Chapter Fifteen (completed)
Somehow, Rowena was not surprised by what she had just overheard, after she left the servants’ quarters and stepped into the hall. The library door, where the meeting was taking place, stood wide open, and Alex’ voice was quite masterful. Rowena knew exactly how dutiful her husband was, and how he would protect every person under his care. Yet Alex was in a dreadful dilemma; he had some matters to attend to elsewhere but was unable to leave his home for fear Peter would try to do harm.
Peter … how very mistaken she had been about him, Rowena mused. He had not loved her, or at least, he had fallen out of love for her, because he had tried to abduct her. By doing so, he had jeopardized her baby’s health. Thank God little Emma was unharmed but it could have been otherwise. That was something Rowena would never forgive Peter for, the fact he had been a threat to Emma Rose.
Alex was trying to remediate the damage done to her and Emma, Rowena realized. He wanted to be certain about the terms of her inheritance and about the reason for Peter’s strange behaviour, which was not that of a cavalry man in His Majesty’s army. For sure, the first issue was entirely in his rights as her husband. What little she possessed before her marriage was now Alex’ property.
Rowena drew back into the morning room to resume the mending she had been seeing to before Meg had asked for her attention in the kitchen. She had a plan, and she would bring it in play.
At the end of the long day, Alex had not found time to have dinner with his wife since he was swamped in estate matters like he had never been before. He had partaken of the food on the tray she had sent to him somewhere around ten o’clock. Now it was almost midnight, and he was utterly exhausted. Maybe he should call it a day and retire to his lonely bed. He knew he would not sleep a wink since he would be mulling over all the unresolved issues in his life, but still, he needed some semblance of rest, if he was to remain of sane mind.
He rose from his chair behind the desk, wincing at the pain in his muscles. Weary to the bone, he climbed the stairs, turned onto the landing and stopped; his wife, clad in a thin muslin nightgown with just a wrap to cover her shoulders, was waiting for him in a chair next to his bedroom door.
Rowena stood. “Husband, may we speak? I apologize for waylaying you this way, but there are unfinished matters between us, I believe.”
For some puzzling reason, her formal address did not sit well with Alex. He remembered vividly how he coaxed her to use his Christian name on their wedding night. After that, it was true, they seemed to have drifted apart somewhat; no doubt it was because of that blackguard Johnston and the hold he still had over Rowena.
Downstairs, the mumble of voices heralded the comings of John and Meg Wallis. It was already quite late, and the pair was preparing to retire for the night. Alex took Rowena’s arm, pulled a key from his trouser pocket and opened his bedroom door. He ushered her in and directed her to a chair near the fireplace. She sat and he let himself down in the opposite chair.
“What is troubling you, Rowena? Are you unwell? Is there something you lack?”
His wife was looking him very directly in the eye, which caused him some inexplicable unease. He steeled himself to maintain his calm. It was a mystery to him why she was acting this way.
Rowena cleared her throat. “I am well aware that I was not your first choice of a wife, my lord. I will endeavour to better myself into becoming an appropriate countess, and now that my daughter is born, I will have more opportunity to assist you as whenever you need me at your side. But … “
She sighed and her eyes were bright in her pale face. Alex felt even more unease now, eager to know where this was leading to.
“But … what, Rowie? It is not for you to procrastinate. You know you can speak to me about your troubles.”
“Oh? Do I know that, Alex? Then why did you not tell me your eyesight had improved? And moreover, why are you not informing me about the plans you made for travelling to London and Carlisle? And last …”
Her cheeks were in flames, he saw, and his heart made some kind of summersault.
“Yes?” He breathed the word as is he could not draw in enough air.
“You do not come to me anymore at night … I am fully recovered from my daughter’s birth, you know? I … I would not want to lose your affection, Alex, … that is … if I had it before? I know we shared the beginnings of friendship, and I would be very sad if …”
Alex rose abruptly and went to kneel before her, grasping both of her hands in his.
“Oh, Rowie, what foolishness is this? Yes, we are friends, of course we are! Do you want us to be more than friends? Lovers, perhaps?”
“Yes …” Her voice was a whisper, but an ardent one, and she gave him the merest of smiles.
His heart was surely trying to leap from his chest, Alex feared. He had missed their intimacy, of course. He had suffered from the agony of not seeking succour in her arms and, dare he think it, in her body. Without the slightest thought, he rose her from the seat and took her face into his hands. Oh, she had such lovely eyes, all dark brown, like liquid chocolate. And her rosy lips, slightly moisture by her little tongue darting over them … they caused arousal to rush through him like wildfire. Yet he must be gentle. Rowena could easily still be vulnerable after the ordeal of childbirth.
“Rowie, it was Richard Orme who warned me not to approach you before six weeks had passed. I … I did not dare asking you for intimacy up until now, because I thought you would still be averse to physical contact.”
She gave him a reproachful look. “I did fear physical contact immediately after the birth, Alex, but there are other ways open to a couple to have contact with each other. Little Emma is now eight weeks old, yet you are still avoiding me most ardently, moreover, on some days, you do not even speak to me, for goodness’ sake! If we are to be the earl and countess of Ketteridge, surely we have to work harder to present a respectable and amiable couple, at least to the eyes of the outside world.”
It was not that he did not want her, Alex mused, because he did. He was not so certain about Rowena’s motives for wanting to have intercourse with him. He knew she did not love him, although she had a certain affection for him, but that could be because he rescued her from ruin and penury. If she did not love him, then why did she want him to bed her? The obvious answer must be that she wanted to strengthen her position as his wife. Should she conceive and give birth to an heir, she would be as sacrosanct as could be. Yes, that must be it; Rowena wanted a son, at all costs. Well, he was not averse to comply with that. So Alex decided it was time to seduce his wife and bed her.
When Rowena saw her husband’s eyes darken with passion, she realized she had missed her chance in getting him to speak about their issues. Of course, she wanted him to make love to her, because she had missed it so ferociously in the past weeks. Watching Alex stride through the manor without having to be cautious for fear to bump into the furniture, was a thrilling sight. She was so happy he had regained his eyesight that she almost forgave him for not telling her. Almost, but not quite. That same omission was proof that he did not love her or trusted her.
Would he ever love her the way she loved him? Would he ever feel warm happiness whenever he saw her in the morning? Would he miss her the way she missed him whenever she watched him leave the house with John on his morning rounds? Would he ever feel sick with sorrow when he was alone in his cold bed at night, knowing she was only a few yards away from him?
She felt certain there would never be more between them than a tender understanding and affection, and sometimes passion. Like at this same moment, when he seemed to devour her with his eyes. Rowena responded by stepping closer to him and putting her arms around his broad chest. Oh, how good it felt to rest against his warmth and listen to the steady beat of his heart. She could not recall the exact moment when she had realized she loved him. Somehow it seemed that she had always loved him, from the moment when she opened her eyes after nearly freezing to death.
Then, suddenly, every thought vanished when Alex stroked her cheek with the back of his hand.
Her skin was even softer than he remembered, her face more beautiful than ever with the rosy flush colouring it, her eyes brighter than ever before, her lips more tantalizing than any other woman’s he had kissed before.
Alex could not recall any woman in his past whom he wanted more than he did Rowena at this moment. He longed to uncover her lovely body and revel in the sight of it, in the touch of it, the possessing of it. He began to loosen her hands from the death grip she had on her wrap when she suddenly shivered and went pale.
“Why do you not lie down in the bed, dear, while I undress? I shall also stoke the fire as it seems to be a bit chilly in here.”
He turned his back on her and heard her rush away towards the bed. He took his time in doing what he said he would but did not turn t her again before he was completely naked.
She had drawn the bedcovers up to her chin and was watching him with huge eyes, which made him wonder just how many times before she saw a naked man. Had that blackguard Johnston not bared himself to her during their encounters but taken her fully clothed, as if she were a milkmaid in a stable? Burning rage shot through him and he promised himself to find out everything there was about that particular subject. But not now …