The Reclusive Aristocrat – Part Fifty-Seven

Chapter Twenty-Four 

As they thundered along the hilly countryside road, Alex urged Porter on while kneeing Titan fiercely. He had to call upon every ounce of battle experience just to remain aloof enough to plan ahead. Panic was lurking in the dark corners of his heart, as if a dire foreboding was waiting to spring forth. Rowena was in danger, he could quite literally feel it. In no way would he allow that she be harmed, it was unthinkable.

“Major!”

Porter’s deep voice boomed him to a standstill. “What?” He scowled at his batman who was glaring at him from his uncovered eye.

“I won’t let ye wearin’ these poor ‘orses to death, major, let alone let ye break yer neck. Slow down and talk te me. What’s yer plan?”

Alex patted Titan’s neck in apology to his faithful mount. “You are right, Porter, I am sorry. It is just that … blast it, I do not know what to do! I can feel there is something very wrong with my wife and … damnation, I have never felt this powerless in my life!”

“Well, let’s go on then. We’ll see what’s te be done once we get there. But, for the love of God, keep yer ‘ead about it. Ye never panicked before, so now ain’t the time to start it!”

They continued in a sedate canter, yet Alex grew more restless by the second. What if his wife was in mortal danger already? What if … but no! He would not allow the rest of that wretched thought to cloud his mind. Rowena could not be taken from him. He would die if she would, because she meant more to him than his own life.

 

Half-strangled and gasping for breath, Rowena felt herself pivoting away from Roderick. She groped for a hold, any hold, to prevent her from hurting herself. Her right shoulder hit the little side table near Roderick’s chair, and the momentum of the impact made her roll towards the door. Stars obscured her already blurred vision, and fighting for breath against the violent pain in her shoulder, she tried to sit up.

A howl like that of a wounded beast reached her. Her half-brother was lying flat on his stomach, and his entire back was on fire. He was trashing and trying to crawl away, screeching now in excruciating pain. Rowena got to her knees and began crawling towards him. She yanked her woollen shawl from her shoulders, ignoring her own pain by doing so. Only then did she become aware of the smoke that threatened to choke them both and of something much more horrid; the stench of burning flesh. Roderick’s flesh …

In a last desperate attempt to help him, Rowena threw her shawl over Roderick’s back. Head whirling and lungs burning with the lack of air, she grasp his hand and began tugging him in the direction of the door. She had not counted on her own injury. Before blackness engulfed her, Alex’ name was on her lips, but no sound came from her parched throat.

 

The scene that greeted the riders was one straight from the sheer depths of hell. They saw the smoke rising over the tall oaks boarding the driveway and their worst fears came true when they beheld the flames bursting from the downstairs windows. Maids and footmen – far too few – were starting a bucket line under the instructions of an ancient individual in butler’s attire. An elderly woman in black bombazine – the housekeeper, no doubt – stood wringing her hands in helpless panic.

Alex leapt from Titan and addressed the butler.  “Did Lady Ketteridge come here today?”

The man blinked. “Yes, sir, and she is still in there, and the master, too. We cannot enter the library where they both are. The heat is overpowering and the smoke choking.”

“I am going inside. Give me a wet towel to cover my head. What’s your name?”

“Philby, sir.”

“Very well, Philby. Keep up the bucket line and send a young groom or footman to follow me as soon as you can.”

“Major, I’m comin’ wi’ ye and no protests!”

“Yes, follow me, Porter.”

The Reclusive Aristocrat – Part Fifty-Six

Chapter Twenty-Three (completed) 

“Whatever do you say, girl? Where is my wife, and why are you not with her?” Alex barked at the already frightened Trixie, scaring her even more with his fury. Panic, hot and searing threatened to drown him, which was so unusual for him. He, the well-accomplished soldier, had never ever panicked in his life, so why could he not clear his mind and calm his tremors like he used to do on the battlefield? He was shaking, damn it all to hell!

“Oh, my lord, she wouldn’t listen to anyone! She’s gone to that half-brother of hers!”

“Damnation! Why did you not stop her?” Sweat broke out over his entire body while he desperately tried to calm down, but the image of Rowena in the hands of her blackguard of a brother blocked all reason. He closed his eyes, fighting to overcome the shivers that ran down his spine.

Porter intervened, seeing poor Trixie burst out in tears. “’Ere now, major, that’s no way to shou’ a’ ‘er like tha’! You go and pour yeself a brandy or summinck and I’ll talk te ‘er.”

Alex saw the wisdom of that advice and raked a hand through his hair in frustration. “Trixie, I apologize. I had no business shouting at you like that, but I am very concerned about her ladyship. You say she has gone to Daveston Hall. Not alone, I hope?”

“No, sir, she took Gregson and David. I wanted to come, too, but she forbade it.”

Trixie wrung her hands. “Sir, I’m so very afraid. She told me about her half-brother and what a vicious man he is. To chase her from her home when she was pregnant!”

“Major, please! We’ll see to this as soon as ye’ve calmed down! Jesus! I never saw ye like this!”

In the end, it was Porter’s voice trembling with genuine worry that broke through Alex’ horrid thoughts. He forced himself to sit down. Think, you nincompoop, think for God’s sake!

Why on earth would Rowena go to Daveston Hall and endanger herself when she knew it was her brother that caused all her troubles? That he might have committed murder in order to protect his ill-gotten money?

Plans began to form in his now-cleared brain. He must go after her, forthwith.

“Very well, Porter. Just you and I, and make no mistake; this is a battle.

 

“Miss Rowena, how good to see you.” Her father’s elderly butler welcomed her inside.

Rowena took both of his hands in hers. “Philby, I am so glad you are still here. Are you and Mrs Philby well?”

“Yes, miss, we are, thank you.”

It was a relief for Rowena to find her father’s long-time and most loyal servants still in residence. Philby must have been more than forty years at Daveston Hall, while Mrs Philby had been the housekeeper for the same amount of time.

“I am no longer a miss, Philby, but the countess of Ketteridge. My husband’s estate is in Leicestershire, and we have a little girl.”

“Very happy to hear that, your ladyship. Come, I will show you to the library. Sir Roderick is waiting for you.”

“How is my brother, Philby? How is his mood?”

The elderly butler shook his head. “We are very concerned about the master, my lady. He is submerged in melancholia and neglects his duties. He also consumes a great amount of spirits, which is affecting his health. Today he is in a foul, brooding mood, my lady. You should take care.”

Rowena nodded and followed Philby to the library door, which he opened to step inside.

“Lady Ketteridge requests a meeting with you, sir.” Whereupon he stepped back to let Rowena enter. The door closed behind her with a definite click.

Rowena glanced about the large room where she kept her father company so many times when he was dealing with estate matters. She gasped in surprise when she saw what changes had occurred; priceless artefacts no longer graced the many side tables and walls, empty bookshelves gaped where costly first editions had been. Roderick seemed to have done away with all the objects their father had so loved. She forced herself to keep calm, however.

“Good afternoon, Roderick. Thank you for allowing me to speak with you.”

Her half-brother was in appallingly casual attire, wearing only a pair of stained breeches and a shirt open halfway to his chest, and with stockinged feet stretched out before him. Despite the mildness of the day, he was slumped in a chair near the blazing fireplace, a glass in hand and a bottle of brandy on a small table beside him. It was patently obvious that he was thoroughly foxed, which was odd, since it was still early afternoon. He eyed her with mocking contempt, making no effort to rise.

“Well, blast it! And here I was hoping we would never see each other again after our meeting in London. How bad of you to give me hope only to crush it so viciously. What the blazes are you doing here, Rowena?”

Rowena took a deep breath, knowing he was in no mood to be civil. She did not seated herself but stayed where she was near the door.

“I have come to ask you why, Roderick. Why have you denied me my rightful inheritance?”

His face went white with fury, and he sat upright, then put down his glass.

“Your rightful inheritance? Your inheritance, you say? Was it not enough that our sentimental idiot of a father spoiled you rotten with all he bestowed on you while he lived? No, he had to ruin me and condemn the estate to an unholy end by giving away the half of his money to you! You had no right to it. I am the master here, I had rightful expectations for my future, while you had no right to anything more than what you already filched from him.”

His eyes were glowing with rage now, and Rowena tamped down the urge to flee. Instead she went to him and sat down in the opposite chair, instantly aware of the unnatural heat of the fire. Why was there a fire after all on such a fine spring day? Then she saw Roderick’s hands clasping the armrests of his chair to prevent their shaking. His face was blotched red on a flaxen skin and heavily lined around the nose and mouth, his eyes bloodshed with dark pouches under them. He had lost several teeth, she noticed, and his hair had white streaks in the dark brown. Roderick was only forty-three years old but he looked much older. What distressed Rowena the most was that it had seemed to have happened overnight. In London, he had been the dashing young lord of the manor diligently working to gain a seat in Parliament. Compassion overcame her, and she rose to go near him and lay a hand on one of his.

“Roderick, are you quite well? You look overly tired. What happened since we last saw each other?”

In one swift and completely unexpected motion, Roderick rose and closed both of his hands around Rowena’s neck. “Not so tired that I cannot squeeze the miserable life out of you, you interfering, snooping, tiresome bitch! You could not leave well alone, could you? You and that pathetic excuse of a husband of yours had to investigate into my dealings with Johnston. I warned you but you did not heed it, so now I will stop you for good. God knows I could have done it sooner!”

He was insane! He must have resented her from the day she was born, she realized. Rowena fought to draw his hands from her and kick him but it was like bashing a brick wall. The breath was squeezed out of her as her lungs were starting to ache with the lack of air. Blindly she groped around her to find something to fight him with. Her vision was blurring. Her heartbeat filled her head with thunderous bangs as she realized she was going to die, here and now.

Wonderous thoughts flitted through her dazed mind of how utterly stupid it was that she did not wait for Alex to come with her. Now he would never know that she dearly loved him. That he would be left alone with little Emma Rose, that she would see her baby daughter grow up.

Fury gave her the strength to clutch at the first object to reach her groping fingers. It was the brandy bottle, and she heaved it upwards to club Roderick with it.

“Oh, no, you treacherous bitch!”

He wrenched the bottle from her and threw it into the fireplace. A second later, a blue-white spear of fire burst into the room.

The Reclusive Aristocrat – Part Fifty-Five

 

Chapter Twenty-Three (continued)

Ketteridge, Leicestershire, April 12th, 1816

All in all, Alex was satisfied of his afternoon’s work. Mr Beaumont had pleaded with him to wait until Lord Carlisle would be there to back him up against Bleak solely by pulling rank over the man. It was vital for them to know what happened to the late Lord Daveston’s will before they took measures against Roderick Daveston.

Alex would have wanted to go straight away to the shabby little office Bleak kept on the outskirts of town. He would have lifted him off his feet by his neck and bullied him until he came up with the will, but Mr Beaumont dissuaded him from showing his hand too early. If the will was in Bleak’s office, he told Alex, only a magistrate’s warrant would allow them to search for it. For Cumberland, the first magistrate was the earl of Carlisle, so no harm was done by waiting a little bit longer.

If they found the will, legal action could be taken to summon Daveston and Bleak before a court of law. Here again, the support of Carlisle would be most valuable. If, on the other hand, the will was not at Bleak’s office, they had a large predicament on their hands. Daveston, a baronet and therefore a member of the landed gentry, could disregard a warrant. The will could have been destroyed or hidden on Daveston’s estate, which would make it impossible to prove foul play.

Well, Alex vowed to himself, if that came to happen, he would personally bully Daveston to produce the will. He would trash the blackguard within an inch of his life, if necessary. It would, however, be best to also have some legal leverage against Daveston, and Alex had been amazed that Mr Beaumont had come up with a solution to that. His own solicitor, Middlebridge, had not thought so far, but the man was but a simple country solicitor.

Alex would wait for Carlisle to come home. In good spirits, he went back to Crestwell Abbey.

 

Daveston Hall, a small but elegant house in pure Georgian style lay basking in the dapper April sunshine, its three-story front bright golden with rows of winking windows. The image reminded Rowena of the last summer her mother was alive. Clarissa had taken her daughter for a ride in the curricle, and they had stopped because Rowena wanted to count the number of windows. She could not yet, of course, because she was only five and there were so many windows, so Mama helped her and made her practice until she knew all the numbers up to one hundred. They had been at it for hours, the sheer fun of being with her dearest Mama thrilling Rowena deliciously as only a child could enjoy the loving attention of a beloved parent.

Not long thereafter, Mama was gone. A bad cold resuming in pneumonia took away her in barely three weeks. Weeks in which Rowena had been sent away to her aunt Charlotte in York to prevent her from catching the illness. When she returned, her Mama was gone and buried. Rowena had been five, and the deep grief and sorrow that had stricken her then still had the power to bring tears to her eyes, even after all these years. Fortunately for her, Papa had been there to comfort her.

Poor Papa had also been devastated because he had loved Mama as deeply as she had loved him. They had comforted each other by being close, and Rowena had helped her aging father in running his estate after she left the schoolroom. Of course, Meg had been a comfort, too, until she and John left after they retired.

How strange that all these painful as well as happy memories invaded her at this moment when she would need all the strength she could muster.

“My lady?” Gregson, her footman, stood waiting for her to descend from the carriage.

Rowena extracted a sealed note from her reticule. “Gregson, please, knock on the door and give this to the butler to be delivered to the master of the house. I will await his answer in the carriage.”

“Of course, my lady. David, keep an eye on her ladyship, will you?” Gregson said to his brother who was still on the coach driver’s bench.

“Right ho!” David shouted back.

As she saw Gregson mount the steps to the front door, Rowena was glad she took the two strong brothers with her on this trip. Roderick was not to be trusted.

The front door was eased open, but not enough for Rowena to see who answered it. The note was taken and the door was closed once again, leaving Gregson to cool his heels on the doorstep. After what seemed an interminable amount of time, the door opened again, and Gregson bowed and came back to Rowena.

“You are invited in, my lady, but you are to go alone. Beg pardon, my lady, but that is unacceptable, in light of what his lordship pressed upon us all to protect you at any cost. Might I suggest we return to Crestwell Abbey and come back in his lordship’s company?”

“I appreciate your concern, Gregson, but that is what I do not want to happen. His lordship must not meet with my half-brother lest he would be attacked and injured, or worse. No, I have to do this on my own, but you and David will stand guard. If something occurs, you can both step in.”

“Very well, my lady.” Gregson offered his hand to help Rowena alight. She shook out her skirts and straightened. Taking in a deep breath, she started walking towards her former home.

 

The Reclusive Aristocrat – Part Fifty-Four

Chapter Twenty-Three

Ketteridge, Leicestershire, April 12th, 1816

It was quite the company leaving Ketteridge House a few days later. There was the travelling coach driven by the coachman-cum-stablemaster, Thomas Anderson, with Rowena, Emma, and Alex. Gregson Mortimer, first footman, was in attendance. A large cart driven by Frank Whitman, Anderson’s head stable boy, carried their luggage, while Porter and David Howe, second stable boy, drove the second coach with the nanny, Bessie Cooper, and lady’s maid Trixie. Reese Mortimer, second footman, stood guard here.

The journey promised to be long with some two-hundred-and twenty miles to cover. They would travel in short stages, because of Emma, and only stay in the best inns on the way. Anderson knew them all throughout the whole of England, so Alex could rest assured. All in all, it would probably take them four days and three nights. Alex got a letter from Carlisle in response to his own, that they would be very welcome at Crestwell Abbey, his Cumberland estate. He did, however, send one of the footmen ahead to secure rooms at each inn he considered well-suited for his large company.

 

The little caravan reached Crestwell Abbey on April 16th, only to find that Lord Carlisle was still in London. He had sent word to his butler and housekeeper, however, that they could expect company. Alex was thus relieved to find the house ready for him and his group, so as soon as Rowena was kept busy settling in, he rode to Carlisle to meet with the earl’s solicitor, Mr Thaddeus Beaumont in Blackfriars Street. He was a large man in his late fifties with short greying black hair and dark, almost black eyes. He welcomed Alex, saying his lordship had already appraised him of the earl of Ketteridge’s coming.

“I have already done some investigation on Horace Bleak, my lord. The man is reputed to conduct underhand business, but so far no one has been able to prove anything untoward. What I can prove is this; Lady Ketteridge was indeed mentioned in the will of her mother, the late Clarissa Maud Daveston née Stowe, for the sum of some eight thousand pounds, to be handed over on her daughter’s twenty-first birthday. I understand that her ladyship never received her inheritance?”

“That is correct. Her father died months before her birthday, so it was left to her half-brother to make sure she got her inheritance. I am still unsure to what really occurred after my late father-in-law’s demise but I am beginning to have an inkling, which I would like to investigate thoroughly before I make accusations.”

“A wise decision, my lord. If I might make some suggestions?”

“By all means, Mr Beaumont.”

 

It took Rowena a while to comprehend that Alex had gone. Settling in with a three-month-old required some organizing, and little Emma needed much more attention than usual before she fell asleep in the nursery assigned to her and her nanny. So when Rowena finally entered the mutual sitting room in their vast and luxurious quarters, she asked her maid if Alex had gone downstairs. Trixie shook her head.

“No, my lady, I believe his lordship has gone riding. I saw him and Mr Porter heading for the stables a good hour ago.”

Rowena quickly turned away to hide her immense disappointment. Alex had not heeded her wish to confide in her about his actions. How foolish of her to believe she had convinced him of her true interest in his life. Fighting back her silly tears, she tried to think where he could have gone. Alex had no acquaintances that she know of in this part of the country. Lord and Lady Carlisle were on their way home from London, and Alex would need the earl’s authority to take steps against her half-brother. Unless, of course …

Cold fear enveloped Rowena as she realized Alex could have gone to Daveston Hall without Carlisle’s backup. Roderick was mean-spirited and did not shrink from using violence, while Alex, on the other hand, considered every nobleman to be subjected to honour first and foremost. Roderick had no honour. He was evil personified. There was only one thing she could do, Rowena realized, and of course, she would rise to the challenge.

The Reclusive Aristocrat – Part Fifty-Three

Chapter Twenty-Two (completed)

Ketteridge, Leicestershire, April 5th, 1816

There surely was no greater feel than Rowena’s skin, Alex thought. Smooth and soft, silken and fragrant with her own sweet scent. He gently kneaded her breasts while he slid his

erection between the half-moons of her bottom. She moaned his name and opened her thighs just a little, allowing the head of his cock to stroke her pleasure centre. Jesus, he almost spilled then and there! Gritting his teeth, he kissed the long column of her slender neck, licked and nipped the gentle curve of her shoulder. She responded by rocking against him and rotating her hips to caress his aching erection between her soft, hot thighs. He used one hand to stroke a breast while he lowered the other to rub her pleasure bud. She came with a keening cry while her inner muscles closed about his fingers like a vice. He swiftly turned her and hooked her thighs, lifting her, so that he could impale her on his rock-hard cock. Her body, still slick outside as well as inside, easily and lightly moved over him, stroking and milking him until he spilled deep inside her with a loud, roaring groan.

 

They stood locked against each other for long minutes, until Alex felt Rowena shiver in his arms. He stepped out of the water, put her down, and grabbed her discarded robe from the grass where she had left it. Without a word, he kissed her brow, then draped the robe over her. Swiftly he collected all their clothes and trust them into her hands. Then, without any visible effort, he scooped her into his arms and carried her inside. They encountered no one on their ascent to Rowena’s bedroom, where he laid her between the covers. She was still shivering, so he climbed in beside her and gathered her close. Sleep claimed them within seconds.

 

Alex cracked open a reluctant eye only to squeeze it shut instantly thereafter. The sun was blazing brightly yet aggressively upon him. Blast, what time was it? He cautiously opened his eyes again. He was in Rowena’s bed, memories of the previous night causing him to get aroused all over again. They had loved each other two more times after their episode in the garden, and his ardent wife had given him all the passion she had. Passion only an innocent recently awakened could have had. He had been the one to awaken her, he now realized with a burst of pure male pride.

A baby’s gurgle draw his gaze to the sofa where Rowena sat. She was lifting Emma to her shoulder with both breasts on display. Holy heavens, but they were splendid breasts. Lust swirled through him causing his cock to twitch and ache, but that was not all. Another less easily identifiable emotion struck him like a blow; tenderness. Tenderness, him? He had never been tender to … to anyone! He should get up and go about his day, since he had lots of matters to attend to, yet he stayed where he was, gazing at the pair of them in blessed contentment.

Little Emma Rose was now three months old and a beauty like her mother. Her eyes were the same dark brown and her fluffy hair was the same dark. She was an active child, always happy to discover new things, curious to a point, even if all she could still do was lying in her cradle. When they put her on a blanket in the morning room while they breakfasted, she was already trying to roll over onto her stomach. She could not, yet, but it was not for the lack of trying.

Yes, Alex mused, he was content, yet he would have to leave them very soon.

“I am preparing to leave for Carlisle, Rowena. I would like to sort out what has happened to your inheritance and make sure there is no longer cause for trouble where your brother is concerned.”

 

Rowena looked up and smiled at him, though inwardly she was shocked at the thought of him leaving.

“Do you still consider him a liability, then Alex? I was under the impression you scared him off sufficiently when we were in London.”

“Rowena, the man has committed fraud to deny you your rightful inheritance. He murdered Johnston, or have you forgotten that?”

“No, I have not, though we might find that difficult to prove before the courts. And just so you know, Alex, I am not letting you leave on your own. Who is accompanying you, pray tell?”

“Porter, of course, and Middlebridge.”

“Well? So are Emma and I. Lord Carlisle offered us hospitality on his estate, remember? We will go there and make use of his solicitor to seek out information about Roderick’s schemes.”

Alex found he was not averse to that proposal, even though he vowed to himself not to let Rowena stray from Carlisle’s estate. He would do the investigation all alone, since he was not prepared to bring danger to his wife and child.

 

The Reclusive Aristocrat – Part Fifty-Two

 

Chapter Twenty-Two (continued)

Ketteridge, Leicestershire, April 5th, 1816

Alex looked up from his writing when the clock in the hall struck eleven. Goodness, had he worked that long? Yet why had he the feeling of having accomplished anything at all? He stretched his stiff body and limbs and stood up. One of the French windows had been opened to the back terrace because of the unusually mild weather they were experiencing this early in April, and a waft of fragrant, fresh air washed over him. He was drawn to the window, as if it were a portal to a secret kingdom and eagerly stepped out onto the terrace.

A soft breeze caressed his overheated cheeks and ruffled his already untidy hair. It was a mild spring evening with a full moon illuminating the gardens, the scent of freshly cut hedges inviting him to stroll. His gardeners had been busy, he saw. The lawn had been mowed and clipped, the kitchen gardens were ready for planting and the roses were pruned and ready for summer to come. He could hear the tinkle of water coming from the sunken garden, luring him to go and see.

What he saw was the ethereal figure of a slender beauty sliding toward the fountain in the centre of the large, octagonal basin and dipping a hand into the water. Before his mesmerized eyes, she stepped into the basin and bent down to scoop up handfuls of water. She was swathed in a transparent gown through which the moonlight outlined her exquisite curves. Alex feasted on the soft peaks of her breasts, hard and aroused, and darker under the thin fabric, the silvery skin of her slender arms and throat rising from it, the long line of her legs culminating in the round halves of her bottom. Rowena!

Alex found himself lost in the image of his beautiful wife, his body reacting vehemently when she slid her wet hands over her arms, then knelt in the water to wash herself in it. When she rose, her gown was clinging to her figure. He swallowed in agony when she impatiently stripped off the wet garment and tossed it onto the heap next to the basin. Her gown, he guessed, not that his brain was functioning as it should. She began bathing herself languidly in what he knew must be the pleasantly tepid water. The sun had shone fiercely all day.

God, he wanted her …

 

Oh, this was so very pleasant! Rowena had no inkling why she was standing there, naked and wet in the fountain’s basin. She only knew that she had to give in to the unsurmountable urge of succumbing to the magic of the spring night. When she had been a little girl, her mother had taught her how to celebrate such rare nights of mild weather. She and Rowena had bathed in the pond at Daveston Hall whenever the first mild night occurred. It was a breech of her normal schedule of being put to bed at seven and it had only been on these special evenings that she was allowed to stay up later. So Rowena guessed she was only celebrating spring and the memory of her dearest mama whom she had loved above all others.

The water was cool, even though the sun had warmed it throughout the day, but she did not mind. She scooped it up and spread it over her body in delight. Her hands caressed and soothed, and aroused at the same time. How extraordinary. She closed her eyes and let the soft breeze waft over her cooling skin. Soon she would have to go inside again and to bed. Just a little bit longer …

 

Warm, strong hands came from behind her and cupped her breasts. She gasped when she recognized her husband’s caresses and arched her back to give him better access. Alex … as naked as she was … oh, bliss!

 

The Reclusive Aristocrat – Part Fifty-One

Chapter Twenty-Two

Ketteridge, Leicestershire, April 5th, 1816

Barely three weeks later, Alex was convinced that the manner in which Rowena had directed the management of the estate had been the right one. The only one, in fact, since by now every farm was run smoothly and efficiently. His own approach had lacked the necessary inspiration to bring his tenants around, he knew that.

By now, hands, both male and female, were being exchanged between farms and directed to where they were needed. To Alex’ astonishment, some of his runaway hands had returned from the industrial cities and resumed their work in the fields. He could rest assured that his estate was on the way to recovery.

Furthermore, there was also one other fact standing out clearly and irrevocably; his countess was the pivot on which everything turned, be it on the estate, in the manor or in the village. His people, who had heartily welcomed her at their wedding as the new mistress of the house, now saw her as the linchpin in their daily lives. She was the person they sought out whenever difficulties arose. She provided them with the comfort they needed when fate presented them with setbacks. She was the one who showed Alex what he was missing, time and time again when they rode over the estate, which people needed his support and which problem he should tackle before any other one.

As spring blossomed in Leicestershire and painted vivid colours everywhere, Alex did quite a lot of riding with his countess by his side. He had purchased a spirited little mare for her, a bay of bright reddish brown she had immediately fallen in love with and given the name of Ruby. Alex’ own steed Titan had shown an instant attraction to the mare, guiding her on their rambles with a show of protection Alex had never seen before in his faithful mount. Titan was not easily swayed in seeking contact with other horses, having been trained as an army horse. So Alex could only rejoice that their mounts got on so well. It did indeed make for pleasant and invigorating rides.

Now that he found comfort of mind in the blossoming of his estate, Alex had now the leisure to turn to another matter that bothered him. What to do about his wife’s inheritance? He would be damned if he ever let that infamous cad of a half-brother of hers rob him of what legally and rightfully belonged to him. So he summoned his solicitor Septimus Middlebridge and his batman cum valet James Porter to his library and laid out everything he now knew about the matter. They had to concoct a scheme to rectify what was wrong, albeit the last thing he would do.

 

Rowena sat at her vanity brushing her hair , deep in thoughts. Usually this was a soothing moment for her after a busy day but tonight she was puzzled. Something about Alex’ behaviour was troubling her. He had begun showing some thawing from the icy manners he had deployed during their first months of marriage, yet to say that he was amiable towards her was exaggerated, to say the least. She had so hoped he would, though.

Alex was friendly, and at night passionate, but there was no tenderness during the day. No surreptitious touching, no secretive kissing, no smiling even. She missed his smile which he bestowed on her during her first days at Ketteridge House. At that time, he had been sweet and protective to the point that she must have fallen in love with him from the start. Oh, yes. She did love him, but only recently had she realized it had been from the very first moment she set eyes on him.

She recalled vividly how comforting and supporting he had been when Emma Rose was born. How she adored him when he adopted her child and gave Emma his name. How she loved being the subject of his unwavering protection during all the nastiness with her former lover.

Why had she ever believed Peter Johnston was sincere in his declarations of love? She had been twenty at the time, and she ought to have better understanding of men by then, yet she had not. What did that say for her, other than her suffering from extreme naïveté  and wilful denial?

Alex was the complete opposite, she knew that well by now. He was straightforward and considerate, honourable and noble to a fault. She still could not fathom why he had opted to marry her, of all women. She had seen the looks women at parties and balls in London gave him, furtively from behind their fans, as well as openly and brazenly staring when he entered. He did cut a fine, proud figure with his tall, strongly muscled frame and his beautifully chiselled face. Yet most of all, Rowena loved his blue-grey eyes, had loved them when they were still half-blind, but so vivid in colour and changing with his mood and feelings.

Rowena sighed and put down her brush. She was in her own room, since Alex had not shown any signs of wanting to make love to her. He was in his library, working on something new that he had not mentioned to her. She stood up and walked to the high window overlooking the garden behind the house. The view was magnificent, with the bright moonlight painting the sunken garden and the rose garden silver. It was like a garden from a fairy tale, a secret, wonderful place where dreams could come true. In an impulse, she donned her robe over her nightgown and left her room for a stroll in that magical world.