The Reclusive Aristocrat – Part Twenty

Chapter Ten (continued)

The luncheon on Christmas Day had gone by in the same enjoyable and amiable atmosphere, with their own staff as guests now.

Afterwards, there had been a meeting with Mr Septimus Middlebridge, Alex’ solicitor. Rowena had been surprised by yet another cheerful acknowledgment of her marriage to Alex. Everybody seemed in complete agreement about the fifth earl of Ketteridge uniting himself to a woman of no means. A woman spoiled by another man’s touch, and carrying so blatant a proof of it.

“Miss Drake,” Mr Middlebridge had said in a suave voice, “you will be pleased to hear that His Lordship wishes you to participate in the whole extent of his possessions. He has placed a settlement on you that amounts to two thousand pounds a year, for as long as you are his wife. He has also made arrangements for the child you are carrying. His Lordship regrets that he cannot make the child his heir, as you well understand, but he will bestow an annual allowance of a thousand pounds on the babe, to assure its upkeep and education.”

Rowena had stared at Alex with utter disbelief, her head reeling under what she had just heard. She had refrained from commenting while in Mr Middlebridge’s presence and instead, had thanked Alex for his generosity. She had also wondered why he had not told her himself of all this. Was he already regretting it? Rowena had tried to speak to him when the solicitor had left, but Alex claimed he had work to do. He had retired to his library, leaving Rowena with the distinct impression that she was not welcome there now.

Had she imagined their shared feelings during the Christmas Eve dance? Had it only been her own longing for him? Tears blurred her vision as she retreated to her rooms, yet she firmly blinked them away. She had a lifetime to find out Alex’ secrets.

 

On the morning of December 31th, the sun was brittle but bright, its rays firing sparkles off the snow-covered fields and pastures. It was bitterly cold when people began to scuttle into St Crispin’s church in the village of Ketteridge to watch their lord marry. Near the altar, the villagers and tenants could see him standing beside his two best men, his friend, Dr Richard Orme and his batman, James Porter.

Alexander Richard Christopher Raventhorpe, fifth earl of Ketteridge cut a fine figure in his splendid regimentals, his stance proud and firm. He held his white-plumed helmet in one hand, and his white gloves in the other, and his gaze – his blind gaze – was upon the rear of the church where the double doors had been thrown open. A gust of cold, brisk winter air wafted inside and made the many candle flames waver. The congregation shivered, and the men turned up their coat collars, while the women drew their wrappings closer to their bodies. They all hoped that the bride would not let them wait overly long, so that they could return to their warm homes.

They did not have to wait for long, because precisely at the stroke of eleven, the earl’s carriage drew up before the church door.

Murmurs of appreciation began rustling down the knave of the church as people began to catch a glimpse of the bride. Alex reminded himself firmly not – in any case at all – to stare at his bride. Rowena was not yet supposed to know he was able to see. He did not want her to be cross at him for deceiving her. He wanted to wait until the time for confession was right, and that was not today, on their wedding day, when sincerity and straightforwardness were needed. He straightened to full attention, as befitted an officer of the Household Guards, and directed his gaze at the rear of the church.

A vision in white was striding down the aisle at John Wallis’ arm – no, not a vision, a fairy tale queen, dressed in a gown of pure white silk, the skirt wide to disguise her pregnancy. She wore a white mink pelisse that accentuated the creamy peach colour of her lovely face, and brought out the rich chocolate waterfall of her glorious hair. Lord, it was incredible, but her hair fell in long, silky waves to far beneath her waist. She had pinned up two solitary strands of it, and they framed her sweet face like a veil. She looked like a medieval queen marrying her king. Alex swallowed at the thought of his hands going through that richness, of his face buried into it, inhaling her sweet womanly scent. Christ, he became hard as …

Stop! You fool! Behave, you are in church.

He was suddenly back on Christmas Eve and his waltz with Rowena. She had been so beautiful, with desire darkening her eyes to near black. She had longed for him, then, he was certain of it. Hopefully, she would do the same tonight, in their marital bed.

 

As soon as she stepped into the church, Rowena’s eyes were riveted on the tall form of her husband-to-be. Holy Mother of God, but he was magnificent!

The regimentals aside, he was a sight to behold, in bearing and character. Tall, powerful, and so full of irrevocably masculine strength, with his broad shoulders and strong, hard thighs, and his handsome, beautiful face. His eyes, so light-grey with a bold, blue fire burning in their depths. His long, strong nose, with the tip slightly pointing downward. His large sensual mouth, with its attractive, supple lower lip.

Rowena’s heart jumped when he extended his hand, and hers was placed in it by John, to whom she smiled with fondness. Alex’ warmth shot up her arm to tingle down her spine. He did not wear his gloves, she noticed, and she felt his touch penetrate the fine kidskin of her glove. The attraction she had been feeling from the first moment she set eyes on him, was now tenfold, and she welcomed it, no, had a strong urge to give in to it. To let him take over her entire person. Today was their wedding day, and tonight, he would make her his wife. A shiver ran through her at the notion of what was to come.

His wife! She would be his wife. Tonight … Alex was going to make love to her. Suddenly, the noises in the church, the rustling of clothing, and the low humming of hushed conversation, it all blurred and mingled into a muffled din in Rowena’s ears, as if she were under water.

Suddenly, she was aware of one thing, and one thing only; she would have intercourse with Alex, and she would welcome it. She knew how it was, she had savoured a man’s touch on her body and experienced pleasure. Even though she had known Alex only for a bit less than a month, Rowena knew that she longed for his touch. Alex was a good man, that much she knew also. He had taken her in and was marrying her, even though she was carrying another man’s child.

Her thoughts were shattered by the vicar’s clear, intoning voice.

“Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today to join this man and this woman in holy matrimony.”

 

Alex felt Rowena’s hand tremble, and irritation instantly ran through him. Why did she appear to be afraid? Was she afraid of him? Had he not promised to protect her? Then why did her voice waver ever so slightly when she spoke her vows? Why were her words so quiet that even he had to strain his ears to hear them? Damnation, but he would have to teach her not to be afraid of him!

The reverend Mr Bonneville was now blessing the wedding band. It had been the previous countess’ ring, and the best Alex could conjure up in so short a time, but he felt sure his mother would not have objected to her daughter-in-law borrowing her wedding band. He took the ring and lifted Rowena’s hand when he realised that she was still wearing her kid gloves. Christ, but had nobody told her brides did not wear gloves? Remembering that he had to feel rather than see the glove, he began tugging it off with slow but deliberate gestures, first the thumb, then the other fingers.

“With this ring I thee wed, with my body I thee honor, and all my worldly goods I bestow on thee.”

He slipped the band onto the fourth finger of her left hand, then brought it to his lips, not to kiss her knuckles but her palm. He let his lips linger longer than was necessary, until she shivered with a slight intake of breath.

The reverend Bonneville intoned further. “In as much as you, my lord Ketteridge and you, my lady Rowena have thus consented in holy matrimony and have witnessed the same before God and this gathering, and by the authority vested in me by the Church of England, I now pronounce you husband and wife. What God hath joined together, let no man put asunder. My lord, you may kiss your bride.”

Alex lifted his hands to Rowena’s face and was surprised to find an impossibly thin veil block the way to her mouth. The damned thing was too insubstantial for him to be able to see it with his still imperfect eyesight, or for his large hands to lift it out of the way. His fingers were clumsily fumbling with the gossamer fabric, when his bride surprised him and did away with the veil. She then rose onto the tips of her toes and touched her lips with hers. He felt a surge of triumph, so powerful that he wrapped her in an embrace fit to crush her. Which it did, of course. She gave a little cry of pain when he crushed her pregnant body against his, the sound of it fortunately being overruled by the congregation’s applause. He forbore the kiss and put her from him, then placed her hand on his arm and marched her to the church’s exit.

Rowena, thoroughly surprised, and a little hurt by his curtness, forced a smile on her face. She would not fail him as his countess, if it killed her.

A substantial part of the crowd had already filed out through the side entrance, and so it was that a loud cheering rose when they exited the church. Mostly women and children, of course, which befitted a new countess. Alex watched his bride receive the many well-wishes of Ketteridge’s mothers in the form of small bouquets of herbs and a few snowdrops, too. It was the middle of winter, and there were no flowers as yet, beside the snowdrops.

Rowena, he saw, gathered all the gifts in her arms and took the time to speak with everyone that was present. He, on the other hand, looked a bit superfluous, amidst all that feminine company, but he did not mind. This was Rowena’s day, and she should be in the center of it all.

It was amazing. People flocked around her as if they wanted to be as near to her as they could. Alex’ mouth nearly fell open when he saw his two footmen hurry at her side to take the parcels and bouquets from her.

“Should you not be at her side, or is basking in your new wife’s popularity a bit painful for you?”

Alex grimaced at Richard Orme’s teasing tone. “Are you suggesting I am jealous of her being liked by my own people? Because I am not, Rich, and well you know it. Besides, it is a good thing that my countess be liked. She has a role of her own to fulfil.”

“Have you told her yet about your improving eyesight?”

“No.”

“Thought so. Why not?”

“I am still trying to get used to it myself. Moreover, I do not know if it is permanent. I do not want to raise false hopes.”

At his other side, Porter chimed in. “’Ave ye told ‘er about yer nightmares yet, major? She’s bound te wake up when ye scream yer ‘ead off in the night.”

Alex’ patience was wearing thin as he growled, “What are you two? My conscience? Do not concern yourselves over what I tell my wife or do not tell her. The two of you are fortunate to be my friends, or I would have called you out!”

He strode away to his carriage, irritated because Orme and Porter were right. He should have spoken with his wife about many things yet he had not. The worst of it was that such matters had a tendency to get stickier the longer one allowed them to fester.