yet it is also a warning, Rowie. You should take better care of yourself, and not overdo it. You work too hard, child. I am certain His Lordship does not wish for you to harm yourself and …”

“You are quite right, Mrs Wallis. I do not want Miss Drake harmed.”

Rowena jumped at the earl’s deep voice, only to discover him standing in her bedroom’s doorway. Instinctively, she snatched her bedcovers up to her chin, forgetting that he could not see. But she could, and she did not like it one bit. He looked awful, his face ashen under the stark white bandage on his head.

“My lord! Forgive me for being blunt, but you should also not be walking around after your fall.”

A spontaneous, wide smile blossomed on his countenance, warming Rowena’s heart.

“I am well, Miss Drake. A little bump on the head is not uncommon for me. But how are you? Dr Orme tells me that there is no cause for alarm. Is he right?”

“I feel fine, my lord, and should be up and about in the morning. Thank you for your concern.”

“Well, I shall leave you to rest, then, but I look forward to seeing you at breakfast.”

“Good night, my lord. Until tomorrow morning.”

The earl once again gave her his quiet, yet beautiful smile. “Good night, Miss Drake.”

A long, long time after, Rowena still lay awake, heart thumping with concern over the disturbing feelings that warred through her.