Chapter Twelve (continued)
Rowena was paralyzed in horror. Being held in this painful vice, unable to move, short of breath, it all flowed back to her; the helplessness she had felt when Peter had known her intimately for the first time. He had been ruthless and brutal. The memory of it, the pain and the shame, of being denied fulfilment after Peter had climaxed. The bruises she would find, that covered the softest parts of her body afterwards. She had been too young to understand he was a cruel, sadistic bully, but now she knew better. She had known Alex’ gentle, unselfish touch.
Rage, white and hot, suddenly swamped away her fear. She had let this scoundrel son of an earl abuse her. Why had nobody made her understand what it was to lay with a man? Meg and John had already left her father’s estate by then, so Rowena could not ask her confidante. Rowena had known something was wrong from the beginning but she had been so deeply in love with Peter that she had been helpless to tear herself away from him. How dearly she had paid for her naivety!
She must do something, and she must do it now. She stopped clutching at Peter’s clasping arm, because it would not move anyway. Instead she rammed both her elbows in his lower stomach as hard as she could. He yelped and dropped the blade, and she was free. Then Peter kicked her feet from under her. Rowena fell hard onto the cobbled path, unable to stretch out her hands to cushion the blow. Her swollen belly took the full brunt, and the pain jolted through her. She knew no more, as darkness engulfed her.
Porter, having to cover a large distance, lunged for the blackguard too late. Johnston fled and jumped over the low stone wall, to disappear in the thick foliage of the adjacent woods. The batman hastily returned to Alex, who was kneeling beside the countess.
“Major, we should take ‘er ladyship ‘ome. I don’t like the way she looks, right now. Bastard threw her down ‘ard.”
Alex scooped Rowena up and cradled her against him. Her head lolled forward onto his chest, like a rag doll. Her skirts were soaking wet, he realized with a jolt. Christ!
Once they reached the house, matters turned to chaos. Mrs Hall and Trixie, who had hurried from the kitchens, panicked when they saw Rowena’s pale, very still face, her limp form clinging to her husband. Meg, realizing what was happening, ordered them to prepare lots of hot water and clean cloths. Dr Orme was summoned and could only confirm what Alex was fearing; Rowena had gone into labour, after her waters had broken due to the fall.
“My lord, it is far too soon. She is only eight months gone,” Meg said, wringing her hands. Rowena cringed every time a contraction ran through her. “There is very little we can do, Mrs Wallis,” Dr Orme replied. “Let us get her ladyship into bed.”
Rowena leaned upon Alex and Dr Orme, when they half carried her upstairs. She was in a strange frame of mind; her thoughts seemed to have vanished into nothingness, except for the fear. Fear whenever her body was raked with pain. Her baby was coming, and it was too soon. The child could die. She could not think of anything else but the plain fact that she might lose her babe.
Meg and Trixie helped her out of her sodden clothes, washed her and dressed her in a fresh cotton nightgown. Mrs Hall and the other maids had already prepared the bed, following Dr Orme’s instructions; the mattress was protected with a cover made of tarpaulin, then decked with sheets. Rowena was scooped up by Alex, who let her down onto the bed.
“Do not fear, my dear. You are in good hands.”
Rowena looked up at him, then winced as a new contraction made her go rigid.
“My lady, I need you to relax, instead of tensing up. It is bad for the child. Breathe deeply through your nose when the pain strikes. Then hold your breath for a couple of seconds before you release it very slowly. Can you do that?” pleaded Dr Orme.
Rowena nodded, trying hard to do as he said. It was, however, extremely difficult to breathe into the pain, but she managed better than she had hoped for. Next Dr Orme was checking Rowena’s stomach, which was decently covered by a sheet. “All is proceeding well, my lady. I foresee no difficulties for the child to be born.”
Rowena stared at him, as another searing wave of pain gripped her. How could the man say such a thing! She wanted to scream at him but she had no breath left. She was drowning in fierce, unbearable pain. Oh how, she hoped she would faint! Ah … so much pain …
Alex found himself in a turmoil he had not known before, not even in the heat of battle, not even at Waterloo. He was almost paralyzed with fear, he realized. Fear like he experienced on June 18, 1815, when he felt the French blade slice through his body. The mindless, inexorable fear that he was going to die. He felt it now and recognized it, and he was helpless just like he had been before.
Only now it was Rowena who was in danger of dying, and her little one with her.
No. The word was clear in Alex’ mind and heart. No, he was not going to stand by without trying to give support to his wife in her hour of need.
Rowena struggled to stay conscious but she knew she was failing. The pain was like a living creature, a beast that was suffocating her. She longed for oblivion, but her body denied her with yet another wave of searing pain.
“Come,” a deep baritone voice said, “let me support you. It will give you relief, if you sit up and raise your knees.” And then someone lifted her into an upright position and drew her knees up. Rowena opened her eyes to find herself sitting … Dear Lord!
Alex had positioned himself behind her on the bed. She was sitting between his spread legs, and the warmth of his big, hard body was simply divine. He had indeed raised her knees and was now massaging her lower belly with warm, gentle hands.
“Th … thank you,” Rowena stammered, overwhelmed by the soothing movement of his hands. Then she noticed the shocked expressions on the faces of everyone in the room, including Dr Orme’s.
“Alex,” the doctor said softly, “you need not be here. I can manage with the women’s help.”
“No,” Rowena’s husband replied. “I have done this before, Richard.”
“You have? When?” was Rowena’s next question, just as she recalled his earlier story of the young Portuguese mother.
“I told you so before, Rowie. Do you not remember?”
“Forgive me,” she whispered, revelling in the comfort of his broad chest behind her. Her head was nestled against his shoulder, and when she turned her cheek into its hollow, she could feel the steady, strong beat of his heart. The others were still staring at them, but she did not care.
“I told you about Porter and me helping a young mother near Sobràl, did I not? When her pains had been at the worst, I discovered she breathed more easily when she was propped against a hard surface. Her back straight and her knees raised, just as you are now.”
Rowena smiled, but her smile turned into a grimace when a new contraction tortured her. Instantly, she felt Alex stiffen behind her, supporting her, lending her his endless strength, and it gave her glorious relief.
“Breathe deeply, Rowie,” he whispered in her ear. “Long, deep intakes of air. Keep the air for a while and then release it slowly through pursed lips, just as Richard instructed.”
What an amazing man she had married, Rowena mused, executing what he had said as exactly as she could. Again she found it eased her pain considerably.