Ketteridge House, Leicestershire, England, January 2nd , 1816
A notion, so urgent that it almost hurt her brain, made Rowena struggle to overcome the lethargic sleep she had been in for so long. She needed to wake up, to rise, and do something so important that she lost all possible train of thoughts whirling in her sleep-drowsy mind.
With an effort, she opened her eyes, and was immediately struck by the intensity of sunlight invading her room. It positively hurt, she thought, panic engulfing her. She stirred and tried to sit up, a movement which caused a sharp pain in the nether regions of her body.
“Oh, Rowie, do lie still,” Meg’s calm voice came from nearby, and Rowena discovered her friend sitting beside her bed, cradling a small bundle.
“Is that … is that my baby? It is gone, is it not? It was too early …”
Meg smiled sweetly and encouragingly at her. “No, my pet, she lives. You have a beautiful little girl, although she is very small and fragile.”
Joy, pure and sharp, engulfed Rowena like a tidal wave. She reached out to Meg, begging in urgency. “Oh, Meg, let me hold her! Oh, I was so afraid believing I had lost her!” When Meg carefully placed the small bundle into her arms, Rowena gasped in delight when she saw the tiny infant’s dark mop of curls, and her rosy little face, her flower of a mouth, and her tiny, perfect fingers. At that same moment, the infant began wailing in protest in a healthy manner.
“She is indeed beautiful …,” Rowena whispered.
“Yes, and she is getting hungry. It has been a while since His Lordship fed her. I wonder where that wet nurse is, confound it.”
She must not have understood it rightly, Rowena thought. Meg could not have said that Alex … no surely not!
“His … His Lordship has done what?”
“Well, he must have seen and done a great many more things than just soldiering during his time on the Continent, that is for certain!” Meg commented, raising her voice to be heard over the racket the babe was making. “What about him supporting you the way he did during childbirth? I have never seen anyone doing that, not even the best midwife. And then, the way he handled the baby! He took the little one and held her close. To keep her warm, he said. Lectured us, Dr Orme and me, about the importance of keeping a newly born warm, especially those who are not full term. Then he ordered me to the kitchen for a bowl of boiled water with honey. He fed the liquid by dipping a handkerchief’s corner into the babe’s mouth, and blimey if she did not take it well enough! He then rocked her until she fell asleep before tucking her in her cradle.”
Rowena was still trying to get her head around this information when the door opened to admit the wet nurse. She was Tracy Cobbins, the wife of the local miller, and Rowena had met her during the New Year’s celebration at the village assembly rooms. Tracy had just given birth to her seventh child, a healthy little boy, presently tied around her ample bosom in a wrap.
“Good morning, me lady,” she curtsied, hefting the child around her waist to a more comfortable position.
“Good morning, Tracy. I am very pleased that you accepted to feed my daughter. She is very hungry, at the moment, as you can hear.”
Tracy took the baby from her mother’s arms, after having deposited her son in an extra cradle Meg had provided. She then settled in a chair beside the cradle and freed one of her very large breasts. With an expertise acquired after seven births, she presented the nipple to the little baby girl.
Rowena’s eyes stung with tears when she watched her daughter avidly taking the nipple and beginning to suckle hard.”
“Well!” Tracy marvelled. “She’s pretty strong for such a wee one! Easy, my pet, easy! There’s enough for the two of ye!”
Meg took over again. “Come, let me see to your needs now, Rowie. In the bath tub with you.”
Alex had not slept a wink. He had turned and tossed for a couple of hours debating whether it would be advisable to go to Rowena’s bed, not to make love to her, but to hold her, so she would be able to sleep soundly. Although not touching her would be a torment he was not sure he could withstand.
She had felt so right in his arms, only two nights before. Lord … had it been that recent? He had been so thoroughly sated by their lovemaking, that he was able to recall every second of it, which did nothing to dampen down his heated arousal, of course.
Yet now was not the time nor the occasion to force his lust on his wife, after the exertions of childbirth. He had asked Richard about the appropriate period of time for Rowena to recover, and the answer had been appallingly unsatisfactory, to say the least. Six weeks of abstention, that was what he faced. It was ironic that, after half a year of forced celibacy, he now felt bereft at the notion of six weeks without the benefits of Rowena’s exquisite body.
How the devil would he be able to endure it? How on earth would he live through the long weeks that now stretched before him? Not to be able to hold her, after their lovemaking? Not to feel this divine, soul-filling emotion of being physically sated. And that was not the whole of it, Alex mused. She not only sated his body, she also filled his entire being with a sense of peace, of wellness, of … dare he name it, belonging. Rowena, countess of Ketteridge, made him feel at home in his own home.
He must have fallen asleep sometime, and when he opened his eyes again, the morning was well advanced. Alex rose and called for Porter.
After a welcome and blissfully warm bath, Rowena let Meg help her into a fresh night gown. Meg then brushed her hair until the dark waves were a gleaming stream along Rowena’s back. When, finally, she leaned back against her pillows, after finishing a light but nourishing breakfast, Rowena felt exhausted. So when Dr Orme came to examine her, she lay passively, almost languorously reclined until he was done.
“Well, my lady, you are as healthy as can be expected after your ordeal. I advise you to stay in bed for the next couple of days, at least. Plenty of rest, and good food. I trust you are satisfied with Tracy Cobbins as a wet nurse?”
Rowena did not answer but turned her face to the door that connected her room with the small boudoir where Meg had placed the cradle and all necessities for the baby.
“Why cannot I feed her?” she asked, in a very small voice.
“My lady, that is not the way highborn ladies deal with their infants. Aside from that, you are still weak from the loss of blood. You are but a slight, delicate young woman, my lady. You need to rest, the better to care for your child in a few weeks.”
Alex stood listening to this from their common dressing room. He had been waiting for Richard and the ever present Meg to leave the room, so that he could enter and be alone with his wife. Hearing the seriousness in Richard’s voice, it filled him with a spear of sharp concern. Richard had voiced so much, and yet so little. Rowena had suffered greatly from the childbirth.
He stood rooted to the spot, unable to make a movement, while he heard his wife lecture her physician in a way only she would do.
“I am of the opinion that my daughter needs me greatly, Dr Orme. She is very small and weak. I want to feed her myself. If by chance my milk should not be plenty enough, then Mrs Cobbins can take over.”
Alex held his breath for fear they would hear him. Although he could very well understand why she would want to feed her child, he knew she might not have the strength to do it. He could, however, find no fault in her reasoning, that the little one needed her mother, most of all. What dilemmas, and how excruciating they were.
Almost before he could do otherwise, Alex stepped into his wife’s bedchamber. “I am of a mind to agree with my wife, Richard, although you and Mrs Wallis have a point in judging her too weak to nurse the child. I would suggest we do as she proposes; let Her Ladyship give it a try, and if there are problems, the child can be nursed by the wet nurse after all.”
His friend and Mrs Wallis were gaping at him as if he had gone insane, but his wife beamed at him. “Oh, Alex, it would like that very much! Meg, come, help me, and you too, Tracy!”
At Rowena’s command, both women jumped to do her bidding, and a few moments later, Alex stood gazing at Rowena trying to nurse her baby. He had not known that nursing was such a complicated business.
First, the baby howled at being removed from Tracy Cobbins’ breast, and then she fussed at being put to Rowena’s, squirming in her mother’s arms, and whining. Rowena looked at him in despair, and Alex suddenly remembered what he had seen that young Portuguese mother do, after she gave birth.
He knelt at Rowena’s side and began massaging her breast, very gently but firmly, until the nipple had grown warmer. Then he brought the tiny baby head to it.
“Speak to her, Rowie,” he said softly. “Let her hear your voice.”
After a few moments of incomprehension, Rowena began crooning at the baby, pleading her to take the nipple and trying to push it in her daughter’s mouth. To Alex’ relief, it worked. The baby took it and suckled. Rowena’s face relaxed as she looked down on her tiny baby daughter.
“Well, I never!” Mrs Wallis and Tracy both uttered.
“Alex,” Richard Orme said, “I have a mind to lock you in my surgery for a whole day, so that you can write down all that wisdom. I am stunned, you can have no inkling how much!”
“Come,” Alex said, “let us go from here. They need to rest, both of them.”
He turned and left. Richard Orme followed him, but not before he saw the puzzled gaze Rowena directed at her husband’s back.