Chapter One (continued)
When the strong, warm hands were taken from her marble-cold flesh, Rowena moaned in protest. She wrenched her eyes open, only to see the back of a tall, dark-haired man disappearing from her sight. An elderly, motherly looking woman with a shock of white curls escaping from under her mop cap immediately replaced him.
“Oh, me dear little duck,” she crooned, “Wha’ were ye doin’ out on a hellish day like today? And you wi’ child and all! Come, me pet, let’s get you cleaned up and fed.”
With an effort, Rowena shifted in the bath. The warm caress of the rose-scented water was a heavenly soothing balm to her body. She was so incredibly cold. Her fingers and toes were numb but they were starting to tingle. It was a bit painful, but Rowena welcomed the feeling; it meant that she would soon be warm again.
“Where am I?” Her voice was hoarse, and her throat ached. Her head was throbbing, and her stomach, empty as it was, gave a loud rumble. In an impulse, she felt for her swollen belly; the child moved, and she was reassured.
“You’re at Ketteridge House, dearie. I’m Mrs Hall, the cook, and this is Trixie, the maid. The master and Mr Porter found you on the driveway, a little while back. What’s yer name? Where d’ye come from?”
Rowena did not truly want to reveal anything. There was no need to explain why she had been chased from her home by her half-brother, once he found out she was with child. The child she and Peter created just before he went to the continent to fight Napoleon. Peter … her betrothed, her love. The man to whom Rowena had given her heart and her body, and who had been killed at Waterloo on the eighteenth of June 1815. How she remembered every detail of Peter’s handsome face with his blue eyes smiling happily down on her, seconds before he rode off to London where his regiment waited to board ship. He had been a captain in the Yorkshire Regiment, a predictable career for a third son to the Earl of Carlisle.
Suddenly realising that Mrs Hall was waiting for an answer, Rowena began to rise from the bath. “I should not impose on your hospitality longer than strictly necessary,” she said. “Please give me my clothes, and I will be on my way as soon as possible.”
“Pish and nonsense!” Mrs Hall exclaimed, and Trixie chimed in, “Ma’am, it’s a pitch dark night outside! The snowstorm’s still raging, where’d ye go from ‘ere?”
“Yes,” Mrs Hall clucked, “come on, dearie, let’s get ye into bed. I’ll bring up yer supper soon.”
“Thank you, Mrs Hall,” Rowena replied. “Yet I will not retire for the night until I have thanked my host for his kind hospitality. If you could ask Trixie to restore my dress into some shred of decency, I would be very grateful.”
Trixie and Mrs Hall shared a look of surprise but they did not object. The little maid took Rowena’s sodden dress and left the room. Mrs Hall curtsied and did the same. Rowena was glad that she still seemed to have retained a bit of authority, even though she was no longer looking like a lady.
Alex was lounging in his favourite chair in front of the fire in his library, cradling a tumbler of whisky. It was one of his father’s last bottles, and he was very careful to make it last as long as possible, and not to indulge too often in the fine Lagavulin.
“How is our guest, Porter?”
The batman was about to leave but turned at the quiet sound of his master’s voice.
“Don’t know, major. Left ‘er te Mrs Hall an’ Trixie.”
“Yes, I know, but that was not what I meant. How is she? What does she look like?”
Porter scratched hid balding head, unsure how to respond. What did he know about women, anyway? “She’s pretty, I suppose. Got long dark hair, wavin’ like. Dark eyes, too. She’s short, and thin, way too thin, as if she hasn’t had enough to eat for some time.”
“How did she get here, do you think? And why, more importantly, is she travelling without her husband?”
“I don’ like it, major, I tell ye! She’s trouble. I can feel it in me bones.”
“Yes, well … we shall see on the morrow. Go and enjoy your supper, Porter.”
“Ta, major. Ring if ye’re wantin’ me te assist ye later.”
Never had Alexander Raventhorpe been meant to take up the reins of his father’s estate. He was a second son, a spare to his elder brother Reginald, who had been the fourth earl of Ketteridge for ten years after their father passed away in November 1804. Reggie had been groomed from an early age into becoming the heir his father longed for. He had succeeded only partially, since he had never married despite the old earl’s frequent attempts to shackle him to a demure little society miss.
Only recently, Alex had found out why Reggie had always fought off female company; his brother had told him in a letter just a few weeks before he died of an apoplexy. The letter had reached Alex on the eve of the battle, and he would always remember the sorrow it brought, because included in the dispatch had been his solicitor’s announcement of Reggie’s death. Reggie’s letter explained that he had always preferred the company of men over women, so it was up to Alex to provide an heir, or so his brother had written. Alex doubted that would ever happen now, damaged as he was.
Somehow, Alex mused, he had always suspected something with Reggie was different.
Since his brother had become the new earl, there had always been house parties at Ketteridge with lots of young, handsome society bucks, and very few women. Yet it was not until he was in the army that Alex had truly understood what was so different with his brother. Alex had encountered many of such men in the regiment. They had been careful not to show their preferences, because that would mean cashiering out, and a scandal attached to their names. Alex had never acted upon what he learned to notice, once in a while, when such men formed secret relationships, despite the danger of discovery and ruin. How could he when his own brother was one of them?
The door to the library clicked open, effectively dragging him out of his brooding. A soft but cultivated, female voice caressed his ears.
“Forgive me for disturbing you, sir, but I wanted to know whom I am indebted to. I hear that it is you I have to thank for rescuing me from the storm. I am most thoroughly obliged to you, sir.”
Rising from his chair, Alex slowly walked toward the sound and bowed. “You are welcome, madam. Please be so kind as to tell me who you are.”
He could instantly feel her hesitation in answering his very reasonable question. He decided to adopt a quiet manner and not press his unexpected guest into revealing her identity.
“If you are in some kind of predicament, madam, please know that you can stay at Ketteridge House as my guest, until you deem it safe to continue your journey. I am Alexander Raventhorpe, fifth earl of Ketteridge, at your service.”
Alex heard her sharp intake of breath, and her skirts rustled as she made her curtsy. “Forgive me, my lord. I was unaware of the nature of your station. My name is Rowena Drake, and I was on my way to London, to seek employment as a governess.”
“A governess? Are you a widow, madam? Perhaps you are in reduced circumstances, so that you need to earn your living? You must certainly know how difficult it will be to find employment in your present condition.”
Silence, again. Alex heard her shallow rapid breathing, indicating that she was nervous. He extended a hand, and softly said, “Come, madam. We need not stand here. We can talk before the fire. I trust Mrs Hall has given you supper?”
“Yes, my lord, and a very fine supper it was. Thank you again for your hospitality.”
She grasped his hand, and a sudden spark flitted up his arm. Neither of them were wearing gloves. Her warmth attacked Alex’ senses as her soft skin touched his own calloused soldier’s hand. A delicate flowery scent caressed his nostrils. Lily-of-the-valley; a particularly expensive brand, he knew. Simultaneously, her badly suppressed gasp indicated that she was affected in exactly the same way. Fighting the sensation, he led her to the fireplace and made her sit down in an armchair opposite the one he had occupied before.
“Now,” he said in a level voice, “I have the distinct impression that you are in need of help. You must admit that it is highly unusual for a woman in your condition to be travelling without her husband. I do not seek to pry into your personal life, madam, but as a former soldier, I feel responsible for any person on my estate, be they someone who lives here or be they a guest. I beg you to tell me what brought you here.”
Rowena was still reeling from the incredibly unfamiliar sensations she had experienced moments before. She had never, ever known that kind of – she struggled to find the exact words – bewitching attraction towards a man, not even towards Peter whom she had been very much in love with. She knew passion, of course. Her short lived romance with Peter had been wonderful and truly satisfactory. A quick, almost fleeting burst of pleasure which – at the time – had made her long for more. They had not been together many times; Peter had many obligations that required his attention. All in all, their encounters had been short but passionate. It had been just her bad luck to become pregnant after so short a time.
At present, here Rowena was, experiencing sparkling sensations when this complete stranger touched her. This tall, dark and extremely handsome earl, with his military bearing and blind eyes, almost certainly a wound sustained in battle.
She studied him with avid interest, as he let down his long body into a chair opposite hers, and adopted a pose of elegant nonchalance. He could not see her, which was an unexpected advantage. She reckoned that, given the way the top of her head had barely reached his collarbone, he must have the better of her in at least five inches. Broad shoulders topped a lean, yet muscled frame. That much she had learned when he had effortlessly lifted her in his arms.
His features were all male hardness, strength, and sculptured authority. A broad brow, eyes the colour of a winter sky, a long, patrician nose and thin, unyielding lips. Raven locks, a trifle too long yet wavy, brushed his coat collar becomingly. He was not just handsome, but also devastatingly beautiful.
Rowena knew she could not, would not give in to the attraction she had just experienced when she touched Alexander Raventhorpe. Not when she could not read those beautiful blind eyes of his. His blindness had been a surprise to Rowena, and one she realised must mean agony to a man so proud and strong.
This man was like no one Rowena had known before; a member of the peerage. Yet there was another side to him. A side that was unpredictable. She did not understand how she knew that, but there it was. She could not possibly reveal who she was; as an earl, Raventhorpe had the authority to send her back to Roderick, and that was the last thing Rowena wanted. So she wisely opted to distract Raventhorpe and changed the subject. “You are blind, my lord?”
The short question took Alex unawares. He blinked, swallowed, then grunted, “Yes.”
“What caused it?”
“An injury at Waterloo. And I am not entirely blind, merely visually impaired.”
“Enough to see me when I was … improperly dressed?”
“No, madam, not at all!” He flinched at his own, sudden curtness but he felt it extremely important that she should know he had been unable to see her distinctly. When he continued, he made his tone a bit more placating.
“I can see the difference between light and darkness, and I am able to see movement. I can see bright colours but I cannot make out forms. For instance, I cannot see the difference between your dark dress and the seat in which you are sitting. I know the seat is dark brown leather, so I am assuming that your dress is also dark brown.”
Alex drew in a much needed breath because he could still sense her mistrust of him.
“I know your hair must be dark, too, because of the difference between it and your pale skin. I cannot make out your features, nor your figure. If Porter had not accompanied me, I would not have seen you in that hellish snowstorm. The snowflakes completely blurred my vision.”
“But it was you who carried me inside, and it was equally you who lowered me into that bathtub. Why?”
Irritated beyond the usual, Alex raked a hand through his hair. “I told you, madam. I am a former soldier, and I was born a gentleman. Two reasons why it is my duty to protect those who are in danger. You were in danger of freezing to death, so I carried you to safety as quickly as possible.”
“Yet you – a gentleman – touched me where it is in no way permitted; you laid a hand on me. That, sir, is not the way of a gentleman at all!”
To her utter surprise, Rowena saw an expression cross his handsome face that made her heart clench. His unseeing blue-grey eyes suddenly grew moist. He blinked, and struggled to regain his composure. What was this? Had he been a father, once? Had he lost a child, maybe? Rowena was considering apologizing, but his face instantly was the usual imperturbable mask yet again.
“I apologize if I inadvertently caused you offence, madam,” Alex stated as calmly as he could, yet inwardly, he was seething. Rowena Drake proved a woman of low breeding to speak so bluntly to him, and it irked him that he had misread her. But so it was; she had offended him by pointing out that he had touched her in a way he should not have.
He turned his face away from her undoubtedly scrutinizing gaze. “I think it best if you retire, madam. A woman in your condition needs her rest.”
Rowena knew when she was being dismissed, but she would not go meekly.
“My lord, pregnancy is not an illness. You should not stress the word ‘condition’ so when you refer to it. Goodnight, my lord, and thank you yet again for your hospitality.”
Rowena made a point of striding away with her head held high, even though she knew the earl of Ketteridge was unable to see it.