Chapter Seventeen (completed)
Ketteridge House, Leicestershire, England, end of February, 1816
As soon as Alex reached home, he went upstairs to his bedroom. Although it was only just past luncheon time, exhaustion hit him like a tidal wave. It was as if Johnston’s death weighed upon him even heavier than the knowledge of his being alive and a part of Rowena’s life had done. Over and over again, the image of her grieving beside the blackguard’s body kept intruding into his brain and heart. Devil take it, but how could she grieve so over a man who had shamelessly seduced her and afterwards left her thinking he had been killed at Waterloo?
Alex seated himself near the fireplace, revelling in the sudden warmth, and only now realizing how cold he was. He needed to think, to scrutinize all the information he had on this matter. That had been how he survived many a dire situation during his army days.
One matter was as clear as daylight; Johnston had not returned home directly after the battle. He had turned up here in Ketteridge around the end of December, but where had he been in the six months preceding that moment? According to what the scoundrel told Rowena, he had suffered from amnesia and had only recently remembered who he was. Possible, but Alex knew all too well that amnesia was the common excuse for deserters to justify their transgression.
Then there was the dead man’s connexion to Rowena’s half-brother, Roderick Drake, proven by the button found in the cottage. Was Drake the murderer or was there someone else involved? Surely, Drake would not venture all the way down from Cumberland to do away with Johnston? Or would he? Alex was suddenly aware of how little he knew about Rowena’s family.
The dressing room door opened admitting his wife. Alex stared at her in astonishment; had he not locked all the doors as he usually did? He abhorred the notion that anyone, especially Rowena, would strode into his sanctuary.
“Forgive me, Alex, but I need to talk to you. Do not look so utterly stunned. I had a copy made of all the keys in the house, and at present, Meg and I have them all. If you are in need of privacy, please inform me, but otherwise, I want to be able to enter every room in this house. It is my prerogative as the mistress.”
Not only was he stunned, Rowena noticed, but he also seemed relieved, as if he had been waiting for her to do exactly what she had done at this moment. She had boldly invaded his very own sanctuary, the room in which he strove to be alone, to be without her. Rowena was bored of not being a part of Alex’ life and she had taken her courage in her own two hands and breeched the doors. Porter, of all people, had helped her by handing over the keys when she asked for them. That was perhaps the greatest surprise of all, that she had been able to ensure the sour valet’s help. Yet breeching the barring doors was only the first part of Rowena’s plan.
“I have a confession to make,” she said, inwardly smiling at his obvious confusion. She forged on, before her courage let her down. “I was present at The Fox and Hare, this morning, despite your urgency that I stay home.”
Anger flashed in his blue, oh so blue eyes. “And did you intend to stand up as a witness in person, or did you have some sense left at that point?”
“I would never do anything to harm you, Alex, which I would have done been if I had come forward. We agreed that I would not stand up, so I did not. I was, however, very eager to see you as the earl of Ketteridge in public for the first time.”
“Oh? And now you have, and all that time you risked being seen, which would have damaged my budding reputation as a magistrate. It is badly done, Rowena, and I sincerely hope that you will take more heed of my words in the future.”
Rowena smiled. “I will always take heed of everything you do or say, Alex. We are husband and wife, the earl and countess of Ketteridge, which, if I understand correctly, we are not yet officially. That is what I came to talk about, Alex. We need to go to London and get your patent letters from the Lord Chancellor. We must show the world that there is a new earl of Ketteridge.”
She was so stunningly beautiful. So regal and fiery at the same time, and so utterly adorable that it made his heart beat in his chest like a bird trying to escape its cage. What a change this woman had wrought in his former, miserable life. She was right, of course. They needed to go to London, but Alex dreaded that in the extreme. The thought of exposing her to the London Ton, that enormous mass of flippant, rattle-brained, spend-drift aristocrats, scared the wits out of him. The so-called beau monde did not care a hoot as to what happened to the rest of the world, as long as they had their share of brainless amusements at the expense of others less fortunate. They were a cruel and vicious lot, he knew, and they would tear her to pieces at the first misstep she made.
“Rowie … Oh, Rowie, what a child you are,” he croaked, desperately swallowing down his distress. “You truly have no idea of what you are talking about, do you? Yes, you are right in my having to retrieve my letters from the House of Lords, and I was planning on doing just that. However, you cannot accompany me there without having been presented at Court, Rowena, and that is nigh-on an impossible thing to happen. You have no experience in society, my dear. You would have to master all the requirements for proper behaviour under the tutelage of a sponsor. You do not have such a sponsor, wife, and I could provide one if I tried. So, no, my dear, if I am to go to London, it must be without you. I deeply regret it, but it cannot be helped.”
She laughed, she laughed, for heaven’s sake! “Alex, you forget that, though short it was, I grant you, I had my London season two years ago under my aunt Charlotte’s sponsorship. I did the round of the routs we were invited to, thanks to my uncle’s business connections. It was a meagre lot, since the highest sticklers of aristocracy will shun a man in trade, but nevertheless, I learned how to behave in society well enough. The Ton does not agree with me, to be honest. There is such an immense hypocrisy about it all, so much deceit and conceit about it. For your sake – our sake – I will bear it, Alex. I can be your countess, that I know as much.”
Her sweet smile was so trusting, her stance so confident, and her eyes were sparkling with oh, so much innocent enthusiasm. He had to raise one final issue, he knew.
“How are we going to fare with Emma Rose, Rowena? Surely, she is still too small for such a journey. You are still nursing her, remember?”
“Yes, and I am determined to nurse her as long as I am able to. Oh, Alex, it is such a great joy to hold her and have her snuggling against my breast!”
Alex violently swallowed at the sudden lump in his throat. He could not point a finger to what exactly it was that made him feel so vulnerable and out of sorts. He only knew that it was not his usual state of mind and that the phenomenon had started when little Emma was born, which was utterly ridiculous, since she was not his child. Rowena, however, continued speaking in rapt enthusiasm.
“It will be perfectly all right to take her with us to London, Alex. We can travel in short stages and alight at inns at regular times so that I can feed her. We will take Nanny Bessy to see to her needs when I am busy elsewhere.”
He had forgotten about the nanny, Bessy Cooper, sister to the wet nurse Tracy Cobbins. She was only seventeen but competent enough to look after Emma. Her own mother had nine children and Bessy was the second after Tracy. She had looked after her younger siblings since she was five years old.
“I was wondering, Alex, how well are you acquainted with the Ton?”
“Not very well, I fear. After my time in Cambridge, I bought my commission and was instantly shipped off to Spain. I actually never participated in the Ton’s revelries. I visited London a few times while I was at university but hardly went to balls. White’s was where I stayed and where I had some friends but it has been a long time since I was in the capital. I became a recluse after my army days, remember?”
“Yes, I know … but, Alex, that was because you were so gravely injured at Waterloo. What would you have done if you had returned home undamaged?”
“Hard to say. You must realize, Rowena, that an experience like that of Waterloo is something that can thoroughly change a man. I was changed in ways I am even now just beginning to uncover.”
Her lovely deep brown eyes shone with compassion, which made Alex feel uncomfortable. He did not want her pitying him over his army career which had been his own free choice.
“Well,” she collected herself, “then going to London will do us all a lot of good!”